Britain and Ireland: friends at last

(First published in Sept 2012, after the Kate Middleton topless pics were published in Irish papers – republished now to mark the State visit of President Higgins to the UK)

 

And it was all going so well, wasn’t it?

After eight centuries of bloody strife – sometimes literal, mostly metaphorical – Ireland and Britain had settled into a warm little détente. We were neighbours and trading partners, even – whisper it – friends.

But now the whole thing has been blown asunder, all because of some sleazy photos.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but tamped-down hostility and bubbling resentments, on both sides, seem to have surfaced once more after the Irish Daily Star published those infamous pictures of Kate Middleton, AKA the Duchess of Cambridge. (Britain and France are also at odds over this, but that doesn’t count because Britain and France are always at odds over everything.)

On one side, some – not all – people in the UK think we were disrespectful and provocative in printing the snaps. On the other, some here argue that Kate is just another celeb who should be treated the same as Snooki or Jessie J, so to hell with the offended.

On both, there’s bile and bitterness. For proof, check out the comments on discussion boards and newspaper websites all week. These can basically be summarised as: “Scummy Irish, a bunch of drunken terrorist paedophiles” and “Arrogant Brits, still think they rule the world.” Yes, they’re anonymous, but people wouldn’t say it if they didn’t mean it to some extent.

And it’s all rather a shame, because we really are friends now. The British like us, most of the time, and we like them.

This has nothing to do with all that ‘maturing as a nation’ rubbish – you know, the England rugby team playing in Croke Park marking the greatest moment in Irish history, and so on. Lots of us don’t really agree with that, and would be reasonably nationalist, at least in the cultural sense.

But the British are our friends, our nearest neighbours, in some cases our relatives. We’re fellow Anglophones tucked away in the north-west of Europe, with a lot of common cultural touchstones and a similar sense of humour (one of the key definers of national character).

We share many of the same interests, a certain approach to life, an ever-present irony, a sort of smart-arsed stoicism. We are, in short, quite alike in fundamental ways.

George Orwell wrote, for instance, about how fascism could never happen in England, simply because of its culture and people, and the same is true for Ireland. It just wouldn’t happen.

Despite the history and politics, we are closest to the British in almost every way. This writer remembers going to Japan years ago and hitting it off with Brits, instantly and easily, more so than US or Canadian (who were equally as nice, just…a little different).

You can hate the collective history of a country while recognising that the British are generally sound as individuals. The collective misdeeds of the past don’t negate the enormous decency of the people today. Indeed, they shouldn’t really have any relevance.

That’s why it would have been easy, say, to shout for the England team at this summer’s European football championships. Contrary to the received wisdom, England’s players are no more objectionable than anyone else’s (with a few notable exceptions!) The UK media is no more jingoistic than we can be in covering sports. And from personal experience, the average England football fan is a decent sort, always very generous about our team/country.

(Also, of course, supporting England would annoy the type of Irish dimwit who takes pleasure in shouting against them. What a weird attitude to life: to define yourself through seeing another fail. It’s childish, rude, mindless…not to mention that these morons inevitably love the Premier League.)

On a deeper level, there is something inherently melancholic about the notion of both Britain and Ireland: island nations, endless rain, a sort of bittersweet fortitude, a history of seafaring…men out on the lonely waves, far from home.

Our two people feel both pride and regret in their past and present deeds; we’re instinctively drawn to the minor chords of gloominess, but can’t help ringing out the notes of optimism. Ireland and Britain, as separate states and in our relationship with each other, are complex, ambiguous, inspiring and tinged with sadness.

So it was cool that we ditched all the dusty baggage of the past and stopped wasting our energy on enmity. Let’s not allow those stupid pictures get in the way now; let’s get back to getting on.


Kurt Cobain RIP

(Written for the Irish Independent newspaper)

 

Kurt Cobain died 20 years ago tomorrow. If you’re one of the legions who revered the grunge legend (still do), you’ll know this already: that date, April 5 1994, is seared into the Generation X consciousness as much as the date of JFK’s assassination was for our parents.

