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Saturday 28 November 2009

The Parent Trap

When asked what were their greatest concerns, people, who had long since retired, replied that they worried most about their children! Those children were most likely adults with children of their own but their mums and their dads spend their twilight years fretting over their welfare. Young parents seem to have this fairy tale belief that once their beloved tots reach double figures, they will be able to rest easy, take a backseat at last while independence and self-control kick in, their children released into civilised society to fend for themselves. Excuse me while I laugh hysterically here! Those self-sufficient mini adults only appear to be so because they tell their former minders absolutely nothing about what’s happening in their lives. Zilch. Ignorance is bliss, or so they say, and yet it’s terribly sad. I know many young girls who have gone to England for a termination and returned home, often ill (mentally and physically), not able to confide in and seek comfort from the very people who brought them into the world. I know a tall, handsome, educated young man who so feared his parents’ reaction that, after being thrown from a motorbike, he stayed in bed with a supposed bout of flu while nursing a broken leg under the covers.

Where, though, would the book market be without the misery memoirs that litter the shelves? If children had the ideal parents and nothing untoward ever happened, we would have a utopian society with nary a misery guts in sight. One large book chain came up with the idea of a "Painful Lives" shelf and the publishing industry often refers to this new genre as "Inspirational Lit". Though I would love to know why these readers are so inspired by tales of abuse, trauma and neglect, and yet... And yet I have to respect anyone who climbs out of hardship and suffering and lives to tell the tale. And, there is some comfort to those who have suffered in their own lives to read and identify with others who were in the same situation.

An American writer who has written about her real-life experiences with damaged children is Torey L. Hayden. She was a special education teacher and I have read every single book she has written. She has written variously about autism, Tourette syndrome, sexual abuse, foetal alcohol syndrome, and her particular speciality, selective mutism. When I read her first book, One Child, in 1980, I felt I was there with her in the classroom, trying to reach this child who the world had practically given up on. Misery memoir? Definitely not, but that’s the section where you’ll find this excellent author.

I think (you can never be sure) my offspring know that they can tell me virtually anything and I won’t fall apart: aghast, astonished, disappointed, accusing. I have learnt (I didn’t know this right from the start) to listen passively, keenly and not react like I would have when they were small: "Tell me who hit you and I’ll go and have it out with his mother"! I used to think they wanted someone to yell and shout and demand retribution so they’d know they were loved and protected. Well, I was wrong. I have learnt to keep my emotions to myself most of the time and just be a sounding board; it’s not easy. Sometimes I think my heart will break but luckily I’m made of sturdier stuff. Sometimes I can’t sleep for thinking and worrying. Most times I cut off and get on with my own life.

I’d hate to be that little old lady spending her twilight years worrying about her kids – but apart from my heirs and graces all living blissful, fulfilling, healthy lives, I probably will!

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Tuesday 24 November 2009

The Incredible Mr Kavanagh

If I suffer from even the slightest headache, I pack up and go to bed early; hobbling around on an ingrown toenail makes me feel dreadfully sorry for myself; and don’t talk to me about backache! I still remember the time I decided to water my garden - after dark - and fell headlong into the rose bush. For days afterwards I walked around with two nasty gashes up my face feeling like a war hero. I was on the receiving end of many a furtive look as I walked the aisles in my local supermarket, but I sported my wounds with pride, glad however, that the evidence of my late night gardening would soon disappear. How on earth would I fare if I had really had something to complain about?

Arthur Kavanagh came into the world in 1831, the fifth child of an amazingly strong-minded woman who considered him another beloved son to be treated no different to the rest of her brood. Kavanagh enjoyed the rough and tumble of family life in Borris House, Co Carlow, where he had an excellent classical education; he also loved to escape into sport at which he neither excelled nor failed. The only difference between him and his brothers and sisters was that he had neither legs nor arms but shortened stumps with hands and feet attached. Had he been born today he would be labelled ‘handicapped’, treated separately from the rest of his clan, sent to a special school, mollycoddled, handled with care and generally made to feel different. Our Mr Kavanagh, however, had expectations of a full rounded life, and what he got was more than most people are capable of achieving in the ordinary run of things.

