Archive for December, 2010

Some of our Anti Room writers share their New Year’s resolutions – what are yours, if any?

Nuala Ní Chonchúir

I am a firm believer in New Year’s resolutions. I know January is not the jolliest month for many but I like it because it’s my birth month. I also love the freshness of the turning year, the way it stretches out in front of you like clean paper, and that chance it gives to be new and improved.

My resolutions are practically identical every year, which, I guess shows that a) I don’t really succeed in keeping them for the whole year, and b) people don’t change much. I believe in simple resolutions – ones that may be semi-achievable. I always start off the year on a health kick, so the first one is generally ‘Eat less, walk more.’ The second is ‘Worry less’, because I can worry about pretty much everything and I drive myself mad with it. And the third is usually along the lines of ‘Be nicer. To everyone.’

This year I am adding ‘Buy less stuff’, which won’t be hard now that we are all so much poorer. And – one I’m less keen on – try to understand Twitter. Ath-bhliain faoi mhaise to all the readers of the Anti-Room.

Arlene Hunt

New year’s resolutions.- Easy. Deadlift 115kilos by June,  squat body weight by same period. Press 30k, push press 50k. Do strict pull ups without band SOMETIME this year, run 10k in under 50 minutes, stretch stretch and stretch some more. Oh, and stop pretending Meanies are a food group.

Antonia Hart


In Listowel some years ago the novelist leading the writing workshop I was at asked us how much we read. How many books? One a month? Two a week?

I answered, ooh, about one a week, usually five a month, knowing the answer because for four or five years I kept a note of what I read. Not the kind of note that comes with star ratings and possible reread dates, just a page for each month, with titles and authors. Not enough, the novelist said, you must read and read and read. But just to get those five books a month read, i had to read in the interstices of my life: stirring the chili, walking to the DART, waiting for the loo, at the school gate. For two or three years, during a miserable patch, I slept with the light on and my thumb in a book, so that if I woke at night I could plunge into some fictional life and not have to lie there in a spiralling fret about my own. Soap operas, alcohol, dope, mashed potato – most people have something to bury themselves in. My book-gobbling is an escapism with a veneer of civilisation. 

Last summer I went to another workshop, led this time by Claire Keegan. I was thirty before I learned to read, she said. Before I learned to read slowly. To take in what I was reading. Read slowly, she said. And when you think you’re reading slowly enough, slow down again.
That’s one of my resolutions for 2011 – to stop gobbling. To read slowly, and take it all in.

Sinéad Gleeson

I have the same resolutions every year, and barely a fortnight into January, they’re a myopic blur. As well as the old perennial “write more, dammit”, which I swear I’ll do on pain of eye-gouging every year, I have yet to see this through. This year, in some shape or form I’m going to get more involved in music, after being coaxed into some vocals for Strands. Given that I’m now partly bionic, I have no excuse for being as unfit as I am. Cue lots of repetitive exercise to 1980s’ Power Ballads. And finally, I plan to seek out more positivity and be less tolerant of moaners, me-feiners, takers and people whose only problems are First World ones.

Aoife Barry

I always look on the dawning of a new year as a chance to wipe the slate clean; to make better anything I may have stupidly done or neglected in the year past; to improve the bad habits of mine that even I loathe; to start afresh, anew. It’s a time to begin new things, to get back in touch with old friends, to finish projects and start learning Japanese or do that singing class I’ve always wanted to do.

Life being what it is, however, things don’t always go to plan, and each new year I’m faced with some eerily similar thoughts to the pervious year. “This year I will be more organised, I promise…I won’t waste money and I’ll stop watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians instead of tidying the house. I’ll look into night classes and start yoga again. I’ll read all those books piled up next to my bed and I’ll bring lunch to work every day. I’ll wake up with a smile instead of a grimace and keep a positive attitude. I’ll even bring out the bins instead of waiting for my boyfriend to do it. Yes, a new me!”

This year, as usual, I do hope to do the above things. But one thing I really hope sticks is that positive attitude that sometimes seems so elusive. Maybe it’ll help me when I spot the bin ready to be brought downstairs…or even prevent me from turning on E! when I should be doing something else.

So if all my resolutions fall to bits, I’ll still have a smile on my face. And I won’t let anyone tell me it’s an upside-down frown.

Eleanor Fitzsimons

I don’t generally make New year resolutions on the basis that I can thus avoid the crushing and early disappointment of inevitably breaking them. However, this year I’m planning to take the kids on weekend day trips in and around Dublin. I’m also going to try to find a couple of decent candidates to vote for in the general election. As good things come in threes I’m going to try to highlight some of the issues and causes that I feel passionately about via Antiroom and anyone else that will have me.

