Saturday, November 28, 2009

Heaven and hell

Occasionally, as part of a sentence of community service for some heinous crime committed in a past life, the editor of this august newspaper asks me to go down to Grove Road in Blanchardstown and report on the latest Castleknock / Mulhuddart area committee meeting of the local Council.
Naturally I am always very wary of this assignment and have added the number of the local para-medics to my mobile phone, in case the excitement gets too much for me. Some people get their kicks bungee-jumping or white-water rafting – for me, seventeen motions asking for various trees to be trimmed around the Dublin 15 area is better than riding from Chicago to Santa Monica on a Harley any day of the week.
Thus it was I was in the Council chamber a few weeks ago, listening to a presentation on the Blanchardstown Village Urban Design Framework Plan by somebody whose name I didn’t quite catch.
As Framework Plans go, and, I must admit, they’re my favourite kind of plans, it was absolutely riveting stuff and I can only assume that I caught some particularly virulent strain of a sleeping bug as I had entered the County Offices for, despite my fascination for the subject, I found my head nodding and my eyes drooping and I was suddenly transported into the Main Street of Blanchardstown far into the future.
To be honest, I didn’t immediately recognise it as such. Gone were Ryan’s garage and the queues waiting for the Bank of Ireland to open and the architectural splendour of the Mace on the corner of Church Avenue. In their place was a long tree-lined road – re-named Joan Burton Boulevard - with opulent hotels and fountains and top-class restaurants. It was only when I saw the 39 zipping up the main thoroughfare heading towards the Snugborough Road that I recognised exactly where I was.
I think it must have been National Independence Day because there was a large crowd in the Forum outside City Hall and bunting hung all around. Across the street, I recognised my face on a large statue inscribed “Peter Goulding, Liberator of the Principality of Castlehuddart” and I was gratified to see the multitudes of people throwing themselves prostrate before it and kissing my bronze feet, (though I thought the sculptor could have been a bit kinder with my facial features.)
The crowd were singing the national anthem
“Arise, ye men of Castleknock, Blanch, Mulhuddart and Littlepace,
And throw off the yoke of ninety seven years”
while people hung out of every window of the thirty five floors of the Brian Lenihan Hotel to watch the proceedings. Over at the Joe Higgins Casino, groups of rich Americans with piles of chips in their hands stood in the foyer and marvelled at the quaint assembly.
A young man took the stage, introducing himself as Giuseppe Varadkar, and told the crowd how his great-great grandfather had stood side by side with Peter Goulding in the Greyhound bar as the shells rained down on them. This, he said, had perplexed the men inside as they had expected mortars and bullets, but for some reason – probably cutbacks - the Irish Army had chosen to use shells culled from Bettystown beach. The men in the bar had held out for six days, he said, and decision to surrender had only been taken when the Guinness ran out and they were obliged to use Smithwicks for sustenance instead.
Giuseppe then proceeded to give a graphic account of the aftermath of the Rising, in which the ringleaders were rounded up and forced to do community service holding back the crowds at a Lionel Ritchie concert in Lansdowne Road. It was this barbaric treatment of the rebels, he thundered to gasps of horror in the crowd, that swayed public sympathy and eventually forced the Irish Army to retreat back to the Halfway House.
In the air, cameramen for Community Voice News International leant out of helicopters to film the scene for prosperity, while breathless reporters from around the world clamoured for space along the railings outside the Forum to relate the joyous scenes to Castlehuddart émigrés around the world.
Further down Burton Boulevard, the magnificent dome of the Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh Stadium glistened in the autumnal sunlight as it prepared for that evening’s Champions League Final between Verona and AC Milan, whilst many of the latter’s supporters respectfully watched the proceedings from the roof-garden of the word-famous Le Terrazza Restaurant in George Redmond Grove. Above the skyline came the distinctive introduction to “I can’t believe I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” as U2 rehearsed in Draíocht for the first date of their worldwide comeback tour.
