Thursday, October 27, 2011

Standing up for sitting down

The five of us in happier days

Seventeen years ago, give or take, we took possession of a three piece suite in our little artisan cottage off Oxmantown Road to replace the one that had come with the house seven years previously.
I believe that we bought it in a furniture shop in Capel Street and that it cost a tidy sum. It was a brown, fabric three seater couch (that seated four) and two deep incredibly comfortable armchairs and when I say we took possession of it, it did not have an easy entrance into our lives.
The hall door of our house led directly onto the sitting room door to the right and the delivery men must have spent the guts of two hours squeezing it in through the two doors, reversing it back out, trying it a different way, sitting on it, squashing it, cursing it, before finally getting it into our tiny sitting room, while my wife sat and watched, afraid at every second that the door frame was going to give way.
When it was finally in, it completely filled the room, providing a great obstacle course for our two small children. I hasten to point out in my wife’s defence, as she has total control over all matters furniture, that we were about to move into a slightly larger house four hundred yards away and she had bought the suite, not for the artisan cottage, but for the new house and had been worried that it might have been sold if we’d have waited.
So, two months later, we squeezed and squashed it back out of the cottage and squeezed and squashed it into the new house. Then six years later, we repeated the whole process, as we moved up here to the newly developed estate of Hazelbury Green, where finally we had a sitting room large enough not to be dwarfed by the suite.
Recently my wife, who watches far too many interior design programmes on the television, decided the house needed a bit of a shake up after ten years and an intensive painting and decorating programme was put in place. Ceilings, walls and skirting boards were all painted, beds changed, new curtains bought, furniture rearranged, new carpets purchased and so on and so forth.
All this I went along with, if not willingly, then at least grudgingly. And, to be fair, the house has been totally transformed and is looking really well.
And then she decided that she wanted to change the three piece suite. Her argument was that the suite is old-fashioned, seventeen years old and totally out of keeping with the decor in the sitting room.
I announced, with a degree of heroism that surprised even myself, that I was opposed to the idea. My reasons were that it just happened to be the most comfortable three piece suite that had ever been manufactured; that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it physically; and that just because something was old didn’t mean it was fit for the scrapheap (I said, looking at her, pointedly) Furthermore, I added magnanimously, if she wanted to change the whole decor in the sitting room to make the three piece suite fit in, I had no objection.
I am not exaggerating when I say that it is the most comfortable suite ever. It really is. So much so that I long for us to have loads of visitors, so I have an excuse to sleep on the couch. When the children had sleepovers, many of their friends only agreed to stay over, if they could put the two armchairs together and sleep there. I myself have spent many delicious evenings asleep in the armchair, oblivious to the X Factor or Big Brother. In its day, it was a great couch for wrestling on and I can’t wait for my grandchildren to grow up a bit, so the bouts can resume.
Faced with my resolute opposition to changing the suite, my wife then altered her tactics. Instead of trying to steamroller her fiendish plan through, she became more subtle about it. She offered to look into the possibility of having the suite reupholstered, to which I replied that I had no objection. However, when we looked into it a bit further, we found that it was actually cheaper to buy a new suite. Oh no, I said, nice try, no potatoes.
Since then, she has been trying to inveigle everybody else into making me see the pig-headedness of my opposition. When members of the family come around to call, the talk invariably turns to how outdated the suite looks and how we’ve been struggling along with it for seventeen years, all because of my obstinacy and I have to endure reproachful glances for the wicked way I treat my loving wife.
And not just members of the family neither. People who come around trying to sell us Eircom Phonewatch or Sky are startled when she drags them into the sitting room to ask them, honestly, don’t they think the suite takes away from the whole look of the room?
Every time one of those ubiquitous advertisements for DFS comes on the telly, showing decidedly strange families having a great time sitting around on furniture (“Can we go and sit on the couch today, Dad? Can we? Can we? Please!”) remarks about how much she’d love a new suite are made and a period of brooding begins when my assent is not forthcoming.
Thankfully, my cause has been helped by the practically total dereliction of Dublin 15 by the major furniture stores. Classic Furniture has gone, as has Read’s and there are no suites in Clery’s Home Furnishings or Des Kelly’s. The only one is the Furniture Liquidation Store over in West End and I think she feels its wrong to shop in there, as you might be profiting from other people’s misfortunes.
For a while, though, in the face of this unrelenting attack, I began to waver. Maybe, I conceded privately to myself, maybe we could find another suite equally as comfortable. Anything for an easy life. And maybe I was being a tad selfish in placing my demands ahead of hers.
But, whispers the little devil on my shoulder, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the suite we have, despite its age.
Finally, and to put an end to the subject once and for all, I gave her an ultimatum. Either the suite goes, I said, or I do.
She is currently rummaging in the attic for a suitcase, whistling a happy tune.

