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.