Books To Pass The Time By

As the options for leisure have been extremely reduced since Dublin and then the country went into Level 3 covid restrictions, I thought it might be useful to share some of my book recommendations from the past 8 months.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell – First up is this tale of fictional band Utopia Avenue as they make their way through the swinging sixties. The book is structured so that each chapter is named after one of the group’s songs from their two albums. In fact the albums are both split into “side 1” and “side 2” in a manner which provides comfort to those of us who can remember such things! So we learn about lead singer Dean Moss’s humble origins and troubled upbringing which he uses as inspirations for his lyric-writing. Dean and Elf Holloway, the folk vocalist with a weakness for toxic males provide the heart of the band with the enigmatic lead guitarist Jasper de Zout providing the soul while battling his own inner-demons (sometimes quite literally). Griff is the drummer from Yorkshire and let’s leave that at that. The rise and fall of the band is told with refreshing zeal including chance encounters with Bowie, Lennon, Joplin and Jerry Garcia along the way. When I first came across David Mitchell I assumed it was the same David Mitchell from one of my favourite off-beat TV programmes Peep Show but no, this David Mitchell is a totally different chap who many will know from his most famous novel and subsequent film adaptation Cloud Atlas. In Utopia Avenue he successfully brings us through high and lows, love and loss, recriminations and forgiveness while keeping the music at the core.

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black (John Banville) – Now I’m not sure why John Banville decided to start writing crime fiction or why he felt the need to choose a nom de plume (probably something to do with damaging the very earnest Banville brand) but I am very glad he did. Christine Falls is the first in the Quirke series of crime novels. I was about to write detective novels but then Quirke isn’t a detective but a pathologist with a curiousity and nose for the truth. A widower with a harrowing childhood and a propensity to drink heavily, Quirke inhabits the dour Dublin of the 1950s, filled with rain and the oppressive power of the church. Indeed it is the descriptions of my hometown Dublin, particularly the areas around the Grand Canal near Baggot Street and Mount Street that drew me into this book. There are sinister undertones everywhere, particularly in the characters who cross Quirke’s lumbering path. Even helpful Inspector Hackett is overshadowed by the powers above who hinder his search for the real truth. Christine Falls is not for the faint hearted as it deals with the death in childbirth of the title character and follows the worrying path of her motherless child. Not usually a fan of crime novels, I would heartily recommend this novel although do not make the mistake that I made of reading the fifth in the series first as it will give away a major plot twist (damn you Eason’s bargain basket). PS no I haven’t seen the tv series with Gabriel Byrne.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – I read this one back-to-back with another huge international bestseller, American Dirt and my emotions towards each of them couldn’t be more different. I loved the detailed and almost hypnotic descriptions of the natural world in Crawdad’s coming of age tale set in the North Carolina marshlands during the 50s and 60s (American Dirt, not so much). The author seamlessly interweaves two timelines detailing the difficult and often fraught upbringing of the heroine (Kya) and then her subsequent trial for murder. Racial and social tensions are present throughout the story with the one constant source of comfort in Kya’s difficult life being Jumpin’, a put-upon black man who sells gasoline for boats. Together they battle the prejudices and whims of the local white townspeople. The pacing is excellent and you are constantly kept on edge as to how Kya’s story will end.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – Last but definitely not least is the finale of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy about the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who became the key advisor to Henry VIII during the reformation (and associated beheadings). By the time this book starts we have already said goodbye to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn with Jane Seymour about to become queen. Now we see Thomas at the peak of his powers with a seemingly endless stream of titles and properties. Mantel’s detailed and intricate writing makes it feel like we are almost under the skin of the main character while he schemes and plots to keep the favour of Henry while his enemies become more numerous and vindictive. It is said that Mantel spent an extra two years writing this significant work because she couldn’t bring herself to end Thomas Cromwell (spoiler alert – Cromwell was himself beheaded in 1540) and as an avid reader of the trilogy I almost wished there was more to come. Although at over 800 pages there was plenty in this one to keep me going!