Friday, September 2, 2011

How to solve the Maths problem

Statistics show that only 16% of pupils that took Maths in the leaving cert sat the higher level paper. Or to put it another way, a massive 89% only took the lower paper. Further controversy was stoked whem Minister RuairĂ­ Quinn admitted that he didn’t know how many maths teachers had taken mathematics as their main degree subject, though he did get an extra mark for showing his workings.
By not sitting the honours paper, pupils automatically excluded themselves from many third-level science, engineering and technology courses. Apparently they had the notion that they have also excluded themselves from three or four years of grappling with unintelligible formulae and algebraic equations. Kids, eh?
A proficiency in maths is essential for working in high-tech industries, which are performing strongest in job creation. They are also fairly essential if you want to work on the checkout in Tesco’s. Like the succession of ministers before him, RuairĂ­ Quinn admitted that much work must be done to increase the number of students taking higher-level maths and he has immediately set up a task force to oversee this, to be run by somebody else.
This has led to a lot of debate in educational circles and other two-dimensional mathematical shapes, as to how we can get more students to take Honours maths without dumbing down the paper. Apparently in the international league table, Ireland lies somewhere between Antarctica and Rockall in our mathematical proficiency, one possible explanation of the deep pile of doo-doo that we find ourselves in economically.
The Minister has announced that all those taking the higher maths paper in the leaving cert next year will gain an extra 25 bonus points. He feels that this will act as an incentive to students to consider taking the subject.
Of course, smart students will take seven different subjects and put their name down for higher level maths too. Then by simply turning up on the day of the exam and staying for five minutes, they will have another 25 points in the bag.
The incentive route certainly seems to be the way to go, though it is doubtful whether your average teenager will salivate at the thought of an extra 25 points. Promise them tickets for the Foo Fighters at Slane, or free driving lessons, or a new i-Phone and then maybe the Minister might be in business.
Another option is to make all the other subjects so difficult that higher level maths will seem a doddle by comparison. In history, you could set a question worth 25% of the marks asking students to describe the prevailing weather conditions of any one particular day in the past thousand years. Or in geography, ask them to list the inhabitants of any medium sized Chinese city. That will soon have them flicking back to x, y and zed and wondering if they are quite so difficult after all.
Inevitably the topic has touched on the way that maths is taught as a subject. In much the same way that lack of affinity for Irish is often attributed to the uninspiring way it was taught in school, so the spotlight has been turned on the hard-pressed maths teachers, who possibly have only a little more knowledge of what a logarithm is than their pupils.
Rather than simply standing at a blackboard, or whiteboard or greenboard or whatever they use these days, teachers are encouraged to be a little more creative in the way they impart the mysteries of heavy sums. Glove puppets are to be encouraged, with characters such as Tommy Tangent, Harry Hypotenuse and Annie Adjacent helping to explain the ludicrous art of trigonometry. Field trips to Paddy Powers will help to debunk the myths of probabilities and role playing should help to explain the science of sets and subsets, with extra marks being awarded to pupils who take on the challenging role of the brackets.
Although it is not an official ministerial directive, teachers with dull, boring voices have been encouraged to attend evening classes in rap and hip-hop in the hope that kids will start to see higher mathematics as something wicked, innit, rather than dull and irrelevant as the general consensus appears to be at the moment. Eminem has been approached to duet with Dizzy Rascal on a song about the complexities of the laws of indices and it is hoped that the resulting video will feature in classrooms from September, while Jedward’s new single has been provisionally titled Baby we love your integer coefficients.
Mr Quinn has encouraged young people who are disappointed with this year’s maths results to seriously consider re-sitting the exam next year. Sadly most young people, it would appear, would rather stick red hot pokers in their eyes. And who can blame them?

Hello Dragons

I am not generally a man to bear a grudge, or even to grudge a bear, and so this year, I magnanimously decided to accede to my wife’s suggestion that we holiday in France. Not that my approval was ever sought, you understand, but if it had been, I would have put the past firmly behind me and extended the hand of entente cordiale to our Gallic neighbours. Let bygones be bygones and all that.
And by and large, we had an excellent holiday. For once the sun behaved and I commendably resisted the urge to address shopkeepers and waiters as Thierry Henry avec le main, particularly as my wife would have given me one of those looks that can kill a man dead at thirty paces. Neither did I juggle one-handed with my bread roll at the table before flicking it over to an imaginary Gallas, though the temptation at times was almost as strong as the injustice perpetrated at the Stade de France on November 18th 2009, which I have put firmly to the back of my mind.
One thing I did notice, though, and it is something that has caught my attention anywhere outside the British Isles, is that they seem to have a pretty useless quality of electricity in continental Europe.
Oh, they beat us hands down with their bread and their coffee and their wine and their rivers are longer and their mountains are higher and the Eiffel Tower puts the Quinn Building firmly into the bungalow category, but in the electrical stakes, we are currently way ahead.
This is particularly evident when I shave on holidays. I have an electric shaver which gives me no problems at home but when abroad, it behaves like my lawnmower ploughing into a particularly thick clump of dandelions. Instead of humming like a bluebottle that’s just got five numbers up in the Euro millions, the buzz actually stops as it attempts to cope with two days of bristle. It simply can’t handle it and grinds to a standstill, like a car with a flat battery, at the same time yanking the hairs painfully out of my face instead of slicing neatly through the stems as the adverts show.
Now, my degree of expertise in the field of electricity extends as far as knowing that the green and yellow wire is earth. I get confused between the brown and the blue and have to consult the diagrams, tempted as I often am to simply take a chance. Let’s face it – I don’t even know what the stuff looks like.
But it occurs to me that they must be using less watts or volts or something in Europe, though obviously the ordinary man dans la rue doesn’t realise this. I mean, he can’t look at a light bulb in Perpignan and then nip over to look at a light bulb in Clonsilla and accurately compare the two. If he could, I suspect the Clonsilla bulb might blind him, so perhaps it’s just as well.
However, I am sure that he would be disgusted to find out that little old Ireland, up to its neck in debt and without a team in the 2010 World Cup finals, enjoys the benefits of Grade A electricity, while he has to make do with the Yellow Pack variety. Serious questions would be asked on the Pont d’Avignon as to why Frenchmen were ripping their faces to shreds every morning, while Irishmen and women can perform their boudoir in relative comfort.
I’m sure that it’s something to do with hydro-electric power. To my (admittedly unscientific) mind, it suggests that little droplets of water are getting into the wires and smudging them up, impairing the zinginess (technical term) of the electricity produced. In Ireland, of course, most of our lecky comes from good old-fashioned tried and trusted fossil fuels, with no chance of moisture surviving in the furnace.
My solution to the problem – and I only have the welfare of Monsieur Joe Savon at heart – would therefore be a two-fold one. Firstly, we taunt our neighbours mercilessly about their rubbish electricity (thereby alerting them to their inadequacies) and then we offer to sell them so top-notch, 24 carat electricity of our own.
Enda could invite over M. Sarkozy and spend the whole time on his Philishave, loudly proclaiming how effortlessly it slices through his stubble. Or Padraig Harrington could offer to give Miguel Angel Jimenez (sorry, couldn’t think of a French golfer) a bit of a trim the next time they’re standing on the seventh tee at Luttrellstown waiting for the pair ahead of them to finish up.
Then we go in for the hard sell and this is the bit I have to work out properly in my head before I approach the Dragons and look for them to invest several millions in the project. My problem is that I can’t figure out exactly how we’re going to deliver the goods.
The obvious solution would be to plug a very long extension lead into a socket in a house in Rosslare and then trail it under the sea to Le Havre, where it can hook up to the French network, which I believe is called Le ESB. Trouble is, I don’t know any deep sea divers who are also adept with a staple gun. You’d have to attach it to the sea floor somehow. You couldn’t just leave it floating in the water or it would keep tripping up trawlers or Russian submarines.
The alternative would be to fill up a lot of batteries with electricity and then ship them over. The danger with this is that, were the ship to sink, it might very well electrify the whole sea with disastrous consequences for marine life and anyone silly enough to go swimming in our waters.
I have also toyed with the notion of floating pylons, which I believe could work rather well. The concept of firing electricity into space and rebounding it off a satellite down to mainland Europe, however, is unlikely to reach the prototype stage due to severe funding issues.
Of course, another point of view could be that we should simply leave the French to struggle on with their inferior electricity, just as they left us to stay at home kicking our heels while they enjoyed the South African sun and the vuvuzelas and an early exit from the competition.
But I couldn’t possibly comment on that.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Refuting a monstrous allegation