Even if you weren’t, you’ll almost certainly know who he was, what he did and his impact on millions: Kurt was of that rare breed which transcends art and music to become iconic. (Ironically, probably the last thing this shy, sweet-natured, flawed man would have wanted.)

The Nirvana frontman, then 27, shot himself at his lakeside Seattle home, with the body not discovered until April 8; the band were actually due to play Dublin that night, though the gig had already been cancelled. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news: on the lash in Cork, end of the college week, possibly wearing a Nirvana t-shirt.

All night Kurt’s death was the main topic of conversation: people consoling each other, whispering their shock, as though we personally knew the guy. Several times female friends touched my arm comfortingly, asking if I was alright.

Funnily enough, it didn’t hit me too much straight away. A bit of sneering youthful cynicism, I suppose: makes you too cool to care. And Nirvana had become way too popular by that stage for hip dudes like me; I’d moved onto more obscure (i.e. inferior) bands.

As the years went by, though, there was a renascent love of Nirvana’s music: nowadays I listen to one or other album at least every few days. I’ve also watched endless hours of documentaries, interviews, promo videos, concert footage, news reports on Kurt’s suicide. I’ve read two biographies, hundreds of articles and even bought the somewhat unreadable Journals, a collection of juvenilia and diaries.

I’ve published a crime novel inspired by grunge which name-checks Kurt on the cover bumpf. I’m soon to publish a Young Adult novel which mentions Kurt in the first sentence and whose title comes from a line on the last song of Nirvana’s last album. Safe to say, the guy crosses my mind, totally unprompted, several times a week.

I never quite felt “loss”, I must admit, the way you might with family or friends. I guess the mind knows the difference between knowing someone and knowing an idea of them, even a mildly obsessive mind. But there’s sadness at how his life ended, sympathy for the demons that drove him to end it, regrets at what he might have produced in some alternate timeline.

That’s how much Kurt matters to me – yes, still, aged 40! – and countless others like me. But why does and did he matter?

This was a scruffy, slouch-shouldered, anaemic-looking dweeb from a Washington State backwater, playing screamingly discordant rock with misanthropic lyrics. How did he become a global megastar, revolutionise the music industry and burrow his way into the hearts and thoughts of a generation?

The songs were great, for starters: Nirvana absolutely kicked ass, like few bands ever did. Screeching guitars, pounding drums, driven by a propulsive, compulsive energy, but leavened with almost Beatles-esque melodies.

Everything about his image and attitude tapped directly into the Generation X zeitgeist: sarcastic, ironic, angry, witty, empathetic, well-read, cynical-but-idealistic, rootless, low on ambition, high on disaffection (among other things). And like other grunge musicians – and despite constantly fighting against it – Kurt was ineffably cool, which was of paramount importance to us.

Cool enough to rock hard but also remain a loud, proud advocate of women’s and gay rights (he famously alienated thousands of new fans by writing on In Utero’s sleeve, “If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe, or basically an asshole, don’t buy this CD. I don’t care if you like me, I hate you.”)

Cool enough to be that rare thing, a literate rock-star: Kurt name-checked Beckett, Bukowski and Burroughs among others, while Scentless Apprentice was inspired by Patrick Susskind’s unnerving novel Perfume. Cool enough to be a scruffy, slouch-shouldered, anaemic-looking dweeb and not particularly care.

And he was authentic, which is about the coolest thing there is. He presented himself to the world, nothing more or less. I think this, most of all, is why Nirvana and Kurt struck such a chord – you looked at them and thought: nerd, loser, outsider.

And not in a stylised “geek-chic” way. They genuinely reminded you of those likeable guys who shuffle through school, drift through life, happy-ish in themselves and not a bother to anyone else, but never quite in step with the rest of the world. Which is something anyone, bar “alpha-plus masters-of-the-universe” types, can relate to.

Here was a regular schlub like the rest of us, who’d conquered the planet, not by selling out, but the complete opposite: I Am Loser, Hear Me Roar.

Of course, it’s undeniable that Kurt’s demise contributed to the legend; dying young is, as cynics say, the ultimate career move. Tin-hat conspiracy theories about his death further fuelled the fire: he was murdered, he faked his death, he’s living on Mars with Elvis and Shergar.