I discovered The Incredible Mr Kavanagh by Donald McCormick at my local library in Deansgrange, and I have lived with him in my head ever since. I had browsed the biography section looking for something to amuse and entertain me through the long winter evenings, and though I certainly was amused and entertained, I was also reminded to live this life of mine with a bit more gusto and a lot less namby pamby behaviour; life is there to be taken and enjoyed and lived to the full.

Arthur Kavanagh was a skilled yachtsman and sailed as far as Russia, India, Persia and Kurdistan. He rode horseback across Europe and Asia and was an accomplished huntsman. At the age of thirty-five he was elected Member of the British House of Parliament where he served for eleven years, becoming the first MP to obtain permission to tie up his boat on the Thames at Westminster so that he could live on board when in London. Arthur survived his older brothers to become heir to the family estate in Carlow which he managed efficiently and fairly (he was know as a good landlord who cared for the people in his area in a time when so many tenants were badly treated and left in dire circumstances).

There’s an hilarious piece in the book where Arthur’s future wife, Harriet, screamed with fright when she first set eyes on him; at the time, he was standing on the hall table looking very odd and slightly scary in his black cape preparing himself to go out in rough weather. He was actually a very handsome man and once she got over her shock they were well matched and went on to have six healthy children of their own.

On Christmas morning, 1889, with his family gathered round him, Arthur Kavanagh died at the age of fifty-eight. I have just touched on his extraordinary life here and can only think, in awe, of how much this Carlow man accomplished in a time when he could well have given up without trying. There’s a lesson in there for all of us.

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Thursday 19 November 2009

Rattled Nerves

"It would help you to read it, settle your nerves, calm you down a bit", she said as we made our way down the M50 in the pouring rain. She was right, of course, but I think I need the adrenalin rush of living close to the edge all the time. Otherwise I’d never do anything. And I can’t bear wasting time – my time, that is – hanging around, waiting for things to happen. If there’s any free time going I want it to be experienced while my feet are up; not standing upon another’s fancy. But still, she may have a point and perhaps I should get myself a copy. After all, what’s my hurry? I can still hear my father’s voice as he often used to say, "When God made time, he made lots of it!"

We sped away from another two-day session in Mullingar where we were further enlightened on how to tackle difficult problems, from the perspective of an effective manager. But between you, me and the wall, there was one particular area that everyone failed dramatically to address: how do you deal with a person in the workplace who has an unacceptable level of personal hygiene? Imagine, if you will, our group in role-play: Me, as manager, and Blue Eyes giving an Oscar winning performance as the wronged employee giving me such a hard time. I found myself backtracking, sidestepping the issue, squirming in my seat, while she ate the face off me, threatened me with her union rep, and said that really she had no idea what I was talking about. Then it was Desperate Dan’s turn. He tried "desperately" to control Blue Eyes while she tore strips off him, too: "Sure the aftershave you’re wearing stinks the place out. I don’t know how you’ve got the nerve to complain about me!" In the end, after we collapsed with laughter and realised how utterly impossible such a situation would be for such a hapless manager, Blue Eyes came up with a solution: Decide on a code of conduct with input from all concerned, discuss, come to agreement, make sure everyone has a copy and in the event of an issue, refer to the code. And the award for best actress goes to...

Perhaps every workplace should have a copy of Self Help for Your Nerves by Claire Weekes. First published in 1972, it is still recommended by doctors today as a useful tool in dealing with anxiety disorders. This Australian GP avoided the term 'nervous breakdown' as she felt it to be unscientific. Instead she came up with "nervous illness" and concentrated on three areas that she decided were central to the issue: sensitization, bewilderment and fear. She based her work on personal experience of nervous illness and that of her patients and was greatly respected in her chosen field.

My driver, who was suffering from a bout of nerves brought on by watching Thierry Henry’s illegal handling of the ball in the Ireland/France game, drove home from Mullingar fuming. She hadn’t slept the previous night and had probably been replaying the disaster in her head as she tossed and turned in her King-size bed. I can just imagine her, smoke coming out of her ears, reaching for her copy of Self Help for Your Nerves to throw at the television as the awful events of the match are shown again and again in repeats and replays. But she’ll have to pull herself together by tomorrow morning and turn back into an effective manager whose main concern is for the well being and welfare of her staff – however odoriferous!