Recently, a member of my family that I am married to (no names) accused me of being intolerant on the roads. Intolerant? Me?
I would therefore like to make a short public statement, refuting this monstrous allegation. In fact, I have racked my brains and the only things that I can come up with, that cause me to get hot under the collar while at the wheel, are - cars that use the extra lane at traffic lights to try and skip the queue; cars that let the queue skippers back into lane when the bus-lane takes effect; cars that speed down the bus lane indicating that they’re going to turn left at the next junction but then keep going; taxis that get blocked behind a bus and then think they have a god-given right to simply pull out into the slow lane; cyclists who use the road when there is a perfectly good cycle path in operation; pedestrians who break the lights crossing the road, meaning very few cars get out when the light finally turns green; drivers who are slow pulling away on a green light, restricting the number of cars that can get out; drivers who don’t indicate at roundabouts; drivers who indicate wrongly at roundabouts; drivers who are turning right at a busy T-junction and block the two lanes by parking diagonally, thus preventing those behind who are turning left from doing so; anybody on a mobile phone; cars with Baby on Board stickers; pedestrians that don’t bother to check when crossing a side road because they don’t imagine anyone would want to turn into that road; cars that drive right up behind you when you are trying to slow down to take a turn; cars that can’t wait for a car to turn left but insist on overtaking them; cars that crawl past road accidents after we’ve been sitting in the tailback for three quarters of an hour; miles and miles of cones on the road and no visible signs of any roadworks taking place; cyclists that insist on riding two abreast down narrow roads; roads with no houses on them but replete with footpath, bus-lane and cycle lane where the speed limit is 60kph; the Snugborough Road junction; drivers who only indicate at the last minute that they are turning right into the face of heavy oncoming traffic; motorcycles who weave through the traffic and park right in front of you when you’re at the head of the queue at the traffic lights; the aforementioned motorbikes when they don’t pull off the nano-second that the light turns green; the people who direct the traffic around the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre at Christmas; cars that spend three minutes trying to overtake you on the dual carriageway and then pull in in front of you the moment they are ahead; drivers that do not acknowledge with a simple wave of the hand that you have stopped to allow them to pass; drivers that keep coming when you are weaving around parked cars in an estate; cars that park badly in parking spaces, restricting your ability to get out of the car once parked; cars that wait for you to reverse out of a parking space but don’t give you sufficient space to do so; pedestrians that do not recognise reversing lights while walking through a car park; cars that block side roads while sitting in a queue; cars that leave half-mile gaps between them and the car in front while sitting in a queue; the Snugborough Road junction again; tractors that appear oblivious to the ten miles of cars lined up behind them; cars that overtake you when you’re the first in line behind the tractor; vehicles that speed up when you’re attempting to overtake them; cyclists wearing black on murky winter’s evenings who think that a solitary rear reflector will make them visible to oncoming traffic; cars that roll two yards backwards when starting on a hill; drivers that don’t seem to envisage the possibility of small children stepping out from behind parked cars in housing estates; small children that step out from behind parked cars in housing estates; people who get out of their cars without checking their rear-view mirrors; drivers who think that turning left on a roundabout entitles them to shoot out and force anybody already on the roundabout to brake suddenly; people who throw litter out of car windows; drivers who use the Phoenix Park train station junction as a means of getting 100 yards further ahead in the queue; the drivers that let them back in; cars who put their hazard lights on at all times when not travelling at full speed; drivers who use their fog lights in the clearest of weather; white vans with WW registrations; taxis that screech to a halt in front of you to pick up a fare; cars that park in estates and give the bin truck the width of a Smart car to squeeze through; drivers behind me that beep at the driver in front of me and make him think it’s me who is beeping him; cars with an inbuilt rhythm section; all vehicles travelling slower than me; all vehicles travelling faster than me; the Snugborough Road junction, but this time approached from a different direction; the ludicrous 30kph speed limits on the N3 / M50 interchange; the speed ramps on Blackhorse Avenue that make you drive out into the middle of the road in the face of oncoming traffic; drivers who cruise around car parks looking for a space instead of parking twenty yards further away and walking; cars that appear out of nowhere just as you commence a tricky five point turn on a very narrow stretch of road; oncoming trucks that splash your windscreen with dirty water on rainy days; the second car that sneaks out when you graciously allow one car to join the throng; those signs for J1 and J3 which I still haven’t figured out; roadworks on a stretch of road where there have been numerous roadworks in the past year; drivers that break the unbroken white line when joining the dual carriageway; cars or trucks that travel two abreast on the dual carriageway; cars that speed down the bus lanes and always get away with it; fluffy dice; people who press the buttons at pedestrian lights and then cross immediately as there is a gap, resulting in a long stream of cars backed up behind an empty crossing point; cars that stick their noses out of junctions so far that they force you to stop and let them out; drivers who aren’t able to park in narrow spaces attempting to park in narrow spaces; any non-emergency vehicle that has flashing lights; and the Snugborough Road junction again.
I hope this puts the matter to bed.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The far fabled train station of Hansfield

