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March 23rd, 2017

Pomegranate Soup” by Marsha Mehran

This was a bit twee for me but I can see why it was a success. It’s about three Iranian sisters who flee the revolution and set up a café in the west of Ireland. The Iranian author was briefly married to an Irish man and died very tragically in the west of Ireland which gives the basically feel good story added poignancy.

“The Glorious Heresies” by Lisa McInerney

This work of literary fiction is set in Cork and has been very well reviewed. The author uses language very inventively and definitely has talent. Unfortunately, I hate this kind of thing. It’s all very gloomy – it doesn’t end well for anyone. It’s set in the most hopeless, despairing of environments and it feels like there’s no hope at all, ever. Also the language fizzes and sometimes, I don’t like fizzing language. I can see why it did well but not one for me.

The Yellow Dog” by Georges Simenon

My father gave this to me, he said that I might like it as it was set in Concarneau in Brittany where I have been on holidays a bit in recent years. In fact, the Concarneau of 90 odd years ago is pretty different from the very touristy town we have today. However, I mildly enjoyed the story which was reminiscent of Agatha Christie type detective offerings and might try another Simenon. Happily, if I like them, there are plenty of them.

Casting off” and “All Change” both by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The last of the Cazelet books about an upper middle class English extended family between the late 1930s and the 1950s. Gutted to have finished them. What a fantastic series of books. I might give it a couple of years and go back and read the lot again.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

A bit twee – an epistolatory novel about how a group of people in Guernsey got through the occupation during the second world war. It did make me want to visit Guernsey though.

The Trespasser” by Tana French

I think Tana French is incapable of writing a bad novel but I thought this one was not quite as good as her other detective novels. The sense of place which is so wonderfully brought out in her other novels isn’t quite as clear in this one and it’s just a bit less good. Still very, very good though.

Hillbilly Elegy” by JD Vance

This apparently explains Trump’s America. The author grew up poor in the rust belt and became middle class; he works like a translator, explaining his former life to the middle classes. Although he does refer to some research, it is basically a well-written autobiographical book. I am not convinced that I understand Trump’s America any better but my view that it is particularly unpleasant to be poor in the US is confirmed.

The Hungry Grass” by Richard Power

Originally released in 1969 – the year I was born – this book takes an inside look at the clergy in rural Ireland and the changes that are coming from the point of view of a cranky priest. It didn’t do it for me. I did learn the expression “the hungry grass” though, apparently it’s a spot where someone who died in the famine was buried/died and if you walk over it you will always be hungry.

Knights of the Borrowed Dark” by Dave Rudden

Daniel and Michael have been at me to read this. They’ve seen the author live twice in the library and they loved this book. I’m not above reading children’s books at all but I was a bit put off by the cover and description. I am delighted the boys persisted. What an excellent book. Great plot but also a really wonderful, inventive, clever writer. He writes beautifully. I will definitely read the next installment (due out shortly) and I would love to see the author write a book for grown-ups.

Postcards from the Edge” by Carrie Fisher

I thought that this was a slightly fictionalised account of Carrie Fisher’s relationship with her mother but it’s not. It’s funny in places but basically episodic and inconclusive. I suppose it does give an insight into what it was like to be famous in Hollywood in the 80s if that’s your thing. Not mine.

The Closed Door and Other Stories” by Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple is great, short stories are great. Win, win, really although a certain amount of female misery seems to be par for the course for Ms. Whipple.

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Drama, intrigue and romance with a happy ending from the woman who gave the world “A Little Princess” what’s not to love? Not as good as “A Little Princess” though.

Crossing the Border

March 22nd, 2017

The forecast for Saturday was much better than the forecast for Friday. So that you can avoid the suspense which we enjoyed, I’ll tell you now, it lied.

