How to Stay Sane in a Pandemic

Episode 7 : SARAH CAREY

Columnist and broadcaster, Sarah Carey joined me this week for my How To Stay Sane Webcast.

She had some cracking book suggestions along with interesting radio programme suggestions too. And yes, of course, we talked about Bridgerton.

We didn’t get to all Sarah’s book suggestions but she kindly sent them on and here they are:

Non-fiction

East West Street by Philippe Sands,

On Identity, Violence and the need to belong by Amin Mahlouf

Dominion, How Christianity Shaped the Western mind by Tom Holland

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.

Fiction

What Sarah called her ‘Spinster Lit’ recommendations

She recommends all the books of Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark and Anita Brookner

She also recommends Nancy Mitford who she says is a hoot.

Other favourites are The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen which she says are one of the most beautiful poetic books I’ve ever read. And other poetry such as Lullaby by WH Auden and ‘What Auden Can Do For You’ by Alexander McCall Smith. And Heaney’s The Cure At Troy

Also recommend On Kindness by Adam Philips, the famous British psychonalyst

Radio and Podcasts

Backlisted podcast – Brings new life to old books. It’s a joy.

Drama on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4 Extra -right now listening to Hercule Poirot!

The Archers BBC Radio 4

Soul Music (BBC Radio 4)

In Our Time ( BBCR4)

Delusions (short series on BBC Radio 4 you should be able to find it)

Cautionary Tales (Tim Hartford, behavioural psychology)

Thinking Allowed (BBCR4)

If you enjoy these webcasts please share the links either on Twitter, Facebook or right here on my website.

How To Stay Sane In A Pandemic

Episode 6 with Terry Prone

Communications expert, author and commentator, Terry Prone joined me for the last of my How To Stay Sane webcasts of this year…. and what a great guest she was. Not only are there some really great book suggestions but you will learn of the many uses of WD40.

Click the link into YouTube to watch.

Terry Prone’s Full List of Book Suggestions:

Isaac’s Storm
Eric Larson
Vintage 1999

Working Stiff
Judy Melinek, M.D., and T.J. Mitchell
Scribner 2014

Painted Ladies
Robert B. Parker
Putnam 2010

Becoming Nicole
Amy Ellis Nutt
Random House

That’s What SHE Said
Joanne Lipman
Morrow 2018

Digital Minimalism
Cal Newport
Portfolio Penguin 2019

Holding
Graham Norton
Hodder&Stoughton 2016

The Pandemic Century
Mark Honigsbaum
Penguin 2019

Hidden Valley Road
Robert Kolker
Quercus 2020

Breaking and Mending
Joanna Cannon
Profile Books 2019 Published in association with the Wellcome Collection

The Beauty in Breaking
Michele Harper
Riverhead Books 2020

Group Think
Christopher Booker
Bloomsbury 2020

A Guarded Life
Majella Moynihan, Aoife Kelleher
Hachette 2020

Force of Nature
Jane Harper
Little, Brown 2017

Last Witnesses
Svetlana Alexievich
Penguin 2019

Here’s the Story
Mary McAleese
Penguin/Sandycove 2020

The Nothing Man
Catherine Ryan Howard
Blackstone 2020

The Psychiatrist in the Chair
Muiris Houston/Brendan Kelly
Merrion Press 2020

Outline
Rachel Cusk
Faber&Faber, 2014

Our Little Cruelties
Liz Nugent
Penguin 2020

Three Hours
Rosamund Lipton
Penguin 2020

Ghosts
Dolly Alderton
Penguin 2020

Monogamy
Sue Miller
Bloomsbury 2020

Invisible Women
Caroline Criado Perez
Vintage 2019

How To Stay Sane in a Pandemic

Episode 5 with Rebecca Horan

Journalist and Broadcaster Rebecca Horan joined me for the fifth episode of my webcast and had some brilliant book recommendations.

You can watch by clicking the link into YouTube here

Rebecca’s Book Recommendations

Fleishman is in trouble by Taffy Brodesser Akner

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

On the Road by by Jack Kerouac

City of girls by Elisabeth Gilbert

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

Rafa by John Carlin and Rafa Nadal

Barbara’s book recommendation – Away With The Penguins by Hazel Prior

How To Stay Sane in a Pandemic

Episode 4 with TV Producer, Bill Hughes.

My guest this week is Bill Hughes, legendary TV Producer who has made over 1000 hours of music, arts, entertainment and documentary television since he began his career in the 1980s. He began his TV career in 1985 with the ground breaking MT USA which was the first music video programme in Europe. More recently, his company Mind The Gap Films was behind the very popular ‘Cutting Edge’ on RTE.

Bill had some really great recommendations for your entertainment in books, music and film. Enjoy.

Bill’s Book Recommendations:

The Hearts Invisible Furies, by John Boyne

That Glimpse of Truth – 100 of the finest short stories ever written, chosen by David Miller

Fabulosa – The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language.

