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.