Friday, October 30, 2009

"If I live I can be proud of that, and if I die I did something good."

The very lovely thing about this job is the fact that you meet lots of interesting folk. Even better, you get paid to meet them. Occasionally, 'interesting' doesn't go hand-in-hand with 'nice'. That's not the case with gardener Dermot O'Neill. I had as much fun as you can have in a warehouse in Finglas last year when I interviewed him about his upcoming shows for RTE and his ambitions to renovate a 19th-century walled garden in Co Laois.
But when I went to see him earlier this month, the conversation was altogether more sombre. We're thinking of you Dermot.

FROM IRISH INDEPENDENT'S Weekend magazine, October 17, 2009

THERE is something not right about seeing Dermot O’Neill in a hospital bed. He should be standing in a flower border, energetically pruning back roses, or showing off the glut of winter chard from his garden in Co Laois.

Instead he is easing himself back onto a pillow, an angry crescent-shaped wound visible on the front left of his shaved head, pinced together with staples. It is through this hole in his skull that chemotherapy is being administered once a week to track down rogue cancer cells in his spinal and brain fluid. Last night, he joked with a friend that the opening was like having the lid of a wheelie bin on his head.

His trademark gelled quiff is gone. He decided to have his hair shaved off rather than wait for the fallout of severe chemotherapy to kick in. A woman walked into his hospital room last week and said she was the hospital hairdresser. “I said, ‘You’re exactly the woman I’m looking for. Will you shave my head?’”

It was Dermot’s way of taking back some control in his life, something he hasn’t had much of since he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in early September.
Everything had just been coming together for him this summer. His gardening expertise had never been more in demand; he was giving lectures and tours, rushing to festivals all around Ireland. His revitalisation of a 19th century walled garden at Clondeglass, Laois was coming along beautifully – RTE have commissioned a 12-part series about the ambitious project for the new year called Dermot’s Garden.

When Weekend magazine called for a tour of Clondeglass a little over a month ago, Dermot was buzzing with plans. As well as the regeneration of the garden, he was renovating the one-bedroom cottage beside it and looking at setting up a gardening school.

The picturesque cottage, with roses trailing around the doorway, was particularly important to him. Eight or nine years ago, Dermot lost his job and then his beloved home in Dublin’s Portobello, just off the South Circular Road. He has never forgotten the “horror” and the indignity of that time in his life and so earlier this summer he agreed to become a patron of homeless charity Threshold. Their corporate funding has dried up and they have had to shut their Limerick office even though demand for their services has doubled because of the number of people losing their homes in the recession.

“I asked them: ‘Are there people who get cancer being thrown out of accommodation?’ And they said yes. I thought that, well, when I’m back on my feet, I want to look closely at this.”

Dermot has plans, no doubt about it. He is throwing himself behind the fight being waged against his disease by his consultant oncologist Professor John Crown, a man well known to the Irish public for his formidable critiques of the government’s handling of cancer services.

“He’s very direct and it suits me,” says Dermot. “There’s no mollycoddling. He’s there fighting on your behalf, he’s like a soldier and he has an amazing team of nurses here.”

When Prof Crown told Dermot he would need to drill a hole in his skull, Dermot asked if neurosurgery wasn’t a bit risky. “And he said: ‘It’s simple. You do it or you die’. And I went, Right, say no more, I understand, I’m in your hands, do what you have to do.”

He sounds very stoic and, wrapped up in a dapper silk polka-dot dressing gown, looks well despite the harrowing trial his body is undergoing. (“It’s the steroids,” he whispers.) But he is the first to admit that when first told he had cancer, and the fast-growing version of it at that, he was plunged into fear.

“There’s a hopeless moment where you feel you are alone in the world, like someone suddenly switches out a light,” says Dermot.

He first felt unwell at the end of June, and was admitted to the Beacon in Sandymount when he developed chickenpox. The blisters were everywhere – “In my ears, my nose, my head, I looked like the creature from the black lagoon” – but he also had a bleeding ulcer. After ten days or so, he was about to be discharged when he developed painful gout in his foot, a result of being so run down.

It was when he returned for an endoscopy to check on his ulcer a few weeks later, that he got the first hint something could be seriously wrong. His consultant Dr Donal Maguire said they weren’t happy, the ulcer hadn’t healed and that there appeared to be something else.

The results of a biopsy confirmed that Dermot had a tumour in his stomach. The good news, said Mr Maguire, was that although it was very serious, it was very treatable. It was a fast-growing cancer, but the upside to that was that it would respond quickly to chemotherapy.

He was immediately referred to Prof Crown, a world-recognised expert in lymphoma. Dermot’s mental state, however, took a little time to catch up with the fast pace of events.

“You immediately start wondering: How long have I? How many months? You hear of people going in three weeks. We’ve all heard these stories. It was very emotional and I thought, Hold on a minute, you have the strength and the maturity to pull you through this. You’ve got to put on a brave face.”

Telling his parents, now in their 70s, was an awful moment. “Very very difficult to do that,” he says, “because I hadn’t come to terms with it and I knew how desperately shocked and upset they were.” Dermot’s aunt Ann Hall died last year of cancer at a relatively young age. “It brings it all back for the family. It resurrects the memory of what another loved one went through,” he adds.

Yet he has found strength in his lost aunt. He remembers saying goodbye to her and how she told him that she would always be with him.

He tries to think of it all as part of the cycle of life. The night before he was admitted to St Vincent’s Private Hospital to start treatment, he opened the harvest festival to mark 150 years of Killiney’s Anglican church. “I went early so I could be alone there. And I walked into that church and it was full of flowers… The love the care the effort that went into every arrangement.

“It was very appropriate, here I was coming to terms with something that might take my life and I’m in the middle of a space where people had been married, christened, buried. It was very grounding.”

Those positive thoughts have been reinforced by his “amazing” friends and parents, his sisters Carol and Louise. He’s had so many letters and cards that the overflow has gone to his parents’ house. Carol – who narrowly escaped death herself in 2001 when she fled her workplace, the burning Twin Towers, on 9/11 – came home from America to visit him last weekend. Dermot was allowed out wearing a mask to ward off infection because his immune system is at an all-time low.

Even though he feels he has what he needs to fight the good fight – support, love, great medical care – there are anxieties that can’t be brushed under the carpet. “I hadn’t cried at all until I was admitted into hospital two weeks ago,” he says. “But then it happened.”

He had an appointment to meet Prof Crown at St Vincent’s Private Hospital on the Friday. When he arrived, he was immediately admitted. As they weren’t starting any treatment on him that day, he was allowed to go out – “as long as I came back!” So he went with a group of close friends for a meal. On the surface, he was trying to enjoy the evening but underneath he was deeply upset.

When one of his friends brought him back to St Vincent’s in a taxi, Dermot just “exploded into tears”. He says: “I looked at the building and I thought: I might never come out of here.

“That was the little breaking point. I had left my friends and I was now starting this new journey… It just overwhelmed me.”
It still does. As we have been talking, dusk has fallen outside the hospital window and we are sitting in shadow. In the half-light, he covers his face briefly and sheds a few tears. It’s only a few short weeks since his diagnosis. He has six months of three types of chemo ahead of him. Crying is a healthy response I think.

“They said it’s good to cry,” he says, “men don’t cry enough. So every now and then I have a little cry. I’ve had a cry now and I look at it as: It’s good for me, it’s another little release.”

Dermot believes that not recognising what your body needs is a major root of any illness. “I’m convinced that stress had a big role to play in mine,” he says. “I was working very hard all summer long, enjoying it, but I was working around the clock. I was worried if I didn’t do that extra bit would I lose that contract, would I lose that opportunity, would that not be renewed. It’s like that saying: You’re running faster to stay still.”

He thinks this stress, the insecurity of being self-employed, is compounded by his desire to never again be in the vulnerable financial position he was eight years ago.

