Ash Valentine’s, Nollaig na mBan, huntsmen, love

Week 37 of the column:

Rejoice, cheapskates of Ireland – the stars have aligned and for the first time in decades, St Valentine’s Day, February 14, is falling on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. This is a true sign from the heavens that Jesus is a dude, as now none of us have to rush out buying chocolates or booking a table for two in a fancy restaurant, because this year the Lord has directed that we make do with some dry toast and a cup of black tea (no sugar).

Even in my godless house it was welcome news, as I still like to respect traditions, especially when they share my core belief of saving as much money as possible. I’m tempted to offer my vastly better half a lovely bouquet of rosaries, or relaxing ash facial at the local church, but instead I’m going to opt for what I get her every year – almost nothing. If that fails and she gets incredibly upset (highly likely), I can just tell her that she will get her real Valentine’s gift when Lent ends on Easter Sunday, which this year falls on April 1st, meaning her actual gift would turn out to be the gift of humour, as I don’t really have any gift for her at all. April fools!

Her celebration of Nollaig Na mBan went well, despite me mistakenly telling an elderly relative who phoned looking for her that she was off out for Cumann na mBan, leading to concern among her family that being married to a struggling writer was having an ill effect on her politics. But even Agnes O’Farrelly would have been proud to know that first order of the night was that great tradition of Women’s Little Christmas – a strip show. However, this one wasn’t some gratuitous commercialisation of the human form – it was The Full Monty for charity, although I think any woman voluntarily being subjected to an undressed male is an act of charity in itself.

The charity in question was the fund for a local community playground, because of course a children’s play area is what you think of when you heard the words ‘live male nude revue’ – a sort of Full Montessori, if you will. It was all in good spirits and through hard work, dedication and a lot of baby oil, the lads raised enough (money, you pervert) for the playground to be built, which hopefully will lead to many puns about zip lines, swinging and seesaw-yer-da’s-arse. The end of my wife’s night was nearly as thrilling as the start, as she received a half decent proposal at the taxi rank. I had her forewarned that there is a special breed of man who pointedly goes out on Women’s Little Christmas – he has crunched the numbers and he realises that with all the men folk minding the kids, and all the wives out on the lash, statistically speaking his odds are way above normal.

And so it was at the taxi rank that the local lothario set his sights on her. He told her that, serendipitously enough, he had only just separated from his wife the weekend before, which sounded like a fairly lousy way to ring in the new year. It must have been like watching When Harry Met Sally while it’s being rewound. He also invited my wife back to the hotel he was staying in, which was a smooth play as it told her that he was as feckless with his wallet as he was with the rest of the contents of his trousers, whilst also letting her know that he was technically homeless, which is very chic right now.

Somehow she managed to resist his charms – and his invite to take a stroll down the darkest alley in Munster – and come home to me, so she could giddily tell me she has still got it, before guzzling an Alka Seltzer and falling asleep for ten hours.

When I worked in a local paper, there was an elderly gentleman who would write to the letters page. They were on a variety of topics, but it was the ones about his wife I remember, as they all followed the same formula. He would recall sitting on the bus or train next to this beautiful woman, they would chat, and really hit it off, they would get off at the same stop, and they would – plot twist – both go to put their key in the door of the same house at the same time, because – spoiler alert – the beautiful woman was his wife of 37 years. When I first read them I thought they were a waste of newsprint, but as the years go on I realise I am slowly becoming him. I don’t need the huntsmen of Nollaig Na mBan to hit on my wife to know that she has still got it – I tell her all the time that she is a genetic freak (in a good way) as she has somehow managed to stay the same despite me burdening her with four children, the domestic equivalent of the hobbling scene from the film Misery. She still shines like she did when I first saw her at the local fair in 1989. Of course if you lived within earshot of our house you could testify that it isn’t all smiles and sunshine. Our relationship is like plate tectonics – two land masses collide, there are angry earthquakes and sexy eruptions, but over time all the rough edges smooth away. That said, I don’t really understand how either plate tectonics or relationships work.

She didn’t need to wake me at 3am to tell me about her fun night out, as I was, as usual, lying awake waiting for her to come home. It’s not a conscious thing, but we both do it – you just don’t sleep right when you know the other one is out, because life can be cruel and fickle, and there is a sense of dread lurking within you that your little cocoon may someday go pop. Of course, it isn’t always some terrible tragedy, accident or mishap. We used to live near a block of apartments that was known locally as Bold Boy’s Corner, due to the high number of separated men living there. It was conveniently located next to a McDonald’s, and you would see the McDads there on the weekends with their kids, sad faces all round. My Women’s Little Christmas was a solid reminder that I am fortunate to have found somebody to love and who loves me in return, and who isn’t going to leave me for a fundraising male stripper or desperate single dad who lives in a hotel room. Perhaps I will just start Lent on February 15 instead.

 

Footnote: The chap who hit on my wife happens to be in one of these photos.  Just saying this in case I end up in a landfill.

Run, fitness, fatness, run some more

Week 36 of the column, in which I stare at myself naked in the mirror, crying:

The Rarámuri are an indigenous people who live in the mountains northwestern Mexico, in the Sierra Madre. They didn’t always live here – this is where they fled to when the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century, and their remote location kept them safe from harm and from many attempts by various agents of ‘civilisation’ to homogenise their culture. It would appear that it was a wise move as many of their customs and traditions remain intact, such as the tesgüinadas, a sort of beer festival that they hold several times a year. Much of their social activity revolves around the tesgüinadas, which they hold to ask for rain, cures, or a good harvest. They also hold these festivals to mark Sunday gatherings, Holy Week celebrations, and curiously enough, race events. Despite having a thriving drinking culture, the most notable aspect of the Rarámuri is their ability to run – in fact the word Rarámuri, their own term for themselves, means those who run fast. While they do run fast, it is the distance they can run that is remarkable, as they seem to be natural-born ultramarathon runners. In May last year a 22-year-old Rarámuri girl, wearing a skirt, homemade flip-flops with an old rubber tyre for the sole, won the Ultra Trail Cerro Rojo, a 50-kilometre race through the mountains. María Lorena Ramírez had no special equipment, just a bottle of water, and she beat 500 runners from 12 countries. The year before, the goatherd came second in the 100-kilometer category of the Caballo Blanco ultramarathon in Chihuahua. But the success of the Rarámuri isn’t just about terrain – last November a Rarámuri family were finalists in the Polar Bear Marathon in Manitoba, Canada, where the temperature hit minus 20 C.

The Rarámuri are a reminder of the role running has had in human history, how we were able to use it to run from danger, chase down prey, and now, as we slowly eat and drink ourselves to death, it could be what saves us all.

I hated running, but I loved exercise. I started going to gyms two decades ago, and since then there were very periods when I did not train at least three times a week. While most people enjoy the social aspects of team sports, I loved the solitude of the gym, with my headphones on, working through stress and calories at the same time. But running was torture. About six years ago I realised that with a young family, the early morning was the best time to exercise, and that I would need to find a way to do it that was time-efficient, and non-dependant on gym opening times. I would, I realised, have to start running.

So I would be out pounding the road at about 5am. People used to look at me funny when I would tell them this – and, to be honest, when I would encounter another runner I would often think ‘what’s that quarehawk up to at this time of the morning?’ But in running I found a peace that I never found in gyms. Out there, with no-one around, I was all alone with my thoughts, in rain or ice or snow, hammering at the roads and enjoying the loneliness of the short-to-medium distance runner. I never ran more than five or six kilometres, and if I didn’t feel great, I would run slowly (or walk quickly), like you do in the office when someone holds a door open for you but are a bit too far away to it be be more mannerly than annoying.

While running may feel like torture when you start, you adapt very quickly, as you feel the athletic abilities hardwired in your DNA kicking in. Running is part of who we are.

There’s an old (scientifically inaccurate) analogy about boiling frogs – that if you put a frog in hot water, it will jump out. But if you put it in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it will sit there until it cooks. Gradual change doesn’t feel like change at all. And so it has come to my attention that I have put on weight. Over the last two years I stopped exercising. A change in work patterns and a slight injury to my hip saw my gym attendance and running both dwindle and eventually stop. Then, the final nail in my oversized coffin, I started driving everywhere. My relationship with food and drink changed, as sought more comfort in both than I should have. Life is like a box of chocolates – thanks to those little cards telling you what each sweet is, you know exactly what you are going to get, and if you eat too many, you’re probably going to get diabetes. I haven’t got it, but if I keep going the way I am, it’s only a matter of time.

All this has came to a head with me asking my wife if she had been using the tumble dryer more than usual as I thought my jeans might have shrunk. After she had stopped laughing and realised it was a genuine question, she pointed out that I was just getting old, and maybe it was time to get some more elasticated waistbands. Over my flabby body, I thought to myself. So it is that I face into the new year with the same resolution as everyone else – to live a little better, and a little bit more like the Rarámuri.

Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run, in which he spends time with the Rarámuri and tries to unlock their secrets, is a good inspiration. We may not all have their innate ability, but we can certainly learn a lot from their attitude to running. They don’t do it to win, they do it because they love it. They run in groups more than they do alone – the plethora of athletics clubs here would suggest this applies to all of us – and they also love those beer festivals – anyone who has witnessed an athletic club’s Christmas drinks will know that they aren’t exactly puritans. Neither do the Rarámuri need any high tech gear – you don’t need to break the bank to get state of the art trainers. When I started running I wore a pair of trainers I bought in Heatons for less than 20 euro. When I wore out the soles in them, I went back and bought another. Granted they may seem like high end equipment to a people who run in flip flops made from old tyres, but it shows that once you have the will, a high vis vest and a bottle of water, you can go at 2018 like Forrest Gump.

Milkshake duck, Keaton Jones, blogging, my glittering career

b6d.png

Indo col week 33

 

In June last year, Australian cartoonist Ben Ward, known by his Twitter handle @PixellatedBoat, tweeted a joke. It was a simple three-line gag about a character named Milkshake Duck, the cartoon duck who everyone loves…until five seconds later when the duck is revealed as racist. The joke perfectly fit its medium and obviously enough loses a lot in translation to print, but the use of the term Milkshake Duck has since taken hold and has become shorthand for the perils of internet fame.

Andy Warhol may have predicted that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but thanks to the internet it’s really more like 15 seconds. As soon as someone is thrust into the limelight for a viral video in which they wear a funny jumper or a write blog post about feelings (all blog posts are about feelings), the internet regurgitates some dirt from the person’s past, and their brief moment of fame rapidly pivots into a slightly less brief moment of notoriety.

The latest Milkshake Duck is an American schoolboy named Keaton Jones. The 11-year-old made a short video, shot by his mother, in which he called out the bullies who made his life hell. She shared it on her Facebook page, and it has gone on to be viewed more than 20 million times. Soon, Hollywood celebrities like Mark Hamill, Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo were tweeting their support, offering to bring Keaton to movie premieres, while a GoFundMe page set up for the family racked up US$60,000.

It was at this point that the mechanics of internet fame kicked in, as I regret to inform you that it would appear this Milkshake Duck’s mother Kimberly is a racist. Old Facebook posts by Keaton’s mother showed the family draped in Confederate flags, with one daughter holding a gun. In other posts Mrs Jones mocked civil rights protesters.

Then the recoil started – these people weren’t innocent victims, they were the monsters all along. The mother set her Facebook page to private, but it was too late. The GoFundMe accounts were frozen, and a little kid who was upset at being bullied has become the innocent victim of viral hate.

By today, Keaton and his family have learned some hard lessons about the internet and how it works. It is an archive of every mistake you have ever made, a treasure trove of casually abusive comments, off colour jokes and general obnoxiousness – and that’s just your Facebook account. In the silent world of the internet we can be our worst selves, falsely believing that we are invisible and anonymous, when actually almost none of us are. When we post, we might as well be standing on a street corner with a megaphone screaming out our thoughts, or going to the toilet with the door open. Take it from someone who learned the hard way.

More than a decade ago I was working in a job that I didn’t especially enjoy. I was going through the proverbial ‘difficult time’ personally, and a lot of my frustrations with myself and my then employers came to a head with a series of splenetic posts on the absolute mess that was MySpace. Soon I was in an office with the head of HR and CEO being given a final written warning. I’m glad it happened; it served as an incredibly valuable lesson at a point where the digital age – led by social media game-changers like MySpace and Bebo – was shifting into top gear. Internet 101 is be prepared to stand over everything you say, because sooner or later it will come back to haunt you.

I spent another seven years working with the same company, living under a cloud of shame. I kept my head down, worked hard and worked well, and atoned for my mistake. As the company came asunder, I heard there might be redundancies – so I got in early with my requests, and kept rattling the cage until New Year’s Eve 2014, when I picked up my cheque and skipped out the door. I no longer work in the media, and I’m happier for it. I found the old written warning recently, and briefly contemplated getting it framed – it’s a reminder that I shouldn’t take life too seriously, but also a reminder that change, no matter how traumatic at the time, can often be a positive thing.

The company I worked for, Landmark Media, is being sold to the Irish Times. This was news to nobody; it was a miracle that TCH – as they were known when I Milkshake Ducked myself – managed to make it this far, and I would imagine there are a lot of people breathing a sigh of relief. However, there are many more who are now facing redundancy. The problem for anyone working in the media in Cork who loses their job is – where do you go from here?

The perils of being one of the few outposts of the national media that lies beyond The Pale is that once you leave, you can’t stroll into another paper and start work there. There are other options – for subeditors it seems technical writing is the best fit for their skills, while journalists can segue into content creation, PR or communications jobs, but the problem is in how many get let go at the same time, and how many jobs there are out there. The economy is picking up, but if a hundred media professionals in Cork lose their job at the same time, there simply won’t be enough jobs to absorb them all.

But it isn’t the end of the world – you will get another job, and you will look back and marvel at how you resisted the change when it came. Although it might be an idea to delete all those Facebook photos of you in Pairc Ui Chaoimh draped in a Confederate flag before you go into any interviews.

 

PTA, pride, failure, Brexit

tenor (1).gif

Indo col week 32

It seems something of a miracle that I managed to avoid attending a parent-teacher meetings until last week. I always had great excuses for not being there – either work or just a complete lack of interest in going – but the day finally came where I could no longer avoid it, as this wasn’t just any parent teacher meeting, but the only one of my daughter’s Junior Cert cycle. This was Serious Business – no more chats from disinterested national school teachers about colouring inside the lines or how good the child is at sharing; this was a serious talk about the foundations of a life and career – this was education with a clear purpose. So I stuck on a tweed waistcoat so I would look more erudite, had a quick peruse of some memorable quotes from Pearse’s The Murder Machine in case it kicked off, and headed along.  

As soon as I walked into my daughter’s school I felt a familiar sense of dread. The nicotine yellow walls, hand-crafted motivational posters with ‘positivity’ and ‘prayer’ written in gradually diminishing fonts, the dead light from halogen bulbs – this was an anxiety dream made real, all it needed was my teeth to fall out or for me to wet myself, which seemed increasingly likely as I was starting to panic.

I was given a printed guide to the classrooms, informing me which teachers were in which rooms. It might as well have been written in Sanskrit. I tried to read my daughter’s report card to match up some names, imagining the teachers as depressed Pokemon, adamant that I was gonna catch ‘em all. Obviously, I wasn’t going to catch even half of them, as the whole system was rife with confusion. Other parents milled about, queues formed with no beginning and no end, with no-one quite sure who or what they were queueing for.

I started to wonder if this was a test in itself, if we were the ones being secretly graded and judged by the Department of Education. I’m very clever for thinking that, I thought to myself, wishing there was someone else around in a tweed waistcoat who would appreciate my tremendous wit. No, I thought, save it for the column – this sort of grand insight is the premium content that my readers deserve. Don’t waste it on these poor schmucks shuffling from desk to desk. Besides, I appeared to be in the wrong queue again and needed to move.

Eventually a helpful transition year student saw I was struggling and guided me to a corner, and there I was, the perennial buachaill dána, back in bold boys’ corner, surrounded by rather shoddy paintings of Jesus. All I was short was a dunce cap.

Finally I got out of the corner and got facetime with some teachers; the first one didn’t seem to know my daughter at all but told me about the class and their self care plan for the year ahead. Back in my day self care was a sin and they said you went blind from doing it. We smiled and nodded at each other, and said goodbye – she went back to correcting homework, I went back to my corner thinking that really, teaching isn’t all Dead Poets Society, is it? If someone stood on a chair in the self-care class and shouted ‘oh captain my captain’ you’d probably have a departmental inquiry before small break.

I moved on to the next teacher, who did know my daughter, and this was when things got intense. She was full of praise for her, saying how hard she works, how she was a pleasure to teach. I could see the teacher wasn’t just saying this because of my tweed waistcoat and obviously eruditeness, but because she meant it. The next teacher was the same, and the next. As I moved from one to the other I started to get more and more emotional, and by the time I got to the fourth teacher I was blinking back tears.

It’s a strange thing to realise that you might be an okay parent. We spend so much time fretting about passing on all our bad habits and mistakes, that it is extraordinary to think that we might be raising someone who will be better than us. In theory, every generation should be some sort of upgrade – it didn’t work that way for my poor parents, who used to have to grit their teeth for my parent-teacher meetings, as all but the art and English teachers said I was going nowhere fast.

