Turn into a greased baking tray, for your own sake


THE legend about Home Economics was that you could get an honour in it in your Leaving Cert without doing any study. Even boys – even the kind who were archetypes of domestic ineptitude – were able to distinguish themselves in the field of Social & Scientific. After all, each of the questions could be answered with either common knowledge or common sense. Anyone could do it.

This legend turned out to be completely untrue, and the memory can still produce a small flare of embarrassment. It is possible to flunk Home Economics, and to feel even more ridiculous in the eyes of your peers than if you had applied yourself to the study of it and failed creditably.

I vaguely remember a question about the spoiling of fish, and some arcane lore to do with lipids. More distinctly I remember insisting that oak panelling would be a cheap and easy way to decorate a wall. What ho, Cuthbert, fancy a spot of tennis? The examiners must have assumed I was too posh to do anything other than simply marry well, and reasoned that a good Leaving would be neither here nor there in my case.

As a student at an all-girls’ convent school, the study of home economics was compulsory, at least for a year. After that you could give it up and go back to using safety pins as a fashion statement instead of a tool for holding bias-binding in position.

Interestingly enough, Physics was not a subject at that school, and nor was Honours Maths, and there was only one computer, which none of us was allowed to touch. But let it not be said we would leave school without being able to coax the flavour from a bit of silverside.

Our teacher was Sister Regis. Picture a stout, durable torso, a decisive nose, glasses on a chain, cankles, the works. Now imagine the effect on such a woman of the emotions brought on by teaching an unwilling remedial student for several months. First disbelief, then fury, then resignation, then pity and finally, at the end of the academic year, a tiny, barely perceptible flicker of amusement.

We were set to the task of making a gingham apron, which naturally meant buying some gingham cloth. I acquired a metre or two of some sort of satin lining material in a memorable shade of midnight blue, and decided it would do. Sr Regis was put to the trouble of exchanging it.

Sr Regis was also put to the trouble of taking the measurements, cutting out the pattern, stitching it together, attaching the binding, laundering it and pressing it. On the last day of term I tried the apron on. “It fits very well,” remarked Sr Regis, “though I say so myself.”

But Home Economics, once disdained by young women with ambitions beyond a wedding and a nursery and the gradual accumulation of a jewellery collection, has made a comeback. Deirdre Madden’s former Inter Cert textbook, ‘All About Home Economics’, has been reissued by the author’s daughters, in response to clamorous demand.

Life, as Shirley Conran said, may be too short to stuff a mushroom, and certainly I’d wager it’s possible to make your way happily and productively into your dotage without ever finding out what forcemeat is. But you always have to clean the windows. So it is that we uppity girls go crawling back to the Ms Maddens and Mrs Beetons, begging forgiveness and help.

“This recipe says I have to turn into a greased baking tray. How am I to do that?,” you whine, adding: “By the way, this show of weakness doesn’t mean I’m with you on the subject of margarine. You’re on your own with the margarine, Missus… And the pig’s cheeks.”

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is full of rigorous instructions, none of which involves lying in your own filth with a bottle of wine, even though that is the most likely consequence of reading it.

“Cold or tepid baths should be employed every morning,” she exhorts, although allowances can be made if you’re sick with the ague or the pox or the gout or whatever.

On preparing chicken, she instructs: “First, catch your chicken.” And she is quite severe on the subject of trivial conversation: “Trifling occurrences such as small disappointments, petty annoyances and other everyday incidents should never be mentioned to your friends.” Heavens, how is a person supposed to put together a newspaper column?

Mrs Beeton also has exhaustive advice on the treatment of servants, but that’s just for the oak panellers among us. The rest of you can go back to your spoiled fish.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 27 November 2011 

Tinfoil hat Chartists


IN the political equivalent of rainbows and puppies, US president Barack Obama recently introduced a virtual petitioning system allowing the ordinary American to nail her grievances to the door of the White House. Look at that: an administration that appears to combine Martin Luther King and the best of Martin Luther. What could possibly go wrong?

The idea behind the ‘We the People’ feature on the White House website (whitehouse.gov) is that if you can gather 25,000 signatures for your cause in 30 days – the minimum had to be raised from 5,000 because the administration completely underestimated the number of crazies out there – then you can get the president to act on it.

Well, when I say “act” on it… “White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response,” says the website. In practice this means that, after all your hard work rallying supporters – you might spend days, nay weeks, toiling away on Facebook for this – you’ll be rewarded with a generous serving of fudge from some staffer.

The feature was launched at the end of September, so the responses to the first petitions have been fluttering out from the White House in the past few weeks like so many vacuous greeting cards.

“The US government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet,” came the response this week to twin petitions on that subject. One asked for an “immediate disclosure of the government’s knowledge of and communications with extra-terrestrial beings”; the other asked the White House to acknowledge an extra-terrestrial presence “engaging” the human race. But thank you for asking, said the White House. They’re so glad you asked.

There have been ten responses so far, including the one about aliens which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is likely to have no force whatsoever in dislodging the Roswell Incident from its position in the hearts of American conspiracy theorists.

The administration has also waffled a bit about reducing the operating costs of the postal service; promised action on student debt; refused to legalise marijuana ; said “that would be an ecumenical matter” (or words to that effect) about references to God in public life; and twice explained why it can’t comment on court decisions.

We the People is gaining around 31,000 new signatures a day. Last Monday, a petition was launched urging people to “fight” for Parrot, a pit bull cross who was shot by a policeman in New York. “What the officer did was wrong and we need to stand up for Parrot. It is not right what the cop did,” writes the petitioner. Admittedly the circumstances of the shooting look a little suspect, but even the petitioner must realise the poor dog is past help now. There’s nothing Obama can do for an ex-Parrot.

And already the thing is beginning to turn in on itself. There’s now a petition to “actually take these petitions seriously instead of just using them as an excuse to pretend you are listening”. More cleverly, another has been launched demanding “a vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this petition”.

You get the idea. There are more tinfoil hat types than Chartists, and more champions of legalised marijuana than anything else. The issue arises in half a dozen petitions, and the response by Gil Kerlikowske, director of America’s national drug control policy, indicating that the administration is not for turning on the subject, has led to another stream of petitions calling for Kerlikowske to be fired. The entire exercise begins to look like an object placed between two mirrors: it reflects nothing but itself, and keeps getting smaller and less realistic into infinity.

Still, it’s tempting to wonder how a similar system might work here. What would we petition the government about? We the people would like to know what in heaven’s name you think you’re doing. Why did you claim not to know who the Anglo bondholders were? Can you fix the pothole outside my house? Do you seriously believe it’s the welfare system that’s the problem? Is Michael Healy-Rae a real person? What do we really know about rendition flights through Shannon? Job Bridge: are you having us on? What’s the going rate for a favourable planning decision these days? Would you kindly acknowledge that actually we didn’t all party? How do you plan to dispose of Gay Mitchell?

Of course we’d have to ask about the UFOs in Boyle, Co Roscommon, as well. And obviously Jim Corr would have to be barred; he would just hog it. But when you think about it, it becomes clear that we do need a ‘We the People’ system here. Freedom of speech is so diverting, even when it’s meaningless.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 13 November 2011