And my book choice this week is Lady In Waiting by Anne Glenconner.

Bill’s Listening Recommendations:

The box set of The Collected Poems of Seamus Heaney from RTE

Jessye Norman – Four Last Songs

Passion by Stephen Sondheim

Bill’s Movie Recommendations:

Little Women – the recent version with Saoirse Ronan

The Women – from 1939. Avail on DVD.

The Covid Diaries 7

What is it about baking?

What is it about baking?  It has been my ‘go to’ activity when stressed for decades.  I first realised this about 15 years ago.  We were on our way to Bray, I was driving, the kids who were small, were in the back and we were involved in a kind of pile up on the N11.  It wasn’t very serious but it was scary.  Ambulance men peering in at us through the windows, talking to each of my girls to make sure we were all OK.  I was still shaking when we got home.  But I went straight into the kitchen and began to bake. I remember my husband being somewhere between appalled and fascinated by my reaction.  But when I can’t make sense of the world, I bake. 

The magic of turning a bowl of slop into a feathery, fabulous confection is something perhaps deeply embedded in our female bones.  It carries with it comfort from our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers. It can bring you right back to your childhood kitchen as you become enveloped in the sweet aroma of cake rising in the oven. And then of course there’s the delicious anticipation of tasting the results of your labours.

Baking also got me into a fair amount of trouble over the years.  I became what I ate until I resembled a large cake myself and gave myself diabetes.  So, my baking days are largely over, reserved now for state occasions and bonfire nights only.  I have replaced regular baking with gin… but sin scéal eile.

However, the next best thing to actual baking is watching the sublime, gentle, Great British Bake Off which finally made a welcome return to our screens recently.  Of course, I was always a fan of the Bake Off but this year its return is akin to seeing a hunky fireman coming to rescue you from a burning building.  The relief is almost overwhelming.  An hour of guileless entertainment that (and a huge thank you to the producers for this) is completely Covid-19 free.

We live in interesting times and that’s for sure.  Well, I say interesting because I am trying to remain as positive as possible.  But you know and I know, that what I actually mean is stressful.  Pandemic life is stressful.  We are all getting tired and fed up.  It’s worrying and it’s hard.  Very hard. All of which is why The Great British Bake Off shines forth like a beacon of light and fluffiness in a sea of our stewed and rancid emotions.

So, it was with great anticipation that I snuggled down on the sofa to begin to get to know this year’s crop of participants. As usual they were a motley crew of quirky but essentially nice people.  People for whom the fact that this is a competition is a by the way.  They help each other, advise each other, congratulate each other and urge each other on.

This year when nothing is as it was, the Bake Off remains unchanged.  Contestants hug and are close to each other.  There are no Perspex screens, no oceans of sanitizer, no masks.  No mention of corona virus at all except to explain how they had achieved this miracle by the contestants having moved into the Bake Off village for the duration of filming.  Oh glory alleluia.  It’s like a peek into a nirvana that for now we can only dream of.  And all in a pastel hued tent in the middle of the glorious countryside.

The Bake Off is as indulgent as a good Victoria Sponge.  The jokes are gently seasoned with some double entendre to add a hint of spice.  There is no shouting and bawling.  No making a holy show of someone when their best efforts turn out disastrously. And best of all, no tragic back stories designed to make the audience cry. 

Anyway, I know that none of this is an accident.  It’s all part of the brand but it’s a brand that I not only like but this year feel I need as part of my personal armoury to keep me sane in this mad world in which we find ourselves.

The hour spent watching nice people try to bake, sometimes very ambitious confections is a salve to our overheated heads.  And it’s great that they do the baking, so you don’t have to. Lessing the stress of our lives without adding the calories. 

Kidnap on the Blackwater

26th June 1920

One hundred years ago, on the 26th of June 1920, one of the most extraordinary events of the War of Independence began to unfold on the banks of the beautiful River Blackwater just outside the north Cork town of Fermoy.

Fermoy was a major garrison town and the local IRA had intelligence that the most senior officer, General Lucas, had planned a day fishing on the river with two other officers.  It was decided to mount a kidnap operation to take Lucas hostage in exchange for IRA prisoners held in Cork jail including Michael Fitzgerald, who was on hunger strike..

General Lucas

The first part of the operation was a success and Lucas along with Colonel Dunford of the Royal Artillery and Colonel Tyrrell of the Royal Engineers were successfully captured by the IRA men who told then they would be held pending further instructions from IRA HQ.  In order to make a swift getaway from the scene, the IRA,who had their own car, also took the British touring car and split into the groups and headed away in convoy.  One of the IRA volunteers, George Power’s witness statement provides us with a detailed account of what happened next:

“Lucas and Dunford held a brief conversation in a strange language, subsequently discovered to be Arabic and, at a pre-arranged signal between them, they sprang simultaneously on Lynch and Clancy. The attack was so sudden that the I.R.A. officers were at first taken at a disadvantage and almost disarmed before they realised what had happened. In the melee the driver lost control of the car, crashed into the ditch and rendered himself unconscious. It was, therefore, an even fight between the two British and the two I.R.A. officers.

