Black Boots, Black Friday

To-day is Friday.


I am Irish, I write a blog. I can say anything I want. I don’t say everything I want because a lot of the words used in diatribes and in anger are ugly – particularly when used by those who are made incoherent by anger, have a limited vocabulary or no imagination – they embarrass and hurt other people, have distasteful connotations or have become distasteful through cultural nuance. I don’t do ugly.


To-day is Friday. During the week, I bought a pair of boots….OK, I lie; I bought two pairs of boots (the winter sales.) In Berlin, one can say whatever one wants (there are limits – Germany still smarts from the murder and torture it perpetrated and is convulsed with a desire to make good) one can be and dress as one wants.  So everyone dresses the same, usually in black. On the train the other day I counted 9 pairs of short black boots on the 18 feet of women in the two rows of seats in my line of vision.


To-day is Friday, but remember ‘Saturday Night Fever’? Remember leg warmers? Leg warmers in the intervening 40 years have been an object of derision, a clanging fashion faux pas reverberating as a style death knell through the decades.   I have always had a secret penchant for leg warmers and so took with multicoloured alacrity to the Berlin-winter look of legwarmers over shoes, boots, the bottoms of tight jeans.


I love my new short black boots, which I wear with tights and leg warmers and a short skirt. When I wear them I can flounceabout Berlin as we girls do.

wine red boots

I love my new short wine red boots, ditto. But on Tuesday last I gave them their first outing and by the time I reached Alexanderplatz I was in agony, hobbling, not strutting. When I peeled off my socks, this is what my right heel looked like. Raw meat, stripped by friction of its dermis protection.



To-day is Friday. Last Friday, a young Saudi man, Raif Badawi, his feet and arms shackled, was lashed 50 times on his back in a public spectacle in a square in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. After the whipping, the crowd of hundreds of people cheered and applauded. Then he was brought back to prison. For the past week he has been in agony, he cannot lie on his back, he probably can hardly stand up. His 30th birthday was on Tuesday.



In 2012 Raif Badawi, blogger and father of three young children, was arrested on a charge of ‘Insulting Islam through electronic channels”. In May 2014 he received a prison sentence and a public punishment of 1,000 lashes over 20 weeks and a fine of 1 million Saudi riyals (about US$266,631.) Convicted by the Specialized Criminal Court on charges including breaking allegiance to the ruler, offending the judiciary and founding an unlicensed organization. He was to serve 10 years, but this was raised to a full 15 years by a Saudi judge, because Raif had refused to apologise for his “offences” (setting up the Free Saudi Liberals website.)


To-day is Friday. To-day in a public spectacle outside al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah, this young man will be flogged again, right over where his skin was flayed by last Friday’s whip lashes. This has been decreed to happen every Friday for the next 18 weeks.   This deed – which in itself deserves the perpetrators to be punished for a crime against humanity – is sanctioned – nay, ordered – by the Saudi Arabian authorities, by king and prince, judge and mullah.


This is murder. This is ongoing public torture. This is an international human rights crime, a crime against all that has been done to grow and teach the human brain and heart to be civilised, to love and honour human life.  Raif Badawi cannot survive such an assault on the body. Each week his suffering gets worse, to be exaccerabated every Friday for the next four and a half months. He will die. He will die slowly, in agony, his back in fritters of raw flesh and skin, thinking of his wife and small children, who had to flee their home and families and motherland, flee for their lives to safety in Canada. They will suffer forever.




What can we do? This is not a question; this is a scream, for him, for freedom of expression world wide, for the survival of Us, the Human Race as feeling, salient beings with souls which yearn and pray. The governments of the USA, Canada, Germany and Norway among others have issued statements condemning the imprisonment and weekly flogging of Raif Badawi. America is Saudi Arabia’s great friend and all the Americans are doing is saying ‘tut-tut’….


Amnesty International is running a strong campaign in an effort to let the Saudi Arabian rulers know how the world feels about their uncivilised torture of human beings for using electronic media to express themselves.   In civilised countries, there are rules even about the whipping of animals.  World leaders, who came together on Sunday in France to pose for photographs in solidarity against brutality being used to stifle free expression after the shootings in Paris last week, should link arms and come together again in Saudi Arabia, on a Friday, because arms are for linking, not for wielding ancient weapons of torture.


I am an old, Irish, Catholic woman. I have no power, no clout.  All I can do is show you a photograph of my skinned heel, because we all know the pain of friction on a broken blister but thanks be to gentle gods, governments respectful of their citizens, civilized judiciaries, very, very few of us know the agony of whip lashes on flayed skin.


