On the second Saturday of every month I volunteer with a group that cleans up the Royal Canal. We pick up rubbish on the banks, and in the water of the canal. Dublin City Council has no responsibility for the hygiene or maintenance of either of Dublin’s canals – the northside Royal Canal or the southside Grand Canal. Both these waterways fall under the remit of Waterways Ireland, which relies almost entirely on the efforts of volunteers for rubbish collection. There is not a single dustbin kept in the sections controlled by Waterways Ireland. As I am a frequent walker along the banks, I decided that it was my duty as a civic minded person to throw on a stylish pair of overalls and a hi-viz jacket once a month and contribute to the upkeep of these lungs of Dublin.
Today marked my fifth consecutive month volunteering. In pre-pandemic times it was quite a social activity with many people participating. Since lockdown this has changed and it has become a more solitary endeavour. I possess my own litter picker; refuse sacks and gloves however, so company – while nice – is not essential to complete the task at hand.
I am an adequate cook. By saying that I mean that I am able to function in a kitchen with some basic raw materials. I can usually cobble together something reasonably edible. I make no boasts about being particularly talented or experimental in the kitchen. Before lockdown I had a go-to list of about five dishes I could cook from scratch without referencing a recipe book. That always struck me as sufficient to function as an adult in the world – and allowed a moderately varied diet.
As a single person, cooking can be fairly unrewarding – you don’t want to spend too much effort on a meal that you will consume in ten minutes without a solitary compliment from someone else to reward your ego. Cooking for a large number of people has never been a challenge for me – coming from a family of seven children, I have always been proficient at feeding the masses with the ingredients supplied by my parents. To this day, I still single-handedly cook Christmas dinner for the school of Murphies that assembles in Limerick each December.
Lockdown has changed my culinary narrative somewhat. As all restaurants, theatres, pubs and cinemas have been closed for almost a year, there is no longer anywhere to go in the evening. The evenings can be long. I have an objection to using the delivery apps to bring me food, thanks to how dreadfully the delivery guys are treated and paid by Deliveroo and Ubereats and JustEat. These days I cook at home for myself, seven days a week. Five core meals was no longer sufficiently varied. So I started varying it up somewhat.
For your pleasure here is list of dishes that I had never cooked before lockdown. This list does not list basic staples of pre-covid life such as spaghetti bolognaise; carbonara; green chicken curry etc. It is new dishes. Also I have of course eaten all the below dishes – simply never prepared them myself. ,This post is sponsored by the Marks and Spencer yellow sticker scheme – whereby I go to the M&S shop across the road for my house each day at 5pm and purchase ‘reduced to clear’ posh, Protestant food for a fraction of the original cost, and then immediately transfer it to the freezer for thawing and consumption at an unspecified future date.
Lockdown is tough. It is dreary and stressful trying to obey government instructions on getting through the pandemic. Don’t travel more than 5km. Don’t enter anyone else’s house. Don’t meet in groups outdoors. Wash your hands relentlessly. Wear a mask. Stay two metres distant from everyone you encounter. Only go outdoors for essential reasons. Under no circumstances are you to travel abroad unless Joe Biden invites you. Limit your human interactions. Educate your children from home. We’re all in this together. Blah. Blah. Blah.
I am heartily sick of it. Yet I persist. Not out of any sense of belief in the efficacy of these measures any more. The slogan ‘We’re all in this together’ is a meaningless catchphrase to anyone who lives alone after all. It’s more to do with the fact that there’s little other option. Everything is closed. It’s probably just as boring twenty kilometres from home as it is five kilometres.
Lately the messaging regarding the lockdown is becoming increasingly infuriating. Schools being closed is clearly a hugely, stressful and worrying time for students, parents and teachers. Particularly for those who are sitting their Leaving Certs or for parents whose children have special needs. Clarity on whether exams are proceeding is desperately required for many students. This is utterly irrelevant to me. I don’t begrudge the news monopoly of this story however and it is important and of national interest.
What strikes me as offensive is the complete disregard towards people living alone on the airwaves.
