- The Geldofs
- Frida Kahlo, Yoko Ono and Me
- Edith Kiss
- Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown: Red Carpet at the Berlinale
- Berlinale, The Berlin Film Festival
- Lá Fhéile Bríde, the Feast Day of St Brigid
- Return of the iBlog: The Museum of Fascinating Articles
- Alice Munro and The Diamond Earrings
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At a ceremony in in Trinity College Dublin on Friday, President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins named Paula Meehan as Ireland Professor of Poetry 2013. It is a huge honour. Paula Meehan is a very small woman with a voice that reaches deep and far, and which she ensures touches those for whom poetry is a rare thing. The three year post, attached for one year each to TCD, University College Dublin and Queens University Belfast, was established in 1998 as a permanent way to mark the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Seamus Heaney in 1995. Paula Meehan is only the second woman – the other was Nuala Ni Dhomhaill – to be so honoured over that time.
In October 1994, in my weekly column in the Cork Examiner newspaper, I wrote a piece the editors titled “A Teacher Can be Master of a Child’s Destiny.” Our children were younger then and a new academic year had begun. Talking of a little one who had just begun infant school and with all the experience of two weeks education “HATED” “Roly Poly” I wrote:
“In the years to come ‘Roly Poly’ may be forgotten, but somewhere along the line, some influence will point the direction of this young life. Most likely, this influence will come from a teacher. It’s a hugely responsible job, teaching, because no teacher knows which of their causal words, gestures, kindnesses, encouragements, contradictions, put-downs or spiteful punishments will be the catalyst which will be the ruination of a child, the demolition of their confidence, or will constitute their salvation.
Recently a friend offered to lend me a book of poems. She was holding it closely to her bosom and I could see that it was an emotional and almost physical wrench for her to part with it, even for a week, but she did still want to share the experience, so I grabbed the paperback from her unwilling hand and ran before she changed her mind.
The book was ‘The Man Who Was Marked by Winter’ by Paula Meehan. Before sitting down to devour it slowly, I turned the pages, tasting each poem, until I was stopped in mid-trawl when two short lines evoked a major part of my childhood.
In the Poem ‘Ard Fheis’ (the annual convention of an Irish political party) Paula Meehan is painting the scene at the meeting, the way the fug of cigarette smoke cast the light from the high windows, when suddenly the light and the drone of the speakers’ voices brings her back to her school days: ‘…..and all this talk of the people, of who we are/of what we need, is robbed of meaning/becomes a sub-melody, sonic undertow/a room of children chanting off/by heart a verse. I’m nine or ten/the Central Model School/Miss Shannon beats out the metre/with her stick.’
Miss Shannon in the Central Model School made a poet – and what a poet – of Paula Meehan!
When I myself was nine or ten, that same Miss Shannon would sit at our family fireside and recount stories of her pupils in the Central Model Girls School in Gardiner Street in Dublin. They were mostly poor and underprivileged, they had no ambition other than “The Sewing.”
When, as soon as was legally possible, they left school, most of her pupils would go to work in “the Sewing,” the textile industry sweat shops of the inner city. Miss Shannon tired to teach them love of language, rhyme and reason in grammar and punctuation. Mindful of what they might miss in life, Miss Shannon tried desperately to give them some beauty from literature and nature. In our garden at Orchard Corner we found abandoned birds’ nests for her to bring to the city children who had never run in a field. No wonder she taught them poems by heart, beating out the metre with her stick, she was hurrying to give the girls as much as she could in the short time of learning they had.
Evelyn Shannon was my sister The Elder’s Godmother, and so close was she to our family that we all called her “Godma.” Of course it got shortened, in the way of all Cork names, to “God” and I remember the consternation in a neighbour’s house when I told them “I’ve got to go now, God is waiting for me at the gate.”
A maiden lady with a strong leonine head and a beautiful mane of white hair, every Christmas when she came down from Dublin to stay with us for the holiday, we would bring The Blue Stone to the station when my mother collected Godma from the train. The Blue Stone was magic and while in Cork, she kept it in her handbag, then on leaving it was entrusted again to one of us children – The Keeper of the Blue Stone – to hold ‘till her return.
The faceted marble-sized blue glass bead would be taken from Godma’s bag and rubbed for stories, and like magic, they materialized. Stories about childhood in Ballyshannon, about Will o’the Wisps on the Bog of Allen, about mad dogs in the country and mad people in the city; stories from her travels about white horses, monasteries perched high amongst the hills…..she would turn the most ordinary tale into magic.
Evelyn Shannon was born in Donegal in 1905 and lived in Ballyshannon. Her mother was a teacher and her father a policeman. She went to the Mercy Convent in Enniskillen where she was first imbued with a love of literature, then on to St Louis’ in Monaghan and then to train as a teacher in Carysfort College in Dublin.
Though it was almost unheard of for a new teacher to become principal, she was made Head Mistress of the school in Esker in the Bog of Allen straight out of college. She had to live over a pub and was so alert to the talk below that she once wrote a 58 page letter to her lifelong friend Peg Hayes in Dublin, all about the visit of the inspector to the school, and the wireless (radio) being put in.
After a number of years in the Bog of Allen, Evelyn Shannon managed go get into University College Dublin as a night student to do an Arts Degree. At the time, UCD did not recognize Primary teachers’ qualifications, they were looked upon as second class citizens and were not allowed to do an Honours degree. When her papers were being corrected, the examiner enquired why Evelyn Shannon was not in the Honours class and managed to organize for her to take a year away from her school work to do a Masters in literature.