June Caldwell

I resolve to feck the fat and melt the critics in their entirety. A paedophile told me recently, in the snide nasty way that only a paedophile can when faced with evidence of the abuse resurfacing, that I was ‘morbidly obese’. This person, who has been grotesquely overweight [and medieval ugly] all their adult life – with a spouse who fits the ‘two seats in a plane’ category – made me realise that my post-hip replacement fat stores have gone on multiplying like lab bacteria for way too long. I‘ve written plenty about this syndrome before https://www.tribune.ie/archive/article/2008/nov/09/bodymatters-waist-disposal how family members, friends and random gobshites somehow assume power over your BMI when it heads cloudwards. A counsellor woman a few months ago pointed at my knockers and spluttered: “What are you going to do about them?” Unprompted. I wasn’t even talking about my weight at the time. There’s nothing quite like being fat/slim/fat/slim no less than eight times in adulthood to fully cognise how the world treats you differently from a Size 10 to a Size 18. Though this time around it is true that my knockers have enjoyed a record-breaking Double F fat finale, which if I was thick as farm mud and lanky and owned a jeep, I’d probably end up with a reality TV deal where people all over the world could watch me eating toast in the mornings and picking up pedigree turds from the lawn. Eight years ago, while living in the inner-city (back when I was an employed house-owner) I lost four stone in eight months, half-starving myself on only half Weight Watchers points, zero alcohol and exercising so manically that I wore down the remainder of my right hip and had to have it replaced, I was truly astounded at the reaction from the locals. People, mainly men: it’s true, who had utterly ignored my blobby self sitting at the bar supping Guinness for nigh on two years, were practically riding my leg the minute I sat down. I had all kinds of offers of romance – even one from the local lithium-laced schizophrenic who was known to talk to street signs when he drank too much – to a local bank robber who suddenly wanted to cocaine-confess all his fiscal crimes, because I looked good in the general rankings. I had a rake of one night stands and partied like a loon before I allowed myself to get angry at teeming hypocrisy of it all: that men can look like pure shit but women have to be wank-fodder to get on in our feeble-minded world. This time I want to get slim and stay slim, for me, for health, for the sneaky life event I have planned in a year’s time and moreover so the sub-humans can look elsewhere for their ‘no life’ snipes: paedophiles, gobshites, non-thinking counsellors and all other brand of pass-remarkables that populate the bus-stop poles, shopping centres, parks, post offices and coffee shops of our green and rotten land…I wish you all a Happy Mind Your Own Poxy Business New Year! Roll on 2011!

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The babyfication of bedtime

Thank you.  No really, you SHOULDN’T have.

Do you think I'm sexy?

Someone I know*, who on the basis of having been in my presence more than once, bought me a gift that makes me wonder if they know me at all. On Christmas Day, (already queasy from a bug) , I unwrapped something that I couldn’t actually believe I had unwrapped. This was Twilight Zone: Christmas Hell, or an evil sort of Kris Kindle. A box of the givers clipped toenails would have elicited only slightly less horror. There it was, in all its cheap brushed cotton glory: a onesie. At least that’s what the Americans call them. Some people also call them Romper suits. To me, they’re adult babygros. The kind I once saw worn in a Channel 4 documentary by over-stressed stockbrokers in New York who paid hard cash to hang out in an apartment wearing nappies and being burped by strict Mumsie types (who were raking it in, by the looks of it).

What fashion demigod has decided that the high street masses should be wearing babygros to bed? I looked at it again. An infantilising piece of androgynous get-up if ever I saw one. My husband’s reaction was almost as priceless. Imagine me suggestively leaning against our bedroom door, clad in this red number? He’d sooner throw himself down the stairs than go near me, I’d wager.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ungrateful. But this gift was also given in a non-ironic, un-Post-Modern way. It’s not like jokingly buying someone a sovereign ring, or a Sacred Heart picture (complete with red bulb for the heart crowned in thorns). Nor was there any chuckling as it was handed over. There was a distinct lack of “Ah, gotcha – here’s your real pressie!”. No, the kind-hearted giver felt there was a onesie-shaped hole in my life and that I would like nothing better than sitting around dressed like a sleepy toddler.

It’s creepy enough that most adult women’s pyjamas come patterned with teddy bears or Minnie Mouse. As someone whose body temperature is usually somewhere on the reptilian scale, I’m all for being toasty, but this babyfication is a step too far. I say we should fight this scourge before they start pedalling us couture lingerie made out of Pampers.

* definitely not my husband

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We won’t be posting much over Christmas, so while we’re off eating our own weight in Cadbury’s Roses, watching Doctor Who and Upstairs Downstairs, and trying to stop children and pets climbing the Christmas tree, we’ll leave you with these memories of Christmas past from several of the Anti-Roomers…


There is no other point in the calendar year that has a mythology quite like Christmas. It’s essentially the trophy cabinet of memories and, if you’re lucky, a place that is home to lots of our happiest moments. Settling on a definitive Christmas to write about proved tricky. There are multiple childhood ones, including the year we all got bikes. My brother’s Santa belief was shattered after hearing my poor dad, sweaty and swearing,  trying to wrestle a Raleigh racer through the porch doors at 3am. Then there are the adult ones: trying to explain to my parents the expensive underwear bought for me by my first boyfriend; the much-anticipated visits home from my older brother who lived in Australia; the American man I spent three days with the previous summer who wrote twice a week and flew to Dublin to ask me to marry him; the year I felt off-colour, not realising a clot the size of a tennis ball was forming in my lung (hello, leukemia!); the Christmas week I lost my job and my husband proposed on the same day; my sixth month old son in a Santa babygro. The latter ones have their own significance, but one momentous Nollaig has become lore in my family. It was the early 80s and is burned into the collective Gleeson memory as “The Year of the Millennium Falcon”.

