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.

 

 

 

Logan’s Run, collagin, sunbeds, tatts

Death, despair, dystopian hell and how I hate tattoos – it’s the weekly Bill. 

 

When the science fiction writer Philip K Dick died in 1982, his ashes were buried under a headstone that had carried his name for 52 years. When his twin sister passed away five decades earlier, both their names were inscribed on the stone at the same time, presumably by family members who were more worried about cost-effective measures than their son’s mental state.

Dick lived his life in a state of constant paranoia, hardly surprising for a man who had a grave awaiting with his name on it. It sounds like a plot point from one of his brilliant, paradoxical works, which posed big questions about our concept of reality; questions like, if you knew when you were going to die, would you live differently? It’s a question that we may need to start asking ourselves, as researchers have created an artificial intelligence programme that can estimate our life expectancy. The team of researchers – from the third level thunderdome that is the University of Adelaide – simply feed scans of your organs into the application and it comes back with a 69% accuracy of when you are going to expire. The crushing inevitability of our own demise is something we tend not to think about a whole lot, but probably should. Hopefully this technology will trickle down to the point where you will be able to scan yourself at the supermarket self service checkout and get your own expiration date. Perhaps then we might think less about collecting clubcard points and more about buying time on earth through positive choices. Unless it’s double points on family packs of crisps, that just makes financial sense.

Speaking of endless waits for ascension into the heavens – Dublin Airport. The Loop, the airport’s duty free, was the scene last week for the launch of a new gin, which in itself is not remarkable, given a new gin seems to land on our shelves with the frequency of Ryanair arrivals. This gin, however, is different. While most gins promise ‘locally sourced botanicals’ such as magpie’s nest or eye of newt, creators Camilla Brown and Liz Beswick have infused their new product from that least appealing yet most local of botanicals – us. Or rather, powdered synthetic collagen, the main structural protein found in skin and other connective tissues. It is most associated with cosmetic surgery or anti-ageing therapies, the most tragic skirmishes in our battle with mortality, and this new product – CollAGin – is a nifty rebrand from the drink formerly known as mother’s ruin to an elixir of youth. That or a sort of Soylent Green for jetlagged housewives.

Our skin deep obsession with beauty was thrown into sharp relief as recent statistic showed a rise in the use of sunbeds by Irish teenagers. Speaking as someone who used them in his early twenties, I look back now and wonder what I was thinking, as they turned me a shade of orange best described as a Full Scale Dale Winton, but which a friend helpfully called a ‘third wipe’ shade of brown. To this day I still have blotches of pigmentation that show up when the sun is out, like a mid-transition Michael Jackson, or a slowly combusting vampire.

Sunbeds are awful. Apart from the cancer risks, they make you look like an Hermes ostrich-skin birkin that’s been through the washing machine. And now that another recent survey showed that young Irish people are drinking less too, our poor beige-tinted young folk can’t even claw back their youth by quaffing collagen-infused gin, proving that George Bernard Shaw was right when he wrote that youth is a wonderful thing, but what a crime it is to waste it on children.

Mortality and skin were the topics in the journal BMJ Case Reports, which detailed the death of a man who got a skin infection while swimming in the Gulf Of Mexico. Suffering from chronic liver disease, he had recently got an inspirational tattoo, which allowed the infection into his skin, and ultimately killed him two months later. Although the ironic elements of his death will bring little comfort to his family, perhaps his journey to heaven will be accelerated by the subject of the tattoo that led to his death: A crucifix with praying hands and the inscription ‘Jesus is my life’.

Snakes on an astral plane

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So the Indo asked me to write a bit for Paddy’s Day. It was meant to be 17 signs you’re Irish, or alternatives way to mark the day, so I got confused and ended up with something between those two. Of all the things I wrote for the paper this was the one I stumbled over the most. Thus, it ended up being a somewhat overwrought and overlong 1,200 words on whatever the hell this is: 

 

I want to tell you a story. A story about a young man from a country far away, who yearned for a better life. Lured here with promises of a great job and excellent working conditions, he found himself forced into slavery, working in filthy conditions and surrounded by animals. No, I’m not talking about Brent Pope, but of our patron saint, Patrick. Like all young men growing up in Wales he dreamed only of playing rugby in a coal mine with the rest of his choir, but after spotting an ad in the local ogham stone looking for young talent to work overseas, he signed up and was shipped off to Ireland to herd sheep. Granted, it could have been worse – he could have been forced to work the late shift in a Spar on O’Connell Street, and while he really ought to have heard alarms bells when the recruitment agency was run by a man named Niall Of The Nine Hostages, his fate – and ours – were forever entwined thereafter.

 

He did escape eventually, but after a brief interlude back home, presumably working as a roadie for Tom Jones, he spotted a gap in the market back in Ireland for guilt. Our national identity has been linked – for better or worse – with the Catholic faith ever since, but perhaps now is a good time to think about all the things that make us who we are.