Kurt’s wife, the volatile Courtney Love, also helped keep him front-and-centre in the public eye, perhaps not always for the best reasons. (Though it should be noted that, scary-flaky as she may well be, Courtney too seems authentic. She was also regarded as a constructive influence on his later song-writing, and in Live Through This and Celebrity Skin produced albums as good as anyone’s.)

The Kurt/Nirvana “brand” – oh, he would have loved that term! – continues to grow. The albums still sell by the bucket-load. He’s been a character in a videogame. Gus Van Sant made a movie based on a fictionalised version of Kurt.

There have been art exhibitions, TV investigations and retrospectives, numerous documentary films: another is due later this year. A graphic novel of his life – the second – has just been published. Nirvana will next week be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

On it rolls, decade after decade, presumably forever: Kurt long ago reached that plinth of post-mortem fame and earnings, alongside John Lennon, Marilyn, James Dean, Elvis and the rest.

For some of us, though, he’ll always be the greasy-haired slacker in an ill-fitting cardigan, the awkward kid from the back-of-beyond, the intuitive musical genius, the eternal outsider, howling at the world, howling to us and for us.

So tomorrow I’ll be reverting to that 21-year-old who was too cool to care, by putting on Nirvana and cranking it up loud, to the point of distortion. Mosh around the kitchen, embarrass the kids, frighten the cat, amuse the neighbours. Oh well, whatever, never mind.

You should too. Everyone’s welcome to this party; just come as you are.


Rail life

(This is a piece I wrote for the paper which never ran – a journey in the cab of a train)
Winter-time, half-eight in the morning, and the platform at Limerick Junction is bloody freezing. My fingers are numb as the intercity passenger train from Dublin to Cork slaloms slowly into the station.
I’m here to fulfil the childhood dream of a large number of boys, and probably a good few girls too: driving a train. Of course, I won’t literally be driving – God knows I can barely be trusted with the command of a car, never mind a 440-tonne behemoth, powered by a 3200hph, 112-tonne locomotive, with a maximum speed of 100mph, carrying hundreds of passengers. But you can always pretend.
I hop into the cab of this Class 201 locomotive, next to Dariusz Wojcik, who’s actually driving today, and Tony Cooke, acting as co-pilot and my guide for the day. He’ll be answering all the dumb questions I have – What does that do? What’s this for? Why are you doing such-and-such? – so Darius doesn’t get distracted from the demanding job of steering this steel beast to Cork.
That’s the first surprise, attendant on my opening question as Tony tells Darius that they’ve got the green flag and we’re about to pull out from Limerick Junction: “Do you basically just press a button and off it goes on auto-pilot?”
The two men laugh indulgently and Tony says, “That’s what everyone thinks, that there’s hardly any actual driving involved. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. You have to constantly concentrate; there’s always something you need to be doing.”
He’s right. Far from my presumption that train drivers more-or-less flick a switch to cruise control, Darius is continuously active. All the way to Cork, without pause, he pushes or pulls levers, checks dials, notes different signs for distance and speed limits, blows the horn. He speeds up, slows down, gives it more welly to get the train up a gradient, brakes gently when coming down or easing into Mallow Station, our only stop between the Junction and Cork.
Then there’s the famous “dead man’s switch” – in this case, a pedal – which safeguards against a driver dying or passing out. Darius must press it every 30-40 seconds; if not, an alarm sounds, and he then has seven seconds to respond before the automatic braking system kicks in.
Tony records the time at various spots along the route for their records. Darius rings Central Traffic Control at one stage with a warning of “low rail-adhesion conditions” on the track (or “rail-head” in professional parlance): this freezing morning has made the iron icy and potentially dangerous, and would eventually lead to our train arriving in Cork twenty minutes late.
There’s another misconception I was happy to see demolished: that because there’s no such thing as traffic-jams on the railway, every train should arrive exactly on time, every time.
“There are so many reasons for delays,” Tony says. “For example, as you saw this morning, ice on the rail-head forces us to slow down at certain points, for safety reasons. Leaves on the line, that’s another one, although people think we’re joking when they hear that. But they make the track slippery, so you have to go easy.”
Darius adds, “There’s constant maintenance work needing to be done as well: tracks, bridges, station buildings. All these things can knock a train off-schedule.”
They’re a thoroughly likeable pair, friendly and informative, though their biographies read quite differently. Darius (he goes by the pet-name Darek) is in his mid-thirties, originally from Katowice in Poland and now living in Dublin. He’s worked for Irish Rail since 2008 and driven a locomotive for 2½ years.
Tony, meanwhile, is in his fifties, a true-blue Dub from Cabra and 25-year veteran of the train service. He’s also involved with the Railway Preservation Society, which takes care of those beautiful old steam trains we all remember from childhood story-books and films.
That’s the thing about rail travel – and what makes this such a cool experience – it’s deeply embedded in our subconscious. Think of all the memorable movie scenes set on or around trains: Bogey and Bergman’s tearful goodbye in Casablanca, James Bond fighting that KGB giant in From Russia with Love, or more recently, Denzil Washington struggling to control a runaway freight train.
There have been countless great songs about riding the rails, great books, TV shows, paintings, even computer games. The train is part of who we are, on a cultural and psychological level.
And unlike the equally elemental automobile, the railway has always seemed more beautiful, romantic and evocative, and not defined by ugly concrete and uglier death. There’s something poetic about rail travel.
I’ve always felt, too, that trains are a radically different way of looking at a place. It’s almost like you’re seeing the “back” of Ireland: all those small gardens, industrial yards, uninhabited areas, quiet fields far from the farm’s centre. It’s as though going by road presents you with a straightforward perspective, whereas railways give you a sideways view.
And being on the track itself, in the cab, takes that a step further. We ghost through the freezing fog towards Cork, following the line as it rolls elegantly into the distance, and it feels like being cloistered away from the noisy bustle of the “real” world. It feels, in fact, like a state of mind almost as much as a point in space.
The sense of stepping outside the boundaries of distance and time, the moment stretching ahead into a hazy horizon, bleached by the low winter sun. An unhurried unfolding, a repetition of itself, mile after mile. The grandeur of it, the parallel grace of the lines, their timelessness, the whole simplicity of the notion of rail.
Finally, we reach Cork. My trip is complete and one childhood dream, at least, is fulfilled. I say goodbye to Tony and Darek, and stroll out of Kent Station.
Strolling where? To Cork Port, of course, just behind the train station. Ships running free on the boundless seas: there’s an enduring romance in that, too.