I ambled along the golden pavement in the dappled sunshine, watching the children excitedly queuing up to enter Clonsillaworld, an exhilarating new theme park where you try to find a parking space within walking distance of the train station or walk to the local school without being mown down by passing cars or simply sit admiring the view while waiting for the car ahead to turn right up the Shelerin Road.
I stopped at a local newsagent and glanced at the front page of a paper. “Minister for Finance to introduce income tax?” said the headline. “It’ll never happen,” said the kindly shopkeeper. “Sure with our full employment, the low cost of living and the voluntary contributions made by all the contented members of the country, there’s no need for income tax. Go on, take the paper – I have plenty more.”
I walked on, passing by the shrine of St. Dan of the Oratory, in front of which people were praying to a relic of his spectacles, and stopping in front of the Museum of Antiquities, where a schoolteacher was telling a bunch of incredulous children what a traffic jam was. Against the wall, a street entertainer was performing a brain teaser on a Nintendo DS as a large crowd looked on in wonder.
Across the street, the large milk shop stood next door to the equally large honey shop, whilst outside of each a large cup of plenty was overflowing. As I stood in the queue for some honey, I frowned, when I saw that my profile on the banknote had been taken from the right rather than the left. And they could have airbrushed out the wart on the end of my nose, I grumbled.
But the sun shone in all its majesty and cockatoos cawed merrily in the palm trees and the blue flag flew gaily over the artificial beach behind the Transport Hub.
“And we believe that the new upgrade works on the M50 which are due to be completed by the end of 2010 will have a significant impact on the number of vehicles passing through the village,” said a slightly familiar voice to my left. I stirred and looked up. It took me a good thirty seconds to realise that I was actually back in the Council Chamber in October 2009, listening to a presentation on the Blanchardstown Village Urban Design Framework Plan.
And here I must apologise to the Councillors. Doubtless, along with the sleeping bug I must have caught while entering the offices, there must have been a second screaming heebie-jeebie bug that hopped in as well. I hope my sudden and extremely noisy exit from the Chamber did not detract them too much from the job at hand.

The art of growing a beard

When I was a much younger man, I took a trip on the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow to Beijing in early February, stopping off for a couple of days at a city called Irkutsk in Siberia.
My father, an extremely knowledgeable man who once put a zed on the end of ‘quart’ at the end of a game of Scrabble, advised me that I should grow a beard to ward off the worst excesses of the -30° Centigrade temperatures that I could expect, if I was foolish to go at that time of the year. Brought up on tales of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, he recognised that no clean-shaven person had ever made it to the South Pole and there was a reason for this.
At the time I worked in Dunnes Stores in Grafton Street and I remember that I had to ask permission from my manager at the time to grow a beard, there being an unofficial no-beard policy in the company at the time, except for one guy who worked out in Northside.
I started growing the damned thing about four weeks prior to my departure date and sadly, any hopes I might have had of adding beard-growing to my extremely small list of accomplishments soon faded in the light of the scutty little effort that faced me in the mirror on the morning of my departure.
That I had failed publicly in my attempt to grow facial hair punctured my machismo somewhat, though in retrospect, I doubt that even if I had succeeded in producing a beard of Ronnie Drew proportions, it would have helped to keep out the deep Siberian cold to any degree. I was able to suggest to my father subsequently that I found that a scarf wrapped around the lower half of the face did the job just as well.
Of course, being in retail for the first half of my working life, I was always very assiduous about shaving, performing the mundane ritual every morning before work. I was never tempted to grow either a moustache or a beard, having it in my head that those with the former were intrinsically evil and those with the latter seemed to have a sad look about them.
I got an electric shaver on my sixteenth birthday and I think I’ve only had two shavers since, an endorsement that I am hoping will be read by Philips and suitably recompensed. The other odd thing is that I have never shaved in front of a mirror, preferring to let my knuckles tell me when I am baby-bum smooth. I tell myself that this is because there is no mirror near the socket where I plug in my shaver, but in reality I have better things to do than to stare at my ugly mug first thing in the mornings.