It is for this reason he has invited us to visit him in his hospital bed, for this reason that he spoke to Pat Kenny during the week about his cancer.
“I want to ask people: How many of us stop and think, Hold on, what about me? What about my health? What about that day off? I think if I had done more of that, I might not be in the position I am now.”
That, and the hope that even one person who hears his story might get themselves a health check, is what drives him on.

“If I live I can be proud of that, and if I die I did something good.”

Nobody’s going anywhere yet though. Dermot went through some pretty gruelling diagnostic tests, a bone marrow biopsy, lumber punctures, a PET/CT scan that left him with bad migraine. But all of these helped his medical team to tailor his treatment regime to the specifics of his cancer.

“It was giving Prof Crown that extra ammunition that he needed as a soldier to deal with this,” he says. There is much hope, he says, although the key is to take each day at a time and see how the tumour responds to the chemo assault.

Meanwhile, Dermot’s thinking ahead to what he has to look forward to. There is Dermot’s Garden, which will now have the journey of his cancer fight wound into its narrative. RTE has also commissioned a second series of Supergardens and asked Dermot to host it in next summer. He wants to get out there on the campaign trail for Threshold.

He has other ambitions too. “You know you’re responsible for the end of the Late Late Show appearance I made?” he laughs. The last time I interviewed him, over a year ago when he started work on Clondeglass, Dermot told me that he had a secret dream to be an opera singer. The Mooney Show on RTE Radio One read the article and sent him for lessons. He stunned a Late Late Show audience on March 6 this year by singing, unaccompanied, a sweet version of O Sole Mio.

I ask him, what I can fix for you this time round? “A trip to the moon. Will you send me to the moon?” he says, laughing again.

Then he thinks about it, and adds quietly, “Although I should be careful, because what you wish for… I could end up on the moon. The man on the moon.”

Not obsessed at all....

... George Clooney is such a great source of, er, inspiration to us all that it's never a hardship to be rung by your editor and asked: Can you give me 1,800 words on Clooney and eligble bachelors? Can I ever.

From The Irish Independent, October 17

TO ALL THE GIRLS HE’S LOVED BEFORE… Could George Clooney really have fallen off the shelf?

IN a great piece of ironic timing, George Clooney is promoting a film that casts him as a rootless wanderer who finally meets a woman he wants to be with. And while he has been trying not to let journalists read too much into his love ’em and leave ’em role in Up In The Air, the internet is abuzz with suggestions that George has finally hitched his wagon to a woman in real life.

Italian TV presenter and sometime actress Elisabetta Canalis launched a thousand gossip blogs when she began sporting a Cartier diamond ring this past week.

Elisabetta – or ‘La Canalis’ as she is known to her Italian fans – has been dating Clooney since July. They met through a mutual friend in Rome, were seen dining out in Milan at the end of July, snapped larking about on a boat in August, and posed together at the Venice Film Festival in September.

La Canalis is now reported to have moved into Castello Clooney on Lake Como. He is staying in Italy to start filming The American, directed by former U2 photographer Anton Corbijn. Cindy Crawford and her husband and Matt Damon and his wife have holidayed with the couple. Damon says his pal’s new squeeze is a “really, really wonderful woman”. So far, so swimmingly.

However, a “friend” insists that smitten George has been showering his new Italian girlfriend with presents and the Cartier ring is just one of them. “It is a sign they are getting serious”, but it’s not an engagement ring, the “friend” told In Touch magazine.

A celebrity’s love life is always a magnet for tittle-tattle, but when there is a hint that The World’s Most Eligible Bachelor might be about to abandon ship, it’s front page news. To this point, George Clooney’s longest-lasting relationship has been with a pot-bellied pig called Max. His 18-year devotion to the animal certainly outlived his 18-month relationship to Kelly Preston who left him Max when she and Clooney split in 1988.

He had the obligatory starter marriage to Mad Men actress Talia Balsam the following year but they divorced in 1993. “I was 28, and in Kentucky when you get to be that age, you're supposed to get married,” he explained several years later. Clooney has vowed he will never marry again which of course has the paradoxical effect of making every woman fantasise about being the one to ‘turn him’.

Kimberly Russell, an ex of Eddie Murphy, was quite open about the reason she and Clooney split around 1996. “We’d been together for over three years and I wanted a family,” she said. Clooney didn’t – at least not then.

There is, of course, something sexist in the implication that every woman who Clooney has dated wanted nothing more to be married to him. Who is to say some of the ladies weren’t the ones dragging their heels at the sight of the aisle? The idea of being married to a talented, handsome, witty, intelligent, wealthy, politically-aware man may not appeal to everyone, you know.

Looked at closely, Clooney’s romantic track record is indicative more of a serial monogamist than of a serial womaniser. He’s not afraid to make room for an extra toothbrush: it just never seems to get as far as adding ‘Mrs Clooney’ to the mailbox.

His next relationship was another three-year stint, with French law student Celine Balitran moving to the States to live with him until 1999. They met when Clooney was 35 and shooting The Peacemaker in Paris with Nicole Kidman.

(Incidentally, Kidman had a $10,000 bet with Michelle Pfeiffer that her co-star would be married by the age of 40. We hope Pfeiffer spent her winnings wisely.)

There was a moment when it almost seemed possible that Clooney might renege on his non-wedding vow. His reasonably long on-off relationship with British model Lisa Snowdon ended in the early Noughties with not a bad word ever uttered between them since. This is fairly typical of Clooney’s endings, whether happy or not – it is hard to find an ex who will gripe about him. He had a little fling with Renee Zellwegger around this time, but she evidently had no problem acting opposite him in
Leatherheads last year.

The Snowdon affair may well have been the relationship that cemented Clooney’s eligible bachelor status. Snowdon was beautiful, but not overpoweringly so. She was a bit girl-next-door. Good Lord, we could be in with a chance after all! Not only was he eligible, but we might be too.

After that, Clooney’s tastes appeared to veer a little onto the wild side. His next affair was with Krista Allen, star of the soft-core Emmanuelle series. He grew close to Allen and her young son Jacob, but again, she disappeared as a ring failed to materialise.

Vegas cocktail waitress Sarah Larson was next in line and he brought her to the Oscars when he was nominated for Michael Clayton in 2007 – a red-carpet moment heralded by the phantom ringing of wedding bells that, again, never tolled for she.

In the year since their break-up, Clooney has been linked with as diverse a range of women as waitress Lucy Wolvert and Indian journalist Fatima Bhutto, niece of assassinated Pakistan president Benazir Bhutto.

To wonder if this will be the year that Elisabetta boldly goes where only one woman has gone before is a matter of speculation. George Clooney’s publicist never – repeat, NEVER – comments on his personal life.

His own remarks on his new relationship have been typically oblique. Publicising previews of Up In The Air at a film festival at the start of last month, Clooney was cheeky when asked who was the current o-pilot in his life. “Well, I’ve been flying Alitalia,” he said. “She’s… I have a nice co-pilot.”

The fact that the role as Ryan Bingham, an emotionally-detached man who is addicted to collecting frequent-flyer miles, was written specifically for him by the film-maker Jason Reitman (Juno) may have given Clooney pause for thought.

Who wants to have these words – spoken by Ryan in the film – put in his mouth? “Some animals were made to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime… star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We’re sharks.”
Clooney commented: “The minute I read the script, I understood why I was probably the right person for this job. Part of it requires talking about things that are tricky to talk about for almost everybody but sometimes for me, in particular.
“Things that are cute when you’re 26 aren’t always cute when you’re 48. I’m well aware of that.” It would be interesting to see if the date on that Cartier receipt came before or after that press conference.