Dear reader, you are probably going to take what I say with a pinch of salt, or some other condiment of your choice, but what I am about to tell you is the God’s honest truth, may Lionel Ritchie come and sing for me in my sitting room if I’m telling one word of a lie.
The other morning (not this one, the other one), just as the sun was peeping out over the unopened Ongar Community Centre, I happened to be passing by the roundabout that leads to the as-yet-unfinished Kelly’s pub, when I happened to glance down past the incomplete Barnwell estate in a general south-westerly direction.
The sight, I have to tell you, took my breath away and it was only after many threats that I managed to retrieve it.
There, its sapphire blue coloured dome glistening in the first rays of dawn, stood the far fabled, internationally renowned, mystical train station of Hansfield.
People may tell you that it is a myth, the stuff of legend but no more than that, like the lost city of Atlantis or full employment, but I saw it there, shimmering in all its ornamental splendour. I felt like stout Cortez when he first set eyes upon the Taj Mahal or Marco Polo stepping down onto the moon’s surface for the first time or maybe Howard Carter when he discovered the source of the Himalayas.
For ten seconds, maybe thirteen, certainly no longer than fifteen, I stood and gazed at its irridescent splendour and a choir of angels, unseen in heaven, seemed to raise a melodious chorus of Love Plus One by Haircut 100. The air was suddenly filled with a beautiful incense and a vague sense of absolute beauty came over me, which I later attributed to trapped wind.
And then, as suddenly as it came, it was gone again, enveloped in a mystical cloud that descended from on high, which is the best place for clouds to descend from. I started to run towards it but instantly realised the futility of my actions and stopped and picked my nose instead.
Had I been dreaming? I pinched myself to find out and was reassured when I cried “Ouch!” and slapped myself back.
For those of you who may not know, the train station at Hansfield was supposedly located roughly midway along the branch line between Clonsilla and Dunboyne. Its purpose was to save the good commuters of Ongar and Castaheany from travelling into darkest Clonsilla and snarling up the traffic system there but seemingly it was built without a road leading to it and was never used.
Nobody knows for certain who built this mythical train station. Some say that it was Ceres, the Greek godess of cornflakes and commuters, who raised it up from a pomegranate seed in revenge for her son being given a wedgie by Apollo. Others attribute it to the Irish warrior Niall of the Nine Sausages, who was acting on the instructions of a talking salmon. Legend has it, that it was one of the original eight wonders of the ancient world but forgot to keep up its subscriptions. But the fact is that its origins are shrouded in the mists of time and as nobody has actually seen the mists of time either (except maybe Doctor Who), this makes it doubly obscure.
The Annals of Castleknocke contains a strange tale of a railway platform in the middle of a field, on which a crowd of peasants stand waiting for a train to stop. Trains come and trains go but none ever actually come to a halt at the platform and in the end the peasants all turn into juniper bushes and look for refunds on their tickets.
There is another legend of a small band of Irish soldiers who fled from the Battle of Aughrim, with a battalion of Cromwell’s musketeers in hot pursuit. In desperation, the soldiers, barefooted and wearing little more than tracksuits, took refuge in a mysterious train station that suddenly loomed out of the darkness “in the vicinitye of Phybbelstown,” as one of the bad spellers in the group later wrote. As Cromwell’s musketeers advanced, twirling their swords and brandishing their moustaches, they were all summarily run over by the 5.15 from Dunboyne.
Jonathan Swift, or Dean Swift as he was also known (he could never make up his mind which Christian name he preferred) refused to believe in the sightings of the train station and wrote a brilliantly witty poem that totally crushed all those who believed in it. But despite brutalising the peasantry with his sarcastic rhyming couplets, even Swift could not put a stop to the rumours that the train station actually existed.
Even today, it has been reported in some of the more fanciful tabloids that commuters, whizzing through the rolling fields on the Dublin – Meath border have glimpsed a mysterious structure that looms out of the countryside and then disappears again almost immediately. There is no road leading to this building, they say, as though it were sprung from the earth, like Moses striking the rock and producing water, which is a pretty good trick in anyone’s book, though it would be even more impressive if it was whiskey. A caller to Liveline was so adamant that she had seen the mythical train station of Hansfield, that Joe recommended she seek psychiatric help.
Of course, it has occurred to me that I will be subject to the same ridicule and scepticism and there’s no way that I’m going to text 51551 simply to be called a looper. The fact that I saw the damned thing with my own eyes does not mean I will be able to convince Joe Public that I hadn’t eaten some very dodgy mushrooms the night before. But I know that it exists even though a search on Google Earth has been somewhat inconclusive.
If I had been quicker, I would have taken a photograph of the apparition before it disappeared from view but I only had my mobile phone with me at the time and have never bothered to read the instructions on how to take photos with it. Besides, I console myself that, even with this evidence, the photo would have been dismissed as a fake, with the train station alleged to have been a shadow or a cigar-shaped UFO or something more plausible.
But it does exist and you read it here first, good reader. I am currently in contact with Pat Falvey to launch an exhibition to find this mythical structure and, who knows, in ten years there might even be a documentary about Charlie Bird following in my footsteps.

