Two events were to bring home to me the fact that I had finally grown up in the eyes of my parents.
The first was a cri de couer from my mother: she needed my advice on arranging a dinner party for the family’s first meeting with my youngest sister’s prospective mother-in-law, who was a formidable old bat. You have to understand that my mother, although by no means an intellectual (to put it in the kindest way possible!), was the smartest cookie on the block when it came to throwing a party, what to wear on certain occasions, table manners, etiquette and the like. So, to have her ask me, her least favourite daughter, how she should handle a potentially sticky social situation, was HUGE.
My second symbolic rite of passage into adulthood was a phone call from my father, wondering if I might have the solution to a clue in the Irish Times cryptic crossword that had stumped him. My Dad was an out and out genius with crosswords. When he lived in London during the Blitz, he would begin and finish The Times crossword on the 10-minute bus ride between his digs and the Imperial College of Technology, where he was studying for a post-graduate diploma in aeronautical engineering. And he did it while holding up his end in a lively conversation with the friend who told me this little gem at his funeral.
I adored my father, and yearned for his approval. But, somehow, I just never seemed to be able to meet his expectations. I was supposed to be the smart one in the family, the kid everybody expected to breeze through school and on to university, where I would excel and graduate at the top of my class. But the reality was very different.Â Although my school work was a doddle, I was also a lazy sod, who would go to any lengths rather than study. And even if I did come home from school proudly brandishing a second place in some test or other, my Dad would frown and wonder aloud why first place seemed to be beyond my grasp.
I think he was trying to goad me on to greater effort, in his own extremely undemonstrative way. But it had the opposite effect; there didn’t seem to be any point in trying, since I could never measure up. At least that was how I justified skiving off from classes at every opportunity, hopping the wall of my very expensive private school to meet boys from a nearby school and snog with them in the back row of the cinema. This kind of escapade led to me failing my exams miserably, and prompted the nuns to recommend transfer to boarding school – their polite way of expelling me.
That didn’t work either, and I continued on my merry way, flouting school rules, blowing through my allowance on novels and sweets, failing to pass exams or to matriculate to university. Then I crowned it all by getting myself expelled from the secretarial collegeÂ where I’d been sent to learn typing and Pitman’s shorthand. This had been my mother’s solution, when my exasperated parents were at a loss as to what they should do with me. (There was no point in hoping I might marry young; when I was only 12 years old, my father told me I would die a spinster, because no man would tolerate such a smart-arse.) Mother felt that a secretarial course would give me skills that would always be useful. (Which indeed they were, thirty years later, when I finally made it through university. I took verbatim lecture notes in Pitman’s, which I would later type up as a memory exercise. I remember that the shorthand intrigued the hell out of one rather dim young woman – who really should have been in typing school rather than university. She leaned over my shoulder in class one day, and asked me why I was taking notes in Arabic!)
As it happened, when Dad called to ask about that crossword clue, I was working as PA to the CEO of a public company. So I guess my mother was proved right, although I ended up there by a circuitous route, through au pair in Germany, shop assistant, barmaid and receptionist in Britain, and a series of dead end temp jobs back in Ireland. And she was proved right yet again, when I emigrated to Canada two decades later. The only job I could find at first was clerical, and my shorthand and typing speeds blew the socks off everyone.
But I digress. You probably lost the thread long ago, but, believe it or not, the topic of this post was supposed to be crosswords. A few months ago, I tweeted something about a cryptic crossword, and a friend of #1 Son responded that, although she considered herself an intelligent person, she just could not do cryptic crosswords. I tweeted her back, something to the effect that all she needed was a wide vocabulary, a mind full of useless information and a slightly twisted perspective on things.
It was just one more brief meeting at the public crossroads that is Twitter, but it struck a chord with me. Although I do a couple of cryptic crosswords every day, and several on weekends, I used to be like my Twitter friend @snosk – at a loss to understand why, although I was widely-read and had a large vocabulary, I just could not do cryptic crosswords. Then, one day, I decided that, although the cryptics were beyond me, I could still enjoy the Simplex crossword, and to hell with the cryptic smart-arses. And guess what? That eejit, Malcolm Gladwell, was right – practice really does make perfect. I’m not sure if I put in 10,000 hours at the Simplex crossword (although it felt like it – secretarial work can be very boring!) but eventually I began to sneak a look above the fold to the cryptic and I discovered I could solve four or five of the clues. That, of course, whetted my appetite and I began to spend more time poring over the cryptic and ignoring the Simplex, until finally, I solved an entire cryptic crossword. I was so proud of myself. And, for the first time in my life, I got the impression that my Dad was proud of me too.