Perhaps a knock-on of that experience is that I would give myself a C- as a parent – fair to poor, could do better. After my daughter’s parent teacher meeting, I realised that my wife and I might actually be getting a solid B+ – there is always room for improvement if we worked hard, but we weren’t failing by any stretch of the imagination. It feels good to know your best might just be enough.

That said, my self-satisfied bubble burst when I got home and my wife and daughter realised I left the parent teacher meeting without talking to half the teachers. I tried to explain that the last thing the event needed was a middle aged man in tweeds in the middle of a classroom, sobbing with pride. That, I claimed, was a scene better suited to one of those sensitive Educate Together places; if poor auld Jesus up on the convent school wall managed to hold in the tears, then I should too.  Besides, is it not the spirit of continuous assessment that I should go along next year too and speak to the other half of her teachers?

The biggest shock of the night wasn’t that my daughter had given up history, but that anyone is allowed to give up history. I had assumed it was compulsory, but apparently not, which I assume is also the case in the UK, where there seems to be a lot of cramming about what the Empire may or may not have done to their neighbours over the past few centuries.

The current stumbling blocks over Brexit and the border seem to cause confusion with many on the mainland, as they wonder what they ever might have done to deserve such a hardline approach from the Irish Government. Presumably the same people avoided watching Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley as they assumed it was a documentary about the impact of agriculture on climate change, or In The Name Of The Father because they thought it was one of those Jeremy Kyle Show DNA test specials.  Yet while there may be some gaps in the UK’s educational policy when it comes to their own history, it is great to see so many people frantically try to brush up on several centuries of imperial unpleasantness in the space of a week. Here’s to lifelong learning.

Ikea, Amgen, elections, promises

tenor-1.gif

Indo col 31

I woke my wife at 5.30am when I read the headline. She was panicked – where the kids ok? Was the house on fire? Had we won the Lotto? No, it was way more dramatic than that – Ikea might be coming to Cork. She sat up in the bed. ‘What?’

Exactly – what? There had long been rumours that us tasteless culchies would get our own outlet of the iconic Swedish store, but now it looks like it might finally be happening. No more will we have to use our imaginations or creativity to furnish our homes – now we have world’s greatest purveyors of budget taste. Granted, within six months of it opening, every home in Munster will have the exact same interior, but that’s what is so great about shopping in Ikea – no more thinking. We can just walk around it with smears of meatballs sauce on our lips and dead eyes calculating heights and widths of various bits of storage that we only need to store the small bits we already got in Ikea Dublin and were able to bring home in the boot.

 

So it’s an exciting time for us boggers – now we can take the old sideboards and chaise lounges that have been in the family since Famine times and throw them all in a skip, only to replace them with a Fuurkenfoola or Ziffoowqska or whatever goofball names Ikea have given their furnishing this week.

 

Although the location has yet to be officially confirmed, it appears a lot of the focus is on the old Amgen site. It’s called that not because the pharma giant Amgen are based on it, or were ever on it, but rather that they were supposed to be there.

 

The Amgen announcement came back in 2006 – the site was to be developed and a staggering 1,100 jobs were being created. Everyone in Cork started preparing their CVs and readying the plans for their leaving do, as these weren’t just any jobs, they were pharma jobs. We were all going to be rich, rich I tells ya. But then the rumours started, whispers that the plant wasn’t going ahead.

 

This was roundly refuted by the then Minister for Trade and Enterprise, Micheal Martin, who when asked about these rumours, asked: “Who is spreading these rumours? Who is putting it around the place? It is outrageous that this would be said. Why would I want to do that? … This is a fairly stupid rumour, to be frank.”

If he seems tense, it’s probably because he was making those comments in April 2007, a few weeks before the general election. One month later, Fianna Fáil and the Greens swept to power.  

 

Then, in August 2007, the announcement was made that the Amgen plans were being scaled back. For any of us living in east Cork, the dream was already over. Everyone had heard the rumours – the parent firm was in freefall and the plant was never going to be built.

 

One look at the site confirmed most of those claims. It had gone from being a hive of activity, to having a few lonely machines moving piles of earth about the place with no real purpose. Finally, in December 2007, what we all knew was confirmed; Amgen were not coming to east Cork, and we were all back to staring at the wall in our dead-end jobs.

 

So now, as we teeter on the brink of the another general election – the least desired one ever called – the petit bourgeoisie of Munster can only hope and pray that this isn’t some ergonomic carrot on a Swedish-designed stick, and that the old Amgen site doesn’t become the old Ikea site.

 

It seems strange that a people who fought so long and so hard for the right to vote could now be at a point where we really don’t want to vote at all, but that is the case right now. Frankly, we have better things to be doing than standing on a freezing cold doorstep being bothered by people who aren’t going to change our minds, smiling insincerely through chattering teeth as they try to undo several generations of Civil War politics that have been written on our hearts.

 

Nobody wants those old wound reopened, or to see a fight outside a chipper at 3am on December 23rd because somebody called someone else a ‘Free State Bastard’. And what about all the posters – this is the time of year for tasteless festive tat and Yuletide advertising, not grinning politicians looming over us on every lamppost, watching our every move like Father Christmas if he was chair of the local branch of Macra. So please – give the people of Ireland what they want for Christmas – no election, and an Ikea that we can get to without having to navigate the Fury Road that is the M50.

Cars, freedom, men, Weinstein

maxresdefault.jpg

Week 29:

I am driving. Not as I write this – I’m not quite at that level of proficiency just yet, where I can stare down at a glowing screen in my lap while careering across lanes at 105kph. In fact, I’m not even at the stage where I can confidently pick my nose when at traffic lights. I am still at the stage of the death grip on the wheel, hands locked at ten and two and nothing else will do, eyes peeled open to a degree that would make Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange wince a little. But yes, I am generally driving, and after two decades of only using public transport and the kindness of friends, family and my long suffering wife/chaffeur, I am now an independent road user.

Things have changed out there; the last time I drove it was in a Nissan Sunny, and it was so long ago that the salesman pointed out that it had ‘electric windows’ as though he was telling us it could fly. Fly, it could not. The car was a sluggish lump of ugly metal, and the few journeys I made in it felt like I was leading a platoon of Soviet tanks into the badlands of Afghanistan. Cars today are remarkable – even my sexless Fluence drives like a hovercar from 2525 in comparison to that so-called Sunny.

Using the bus is a distant, troubling memory. It seems like a long time since I had to join the human centipede that is public transport, surrounded by the sniffling masses, listening to the tinny din of those people who don’t know about headphones and instead choose to play their music on a phone’s miniscule speakers. A lifetime on the buses and trains taught me that hell isn’t other people – it’s being trapped with other people. I quite like the human race, even with their headcolds and lack of headphones, but I like them a lot more now that I am not trapped in a metal tube with them for an hour a day.  

But one thing has jumped out at me from my few months on the road: Leaner and new drivers are not the menace I thought they were, but fully qualified men of a certain age, usually mine, are. When I see someone aggressively cutting across lanes in a tunnel, running a red light, or just being casually obnoxious, it is almost always a guy like me behind the wheel. Is life this short that we have to nuzzle up against the rear bumper of the person in front like an aroused canine, or just beep at everyone over everything? What is it with blokes in cars? In fact, what is it with blokes in general?

On Saturday I was in the game shop with my son. A man in his fifties came in to buy some games. The girl behind the counter told him that since he had spent more than seventy euro, he could have a free T-shirt. Any T-shirt, he asked? Any T-shirt, she said. Can I have that one? he asked, pointing at her T-shirt. She made some flippant comment to brush it off, he got his stuff and left. I felt a mix of emotions – pity for the man, who was so tone deaf that he didn’t realise that what he said wasn’t flirty, or funny, or anything other than unsettling; embarrassment for the staff member, even though she seemed wearily used to this sort of ‘top bants’; and a general sense of shame over being a bloke.

I tend to drop kick all these aspects of men into the same cauldron of oedipal horrors – the aggressive driving, the creepiness, the inability to read the room. How did we get here? We spent so long styling ourselves as some sort of apex predator that we sacrificed essential components of our own humanity. We have devalued ourselves in this process. Look at jobs where nurturing is required: What percentage of creches staff are male? If you advertised for an au pair and a man showed up, would you call the cops right away or wait until he was gone? We just can’t seem to free ourselves from this predatory status, even though we have devalued our role as carers. Look at the concept of the stay at home dad – why isn’t that more common (apart from the limits of the glass ceiling, which is really more like a Temple of Doom-style descending stone roof with spikes in it)?