She returned to teaching and finally to the Model School, where she was Principal. She lived in rooms in Rathmines, up many flights of stairs at the top of a tall house on Palmerstown Road. A very religious woman, highly intelligent and deeply read, Godma was eccentric and terribly impractical, with no sense of direction, yet she travelled abroad alone each summer, visiting galleries, museums, historic places all over Europe. I have a picture postcard of ‘A Peasant Wedding’ she sent my mother after a trip to Cork thanking her for ‘those lovely days in the world of Orchard Corner at Eastertide. It was wonderful; maybe Brueghel’s rejoicing peasants will express what I mean.’
Evelyn Shannon retired in 1970 and died suffering Alzheimers Disease in a nursing home in Malahide in the late ‘eighties. No longer recognizing her friends or communicating with anyone, she died unsung, with no chance for a memorial or gathering of those who loved her or whose lives she touched.
To be immortalized in poetry is the most fitting tribute to a teacher who created wonderment and opened doors that might otherwise have remained forever shut.” (ends.)
I later sent a copy of that article to Paula Meehan and have kept the letter she wrote me in return….I hope she will forgive my quoting parts: “…..I found it very moving and a bit disturbing – I suppose this latter feeling comes from the realization of the mystery that was the life of a woman I knew as ‘Miss Shannon.’ She was definitely outside the run of your usual teacher: she was tough (we called her Shannonballs sometimes) she had a ferocious passion for learning, and she was a spellbinding storyteller. I have a personal debt to her because she fed me books nonstop and taught me the rudiments of Latin and gave me at a very early age a sense of language as a historical force. She also taught me the need to protect myself fictionally – one vivid memory I have is of getting three on each hand for using the word ‘Damn’ in an essay. I was describing my mother’s efforts to get me up in the morning and in her frustration roaring at me ‘Damn you, Paula, you’ll be late for school.’ This was, according to Miss Shannon, blasphemy and there’s no way my mother would have said such a thing. She was right! ‘Fuck you, Paula’ is what my Ma said, she being no pleasanter than myself in the mornings. So I got a strong sense of the ironies of the truth. Miss Shannon was a very important figure in my life, a fact I appreciate more as time passes.”
And now Paula Meehan is the Ireland Professor of Poetry and I couldn’t be more happy and chuffed had I been awarded the Chair myself. There are many reasons: firstly Paula Meehan is a poet of real worth, secondly, she’s a woman and a dotey pet and thirdly she is purposely carrying on the legacy of our beloved Godma, Miss Evelyn Shannon. Accepting the honour in TCD on Friday, Paula Meehan said “One of the great draws of this for me is that I get to work with the different students in the different universities. I’ll be continuing the work I’ve always done, teaching the craft of poetry – I don’t think you can teach the art of poetry – and standing up for poetry.”
This is a tale of sugared almonds….but be warned that sugared almonds, like shooting stars can have long tails. (A ‘shooting star’ is the visible path of a meteoroid as it becomes a meteor on entering the earth’s atmosphere).
At the end of August our family set off on a pilgrimage from Ireland, France, Vienna and Spain for Feltre in Northern Italy, an hour and a half from Venice. We were stepping gaily for the wedding of Conor, son of sister The Elder Olivia. Not just the family travelled to the glorious Medieval town of 200,000 souls at the foot of the Dolomites, home of the bride, Caterina, but dozens of the couple’s friends; a critical mass of physicists from Scotland and England the US, New Zealand, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, France, Germany, Korea, China and the wider world. Both Conor and Caterina have PhDs in physics; they met at CERN on the Franco-Swiss border in Geneva where they, and many of their friends, still work. (CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, home of the Large Hedron Collider and birthplace of the World Wide Web.)
There were many beautiful aspects to Cate and Conor’s wedding, the greatest being the love affair between the Irish man and the Italian woman and the big-hearted joy with which each family greeted and joined the other. It was a very modern, informal wedding of tradition. One Italian wedding tradition is the offering of ‘bomboniere’ as a gift to guests at the end of the feast. A bomboniere is a favour of five almonds, usually presented decoratively in boxes or light fabric bags, to signify five wishes for the bride and groom: health, wealth, happiness, fertility and longevity.
Caterina’s bomboniere were presented on a table scattered with tiny garden roses, in a bowl for all to dip in and share, in little paper cones and in ingenious origami tricorn envelope type boxes tied with ribbon and decorated with a perfect pale pink fabric rose, into which was a stitched, double folded diamond gauze pocket holding the sweets. Also in each box was a folded half hexagon with a little printed sticker and 2 handwritten notes. The note on one side was the name of bride and groom and the date of the wedding, the other, above a printed sticker of “’Rheticus’ the Associazione Astronomica Feltrina” read “Grazie per aver sostenuto con noi” (thanks for supporting us.) Each cone, box and note was embossed with the couple’s initials, a double “C” .
The roses on the bomboniere boxes were so perfect, I took mine up and sniffed it. I am only one sixteenth Italian, so I first read the sticker inside as the ‘Association GASTRONOMICA Feltrina’ and so thought the favours were produced by the local food co-op….until I went to the Rheticus website, and saw stars. Bomboniere can be bought ready made; they are expensive, not just for the sugar coated almond sweets but for the intense work involved in producing and filling the containers.
