Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hell's Kitchen

I had one of my most eye-opening days ever recently, following an Environmental Health Officer through a plethora of food-selling venues. It won't stop me eating out though!
Here's my report in today's Independent... and how I look in a hairnet. Nice.


By Susan Daly
Tuesday June 30 2009

I bought a chocolate brownie recently that was one month out of date. One whole month. I got a refund from the coffee shop and didn't think much more about it.

What I should have done was report it to my local Environmental Health Officer. As portrayed in RTE reality show, The Enforcers (Thursday, RTE1, 8.30pm), these are the guys and gals who brave the heat of the kitchen to protect consumers from bad food safety practices.

Philip Devenish, the Environmental Health Officer (EHO) who agrees to let me shadow him for a day, carries nothing more menacing than a green notebook and an inquisitive air -- but he makes grown men nervous.

Our first port of call is at 8am to a small food manufacturer in northwest Dublin.

"This is nerve-wracking for me," confesses the fast-talking owner. I am handed my deeply unflattering uniform for the factory floor inspection: white overcoat, hairnet, bright blue plastic bootees.

To my untrained eye, the facility looks impeccably clean. Philip hones straight in on a broken plastic lid that sits on a vast vat of stewed fruit -- plastic debris could easily fall unnoticed into the mush.

Foreign objects are the bane of the food safety complaint system. By the time a consumer brings in an object, as happened recently in Philip's area when a man claimed his mouth was cut by glass in a sandwich, the food has been thrown away. When proof is impossible, prevention is preferable.

I have a nose about in a giant flour bin, while Philip asks more pertinent questions about labelling and use-by dates. He pops his head into the staff bathroom for good measure. "You can tell a lot about a business from its toilets," he nods sagely. These ones are spotless.

Our next client is another matter. We're off to meet up with a mobile catering van, or 'chuck wagon'.

The van we are looking for whizzes past on the other side of the road as we sit at traffic lights. Philip notes the driver/owner is wearing disposable gloves while driving. "I hope he's not preparing food with the same gloves," he muses.

We do a quick U-turn when the light goes green -- I'm secretly hoping for a 'chuck wagon' chase that doesn't materialise as our target pulls into an industrial estate.

The driver greets us with bravado. He has already set up shop and has a line of hungry shift workers waiting for breakfast rolls.

There are lots of sausage-related cracks from his customers as Philip inserts his digital temperature probe into the meat products sizzling under the hot grill. But Philip is not smiling as he delivers his results: "Your fridge needs to be colder, and your hot box needs to be hotter".

The owner has an answer for everything -- his own thermometer was "definitely working an hour ago", but not now, when Philip tests it. He has ordered the new water tap that Philip suggested on his last visit, but it's not come in yet.

Philip probes along the edge of the floor covering -- an EHO spends a lot of time peering into nooks and crannies -- and emerges with a finger dripping with dark grease.

"My mother blitzes the van every Friday," the owner protests, "but she's away for two weeks."

Philip is a skilled diplomat: he offers advice and guidelines, and tries to understand the limitations of the van operation. "The guys we called into earlier are in food by trade," explains Philip later, "but some people are in food by default."

This issue of inexperienced caterers has become more urgent in recent months as people with redundancy money attempt to set up their own small businesses with no previous expertise. "They need a lot of support and guidance," he says.

So much for the stereotype of the EHO roaming the streets baying for businesses to shut down.

"A few younger colleagues might have that 'I am the law' swagger," says Philip. "We're generally doing our best to keep businesses open -- we want the food industry to thrive."

On the other hand, he notes, 'light touch' regulation doesn't work. The rapid response to the recent pork dioxins scare here is reassuring. In previous Scottish and Welsh E.coli scares -- a little boy died in the Welsh one in 2005 -- the root of the problem was traced back to too-lenient supervision of certain butchers' shops and abattoirs.

Philip occasionally encounters the kind of aggression I thought was reserved for vehicle clampers and lawyers. In a recent battle with a repeat offender, Philip felt lucky to be accompanied by a much more solidly-built colleague.

"The owner started to get overheated, and I'm of, well, smaller stature, so I think having this tall guy with me helped! He backed down," he smiles.

"I've had one allegation of racism," he adds, "As in: 'You're only picking on me because I'm such-and-such'."

There are language problems with some foreign national food workers, and a number of food safety courses are now targeted at helping such businesses understand their requirements.

"Foodstuffs being reportioned from larger bags without proper labelling is a problem," says Philip.

Then there are the bizarre finds -- a colleague of Philip's recently came across a bag of goat heads, skin and teeth intact, in one inner city shop.

We have no aggression on today's round. All of the food businesses we visit know we are coming -- Philip had to pre-arrange appointments because he is being accompanied by a flat-footed member of the public, ie, me.

So there are no mouse droppings to note -- all have their pest control reports up to date. "Although that's no guarantee," says Philip, who remembers one shop where cereal boxes had been badly gnawed.

Then there was the pub that had rat poison scattered like birdseed across the floor of a back room. "They also claimed they weren't serving food -- the kitchen was in bits -- but I found whole slabs of meat hanging in a cold room."

Philip has only seen live rats on one occasion in his 10 years in the job. On foot of a tip-off, he arrived an hour before opening time at a small food business to watch bread rolls being delivered and left on the pavement. The rats arrived shortly afterwards to feast on them. "When the owner arrived to open up, all she did was clap her hands to chase the rats away. When I followed her inside, she was picking out the rolls that hadn't been chewed on, for later use."

Thankfully, we don't have a big cockroach problem -- yet. "There have been cases of the eggs being laid in the seams in hessian sacks of rice and then hatching here," he says.

Yet Philip has no problems eating out on his own time. When we stop for lunch in a canteen, the toilets are closed but there are some available in a building across the way, so he lets it go. "I have selective blindness on my day off," he says wryly.

The afternoon rolls on with visits to a wildly varying range of premises. Among the 150 businesses on Philip's visit list, he has supermarkets, hotels, foodstores, pubs, restaurants, takeaways, delis, chippers and catering trucks.

The striking commonality is how much paperwork the businesses -- big or small -- are required to keep. Core temperatures of food and storage facilities have to be taken at all points along the journey from delivery to plate.

One young chef in a pub restaurant we visit seems to be swimming in sheafs of paper, but reluctantly agrees that it means he can keep track of how efficiently his fridges are working -- and argue for a new one from the owner.

A chip shop run by a charming Italian-Irish family is so clean I would eat a battered cod off their floor, but even they are encouraged to keep better track of the temperatures of their frozen food.

"It's to protect yourself," urges Philip. How right he is -- we call to a counter-top deli on foot of a public complaint of food poisoning and they are able to produce a massive paper trail that follows their chicken from farm to baguette.

