Monday, 27 December 2010

Day out with six-year-old

With the clock ticking, The Girl and I raced to the theatre from the train stop, me holding her hand tightly as we hurried across the Dublin streets amid the heavily falling snow. We slipped and slid across the bridge over the River Liffey, then through old doorways in stone walls, and down a maze of alleyways to finally arrive just in time to see the panto.

Let me back up a minute. When we first moved here our neighbours talked excitedly about talking their children to this year’s panto, and I discovered you can only smile and nod for so long before admitting you don’t know what anyone’s talking about. Pantomimes, I discovered, are vaudevillian children’s plays, part of the ritual of growing up in Britain and Ireland and especially popular around Christmas time.

A typical panto tells a loosely adapted fairy tale – Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Robin Hood and, in our case, Aladdin -- and contains the following vital ingredients:
1.) A boyish leading man;
2.) The princess he falls for;
3.) A hammy villain, usually with black clothes and facial hair;
4.) One or more middle-aged men in drag;
5.) A backup group of singers and dancers.

Famous actors and pop stars here often take a break from their regular career to ham it up in pantos – BBC actor John Barrowman was in a panto last year, and another this year starred “Jedward,” the Irish singing duo enjoying their fifteen minutes of adoration among prepubescent girls here. This panto’s villain was played by a former member of Ireland’s boy band Boyzone, which had a similar bout of fame several years ago.

While pantos cater to children, with broad acting, bright costumes and clown comedy, the lines are inevitably loaded with lines thrown over the children’s heads at the parents – racy double entendres, pop-culture references and political humour.

This was my first panto, but I suspect this year they threw in many more political jabs than usual. In the last several weeks, of course, Ireland has seen a national bankruptcy, a bailout, a split government, a new election, an emergency budget and a nation of furious voters, and the performers dropped more than one reference to unpopular Taoiseach (TEE-shak, or Prime Minister) Brian Cowan.

Aladdin: Mother, we can take this money and move to someplace like .... Ireland!
Aladdin’s mother: Well, we’ll be the only people with money there.


Aladdin: Look princess - the treasure’s gone! Brian Cowen must have been here!

Back to The Girl and I. I’d booked tickets for the panto, knowing she was six already and would not be a little girl for many more Christmases. Getting to Dublin, though, posed some problems. On top of so much financial and political turmoil, Ireland -- which ordinarily receives only a light dusting of snow once or twice a winter -- has been hit by weeks of snowstorms. Sometimes roads have been completely impassable; we have all missed days of work, and at times the whole country seemed to stop.

You see, we can only leave our property via a narrow one-lane road that runs, with no shoulder or railing, along the edge of a canal, and when covered with ice it is treacherous indeed. One of our neighbours plunged their car straight into the water, and had to be fished out with our neighbour’s tractor. We must drive very slowly, so the nearest village has become much further away.

We started out for Dublin around 10:30 am, three hours before the play was to begin --- the trip ordinarily takes an hour and a half. We drove slowly and carefully to the bus stop, and so missed the bus. We drove fifteen miles to a village with a train station –no train would make it in time. Finally we drove to another village to catch the electric tram, which could take us into the city ... as it turned out, very slowly.

We ran through the streets and made it just in time for the panto, sliding into the box office like it was home plate, and because the weather kept so many people away, we could ignore our tickets for the nosebleed section and sit in the middle of the front row. Panto actors ask children in the audience for advice, and they spoke right to The Girl, to her amazement.

Good things we weren’t a few minutes later; one family was, and all the stage-lights turned on them as they walked down the aisle. All the actors stopped onstage to make fun of the latecomers, and everyone turned out to sing the “You’re Very Very Late” song.

The play had singing, dancing, costumes, a “flying” carpet, puffs of smoke, showers of sparks and, at times, a complete absence of a fourth wall. The children went wild, and as we left she talked about the play excitedly to herself and anyone who would listen.

It turned out the night wasn’t over yet. First we walked down Grafton Street, Dublin’s shopping district, its fairy-tale decorations and light displays peeking through the heavy snowfall. We ran into one of the panto actors quite by chance, and thanked her. The Girl found a mobile phone in the snow, left, it later turned out, by a French immigrant, and we had to track them down -- I called a random contact in France, found someone who spoke English, asked them who had just called them, asked for someone who would be accompanying that person in Ireland, and so on. We eventually got them their phone back.

