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Tuesday, 27 April 2010


Prepare to Die!

No, that isn’t a threat; it’s a reminder, because we should all face the inevitable with some kind of equanimity and preparation. Today I wrote to three members of my family asking permission to be buried in our parents’ grave. Ghoulish or just plain organised? You decide. I had grand plans of having my ashes scattered from the top of Killiney Hill, a place of great beauty with a splendid view of the bay. But I didn’t reckon on having a keen genealogist in the family with a heart of gold whose wishes run contrary to mine. "We want a place to visit, a stone with your name, a visible calling card for future generations who might wish to find their blogging ancestor." That gave me food for thought along with the surprising discovery that there is room for a third in the family plot. "How could you bear to be stuck in with them?" asked a concerned close relative who knew how difficult the filial relationship was at the best of times. "I’ll be dead!" I reminded her sharply but then I spent far too much time imagining a twilight zone with them and me forever locked in each other’s embrace: my body gave a quick involuntary shudder before returning to reality.

Greg Baxter was in his early thirties when he found himself in a personal hell: drinking to excess, hating his job, and doing everything except that which he loved, writing. He started teaching creative writing and in the process found his own life utterly changed. A Preparation for Death is an intimate account of Baxter’s failures and eventual redemption. This autobiography will land on the shelves of bookshops in July 2010 and promises to be a riveting read. The proof copy (the title of which seemed so appropriate as I licked my grave-request envelopes this afternoon) is sitting atop a precarious pile of books waiting for my attention on the kitchen table. We have eaten a quite few breakfasts, lunches and dinners overlooked by this literary stack, my cultural condiments, the pepper and salt of my world and no one has complained, yet!

A lovely gentleman once told me, in a moment of confidentiality, that he was terrified he would die in the middle of a book. He worried that he might not experience the ending due to experiencing his own ending. I have no such fears because I know, in my heart of hearts, that whenever that moment comes, my lovely books will be the last things on my mind. I found some great quotations to end my somewhat sombre piece that will, hopefully, make you laugh.

I wonder if Nancy Regan was awake when she said this: I believe that people would be alive today if there were a death penalty.

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Thursday, 22 April 2010

First Love

Your first love always makes a chink in your heart that never quite heals over. At the time it’s an all-consuming affair and when it’s over it feels like the end of the world. But then you get on with your life, meet significant others, change direction, forget, and forge ahead. And yet…

It took a long long time for me to expunge the memory of my first love from the forefront of my mind. He was fun, good humoured, and generous to a fault. I met him on the phone – I rang, he answered, a mutual friend had put us in touch: "If ever need company while you’re in London (it can be a very lonely place) call him up, you’ll like him." Well I did, and I did, and we were together for probably less than a year.

Fast-forward forty years and he landed on my doorstep, grinning, full of good cheer and bonhomie. Sure what’s four decades between friends?! No, we can’t put the clock back, can’t exchange the children, nor the ones to whom we eventually pledged our troths, for better (him) or worse (me). The years have neither been kind nor cruel considering the life experiences that made us into who we became since he was 23 and I was 19. And there’s no one quite like an old love who sees you as you were then, who doesn’t notice the ravages of time, the inevitable changes wrought by fair means and foul, who still thinks you have what it takes. And yet…

I’ve always been a sucker for a love story but somehow they’re never quite the happy ever after I’ve dreamed of; perhaps that’s how it is in real life. I remember reading Love Story by Erich Segal, a tear-jerker of the highest quality in which Oliver, who narrates the whole experience, tells how met, loved and lost the most important person in his life, Jennifer. I loved it, and yet it made me cry.

I’m older and wiser and rather immune to all that balderdash nowadays. True love’s all very well, in its place, but I’d rather have life on an even keel and leave the highs and lows where they belong: between the pages of a book. And yet…


Sunday, 18 April 2010

Ash Wednesday, Thursday, Friday...

Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of practicing Catholics on the first day of Lent as a sign of repentance for past sins. So, what does it mean when the whole of Europe is covered, head to toe, in the volcanic ash that is being spewed out from beneath the unpronounceable (to us, anyhow) Icelandic glacier, Eyjafjallajökull. Are we being forced to repent for our boom and bust economies? Or maybe it is a reminder that nature will always have the upper hand and we ignore the land at our peril.