Few kids born in the 1970s were immune from the intergalactic lure of Star Wars. As an only girl with two brothers, I was no different. We watched the films and cried when Yodo died (I also did when Luke Skywalker got his hand chopped off, but mainly because I had accidentally locked myself in a toilet in the Ambassador cinema). Like all good devotees, there was merchandise binging. We had an X-wing Fighter, Darth Vader’s TIE-fighter, an AT-AT walker and a cardboard Death Star, complete with moveable wall for recreating the garbage crushing scene. We had figures with brilliant names (Hammerhead, Boba Fett) and challenging faces (Admiral Ackbar, Greedo) and I owned three different Princess Leias. It never occurred to me that a) there were no other significant female characters in the films or b) that I was as entitled to own Lando Calrissian as Leia. Regardless, hours were spent making up our own games, using various parts of the house as locations (a hollowed out beanbag made an ideal pit of Sarlacc).

That fateful Christmas, we asked for Han Solo’s ship, the Millennium Falcon. It was the ultimate in Star Wars memorabilia – there was nothing better. Three letters were duly dispatched to the North Pole, hoping that the triple request would be as powerful as crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. On Christmas morning, we raced downstairs with our bleary-eyed parents in tow. Santa had arrived and been good to us. Three sets of eyes swept the room in panic – where was it? Not wanting to seem ungrateful, we didn’t say a word and happily opened our other gifts. My brothers smiled cheerily but could barely hide their heart-dropping disappointment. In our kitchen, there was a second Christmas tree and my dad, in one of his unsubtlest moments, feigned curiosity: “I wonder if Santa left anything in the kitchen?”. Sure enough, under a fake silver tree, there she was: the “ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs”. There was collective screeching. One brother leapt on my dad with a hug. The other one started crying. It was the childhood equivalent of winning the Lotto or bagging an Oscar. Such crazy joy over a lump of grey plastic. A few minutes later when we had all held it – awestruck, examining its fake floorboards (for Han Solo’s smuggler runs), the chessboard and the cockpit – clarity kicked in. My younger brother asked my Dad what we were all thinking: how he knew it was in the kitchen? Coughing to buy time, his brain conjuring a response, he stared at the ship. “Oh, I, er, came down in the middle of the night to get a drink of water and spotted it”. We all nodded understandingly. It didn’t matter whether we believed him or not. The Millennium Falcon was HERE.


Christmas morning 1981 at some ridiculous hour: I’m padding about half dressed amid a jungle of wrapping paper, Lego kits and stray Sindy shoes. Santa’s bounty unwrapped; my siblings and I dabble in the delights of selection boxes while appraising new treasures with chocolate-smeared fingers. My mother is feigning surprise at the existence of some Star Wars figure or other while drinking tea anad my father is behind a camera recording it all for the years to come.

These dated images now act as a kind of festive barometer of living, of how life was and how life is.

Mam, at 32 in green cord dressing gown and sleep-tousled hair smiling at the chaos and wincing at the high-pitched shrieking of her four young children. She looks utterly content.

Christmas 2010, I’m 32 and my Christmas morning will no doubt be further removed from hers at this age than either of us could ever have imagined.

Apart from the happiness.


Stay away from this device during the work Christmas party…

My work Christmas party has been postponed because of the snowpocalypse. I am disappointed, not because I won’t get the opportunity to drink my body weight in free plonk, but because I now won’t get a chance to have a recce at my new colleagues when they are at their most vulnerable. (Insert evil cackle here).

I had planned to stay on the sidelines for this, my first viewing of the office folks with their prosecco goggles on. If I remember work Christmas parties – and I do, patchily – they reveal more about Ted from Accounts in one shot-slamming night than an entire year of nods over the watercooler. Ted doesn’t in fact live with his mother and have a room dedicated to Star Wars toys, all still in their original boxes. Ted plays in a heavy metal band at the weekend and has groupies who have tattooed his stage name – Profane Master of Slaughter – with an ink-stained safety pen on their forearm.

So Christmas parties can be educational. They can also be evil. I agree with the thrust of this article in The Irish Times which suggests that there is not always veritas in vino. Overdoing it on the alcohol can make you do and say things that don’t necessarily reflect how you feel about a person or situation.

True, I’ve been there when someone told the boss that they are a pompous ass and it was clearly an explosion of the frustration they were feeling from having been recently passed over for a promotion. But one year I made a holy show of myself by drinking too much of the free Sexy Santa cocktail on offer and telling a colleague how much they irritated me. I believe it went along the lines of, “Everyone thinks you’re funny, but you earn cheap laughs by making someone else the butt of the joke.” I don’t know where that came from, I didn’t feel that way about the person when I was sober and I spent the next week apologising to them for the outburst.

