The perils and pitfalls of gift-shopping

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD DECEMBER 4

 

Thinking of giving a gift voucher to someone this Christmas? A raft of new rules has just been made law, protecting the recipient from sharp practice.

Expiry dates are extended to at least five years from date of purchase; there’s no longer a limit on how many vouchers can be used in one transaction; anyone can use the voucher, not just the person named on it.

This is all good, I think any reasonable person would agree; vouchers seem another form of legal tender to me, and there’s no statute of limitations on pulling out that fiver mouldering in a dank corner of your wallet for the last decade.

That said, I wonder if a voucher is a bit of a cop-out as a present? It’s almost as if you’re saying, I couldn’t really think of anything to get you, so here – buy something for yourself. Saves me the bother.

We might as well throw a fifty in the recipient’s general direction, which automatically reminds me of that wedding scene in Goodfellas where ostentatiously respectful wise-guys line up to hand Henry Hill envelopes stuffed with cash.

I guess it’s not the only classic gifting booboo, though. Many of us have, for instance, bought a Christmas jumper for someone – generally with a picture on the front of a drunken Rudolph wearing sunglasses and grinning sleazily, or some-such nonsense – which are unwearable, by law, after midnight on December 25th.

In fact most gifts are fraught with some element of danger. You can’t buy someone a book, CD or DVD unless it’s something you very obviously don’t want to read, listen to or watch yourself. Otherwise they’ll assume you purchased it for yourself, in a “killing two birds with one stone” type situation.

On the other hand, getting something only they are interested in could result in the horrors of your home being filled with the moaning sound of Hozier on Christmas Day, or the receiver insisting you sit down while they read out passages from some horrendous new book about Kim Kar-krash-ian. It’s the ultimate festive Catch-22.

Maybe you’re thinking of buying someone a bottle of expensive wine? They might get squiffy and confess that they’ve always secretly hated you, and by the way that haircut makes you look like a shopping-centre security guard who got fired for drinking on the job and leering at teenagers.

A trip to a fancy spa hotel for some pampering? They might drown in the seaweed baths, or come home determined to change career to “hot-stone therapist”. A trip abroad? They’ll think you’re trying to get rid of them.

Clothes? Bound to be something they hate and probably won’t fit right. Tickets to some upcoming event? They’ll assume you consider them to be an uncultured oik who needs to be re-educated. Classes in something? They’ll assume you find them boring.

I’ve also discovered, to great personal cost, that the following simply “don’t cut it” as acceptable gifts: footwear, novelty slippers, Nightmare on Elm Street box-set, Freddie Krueger hat and stripy jumper, Kelly Brook calendar, carton of cigarettes (especially if they don’t smoke), “Santa’s sexy little elf” costume and a free haircut at Ray-Zerzzzz, “Tallaght’s skin-headiest barber”.

At this point, the normal human being will be looking around for a rock, in order to enact a “killing one person with one large stone” type situation.

And fellas, don’t even think about jewellery or lingerie for that special lady. If it’s a ring you have in mind, the shop will want to know her finger size. And they won’t accept, “Uh – kind of chubby? Like, not total sausages, but she’ll never be a professional pianist, put it like that.”

You can’t ask her, that’d ruin the surprise. So you end up inventing some spurious reason for measuring her ring finger, involving a convoluted lie about a new government think-tank survey analysing increases or decreases across a random section of the population, 1950-2020.

Meanwhile lingerie is a complete minefield. Get something too sexy and your girl might think you’re unsubtly suggesting that she is some kind of common trollop; or worse, you think becoming some kind of common trollop is a viable career option for her in these uncertain economic climes.

However, get something not sexy enough and she’ll suspect that you find her unattractive in some way, and want her to cover up in the bra and knickers equivalent of a burqa. Plus you’ve probably got the size wrong there too.

And forget about perfume. Men always have a crap nose for perfumes. We think something is sexy and classy, women think it stinks like a third-rate bordello.

The only safe option, ultimately, is to get the person something funny and silly as a stocking filler – I find that a novelty cigarette lighter in the shape of Gerry Adams, where the flame shoots out his terrifying, bearded mouth, is a sure-fire winner – and then pretend that the “real gift” must have been delayed in the post.

This is pretty plausible, actually, as the mail system always goes bonkers around Christmas time. Of course, by about April she’ll probably be wondering how it’s possible for the package to still be delayed. But that’s a problem for another day. Or year.