About ten years ago though, I moved out of retail, first into manufacturing and then into warehousing. Naturally, with practically no contact with the general public, there was no onus on the staff to take pride in their appearance. Not being exactly a snappy dresser at the best of times – I view clothes as being purely functional rather than a statement of fashion – this suited me down to the ground and my former daily shaving habit fell by the wayside too.
The latter is not due to lack of pride in my appearance, though when you have a face like mine, the word ‘pride’ isn’t be the first noun that springs to mind. No, it’s just that shaving is so boring. It’s not something you can do while otherwise engaged in reading or gardening or something, as you have to contort your face up like the Elephant Man to get the job done. I start under the nose before doing the cheeks and then sweeping down to my chin. Then I do under my chin before catching the stubbly bits on the line of the chin itself. Even writing down the sequence is boring.
So I leave off shaving until one of two things happens – either my wife tells me to ‘lose the beard’ or the bristles on my chin become so long that when I look downwards, I stab myself in the neck. Of course, now, my facial hair, rather than coming out a dark and virile black now comes out a rather doddery silver, much to the delight of my nearest and dearest.
I have no idea how people grow beards and moustaches. It must irritate them all the time. And I’d also be afraid that bits of food or nasal waste would become lodged in the hairs unbeknownst to myself and I’d walk around like that for days with people too embarrassed to tell me.
I was in a pub down in Loughrea recently and there was a photo on the wall of the local GAA team in 1923. The two things that sprang out of the photograph was the amount of hats and moustaches that everybody had. Well, they only had one of each but you know what I mean. How distinguished and austere they all looked! How come my three days’ growth merely makes me look like a scruff?
Like hats, moustaches have very much gone out of fashion. Take the local political scene here. None of our three TDs – Brian Lenihan, Leo Varadkar nor Joan Burton – obviously feels that growing facial hair is much of a political advantage and their lead has been largely followed on Fingal County Council, although the new Mayor sports a very distinguished James Robertson Justice full set. Gerry Lynam obviously didn’t get in at the last election because of his moustache, however well-groomed it might be, the public clamouring to see a bit of skin ’twixt nose and lip. However, I am determined that when the glorious day finally arrives and Dublin 15 gains its independence, I will make the moustache the official facial hair of the new republic.
My daughter’s boyfriend, Greg, is actually quite a good beard-grower, being able to develop a thick full set between breakfast and elevenses, though I think he realises that it may be a hindrance if he ever nurtures political ambitions later in life. Still, as I keep on hinting, it’d be a great skill to have if he ever decided to bring my daughter to Siberia.

A bit of a Hallowe’en stink

It may sound strange but I was delighted when a wise and wonderful man from Huntstown asked me last month if I had noticed the smell in the area every evening.
For several weeks, my wife had taken to sniffing the air every time I came in the front door and I had been starting to get a complex. With a sense of smell that never really returned despite being off the cigarettes for six years, I had only got the whiff occasionally – a strange brown smell that I imagine is slurry, even though I haven’t the slightest idea what slurry smells like.
I had told my wife that I didn’t think I was the source of the odour but I could tell from her raised eyebrow and clothes peg on her nose that she wasn’t convinced, particularly as she insisted on shooing me upstairs to the shower the moment I set foot in the hall and fumigating my clothes as I washed.
However, the casual remark from the man from Huntstown exonerated me completely of any blame for the smell. Though I may pong a bit occasionally, it is extremely doubtful that my odour could be smelled over a mile away, even with the wind in the right direction. Every time I opened the hall door, the smell wafted in behind me, fingering me for a crime I had not committed.
Innocent of all charges, I was thus filled with a determination to bring the true perpetrator to justice. Sadly, when I went to put my investigative journalism hat on, my wife admitted that she had given it down to the Good as New shop, so I donned a baseball cap instead and set out like Stanley to discover the source of the smell.
Now, in the cartoon advert for Bisto, the children follow a highly visible smell of gravy back to their own kitchen. Sadly, the slurry smell was not quite so definitive and certainly not as visible to the naked eye and for several days I drove around the area, getting out of my car at strategic locations and sniffing the air like a bloodhound, doubtless drawing quizzical looks from passing motorists.