King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is 90 years old.  He has (at least) 7 wives and 18 children, 6 of whom are boys, 12 girls (which means, in Irish parlance, that King Abdullah has a “She Willy”.)  He is currently unwell and soon may go to meet his Maker.  He still has time to redeem himself.  He would do well to ponder on Shakespeare’s words


“The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.”


This week in Saudi Arabia, when the mountains were covered in white, people were forbidden to make snowmen, because it is anti-Islamic (because a snowman depicts a human, who has a soul.) It is, however, considered worthy of public spectacle, followed by applause, to flay a young man 50 times on his raw, bare skin, over the cuts, the weals, the congealed blood, the flesh smashed, pounded, minced by repeated whiplash for 20 weeks.

Every Friday.




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Regarded as the dominant Irish politician of his generation, as well as the most controversial, Charles J. Haughey (1925 –2006) was first elected to Dáil Eirean (the Irish Parliament) in 1957 and was re-elected representing Dublin constituencies in every subsequent election until 1992.  His career was marked by several major scandals, beginning in 1970, and his leadership of Ireland’s largest and most powerful political party, Fianna Fáil, was challenged unsuccessfully four times. He always managed to wriggle out of any and every accusation and to revive his career. Much was ‘implied’ but nothing ‘stuck.’ Charlie Haughey is the Irish embodiment of (Margaret Heffernan’s) “Wilful Blindness.” He served as Minister for Justice (1961–1964) Minister for Finance (1966–1970) Minister for Agriculture (1964–1966) and Minister for Health and Social Welfare (1977–1979) and three terms as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland between 1979 and 1992. However, revelations about his role in a phone tapping scandal finally forced him to resign as Taoiseach and retire from politics in 1992, after which further revelations of corruption, embezzlement, tax evasion and a 27-year extra-marital affair tarnished his reputation. He died of prostate cancer in 2006 aged eighty.


His arch-critic, the diplomat and intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien once wrote “If I saw Mr. Haughey buried at midnight at a crossroads with a stake driven through his heart, politically speaking, I should continue to wear a clove of garlic around my neck, just in case.” I felt the same. I once saw a rubber Hallowe’en mask of Charlie Haughey in a Party shop in Cork and regret to this day I did not buy it…but it was just too scary. He was larger than life, in Ireland – because he had the ear or the fear of all the others who made the rules – he was as powerful as God.


A drama series on the life of Charles J Haughey is currently airing on RTE (Irish national television) and the second episode went out on January 4th. There is currently a lot of discussion in the media about the series, called “Charlie” and last Wednesday morning, January 7th 2015, my husband having left on a flight to the US, I was free to browse the internet over breakfast. Because of the Irish media interest in “Charlie,” when I saw on Facebook, black signs with white type which I read as “JESUS CHARLIE” I skipped over them, thinking I’d read the content later as I hadn’t time that morning to go through reams of comment on the life and times of Charles J Haughey and its dramatic portrayal on television.


It was not until returning home in the evening that I discovered what had happened in Paris, the story of executions and murder that was unfolding and the mass international outrage leading sheeple to post and carry the sign “Je suis Charlie”.



Q:What does jesus charlie mean?

 Q:Last week there was shooting in france. WHy the term jesus charlie was frequently in news and media?


 Answers (2)

Je suis Charlie = “I Am Charlie” or “I Follow Charlie” in French. It is a unifying message which refers to the violent shootings which occurred at the satirical newspaper ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in Paris, France.


Stories about Charlie Haughey are legion, his magnificent home, his horses, his island, his yacht, his hand made French shirts, his women, his distain for women. I remember being in a reception room at Cork Airport when he arrived in on a ‘plane. A group of FF women had prepared a big spread and were working hard having made sandwiches and cakes and pouring tea and glasses of whiskey for the assembled. Charlie Haughey came in and gave them a dismissive, overall ‘Hello Ladies” and went straight over to a group of men whom he addressed individually by name and with whom he shook hands. Another time, at a conference on and for and by women, at the end of the proceedings, Charlie Haughey arrived and walked through the hall, a kilted piper played him in and his Press Secretary PJ Mara walked behind, his arms held high, clapping so that the audience would be encouraged to applaud as Charlie sat on the stage just before the television cameras and photographers arrived to record the event. There was no conceivable reason for him to be there, apart from his need for personal fanfare and publicity. He had nothing to say, he had nothing to add to the meeting……from women, he most often took away.


