Saturday, September 25, 2010

The end of the line

And so, after seven years, that was final contribution to Community Voice Musings. It was intended always to be the penultimate one, hence no reference to the fact, but as things turned out, Clampanology wrapped it up. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the column and thanks again to Fergus for indulging me.


According to the Book of Wikipedia (all rise and genuflect), wheel clamping was invented in 1944 by two gentlemen in Denver, Colorado to address the problems of claims being made by drivers that their cars were damaged whilst being towed to the pounds.
It is doubtful whether the citizens of the world have ever included these two gentlemen in the prayers of the faithful at Mass, unless of course they happen to run a wheel-clamping business.
I have never been clamped (cross my fingers, touch wood, catch a falling leaf on the first day of autumn) but I have always felt a certain empathy for the clampee, albeit with a little bit of secret and probably unattractive excitement that “someone’s heading for a big shock when they return to their car.”
I am of course naturally ashamed of this secret glee I feel on seeing somebody else’s vehicle dressed in the tell-tale yellow triangle that proclaims to the world that the owner is a hardened criminal. However, as one of the intractable laws of physics states, the degree of joy increases in direct relation to the value of the car clamped.
Of course, most clampees are victims of an outrageous miscarriage of justice, having only parked in the disabled space for ten seconds while they dashed into the shop to buy some of Trevelyan’s corn so the young might see the morn.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about clamping. Surely by clamping a car illegally parked in a disabled space, you are further depriving the disabled driver of a parking space for a much longer period of time. Would it not be much less expensive to simply issue a parking ticket, rather than employ a company to fix the Denver Boot onto vehicles?
Having said that, it is hard to feel any sympathy for an able-bodied driver caught in such a way. And don’t tell me that you have never watched a driver getting out of a car in a disabled space to make sure he has some kind of physical disability! Human nature at times can be a terrible thing.
Everybody knows that if you park on double yellow lines, or in a disabled space, you do so at the risk of getting a fine or a clamp. For me, planning a journey should always involve making time to find a suitable parking space, even if it means walking ten minutes. But sadly, today, many people seem to take the ‘having a dog’ philosophy. Why walk at all when you have a car?
Driving around Blanchardstown, it is surprising at how much the release fee varies from one area to another. It is strongly advised that the would-be lawbreaker shops around for illegal parking spaces first, so he can get real value for money. I am thinking of setting up a compare-your-clamping-fees website, so drivers can plan their rule flouting before they depart their homes.
City centre and public street clamping is one thing however but nowadays clampers are operating in private estates on behalf of the management committees. I know of one such estate in my locality. Naturally I won’t mention its name but it is the exact opposite of Archers Wouldn’t.
Here the home owners suffer the slings and arrows of having to pay for permits to park outside their homes. (Would it not be better to issue free permits once the management fees are paid?) Anybody caught without a permit is summarily clamped. However, this has led to a certain degree of anger among residents due to the anomalies of the situation.
Suppose you have friends over? Naturally they would have to park in the next estate to avoid the yellow peril.
If a tradesman comes in a van, he cannot park in the estate at all.
There is no signage on the main road through the estate and no yellow lines, yet drivers parking there are liable to be clamped.
If you have a valid permit but all the spaces are occupied, what are you supposed to do? Park in the next block? No sir, your permit only applies to the spaces in your immediate vicinity.
And what do the residents of the adjacent, Fingal County Council estate think at the sudden increase in cars parked along their roads?
In Scotland, wheel clamping on private land has been judged illegal, as it amounts to ‘extortion and theft.’ In England and Wales, the operator has to apply for a licence before clamping can commence, with strict guidelines on qualification. In places like Rockall and Antarctica, I believe, wheel clamping is non-existent.
Naturally in Ireland, the laws on clamping on private property are much vaguer and await a serious testing in the courts. However, as has been pointed out on more than one occasion, the Gardaí are unlikely to get involved in an issue of clamping on private property as it is a civil matter.
If that is the case, then surely removal of the clamp by the owner of the vehicles involved is also a civil matter not involving the Gardaí. The difficulty is of course to release the clamp without damaging it, otherwise you might be charged with criminal damage. Then again, the clamper, in the subsequent court case, would have to prove it was the owner who removed the clamp and not some local yahoo, hell-bent on mischief...
What angers residents most is that the action seems less of a war on people who are parking illegally and more of a revenue generating exercise for the management company concerned. Drivers have been clamped in the middle of the day with many empty parking spaces around and who are obviously not causing hardship for anybody else wishing to park there. While this may be justification to the ‘rules are rules’ brigade, it fails to address any of the ostensible reasons why the scheme was introduced in the first place.
Personally, I don’t think these management companies are going far enough in their war on stationary vehicles (not to be confused with stationery vehicles bringing much needed envelopes and paper clips to beleaguered householders) I mean, why stop at private vehicles?
If they see a gang of youths hanging around at a street corner, particularly those wearing hoodies, they should automatically clamp them, with a €100 release fee. That would soon put a start to their gallop, to coin a phrase. When the postman leaves his bike parked up against a hedge, clamp it. Two neighbours chatting about the glorious weather we’re having, women pushing prams who stop to admire each other’s babies in the street, trees, lampposts, fire hydrants, the bin trucks, the ice-cream van – clamp them all, anything that doesn’t move. Very soon, there’d be no need for management fees.
Of course, there are enterprising ways around it. Remove your wheels and bring them inside when you park. There’s no way the clampers are going to clamp the breeze blocks now supporting your car.
Better still, buy a set of used clamps on eBay and attach them to your four wheels. Then you can park anywhere and you’ll never be clamped. Simply unlock them when you’re finished, throw them in your boot and drive away.