The struggle between Lynch and Lucas was particularly severe, as both were strong-built, well-trained men, about six foot in height. In the first onslaught Lucas had got on top of Lynch, making frantic efforts to wrench the gun from him and had all but succeeded when the door of the touring car gave way. They both rolled on to the roadway, still struggling, until finally Lynch wore down his opponent and the General shouted: “I surrender”.

Meanwhile, Colonel Dunford and Paddy Clancy were fighting desperately, with Colonel Dunford on top; he had almost succeeded in throttling the I.R.A. officer when Lynch turning round, took in the situation at a glance, shouted to the British officer: “Surrender or I shoot.” but Dunford ignored the command and maintained his grip on Clancy’s throat, whereupon Lynch fired at and hit Dunford in the face, making him collapse over his opponent.

Once those in the leading car realised that something was up, they turned back.  It was decided to release Tyrrell in order to attend to his comrade Dunford and one of the IRA volunteers was dispatched to fetch a local doctor.  George Power also left the group to make his way immediately to Dublin to report to Michael Collins and Cathal Brugha.

In the end Lucas was held for about four weeks before he escaped or was released by the IRA.

George Power

As the granddaughter of George Power, I have been forever familiar with this story as it was one I heard many times growing up and it fascinated me.  Not only did it seem to have a relative happy ending, unlike most of the stories from that period but I was also told that when free, Lucas had stated that the had been “treated like a gentleman by gentlemen.”  Apparently, the IRA had sourced his favourite whiskey and made arrangements for him to correspond with his wife in England. But I always wondered if the story had become imbued with a fairy-tale element over the years: something added perhaps to protect my childish ears from the harsh reality of the situation.

But a new website, launched by the Lucas family is testament to the fact that I hadn’t been told a lie.

This website was introduced by Ruth Wheeler who is General Lucas’s granddaughter, in a letter last week to the Irish Times.  www.chtl.co.uk will feature letters written by Lucan in captivity to his beloved wife who gave birth shortly after his kidnap.  These letters are being released daily from 18th of June until the beginning of August.  The website describes this story of the kidnapping of General Lucas as one that “unites both Irish and British sides in a shared celebration of humanity, humour, respect and basic human kindness. It is an extraordinary, true story.”

General Lucas in captivity

I am really delighted that the Lucas family are sharing these personal letters with a wider public because this story something special and provides us with a reassuring example of man’s humanity to his fellow man at a time of such horror and violence.

I am sure that George Power or General Lucas couldnot have ever imagined that one hundred years on from that fateful day on the banks of the beautiful river Blackwater, their respective granddaughters on either side of the Irish sea would take such heart and pride in the story.

POSTSCRIPT

If you have any interest in this period of Irish history I highly recommend visiting the www.chtl.co.uk website.  Along with the personal letters of General Lucas quite a deal of background information is provided.  All in all a wonderful treat to read every day.  

Covid Diaries 6 – THE ATTIC KEEPER

This is a story I used to tell my girls when they were small. I told a short version to my granddaughter via Whatsapp Video yesterday and she seemed to like it. So I am sharing it here for all of you who are doing trojan work keeping your children entertained during this lockdown.

It might make a good bedtime story or perhaps you could print it out and let the older ones read it themselves.

The illustration is by my youngest, Mia. And this story is dedicated to my granddaughter, Emie in Perth, Australia.

THE ATTIC KEEPER

It’s March.  Springtime is nearly here.  The first yellow daffodils have appeared in the garden but it is still cold and tonight it is very windy. 

Rosie is tucked up in bed but she is not asleep.  The wind is whipping around the old house and is blowing strange noises down the chimney that is opposite her bed. On stormy nights like this, Rosie often thinks of the people who lived in her house long ago when there was no central heating.  They had to light fires in every room to keep warm.  She imagines how cosy it would be to have a fire lighting in her bedroom.  Maybe one hundred years ago, there was another girl like her, who slept in this bedroom and who fell asleep in the orange glow of a dying fire.  She would love that.  But the fireplaces in the bedrooms are not used anymore.  Her dad had stuffed rolled up newspaper up the chimney to stop the cold breezes coming down.   In a corner of the room, near the door, Baby Lucy is fast asleep in her cot.  Rosie can hear her gentle snores as she dreams her baby dreams.  Unlike Lucy, Rosie’s eyes are wide open and she is staring at the ceiling as she listens to the noises in the room.  The whistling noise the wind makes as it comes down the chimney and every so often the old pipes moan and wheeze softly.  This house is like an old man with tired bones, groaning as he tries to settle for the night.  Outside the window, in the garden the branches of the big old tree are being blown about, casting moving shadows on the wall.  Rosie loves stormy nights when she is tucked up in her bed. 