The horror stories emerging about rich and powerful men and how they treated women have led me to conduct a rather grim internal audit of my relationships. Overall, it’s been pretty bleak. I can give you a few weak reasons for this – growing up in a viciously Catholic Ireland, or just the magic porridge pot of emotional problems that is being adopted, but while there are reasons, there are no excuses. I just treated people poorly, and especially women. I try to be a better person, but it’s hard to tell if I’m a decent human being or just better than I was. This change can’t happen fast enough: I worry about my sons and the sort of men they will become. I just don’t want them to have my problems, my hangups. They may have the advantage of growing up in a more enlightened time, but they also have a father who is trying hard to overcome a cultural hangover. Hopefully by the time they reach manhood, those self-driving cars we keep hearing about will offer them some moments of quiet contemplation on the commute home to think about how to improve their relationships with the opposite sex. Or they may just use the time to give their noses a really good pick.

Gods, death, poppies, war

images.jpg

Week 28 of the column.

Being an atheist is a lonely old slog. Most people will cling to the belief that there is something out there watching over us, be it Jesus, Yaweh, Allah or whatever MechaGodzilla the Scientologists funnel their taxes towards. Few people will actually offer such a bleak world view as the true atheist – that there is nothing else out there, no higher power, and we are all alone. Of course, you don’t sell it to people in quite such a bleak way – you say that you believe people are innately good, that all religions were just an extension of that goodness, an extension that ultimately got corrupted by the power-hungry, in much the same way the leaking extension you got built during the Celtic Tiger got corrupted by lazy builders and pyrite.

Us devout atheists are few and far between, but what makes it even more isolating is the fact that we don’t have the structures of religion. There are no parish tea dances, no community hall bingo, no festive services. But in the broader sense I’ve wondered that the hell I’m going to do when I die. Being freed from the strictures of Catholic rites is great, but we still need some sort of ritual – I can’t just get stuffed into a recycling bin and turned into Soylent Green, or have my ashes chucked into a landfill. How will we say goodbye when we know there is no journey to the other side? Do we have a sacred decommissioning of our Facebook profile, a ritualised restoration of factory settings on our iPhone, or one final Instagram shot of our bespoke artisanal funeral buffet? Or just have Siri conduct a service, while Alexa paraphrases Mary Elizabeth Frye for the eulogy:

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I was cryogenically frozen, it wasn’t cheap,

So the money I owe you all I will have to keep.

The hardest part of being an atheist has been dealing with loss. The absence of an afterlife isn’t just hard to come to terms with for yourself, but for your loved ones. Since my father’s passing I have been crushed by grief, as I know that he is gone and I will never see him again. I’ve spent much of the last 12 months breaking down at inopportune moments – I meet people in work who knew him and they tell me how much they liked him, and I break down. I find an old letter from him to my mum written in the 1970s in which he promises not to drink and drive (apparently it was all the rage back then) and I break down. My son points to a photo of my father and asks me who he is, and I break down. It has been a year when I occasionally thought I was going to have some sort of breakdown, as I try to make sense of it all – this life, all our lives, and the fact that we all die. The dormant Catholic in me still sees November as the month to think on all these things, to remember all the souls no longer in existence, and the supreme importance of trying to follow the one commandment shared by all religions – try not to be a total jackass.

Speaking of remembrance and jackasses – it’s poppy season again in the UK, a time for flag-waving jingoism of the highest order, when the atrocities of war and sacrifice of the fallen is completely overshadowed by an orgy of imperialism. Where’s your poppy mate, don’t you honour our brave boys, spit on the flag is it mate, do you want to bring back Hitler, is that it? No more can UK TV presenters or sports stars quietly think about war and honour, they need to stick the biggest poppies they can find on their lapel or they are deemed to hate freedom.

I have a distant relative who fought in the First World War, Colonel Jim Fitzmaurice, and of his experience he wrote: “Dead German, British and French soldiers lay about in every conceivable position and condition—here and there a dead horse, a broken field gun. I had never seen a dead man before. I looked again at those dead soldiers — I looked at the poor dumb beasts — dead with their poor glassy eyes turned to the heavens. It was impossible to think. I decided that a very serious job had to be done, that I had better stop thinking and get along with my own particular portion of this big job — C’est la guerre.”

He was 17 when he fought in the Somme. I wonder what he would think of the obsessive poppy-watching in the UK, whereby every weatherman and celebrity chat show guest has to wear a big red poppy or be torn apart by the media; what would he say to the rising nationalism, of the UK’s plan to remove themselves from the European project? After the war Fitzmaurice made aviation history by making the first east to west Atlantic flight, which he managed with two Germans. Even though he fought in the Great War, he understood that divisions make us weaker. The poppy has become that most awful thing – a virtue signal, a way of telling people you care, whether you actually do or not. It’s like an analog hashtag, or the words of the gauche bore who feels the need to tell you about their many donations to charity. It seems a tragedy that there is a sense of relief when Armistice Day has passed, and we no longer have to endure shallow displays of remembrance.

In terms of overcoming divisions, you have to admire the gumption of the three Alliance TDs who are riding out to North Korea to try and find a resolution to the secret state’s nuclear Mexican stand-off with America. Of the three, Waterford TD John Halligan should be best placed to find some common ground with Kim Jong Un as they both have sentient hair, complete lack of belief in god, and experience dealing with difficult characters (Shane Ross and Trump, respectively). If nothing else, this could be the greatest episode of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly never made, and sher if it stops us all from dying in the Third World War, isn’t that much better than fixing the roads?

 

RTE, Supremes, JFK, Duchas

Week 26, six months of being an opinionista and nobody has threatened to kill me yet, WTF am I doing wrong?

 

 

It seems odd that I grew up in the age of one TV channel. It doesn’t seem like a million years ago, but I can still remember the excitement when Network Two launched, or waving a wonky rabbit-ears aerial around the living room in the hope of picking up some HTV Cymru Wales and possibly some post-watershed nudity, as there was little hope of any on a station that carried the Angelus.

Times have changed, and although RTE still carries the sacred ding-dongs, there is little hope of salvation for them. My kids don’t watch TV – they watch Netflix and YouTube. The concept of sitting down at an appointed time to watch any show is completely alien to them, I feel much the same way. I am happy to pay my license fee, as I think it is important to support our national broadcaster from a cultural perspective, but it’s a sad state of affairs when the most enjoyable thing to come out of Montrose in the past 12 months is a Twitter account of an unnamed, disillusioned producer who is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore.

Secret RTE Producer appeared out of nowhere in early September and started dishing the dirt. At first it seemed like it might be a Steve Bannon-esque false flag operation being used as an accelerant for job cuts, but the sense of frustration in the tweets can’t be faked. Many of them explain some of the odd decisions made in Montrose over the years (why isn’t Fair City better, what was the story with all the Craig Doyle stuff), or help shed some light on the background operations of an entity that we all have a stake in. In the two months that the account has been running there have been plot twists, grand reveals, Cold War paranoia, and even a period when the account went silent, leaving its thousands of followers wondering if the secret producer had been caught and dispatched to a North Korean-style re-education camp in the human resources department, or a just another course in media studies in Colaiste Dhulaig.

Whatever happens to the secret producer, they probably need to start making plans for life outside Montrose, because the closing scenes of this real-life drama are not going to be pretty. The public reaction from those within the RTE machine was a little depressing – where many of us on the outside saw a whistleblower, they saw a rat. Where they saw profound disloyalty to their organisation, I saw those tweets as actual public service broadcasting. But the future for all of RTE is stark – kids today don’t want The Den, they want Stampy Longnose’s inverted guffawing on YouTube, while teenagers just want Netflix and chill, whatever that means. Perhaps instead of feeling hurt by the tweets of Secret RTE Producer, the top brass at Montrose could learn from them, and make a few changes. Don’t change Nationwide though – that is perfect.

One move in the right direction was the broadcasting live from the Supreme Court for the first time yesterday. While many tuned in in the hope of some Judge Judy style shrieking and fake cases involving bruised pets or damaged flowers, it really drove home just how devoid of drama the courts are. Far from the byzantine, kafkaesque nightmare of legal jargon and people shouting latin at each other that one would expect, it was quite like a live broadcast from the queue in the motor tax office, or a dentist’s waiting room. It was like the broadcast from my local church on the internet which I sometimes found myself watching at 4am when I worked nights. You kept waiting for something incredible to happen, but it never did – yet the expectation was always there, of some divine judgement on us all. But if the broadcasting of court cases helps deter people from taking spurious insurance claims, then RTE will have justified the license fee for at least another decade.

Conspiracy theorists rejoice, for another tranche of the FBI’s JFK assassination papers are being released. While Donald Trump announced to the world that he was allowing them to be opened, they were scheduled to be opened since long before that haunted jack o’ lantern began flushing America’s reputation down the toilet. It was actually Oliver Stone’s intensely dull film JFK which prompted the US congress to order the release all the way back in 1992. Still, you have to admire Trump’s confidence, as he is basically allowing the FBI to release a ‘how-to’ guide on getting away with assassinating a president, in a nation stuffed with gun nuts. So perhaps anyone thinking of dressing up as him for Halloween might want to rethink their costume choice.