The fountain pen of youth

There is no doubt that those of us who are somewhat advanced in years tend to look down on today’s crop of students with something approaching disdain.
“We had it tougher” is a refrain that echoes down through the generations and we all have a tendency to view our own schooldays through nettle-tinted glasses – teachers were blood-crazed ogres who would thrash you to one inch of your life if you looked sideways at the kid beside you; confusing ‘there’ and ‘their’ meant public ridicule in the corner of the classroom, which would doubtless result in lawsuits for personal anguish today; not handing in your homework on time was often punished by a public beheading in the playground on big break.
All slightly exaggerated, of course. But we can truthfully say, with hand on heart, that at least today’s young scholars do not have to grapple with the machinations of the most foul of all educational contraptions – the fountain pen.
The transition from junior to secondary school is often not a smooth passage but nowhere was there more of a leap than in the choice of writing implement.
In junior school, everything was done with a pencil – maths, history, picking your nose, fishing your eraser out from behind the radiator. A pencil is a simple thing. It becomes blunt, you pare it. It breaks, you pare it. Eventually it becomes too small to hold and you get a new one. Life is good, the days are sunny.
With your acceptance into secondary school however came a thirty page handbook informing your parents, somewhere near the bottom of page 18, that the student will require a fountain pen. A wha’, da?
There were two types of fountain pen – one that sucked up the ink and one that used cartridges. I started off with the former, which necessitated the purchase of a bottle of Quink, a dangerous item to put in the hands of a young schoolboy.
My father took great pride in showing me how to load my pen. Unscrew the bottle of Quink, insert one end of the pen into the ink and squeeze the body, thus creating a vacuum (which as we all know is absolutely loathed by its arch-enemy, nature.) Release the body of the pen and the ink will rise to fill the space. Replace the lid of the ink, making sure the top is secure. Wipe the nib of the pen on the blotting paper and reassemble the pen, using the manual provided. What could be simpler?
I soon found out that the fountain pen was well named, with its habit of spraying the navy liquid everywhere. My white shirt soon resembled a piece of Wedgwood pottery, decorated in abstract navy designs. It ended up on my fingers, on my face and, on one momentous occasion, on every schoolbook I owned, when I omitted the step of making sure the top of the bottle of ink was screwed on firmly while being transported in my school bag.
The other problem with the fountain pen was that, whereas the school authorities maintained it looked more professional, wielded by young non-calligraphists, the written page soon became a mass of blots as sleeves invariable rubbed the words before they had dried. I have one left-handed friend whose hand to this day is permanently stained through his writing style.
Eventually, my parents acceded to my requests for a cartridge-style fountain pen, though I believe my father saw this as an ignominious compromise, and only agreed when the current bottle of Quink was finished. With cartridges, you simply inserted the end into the pen, piercing the cap and you were ready to go.
The problem was that it always took some time for the ink to flow down to the nib, so you weren’t sure if the cartridge was inserted correctly or not. This often entailed taking the pen apart again, removing the cartridge, soaking your fingertips in ink and trying again. And it still did nothing for the presentation of the written word upon the page.
It was quite a relief to me (and also to my mother who was worn to a frazzle trying new concoctions that would remove ink from shirts) when one by one, my teachers started to allow biros to be used for schoolwork instead. Presumably they despaired of our abilities and railed in the staff room against the decline in standards of the new generation who couldn’t even write a single essay without adorning it with pictures of Lough Neagh.
But old habits die hard and although I now write almost exclusively on a computer, I still end up with ink all over my fingers and have no idea where it comes from. Plus ça change, and all that...