Take today’s Claire Byrne show. This is a daily current affairs radio show on RTE Radio 1, aired from 10am to midday on weekdays. It is presented by Claire Byrne. Byrne is rumoured to have been a member of Young Fine Gael during her college years (Fine Gael being the right-wing Irish Tory party). Whether or not she was a right wing student politician or not is not the main point here. What is pertinent is her bland presenting style and weak interviewing skills on a current affairs show, where politicians and experts routinely appear to discuss the issues of the day. She took over this hugely popular radio slot in August of last year. Prior to her arrival it was presented by Sarah McInerney for three months, following the retirement of long term presenter Sean O’Rourke. I started listening when Sarah McInerney presented the show. She was an excellent broadcaster – well able to cut through the dribbling babble of politicians on the programme. Clearly she ruffled political feathers with her more confrontational presenting style. Bland, processed, white sliced-pan Claire Byrne was drafted in to ask easy questions, and to toe the government line and to give the politicians of Fine Fail and Fianna Gael – the two indistinguishable parties who between them have been in power since the foundation of the state – an easy time. It should be controversial how seemingly compromised the national broadcaster is, when it comes to holding government parties to account.
Yesterday evening I was sent an invitation to join a private Facebook group for members of my secondary school graduation class. This June will be the 30 year anniversary since I did my Leaving Certificate and the organiser wants the class of 1991 to reconnect. The invitation to join is valid for one month. I have not accepted it and I doubt I will be doing so. Until I decline the invitation I can see all activity but they cannot see me. Out of curiosity I clicked on the link to the group – which now has thirty-three members (from a graduating class of 175 people). There was a number of faces I recognised; a smaller number I am already connected to via social media; a surprisingly large number of people whose names I knew, but who for the life of me I couldn’t remember anything about. Other names drew a complete blank.
As would be expected, most of the posts from members were announcements about where their lives travelled – from Limerick to Dublin; from Boston to Brisbane. It was quite a shock to see all these middle aged faces –looking well, but a lot more seasoned than the teenagers I remember. They were a fertile lot, my old school year – pictures of offspring abounded.
Over the past two nights I have watched the new Russell T. Davies show ‘It’s a sin’ on Channel 4. Davies found fame in 1999 with the revolutionary ‘Queer as folk’ TV show which documented the lives of a group of gay men in Manchester. The show was radical in that the characters were not villains or victims – but instead well rounded individuals living unapologetic lives; and engaging in the sex and drugs and rock and roll hedonism of urban, young, gay men. I was in my early twenties and living in Dublin at the time in a flat-share with two other gay guys. Our lives may not have been quite as raucous as the characters on screen, but we had our fun. The show held a mirror up to the lives we were living. Ir was refreshing that the emphasis was not on the message that being gay kills you. The big disease with the little name hadn’t gone away but by the late 1990s, a HIV diagnosis was no longer an automatic death sentence. ‘Queer as folk’ reflected this change in outlook. I loved the programme.
Now twenty years after huge success with ‘Doctor Who’ Davies has revisited the gay life. ‘It’s a sin’ tells the story of a group of young gay men in a house share in London in the 1980s, just as news is filtering through from the US about a ‘gay cancer’ that is ripping through the male, gay community and killing everyone who gets a diagnosis. There’s Colin – a sweet boy from Wales who works in a tailor’s; Roscoe – estranged from his Nigerian family because of his homosexuality ,and working in a bar; Ash – a school teacher; Colin – an aspiring actor from the Isle of Wight; and Jill – an actress of unspecified sexual orientation.
In the final weeks of January semi-live theatre is making a comeback in Ireland.
‘The Approach’ by Mark O’Rowe is being performed live at the Project Arts Centre from the 21st to the 24th January. ‘Happy Days’ by Samuel Beckett is being staged on January 30th at the Olympia. The shows will be streamed around the world. The seats in the theatres will remain empty.
I am currently engaged in an internal debate whether or not to get a ticket for either or both shows. I know that the Mark O’Rowe play would be worth seeing – having attended‘Howie the Rookie’ in the Civic Theatre in Tallaght before lockdown last year I was blown away by the performance of Stephen Jones in the title role of an incredible play. It may be blasphemous to say it, but I’d be more reluctant to see the Beckett play. Perhaps I lack the intellectual ability to understand his work? Having seen ‘Waiting for Godot’ in Smock Alley Theatre, I was slightly bewildered at the hype. Samuel Beckett is like the sacred cow of Irish theatre – a lack of appreciation of his work reveals you to be a philistine. I remain ambivalent about him. However ‘Happy Days’ is being performed by Siobhan McSweeney, who plays Sister Michael to perfection in ‘Derry Girls’ so she’d be the main attraction for this show for me.