This is the story of the Feltre bomboniers: Says Cate: “’Reticus’ is the local amateur astronomers association. Their founder is partly responsible for sending me in the direction of studying physics (I was into astrophysics when I started university.) Since it’s through physics that I met Conor and because they organize amazing evenings of stargazing and beautiful conferences in their planetarium in a little town in the mountains – all self funded – we decided to pay homage to them by donating whatever money we saved, by making the bomboniere by hand.”
Cate’s mother Patrizia made the boxes and the half hexagon notelets, her aunt Silvana cut and sewed the gauze bags. Signora Luciana, who has been Cate’s babysitter since she was a child and who helps the family with housekeeping, made the roses by hand. The material used by the artist Signora Luciana are waste scraps from the swimwear factory in which her daughter works (Feltre is within the ambit of the Italian fashion manufacturing area.) Every year, she and her friends make hundreds of these roses as decoration for the procession in the town in honour of the Virgin Mary. The embossing was done with a stamp which was a gift from Aunt Silvana…to be used for books and stationary for years to come.
Then, when MOG (Mother of the Groom, sister Olivia, and her two best friends, Conor’s honorary aunties Cathy and Lucinda) arrived a few days before the wedding, they helped fill the containers with the notes and the almond sweets.
In their daily lives the bride and groom are part of a team who win international acclaim for their work on ‘finding the God Particle’. Quietly at home, unfeted, the women close to Cate’s heart can make a particle of God from some almonds, gauze interlining, ribbon, paper, support for a local astronomical club and the scraps from a swimwear factory floor.
This is not artifice. Just some vegetables from the garden, put on the first plate to hand after picking. The cake stand….for such it is…. just happens to be on the dining table in front of a chair on which a damp towel is airing, (for it is Autumn, the flocks of brightly plumed visitors have flown away twittering their trip advisories, and it is raining.) The towel design – from L.L.Bean many, many, moons ago – is based on that of the Hudson Bay Company Point Blanket.
I sat to supper at the top of the table and fork raised above a green zuccchini, beheld a live still-life. By squash and tomatoes do we still live, but also by wool. In 18th and 19th century North America – particularly Canada – First Nation peoples and the Hudson Bay Company traded beaver pelts for Point Blankets. The blankets had distinctive colour bars of green, red and yellow on a white background, plus indigo bands of different widths woven into the wool to denote the blanket’s worth. It is often erroneously thought that the indigo bands indicated the number of pelts necessary for a trade; in fact they marked the weight of the fabric, so that the blanket would not have to be opened out to determine its size.
I had an assignation in Dublin – well two actually, but we won’t talk about that – so I flew in yesterday, Tuesday, at noon. It is August, it is Horseshow Week and Bewleys in Ballsbridge was full, the daughter had chosen this week to head down to Lough Ine and there was a bus strike, so I booked the ‘DT’ Hotel (used to be the Burlington..it is not just for alcoholics, it stands for “Double Tree by Hilton”which it will become later in the year, when the renovations are finished) off Leeson Street, hired a car and set off out to the Bay Area.
Got the hair done after my assignations (well you’d be wrecked like) and it was not my usual stylist. “To be honest” he said “I’m gay like, and if you’re anyway good looking, Perth is brutal” (I didn’t really understand why the first two statements are linked to it, but to be honest, I like totally agree like with the third statement.)
Came back to the hotel last night, parked around the back, went to my room on the 6th floor, stepped out of my shoes and clothing without hanging or folding or getting ready for the morrow. Rummaged in my overnight bag and littered every surface with phones and chargers, A GPS with its associated cables, books, magazines, wool and crochet hooks (work in progress) and (even more) footwear, took a few ‘phone calls and fell gratefully asleep in my honourable bed.
At 5.20 an alarm began to scream….. It stopped, I swore quietly and turned over, but off it went again and this time, with serious intent. I pulled on a dress and opened the door. It was eerie. The hallway was full of scantily clad figures, all moving quickly and quietly in one direction. “Is this for real?” I asked a guy with a pack on his back, he shrugged and carried on. I reckoned it was. I stepped onto -rather than into- shoes, scooped up my jewelry, passport, phone and laptop and joined the fast moving flow in the hallway and down 6 flights of stairs. Nobody spoke, it was almost totally silent, there was nobody to guide us, we were as lemmings heading for a cliff. Staff at the front desk carried on about whatever business they were engaged in as we flooded out the wide open doors into the Dublin dawn.
The DT Hotel has 501 guest rooms and last night it was full, many of the rooms sleeping 2 or 3 people or families. The Dublin Fire Brigade was already there, and more trucks pulled up, along with police and an ambulance and we were moved out to the gates and onto the road as the Pompiers donned breathing apparatus, unrolled their hoses and headed into the seven-storey building.
There were no sirens, no shouts, it wasn’t scary and people were good humoured, there was laughter and banter and lots of “well at least it’s not raining” the Irish optimist’s answer to everything. Two women holding babies looked stressed and a young girl on crutches distressed, two hobbling older people leaned on their partners and a family who looked Malaysian were in disarray, though the mother had made sure her head was covered in a scarf.…. one of their children, in pyjama bottoms, limped on one shoe….his brothers carried their sneakers. There were some people in nothing but bathrobes, they had left their rooms in their bare feet and three women of older middle age in shiny slips of scanty nightdresses giggled at themselves. It was a beautiful warm morning, the Guards (police) were in short shirt sleeves, it was not a bad time to be out in your chemise. It is well known that I have a thing for Pompiers, so with 5 units of the Dublin Fire Brigade plus back-up and forensics, this little nightmare was turning into a hi-viz fantasy of the barely clad, black-boots and breathing apparatus.