Saving Roger

For my fortieth birthday, nearly ten years ago now, my family clubbed together and bought me a cordalyne. Some people might get a holiday or a new car or an expensive watch or maybe simply a large wad of money but no, my reward for attaining this advanced age was a cordalyne.
The date occurred shortly after we had moved into our present house in Hazelbury. For a year or so, we had toyed with the idea of moving and visited numerous houses for sale along the 37 / 39 bus route. While my wife pored through every nook and cranny with a tape measure, felt walls for damp, flushed toilets and worried about evening sun and aspect, my sole criteria regarding its suitability would be whether or not in had a palm tree in the front garden.
There’s something about having a palm tree in your garden, I’ve always maintained, that lends an air of class or opulence. You could be living in the smelliest hovel in the western hemisphere but stick a palm tree in the front garden and your house is the envy of everybody in the street.
Of course a real palm tree was too expensive for the likes of me, so they bought me a voucher for Woodies and I got myself a cordalyne. It was about two feet tall, had long green fronds and I christened it Roger, for no other reason that it looked like a Roger. (Any Rogers out there, I apologise profusely unless you are actually two feet tall and have long green leaves.)
My wife sat with it in the back seat of the car on the way home from Woodies, trying to keep the leaves out of my face, which is something I do not often find conducive to good driving.
Once home, I dug a large hole in the middle of the front garden, unearthing vast quantities of plastic milk bottles and builders’ rubble after I’d got a quarter of an inch down. After ten minutes of clanging the spade on rocks and concrete, I gave up, handing the offending implement to my wife to finish off the hole.
Eventually we got Roger planted and sat back to admire it. It was very much our stamp on the house, in that it was the same age and would grow with us in our new home. Do you remember that dreadful song by Bobby Goldsboro about Honey planting the tree and when the first snow came and she ran out to brush the snow away? Well, it wasn’t quite like that chez nous, as I had the theory, based on somewhat sketchy botanical evidence that cordalynes thrive on neglect. And there was never a tree that was more lovingly neglected than Roger.
As it grew, the trunk became woodier and ridged like a real palm tree, though without the coconuts, and soon it was taller than me, when we stood back to back, though I cheated for several months by standing on tiptoes. And still we did absolutely nothing to it.
Then, about two years ago, two events occurred in Roger’s still young life that, had he been human, would have roughly equated to castration and schizophrenia.
Firstly, he grew a tuber, a long fleshy like projectile, that stuck out of the umbrella of leaves horizontally. It seemed to be a veritable wasp magnet, with the little tykes flying in from all corners of the earth to amble up and down the length of it, like Sunday strollers on the pier at Blackpool.
Finally, when the sky became thick with yellow and black buzzing creatures, I donned an old anorak and balaclava, grabbed a saw, hacked off the tuber and ran off down the road very quickly.
This seemed to disturb Roger somewhat because shortly thereafter, his trunk split into two and he became a capital Y, like the tropical palm trees you see on idyllic desert islands. Indeed, many’s the time, I looked out on him sitting there in the wind and the cold and the rain and imagined I was looking out onto a sun-drenched atoll in the Maldives.
And still he kept growing, his roots doubtless thriving on the broken terracotta piping and breeze blocks under the front garden.
Until, that is, the calamitous events of January 2010. We may have complained about the snow and ice, donned an extra pair of socks and left for work thirty minutes earlier than usual but think of the catastrophic consequences for Roger and his army of mini cordalynes in the Dublin 15 area!
In our neighbourhood at least, the devastation has been practically total. Our brown cordalyne in the back garden, a stately six footer, and a firm favourite with the hordes of giggling hebes at his feet, shed all his leaves and died a sad and lonely death, trunk damp and rotting. Next door’s cordalyne did the same and word of mouth is that the frost has rendered them practically extinct in the locality.
Except one.
Roger, like Elton John, is still standing but only just and we are keeping a very wary eye on him (he seems to respond well to wary eyes.) In March, the north facing branch of the tree started shedding its leaves, leaving them strewn across the lawn like giant caterpillars. I felt the trunk of this branch and it was soft and rotten, but at least it hadn’t spread down as far as the main section of the trunk.
I knew I had to act quickly. Tearfully, I explained to him that amputation was the only answer and that I would try and source a prosthetic branch for him, though I think he knew I was lying. Slowly I sawed down through the gangrenous limb, feeling him shudder at every rasp of the sharp teeth, until the four foot stump lay pitifully at my feet, leaving me wondering how I was going to cut it up into the ‘finger-size pieces’ that are allowed in the brown bin.
He looked odd and unbalanced but strangely defiant, the last survivor of his race, at least along our part of the estate. We tended him and gave him even more neglect than usual to aid his recovery but it has been touch and go. A couple of weeks ago, I came back from returning a Lionel Richie DVD to Xtravision, to discover three leaves lying on the grass. This was it, I thought. The other branch is going to go the same way as the first.
Since then, however, the leaves have remained in place and I no longer have to down a half a bottle of whiskey before I open the curtains in the morning to brace myself for the potential shock.
As each day passes, we grow more and more confident and hopeful that Roger will make a full recovery, maybe even grow a new limb to replace the one he lost. He seems cheerful and chirpy in himself and I’ve even caught him humming some of the tunes from South Pacific on occasions.
Problem is, he doesn’t know about the other cordalynes yet. I haven’t mustered up the courage to mention them.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Using my allotted time

I’m a bit of a spoof at a lot of things but I think that gardening is the area at which I excel.
My experience of this noble art is limited to a few years as a reluctant teenager when my mother would send me down to the allotment on summer evenings, carrying a bucket of water on each handlebar. Needless to say, there was barely a thimbleful left by the time I arrived at the place but the array of lettuce, peas, courgettes, onions and other vegetables all seemed to survive without my seemingly vital irrigation missions.
Of course, I had to do a bit of digging occasionally and harvesting, pea-shelling and hanging onions up in the shed, ostensibly to ward off vampires. And I was always very good at eating the produce, which tasted so much better when you knew how little effort you had put into them.
But I was never a true gardener in the sense that I actually knew what I was doing. I lived in flatland until I got married and the three houses we have had in our married life have contained a yard, a postage stamp garden and, currently, a ‘bit out the front’ and a ‘bit out the back.’
I imagine that I would love to have an allotment but I haven’t yet achieved that grizzled appearance which is part of the application form. Nor do I own a pair of rubber boots and a flat cap, which are both essential parts of the uniform for the allotment owner. But I can well imagine myself on balmy summer afternoons foostering around in my potting shed (whatever a potting shed is!) or leaning on my spade talking about black fly to the oul’ lad in the next allotment.
Here in estate-land, nobody is really a professional gardener like the lads up in the allotments. Our interest in the garden is normally confined to dashing out in a spot of dry weather to hack away at a wayward viburnum or mowing the moss on the lawn.
In the allotment, though, it’s a different kettle of radishes. You actually need to have a faint inkling of what you’re supposed to be doing because you are surrounded by experts who will come over to your patch (with a spade to lean on) and examine it closely.
Of course a proper allotment owner has to be male, so I have a head start there. Like the Masons and Portmarnock Golf Club, women are normally debarred from owning and working allotments, though I believe they are allowed to visit due to the perfection of an alarm system which wakes up the visitor’s husband when his spouse is still a hundred yards away.
When talking to proper gardeners, it is essential to understand that there is only one way to kill a slug / a rabbit / greenfly (delete as necessary) Of course, everyone has a different method but everyone is convinced that there’s only one way. Probably none of them work. In fact, I suspect a lot of allotment owner’s time is spent devising methods of murdering small, defenceless animals, which seems fair enough to me.
Slugs naturally bring out the most basic instincts of the allotment owner. The hardened gardener will nip them in two between thumb and forefinger and then casually wipe the squirted brown blood off their top lip. Others use salt or cider or pellets. Less scientifically, bringing the flat side of a spade down on them from a height is often an effective way of dispatching them to that big lettuce leaf in the sky.
The proper gardener will have a whole array of implements at his disposal, from hoes (a long handled spade for people with thin feet) and forks to trowels and those little cylindrical bits of wood used for making holes to plant seeds, technically called a ‘yoke.’ Normally, these will be hand made and handed down from generation to generation and the only way to get hold of a set is to approach the widow of an allotment owner and convince her that the deceased would have wanted the tools to be used by someone who appreciates them.
These implements should normally be kept in a small shed which also houses other objects essential to the allotment owner’s trade. This includes a folding chair, bottles of French beer, a supply of pouch tobacco and a vast array of plastic flower pots that will never be used.
It’s also important to have bits of orange string to tie to little pieces of wood from one side of your plot to the other. This will make it look as though you know what you are doing and will also help the birds to find where you’ve planted the seeds. And remember, plain string will not do – it has to be orange – probably something to do with feng shui or karma.
The proper allotment owner will also have bits of dry earth encrusted in the cuticles of his fingernails. To do this effectively, you must crouch down, scoop up a handful of earth and then scrunch it up between your fingertips, letting it fall back to the ground. This actually forms part of the initiation ceremony for the new allotment owner, who must do this with a knowing air while being watched by the oul’ lads out of the corner of their eyes. You should then wipe your hand briefly on your trousers and hold your index finger in the air to test the wind direction.
Possibly the best way to impress your fellow friends of the earth is to go down and buy a bag of onions in Dunnes early in the morning and lay them out on your plot before the others arrive at 11am. Then you can make a great show of picking them and examining them. If anyone asks you what variety they are, just think up an Italian phrase like Dolce Vita or Bellissima.
There’s no point in overdoing it though. Keep it simple. Digging up pineapples or kiwis that you’ve buried the day before will only lead to doubts forming in their nasty suspicious minds. And, be warned, spaghetti doesn’t grow the same way you find it in the packet, nor indeed do they harvest it smothered in tomato sauce.