I’ve been following with interest the ongoing debate about what the headline writers are now calling “the R word,” as in retard. The issue was given new impetus when White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who is famous for his foul mouth, referred to liberal activists as “fucking retarded.” He brought down on himself the wrath of disability advocates and a sharp rebuke from Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics, not to mention a Facebook tirade from Sarah Palin, who never saw a bandwagon she didn’t want to jump on.
As a card-carrying logophile, I have mixed feelings on movements to ban the use of any word. On the one hand, I think political correctness can all too easily run amok: remember the fuss when a political aide to the Mayor of Washington DC used the word “niggardly” to describe a civic budget? On the other, I understand how painful the impact of words can be, especially when they are bandied about thoughtlessly. On yet another hand, if I had one, that is how most of the human race employs language, nine times out of ten. (I leave it up to you whether or not to include lawyers in the human race, which might affect these odds. Pardon my lame joke. Which, by the way, illustrates the problem, since ‘lame’ is another word with the power to offend.)
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me! Nyah nyah nyah nyah!” Remember shouting those words on the playground … and then going home and crying your eyes out? It’s a huge lie; names can hurt like hell. But name-calling is just the tip of an iceberg; the real problem lies in people’s attitude to disabilities and to those who live with them. I had a very tiny taste of this attitude myself, many years ago, when I suffered some nerve damage during a spinal fusion and needed crutches to get around for a few months. Because I was not wearing a plaster cast or bandages, the crutches aroused intense curiosity in some people, who would debate aloud the possible reasons why I might need them. On one occasion, when I was on the train to work, a couple of women sat across from me, wondering what was “wrong” with me, and whether I should even be on a commuter train if I was “seriously crippled.” When I leaned across to explain why I was using crutches, they were quite offended at my interrupting their “private” conversation. Later, I mentioned the incident to a friend of mine, who had polio as a child and uses a motorised scooter. He laughed and said “You didn’t know? ‘Cripples’ are all deaf!”
Some of the bloggers in my blogroll have disabilities. Although society would lump them all together as ‘disabled,’ they are, in fact, a disparate bunch, with very little in common. FWD/Forward is a feminist blog with a number of contributors. As a feminist myself, albeit of the old bra-burning school, I find their points of view refreshing, trenchant, often provocative and sometimes shocking – which is how I believe feminists should be.
Planet of the Blind is another blog I like. It’s co-written by a professor of creative writing and disability studies at the University of Iowa and his wife, and also has a number of other contributors. It’s topical and interesting, and I highly recommend it.
We may think we’ve come a long way from the days when children born with disabilities were shut away in institutions, or displayed in exhibits for the ignorant to gawp at. The reaction of the Canadian media, during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, to Alexandre and Frederic Bilodeau proved otherwise. As I read the front page stories, salivating over Mr Bilodeau and his brother, I turned to The First Husband and said “WTF? (or words to that effect) Is the man a hero for winning a gold medal [assuming any normal person gives a shit!] or for acknowledging his brother, who has cerebral palsy, in public? This is sick.” Anna, a FWD/Forward blogger who takes no prisoners, wrote a terrific post about it. I hate to say it, but it was pretty damn’ inspiring! (Sorry, Anna.)
The first was to maintain the weight loss I had accomplished last year. Losing weight and getting fit were my only resolutions for 2009 and I managed to shed a quarter of my body weight and have my doctor tell me “whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!” (Hooray) But now I have to take New Year resolutions seriously. (Boo)
My second resolution was to make a real effort to keep in touch with friends, old and new, real and virtual. For the latter, of course, I have to keep this blog current. (Hooray) Â But here I am, last day of January, making my first post of the year. (Boo)
My third resolution will very probably be the death of me. I was drunk daft enough to resolve in front of witnesses that I will not buy one single book until I have cleared my shelves, tables, desks and floor of all the books waiting to be read. At last count, there were 231 books in that category. (Hooray) Since January 1, I have managed to read only nine of them, which means I can’t buy any more books until the end of 2011. (BIG FAT BOO)
For me, not buying books is like an alcoholic taking the Pledge or a crack addict becoming a nun. My friendly online bookstore, (cough) Indigo (cough), which has just declared its first ever operating profit, might even go bankrupt, while the Canadian consumer spending index will dive.