It taught me a valuable lesson (don’t mix gin with brandy) but it also made me a bit more forgiving to the idiotic stuff I’ve seen others do at Christmas parties. I now feel deeply for the intern who unzipped himself beside the MD of the company at a urinal, looked him up and down appraisingly, and asked, ‘So what do you do?’ Or the girl who vomited on the editor’s wife’s jacket one year and didn’t appear to notice.

I’m still not sure about the guy who kicked me up the backside on the dancefloor another year. It was incredibly humiliating but his work bros told me later that he fancied me. In which case, I wish he had resorted to pulling my pigtails or twanging the strap of my training bra. It would have been no more mature but much less aggressive.

We could probably all benefit from looking at the Christmas work do as if it is akin to Christmas Day with the family. Acknowledge in advance that alcohol and the novelty of informality will lead to tension, sexual or otherwise. And don’t beat yourself up too much if you end up snogging a member of the work family – it might be inadvisable, but at least it’s not illegal.


The Rules of Christmas

Santa always left presents at the end of the bed, and they were never wrapped. Different rules applied in other households but we didn’t question this.

We all had to attend 10 o’clock mass together.

After mass, dad had to spend an agonisingly long time having coffee. Only after he had drained his cup could the non-Santa present opening begin.

No opening until after Dad’s coffee!

All presents had to be put into a gigantic Santa sack and doled out by Dad, wearing a Santa hat – this continued well into the teens and twenties of his offspring.

Nobody could open any presents until everybody had ALL their presents.

We always had turkey soup for lunch, followed by trifle.

Christmas dinner was eaten in the rarely-used dining room.

It was always about an hour later than its originally scheduled time and was accompanied by much maternal fretting about the hotness or otherwise of the food.

Dad delivered his annual speech, always ending with the words ‘Go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís’.

We never once strayed from the turkey and ham formula. Cranberry sauce never put in an appearance.

Crackers could not be pulled until dessert was served – too messy. Pudding was always accompanied by brandy butter. The cake always had the same tiny snow-covered house and giant plastic robin stuck into the icing snow.

Dinner was followed by TV, dozing, possibly a card game and always Roses, never Quality Street.

They were the rules of our childhood Christmas in my parents’ house. We’re all grown up now, and the family is too big to recreate it. We all loved its familiarity, and wouldn’t have changed anything.


My Mum’s one of seven, and throughout my childhood and into adulthood, Christmas was the time when the clan gathered, squealed, argued over who ate the green triangles in the Quality Street, who got the best seat for the Corrie special, whose turn it was to open the next bottle of wine. Christmas, for me, is all about noise, chaos, and family.When I had my own family, I assumed, it’d be just like that.

No fighting over the green ones, now…

Huh. My first Yuletide as a mother found me thousands of miles from extended family, hallucinating with sleep deprivation, walking the floors with a tiny baby who had no concept of sleeping for Santa. Our relatives, eight hours ahead and desperate to see the new baby, had left eighteen voicemail messages by the time we dragged ourselves out of bed. Bowing to the requests to switch on the webcam before anyone became too half-cut to operate a computer, we literally tore through the unwrapping of presents then dialed into Christmas.  There they all were; crammed around the PC in my parents’ spare room, party hats askew, beaming with season’s delights and the slightly surreal experience of watching a baby through a computer (this was 2005, before we all took Skypeing utterly for granted). The webcam panned shakily from one of them to the next, accents and gestures as familiar to me as my own, warmth beaming through cyberspace. It was Christmas.

Then we said goodbye and switched off the camera, and Christmas evaporated. Instead of crackers and daft, generations-old jokes, and someone cooking the world’s biggest roast, we were once again two exhausted foreigners with a bit of tinsel and a magical but non-sleeping infant. It was too much for even my natural optimism. I looked at my husband and burst into tears.  He sent me back to bed, and heroically cooked an enormous roast whilst juggling the baby.

Five years and two countries later, we’re home for Christmas. We’re going nowhere, but we’ve invited everyone we care about to spend it with us. There will be arguing over the Quality Street, and endless cooking, and endless laughter. Our two boys, five and three now, are beside themselves with excitement. Me too. Nobody’s switching off Christmas this year.


I love Christmas. We didn’t have Santa Claus in our house – he didn’t give us presents, our parents did. I’m not sure why that was but I presume it was to do with my parents being very Catholic. Anyway, our Christmases were magical – I loved the ritual of the candle in the window on Christmas Eve; the baby Jesus going into the crib on the morning of the 25th; the enormous dinner; all the goodies; and, best of all, Coca Cola in glass bottles – the glamour! We also had (still have) a tradition that I haven’t seen in other’s homes of having a baby doll in a basket under the tree as Jesus in the manger.