ARCHIVE PIECES: So long, Jim Gavin

Jim Gavin has stepped down as Dublin football manager, after seven years of unparalleled success. Here are two pieces on the Dubs, the first (from the Herald in March of 2018) about why Dublin’s dominance doesn’t bother me unduly, the second (from the Herald this September) addressing the issue of funding imbalances – and why the strength of GAA in the capital is more important, ultimately, than a competitive intercounty scene:

 

#1: On Dublin dominance

Summer’s here and the Jacks are back, with Dublin kicking off their football championship this weekend against Wicklow. Although let’s be honest: Dublin’s championship doesn’t really begin until the Super 8s in July.

It’s been like that for years, the Dubs capturing 12 of the last 13 Leinster titles. And strolling through each campaign, victory achieved in third gear by huge margins.

Never mind the massive odds on Wicklow overcoming their neighbours in Portlaoise on Sunday – Dublin loom over the entire province like a footballing Big Brother, impassive of face and brutal of execution, giant stone fist ever-poised to bring the pain.

To paraphrase Orwell’s 1984, if you want a picture of the future, imagine a Dublin boot kicking over yet another point against long-beaten Leinster opposition, forever.

This provincial reign of terror is one reason many football fans are uneasy with the Dubs’ current streak of glory. Another is that they’ve also captured five of the last six leagues, five Sam Maguires in seven years, and now are going for an historic All-Ireland four-in-a-row.

Where will it end? people wonder. Is this ruining the game? Do we need to break Dublin up into 12 different teams, or initiate large-scale forced migration from the capital to Leitrim, Longford and Limerick? (My answers are: I don’t know, no and maybe.)

Funnily enough, though, I don’t mind the present period of Dublin dominance. Certainly, the Leinster championship has become somewhat pointless and dispiriting for others; a new champion there would be no harm.

But with regards to the All-Ireland four-in-a-row tilt, I don’t feel it’s a bad thing. For starters, we may be watching history in the making – something genuinely special.

Football has only seen this happen three times in 130 years. Two of those were concluded in 1918 (Wexford) and 1932 (Kerry): an era so distant, it feels practically Jurassic. More recently Kerry did the same with probably the most celebrated GAA team of all, but even that’s coming on for four decades ago.

In hurling, we had four on the spin for Cork in the 1940s, and Kilkenny from 2006-09. The Cats’, then, is the only such achievement in recent history, and it assuredly did feel like an epochal moment.

Four-in-a-row is not easily done in GAA. Should Dublin pull it off in 2018, people will still remember their deeds in 2118. There’s the added intrigue of Stephen Cluxton’s captaincy: already the only man to lead his county to four All-Irelands, another on September 2 will make the goalkeeper immortal.

There are other reasons for my lack of Dublinophobia, besides “history in the making”. For one thing, as a Tipp fan, I’m relatively neutral; we have no rivalry with Dublin in football.

I can appreciate how their post-millennial empire sticks in the craw of Kerry people. If I were from Mayo, I’d be wondering if someone had literally put a hex on us. If I were from Meath, I’d be in despair.

But for me, there’s no past baggage. Dublin success doesn’t grind my gears in the same way that – I admit it – Kilkenny’s does.

Also, Dublin play the game in the right way. No blanket defence horrors, no needlessly complicated tactics, and little enough of all that “shot selection/man off the shoulder/circle of trust” corporate-speak nonsense beloved of modern-day managers.

In defence they employ a loose sweeper system and hit hard (and sometimes below the belt). Then when they get the ball, they roar forward in attack: daring, aggressive, fast and exhilarating. Watching Dublin is an exciting reminder of how good football can be when played with a spirit of adventure.

And it’s good for the GAA overall that the game is strong in the capital. Thousands and thousands more kids taking up Irish pastimes, loving them, protecting them for the next generation? That’s worth the price of a few uncompetitive intercounty championships.

Lastly – and maybe most importantly – I’ve always had a soft spot for the Dubs, going right back to 1983 and that memorable, off-the-wall campaign. It began with two draws and extra-time against Meath, through a shock victory over All-Ireland champs Offaly, on to Barney Rock’s famous equalising goal against Cork and the even-more-famous trip to Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the replay, replete with Joe McNally’s soccer-style coup de grace at the end, and finally the decider against Galway, when the Dirty Dozen triumphed after Barney (again) lobbed the goalie from near halfway.

Ever since, I’ve shouted for Dublin. I even had a poster of the Boys in Blue on my wall as a kid. (Oh, don’t judge me too harshly; Tipp hurlers were woeful at the time.)

