English as she is spoke

December 2nd, 2009 § 8 comments § permalink

Let me state, right off the bat, that I’m no Lynne Truss. I don’t roam the land, armed with a magic marker, correcting apostrophes. Not that I haven’t been tempted, mind. I’m sure it is no coincidence that a street-wide banner in our town, proclaiming IT’S A DICKEN’S OF A CHRISTMAS, fell down during a wind storm. Every time I drove under it, I muttered imprecations and wished it evil. Definitely not a coincidence: just the Grammar Gods answering my prayers. Mirabile dictu, when the banner went back up, the offending apostrophe had been removed. (If you don’t know which one I mean, you probably should not be reading this blog!)

I get it that English is a living language and must move with the times. It’s not as if it hasn’t changed over the millennia. After all, who among us can understand a word of Chaucer in the original? (Okay, smartypants, sit down. It was a rhetorical question!) But I cannot and will not accept that writers can just make up spelling as they go. The rules of grammar may be somewhat flexible; remember when a split infinitive made you shuffle uneasily, waiting for lightning to strike? Which reminds me, I have a rather quaint story about that. Back in the days of steam, during a previous life as an executive secretary, I walked into an all-male meeting (carrying a tray of coffee; how else would I gain admission?) just as my boss burst out “We’ll just have to fucking go over it again!” Shock, horror, red faces all around the table. (I did say this was back in the days of steam, right?) Without missing a beat, Yours Truly, unflappable Girl Friday, pipes up, “Mr D, you really must stop splitting your infinitives.”

But I digress. However flexible grammar may be, as far as I’m concerned the rules of spelling – reluctantly excluding strange American habits like subtracting ‘u’ from words like ‘colour’ and adding syllables to words like ‘preventive’ – are immutable. So I’m mad as a wet cat last Monday when I see, in a so-called quality magazine, ‘shoe-in’ for ‘shoo-in,’ ‘pouring over’ for ‘poring over,’ ‘bellweather’ for ‘bellwether,’ and ‘momento’ for ‘memento.’ Did somebody declare November 30th National Stupid Day and forget to send me the memo?

Disclaimer: No apostrophes were harmed in the making of this post. Any spelling errors are deliberate.

Those were the days, my friends

November 22nd, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

The First Husband and I watched a DVD of this movie last night. In the interests of accuracy, I should clarify that the version we watched was the UK release, which was called The Boat that Rocked. Not sure why they changed the name for the North American release; either the distributors think we’re too stupid to get it, or they believe the word ‘pirate’ has a Pavlovian effect. Whatever. I managed to get a pirated (drool) copy through nefarious channels (Ohai, #1 Son!) of what I believe is the superior version. I’m told the North American release has been edited mercilessly to build up Philip Seymour Hoffman’s role, but he’s not as ubiquitous as the trailer would have us believe.

We quite enjoyed the movie, and absolutely loved the soundtrack, which I was busily downloading from iTunes as we watched. But it was nowhere near the movie it could have been, had the director or producers left out all the stupid girly stuff, and told the real story of pirate radio.

For me, growing up in wholly catlick Ireland in the 1960s, pirate radio was a godsend. Before it came along, the only place you could hear pop music was Radio Luxembourg, which, thanks to something called the Heaviside Layer, didn’t come on the air until after dark. Anyone who was a teenager in the British Isles during that era will remember the names of Barry Aldiss, Don Moss, and Pete Murray, who were some of Luxembourg’s top DJs – a term that didn’t even exist before them. Come to think of it, I seem to remember that the word “teenager” was only just coming into vogue then. Hmm. Suddenly, I’m really feeling my age, for some reason.

Most of us managed to survive with Radio Luxembourg, but we really didn’t know what we were missing, until an Irishman, named Ronan O’Rahilly, launched a radio station that broadcast from an old rust-bucket anchored in the North Sea. Known as Radio Caroline, it burst into my life like a rocket explosion. I was mouldering in boarding school at the time, when I found it by accident on my transistor radio, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I spent the next year playing cat and mouse with the nuns, who thought trannies (which meant something completely different back then!) were instruments of the devil – not far behind books, by their weird standards. Hard to believe, but the nuns once wrote to my father to report that I had been caught reading Jane Eyre. They were complaining to the wrong man; he responded by sending me a copy of At Swim Two Birds, which nearly gave the Reverend Mother the vapours. Much to my father’s delight, I might add.

Despite their best efforts, I managed to keep my tranny hidden from the nuns (Holy shades of Colditz, Batman!) for the remainder of my prison boarding school term, and my pals and I rocked on to the music of Radio Caroline. The scenes in the movie, of boarding school kids jiving and twisting in their dormitories to the music of Radio Rock, brought back some hilarious memories for me. As seniors, we slept in single rooms rather than dormitories (which rooms, I kid you not, were called cells!) and we used to crowd into mine every night after Lights Out to listen to Caroline.

Great fun. And my only good memories of boarding school.