Darren Shan: interview with the vampire creator

Author Darren ShanDarren O’Shaughnessy is the biggest superstar you’ve probably never heard of. You might know him – then again, you might not – under his nom de plume, Darren Shan. This authorial alter-ego has sold an amazing 25million copies over the last dozen years (he jokes of a favourite band, “I’ve outsold The Killers – they’ve only sold 15million albums!”).

His books have been published in around 40 countries and more than 30 languages, and that’s just the official side: bestselling bootleg versions are also available in such exotic locales as Iran. His work has been adapted by Hollywood. He has legions of devoted fans across the globe, and spends a third of the year travelling to meet them, at public readings, school events and conferences. He’s chin-wagged with JK Rowling in a swanky bar in New York, for God’s sake.

In short, this guy is massive. In terms of popularity and success, he’s Cecelia Ahern, John Boyne and Marian Keyes all rolled into one.

And yet, Darren can walk into a restaurant in Limerick unnoticed. Although he does many interviews and enjoys doing them, his face and name are not famous in the “celebrity” sense. It is, he admits, a perfect situation.

“It’s ideal,” Darren says. “You can get on with ordinary life. And if it’s a choice between being well-known but selling nothing, and under the radar but getting sales – I know which I’d go for. It might be because I mainly write children’s books: there isn’t the same media interest.”

We’re in The French Table, opened six years ago along the “broad, majestic Shannon” by Frenchman Thomas Fialon and his Limerick wife Deirdre. It’s a lovely place, charming and understated – and being French, they have a great wine list.

