Monday, July 27, 2009

Lovely Lydia

This was what my other trip to France was about in recent weeks. The cover story from the Irish Independent's Weekend magazine last Saturday...

'The day the sky fell in'
After dealing with a high-profile divorce, Lydia Roche and former husband and cycling champion Stephen Roche faced even stormier times when their youngest son, Florian, was diagnosed with leukaemia. Susan Daly hears how they got their lives back on track

Saturday July 25 2009

The lavender plants lining the path to Lydia Roche's home in the south of France send up clouds of butterflies and fragrance as the visitor brushes past. From the shady terrace of her airy apartment, she takes in a view that sweeps down the rolling hillside to the town of Antibes and, beyond that, the sparkling azure sea where wealthy playboys anchor their yachts.

Even on this beautiful day, a cloud passes over Lydia's face as she describes the moment two years ago when "the sky fell in". Her youngest son, Florian, then just seven years old, was diagnosed with the most severe form of leukaemia.

He had complained of a tummy ache while on holiday in Ireland with his father Stephen Roche, the former cycling champion and Lydia's ex-husband. "When he came back I thought he was a bit skinny, very pale, but I think of the travelling -- I never think of leukaemia," says Lydia in heavily-accented English.

When he developed a blinding headache, doctors began to run tests. The diagnosis was shocking. Florian's white blood cell count was so high -- Lydia takes my pen and writes down the number 560,000, the number that is engraved on her mind from that day, September 2, 2007 -- that "his blood was not even red anymore".

Her first instinct was to ring Stephen, their daughter, Christel (23), and eldest son, Nicolas (25). "Within hours everyone was at the hospital, all shocked, all crying. It was terrible, terrible news," says Lydia. They were a family suddenly brought together by the worst nightmare imaginable.

Lydia married Stephen when she was 17-and-a-half. They have been divorced since 2003, after 23 years of marriage, a temporary split, a reconciliation and four children. A handsome young couple, they had brightened the gloom of the 1980s with his sporting success and her exotic French beauty. Early in 2007, the Irish public's fond memories were shattered by an interview in which Stephen suggested that the marriage had been marked by much unhappiness, particularly after he retired from cycling in 1993.

In a riposte, Lydia revealed her deep hurt that Stephen had spoken so negatively of their relationship. She was also upset by his suggestion that he had not been fully on board with the decision to have two more children, Alexis (11) and Florian (nine), after they moved to Ireland in 1998, not long after they had reconciled after a first attempt to divorce.

"Reading what Stephen said," Lydia said in April 2007, "I don't think it was like he says. Maybe I was wrong, but I thought things were great between us and, because he did not see so much our two first ones growing up, I thought if we had a baby, we could enjoy it together."

Neither had the remotest idea that just a few short months later, everything would recede in the enormity of Florian's illness. Lydia recalls one of the worst moments of her life, sitting in the ambulance with Florian as he was transferred to hospital in Nice. "I thought I should not cry, and there was a pain there," she says, pinching the bridge of her nose, "where I was holding back the tears. Florian was asking, 'What's wrong Mammy?'. And yet we still did not know how bad it was."

It was stage three leukaemia, and Florian's white blood cells were 98pc blast -- or cancer cells. Lydia would later be told that had she not brought Florian to the hospital that weekend, he might not have made it to Monday. That was just the beginning of a battle that would last two long years and, Lydia hopes, will end when Florian returns to school next month.

But back in September 2007, while his classmates embarked on another academic year, Florian was facing a fight for his life. "The initial treatment got [the cancer cells] down a bit, but it was out of control," says Lydia. The hospital in Nice contacted a special cancer advisory centre in Brussels, who offered to put Florian on a new trial treatment. "Stephen and I agreed. It was a trial, they were not sure, but for us the normal treatment was not working -- you would try anything at this stage."

Side by side with this severe treatment, doctors were readying Florian for a bone marrow transplant. All of the family were tested to see if they were suitable bone marrow donors. Only Alexis was a 100pc match; their first piece of luck, says Lydia.

"You have your child looking at you and you wonder, 'Why are we going through this?'. I know now what it is like to be with your child when he is only seven and it seems so unfair to him. You would like to take the sickness from him. Sometimes he would say to me, 'Save me, mammy' because he was in so much pain. I know he's not the only one, that others are going through that."

Florian and Alexis are playing quietly on a computer in the sitting room a few yards away from us inside the apartment, Alexis' fair head bowed in concentration over the dark one of his younger, paler brother. Florian cannot be in the summer sun because his skin is still photosensitive as a result of radiotherapy.

It is still difficult for Lydia to speak about how she watched her little boy in pain. But it is a story that must be told. When Florian got sick, Lydia found a shoulder to lean on in another mother whose daughter was on Florian's ward. "She had taught a lot to me because she was a few months ahead of what I was going through," says Lydia. "I had no clue, and she was my guide. We would cry on each other, we were there together every day."

Lydia hopes that by recounting Florian's battle, she might in some way give hope to other parents. "I think of her a lot," she says with gratitude to that unnamed mother, whose daughter's story unfortunately ended very sadly. On the day Florian had the catheter fitted to facilitate his bone marrow transplant, the girl died. She had received a transplant six months earlier. It was devastating for her family, but also for the Roches, who were steeling themselves for Florian's procedure. "I went to see her a few minutes before she went, and already that was too much for me," she says. Even now, her deep brown eyes swim with tears.

For weeks before the bone marrow transplant, Lydia took it on herself to keep Florian safe from infection. He had been on steroids to counteract the nauseous effect of the chemotherapy drugs. His body was struggling with the warring impulses of the hunger-inducing steroids and waves of vomiting. Lydia would feed him, morsel by morsel, as one would a baby bird.

"They can feed you by drip but we didn't want that. I had to try. We were eating bit by bit, for hours. Everything he liked I ran to the shop [for], everything had to be very fresh," she says.

"Sometimes he was depressed and crying -- when he was having the steroids and the chemotherapy together. You learn on the way, you are not prepared."

Although she recounts these horrors in a calm and soft voice, it is clear that Lydia is haunted. The lowest ebb for Florian came shortly after the bone marrow transplant. He had been undergoing six hours of radiotherapy in preparation: a seven-year-old boy forced to lie perfectly still while the laser was inched painfully across his body.

"We had to kill Florian's own marrow, so slowly; you could almost say he was dying," says Lydia. He was so weak that he did not speak for a week. On three of those days after the transplant, waiting for Alexis's cells to show up in his body, he was suffering badly. His jaw area collapsed as his body disintegrated, and the morphine dosage was increased to the highest level possible.

When words fail her, Lydia lays a folder carefully on the table. There are pages and pages of foolscap covered in her writing, each day of Florian's illness charted in columns of figures, descriptions of treatments and remarks on his wellbeing. One day, March 9, 2008, has a stark entry. "Souffre beaucoup." Suffers a lot. The folder helped Lydia to understand what was happening to her son, to not miss a beat. And, one suspects, to keep a small sense of control in a situation that was almost entirely out of her hands.

"I prayed a lot," she admits. "It's strange -- you could be cleaning his little table, but your brain is working, 'Please God it will be fine, please God it will be fine'."

The whole family has been deeply affected, Alexis in particular. He was afraid of needles, says Lydia, but never once complained about the transplant procedure he had to undergo to save his brother. "He did it like a big man, he was very brave," says Lydia proudly. "Alexis had to speak to a psychiatrist and they explained that Florian could die, and that it would not be his fault. Imagine being 10 -- that was heavy to hear."

Christel returned to help from Canada, where she had been studying for a masters in marketing. Lydia shows me a photograph that Christel took of Lydia, Alexis and Florian as they celebrated a belated Christmas when Florian was spared a few days at home from the hospital. "I keep it in my purse," says Lydia with a small smile.

In it, she is wearing a smart shirt and hugging her boys tightly, but the strain is etched on her face. Florian's head is shaven and his fragile body bloated from the steroids. His parents simply told him that his hair was too long and needed a cut. "At seven years, you have to go about it a funny way. We said, 'Oh it's nice, it suits you'. There is enough shock; you have to protect him." The dark curls he inherited from his dad have now grown back in abundance.

Nicolas, a professional cyclist like his father, had to spend much time away from home, although he was with Alexis for his marrow donation when Stephen caught a flu virus. Lydia recounts how Nicolas developed ulcers from stress. "In May last year, he had 10 ulcers in his stomach, three were bleeding. He was so upset about his brother, but still he had to do his job."

Everyone's lives have regained a semblance of normality. Christel is on a work placement in Dublin, and Nicolas, winner of the Irish National Road Race Championship this June, has been riding spiritedly in the Tour de France for AG2R-La Mondiale. That must have its own particular stress, considering his father's previous success? "Nicolas, I think this year his brain is better because he is happy." Lydia beams as she speaks of travelling to Monaco for the opening stage of the Tour this year, but won't see him again until it finishes, which it does tomorrow in her native Paris. "But Stephen has gone to the Tour."

She mentions her ex-husband's name without hesitation, where two years ago she found herself shaken by a newspaper clipping put through her letterbox by a friend. It contained the interview Stephen had given alongside his then-girlfriend Sophie on a trip to Dublin. "Everything was a fight and when there's no love it's very hard," he had said of the dying days of his marriage to Lydia.

At that time, Stephen was moving between Sophie's home town of Paris and the seafront hotel near Nice which he and Lydia had bought in 1999 on their return to France from Ireland. He moved into the hotel permanently when Florian got sick. "He's not with his girlfriend anymore," says Lydia, referring to Sophie. "He has a new girlfriend since last year who seems to be very nice. Apparently, she lost her mother to a kind of leukaemia, so she was very sensitive to the fact that Florian was so sick."

It is clear that, even if they have separate lives now, Lydia and Stephen will always be bound by their children. "When something happens like that, in the family, everybody gets the pain. You have to change your priorities, it makes you think," she says. "Sometimes you have a small problem and you cry or fight over it, but here you have the biggest problem in the world and you deal with it."