We went halfway up Slieve Donard. The mountain, I am sure, looms impressively most of the time but on Saturday morning it was pretty much invisible in the fog/cloud cover. We went up by the mountain stream which was actually lovely and pretty dry under the trees considering how hard it was raining. I forgot my phone so we only have our memories and the much less satisfactory photos I took on my daughter’s phone. It was nice, you’ll have to trust me here. Michael continued to complain of a headache and pointed out that I was making him climb a mountain with possible concussion. Think of that as the bass note on which the musical arrangement of the weekend was built. We spent some time as we climbed talking about “The Famous Five”. “I was always Anne,” I sighed “because my name was Anne and my friend wanted to be George and she was older.” “You could have been one of the boys,” herself pointed out. “It never occurred to me,” I said. She was shocked to the core of her being. We distributed the characters to each family member based on his/her characteristics. In the new dispensation, I got to be Timmy the dog. I am not sure that this is an improvement on Anne, to be honest.

Herself beguiled the walk by plying us with questions on what would happen if one stateless person killed another stateless person on a lilo that drifted into international waters. I am not really sure but I do feel that she has a future in setting examination papers. I was vividly and unhappily reminded of my summer examinations in 1988. At the end of the woods, we gave up and turned back. It was just miserable. In fairness to them the children were remarkably cheerful. We had started out with a promise that we would go to Maud’s for lunch and the library across the road after and that seemed to keep them going. Magic Maud’s did the trick again and the library had different stock from our local one and although Michael couldn’t read properly because the words were blurry (concussion, allegedly), they were all quite pleased. I walked back to the house to get my phone as I was utterly bereft without it. Don’t judge. Mr. Waffle said that he had parked us poised for take off and we would not be passing the house. For a place with, essentially, only two streets, it is surprisingly easy to get trapped forever in the one ways of Newcastle, so rather than risk driving, I strolled back. It wasn’t very far and I got to check out the local shops (traditional) and pass Schloss Lidl which has mild entertainment value.

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Happily, at the house, there was a man loading the tank with oil. He had a very strong northern accent and, being from the opposite end of the country, I had no idea what he was asking me but I nodded enthusiastically and it must have worked because that evening the heat was restored.

Fortified and slightly dried out, we drove out to Silent Valley. Mr. Waffle navigated and the sun almost came out and there were beautiful views. “Look, look,” I said to the children. “I have one question,” said Michael gloomily, “Why did we let Timmy the dog drive the car?” Woof.

Silent Valley is where they built the reservoir for Belfast in the 20s and it is a bit creepy in its manicured beauty. It stopped raining for a good while which made a welcome change.

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After this, we explored what the children had been looking forward to all day. The women in the tourist office had told us about a “magic road”. It’s one of those roads where it feels like you are going uphill but you are in fact going downhill. It is true. The road looked uphill and it definitely felt like we were sliding uphill but, obviously, we weren’t. We were fascinated. It’s a slip road, just after Spelga Dam leading to a closed gate if you are ever in the area, well worth a look. Not unknown either, there was a car there experimenting when we arrived and a minibus patiently waited for us to finish our experimentation and bring down the only tourists we saw during our trip.

After that highlight, it was back to our newly toasty house. Had it been fine the next day, I might have been tempted to stay a bit longer but it was lashing again on Sunday so we decided to head back to Dublin. It was Mr. Waffle’s birthday and we gave him some token offerings and then headed off to Dublin. On the way, as it was his birthday, we gave him a chance to inspect one of the old border crossings.

Observe the difference in tarmac types and the change in hard shoulder markings.

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That’s it at the moment but, of course, the newspapers are full of how Brexit may bring back a hard border. We all stood and stared at it for a bit, except for Michael who thought we were nuts and stayed in the car. A woman was parked across the road and got out of her car and came across to us. It turned out she was a photographer for a Swedish paper and they were doing an article on Brexit and Northern Ireland. She asked if she could take some photos of the kids looking at the tarmac – seemed less than fascinating but we said fine. We could be big in Sweden in the next couple of weeks.