And Darren Shan is a great dining companion: easy-going, open, cheerful and verbose (he talks a mile a minute; transcribing the Dictaphone is a nightmare!). As we tuck into starters, he explains why a resident of Pallaskenry has a London accent: “I was born in the UK and moved back here aged six. My parents were both from Pallaskenry. I was happy to come back, I was a very energetic child and our flat was getting too small for me.

“I was used to here anyway from summer visits, and I loved it: the fields, all that open space. I never had any hassle about my accent or anything else, although I do have to frequently explain why an Irishman talks like this!”

Darren began writing seriously at 17, and by his early twenties was pitching to agents and publishers. His first novel for adults was released in 1999, aged just 26, and a second followed. But proper, world-straddling success didn’t come until he shifted gears to Young Adult books. The Saga of Darren Shan, a 12-book series on vampires, went ballistic. He followed up with the 10-book Demonata series, and a number of standalone horror and fantasy novels.

Darren’s latest big project is especially ambitious: an epic in 12 parts (the seventh is released on March 27th) exploring themes like racism and fascism through the story of one girl and a zombie epidemic. Unusually heavy subjects, but they’re handled sensitively, and the books work as entertainment too.

“I like to mix genres up,” he says. “Fantasy and horror are the prime narrative drivers – that’s mostly what I’d have read as teenager – but from there it can go anywhere. I work in elements of sci-fi, thrillers, all sorts of stuff… For instance, one of the big influences on the Demonata series was Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

“And the Zom-B series is very political, reacting to the growth of the BNP and EDL in England, especially since 9/11 and 7/7. I’ve got a flat in London near where the bombs went off, I go over a lot, and I could see a change in the atmosphere. Everyone was on edge. It’s important to do something to address that – not every Muslim is a terrorist, not everyone claiming to want a safer England is to be trusted. Use your brain, see both sides – that’s the message. Because we know where all this leads: Nazi Germany.

“These books had to be shocking and awful; this is what you’ll turn into with these politics. And people react to that in different ways. It was tough juggling the racist element in early drafts; I wanted it to be realistic but it still had to be accessible; people can’t be repulsed by it. An openly racist character, people will just give up on that book.”

I ask where the pseudonym came from. He says, “Darren Shan began because I started as a writer for adults, under my own name, and wanted a different name for the children’s books. My grandfather used to be known as Paddy Shan; it sounded good. The main character in that series is called Darren Shan too, so I can say at the start, ‘This is all true!’ I still get letters from younger kids, years later, asking: is it true?”

Is it tough, juggling adult and kids’ books, horror and fantasy genres, in a publishing industry notorious for its insistence of pigeonholing authors? Yes and no, he says.

“The industry definitely wants something they can market and sell easily; it was like that starting out 20 years ago and it’s even more so now. I can understand their way of thinking, and it’s fine if you’re happy doing just one type of book, but I read all kinds and take inspiration from all over the place. You want to spread yourself widely, and as a creator you shouldn’t be thinking in terms of markets and all that.

“You can always publish yourself these days; I’m thinking of maybe doing that myself with some of my books for adults. It gives you total creative freedom. On the other hand, editors will find flaws in your work and correct them, publishers design great covers and market books in ways you wouldn’t think of… In many ways publishers are crucial. I think most writers need their publishers, even if we grumble about them occasionally.”

In his spare time – what little of it there is – Darren travels with his wife Bas (they married this summer), goes to galleries and the theatre, “pigs out” on weekend trips to London, and enjoys – or endures? – watching Spurs play football.

And of course, there are always more books to work on, and who knows, maybe more movies, too. The first three books in the Darren Shan series were collected into the $100million Hollywood production Cirque du Freak.

He says, “I stayed out of the movie completely, didn’t even visit the set. I learned from the mistakes of other writers who got involved. Usually the producers make up their own story out of your material. I respect that, it’s a different medium. Rather than trying to control something you can’t, I’d rather spend my time and energy on my own books.

“And I liked it. I didn’t think I would – I hated the script! But the actors were good, sets were good. It was unfaithful to the plot but it captured the spirit of the book fairly well… There’s no more movie stuff in the pipeline, but I’m always open to it.”