Superstitions and omens

I’ve started running again.
Two years ago, I decided to do something about my burgeoning weight, which had been gleefully spiralling higher and higher since I a) turned forty, b) gave up the fags and c) got a job where I sat on my backside for the best part of the day.
Now, as anyone who reads this column regularly will know, spending money has never been one of my greatest attributes and whenever anyone suggested that I join a gym, my reaction of hysterical giggling would affirm the futility of pursuing that suggestion. Sure, didn’t we have pathways in abundance in Dublin 15 and even Fingal County Council haven’t started charging people for walking on them...yet?
So I dug out a load of old reject t-shirts from the top of wardrobe that I got when I used to work in a printing factory and rescued a couple of pairs of holiday shorts that my wife had earmarked for dusters and I announced that I was going running.
“What about runners?” enquired my wife.
“Sure, I have a pair of runners,” I informed her, “these ones that I bought in ShoeZone a month or two ago.”
Despite her assertions that these were not ‘proper’ (ie expensive) runners, I started off and for five weeks I was Roger Bannister, panting my way around the locality until a bad attack of shin splints and an even worse attack of ‘I told you so’s from an unnamed quarter suddenly put a premature end to my quest to regain fitness.
This March, the company I pretend to work for launched an initiative called Commit to be Fit, a sort of Operation Transformation for normal people. (I assume there’s a whole industry out there dreaming up snappy names for keep fit programmes – Great to Lose Weight, Brighter to be Lighter, Aerobics for Claustrophobics etc)
So I decided to do things right this time. Like a recalcitrant schoolboy, my wife brought me into Lifestyle, where I promptly fainted on seeing the price of ‘proper’ runners, only being revived with a drop of medicinal brandy. So, after a brief tug-of-war with the cashier and my wife over my €45, I emerged with a cushioned pair of runners that had the added health benefit of having a tick on the outside of them.
And I took it slowly. At first, I simply strolled down to the end of the road, sat on a wall for five minutes and then strolled back, looking for a piece of cake. Gradually, I increased the distance, then started running a bit until I’m now at the point where I can now run ten miles non-stop, though ‘staggering’ would probably be more descriptive of the final mile.
(Except of course when I see another jogger coming the other way. Then of course, I straighten up and jog along with an unconcerned air and a cheery ‘Good morning!” even though my insides are exploding.)
However, a series of incidents the other week had me questioning the wisdom of my new-found healthy lifestyle.
Now, I walk and limber up from my house to the end of the estate before I start running. I fondly imagine that this counts as the ‘warming up’ I’m supposed to do beforehand but I never seem to get particularly warm at seven in the morning, for some reason.
So, as I was tiptoeing past the house with the noisy dog at the end of our road, a slice of bread, with the crusts cut off, doubtless to thwart the forensic scientists, fell at my feet. As I stared at it, I imagined I heard a Welsh Male Voice Choir singing Bread of Heaven, though a loud “Caw!” from overhead soon disavowed me of any notion that this was divine intervention.
So, as I ran, I pondered the strange occurrence. I find pondering helps while jogging, as it helps to drown out the wailing and complaining of lungs and legs. Earphones also help, I’m sure, but I think I must have odd shaped earholes, as none seem to stay in my ear when I’m lying comatose, never mind running. I’ve even considered bringing along a boom box to distract me but I’m sure it would fall off my shoulder.
But back to the bread. Bread is good, the bread of life, give us this day our daily bread, so that could mean it was a good sign. However, it was dropped by that most evil and sinister of all God’s creatures, the crow – the killer crow, as my wife calls them – a harbinger of death and destruction, if ever there was one, particularly to open wheelie bins. Maybe Satan, in the guise of the crow, was mocking my attempts to improve my lifestyle?
Then, as I was passing Allendale on my first circuit of the block, I saw a shiny one cent piece lying invitingly in the middle of the path. (I should point out here that ‘the block’ is of course a Fingal County Council block of four kilometers. Our local authority hates through-roads and short cuts of any description out of fear that rats might run through them)
As I have mentioned before, I am somewhat parsimonious by nature and have always believed in the old adage, ‘Find a penny, pick it up, the rest of the day you’ll have a penny.’ But in the split second I had to decide between following my natural instincts to stop or to keep on with my comfortable stride, I chose the latter and soon, the penny was left far behind me.
Now, I’m not a believer in superstitions and omens. I believe that only superstitious people get bad luck and the course of events is pretty much random. But I have to say, I fretted about the one cent for the twenty five minutes it took me to do a complete circuit. How often are we short a one cent piece in shops? Of course, the cashier always says its okay but you know she thinks you’re a skinflint who has done it on purpose.
But fretting is akin to pondering when you’re running, and pretty soon I was back around by Allendale where I was delighted to find the one cent still shining up at me invitingly, so I quickly stooped down, scooped it up and went on my way like The Gooch collecting the ball on the wing and cutting inside for a pop at goal.
Mightily relieved, I continued around until I reached the roundabout for the world-famous Hansfield train station, when I heard a loud shriek. There, right in the middle of the roundabout, a male pheasant was standing and two female pheasants were running down the middle of the road towards him, doubtless wondering how they were going to spend his money.
This finished me completely. There is nothing in Greek mythology that I am aware of to explain the significance of pheasants in the middle of a roundabout. Nor bread falling from the sky. Nor shiny one cent pieces. I gave up trying to figure it out and staggered around the rest of my route, determined that in future I would run in blinkers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Impending Grandfatherhood