Once in Cork, he fronted a raised dias at a press conference in a city hotel, introducing the Fianna Fail candidates for an upcoming election.  I asked why there were no women in the group.  “Because they didn’t come forward for nomination” he sneered “would you like to come up here and join us?” I stared at him, expression immobile while my journalist colleagues (shame on them, for some of them were women) sniggered.


In RTE radio in Cork, the studio is to one side of a glass window from the production area. On a visit to the city, Charlie Haughey was brought in by his handlers – notably PJ Mara, his side-kick for many years – and before the interview, sat with the technicians and producer behind the glass. I was doing my thing on air, but noticed him looking at me and nodding. I left the studio as he came in for another segment and was back at my desk in the newsroom when PJ Mara came in saying “Mr Haughey wants to know if you would join him for the day.”   My reaction was to laugh at the preposterousness of the invitation.  It was probably a great journalistic opportunity but I could hardly bear to be in the same room as Charlie Haughey not to mind sharing  the back seat of a government car – and goodness knows what else – with him for a day. I shook my head and said dismissively that I was “far too busy” to spare a working day out on the razzle dazzle.


The story got out and in their “Irishman’s Diary” (sic) the Irish Times printed a column on the offer and the riposte, but they called me “Leeside lovely Isabel Healy” instead of “hardworking broadcaster, print journalist and lone parent Isabel Healy.”


When I told my mother, she was horrified…..not because I had essentially been propositioned by a married man old enough to be my father, but because I had told the Taoiseach and leader of the Fianna Fáil party to FF off.


Jesus Charlie

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The Eight Weeks of Christmas: The Fox and the Sloth.

I love the wonderful, dead quiet days immediately after Christmas, when a wine bottle and a chocolate box are always open, the house is warm and glowing with lights on greenery and sometimes it even snows to add to the silence.


I have described my life for the past ten days as ‘Slothful’.   I eat, sleep and hangout…sometimes even feeling that I am upside down.


Yesterday evening, after buying a bathroom cupboard we stopped for a treat (which always involves chips/frites/pommes) in “Burger’s” on Sonnenalle, where the black plastic banquettes are ripped to their stuffing and no inch of the white tiled bathroom walls are free of stickers and graffiti….but gals, the burgers are good!


Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 19.19.34


It was eight o’clock on a January night as we drove home along Glasblahseralle at the back of S-Bahhnhof Ostkreuz, a former waste-land now a road between the station – which is currently being renovated – and a huge new area of upmarket ‘Artists’ (very high ceilings for studios) and ‘Townhouse’ apartments facing the water on both sides of Alt Stralau Halbinsel, a penninsula between the Spree and Rummelsburger Lake, with Treptower Park on one side. One of the oldest settled areas in Berlin (like the Stone Age) it was earmarked as the Olympic Village in the city’s quest for the 2000 Olympic Games. It was also once an important industrial area, with a carpet factory and a glass blowing factory. That side at the back of Ostkreuz is still pretty tatty, the new developments sticking out bare and the land barren.


A fox, his hi-viz white tail tip elongating his sleek red line, ran out in front of us across Glassblaheralle and into the waste ground. City fox, beautiful and fat.


I came home and idly opened opened a poem – any poem – before going to bed (again.) It turned out to be “The Three-toed Sloth” by Fleur Adcock.


The three-toed sloth is the slowest creature we know

for its size. It spends its life hanging upside-down

from a branch, its baby nestling on its breast.

It never cleans itself, but lets fungus grow

on its fur. The grin it wears, like an idiot clown,

proclaims the joys of a life which is one long rest.


The three-toed sloth is content. It doesn’t care.

It moves imperceptibly, like the laziest snail

you ever saw blown up to the size of a sheep.

Disguised as a grey-green bough it dangles there

in the steamy Amazon jungle. That long-drawn wail

is its slow-motion sneeze. Then it falls asleep.


One cannot but envy such torpor. lts top speed,

when rushing to save its young, is a dramatic

fourteen feet per minute, in a race with fate.

The puzzle is this, though: how did nature breed

a race so determinedly unenergetic?

What passion ever inspired a sloth to mate?


From Poems 1960-2000 published by Bloodaxe Books.



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The Eight Weeks of Christmas. It wasn’t us, Honestly, we Paid…….