Thy Tears Might Cease

May 22nd, 2009 § 15 comments § permalink

I have taken my title from a wonderful book by an Irish writer, Michael Farrell, which was released in 1963. It was his one and only book, his master work, which he toiled over for years, never satisfied, even after it had been accepted by a publisher. I read it when I was living in Germany, and I have never forgotten the chapters that detail the physical and mental abuse the hero suffered at the hands of the Christian Brothers.

I was reminded of Farrell’s book, when I read some of the horrors contained in the report from the Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which was released earlier this week. I’m not going to go into the details here. Wise Web Woman has written about the report, far more movingly than I ever could, in this heart-rending post on her blog. Commenters there, and on other blogs I have visited this week, all ask the same question—how could something like this happen, right under the noses of so-called responsible adults, to the most vulnerable children? I think the answer to that lies in the kind of world we lived in, those of us who were brought up in Ireland during the 1950s and 60s.

Beatings by teachers, parents, even neighbours were commonplace. There was a general acceptance, promulgated by the Catholic Church which ruled the country with an iron fist, that children were basically evil little bastards who, if they were not severely chastised at every opportunity, would run amok. Although I had many a slap from my mother, that was just because she didn’t like me very much. None of my siblings were ever hit or beaten, by either of my parents, so we were luckier than most. Every kid I knew was routinely beaten by one or both of their parents. I had one friend whose father used to beat her with the flat of a cricket bat, well into her teens. A cricket bat! I can hardly lift one with both hands, they’re so heavy.

The teachers in the national school I attended for the first six years of my education were vicious. We called it “getting biffed,” when a teacher called you out to the front of the class, made you roll up your sleeve, and delivered sharp, stinging blows to the palm of your hand, if you were a girl, or to your backside, if you were a boy. The number of slaps depended on the enormity of your misdeed, and the level of pain depended on the favoured method of the teacher. I remember one nun who used a bamboo cane, which had been carefully shredded on the business end, to deliver the maximum amount of damage. Another teacher, a lay teacher this time, was renowned for using a chair leg to beat the boys in her class. She lived in our village and was much admired by all the parents for her control of said boys. Nobody ever thought to complain to their parents about these beatings. If you were one of the lucky ones, like me, the response was invariably “you probably asked for it.” Most kids lived in terror of their parents finding out they’d been punished by the teacher, as it would earn them another beating at home. Winter beatings were the hardest, as we all suffered from chilblains on our hands, that would bleed after a biffing. Along with the beatings, there were the casual cruelties—being lifted out of your seat by your plaits, as I was on many occasions; having heavy rulers or blackboard dusters thrown at you; getting smacked on the back of your head, just for the heck of it, as a teacher passed by your desk.

My family lived on a square—a private park maintained by the residents. I spent my childhood playing in the square, along with all the other children in the area. If anything got out of hand, a fight broke out, or something was broken, any adult who happened to be passing by would wade in, box every kid’s ears and go on his or her way, confident that the kids’ parents would not mind in the slightest that their offspring had been slapped around by a neighbour. “I’ll box your ears” was a favourite euphemism of the time. Sounds so cute, what was in fact a sharp slap to the side of the head that would leave your ears ringing. Any adult could hand one out to any kid, no matter how young, with impunity.

My cousin, Peter, was educated by the Christian Brothers, a religious teaching order that plays a starring role in the Child Abuse report. They were renowned for their brutality. Peter was a harmless kid, sweet-natured, not a mischievous bone in his body. He was beaten so badly by one of his teachers that he permanently lost the hearing in one ear. So we were all shocked when Peter up and joined the Christian Brothers after leaving school. The Brothers paid for him to go to university, and then on to teacher training school. The day after he graduated as a fully-accredited teacher, he left the order. As one of seven kids, he could never have afforded to go to university any other way. Revenge is, indeed, a dish best eaten cold.

Unlike Peter, my only brother was a fiend in human form. My mother once told me that, from the moment “Paddy” was old enough to go and play in the square, the doorbell started ringing as neighbours lined up to complain about him. The nuns and brothers lathered the hell out of him, but they could not beat the mischief out of Paddy. Even my father put on boxing gloves and went a few rounds with him once, but to no avail. When he was about 12 years old, after several visits from the police, Paddy was sent away to boarding school. Or at least that was the story we were told. Many years later, I learned that he had been sent to Daingean Reformatory, one of the institutions described in the Child Abuse report, after an incident involving a stolen car, a midnight joyride and a court appearance. He spent two years there, after which he was banished to an expensive, very tough boarding school in England, that had a reputation for turning around problem kids. But Paddy remained the black sheep of the family for the rest of his life. Although he made and lost several fortunes in England, eventually retiring at age 40 to become a “gentleman farmer” in Ireland, he was always a lost soul. Over the years, we got used to reading about his latest escapade in the tabloids, until he died suddenly, after a massive heart attack when he was only 44. Reading about the abusive atmosphere in Daingean, I wonder if my brother might have eventually found his path had he not been sent there.