With George Clooney teetering on the edge of the single shelf, Hollywood must be casting desperately around for its next most eligible bachelor. But what makes one? This 1937 article from Movie Mirror celebrity magazine seemed sure of the criteria: “Hollywood bachelors, collectively, don't think in terms of matrimony. Not if they are twenty-three, tall, dark, handsome, with Irish wit, and are building up annuities.”
The article referred to a fledgling star called Tyrone Power who went on to marry three times and, post-death, attracted rumours that he may have been more of a ‘confirmed bachelor’ than an eligible one in his youth.
So don’t blame us if this lot of would-be Clooneys are off the market by next year, ladies. A Hollywood bachelor is a fickle creature…

BENICIO DEL TORO: Film nerds had been in love with Del Toro, 42, for years until his mysterious gangster in The Usual Suspects turned the world onto him. He’s an Oscar winner, a manly dude who doesn’t mind gaining weight (Traffic) or burning himself with cigarettes (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) for a role. He’s got his sensitive side (he’s an artist), the requisite string of gorgeous exes (Chiara Mastrioanni, Claire Forlani and other assorted actresses). He’s good pals with Johnny Depp and his name means ‘Of the Bull’ for goodness sake. George who?

LEONARDO DiCAPRIO: He’s lost some of those boyish good looks of Titanic days but 34-year-old di Caprio always manages to hook the hotties (his last two long-term girlfriends were models Gisele and Bar Rafaeli). Like Mr Clooney, DiCaprio has shown himself a man of substance by consistently campaigning on environmental issues. Now a bona fide star and multi-millionaire and currently single, fans would do well to heed the title of one of his more recent films, Catch Me If You Can.

CHACE CRAWFORD: Yes, yes, he’s only 24, but as our lady from Movie Mirror said in 1937: “Bachelorhood, we know, is a fledgling state in which the male flaunts his brightest feathers”. Mr Crawford has certainly been shaking his plumage of late, breaking out from his TV empire of Gossip Girl (he’s the teen’s Dr Doug Ross) into film and winning People magazine’s Summer’s Hottest Bachelor award. He plays the Kevin Bacon role in the remake of Footloose next year. Scream!!

ROBERT PATTISON: Another young un’ at 23 but one who is shaping up to have a wider appeal than squeaky clean Zac Efron. Pattison’s vampire lead in the Twilight movies
have invested his sex appeal with an edge and his dark brooding looks have attracted comparisons with Marlon Brando. He said this year that he “almost doesn't want to have a girlfriend in this environment”. Nothing makes a bachelor more eligible than his reluctance to settle down.

GERARD BUTLER: The Europeans get a look in with Scotsman Butler, 39, who filled out his armour rather well in the Spartan epic 300 and is soon to be seen opposite Jennifer Aniston in The Bounty. He has the looks, the charm and the increasing star power. We will, however, have to caution against the chauvinist he played in recent movie The Ugly Truth and his woeful Irish accent in PS I Love You. Three strikes and you’re out, Gerry.

RYAN GOSLING: Gosling at 28 is already a more interesting character than many of the prettier boys of Hollywood, with his homemade tattoos and offbeat charm in The Notebook and Lars and The Real Girl. He has dated actress Rachel MacAdams on and off but as of last year, they appear to be just good friends. Good bachelors stay friends with their exes.

JACK NICHOLSON: Not that we would recommend the 72-year-old as the ideal marriage prospect, but it must be acknowledged that he is as close to a veteran eligible bachelor as Hollywood has these days. He married, once, in the 1960s and has several children but has never settled down. He prefers to say coyly that he has “never minded being a fool for love”, all the while lounging on a speedboat in the south of France amid a bevy of bikinied lovelies.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where it's always Arthur's Day

All Back To The Local - as printed in Day and Night magazine last Friday...

SOMETIMES you know something has happened before you see it. There’s a thump, a stifled giggle and a frisson of energy from a corner of the pub.
This forewarning never fully prepares you for the sight of a fully-grown man upside down with his head trapped between the wood panelling of the bar and the copper foot rail running around the bottom.
The soles of his shoes pedalling furiously in mid-air. His face turning purple with impotent fury and the rush of blood to the head. His friends alternating between collapsing in hysterics and trying to extricate him.
The barman intervenes with a weary ‘Fer Chrissakes, lads, take him home’. The rest of us turn back to our drinks. Just another Saturday afternoon in the local.
Only a certain class of pub can breed those little moments of weirdness. It needs staff who are intimate with the eccentricities of their regulars, and regulars who appreciate that sometimes a man will end up on his head because he’s too tired and emotional to stand on his feet. We’ve all been there. (Haven’t we?)
The upside-down man was one of a group of early-shift workers whose day finished at noon. They were always to be found at one end of my old local on a Saturday, easing their transition from work to the weekend with a few pints. He was the new guy and had yet to perfect the art of daytime drinking.
He was back the following week, pacing himself a little more carefully and looking sheepish. The barman never said a word, just laid his pint on the counter.
That’s the kind of unspoken tolerance that cultivates loyalty. At the risk of sounding like Dara O’Briain in those Vintners’ Federation ads, there’s nowhere like your local.
I wonder if many of us will start rediscovering ours now that the era of the superpub appears to be over. The financial death grip of the past year has closed several of them. Others remain on life support, looking for help from the courts to stay open.
It has been difficult for small pubs too – I guess more people are staying at home with cheap slabs of beer from Lidl. But if it came to the crunch and we were all required to go to the pub at least once a week (come on Guinness, surely a better marketing wheeze than Martha’s Day) I know which till I would rather put my money in.
If it doesn’t sound too pathetic to say out loud, I felt bereft when I moved to a different part of the city some years back and had to leave behind my old home-from-home, Slatterys of Rathmines. It was the place to call into on the way in or out of town on a weekend afternoon.
There would always be one or two of a bunch of Cork lads at the table by the side door ready to pass on a racing tip or the bits of the newspapers they didn’t want (everything but the sports section). Table service came later, but in my time the three laconic barmen could interpret an order from a raised eyebrow.
Maybe it’s an expat culchie thing but the sense of community is seductive. To know that when the elderly blind man comes in to the front bar for his nightly tipple, whoever is sitting in his habitual seat will stand up without being asked.
To know that conversation is king and the telly only comes on for big matches. To know that only a privileged few on the high stools get control of the remote.
Locals have snugs and diamond-patterned banquettes. The floor will have a bit of an ancient slope on it and a quartered beermat will be needed to steady the legs of the table.
Toasted sandwiches may well be served, but they must be inserted in magic plastic wrappers and rotated through the kind of giant open toasters that Buck Rogers thought would be the future of cooking.
I know I’m not the only ‘old man pub’ enthusiast. My Donegal friend spent so much of his spare time in The Stag’s Head that he ended up working there for a while. Another one is practically bolted to a chair outside Grogan’s every Thursday night.
Babies and spouses who insist that King crisps are not a fully-rounded diet eventually play havoc with the devotion required to make your pub a local. But until then, may I recommend a little place on Haddington Road…

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I Forgot My 'Eckker... sorry, Eckhart

My interview with a slightly odd but loveable Aaron Eckhart from last Friday's Day and Night magazine...

Who's that guy?

Friday October 09 2009

Aaron Eckhart is a pretty tough actor to pigeonhole. He's been a charming romantic foil for Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow and Catherine Zeta Jones, but he has also saved the earth from apocalypse, played a paedophile, a detective, a state attorney, a football coach and a Marine, an academic and a car dealer.

When I ask him how he pronounces his first name, he says amiably: "I don't mind. Call me anything you like. You're Irish. You'd say Aran, right?" So, Aran, like the jumper, it is for the rest of the interview, but it doesn't answer my question.

Eckhart, 41, prefers to keep it that way. He has based his career on being the director's flexible friend and cannot figure out why people keep proclaiming him as the next big romantic star when his roles have been so diverse to this point. "After every movie, from the Company of Men to Erin Brockovich, I've heard that I'm one of those leading men, that I have the physical aspect of it, but everything is a role. Leading man is also something to be acted," he says.

The movie he is promoting right now, the horribly named Love Happens, will do nothing to dispel the persistent rumour that he is leading-man material. His lantern-jawed good looks, piercing blue eyes and a masculine chin cleft to rival the Douglas clan, beg for a close-up. His co-star is Jennifer Aniston in full cutesy mode; Eckhart is the grieving widower who wins her heart.