Ticket to ride, fit to be tied

I don’t get out as much as I should, as many people often tell me in a slightly guarded way. I appear to have reached that stage in life where I’m quite content to stay in of a Saturday night, a prospect that would have had me shaking in terror in my youth.
Of course, we do make an effort occasionally. Last year we caught the excellent Shawshank Redemption at the Gaiety and Oliver in the Drury Lane Theatre in London’s West End, as well as a number of top class plays and performers at Draíocht (for a fraction of the price of the first two) And I regard the experience the same way as I regard football – television just isn’t an adequate substitute for the real thing.
The only problem I have with going out though (despite my wife’s assertion that I’m simply tight-fisted) is the purchase of the tickets themselves. One word looms large, a word that fills me with dread and horror at the mere utterance of its vile name – Ticketmaster.
I cannot remember ever having a pleasant experience buying tickets on Ticketmaster. Every time I go on the site, I know I’m going to end up a twisted, snarling psychopath that will have to be restrained from throwing the computer through the kitchen window. The whole site is just so user-unfriendly I think the country should organise a boycott against it, march on the Daíl and burn effigies of Mr Ticketmaster, whoever he is.
Where do I start? Let’s just pretend I’m stupid enough to try to look for tickets for Michael Bublé tickets a week after they went on sale (he says sheepishly) Do Ticketmaster tell me, after I’ve entered his name, that both concerts are sold out?
Not a bit of it. I have to choose the date I want to attend. I have to enter the number of tickets I want. I have to select in what section I want to sit and then I hit submit. Then I have to copy out some bizarre words that some bored geek has spent hours thinking up as “word verification.” Things like ‘colonic anarchy’ or ‘Rastafarian insomnia.’ And I swear to God, the words are getting longer and longer every time I go on the site.
Finally, after the little whirly wheel has gone around a couple of times, the sign comes up apologising for the lack of tickets and maybe I should try again in a different section at a different price.
So, depending how lucky I am at back-clicking, I might get back to the Michael Bublé page or I might overdo it and get back to the Ticketmaster Home Page and I start all over again. And when I’ve gone through all the rigmarole for that particular concert, I still have to go through it all again for the next evening’s concert.
Okay, another scenario. Suppose tickets for a concert have just gone on sale and you’re determined not to miss out. So you go through your selection, type in ‘venereal acupuncture’ and you find that they’ve selected tickets right in the middle of the front row for you. Now, personally, spending two hours with my head craned back tends to give me a crick in the neck. I don’t want those seats. I want to sit about five rows back somewhere in the middle. But Ticketmaster won’t let you. They allocate the tickets as they see fit. What are you supposed to do? Keep trying every hour until they’ve come around to allocating the tickets that you want?
Contrast that experience with booking tickets to see the Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre in London in July. The theatre’s home page allows you, in only one click. to open up a particular date and lo and behold you are given a plan of the seating area with different coloured dots to show which seats are available and which aren’t. You click the dots you want and buy the tickets. None of this typing in word verifications – there’s a ticket limit and if there’s any correlation between credit cards, addresses etc then they’re cancelled.
Last year, I purchased tickets for the aforementioned Shawshank Redemption at the Gaiety online through Ticketmaster. I thought I would have to get them early to guarantee a Saturday night. These days, tickets go on sale months, if not years ahead of the event, so you’re really taking a chance that you (or the artiste) will still be alive by the time the concert comes around.
Anyway, how was I to know, before Christmas, that the date I had selected to go and see the play was going to be the same as the most important date in the calendar year for my wife – the Eurovision Song Contest Final? (Don’t even go there!)
So, in March, I’m frantically back trying to exchange the tickets for another night, scouring the Ticketmaster small print for refunds and exchanges, despite the warnings that these are unavailable. The Gaiety Box Office had already told me, somewhat huffily, that if I bought the tickets on Ticketmaster, that was how I had to return them. So all I wanted to do was to talk to someone on how to go about this.
Butt everywhere I clicked led me down murkier blind alleys, terms and conditions blah blah blah. Plenty of bumph on Ticketmaster has the right to cancel your ticket on the slightest whim. But if you want to cancel?
Eventually, I came across a link for ‘Refunds and Exchanges’ and clicked on it. “Ticketmaster does not issue Refunds and Exchanges” said the one line sentence.
This is probably how EBay got started – people trying to get rid of unsuitable tickets they had bought on Ticketmaster. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two companies had some kind of deal going.
Is there any other company that refuses point blank to issue an exchange of an item that you buy? If my wife bought a pair of boots, as she has been known to occasionally, and then decided that they weren’t quite right, would a shop refuse to exchange the boots, even though they aren’t legally bound to do anything of the sort? It’s something called Customer Service, obviously two words that have not come up in Ticketmaster’s word verification yet.
As luck would have it, my non-Eurovision-loving brother-in-law had bought tickets for the show for a different night and we were able to effect a swap. But it taught me that I would sooner go through the old hassle of getting up at five o’clock in the morning to queue outside Elvery’s in Suffolk Street for tickets for the match, rather than buy them on Ticketmaster.
What I can’t understand is that occasionally, Ticketmaster announce that a limited number of returned tickets for a concert have gone on re-sale. Where do these tickets come from? People who are unable to attend and simply send their tickets back to Ticketmaster free of charge?
I see Draíocht is using Tickets.Com to sell their tickets online. It’s a lot more user-friendly than Ticketmaster, though it still allocates your seats for you, unlike the London theatres. Though at Draíocht, every seat is a good one anyway, so the inconvenience is minimal.
Still, if attending an event live is a much more rewarding experience than watching it on the telly, then purchasing a ticket for an event is much more rewarding when done person to person. And it’s cheaper.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The curse of the newbie