But danger is everywhere apparently: Philip spots a tray of lettuce sitting out 'at ambient' (room temperature). "Listeria can grow on salad," he warns.

At the end of the day -- horror stories included -- I'm somewhat reassured about the back rooms of the food industry. If EHOs make a business owner nervous, it's because they are doing their job properly and protecting us all: industry and consumers.

It also gives me cause to think about the bag of spinach leaves I left out on my kitchen counter at home. I keep that to myself.


Tuesday June 30 2009

* The work of the Environmental Health Officer has a broad scope. As well as food control monitors like Philip Devenish, EHOs also work in these areas: water monitoring, cosmetics control, tobacco control, housing, port health (monitoring food imports), childcare facilities, infectious diseases, air pollution, noise pollution, pest control, poisons control, hygiene education.
* EHOs are employed by the Health Safety Executive (HSE), and their reports make them the "eyes and ears" of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI). Records of prosecutions, closure, enforcement and improvement orders can be accessed by any member of the public on www.fsai.ie
* Even though an EHO can close down a business if there is a "grave and immediate danger to public health", under the 1998 Food Safety Act, there are generally a number of steps a business goes through before they are shut down. The business gets an Improvement Notice for non-compliance with food safety legislation, and then an Improvement Order -- issued by a district court -- if they don't comply with the notice. If this order is ignored, then a Closure Order can be served without further warning.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mmmm, carrots

From today's Herald

By Susan Daly

Monday June 29 2009

Carrots -- how do you eat yours? At this time of year, a crunchy salad with shreds of grated carrot on top sounds appetising. On a bitterly cold day, there is comfort in the perfect marriage of carrot and parsnip mashed with a knob of creamy butter.

Carrot sticks dipped in hummus. Steamed discs of carrot to add levity to a roast dinner. It's the vegetable that keeps on giving.

Well, forget all the slicing, dicing and mashing. The men and women in the white coats are now telling us that whole-cooked carrots are the only way to go to increase the anti-cancer properties of the veg. Excellent. That's one more tiny piece of joy sucked out of everyday life. Did we really need to know that cooking carrots to our own particular taste could be the difference between life and death? How much money was spent on a study to tell us that yes, eating carrots is good for us -- but it can be even better if we do it in this very specific way?

The finding shows how ludicrous the industry of fear has become.

The world is so hungry for a tidy solution to the Big C that studies like this get commissioned, funded and lauded for throwing up even the tiniest morsel of advice. Something that can make a catchy headline; something to justify the project. No doubt, the researchers' motivation is good but they play on our deepest anxiety: that when it comes to cancer, there is always something we can do to prevent it.

Here's the real newsflash: sometimes bad things happen to good people. Think of all the children who suffer from leukemia and other childhood cancers. They haven't had time to build up a carcinogenic lifestyle of obesity, alcoholic overindulgence or a smoking habit. So the plague of guilt descends on their parents: was it something we did? If we had fed our children whole-cooked carrots; if we had not given them dairy products, would it have helped?

If you were to adhere to every minor food warning that is released into the media, you would very quickly descend into a tailspin of panic and madness. The only study I'm interested in reading at this stage is one that definitively sorts out the conflicting advice we have been given over the years. Drink lots of tea -- it's full of antioxidants. Don't drink tea -- the caffeine will be passed onto your unborn child and give them ADHD. Drink wine -- it's good for the heart. Don't drink wine -- it will give you breast cancer. Eat meat -- it's full of iron. Don't eat meat -- it's carcinogenic.

Research is vital of course, and we all hope that some day the magic cure to human ills will present itself. We know from studies that there are links between smoking and lung cancer, overexposure to the sun and skin cancer, alcoholism and liver disease. But let's not get in our knickers in a twist over the small stuff. Stress can be a killer too.

Friday, June 26, 2009

For Noelle


By Susan Daly

Wednesday June 24 2009

Much can change in 25 years. Empires can crumble, floods can change the face of the earth -- even Mary Harney can get a new hairdo.

What cannot seem to earn a makeover is Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin. The day I discovered that deja vu is not a trick of the mind was the day I stepped over its threshold for the first time since 1981. As a small child, I had a heart operation in the hospital. I recovered well, went home and, thankfully, have never suffered a day of serious illness since.

A quarter of a century later, I was back to spend time with my young cousin, who was receiving treatment in Crumlin for a life-threatening condition.

Now, you would expect a sense of familiarity with the place where you yourself went through a major life experience. But as I walked down the corridor to my cousin's room, I thought: This place hasn't changed one bit.

I rang my mother later that evening to describe the ward. "Sure, of course you know it, it's the same one you were on," she said. "And it sounds exactly the same as it was in 1981."

Now there's a sobering thought. The same attempt to lift the teabag-coloured walls with a few cartoons; the same low-ceilinged feeling of claustrophobia; the same jam-packed rooms in which my mother would take turns with the family of another little girl at visiting time because they couldn't all fit in. In short, no place to cheer up a child.

Although I know there have been some new extensions to the building in recent years, the only outward change I could see on my cousin's floor was the addition of a fish tank.

My cousin loved the distraction so much she would stand in front of it in her little dressing gown for as long as she dared before someone would hustle her back to bed. It is a nice touch.

For some of my cousin's frequent visits, her family were put up in a lovely shared house near the hospital so she could be treated as an outpatient.

The house, I believe, is part of a wonderful charitable scheme -- not State-sponsored, please note -- where houses are donated or bought and refurbished for this specific purpose.

It was a welcome advance from the trek my mother had to make that particularly icy winter to the only B&B she could afford, somewhere on the nether reaches of Dolphin's Barn.

It is absolutely necessary to say that one other thing had not changed in the years between my stay in Crumlin and my cousin's: the attitude of the staff.

Nurses, doctors, attendants, porters -- all of them utterly professional, caring and dedicated to doing their best with the resources they have for sick children. And it is also necessary to say that Our Lady's gives the most advanced treatment and houses a world-class Children's Research Centre (again, wholly funded by donations). But what other public building hardly changes at heart in 25 years?

Since the early 80s we have hauled ourselves out of a recession, rode the boom and plunged back into financial chaos.

Our main train and bus stations have modernised, government departments been refurbished, whole new magnificent edifices built for public administrations.

How can a children's hospital -- where the surroundings are so vital to their inhabitants, where many spend Christmas and holidays and weekends and endless days and nights -- receive so little attention?

It is gratifying to see TDs and senators pay a visit this week to Our Lady's in Crumlin.

Too often the people who are crunching the numbers and making cruel cutbacks are not in contact with the real, live people their decisions affect.