Then we had to wait for buses that never came, until we got one whose destination was close enough. The normally hour-long ride took four and a half hours, and amid the long wait and stranger conversations, The Girl found a large audience who would hear about her day.

Friday, 24 December 2010

The Moment of Darkness

Originally posted in 2008.

Almost vibrating with excitement, my four-year-old carefully carried ornaments to the pine sapling in our living room last night, cradling each one like they were diamonds. We have decked our halls with literal holly from our land, bought a Christmas goose, and are planning a quiet and intimate family Christmas here in rural Ireland.

Holiday cheer, though, struggles against the long winter darkness in this place – we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, and today there will be seven hours of dull daylight -- and this year, more than most, it also struggles against the world news.

“Papa, Father Christmas lives at the North Pole!” my daughter announced with the confidence of a four-year-old.

Yes he does, I said, wanting her to experience this magic while she can. What is the North Pole like?

“Well, it is covered with ice and ... snow ... all white and cold ...and …”

But someday it might not be. The 2007 ice shocked everyone, shrinking so much that the sea drew near the Pole. That year the IPCC had predicted a new ocean there by 2070. Two months later a new projection said 2030. Two months later they said five years. I'm already talking about Santa Claus; what else should I pretend?

What animals would Santa see at the North Pole? I ask.

“Well,” she begins, “there are polar bears, and seals, and ...”

Perhaps not for long. The polar bears eat the seals that eat the fish that eat the plankton, and the plankton are dying – 73 percent down since 1960. Half the plankton have disappeared since the Simpsons’ first episode. Maybe it’s because the oceans are growing warmer, maybe because they are getting more acid, maybe it's the plastic and chemicals we've poured into the oceans in my short lifetime. We just don't know.

Reality intrudes into other arenas of childhood. I consider showing her Bugs Bunny cartoons with the Tasmanian Devil, and think: the real one is almost extinct. I introduced her to clips of Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly, and she asked, “What is a firefly?”

Fireflies, I explained, are little bugs back where Papa grew up in America, and they light up the night ...

Except not any more. They flickered yellow-green across the grass in my Missouri hometown – you could find your way in the dark by their light. I went back there last year and the nights were black – only a few flickers, and then deep in the Ozark woods.

We put together her jigsaw puzzles of the continents, and I am surprised to see Asia depicted, accurately, without Lake Aral. My childhood maps of Asia are now wrong – that massive lake, the fourth-largest in the world, disappeared in a few decades. Her map of Africa does not show Lake Chad, either – maybe the toymakers are thinking ahead.

We live a strange life, those of us who follow closely the breaking of the world. We look at our kitchens and offices and bus stops and see products of petroleum-powered machines on the other side of the world, transported here in petroleum engines. We flick past the mainstream media every morning and go straight to BBC Science, the Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin, scroll through the allied blogs and listen to podcasts on the bus – all while working regular jobs, paying mortgages and caring for children and elderly, each week filled with the burning usual.

In my case, I am also a father, and I want my daughter to have a decent life in a strange time. I am in my 30s now, but I knew five of my great-grandparents, all born in the 19th century, and my daughter, if she is lucky, may live to see the 22nd. Her life might span humanity's most important decades, and before she is even an adult, the world could grow much more difficult – energy shortages, food shortages, economic collapses and a Malthusian crush. I want her to be able to realize what is happening, and not to be bewildered by a domino line of solitary unthinkables –you can't drink the water here, the power went out, it's not safe there anymore.

As a journalist, I know this is how the mainstream media usually show the world. Civil unrest broke out. Congressional leaders said. Troops encountered heavy fire. Our history books show us where we came from in the same tedious way – Black Tuesday followed by the Smoot-Hawley Tarriff followed by the CCC followed by Lend-Lease. In both cases, the story told is the story of federal policies, generals and brokers, far removed from the details of life, from the millions of activists who pushed change through, and from the ebb and flow of resources that drove the national engines.