The ferry services, with their much gentler mode of transport, are fit to bursting as they travel between neighbouring countries with stars of stage and screen sitting beside the hoi polloi; mothers and children mixing with business people and all delighted to be on the move. The last time I went to visit my son in Liverpool I turned my back on the airport (the queues, the waiting, the loss of my innocent bottle of water) and walked down to the ferry in Dún Laoghaire with my own cup and tea bag and oatmilk (I’m very fussy). On board I was served boiling water without charge so I could whip up a brew and, once the boat had chugged out into the open sea, I took out my salad, sipped my tea and dunked a chocolate bikkie for dessert. I arrived in Liverpool, folded my book, gathered my many bags around me (no weight restrictions!) and disembarked into my son’s welcoming embrace.

Newscasters and broadcasters worldwide are going to have to learn to speak at least one word in the Icelandic language so here’s a quick guide to those who dare to name the offending glacier, Eyjafjallajökull, in a sentence as if they had been using it, casually, for years. The j is silent if that’s any help. Phonetically it looks like this: Aye-ya fyah-dla jow-kudl. Teach Yourself Icelandic by Hildur Jonsdottir is probably a step too far but maybe it’s now or never. After all, I suspect that this small remote island may well dominate the news in Europe for some time to come. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, Amen.

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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

My Bicycle

The sun is shining. There’s a slight breeze but the sky is blue and clear. The slow puncture on my bicycle has been attended to so I’m off for a gentle cycle through Dún Laoghaire to fill my lungs with fresh sea air and feast my eyes on the sights of this town that nestles nicely between the mountains and the sea. I’ll fly down York Road (I hope the breaks still work) and stop short of the railway line that lets out onto the Coal Harbour busy with boats of every shape and size. I’ll pass The Royal Irish Yacht Club that sits to the left of the ferry terminal where boats leave these shores for Holyhead in Wales returning with visitors and lorries crammed full of imports that fill our supermarket shelves. The Royal St George Yacht Club comes next; it’s there I dream of spending my afternoons propping up the bar, sipping G&Ts while flirting with gentlemen sailors.

The harbour is held in the embrace of two piers that are busy morning, noon and night with walkers getting their recommended daily allowance of fresh unpolluted air. I’ll pass the East Pier (bicycles are only welcome very early in the morning) and the Russian Cannon gun, standing guard and looking pointedly out to sea, that has long since forgotten how to shoot anything since its last outing in the Crimea War. But it’s perfect for kids to climb over, and lovers to have their photograph taken as they lean against the Romanov crest of the double eagle and crown. Then Sandycove comes in sight across the gleaming water of Scotsman’s Bay calling out for an artist’s brush to capture its essence: the red roofed house, Joyce’s Tower, the tiny beach full of golden sand, the architect Michael Scott’s house, Geragh, that stands out proud of itself, as it should be.

And if I have enough time I’ll cycle on to Bulloch Harbour and stand and watch the seals bopping up and down in the water, ever hopeful of scraps, ever fascinating in their private swimming pool. I’ll pass the little blue house that I’ve long since decided will be mine one of these days where I’ll set out afternoon tea on the lawn and watch the goings on outside my gate. Oh, yes indeed.

What more could anyone ask on a day like today?

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Thursday, 8 April 2010

I love my bed!

Getting out of bed in the morning is the most difficult thing I have to do every single day. After I’ve managed to pry open my eyelids and dampened down the negative thoughts (Why me? Nothing is worth this! I hate mornings!) I then slide my feet out and place them on the floor where I look at them, as if for inspiration, from my newly upright position while getting used to the feeling of being part of the universe once more.

I’m turning into my mother, of course, a woman who had two modes of being: out shopping or home in bed. When her grandson, Oisín, caught sight of her bounding up the stairs one afternoon he was flabbergasted; he had never before seen "Granny-up-in-bed" outside of her four-poster. Bed was where she directed operations, neat cupboards either side with drawers full of handy bits and bobs, remote controls (TV directly ahead, radio on the shelf to the left), telephone, knitting needles, wool, stamps, notepaper, books, pins, jewellery, comb, hairbrush, lipstick, face cream, curlers, nail scissors, holy water, statue of the Virgin Mary, rosary beads, hot water bottles, cards, pens, biros, pencils – the list can never be exhausted. There were many grim evenings when she dropped some vital piece of equipment – usually the remote control – and some poor schmuck would have to forage in the dusty underworld amid all the other lost things until they came up for air, with or without the misplaced object, to cries of, "Oh, you darling!" or, "Look, it was here all the time under my pillow!"