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Sunday 15 November 2009

Swedish Design

We made it: up the M50, through the road works, past misleading signs and into the car park. We tied an orange scarf around the front mirror just inside the window so we’d find our silver car again in amongst a sea of silver cars. I’d resisted for so long but was persuaded that today was the perfect day for a gander in Dublin’s first IKEA store. A warehouse of strong colour and hip design that snaked around for miles through every room in the house you could possibly need furniture for. It was full of crying babies, bored husbands, harassed wives, irritated children, and me with my bad back. We touched everything, ran our hands across wooden tables, stroked cushions and bedspreads, opened jars, unzipped bags, poked mattresses, sat on chairs (I nearly didn’t get up again), opened drawers, peered in cupboards, measured, weighed up the pros and cons, wrote notes, exclaimed, admired, resisted and finally, left. It was exhausting! I spent a total of €7.67. My daughter went mad altogether and spent €23.45!

IKEA was founded in 1943 by Ingvar Kamprad. Kamprad probably drew his inspiration from Carl Larsson, another Swedish designer, born nearly a centuary before. Larsson was an artist who began his career illustrating books, magazines and newspapers. He married fellow artist, Karin Bergöö, and together they had eight children and created what seemed like an idyllic life. It was through being a husband and a parent that Larsson blossomed as an artist and this was reflected in their home, a place where thousands of tourists visit every year. His illustrated books A Home and A Family are still an inspiration to aficiandos of his work.

Larsson’s major work, Midvinterblot, a huge oil painting that had been commissioned for a wall in the National Museum in Stockholm was rejected on completion by the board of the museum in 1915. Larsson was devastated. The picture, having been offered free to the museum at one stage, was eventually sold to Hiroshi Ishizuka, a Japanese collector. Ishizuka was persuaded, by public demand, to sell Midvinterblot, back to the museum in 1997 where it now hangs, pride of place, in its originally intended destination.

I have, as my desktop picture, a copy of The Kitchen, a watercolour painted by Larsson in 1898. I remember it from when I was a child; I loved its simplicity and wanted a kitchen like that in my home. The picture shows two girls, Larsson’s daughters, churning butter in the middle of a bright and airy room filled with colour: a red chair, the Aga in the corner, a green chest of drawers, an elegant jug, a shelf with curves beneath on which to balance.

Today, in IKEA, I saw the hand of Larsson in each simple yet functional design. It had been done before, over one hundred years ago, yet we all thought it was exciting and new and couldn’t wait to belt up the M50 – recession or not – to create our own flat pack ultra modern lives. Take a bow, Carl Larsson, your work lives on in more ways than you’d have ever imagined!

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Wednesday 11 November 2009

The Wire

Are you sick to death of being told you should watch the DVD of The Wire or else you will miss out on a thought provoking, insightful look at society, acted by a fabulous cast, written and directed by craftsmen of the highest calibre, and a storyline that will totally hook you in? Well, take it from me, they’re right!

David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire is an American author, journalist, and writer/producer for television. After working for twelve years as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun City Desk he published his first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. He also co-wrote, with Ed Burns, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. Both books were made into television series but it wasn’t until he created The Wire that everyone began to sit up and take notice.

Homicide is set in Baltimore where murder, stabbings, and shooting are daily events. David Simon was the first reporter ever to gain unlimited access to a homicide unit, and this book is a compelling foray into the culture of violence. The narrative follows a veteran investigator, a detective and a rookie as they tackle the terrible murder of an eleven-year-old girl against the backdrop of the criminal underworld. This book was to set the scene for what would eventually become The Wire.

The Wire has been described as the greatest television series of all time and yet it hasn’t won any major awards. Perhaps it touches on the raw nerve that is "conservative America". Perhaps it is closer to the truth, the awful truth of poverty, corruption, power, addiction, and the useless pandering to the mainstream views at the expense of lateral thinking and looking beyond the norm.