And I have been merely addressing the works needed on an ageing building -- at least my cousin got to see the inside of Our Lady's and did not languish on a waiting list.

My sincere hope is that the politicians who reached out will realise that a children's hospital is no place to cut corners.

Party envy

My Nightwatch col for today's Day and Night mag... Wish I'd brought some mint sauce for that lamb... yum.


By Susan Daly

Friday June 26 2009

Why have a disposable barbecue when you can roast an entire lamb over a homemade spit on the beach? That is not a question I often ask myself -- and that's why I am not the queen of parties. I could only stand, open-mouthed, as two newly hatched 30-year-olds of my acquaintance organised the best open-air party I have ever been to. On a beach. In Sligo. With frig-all money.

In those conditions, the best I could have procured would have been a ham sandwich -- more sand than ham -- and a lukewarm bottle of pear cider. (Now hush up, cider purists; how can something be wrong when it tastes so right?) My dynamic duo managed to source a lamb carcass from somewhere outside Strandhill, heft it onto a spit welded by an engineer friend and rig the whole medieval enterprise up in a natural amphitheatre carved out in some giant sand-dunes. Someone strung Chinese lanterns across a hastily assembled washing line; another brought garden torches to flicker brightly beside the sacrificial lamb. And apologies to vegetarians, but that was one damn tasty baby animal.

Acoustic music for what was quickly dubbed 30Fest -- I've never been to a party that is so rocking people want to give it an official name -- was provided by members of a band one of the girls play in. A French dude who happened to be wandering in the area dropped by to sound a mournful trumpet in the background. Just as festivities were beginning to die down at around 3am, a woman stood up and belted out a note-perfect jazzy rendition of Summertime. One of the more hunter-gatherer types came back from the beach with a new batch of driftwood to keep the bonfire burning.

As the sun rose, everyone sobered up enough to channel Bosco and pack up a bag of rubbish each until the dunes were left spotless. The spit was dismantled and the remains of the lamb spirited to the nearby house of a local surf champion, who made up a giant lamb curry in his kitchen at six in the morning. I went back to my tent to stare at the canvas ceiling and wonder: where did it all go so right?

It's a terrible affliction, to have the time of your life but still be dogged by the nagging feeling that I Could Never Have Organised That. My own 30th was the usual unholy trinity of pub-DJ-cocktail sausages. I had a great time -- but only after days spent worrying that nobody would turn up. I'm not a particularly angsty individual, but being responsible for other people having a good time makes the nerve ending in my left eyelid twitch like crazy. Fun is an ephemeral and fickle concept. One woman's tent-surf-roast lamb extravaganza could be the stiletto-loving woman's hell.

Layered on the party angst, of course, is party envy. How did those girls pull off something so simple, but so magical? The June bank holiday heatwave helped, I guess, but still: Why can't I be that original, that laidback, that ... cool! This is the point at which you need someone to step in and slap you with a wet towel for being childish. It shouldn't matter who has the bouncy castle at their party, as long as we all get a go.

I know I'm not alone with the party envy. Remember all the fuss over Millennium New Year's Eve; everyone scrutinising where you were going to spend it, how you were going to mark the moment; who was going to be there with you. People spent a fortune to hire yachts to sit on the cusp of a time zone so they could say they rang the Millennium in twice. I was in the back garden of a house in Terenure, trying to ignite a damp firework, wondering if my ex was having a better time somewhere else. My sister, if I remember rightly, rang at half-eleven to say she was tired and going to bed early. Sensible girl.

The trick, it seems, is to stop worrying. Do what you enjoy and like-minded people will follow. As I lay in that tent in Sligo, the rising sun spreading a comforting glow over my toes, I gave up the ghost of parties past. Parties don't run on good hosts alone -- they need gracious guests too. All invites gratefully accepted.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

I'm luvvie-ing it

Is an A-list star necessarily a great actor? Are all theatre actors unsung heroes? I asked some casting agents to throw light on the issue in yesterday's Irish Independent...


It's a star turn
Jude Law gets rave reviews for his stage Hamlet, and proves that it is possible to be both a tabloid celebrity and a great actor, writes Susan Daly.
Saturday June 20 2009

Jude Law is without doubt a famous man. Unfortunately for the classically-trained actor, much of his celebrity has stemmed from a dramatic personal life rather than his portrayal of dramatis personae.

A turbulent marriage to Sadie Frost, an engagement to another, younger, actress, Sienna Miller, scuffles with the paparazzi and then Nannygate -- when he slept with his children's minder -- have earned him inches in all the wrong columns.

It must be gratifying for Law to now find himself featured further towards the back of the newspapers, where he is receiving rave reviews for his turn as Hamlet in London's West End. Law's performance apparently shows "rare vulnerability and emotional openness". As the theatre critic in The Guardian put it: "People who come to patronise him [Law] as a movie star essaying the great Dane will be in for a shock."

That, as the prince might say, is the question. Jude Law is not tabloid fodder because he's an actor -- it's because he's a movie star. And snobbery from old stage hands would dictate that a pampered film star is not really up to the job of treading the boards. "It's quite reductive, that notion that because an actor has experienced an emphasis on fame and celebrity, talent should be excluded from that bracket," says Holly Ni Chiardha, casting director with the Abbey Theatre.

AIndeed, while stars like Julia Roberts and Matthew Broderick made critically-savaged turns on Broadway, Ireland has witnessed its fair share of famous movie faces making a successful transition to the stage. The performances of Ralph Fiennes, James Cromwell, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Frances McDormand in Irish theatres have all been well received. It is worth noting though that most were returning to roots which they firmly planted on the stage in their youth. Law, too, was a celebrated young stage actor before finding on-screen success in films like The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain.

Alii Curran, a former director of both the Dublin Fringe Festival and the Peacock Theatre, masterminded the appearances of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, Samantha Morton and of Frasier star John Mahoney, in Dublin. "It was clear from Tim and Susan that their background was in theatre," she remembers.

She says that the opportunities in television in particular are such that an actor can now mould an entire career without ever doing stage work. "They can establish themselves as popular stars very quickly because of luck and iconic status," she says. So are they not proper actors if they don't have stage craft? Curran laughs unabashedly: "I belong to the old school, so I would say: No!"

Not that there are only movie stars without great talent, adds Curran, citing Mickey Rourke in last year's The Wrestler, and Halle Berry's Oscar-winning turn in Monster's Ball, as examples of genuinely transformative performances. "The best actor for the role is not always box-office so they are not cast," says Curran. "The movie industry is very cynical." This is how the term 'bankable star' is applied to such questionable talents as Adam Sandler, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy.