She knows she should be asleep.  It’s much too late to be still awake.  She closes her eyes still listening to the wind and the house groaning.  Then she hears another noise.  A noise she hasn’t heard before.  She holds her breath and opens her eyes.  Yes, there it is again.  It’s not very loud.  It’s a kind of plod sound.  Yes, plod, plod, plod.  It seems to be coming from right above her head, in the roof.  Plod, plod, plod.  It’s not a frightening noise. It is a soft thud and it seems to be going around in slow circles, on the ceiling above her bed.  Plod, plod, plod.  Round and round and round.  What could be making that sound? 

Rosie knows that sometimes there are bats in the old attic, but they couldn’t make a plod kind of noise.  Bats fly. They don’t walk about in circles. Could it be a mouse?  No, she thinks.  Mice scurry about.  They don’t plod.  No, it’s not a mouse.

Then the noise seems to move away from above her head and plods its way out towards the landing.

Rosie climbs quietly and carefully out of bed.  The floor is cold under her bare feet.  She tiptoes over to the door.  She is very careful not to wake little Lucy.  The bedroom door squeaks as she pushes it open and she steps out onto the landing.  It’s quiet on the landing.  She looks up at the ceiling and waits.  There it is again – plod, plod, plod – around in circles. 

The noise is definitely in the attic, a place that Rosie has never been to.  Her dad is the only one who goes up there.  Mum went up once but she met a bat.  Mum is not keen on bats so she doesn’t go into the attic anymore. 

But Rosie has watched her dad many times climb up the ladder, open the trapdoor in the ceiling and then disappear inside.  He goes up there to put stuff away or take stuff down.  Suitcases go up when they come back from holiday.  The Christmas and Halloween decorations live in big boxes up in the attic.  But Rosie has no idea what the attic looks like on the inside.  She knows however that it must be cold up there, because if she is on the landing when Dad opens the trapdoor, a rush of cold attic air falls out and makes her shiver. 

Rosie is 8 years old but when she was a little girl her Dad used to tell her that he was going up to the attic to check if the stars and the moon were all working OK.  But Rosie knows that the moon and stars don’t live in her attic.  If they did, she wouldn’t be able to see them when she looks out her bedroom window at night.

Plod, plod, plod.  The noise is slowing down now – long slow circles around the attic door.  Rosie sits down on the landing floor and listens and watches.  Then the noise stops.  It is very quiet.  She can just hear the faint sound of the TV from the living room downstairs. 

Rosie’s bare feet feel the swoosh of cold air.  She looks up to see that the trap door has opened just a tiny bit.  Inside the attic is pitch dark.  There is a light up there that Dad always puts on when he is fetching stuff but it’s off now.  Rosie squints her eyes to try to see who is there.  The trapdoor opens another little bit.  She holds her breath. Slowly two eyes appear in the blackness.  Two huge, shiny, twinkling green eyes and they are looking straight at her.    

“That’s not Dad,” thinks Rosie.  In fact, she doesn’t even think it’s a person.  But it doesn’t seem like an animal and is too big to be her cat. So, who is it?  Who is in her attic? 

The trap door opens a little bit more and the landing starts to get colder.  As well as the two green eyes, Rosie can now see a tiny nose and a pair of the biggest ears she has ever seen.  Rosie stands up and wonders if she should go back to bed and pull the covers over her head.  As she gets up, the eyes look scared and the door closes again. Whatever it is, thinks Rosie, its scared of me.  This makes her a bit sad.  So, she waits where she is, on the landing and very slowly the door begins to open again.  As the eyes come into view, Rosie thinks that she should say something.  “Hi” she whispers, “I’m Rosie”.  The eyes open wide and now Rosie can see that the funny face sits on top of a little body dressed in a huge long coat of every colour of the rainbow.  A little, high pitched voice says “Hello.” 

“Why are you in my attic” says Rosie. 

“I live here” said the little face with the big ears.

“My Dad never told me that there was a ……….,  a……….. someone in the attic.”

The big face looks a little sad and says nothing.

“So,” says Rosie, “who are you?”

“I’m the attic keeper”

Rosie thinks about that for a few minutes.  She is checking to see if she knows what an Attic Keeper is.  But she has never heard of such a thing.  Her dad, being the only person to go in the attic has never mentioned an Attic Keeper.  Maybe she is really asleep and this is a dream.

But she couldn’t be dreaming because by now she is very cold.

“Em, do you want to come down and have some milk or something in the kitchen.  It’s warmer there” Rosie asks the Attic Keeper.  She wants to know more but the landing is too cold a place to have a chat.  “Ok,” says the funny little person.