There are a lot of persons that I am not. I am not a DIY person, nor a golf person. Soap operas, reality TV shows, modern jazz, Lionel Richie, jogging – none of these appeal to me.
But I think that most of all, I am not a car person.
Oh don’t get me wrong. I love driving, particularly my wife up the wall. Whether it is winding up Alpine passes in the Engadine valley or cruising along Arizona highways with not another car for twenty miles in either direction, I never tire of getting behind the wheel and if they bury me in my car seat, I’ll be happy.
Its just I don’t particularly care what I drive.
A lot of it is down to ignorance. I listen to Jeremy Clarkson going on about torc and horse power and I have absolutely no idea what he is talking about. My old Micra used to do 0-60 in 3 weeks, two days and seven minutes but it got me wherever I needed to go and I’ve no idea if it had titanium pistons or ABS.
So recently when my daughter, fed up with driving around in a ten year old Micra, put her eye on my four year old Yaris, I didn’t see it as a chance to buy the car of my dreams, but rather a bit of an inconvenience to go traipsing around looking at cars and being afraid that the salesman was going to rip me off.
I needn’t have bothered. My wife was on the job like a shot, scouring the internet for that perfect car. My sole input was that I wanted to try something else other than a Yaris, because the little plastic shelf over the minuscule boot kept getting jammed whenever I raised the boot and that annoyed me. Oh, and there wasn’t enough torc or ABS.
We were both of the opinion that, with there being very rarely more than two people in our car, there was no point upsizing.
My wife, who tends to take James May’s side in arguments on Top Gear, even though she can’t drive, thought the new Micra was too bobbly, Fiats were notoriously unreliable and someone had told her once that they had known someone else who had a dodgy Corsa. But she wanted to stay Japanese, because of the reliability factor.
Eventually, she asked me if I minded a Mazda 2. Zoom, zoom, I answered, thus exhausting my knowledge of that particular brand of car.
So we went down to the garage to have a look and a very personable young man, who looked as though he was in Transition Year, told us all about alloyed wheels and torc and the unique suspension system. And, he said, he’d have a word with the manager to see if he could maybe upgrade an unsold 09 to a 10 for us, because we were nice people.
I’d never bought a new car before. Apart from not really being able to afford it, we had other things we preferred to spend the money on, like trips to the Engadine Valley and Arizona. This invariably meant putting our faith in second-hand car salesmen and their spiel. At least with a new car, there was some sort of comfort that you weren’t being sold a heap of junk.
So we bought it. It was more than I wanted to spend but with the money the daughter was giving us for the Yaris, it wasn’t that exorbitant.
Plus it had alloyed wheels. I’d never had alloys before and never understood what was the point of them but now I had them, I thought they looked pretty cool, until I discovered I had to spend a further €40 on anti-theft nuts to stop people robbing them.
It had a leather steering wheel and lots of holders for drinks that I would never bring into the car; it had a sporty dashboard and sporty seats, probably because it was the Sports model. But most of all, it had 10D on the registration plate.
Four days later, the same salesman prised the cheque out of my reluctant hand, we shook hands and he handed me the keys. It was then that I realised what I’d let myself in for.
It reminded me of the famous story of the manager who bought a £30 million player and kept him on the sub’s bench in case he got injured. I had a brand new car but didn’t want to take it out on the road in case it got a scratch or a bang.
After he’d gone, I examined the car to make sure it was in pristine condition. Then I looked under the bonnet and counted the engine. Then I checked the tread on the tyre.
“It’s no good,” my wife said at last. “You’re just going to have to drive it home.”
Knuckles white, face taut, back rigid, I set off down the Navan Road, one eye firmly glued to the rear view mirror, as though I could somehow avoid being shunted by the white van with the ominous WW registration behind me. Never have I slowed down so smoothly approaching traffic lights; never have I driven so gingerly up the inside lane of the dual carriageway between the Halfway House and the remnants of the Auburn Avenue roundabout; never have I been so petrified of that stupid little chicane on the N3, where the crash barrier does a little jink (why can’t they simply straighten it out?)
By the time I pulled up on our drive, I had aged ten years, my hair was white and my wife had to prise my hands off the steering wheel. There was no way I’d bring the car up to Ongar and risk getting a bang from a carelessly opened door. Or leave it out in front of the house for the wheelie bin truck to have my wing mirror. No, from now on, it could stay on the drive and we’d just go back to catching the bus everywhere as we had done for so many years when the children were small.
This attitude was cured once and for all that self same evening. I was ensconced in my armchair in front of the telly, when I found myself snatching sneaky glances out of the window at the new prize sitting proudly on the drive, as television images showed bodies being dumped unceremoniously into mass graves from the back of a lorry on a dusty Haitian hillside.
Zoom zoom.

