Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Wooden Spoon & The Irish Mammy

The Wooden Spoon

The world over, the wooden spoon would symbolise a great tool in the preparation of any nutritious meal. Or even a mock or real award, usually given to an individual or team which has come last in a competition, and occasionally given to a runner up.

The Irish Mammy

Irish MammyFor the Irish Mammy however, the wooden spoon is something altogether different. For the Irish Mammy is a different animal entirely. Loving, generous, fool-hardy, bashful. All these attributes could describe any mother on the planet. 

But the Irish Mammy has many strings to her bow and along with these admirable traits, she processes a strict, stern and disciplined 'Modus operandi'.

Weapon of Choice

Harry Potter and his wand. Similar to the wooden spoonIn the hands of an Irish Mammy, just as Harry Potter uses a stick and turns it into a magical wand, the Irish Mammy transforms this indispensable cooking utensil into a weapon of fierce destruction.

For many years of my childhood, my brother and I lived in fear of the top drawer opening up and out coming the 'Wooden Spoon'. For we knew it wasn't for any baking or cooking it will be used. It was destined for our backside.


Lucky for my brother and I, we were very quick and the swipe of the wooden spoon nearly always missed by the nearest of margins. There were times that my mother was quicker. I always thought that 'she must be practising' because, as time went by, the better she became. Like a apprentice swordsman from yesteryear practising morning and night for the hand of the beautiful maiden. No longer could we escape by the skin of our teeth.

My mother had become a Master Spoonsman (spoonswoman)

Many a wooden spoon was broke over our backsides over the years. There must be a dozen or more shallow wooden spoon graves in our backyard now. It's like a cemetery back there.

Classical Conditioning

The Wooden Spoon. Weapon of choiceLike the sound of a bell would start the dogs salivating rather than the smell of the food in I.P. Pavlov's classical conditioning experiments. The sound of the top drawer opening would spark fear in my bother and I.

Do this day we joke about this while having dinner together be it for Christmas or a special occasion. When my mother has to get something from the drawer she would slowly lift out her old 'weapon of choice' and slyly smile while looking at both of us. Very funny mammy!

Of course times have changed and it is no longer acceptable to hit or even spank your children. And thank God for that. But those were different times.

Wonderful Childhood

My mother wasn't and isn't a masochist. We had a wonderful childhood and I think we have both turned out decent people. I am proud of how we were reared and I will take a lot of the vales and methods with me which will help me be as good a parent as my mother and father.

Nowadays, when the wooden spoon has been removed from the drawer, it is only used in the preparation of a wonderful meal or sweet treat. Thank goodness.

I wonder if there are any substitutes for the wooden spoon used today? Or was there another method of discipline your parents used on you? Please tell. I'd love to hear them.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Simpson’s…Why We Need Them. Why I love them.

For the Love of the Simpsons

The Simpsons Title
Every day, people the world over regale each other with their favourite moments from the show over the last two decades. Everyone from parents to toddlers, businessmen to builders, die-hard fans to casual viewers have opinions on arguably the finest television show of all time. As a long time fan of the show I’m not here to educate anyone on the shows genesis. Or challenge anyone to a quoting competition of their favourite lines in a self gratifying attempt to find the ‘biggest fan’. I simply think now is as good a time as any to ask a very obvious but complex question. Why is it so popular?


The Original Simpsons
Why are ‘The Simpsons’ just as popular now as they ever have been since their first TV appearance in 1987? Perhaps even more so. But crucially, in a world where the majority of the planet has almost instant access to any form of entertainment, from the wholesome to the macabre, why has this simple family based sitcom maintained and possibly increased its popularity in the face of relentless competition from the Internet and Digital TV? Why?


Simpsons sitting on the sofa
Is it because the shows creators employ state of the art animation? Categorically no, the people behind the show are actually proud of their ‘imperfectly hand-drawn doodles’. So much so that while they acknowledge the excellence of contemporary computer animated shows and films they believe their creation’s imperfections are endearing flaws indicative of the care and attention that only comes from hand-drawn animation. The weekly global viewing figures of 60 million people would prove them right! So then surely it must be the comedy writing team behind the animations that keep the show flying high? Partially.


At the peak of their powers the dialogue created for the yellow-skinned folk of Springfield has been nothing short of genius. Biting satire, sizzling social commentary and side-splitting slapstick all delivered with digital watch timing. However, at times, the humour in the show would have been momentarily surpassed by other prime-time stalwarts such as Friends and Seinfeld. And indeed at times the show can even seem dated when compared to the razor-edged wit of South Park and Family Guy. But still The Simpsons remain both the industry reference and benchmark of TV comedy, animated or not. Why? In truth there is no one answer short of a heady mix of serendipity and synergy.