Once baby Jesus is in the crib, you know it’s Christmas…

For years our presents weren’t wrapped then my eldest sister took on the work of Christmas and made it even more magical – beautifully wrapped pressies that went under the tree (tantalisingly) on Christmas Eve. With everyone home (9 of us), boxes of Lemon’s Santy sweets being passed around and Willy Wonka on the TV, life didn’t get any better.

My second eldest sister died on 23rd December nine years ago. That has made Christmas very bitter-sweet for our family but we are still a gang of Christmas nuts. Hearing carols she liked, particularly the old-fashioned ones like Gaudete or Silent Night in Irish, makes me well up in the days leading to Christmas. But once the day itself has arrived, I feel fine. I like nothing more than spending the day at home with my own kids and my husband, staying nicely tipsy for the day and eating half a ton of Roses. Bliss.

Nollaig shona to all the Anti-Room readers.


It is Christmas Eve in Baggot Street, and my mother packs three of her five grown-up children, with our clothes and books and presents, into her car, with the dog draped over our knees having her ears untangled. For the first time I can remember, we are leaving Dublin at Christmas. Darkness has fallen, and the car creeps along the Rock Road with the last of the shoppers taking their wrapping paper and perishable luxuries home to Blackrock and Monkstown and Dun Laoghaire. We have shaken the worst of the traffic by the time we turn onto the dual carriageway, and once we’re on the little road through Glenealy and Rathdrum, the drive is a black and quiet one, interrupted occasionally by a flash of headlights pointing to Dublin.

Fresh from the (hotel’s) oven….

I don’t know how to celebrate Christmas in any way other than the way we always have, with pillowcases and morning Mass in University Church, or Clarendon Street if we’re late, which is not unheard of, and then the aunts arriving for turkey and vodka and tonic, bringing unnecessary extra puddings and tins of Quality Street and boxes of chocolates. Christmas is about ritual and tradition, the deserted, Sunday feeling of town, hot baths with crumbled bath cubes, and lying on the carpet watching television in the peaceful certainty that on this day of the year no unexpected visitor will ring the doorbell. My father doesn’t care for unexpected visitors. Christmas is not about a rural laneway whose apparently dead end leads to a half-restored house which is not yet properly wired, nor plumbed. The only electricity available is from a single temporary flex and power point into the kitchen, into which we plug a gangboard and as many appliances as we dare.

Christmas is not about stepping into the pitch dark garden to go to the loo in a bush before bed – or worse, waking in the middle of the night, and finding yourself unable to put off a torchlit garden wee. But my parents have given up their city life for Wicklow, and Christmas will be where they are.

When my mother finally makes the sequence of gear changes that I have come to recognise as meaning we’re arriving at the gate of the house and descending the rutted drive, I am ready for the moonless night with the big torch that takes a battery as thick as my thigh. I struggle out of the hot car into the shock of freezing Wicklow. The car is parked on a slope, and the door swings shut against me and bangs my hip, so I am already muttering when I rummage in the boot for my rucksack and all the extra plastic shopping bags I’ve brought for this stay. I hear my father’s voice raised in greeting, and turn to the house for the first time. Soft yellow light spills from every window. I have never seen this electricity-free house lit like this. None of us has. Inside, we find that my sister and father have put tealights and candles on every windowsill and table. They have lit two vast fires, and somehow outwitted the chimneys so that hardly any smoke stings my eyes. The dining table is laid with the same pale Italian tablecloth and napkins I’ve seen every Christmas I can remember, and shines with the same polished silver and huge crystal goblets from which we are now judged old enough to drink wine. It looks like some sort of medieval feast, and is by a distance the prettiest start to a Christmas I have ever had.

“Thank God we don’t have electricity,” my father says, when he’s filled the glasses. Despite the fires, it’s so cold in the house we have kept our overcoats on, and I have to push my scarf down from my face to take a sip. “Spoil the effect entirely.”

My mother carries her glass up the steps to the kitchen.

“You might feel differently tomorrow,” she says. “Christmas lunch isn’t going to appear out of nowhere.”

“Quite right,” he says, “it isn’t. It’s going to appear from the Woodenbridge.”

“The hotel?” I ask.

“Yes. I’ve spoken to the head chef, a marvellous fellow, and all we have to do is bring the turkey down ready to go into the oven, and in it’ll go, along with their own turkeys, and out again when the time comes, crisp and golden, and we’ll streel down to collect it.”

This is exactly what happens. We have two-ring electric hob from someone’s bedsit, and a strange electric cooking pot from someone else’s, which we plug into the temporary socket. We put the vegetables on when the call comes from the chef at the  Woodenbridge, and they are ready by the time my mother comes back up the hill with the hotel-cooked turkey, a vast 18-pounder. My father is delighted with the arrangements and says it has taken all the trouble out of Christmas lunch. Later, we peer at the evening Trivial Pursuit dice, trying to make out the numbers in the candlelight. No-one has the heart to tell my father that the chef has said this is the last year they will be open for Christmas. I think we are all wondering whether we’ll have a functioning oven by next year.

Given the choice of lavatory over oven, though, I’ll take a lavatory every time.

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World Book Night

Fancy getting 48 free copies of a book you love, to distribute to people who want them?