Going it alone

Not your usual Musings - this one was for the health supplement and I had to be wary not to offend our advertisers!

My wife constantly bemoans the fact that I am not a team player. This normally occurs when we are doing a job together and I do not follow her direction unquestioningly.
But she has a point. I have my own cock-eyed view on life, handed down by my equally cock-eyed father and grandfather. Much of my home-spun philosophy is not shared by much of humanity and so I tend to go it alone.
The conventional wisdom on giving up cigarettes, for example, is to seek help, whether it is from friends and family or from patches and drugs. For years, I insisted on giving up secretly, reasoning that if I told anyone and I failed, then the other person would be disappointed. However, if I told nobody, then I could fail without fear of my own discouragement spreading.
It should be pointed out that the time I actually succeeded in giving up, nearly seven years ago now, I actually got the family to camcorder my final fag for posterity. This should have taught me something but it didn’t.
The onset of my forties, giving up the weed, the purchase of a car and the move to a more sedentary job led to my weight mushrooming for the first time in twenty years. Slowly the pounds, then the stones increased (sorry, I’m not being deliberately archaic but kilograms is the one decimilisation I’ve never got my head around) until it’s fair to say I’ve been constantly struggling with my weight for a few years now.
Mostly this struggle has consisted of me not bothering to weigh myself, a strategy that works so far, but doesn’t account for the niggly feeling in my head that I’m really only fooling myself. For a time I tried jogging but apparently my cheap Shoezone runners weren’t really meant for that kind of punishment and I got very painful shin splints, which made me even less physically active than I was before.
Even this year, I decided I would go for a good hour’s walk every day and what happened? The worst weather for a quarter of a century.
I think I detect the answer here. When I am sick, I will take over-the-counter remedies or hot whiskies or wear layers of clothing to sweat the illness out of me. Honest to goodness homespun philosophies. However, occasionally, there comes a time when I have to admit I need a little help and I go down and see the doctor.
The same might well be true for my expanding waistline. I’ve tried the salads for lunch and the brown bread and the jogging and the walking and perhaps the time has come for me to admit that I can’t do it on my own. Whether I join a gym or go infrared or start swimming or enjoy regular irrigation of my colon, I haven’t yet decided.
One thing’s for sure – I appear to be somewhat spoiled for choice.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


It doesn’t taste of much, it rots your boots and it causes alarm when it starts dripping through your kitchen ceiling. The Ancient Mariner bemoaned the fact that it was everywhere but there wasn’t a drop of drink. And people have actually drowned in it.
On the other hand, we are still the only planet in the solar system to have it in abundance – either the still or sparkling variety – and it’s a handy way of separating continents, when all things are considered.
During the recent big snow, we were advised by Fingal County Council to stop running our taps at night to stop our pipes freezing, as water levels in the county were getting perilously low.
I was about to write in and tell them that we hadn’t been doing that at all when the concept suddenly hit home. Up till then I had never thought of running my taps at night to stop the pipes from freezing. What a brilliant idea!
My wife, though, who is far more mindful of concepts like ‘civic duty’ and ‘water conservation’ gave me one of her famous withering stares when I broached the subject and I knew it was a non runner. I therefore fell in behind her new water campaign which, already quite stringent, now became punitive.
The dishwasher, for the time being at least, could have a break. It uses 15 litres of water per cycle, whereas we could wash by hand, the old-fashioned way, using a half a kettle of boiled water per day.
I was not to have my traditional St Bernard blackcurrant cordial with my dinner but could make do with lemon and lime like the rest of them. Similarly, I was to have no water in my whiskey on a Friday night, just a splash of red lemonade. When I gave my car its six monthly wash, instead of filling a red basin, she handed me a mug of hot water and a sponge. Teeth were to be brushed in a thimbleful of water. And only when absolutely caked in dirt, so our skin was barely visible, were we allowed to have a shower. And even then, my wife was to stand outside the door with a stopwatch.
Invigorated by this water conservation fervour, I suggested that, as everybody knew that having a shower used much less water than having a bath, maybe we could all have bath but (and here was the clever bit) we should fill up the bath using the shower attachment instead. I am still reeling from the second withering stare in two days.
I have to admit that, such was the rigour of the new regime, that I rebelled, once and once only. When she was down her mother’s, and I was alone in the house, I flippantly and gratuitously turned on the tap and let the water run joyously down the plug hole for three seconds.
“Go, my children!” I whispered as the twirling liquid ran out of sight. “Find your way safely and quickly to the Great Sea.” It felt good, though when my wife returned I felt sure that she could read my flush of guilt by the way she kept eying me suspiciously, even though I had dried the bottom of the sink with a bit of kitchen roll, so not to give the game away.
Of course, the worry is that our efforts are merely a drop in the ocean. When I used to drive in to work along the back roads by the Cappagh Hospital, I had to drive down a road in Finglas West that I don’t think has been dry for ten years. There’s obviously a leak there somewhere that has never been fixed and it makes you wonder what is the point in conserving tiny bits of water when it’s gushing away merrily somewhere else and nobody seems to care.
But as my wife says, that’s no reason for personal irresponsibility.
There is no fear of water charges in our house. The amount of water we use, the Council will probably end up owing us money, unless of course they do what they did with the black bins and realise everybody’s being too green and they aren’t generating enough revenue and slap a fixed charge on top of the water consumption charge.
No, I’ll nail my colours firmly to the mast here, even though I’m getting pretty short of colours and am only left with a light ochre and sunset red. I believe that water should be free to be enjoyed by the whole nation as a God-given unalienable right. We live in a temperate and moist climate, abundant with water, and this should be free to the benefit of all. And if anyone wants to put pots out in the garden to collect rainwater or go down to the Tolka and scoop up a lunchbox full of water, they should be allowed to do that without fear of financial retribution. And they can gulp as many lungfuls of air as they like, while they’re at it.
If however, they want to avail of water that has been collected in reservoirs, treated, pumped to water towers, treated again and then pumped through miles of maintained piping to the comfort of their own homes, then I don’t think it unreasonable to levy a small charge based on consumption levels. There is nothing else in our homes that costs money to produce that we get for free, except maybe plastic sacks from spurious charity collectors.
Or else we can all go back to the old system of going down to the village well with our buckets and do away with indoor plumbing altogether. Come to think of it, that mightn’t be such a bad idea, as it would get people talking to each other in a community environment, much the way the water cooler does in the office. Of course, it might mean a few of our young people would die of thirst before they lifted a bucket but hey, we’re overpopulated anyway.
Yesterday, the cold tap in the wash hand basin in the bathroom, which had been stiff for a while, suddenly seized up. It turns about a half of turn but no water comes out.
I thought she’d be happy but she wasn’t.