Eckhart politely points out that he has moved on already from that shoot. "I have already made three movies since this one. I have a part in a movie based on a Hunter S Thompson book with Johnny Depp, I've done Rabbit Hole and I'm the leader of a platoon of Marines in an alien movie. I run the gamut from small independent movies to the big ones. I wouldn't be able to do one persona over and over."

When you're as chameleon a performer as Eckhart is, you don't have to act yourself into a box. For all that Heath Ledger's Joker stole the headlines in Dark Knight last year, it was Eckhart's performance that really touched me. His metamorphosis from crusading attorney Harvey Dent into the villainous Two Face was just stunning. Even at Two Face's most grotesque moments, Eckhart managed to dredge up some whisper of humanity.

"People are too quick to say that Two Face is a bad guy," he says cheerfully. "You see what happens to him. He's dealing with an incredible amount of loss and anger and bitterness. To me, the most interesting part of acting can be to humanise the bad guy."

Perhaps there is a common thread running through Eckhart's roles after all. His tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking three years ago delighted in conflicting the audience. The guy was the last word in amorality, but with Eckhart's handsome smile stretching across his face he seemed almost likeable. You could almost trust him.

"It's my job to put the audience in that position," says Eckhart. "No one wants to see a one-dimensional bad guy. I mean, is Hamlet a bad guy? And what about Macbeth? The guy who you feel sympathy for at the start of the play turns out to be the worst guy in the world."

There may be more to Eckhart's fluid career than his ability to empathise with any character. He's not very interested in inflicting his personality on the roles. In that sense, he's more of an actor's actor than a star, although he does note that he doesn't "shun success".

Take his thoughts on how he got into the mindspace of his character Burke Ryan in Love Happens. Ryan has written a self-help manual for the bereaved, although he is slow to take his own advice.

Eckhart comes across as a no-nonsense guy. Did he have to read a lot of advice books to be able to spout the inane catchphrases that are Ryan's stock-in-trade? "It's lucky that I'm a complete loser and a train wreck as a person," he says unexpectedly. "I have a lot of self-help books on my shelves."

I can't tell over the phone -- Eckhart is on the line from his publicist's office in LA -- if he's smirking or not. But he is sincere about his unease with the growing spotlight on him.

"You are on your way to a premiere, hyperventilating in the car. Most of the time you're terrified -- you have no idea what you are going to say. Then you get there, that door opens and you're hit with fans and flashbulbs and you feed off that energy."

He brought that experience to a potent scene in Love Happens. Burke, self-medicating with vodka and denial, is gripped by panic as he waits outside a conference room to address fans of his self-help book. But when his name is called, he bursts through the double doors, high-fiving the aisle seats as he strides purposefully to the stage.

"A great thing that director did was he stacked that room with lots of actors and extras that I could riff off. But to want that all the time, it's disingenuous or self-servicing or vanity and I'm not into that."

Californian-born Eckhart was brought up in the Mormon faith, although he has said that he doesn't necessarily adhere to the conservative tenets of the religion. Still there is a modesty about him that feels deep-seated. The American premiere for Love Happens was the night before we speak. I'm impressed that he's so sparky at eight o'clock in the morning. "I went home early," he says.

But there is only so much attention that Eckhart can resist as his profile builds and builds. It has been a growing sport in the gossip sheets to link him with his female co-stars, most recently with Jennifer Aniston.

"I've come to accept that it happens," he says. "But I'm in a good place with my family and friends because I sat them down a long time ago and they know what's going on. So it's not confusing to them when I am linked to Jennifer Aniston or Nicole Kidman, because they don't take any notice. Neither does the girl I go out with."

There is a chance that Aaron Eckhart could be the next Brad Pitt. But whether or not he wants to be is highly debatable.

PANEL: From Batman villain to Julia Roberts’s love interest, the sheer diversity of Aaron Eckhart’s roles so far means he is not always recognised on the street. “I’m a photographer and when I was in London I walked the city. I just walked and walked and no-one noticed,” he says. Here are some of those chameleon roles…
In The Company of Men (1997): Playing vile misogynist Chad allows Eckhart to try out the bad bastard role for size.
Erin Brockovich (2000): A thoroughly likeable Eckhart comes up for air as Julia Roberts’s long-haired biker lover George.
Possession (2002): His raffish academic manages to melt Gwyneth Paltrow’s epic reserve.
The Core (2003): Science fiction yarn in which Eckhart saves the Earth. Every actor should have one on their CV.
Suspect Zero (2004): Although the movie was panned, Eckhart manages to deliver a rare portrayal of an FBI agent with complexity.
Thank You For Smoking (2006): The bad guy never looked so good as Nick Naylor, the amoral tobacco industry lobbyist with the vulpine grin.
No Reservations (2007): Catherine Zeta Jones gets a taste of his charming chef, and a career as a romantic lead is Eckhart’s for the taking.
The Dark Knight (2008): Forget Christian Bale’s Batman, the film’s conflicted anti-hero award goes to Eckhart for the humanity he invests in Harvey Dent/Two Face.

Make fudge, not war

Now when I say cooking is better than sex, I mean in an EVOLUTIONARY sense. Allegedly.

From today's Indo...

Why cooking is better than sex. . .
A new book claims it's what happens in the kitchen -- not the bedroom -- that has made humanity evolve. Susan Daly reports

By Susan Daly

Wednesday October 14 2009

A survey of women last year declared that chocolate was better than sex. A victorious sports captain might describe winning as better than sex. For sleep-deprived new parents, eight hours of kip can be better than ... You get the idea.

Indeed, sex might not be the force that binds men and women together. According to a Harvard anthropologist, the main shaping force of human social behaviour is: cooking.

Richard Wrangham, in his new book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, says that the turning point in our evolution into modern men and women came when we first thought of throwing a bit of meat on the fire.

Archaeology normally dates the birth of cooking back to 200,000 BC when the first evidence of charred bones and hearths appeared. Wrangham, however, goes back 1.9 million years to find what he says is the point at which humans started to perform rudimentary cooking.

It is that moment at which our ancestors' bodies evolved into Homo erectus, with smaller digestive systems, jaws and teeth and bigger brains. The reason for these changes, says Wrangham, is that we had learned to break food down by cooking it, freeing up all that energy previously used chewing and digesting to increase our brain power.

There might be something in this. Nutritionist Aveen Bannon says that a raw-food diet -- although somewhat in vogue these days -- can be a very difficult one in which to balance all your energy and nutritional needs.

"It can be phenomenally high in fibre, and so takes a lot of digestive work," she says. Indeed, chimps spend around six hours a day chewing their raw foodstuffs into submission.

"It takes lots of planning and dedication to make sure that you are getting all the calcium, iron, vitamins and minerals that you need from such a diet."

A famous research project called the Giessen Raw Food Study found that a raw-food diet can't "guarantee an adequate energy supply".

The release of energy from raw food takes a lot longer to permeate the human body than cooked food, says Bannon.

There is no doubting that cooking food freed up time and energy for our ancestors to evolve. More controversial is Wrangham's contention that the first human 'marriages' were about food, not sex. The discovery of cooking, he says, led to relationships between the sexes that were "primitive protection rackets".

Men protected women from animals and other creatures attracted by the light and smell of the cooking fire. Women in return slaved for them over a hot cooking pit.

Is this the real truth behind the old chestnut, 'The way to a man's heart is through his stomach'?

"Over the past decades we have understood that our social system comes through the competition for reproductive partners," Wrangham says. "I'm saying, pair bonds are firstly about food, and that gave a platform to develop those relationships further."

Dr Abdullahai El Tom of the Department of Anthropology in NUI Maynooth, is an expert in the anthropology of food. He agrees that cooking food helped advance society by widening the choice of what was edible.

"But it was not the foundation of society," he insists. "It makes a wonderful story but it should be seen more as an addition, among many other things, to human society as it evolved over time."