Alan Stanford -- actor, director and producer for over 40 years -- believes that a great film star can also be a great actor. "I watched Laurence Olivier when I was a drama student, as he came to the end of his time on stage, when he was running the Old Vic [in London])," says Stanford. "He trained for the theatre and he was the matinee idol of the West End. Then he went to Hollywood, where he did Wuthering Heights and was a major star. Then he had another major stage career as director of the national theatre, and then went back to have a second film career in his later years."

Holly Ni Chiardha points to Stephen Rea as a very recognisable movie actor who started in theatre, working with the likes of Beckett and Sam Shepard and who has now rekindled his relationship with the Abbey, acting this year in a new Shepard play written especially for him and fellow actor Sean McGinley.

"Any actor is a very brave soul to jump into that career," says Ni Chiardha. "It can be difficult for a Hollywood star to go onto Broadway because the press has preconceived notions about them." Katie Holmes for example, better known as Mrs Tom Cruise and star of Dawson's Creek, surprised critics by acquitting herself brilliantly in a revival of All My Sons last year on Broadway.

Much of the contrast between screen and stage acting, says movie and TV casting director Thyrza Ging, is simply a matter of technique. "Obviously the two mediums need different styles -- in the States, young actors grow up acting for camera, whereas ours still essentially start with theatre and go from there."

Ging believes that all of the Irish actors who have become film stars got there on talent. "There is an element of the big break, but make no mistake, Joel Schumacher [director of Colin Farrell's breakthrough film, Tigerland] wouldn't have taken a chance on Colin if he hadn't thought he had the acting chops to do it."

Alan Stanford, who has worked with many of Ireland's most famous names in his time, agrees: "Brenda Fricker, Donal McCann, Daniel Day Lewis, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Gerard McSorley -- they were stunning stage actors as well as successful film actors. Daniel Day-Lewis gave a Hamlet that was very highly regarded."

On the other hand, there are brilliant actors in Ireland who are not easily recognised by the public and work extensively in theatre. The names Eileen Walsh, Tom Vaughn Murphy, Marie Mullen, Ali White, Derbhla Crotty, Dearbhla Molloy, Aidan Kelly and others constantly pop up when you ask any Irish casting director to name their favourite actors of today.

Even on celluloid, some of the best actors can mine away on the seam-edge of fame. Orson Welles once claimed that "the greatest actor who ever lived" was a French character called Raimu.

"It is great to see someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman finally get recognition," says Ali Curran, "because he's not the classic good-looker, but he came through with great roles and crossover roles, much as Heath Ledger did."

So are we being a bit tough on our A-list stars -- will we ever see them as great actors? When asked to name his acting greats of the current generation, Alan Stanford namechecks Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, middle-aged men both. "I'm a great believer in a degree of survivability to be considered a great actor," insists Stanford.

"Meryl Streep was always wonderful but she's now unsurpassable. Despite what Shakespeare said, you are not born great. You are born with the potential for greatness."

ALL A-BOARD: Famous (and infamous) screen to stage transitions...
JOHN GIELGUD in Hamlet, New York (1936): Gielgud played the Danish prince many times to universal acclaim before he became more latterly associated with movies. A stark contrast to that famous review of Laurence Olivier’s 1937 Hamlet in the Old Vic: “Mr Olivier does not speak poetry badly. He does not speak it at all.”
LAURENCE OLIVIER in Macbeth, Stratford-upon-Avon (1955): Hollywood power couple Olivier and wife Vivien Leigh created one of the most enduring Macbethian couples of the 20th century.
PETER O’TOOLE in Macbeth, London (1980) Alan Stanford tells it: “His Macbeth in the Old Vic was a bit disastrous and he did a terrible Dublin accent for Juno and the Paycock in Dublin. But he was an extremely fine Hamlet.”
CYD CHARISSE in Grand Hotel, New York (1992): Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly’s old screen dancing partner was cruelly savaged for her debut Broadway performance at the age of 71 for coming across “as someone mistakenly embalmed while still alive and now trying hard to emerge from premature mummification”.
JULIA ROBERTS in Three Days Of Rain (2006): Roberts “staggered hesitantly” through this dreary comedy-drama, but her star power ensured its 12-week run sold out immediately.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cover girls

I love it when a sub inserts an exclamation mark to spice up a paragraph - not. Anyway, here is my airbrushed piece from today's Irish Independent.


Magazines have been notorious for retouching the cover shots of their models so they look thinner. Now a backlash has editors trying to do just the opposite. Susan Daly reports