Taking the plunge in the property market

I tend to keep my cards very close to my chest where financial matters are concerned. I find that if I leave them any further away, I walk off and forget about them and my wife is always picking them up and throwing them in the green bin.
So recently, when I got a welcome and totally unexpected piece of news regarding an inheritance, I did not clamber up on the roof and pronounce the glad tidings at the top of my voice. I simply sat there at the kitchen table smiling to myself and humming a Lionel Richie tune.
“What are you looking so pleased about?” demanded my wife suspiciously. My sudden bursts of good humour tend to have an unnerving effect on her and the sooner she gets to the bottom of my bonhomie, the easier she can rest.
“Oh, no reason, my little Venus flycatcher,” I smiled at her sweetly. “What way’s the property market these days? Have we reached the bottom yet?”
“What are you up to?” she countered, maintaining her long tradition of answering a question with a question.
It was no good. I could keep it in no longer.
“It’s just that I was thinking of buying an apartment in Kimmage,” I announced breezily.
The words had the desired effect. My wife’s jaw dropped and she stared at me like a guppy fish. My daughter shrieked. “For me? For me?” while my son wanted to know where Kimmage was.
It was obvious from my wife’s expression that she was missing some information here so I calmly told her about the inheritance and explained that I was thinking of delving into the property market. And to my daughter’s deep disappointment, I told her that I was thinking of buying it as an investment property to keep the wolf from the door later on. I had never thought of myself as a landlord but the more I considered the idea, the more I liked it, especially as everyone around me seemed to have property here, there and everywhere.
I could see my wife was doubtful from the way her eyebrows were so arched they were actually two inches above the top of her head. The questions came thick and fast. Why this sudden interest in the property market? Did I think this was really a good time to buy? Would I not be leaving myself short if other contingencies arose? What kind of return could I expect from an apartment in Kimmage?
I explained to my son that Kimmage was where the three lovely lasses came from and that it was on the south side of the city, probably the equivalent of Phibsboro (which he’d heard of.)
And then patiently I told my wife that I had been thinking of investing in an apartment for quite a while and the inheritance had provided me with the funds to do it. I was quite satisfied with the expected yields and was confident the apartment would not remain idle for long. Yes, I realised there were occasional levies on properties but that was a chance I had to take.
“But Kimmage?” she said incredulously.
“I know it sounds weird,” I replied, “but realistically I’m not going to afford anywhere in the City Centre or Dublin 4. But hey, who knows, with the returns from this property, the next step could well be an apartment on Grafton Street.”
“You’re sure you have this inheritance?” she persisted. “It’s not like in Coronation Street where people spend thousands and haven’t read the small print?”
In reply, I simply smiled and held up my recent communication. She snatched it out of my hand and began to read avidly, while Louise and Neil clamoured around, reading over her shoulder.
“Some people have all the luck,” she grumbled eventually, handing it back to me with little grace. “Well, it’s your money and you can spend it how you like. All I will say to you is – think very carefully. It’s a very big step, owning property.”
“Nobody ever got rich without taking risks,” I countered. “Listen, I’ve done the sums and they all work out. One thing’s for sure, the prices aren’t going to get any lower and I can always remortgage if things start getting sticky.”
Louise and Neil resumed their seats, somewhat gruffly I thought. I think they thought I might have given them a handout. Not in this game, I thought. You reap what you sow and you don’t get a free ride from anyone.
“Right,” said my wife. “Put your card back at the bottom of the pile. €500,000 for your inheritance. €500,000 the cost of one apartment. There you go. That should send shivers down the spine of anyone avoiding my hotels on Shrewsbury Road and Ailesbury Road.”