They bought a cake together for Alexis and Florian on the first year anniversary of Florian's transplant. "We celebrated this year, Stephen and I, with a little cake. We celebrated the two of them. We are so proud of them," she says.

The future is not the fixed entity it was before the Earth-shattering trauma of Florian's illness. Lydia can only think to the next month, when Florian returns to school after a two-year absence. Perhaps later she will start to think as far as a year ahead, tentatively hoping for no return of cancer cells.

She has spent two years practically living inside hospital walls. When I ask what Lydia feels now about getting her life back, she looks blank at first, then a smile grows slowly across her face. "The little bit I go out, it's like Christmas!" she laughs. "When I came out of the hospital, you would not have recognised me. I was really thin, I looked 50, I was really marked."

Today, Lydia Roche is slim,in a pretty sun dress with freshly-washed blonde hair and a fresh, unlined face that could belong to a woman in her 30s. She is 45 this year.

"We went through the divorce then the sickness. We have not had many happy times in the past few years here, so now I really want the blue sky and the sun, and the finish!" she says. "We have to be happy, please God. We went through the wars."

Ooooh, Mr Rigsby, you are awful

From today's Evening Herald...

So, it’s a renters’ market? Try telling that to the landlords
By Susan Daly

It's a renters' market out there – but some of the landlords haven't cottoned on yet.

Not long ago, renters couldn't be choosers. The demand for accommodation was such that a queue would snake back from the door as soon as an advert for a newly vacant home hit the Herald's property pages.

I remember going to view a studio flat in Rathmines about eight years ago, when I still harboured illusions about the romance of a bed that drops out of a cupboard in the wall.

Six of us crammed in to see the wonders of a living room with a freestanding shower in one corner, while the landlord asked us unseemly questions about our backgrounds.

It got worse in the boom when housing prices – both rental and for sale – inflated beyond all reason.

There were young estate agents who had never actually had to sell a place on its virtues.

They just had to stand at the door looking bored, while people vied to show how they would be the best, quietest, most responsible residents for the gaff. It was a bit like the All- Ireland Tenant Show.

Of course, it's different now. Apparently. There are hundreds of thousands of homes lying empty across the State, and hard-up developers and overmortgaged owners desperately trying to fill them.

I don't doubt their despair.

It would be as easy to persuade people to step behind a red-hot gate marked ‘Hell' as it would to get tenants to pay dead money for some of the more isolated apartment blocks and housing developments.

These are tumbleweed estates, unreachable without a car, removed from all amenities, so soul-destroyingly identical that you'd need a ball of wool the size of a basketball to find your way out again.

Why would you want to live in a flat overlooking a roundabout off the M50 when rental prices are tumbling in more established parts of Dublin?

Many landlords and ladies understand this state of affairs. I have been hunting for a new rental this month, one closer to town.

With the state of the market, they'll be falling over themselves to have me, I thought.

Several of the places I looked at had been newly refurbished, wooden floors installed, manky bits of plywood furniture thrown out, white goods replaced.

These landlords – and they are the majority – know that competition for renters is fierce.

But, to my surprise, there are a number of Mr Rigsbys still plying their measly trade (if you're too young to get the reference, ask the nearest aul' one about the slum landlord in the sitcom Rising Damp).

Here was one apartment advertised as ‘two-bedroom': the single bedroom was actually a narrow, cold hallway out to the back yard.

Another had radiators – but not control of the heating.

“You'll have to sort it out with the tenants upstairs if you want it on,” he said nonchalantly.

I was almost waiting for him to lean in and say, “Oooo, Miss Jones, you are lovely.” (Again, kids, ask a Rigsby fan).

The worst of the places I saw are still up for rent – I've been keeping tabs out of horrified curiosity. In the recession, it's adapt or die, and these bizarre throwback landlords are losing ground. I'm not sure why they just don't learn.

Oh, I found a new place to live. We bargained them down on the rent, and they are giving it a fix-up before we move in.

There is value for money to be had – just avoid the smell of rising damp.

She's got electric boots, a mohair suit...

... Didn't we all think years back that we'd be dressed like Benny (and the Jets) by 2009?

I settled for test-driving an all-electric car in France instead...

Belt up, there's about to be a revolution on our roads as manufacturers battle to be the first to get their 'green' car to the masses, writes Susan Daly
Monday July 27 2009

If you saw it in the street, you'd stop and stare. After all most of us think that electric cars belong in the realm of science fantasy, but that won't be the case for much longer. Within 10 years nearly a quarter of a million of us will be zipping around in one of them.

That is the hope of Green Party minister Eamon Ryan. The thing is, didn't we all think we would be cruising through town on hovercrafts by now? Electric vehicles (EVs) has been with us since the 19th century: in the 1830s a Scotsman called Robert Anderson invented a crude electric carriage.

But the technology and conditions to make electric cars a viable option for the masses is only now being delivered. Energy Minister Ryan vowed earlier this year to put 10pc of Ireland's motorists behind the wheel of an EV.

That's ambitious -- but then 15 years ago did we think we would all be walking around with a tiny telephone-camera-music player in our pockets?

For a significant number of drivers to be enticed into abandoning the internal combustion engine, several factors must coincide. Electric cars must be practical and affordable and the infrastructure for charging them efficiently must be in place.

To the first end, a number of leading car manufacturers are currently fine-tuning electric models which they hope to have for sale in the next year or so.

I was let loose in the French countryside to test drive the prototype of Renault's Kangoo Be Bop ZE which they hope to bring to the mass market in 2011.

First things first: this was no tin matchbox on wheels. "It's not a golf cart, it's a real car," Renault's Sebastien Albertus, GM of their electric vehicle section, told me. Right then.

The second surprise was the nearly silent engine. "Is it on?" I asked the Renault engineer as I peered doubtfully at the lit-up dashboard. It was indeed -- and it took off like a greyhound out of the traps when I tipped the accelerator.

Electric engines have no moving parts so they don't need a clutch-operated gearbox. The effect of this is to make you feel utterly calm as the car smoothly moves from 0 to 50kmph in seven seconds. Revving inspires aggression -- the linear acceleration on an electric car doesn't. It's a world without road rage.

There are other new habits to learn: when I'm not pressing the accelerator, the car naturally slows down (the resistance also helps recharge the car whenever you're not accelerating) so I don't really need the brake apart from emergencies. And then there is the aforementioned silent engine.

Apart from a barely perceptible whirring, we zip past apple orchards and wheat fields noiselessly. (The car can reach speeds of 130kmph should you so wish.) At one point, I frighten the bejaysus out of two cyclists who don't notice me until I begin to overtake them on a quiet country lane.

This, I imagine, is a safety issue that would need addressing, especially in Ireland where jaywalking is practically mandatory. But just as we got used to bringing reusable bags to the shops, we would get used to looking before crossing the road. It's almost impossible to imagine our cities without the constant dull roar of traffic -- but this could be the noise-free future.

Renault are hoping to improve the distance the car can travel on a full battery from the current 100km to about 160km, but they are confident all this will be in place by the 2011 launch.

So sure are the major manufacturers that all-electric cars will take off (sadly, not literally as flying cars) that they believe it is only a case of who gets their models to the masses first.

Developments like the lithium-ion battery -- more compact, reliable, recyclable and safer than the old nickel-cadmium batteries -- make the new electric cars more efficient in every way. Some concerns have been raised about the finite supplies of lithium, however, and it is worth noting that half the world's lithium is located in Bolivia; hardly the most politically stable of countries.

But what most of us really want to know is: Where will we plug in our car to recharge, and will it blow an obscene hole in our electricity bill?

This year, the ESB, the Government (probably freaking out about their CO2 emissions), Nissan and Renault have signed a collaboration to improve the infrastructure needed in Ireland for electric cars to be viable.

Homeowners will be encouraged to provide ESB-metered charging points at parking spaces. While it takes a car like the Renault Kangoo between six and eight hours to recharge via household mains, a faster charge (80pc of the battery recharged in 30 minutes) is being developed. Charging the vehicle at off-peak nighttime should only cost a euro or two. As for longer journeys, the plan is to set up recharging stations along routes across the country.

Traditional filling stations might also become quick-drop stations, where an electric car can 'swap' its run-down battery for a fully charged one in three minutes.

And you'll have a little thingey -- that's my scientific term for it -- on the dash to tell you how much power you have left and the location of the nearest charging station.

Some 26 governments in Europe and beyond are offering grants to make up the price between a regular car and the currently costlier electric car. Ireland hasn't announced exactly what incentive it is going to offer buyers, but England is offering a £5,000 handout.

Of course, if you're worried about your carbon footprint, the cars are only as 'green' as the method through which the electricity used to power them is generated in the first place. And it takes as much CO2 to produce an electric car in the first place, as it does an ICE model. But the air pollution emitted by an electric car in motion is absolutely zero.

Quiet, fume-free roads filled with peaceful motorists -- can we get electric buses too?


It's human nature to imagine what the future will look like. At the 1964 New York World Fair visitors stood slack-jawed in front of a miniaturised replica of an American city in the 21st century, called Futurama, which featured moving pavements and computer-guided cars.

Travelators and sat-nav systems -- and now electric cars -- are a reality. Have any of our other space-age dreams come true?


Forty years on from the first human landing on the moon, we presumed we would by now be eating ice-cream cones at zero gravity, and viewing infinity from our deckchairs.

While there have been some commercial space flights -- for the very few and very wealthy -- only 12 humans have ever walked on the moon. So much for spending two weeks just staring into space.


Scientists have teleported a photon but unlike -- say, an atom -- that has no moving parts. Ben Buchler, who works on the Australian National University's teleportation project, says: "If you consider it as a voyage, transporting a human is like a journey from one side of the universe to the other -- and we've come less than a millimetre." So no chance then of uttering the immortal words, "Beam me up, Scotty"?


Aldous Huxley's Brave New World envisaged a world where test-tube babies and a contraceptive pill were realities.