We were back in Dublin by lunchtime and poor Mr. Waffle sloped off to the office for the remainder of his birthday. Alas. Overall though, despite an inauspicious beginning another successful trip to Northern Ireland. If you haven’t been there, you should go it is delightful. Yes really.

Consistently Underrated*

March 20th, 2017

As part of my ongoing love affair with Northern Ireland I booked us into an Airbnb in Newcastle, Co. Down for St. Patrick’s weekend. This was a matter of much bitterness as Michael was due to have his end of term drama show that weekend; Daniel wanted to go to Gamercon; I had promised Michael that we would go to the parade in Dublin this year (I had, but I had forgotten, I am but human); herself had to appear weird to her schoolmates by not being able to go to the parade like everyone else and going to Northern Ireland instead; and Mr. Waffle had to fly out to a meeting on the Monday morning. So not the advance enthusiasm that I had been hoping for.

The drive up on Thursday night was tetchy – I had been hoping to get out of the office early but a variety of bank holiday weekend deadlines conspired to make me stay until 5.30. Google maps told me it was only 99kms to Newcastle from Dublin. Unbeknownst to me, Google maps changes from kilometres to miles automatically when you are travelling to a destination that operates in miles. Let me tell you, 99 miles is quite a bit further than 99kms. Also I had booked us in to a pizza restaurant in Newcastle for 8 and, although they were very accommodating, Mr. Waffle did not relish ringing them to tell them we would be late. Our Airbnb hostess was very obliging though (first experience of booking – would definitely recommend it, surprisingly pain free) and said she would turn up with the keys whenever we arrived which she did.

The house was absolutely fine – not beautiful but central, good value and lots of room for the five of us. The temperature was set to what my friend from the North calls “Ulster Granny” and that’s the way I like it. We awoke on St. Patrick’s Day to driving rain. We walked into mass in the town. The catholic church is quite spectacularly ugly. “They have a place like that in Liverpool,” said Mr. Waffle, “they call it Paddy’s Wigwam.” I sniggered and herself said I was the victim of internalised racism so there you go. Mass was extraordinary. They had Irish dancers (not a feature of mass in general), the flag of the local GAA club was laid on the altar and the first and second readings were both in Irish as well as a good sprinkling of the hymns. Utterly baffling to a majority of the local population, I imagine, as they don’t generally study Irish in school and there is only so much night classes can do (Conradh na Gaeilge were having a collection outside the church, presumably for more of the same). It was strange. The kind of gear that is very standard for St. Patrick’s day in the South like green, white and orange ribbons in girls’ hair is, of course, utterly different in the North. I seem to remember sporting ribbons of this nature myself in Cork in the 70s – my mother was a big fan of the large ribbon – but it meant nothing more than St. Patrick’s Day. Flags in the North are, of course, a completely different matter.

We went to the playground after mass and looked at the mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea.

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There was a great claw sculpture which provided some harmless entertainment.

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Michael fell off the climbing frame in the playground onto his head and was deeply unhappy and, possibly, concussed. We went for tea. In what can only be called a stroke of genius on my part, I asked a local with two small children where he would recommend for this. He recommended “Café Maud’s”. The outside was, frankly, unprepossessing but within lay everything that a family with three damp children (one possibly concussed) might require. It was the business. Suitably fortified, we went to the tourist office. I had already rung them earlier in the morning to check whether they were open. When I went in, one of the women behind the desk said to the other, “I think this must be the lady who called me this morning.” I confirmed that I was. I don’t think that they are overwhelmed with tourists – I didn’t hear a single non-local accent while we were there except for the Turkish owner of the pizzeria (I asked him about parades in Newcastle and he was baffled but the locals sitting beside us scooted up to us and saying “I couldn’t help overhearing your question..” gave us the lowdown) and the Polish waitress in Maud’s – and I suppose that might be why they are particularly nice to them. The women in the tourist office got out the range of brochures and started talking about various options including Irish dancing. “Mmm,” said I, “I had some of that already at mass this morning.” The older lady behind the counter said, “I was there too, wasn’t it the oddest thing?” Mr. Waffle who had been at the far end of the premises drifted up to hear us exchanging very satisfactory animadversions on the morning’s service. “How,” he hissed, “did you end up talking about mass? Did you bring it up?”