Here at home we have sizeable chunks of our own rich history being released onto the internet. Duchas.ie has released a quarter of a million documents and almost ten thousand photographs from the National Folklore Collection on their website. With a handy search option, it is a fascinating selection of myths, legends and rumours that otherwise would have been lost. Granted, some of it is pure bunkum, but when I stumbled across two transcriptions from 1938 about treasure that may or may not be buried near my house, I found myself waking in the middle of the night and googling metal detectors and the law regarding ownership of massive hoards of gold. If I do find a load of torcs, I just hope that I get to appear on Nationwide before I flog them all on eBay.

 

Powercuts, offaly, ophelia, sean hughes

Week 25 of the column! Who woulda thunk it? Certainly not my guidance counsellor in school, who said I should be an engineer and also got my name wrong.

 

The worst storm that I can remember was in December 1996. It seemed to come out of nowhere and pummelled east Cork right before Christmas, ripping the roof off the local Co-Op and leaving thousands without power. We lost our power on Christmas Eve and didn’t get it back for ten days. This, of course, would not be that bad, only for the fact that we have a well, and no power meant no water – to drink, to flush, to wash. That Christmas was never going to be an easy one, as we had lost my sister earlier that year. I can remember my parents and I sitting around the fire, all trying to be strong for each other, all pretending that somehow this live reenactment of The Shining was a much more traditional Christmas, as opposed to an incredibly sad week and a half of darkness, despair and poor personal hygiene. We didn’t even have a TV to distract us from the loss, or clean water to wash away the tears. Thank god I had a massive supply of beer to keep me hydrated.

The most memorable part of the storm and its aftermath were the simple acts of kindness. People we hardly knew showed up to the door with gallons of water, hot food, and even a couple of roasted turkeys fresh out of the oven. It was incredibly touching, even though it meant I had to eat about 30lbs of turkey in 48 hours so it wouldn’t all end up in the bin. To this day that storm ranks as the worst and best I have lived through, and I still use it as a gauge for any other natural disasters – the only questions I ask are; are we all here; is everyone ok; and who wants more half melted ice cream. As long as you are safe and together, things are generally ok – although a decent supply of Febreeze and babywipes also helps.

It was disappointing to see Offaly get hit by Ophelia. The recent census figures showed that the county has the highest percentage of Catholics in the country, which I assumed made it some sort of promised land for the chosen people of Ireland. Apparently not; they got smote just like everyone else, despite being the home to important pilgrimage sites like Clonmacnoise and that Barrack Obama filling station in Moneygall. Granted, there were a few missteps along Offaly’s path to righteousness, as the county is responsible for not one but two Cowens, while they also declared war on heaven by Birr physicist George Johnstone Stoney coining the term electron in 1891 as the as the “fundamental unit quantity of electricity”, thus undermining the power of prayer, which up until that point had been fuelling the national grid. I’m sure all the poor souls without power in The Faithful County will enjoy the irony of that. Perhaps this latest testing of their faith might make them want to move to Dun Laoghaire, which not only had electricity right through Ophelia but also has the lowest number of Catholics in the country. Coincidence? Probably, yes.

I spent Ophelia trapped in Dublin. My daughter and I travelled up on Sunday to make a hospital appointment on Monday morning that was subsequently cancelled, along with all of the trains out of the city. The culchie in me felt a rising panic as I realised I was going to have to spend another 24 hours in this terrifying metropolis, trying to hide my uncool, non-ironic country ways and singy-songy Cork accent. I stood at the Luas stop for a tram that would never come, desperately trying to remember what the Five Lamps were, or how to make coddle, in case a local started talking to me. The last thing any culchie wants is to be identified as such in the Big Smoke and subjected to the hate hoots of the million or so first generation Dubs whose parents only left a bog in Mayo two decades ago. We kept the heads down and just prayed that we would make it out alive, ready to burst into Aslan songs if anyone tried to chat to us. As we walked through the city centre, businesses were pulling down the shutters, as staff got sent home to ride out what has become known as Bank Holiday Ophelia with important provisions like Netflix and cans. We passing throngs of bemused tourists who obviously failed to listen to the Nuacht warnings that the weather was going to get ufasach ar fad, as they clustered around important cultural attractions like Carroll’s gift shops, those Paddywagon places, and Starbucks. But it’s good to know that when the trumpet sounds and the fall of man begins, we will still be able to get a pumpkin spice latte and Kiss Me I’m Irish bonnet.

In the middle of the storm the new broke that Sean Hughes had passed away. Aged just 51, he was one of the great surreal comedians of the Nineties, but more than than, he always seemed like a nice guy. There was something loveable about his witty misery, his love of indie music, and his wet, sad Irish eyes. One of my favourite quotes is his thoughts on religion, of which he once said “I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a man or because I was brought up a Catholic. But sometimes I find the whole idea of sex repulsive and at other times I’d gladly stick my penis up a drain.” Hopefully when he gets to the pearly gates they will see the funny side.

Norovirus, flu, maccie d’s, Mickey d

Week 24 of the column and I finally get around to talking about my ass. Also, check out that layout up top: They used my name, like you would with other important thought leaders like David Quinn, John Waters, Ronan Mullen, or any of those other great guys who I am totally friends with on Bebo.

 

There are many pleasant occurrences at the changing of the seasons – shorter days mean the awkward among us breathe a sigh of relief as they slump into social hibernation, while the drop in temperatures means we get to light a warming fire and then use it as a mini-incinerator for everything from broken toys to pink Roses.

But there are some things that happen at this time of year that are less welcome – the mass migration of giant spiders into our homes and, presumably, our hair; or having to pretend you care about the budget beyond diesel and pints. But the least welcome seasonal occurrence of all has to be the return of the Norovirus. It is better known as the winter vomiting bug, in itself a complete misnomer as ‘the ebola of the arse’ would be a more fitting title. It may be simply a side effect of age, but I just don’t remember this bug being around when I was a child. I don’t recall the horror of when it takes hold of a family, spreading from person to person like wildfire, forcing violently unwell parents to chase nauseous toddlers about the house with a basin, like some deranged medieval parlour game, or if Caligula directed an episode of It’s A Knockout. I can remember measles and mumps, even the odd demonic possession, but not this. It seems like a very modern bug, one that preys on our very modern belief that just about everything is going to kill us. True, it does make you want to gather the children and bid them farewell, or even just to curse them for bringing it home from playschool, but as actual illnesses go, it does little real damage to healthy subjects, apart from helping us shift a half stone just in time for the Halloween treat binge.

One virus that definitely needs a rebrand and relaunch is influenza, a life-threatening bug that we have become so blasé about that we don’t even call it by its full title, instead opting for a rubbish nickname – ‘flu. In fact, we are so blind to just how dangerous the ‘flu actually is that we now use it as an umbrella term for anything from a nasty cold to the shame-filled endgame of a bad pint. If only it had the caché of new kids on the block, bird flu and swine flu, who went truly viral in the last five years. Even the uptake of the influenza vaccine is poor – because hey, it could never happen to me, and even if it does sher I’ll be grand. This year, however, is different. There is a particular strain of it that has hit Australia with punishing ferocity. Where previously it was a serious threat to the elderly or those with underlying conditions, now it is a threat to the young as well  – three children are among the casualties already. Influenza has always been dangerous, but it would appear to be getting moreso. So for those of us who previously thought we were invincible, this is a wake up call. At the ripe old age of 42 I now have to accept that I quite like being alive and the chances of me staying that way are diminishing day by day, so the onus is on me to actually get the vaccine. It’s a sad sign that I am both getting older and getting sense, and I worry about what comes next – pension plans? College funds? Minding my cholesterol levels? Dark nights in front of the fire watching The Great British Bake Off whilst enthusiastically discussing flans are my MDMA now, prompting me to ponder – was it for this that the wild geese spread? Yes, it probably was, as we are living longer, freer, and better than ever. So off I go to get the jab and try not to die. Now if only they could come up with a vaccine for the Norovirus.

Spare a thought for local mom n’ pop food chain McDonald’s, who seem to be struggling to produce that most basic of foods – condiments. Inspired by the hit adult cartoon Rick And Morty, Maccie D’s decided it might be fun to reintroduce their long gone Szechuan sauce for just one day, but in very limited supplies. They seem to have underestimated the demand, as some outlets only got 20 sachets, while there were scenes of screaming children and angry adults shouting at slightly bemused staff. In some outlets, the police were called to deal with irate customers. Within hours, three packets of the sauce went on eBay and sold for US$280 each, while Twitter went into its usual meltdown over the fiasco. The facts are clear – McDonald’s are running out of food, and we are all doomed. Either that or it was a cynical marketing ploy to create buzz, which backfired spectacularly. Still, given that this was America, let’s all just be thankful that nobody got shot.