I got talking to Mario, a young Croatian man, in Ireland for a few weeks working for Ericcson and we whiled away a half an hour as the sun came up. I realized I had left the bedroom without my camera, but everyone was snapping ‘photos good-oh with their phones. I had also forgotten to take my car key, so if we were evacuees for much longer, or the hotel did go up in flames, I couldn’t return the rental car or get on my flight home at 11 a.m.
Breakfast was supposed to have begun at 6 and it was 6.30 before the fire brigade rolled up their hoses and prepared to leave and we all trooped back to our rooms. Had the chefs also been standing outside instead of slaving over my Full Irish Breakfast?
Obviously some acid had leaked into the workings of a ‘fridge in a room on the 6th floor and had set off the alarms. “Thanks very much” I said to every fireman I passed on the way in: “Ah sure you’re grand” they replied. “We checked all the rooms and there was nothing, but we found 4 horses and we had to lead them down the stairs because the lifts were out……” Mario, my new Croatian friend, believed the helmeted wag.
At breakfast 2 hours later, the staff were obsequious in the extreme….and the breakfast was great. The dining room was full and also quiet, as though everyone was tired, everyone was conscious of having shared a common experience in the early morning without our underwear. In came guys and gals in polo shirts and the tightest, whitest breeches, worthy of the cover of Jilly Cooper’s “Riders” rotund gentlemen in nifty gold buttoned blazers and red rosettes, lean leathery men in puffa jackets, county women in tweeds with yellow rosettes, sun-kissed adolescent girls in t-shirts looking apprehensive. They were the show jumpers, the dressage specialists, stable staff, eager young competitors, judges of fetlock and leaders of Connemara ponies.
It was the first morning of the Horse Show, down the road in Ballsbridge at the Royal Dublin Society, an enormously important week in the equine, sporting, social, agricultural and tourist life of Ireland and a fillip for the economy of Dublin. I would love to have stayed for the spectacle, the smell, the flutter and flap of flags, the fast bloodstock, the beautiful manes and hats, and the clack and tumble of hooves hitting wooden bars, but a ride was out of the question and I just about got out of town with my life.
If you know Shanagarry Pottery, Stephen Pearce Pottery or Simon Pearce Glass, if you worry about someone who participates in dangerous sports, who has gone to war and has suffered a traumatic brain injury, if you are interested in snow sports and the cool kids who ride the powder for huge fortunes….. or if you like a really good film which includes life, death and the whole damn thing, then you should watch “The Crash Reel” tonight on HBO.
“The Crash Reel” is by the British documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker, who is now based in the US. It is the story of the internationally famous snow boarder Kevin Pearce. While training for Olympics trials on New Year’s Eve in 2009 in Park City Utah, Kevin was critically injured when he hit his head above his left eye halfway down the half pipe and nearly, as good as, died. He was practicing his speciality, the notorious, difficult and dangerous ‘cab double cork’. Kevin’s prowess was on a par with that of the legendary Sean White; his success, his fame, his fan base, his funding, winnings and fortune were growing. He was a star, and still only 22 years old.
Kevin is the youngest of 4 sons of glass artist Simon Pearce and his wife Pia who are based in Vermont. Simon is the brother of the potter Stephen Pearce of Shanagarry, County Cork, and the brothers grew up in Cork. His uncle on his mother’s side is Cyrus Vance, Jr., the District Attorney of New York County (Manhattan.)
After his accident, critically ill, Kevin was treated in Utah and in a rehabilitation centre specializing in traumatic brain injuries in Denver Colorado. As the months went by and Kevin’s hold on life and recovery were first tenuous then his rehabilitation tortuous, tens of thousands of people joined in wishing him well on his Facebook page. By now, there must be a million comments on that page. In the main, the comments were hugely supportive, willing as well as wishing him well, offering prayers, suggestions, help. His snowboarding friends and fans, from the world champion Sean White in competition, to children on toboggans on family trips, wore signs saying “I Ride for Kevin” and posted ‘photos on the site.
I do not snowboard, but in solidarity, as a very long-time friend of the Pearce family, in February 2010 I carried signs – slightly amended for my location, age and non sporting ability – on Mont Semnoz in the French Alps and dressed for a cold ‘cold war’ at Checkpoint Charlie between the old West and East Berlin…because raising a smile is good medicine for patients and carers.
On the Facebook page – and such pages illicit all kinds of weirdos and strangeness – I remember reading only one comment criticizing the young man or his fight for life. Someone wrote that it was alright for Kevin Pearce because his family was rich and they could afford all the air-lifts, the hospitalization, the medical procedures, the specialists and the rehabilitation. I remember being sad at this, rather than angry. At the time, I wanted to denounce it, but hey, what’s the point?
But here’s the point. I have known the Pearce family for 4 generations, since I was 9 years old. We were holidaying in Ballycotton at the time, and my mother, a journalist, had heard of a small pottery, a cottage industry in nearby Shanagarry and went to do a story on the couple, Lucy and Philip Pearce, who had set it up. They became friends. Ten years later Stephen and I started walking out together and the love and friendship with him, his wife, children and now grandchildren and the wider Pearce family, continues to this day.