There were a lot of fallow years since – a few near misses (1991! 1994! 2007!) and some embarrassments (2009!). Now, a lot of great GAA people in Dublin are getting their just reward, and I don’t begrudge them one bit of it. Although I have, at least, got rid of that poster.

 

#2: On Dublin funding

Even for those who couldn’t watch the entire game, you had to make time to catch the final five minutes. This was history being made: the first five-in-a-row in GAA history.

Of course, within minutes of the final whistle sounding on Dublin’s win over Kerry in a fantastic match, the naysaying commenced. In some places they call it Tall Poppy Syndrome; here we know it as begrudgery.

The main gripes about Dublin’s football dominance are twofold: they hold an unfair advantage in population size and, especially, they’re funded to a disproportionate degree.

On the first, I would agree to an extent; that said, this is the intrinsic nature of the intercounty system. Twice as many people live in Tipp, for instance, as in Laois; it will probably always be thus. So does the Premier have an unfair advantage over their Midlands neighbours?

Yes – that’s just how it is. To change would mean dismantling the county system, which would render the whole thing meaningless: over a century of history disregarded and binned.

Besides, Kilkenny is relatively small, and it doesn’t seem to hinder them too much. And it’s a laugh to hear people from huge population centres like Cork, Galway and Limerick moaning about the size of Dublin. Half a million people live in Cork! That’s a lot of potential footballers.

Furthermore, huge tracts of Dublin are GAA dead zones. It’s not as if every one of the c. two million inhabitants are Gaelic games devotees. It brings to mind the old adage about “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

The same with funding, for a few reasons. Yes, Dublin receives much more money than everyone else, both through central GAA funds and lucrative sponsorship details. However, the devil, as always, lies in the detail.

For one thing, money does not make someone a good footballer. Talk all you like about how the Dublin players are top athletes, with the right nutrition, strength and conditioning, rest periods and all the rest.

But football remains a ball sport, requiring a certain level of technical adroitness. And Dublin, even their harshest critics will concede, are lovely footballers. They don’t win by overpowering opponents: they win by being more skilled. Game management, match-ups, shot selection and the many other buzzwords of modern punditry: it all (or mostly) comes down to technique.

And that can be coached, by anyone, anywhere. One example: Con O’Callaghan scored a point against Roscommon where he soared to make a superb high catch, landed properly so as not to hurt himself, stood up, spun away to make space and gently lofted the ball over the bar.

Money doesn’t make that happen – it’s skill. O’Callaghan was obviously coached in the arts of high-fielding and kicking by someone, and practiced over and over, and now is very good at them. A county board bank balance has no relevance on anyone else being taught, and working to improve, that or any other skill.

So I’m not convinced that the money argument holds water. But even if it did – and here comes my most important point – I don’t care.

The whole point of funding GAA in Dublin is to get as many boys and girls playing, and their parents involved, as possible. (That’s where most of the money goes, incidentally: into games development officers for schools and clubs. It’s not as if Cluxton and Mannion are swanning around in fur coats and Maseratis.)

The senior football team will likely be a beneficiary of this investment, but it’s not the main reason for doing it. That would be getting hundreds of thousands of kids interested in Irish sport and culture, and as far as I’m concerned, this is all that matters.

The GAA is as much a social organisation as a sporting one, and keeping our culture alive is more important than guaranteeing a competitive intercounty championship. If I had to choose between them, I would choose the former. Intercounty is just the icing on a massive cake; encouraging kids to play, and their parents to develop an interest: that is the cake.

I mean, what do we want here: a return to the grim days of 40 years ago, when most Dubs sneered at Gaelic games and Irish culture was withering on the vine throughout our capital city? Personally I love the fact that, whenever I visit family in Inchicore, I see scores of smallies with hurleys and footballs.

If Dublin dominance is the price to be paid for Gaelic games tapping into this enormous human resource, it’s worth paying. I say all this, by the way, as a neutral – but a GAA person first and foremost.

By all means, split Dublin into two, or four, if it’s felt necessary. Sure, give more GDOs to rival counties. But don’t cut off funding to this sprawling metropolis which still remains GAA-free in many areas.

We won the battle against the death of Gaelic culture; let’s not now lose the war.

 

 


ARCHIVE PIECE: What should we do with “ISIS brides”?