And with that, Darren Shan steps out into the Limerick streets: a superstar around the planet, pretty much unrecognised in his home-place. Just the way he likes it.

FACTFILE

AGE: 40

BORN: London; moved to Pallaskenry, Co Limerick aged six, still lives there

EDUCATION: Leaving Cert in Pallaskenry; degree in English and Sociology from University of Roehampton, UK

FAMILY: married to Londoner Bas; grew up with one brother

BEST KNOWN AS: the master of Young Adult horror and fantasy

BIG BREAK: switching from fiction for grown-ups to kids’ books in the late 1990s: his series The Saga of Darren Shan was a bestseller from 2000 onwards

PROFESSIONAL ACHIVEMENTS: has sold 25 million books, and had his work made into a Hollywood movie

PROUDEST PROFESSIONAL MOMENT: “Hitting the top of the Japanese bestseller chart – for all books, not just children’s – was an immense achievement. That’s a massive book market and very few Western writers ever penetrate it to any sizeable degree”

LIKES: Books, visual art, travel, meeting fans, Tottenham Hotspurs

DISLIKES: Prejudice, racism, pigeon-holing, Arsenal


Letter to my teenage self

Dear 16-year-old me,

This is, eh, me as well. As in you. Except you as you are now, meaning me. Oh, you know what I mean. Or I know what you mean, whichever. Quit confusing me/you, dude.

Quick bit of news: you’re about to get your heart broken. It will feel like a spectacularly painful kick in the crown jewels. But don’t worry: this too will pass (though you’ll find that hard to believe at the time).

Better yet, you’ll actually look back on the whole sorry saga with nostalgic fondness, when you’re a bit older. Okay, much older. You will, though – you’ll see it through the rosy glow of sentimentality. Like watching your own past as if it were a movie; all you need’s the soundtrack.

You’ll even get some artistic inspiration out of it in later years: maybe not directly (you can’t stand those self-flagellating memoirs where writers lay their whole lives bare), but obliquely. This heartbreak will find itself mentioned, in a sideways manner, in a play, a couple of bad poems and song lyrics, and a Young Adult novel. (That one’s still in progress by the way; get a move on, would you?)

In fact, the whole subject of romance will be fertile ground for you as a writer. Oh, I mightn’t have mentioned that bit – you’re a writer now. Journalism and fiction. It’s alright. Better than slopping out kebabs to drunks at three in the morning.

By the way, write a vampire romance novel called Twilight before 2005: I guarantee it’ll sell big.

Anyway, love and romance and sex and women – you’ll find them to be some of the most interesting and productive themes to write about in your adult life. Right now, though, you’re mired in adolescent hell.

Okay, I exaggerate – it’s not really hell. You’re quite happy, in general. (Until the old kick to the goolies comes along, of course.)

Now, if this really was one of those bare-all memoirs, I’d be telling you at this point how girls are a distant mystery to you, and you’d come to know them better as you grew into adulthood, and a whole world would open up to you, and blah blah blah. But that’s not really the case here.

Because you’re going to a co-ed school, girls aren’t a mystery at all. You spend every day with them: in class, at break, on the bus to school. Your best pals – everyone’s best pals – are the same sex, but you know lots of girls too, and have done since primary school.

Which doesn’t mean you’re some kind of babe-magnet – coz you ain’t – but at least girls don’t seem like some weird alien life-form. They’re just people. Who you happen to fancy.

And you know the strangest thing? This won’t change. In a year-and-a-half you’ll begin an Arts degree in UCC. Then you’ll spend some time on the dole, go back to college, live in Japan for a few months, home again, more dole, until finally at about 25 you’ll start working at a proper job, one you’re still doing now.

In all that time, women will be your friends, co-workers, acquaintances. A few will be your enemies. They’ll be bosses, employees, social networking buddies and e-mail acquaintances. Most, though not every single one, of your truly best friends will be women.

All of them will be just people you’ve interacted with. Except, again for that little twist: some of them you’ll fancy.

But this attitude to women – girls, in your case – is a pretty healthy one, and will serve you just fine. You may not be Russell Brand, but at least you won’t be a woman-hating weirdo who can’t hold a conversation with 50% of the human population.