Lisa SimpsonWhen you add the unique ‘imperfectly endearing’ animation style to some of the funniest and sharpest writing ever broadcast you already have the makings of Alec Guinness…I mean Genuine Class, sorry I was never as good as Lisa at that anagram game. However there are other reasons too.

Arrival on our Screens

In the same way that Oasis arrived onto the music scene at just the right time, when people were craving something new and fresh, so to did The Simpsons arrive onto our TV sets just as we were about to switch off because the standard template of the television sitcom had become stale. Animation had reached an impasse and more importantly the most popular characters were impossible to relate to. Prehistoric families and talking cats based on Sergeant Bilko can only divert the attention for so long. Also the ‘live-action’ sitcom had practically reached saturation point. Every channel had endless episodes of nameless shows with laughter tracks and a sickeningly trite and happy ending, complete with a climatic and nauseatingly wholesome message to accompany the fade-out theme tune.
The Simpsons win an award 
Suddenly the clouds parted (literally) and the yellow glow of hope came not from Irelands missing person, the Sun, but from two simple words flying into our sitting rooms, ‘The Simpsons’.  

It’s the Theme Tune that does it…

Whatever the reasons behind their sustained success and popularity, all the analysis and theorising stops the moment one hears that theme tune. Whatever kind of day you’ve had or whoever you’re with, the chances are you will feel centred and at ease wherever you are in the world once the opening credits roll. You know for the next 22 minutes at least you are with friends. Not the Central Perk frequenting type mind you, though a side-swiping parody of the group of New Yorkers is not out of the question! But perhaps the safety and security one feels from seeing everyone from Homer to Comic Book Guy do their thing is key to the shows longevity. After so long on the air the audience no longer thinks of these people are animations, they are characters, ‘real’ people. You know how they are going to react to any given situation. Even though they have not aged in 20 years you have grown with them as they have overcome obstacles, made a stand and always found themselves back at the same point at which they started that particular episode….of their lives.


That’s the key, whatever happens during the show you know these people, you identify with them, can relate to them and moreover you know by the time the credits roll everything is going to be okay. When you add quick fire jokes and slapstick humour into the mix you pretty much have the best half hour of anyone’s day.

The emotional and comedic (not to mention physical) heavyweight of the show is of course Homer and is probably the ideal example of how the show has won the world over and continues to do so. Widely acknowledged as the greatest TV personality of all time, his appeal is as broad as the Atlantic but occasionally there are moments of incredible depth and genius. In my opinion the greatest example of how all the shows different aspects come together to form perfection is not a moment of wonderfully timed comedy.


Homer says goodbye to his mother
For me the greatest achievement of the shows creators and writers is to have majority of the civilized world empathise completely with a badly drawn eternally 38 year old balding American man. For all his countless social faux pas’ and moments of comedic genius, the one moment when Homer beautifully illustrates his global appeal and realism is at the very end of an episode when he is reunited with his estranged outlaw mother voiced by Glenn Close. As his mother must leave him behind or face serious jail time she wishes her loving son a fond farewell and drives away in a van with her hippy compatriots. Homer begins to wave and continues to sadly do so long after the van and his mother have disappeared over the horizon. Then with the addition of soft melancholic wind music they scene switches to a wide shot of Homer sitting quietly on the bonnet of his car staring upwards at a starry sky as a shooting star flies over head. No words are spoken and even the credits whizzing by cannot deflate the sense of empathy one feels for the lonely clown. Anyone who has had their rib tickled and side’s split by Homer Simpson’s antics over the years cannot help but feel for him as he is once again separated from his loving mother. That’s the shows genius.

20 Years of Entertainment

Through the 20 years of goofs gaffes and jokes galore the creators have given us realistic and well rounded characters that are not bound by real-time or real life boundaries. As we have laughed and cringed with them over the years we have unknowingly fallen in love with the Simpson family and their supporting cast of hundreds. True they are cultural icons for the modern age on a global scale but far more importantly than that; they are part of our everyday lives as much as our friends and family are.

Solace in Simplicity

The Simpsons ta'da' end of showWhatever is going on in our lives we know it will always be safe and fun to swing by 742 Evergreen Terrace. Where no matter what happens, who’s fighting with who or what the emergency is, we will go through it with them and in approximately 22 and a half minutes later we will be back where we started, ready for the next adventure.