I hope you find my book recommendations useful and any feedback is much appreciated. As an aside I’d like to thank the staff at Drumcondra library for keeping a steady flow of books coming my way even in these difficult times.

The Lost Bastille Day

It was Bastille Day last Tuesday and I must admit that I shed a little tear, for you see in a parallel universe without Covid-19, myself and my family spent le quatorze sunning ourselves in a Brittany camp-site with the prospect of a long French summer stretching out before us. Please forgive me this metaphysical musing as I’ve been watching The Umbrella Academy so timelines which avoid armageddon have been playing heavily on my mind! For you see, this summer was supposed to be our big break in France, our grandes vacances. For the first time in a while the stars had aligned to make this possible, I am obviously working at home so free from the constraints of annual leave while Niki (my wife) had organised for 6 weeks of parental leave in order to immerse ourselves in La Vie En Rose for the majority of the summer. Well I say immerse but really we were going for two weeks to the aforementioned camp-site and then for four weeks to a holiday rental is a small French town. So not quite a year in Provence but hey, it seems like paradise when I think about it now.

Myself and Niki have a strong affinity with France, we both studied French as part of our degrees in university. I enriched my soul with the works of Camus, Baudelaire and Victor Hugo while Niki learnt the French for Balance Sheet, Profit and Loss account and that most French of pastimes going on strike! But that’s not the real reason we have a such a strong personal connection with L’Hexagon (as the locals call it). You see when we first met in the bustling Market Bar in downtown Dublin all those moons ago, I’d say that the small chat was faltering slightly until Niki mentioned how much she loved Paris, “moi aussi” I declared. Suddenly cupid’s arrow had been notched and dispatched, the rest as they say is history.

In truth I think the plans for this year’s getaway were sown five years ago when we enjoyed a tremendous family holiday / life enhancing experience travelling to New Zealand for the wedding of Niki’s brother. On that occasion Niki was in the middle of a career break and I had a boss who was about to retire and thought nothing of allowing me take 6 weeks of annual leave over the Christmas period. Our trip which took in Singapore, Sydney and Hong Kong as well as the delights of New Zealand (both North and South islands) was truly remarkable and the fact that we were able to to share it with our 3 boys made it even better, although some of those long car drives across the rolling hills of the land of the long white cloud did drag. There were only so many times the boys would be impressed by another hawk sighting, “where are all the kiwis dad?” was a common refrain! The tales of that trip have been keeping us going through the many struggles of modern life, come on everybody let’s not have another fight about bedtime and daddy will regale you about the time we saw all those waterfalls in Milford Sound! However we felt that it was time to refill the book of family stories.

So five years down the line we have added another member to our happy crew and while the boys were keen for Ella to experience New Zealand, we decided to plump for the less expensive and slightly more convenient (memories of the endless flights with kids in economy class flashing across my brain) option of France. Now I’m not saying that myself and Niki were completely aligned in our visions of how this holiday was going to take place. Niki envisioned a full immersion into French culture whereby the boys would journey through vineyards to the local village and return with baguettes, croissants and tales of how Monsieur Bonmarche from the boulangerie had controversially won the local boules / petanque competition with an illegal over-arm throw all spoken in perfect French of course! I simply wanted a warm place where I could read a few good books, taste-test a few of the local organic beers and occasionally indulge my slightly unusual fondness for hypermarkets!

But alas it was not to be (but at least we got refunds), now all we have are the dates on the calendar telling us when we should be boarding the ferry, checking in to the camp-site, getting the keys for the house, etc. (I am always a bit trigger happy when it comes to putting stuff into the calendar in case it slips my over-crowded brain) cruelly reminding us of the joyful times that we are missing out on. But hey Aaron’s swimming lessons are back on so I can look forward to 6.15am alarms on Saturday and we have 3 days in a hotel in Galway in August if the country hasn’t gone into lockdown again by then! In the meantime I’ll just keep my French play-list on repeat, “Joe Le Taxi”, “Je ne regrette rien” and of course “Voyage voyage”.

Hallelujah, Kids GAA Training is Back!