Suddenly and without making any sound the Attic Keeper with the big coat and ears is standing beside Rosie on the landing.  She is about the same size as Rosie.  Her coat is red and blue and green and yellow and lots of other colours.  It reaches down to the floor but does not cover her big feet which are wearing a pair of soft and cosy giant yellow slippers.  She gives Rosie a huge smile and together and very quietly they set off down the stairs to the kitchen.  Rosie does not want to disturb her mother, who is in the lounge, chatting on the phone and watching the TV.  Her dad is out.

Into the kitchen they go, making no noise at all.  The only sound is the faint hum of the fridge, well until Tabs, their fat tabby cat who was asleep on the old armchair opens an eye to see who has come into the kitchen.  He takes one look at the funny woman with big ears and an enormous coat, makes a hissing noise and takes off like a rocket out the cat flap in the back door.

“Cats don’t like me,” says the funny little woman sadly, “and I like them.”

She looks very sad. Again.

“Never mind” says Rosie kindly, “have some milk and a biscuit”.  She hands the Attic Keeper a glass of milk and one of her favourite chocolate cookies.

As they sit down at the table, Rosie asked her new friend when she had arrived in her attic.

“I have always lived there.”

“Always” says Rosie, who knows that her house is over 100 years old. 

“Yes always.  Even before your family came to this house, I was in the attic.” 

Rosie knew that that meant that the funny little woman was over 100 years old.  She doesn’t look that old. 

“So, what is an Attic Keeper?”

The little woman whose big feet don’t reach the floor sits back in her chair and tells her story.  This is what she says.

“Every house has an Attic Keeper.  We are special beings.  We do not all look the same.  But we are all small which is good as attics can be small too.  And most of us wear big colourful coats.  We need them to keep us warm up there in the attic where it is very cold in winter. 

We do very important work.  We are the keepers of the space between the top of your house and the roof.  This is special place because it is where most families keep lots of precious things – like Christmas decoration, old baby clothes, boxes of old photographs and suitcases for going on holidays.  If I were not keeping my eyes on these things – well anything could happen to them.  I keep safe all the baubles and angels you hang on your Christmas tree every year.  I mind the tinsel.  I make sure that your suitcases are all safe and ready for when you need them for going on holidays. 

I also mind a lot of your family’s memories.  Because, Rosie, in your attic, like most attics there are memories.  Your attic has lots of albums of old photographs and boxes of baby clothes from when you were little.  I mind all these memories.  I mind them well, because just like the Christmas decorations, I know that some day someone will come into the attic to take these memories down and have a look at them.  They are precious.  So, I keep them safe.  That’s my job. 

But the most important job I do is to make sure that there is enough space left in the attic for your dreams to get through.  Because Rosie, when you dream, your dreams float up from your head when you are asleep and they land up in the attic.  Lots of dreams.  Rosie, did you know that you dream every single night?  You can’t see your dreams and often you can’t even remember them.  But I do.  I hold all your dreams in the attic.  And your sisters and your mom and dads’ dreams’ – they all float around in the attic. 

The attic is dark and often very cold but it is the dreams that keep me warm.  At night when everyone is safely asleep, I go into my special corner of the attic and I gather lots of the dreams and I place them inside my coat like a cosy lining.  And then I go to sleep.  Because, you see, Rosie, Attic Keepers do not dream.”

She stops talking and looks at Rosie.  She has finished her milk and her eyes are beginning to close.  “Come on Rosie” she says, “I think it is time for bed”.

Holding her by the hand, very quietly the Attic Keeper and Rosie climb back up the stairs.  As Rosie snuggles down in her warm bed she whispers goodnight to the Attic Keeper.  Plodding softly out of the bedroom, the funny little woman with the big feet and ears, gently closes the bedroom door.  Then she slips back up to the attic to mind all that is precious there.

Downstairs in the kitchen, Tabs pokes his head through the cat flap to check that the coast is clear.  Then he makes his way, very slowly, back into the kitchen and onto his favourite chair where he curls up and goes back to sleep.  And dreams of a funny woman with big ears, a very busy coat and huge feet.

The Covid Diaries 2

LIFE, PAUSED..

Published in the Irish Independent, 17th March under the title, ‘Nature’s Message Is One Even Supermarkets Understand.’

And just like that it all stopped.  Life on hiatus.   We have sailed into the doldrums and are becalmed.  The brakes have been applied to how we live, which many us knew for decades was too fast to be good for us anyway. That most elusive of commodities, time, is now something that suddenly we have an abundance of. 

We have been pushed so far out of our comfort zone by all this inaction that some of us are meeting parts of ourselves that we had forgotten existed. It’s like our lives are being pushed through a sieve and all the nonsense is being forced out.  We are now beginning to realise that perhaps the stuff (and it is often actual ‘stuff’) that we have chased relentlessly for years, is really not important at all.  Are we actually being distilled down into our more authentic selves?

