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Tuesday 29 December 2009

Round Robin Rubbish!

It's time to take stock of your Christmas cards, note who forgot and who remembered (that works both ways), and quickly read through those round robin letters that come from near and far from people you know really well but also from those you've met once or twice so long ago that you can hardly remember who they are: "Jenny came first in her year, again, despite her late start in September. After a nasty bout of Chicken Pox, she got straight down to her studies and didn't let Peter's success in the swim team distract her for a moment. Delilah, not to be outdone, worked her socks off and pulled an A in Home Economics, with the help of her mother, of course!" Good lord, who cares? Do I even know these people? I'm sure I'd remember a Delilah!

The amount of boasting that doting parents indulge in can make their offspring appear superhuman with their straight As in school and university, career paths as well defined as aircraft runways, and perfect relationships with other beautiful and successful people.

If I were tempted (I'm not) to write such a letter detailing my every move in the last 365 days and then send it to all my friends and vague acquaintances it would read like a comedy of errors full of semi disasters, unforeseen expenses, glitches, bouts of depression, burnt dinners, and missed opportunities; with minor successes along the way, the occasional successful holiday, excellent entertainment in the cinema and theatre, and many a laugh with friends thrown in. But the thing is, I've had another great year; I'm alive and kicking and not in debtors prison. Absolutely no one in their right mind would want to hear chapter and verse of my ups and downs other than my therapist and she's heard it all before.

The Guardian columnist, Simon Hoggart, compiled three books on the subject of Christmas round-robin letters, all of which made me snigger with glee. The Hamster who Loved Puccini: The Seven Modern Sins of Christmas Round Robin Letters starts with the Peccadillo of Proud Parents: "Fortunately Megan is doing well with her singing and gained a first-class grade in her performance exam at the end of summer, after only half a dozen singing lessons!" In the chapter The Melancholy Mawkishness of Misery, a letter tells about an unusual discovery in September of the year: "Alasdair and Judi paid a visit to the Family History Centre, and unearthed what may be a minor skeleton in the family." And in the wonderfully titled Vice of Vituperation, one family describe their neighbours between gritted teeth: "At least the Parkers can be relied on for consistence – they are all still gifted, multi-talented, and smug!"

I really shouldn't be such a curmudgeon but if the round robin letter comes from a good friend, I'd far rather a quick note intended for mine eyes only. Surely we'll be able to catch up on all the gossip at some time during the year. As for those acquaintances whose lives and mine merely touched in passing, I can only admire their tenacity in keeping my home address, year in year out, as if at some stage in the future we might meet again when they will be confident that I will be fully up to date on how they have spent their time in my absence.

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Thursday 24 December 2009

A Christmas Carol

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

That's not a very cheerful start to a Christmas story of any description. It would hardly put you in the mood for carol singing, gift wrapping, or hanging decorations on a freshly cut tree. But then, the reality of Christmas is often far removed from the fairy tale version put out by advertisers pimping their wares.

I wonder how many homes live up to the Hollywood image of the festive season. I have had so many ghastly Christmases that I often think I can't bear to live through another one: I've been sick, poverty stricken, terribly lonely, bored senseless, force-fed festive cheer till I wanted to vomit, and often away from home and family.

In 2004 I went to Brussels to spend Christmas week with my sister. We were both invited to spend the day with her friends (who I had never met): a man whose wife had just died in tragic circumstances, whose adult son was mentally challenged but behaved well enough, and with another friend who was dying of some obscure illness and her husband who smoked like a factory chimney throughout the meal. But I loved it! The food was great, there were no emotional attachments (apart from the love I have for my sister), no gifts, hilarious conversation, and mine host walked us home through the snow to a waiting cup of tea and a meowing cat. The downside came the following morning as my sister spent the entire day nursing a migraine with the blanket pulled up over her head leaving me to my own devices in a city that was shrouded in a thick grey blanket of fog. I couldn’t speak French (still can't), and a weird system of locks prevented me leaving the apartment block in case I never got back in again so sightseeing was a non started. So, I read, ate leftovers, brewed tea, and exercised briskly by running on the spot in my room to prevent madness setting in.

Then there was the memorable Christmas when my teenage self cooked the entire meal from start to finish. As I proudly carved at the table, my brother berated me for being over-generous with the turkey and I could feel the tears welling up as I presented what now felt like miserable fare to him and my father. The three of us made for very dreary company.