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Greengages, red soap and breadsticks

It came to me quite suddenly,
As I lay in my bed –
That wholesome taste that one-time graced
Our slices of white bread.
Several years ago, I wrote a poem lamenting the disappearance of greengage jam, a confiture that had figured largely in my youth but had disappeared from supermarket shelves one day when nobody was looking. It was only many years later when somebody suddenly had a flashback that we realised it was no longer with us.
Where did it go? Was there a failure of the greengage crop, akin to the potato famine of the 1840s? Did the bottom fall out of the greengage market? Did unscrupulous co-ops make the production of greengages untenable to local farmers? What in God’s name is a greengage anyway? Is it on a list of the world’s most endangered species like the white rhino and the blue whale?
Despite being read on the John Creedon show and, I think, on Playback the following Saturday, the poem failed to break into the poetry charts, sinking without trace, much like its subject matter.
This wondrous fruit of great repute
Just vanished when we blinked.
One day, ‘twas here. The next, I fear,
It must have gone extinct.
I was reminded of this situation when I was sent out the day before Christmas Eve to buy breadsticks. We like to have breadsticks and dips for lunch on Stephens Day and subsequent days, sitting in front of the telly watching Elf or Mary Poppins or some other drug-induced nightmare. It is so easily prepared even I can do it.
Last year we got them in Dunnes in Blanchardstown without any difficulty but this year they were nowhere to be seen. Of course, we had no idea which section they should be in. With the bread? With the crackers? With the biscuits? With the crisps?
When we got home, I was sent out on a mission to get the breadsticks, probably to get me out of the house from under her feet. I tried Lidl in Clonee, the garage, the Post Office, the Soul Bakery in Ongar (it had shut months ago, apparently), Hickeys and Dunnes in Ongar. All to no avail.
In the end, we had to make do with Pringles. Quite tasty but they kept on snapping when you dug them into the sour cream and onion.
When did they stop this luscious crop?
Quite sudden, or in stages?
Did harvests fail through snow and hail?
What happened to greengages?
The summer before last, my daughter spent three months in Hawaii on something called a J1 visa. As you can imagine, it was a terrible wrench to be apart from her for such a long period of time, though it was not quite long enough to sell all her clothes and move house.
Anyway, on her return – oh sad, woebegotten day! – we were naturally excited by the thoughts of the wonderful surprise present she would doubtless have brought back. Some Waikiki crystal, perhaps? A hideously loud shirt? A fragment of Japanese bomber fished out of Pearl Harbour?
I think I would be safe in assuming that neither of us had anticipated the box of Lucky Charms that she produced from among her three months worth of washing.
For those above, or indeed below, a certain age, Lucky Charms was a breakfast cereal that was popular in our house in the late eighties and early nineties. They were like a multi-coloured Cheerios and we even saved up the tokens to buy a mug that changed colour depending on the temperature of the liquid inside, which kept us enthralled for days on end.
We actually still have the mug somewhere at the back of the press, though I’m afraid its chameleon–like qualities have not lasted. But Lucky Charms have long since gone, withdrawing unannounced to the shores of America and doubtless inspiring the Morrissey hit single This Charmless Man.
Look on the shelf in shops yourself,
There’s jams of every flavour.
Kiwi, plum, chrysanthemum,
To sample and to savour.
A few months ago, my wife’s mother, who resides down in Stoneybatter, discovered that Tesco’s in Prussia Street had stopped selling bars of red soap. You know the ones – they used to live by the sink and came in a colourful wrapper with a cartoon picture of a smiling housewife on the front. Not exactly sure what it was for but every household had one. I think it might have been for getting spaghetti hoop stains off your trousers in a hurry.
Anyway, she said, could we have a look in Dunnes and get her a bar? No problem, we said. The difference is, Dunnes are Irish. (Isn’t it ridiculous how you have loyalty to one brand of supermarket?) However, Margaret Heffernan may be a true daughter of Erin but she obviously doesn’t see the need for red soap anymore. In fact, bars of ordinary soap only occupied about an eighth of a shelf, being surrounded and intimidated by the liquid soap, whose plastic packaging is doubtless a step in the wrong direction environmentally.
“They’ll probably have it in some hardware shop in Newcastlewest,” opined my wife, “next to the watering cans and the sleeveless anoraks,” and I dare say she is right but thankfully her sister, on her Christmas visit from England, was able to bring a year’s supply of red soap (one bar) with her. In return, we loaded her down with black pudding, Walsh’s spice burgers (are they the next on the list?)and YR sauce.

Whate’er the cause, it’s time to pause,
And doff our caps with piety,
And bow the head to mourn the spread
That’s lost unto society.

The point I am making, somewhat longwindedly, is that supermarkets should warn you that they no longer intend to stock a certain product. Had we known that household soap was going to be withdrawn, we could have bought twenty bars and kept them with the Christmas decorations in the attic, bringing one down every year as needed.
Who decides that the Irish public no longer requires greengage jam? Is our family particularly odd in opting for products that are doomed to disappear as soon as we get a taste for them, or are we at the mercy of supermarket buyers who count the units sold and the shelf-space taken up?
I think there should be some one centralised store, preferably in the Dublin 15 area, where people can go and buy breadsticks or Butterscotch flavour Angel Delight or dandelion and burdock or pork pies or Birds Eye Cod in Butter Sauce or any of the thousands of products that supermarkets no longer stock.
Any budding entrepreneurs out there looking for an idea, it’s all yours.
Rich and sweet, ‘twas quite a treat
But, like the Dublin tram,
It’s had its day, gone on its way –
The pot of greengage jam.