Up until very recently, I regarded myself as a very young fifty year old, fairly active, a bit bolshie and retaining a zest for life. This was enforced when my kith and kin (well, mainly kin – my kith are somewhat miserly) bought me an electrical guitar for my milestone birthday and suddenly I was eighteen again, all teenage kicks and hope I die before I get old.
This came to a sudden and quite premature end a month or two ago, when my son, Neil, and his girlfriend, Amy, announced in true Maggie Thatcher style that ‘we are pregnant.’
Of course, we were delighted and after lots of hugs and congratulations, I expressed the hope, quite naturally, that the baby would turn out to be a boy and not just a child. “I mean, you’re not going to bring a girl back to the Rotunda and ask for a refund but still and all,” I blustered, as they all stared at me disbelievingly.
My wife of course has decided to put her spoke in for a girl because she prefers to buy clothes for a girl and also because boys widdle everywhere. It appears that the male inability to widdle neatly has us marked out from birth.
After sketching a quick family tree, my wife then further pointed out that this impending addition to our kin, meant that she was going to be a Granny and I a Grandad. They then got a good five minutes of entertainment by pointing at me and calling me Grandad.
Later that evening, I informed my wife that I couldn’t possibly be a grandfather, because such people were doddery oul’ fellers without much hair who fall asleep in their armchairs with their glasses perched precariously on the end of their noses. In reply, my wife produced a mirror and asked me to take a good look at myself. I still have no idea what she meant.
Now in my time on this earth, I have been a son, grandson and, briefly, a great-grandson; I have undergone nephewdom and great-nephewdom; I have practised brotherhood; made a fist of husbandhood; posed as a father; experienced uncledom; acted as godfather and run the whole gamut of in-law-hood. Some of these I was born into, some I achieved and some that I had thrust upon me. But none of them have involved the amount of trepidation that impending grandfatherhood has engendered.
Despite the immeasurable number of bytes of information available on the world wide web (at leasty fifty, if not more) there is precious little on the rules of grandfatherhood. One thing I do know is that when the parents leave the child with us, as doubtless they will, we can hand it back at the end of the day. This is one of the things I have been practising and, thanks to the help of Little Ted, Bunno and Milly (now all in their early twenties,) I believe I can handle this part of my impending duties with aplomb.
With the help of various other stuffed members of our children’s infant fraternity, I have also been busy practising regaling them with stories about the old days and how we had it much tougher when I was a lad. I understand that this is an important role for grandfathers to fulfill and I will not be found wanting. Big Ted, in particular, looked very impressed when I told him that the Blanchardstown Town Centre used to be a field and we had only one channel on our black and white television and that only came on in the early evening.
I also understand that it is very important for grandfathers to undermine the parents’ authority at every possible occasion. This can be done in a number of ways. If the poor wee mite is not allowed to have toy guns / chocolate / soothers etc, this will not apply when Grandad is around. With Grandad, everything will be allowed and discipline will be minimal.
I will also make sure to regale the child with stories about his/her father and the antics he got up to as a kid. If that doesn’t undermine his authority, nothing well.
There is also the question of how I would like to be addressed when my descendant finally decides to formulate words. I called my old grandfather Grandad, but he was a doddery oul’ feller without much hair who used to fall asleep in the armchair with his glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose.
My great-grandfather, I called Grandpa but that was merely to distinguish him from Grandad. Grandpa was even more ancient and I don’t actually ever remember him moving.
Gramps is out. I am not, nor ever will be, a Gramps. Gramps implies likeability, a characteristic I have been determined not to cultivate.
I think possibly Sir would be best. Nobody has ever called me Sir, except at Disneyland and I swear there was a big dollop of sarcasm every time it was used. Besides, its best that the little brat knows its place in the pecking order. Longevity means I will be top dog, even though I’ve done absolutely nothing to deserve this. I mean, what’s the point of achieving grandfather age if you can’t lord it over the rest of the family?
So, to continue, I was gradually coming to terms with the new role that I would be expected to play in August. While all the talk around me was of Moses baskets and disposable nappies, I kept focussing on, “He’s had his bottle. Here you are. Bye,” a phrase that I can now reel off with a variety of intonations. (I have also had a go at “She’s had her bottle...” just in case the worst comes to the worst but the words don’t seem to trip so lightly off the tongue for some reason.)
Thanks to the wonders of modern science, I have even been shown a picture of my impending grandperson, though to be honest it looks like a pint of Guinness that’s just settling, though they keep pointing out arms and head to me.
Then in true 39 bus fashion, my daughter, Louise, and partner Greg, interrupted me while I was trying to play a Lionel Richie number on the guitar and asked me could I come downstairs for a minute. Like most fathers, I suppose, the thought flashed through my mind that she was going to announce that she was a vegetarian or a Bohs supporter or something but thankfully it was merely to inform us that we were pregnant also.
So now I’m going to be a double grandfather, which is a bit like being told, well, actually it’s twins. Of course, this adds the problem of having to decide which of them will be my favourite and become the sole inheritor of my practically worthless telephone card collection.
Suddenly life has become quite complicated. Maybe I’ll just fall asleep in the armchair with my glasses perched precariously on the end of my nose.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Decorating lamp posts