In the nineteen fifties in Ireland, Irish people thought themselves rich and modern if they could swop the white scrubbed pine kitchen table for metal-legged Formica. The aesthetic of Lucy and Philip Pearce was a celebration of the plainly beautiful, the true and the hand-made. They started making and selling elegantly simple pots made from the clay of the nearby beaches, to a market without much store by anything homely. They displayed the pots in upmarket shops on old Irish dressers and everyone thought the Pearces were daft, when those same dressers were being thrown out as poor and old fashioned.
They worked hard, very hard, and had very little money. Lucy made the children’s clothes, grew the food for the family. They lost their first son at birth. Then Stephen arrived, then Simon, then Sara, who had Down’s Syndrome. The Pearce family were Quakers, Philip had been a consciencous objector during WW11 and drove an ambulance in London during the Blitz. Lucy was a teacher and a founding member of the Soil Association. They were amongst the most honourable people with the highest principles and values, the soundest ethics and respect for life and living that I have ever met.
Steve and Simon both worked in the pottery alongside their father as young fellows, then Simon went off to pursue glass making and for a while, Steve managed the band “Dr Strangely Strange” and we lived in London amid the musicians and the whole mad industry. As Philip and Lucy got older, Stephen went back to Cork and built up the family business with his own brand. Lucy, who had devoted so much or her physical and intellectual energies to good food, good nutrition and healthy living, died of stomach cancer.
Simon settled in Vermont and set up his glass blowing studio in 1981, and not only grew the business, but also supported local artists and artisans, the talented and the drifting with training and encouragement. Some quarter of a million people visit the complex at the old Queechee Mill each year. It employs 150 people between two Vermont locations and the Pearces generate their own electricity. With his wife Pia, Simon had four sons. David has Down’s Syndrome. During Tropical Storm Irene in 2011,the rising waters of the Ottaqueechee River swept away the covered bridge and flooded the mill where they have a restaurant and shop and the high-end glass is produced, destroying the studio and restaurant kitchen to a depth of 50 feet.
The Pearces may be rich and successful, but it is through hard work and endeavor and the good karma fostered and generated by their parents all through their lives and carried on through the family and the generations. It is about goodness as well as taste, talent and dogged hard work and brilliant marketing, cannily and gently played. It is about hope and faith in human nature and in science, respect for people, animals and the land, generosity of spirit and a belief in what is good of the old.
That is my answer to the begrudger on Kevin Pearce’s page on Facebook.
“The Crash Reel” deals a lot with Kevin and his fast riding, fast living friends. But with the same generosity the family brings to everyday life, it also deals with other athletes and their traumas and with the entire Pearce family’s fight to help save the life and sanity of their son, their brother, their nephew, cousin, friend. It is a salutory lesson in respecting, protecting and caring for the precious mechanisms of the body. It is also a darned good film, beautifully produced and snappily presented. The editing alone is a feat, from something like 600 hours of ‘phone and camera stills, old home videos and shot for professional film by massive sports events and by Kevin’s sponsors. The director, Lucy Walker, says that she was both lucky and unlucky that young people – and particularly sports people – take so many photos of themselves and others these days. It meant that she had a wealth of archive as well as being swamped in trivia, even pictures from the toilet! I told Lucy that her name was a good sign. Since I first met Lucy Pearce over half a century ago, I have never met a Lucy who was not strong, beautiful and independent.
Now, 3 years after the accident, Kevin is well and giving his time and energy to promoting “Love Your Brain” an awareness project for those with severe brain injury. It is not only sports people and road users who suffer traumatic brain injuries and their longterm, often personality changing repercussions, but also soldiers. There are thousands of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq now trying to keep their lives together back in the US, who may not even be aware that they are different, more volatile, than before they went to war. Through no fault of their own, but through brain injury, they could be at risk. They themselves and us, those around them need awareness of how their heads and their thinking is now unpredictable, even to themselves. Enjoy the film…..and love your brain!
Sitting in the garden at half past six yesterday evening, we heard the patter of tiny cleats and Mike emerged around the corner of the house, walking like a cowboy…….he had just cruised down the mountain into Annecy and thence home along the lake after 8 hours in the saddle. All that remained of the 13,500 riders who had set out yesterday morning on the 128km cycle were directed down the offiial route back down through Annecy, though there was a much shorter road home to our house from where the Étape ended 20kms from the city. We started clapping and cheering, but Mike could only utter one word “Brutal.”
Having crawled into the swimming pool his talk was freer, though his limbs weren’t, and he could string two words together: “Never again” then, after a beer, a full sentence: “Now I can understand why the Tour cyclists take drugs ……” Waiting for the off that morning, a participant in the pens was stretchered through the Village Départ to an ambulance ever before the race began. At Col des Prés 54kms in, Mike had turned a corner to find thick pools of blood on the tarmac. A German cyclist, shouting the loudest, foulest string of Saxon and Anglo Saxon curses and swear words picked up his bike, threw it in the ditch and stomped off down the road. On the Mont Revard climb, his upper leg locked with cramp, Mike lay down on the grass in agony. A young German woman cycling behind stopped and put her hand on his leg. “Do what I say” she said “I’m a physiotherapist” and she began massaging his thigh until he could move again. At Le Chatelard the back tyre of a British cyclist blew out and he managed not to fall off, but just as he was dismounting the front tyre also blew out…….