If only real life was as simple, fun and safe.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fairtrade Coffee. Is it Really Fair?

Fairtrade Coffee in Dublin

Bewleys of Dublin - Coffee ShopAround five years ago you would have struggled to find a good cup of coffee in Dublin. Most places that sold coffee either didn't have the equipment or the expertise to do it the right way and more often that not you would be handed a cup of burnt, tasteless suds, with some coffee in there if you could find it. You could literally blow half the contents of your cup away with one big Jack and the Beanstalk puff! Times have changed. Or should I say, the demand for good quality coffee has increased as our Irish palettes have matured.

Is it Really Fair?

Now in Dublin there is a coffee shop on every street. Maybe 4 or 5 even. And the quality has definitely improved. We also have a selection of shops and restaurants selling Fairtrade Coffee. I often wondered what this actually means. I knew it had something to do with paying the coffee producers an agreed minimum price which would ensure good working conditions for the coffee workers. But that is all I knew. So I wanted to investigate further. So here's what I found out.

Fair Trade

Fairtrade Logo"Fair trade is an organized social movement that aims to help producers in developing countries to make better trading conditions and promote sustainability. The movement known as fairtrade indicating the certification advocates the payment of a higher price to exporters as well as higher social and environmental standards. It focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries, most notably handicrafts, coffee,cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, cotton, wine,[1] fresh fruit, chocolate, flowers, and gold"

The Fairtrade brand is by some distance the largest of the fair trade coffee brands. Packers and suppliers in developed countries ((eg) Europe/North America) pay a sum of money to enable them to use the Fairtrade brand and logo.

These suppliers can then charge as much as they want for the coffee. The coffee must come from a certified Fairtrade cooperative, and there is an agreed minimum price when the coffee market is oversupplied.

Ethical Cynicism

There has been some cynicism with regard transparency of how and how much of the money is directed to the workers and the co-operatives. "Consumers have been shown to be content paying higher prices for Fairtrade products, in the belief that this helps the very poor. The main ethical criticism of Fairtrade is that this premium over non-Fairtrade products does not reach the producers and is instead collected by businesses, employees of co-operatives or used for unnecessary expenses. Furthermore, research has cited the implementation of certain Fairtrade standards as a cause for greater inequalities in markets where these rigid rules are inappropriate for the specific market".

Coffee workers hard at work in the fieldWhen I was backpacking around Latin America some years ago I visited some amazing coffee plantations. In fact, I was brought to one famous plantation called Finca Filadelfia in Guatemala for a date with an ex-girlfriend. We hired mules and trotted through the plantation at altitudes of 6000 feet. It was, and is still an amazing place. Filadelfia is not part of a co-op and are not part of any Fairtrade group. I visited many coffee plantations in Latin America. Some Fairtrade and some not. In my eyes they all looked very similar. In saying that, I didn't interview any of the manual workers about working conditions, minimum price paid and so on.


What I'm try to get at with this piece is that not all Fairtrade is fair. We cannot believe that just because it has the packing and the logo then we can be rest assured that the money is going towards helping those in under developed countries. That's not to say that it is not. I'm just saying that you have to view everything from both sides of the fence. But I do believe that it is in essence a good cause and if administered correctly, is and will be of great help to those who toil hand-picking the coffee, providing them with good working conditions, a fair price and above all a higher standard of living.

Latte CoffeeI would still choose Fairtrade Coffee over regular coffee in the hope that the extra money I spend for my cup will eventually trickle its way down to the many impoverishment families who labour on these plantations daily. It's a hope I pray happens.

What we can do in the meantime is request more transparency from Fairtrade themselves regarding proof that this money reaches those in most need of it.

So I for one, will continue to sip on my Fairtrade Latte in support of the Fairtrade movement until such time someone can convince me otherwise with hard facts.

The Ethical Silk Company tailoring is done by the Nano Nagle Tailoring Unit in Theni. Theni is a trading town located in the state of Tamil Nadu, in the very south of India.

In running the tailoring production of The Ethical Silk Company through the Presentation Sisters, you can be ensured that the tailoring ladies are getting well paid and work in very comfortable working conditions. 

The women attend the Nano Nagle Tailoring Unit Monday – Friday, 9.30am – 4.30pm where they are trained in tailoring and 3 of the ladies who have completed the training are working on The Ethical Silk Company products.