These days of enforced calm, of staying home, means that we have time to talk and to listen to those with whom we live.  And yes, I am aware that there is a slight feeling of Christmas about being corralled with your family for long days and nights.  But with all the constant remainders to look out for each other and without the pressure of enforced festivity, we are perhaps being kinder and gentler to each other right now, than we often are when supposedly celebrating the birth of that great teacher on loving one another other, Jesus.

Our dogs are delighted with this turn of events which has their humans at home to give them more attention than they usually get.  The jury is still out on what our cats think but those of us who share our lives with felines at least have constant reminders on how to remain chilled and relaxed. Cats generally aren’t bothered with stressing.

Supermarkets, who normally fill our Sunday newspapers with large ads full of their upcoming special offers, are instead advertising messages of reassurance and, most refreshingly of all, they are publicly thanking their staff who are keeping our shops open and stocked with food.  I like this new caring side of our supermarket giants. 

A look at my local supermarket shelves also reveals that we are baking.  We are baking a lot.  And nothing speaks of home, of security, of love, of comfort than home baking.  Our instincts are good.

We have been forced to walk away from jobs, to close businesses, to abandon a lot of what is totally familiar, to paddle in these very uncharted waters.  We are scaring the bejaysus out of ourselves, with no real of idea of what lies in the weeks ahead but we are so far coping in a way most of us would have doubted possible two weeks ago.  And under all this staying calm and carrying on, I am wondering if real changes are taking place. 

When this is over, what will we want to keep from this new way of living?  Will we demand more time at home with those we love and especially more time with our small children? Working from home is something that many companies have been very slow to implement but they have now been bounced into making happen for their employees.  Could this be game changer in how we work?  Imagine the time saved and the gridlock relieved by large numbers of us no longer commuting.  Our cities could breathe again. 

We are rediscovering the simple joy of going for a walk.  We are relearning the importance of nature to both our mental and physical wellbeing.  We are flocking to the beach, the park, the forest because nature, much like baking, soothes our souls.  She is oblivious to our travails.  The earth is still turning and spring in bursting forth in spite of our lives being in a weird holding pattern. Instinctively we know that Mother Earth’s message is something we really need to hear right now. 

Our global village reinforces just how connected we all are. Globally we are learning from each other and locally we are contacting our neighbours to assure them we care and that we can help those who may need assistance during this crisis.  We are staying apart, not just to protect ourselves but to protect those of us who are vulnerable. 

And our health service, broken in so many ways, is being kept going by some of the bravest and most generous of our citizens. They are the real heroes of this crisis.  We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for all they are doing and will continue to do in the uncertain days ahead. And when this is finally over, in tribute to their selflessness and the people’s sacrifice, we must finally ensure we have a health service we deserve.

Dublin Daffodils

This is the text of a my piece which was broadcast on RTE Radio One’s Sunday Miscellany on 15th March last. You can also listen back here

March is the month of the Dublin daffodils.  All over the suburbs of our capital city, in gardens, on grass verges, on roundabouts and central medians of our dual carriageways, there are great swathes of brave daffodils who seem to smile at us, regardless of the battering they may be getting from the wind and the rain.  They do their level best to remain standing, nodding their heads and bringing a splash of sunny yellow to our increasingly grey urban environment.

My father and my brother both died in March – different Marchs and many years ago.  My brother died very suddenly and in the immediate aftermath of his death, my world went very dark.  I found myself marooned behind a black wall of grief and shock.  Everything had seemingly changed and I felt as if nothing would ever be the same again.  Then one morning, about a week after he died on St Patrick’s Day 1996, I looked out my window and for the first time I noticed a large clump of daffodils, standing together in their bright yellow clothes that seemed almost irreverent to me, in my deep mourning.  What right had they to be so cheerful?  

But as I stared at them, willing them to show me some respect, something inside me changed.  Because it was those daffodils, on a piece of parkland outside my house, that made me realise how important it was for me to hold onto hope; the hope that although all may ultimately be changed, all will be well, in time. 

March is often the month when winter feels at its longest.  We are regularly becalmed in the cold, the rain, the storms and sometimes even the snow when we are longing to move forward into the sunnier, warmer, gentler longer days of spring and summer.  Sometimes we can almost smell those days which we know should waiting somewhere in the wings but which tantalisingly remain beyond our grasp.  But the daffodils know better.  They are fearless about breaking through the hard, frosty ground in order to deliver their message, year after year after year.

Last Thursday as I drove along the N11, listening to the radio and trying to come to terms with the new reality in which we all find ourselves right now, the bouncing daffodils once again caught my eye and made me think.   