Wednesday June 17 2009
The worst-kept secret in the beauty and fashion business is that an airbrush is a model or celebrity's best friend. Traditionally, this piece of technological wizardry has been used to slim down limbs and banish blemishes on digital photographs so that they are seen fit to grace the cover of a magazine.
The argument against this retouching of reality has been that it is harmful to impressionable readers, leading to eating disorders, body dysmorphia and issues of low self-esteem as they try to attain the impossible perfection presented in these photographs.
Well, the reality just got grimmer -- and slimmer. Alexandra Shulman, the influential editor of UK Vogue magazine, has written a letter to all the major fashion designers to warn them that she is now having to ask her photographers to make her cover models look bigger!
The sample sizes which many designers provide for photoshoots are so tiny, she says, that she has to hire ever-increasingly skeletal models to fit into them.
These models are so thin that she fears alienating her readers altogether. Her photographers must now use all their trickery not to take these girls down a size -- as was more traditional in the wafer-thin fashion world -- but to beef them up.
Robin Derrick, creative director of Vogue, backed up Shulman's claims. "I spent the first 10 years of my career making girls look thinner," he said, "I've spent the last 10 making them look larger." The size zero debate has gone sub-zero.
It's ironic, really, that a fashion magazine editor is complaining about having to skew reality to make her models acceptable to readers. For years, the same editors would have argued that no-one wants to buy a dress from an overweight model (for overweight, read a size 10 and up).
Flawless, thin, impossibly beautiful and generally white -- that was the type to which cover girls conformed.
Side by side with Shulman's move back to healthy-slim, we are told there is a backlash against the doctoring of magazine cover images altogether. Airbrushing and digital manipulation is out: undoctored beauty is in.
French Elle recently flirted with reality by featuring three celebrities without make-up on their cover of their April edition. The inclusion of bare-faced ladies in a high-fashion mag was internationally applauded, although the "au naturel" celebrities featured -- actresses Monica Bellucci and Sophie Marceau and supermodel Eva Herzigova -- are genetically blessed with fabulous bone structures to begin with.
Anna Wintour, the formidable editor-in-chief of US Vogue, has also been embracing diversity in her previously rigid cover girl criteria. When the Ethiopian model Liya Kebede posed for the May edition, she followed Beyoncé and Michelle Obama to become the third black woman in a row to appear on the cover.
"About a year ago, we talked about the global conversation about diversity in fashion, and we took it very seriously," said Patrick O'Connell, a spokesman for US Vogue.
US Vogue, lest we forget, was also the magazine that published a cover shot of an almost unrecognisable Oprah Winfrey in 1998. Winfrey spent months shrinking herself to Anna Wintour's acceptable parameters for the style bible.
"If you want to be on the cover of Vogue and Anna Wintour says you have to be down to 150lbs -- that's what you gotta do," said Winfrey, which is a worrying statement from the apparent queen of self-empowerment and self-respect.
That Wintour is doing a U-turn can only be good, right? Yet some see such talk of diversification as merely trend-driven, a stunt to keep readers attracted to an industry that sells fantasy in the form of luxury items.
When Italian Vogue published its "Black Issue" in June of last year, featuring only black models, it sold out within 72 hours -- but was criticised in some quarters for tokenism.
Cover fakery is still widespread. Actress Kate Winslet protested against GQ lengthening and slimming her legs to stick-insect proportions in 2003. Fast-forward to late last year and she denies that Vanity Fair airbrushed her semi-naked body for an Oscars issue, although she admitted to six hours of make-up, hair and light set-ups for the shoot.
Dove cosmetics launched a viral video on the internet last year called Evolution that caused quite a stir. It showed one average-looking woman being transformed through make-up, re-styling, lighting and digital retouching to produce a model-worthy photograph. "No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted," read the kicker line on the video.
The Swedish Ministry of Health has launched a similar campaign to show the country's teenagers how model shots can be manipulated.
A separate website controversially published two photographs of country singer Faith Hill last year -- one in which she looks like the naturally attractive 40-something mother that she is; and the other in which she has been freakily Photoshopped to look like a woman in her early 30s for the cover of Redbook magazine.
This is the same magazine that did a Frankenstein job on Julia Roberts for a cover story in 2003, using a picture of her head from a 2002 paparazzi shot on top of a photo of her body from the 1998 Notting Hill premiere.
The photograph was accompanied with a headline that read, with no trace of irony, "The Real Julia".
The tricks of the trade are no secret. Digital photo manipulation can trim fat, even out skin tone, banish blemishes, add shine to hair, even change the colour of an outfit.
New York magazine was accused of "whitewashing" Michelle Obama on their March cover by giving her a Barbie pink lipstick and lightening her skin tone, although they defended it as an "illustration" rather than a photograph.
A good sign that an image has been airbrushed is when the skin is so flawless that it seems plastic and unreal. The sardonic celeb-style website gofugyourself.com regularly takes a poke at hyper-real cover photos -- its archive has a worryingly long list of entries. The model and actress Jenny McCarthy highlighted her own dodgy covershot for last month's US Shape magazine.
The shot, she admitted, had undergone "a crap load of airbrushing ... I have freckles ... and stretchmarks that you do not see here, and they add a little shadowing to make these muscle things happen that don't exist on my body."
Even with the digital paintbrush out of the picture, there are ways to fake a flawless portrait. People magazine made a big fuss of its 100 Most Beautiful list in 2007, which included 10 celebrities looking dewy-faced without -- gasp -- their make-up, or airbrushing. But clever photographers' tricks were used to flatter the women (including Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel and Rachel Bilson who are in their 20s and wrinkle-free anyway).
Several of the pictures were taken with a long exposure, disguising small imperfections. The shots were also overexposed to the point that the brown-skinned Rosario Dawson looked positively white -- all to fade out uneven skin tone, spots and freckles.
Most of the women were shot wearing white clothing, against a white background, to act as a further natural reflector to fill in dark shadows and blemishes. The women also stood in front of wind machines to tease some energy into their tresses.
But should we worry so much about smoothed-out stars giving false example when fantasy has always been the nub of showbiz? Think of those soft-focus, up-lit portraits of the earliest Hollywood stars.
Black and white is so flattering, darling. Some historians believe that even the iconic bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti -- the world's first beauty queen -- may have been touched up.
The artist who created it is thought to have straightened her nose and smoothed creases around her mouth to present her in the most flattering light. With the idealisation of beauty so culturally-entrenched, it may take more than a few celebs sans slap to change it.


Giving parents a break in yesterday's Herald...


By Susan Daly

Tuesday June 16 2009

What has 20,000 legs and emits a high-pierced screaming noise? A sold-out stadium full of pre-teen Miley Cyrus fans!

Anyone planning to pass the O2 venue on the two nights in December when the Hannah Montana star is in residency would be advised to keep a pair of earplugs handy.

Judging by the excitement with which the tickets to her debut Irish shows were snapped up in a matter of minutes, there will be pink-clad little girls bouncing off the walls like rubber balls.

Of course, if you train your ear carefully over the din of the screeching, you may hear the distinct sound of someone sucking lemons.

What a disgrace, tut-tut the sourpusses, up to €85 a ticket! It's far from concert tickets when we were reared. Children today are so spoiled, overindulged, pampered... (insert your own horrified adjective here).

To give the party-poopers their due, it is striking that sales of expensive tickets to children's gigs would go through the roof so quickly at this time.

We are told that there is a great deal less disposable cash floating around these days.

The spotlight this week is on the plight of the increased number of families applying for back-to-school grants. When money is tight for sturdy shoes and schoolbooks, indulging a child's Disney-sponsored obsession is not a priority.

The quick sell-out of the Miley Cyrus gigs is also in stark contrast to the slowing sales of adult music festival tickets. Some one-off gigs targeted at a generation of old hipsters who are now the parents of Miley fans did not receive the rapturous response the promoters might have expected.

A certain purple-clad Princely one pulled the plug on his Croker gig last year amid tales of sluggish sales.

The same reports swirled around the cancellation of the Eagles concert that was to be held in Galway at the end of this month.

Yet we can only presume that the parents who are keeping a tight rein on their own social spending were the ones to stump up for the Miley extravaganza.

(Although, as the banks were so eager to extend credit to anyone with a pulse until quite recently, it's not inconceivable that there are 11-year-olds running wild out there with personalised credit cards.)

It would be easy to be judgmental of such a parent. Children have to learn they don't always get what they ask for, right? In certain circumstances, yes.

A good parent won't allow their child to stay home from school just because they don't like the cut of their headmaster's jib. Nor will they let them stay away from the dentist because they are afraid. Some bitter pills just have to be swallowed in childhood.

But perhaps the parents who decided the Miley Cyrus night out was one issue they were willing to submit to have bigger fish to fry.

Many families have pulled back on the annual summer holiday, on birthday parties, on food bills.

They may well have decided that this will be the one treat - and birthday present rolled into one, if they are smart -- that they can make sacrifices for. Who are we to judge someone for wanting to give their child one standout memory for the year?