Given that it was still lashing, we decided to take the advice of the women in the tourist office and go in to Downpatrick for the parade. We stopped off on the way to have a look at Dundrum castle which we had to ourselves and which is far, far more impressive than you might think from looking at my photos.

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We decided to take advantage of the municipal park and ride in Downpatrick. Frankly, this was a bit unnecessary but, never mind, we got to marvel anew at the infrastructure in the North. Not only did they supply a park and ride for a small town but there were half a dozen portaloos in the car park. I can only commend Northern Ireland’s dedication to clean and plentiful public toilets and note that her citizens must get a rude awakening when they travel south of the border.

On the way into the town we passed a very depressed and damp bouncy castle which the kids were quite keen to try out but we resisted. I have seldom seen something less appealing.

Mine eyes have seen the abomination of desolation:
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We had lunch in the town. We went to the St. Patrick’s exhibition which the children found mildly entertaining. There was this rather sad sign in the shop:

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It appeared to be completely ignored by the local teenagers who were all wrapped in tricolours.

We actually managed to miss the parade as the children went to a free F1 experience which was undoubtedly the highlight of their day.

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Herself got to experience again Northern Ireland’s contribution to the ice cream world of which she is very fond. Yes, indeed, it was time for the Pear Picking Porky (as you can probably tell, she enjoyed posing for this photo, ahem):

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Then it was off to the county museum (formerly prison) for organised fun which Daniel actually really enjoyed – storytelling and performances – and the others thought was not bad. It was a small little museum but for a local small town offering, really pretty good, I thought. They had a display of postcards for the day that was in it:
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There was an elderly gentleman with a carousel and he, Michael and herself had a lengthy conversation on Roman emperors. It was odd but they all seemed to enjoy it. We went to the gift shop and the boys bought a wooden sword and shield and a game involving knocking over cardboard cut-outs with rubber bands. The man in the shop gave us 20% off and threw in a free book on early Christianity in Co. Down. Again, I think they are unused to tourists.

The boys and I went to visit St. Patrick’s grave up at the cathedral. He shares a grave with Bridget and Columbanus and I noticed that the Knights of Columbanus has left a wreath in case their lad might have felt left out.

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Herself poses with hexagonal Penfold postbox – very rare – a range of signposts and Downpatrick Cathedral. Yes, this is how we get our kicks, your point?

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Sadly, when we got back to our Airbnb, the heating had gone down, cue much frantic texting and an early night. On the definite plus side, herself and Daniel made dinner while their aged parents and possibly concussed brother relaxed in the, definitely chilly, front room.

People, this is only day 1, we stayed until Sunday. Stay tuned.

*An American economist said Northern Ireland was underrated on his blog recently. I thought it was true.

Musical Interlude

March 14th, 2017

Daniel and herself sing in the church choir and due to the unstinting efforts of their wonderful choir mistress, the choir has improved enormously.

I stay behind after mass to watch rehearsals and, increasingly, it has become a real pleasure. I love the fact that we have a really diverse group with children whose parents are from the Philippines, India, Brazil and China as well as Cork, obviously. And they sound amazing. A couple of weeks ago, we had some new joiners. Their mother is a professional opera singer and she stayed to join part of the rehearsal. It was quite breathtakingly beautiful to listen to her singing with the choir. Somehow rendered even more impressive as her youngest child, a toddler, utterly indifferent to his mother’s soaring voice, tugged determinedly at her skirt throughout in an unavailing effort to get her to leave the church.

Last week, herself sang solo at an enormous venue (1,000 seater- every seat filled with doting relatives on this occasion) as part of a school choirs outing. I firmly believe that the church choir played a huge role in giving her the skill and confidence to do it. I must say, though that while she’s a very confident public performer, she was quite tense in the days leading up to her performance. It all passed off peacefully and even her brothers were impressed.