I still giggle when I think of the time I got up early, before everyone else, and borrowed my sister's present – a red and blue scooter – and used it to zoom down to early morning mass in Monkstown Church and back home again before she even noticed. What on earth possessed me? I was all of six or seven years old with a determined wild streak but also canny, in that while everyone else was trudging off to the obligatory church ritual, I was home and dry and busy playing with my own presents.

But I'm over all that now. I've grown older and wiser and I know how to protect myself from the ravages of enforced enjoyment. This year, what started out as a cosy threesome to celebrate the festive season has turned into a party of five and quite possibly a sixth if we're lucky. We will cook and bake and stuff ourselves silly with nary a turkey in sight. I've been asked for a nut roast without nuts, a pecan pie with no eggs, and meat for a lad who thinks that vegetables should only be used as a side dish.

My own order is already in for homemade Sticky Toffee Puddings, a vegan recipe worked to perfection that has me drooling at the prospect.

We don't do presents (Basil can't wrap) cause we have everything we could possibly want. At some stage during the morning we'll all go for a walk and maybe end up at Sandycove where hundreds of swimmers brave the winter chills by diving into the Forty Foot. The atmosphere is absolutely fantastic. Most of the crowd are running around half naked; the rest dressed as if for a Siberian winter. It would almost make you want to strip off and get into the choppy water yourself, but I'm not that crazy! Just being there makes us all realise that we are glad to be alive and living in the moment.

Eventually, we'll head for home, buoyed up by the excitement, where Basil will be waiting for his lunch. The fire will be set so all I'll have to do is strike a match to create instant atmosphere (something no mere radiator can aspire to), light a few candles, and fill the house with music. We'll Skype the prodigal son who couldn't make it home this year; maybe we'll get a turkey to celebrate when we see him next, whatever the time of year.

And wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, I wish you comfort and cheer and the joy of a good book on this single overrated, highly pressurised advertiser's dream day of the year.

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Monday 21 December 2009

Kris Kindle

One thing's for sure, seeing as we all work in the trade no one is going to get a book for Kris Kindle, more's the pity. When I picked Ruth's name out of the hat I knew exactly what she'd like. We've worked together long enough, shared and enjoyed so many of the same books, discussed food ad nauseum in our tiny canteen, so picking a gift for Ruth would be child's play for me. Dermot, on the other hand, drew a complete blank when he picked Robin's name from the few remaining scraps of paper. "What on earth will I get him!" he intoned scratching his head at the same time. "Leave it to me", I gaily assured him, "I'll have it sorted out in a jiffy". The tension lifted from his furrowed brow as I made a beeline for the office. After discussing some pertinent business I casually asked Robin if he preferred to buy the beans to grind his own coffee and what, if any brand, would he recommend as I wanted to get some for a very good friend. Robin, a man who can't get through the day without the help of gallons of this richly aromatic beverage, waxed lyrical on the subject: the taste, the occasional simulated heart attack resulting from too many cups of the stuff, the possibility of spending a vast fortune on a deluxe machine, the label, the name, the price and even where to buy his favourite brand of the magic brew. Sorted!

"Dermot, I've solved all your problems!" As I had already arranged to go to this particular shop later in the week, I promised to pick up a couple of packs and all Dermot would have to do was wrap. He was well pleased indeed.

Fast forward twenty four hours: Brinnnng, brinnnng! My mobile phone rattled away on the kitchen table at eight in the evening and Robin's name came up. Thoughts raced through my head: Problems at work. I was fired! The place was flooded. He wanted me in a six in the morning to get the place ready for the Christmas rush. "Hi Robin, how's it going?" Mind still running around as we got over the pleasantries. "You know that coffee you were looking for? Well, I'm here in the shop now", he said, "we're getting the weekend groceries and there's an offer on. Would you like me to pick you up some?" I resisted the urge to tell him that there was no mystery friend, that I didn't actually drink coffee at all, and that the deliciously roasted beans were for him. "Oh, thank you very much, that's great. I'd love it."

Back to the drawing board, Dermot.