As news events unfold in her life, I don't want her to accept them as a string of disconnected troubles – I want her to see that the price spike in oil is connected to the food riots in Haiti, that the plastic wrapper on the celery is tied to the Texas-sized floating garbage patch in the Pacific.

And – while no father wishes grief for his daughter – I want her to be able to grieve for the vanished pieces of our world, not because it is fun or useful, but because it is the right thing to do. Older people are sometimes shocked at what is no longer common knowledge – to high school graduates today, the world before September 11 or Google is as remote and theoretical as Vietnam was to me, or as Pearl Harbour was to my parents. I’m not sure how I feel about the disappearance of two of the world’s largest lakes from the jigsaw puzzle – I want her to learn, when she is older, that they used to be there.

At the same time, I don’t want her to be overtaken by grief. At a peak oil conference in Cork last year I met a man who had journeyed there from Australia on behalf of his teenaged son. His son, Tasman McKee, learned about peak oil in 2005, read the works of the most dire peak oil prophets, joined list-serves that pore over details of a coming die-off, and he became more and more convinced that nothing lay before him but a desperate and despairing future. After a year of this, he vanished, and only after reading his computer files did his parents learn the extent of his obsession. His body was found on a remote mountain two months after his suicide.

I have been getting back in touch with old friends from environmental campaigns, and many have also fallen off the map. Few went as far as Tasman, or as far as a church pastor and Green activist I knew who killed himself a few years ago. But many feel defeated. They had warned of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse for decades – now, some say, it’s started. It’s too late.

I want to spare my daughter this. I want to instil, to whatever extent a father can, the high and driving Spirit, the sanguine craving to restore. Of course it is too late to change everything, and always has been. Everything is too big. But each of us can do something where we are, and there are millions of us.

We could look at the world's troubles and sink into grief, as we could when a fire sweeps through a forest or a flood wipes away a city. But forests and populations generally come back, sometimes better. We can mourn for the already extinct species, lakes and forests as we mourn our dead, but as long as we remain alive we are greater than grief. Nature will return, and with our help can return in time for our species to appreciate.

And for most of the world, it is not too late. Just a few years ago peak oil and climate change were obscure ideas, and they rapidly spread until they broke into the mainstream. We are trying to return to a simpler life, and so are millions of others – the largest movement ever, happening in every part of the world. I want her to know that we are not trying to turn the tide, for tides are natural. What is happening to the world was done by men, and will be undone. I want her to know, as Tasman McKee did not, that she is not alone.

So I try to teach her, in small and playful ways, how the outside world works, and the basic skills she might need someday. The lullabies I sing to her are old folk songs, because unlike pop songs today, they are meant to be sung by ordinary people together, and we might need such things again. When we pick weeds for soup I tell her what little I know of the plants that can be eaten and plants to avoid. I am proud that, when she was only two and was stung by a nettle, she immediately found the nearest dock-leaf in the grass and rubbed it on the sting – she had absorbed that one heals the other.

She loves animals as much as any child, and we talk in detail about where they live, what makes them mammals or birds or bugs, what they eat and what they do for us and each other. For now, it is just a game, but over time, perhaps, she will make connections.

She knows, in recited pieces of theory at least, how to cook, how to make yogurt and sourdough starter, how to compost. In time, I want her to learn how to ride and bridle, speak different languages, hunt, be sceptical, think logically and organize people. I can’t completely predict what she will face, nor can I plan her life, but I can show her a beginning.

But right now she is four, and is waiting for Santa. She patiently takes a single treat out of her Advent calendar each day, she helps make supper and she will fall asleep listening for reindeer hooves on the roof. Christmas is at this time of year for a reason, and not because we know when Jesus was born. It is just after the weakest day and the longest night, when the world prepares to be born again, when we take our first steps away from the darkness and ready ourselves for the arduous season ahead.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Father Christmas, homesteader

This time of year, my daughter has one favourite story: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, the story of Santa’s rounds on Christmas night. It’s one of my favourites as well, if for different reasons.

In this graphic novel, silent but for a few grumbles and greetings, there is no Ms. Claus, elves or secret toy-industrial complex. Father Christmas, here, is an old man living in apparently contented solitude, dutifully venturing out yearly to make his deliveries. He endures storms, fog, sleet and high winds across the world, complaining the entire way and occasionally strengthening his resolve with a drop of liquor.