The campaign to make Michael D Higgins President for life starts here. His tenure in the Aras has been a huge success – from his compassion, to his communication skills, to his general je ne sais quoi. You just get the sense that were you ever found yourself lost in the Burren, he would emerge from a dolmen to teach you how to read ogham and show you which mushrooms to eat, before guiding you back to civilisation by the stars. He has done such a great job, it is easy to forget the also-rans from the 2011 campaign. While he didn’t just win by being the best of a fairly uninspiring lot, it was a pretty poor line up. There was the Uncle-Fester-in-Louis-Copeland guy, the sad eyebrow guy who looked like ALF, I think Enya was there, and some others that I don’t recall. Michael D won because he is both a man of letters and someone who knows how to deliver an intellectual headbutt to those who deserve it; listening back to his surgical takedown of American right wing radio host Michael Graham – in which D uses his keen intellect to eviscerate him and also manages to call him a wanker – will make you want to declare him president for life. And if that role isn’t possible, let’s just stick a throne on Tara, give him a couple of wolfhounds and make him high king of Ireland. All hail King D.

 

Little Nellie, Leo vs LCD, guns, marilyn manson

Wee 23 of the column, in which I drop a steaming deuce on all of Cork and all religions ever.

 

Little Nellie Of God has worked another miracle. The ‘unofficial patron saint of Cork’ (sorry, Gerald Kean) has somehow managed to land Spike Island, her former home, with the title of the best tourist attraction in Europe. Little Nellie lived on Spike in the heart of Cork harbour while her soldier father was stationed there, and the tour of the island begins on the pier outside her house. The tour of the island is fantastic, covering the rich history of the island, from monastic settlement, to star fort, to holding pen for penal transports across the world.

However, Little Nellie must really have pulled some strings to win them the title of top European tourist attraction for 2017 at the World Travel Awards, beating competition from the likes of the Eiffel Tower and the Acropolis of Athens, but also our own remarkable attractions such as the Skelligs, the Cliffs Of Moher, or Kilmainham Gaol. Perhaps even more miraculous is the fact that this is Ireland’s third win in a row, with the Titanic Exhibit and Guinness Storehouse winning the same title in the last two years. While all are worthy winners, the fact it is a public vote (with tourism staff getting double votes, bizarrely) brings to mind the time in 2002 when the BBC World Service asked the public to name the greatest song of all time, only for the Wolfe Tones’s belting rendition of A Nation Once Again to take the crown. Spike Island is a fantastic tourism asset, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that there are other attractions in Europe that might actually be – whisper it – better. Perhaps this is just a cynical outlook, after all, I also find it odd that Little Nellie’s life of illness, hallucinations, constant pain and death whilst in the care of nuns at age four is somehow seen as evidence of a kind and compassionate god.

There are many great rivalries in music – Tupac versus Biggie, Katy Perry versus Taylor Swift, The Wolfe Tones versus the BBC World Service – but few are as odd as Leo Varadkar versus LCD Soundsystem. Leo attempted to have a night off and enjoy some great music, but after popping backstage to say hi to the band, he allegedly disrespected Al Doyle’s Repeal tote bag, whilst allegedly enjoying a free taco too. Leo learned a few harsh lessons – never meet your heroes, don’t go on Twitter, and don’t leave your gaf until this referendum is out of the way.

The downside of the spat for LCD Soundsystem, one of the cooler bands of the last 15 years, is their credibility being in shreds due to the fact that they had a bunch of politicians at their gig, the death knell for any hipster outfit. Let’s hope Leo mentions that in his upcoming diss track.

Another mass shooting in the USA, and another moment for the world to stop and marvel at America’s love affair with weaponry. The fact that someone was able to get their hands on an estimated 23 guns so powerful that they could kill more than 50 people from the 32nd floor of a hotel is terrifying, but the response from pro-gun groups is confounding. In the aftermath of mass shootings and in the fact of overwhelming evidence that gun controls could have made a difference, they come out with lines about how control is not what is needed, and that there was no way to prevent this.

Nevada has some of the most lax gun laws in a country that is notorious for lax gun laws, so it’s hard to understand how they think shootings would take place if there were no guns. The majority of gun-related deaths in the US do not happen in large groupings. More than 33,000 people die each year from gun violence in the US. Two thirds are suicides, the rest homicides. There is a constant, steady flow of gun murder, but it is the mass shooting that make the world wonder why they cannot give up their guns. In fact, in the aftermath of shootings like the Orlando nightclub massacre, gun sales actually go up – people are scared, so they get more guns, and their much-touted ‘price of freedom’ climbs ever higher. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school killings, it became clear that America will never give up its guns, and ‘the greatest nation on Earth’ will continue to reap a bitter harvest.

 

In the Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore’s documentary about the Columbine high school massacre, musician Marilyn Manson made the point that American consumer culture has trained people to be afraid and angry, as it made them easier to control. This fear also made them cling to their guns. Manson was scapegoated for the Colorado shootings, after he was incorrectly identified as being one of the bands the shooters listened to. Manson was injured this week during one of his shows, prompting the cancellation of the rest of his tour. The singer tried to climb a prop on the stage only for it to fall on him and knock him unconscious. The great irony of all this is that the prop was in the shape of two huge handguns, making Manson another victim of gun violence, albeit in a surreal way. If only Dr Leo Varadkar had been nibbling a taco backstage, he could have tended to his wounds.

 

Culottes, Varadkar looks like Bob Hope, Malaysia, water charges

Week 22, how did we get here? How have I managed 22 weeks of writing for the biggest newspaper in the country? WTF is going on?

 

In the ongoing nuclear soap opera that is the US versus North Korea, it is clear who wears the trousers – Kim Jong Un. This isn’t because of his brave move of threatening to kill us all, but rather in his bold fashion move of bringing back culottes for men. Not since the golden era of the Jazz Age have men been allowed to wear a trouser twice the width of their bodies, and while back then the billowing pleats complemented their heroin-addled dance moves, Un’s pants truly are worth getting in a flap about.

You might not have noticed his stylish lower half, as you don’t see his legs too often; he is usually pictured sitting at a desk on the launch site of an ICBM, or standing over a Soviet-era machine in a factory that doesn’t make anything. However, there are photos where you can witness the splendour of his absolutely massive trousers. They are at least twelve inches wide from upper thigh all the way to the ground, showing that this Un is not for tapering. What makes them even more bold is that they are suit trousers – these are not skater jeans, to be worn with wallet chain and Offspring T-shirt, but rather a formal attire worn to staged photo ops with children smiling at gunpoint.

His Un-fashionable pantaloons ask the question – is that an intercontinental nuclear warhead in your trousers or are you just Un-happy to see me? Here in the so-called civilised world we are shoehorning ourselves into skinny jeans whilst sipping skinny lattes on lean, zero-hour contracts. Meanwhile, in North Korea, Un is showing that a real man wears his leg wide and his hair in the style of an oversized beetle perched atop his massive head.

Un’s trousers have shown that Trump’s long, miserable red ties are a sad attempt at phallic symbolism, instead looking like a Dali painting of the red button he is going to push to doom us all. I suspect that Trump’s travel ban on North Korea is more about how threatened he feels by another nation’s obvious style, even though part of him must be dying to get into some bespoke clown pants to conceal his yuge backside.

Of course the real victims of the travel ban are the (presumably) tens of thousands of stylish North Koreans who holiday in the US each year, where they go to spend their millions on exotic treats they can’t get at home, like food and basic human rights, whilst also enjoying that home away from home effect of still being in a nation controlled by a despot.

I suggest that all world leaders take a leaf out of Un’s book – our own Taoiseach would cut quite the dash in colossal pants that look like he borrowed them from a Slimming World champ. It would certainly look more fitting than the tan slacks and bomber jacket – a kind of  ‘Bob Hope entertaining the troops’ look – that he wore to the ploughing, offset as it was by the overall appearance of someone who wished there was a travel ban on sophisticated urbanites going more than 50 yards from a Starbucks.

One of the saddest travels bans enacted recently was by Malaysia. The government there has banned both the Better Beer festival set to take place next week, and what they claimed was an upcoming ‘gay party’ (presumably not a political party). But they went one step further and have now banned anyone who had planned on attending either event from entering the country. This followed criticism from an Islamist government party (presumably not a gay party), warning it will turn Kuala Lumpur into the “largest vice centre in Asia”. If you have been to Asia, specifically Thailand, you will know that this is a fairly big claim, as the prospect of a few craft beer heads nerding out over IPAs or a bunch of lads having a dance somehow pales in comparison to moral bankruptcy of the seedier parts of Bangkok.