“Never again” said Mike, sitting on the steps of the swimming pool, his head grooved from his cycle helmet. “And the food………..Ugh! never again!” At the feeding stations along the way there had been water, fruit and nuts, bars and gels and powders and elixirs……..but no sandwiches (a la the Ring of Kerry.) “You take it because you feel you have to but it’s disgusting!” Once he had rested, better memories began to surface; the spectacularly beautiful views, particularly from Mont Revard over Lac le Bourget; the quality of the roads, the good humour of the hugely supportive supporters, the friendliness and niceness of the young Gendarmes, the sense of camaraderie. Seeing his ‘Discover Ireland’ t-shirt, Mike talked to a fellow countryman, a Kellog’s staff member who was riding to raise money for soup kitchens in Dublin.
At seven, we got a ‘phonecall from Pat, who was also home safely. At Gruffy, 109kms in, one of his tyres blew – not just the tube, but the tyre – and he thought that was the end for him, but a group of Welsh cyclists with back-up saw his plight, handed over a complete tyre and off Pat went again.* Though also over sixty, Pat is even fitter than Mike; an athlete, a former sub-four-minute miler who has trained six days a week over the past 9 months since they decided to do the Étape. We thought he would not find the course too arduous, but Pat too was more than challenged, particularly by the last six kms to the top of the Semnoz.
Now it is morning and Mike is up, eating porridge and apricots. The ‘phone has already started pinging, arrangements being made with Pat and Mary to meet up for a cycle in an hour. Never again? Oh yeah.
* Pat took a card from the van man (Kevin?) which read “Cyclo Tour Chalet Annabelle” The Chalet is in Les Houches, and though payment was not expected, Pat is determined to contact them.
It’s only quarter past ten of a Sunday morning and already I’ve had two breakfasts and cheered on 12,500 cyclists at the end of our road as they headed along the Route d’Albertville from Annecy and turned up the Route de Filly to start the climb to Leschaux (944m) on their 130 km cycle to Mont Semnoz (1,655m) and back down again to Annecy, the same stage the Tour de France cyclists will be doing in two weeks time.
Kathryn and myself waved and Mary cheered. At 7.30a.m it was all very respectable and well-behaved on our roundabout above the Piste Cyclable, but as we got more and more enthusiastic, we racked it up a notch. We were waiting for Mike and Pat, who were supposed to leave their holding pen in the city 9kms away at 8. We waved and cheered until the last bike went, followed by an ambulance and motorcycle gendarmes…..but somehow we missed The Lads. The time given for all the cyclists – they started in stages from 6 a.m. depending on fitness and experience – to get to the Col de Leschaux was an hour, otherwise they would be taken off the route by a bike-sweeper van, their machines hoisted up behind and deposited off the course.
It was great fun. While we were at the roundabout we saw 5 couples (M+F and same-sex) tandems, 4 black cyclists, one cyclist with one leg, a rake of women – predominantly young Asians or older Europeans (in general, the ratio of older cyclists was very high, with more white hair than pigmented) and one rider without a helmet.
We were the only supporters with flags and shouted “Allez Allez” for those whose nationality wasn’t obvious, “Go Girls” for all the women and “Ireland!” for fellow-countrymen who responded with a wave or a shout (and for the black contestants, who probably were anyway.) Others in the crowd then got into the spirit and shouted “Allez Pappy!” for the Grandads, and I added “Allez Flouro” for those wearing bright pink or yellow-green, “Go Long-Stockings!” “Go Beards” and “Go Geeks!” for the pale-skinned guys with glasses. There was every kind in the peloton; fat and thin, tall and tiny, young and old, shiny Lycra-ed and sweaty-t-shirted, hard-muscled and flabby. One has to be pretty dedicated to become part of the Étape, as registration was last October with a €90 fee and a medical certificate. After the last cyclist passed and we turned to go back home for Zweite Frühstuck, I couldn’t help giving the police an “Allez Gendarmes” and even got a smile…not a common occurance from the French force.
Kathryn had paid up, registered and got her bag and number, but she was nervous of the climb…and even more so the descent….on the narrow mountain roads with so many others wobbling along beside, so she will do the course during the week with The Lads who will by then be ready to go again. When we were collecting her gear in the Village Départ in Annecy yesterday the guy on the t-shirt stand looked her up and down – but mainly in the upper middle, almost cupping her bosom – and declared “Ex S” to the shirt handler.
We got free hats with “Skoda” on them, got our pictures as covers of Velo magazine, got little bags from Rouleur Road Racing Reportage which Kathryn and I are using for our knitting and free drinks from Decathalon. There was also a stand where one could buy plants for the garden. The “black technology” shirts by Rapha were almost as expensive as a Trek bicycle painted to one’s own specifications, and I was tempted by an “Ireland” top for €60. I resisted, and went instead to the Troc.com depot-vente and bought an exercise bike for €35, which means I won’t have to stop knitting as I peddle, but I can still justify the Lycra.
It’s all about riding, and I found it very hard, as we strolled around the Village Départ where people were discussing micro tools in the sunshine, to stop myself from asking strangers “I suppose a ride is out of the question?” Kathryn reminded me that the correct answer, a la “The Commitments” is - while knitting “Wait ‘till I’ve finished my row.”