Seeing as I now have three packs of delicious ground coffee, I picked up I Love Coffee! Over 100 Easy and Delicious Coffee Drinks by Susan Zimmer which shows how to make "cappuccinos, iced coffee quenchers, after-dinner coffee desserts and classy coffee martinis". I hope my guests over the Christmas period will be suitably impressed, and probably very surprised.

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Saturday 19 December 2009

You'll love it!

That’s exactly what she said when she handed me the latest novel due to hit the shelves of bookshops everywhere: "You'll just love it, it's fantastic!" I took the advance reading copy home and tried to wait until the weekend before getting stuck in. But no, delayed gratification doesn't work for me when it comes to books. Dinner over, cat fed, plants watered, feet up, book out: I got stuck in straight away and gave it my total concentration as I took in the setting, got to know the characters, mentally visualised the plot as it proceeded to unfold. No one could say I didn't give it time. I read to page 112 before coming to my senses. It was a load of baloney dressed up in a fancy jacket with superlatives dancing across the front and back exclaiming in loud and flamboyant language all kinds of precious nonsense in the full expectation of huge sales. Well, I won't be recommending it to anyone but I may have to tell a white lie, even use a mental reservation (that's the most fashionable equivalent of not telling the whole truth) to ensure that I don't cut off my supply of advance reading copies.

No fanfare greeted the arrival of The Journey Home by Olaf Olafsson as it landed on my desk via a mistake somewhere down the line. Its quiet cover promised nothing but neither did it offend; the back had three simple reviews from Time Out, The Irish Times and my favourite, The Times. "Disa is exquisitely well portrayed. The picture of her frustrations, regrets and achievements is subtly built up and the revelations about her life are carefully structured to maintain surprise. A quiet and beautiful novel."

Then I read about the author who was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1962 and now resides in New York. He studied physics and became Executive Vice President of Time Warner. I wasn't sure I had read anything written by an Icelandic author, and this definitely sounded interesting so my curiosity got the better of me and I took the plunge.

Three days later I set The Journey Home down with huge regret. Regret that I had reached the end, regret that I would have to leave Disa and her family, but also delight in having discovered a beautifully written novel that seems to have passed under the radar.

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Sunday 13 December 2009

Global Warning

"I think all this global warming stuff is complete and utter nonsense. It's just a conspiracy put about to frighten the masses, keep them in their place", said my dear friend, Mr X, in all earnestness. Well I don't feel qualified to back up claims that we may well drive ourselves into extinction with our careless use of the world's resources and the invention of man-made pollutants. I'll leave that to British scientist Jim Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory.

Throughout his career, Lovelock has come up against scepticism, reluctance, disagreement and general disbelief. And yet there were plenty of people who believed in the Y2K millennium bug that was supposed to wreak havoc on systems all over the world. Everyone waited, with bated breath, while the clocks chimed in the New Year and nothing happened! Millions believe in a god, or set of gods without ever having come across one or even having the tiniest proof that such immortals exist. And yet, when it's right in front of our eyes we seem to have a problem understanding why the ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, or grappling with the awesome changes in weather conditions, and many look the other way rather than face the quite large hole in the ozone layer which is a mere 24 million km2.

No, I'll leave all that to James Lovelock who established the Gaia theory now recognised as a useful way to understand the dramatic changes happening to the environment of the Earth. The Vanishing Face of Gaia is his final word (he is, after all, approaching his 90th birthday) on the terrifying environmental problems we will inevitably have to confront. He tells us that the earth as we know it is vanishing and it is moving inexorably to a new, hot state. The idea that we can "save the planet" by reducing carbon emissions is, according to Lovelock, nothing but a sales pitch. The earth, as it always has done, will save itself. It is up to us to save the human race.

With my limited scientific knowledge I do take most of my information on the state of our world on trust from respected experts who have no reason to pull the wool over my eyes. There are some things, however, I can make my own mind up and having had two down-to-earth parents who instilled certain values, I live my life in such a way as to keep my carbon footprint to a minimum. "Waste not want not", as my mother used to say and my father would chime in with, "Moderation in all things". If you take both those maxims to heart, you won't go far wrong.

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Tuesday 8 December 2009

Someone Special

"And have you anyone special in your life?" she enquired, solicitously or so I thought. When I replied in the negative she proceeded to launch into an account of her own love life, the pros, the cons and all that jazz. I studied her closely, looking for hints and tips, something that would help me snare a mate, a dancing partner, a dinner date, a friendly voice in the void of a Sunday afternoon and all I saw was orange lipstick haphazardly applied, and a face that has seen at least thirty five more summers that my own mottled visage.