That’s the trouble with Christmas; in early November one thinks December 25th is a long way away yet and even if there is a lot to do, there is plenty of time.   But around the mid-twentieth century when the Americans began panicking that Communists were about to take over the Free World, the Communists did, in fact, hatch a plot against the celebration of the greatest feast of Christianity, namely the birthday of Jesus Christ.   They changed the calendar and the clocks, so that unbeknownst to us gullible baptised folk who believe that the Baby Jesus’ father was a bird and his mother had an unbroken hymen (though riding a donkey over rough terrain while in the last days of pregnancy might have scuttled the latter) every day for the six weeks up to December 25th was re-set to spin so rapidly that it felt like 12 hours, not 24.


They quietly spread the word that it was a guy called Einstein with his theories of time dilation and length contraction was responsible for the uneasy feeling we have had since about November into December being the shortest months of the year…..but it was really a stealthy Communist plot, which, despite all our scientific advances in the meantime, nobody has yet hacked.


As a result, time has gone so fast in the past 5 weeks, that I have not got around to writing another post about The Eight Weeks of Christmas.  I will, however, endeavour to bring you up to date, with pictures if not words….. but they are all going to come together, and probably not in the proper sequence (though always the proper sequins) so it can be your Christmas read/jigsaw puzzle/colourful tapestry of life all rolled into one.


However, whether to go backwards or forwards is the conundrum…..


For starters, let me start with yesterday – or really, Friday.  On Friday afternoon in Berlin, friend Elaine and I decided to play Posh Grown-Up Ladies, go flounceabout in town and meet in the most upscale, upmarket upitsownbottom department store in Germany’s capital, namely, ‘Kaufhaus Des Westens’ in Kurfuerstendamm, the heart of the city in the Old West.   We met at the main entrance, walked through Christmas Decorations, went upstairs and got lost trying to find somewhere comfy for a caffee, kutchen und catchup. (One always gets lost in KaDeWe, it’s worse than Macy’s New York, or Liberty in London.) En route, we wove in and out of Ladies Mantles, Millinery, Haberdashery and Hosiery, calling to each other every now and then the like of “would you look at the price of this….” (such as a fine knit cashmere beanie hat with a swirl of gold netting in lieu of cuff or brim for e149)”….are they out of their extremely tiny minds?” Maybe we passed through jewellery, marveling at the shinyness of it all….




The very next morning at 9.30, shortly after the store opened, it was raided, and this was (part of, abbreviated) the subsequent news report, posted by Associated Press:


“Robbers Strike at Berlin’s Famed KaDeWe Store

BERLIN — Dec 20, 2014, 8:37 AM ET

Jewelry robbers struck at Berlin’s famous KaDeWe department store Saturday, smashing display cases and running off with their loot.

Four men struck at the famous luxury department store on glitzy Kurfuerstendamm avenue soon after it opened for the year’s busiest Christmas shopping season, police spokeswoman Heidi Vogt said. The robbers attacked a security officer with pepper spray, stole jewelry from several displays on the ground floor and then fled by car. It was not clear how much jewelry the robbers had stolen. Several customers were also treated for pepper gas Vogt said. A spokesperson for the store could not immediately be reached for comment. KaDeWe is one of the city’s top tourist destinations. It is famous for its high-end luxury items and its sixth floor gourmet department with different bistros selling everything from fresh oysters to popular Bavarian meat loaf. The store was opened in 1907 and soon became the country’s leading department store. More than 180,000 customers from all over the world visit the store every day, according to KaDeWe’s homepage.”

 with cross santy



Two years ago, daughter Lucy (or was it sister Teresina?) posed me for a pic with the KaDeWe Santa (above) but I got such an unfriendly, unwelcoming, disapproving vibe from the bad tempered Beardy, that  on Friday I merely took a picture of the picture takers (top.) Elaine and I bought a pastry, 2 cappuccinos and a goldy candleholder.   And we paid for them all Your Honour……honestly.


Elaine at the checkout in Ka De We


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The Eight Weeks of Christmas: I’m Going Vac-packed for Christmas….

Oh the ignominy! To be put on the back of a donkey and trudged over high roads and no roads just  before giving birth…..poor Mary.   These being modern times, I have just vacuum packed the entire crib/creche/manger, complete with Kings (who don’t mind long journeys) Humpty Dumpty, a tortoise, a parrot, several sheep and a fox for the long journey towards Christmas.



shrink wrapped crib

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Eight Weeks of Christmas 2. Martinmas November 11th.