There are five series, each season focussing on a different facet of the city of Baltimore (though it could have been set in almost any major city in the world). It starts with the drug trade on the side streets, the corner boys, the killings, the police fighting crime to little or no effect. Series two takes us to the port with shipments of goods coming from all over the world, smuggling, longshoremen working on the docks; series three casts a sharp eye on the city government and the bureaucracy that stalls and thwarts at every turn, decisions made purely with an eye on votes; series four (my favourite) is set in the school system where every drug dealer starts his apprenticeship in a world where there are little or no choices for the young and the teachers who try, year after year, to make a difference; and series five introduces the print media with journalists, editors, sponsors, codes of ethics often bypassed in the hunt for a good story. Through it all, the Baltimore Police work the beat and the drug dealers peddle their wares.

If that sounds a little harrowing then remember that behind the serious nature of the stories there are a wonderful cast of characters who bring Baltimore to your front room with humour, with deadly precision, with raucous sexuality, with unbelievable honesty, with cunning, with chilling care. There is a fabulous mix of actors from all ethnic backgrounds (no token woman to make a scene look sexy, no token black man to make it look authentic) and after a short while you stop seeing the colour and the gender and start seeing the character. Neither are the characters simply good or evil, corrupt or honest, hardworking or lazy: they are real, like you and me with a little bit of everything in the mix.

There are so many characters who made the show a winner for me: McNulty, the bad boy hero; Bubbles, who had the cards stacked against him; Omar, the sexiest dude to have ever lived; Kima, the woman who gave as good as she got; Snoop, the deadliest girl in town; Pryzbylewski, a guy who surprised the life out of me; and Namond, Duquan, Michael, and Randy, the kids from hell who grew up on set and stole the show.

Go on, watch it and learn. Maybe it will open your eyes, maybe it will change how you think.

Tip: watch it with the sub titles, at least in the beginning. The language of the sub culture is often not easy to follow (unless you are a rip roaring drug dealer yourself, of course) but after a while you’ll get the hang of it, let it flow, learn the language of the streets. D’ya feel me???

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Sunday 8 November 2009


***SPOILER ALERT!!! If you have not read the book and/or seen the movie and intend on doing so (we recommend you do) you may not want to read this post until you have.***

It’s early evening. I’ve drawn the curtains and am settling in for a quiet night. My CD player has decided to start working again so I’ve slipped in the music from the film Atonement by Dario Marianelli. I could listen to it over and over again and never tire of its dreamy notes, not even the clacking typewriter at the start. And the Elegy for Dunkirk near the end always makes me cry. If I close my eyes I can conjure up Keira Knightley’s green silk dress that would have looked so much better on me (a girl can dream). The music, the film, the book: a trio of pure pleasure.

When I read Ian McEwan’s novel that the film was based on, I was on holiday, someplace sunny with no particular aim other than to finish a chapter before going for swim in the hotel pool. Instead, I stayed rooted to my beach towel like a German tourist staking a claim as I joined the Tallis family gathering at their country house on a sweltering day in 1935. The story gently burbles along until Cecilia’s adolescent sister, Briony, reads an explicit love letter not intended for her eyes and the history of all their lives is changed from that moment on.

One thing leads to another as one lie leads to another, and the sweetest love affair between the daughter of the big house and the son from below stairs is over before it’s had time to blossom. Terrible things happen to innocent people and the memory of that happy family gathering is lost through grief and mischief and misunderstandings.

As World War II takes over the lives of everyone in the story, we catch up with Briony and Cecilia, who have both become nurses, dealing with the inevitable casualties. And Robbie, who has joined the army, desperate to catch up with his fellow soldiers in the mayhem and horror that is Dunkirk.

The music ends with Debussy’s Clair de Lune and it’s hard not to think of what could have happened had there been a different outcome to that war.

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Friday 6 November 2009

Flying for a Living

Last month, a jetliner overshot its destination by 150 miles with 144 passengers on board. As flight 188 cruised at an altitude of 37,000ft, its two pilots said that they simply "lost track of time". The official story was that they were distracted during an extended discussion of crew scheduling – for over an hour!!!

