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Wednesday 10 March 2010

She’s Leaving Home!

Children never really leave home; neither do they ever become adults, in their parents’ eyes at least. Until I had my own home my accumulated detritus, collected over many years, lay undisturbed in the attic of my mother’s house. It was my god given right, or so I thought, to leave whatever I wanted in the home that I had grown up in and had my mother ever complained I would have been startled, completely taken aback at such an unthinkable state of affairs.

One fine afternoon I overheard her, in her twilight years, order a young man (to whom she wanted to give a few hours work in case he came in handy one day) to build a large fire in the back garden and put on it anything he could lay his hands on from the garage. I thought no more about it but wandered out, some time later, to find the smouldering remains of my niece’s collection of archaeological reference books amongst other former treasures. It was up to me to inform said unfortunate niece that the bits and bobs she had thought would lay undisturbed until she had the wherewithal to retrieve them, were decimated, destroyed, burnt to cinders, and quite beyond rescue. I can still hear the shrieking and gnashing of teeth that came down the phone line that otherwise sunny afternoon.

When my youngest daughter left home she asked if I would do the same with her collection of books as I had done for my eldest son. A carpenter was duly contracted to create and fit another long shelf or three and no sooner had the varnish dried than Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Stephenie Meyer, J.R.R. Tolkien et al were lined up side by side and left to await being reunited with their owner at some future date.

On the opposite wall, in higgledy-piggledy order sits Philip K. Dick, Harry Harrison, Arthur C. Clarke, Iain Banks, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Brian Aldiss, Gary Larson and his Farside Gallery, and the high jinx of Calvin & Hobbes.

My son didn’t arrive home to deposit his book collection before heading off to the States. Instead, I got a frantic call saying that his erstwhile father, who had housed his library until now, was moving and would perforce have to dump the books unless arrangements were made. I thought long and hard and two minutes later rang my ex-boss in the UK, a man of integrity, incredible and many kindnesses, and a father himself. Two days later this company director drove up to Horsham and proceeded to load his car with everything that was known to belong to my son and heir, including his art portfolio.

The books were taken back to company headquarters, boxed and shipped, gratis, to Ireland ready to take possession of three rows of shelving where they collect dust but look no less impressive for that. The bonus was that two of the pictures in the portfolio were mounted and framed and hung with great delight, a reminder of the other career path he could have chosen. Whenever my son comes home (it’s been so long now I hardly know what he looks like) he mooches about in my sitting room, taking down the odd book, enjoying the fact that they are all here, safe, on show and not going anywhere.

There is still one shelf dedicated to my children's childhood heroes that entertains visitors, keeping the younger ones amused and sending the older ones way down memory lane. There’s Rupert Bear with his oriental chums; Asterix and friends up to all kinds of tricks; and the complete collection of Tin Tin with the faithful Snowy at his heels.

I’ve heard it said that you’re never alone with a shelf full of books to keep you company. And I know that as long as my tiny sitting room is crammed full of all our favourite books, my children will keep coming home, if only to check on Philip, or Iain, or Terry, or Douglas, or even me!

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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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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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Saturday 19 September 2009


Our current cat-in-residence is a black and white moggie who goes by the name of Basil, or Baz for short. His sleek coat is mostly jet-black with a gorgeous snowy white shirt fluffing up under his proud chin. His paws, usually slightly grubby after an evening out on the tear, are returned to their pristine state with ten minutes frantic washing before he settles down, exhausted, in a heap on his blanket. He wears this fine furry tuxedo with the air of a fellow always prepared to eat a decent meal were I to be so good as to put it in front of him.

Like most of our cats he arrived uninvited, after the demise of our previous tenant. We watched his antics as he scaled the ten-foot wall out back, clinging to the trunk of the beech trees, hiking his way up until he reached a bird’s nest to steal their eggs. Someone had dumped him (probably in a plastic bag ‘cause whenever he heard the rustle of a bin bag, he’d vanish, scared to death of the noise) and he ended up thin and scrawny, scavenging for food, and desperate to come and live with us. "You can feed him, but he’s definitely not coming inside" were my immortal words to my soft-hearted daughters who could never resist an appealing meow. About three days later, Basil moved in to rule the roost for the rest of his natural life. He’s been with us for about six years and he’s hale and hearty, his legs strong, his eyes clear and his heart completely devoted to all of us. When my two sons ring home from abroad it’s, "How’s Basil doing?" I’ve even been known to swivel the camera so they can view him on Skype to assure them that the feline Master of our Universe is being properly looked after. When daughter Jessica drops in to visit she swoops him up in her arms, kissing him, telling him he’s lovely, then spends time brushing his fur furiously as he swoons, splayed out beside her, senseless with pleasure, purrrrrrrrring his head off.