And don’t worry, you’re not a pathetic and lonely schlub who can’t get a date and/or shift either. (‘Shift’: that’s a word from your era. Not sure if kids still use it nowadays. Check it out when you arrive in 2014.)

You’ll have girlfriends, flings, brief encounters, drunken tangles that neither of you remembers and (take a deep breath) serious relationships. By the time you reach 29 you’ll even (take a deeper breath) be married.

Most unexpectedly – though in another sense, it’s not unexpected at all – you’ll assume that, once you’ve fallen in love and committed to another person for life, you could never feel that strongly about someone else.

Then you’ll have a baby and fall in love all over again.

Ooh, one last tip: that thing you do, where you act all super-sensitive and delicate, like an easily bruised flower, to attract girls? Doesn’t work.

They much prefer the confident, slightly cocky you collecting glasses in that hotel summer job. And they like even more the way you smoke your cigarette while working. Don’t ask me why, just remember to do it.

  • First published in U Magazine

Mamma mia!

“All I am or can be, I owe to my angel Mother.”

Those lines could almost be the motto of the Irish male. Although penned by Abraham Lincoln and not your 45-year-old neighbour Fintan who still can’t work the washing-machine, they encapsulate the sentimental view most Irishmen have of their mother, a feeling which is more than reciprocated.

Indeed, their intense attachment is only rivalled globally by the Italian mamma, though that formidable lady – and her equally formidable hold over her son – may now be under threat. None other than the Catholic Church has identified Mamma as the enemy of Italian marriages (ironic, considering their millennia-old veneration of the ultimate mother, the Madonna).

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco recently risked life and limb by claiming Italian mothers infantilised their boys, who consequently can’t handle a relationship with a woman who doesn’t want to iron his underpants and make the dinner every single night.

This can break up marriages, although in fairness, Italy has the third lowest divorce rate in Europe – and Ireland is lowest. So maybe Mammy/Mamma are on the right track after all.

The Irish mammy and son relationship is an undeniable anthropological phenomenon. (And it has to be mammy: “mam” is too mature, “mum” too pretentiously middle-class, “mom” too Hollywood). When people crack that gag about Jesus being Irish because he lived at home until 33, hung out with the lads all the time and figured his mother for a virgin, they’re only partly joking.

Fussing over Junior when he visits, doing his laundry, ringing obsessively to check he’s eating nutritious food, fretting about his inability to find a “nice girl”, extolling his virtues to disinterested company and, above all, subjugating her own needs for his greater good… Mammy is the living embodiment of the selfless martyr or stoic manservant, living a vicarious life through Son’s achievements.

Every Sunday the male offspring will call to her pristine house, where she serves an immaculate four-course meal over which she’s slaved for the last six hours, then bites back the tears when he only eats half of it anyway because he “doesn’t like broccoli and the broccoli’s touching off the roast”.

Should he find himself penniless through his own stupidity and recklessness, she’ll frantically shake her long-suffering husband awake in the middle of the night and demand he withdraw a sizeable amount of money, then drive through the worst storm in living memory to present it to their son in person, along with a flask of soup, freshly baked cake and new socks.

Immortalised on humorous tea-towels, eulogised in jokes and the cause of fights when someone in the pub calls their virtue into question…the traditional Irish mammy is a strange and wondrous creation indeed. But it’s also probably a dying breed.

Things have changed in recent years. What with feminism, political correctness and equal rights for all, women have assumed more power and exert their individuality to a greater degree.

One minute they’re breeding like badgers and not having any opinions, the next they’re earning much more money than you and refusing to shave their armpits “just because the system says so”. Whatever next, eh?

These go-getting career women are more likely to wear sharp suits and hold power breakfasts with Japanese conglomerates, than clean their middle-aged son’s room while smiling fondly at his endearing messiness and convincing herself that the stack of adult magazines in the wardrobe must belong to his shifty friend. Whose mother is no good anyway, so what would you expect.