They made me think that this too will pass.  These days of uncertainty, when many of us are fearful of what the immediate future might hold, will pass.  The Dublin daffodils, stand together in groups to give each other mutual support.  They dare to wear their bright finery while we are still in the grip of cold winds.  Their whisper remains as it ever was.  They say that even when everything goes dark, when nothing looks as it was, when we are unsure as to how to carry on, we must hold onto hope. We must stand together and encourage each other.  And we must never lose the belief that better days are ahead.

So, when it seems like we are all paralysed by the current crisis, when it seems that our world has stopped and our lives have been forced into some kind of weird holding pattern, we need to see and to listen to the daffodils. They tell us that all is not as we might think.  Beyond our awareness, this planet we call home is still turning, so that day still follows night and in time it will also deliver our summer.  And so, while we support each other through these uncharted waters and do what we need to do to stay safe and well, we need to remember that this time will pass.  And all will be well.  The daffodils tell us so.   

Cats and how they can break your heart

Ernest Hemingway said that “a cat has absolute emotional honesty; human beings, for one reason or another may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”  And as someone who has lived with cats all her life, I think our Ernest is right.  But I never really thought that cats were that fickle until I lost the love of two of my most beloved felines.  And yes, I live (or lived) with four of them.  Let me tell you my tragic tale.

We have a permanent population of four cats.  The older two are boys – Scooter and Diego and the younger two are girls – Mabel and Oprah.  Now Oprah was a feral young cat that we rescued from the back yard of a pub in Dalkey, one very cold December day about four years ago. We knew that she would never be a lap cat as she was always wary of people.  But we kept her indoors until she had all her vaccinations and was spayed and then she joined the others in using the cat flap to come and go.  Although not keen on people, Oprah got on well with our other cats and they with her.  And even though she spent most of her time outdoors, all was well.  All was calm.

About two years ago Oprah started to spend more and more time outside, only coming back to us maybe every two or three days.  These intervals increased, although every time she did return, she looked well and happy.  We figured that she had adopted another family who were also feeding her but it seemed to suit her so we were cool with that.  By last summer we figured that as Oprah was now only a part-time member of the family and so it appeared we had a vacancy.  And so as always happens our next kitten came into our lives a few weeks later.

We were visiting our local pet superstore where a local cat rescue group where ‘showcasing’ their wares so to speak. And yep, we all fell in love with a long-haired tortoiseshell kitten with, wait for it, only three feet!  The little mite had been born without the foot on the end of one of her back legs. As experienced cat owners who could afford to pay for the radical surgery she would need once old enough, we knew she was the cat for us.

And so, we were restored to four full time cats.  Now we have long experience of introducing a new kitten into the family. As usual we kept her in a room on her own till she relaxed and was comfortable and slowly introduced her to the rest of them and increased her access to the rest of the house.  As usual the others weren’t overly delighted at this new addition who we named Rio, but that was normal. It would just take time.  Except this time, it didn’t.

From the get go, the boys, Scooter and Diego hated her.  They were clearly very put out and so they went out, a lot.  But it was last summer with its glorious weather and I was sure they’d come around as soon as the days shortened and the temperature dropped. Except they didn’t.

Now let me be very clear, both Scooter and Diego were typical neutered male cats; affectionate, lazy and very laid back.  They were the cats who slept at the end of my bed, who joined me on the sofa to watch TV, who thought all my meals should be shared and who I know loved me.  Like, a lot.

As winter began to bite harder, Rio had her operation which involved the amputation of the footless leg and I hoped this might soften our lads’ hearts. Rio adapted well and hops around more like a rabbit than a cat. But the lads stayed away.  They came in to eat and if it was very cold, they would stay in and sleep – usually somewhere far away from the rest of us.  But they wouldn’t look at us and worst of all if we picked them up, they actually growled.

That was a year ago and nothing has changed, except we discovered Diego’s new family who live two doors away (he was always lazy). We have asked them not to feed him and they don’t but he still prefers their house to ours.  As for Scooter – we sadly haven’t seen him now for weeks. He seems to have found his new home a little further away.

This is not a funny story but a rather sad one which I hope doesn’t spoil your Sunday. But I share it because it underlines what being a cat companion is all about. They are the boss. Every day they make a choice to share their lives with you and when it’s over it is over. As Ernest said they are absolutely honest.

And yes, I guess we now have a vacancy, or maybe two.  But what we really want is our boys back at home where they belong.  So, if you have any suggestions (based on science or solid experience) please send them this way. And getting rid of Rio ain’t one.

Top left is Rio, right is me and Diego.  And bottom is me and Scooter who never really understood selfies.

HOW TO HANDLE THE LONG FLIGHT YOU WILL NEED TO TAKE TO FIND THE SUN THIS YEAR

So, I know I might be a bit premature on this, but the signs so far aren’t great for a good summer and I am beginning to panic.  I have checked my social media posts from last year and by May the weather was already settling into a nice warm pattern which as we all know continued all through June and July and into August.  We ran out of water, we drank lots of cider and made plans for outdoor events like we were Australians. By September last year, Met Eireann had declared 2018 to be one of the hottest and driest on record.  I know this isn’t good news with global warming and climate crisis and all that but boy, wasn’t it glorious?