Doesn’t the place look bare now that the election is over and the shivering lamp posts have once again been exposed to the cruel March winds roaring in like a lion? It reminds me of my sitting room after we’ve taken down all the Christmas decorations – empty and drab and suffused with the unfamiliar air of normality.
Of course, I know there are some people out there who malign this traditional poster-fest that lightens the place up and brings a tinge of brightness to the unrelenting grey struggle of life. These are probably the same people that display a disaffection for politics in general and have become disillusioned with the whole electoral business. (Yes, it’s hard to believe, but there actually are people like that around.)
But if one were honest, whose heart would not gain a little lift by driving out of their estate and being confronted by a smiling Joe Higgins? Who could fail to be lifted by the sight of David McGuinness’ boyish features adorning every second post down Auburn Avenue?
Driving down the New Ongar Road today with its unremarkable greyness, I found myself harking back to the dazzling array of posters that lit the way to the Shopping Centre like the Yellow Brick Road itself during election time. Sinn Fein’s Paul Donnelly certainly caught the eye with his colourful canary yellow posters, while the now-traditional blue skies of the Fine Gael posters sent a subliminal message of hope to the citizens of Dublin 15. And of course you had the original poster-girl herself, Joan Burton, who would doubtlessly top the poll by a huge margin if, as I have said many times, she allowed herself to be photographed sitting on the sand in a swimsuit and holding a beach ball.
An article in the last edition of Community Voice decried the proliferation of posters and expressed dismay that the Council had not sought to restrict their number, as per their own regulations. Perhaps the writer had a point on health and safety grounds. I know that during the high winds at the start of the campaign, I had a horror of driving down the N3 at 99kph (as I always do, officer) to be suddenly assailed by the sight of Leo Varadkar’s giant face blocking the view out of my windscreen. Such a scenario would make the Amityville Horror look like Bambi. But in general, the more the merrier remains my motto where election posters and tins of Roses at Christmas are concerned.
But, now that our political saviours have all gone back into hibernation, why should that mean the end of street decoration? Are those that aspire to political office the only section of society that is allowed to adorn our highways and byways in such a manner?
I don’t know if anyone went into town during the campaign. (Personally, I try and avoid that section of the city like the plague and only venture there through absolute necessity) The UpStart people, who are concerned with reinforcing the value of the arts in society, launched a poster campaign of their own to coincide with the election. It consisted of poetry and artwork and juxtaposed very tellingly with the political posters adorning the lamp posts. I actually had a short poem featured called Consider the Tree, advocating investment in poetry (particularly in struggling poets in the Littlepace area) which regaled people in what looks like the Lombard Street area.
I would suggest that this kind of poster campaign would have found a great home in Dublin 15 and that we should seriously start looking at encouraging this sort of thing, especially during the cold and bleak months of winter, spring, summer and autumn. We could have Supermarket month, say, during which Superquinn, Tesco, Eurospar, Lidl and the rest all exhorted us to make them their number one. The manager of Dunnes in Ongar could be photographed in front of a backdrop of happy shoppers, asking people in small writing down at the bottom to Make Dunnes in Blanch your Number Two.
Or alternatively, have a radio station month in which deejays (do they still use that word?) beam down from every lamp post entreating you to tune in. Vote local – vote Phoenix. Joe Duffy for a happier life. Radio Nova – Great songs, Over and over again.
How about a Republic of Ireland football stars slot with our sporting heroes vying for public approbation? Shay Given – your number one. Make Kevin Doyle your number ten. Fahy and Duff – a United Left Alliance.
The possibilities are endless and I am calling on the Council now to put the feelgood factor back into our streets.
To get back to the article in Community Voice, it went on to question the suspicious disappearance of many of the posters from our streets and reported the lamentations of both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael that someone was removing them from their allotted locations.
Well, I guess that now the election is over, I can safely ‘fess up, as they say, in da house, innit? To paraphrase Sir Humphrey Appleby’s succinct confession in one episode of Yes, Minister, the identity of the individual whose alleged responsibility for this occurrence has been the subject of recent discussion is not shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led one to assume, but, not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whom your present interlocutor is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun.
Yes it was I. I knew that once the election was over, they would all be shredded up to make toothpaste or cat food, so I liberated as many of them as I could. My house is festooned with posters from all walks of political life. I have Roderic O’Gorman grinning at me from above the mantelpiece and Kieran Dennison watching over me as I sleep. Clement Esebamen gazes benignly at me as I perform my ablutions every morning and a block of Patrick Nultys ascends the stairs, reassuring me that I am in safe hands.
No greater love hath a man for his political masters.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Of pancakes