Of course, Huxley's new world was homogenous and amoral -- a dystopia sometimes referenced in the current heated debates on cloning or genetic engineering.


Every kid who has ever strung two tin cans together to create a phone line has dreamed of instant communication. Once the technology was developed to the point where it was made accessible and affordable, mobiles took over from landlines within a few years.

Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke saw it coming in his writings about satellite communications. But 2001: A Space Odyssey didn't -- Dr Floyd has to pop into a videobooth to call home.


Why we all thought we might be wearing suits made from tinfoil in a technologically advanced world I don't know.

Perhaps it was the best protection we could imagine against rebellious robots. Scientists have, however, developed many 'smart' textiles that are in common use, from sports fabrics that 'wick' sweat away from skin to crease-free holiday clothing.


Frankly, the absence of the jetpack in my everyday life has been of great personal disappointment. Buck Rogers had one in 1928. Sean Connery had one in 1965 Bond film Thunderball -- a variation of the rocket belt, invented in 1961.

Scientists have yet to develop a version that has a useful application. Boo.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My lumps, my lumps, my lovely lady bump

BLOOMING FUSS: Why are pictures of this pregnant belly causing such a huge furore?
Tuesday July 21 2009

Another day, another photograph of a young starlet attracts comment. Hey ho, what's new?

It's the subject matter of the picture that surprises. No-one has mislaid their underwear and no-one is tottering drunk out of a nightclub.

The snap that has launched a thousand blog posts is of Nicole Richie frolicking on a beach in a bikini and displaying her sizeable baby bump. I mean, how could she?

Commentary on the public sporting of her sticky-out belly has ranged from the 'hot mama' type to the less positive 'put it away!'.

As outrageous pictures go, it's up there with a still life of a bowl of fruit.

Richie looks healthy and happy in a sensible black two-piece. Shocking, really.

How can it be that the sight of a pregnant woman's belly is still so remarkable?

Did we not have this conversation in 1991 when a with-child Demi Moore posed naked on the cover of Vanity Fair?

The furore surrounding her bountiful charms had some newsagents dispensing copies of the magazine in brown paper bags.

It was as if she was spread-eagled on the cover of Hustler.

Moore later said she was startled by all the fuss, and hoped the world had moved on since. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera also posed nude while heavily pregnant, their publicists presumably relying on the hope that it hadn't.

They were right.

Tokyo considered banning posters advertising the Britney photoshoot.

By the time it relented, Britney's belly had made headlines all over the world. Job done.

The people who turn apoplectic at the sight of a swollen belly must be so traumatised by being born that they don't want to reminded of exactly where they came from.

If Nicole Richie was swaddled in a floaty maternity dress, it would be 'ooh' and 'ahh' central.

It's the fleshy sight of what lies beneath that seems to disturb people most.

Well, tough.

There was once a time when expectant women were ushered out of public sight for months, for fear society might be offended by a glimpse of their undainty figures.

Only when the baby was born were they allowed out of confinement, their bundle of joy all cleaned up and suitable for presentation like the happy ending to a Jane Austen novel.

Even up to fairly recently, the closest a father was allowed to the delivery ward was the pub next door.

It wasn't regarded as seemly for women to do their swearing and panting and screaming in front of the person who, by definition, had seen already them in something of a compromising position.

Now men are right in at the business end, cutting cords, witnessing miracles -- and, for the most part, liking it.

All it needed for there to be that sea change was for society to get over itself.

Childbirth's not a dirty big sin; and neither is being obviously pregnant.

That's the problem. Pregnant women are seen as a necessary evil for the world to continue, rather than people to be celebrated.

Remember when that empty plinth in Trafalgar Square in London was filled with the nude sculpture of a pregnant woman?

Grumpy old men speculated that Nelson would be turning in his grave at the spectacle. It offended people's sense of propriety that the sensual figure of a pregnant lady might upset the decorum of the square with its military heroes casting a cold eye on the masses scurrying below.

It's all a bit hilarious -- what's the big deal? Much more shocking to me were the photos published of a skeletal Nicole Richie a few years ago.

She was a lollipop lady then, riven with eating issues, head bigger than her body, ribs protruding like those of a half-starved stray dog.

And if you want to talk about offensive, is there anything more obscene than the pictures emanating from far-flung war zones every day of children's corpses red with blood or covered in grey dust from shelled-out homes?

Those, apparently, are easier to ignore than a candid snap of a woman up the duff.

Death as a career move

By Susan Daly

Wednesday July 22 2009

So the gold-plated casket has been carried from the building -- but Michael Jackson's not gone away you know. In a year's time he will probably score another number one, topping the chart of the biggest-earning dead celebrities.

The US business magazine Forbes compiles a list every year of the deceased famous faces whose estates have raked in the most millions in the previous 12 months.

It is ironic that Jackson might join this moneyed elite, considering the $500m debt he was drowning in at the time of his death. The gruelling 50 concerts he had been due to play at London's O2 arena were to pull him out of that quagmire.

By dying, Jackson released a tidal wave of nostalgia-fuelled buying. Within days of his passing, was recording orders for his back catalogue in the region of 700 times their previous rate of sale.

AEG Live, the concert promoters for his O2 gigs, pulled off a coup by offering more than 750,000 fans who had bought tickets the choice of a special 'souvenir' ticket or accepting a refund. At last count, almost half of the fans chose the souvenir ticket.

Early this year it emerged that Jackson had recorded over 100 songs in secret, which are only to be released posthumously as a legacy for his children.

Hopefully, Jackson's advisors have protected his brand for posterity. Niall Clerkin of Clerkin Lynch, a Dublin firm of solicitors with expertise in the entertainment business, says: "If you have intellectual property, you need legal advice on how best to protect it.

"The evidence is on the Forbes list -- it is obvious that there were people out there who had good ideas, but they didn't make it to that list. They or their advisors didn't take the steps to protect what was rightfully theirs."

Jackson has a lot to protect -- he's a good example of the powerful mix of an unmistakable brand image and of serious royalties from decades of hits. Sure, his image had taken something of a hit with a cocktail of alleged abuse, disastrous cosmetic surgery and overall weirdness. But as with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, both Forbes list regulars, his fans are likely to cling to his image when his career was at its peak, circa Thriller and Bad.

Neither Elvis nor Marilyn's deaths found them at their finest hour either -- she was severely depressed; he was an obese drug addict.

Posthumously, however, they are forever the sexy snake-hipped soulster and the fun blonde in the billowing white dress.

In Elvis's case -- like Jackson -- a mixture of image and licensing and publishing deals earned him the top spot with $52m earnings in one year.

James Dean (at number 12 in the list with $5m) died in 1955 but his iconography is desirable to marketers looking for rebel cool for their products. He and Marilyn (who earned $6.5m to put her at number nine) were both recently used in an ad campaign for Mercedes-Benz.

It helps that they were big stars when they died -- but it is also the case that they are established trademarks.

In 1979, a famous case taken by the son of Dracula star Bela Lugosi against Universal Pictures over their vampire merchandise changed how fame could be inherited.

Lugosi's son lost his case, but a paragraph from the judgement caught the eye of showbiz lawyers. It said that had Lugosi sold his image in his lifetime, then he would be a trademark that could be passed on to his descendants.

Lugosi had never endorsed anything in his life, but it opened the door to riches for the heirs of dead stars who had.

One such family was the kin of comedian WC Fields, who started to rake in the cash when the US Postal Service put him on a stamp not long after the Lugosi case.

Special anniversary events can also revive an extinct star's capacity to earn. Marvin Gaye's estate has been a modest earner since he was killed by his father in 1984. He made the 2008 Forbes list (for earnings in 2007) on the back of the 30th anniversary of Motown Records.

Just as Gaye will probably be a one-hit wonder on the Forbes list, so too will Heath Ledger whose death came in his biggest money-making year. His daughter Matilda can expect her trust fund to have been swelled by $20m from his share in the takings of The Dark Knight.

But celebrity isn't the only criteria for making money. Two regulars on the list are Charles M. Schulz and Theodor Geisel, who were 2nd and 6th on the 2008 list, earning $33m and $12m respectively. Who, say you? Some might recognise Schulz as the creator of Peanuts cartoon character Charlie Brown. Geisel is the author behind the Dr Seuss books, now expanded into a huge merchandising empire.

And who is this at number four, with earnings of $18m? Albert Einstein! His steady presence in the earning league is not, as you might think, from the use of his brush-haired image on everything from tea towels to coffee mugs.

In fact, much of the money is being made by the Disney-owned Baby Einstein company which sells educational toys.

So, clever management and an entrepreneurial spirit seem to be key to keeping a celebrity working hard for their money after death (and they no longer claim expenses -- score!).

On the most basic level, the Irish Patents Office says that anyone who has an idea or creation they want to protect should register it immediately.

In Ireland, the copyright of a literary work lasts for 70 years; and a musical work is licensed to its registered creator for 50 years.

In the United States, musicians are lobbying to increase that copyright to 95 years. Some record companies are getting around the post-50-year free-for-all by releasing 'remastered' versions of works.

But never fear -- there are still plenty of artistic works out there we can all enjoy for free: Shakespeare and Mozart are way too late to claim their royalties.

Lucky for some: The 13 'Forbes' 2008 top-earning dead celebs...

1. ELVIS PRESLEY ($52m) Graceland, royalties and merchandise make him the King.

2. CHARLES M SCHULZ ($33m) What would Charlie Brown do with all that money?

3. HEATH LEDGER ($20m) The Dark Knight made sure he was no Joker.

4. ALBERT EINSTEIN ($18m) Puts a price on Einstein's desire for the "free, unhampered exchange of ideas".

5. AARON SPELLING ($15m) His TV legacy keeps him switched on.

6. THEODOR GEISEL -- Dr Seuss -- ($12m) The Cat in the Hat makes him snug as a bug.

7. JOHN LENNON ($9m) Although the Jackson estate still has the Beatles catalogue ...

8. ANDY WARHOL ($9m) The pop artist's 15 minutes of fame are not yet up.

9. MARILYN MONROE ($6.5m) Posthumous millions are a girl's best friend.

10. STEVE McQUEEN ($6m) Somebody down here still likes the quintessential anti-hero.

11. PAUL NEWMAN ($5m) Newman actually made $120m from Newman's Own food range in this year -- but all those proceeds went to charity.