The boys are back GAA training with our local club Na Fianna and it is a joy to behold. More importantly, it is a great to see my three boys playing with and against boys of their own age / size instead of constantly battling against each other. Now I’m all for a bit of sibling rivalry and I recognise that this has been around since Cain decided that he didn’t like the cut of Abel’s jib, but the last 3 months have been a never-ending competition (primarily football matches) between Team A, made up of myself and my youngest boy (Oscar 7), and Team B, my two other sons (Aaron 11 and Lochlan 9). This arrangement is far from ideal as it typically boils down to Aaron and / or Lochlan knocking Oscar over while trying to get to the ball and then daddy knocks Aaron and / or Lochlan over in retaliation (sometimes this retaliation is pre-emptive). Everybody gets grumpy about being repeatedly knocked-over which leads to “escalations” and daddy picks up the ball and brings everybody home! So much for the joy of spending more time with kids during lockdown. Ella (3) hasn’t really gotten involved in matches yet (apart from one unfortunate incident when she stood in the goal at the wrong time) and will occasionally take corners but I could sense that this wasn’t really cutting it in recent excursions to the park! Occasionally we would try something that is less contact based such as frisbee, but it would only be a matter of time before the elder boys would get jealous of Oscar’s impressive throwing technique (I think I may have found his niche) and fling the disc at his head from close range.

So it was with great excitement (for everybody) that the boys headed back to training last Monday. I didn’t even mind that the scheduled training times clashed with our usual dinner time (as an experienced chef, meal timings are very important to me) or that Aaron and Lochlan’s training times overlapped with each other meaning the family had to depart to different areas of Glasnevin simultaneously. In pre-covid days, this would have seen me sweating while continuously refreshing my friend / wife tracker app to see if Niki would make the trip from her office in Dublin city centre to the suburbs in time, but at least now that she is working from home I only have to track her coming down the stairs (working from home has some benefits). In the new normal, there are some extra requirements to complete before training such as hand washing and sanitising (much much sanitising), updating the boys’ health status on the GAA app and repeating the mantra not to share anything, in particular water bottles, but essentially it is back to boys running around a field, getting some exercise and having a good time. That definitely doesn’t take away from the huge level of organisation and commitment that comes from the mentors who make sure that everything is run like clockwork. From what I can see, the sessions over the past week have been some of the best, and after speaking with one of the mentors, he reckons that the boys are being really well behaved because they are afraid that training might be taken away from them if they don’t! Amazing how absence makes the heart grow fonder! Also the pitches are in the best condition that I have ever seen, with pristine lush grass that wouldn’t look out of place on the PGA golf tour in the US!

It is also noticeable how the boys all seem to have sprouted an inch or two, shoulders are broader, hair is longer or extremely short for those who have access to a barber’s razor! Most interestingly I have observed that some of the boys accents had changed during the past three months. Obviously spending more time with parents (many of whom have their origins outside of the greater Dublin area) meant that those with more musical ears now have a lilt that would be best described as rural or simply as culchie by us Dubs. It brought back memories to me of how after my year in Oz during my 20’s I came back with an intonation that would always go up at the end of a sentence as if every statement was a question (see “Australian Question Intonation”). Thus causing no end of amusement among my so-called friends!

Another advantage of the return to GAA training is that it provides a signpost as to what day of the week it is during summer! In my youth you could always tell what day it was by the programmes on the television, Glenroe on Sundays, Thursdays for Top of the Pops, etc., but with modern Netflix culture, programmes are watched randomly throughout the week and now with live football matches on every day, even the weekends are hard to distinguish! So double training means it is Monday, training for Lochlan equals Thursday, Aaron on Friday and Oscar on Saturday, at last the calendar has some meaning again.

Now I’m sure there will come a day when we will look outside and see those typical symbols of an Irish summer i.e. grey clouds and drizzle and the groaning about potential physical exercise will start. But for now I’m just basking in the joy of return to some sort of healthier normal. Thank you Na Fianna!