The rest of my Sunday was wasted as I pondered my many shortcomings: impatience, an inability to drink myself into a stupor, two left feet, a preference for home cooking, a hatred of bigots, a dislike of organised religion, myopia, oh, and impatience. I decided by the end of the day to be positive, to concentrate on my attributes: good humour, generosity, a love of all things book related, punctuality, and a creative hand in the kitchen. No matter, the exercise was obviously a complete waste of time. I would just have to cultivate other more endearing qualities or maybe accept that it is out of my hands and in the lap of the gods. All I have to do is age well, mature, let time gently pass and by the time I’m in my eighties some equally mature Don Juan will saunter (on his zimmer frame) into my life and keep me company in the Autumn of my years. Bloody hell!!!

In the meantime the only romance I am going to get a whiff of is through the pages of some far-fetched novel where the woman always finds true love, or the man sees his future mate across a crowded room and knows in an instant that they are "the one". That brings the beloved Jane Austen to mind, but who could find fault with anything this skilled and witty novelist has written: Emma, Northanger Abbey, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park. They’re all wonderful and different and yet the same in so many ways. He loves her, she doesn’t love him, father doesn’t approve, stubborn heroines, ruthless relatives, greed and ignorance, but in the end the man gets his woman and the woman gets her man and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Now leave me be while I sulk for just a little bit longer and try to ignore any possible traits I may have in common with the indomitable Miss Haversham whose fate, had she had worn orange lipstick, might well have taken a different turn.

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Saturday 5 December 2009

What's a Hobbit?

I have been fortunate to have had not one, but two older brothers to read and filter through the sci-fi fantasy section of bookshops for thirteen years 'til I came along. As I've grown, my treasury of books has been added to and enhanced by numerous hand-me-downs and borrowed reads. One of my earliest book-related memories is opening an oblong parcel one birthday and seeing a golden brown book cover with the words: The Hobbit written on it. I looked up at my brother and asked in all innocence, "What's a Hobbit?"... I devoured every last spellbinding word and conjured up the strange worlds first envisioned by Mr. Tolkien. A couple of Christmases later, The Lord of the Rings followed with equally gratifying results.

I also remember scanning through the shelves of books belonging to my siblings to find something to write a school book-report on when I was nine or ten. Everything was brightly coloured and had pretty pictures on the fronts but when I looked inside I was repeatedly disappointed by how small the writing was and how boring the story lines seemed to be. I continued to pick through the stacks for maybe an hour or two, which, when you're that age, seems like forever. The second I picked up Terry Pratchett's Small Gods, I knew I was holding something special. The writing was just the right size, the cover was colourful without being garish and best of all, on reading the first paragraph I laughed no less than three times. I was hooked.

When I was recommended The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy I jumped in head first with no hesitation or questions and haven't been the same since. I felt like I had been waiting for Douglas Adams all my life and everything I had hitherto read was just the introduction. No words, at least on this planet, could describe how I feel about Mr. Adams and his works of utter incredulity. I have devoted much of my spare time to trying to understand what sate of mind he was in when the idea was first conceived and how it came to evolve into such a variety of stories. Hitchhiker's was first spawned as a radio series back when my brothers were hidng behind the sofa from the Daleks of Dr. Who fame. It was remodeled and reworked into the book shortly after, and later still, much to Adams disbelief, more books followed in the series. Stage shows, musicals, computer games, a movie and public recitations have been performed with equally disastrous and ecstatic reviews. All of these creations begin in the same place and time, all star the same characters and all split and follow completely different tangents shortly after the word is demolished in the second or third chapter. I thank my lucky stars, and some of my unlucky ones too, that i have been privy to the knowledge that "Belgium" is actually a most offensive curse word and that [SPOILER ALERT] 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything.

For Christmas this year I have asked for books, unlike my usual demands for DVDs, shoes or electronics, and I can't wait to see what assails my mind next. Perhaps Brother Clause will find me another piece of literary art that I may cherish and draw from as much as I have previously. I patiently wait for the next installment in my repertoire of cult-collected classics.

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