What a guy.

12. JAMES DEAN ($5m) The rebel yell still sounds after all these years.

13. MARVIN GAYE ($3.5m) What's going on? The 30th anniversary of Motown.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Confessions of a rollercoaster virgin

It's a tough job, but somebody's got to write those travel pieces. Never saw myself as a theme park gal - and especially thought myself too cynical for happy-clappy Orlando. I'm pleased to report I was entirely wrong....

Susan Daly pulled down the safety bar and braced herself for an adrenaline rush as she took to some of Florida's finest coasters, for the very first time
Saturday July 18 2009

Somebody once gave me a book listing all the things you should do before you die. I've always thought those checklists ridiculous; they serve only to remind you of a squandered youth and of all the things you must squash into your mediocre life in the next 50 years, so you don't lament on your death bed that you never climbed Everest or chained yourself to a rainforest.

But I couldn't help thinking about the book as I rode my very first roller coaster at the grand old age of 32. Strapped into a padded straitjacket of a seat, palms sweaty, eyes boggling as we ascended a 140ft rise, I gibbered: "How about 'Things To Do As You Die'?"

The previous day, I had taken a sort of dress rehearsal at Universal Studios in Orlando. Universal's two main theme parks -- Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure -- are prime destinations for coaster addicts, who pile on to rides such as Revenge of the Mummy and the Incredible Hulk Coaster.

Try The Simpsons ride, I was told; it will give you sea legs. The Simpsons is a motion simulator that uses CGI animation on surround screens to fool the brain into thinking the body's on a wild ride. It is enormous fun and you get thrown around a bit, but in terms of breaking virgin territory for me, it merely reaches first base, as a Floridian might say.

I was saving myself for Manta. This is the monster new roller coaster just unveiled by SeaWorld Orlando, their first new thrill ride in nine years. Fact fans will want to know that it maxes out at speeds of 56mph, has four inversions (where the coaster cars travel on the underside of the track) and a descent that plunges riders within three feet of the water below.

All I wanted to know was if I would die. "Of course not, sweetheart," said Lynne, the middle-aged English lady next to me, as we were locked and loaded into the great hunk of metal that is Manta. Lynne, a roller-coaster veteran, was at a loss as to how someone could have entered their 30s and never been on one.

"We don't have coasters in Ireland," I explained, "We have see-saws."

As if Manta heard me, our seats began to tilt forward until we were suspended face-down, feet and hands dangling like useless puppets. Then we were off; climbing, climbing, climbing over the heads of the queue below us. The advice to not look down is no use as you watch the ground retreat in an alarming fashion. The tension is so heart-bursting that the sudden plunge over the first loop is a blessed, if stomach-churning, relief. We corkscrew through turns, skim tree tops and a waterfall, and invert into a pretzel loop until the G-force puffs out my cheeks.

But there is a real beauty to Manta, too. Situated in the very heart of the SeaWorld park, it was designed to emulate the graceful flight of the manta ray through the ocean. The queue for the ride snakes through a peaceful grotto, where riders can say hey to the ray as real mantas glide above their heads in a purpose-built aquarium. And once you've settled into the ride itself, the most intense feeling descends -- a sense of weightlessness, of gliding and soaring as a bird (or manta!) would.

Unlike most roller coasters, the ominous clanking of metal on metal is muffled here, because the engineers cleverly filled the supports with sand.

Manta is only two minutes and 35 seconds long, but I am completely spaced out when I disembark. I'm elated, my knees are knocking and my heart is pounding -- it may be that I'm in love. I get straight back on for a second go.

I also flirt briefly with another new ride opening this summer on Orlando's 'roller coast' -- the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. It is launched this month at Universal Studios, but I had a sneak preview and can report that it looks terrifyingly brilliant. It is being billed as the world's most technologically advanced ride: you can select your own soundtrack to blast from your stereo-fitted chair, then 'rip' a music video of the entire trip afterwards, thanks to cameras located on the ride itself.

However, you might not want to see your face as the Rockit catapults through several original moves, including the treble clef, the jump cut and the double take (try watching on, if you're brave enough!).

Orlando is the ultimate playground, and the choice of parks can seem almost overwhelming. An excellent deal is to buy the Orlando FlexTicket, which gives you unlimited access for 14 days to the two Universal parks and SeaWorld -- which also houses the famous Shamu killer whale show, Believe, and the two immense waterparks, Aquatica and Wet 'n' Wild, with the option to add a sixth, Busch Gardens, in Tampa Bay.

But there is only so much adrenaline a girl can produce in a day, so I took to Universal's CityWalk venue for the evening, just a free water-taxi ride from any of their resorts or on-park hotels. If the parks are chock-full of children and their parents, CityWalk is the adults' fairground. It is peppered with restaurants, themed bars and clubs and an X-Factor-style karaoke venue called Rising Star, where the less retiring members of our party performed their party pieces to a full backing band.

I reserved my energy for my following day's appointment with Dixie the dolphin at Discovery Cove, a short taxi ride north of the Universal parks. I have always wanted to swim with these gentle creatures, and Dixie's caretaker taught me the hand signals to communicate with her loveable charge. She gave me a kiss, I gave her a fish. Two of life's ambitions fulfilled in as many days?

Take that, Things To Do Before I Die.

- Susan Daly


The oldest: Leap-the-Dips, Lakemont Park, Altoona, Pennsylvania, US. Built in 1902, this is the oldest wooden roller coaster still in operation in the world with a -- brace yourself -- 9ft drop and top speed of 10mph.

The fastest: Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. This is more like it -- this monster accelerates to 128mph in 3.5 seconds and boasts a 456ft drop.

The longest: Steel Dragon at Nagashima Spa Land in Nagashima, Japan. The ride takes four minutes -- a long time on a coaster -- because the track is 8,133ft long. It reaches 95mph and rises 318ft.

First duelling inverted: Duelling Dragons at Universal Islands of Adventure, Orlando, Florida. This crazy beast has two roller coasters zooming within inches of each other at 55mph. Riders on opposing tracks come screamingly face-to-face at several points on the track.

The fastest-accelerating: Ring Racer at Nürburgring Race Track in Nürburg, Germany. This one is due to open this year, but is worth a mention because it will use an F1 Thrust Air compressor to accelerate from 0-135mph in 2.5 seconds. Go F1gure.

The most: Cedar Point, Ohio. Holding the world record for most coasters in a single park, Cedar Point (left) has amassed 17 in the past decade. If you've had your stomach's fill of roller rides, there are also a record-breaking 75 carnival rides to relax on.

- Susan Daly


Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; operates three flights a week direct from Dublin to Orlando on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. One-way fares start from €259, including taxes and charges. The Orlando FlexTicket, for 14 days' unlimited access to five parks, can be bought online at for €178 per adult and slightly less for children.

I stayed at the mind-blowing Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (001 407 503 1000;, modelled on the real village of Portofino in Italy (pictured below). The story goes that Steven Spielberg holidayed in Portofino and loved it so much that he suggested Universal build a replica. It isn't cheap -- a double room can cost from €250 -- but ask about long-stay discounts and other offers.

There are several other fantastic hotels on the Universal site, including the Hard Rock Hotel and the Loews Royal Pacific Resort.

If you browse for a package (www.americanholidays. com,,, and stay off-park, check that your hotel offers free resort shuttle buses as an incentive.

The price range across the eateries in the Universal parks is mercifully broad, depending on whether you're eating fast or fabulous. A reasonable option is Mythos in the Islands of Adventure -- it is housed in a Flintstones-style cavern and has been voted best theme- park restaurant in the world for the past five years.

I also loved the weird sensation of eating fine seafood in Sharks Underwater Grill at Seaworld, as barracudas, sharks and moray eels eyed me reproachfully through the giant glass windows of the aquarium.

Predictably, theme parks in Orlando are busiest during school holidays: Easter; July and August; and the October mid-term break. June is hurricane season, so give that a miss. September to November is a much more pleasant (and less crowded) time in terms of temperature and humidity, as is March to May.

- Susan Daly

Family pack

It's been all babies, babies, babies round this neck of the woods recently...
My feature on large families in today's Irish Independent:

Tuesday July 21 2009
Kids -- who'd have 'em? Time-consuming, cash-swallowing little dynamos -- and all they offer in return is their unconditional love. Certainly the average number of children in the typical family has fallen drastically since our parents' generation.

So it is always with goggle-eyed admiration -- and confusion -- that we regard a large family in contemporary Ireland.

Ann Stapleton (42) and her family made for an eye-catching photograph in last week's newspapers. She and her husband John were pictured as she was called to the Bar in the Four Courts -- surrounded by their 10 children, ranging in age from four to 17 years.

To add to her superwoman credentials, Ann held down a full-time job and studied for her exams at night. Husband John, who took early retirement several years ago, stays at home with the children.

Far from being ground down by conflicting responsibilities, Ann told RTE's Morning Ireland: "It sounds like punishment, but I have to be honest, it wasn't punishment. I loved my time at the Inns, absolutely loved it."

She acknowledged the importance of having husband John working at home. "I worked in Bank of Ireland out in the computer centre in Cabinteely and I had organised my hours with them so that I was working from seven o'clock until three. I got up at six. Back home here after three, get a couple of hours here, the kids would be coming back from school from half two-ish. To be quite honest, John did the dinners, the school runs. I have so much support."

Family psychotherapist Dr John Sharry poses the question: would we have been as gobsmacked by Ann Stapleton's large family were she a man? "Her husband carries out the role a traditional mum would have done," says Dr Sharry.

"There is evidence that kids looked after primarily by the dad do very well. This is partly because a mum who works outside the home tends to be a very committed person. She really works hard with her children when she does come home, so they have two full parents."