As for the assumption that women were immediately chained to the primitive stove, Dr El Tom is not convinced.

"The original cook would not have used tools at all, it would have been very simply cooking by roasting and I don't know how he could prove that women had to do it." In fact, he points out mischievously, "look at the barbecue in summer, you will find men dominating them still."

However, food is still a major part of how we construct our social selves. Dr El Tom believes how we eat is as important to our sense of identity as how we dress. Food is very indicative today of where we are headed.

'Society is becoming more individualistic and our use of food asserts that," says Dr El Tom. "The communal stage, where families mostly sat down to dinner together, is coming to an end. There is a transformation in the way we approach food, even down to the family that sits together but serves three or four different meals at the one table."

Where food used to augment the family relationship, it is now more likely to be a cohesive force among friends (the new family?) or to impress your status by meeting at a particular restaurant.

Yet the romantic dinner survives as a cultural motif. Cooking for someone for the first time can be a very intimate gesture. This might hold an echo back to a time when it really mattered to a husband that he could come home to a meal cooked by his wife.

But be warned, gentlemen, women have evolved to the point where they no longer desire to be the only ape in the kitchen.
Wednesday October 14 2009

Richard Wrangham contests that cooking, not sex, was the initial binding force between humans. Whatever the truth of why our ancestors paired off, the twin imperatives of food and sex have become culturally intertwined.

Oysters, chocolate and asparagus are a byword for sensual pleasure. This menu, drawn from the chefs at, suggests a few new ways to your partner's heart ...

STARTER: Spicy garlic shrimp

Why? The ancient Greeks used to feed garlic to Olympians because it was purported to improve stamina. Scientists have recently found that the chemical substance behind the distinctive whiff of garlic, far from being a turn-off, is also present in female sexual secretions.

Ingredients: 400g peeled shrimp; 5 tbsp olive oil; 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes; 3 cloves garlic, crushed; sea salt.

Method: 1. Add the pepper flakes and garlic to the olive oil and leave to infuse for an hour.

2. Heat oil in large skillet on medium-high heat, adding shrimp and cooking 2 mins each side.

3. Season and serve on crusty French bread.

MAIN: Wild mushroom risotto with seared scallops

Why? Often overlooked by romantics in favour of the oyster, scallops are high in phosphorus and iodine. Iodine deficiency has been documented as reducing sex drive. Mushrooms are lauded by several South Pacific cultures for their aphrodisiacal qualities on women.

Ingredients: Two tbsp olive oil; 400g scallops, crescent-shaped muscles discarded; salt and pepper; 1 shallot, minced; 1 garlic clove, minced; 200g assorted mushrooms; 1 tbsp thyme leaves; 1 tbsp chopped parsley; 2 bay leaves; 1 cup arborio rice; half-cup dry white wine; 4 cups chicken stock, heated; 1 tbsp butter; handful grated parmesan cheese.

Method: 1. On medium heat, cook the shallot and garlic in 1tbsp oil in large, deep skillet, stirring for 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and herbs and cook for about 10 minutes. Season.

2. Add the rice and stir 2 minutes to coat with the oil; the grains will turn opaque. Season again. Stir in wine and cook 1 minute.

3. Pour in 1 cup of the warm stock and stir until the rice has absorbed the liquid. Stir constantly and add stock, 1 cup at a time, until rice has absorbed all liquid.

4. Sprinkle scallops with salt and pepper and brown on another pan over medium-high with 1tbsp oil. Remove after 2 minutes.

5. When risotto is cooked, fold in the butter and cheese, top with the scallops and drizzle with olive oil. Serve hot.

DESSERT: Bananas in hot fudge

Why? It's all about the banana. Potassium and B vitamins are bananas' gift to healthy sex hormone production. The banana is an important aphrodisiac in Central America and India (where it is offered as a gift to the fertility gods) and in Islam, the banana, not the apple, was the forbidden fruit in Eden.

Ingredients: 2 bananas; 375g condensed milk; 450g castor sugar; 100g softened butter; 1tsp vanilla extract

Method: 1. Freeze the peeled bananas overnight.

2. Put butter in saucepan over medium heat. As it melts, add condensed milk, sugar and vanilla extract.

3. Gently stir the mixture around until the sugar dissolves. Still stirring, bring the mixture to a rolling boil and then turn down the heat.

4. Keep cooking the fudge mixture while stirring at low heat (8-10 mins). Do not stop stirring or it will caramelise too quickly.

5. Serve lengthway slices of the frozen banana to dip into the still-liquid hot fudge.

Drink. Girls. F***.

Drinking is fun, sex is fun - is it really that hard to imagine that the two are frequently intertwined?

From Monday's Irish Independent

Half of us prefer to be a bit tipsy before diving under the sheets -- a very sobering statistic, writes Susan Daly

Monday October 12 2009

An ex-boyfriend and I were 'seeing' each other for about a month before we had our first date. How's that, you ask? Well, I used to jokingly tell people, we had to go on an official date in broad daylight to make sure that we liked each other sober.

I don't consider myself to be a drunkard, but the reality of Irish relationships is that many of them are kickstarted by the social lubrication of a few drinks. In the case I mention above, we were work colleagues and the more Americanised culture of going on dates had yet to take firm grip in Ireland.

If anything, it felt more normal at the time to confirm an attraction over post-work drinks than to organise a stiff meeting under the clock at Clerys.

With that model of Irish romance in mind, it's difficult to be shocked by the new survey that found that half of its female respondents preferred to have sex with alcohol on board. The survey was conducted among 3,000 women in the UK, on behalf of a female hygiene company called FemFresh.

As such, it's neither an academic nor an exhaustive study but it does throw up plenty of food for thought, especially as the Irish social scene is aligned with the British style of pub culture.

"In other European cultures, meeting in coffee shops might be more popular, or wine bars where you might eat a tapas or two with a glass of wine," says HotPress sex columnist Anne Sexton, "but in English and Irish social life the pub is our first port of call. Pub culture doesn't encourage sober interaction."

There may be more to the results, however, than the fact that our socialising normally coincides with alcohol. Some 6pc of the women surveyed admitted they had never had sex sober. That's a pretty grim statistic, one you might normally associate with people who had severe drinking problems.

Recovered alcoholic Eric Clapton, for example, once revealed that he did not have sober sex until he was in his 30s. Last year on the Celebrity Rehab programme in the US, model and actress Amber Smith admitted she had reached the age of 27 without ever having sex while sober.

Research from Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis revealed that there was a direct link with high rates of alcohol dependence and an increased number of sexual partners -- 41pc of frequent bingers indulged regularly in unplanned sex, while this happened to only 8pc of occasional drinkers.

Heavy drinking leads to reckless and unsafe sex: that's a given. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and disables a neurotransmitter in the brain which normally causes us to conduct ourselves with reason and rationality.

It's the finding that at least half of us prefer to be a bit tipsy before diving under the sheets that is more complicated.

The folks at FemFresh made a bit of a leap from their findings to state: "These results are a clear indication that British women today are severely lacking in confidence. The fact that alcohol plays an integral role in their love lives shows that women are looking for a boost in self-esteem when it comes to their bedroom antics."

Substitute 'Irish' for 'British' and is that a fair portrayal of our sex habits? Are Irish women too shy and body conscious to let loose without booze? Anne Sexton agrees that negative body image is a huge element of it. "It is recognised that in the western world, most women have body-image issues. We start to be critical about our bodies from about the age of eight and that definitely has an impact on our comfort levels about being naked with our partners."

Susie Orbach, who wrote Fat Is A Feminist Issue 30 years ago, has published a new book called Bodies which argues that women are racked with "body anxiety". We are bombarded on all sides by images of perfect models and celebrities, diet products and weight loss reality shows. It isn't a stretch to suggest that many women need some Dutch courage to reveal their un-airbrushed, wobbly reality.

Aside from the body-image issue, Sexton believes that our social confidence is also shaky. That goes for men too. Sexton lived in Ireland until she was eight years old, before her family moved to South Africa.