Martinmas and Armistice Day. Martinmas was considered the first day of Winter, and meteorologically “if the geese at Martin’s Day stand on ice, they will walk on mud at Christmas.” There is word of a Polar Vortex which is about to hit the East Coast of the US, and will affect Ireland next week, but though we lit a fire after lunch, here in Annecy it is not cold, just grey and dull with low wisps of cloud shrouding the mountains under a sullen sky. The entire village is quiet with not a single shop open except for the bakeries. They have a trickle of trade amongst people with big pots of yellow, orange, rust and wine chrysanthemums in the backs of their cars, people who will dine with family or friends and will also visit the graves of their loved ones, or memorials to the war dead.  With a population of 39.6 million at the time, the French lost almost 1,800,000 people during the 4 years of World War 1 and 4, 266,000 were wounded.


St Martin of Tours (Hungary AD 316) is associated with generosity, military personnel, food and the weather. He is Patron Saint of beggars, vintners, wine makers, equestrians and horses, soldiers, tailors, geese, hotel and inn-kepers and reformed alcoholics.   In Ireland (at least until recently) the fishing fleet of County Wexford did not put to sea on November 11th but in some countries, fish was traditionally eaten on that day and in Portugal, mussels. In Germany it is goose, the symbol of St Martin and in Britain and Ireland, pork. It is when the first of the newly-produced wine is ready for drinking and the end of the preparations for the winter larder, including the killing of hogs, hence “he will reach his Martinmas” or “everyone must die.”


We had a vegetarian Martinmas supper of risotto made with the last of the sorrel from the garden – the plants I brought from our garden in Cork a decade ago are pale green and quite tender, the locally bought French plants have tougher and darker leaves – and walnuts from the trees at the end of the driveway, which Himself dutifully collected every day for the past month and I dried outdoors on racks in the sun. (Then, if it has not already sloughed off, I peel away the blackened skin, crack the shells and freeze their meat; the perfect nuts I store whole in the dark, north facing garage. They easily last the year.)





I am still searching for my ‘definitive’ Christmas pudding recipe amongst the greats,  stored in the garage mezzanine (in one of the 9 plastic boxes of Christmas decorations, household linens and intimate apparel, china, son globes, books, light garlands and 4 polar bears.) They are led by three generations of Shanagarry Allens – the doyenne Myrtle, her daughter-in-law Darina and her daughter-in-law Rachel – Delia Smith who might be annoying but is eminently sensible, and the original of the species, Mrs Beeton I haven’t found it yet, and think the ‘definitive’ may be hand written in a lined copy-book. The recipe uses butter and grated carrot instead of suet. I would love to use almond butter, but it is €10 a 450g. jar and doesn’t cook well (as we’ve found substituting it for dairy butter in oatmeal crumble topping and [Martin Dwyer’s recipe] granola.)






I did get wrapping  five presents……but cursorily; later, under the Tannenbaum, they will be more embellished. At Christmas, more is more.

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The Eight Weeks of Christmas


The Last of Summer, Annecy, November 2014

The Last of Summer, Annecy, November 2014

It is the fading of the year. The clocks have gone back, and with the evenings dark and long we have started lighting a fire, the woodpile is neat and full against the house and the logs are dry. There is snow on our highest visible mountain, La Tournette. The morning glory and the sweet peas have finally lost their energy and no longer give us flowers every day, the fig and white peach trees are all wrapped up in their fleece coats and each morning, steam rises from the winter cover of the swimming pool.


It is the fading of the year, and as we head towards the solstice, in an ancient primal urge to hibernate, our bodies and our metabolisms want to slow down against the cold and dearth of food…..but these are modern times and instead we set ourselves to creating light and warmth.


Ramadan and Divali are over and Christians approach one of the two most important festivals of their religious calendar. It’s early November, but Christmas is icumen in! “Christmas” may be the Christian name for the festival which culminates on December 25th, but industry knows it as “the season of greatest commercialism.” In the West in particular it is the Festival of Spend. Everywhere, we are urged to “make it a Christmas to remember” and “a magical Christmas” by buying stuff, from red candles to reindeer sweaters to boy band Advent calendars. You could do that and hope it will be memorable and magical, or you could do it your own way, but however hard you try, you are not going to be able to ignore the human festivities that lead up to the end of the old year and the start of the new. There is also the catch that if, after all your endeavours – starting now in excited anticipation, including the buying of red candles and Advent calendars – it doesn’t in fact, turn out to be a magical Christmas, we will suffer; guilt, loneliness, depression, deflation, exhaustion and resentment, feelings more commonly associated with Christmas than comfort and joy……unless you’re five years old.