Ann Stapleton also spoke of her children's unerring support. "When I would be sitting up at Easter time studying for exams, they would be coming up and putting a cup of tea up beside me, and asking, 'Do you want a sandwich?', that kind of stuff."

The children of large families tend to be more independent than children of the same age with fewer siblings, says Dr Sharry ( "Largely, the children adopt much more caring roles towards each other too," he says.

Expanded clans certainly get the blessing of Pope Benedict XVI who has made it his business to call on Italian lawmakers to provide more incentives to encourage the creation of larger families.

Historically, there was an idealisation of the larger family -- child labour contributed to the family finances, and they provided security in old age.

Hollywood enshrined the jolly camaraderie of a large family in films such as Cheaper By The Dozen (1950), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), The Sound of Music (1965), Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) and in TV shows like The Brady Bunch and The Waltons.

These days, not everyone feels as positively towards them. A 2007 report from UK green think tank, the Optimum Population Trust, said that if couples had two children instead of three they could cut their family's carbon dioxide output by the equivalent of 620 return flights a year between London and New York. Having more than two children is seen by some as an eco-crime.

There is some concern about child poverty in larger families. The Families in Ireland report released by the Department of Social and Family Affairs late last year found that the number of large families is on the wane.

However, it also reported that there is a higher than average risk of poverty found among lone-parent families -- and in two-parent families with four children or more.

It has been estimated that the cost of raising a single child to 21 is around €225,500. The children's allowance increases slightly with the number of children you have -- for one child it is €166 a month, but for eight it is €1,550 (which works out at €187.50 per child) -- but no-one knows how long that benefit will last.

The emotional impact of being one of many children vying for a parent's attention is also an issue. Ann Stapleton says: "I think it was harder on the kids than it was on me, because I'd rush home from work, try to get the homework done and then fire out the door."

David Kavanagh, systemic family therapist, says that in many large families, children assume roles (he is not referring to the Stapleton family). The elder children take on a mantle of responsibility and become over-responsible and controlling; the middle children can feel lost and adopt the role of peacekeeper, while the younger ones tend to be more selfish.

"There is something in adopting these prescribed roles in which the individuality of the child gets sacrificed," he says.

He warns of "sub-systems" that develop in which two or three of the children become closer to the detriment of their relationships with the others.

"A family split is often the result later in life -- often it comes about with an event or maybe just a gradual shifting of priorities within the family," explains Kavanagh (

"Say a wife of a brother misbehaves at a family party, and on one side you have a parent and some of the children saying she was disrespectful, and you have other siblings saying, 'Leave her alone, she had taken too much drink'. It polarises tensions that already existed."

Accusations of irresponsibility against parents of large families came to the fore when 'Octo-Mom' Nadia Sulaiman gave birth to octuplets in January. The derision aimed at the 33-year-old Californian could be explained by the revelations that she had the babies through IVF, as she did her six other children at home, was single and not financially independent.

But elsewhere in the US, there have been reports that large families are in vogue with the very wealthy -- as status symbols.

What is certain is that all families -- of any size -- require hard work, organisation and a lot of love to function properly.

"Dysfunction can happen in a family with several children," says Dr John Sharry, "but it can just as easily happen with parents who have just one child."

Erika Whitaker from Rathmines in Dublin has nine children with husband Brian: Luke (17), Dan (15), Anna (14), Lia (13), Gavin (11), Sam (8), Ross 6 (nearly 7!), Conor (4), and baby Adam (17 months). They are also the proud parents of Andrew and Greg, now adults, whose mum, Brian's first wife, died young. Brian works full-time and Erika had worked part-time up until January.

Erika describes how she copes: "I'm obsessionally organised. The kids' clothes would be stacked in drawers in the utility room. Once the older ones hit 10, they bring theirs up to the rooms.

"The kids pitch in -- they have a dishwasher day, or a day in charge of tidying the sitting room. When Sam turned six, he was delighted, saying: 'Now I can have a dishwasher day!' The novelty wears off!

"Saturday mornings are a bit hectic, running to various lessons and activities -- 11 of us and a dog packed into the van!"

But for the most part, their hobbies are during school, or just after so it's not a problem.

"I want them to have their own interests. My only rule would be that if you pick something, there's no quitting halfway through.

"I use internet shopping, but I would go down to Dunnes to check bargains -- we're not millionaires. I've always been conscious of budgeting. We wouldn't have taken fancy foreign holidays but we have had a place in Clare for years and we do house swaps.

"That's what I'm doing now -- I'm in a house in Donegal for a week with the kids. Mind you, if the children's allowance is cut, we're fecked.

"I always wanted six children -- I just carried on and had a few more! You think that you couldn't love a child as much as you do your first, but you just do.

"They are all so individual; I've always been conscious of protecting that. I know a number of families with eight or nine children -- and a lot with five -- because people had money and they could afford to have them.

"But I find my life easy because they are particularly good kids, and they don't fight because there is always someone else to bounce off. The truth is I hate them growing up!"

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Birthing pains

My cover story from today's Irish Independent Weekend mag...

In many countries, expectant women have a wide choice of how and where to give birth to their baby. But are Irish mums-to-be getting a raw deal? Susan Daly investigates

By Susan Daly

Saturday July 18 2009

Mention the words 'home birth' to many people and their eyes widen in horror. At least, that was the experience of Lisa Sterrit when she began to tell acquaintances that she was planning to have her second child at home.

The feeling of being pressurised to speed up the long labour with her first daughter had prompted Lisa to seek an alternative for the birth of Thea, now a jolly, seven-month-old girl. Her eldest, Eva (five), was born in a private hospital, where Lisa found the experience "impersonal and rushed".

She had wanted a natural birth but, when her labour slowed, the medical staff wanted to break her waters, and she felt under pressure to follow their advice.

When Lisa, from Greystones, Co Wicklow, became pregnant with Thea, she vowed she would be in charge this time. With an ambulance on call in case of an emergency, and her midwife and husband by her side, she felt relaxed and comfortable. "Even the process of checking into the hospital was stressful the first time round. I had been awake all night with contractions and was worried about when I would go -- I was fretting about rush hour, so we ended up going in at 4am!"

Second time around, Lisa woke at 7am with contractions. Eva was taken by a friend for the day and when her husband came home from work at about 1.30pm, they lay on the bed while she practiced her breathing. Their bedroom overlooks the tranquility of Greystones Harbour and both fell asleep, until stronger contractions woke Lisa at about 4pm. The midwife came and Lisa's husband filled the birthing pool, where she remained until about 9pm, when Thea was born.

"It just happened so naturally," says an obviously delighted Lisa, "The midwife gave me confidence that I could do it. The baby was big -- 10-and-a-half pounds -- so I was pushing for a long time and I do feel that if I had been in hospital, there would have been pressure for a Caesarean." Her husband, too, had a better experience this time round. "The midwife and my husband worked well as a team," says Lisa.

Although Lisa remembers some people being "horrified" when she first announced that she was having a home birth, she says she had done her research. "I also knew my midwife enough to trust that at the first sign of anything making her wary, she would have carted me off to hospital."

Lisa is among a growing number of Irish women reaching out for an alternative to the obstetrician-led hospital delivery wards. With an expanding national birth rate, our large, centralised maternity hospitals are stuffed to the gills. And that is not the only reason women want to get out of the stirrups -- we are becoming aware that other countries do it differently and offer mums-to-be more choice.

"There is no European standard," says Niamh Healy,of Cuidiu, the voluntary Irish childbirth trust. "In Holland, for example, around one-third of all births are home births. In Spain, it's more medicalised, where women have probably even less choice. But certainly we know a lot about the UK system, and women there have much more choice than here."

It's very difficult for a mother to know what choices are available here; unlike in the UK, there is no official register of data about the birthing services in this country. What we do know is that in the UK, the majority of mothers-to-be are attended to by community midwives. They have several options on where to give birth, depending on risk factors: at home, in NHS midwife-led clinics, maternity hospitals or in 70-odd independent birthing centres funded by the NHS.

In Ireland, there are just two midwife-led clinics and no independent birthing centres. Even if you live in west Cork, for example, the only delivery centre near you may be two hours' drive away in the shiny new maternity hospital in Cork city.

Shelley O'Connor, from Cabra in Dublin, speaks with missionary-like zeal about her experience with a midwife-led Domino scheme for the birth of her baby, Adam, in May of this year. Domino means domiciliary care, in and out of the home, where midwives visit mothers before and after the birth in their homes.

Shelley noticed a marked difference to the maternity service she received with her previous child, Ella (three). "With the first baby, I was semi-private and I couldn't fault them, but with the Domino midwives it was much more personal. They came to my house from the word go -- if you have other children, it's very handy not to have to go to the hospital. And you can feel intimidated by a doctor. With the midwives, you're not worried about asking silly questions."

It is a public scheme and sounds like something that would work brilliantly in more geographically isolated areas of Ireland. But there are still only four Domino schemes in Ireland: one operated from Holles Street Hospital, one from the Rotunda Hospital, one in Waterford and one in Wexford. To hear Shelley speak, the majority of the country is severely missing out.

Shelley's son, Adam, had to be induced because he was 10 days overdue, but Shelley found that her Domino midwife kept her fully informed and in control at each stage. "They talked to me about the epidural, they gave me alternatives of gas and air, but they didn't make me feel as if I couldn't have the epidural if I wanted it. They were just giving me confidence the whole time."

Midwife Bernie was with Shelley all night during her labour. "She knew me and my body, and when I was in pain, she was able to calm my husband. She's your pal, you trust her. The doctors were great, but she just made it for me.

"The aftercare was fantastic -- they visited me every day for days after I went home, constantly giving reassurance. It's very important to be looked after, because you are vulnerable."

Shelley's favourite memory of the birth is when Bernie ensured that she was given skin-on-skin contact with the baby straight after his arrival -- and her husband was given the same opportunity. "It was just a beautiful experience," she says.