 

  1. Form a disorderly queue: Few things capture the essence of Irishness like the depressing mayhem of our attempts to queue. Having been raised with the horizontal battlefront queueing system in pubs, our transition from jostling pintbabies to confused pintmen and pintladies every time we are expected to form a straight line is something to behold. Like a particularly drug-addled horse at the start of the Grand National, our restless spirit won’t allow us to simply stand in a line waiting our turn for anything, be it to board an Expressway bus, select from a breakfast buffet, use self-service checkouts, or attend a removal.  
  2. Do what thou wilt and that shall be the whole of the law: For a country with so many zany self-imposed religious rules, we really struggle to comply with some of the more basic statutory ones. Any rule we don’t like becomes John Bull’s Law, and thus is to be ignored until we become four green fields once more. This list includes TV licenses, any and all avoidable taxes, picking up after your dog, and a whole host of others. This St Patrick’s Day why not celebrate our innate lawlessness by parking in in a junction box, walking in a cycle lane, cycling on a footpath, or simply wandering into a random queue at the halfway point.
  3. Avoid confrontation: We love a good donnybrook, even going so far as ironically naming a well-to-do part of Dublin after our beloved mass brawls. But those are collective affairs – we are the fighting Irish, not the fighting Irish person. One-on-one, we are terrible at standing our ground. You can point to any number of historical reasons for it, but we are completely incapable of asking someone to stop cycling on the footpath, or to not skip the queue, or to stop spitting their gum onto your shoes. Even when we do try to confront an issue, it ends coming out as a series of increasingly apologetic ‘sorrys’. So when some giant stands right in front of you at the parade, or a sleeveen slithers in to get served ahead of you at the bar, swallow that anger down, and store it up for the next donnybrook. On Paddy’s Day you shouldn’t have too long to wait.
  4. Talk without speaking: We are a nation of talkers, and we love nothing more than chewing over the important issues of the day, such as potatoes, rain, or the effects of rain on potatoes. Just as the Inuit have a veritable blizzard of words for snow, we have a dozen flowery words for potato and more than nine million for rain, but they all carry deeper layers of meaning. Here are a few translations to get you started:
    ‘Tis fine out’ – I am filled with a sense of doom.
    ‘The forecast is for rain’ – All is right with the world.
    ‘Are these the new potatoes?’ – I no longer love you.
  5. Is there anything to be said for another Mass: Most of us are products of the Catholic education system, where the central tenet, as Billy Connolly once noted, was ‘Jesus is dead and it’s all your fault’. St Patrick may have helped wrap our national identity in the shroud of the holy Roman Catholic empire, but there are other faiths in this world and this land, and we could do with learning a bit more about them. As a country that venerates Foster And Allen, Gerry Adams and Daithi O Se, we should have no problem understanding any religion that worships lads with beards. Which is basically all of them.
  6. An béal bocht: Apart from the Belle Époque of 2006-2007, during which we pretended to be rich, nothing satisfies us like pretending to be poor. Everything is a struggle, we tell the person seated next to us on the flight to Mallorca. We are finding it so hard to make ends meet, we tell the car dealer as he hands over the keys to a 171 ozone killer. When will John Bull stop his insane tax laws, we ask the bank manager as we remortgage our third home to buy another. The poor mouth is an integral part of our identity, and even with big ticket purchases we go to great lengths of humblebrag about how they were the deal of the century, despite everyone knowing full well that you didn’t get that Fabergé egg in TK Maxx.  
  7. Demonic possessiveness: Our grasp of history may not be the sharpest, given that 90% of our schooling was given over to Catholic Guilt 101, and what we do know mostly relates to John Bull and his cockamamy laws that we refuse to abide by. However, woe betide anyone from another country try to claim something Irish as their own. All we need is to hear a simple phrase like ‘award-winning British actor Michael Fassbender’ and we turn into a nation of Wolverines. Granted, Fassy was born in Germany, but when he emotes as Professor Mutato in X-Men, or expresses anguish in that film about Copperface Jacks, Shame, and the Kerry accshint comes out, it is as stirring to us as listening to A Nation Once Again whilst eating a bowl of lovely floury pops on a grand soft day atop Carrauntoohil. Anyone who thinks they can lay claim to him, or any other Irish success story – be it whiskey, Olympic boxers, or the cure for leprosy – can pull themselves a nice cold pint of cop on.
  8. Be pernickety about St Patrick’s Day: The American use of the four-leaf clover in place of a shamrock is annoying enough (who does the fourth leaf symbolise, Colonel Sanders?), but it’s their cheerful use of ‘St Patty’ that seems to get under our skin the most. Perhaps this is because at any one time there are about two million Patricks in this country and not one of them is known as Patty. But sher as long as they keep mislabelling 50,000 of our lads over there as ‘undocumented’ as opposed to ‘illegal immigrants’, they can call him whatever they want.
  9. Pessimistic optimism: The Irish carry in their hearts the sense that things are fairly terrible, but they could always be worse. We like talking about our ‘Third World health/education/transport system’, despite the fact that it is now known as the developing world, and despite the fact that we have clearly never been there. The same mind that can spend 25 minutes describing a crater-sized pothole will eventually grudgingly admit that there are probably worse potholes in Alleppo and that what’s happening there is actually pretty bad and, to be fair, this really is a great country if only they could build a roof over it, and that postman in the Blue Stacks said our summer will be so hot that the earth will slam into the sun, so everything will be grand in the end, we can’t go on, we will go on.
  10. Make and do: Whether it be poetry, music, human life, or sovereign debt, the Irish create at an exponential rate, and our cultural impact on this planet is something to behold. We somehow managed to consensually colonise much of the civilised world, peddling craic and multiplying like Tribbles. What other country has a national day of celebration that the whole world wants to be part of? The UK talks of a special relationship with the US, but it’s a relationship where date night involves invading Iraq. We roll up to the White House once a year with a bowl of small weeds we dug up in the back lawn and somehow the entire month of March is given over to a celebration of us. To be Irish is something of a little miracle, a nation of dreamers that weaponised charm and spread out across the world like a cheerful green mold – and that is something worth celebrating, even if it is by standing in the rain watching a parade of disco dancing toddlers and tractors for two hours. Sher where else would you be?