Great news everyone: We are getting our water charges back by the end of the year. It will be such a great feeling to lodge that cheque and reminisce about all the arguments with friends and family about whether we already pay for water or towards water, and how water conservation is an important part of not killing the planet, and how metering is the only way to ensure we are conscious of each drop we use. I know I will thoroughly enjoy getting that money back, as I bathe in the many joyous memories of falling out with those around me, as I tried to do the right thing, only to learn that it wasn’t the right thing at all, it was completely the wrong thing. Ah well, it’s all just water under the bridge, water that probably came from a leaking pipe that will most likely not get fixed any time soon. Hooray for progress.

Goodnight sweet prints, myanmar, fake news, nuclear war

Week 21 of the column, in which I perform a remarkable about-face on my attitude to print media, now that I am making some money from it. Lol jk – journalism is actually important. Stories are great, but there has to be facts.

 

When I left the newspaper industry three years ago, I thought we were heading into a brave new world. I had spent 12 years working as a subeditor in a regional paper, and saw how the digital revolution democratised communications and gave everyone a voice. I thought this was going to be great – everyone would be a citizen journalist, reporting live from global events, large and small; instead of having a small number of media outlets, we would have a chorus of unbiased, verifiable sources for our information.

The reality, of course, is slightly different. When you buy a newspaper, you are invested in it. You generally read it cover to cover, as you paid for it and are committed to it. You are exposed to things you would otherwise not see, opinions you might not like, ideas and information that you could otherwise miss. The commercial aspect of newspapers also meant that if they get things wrong, they get sued; there is accountability.  The overall ethos of the paper you buy may reflect your world view, but you are still opening your mind to a variety of opinions, insights and facts.

On the internet we tend to only look at the things we like – this is anything from cat videos to celebrity nip slips. The more we hit that like button, the more the internet gives us what we want. It refuses to challenge us. In an age when we have the entire world at our fingertips, we seem more concerned with being entertained than informed. This was brought home to me when I asked a friend if he thought Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan still sing Unplayed Piano, the ballad they wrote in 2004 about Aung San Suu Kyi, now that she has been released from house arrest and seems intent on looking the other way while ethnic cleansing takes place in her country. I got a blank stare. Whatever about knowing the back catalogue of Rice and Hannigan, I thought he might have heard about a massacre that has left an estimated thousand dead. He had not. For all the time we spend on our phones, we seem a lot less connected to the world around us. The grim eventuality of this is currently being playing out across the Atlantic.

In 1938 Orson Welles decided to teach America a lesson. He felt they swallowed everything they heard on the radio a little too readily, and created The War Of The Worlds, a radio play that led many to believe that the planet was under attack from aliens. The Trump election campaign did something similar – it deceived people into believing they were under attack, that aliens were coming for them, and that only one man could save them. Trump said the media organisations that tried to hold him to account were fakes, and people believed him, not them. If there is a lesson there for us, it is that actual news matters more than ever.

Three years ago I picked up my redundancy cheque and headed off into my brave new world, where I believed news would be truly democratic. I was, as I am much of the time, dead wrong. Now I am seeing that newspapers matter, because facts matter. And I’m not just saying that because I get paid to write this, but because the bright lights of news media need to be kept on, for all our sakes.

The death of Harry Dean Stanton didn’t come as a surprise. At 91, there were periods of the last decade when he would pop up in a cameo and I would suddenly remember that he wasn’t actually dead. Like all great character actors, he disappeared into the roles he took. He was the go-to for the hangdog American everyman, and seemed to play a succession of people who had not-quite achieved the American dream. The film critic Roger Ebert once said that no film with Harry Dean Stanton can be altogether bad, although he later qualified this by adding that teen body swap comedy Dream A Little Dream, starring Coreys Haim and Feldman, was a clear violation of this rule.

His greatest role was in Paris Texas, where he played a drifter walking the roads of the southern states as a form of atonement. I loved the film from the first time I saw it as a troubled teenager, but it was only years later I could see that this was because it spoke to me. Being adopted, then central themes of family, abandonment and redemption all resonated in my teenage subconscious. As an adult, I love Paris Texas because I spend much of my time like Stanton’s character Travis, wondering if my family would be better off without me, if I should take to the highways and byways of Munster as penance for being a fairly dismal parent. But as this is Ireland, I probably wouldn’t get far before I got clipped by a passing SUV or drowned in a pothole.

A less notable death this year was that of Stanislav Petrov, aged 77. Although he passed away in May, news is only breaking now of his passing and of the minor incident in 1983 that saw him save the world.  In the depths of the Second Cold War, Russian satellite warning system alerted authorities that a nuclear missile had been launched by the US, and was followed by several others, all headed for Russia. This was an act of war, and the Russians had to scramble to retaliate. Lt Col. Petrov, however, discerned that it was a false alarm, stood down the Russian weapons systems, and prevented what could well have been the end of civilization as we know it. It seems strange that one man had the presence of mind – and faith in humanity – to know that this was a malfunction. Despite all the technology teling him otherwise, Petrov knew that the computers were wrong: He saw information on a screen, and was able to discern that it was false. If only we all had this ability.

Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi gave an address to her nation yesterday. She condemned any human rights violations in her country, and previously said an iceberg of false information was being put forward about the situation. All she needs to do now is stick on a little red cap and claim there are good people on both sides, before promising to build a wall around the Rohingya, who the UN have said are victims of a military ethnic cleansing programme. Here in Ireland, people seem strangely on the fence. In a poll of 1,000 adults for Claire Byrne Live, 42% of people said they think the Myanmar leader’s award of the Freedom Of Dublin should be rescinded, 11% disagreed and 47% were unsure. Assuming the 11% were just massive fans of the song Unplayed Piano, it is still incredible that 47% were unsure how to feel about what is happening in Myanmar. If ever there was a case to be made for people to just pick up a paper and have a proper read of it, there it is.

The clown’s pie, the zodiac killer, drunken foetuses, branson’s pickle

Week 20 of the column.

 

My parents were strict. Products of the Forties and Fifties when Catholicism ruled supreme, they took a somewhat North Korean approach to cultural products they deemed unsuitable for me. I have fond memories of my father switching off an RTE matinee showing of Black Narcissus when I was ten (still one of my favourite films), banning heavy metal when I was 15 (I still love heavy metal), or refusing to get me a skateboard for Christmas because, they claimed, people were using them to worship the devil. Years later I realised that they were mixing skateboards up with ouija boards. One thing they never censored were books. They held the belief that reading could almost never be bad for you, and so it was that I found myself reading Stephen King’s IT aged 13.

The genius of King’s work lies not in making us scared of what we can see, as Lovecraft did, but in looking deep into the human soul and showing us the simple horrors of life on earth, such as family holidays (The Shining), figuring out how to work domestic appliances (Maximum Overdrive), the perils of cat ownership (Pet Semetery), the importance of a religious upbringing (Carrie) or American democracy (The Stand). But in IT he tapped into one of our most understandable fears – that of clowns. As another remake of King’s meisterwerk hits our screens, it would appear that one bunch of clowns aren’t going to take this pie in the face to their profession lying down. Two professional clowns appeared on the UK’s GMTV to point out that – spoiler alert – the Pennywise character from IT is only one of the many physical manifestations of the being, before going on to say the film was cheap, a low blow, even coming from a pair of men wearing clownpants and facepaint on live TV.

But perhaps the best protest of IT was in the US, where professional clowns though the best way to win back hearts and mind was to stage a protest outside cinemas screening the film. This resulted in members of the public, emerging blinking into the sunlight following two hours of clown-based horror, only to be confronted with a bunch of angry clowns. King must be delighted that his self fulfilling prophecy has come to pass. The clowning profession might do well to note that the only way back from this PR disaster is to kill the media circus – and the only way to kill a circus is to go for the juggler.

Speaking of sad horrors, spare a moment for depressed vampire Ted Cruz. After the ignominy of an presidential race that saw Trump repeatedly humiliate him, and an ongoing joke about him being the Zodiac killer (which he isn’t, by the way), the American Senator has now hit the headlines for his Twitter account liking a pornographic tweet. Were he a Democrat, it would be taken as a sign of the moral decay of liberals everywhere; sadly for Cruz, he is a member of the Republican Party, whose puritanical zeal means enjoying a bit of filth on Twitter is not ok. It seems that poor Cruz is doomed for humiliation no matter what he does, so perhaps he would be better embracing his own decline – and appearance – and star in an X-rated remake of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot titled Count Cuckula. It couldn’t suck worse than the last 12 months of his career.