Of the many cats that wandered through my life I remember one in particular who loved to sleep close to me at night. Marmalade must have been near her time and around three in the morning she began the business of producing her litter. I woke up to the strangest huffing sounds emanating from the warm bundle on my stomach, quickly decided that this was something I did not want to witness, slid out of bed and went down to the harbour to look at the boats until it was light. Back in my room sat puss, proud as any young mother, five tiny bodies curled up beside her, no evidence of what had happened in the dead of night.

When Hugh Leonard left Manchester to return to live in Ireland there was the small matter of a beloved cat, Honey, who couldn’t possibly be left behind, nor could she be put in quarantine, so instead, this moggie was smuggled across the Irish Sea, doped up to the eyeballs, turning her owners into possible criminals prepared to do time if absolutely necessary. Rover and Other Cats is about all the cats that dominated Hugh Leonard’s household: Rover the star of the show; Honey the Siamese; Priscilla who turned out to be a he; Tinkle, the amorous feline; Dubh the beloved; The Pooka, Panache (the first cat to have his obituary in a broadsheet) and last but not least, P.S.

Once you’ve read Rover’s introduction into the family you’ll just have to get the book to find out what happened next: "He was an orange blob no bigger than Paule’s hand when he came to us in a shoebox that could have held six of him. A friend of a friend of ours urgently wanted a home for a male kitten; when we protested that he was not yet weaned, we were given to understand that his alternative home would be a weighted sack thrown over the sea wall. And so that shoe box changed hands."

This memoir will make you laugh, cry, and delight in this author’s obvious love of cats.

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Sunday 23 August 2009

Chasing The Light

It rains a lot here in the Emerald Isle: not every day and not all the time but let's just say I never leave the house without an umbrella. Having said that, I spent twenty minutes sheltering under a large hedge yesterday as I walked home from work because I did forget one! The sun, when it shines, comes in through my kitchen window, lighting up the room from early morning until the afternoon. Then it moves around the house and peeps through to the dining room and upstairs on the landing. I have strategically placed house plants in those windows, soaking up the afternoon rays, leaning out towards the brightness.

Last evening, as I popped into my North facing study, I noticed for the first time, a circle of brightness, honey red evening sunshine, gleaming on a shelf of books belonging to my son who, when he comes home from the States, enjoys seeing his collection from when he was so high all there, present and correct, rows and rows of them. Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat sat in that glowing circle surrounded by Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut and Iain M. Banks. As I write, the clouds have turned grey and rain threatens but the light still shines through showing leaves of every shade of green in the gardens all around. It rains a lot here in the Emerald Isle but then where would we be without it?

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Wednesday 22 July 2009

Kiss of Death

There’s nothing worse than being recommended a book by your mother once you’ve reached a certain age. A sour uninterested glower can be your only reward when you’ve waxed lyrical about a novel you know your darling will absolutely love: It’s right up your street, you’d really enjoy it, are words that should never pass your lips.

Well, I have learned my lesson. Whenever I come across something that my son and heir could possibly enjoy, I say nothing. I leave it around, in plan view, to tempt him, lure him in while keeping schtum, my trap firmly shut. And if he’s away, I hold my tongue, dampen down my irritating long-range enthusiasm (difficult for me) and refrain.

I got a call, on Skype, from foreign parts: "Hey, I’ve just read something really good. It’s called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. You should try and get it. You’d really enjoy it!" I, however, had read this semi autobiographical novel long before. And I did thoroughly enjoy reading about its unlikely hero who became parent to his younger brother after tragic circumstances. Eggers, a man after my own heart, described himself as a 40-year old mother when it came to worrying; his first fun night out with friends that turned into a worry fest was absolutely hilarious.

"Oh, I read that ages ago, I just didn’t tell you about it, kiss of death and all that."

At least he laughed!

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