World Book Night (two days after World Book Day) are giving away a million books (multiple copies of 25 selected titles), and yes, 48 of them could be through you. 20,000 volunteer book-givers – passionate readers who want to recommend a particular title – will receive 48 copies of one book from the WBN list, and will pass them on individually to people they think will enjoy them.

The rest of the books will be distributed by World Book Night staff, to hospitals, prisons and other institutions.

World Book Night 2011

The 25 titles, chosen by a committee chaired by James Naughtie, are:

Kate Atkinson – Case Histories
Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin
Alan Bennett – A Life Like Other People’s
John le Carré – The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Lee Child – Killing Floor
Carol Ann Duffy – The World’s Wife
Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Seamus Heaney – Selected Poems
Marian Keyes – Rachel’s Holiday
Mohsin Hamid – The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Ben Macintyre – Agent Zigzag
Gabriel García Márquez – Love in the Time of Cholera
Yann Martel – Life of Pi
Alexander Masters – Stuart: A Life Backwards
Rohinton Mistry – A Fine Balance
David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas
Toni Morrison – Beloved
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun
David Nicholls – One Day
Philip Pullman – Northern Lights
Erich Maria Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front
CJ Sansom – Dissolution
Nigel Slater – Toast
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Sarah Waters – Fingersmith

You won’t be able to wrap them in brown paper and string and leave them under the Christmas tree, because giver selection is not till January. World Book Night is on Saturday 5th March 2011, and the t’s and c’s state that givers will be throughout the UK and Ireland, so if I can bypass the mandatory postcode entry I’ll be making an application. Harder than you might think, though, to come up with 48 people you know who’d all love, say, the Heaney poems, or would take the necessary leaps of faith to make it through the early parts of Cloud Atlas. I’ve certainly recommended books to 48 people, but I don’t know if I’ve ever recommended the same book to 48 people before (except maybe the wonderfully funny Cold Comfort Farm, which most people handed back in confusion), and I’m not sure how genuine my “personal recommendation” will be, when the reason I’m giving the book away is because I have 48 copies of it and I’ve promised to.

I suppose when it comes down to it World Book Night is not so much a celebration of reading and the joy of sharing your personal favourites with your 48 most intimate friends, but a clever word-of-mouth marketing scheme by publishers. But hey, more power to their elbow. Not everything that makes money for someone else is wrong, and a million free copies of those 25 books floating about in the world aren’t going to make it a worse place for my children to grow up in.

Thinking of applying? What book would you choose? I can’t decide.

Update, 5th February: I’ve just heard that I was successful in my application for the Selected Poems of Seamus Heaney. Very happy to give copies away in response to begging emails.

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Andrea Corr & Stephen Brennan as Jane and Rochester

I have to admit I was sceptical when I heard singer Andrea Corr was to play Jane in The Gate’s dramatisation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, adapted by Alan Stanford. Jane is the original Plain Jane and Andrea, as we know, is far from plain. However, I’m glad to say that she does a good job of the role in a very enjoyable production of the play. Corr’s superstar looks can’t be completely played down, obviously, but her petite frame, austere hairstyle and simple, grey dress make her physically credible as the orphan governess Jane. Corr has a slightly heightened style of acting – giddy almost – whereas Jane was a more self-contained, serious character. Having said that, Corr excels when raw emotion is called for in the role – she is genuinely moving in the scene, for example, where she and Rochester are forced to part.

Stephen Brennan is a solid and convincing Rochester, if a tad too old to pass as merely ‘over forty’. His skill as an actor though soon lures you in and you forget that he is meant to be younger. He’s a big man (as Rochester was) and together with Corr’s slightness they certainly look the part together. Brennan delivers all aspects of his role well: Rochester can be gruff but he is also warm and funny.

Deirdre Donnelly is excellent as the older Jane, she narrates the story onstage and she is a deep and emotional actress who brings gravitas to the whole production. Other stand-out cast members include Donna Anita Nikolaisen as Bertha Mason, Rochester’s secret, disturbed wife who is locked in the attic and escapes to do mischief. We are introduced first to Bertha’s eerie laugh and elegant, dance-like movements and, later, to her rage, which Nikolaisen manages to make very frightening. My one quibble would be that the lighting is always dim when Bertha is onstage making it a little difficult to make out exactly what she is up to.

Bruno Schengl’s bare set – with everything painted silver – leaves the actors free to be the main event, and Léonore McDonagh’s costumes are of the period and often beautiful – particularly Jane’s white chemise and lace veil, which point to her innocence and purity. Thankfully some of the book’s sub-plots were left out – Jane’s is a long story – as they play lasts a hefty two and a half hours (with a short interval).

The Gate is an intimate theatre – it has a cosiness that our other Dublin theatres lack and there is always a great atmosphere and buzz there. The audience the night I was at Jane Eyre was very responsive, laughing at all the humorous bits and staying attentive when that was needed. The anticipation for the famous line – ‘Reader, I married him!’ – was like a breath being held and huge applause broke out when Deirdre Donnelly delivered it, with an enigmatic smile.