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD MARCH 2019

With Irishwoman Lisa Smith currently being interviewed by Gardaí after her return from Syria, I figured it was a good time to revisit an old column which asks a new and vexing question:

 

What is to be done about Irish citizens who turn jihadi? It’s a question the UK and other European countries have been grappling with for a few years, and now it appears to be our turn.

In January Alexandr Ruzmatovich Bekmirzaev was captured by Kurdish forces in Syria, allegedly fighting for ISIS. Born in Belarus, he lived in Ireland for a decade and has citizenship and a passport.

Now Lisa Smith, a 37-year-old former soldier from Louth, has been found in a refugee camp, having fled Baghuz along with other so-called “ISIS brides”. She had travelled to the war-zone in 2015, married a British jihadist, now dead, and had a child.

While Gardaí estimate the number of Irish supporters of Islamic terrorism to be small, we can assume there will be more. So what should we do with them?

The British Government wants to cancel the citizenship of Shamima Begum, one of the most notorious ISIS brides. Many here would agree. Is there a point at which citizenship can or should be revoked? Certainly the moral argument can be made.

People stress the “terrorism” aspect of groups like ISIS, but that, in a funny way, reduces the full horror of what they’ve done.

Terrorism happens all over the world, generally carried out by secular groups with stated political aims. It’s awful, yes, but you can at least understand and reason with those people.

ISIS, by contrast, is a murderous death-cult whose insane, Grand Guignol acts of violence are so genuinely bloodcurdling, they seem closer to an OTT fantasy novel than something actually done by real human beings.

They’re probably the most depraved bunch on this planet since the Nazis. And indeed anyone who joins ISIS is worse than a Nazi, in that everyone knew, at least five or six years ago, exactly what they were inflicting on people in Iraq and Syria. Leaving Ireland for this horrendous “caliphate” is like joining the Nazis after seeing footage of the concentration camps.

So in one sense, European jihadis have themselves discarded their citizenship. They have, in fact, renounced membership of the human race.

Apart from the morals, ISIS brides and their ilk are also joining a group with the avowed aim of overthrowing the world for an Islamic caliphate; not that it could ever happen, but the point stands. Therefore they are traitors, enemy combatants and, now, foreigners.

The family and friends of these criminals talk about how they want to “come home”. But they already are home. The caliphate was their home, they chose it. And the caliphate lost, so they must deal with the consequences.

Is there any justification for their actions? Not in my opinion. Lisa Smith has been quoted as saying, “You see the propaganda…you want to come and live in a Muslim country…you want clean life but sometimes it is not like this.”

So, what – that makes it okay? You read about rape, slavery, crucifixion, decapitation, mass murder, babies slaughtered, people burned alive, and you were alright with all that, because it meant that you – special little you – could fulfil your dream of living in some Islamic paradise?

Is this a joke? If it is, it’s the sickest one we’ve ever heard.

I’ve even read someone defend Smith by saying she was “naïve and gullible”, and “groomed” and “radicalised” by others. The woman is in her late thirties. She knew what she signing up for.

And to be honest, even had she been young – AKA Begum – any teenager who embraces the panoply of horrors vomited out by ISIS is not naïve or gullible. They’re a sociopath who needs to be locked away and studied by psychiatrists.

For all that, I don’t necessarily think Bekmirzaev or Smith’s citizenship should be revoked, though I have absolutely zero sympathy for European jihadists, and believe their rehabilitation is not only impossible but morally unjustified.

No, my reasoning is this: why should the poor Kurds, Yazidis et al, who have suffered so much, have to deal with these criminals too? They should be shipped home, tried on charges of war-crimes and genocide, then locked up for life.

No possibility of parole. You’ve made your bed, and here it is: in the corner of this cell, where you will remain until death.

In joining ISIS, you moved beyond the pale of decent humanity. There’s no place for you anymore. There’s no redemption after that. I don’t advocate spiteful ill-treatment of prisoners – but prisoners they must remain for the rest of their lives.

That said, maybe it’s not our decision to make. It’s easy for us in Ireland to blah-blah-blah about this stuff in the abstract. Maybe we should ask their victims what they want to do with those fascist animals, and the ones who facilitated them.

Maybe we should ask the Yazidi people, raped and murdered and enslaved by ISIS. They were at the (literal) cutting edge of it. Many of ISIS’ victims want the death sentence for foreign combatants – to be honest, I wouldn’t stand in their way.