The temptation, when the evenings darken, is to dash upstairs, put on the electric blanket, and snuggle up with a good book. My biggest treat to myself is Egyptian cotton sheets (I have a neighbour who has a laundry service with crisp cotton sheets delivered weekly to her door – class!), four good pillows, a summer and winter duvet (mostly winter with the highest tog rating possible for the Irish chill) and all topped with the patchwork quilt that took me four long years to make. I have my mobile phone, my radio and TV, and piles of books but I promise you, I have not quite turned my bedroom into my office with everything I possess within reach from the depths of my cot!

Imagine my delight when I was given Warm and Snug: A History of the Bed by Lawrence Wright. I could read all about beds through the ages from a Neolithic stone bed unearthed at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands to the bed from Tutankhamen's tomb c.1350BC; from stark Anglo-Saxon to ornate early Renaissance beds and the elaborate State bed chambers of kings. When you think about it, bed is where we spend nearly a third of our lives, (though with my mother I think it was rather more) so why not make it a place of comfort and refuge to which we can retreat whether it is morning, noon, or night?

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Monday, 5 April 2010

Dear Jacinta

Dear Jacinta

Do you remember Easter Sunday when we were kids? It was a day to look forward to, a day when the Easter Bunny would come bearing the most divine chocolate eggs after what seemed like an lifetime of austerity that lasted a mere forty days and forty nights. As kids, we all had to give up something for Lent, be it sweets or chocolate or even sugar in my tea that I gamely gave up when I was about twelve years old (and I never put a drop of sugar in my tea again). And then the pay off: gorging ourselves on chocolate eggs till we were sick. One year, Donal and I ganged up on you: we hid our stash and looked to you, empty handed, for sympathy. Great cackles of laughter after you shared your store with both of us, your generosity played upon by two older - but no wiser - siblings who repaid that kindness by refusing to share what we had left with you. Oh, it was great fun! Can I, even though I'm sure you have long forgotten the incident, offer an apology that is not forty days, but forty years late in coming? Were you here with me today, Jacinta, I would give you my Celtic Egg full of rich, mouth-watering dark chocolate on a bed of mint crisp morsels with a heart and a half.

Today, it's also my brother's birthday and though I haven't heard a word from him for years I'd like to wish him, my partner in crime, a very happy day. I'm sure he's way past stuffing his face with oval shaped globs of chocolate but I'll always see him as a cheeky ten year old with tell tale signs around the sides of his mouth of past eaten delicacies.

I woke up early this morning and made a Barm Brack, the traditional cake/bread that the Irish produce for Halloween (I must have got my festivities mixed up) and then launched into kneading a fresh loaf of Tomato & Rosemary bread. With a white wash billowing on the line and half the lawn mowed, I settled down to read Faithful Place by Tana French, a crime writer from Dublin who has captured the essence of family life in the Liberties (as far as this born-and-bred Southsider knows!) in a novel that will appear on the shelves in August 2010. French has created a lively cast of characters ranging from the Ma who provides a heart-attack-on-a-plate breakfast with plenty of motherly nagging and moaning; the Da who continues to make everyone's life a living hell through his love affair with alcohol; brothers and sisters who love and loath each other in equal measure, and Frank, the undercover cop, the brother they haven’t seen in years. Throw in a few dead bodies and you have all the ingredients for a story that will take your mind off all the other jobs that need doing around the house.

Happy Easter, readers, and I hope you all enjoy the rest of the long weekend.

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Sunday, 4 April 2010

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The Lenten Read - It Ends

It is Easter Sunday, signifying the end of Lent, and while many are gorging on the vice they had denied themselves, I have spent much of this morning sitting in the sunshine with a book.

My reading forty pages a day is essentially a commitment to Time. One of the most regular complaints I hear from customers in the bookshop is that they don't have enough time to read. First of all, quantify "enough". Second, this is exactly why I do my Lenten Read, to give myself permission, in pop-psychology parlance, to ignore the many tasks screaming for attention and devote a guilt-free hour to a book.

The gamble in making a commitment to [fill in your Lenten pledge here] is not knowing what will be thrown at you by Life during those forty days. Life made things interesting for me by producing a stray puppy, and puppies take up Time and finding that hour to read became a real challenge until she went to her new home. I did choose to spend time with friends visiting from afar over completing the full forty pages every day, and had been careful to pick a book that was easy reading for the duration of their stay, but I caught up easily over a couple of days. Overall, I managed to do what I had set out to, finding the flexibility to fit in a dog and people, and without the rest of my life descending into complete chaos. Already I'm looking forward to doing it all again next year.

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