It is always a parent's instinct to deprive themselves before they see their children go without. In another less fortunate country, that might be a mother putting food in her child's mouth before she quiets the gnawing of her own empty stomach.

Here, it's more a sacrifice of the little luxuries. It's all relative, but it's the same biological impulse. That is why that emergency procedure on a plane of pulling on your own oxygen mask before attending to your child's goes against the grain.

It only remains to be seen if the ticket touts manage to take advantage of parents who don't want to disappoint their children. We would have to draw the line at paying €1,200 for a Miley ticket. You could get a small pony for that.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Dublin can be heaven...

From the Evening Herald

By Susan Daly

Friday June 12 2009

Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? The residents of Dartmouth Square in Dublin 6 were singing to Joni Mitchell's tune when they found themselves locked out of their own private park four years ago.

Businessman Noel O'Gara had spotted a loophole that allowed him to buy the lease to the park from Dublin City Council for a pittance.

He locked out the residents and at one stage planned to turn it into a concrete car park. As Joni predicted in Big Yellow Taxi, he wanted to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

I lived off nearby Northbrook Avenue at the time and remember being both bemused and amused by the hullabaloo as O'Gara stood there brazenly flogging tiles from the disputed patch of grass. Bemused, because I had only been vaguely aware of the square although I passed near it every day. Amused, because it didn't really affect me -- the only people who were ever permitted to use that park were those who could afford to live in the grand houses on its leafy fringes.

I wondered back then if the residents had previously bothered to use the park all that much. Now that Noel O'Gara has this week agreed to reopen it to them, they are pledging picnics and barbies, plays and concerts -- all to prove that this is an amenity worth keeping intact.

Dartmouth Square is a lesson to us all to make the most of what we've got on our own doorstep.

It can be difficult to raise our eyes from the pavement as we tread the same well-worn paths between home, the office, the supermarket and the local, week in, week out. But we are so blessed in Dublin.

We live in a city with more urban green space than any other European capital. Much of this is contained in the expanse of the Phoenix Park --but there are other gorgeous little oases of peace -- and they don't require a private residents' key.

One of my favourite finds was the Blessington Street Basin, a former city water reservoir that is now home to herons, cranes, ducks and flowering lilies. The first time you stumble into its tranquility, the contrast with the roar of the traffic at the top of Dorset Street is so startling, you will honestly believe you have gone stone-deaf.

The same can be said for the Iveagh Gardens, a Tardis-like park secreted through a small gateway off Harcourt Street.

The first I heard of it was almost seven years after coming to live in Dublin. My sister came to visit and starting raving about this lush, tree-lined amphitheatre where she had eaten a takeaway sandwich. It's a sad moment when it takes a day-tripping culchie to point out what has been under your urbanite nose for years. That's the secret to finding these hidden gems: act like a tourist in your own neighbourhood. I took the Ghost Bus tour for a laugh with my auntie -- also a visitor -- and was gobsmacked when our guide brought us to a former graveyard at the back of Wexford Street.

It has a ruined church in the middle of it, and some headstones still recline against the boundary walls. All the bodies were reinterred in other consecrated ground some years back, and office workers now sprawl out on the grass for a lunchtime breather. "Here Lies Sean O'Driscoll, on his coffee break, June 12, 2009."

If anyone has a favourite hideaway spot in Dublin, I'd love to hear about it. It will be our little secret. I promise.

Friday, June 12, 2009

When will this end?

Who would want to be in Big Brother these days... My piece from the Indo today:


By Susan Daly

Friday June 12 2009

What is a nice Catholic daughter of a missionary doing in a place like Big Brother? On paper, Noirin Kelly, Ireland's only representative in the tenth series of the reality show, should be a fish out of water.

Since the late Jade Goody stripped down to her 'kebab' seven years ago, the erstwhile TV social experiment has gained notoriety as a hideout for freaks, fame-seekers and, occasionally, very troubled souls.

Noirin's family in Cabinteely would be appalled to think that their pretty 25-year-old girl could in any way fit that bill. Her parents met when Noirin's Irish father Peter was a missionary in Kenya; he brought his wife Jacinta home to Dublin where they raised a good Catholic brood of two girls and five boys, now aged from 27 down to seven.

"She'll keep out of trouble," said Peter, on hearing the news that his second eldest had entered the Big Brother house. "She'd be religious enough. We all have our faith." Noirin's mother Jacinta praised her daughter as "the girl who would walk out and find gold".

It is clear Noirin comes from a tightly-knit family, not lacking in love nor morals. Her parents' faith in her is heartening -- one hopes it won't be betrayed by her stint on Big Brother.

The stringently secret nature of the show forced Noirin to tell her mum she was going to London to meet a friend when she was in fact attending the show auditions. The family were shocked when she popped up on TV last week --they thought she was in America.

And as sure as rocks have creepy-crawlies under them, a 'friend' has already handed over pictures of Noirin posing in scanty undies to a tabloid.

It was revealed that Noirin had previously featured on a high-profile reality show, The Real World in Australia, which saw her frolicking topless in a hot tub.

Noirin's mum has hinted that she is not naïve about the possibility that her daughter might play to the cameras. Jacinta said she will watch the show for now, but may have to look away if Noirin does anything "silly".

Noirin's hunger for attention in the belief that fame and fortune will also be in attendance is no longer a novelty among BB applicants. It was a different story when the first-ever Irish contestant, Anna Nolan, entered the house in its first season in 2000. She believed no-one would even watch it.

One night shortly before the launch of the show, she told her plans to friends in the pub. "One of them said, 'Why on earth would anyone want to watch that?' and we changed the subject," she said.

After series five, it became clear that the programme-makers were casting ever more eccentric characters in a bid to keep viewer attention alive.

George Lamb, host of spin-off show Big Brother's Little Brother, is puzzled by the characters he interviews when they emerge from the house. "It's weird what drives someone to go and be a part of it," he said.

The fact that contestants will literally do anything to get on TV is fully exploited by the programme makers.

This year, the contestants had to submit to bizarre tests on the show before they became "fully fledged" housemates.

Two contestants, a posh boy called Freddie Fisher and a glamour model called Sophie Reade, had to change their names by deed poll to Halfwit and Dogface respectively. Two others, single mother Saffia Corden and former Mr Gay UK contestant Charlie Drummond, were ordered to walk over broken glass -- not realising that it was safe sugar glass, the kind which is used in movie stunt scenes.

Noirin agreed to have her eyebrows shaved off by another contestant, and glasses and a moustache drawn on her face in permanent marker.

Noirin Kelly is not a talentless desperado by any means -- she's a former athletics star, and a manager for Dunnes Stores -- but the clarion call of potential fame is strong enough for her to allow her face to be... well, defaced... for public consumption.