The philosophy of care in the Domino schemes addresses the fear of being dealt with by a bunch of strangers at a vulnerable time, a fear that drives some women to shell out for the reassurance of their own private consultant obstetrician.

"Going private is very expensive and health insurance only covers your accommodation," says Fiona Hanrahan, assistant director of midwifery at the Rotunda Hospital. She helped set up the Domino scheme there, which is still only available to women in their catchment area. "Semi-private means you are seen by a non-consultant and can be in a shared room, so they are falling between two stools."

Even the stated policy of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is supportive of midwife-led schemes such as Domino for the vast majority of mothers-to-be. The Institute was critical of under-investment in maternity services in a 2007 report. "Obstetricians here are very supportive of it," confirms Fiona, "and if a woman develops a complication, we dovetail services."

The mothers can have their babies in hospital under the Domino schemes, but the time they spend on wards is minimal. Hanrahan says: "Women are far more rested at home. I've never had a woman who is at home say, 'I wish I was in hospital'." Her own sister gave birth recently in a hospital and, says Hanrahan, "It's like a form of torture -- she was awake all night with other babies and mothers".

Mothers might feel that the conventional Irish childbirth is not ideal, but they are wary of alternatives because there hasn't been the opportunity to try them. The Midwife-Led Units (MLUs) in Drogheda and Cavan, for example, have received overwhelmingly positive feedback for their supportive, relaxed ethos. Rooms feature birthing aids such as pools and inflatable balls, en suite bathrooms and facilities for the woman's partner and the new baby to stay together in one room. But these are the only two MLUs in the country.

And Georgina Farren, a midwife on the National Council for the Professional Development of Nursing and Midwifery, explains that there are only between 11 and 13 independent midwives available for home births. While community midwifery is on the increase, "people aren't aware of it, geographically it's not widespread and there is not much money around".

Krysia Lynch is a member of both the Home Birth Association and of AIMS Ireland, which calls for improvement in the provision of maternity services in Ireland. "Home birthing isn't for everyone, just as elective Caesareans or hospital births aren't. Your body will be at its best where you feel safest," she says. "What we are trying to get across is that mothers need to feel that the way they give birth is their choice, that they are not being pushed into anything."

Tracy Donegan, mother of one son, Jack, has an interesting take on childbirth. She is a student midwife but has also worked as a doula (a professional labour companion) and self-hypnosis teacher. She laughs heartily at the stereotype of the doula chanting and blowing incense over the labouring mother.

She was exposed to the concept of a doula when pregnant with Jack, when she and her husband, Philip, lived in California. "She can be an informational support for you, give you the best chance to avoid routine interventions and pharmacological relief by using hydrotherapy, acupressure, positioning and so on," says Tracy. "It's helping the woman have the best birth for her."

And if that best birth turns out to be quite medicalised, then a good doula will be fully supportive. Tracy decided to be induced when Jack was a couple of days overdue and the consultant said he could book her in to have her baby at a specific time. "My doula was happy as long as I was happy. On paper, it was medically managed, but nothing was assumed, I signed on for it. I had the best of both worlds."

Tracey has also taught the GentleBirth method, which shows women how to use self-hypnosis to relax during labour. "The common misunderstanding with self-hypnosis is that you will be walking around like a zombie," she laughs, "but you are never out of control -- it is focused concentration."

While she hopes that maternity services here will become more rounded, we are lagging behind our nearest neighbours. "Ten minutes up the road in the North I can have a water birth -- which we call the midwives' epidural," says Tracy, who lives in Meath. "In the UK, they have set up a midwives' clinic in some branches of Sainsbury's. There are birthing pools in the Rotunda and in Cork, but they are still not being used."

In June 2007, the HSE called for anyone who had expertise in the area of childbirth to join a clinical advisory group on expanding maternity services. There has yet to be a convention or report from such a group. Krysia says that some Polish women of her acquaintance have been shocked at how infrequent antenatal check-ups are here. "They are used to being seen more regularly, and earlier for scans. Here you are not seen until after the first trimester. They just can't believe that."

See for antenatal classes, free breastfeeding support and networking for parents. AIMS Ireland, at, offers free, confidential support, with many volunteers fluent in several languages.

The HomeBirth Association of Ireland ( provides information and support to those considering a home birth.

Tracy Donegan can be contacted at

Wash your hands

At the end of interviewing our captains of industry about how they might cope with swine-flu absenteeism, I think the 'fail to prepare, prepare to fail' maxim was never so apt.
From today's Review section in the Irish Independent...
Could swine flu really close down the country this winter? Susan Daly reports

Saturday July 18 2009

In as little as three months, one-quarter of the Irish population could be taking to their beds. The Department of Health this week confirmed our fears about the growth of swine flu by warning that one million people could become infected with the (A) H1N1 virus by the winter.

Added to this stark alert, issued by the department's Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, is a doomsday report coming from Britain. The prediction there is that there will be 100,000 new cases of swine flu every day in a six-week period.

Will the last person to take to their beds please turn the lights out? While not all of the projected 25pc of population to be struck down are likely to be employees -- children are particularly vulnerable to it -- there is no doubt that such an eventuality would put a severe strain on staffing levels.

Sean Murphy, Director of Policy with Chambers Ireland, Ireland's largest business network, cautions against hysteria. "The numbers of those infected are still very small, and so far the business impact has been very limited," he says. By the middle of this week, the number of people who had tested positive for swine flu in Ireland was 144.

However, the Department of Health ceased trying to contain the spread of the virus as of Thursday, and instead is focusing on treatment of new cases. It follows a similar change in strategy in the UK. As the history professors' favourite joke used to go, when Britain sneezes, Ireland gets a cold.

So far, 29 people have died of swine flu in Britain, but most have had underlying medical problems. As most cases of swine flu reported here have been pretty mild, Chief Medical Officer Dr Holohan has said that most patients would recover without medical intervention.

Nonetheless, the UK has been treating the possibility of a pandemic as a key risk to their economy, far above flooding, extreme weather or terrorist attacks in terms of relative impact and likelihood.

Sean Murphy says Ireland has also been forewarned. "The key point is that the whole world got a wake-up call at the time of the bird flu crisis," he says. "If, God forbid, this gets worse, we have best practice guidelines nailed down, a good working group behind it and we have passed on this information to our network."

Forfas, the national policy advisory body for enterprise and science, released a guide in 2007 called Business Continuity Planning -- Responding to an Influenza Pandemic, containing checklists and case studies for companies forming continuity plans.

Declan Hughes, head of competitiveness with Forfas, says the notification from Health that 25pc of the population could be out sick by winter was timely. "We would equate that to a 15pc rate of absenteeism, so this is the time for companies to review their existing continuity plans."

The energy giants have detailed emergency plans that are overseen by the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER). The ESB, for example, says that it has "a generic pandemic plan as part of their business continuity plan".

A CER spokesperson said they were "satisfied" that these contingency procedures would be sufficient to keep the national energy grid up and running. "Maintaining security of supply has been our focus. It's not going to be a last-minute panic."

So we should have light and heat to comfort us in the dead of a viral winter. It is also true that if there are more people at home sick, there will be a lower demand for bus, rail and tram services. Even so, says the Department of Transport, they have asked each of the public transport agencies to advise of the up-to-date position on their contingency plans. "Discussions are also taking place with agencies regarding vaccination of essential staff," read a statement released to Review from the Department of Transport.

In the wake of the initial World Health Organisation (WHO) warnings on swine flu back in the late spring, airline companies found their share prices temporarily hit. A more permanent fall in confidence would be the fear for any business that relies on customers to assemble in a public space. The Vintners' Federation of Ireland (VFI), for example, says it is keeping the situation under constant review. "The WHO has claimed the virus is unstoppable and were it to reach levels that are predicted globally, then the swine flu may have an affect on global travel which would of course affect the Irish tourist trade," says VFI Chief Executive Padraig Cribben.

There are, however, some businesses who might benefit from a pandemic. Certainly the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing anti-viral drugs are doing well, such as Swiss company Roche, which has been very busy supplying Tamilflu to stock-piling governments.

Supermarkets and other food and drink retailers would also see a spike in custom if people began to stockpile their cupboards. The larger food retailers have their own contingency plans to get all hands on the shop floor, should staff shortages demand it. Tesco Ireland say that they would be used to similar times like Easter and Christmas, when they would have to get in extra help.

Ultimately, says Sean Murphy of Chambers Ireland, many of those infected with swine flu would come from the more physically vulnerable sections of society, rather than all from the strong, young workforce. However, that presumably could lead to a scenario where, if schools close, say, a large number of parents would have to stay home.

An option, says Patricia Callan, director of the Small Firms Association (SFA), is that companies equip their key employees with the facilities to work from home. But if we're all suddenly working from home, won't that constitute an unbearable strain on our internet providers?

Eircom said in a statement -- sent by email, naturally -- that they have contingency plans to ensure that they maintain critical business operations including broadband, voice and mobile services. They say they are "confident" that their network can cope with increased traffic on the network.

If there is an issue with the contingency plans businesses and public bodies claim they have in place, it is that they are just that -- plans. Declan Hughes of Forfas says that a 15pc absenteeism rate might be manageable for some companies, the US is looking at a worst-case scenario of 40pc. A similar ramp up here in absenteeism would be disastrous.

"The general consensus is that the business community would be shut down," says the SFA's Patricia Callan. Does she fear for the 'green shoots' of progress our depressed economy is touted to be showing? "There are absolutely no green shoots," she says. "The pace of deterioration is slowing but it's still going in the wrong direction. This would be devastating."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sorry, kids

My byline has been left off the online version of this op-ed from today's Evening Herald, but rest assured it's my rant...

Friday July 17 2009
By Susan Daly
One of the most fascinating questions asked of famous people is how much cash they carry in their wallet.

It says a lot about their grip on financial reality.

Maeve Binchy once said she carries cash but likes to read her credit card bill to remind her of the lovely meals she's had and places she's visited.

Now there's a woman who knows the value of things.