Oh, how I cursed my twenty five years nicotine habit! Of course it is doubtful whether the most sensitive nose in the world could differentiate between the various strengths of the odour from one location to the next, but I, with my desensitised nose, had no chance.
To be honest, although I was completely unknowledgeable of all things agricultural – to me, the phrase “country smells” encompasses a wide gamut of odours – I was not convinced that the offending pong was indeed slurry. Sure, hadn’t we seen on the news how the farmers were protesting that they were all being put out of business by the weather, the EU and Brian Cowen, so why would they waste their time producing slurry (whatever slurry is) when their children were being starved off the land?
I made discreet enquiries in the Paddocks, telling people I was “only asking for a friend” but I could tell people were afraid, particularly when they went running out the door with their hands over their ears. Nobody was prepared to blow the lid on this story, though a few of them tapped the side of their noses, indicating either that they knew something or that they had a cocaine habit.
My big break came when I came downstairs one morning to find a piece of paper had been slipped under the hall door. Of course, it might just as easily have been pushed through the letter box but it sounds more dramatic my way.
“Rubbish collection to help the starving farmers of county Clare,” I read. “Please place all your unwanted money in a black sack and leave outside your front door on Thursday morning.” I was about to throw it away (I’d already given all my spare money to the Bankers’ Benevolent Fund) when I noticed a handwritten scrawl on the rear of the notice.
“You want to find the sauce (sic) of the smell?” it read. “Go to the graveyard in Clonsilla at midnight!”
The words sent a chill down my spine and then another one just above my left elbow. What foul deed was afoot, I wondered? And what was this sick sauce mentioned in the note?
Of course, my wife, who was becoming quite adept at eyebrow-raising, looked surprised when I casually informed her at 23:45 that I was “just popping down to Clonsilla, love.”
Her parting shot of “Drive carefully, smelly,” ringing in my ears, I clutched a sprig of garlic and a crucifix in my hand and drove the two miles to Clonsilla. There was no moon. Well, there was, but I can’t be bothered going into the astronomical reasons why it wasn’t visible. A thick mist curled across the dank night like, well, thick mist curling across a dank night. Somewhere, a coyote howled its mournful cry to the sky but thankfully it was in Arizona and I couldn’t hear it.
I parked the car opposite the deserted train station and slowly walked towards the grey church, silhouetted against the sky. Idly I wondered if the stars were out, but the question merely brought visions of Art Garfunkel into my head, so I shuddered and walked on. And then I noticed the smell.
It was the thick, rotting stench of decay, reminiscent of a soup my wife had bought in Sainsbury’s up in Newry a few years ago. It pervaded the air like a blanket. Birds were falling out of the trees, clutching their throats. A family of hedgehogs had loaded all their belongings into a small cart and were heading for Lucan. I wrapped my scarf tighter around my nose and hoisted myself up onto the graveyard wall, narrowly missing a full can of Dutch Gold sitting there, and peered over.
The sight that met my eyes that was more horrific than any Lionel Richie video. Sitting in a tight circle around a giant cauldron, was a coven of property developers, local politicians and members of the council’s planning department from yesteryear. One of this unholy number, sporting a mask of Satan, was stirring the foul mixture in the cauldron, while one of the former politicians was reading aloud from an ancient recipe book.
“Add one bucketful of rezoning applications,” he intoned, in a voice that seemed to come from the bowels of Hell itself, but was probably from his throat. As he read the words, members of the circle stood up in turn and cast the ingredients into the pot. “Stir in a wad of brown envelopes, add in several indeterminate loopholes in the planning regulations, pour in a plethora of tax breaks, muddy the whole lot up and leave to simmer for several years.”
Clinging to the top of the wall, I fumbled for my phone. I knew it had the capability to take photos but it always took me an hour to find out how. The stench was atrocious and my eyes watered. I felt my mind starting to retreat and I remember falling back off the wall and knocking the can of Dutch Gold down on top of me.
And then I blacked out and remembered nothing else until the policemen woke me up, your Honour.