The debasement and humiliation could well be for naught. Dermot O'Leary, former host of Big Brother's Little Brother, remarked: "When I first started on Big Brother (in 2001) people never really wanted to be famous. It was just a by-product of what happens when you're on that show . . . I don't think people should go on Big Brother thinking 'I really want to be famous' with any longevity."

Those few who do not sink without trace have found that Big Brother fame is not without its complications. Although the last days of Jade Goody have barely faded from our TV screens, the current batch of BB hopefuls don't appear to view her as a cautionary tale.

True, Jade's notoriety allowed her to create a trust fund for her two sons by allowing cameras to follow her as she died of cervical cancer. But that pay day was bitterly earned over seven years in which public perception of her character was created through the prism of her first innocent turn on Big Brother in 2002, and four years later on Celebrity Big Brother.

Her first appearance branded her ignorant, childlike and unsophisticated; and she emerged from the latter with the labels of bully and racist.

Her third Big Brother appearance -- on the Indian version to offer reparation for her attacks on Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty -- ended abruptly with her being informed on camera that she had cancer.

While audiences for reality TV are in decline overall, Noirin, an evidently bright girl with a head for business, might have been better off applying to The Apprentice if she wanted maximum exposure.

Despite showing on a traditionally low-rating weekday night, The Alan Sugar-fronted show increased its audience to a record high of 8.1 million at the start of the 2009 series.

In any case, wannabes don't need BB anymore when they recreate the experience with the help of a home camera and a video-sharing website like YouTube or Vimeo. And guess what -- Noirin Kelly is already featured on a video on Youtube, having a dance-off with a male friend in someone's front room. Why, she's famous already.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

My hero

I interviewed the kind and generous Ken Loach, director of Kes, Riff-Raff, Ladybird Ladybird, Bread and Roses, The Wind The Shakes The Barley etc etc, on his new film Looking for Eric, which stars Eric Cantona.
Paste in this link to the Film Ireland website to read the transcript. Total gent....


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Knitting your own yoghurt

My op-ed in today's Herald

By Susan Daly

Tuesday June 09 2009

I know how the Green Party feels -- my own green credentials have taken something of a hit of late. The salad window box wilted to death when I was away for the weekend.

It is safe to say I will not be self-sufficient in homegrown food this summer. Pipe dreams of growing tomatoes in a pot and bottling them for winter like some class of Amish housewife have come to naught.

Things were so different about a year ago when it became clear that we would have to start tightening our belts. There was a rash of lifestyle articles telling you how to raise a chicken on a balcony, grow veggies in a half-barrel, make briquettes from wet paper, knit your own yoghurt.


It seemed that the patriotic thing to do was to embrace the simple life. Fashion your shoes out of last season's leather belt, create a party dress out of a pair of curtains a la Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind. Retro gardening and bread-baking books shot back to the top of the bestsellers' list for the first time in decades.

But it all got a bit exhausting, didn't it? Those of us who continue to have a job still have to work as many hours as before. Walking everywhere is a nice jolly hockeysticks idea when the sun is shining, and you have nowhere to be in a hurry. Finding two hours to walk the kids to school, walk yourself to work, then to the supermarket to pick up the dinner on the way home is not always realistic.

Convenience is still paramount -- few have the time or energy to churn their own butter from the milk of a cow kept in the back garden.

We have adapted in some ways; we might not get up at 4am to grind corn and bake our own bread, but we probably now know which supermarket has the cheapest sliced pan. It's just that we perhaps bit off more wholesome, organic fare than we could chew.

It was reported recently that some of the councils who assign allotments in the greater Dublin area were taking several of the patches of land back from people who had failed to actually grow anything on them.

There was a lot of tut-tutting from seasoned allotment users over these fair-weather farmers. But to be fair I'm sure the road away from the vegetable patch is paved with good intentions.

There was something almost spiritual about the idea of growing one's own food after years of thoughtless takeaways and stockpiles of expensive food bought in a fancy deli, destined to rot in the chiller cabinet of giant American-style fridges. We were a little ashamed of our excesses and we wanted to feel the refreshing sting of austerity.

I don't think we should feel too bad that we haven't instantaneously turned into survival experts. Not too long ago, showing you were not one of wasteful ways just meant putting a housebrick in the toilet cistern to save water on a flush. We can't expect to suddenly morph into Bear Grylls clones, building our own bicycles from two sticks of wicker and a punctured football. Do you think Michelle Obama is hoeing that giant vegetable patch in front of the White House all by herself? Is she heck.

Saying that, it might be nice if there were a few free council-run classes available to people who would like to give the old self-help lark another try. Clothes-altering lessons and urban garden courses might well reinvigorate our good intentions. It takes time for new habits to take -- who would have thought ten years ago that we would all be religiously separating our paper and plastic?

In the meantime, if you don't want to pull up your lovely rose bush to make room for a potato drill, don't worry about being called selfish and irresponsible. Enjoy the view -- at least it's free.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Don't be a solicitor

New opinion pieces from me in the Evening Herald...


By Susan Daly

There is a lame old joke that says teenagers are world experts in any subject they don't have to sit as an exam.

The reality is that teens rarely feel like masters of the universe. And for the Leaving Cert class of 2009, the world is a more uncertain place than ever before.

It has been several long years since a generation of secondary school students faced graduating into such a volatile world.

In the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the twin spectres of unemployment and emigration loomed outside the school gates.

Going to college was an option that merely delayed the inevitable -- that all skills and qualifications were for export.


Such a brain drain could happen again, we are warned.

Already it is clear that the current crop of third-level students will have few jobs waiting for them when they graduate.

This has been a sobering thought for the Leaving Certs filling out their CAO/CAS forms this year.

What do you choose to study when the only place your degree certificate might be appreciated is on the wall of your parents' sitting room?

Actually, there is something to be said for not having your future decided by the demands of the marketplace.

Two newly-qualified solicitors of my acquaintance were worrying last week about the fact all their hard work in college, at Blackhall Place, and as trainees at law firms for a pittance -- 'devilling' as the practice is known -- might have been in vain.

There are no openings for them in this new climate.

The irony, as they see it, is that they only got into law because, at the height of the boom, it seemed like a career path lined with fortune and security. They are not even sure they like the job itself all that much.

If there is one lesson the Class of 2009 could take from them, it is this: Don't apply for a course just because it might end in a secure job. Do something because you love it.

That way, no matter what the state of the workplace when you finally graduate, you will never resent the time you spent getting there.


Studying subjects that lead into a course or trade you are interested in makes the Leaving Cert seem much less onerous.

The exam that, as adults, we look back on as unnecessarily stressful has been especially so in recent years.