The Queen of England, on the other hand, never carries cash: one has minions to deal with one's filthy lucre.

It's a test that applies to mere mortals too. I bet we all hold a tighter rein over the purse strings these days. Time was when you would withdraw a few notes from the drinklink ... sorry, banklink ... and not worry too much about how they had transformed into a handful of coppers two days on.

But if anyone's pockets are worth a sneak peek now for the 'before' and 'after' picture, it's the formerly cash-rich teenager.

When disposable income made the world go round, teens were at the front of the carousel.

It's not entirely fair to grump that they were a particularly spoiled generation.

Yes, they have the latest mobile phones and a high turnover of new clothes -- but often self-funded from lucrative part-time jobs that were in proliferation like never before in Ireland. We might have had smaller amounts of money burning a hole in our pockets way back when George Michael still looked on course to marry Pepsi but I doubt we were any wiser at budgeting.

When that occasional fiver (a fortune!) presented itself, it would be gone in a thrice on a Rimmel lipstick and the latest edition of Smash Hits.

Teenagers were always spendthrifts. It just didn't look like it when 100pc of nothing was zero.

But the landscape has shifted again for the teenager now that those ten-a-penny weekend jobs are in short supply. Remember that queue down Grafton Street for one shelf-stacking job in a grocery shop earlier this year? That's the casual jobs front for you.

All of this is bringing a time-honoured parent-teen conflict back on the horizon: the battle over pocket money. Does the cash-strapped head of the household try to keep their child in the manner to which they have grown accustomed? It is natural for parents to want to protect their offspring from the worry of shrinking pay packets. Plenty of time for that when they fly the nest and have to learn to pay for food, electricity and rent.

But who decides what the going rate for keeping the sulk off the face of a 16-year-old? Two years ago, a survey from Hibernian Life claimed that only 15pc of parents didn't give their kids any pocket money at all. The rest shelled out anything between €10 and €68 a week on their little darlings. In these cases, parents will most likely reap precisely the amount they have sown.

If your child was once being funded to the level that they might have reasonably expected an MTV-style Sweet Sixteen party with a guest appearance from Kanye West, they are hardly going to be impressed by your feeble excuses about house fore- closure and the like.

Perhaps we need a Bord Snip Nua nua to negotiate the terms of agreement between the warring sides. If mum and dad are down to just the two foreign holidays a year, then the teenager might have to make do with a 1-series BMW coupe rather than the 3-series convertible their fairy godmother promised them for their 17th birthday present.

In all seriousness though, it may be difficult for some parents to disappoint their children. All they can do is remember that they are teenagers -- they are obliged by the law of nature not to like you. Tough it out until they leave home and realise that you are the source of all love, hot meals and laundry facilities. They won't be feeling short-changed then.

No Bull

I like Sandra Bullock, not least because she reminds me of my dynamo aunt Virginia... Here's my interview with her (Sandra, not Virginia)

By Susan Daly

Sandra Bullock must have asbestos fingers. Ignoring the dainty silver spoon resting by the cup of steaming liquid in front of her, she plucks out a herbal teabag between thumb and forefinger and squeezes it dry. This isn't a woman to stand on ceremony.

She's similarly unafraid to plough into the things that really tee her off. The word 'cougar', for example. It has been bandied about with alarming frequency in recent popular American culture in reference to older women-younger men romances.

On the face of it, the plot of new movie The Proposal -- in which Sandra plays a hard-faced publishing editor who coerces her assistant, played by Ryan Reynolds, into a sham engagement -- prowls that same territory. Bullock is 44; Reynolds is 32.

She rolls her eyes at the C-word. "What it sounds like is that there's this woman who's seemingly decrepit and old, who is preying on these young, nubile men, who can't defend themselves, who are cowering in a corner, can't call their mother, and this woman is sucking the life blood out of them," says Bullock, raising her eyebrows.

She can't understand why anyone would have an issue with an older woman-younger man dynamic in the first place.

"When people say it's a taboo, I ask, 'Is it really?'" she says, quizzically. The Proposal, rather than trumpeting the age difference in a self-regarding 'aren't-we-controversial' way, barely references it at all. (Apart from one smart remark from Betty White's mischievous 'Gammy Annie' when she first meets Bullock.) On the contrary, there are several gags about the family 'baby blanket', which take for granted the possibility of her character Margaret Tate falling pregnant.

When Margaret and Andrew (Reynolds) start to fall for each other -- I'm not giving anything away; the film does otherwise stick to the conventions of a Hollywood romance -- it feels quite natural. Life is like that, says Bullock.

"They might have different ages, but they are in the same place. How many people have we lost the chance to share a great time with because of our pre-conceived notions of what this relationship should look like, age-wise, colour-wise, whatever?" she says emphatically.

And it's not lip service with Bullock. Despite the 12-year age gap, she and Reynolds have been friends for many years after meeting at the dinner party of a mutual friend. Reynolds says that it's a friendship strong enough to survive "a scene in which I'm wearing nothing but Sandra Bullock". More of that anon.

Her marriage four years ago to motorcycle builder Jesse James likewise bucked Hollywood's expectations of its A-list actresses. He is a multi-tattooed man's man who custom-builds motorcycles and is five years younger than Bullock.

"I married him because he WASN'T an actor!" she laughs. At the main press conference for The Proposal earlier in the day, she chides a journalist for referring to James as an actor.

"He's a welder!" she insists, which might be downplaying it slightly. James became a fairly well-known TV personality in the US when his work was documented in shows including Motorcycle Mania and Monster Garage, and he was a contestant on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice earlier this year.

Upstairs, in a private room of a London hotel after lunch, Bullock says she feels her husband's job is more interesting than hers.

"When people see him, I see their eyes light up, and they light up for the right reasons," she says. "Not because of celebrity but because this man has actually accomplished great things that other people can't. He's extraordinary. He can make cars fly. I mean -- come on! I can't do that!" She forgets that she did make a bus fly 15 years ago in Speed (with a little help from CGI), thereby catapulting herself into the star league.

She has since moved away from the role of accidental heroine in favour of showcasing a generous talent for comedy. While she tapped her serious bone for more recent movies including Infamous and Crash, her fanbase has been built on the endearing muddle of vulnerability and goofiness that she displayed in hits such as While You Were Sleeping, Miss Congeniality and Two Weeks' Notice.

The Proposal is all the better for her cheerful willingness to take pratfalls and make a fool of herself in the noble pursuit of physical comedy. Here is Bullock negotiating a quayside ladder in stilettos and skirt; here she is running around a field in wellies and a dressing gown, a yappy little dog under one arm.

And then there is the Nude Scene. Bullock is too honest to feign surprise that it is the moment in the film she has been asked most about on her promotional tour around Europe. The synopsis is that Reynolds and Bullock's characters end up wrestling naked in an accidental kerfuffle.

Much has been made of the fact that it is Bullock's first all-nude movie scene. That said, her naughty bits are covered up by her left arm and a loofah: "I said, 'Just get me a little sponge'. They gave me a loofah! Ow!'" She maintains that it's not a sexy scene -- it's intended to be awkward-funny.

"To do a sex scene, it's just lame, they are never memorable or sexy," she says. "I did it because it's not superfluous; it was really funny in this context."

For the record, Bullock is in tip-top shape. But she claims: "You don't remember me because when Ryan takes his clothes off, you're like: 'Oh dear Jesus'. It's pretty impressive."

Ryan says similarly self-deprecating things in her favour, a strategy that succeeds in deflecting any media-generated heat from the moment. Their friendship survived intact, thank you very much, and their spouses -- Reynolds is married to Scarlett Johansson -- are cool with it.

But doesn't the fact that Bullock and her co-star fall for each other, literally and figuratively on screen, mean that this funny movie could be defined as a romantic comedy? And didn't a certain Sandra Bullock say that romantic comedy was a dead duck? Sandy -- as director Anne Fletcher and Reynolds refer to her -- prefers to call The Proposal a comedy with some romance in it. She acknowledges my eyebrow raised in scepticism. "You often find with comedy -- and this is why I stopped doing it -- people so wanted good comedy so badly that they were willing to go to bad comedy. And I thought, 'This is so wrong. We're getting paid and we're making mediocre films and I can't do it any more'."

Bullock refused several times to get involved in The Proposal, but after reading the script, she found herself seduced once more.

"I thought, 'Wow, I'm incredibly shocked that this is an even two-hander and that the female role was written as cleverly as it was, with so much fun stuff to do'."

Bullock believes it harks back to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s. "Those were two-handers, the barbs going back and forth. You can't make Katharine Hepburn a lampshade -- she's not going to stand for it!"

I don't imagine Bullock suffers much nonsense either. She's not aggressive, but she's certainly not the ditzy girl-next-door of her star-making early movies. She's easy to like, level-headed, more interested in restoring old buildings (she calls herself a frustrated architect) than she is in worrying about what she looked like in the buff at 44.

If there is a vanity about her, I can't see it. She's wearing a floaty, one-shoulder chiffon top but the outfit is roundly beefed up by a pair of sensible pinstripe trousers and court shoes. Her hair is pinned back to show off that famously aquiline bone structure. She looks strong.

Bullock has learned to toughen up by running her own production company, Fortis Films. "Now I more wisely pick and choose what I want to do because I don't want to leave home any more. I've found something that takes priority over my work."

Home is in Austin, Texas, her "sanctuary" where one of her refurbished buildings houses a diner, a bakery, a flower shop and a grocery. It's also in Long Beach, California, where she is a hands-on stepmother to James's three children from previous relationships. On each press trip she has had to make in the past four years, they have brought one of the children so they can dip their toes in foreign cultures.

Bullock wants them to have that same ease with travel that she gained from a peripatetic childhood with her German opera singer mother between the US and Europe. Ireland has become a family favourite. "I don't go there for work. I like to keep it as the place where I enjoy myself rather than having to work. It's just so heavenly."