When she returned to live in Ireland eight years ago, she says she was surprised by the amount of casual sex that was happening among people "really off their heads with drink".

It's not that we're all alcoholics -- it's just that adults in their 30s still suffer from a certain amount of discomfort around the opposite sex and alcohol has become a normalised tool to overcome that.

"You see with the newer generation that boys and girls mix easily but with people in their 30s there is not a huge amount of genuine friendship going on across the gender barrier. If there is a mixed group it's normally couples. There is a nervousness around sex and alcohol lubricates a lot of sexual action. That's why the one-night stand has become popular. You go out, get drunk, have sex and leave before you have to confront the fact that you have had sex with this person."

A personal ad which was posted on the free website last week shows that some people are actually turned off by the prevalence of drink on the dating scene. The ad was titled: Genuine male looking for lady who enjoys sex without alcohol. The 29-year-old poster explained that he had just moved to Cork and was "looking to meet sexy lady who can enjoy all of lifes (sic) sexy wonders without alcohol".

But most of us don't get blotto to have sex, all of the time. Scientists say there are perfectly sound biological reasons why women like a glass or two to make everything look rosé in the bedroom. Research in the respected Journal of Sexual Medicine last August showed that a glass or two of red wine is good for a women's libido.

Dr Nicola Mondaini, who led the Italian study, said that while drink could have a negative effect on male sexual performance, a moderate amount significantly intensified the sexual pleasure of women.

Women are not necessarily self-medicating themselves with plonk in order to get it on with their partners. As Anne Sexton points out, our busy lives often mean we have just a small window of relaxation time.

You are not likely to mix yourself a G&T while cooking the dinner and bathing the baby. The glorious moment when you get to sit down with a glass of Rioja at the end of the day is going to coincide with possibly the only alone time you and your partner might get.

But if you're having a drink because you find you no longer desire your partner at all, says Sexton, that's another matter. "There are not many relationships that will survive that, drink or no drink."
Drunken sex is a comedic staple for film and TV makers -- although the female characters who have it frequently end up paying a high price ...

KNOCKED UP: A beautiful TV presenter, played by Katherine Heigl, puts on her beer goggles for some clumsy fumbling with layabout pothead Seth Rogen.

While Rogen's character is thrilled at playing outside his league, Heigl's wakes up hungover, horrified and -- in the best tradition of unsafe drunken sex -- pregnant.

SEX AND THE CITY: Lawyer Miranda feels so intimidated by her handsome new date that she tries to bolster her confidence about her own looks with a series of double vodka martinis.

She drags him back to her apartment, waking in the morning to a splitting headache and a note on her hall table from her date advising her to seek help for her drinking problem.

21: Even beautiful actors have turned to the bottle to get the courage to strip off. Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess revealed that they both got drunk before filming steamy sex scenes for casino movie 21 last year.

"We decided to have a couple of drinks, loosen up and go for it," Kate told People magazine. "It was brilliant for about half an hour," added co-star Jim. "As we continued to drink... it just became messy and sloppy."

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA: Javier Bardem plied both Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall with fine Italian wines and cognac in the last Woody Allen movie.

Hall's character Cristina resists temptation but Johansson's Vicky sways drunkenly to his hotel room -- only to get sick on his bed.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

My name IS Susan

Liking - when my work is posted in online papers
Not liking - when they forget to put my name on it

Anyway, this rant IS mine...

Friday October 09 2009

FOR years I wondered why I could not look the Andrex puppy in the eye.

The choice between two-ply and four-ply would reduce me to a gibbering wreck in the supermarket aisle.

It turns out that I have been suffering from PTS all this time -- Post-Toiletgate Stress -- and I didn't even know it.

I only realised the depth of my trauma when I opened the papers this week and read about the young tykes in a Co Cork national school who have been asked to bring their own toilet roll to school with them.

It all came flooding back to me.

The very same request was made of us in our primary school in the early 1980s. I had a sudden flashback to rolls piled up along the corridor outside the classroom door, a child's name marked in felt-tip across the edge of each one. But try as I might, I can't remember the shame and horror of it all.

Listening to the shocked reaction of parents, politicians and social commentators these past few days over the fate of the kiddies in St John's Girls' NS in Carrigaline, I'm thinking there must surely have been a similar outcry when we got the toilet roll call in the 80s.

After all, as one parent said this week: "This is like something Frank McCourt might have written about growing up in the 1930s."

Think again, lady. This was 50 years on. I must have been scarred for life, mustn't I?

Perhaps I have suppressed it as part of some desperate coping mechanism. So I ring my mother to check if she chained herself to the railings of the Department of Education in the Eighties to protest at the budgetary constraints that doomed her child to carry bog roll to school.

"Ah no," she says, "there wasn't much about it. A few parents grumbled but as I said at the time, at least we're gone from the stage of wiping yourself with a dock leaf."

Hardy woman, my mum.

Far from marching on the school, she sent me off with a warning on the dangers of profligacy.

"I told you not to throw half the roll down the toilet in one go," she says, "And you replied, 'I won't share it neither'."

No wonder we made it out the other side of the Eighties with eight-year-olds espousing that sort of penny-pinching philosophy.

If I remember rightly, we were only too delighted to bring a roll in from home. We hated the old school-supplied stuff that felt like greaseproof paper and was about as useful for the job in hand.

It is understandable that people are upset this week that our school cutbacks have come to this. In the context of the 80s, it didn't seem as shocking to have a headmaster send out a note asking for help in such a delicate area.

Many of our parents' generation could still relate to a time when there were no indoor toilets or bathrooms.

We weren't that far removed from wiping our bottoms with the nearest handful of foliage.

To face into that scenario again 25 years on is a terrible indictment of the country. Children grow up in houses that often have more than one bathroom, often two or three.

Master bedrooms have ensuites, kids have their own toilet. To have to suddenly think about where the next sheet of toilet paper is coming from is a big shock.

It really shows that little has fundamentally changed in the hierarchy of who pays for this country's basic needs.

Around the time my mother was stuffing a roll of Homestead's best into my schoolbag, Charlie Haughey was telling us to tighten our belts in between mouthfuls of foie gras and swigs of fine wine.

Now parents find themselves dipping back into their own pockets again and why?

Because poor government regulation and reckless State spending has flushed our children's trust fund down the toilet

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

No words

By Susan Daly

Saturday October 03 2009

In the weak, early winter morning light of November 6, 2001, a homeless man stumbled upon a body in an isolated car park. Dr Andrew Bagby had been shot five times: in the chest, the left cheek and, as his body swivelled and fell, twice in the rectum. The final bullet had been fired at close range into the back of his head -- an execution-style shot.

The vicious nature of the murder suggested that the victim had made a very serious enemy. But Andrew was a 28-year-old family practice medic in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, USA; a much-respected colleague, beloved friend and adored only son of Kate and David Bagby.

It was an incongruous murder, but one that would spark a notorious case that would pit the judicial systems of two countries against each other, thrust his parents into a living nightmare and culminate in another heinous crime. And, as the film Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father about the case -- screened at this year's Stranger Than Fiction documentary festival in Dublin -- shows, it has implications for any country that is interested in justice and the safety of its citizens.

It had seemed inconceivable that anyone would have wanted to hurt Andrew. Tributes poured in describing him as kind, generous, joyful. "A good kid," his father David says simply, speaking to Weekend magazine from his home in California.

It quickly became clear that there was only one suspect for his murder: Dr Shirley Turner, an obsessive and jealous woman who he had dated casually for two years. The romance had been souring for months. On one day alone in July, she left 30 angry messages in Andrew's voicemail.

Andrew finally ended their affair two days before he was murdered. Turner boarded a plane to her own home in Iowa, but just 24 hours later, on Sunday, November 4, she loaded her handgun, climbed into her SUV and drove all night back to Pennsylvania, turning up on Andrew's doorstep in Latrobe on Monday morning.