Our Guardian Angel of the Lockdown

The last 3 months of lockdown have been hard for all of us. As a family, we have made it through it largely unscathed and hopefully can now look forward to better times ahead (without a dreaded second wave, fingers crossed). I’d like to say that the reason we were able to persevere was a strong sense of parental common purpose, with a consistent approach to keeping the kids occupied and no small bit of love, but undoubtedly I’d be lying. Yes we kind of ticked some of those boxes, but the reason we survived lockdown is mainly down to my sister-in-law Orla or aunty Orla as she is known in our house. At the start of lockdown, Orla found herself to be in housing limbo, in between apartment rentals. So when we agreed that she could stay in our spare room, I think she was under the misguided perception that we were doing her a favour whereas in reality it was completely the opposite!

Orla is my wife’s youngest sister and despite the fact that she works for the dark-side (AIB), she has always been held in high regard due to frequent babysitting and organised day trips with the kids for birthdays (the fact that she is a big Liverpool supporter is also a big plus in my book). However the last 100 days have been on another level altogether. Now I won’t go into the intricate detail of how managing the home-schooling of three primary school boys is a pretty full-on job and isn’t really compatible with simultaneously minding a 3 year old (including frequent toilet breaks and endless requests to go upstairs to interrupt mommy’s non-stop work video calls), but the release valve of having Orla there has been a godsend. Just when I’m about to lose the rag altogether, Ella (my 3 year old) will ask if she can go and visit aunty Orla’s room. Being a female, Ella is quite adept at perceiving when Daddy is near boiling point and in particular when it is best to vacate the area, a gift her brothers are certainly not blessed with! In fact towards the end of lockdown, Ella wouldn’t even bother to ask and would just disappear into Orla’s room for hours on end happily building a pillow fort and playing with her toys.

The other area where Orla has excelled is by entertaining the boys by playing board games at the end of her work day. I’m not sure if you are aware what it is like to play Monopoly with 3 hyper-competitive brothers, well I can tell you that in the words of John Barnes advertising a well known sports drink “It is 90 minutes of pure hell!” and I say that as a hyper-competitive board game player myself. All board games quickly descend into an endless squabble over rule technicalities, illegal dice rolls and occasional cheating. In the end, whichever brother wins (normally the eldest) will gloat without shame while the other two will spend the next hour in a huff. Despite this set of unattractive circumstances, Orla would continually step up to the plate and become the perennial board game victim (just like Dr Black in Cluedo) allowing myself and Niki some precious minutes of piece and quiet, well unless it was Trivial Pursuit in which case I would happily join battle with my progeny (strictly only first answers accepted).

All parents will know that kids bedtimes are a traumatic time full of complaints, stalling and general misbehaviour. The usual scenario is that after half an hour of cajoling, threats and eventually physically dragging our kids into bed, myself and my wife would collapse into the sofa downstairs. Eventually one of us would glance into the kitchen (let’s be fair it was always Niki) and see that all the post dinner cleaning still needed to be done. Like zombies we would trudge towards the kitchen (me trailing behind Niki or being pushed by Niki depending on my motivation) to finish the daily chores. That all changed once Orla arrived, while we were fighting the good fight upstairs she would be cleaning up, doing dishes and even hoovering like some magical genie summoned from a lamp but without the blue skin! Then as the cherry on top of a very tasty ice cream she would compliment the chef (usually yours truly) on a very tasty dinner and I’m directly quoting her here “I like all the food that is cooked in this house”.

The benefits of having an extra adult in the house didn’t end there. The fact that we had a live-in babysitter meant that myself and Niki could actually leave the house at the same time without a whole troop of kids tagging along and this did occasionally happen (twice for a jog and once for a takeaway date as per my previous blog). There was also an extra person to go to the shops when we inevitably ran out of milk (I always underestimate how much milk 4 kids can drink!), or bread or cheese or other staples.

So where is Orla now? Well she departed our house at the end of June and was last seen in an isolated cottage on the Wicklow and Wexford border (this is true). Undoubtedly recuperating and recharging her batteries and probably just enjoying the sound of silence. Come back soon Orla, keep away from that tricky property market for as long as possible, the guest room is “Orla’s Room” from now on.