But if The Proposal turns out to be the redemption of the rom com -- it is already Bullock's first US opening weekend box office No1 in 10 years -- will Bullock be prepared to trade in more of her full off-screen life to follow up its success? The fabulous Betty White, better known to Irish audiences as innocent Rose from The Golden Girls, is still going strong in The Proposal at the age of 87. Would Bullock like to be still charming our screens at that age if we will have her?

"No. I wouldn't want to be, no," she says firmly, as if I were quite mad. Well, one thing's for sure, she has no future as a lampshade.

Poor aul' commuters

From the Herald, Wednesday July 15 2009
By Susan Daly

The highest rate of penalty points are being awarded to the counties with some of the lowest road death rates. Now what's wrong with this picture?

Dublin's commuter counties -- ones like Kildare, Carlow, Laois and Meath -- have the worst points records in the country.

This implies two things. Either the unfortunate commuters of Leinster collectively drive like Jessica Tandy before Morgan Freeman took the wheel from her in Driving Miss Daisy.

Or, with hundreds of thousands forced on to the same worn routes every morning to get to work, catching offenders is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Even if the second instance is true, we can't be seen to complain.

If you're slapped with penalty points, you were doing something wrong. It's a fair cop, guv (The argument remains, of course, that scarce traffic garda resources are being deployed to stop prangs on the Naas dual-carriageway when they might be better served reining in young men careening around country bends to their deaths.

What the chart-topping points rates really reflect is the utter frustration with which commuters face their drive to work each day.

Unsynchronised traffic lights along a dual carriageway, jams, roadworks -- is it any wonder that a motorist might lose their reason and do something stupid and unsafe?

The most recent census figures revealed that one in six commuting motorists leave home before 7am to make it to their workplace in time. That's 285,000 tired and irritable automatons, some of whom, no doubt, drive with one eye shut to give half their face a lie-in.

The distance people live from work has doubled since 1991, to an average of 10 miles.

And I'll bet you a can of Red Bull that the median conceals the many who live not just a town away from the office, but an entire county -- sometimes two. These are folks who shave, go to work and come home to shave again.

This was the price of owning your own home during the boom: you couldn't expect your children to grow up with a Dublin accent. And now, locked in to negative equity with falling house prices, they most certainly can't trade up to move closer to the big smoke.

So they continue to pack themselves into their sardine cans every morning, hoping for the day helicopters become tax-deductible purchases. A survey of commuters a short time ago found that humans are an adaptable bunch -- we find crutches to distract us from the awful boredom and stress of long journeys to work.

Some people chew gum and eat sweeties, some meditate and pray, some admire the good-looking driver stopped next to them at the traffic lights.

Others get road rage, or indulge in what the boffins call "self-generated audio coping", ie, singing and talking to yourself. Talking to yourself? It isn't an overstatement to say that commuters have their sanity ground down, tailback by frigging tailback, every single day.

They take chances they might not normally take if they were simply pootling about on a leisurely weekend drive.

They speed up to try and catch the fickle rhythm of green lights on the Naas Road. They seriously consider undertaking that truck on the hard shoulder to escape the M50, otherwise known as the second circle of hell.

They try to surreptitiously use their mobile under the steering wheel to tell the creche they will be late picking up the children.

All of these actions rightly deserve penalty points -- and make motorists rich pickings for Garda statisticians.

But there is a difference between commuters making mistakes out of desperation, and those motorists who drink-drive or speed for thrills. There is nothing thrilling about trying to make it home in time to fry some chops for the kids before 9pm. Commuters are no angels -- but they don't deserve to be demonised either.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Me a swan? Ah, go on!

Might be a good way of getting a cheap haircut in this climate, mind you...
My article on TV makeover shows in today's Indo:

As the new series of 'How Long Will You Live?' starts tonight on RTE, Susan Daly takes a look at the amazing boom in makeover television.

Change is possible: it's the mantra of hundreds of TV shows around the globe dedicated to making over every element of a person's life. Transform your face, body, wardrobe, house, garden, car, dog -- even your children can be brought up to scratch.

There is a recognisable format to these programmes. A target is identified, a crack team of experts roll in to cajole or coerce change in some area of their less-than-perfect lives, the transformation is revealed, tears are shed and everyone goes home happy. But what happens when the cameras have stopped rolling?

Dr Mark Hamilton, presenter of RTE's How Long Will You Live?, has made return visits to participants whose health issues he tried to take in hand a year ago. The results will be shown in a revisit series which begins tonight on RTE1 at 8.30pm.

"I actually looked forward to the revisits more than the initial eight weeks we did with the patients," says Dr Hamilton.

"Not all of them are on the same scale as when we left, but the vast majority have retained something of what we tried to show them.

"When I was first in talks with the production company about doing this programme, I was clear that I didn't want it to be a quick fix for telly.

"Although you have to make things watchable, all of the suggestions we were making were tailored to each person, so that they would be sustainable."

How Long Will You Live? is a step removed from what might be regarded as the more shallow makeover shows. It addresses serious health issues, like living with coeliac disease, or trying to combat a lifetime smoking habit.

The other major lifestyle overhaul show on RTE this year, Operation Transformation, worked on a similar premise. "We were looking at the bigger picture," says Pat Henry, who was the motivational guru for the participants.

"You see other programmes going on about face lifts and body lifts, but what most people in these shows need is a mind lift. My job was to help them deal with the negativity that is being thrown at us all every day, and realise their potential."

The holistic approach to mind and body of these programmes seems tame compared to the shows playing on the digital channels every weeknight.

House and garden makeover programmes continue to be hugely popular despite the economic downturn -- fantasy and aspiration about how we would like our lives to be have a strong pull. How many of us, for example, watch Masterchef while sitting on the couch with a takeaway?

Voyeurism is a huge part of the attraction, of course. Who can resist a peek into the dark corners of someone else's failings?

Watching Trinny and Susannah ripping fashion 'crimes' out of their victims' wardrobes is the televisual equivalent of sneaking into your neighbour's house to root around in their underwear drawer.

It's safer to watch it happening second-hand, but it still feels a bit naughty -- and fun. There might even be an element of schadenfreude to the popularity of makeover shows.'

Some shows are just car-crash television: it's horrifying but you can't look away. The MTV series I Want A Famous Face followed young people as they underwent multiple cosmetic procedures designed to make them look like their favourite celebrity. The results were often freakish, and the participants disturbingly vulnerable.

MTV didn't pay for the surgeries, unlike The Swan -- formerly presented by Dubliner Amanda Byram -- or Extreme Makeover, both of which involved major surgical overhaul of their subjects.

"I think some of the shows with plastic surgery and cosmetic dental work don't change what is going on in the person's head," says Pat Henry.

"I think of the mind as a computer that needs to be reprogrammed sometimes; say, if you have a boyfriend who is constantly telling you that you're fat or ugly, just changing the exterior is not going to change how you think about yourself."

New research suggests that audiences too can be negatively affected by the more extreme of the makeover shows. A study by the University of Southern California found that they led young women to feel more insecure about their bodies.

When Australia got its own version of Extreme Makeover in 2004, the country's Society of Plastic Surgeons sounded a warning at the hike of inquiries its members would get as a result of the show.

"That's a bad thing, because it's inducing people who would not normally consider cosmetic surgery," said the society's president Alfred Lewis. He added, the programme "raised the spectre of multiple surgical procedures" and trivialised their associated risks.

Even the less invasive makeover shows can work on the insidious premise that a successful life is one accessorised by the correct soft furnishings, the most flattering haircut, the 'pimped-out' car or the most tasteful water feature.

One of the most entertaining makeovers featured on RTE's Off The Rails had journalist Nell McCafferty valiantly fighting the attempts of Caroline Morahan to brighten up her style palette of black and black.

Celebrities seem to have a high 'failure' rate in the testing aftermath of makeover shows like Celebrity Fit Club. This is partly because there are gossip mags waiting to catch and chronicle their moments of weaknesses; but also because their motivation to participate in the first place might have been for a fee or exposure purposes, rather than a desire to change.

For civilians, too, it's the will to transform that dictates if they can sustain their new makeovers into the future.

"It's often the ones who are doing it for somebody else -- their child, their partner -- who don't quite manage it," says Dr Hamilton.

Whether makeover shows have crossed the line of good taste or not, they are here to stay. They are not a new phenomenon -- over 50 years ago, housewives would tearfully compete on NBC's Queen for the Day in a bid to win life-enhancing prizes like a washing machine

"I have had several experiences where I've met a taxi driver or someone in a hotel where I'm staying who says that they say something on the show that they have tried to put into practice in their own life," says Dr Hamilton.

Pat Henry has had similar feedback from viewers. "The people on our programme were very normal and people felt they could relate to them. They thought: I could do that."

- Susan Daly

Change reaction . . . Milestones in the makeover shows


Responsible for a boom in DIY, the show was at its most entertaining when the cameras caught the look of horror on some home owners' faces as they were presented their sitting room decked out in faux fur throws and glitterballs. Possible origin of the term 'inferior designer'.


Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine were the queens of mean as they poked, prodded and bullied women -- in the guise of tough love -- into what they regarded as more shape-appropriate clothes.


Gok Wan is presented as the salvation of the style-makeover show. His aim, he says, is to improve women's body image, a goal largely reached by allowing his charges to cry profusely on his shoulder while complimenting them endlessly on their fabulous "bangers".


Nanny Jo Frost descends on chaotic families to diagnose and provide solutions to their children's out of control behaviour. Introduced the concept of the 'naughty step' to a million households -- and gently proves that in most cases, yes, we should blame the parents.


The Swan, fronted by former Irish model Amanda Byram, came first but the Extreme Makeover brand has processed hundreds of desperate participants through multiple cosmetic surgeries in a bid to let their inner beauty shine. Through, er, their outer beauty.


Five years after the first US series, the show has been franchised all over the world. Obese contestants compete to lose the highest percentage of their starting weight for huge cash prizes.

While the contestants are given exercise and nutrition programmes, there are also temptation and challenge obstacles to be overcome in every episode.