We hope the Lads got off and up the mountain. We hope they won’t need the little geegaws, in the shape of milestones or tombstones, (€17 to €75) which we reckoned were for putting on one’s grave if one died on the course.
Two weeks ago I was up in Leschaux for a Vide Grenier and to sign a spot of Yarn Bombing. All the way up the mountain there were flowers and signs and painted bicycles on gateposts and electricity poles, but even though it is a cheese producing area around La Chapelle-Saint-Maurice and St Eustache in the Massif des Bauges, I doubt that the locals will do today for the Étape as the Kerry people did yesterday for the 30th annual Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle. All along the route, on the farmyard and homestead walls, were plates of buttered scones, buns, brown bread and sandwiches, left out by the local people for the bikers. Ciaran, my niece’s boyfriend, was one of the 5,000+ riders – who also included Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny – who biked the 112 mile course and could have eaten his way around the entire Ring of Kerry. The weather, which is gorgeous today in the Haute Savoie, was also spectacularly beautiful on the Iveragh Peninsula on the South West of Ireland for that event.
This morning, as we cheered on the Lads, the Girls, the Geeks, the Grandads, the Guys with Glasses and those with Long Stockings, the Brazilians and the Bretons (the only ones who actually showed their colours) we got a fantastic reaction from any Irish participants who spotted our tri-colours. The responsive shouts of “IRELAND!” made the enjoyment contagious….for some cyclists looked very serious indeed. The amateur Étape is not a race, there are no winners or losers, but even so, you’ll never beat the Irish supporters……….
Sex and the Country 2: The Tour de France
Let them have an eyeful, I don’t care……. well, not much. We are defeckingmented from helicopters overhead, scouting, recceing, putting by file shots for the amateur Etape and the Tour de France which will be driving (pedalling) this neck of the Lake into a tizzwozz over the next two weeks.
I can’t find the number of cyclists taking part in the actual professional Tour race, which will pass through here between the 18th and 20th of July, from Gap twice up the famous Alpe d’Huez, the Beecher’s Brook of the Tour de France to Le Grand Bornand and on to the Semnoz before the last leg to Paris on July 21st, but the number of amateur cyclists (my friends Mike, Kathryn and Pat amongst them) who will do the Annecy-Mont Semnoz climb, is reputed to be 9,000 and rumoured to be 15,500. There will not be a stick of bread left in the boulangeries, and never mind the climb, the traffic will be brutal.
When one is gardening, one tends to stick one’s bottom in the air; there isn’t much else one can do when digging at ground level. I have two lovely new raised beds which should mean that one can dig at thigh level, but the trouble is that they need 2 tons of topsoil, and we just haven’t got the time to go access, sweet talk and get delivered two tons of topsoil. So I’m filling up the beds by degrees (we drink quite a lot of coffee, but the grounds don’t add up so fast) and in the meantime……kneeling on the ground and bending down into the beds to work the ‘soil’ (a mixture of leaf mould, compost, spent pot-soil, commercial terreau and coffee grounds.) Such work involves bottom in the air. It is not a very flattering position for anyone, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell a Beryl Cook lady, or me…..especially when one is wearing A: a bikini or B: has one’s skirt tucked into one’s knickers so as not to trip over it. Such unflattering postures are all very well when one is on one’s own in the privacy of one’s own garden, but one would prefer not to be on camera.
One of the major stages of the 100th anniversary Tour de France will be going through our city, Annecy, all the way out our road home along the lake (one lane each side, no passing out anywhere, just like the access road to the Florida Keys) through our village and thence up the mountains to the summit of the Semnoz (our local oh-so-uncool-or-trendy snowshoeing and cross-country ski station.) The final, Alpine, set of stages of the last week have been described as “brutal” and the time trial “viciously hard.”
In the past weeks, and especially in the past few days, just when the weather had been good enough to enjoy the pleasures of sticking one’s bottom in the air and getting dirty, then stripping off clay covered badenahs and jumping in the pool, the sky if filled with helicopters. We are used to helicopters overhead as they pass over collecting and delivering accident victims from the mountains to the hospitals in Annecy or Grenoble. In winter they pluck skiers off the pistes, in summer they collect paragliders from the trees. These mission pilots and crew have concerns other than scouting out the local beauty/sites on their minds and besides – depending on how far away or at what altitude is their victim – they tend to fly high.
The police and TV helicopters which are now scalping us are, however, flying low. They are scouting, looking for whistle-blowers, taking shots to slot into live coverage when the cyclists will be taking a wee pee over their crossbars…..and I can never be sure that they’re not zooming in their cameras, having a good old French laugh at the lady with the Irish-skin-toned bottom (the only thing toned) sticking up in the air, a large sun-hat shading her head, but not her nether regions.
I am reminded of a trip to the Saltee Islands one spring when I was the only woman amongst a group of zoologists from University College Cork, studying the ectoparasites of seabirds during the breeding season. (Don’t worry, it was fine, we did it every year; I cooked herring gull eggs over the open fire, Doc Walton snared rabbits and tried to pass ‘em off as chicken in stews, but being zoologists, his students recognised the bone structure as not being avian……..) Anyways, the Saltee Islands are uninhabited. There is a refuge hut where we used to stay at one side of the Great Saltee, the rest is cliffs and crags and puffin burrows. In the interests of modesty, one day on the far side of the island, facing out to sea (next stop Penzance as the fulmar flies) I went to change into my swim suit behind a rock. I stood up half-way dressed/undressed because I thought I saw some seals bobbing their sleek dark heads in the water down below. They were seals alright. Navy seals. One of the Irish Coast Guard vessels was doing a tour of duty and The Lads were getting in some practice diving……….