The play runs until the 15th of January, though the run may be extended, and it makes a lovely seasonal night out when you’re finally sick of all the alcohol and pudding. Tickets can be bought here: The Gate

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I generate a lot of leftovers and love the challenge that they bring as I hate throwing food out.  Towards the end of any one week I have at least two types of vegetable which need to be used up before the compost heap gets them. I recently made a delicious gratin with potatoes, pancetta and some Montgomery Cheddar. It is dainty with punchy flavours and I cannot wait to make it again on a larger scale.  I think it would be perfect for lunch with a side of salad, or as an accompaniment to a piece of simply cooked white fish.

Ingredients: (For two as a starter/side salad)

3 Chopin potatoes (but you could use any good all rounders like Desiree or King Edwards).

100g Smoked Pancetta, in small pieces
1/2 Savoy Cabbage – I used the lighter green inner leaves which were left over
75g Strong Cheddar, like Montgomery or Heggarty’s




Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Lightly grease the inside of a gratin dish with butter or vegetable oil. Slice the potatoes into 4-5mm slices, pat dry and season with freshly ground black pepper. (Note as the pancetta is quite salty, I do not add any additional salt to this). Saute the pancetta pieces until they are slightly golden and using a slotted spoon remove them and set aside. Add the seasoned potato slices to the pan with the pancetta fat and toss fro a few minutes in the hot oil. Take each (cleaned) leaf from the cabbage and cut out the central stem leaving 2 drop-shaped leaves. Boil the cabbage leaves for no more than 2 minutes in boiling salted water and then drain and plunge into cold water to stop the cooking process.  Pat dry and set aside.
Assemble in an oven-proof gratin dish with layers first of potato, then cheese, then cabbage and then pancetta – and repeat until all the ingredients are used up ending with a healthy sprinkling of cheese. Cover the dish with a tinfoil, you could use baking parchment, and bake it for about 30-40 minutes in the oven. Remove from the oven and leave it to cool for about ten minutes.
You can serve the dish straight to the table or turn it out onto a wooden board and serve it in slices – I also pressed a circular food cutter into some of it today producing a perfect, neat accompaniment to fish. I am really looking forward to making this in a bigger quantity with more layers.  I will experiment next time with the addition of onion and perhaps a sprinkling of capers, and I do think that one could substitute the pancetta for some delicious flakes of smoked haddock. If you get there before me, let me know how it turns out.
Elizabeth Wheeler blogs over at Wheeler and Company. She is an architect by formal training and a cook by breeding.  Her blog is the result of friends and family phoning at every hour of the day and night looking for recipes and inspiration – it is a catalogue of things Elizabeth loves to cook and eat. Twitter:  @wheeler_company

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If  you don’t have a ‘real’ nativity to go to this year, complete with tinsel-haloed angels and grumpy four-year old consigned to playing stable animals, here’s the next best thing. Digital nativity.

There’s so, so much about this that makes me laugh, possibly more than it should. Google Maps and its ‘Avoid Romans’ route finder box. The way Mary emails Joseph in the manner of a thirteen year old waiting for her mates outside Claire’s Accessories in Dundrum. And, my favourite of all, @StarOf Bethlehem64’s Twitter profile: ‘Follow me to #worshipthebaby’.

So sit back, get your Kleenex ready, and prepare to enjoy the oldest story of them all:

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The ECHR judgement that Anthea McTiernan wrote about so eloquently yesterday has highlighted the journeys made every year by Irish women seeking abortions in the UK. Here one of those women, Molly McCarthy, tells her story.

It’s with great joy I hear of the ECHR finding that the courts were not the appropriate place to determine the course of a woman’s life. I’m sure as I type various groups are scrambling to decry the imposition of Europe in our ‘private’ Irish affairs, for abortion is something we cant talk about, for fear of judgment, judgment of those who never had to look at that option.

I made friends with a neigbour in an apartment complex when both our children were very young, at some stage she fell pregnant by her partner and decided that she couldn’t cope with another kid. She made the decision to terminate the pregnancy and to my current shame I let the friendship drift, I couldn’t reconcile the act with my supposed morals.

Less than 12 months later I was pregnant from a one night stand, she had moved away and I had to take stock and decided that two  children under four on my own would not only destroy me, it would hurt my child, my family and any prospects I had of rebuilding my life to provide for my son.

I had been pregnant already in less than perfect circumstances. I had intended to give the baby up for adoption, the guilt at the prospect of not being able to provide everything for my child was so great I was willing to part with him. As time progressed I felt different, I had to come clean and tell my parents, albeit at 8 months the shock of revelation is still a sore point to this day. His father was a lovely guy that slept on the floor of the hospital for 3 days as we couldn’t afford anything else, hardly the luxurious welcome I wanted for a new baby, but we survived. I nursed him and held him and was more in love with this child than I thought possible. I still am. His dad died suddenly when he was 18 months old, I fell apart, the boy was the only source of happiness, my rock, I lived for him, for I did not feel like I was worth living for any more.