But hey, let’s pretend we’re five years old! That was the year I wore dangly diamanté earrings to Mass in Sacred Heart Church on the Western Road in Cork – for even by then, Santa Claus had detected my tastes – and this year I will wear their like again. So sorry people, if this offends your sense of …whatever….but with the taking-down of the cookery books and the trawl through the Christmas pudding recipes, the slog to find raisins sans sulfites, the season begins…..and just now (day one of 58) I’m full of excited anticipation!

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Polar Bears and Peacocks….or How to Choose a Bank

Knut Card


A friend posted yesterday the musings of her young step-daughter: “I like my cities. I like my sisters. I like peacocks when it snows on them.”


When we bought a place in Berlin some years back, we had to choose a bank to handle the finances, but had no quotidian intel of life in the city.




Berlin, not long re-unified politically and geographically, was at the time united in its love affair with a polar bear, Knut, born in December 2006 in Berlin Zoo. Rejected by his mother at birth, he was raised by zookeepers. Knut became the center of an international mass media phenomenon dubbed “Knutmania” which spawned toys, film, DVDs and books. He was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, featured on stamps and as a mascot for Global Warming awareness. In 2007 Berliner Volksbank issued a bank card with Knut’s picture on it. Since a sojourn on Baffin Island (then the Northwest Territories, now Nunavut) twenty years ago, I have had a soft spot for polar bears. I wanted a Knut card so told my husband we had to open our account with Berliner Volksbank. We have been banking with them ever since.


Winter weather in Berlin can be harsh and the annual February ‘Berlinale’ Film Festival is often held in bitter cold and heavy snow. We don’t usually ‘do’ St Valentine’s Day and I don’t like zoos (or circuses, anywhere living beings are confined) but one bitter cold, white mid-February, I asked that as a St Valentine’s Day treat, I wanted to visit Berlin Zoo, not just to see Knut, but also to see peacocks in the snow.


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The image of a peacock in the snow has been with me for nigh on 40 years, since seeing Federico Fellini’s 1973 film “Amarcord.” When living in Cork, I would anxiously watch the weather forecast, the barometer and the skies, ready to hop in the car and go down to Fota Island wildlife park where the sounds of (contented) animals mix with the screeches of peacocks, who have lived in the grounds of Fota House for maybe 200 years….but we never get enough snow in Cork for white flakes to fringe a peacock’s fan.


In Berlin, in February, in the snow, on St Valentine’s Day 2011, my husband and I had a flaming row. There would be no cards or chocolates, red roses, or other commercial tokens of love, no moon eyes over Moselle that day…..there would be no visit to Knut the polar bear, no peacocks in the snow.


In March 2011, Knut died unexpectedly, aged four. His death, according to the longest and most extensive animal autopsy in history, released this year, cited drowning, following the polar bear’s collapse into his enclosure’s pool, while suffering from encephalitis.


I never got to see Knut. I have not yet seen peacocks in the snow. My Knut bank card expired at the end of August.

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With “Pride” – “Miss Rhymney Valley 1985”

Welsh Film Maker Karl Francis (Wales online)

Welsh Film Maker Karl Francis (Wales online)


After a weekend of age-tailored, females-only parties to celebrate the forthcoming betrothal of niece/goddaughter Rachael, which meant that we missed out on the events of Culture Night on Friday, we Members of the Wedding were unwilling to end the excitement, so last night my two sisters, daughter, (another) niece and myself all went to Ballincollig to see the new film “Pride.” It is a film about the support of London lesbians and gays for the striking miners in Wales in 1994/5. There were 2 other people in the cinema; an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter.


Saturday’s Irish Times had described “Pride” as “the Four Weddings and a Full Monty of the year” but I would actually make that the “Four Weddings and a Full Monty Calendar Girl” of the year. It is a warm and thoroughly enjoyable film based on the true story of a small group of London Lesbian and Gay activists who got involved with the people of a Welsh valley village during the crushing by Margaret Thatcher, the media and police of the miners striking against pit closures in 1984/5.