Yesterday on the ‘phone a friend said they were into the tv series “The Americans.” When I said we’d been thinking of watching it, he added “there’s a lot of graphic sex” and I replied that really, I’d prefer lying on the couch of an evening watching Monty Don in torn leather and frayed jumpers doing dirty things in the Garden, to watching Cold War Russian spies panting and sweating with no clothes on at all at all.
It was way back in 1997 that the phrase “Gardening is the new sex” was coined by British trend-setting fashion and social magazines Tatler and Vogue. The phrase – like “Black is the new black” has gone into the lexicon, and still occasionally pops up to illustrate, say, how the sale of sex magazines is dwindling, whereas the BBC’s “Gardener’s World” remains a hot, top selling publication, or how it’s not just the ageing Flower Children who are digging it, digging it, but also the young Thirty Somethings, flocking to Chelsea for colourful consumerism.
As I was ironing this morning, making piles of clothing for hanging up, throwing out, giving away and keeping, it became abundantly clear to me that despite my necessity for a wardrobe that will bring me to a myriad of occasions in every climate in countries all over the world, (my justification for shopping) the clothes that I iron, fold and hang up to wear most often (yes, I iron paint-spattered leggings) are those I don for working in the house and garden. They are not necessarily the most flattering and as the house will be full of guests for the rest of the summer, I was considering their aesthetic sensibilities and trying to consign some of the most well-worn articles of apparel (i.e. molecularly challenged) to the garbage bin. As I ironed, I was thinking about Carrie Bradshaw, the star of the television series and spin-off films “Sex and the City.” When she falls for the artist Aleksandr Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov) in the last season of the series and agrees to move with him to Paris, leaving her New York apartment and life, Carrie calls in her group of friends to help her decide what clothes to jettison, what to keep.
The Carrie Bradshaw character and I do not have much in common except a known and self admitted obsession with shoes….oh, and she was also a writer, penning a regular piece and a book on her exploits with her friends of similar vain vein in New York entitled “Sex and the City” which involved a lot of clothes. Taking inspiration from Carrie, I think I’ll write a piece (and a book? oh la!) on my exploits with my bucolic friends entitled “Sex and the Country” (subtitle: “Forty Shades of Green.”) It will, of course, be about gardening.
To start, I should introduce you to my friends: Una. Una listens to podcasts of plays as she works in her garden, and I envy her as she can get truck loads of compost for free from her local Dechetterie on the Swiss/French border, with its view of Mont Blanc. I also envy her legs. Una wears shorts a lot.
Fiona: Fiona lives on a bluff over the sea on Prince Edward Island in Maritime Canada. The island is famous for being the home of Anne of Green Gables, potatoes and lupines. Lupines in PEI are so prolific that every year about this time, using a modified snowblower, the provincial government culls them by one third, considering lupines a weed, an invasive species, especially where they clog roadside ditches and thus drainage.
Though the same latitude as Ireland, without the benefit of the Gulf Stream (remember that, remember palm trees and all-year-round geraniums?) the growing season is short on Prince Edward Island and I giggle soundlessly down the line when Fiona tells me on the ‘phone she is planting her summer annuals in July. Fiona wears Canadian clothes (a lot of blouses, sweat shirts and trousers) with very comfortable shoes suitable for both snow and PEI’s red earth, which colours everything.
In the south west of France, Síle has a small, square, stone-walled garden in a former presbytery, where the Curé strolled while reading his office. While keeping the original quadrangle, Síle, with the help of her brother and husband, has transformed it from a heat-scorched over-grown plot into a cool, planting-softened oasis. A ‘Five Foot Lourdes’ – a statue of the Virgin Mary found on the premises when they moved in, stands in a corner bedecked with flowers of the fairest and blossoms the rarest, and the China Berry Tree which shades the space is her husband’s delight and home to many birds. Síle always wears interesting necklaces and favours linens in understated earthy colours, but has also been known to be seduced in a local market by the lure of those drippy Indian dresses beloved of French ladies. (I cannot criticize. Yesterday, probably thinking of Síle, her clothes and garden, I succumbed to the same sartorial seduction).
Then there is Kathryn. Kathryn is the blonde and favours clothes by designers such as Karen Millen and wears Versace jeans. She collects seaweed on the beach in front of her West Cork country home to spread on the raised beds planted by her husband. She made me very cross by not inviting me to come help her make dry stone walls around the garden from the ruins of a deserted cottage on the property (dry stone walling – along with shoes – is my passion.)
In “Sex and the Country” you can look forward to a huge cast of characters and sub-plots, some, I admit, somewhat violent, such as “Linda and her Red Hot Pokers.” As global warming adds another level of suspense, I think “Sex and the Country” will make riveting reading. My hostas are now indistinguishable from California Giant Redwoods. Yesterday the wrath of the gods wreaked havoc with my grapes when a thunderstorm came barreling in over the mountains and on the ‘phone last night Kathryn worried about my hostas suffering slug damage. I assured her that slugs are no match for Sequoias.