Family legend has it that I have been reading since before I could speak. The story goes that my father came home from work one day and found me, a mute three year old to that point, sitting on the floor in the middle of the Irish Times. Why I was mute is a story for another time. Suffice to say that, when he enquired of my mother what I was doing with his newspaper, both parents were dumbfounded to hear me reply “I’m reading it.” I’d love to be able to say I remember the occasion, but I cannot tell a lie: I don’t. However, I do remember, at an even earlier age, sitting on my Dad’s lap every evening while he read Kipling’s Mowgli stories to me and my older brother and sister. He moved his finger along the words as he read, presumably for my benefit, which is probably how I learned to read. (It may also be the reason I fell in love with my first serious boyfriend when he took me to see Disney’s Jungle Book. Big mistake, but that, too, is a story for another time!)
In defiance of the accepted wisdom that reading to your kids every night will turn them into readers, none of my siblings developed an interest in reading and there were very few children’s books in our house. But we lived next door to a family of book lovers, who gave me free run of their house and the books they had outgrown and stored in their attic. Every day, after school, I would let myself into their house, empty while they were all out at work, and settle down in the attic until somebody arrived home, or I was called to supper by my mother. This routine continued until I was about nine, and had the added benefit of keeping me out of reach of my older sister, AKA The She-Devil. At that time, the man of the house, who had been in a long term care hospital for years, died and the family decided to sell up and move away. But before they left, they presented me with the contents of the attic, including the book cases to hold them.
As you can imagine, I was in seventh heaven. But this turn of events did put me back within reach of The She-Devil. Despite the fact that she was actually a very stupid girl, she never seemed to have any problem coming up with fiendish ways to torment me and, this time around, she found a beaut. We had a black lead range in our kitchen, which my mother kept fired up all day, every day. My sister would sit and watch me reading by the heat of the range and, just before I reached the end of a book, she would grab it from me and hurl it into the coals, using the poker to make sure it caught alight. To this day, I have to make a real effort not to read the last pages of a book first.
I’m partway through Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning. I think I will try to finish it this evening, so that I can say I have made inroads on ten books so far this year. But I will be back. After all, there is that second New Year resolution to keep.
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.
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.
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 questionâ€”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 crueltiesâ€”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 squareâ€”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.
During one of my regular Sunday phone calls, a few years before she died, my mother bemoaned her rapidly fading grasp on reality. â€œI know I was never very bright,â€ she laughed, but with a slightly sarcastic edge to her voice. â€œStill, youâ€™d think the good Lord would see fit to leave me a few brain cells.â€ 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.
â€œTell Anne about Auntie May,â€ was one of them. Auntie May had died twenty years before and my sister Anne had been living in Sweden since the 1960s. â€œGet cigarettes from Jim Byrne,â€ 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 sonâ€™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 husbandâ€™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 â€œI know who you are! Safe home, love.â€ 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.
I have finally reached the point where the light I can see at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming express. The last few weeks have been just one damn’ thing after anotherâ€”none of them major or life-threatening, all of them just gumming up the works, to the point where I haven’t even had time to read a book for weeks, never mind blog. And, as anybody who knows me will tell you, for me, not reading is like not breathingâ€”unthinkable.
But the log-jam is finally coming unstuck and I have a ton of things I want to blog about, not least of which are two wonderful, very different, awards that have come my way in recent days, courtesy of Kate and Smart Mouth Broad. (Please Note, SMB, that I do not “hate it.” I never look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when said nag is saying such nice things about me and my blog!)
Like Ah-nuld, I’ll be back, and soon. In the meantime, here are some interesting tit-bits to discuss among yourselves:
The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, asks the question, Did Clement Freud tell the funniest joke ever told? What do you think?
PBS, bless its woolly little heart, has just launched a most amazing website, on which you can view all kinds of wonderful full-length PBS programs. Best of all, they are available outside the US.
And, last but not least, just in time for Earth Day, Disney Nature Films has released an extraordinary movie about the creatures who are unfortunate enough to share this planet with us. Here is the trailer. Enjoy.