“Pride” is a big budget, professionally acted version of a film based on the same subject; a film so good, so moving, that I still remember it from 1986. “Miss Rhymney Valley 1985” was directed by Karl Francis, a political, left-wing Welsh film maker. The strength of both films is not only the passion and tragedy of the myriad stories of the Miners Strike but is most surely the determination and humanity of the characters. “Miss Rhymney Valley” (Karl Francis for the BBC 1985) should be re-shown and receive its due recognition as “Pride” wins a popular international audience. (Francis, a brilliant and controversial figure, has since fallen foul of the law under circumstances with which I am not familiar and am not eligible to comment.) “Ms Rhymney Valley” has not been screened for 20 years and does not seem to be available. This is a clip which illustrates “Pride’s” similarities:


…and this is a reference: “Eight months into the miners’ strike, South Wales remains solid while other coalfields slowly cave in to pressure and despair. But with winter approaching, things worsen in Rhymney Valley: violence erupts and a taxi driver is killed. In order to raise morale and money, Abe Roberts, the local Labor Party Chairman, decides to organize a beauty competition, but in the course of his plans he comes up against a community of women who have been radicalized by the strike. Miss Rhymney Valley 1985 is the story of those coalmining women who must stop in the middle of a momentous political upheaval, to prove to their men that beauty is more than skin deep. The people of Rhymney Valley portray themselves in this remarkable film by Karl Francis, whose “Boy Soldier” had its U.S. premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival ’87 (as did “Ms. Rhymney Valley”.) Viewing the film at the Cork Film Festival in 1986, Greek director Costa Gavras (“Z”) called it “one of the great British political films… [It] speaks with an authentic voice rarely experienced in the cinema. A rare combination of poetry, politics, and pleasure…. What great women.”


It must have been at the Cork Film Festival I saw it, and I remember meeting Karl Francis some years later – at, I think, a Celtic Film Festival – but when voicing my enthusiasm for his work, was met with a less than gracious response from the director. However, in the cause of art and fairness I say again: See “Miss Rhymney Valley” as you laud “Pride”…..and if it is not accessible, it should be re-issued. It is surely The Real Thing.

p.s. Did I see sculptor/jewellery designer Andrew Logan in a crowd scene at a LGSM benefit party in “Pride”?  He’s not credited even as not being credited, but it would be fitting to feature in such a film – even for the craic like – the founder of the “Alternative Miss World” pageant, which he is to head up next month for the first time in years!

An excellent 30th anniversary article on the Miners Strike, with reference to Rhymney Valley which gives historical background pertinent to both films, by Gareth Hill in The Caerphilly Observer:

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I’s Bucket Challenge


In bike helmet

A few days ago, a friend named me to take up the Ice Bucket Challenge.  Sorry, no d’ice. I am not taking up the Ice Bucket Challenge, because I don’t want to….which in a way is more difficult than doing it, because it is going against the herd.


“She’s a rebel and she’ll never ever be any good,

She’s a rebel and she’ll never ever do what she should

But just because she doesn’t act like everybody else does….” that don’t mean to say she can’t send you lots of love (and a few bob.)


I don’t open videos of people with assorted hideous plastic containers being upended over their heads, after which they would run screaming. It is, I believe, for a good cause and people are making right eejits of themselves publicly to remind the rest of us that the pain of suffering Motor Neurone is akin to being doused with  a bucket of ice water.


Yesterday I set myself a challenge…..which is very different to being told to do something one does not want to do, and therefore, having gone against the herd, I have some explaining to do:


Two years ago, on a beautiful early autumn day just like yesterday, I put my fold-up bicycle into the back of the car and drove for an hour and a half or so up the mountain road to the foot of Mont Blanc, straddling Switzerland, Italy and France.  In the centre of Chamonix I parked the car, unfolded the bike and began to cycle through the Alpine town. Going down a narrow one-way street, a car, instead of holding back, came aggressively close up behind me and to make room, I went up on the pavement. The little wheels of the bike didn’t make the low kerb and I ended up on the ground with a broken wrist as the car headed off into the hills.



Enter an ambulance, an interim plaster in the local mountain hospital, a full anesthetic and another operation a week later in Annecy, a metal pin and 5 screws in my arm, 6 weeks of elbow immobility, sleeping awkwardly, unable to wear long sleeve clothes or to do very ordinary things; butter bread, type, sew,or garden…….6 weeks of physiotherapy (some in Singapore) and then an electric rotary blade cutting through the plaster ‘till I fain would faint…… Then followed 18 months of beeping and excuses at airport security, another op to get the screws out and 2 weeks of thrice weekly dressing changes followed by The Taking Out of the Stitches.


In all that time, I followed the medics’ advice and didn’t get up on a bicycle or clip on cross-country skis or wear flip flops on wet terrain for fear of falling down. I still do be in terror of falling down. The folding bike had long been banished to the cellar in the apartment in Berlin.