For birthday or Christmas she’d like a stress-relieving miniature Zen garden or leather-bound copy of The Female Eunuch. Old-school Mammy, on the other hand, loves nothing more than a bunch of wilted lilies, a framed portrait of himself in heroic pose, and a bottle of oven cleaner for when she calls round to clean his kitchen.

The bad old good old days, you’d imagine, are on the way out. Mammy, like Romantic Ireland, is with O’Leary in the grave. But in her honour, we’ll finish with one of those jokes that are funny because they’re true:

How many Irish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? “Arrah don’t mind me, pet, I’ll be grand here on my own in the dark.”

 

  • First published in the Irish Independent

In the pubic interest

So pubic hair on women is “back in fashion”. The fact that it ever went out of fashion is proof, which sadly isn’t needed, that this is a horrible, woman-hating world. The most horrible part is that it’s made some women hate themselves.

It’s so illogical, it’s almost beyond comprehension. For someone to think that pubic hair is wrong in some way – unsightly, unhygienic, unsexy, unwomanly… You might as well say noses are wrong, toes, fingernails.

They’re just parts of the human body, correct? And pubic hair is part of the mature human body, no? Therefore removing it a pile of steaming BS, QED.

Let’s take these “arguments” – sigh – against female pubic hair one by one. First, that it’s unsightly. Wrong: women without any look weird and kind of inhuman, like a mannequin or statue.

The aesthetic of the naked female is in perfect balance; some daft social trend only knocks this balance out of whack. I’ve done life drawing and nude photography – don’t worry, it was an art course, I haven’t turned into Larry Flynt – so trust me on this.

Second: pubic hair is unhygienic. Wrong! Because how could evolution have erred so badly on this one? There’s a biological reason for pubic hair; removing it causes all sorts of dermatological problems. Imma assume that Nature knew what it was doing here. (Besides, if this be true, how come men aren’t doing away with it too?)

I made this point once; the dude replied, “Evolution isn’t always right.” Evolution…isn’t always right! He actually said that.

Third: pubic hair is unsexy on a woman. Wrong again! There’s nothing less sexy than a totally hairless lady. For starters, it suggests she’s overly susceptible to stupid fashions or the goading of some idiot boyfriend who can’t handle a real woman; low self-esteem and emotional immaturity are never that sexy, really.

But even less sexy is someone looking like a pre-adolescent. It sort of does come down to that: any man who only fancies women with no pubic hair doesn’t really fancy women at all. He fancies little girls.

Personally? I don’t find little girls sexually attractive. And seeing grown-ups with no pubic hair reminds me of them, and that is creeeeeepy.

Four: public hair is unwomanly. See above.

I read recently one of those insidious, two-faced “how to be happy” articles, written by a woman in order to make other women feel very unhappy, which revolved around changing your physical appearance. (Coz we all know that’s the source of true happiness!)

Anyway, this genius had the cojones to say “remove all body hair, because you’re not a man – you’re a woman.” Well, no: as mentioned, if you have no pubic hair, technically you’re a child. The piece should have been headlined, “Self-hating cretin’s Top Tips on how to bag yourself a nut-less pederast as a boyfriend.”

Call me old-fashioned, but women are supposed to have pubic hair, breasts, rounded hips; same as men have facial hair, Adam’s apple and a dingle-dangle centre-stage, somewhat reminiscent of a forlorn party-goer who doesn’t know anyone there and is too shy to strike up a conversation with strangers, so is kind of hanging around, feeling awkward, hoping nobody notices him.

The saddest thing about all this crapola is this: how did it happen that women are the ones modifying their appearance in order to attract a mate? For God’s sake, women are physically GORGEOUS. Why do you think virtually every artist in history, of both sexes, concentrates on the female form?

Perfect topography, divine symmetry. A place, sublime and magical, that’s far beyond the sexual. All the secrets in the world inscribed on soft vellum and red silk, by a knowing hand in a flowing script.

A thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Us men, we’re the ones should be forced to remove this, add that and change the other. We’re lumpen, misshaped, caveman-esque, sort of ugly. Definitely ugly compared to you.

Women are beautiful, exactly as they were made. You should remember that – and if anyone tries to say otherwise, refer them to this.

 

  • First published in U Magazine

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