Of late I have been watching a lot of Bette Davis movies. Having come to the realisation that while I knew a lot about her career, marriages, rivalry with Joan Crawford; the only films of hers that I’d seen were the classics ‘All about Eve’ and ‘Whatever happened to Baby Jane?’ My mission was to rectify this. This weekend I watched her Oscar nominated performance in the 1941 film ‘The Little Foxes’ and her breakthrough role in the 1934 film ‘Of Human Bondage’ – the film that made her a star at the age of 26. This wasn’t her first film – she’d been knocking about Hollywood for a few years by that stage, searching for that hit film to put her name above the movie title.
One of her earliest films was called ‘Hell’s House’ from 1932. I also watched this one yesterday. At the time Davis was under contract to Universal Pictures. She was loaned out to BF Zeidman’s Production Ltd for this picture. After which Universal dropped her. Which turned out for the best in fact – her next film was her first with Warner Brothers and became a hit. It was called ‘The Man who played God’ and was the start of her reign as the queen of Warner Brothers.
As this strangest of years draws to a close, I am putting finger to keypad one more time to describe my travels in the time of pandemic. My final jaunt of the year taken before the second lockdown was imposed was to Venice as September turned to October. I will preface this post with my usual disclaimer. While traveling to, and while in Venice, I observed all physical distancing, hand hygiene and mask-wearing guidelines. I observed the fourteen-day quarantine period upon my return to Ireland – which as I have previously mentioned is not that difficult when you live alone. I kept this excursion entirely to myself again, not wanting to hear people’s criticism or judgement of my decision to travel. The only person I was placing at risk by my choice was myself, and for the sake of my sanity, I thought my decision was sound.
Each year over the Christmas and New Year period, the Abbey (Ireland’s national theatre) stages a show with an extended run. These productions tend to be crowd-pleasers which suits the time of year, and also act as slightly more adult counterparts to the insanity of the panto season. For the past three years I have attended – ‘Drama at Inish’ last year; ‘Come from away’ in 2018; and ‘Let the right one in’ in 2017. All were wonderful.
It was November 2019. I was sitting at my desk in the Wastelands pondering opportunities for foreign travel in 2020. I wanted to visit places that I had never previously travelled. Destinations in Europe that fit such a description were becoming scarce. With the exceptions of the Baltic countries of Latvia and Lithuania. I went online and booked a trip – flight into Riga on Thursday 9th March and then fly back from Vilnius on Tuesday. A two for one holiday. As March approached there were rumblings about coronavirus. It became very real in the middle of February flying back from Rome. The guards in haz-mat suits taking temperatures of people departing struck an ominous note. In early March I decided that the Plague made it unwise to travel. The air of the apocalypse hung heavy. It felt like Armageddon. I postponed my trip until late August.
If I survived then surely things would be back to normal by autumn. Little did I know. The August flights were not cancelled, and Covid related deaths and infections in Ireland had drastically reduced. I was willing to take the risk to make the trip. Unfortunately Latvia and Lithuania were not so lackadaisical. If I was I to travel I would be expected to self-isolate for fourteen days upon entry. Reluctantly I decided not to travel. Crossing the border between Latvia and Lithuania by bus might be tricky. I didn’t want to get into trouble with the Baltic authorities. Ryanair didn’t reimburse me. Of course they didn’t – it is Satan’s favourite airline. The flight was not cancelled therefore if I was going to be charged more than the flight originally cost if I were to postpone. With a heavy heart the Thursday of departure passed. I remained in Dublin.
The following week felt heavy. This pandemic seemed relentless and eternal. On Wednesday I was staring morosely out the window at the Luke Kelly statue, hissing at the emails from my work customer as they appeared in my inbox. I was idly entering destinations onto the ‘fare-finder’ section of the Ryanair website. This is the section that offers last minute deals. What was this – a Friday to Monday return flight to Barcelona cost 40 euros. I had no intention of going anywhere. Out of curiosity I opened booking.com. What was this – three nights in a pension in the Gothic Quarter for nineteen euros a night? In other words a three day trip to one of Europe’s most beautiful cities would cost under a hundred euros. Departure in thirty-six hours. As if in a daze I clicked on the ‘buy ticket’ button, giving a little yelp of terror as I did so.