The pressure teenagers were under to get points for jobs that were seen as desirable -- but not necessarily the jobs of their dreams -- led to an unsustainable round of grind schools, tutors, and extra financial and emotional stress for the family.

Children were struggling through higher mathematics, or languages, or two science subjects, without necessarily having the aptitude for them, because they were entry routes to "careers with status".

There is no point claiming that the cold wind blowing in on the job front won't cause sleepless nights for teens -- but it is important that they know the outlook is not bleak.

My sister finished school in 1989 -- she was one of the few of her age in her area to stay in Ireland, at least initially. Five years later, as I sat my Leaving, the economic climate was giving hints of a silver lining.

But, having watched my sister's generation decimated no matter what course of action they took, I decided to just go with what I liked and hope for the best.

I did not think to get into a course that might ride the crest of the coming wave. I have never made pots of money -- but I have been happy to potter along doing something I'm passionate about.

I hope the same for the Class of 2009, so that even if the river of prosperity is slow to rise again, they will always be paddling their own canoe.

A white recession

A feature published by the Irish Independent on June 02 about how the recession is affecting the use of cocaine in Ireland (or not, as the case may be)...


COCAINE: 'The largest threat to civic society that we face'
By Susan Daly

Of all the decadence associated with the Celtic Tiger, cocaine was the most insidious. A relatively expensive drug five years ago, when it cost about three times' the price of heroin, its use was largely associated with the middle classes. It was seen as a sociable drug, one to be snorted from immaculate glass dining tables in wood-floored apartments, washed down with champagne.

Now that the party is over, has time also been called on the use and abuse of cocaine for young professionals?

A quick -- and admittedly unscientific -- anecdotal survey among acquaintances suggests that it is still popular.

"I know a solicitor who says it is still rife among her graduating class even though they're all finding it hard to find jobs," one 26-year-old told me. A 32-year-old estate agent says that it's no longer an "every weekend" drug, but that he saves it for "special occasions". Such as? "Birthdays, New Year's Eve, that kind of thing".

Gerry Cooney is an addiction counsellor at the Rutland Centre, one of Ireland's largest private drug and alcohol rehab centres.

It is based in the south Dublin suburb of Templeogue, and treats patients from the age of 18 up.

"There seems to be no huge change in patterns of people coming to us," says Cooney. "Typically it is a lot of professional people, for whom it is the drug of choice."

The attraction to cocaine as a so-called recreational drug are obvious, says Cooney.

"We don't see the vast majority of people who take it here because they take it on a Friday and still manage to work on Monday.

"When we get to see people is when their weekends start happening on a Thursday, then a few nights a week -- and then they start taking it in the morning before going to work."

But surely the recession, and the shrinking reserves of disposable cash, have put a kibosh on cocaine use? "Rationality doesn't come into it," says Cooney. "People think that they are not addicted because cocaine is not as physically addictive as heroin, for example. But cocaine has strong psychological dependence -- I think people are starting to discover that actually they can't give it up when they are made redundant and need to cut back. It's no longer a choice."

Cooney also believes that cocaine has retained its image as a clean, party drug. "Recreational drug use, as it's called, is a misnomer. I don't like it -- it makes cocaine sound very seductive and possible and manageable."

This is the image that a €650,000 advertising campaign by the HSE aimed to deconstruct last autumn.

Just over 70pc of under-35s said the poster ads would make them think differently about using cocaine, while 93pc said the radio ads taught them about the dangers of mixing cocaine and alcohol.

Dr Chris Luke, a consultant in emergency medicine in Mercy Hospital, Cork, is dubious. "There's no evidence that education about drugs works," he says.

"Saying that, we have to keep trying. I'm interested in educating parents and target groups to get the message home. I am trying to ventilate what we, the staff on the frontline, see when we treat 1.2 million people passing through our emergency departments every year."

And what Dr Luke sees convinces him that cocaine is as big a problem across the board as ever.

"We used to see a pattern where Paddy would come in drunk at midnight, flail about the place, be stitched up and asleep by 3am, and come in and apologise the next day.

"Now he is awake with cocaine all night, the violence goes on and on. I have seen eight ambulance men and policemen all sweating, trying to restrain such a guy, even though he might be handcuffed."

Beyond "dinner-party bores", he also notices a link between cocaine, the drug that is perceived to be less devastating to the community, and a horrendous spate of violence.

"My concern with cocaine is that I see it as the largest threat to civic society that we face. Guns are coming in on the same crates as this stimulant for violence -- it's a recipe for Mexican-style anarchy."

He says that he has quipped previously that the recession "might be the cure for cocaine use" in the country.

He does think that there is a levelling off of usage among the middle classes, but that cocaine is becoming more widespread among teens and criminals.

"Gangsterism is a recession-proof industry -- these guys have access to loads of cash."

Tom Brady in this newspaper reported on an EU-wide survey this year which showed that 4pc of the Irish population over the age of 15 are regular coke users, taking two grammes a week.

A survey published by researchers from Queen's University Belfast this month identified the rise of cocaine use among school-goers aged 13 to 16 years in 43 schools across Belfast, Ballymena and Downpatrick.

Up to 7.5pc of students in the schools were using cocaine by the time they were in their final year.

It seems astonishing that students can buy a drug that up to recently only high-earning professionals saw as affordable.

A garda source tells me that while the Garda Drugs Squad is currently officially pricing the street value of cocaine at €70 a gramme, it can be bought in reality for around €50 a gramme. If a buyer takes 10g -- as often happens when a group of friends club together -- the price can drop to as little as €30 to €40 a gramme.

Essentially, a weekend's cocaine supply for the price of two decent bottles of wine.

The perception of coke as a drug of choice has now filtered down to the extent that its use has become normalised among a new generation, many of whom come from deprived areas.

The Tallaght Local Drugs Task Force Strategic Plan 2008-2013 highlighted the growing prevalence of cocaine use among children and the blasé practice of 'speedballing' -- mixing cocaine and alcohol, or taking cocaine before heroin.

The problems highlighted in the report were not unique to Tallaght, but were countrywide, the authors said.

And yet Government support for drug schemes in these areas is being drastically cut. Stuart Fraser, co-ordinator of the Chrysalis Community Drug Project in north Dublin's inner city, says their funding has been hit by 30pc.

"It is the disenfranchised who are suffering in these public sector cuts," he says.

Yet the myth of glamour persists about cocaine, possibly because the middle classes still view it as a little luxury. Dr Chris Luke sees it as symptomatic of a society that still has its head in the sand about all our drug problems.

He says wearily: "I joke that working in the emergency department has given me two perspectives on drugs -- one is bleak, and one is apocalyptic."