Rejoice, pregnant ladies – or at least rejoice as much as you can whilst incubating a ten pound loaf of a child. A report this week in the BMJ Open has revealed that a glass of wine during pregnancy is not going to do major harm, and while total abstinence might be healthier, you don’t need to cause yourself anguish over a drop of chablis during a Narcos marathon. This is great news for the entire population of Ireland, whose entire lives from conception onward is fuelled by medicinal boozing. Frankly, how anyone gets through the various delights of pregnancy without a drink or two is a miracle in itself.

Finally, spare a moment for Richard Branson, the billionaire whose Caribbean island home was trashed by Hurricane Irma. Branson laid the blame for the hurricane squarely at the feet of man made climate change. Given that he owns a massive airline firm, whose planes presumably do not run on sunlight, it was a plot twist akin to the moment in horror films when you realise that the killer is inside the house. If there is a lesson for us all, it’s that those Euromillions ads that suggest we should buy an island are really quite misleading. That and the planet is dying.

ESRI, Chris Rock, iPhone, filth

Week 19 of the column:

 

Signing our son up to the the Economic and Social Research Institute’s sprawling Growing Up In Ireland project seemed like a great idea when he was born back in 2008. As reasonably civic minded people – ie, not quite at the Tidy Towns level, but not fly tippers either – we thought it would be exciting to have his life tracked as part of a social document that could go on to influence Government policy. As part of the Infant Cohort – a wonderfully dystopian title for the phalanx of children born in 2008 – the ESRI call to us every couple of years and ask us a series of questions. Except, as the years have gone by, the visit has become a long dark night of the soul. They weigh and measure us to remind us that we are getting both wider and shorter, and then begins the survey. How much time do you spend playing sports with your son, how often do you read to him, do you bring him to art galleries or libraries, all are met with a resounding ‘not much’ or flat ‘no’. All it’s short is the survey taker pulling out an acoustic guitar and cracking out a heartbreaking rendition of Cats In The Cradle while you sob about all those lost moments.

Once you’re done feeling like an emotional failure – which seems to be about 95% of parenting generally – it’s time to move on the economics, where my repeated acts of professional harakiri are laid bare for all to see.

Then on to the truly awkward questions – the confidential ones you do on a laptop – where you are asked how often you fight in front of the kids, how often do you mention divorce, do you shout at each other. It’s like doing one of those multiple choice questionnaires in a magazine to determine which EastEnders character you are. But in the end, we are happy to take part. We see it as an important social document, even if our input skews the results downwards by several points. My only hope is that when the ESRI swing by in another four years or so, we are all still alive and well, still bickering about money and feeling like failures whilst trying our best.

Chris Rock’s decision to ban phones at his upcoming Dublin gig is a bold move, as it seems impossible to attend any event these days without some goon lofting a phablet in front of your face so that he can catch shaky footage of a solar eclipse, holy apparition or car crash.

Rock’s point was that the footage shot at his gigs ruins his punchlines, but it is the fact that they ruin them in such an atrocious manner that is so awful. Nobody engages in good quality piracy anymore. Back in the 1990s, bootleggers used to smuggle microdisk recorders into gigs and stand at just the right spot to capture the audio. Now, thanks to smartphones that we are never quite sure how to work, we have terrible audio, terrible footage, and terrible photos that make every event seem like we missed nothing. So if you want to share your gig experiences with friends and family – or complete strangers on the internet – please try to do it well, or not at all. If you want to share gigs, buy another ticket, as your Blair Witch style camera work makes everything look like you strapped a webcam to a small dog and sent it crowd surfing. Let’s just hope that Rock’s gig is one to remember and that he doesn’t just phone it in.

The ubiquitous iPhone is about to be born again, this time in its eighth iteration. Rumours abound as to the capabilities, but for non-techies – ie, most of us – it’s the name that is of interest: The iPhone X. This alleged title is to mark the fact that it is the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, rather than the fact that it has been the greatest conduit for pornography since those late night films on RTL in the 1990s.

Back in the days of yore, before the internet, one had to forage for tattered copies of H&E magazine across wasteland, or rely on a school chum whose dad had a dog eared collection of jazz mags that dated back to Famine times. Nowadays it’s all just there for the taking on your phone, rather than on a pack of playing cards someone brought back from a holiday in Greece in 1978, which you had to barter your Subbuteo set for. Spoiled is what ye are.

Congratulations to Hugh Maguire from Meath, whose entry to the 22nd Golden Fork Awards in the UK – a smoked black pudding – saw him take the top title of Great Taste Supreme Champion. Congratulations in a more general sense to whoever it was who realised that ‘black pudding’ is a fantastic rebrand for something that should really be known by the more accurate name of ‘blood sausage’, a terrible name that still manages to sound less weird than iPhone X.

 

 

 

Coffee, Uranus, gas, spoilers

‘Week 18 of my column’ – words I thought I would never write.

 

Finally science is starting to give us some good news. After a week of terrifying weather events, there were glad tidings for those of us who are unable to function without coffee – it may be helping us to live longer. A study of 20,000 men and women found that three to four cups a day may help us to live one third longer.

This is great news for the caffeine junkies among us, who are unable to have a civilised conversation in the morning before they have at least one pharmaceutical-grade coffee, and possibly two on Mondays. The lead researcher in the Spanish study said that it is the antioxidants in coffee that provide the benefits, which I – like all sensible people – take to mean that I should get dosed up to the gills on premium grade Java to the point where my heart is jackhammering and the veins at my temple bulging.

Of course the only problem is how to come down off this obvious health kick – well, science has done it again, this time via the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which has published a study that says moderate drinking may be beneficial to us physically, apart from helping us unwind from a day of guzzling black gold until our eyes pop out of our heads.

Moderate alcohol use in this study was considered to be less than 14 drinks a week for men and seven for women, and was associated with a 25 percent lower risk of overall death. Our path to a longer, healthier life is clear – jugs of the strongest coffee available without prescription, and a healthy dose of grain alcohol to wind down of an evening. After all, having fallen from first place in the year 2000 to an embarrassing 12th in an EU survey on national alcohol consumption, it’s important that we all don the green jersey and start chucking down the Irish coffees. We need to stagger back up the rankings, otherwise the Public Health Alcohol Bill might seem a little unnecessary.

Our frenemy science also gave us a wonderful headline (or terrible chat-up line) this week with the revelation that Uranus is stuffed with diamonds. Perhaps you thought that the light emanating from it was the sun shining out of there, but no, it’s far more exciting than that.

Uranus, despite being the butt of jokes since German astronomer Johann Elert Bode named it after the Greek god of the sky, or possibly after a co-workers backside, is a massive gassy cloud, but one that produces huge diamonds in its interior which then sink to the centre. It was a nice moment for a mass that for centuries failed to be recognised as a planet as it was considered too dim and too slow. The upside of the planet’s goofy name is that people in the mainstream media actually like writing about it – perhaps if we had named all the other planets of the solar system in this manner we would pay more attention to them, and gaze up at the night sky sniggering about the beautiful brown rings of Shaturn.

Bathers along the Sussex coast at the weekend were hit with a mysterious cloud of noxious gas (not from Uranus this time). The occurrence had a slightly apocalyptic feel to it, coming as it did after another bi-annual ‘storm of the century’ pummelled the southern states of America into the mud, while a scaled down version tried to wipe Donegal off the map. A cloud of poisonous gas seems unlikely to be the result of anything other than human endeavour, you can’t help but worry that maybe the planet has really had enough of us trying to kill it.

Perhaps it had this secret defence mechanism all along, much like in the incredibly weak M Night Shyamalan film The Happening. Aside from the moment the credits roll, the high point of the film – an ecological scare story of a sudden wave of human self destruction sparked by nature itself – was Marky Mark Wahlberg pleading with a houseplant to give humanity a second chance. If the Sussex gas did happen to be belched out by an angry planet, I think I would rather smother in its noxious fumes than have to explain to my decrepit vicus about why watering it once a fortnight was too much hassle, or explain to my velociraptor-friendly lawn about how ‘work has just been really crazy recently’.

If you haven’t seen The Happening, firstly, lucky you, and secondly, sorry for not offering a spoiler alert. However, there is a Shyamalanesque plot twist here – a study published by the US Association for Psychological Science showed that people actually preferred watching films when they knew the twist was coming. Some 800 subjects were recruited by the University Of California, where they were read stories by authors like John Updike and Raymond Carver, some with the plot twist revealed beforehand and some without. It transpired that the listeners enjoyed the stories more when they knew what was coming, and could see the machinations of the writers, as they conspired to misdirect them and camouflage the looming reveal. Perhaps we can console ourselves with this when scientists the world over say ‘we told you so’ as the planet self-combusts.