Such an unsentimental portrait might sound depressing, but it makes Santa more human, and more comprehensible to my daughter, than the usual laughing caricature. Briggs makes him a hard-working man performing a service we value; Briggs could easily be showing the daily routine of a miner, a fisherman or a farmer. At one point Santa passes a milkman also making deliveries, and they exchange pleasantries without stopping – and even on Christmas morning, the milkman must make his rounds as well.

What I particularly like, though, is that Santa seems to live on a homestead. He starts his morning by using the outhouse – at least, it’s a toilet outside in the shed -- and gathers hay for the animals. He is pleased to find two winter eggs from the chickens, and has breakfast with tea. He puts coal in the small stove, similar to the one we use to burn our bog turf. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a vegetable garden or greenhouses out back.

The book doesn’t say where he lives, although children here say Santa lives in Lapland – northern Finland --- rather than the North Pole. From the tea to the Christmas pudding, though, it looks like working-class Britain in the mid-20th century, the “deeply conservative land” that David Kynaston pieces together from diaries in his impressive Austerity Britain. It’s the Britain G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis might have recognised, the life an old man might have lived in Britain when the book was written in 1973.

Father Christmas and Austerity Britain would seem two very different books, but they both focus on the similar cultures, eras and intimate details of living – supper, chores, schedule. Minutiae like this bring earlier eras to life in a way most histories miss, and offer a casual vision of an austere but civilised world that we would do well to revive.

In a small room Father Christmas sleeps under quilts, in long johns, with a hot-water bottle, for heat was precious. The bed-stand looks of rough wood, as though he carved it himself, and on it he keeps his teeth and a wind-up alarm clock. He puts talc powder under his arms instead of modern deodorant. The concept of a carbon footprint was decades away when the book was written, but without adding anything for flying reindeer, Santa’s would be close to zero.

As he makes his rounds, we see English farmhouses by moonlight, and my six-year-old points out the details she recognises --- bicycles, water barrels to catch rain from gutters, sticks crossed in the garden for peas to climb. Sometimes Santa has to crawl out of the stove, for people cooked with wood or coal and the oven went to the chimney.

That world was already fading when Father Christmas was published in 1973, and the encroaching modern world seems to confuse Santa. He struggles to find entry into a caravan – a trailer or mobile home to Americans – and he gets tangled in someone’s television antenna. We wondered about things like this as children -- how many of us had ever seen a home with a chimney, much less a sleigh?

The whole story, of course, made more sense when it was gaining popularity in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most children were familiar with sleighs or lumps of coal, and hung their stockings by the chimney anyway, to dry. The oranges we received in our stockings were meaningless to us in the 1970s but precious to our forebears; they were from exotic lands. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” Mama was in her kerchief and I in my cap because the houses were cold. Children a century ago would not have found such details cryptic, any more than they would stables and mangers.

Today it might seem like that world has been completely forgotten. As we inched up the energy needle, our mainstream culture abandoned most of its traditional holidays -- Midsummer, Candlemas, Twelfth Night, May Day and many more – and swelled Christmas from a night to a shopping “season.” Christmas movies and television increasingly portrays Santa’s “workshop” as an assembly line, while news pundits annually track the spending numbers like telethon hosts.

Yet people can’t completely forget a more traditional world this time of year, not amid so many traditions. It is at this time of year that modern people are most likely to visit family, cook food, meet their neighbours, go to church, bring greenery inside, go from house to house singing, or even watch black-and-white movies from the simpler foothills of the energy needle.

When we take pleasure in these things, we peek through cracks in the wall of stress and excess and see another, older world on the other side, and realise that it too can bring comfort and joy.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Light at the end

Posting to resume soon. Promise.

Photo: Winter sun over our land.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Still here

Stuck at home for a few days with no internet, but now the roads are passable. Last year's Christmas snow was heavy for Ireland, but this has been bizarre -- nothing like it in living memory, say the farmers around us.

We've enjoyed ourselves immensely. I was afraid The Girl would never have a childhood snowman or snowball fight, as Ireland usually receives so little snow most years, but we've had plenty in the last week. Time to enjoy this while we can.

Will post more soon.