Deciding to have an abortion less than a year after my partner’s death was the only logical step, I could not mentally, financially or physically take the strain of another baby. My G.P. counseled me against it, would not support my decision or help me get information. My stubborn streak kicked in and all of my Catholic school brainwashing was abandoned. Because an abortion is a personal decision, it’s something you can only truly understand and know about if you are in that situation. I’m not a ‘hard’ person, I don’t hate life, I love it, but I needed to look after MY life there and then.

Less than a week later I dropped the boy at a friend’s house, drove to Dublin, got a flight to Liverpool and had a procedure. I was 9 weeks pregnant that morning, that night I returned home happy. Happy seems an odd word to use here, but I was, walking out of the clinic, staffed by Irish nurses, full of Irish girls in similar situations, I felt that I had started to do things for myself, that I had looked after myself instead of somebody else for the first time in a long time. I do not now nor have I ever regretted what I did that day. I would help and support any woman to do the same.

I begged and borrowed to travel quickly, my sympathies are now firmly aligned with girls who cannot afford such a luxury. I could not imagine the pain of having to continue a pregnancy any longer than necessary for anyone who is sure they can’t continue it, the additive costs of flights, transport, fees as well as accommodation for some people is not within reach. We have abortion in Ireland, we just happen to do it next door. Abortion is something you can only understand when you are faced with a pregnancy and have no other choices, I had been there and bought the t-shirt as far as ‘other options’ go. My abortion is not something I talk about, which seems to be the code amongst women who do not regret it. All one hears is the horror stories, full of regret and pain and morality warnings, I have none of those, I skipped into John Lennon Airport that evening.

Perhaps if everyone could recount their abortion tales we would have a little more balance to the pro/anti choice debates, perhaps a bit more compassion and understanding, and I’d probably have another friend.

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The Irish Times published a number of adoption related stories in recent months, one about how new legislation has affected current domestic adoptions followed by a more personal piece regarding three women who gave their children up for adoption. But it was a letter from one Father Con McGillicuddy which has caused me to brood a little on the subject. Father Con thought it ‘sad’ that women who did not want to be mothers chose abortion when there are – as he put it:

“There are many pro-life agencies such as Cura available to help women with unwanted pregnancies, providing guidance and facilities towards bringing their children to birth; children who could then be adopted by couples who would give them a happy life.”

All of which is laudable, except for one thing. For those women who travelled to the UK it is not just about what to do with a baby at the end of the pregnancy, but that they travel because they do not wish to be pregnant in the first place. They do not wish to be pregnant for 40 weeks, or go through an unwanted labour or deliver a child  and hand it over to strangers.

While I have nothing but sympathy for any woman or man longing yet unable to have a biological child, it is extremely questionable to suggest that women in a crisis pregnancy automatically become incubators for the childless. And while I take no umbrage with the sentiment behind what he wrote and agree that we ought to be supportive of women in crisis pregnancies, I feel we ought to be supportive of ALL of their decisions. I certainly think it is shameful that we as a nation are so eager to stick our heads in the sand while we export our problem to the UK. Five thousand women. Five thousand.

Father Con is right, it is sad commentary, but I doubt we feel that for the same reasons.

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Living overseas, as I did for most of this decade, has all sorts of random benefits.  My favourite? From time to time, you get to experience the kind of thing that seems like it must have been made up for tourists, except that no tourists are within a 15-mile radius. At a trade fair in Anchorage one February (ever want to see the Pacific frozen over? Alaska in February’s a decent bet for that), I became entranced by an old man in a coat made from a bear he’d shot and killed himself. The man wasn’t that entrancing, nor is the fact that he’d shot the bear, per se. It was more that, you know, how often in your life are you ever going to meet a bear hunter, let alone one dressed for the sub-zero temperatures in a little number he’d skinned himself? I couldn’t stop stroking it (the COAT, you filthy people), much to the appalled amusement of my beloved colleague.

Last December, our final one in Dublin I had a similar moment. It didn’t involve culturally-appropriate clothing – no cloaks of finest peat for the Irish – but it was one of those things that had extra significance for happening in Ireland. I discovered that the *true* Irish national anthem is, in fact, this song:

I was in a cheesy club with some of my favourite people on the island. It was the early hours and, as they say here in a gloriously euphemistic manner, there had been drink taken. In other words, the entire place was full of rat-arsed Irishfolk holding each other up as they brought the place down. Right towards the end of the night, on came the Pogues (not literally, though that would have been an even better story). Every. Single. Person. in the room suddenly pulled themselves together, stood upright as if at Mass, and burst into pitch-perfect, declamatory, Shane-McGowan-style-swaying song. It made me beam, and beam, and beam some more. OK, so most people know some part of this song, but to be in an entire room of locals all belting it out as though Christmas depended on it; that was something I had no idea would happen.

It gives me goosebumps and makes me giggle every time I think about it. A year on, back in stiff-upper-lip England, we’ve got the song on permanent repeat this Christmas. Need to make sure our Irish-born three-year-old is word-perfect before his passport’s revoked, after all…

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