He put her off so he could attend his shift at the nearby hospital, promising to meet her that evening instead. Shirley shot him dead that night in the car park of nearby Keystone State Park and drove back to Iowa.

When David and Kate Bagby were notified to contact the Pennsylvania coroner's office, life as they had known it was shattered forever. "I used to be a Pollyanna," says Kate in her soft English accent, joining David on the phone. "I had a lovely childhood, a lovely son and husband and a job that I loved."

She had met David while travelling America as a young nurse, and never went home. The years of raising their son, the wonderful family life they had together in California, have been annihilated. "There is before Andrew's murder," she says, "and there is after. That's all."

Wracked with grief, the Bagbys came up with a plan as they flew to Pennsylvania to identify Andrew's body. They would bring him home, hold his funeral service then kill themselves. Only the love of their friends and family brought them back from the edge -- that, and the thought of seeing Shirley Turner face up to what she had done.

Andrew and Shirley had been an odd couple. There was a 12-year age gap between them, she was twice divorced and had three children who didn't live with her. Andrew, for his part, was vulnerable after a broken engagement. He was also too nice a guy to judge someone on the basis of their past.

When police closed in on Shirley -- who brazenly rang Kate repeatedly on the morning after the murder to ask if she had heard from Andrew -- she fled to her homeland of Newfoundland in Canada. The Bagbys hoped that extradition would bring her to trial in front of an American jury.

Then came the sucker punch. Shirley announced that she was pregnant with Andrew's child. The Bagbys attended extradition hearings in St John's, Newfoundland, in early 2002, where they were confronted with the sight of Shirley ostentatiously patting her swollen belly and walking about the courtroom. She had already been released on bail after her recently-hired psychiatrist signed a guarantee for her surety.

The Bagbys had no choice but to sit in silent frustration as they heard the judge speak of his sympathy for Shirley, whose life was "on hold" because of the cumbersome extradition process.

"I wanted to stand up and scream, 'My son's life is on hold forever'," says Kate. More appallingly, Shirley began to make contact with them, complaining about the inconvenience of the protracted extradition process. Inconceivable though it might seem, the Bagbys bit their tongue and put up with her rants. They hoped that if Shirley was convicted and jailed for Andrew's murder, they might gain custody of her and Andrew's child, their only link to their dead son.

Eight-and-a-half months on from Andrew's death, Zachary Andrew Turner was born. There was no doubting his paternity: baby photographs of the two show the same laughing blue eyes, chubby cheeks and smiling, rosebud mouth.

It was at this point that a private tribute which Andrew's childhood friend, film director Kurt Kuenne, had been compiling about his murdered friend found a new purpose. He had been collecting reminiscences from people whose lives Andrew had touched. He also had hours of footage of the teenage Andrew acting in amateur movies that Kurt had shot as a budding film-maker.

"When it came to light that Shirley was pregnant with Andrew's child, I was hit by the enormous significance my little tribute film would have for this boy, because it would be an absolute goldmine for him in learning about his dad," explains Kurt.

"It was never my intention to release this film publicly at this point, beyond giving it to family, friends and recipients of the scholarship funds that had been established in Andrew's memory." He called the film Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father.

But when events took another nightmarish turn, the film was to turn into something entirely more powerful and devastating.

The Bagbys had moved to Newfoundland indefinitely in 2002 to attend the ongoing extradition hearings and apply for as much access as they could to their beloved grandson. "To us, he was just a baby. He came into this world and he was half Andrew," says Kate.

All the while, Shirley grew more demanding and unpredictable. At first, the Bagbys were allowed only a single one-hour visit with Zachary a week, before which they were subjected to a humiliating personal search. They were forced to pay for an independent observer to sit with them as they played with Zachary, as if they were the dangerous party.

David describes how he had to go into "ice mode" to deal with Shirley. During one visit, she twisted the knife, asking: "Did Andrew have curly hair when he was a baby?" Kate remembers that awful moment. "David couldn't answer because he would have hit her."

With breathtaking arrogance, Shirley once even tried to get the Bagbys to pay for a private investigator to find out who "really" killed Andrew. As David writes in his memoir Dance With The Devil: A Memoir of Murder and Loss, the Bagbys and Shirley must have looked "almost like a normal family ... Except that mommy shot daddy and grandpa wanted to strangle mommy".

Their restraint paid off for a time when Shirley was put behind bars in November 2002 -- 12 months after Andrew's murder -- and the Bagbys got to look after their beautiful Zachary. As David notes, their fears for Zachary had always centred around the fact that when he was with Shirley, he was "at the mercy of an emotional time bomb".

In early January 2003, the "time bomb" was released on bail for a second time. Justice Gale Welsh decided that "while the offence with which she (Shirley) is charged is a violent and serious one, it was not directed at the public at large".

David Bagby says he still suffers rage when he thinks of that decision. "People don't take murder seriously," he says. "It's like that judge said, 'It's a nasty crime, but you only wanted to kill Andrew and you've done that so you're not a danger to anyone else'."

The Bagbys, despairing and disbelieving, had to hand Zachary back to a mentally unstable mother. Shirley, meanwhile, was unravelling completely. At Zachary's birthday party in July, she hit the roof when Zachary reached for Kate, muttering that he loved Kate more than her.

Shirley met a guy at a bar around this time, but he ended the fling when he found out who she was. She grew erratic, harassing him with calls day and night.

It would emerge that this was a familiar pattern. She had previously made a suicide attempt on the doorstep of a former lover in 1999. She also threatened a medical college supervisor who didn't give her the review she thought she deserved. In short, when Shirley Turner didn't get what she wanted, she turned nasty.

Then, in the early hours of Monday, August 18, 2003, Shirley put Zachary in his car seat and drove to the house of the latest man to 'reject' her. She left photographs of herself and a used tampon under his car before taking off and running her own car into a ditch near his home. From there, she walked the short distance to the nearby rocky coastline and fed Zachary some prescription pills. She strapped him to her chest and jumped into the sea, murdering Zachary and killing herself.

When this awful climax to the tale of Shirley's madness was recounted in Kurt Kuenne's film in Dublin, the audience sobbed in horror. It is unbearable to imagine how the Bagbys must have felt.

David pauses on the phone. "It's still there, the fury. I can work into a hell of a frenzy," he says. At times he has wondered if he shouldn't have killed Shirley before she had a chance to harm Zachary. "I think, 'How could you be so stupid?'"

It is hard to understand where they find the strength to go on. They hardly know themselves, except that they feel their mission now is to stop the same tragic fate befalling another family. A child death review in Newfoundland by coroner Peter Markesteyn found that Zachary's safety had been utterly neglected by the province's child protection services. Kate and David lobby for the rights of vulnerable children, and Kate acts as a child advocate.

Their biggest issue, however, is with the bail laws of Canada, which allowed a dangerous psychopath such as Shirley Turner to walk free not once, but twice. "Basically," says David, "someone on a murder charge should not be allowed out to walk the streets."

To this end, Kurt recently sent 400 copies of Dear Zachary to every member of the Canadian parliament. Some MPs have begun to add their voices to the call for changes in the federal bail laws, something which gives the Bagbys some hope that their tragedy might prevent another.

Nothing will mend their broken hearts. These past few months are always the most difficult of the year. "Zachary was born on July 18 and murdered on August 18," says Kate. "Andrew's birthday was in September and his murder in November. Life isn't easy anymore. You just live minute to minute."

• CONSTRUCTIVE RAGE: The Bagbys constantly attend screenings of Dear Zachary so that they can answer audience members’ questions and fill them in on how their campaign to have the federal bail laws changed. “Every ex-Commonwealth country is affected by this,” says David. “I don’t want to say that the whole system stinks but there are serious flaws.” Details of how to support their campaign are available on under the section ‘Support Bail Reform’.
If you are interested in learning more about the Andrew Bagby case, and his parents’ work, Dance With The Devil: A Memoir of Murder and Loss, by David Bagby, is available on
The award-winning DVD of Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father, which the New York Times described as an “incendiary cri de coeur” is now on sale from Proceeds from the film benefit medical scholarships set up in the names of Andrew and Zachary Bagby.