And I thought I’d heard it all. As far as I’m concerned this lame excuse ranks up there with, "the dog ate my homework". I heard someone on the radio say that today’s planes all but fly themselves so there’s no need for human intervention 90% of the time, so I can well believe that the two pilots were deep in some activity other than fiddling with the dials: knitting perhaps? The trip from San Diego to Minneapolis may have been like the journey a 46a bus takes from Dun Laoghaire to Dublin City Centre: repetitive and generally uneventful, but I do like my driver to keep his mind on the job 100% of the time. Of course, they could have been writing a novel, a block-busting tale of scandal and intrigue in the skies.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a young Frenchman who had two passions: flying and writing and he excelled at both (I’m sure he didn’t try to do both at the same time, mind you). He wrote novels that were full of perilous adventure and aviation. In 1935 he crashed in the Libyan Sahara desert along with his navigator as they were attempting to fly from Paris to Saigon for prize money of 150,000 francs. They were found after four days by a Bedouin on a camel, dehydrated and hallucinating; he drew on this experience to write his fable for adults, The Little Prince.

In 1944, on Saint-Exupéry’s final wartime assignment for Air France, he was shot down over the Mediterranean. An unidentified body was found several days later, presumed but never verified beyond doubt, to be that of the pilot and author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Our two pilots from Northwest Airlines may well be fired from their jobs, pending a thorough investigation. I don’t wish them any harm but I would like to think that next time I’m soaring through the clouds in a glorified tin can, my safety is uppermost in the minds of my assigned pilots. After all, I have a novel in me yet bursting to get out and land on a page near you!

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Tuesday 3 November 2009

A Very English Hangman

A Very English Hangman: The Life and Times of Albert Pierrepoint by Leonora Klein

There are some books that you just can’t recommend to your friends and this is one of them! A Very English Hangman is a fascinating story: it’s true, it’s well written, but the subject matter would put most people off their breakfast. I, however, was gripped, right from the start. It begged so many questions that I would love to discuss with someone, anyone, but so far there are no takers.

Have you ever wondered how certain professions run in the family? Well, Albert Pierrepoint was the official hangman in the UK (1932-1956) as was his father, Henry Albert Pierrepoint, before him and also his uncle, Thomas William Pierrepoint. I suppose it’s a matter of what you’re used to. I’m rather glad, in retrospect, that my parents had more mundane methods of earning a crust.

Now if you feel that my interest verges on the grisly, let me say, in my defence, that humans never fail to fascinate me whether they are ordinary and pleasant or downright peculiar. I also feel the need for a disclaimer here: I am a pacifist and don’t agree with any form of corporal punishment, no matter what the crime.

Why the interest then? you may well ask: well, it’s a matter of pride in ones work and Albert Pierrepoint was a perfectionist. From the moment he put his hand on a condemned prisoner's arm to the moment of death, Albert was swift and exact in carrying out his duties. There were no mishaps, the process was not drawn out with unnecessary prolongation of agony. As far as Albert was concerned, the decision was taken by the justice system; he was simply there to carry the sentence out to its natural conclusion. His services were used in the Republic of Ireland during his tenure, and he was also called to serve in Germany and Austria to execute over 200 war criminals.

Albert Pierrepoint was a familiy man whose wife, Annie Fletcher, ran a sweet shop and tobacconist. Seemingly, the couple had a long and happy marriage but never discussed how he earned his living; she was waiting for him to raise the topic!

After he retired, Albert’s father said, "I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people... The trouble with the death penalty has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off."

Some facts:

The last such execution in the UK took place in 1964, and in the Republic of Ireland, Albert Pierrepoint officiated at the last execution in 1954. The death penalty was abolished as late as the 1990s in both countries.

Death by hanging is one of the most ancient forms of execution. As far back as the third or fourth century it was mentioned in The Book of Esther.

On August 15, 2004, a 16-year-old Iranian girl, Atefeh Sahaaleh, was hung in public for having committed "acts incompatible with chastity".

Saddam Hussein’s execution, death by hanging, was broadcast worldwide and watched by millions - all four minutes and 32 seconds of it - on November 5th, 2006.

Punishment by hanging is still practiced in Japan, Malaysia, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, Singapore, and two states in the USA where it is an "option".

It is a condition of the membership of any country of the European Union that it abolish capital punishment. The Republic of Ireland is also party to a number of international agreements forbidding the death penalty. These include Protocol No. 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights which forbids capital punishment even during time of war.

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