Heading to that city this week, friends asked if I’d like to join them on part of their odyssey to cycle the entire ‘Berliner Mauerweg’ the shadow of the old Berlin Wall, which is between 111kms and 155kms depending on what map you choose.  The Wall, breached on the night of November 9th 1989, is no longer concrete, though 25 years after the opening of free access between East and West Berlin, it is still very much a hard and horrible memory.  The largest extant stretch of Wall, known as “the East Side Gallery” because it is entirely painted over by artists and graffiti daubers, is along the River Spree from the beautiful tiered and turreted red brick Oberbaumbrücke almost to Alexanderplatz. It is 1.3kms long.


Berlin is a huge flat city, a fast city, a rebellious city, a well-behaved city, a cyclists’ city. Everyone, whether punk or banker, anarchist, artist or activist, hippy or hipster, tattooed trendy, tattooed heavy, street juggler, politician, butcher, baker, banker, candlestick maker, cyclist, crusty (with dogs) Angela Merkel or football fan with a skirt of blue and white scarves, waits patiently at the traffic lights for the “Ampelman” – the ‘walking’ man in a hat – to light up green before they cross the street.   I don’t drive in Berlin because the choreography of cars (jugglers, juggernauts, fire-eaters, windscreen spongers and bicycles…once I even saw a helicopter in the middle of the road) at intersections is beyond me.


To-day, challenging myself, I pulled on padded pants, donned a helmet, put a bag on my back, went down to the cellar and dusted my bike. Then I unfolded it, clipped it, pumped the tyres and walked it to “Rad laden” a shop down the road, where a nice young fellow with perfect English and a bicycle chain bracelet who self-depreciatingly shrugged “I’m just a bicycle repair-man” looked it over, changed around the handlebars (which he said were facing the wrong direction) adjusted the height and sent me on my way (charging me nothing.)  I thought I’d at least buy something from his shop, but his locks and chains I thought too heavy.  I asked him if he had anything lighter, but stronger – a super-duper thin wire lock I’d seen with a friend.  “There’s nothing stronger than steel” he said “Cryptonite?” I asked.  “Sorry, wrong planet” replied the Just-a-Bicycle-Repairman. (I had actually meant carbon fibre.)


The bad thing about my folding bicycle is that its wheels are small and it doesn’t jump footpaths nor glide over cobbles, tram tracks and broken pavements.  The good thing about my folding bicycle is that its wheels are so small I can sit on the saddle and walk, like a small child on those (usually wooden) bikes which don’t have any pedals. Challenging myself, I scooted and pedalled down through the Media Spree past Fashion Industry headquarters and the NHOW hotel (where one can rent guitars and grand pianos with one’s room) a satellite uplink facility, the in-your-face red box of the Coca Cola Headquarters, MTV Europe Headquarters, Universal Music Headquarters, to the Oberbaumbrücke and Warschauer Strasse intersection and the East Side Gallery.


“Some challenge” you say…..but I took my life (and my bike) in my hands. We live about 2kms from the East Side Gallery, but I have never, ever, passed by, whether in snow at 2 of a winter’s morning or in lashing rain at 9 at night, on a dull dead Sunday or a bitter March Monday but that there were groups of people walking by, staring, taking pictures. Yesterday, a beautiful early Autumn afternoon, it was mayhem. The street was lined with Eyes Buckets (tour buses) and their rubber neckers were crowding the wide pavement. There were groups and couples, small children wanting ice cream, elders on walking frames, souvenir touts, photographers with tripods and crusties with dogs and buskers accompanied by guys who danced and pranced and wove between the pilgrim-gawkers with plastic begging mugs…and everywhere people stepping blindly backwards taking pictures of poseurs and the inevitable, ubiquitous self-absorbed selfie-snappers immune to anything except the angle of their own mugs, as we cyclists rang our bells trying to keep the red path clear for wheels.


I bravely cycled the length of the East Side Gallery……but couldn’t face it on the way back, so crossed over and cycled home on the other side of the street. I haven’t cycled the perimeter of the Berlin Wall, can’t even do a long section tomorrow as my friends have called off the gig because of the weather but I’ll be back. I’ll find me a bike with big wheels (which doesn’t have one handlebar brake and one backward pedal brake) and I’ll cycle the Berliner Mauerweg. In the meantime, having paid my contribution to Motor Neurone Disease Association (which, the Government having recently rescinded a direction to cut its tiny budget because of general outrage at the outrage, now has enough in its coffers to aid research, and the US Association – known as ALS – is now scratching its cold wet head trying to work out what to do with almost US$100m) I’ll go down and dust off something else which has been banished to the cellar, namely my ‘Soft Berlin Wall,’ a double sided, wall-segment size quilt I made to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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© Copyright 2011 Isabel Healy