Way to go

My kind of funeral - humanist service, banana leaf coffin, The Stranglers as soundtrack and lots of good food and wine for mourners afterwards.
From the Evening Herald...

By Susan Daly

Thursday October 01 2009

SPEAKING well of the dead is easy. When TV chef Keith Floyd died, the tributes poured in as fast as a saucepan of milk boiling over.

Within hours of his death last month, the celebrity chefs whose careers his pioneering TV work made possible were keen to hand out their tributes to the man. He led the way, he was an inspiration, a one-off, a trailblazer, they said.

At his funeral yesterday, some of those chefs who were most effusive in their praise were notable by their absence.

Some quoted "work commitments". We're all aware that being a celebrity chef is a demanding job: they tell us often enough in their glossy autobiographies, magazine interviews, on TV chat shows.

But surely one could spare a morning to say goodbye to a man to whom -- by one's own account -- was one's hero. I doubt Keith would expect them to jump out of a cake of their own making to mark the event, but simply turning up would have been a nice gesture.

Then again, it's more likely Keith Floyd wouldn't give a toss who was at his funeral. His irreverent attitude to life would have forbidden him from doing a head count of the big names. He never stood for pomp and circumstance in life: why would he in death?

Whether cooking on a tin barbecue on a beach or taking a Frenchwoman's criticism of his recipes on a show with good humour (check out the clip on YouTube for a masterclass in self-deprecation), he never took himself too seriously.


Maybe -- for all the mistakes he made in his life -- Keith has something to teach us all, and not just those of us who are celebrity chefs.

At the end, it's not the awards and the career accolades that count. It's not how much money you leave behind in the bank or whether you got that promotion you thought you deserved.

It's about who stands over your grave and who is with you in the end.

At Keith's funeral, his daughter Poppy made a heartfelt speech about her dad's love of life, but also mentioned his reliance on alcohol and how that could make him selfish.

As a man who was nothing if not genuine and open about his failings as well as his successes, Keith would probably have appreciated her candour more than a thousand flowery tributes.

All the older ladies, all the older ladies

Why can I not figure out how to insert an active online link into the blog. For shame...
Don't call us Cougars
The 'C' word has caught on, but not everyone is happy about it, says Susan Daly

Thursday October 01 2009

The popularity of the term 'cougar' -- used to describe older women who pursue younger men for 'fun and friendship' -- has been growing for years.

The term has long been in use on the American dating scene where there are whole websites dedicated to hooking up 20-something men with women in their 40s or older, from to

An Irishman who lived as a 20-something in Canada in the early Noughties once told me that the watchword among his pals when an older woman would eye up their group in a bar was: Spot the cougar.

Five months ago, I wrote a piece in this paper on how the cougar phenomenon -- or at least the word itself -- had begun to escape from dark drinking dens to infiltrate popular TV culture. At the time, ABC was preparing to launch a new sitcom starring Courteney Cox Arquette in which she would play a 40-something divorcee on the prowl for a young lover.

Producers had initially played around with safe titles like 40 and Single or The Courteney Cox Show. But by the time it was slated into the schedules it was called Cougar Town, an acknowledgment by TV bosses that the word is now common parlance. This followed on from a reality dating show called The Cougar earlier in the year, which itself drew comparisons to a 2006 show called Ivana Young Man, presented by -- of course -- Ivana Trump.

Those last two were aired on smaller networks, and neither attracted a large audience share. By comparison, when Cougar Town debuted on September 23, it pulled in over 11 million viewers, coming first in its timeslot. As predicted, cougars are now officially hot on our screens.

Another former TV sitcom star, Jenna Elfman of Dharma and Greg, has also debuted a new show in which she finds herself in her late 30s juggling two children in her life: her new baby and its 20-something father. Cox's Friends co-star Jennifer Aniston has similarly jumped on the cougar bandwagon. She has signed on to star in an upcoming film called Pumas, in which she and a co-star play hot women in their 30s with a predilection for much younger men.

Her description of pumas (as a kind of 'cougar-in-waiting') went as follows: "Young party girls who just find hot young guys to play with and then dump them. Why can't women do it?" It's an unfortunate rallying cry from a woman who has complained of the media's obsession with her relationships with younger men like musician John Mayer.

Aniston must wonder where she is going wrong when Madonna and Demi Moore are both lauded for their ability to snare a younger man. Madonna's current post-divorce squeeze is Jesus Luz, a model 28 years her junior. The 15-year difference between Demi and her husband Ashton Kutcher is one of the most talked-about age gaps in Hollywood, although they seem to be sailing steadily along in their marriage.

But Aniston is not alone in being caught up in the backlash against the cougar label. While viewer ratings for Cougar Town were high, it has social commentators up in arms. The New York Times website called it "girls-gone-wild feminism for 40-somethings" and branded it "ridiculous and belittling". The LA Times decided that it robs women of their dignity. TV critic Mary McNamara points out that the title of the show itself does the older woman no favours: "It is, at its root, a sexual pejorative; cougars may be sexy, but they carry with them the distinct whiff of desperation."

In the States, the term cougar has been adopted as a 'you go, girl!' mantra by lifestyle websites like and a generation of toned, buffed divorcees who argue that a cougar is sexually confident, rather than aggressive. As far back as 2001, relationship expert Valerie Gibson said she was reclaiming the word for outgoing mature women in her bestselling manual, Cougar: A guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men.

It is also the case that age-gap relationships are not as taboo as they once were. A survey by Irish dating website last year showed that 47pc of its members thought that a five to 10-year age gap, in any direction, was acceptable. Over 30pc were fine with an age gap of any breadth.

But on this side of the Atlantic, the word still carries a derogatory association. When researching an article on Dublin's private members' clubs last year, one man told me how he was weary of being chatted up by 'cougars' while he was trying to have a quiet drink. His tone implied that he did not use the term as a compliment, even though he himself was knocking on the door of 40 and the women he referred to were hardly in their 50s.

Julia Macmillan, founder of UK dating site, says she is actually against the term cougar, even though she preaches the attractions of younger men. She has started a blog called Don't Call Me A Cougar, in which she writes: "What I really object to with the cougar word is that it is such a stereotype. It's the image the media love of the older predatory woman who 'eats' young prey."

She argues that in the same way that the term 'Mrs Robinson' is now outdated "because women don't have to stay in unhappy marriages because they are no longer financially dependent on a man", so too is the term cougar.

"Women are looking more fabulous for longer and it's normal that guys should find older women attractive. It's always been the other way around, now things are changing!"

Cougars prowling prime time -- The 'C' word has infiltrated our screens
Thursday October 01 2009

Cougar Town: Courteney Cox Arquette plays a newly divorced mother having fun with younger men on the dating scene that she missed out on in her 20s. Pilot show on ABC pulled in top ratings last month.

Tagline: "40 is the new 20."

Accidentally on Purpose: Newly premiered CBS comedy has Jenna Elfman (Dharma and Greg) playing a 37 year old who gets pregnant after a one-night stand with a 20-something.

Tagline: "She's with child -- and pregnant too."

The Cougar: Reality show on a network called TVLand has single mother-of-four Stacey 'audition' 20 younger men to be her new boyfriend.

Tagline: "I feel like Eve in a garden of forbidden fruit."

Pumas: Jennifer Aniston (right) has signed on for this CBS film which features two 30-something women with a predilection for dating younger men.

Tagline: There isn't one yet, but Aniston told 'Vogue' magazine: "It's about these girls who aspire to become cougars. They just paaarty!"

Ivana Younger Man: Fox kickstarted the cougar reality show three years ago with this offering from Ivana Trump who handpicked eight 20-somethings to woo a 40-year-old divorcee.

Tagline: Follows Trump's own motto: "I'd rather be a babysitter than a nurse."