In the Ireland I grew up in, I have no doubt that many adults were aware of the physical abuse meted out to orphans and reformatory kids. And I am equally sure that they would not have objected. If the Church said these kids were evil and needed to be punished, for their own good, well that was just how it had to be. The sexual abuse is another matter. Although there were certain priests in our Parish that all the kids knew to stay away from, if only because there was something icky about them, I don’t ever remember any gossip or rumours about teachers and kids. And I have to believe, if there were, then somebody would have intervened. I have to believe that.

Mothers. Gotta love ’em

May 13th, 2009 § 9 comments § permalink


During one of my regular Sunday phone calls, a few years before she died, my mother bemoaned her rapidly fading grasp on reality. “I know I was never very bright,” she laughed, but with a slightly sarcastic edge to her voice. “Still, you’d think the good Lord would see fit to leave me a few brain cells.” She painstakingly wrote down, in her child-like hand, the things she felt she had to remember, and then spent hours trying to find the scraps of paper on which they were scribbled. After she died, some of them were found, tucked into drawers and books.

“Tell Anne about Auntie May,” was one of them. Auntie May had died twenty years before and my sister Anne had been living in Sweden since the 1960s. “Get cigarettes from Jim Byrne,” said another. He was the greengrocer in the Dublin suburb where we grew up. He, too, had long been dead, and my mother had not smoked for decades.

It was always understood between us that I was her least favourite child, and I returned the favour with knobs on. In a community where appearances counted for everything, I got great pleasure from driving her crazy by scandalizing the neighbours. We rarely spoke to each other for twenty years after I grew up and left home, and it wasn’t until I became a mother myself, that I began to understand her. I’m not sure she ever learned to understand me; but she was such a terrific grandmother, I eventually came to love the woman reflected in my son’s eyes.

She’d had a harsh childhood. Although my grandfather was an alcoholic, he was a gentle and loving man, not at all the drunken father of legend. My grandmother was another matter. Embittered by her husband’s alcoholism, which caused him to lose his business and end up as a jobbing mechanic, she was a ruthless taskmaster to their five children, flogging them for every transgression, however minor. And, in one of those Moebius loops of heredity, my mother was her least favourite child. Mainly to get away from her mother’s anger, she married an army officer from the city. But she was to find herself a prisoner still, tied down by the babies who came along all too soon after the wedding, and the narrow social constraints of army life. Like her father before her, she developed a fondness for drink, as a means of coping.

I flew back to Ireland to see her when she was dying. Her mind was completely gone, and the morphine was no match for the cancer that was killing her. I sat by her hospital bed for a week, burying myself in the Irish Times crossword, while she carried on an intermittent and garbled conversation with someone she could see standing behind my chair. I had tried to talk to her at first, but gave up when I realised that she had no idea who I was, or why I was there.

Before leaving for the airport to fly home to Canada, I went to see her for the last time. As I bent to kiss her goodbye, she opened her eyes very wide, smiled beatifically, and said “I know who you are! Safe home, love.” Then she closed her eyes and slipped into sleep. My husband came to meet me when I landed in Toronto. He told me she had died while I was flying over the Atlantic, safely on my way home.

Is this what Stockholm Syndrome looks like?

May 7th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

I wanted to throw up, watching this. What the hell has happened to Elizabeth Edwards, who used to be a woman of admirable spunk and intelligence? In this Oprah video, she is but a ghost of her former self. In fact, Oprah and Edwards’ rat of a husband don’t even bother to include her in their conversation, referring to her in the third person throughout. On the one occasion he used her name, the rat seems to have a problem remembering it, while she just smirks and gazes at him adoringly.

I remember watching them, during the rat’s Vice-presidential campaign of 2004 and thinking, “There’s a smart, intelligent woman, no great beauty perhaps, who still can’t believe her luck in landing the best-looking guy in college.” (Best-looking to some people, maybe, but not me. As I believe I have said elsewhere on this site, if you look up the phrase “shit-eating grin” in Wikipedia, you should find his picture.)

Normal service will be resumed shortly …

April 18th, 2009 § 7 comments § permalink

In the meantime, for your edification and entertainment, a little amuse bouche

Margaret and Helen

February 17th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

Thanks to Ruth Pennebaker, over at The Fabulous Geezersisters, I’ve become enamoured of the Margaret and Helen blog.

Judging by the hundreds of comments on each post, they seem to be causing quite a stir in the blogosphere. Like Ruth, I strongly suspect this is not really written by two octogenarian ladies who’ve been pals for 60 years. (Shades of that “I’m in love with my best friend” blog that sucked a lot of people in last year, and turned out to be the genesis of a book.) But I don’t care; it is hilarious. And, as you might expect, I just LOVE what they have to say about She Who Must Never Be Mentioned again on my blog.

Wordless Wednesday

January 21st, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

The End of an Error

H/T San Jose Mercury News

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