Poetry for Digital Natives

March 13th, 2017

Herself: I thought T.S. Eliot only wrote cat poems.
Me: Um, no, he’s probably more famous for somewhat less accessible poems.
Herself: Like what?
Me (handing her a book of T.S. Eliot poetry which I have to hand, I am almost unbearably smug): Have a look at this.
Her (after perusing for some time): ‘April is the cruellest month’ is clearly clickbait. I mean, it’s really, ‘You won’t believe this one astonishing fact that makes April worse than all the other months.’

Democracy

March 12th, 2017

Michael is into a new video game called Democracy. It’s clearly designed to meet the needs of pushy parents. I was only delighted to arrive downstairs on Saturday morning to hear the computer saying to him, “Now what is protectionism and what are the implications of pursuing a protectionist policy?” I was slightly less delighted when I came in half an hour later to hear the computer saying to him, “What then are the economics of prostitution?” It looks like all public policy issues are addressed.

Mid-term Round-up

March 11th, 2017

This is a bit belated but, you know, better late than never and so on.

Herself went on a school tour. Day 1 saw them assembling at Dublin airport at 4 in the morning; flying to Beauvais with Ryanair at 6; getting on a bus to Flanders and doing a tour of first world war sites ending with the last post at the Menin Gate at 7 that evening. The next day they got on the bus to Paris and then spent that day and the following day exploring all (and I mean all) that the French capital had to offer including Kentucky Fried Chicken. The last day was spent in Eurodisney. I had an animated discussion with her before she left on the importance of bringing a coat to Flanders in February; something she deemed unnecessary. It was, therefore, with some chagrin that I noted from a photo on the school’s twitter account (my source of all information and a fifth columnist as far as my daughter is concerned), that one of the happy group photographed outside the Eiffel tower was not wearing a coat. “It was fine,” said my frozen daughter, “my friend N was able to lend me a coat.” “Clearly she has a better mother,” I said. “It’s not a competition, Mum,” she said. “Everything’s a competition,” I replied. It’s a good job her father’s a hippy who seemed pretty relaxed about the whole coat thing. “She’ll know next time,” he said. I suppose that this approach has its merits.

While herself was off gallivanting, the boys and I went to Cork for a couple of days. We had our statutory trip to Charles Fort (I have a family heritage card and everyone must suffer) and the Bulman which passed off peacefully except for a terrifying half hour in which we thought Michael had lost one of the gloves he has had since we lived in Belgium (the world’s most nostalgic child was not pleased). Happily, it turned up in Dublin.

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Michael, contemplating the prospect of the lost glove:
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During the week Mr. Waffle and I also took the boys out to Dalkey castle (in Dublin). The castle do a really terrific tour with actors. We were the only people there so we got full value although, alas, I feel the boys are getting a bit old for it.

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Though, arguably, you are never too old for stocks.
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We also went to the (still newish) library in Dun Laoghaire – we were going to walk on the pier but it was lashing and this was plan B. The library is a beautiful, very big building with spectacular views over the harbour and loads of comfortable seats. Disappointingly though, it doesn’t seem to have more stock than our local (much less architecturally impressive) library. It has the same volume of books, just much, much more spread out. As Mr. Waffle said, it’s like a very expensive shoe shop. As he trekked around the shelves, Michael suggested that it might have been designed by people who were good at buildings but hadn’t spent all that much time browsing in libraries. It does have a very interesting local studies collection on the top floor and it was also sporting a very poorly advertised, small, though interesting, exhibition on visitors’ views on Ireland over the last couple of hundred years. So, using some of the space usefully, it must be conceded.

Mr. Waffle was home with the boys a bit and took them to IKEA to source a desk and bed for Michael. I emailed Mr. Waffle to ask how he was getting on. He replied:

We’re just finishing our lunch before we plunge into the Mælstrøm (designed to match the Ångst).

In fairness, he’s hilarious.


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