(Okay, to explain, The Community Voice has risen Phoenix-like from the ashes and I back doing my Musings again, for the time being anyway)

Recent trips to our local supermarket in Ongar have served to remind me that the most important festival in the Christian calendar is fast approaching. I refer of course to the Feast of St. Pancake, a 32 stone Irish saint from the 5th Century, who lived most of his life just behind Ryan’s Garage in Blanchardstown.
The legend is of course well recorded in the annals that Pancake, when a young boy, had a visitation from God in the form of a frying pan. God told Pancake that he was omnipotent and Pancake figured that, if this were so, the fatter he got, the godlier he would become. He therefore gorged himself on mixed flour and eggs (adding lemon juice or maple syrup for taste) until he became Buddha-esque in appearance and incredibly holy.
His followers tried various initiatives to commemorate the great man – Easter pancakes, Trick or Pancake etc – but in the end they settled on the day before Ash Wednesday – usually a Tuesday – as it was found that pancakes were the perfect medical antidote to the ashes the priest insisted on smearing on your forehead the following day.
It has always been a source of fierce debate in our household – sometimes leading to wrestling matches that my wife always wins – as to how the ritual of pancakes should be enacted.
In our house, growing up, my mother would always make the pancakes instead of a normal dinner and I had always assumed that this was how everybody did it. Looking back, it is perhaps a salient fact that ours was a family of cheapskates and there was a definite financial element to this interpretation of the scriptures.
In my wife’s family, however, they ate their normal dinner and then after Coronation Street – Pope John Paul II was apparently very specific on the timing - the pancakes would be made. How they were hungry for pancakes after already eaten a big dinner was always a mystery to me (who rummages for biscuits at 8pm on a normal evening)
The supermarket in Ongar is now advertising pancake makers, which seem to be glorified frying pans, and frankly, if I was sitting on the jury panel of Dragon’s Den, my pockets bulging with wads of cash, I would soon spot the flaw in the budding entrepreneur who waxed enthusiastic about the pancake maker. I mean, to dedicate a factory to producing these items which are only retailable for one month of the year, for people who don’t want to use a frying pan? And where do you keep the damned thing for 364 days of the year, taking up space?
One concession that we have made to modern living though is that instead of going to the enormous trouble of mixing the raw ingredients of flour, baking powder, sugar and salt – a task that would doubtless have Jamie Oliver reaching for the blender – we now buy a packet of something called Pancake Mix. Traditionalists may scoff but it does the job and saves so much back-breaking work.
The problem is, that you don’t need to use the entire packet for the pancakes, meaning that the packet lives up in the press for years on end. Our current one, which is still perfectly all right, has a sell by date of 2003. The unopened packet that we bought in 2006, when we weren’t sure if we still had a packet in the press, was up last year but hey, we have a lifetime’s supply now. We have even gone to the bother of bequeathing it in our wills to future generations.
Of course, you still have to break eggs and then add the eggs to the mixture and beat the whole lot, so the culinary element is not lost altogether. Not that I have much to do with the technical stuff – my job is to hover and pass over implements like an assistant in an operating theatre, a task I perform admirably, even if I say so myself.
My father – who also used the cooker primarily for telling the time – always maintained, even on this death-bed (which we found rather odd) that the best pancakes were fried on the fat of a female goose that had been humanely killed at approximately 36 months of age and then hung upside down on the washing line for two days. We use Stork. Again, it does the job.
When the pancake is nearly done on one side (x-ray eyes are handy for this) the pancake should be tossed onto the other side, a phrase which always caused us to snigger as adolescents. For years, my wife, doubtless influenced by cartoons of pancakes sticking to ceilings or landing on people’s heads, refused to let me do this, preferring to simply turn it over with a spatula herself. After years of wheedling, I am now allowed to toss the last one and now insist on dragging in all the family to watch me.
As everybody knows, pancakes must not be eaten straight from the pan, no matter how hungry husbands and children crowd around you licking their lips and rubbing their bellies. First they must be placed on a plate sitting on a pot of boiling water on top of the cooker. In this way, the steam from the water seeps through the plate and infuses the pancake with enamel-flavoured moisture. Or maybe it’s just to keep them hot. Who knows?
Choice of filling is possibly a hereditary thing too. For myself, a line of sugar down the centre makes the perfect pancake, though I have been known to experiment with raspberry jam on occasions. Nobody in our house has ever been a maple syrup fan – my apologies to the maple growers of Canada – and I have never understood the concept of squirting a sour lemon into your pancake. Is this the healthy option? Adding citrus fruit to your amalgam of flour and eggs?
Besides, I suppose I’m a bit prejudiced against the followers of St. Jif, a seventh century, yellow, oval-shaped cleric, who lived and preached in the carpark of Power City. For years they have been trying to usurp the venerable St. Pancake with clever advertising campaigns but it won’t work, I tell you.
The common refrain after the last pancake has been scoffed is always – we should have them more often during the year. At least it would help to use up the packets in the press. In fact, last year, I marked down October 17th on the calendar as being the feast of St. Pancake the Lesser, but when it came round, there was something good on telly after Coronation Street.
This year, perhaps.