However, in our hearts we all know that last year’s long hot summer was an aberration.  Ireland, beautiful and all as it is, is usually wearing a grey shroud of mist and rain.  So, have you thought about what you will do if we get to September and the sun hasn’t really shone? If we face into winter with no tan and no vitamin D stored in our bones.  What then?  By the time winter sets in you will have to travel for at least 4 to 5 hours south to find heat and even then, it can be ropey enough in the Canaries in mid-winter.  So maybe we should start saving now for that long-haul holiday we have always dreamed of.  I’m convincing myself here as much as anything else, you understand?

‘But’, I hear you say, ‘long-haul travel is awful.  All that jetlag.  It’s not worth it’.  Well this I know something about and let me tell you with the right attitude and some advance planning, long-haul travel can be easier than a short haul flight on a budget carrier where you will be squeezed into a seat that is designed for a munchkin, where you will have to stow your carry-on bag twenty rows further down the aircraft which also means you will have to be last off the flight, if someone doesn’t mistakenly kidnap it. Or maybe steal it.

So, what do you need to do in advance of your trip somewhere exotic?

Well the first thing is to sign up for airmiles.  Just in case you get the bug.  Booking flights online is the same regardless of distance but I often use a travel agent to make sure I am getting the best rate on the particular route.

Your long-haul look!

Once you are booked you can start planning for the journey. First up is to organise your long-haul outfit. You need to be as comfy as possible, so soft, stretchy, forgiving fabrics – your PJs maybe?  And wear layers so you can adapt to differing temperatures.  And dark colours – you are far more likely to spill your coffee all over yourself when you’re tired and in a confined space.  Mind your feet by allowing them to breath and expand (yep, feet and ankles are not great flyers as you get older – or maybe that’s just me).  Flip flops or a sandal like a Birkenstock are great, although make sure they are comfortable as you will have to walk quite a distance at the airports. And don’t bother with make-up. You skin will thank you and it will need plenty of moisturising during the journey.

What You Should Carry On

Remember you will most likely be able to check in your luggage in for the entire journey but it’s a good idea to take a carry-on suitcase too with a change of clothes and an outfit or two just in case your baggage gets delayed.

Also, in your hand luggage make sure you have a Ziplock plastic bag with a mini toothpaste, deodorant, a little light cologne, face moisturiser, lip balm and hand wipes.  And remember no liquid over 100mls.

Getting Your Head Together

Then you need to put your head in the right space for the journey.  You do that simply by seeing your journey as something to be enjoyed rather than endured. Because seriously how hard is it to sit on your ass for hours watching movies, listening to music or reading a book while you are fed and watered?

Keeping Body and Soul Together

Speaking of which bring an empty water bottle with you. You can usually fill it from a drinking fountain near your boarding gate and most large aircraft have water taps by the galley where you can refill as you like. And it’s easier to manage a bottle on a flight than the tiny plastic cup you’ll get onboard. Staying hydrated and keeping alcohol to a minimum is one of the keys to feeling good when you arrive at your destination.

Buy some of your favourite snacks at the airport, as airline food can be a bit, well underwhelming. I like to take nuts and some chocolate.

A Bigger Aircraft Is Better

Long-haul means a larger aircraft and so boarding is very civilised as it is done by zone. You sit and wait to be called – no unseemly queuing.  Once onboard you will find both your seat and legroom is better than you are used to and you will likely find a blanket, cushion and perhaps a bag of personal items (toothbrush, toothpaste and eye mask for example), depending on the airline.

Are We There Yet?

As you settle in the first thing you should do is to set your watch to the time at your destination and during the journey don’t allow yourself or your travelling buddies to indulge in thoughts of what time it is at home or what you would be doing if you were there. And do not check the progress of your flight until you really have to.  It’s the equivalent of the kids asking “are we there yet” as you reverse off the drive at home. Don’t do it.

Finally, if you’re a reader take a Kindle as opposed to a book, especially if your eyesight is a bit ropey.  In a dimmed cabin it’s much easier to read an e-reader than a book.

Jet Lag

A word about jet lag.  Try to board your flight tired and nap as much as you can.  I have long since lost my fear of snoring or my mouth dropping open.  During the flight keep focussed on the time at your destination and when you finally arrive, STAY UP. Do not be tempted to have a nap. Power through and go to bed at normal bedtime wherever you are.  I have found that by so doing I rarely suffer jetlag.

Sure just thinking and planning about taking a long trip abroad is nearly as good as a holiday itself.  No, that’s a lie. Start saving now. It’s going to be a crap summer.