 

 


ARCHIVE PIECE: Decriminalise drugs and take power back from criminals

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD MARCH 2019

 

Do kids making their Confirmation still also take the pledge to be a Pioneer? This was a solemn promise to abstain from alcohol until your 18th birthday – and ideally, the rest of your life thereafter.

I made the pledge in the 1980s, sticking with it until around 17 and university. I probably hadn’t thought about the Pioneer movement since then even once, until the head of the Irish Catholic Church this week called for society to “reignite the temperance movement” to tackle the “terrible impact” of drugs and alcohol.

Archbishop Eamon Martin argues that temperance – Pioneer-style abstinence, essentially – is the best way to fight the devastation being caused in our communities, down even to village level, by drugs legal and not.

Personally, I feel there’s an argument to be made that all drugs should be decriminalised. I accept the view that society should set its aspirations high, and not cater to low standards or baser instinct in its laws.

Yet I still believe that decriminalisation is worth examining. I say this, by the way, as someone who hardly ever dabbled in the dodgy stuff – coffee and cigarettes are the best way for this bird to fly – and thus have no personal dog in the fight.

For one thing, we live in a free world; mature adults should have the right to a personal choice on ingesting whatever they want, so long as they’re made aware of the effects and, especially, their consequent responsibilities to everyone else.

In other words, you want to waste your days smoking opium? Fine, it’s your life. You want to brain a shopkeeper to get money for your opium fix? Not fine, and I’d come down very hard on anyone who can’t keep their personal habits personal; who makes their problem into someone else’s problem.

There’s also the not inconsiderable fact that it is impossible to control drug-taking anyway. As long as human civilisation has been recorded, and almost certainly much further than that, people have consumed mind-altering substances.

You can’t stop some folks from doing it, because you can’t stop them from really wanting to do it. That’s human nature.

And if their drug of choice is not available, they’ll probably just smoke, drink, eat or otherwise ingest something else. I mean, people get high from licking toads which release a toxic hallucinogenic compound: proof, surely, that human ingenuity, combined with an insatiable appetite for altered states of mind, will enable people to find drugs virtually anywhere.

But the most important factor behind any call for decriminalisation is this: it would greatly reduce criminality, which is the primary source of all that pain and misery.

To go back to our hypothetical opium user, consuming a drug affects one person, ultimately; making that drug illegal empowers entire armies of thugs, scumbags and killers.

Look at Ireland: the drug-fuelled Hutch-Kinahan feud has seen 18 people murdered so far. The small city of Limerick was beset by similar during the noughties, when the Keane-Collopy vs McCarthy-Dundon war was at its height. Current serious troubles in Drogheda are linked to drug-trafficking turf battles.

Making drugs illegal makes them incredibly valuable; after all, there must be some reason why young men risk life and liberty for the chance to sell them. And that in turn makes gangsters very rich: recently, for instance, CAB repossessed a mansion in swanky Raleigh Place, then owned by crime-lord Liam Byrne, which was worth a whopping million quid.

Drug-dealing pays well – if you fight to the top and make it out alive and not in prison, which hardly anyone does. From the top down, meanwhile, there’s a pyramid of ever-expanding loss, anguish and brutality.

Allowing the State to take control of drugs, though, cuts the legs out from under these bastards to a large degree. No trafficking revenues means no guns, no mansions, no deadly feuds, no armoured SUVs, no fancy foreign palaces. It means no muscle, no power, no leverage over ordinary citizens, no danger, no threat to society.

Decriminalisation is also a matter of global equality. Most of the countries which actually produce drugs – Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico, Bolivia – are poor, to greater or lesser degrees. And because of the legal/political “war on drugs”, large parts are turned into horrific hell-holes. Mexico, for example, has a surreally high murder rate: 28,000 last year, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Well-meaning Westerners buy Fair Trade, lobby for better deals for Third World countries, give to charities and aid groups. But decriminalising the global drug industry would help those people ten times more.

We’re all aware that Prohibition basically ushered in the rise of organised crime in the US during the 1920s. The same thing continues to happen. People are, have and always will take drugs; by making it strictly illegal, all we’re doing is handing the money and power to ruthless barbarians.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Royal baby names

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD APRIL 2018

 

Unlike many Irish people – and, for that matter, many British people – I don’t mind the Royals. My younger, republican-leaning self would probably screech, “What happened you, man!?”, but this super-privileged familial oligarchy doesn’t particularly bother me.

For one thing, they’re over there, not over here; as someone pointed out, we get all the drama and crack without having to pay for it. And for another, it’s ultimately pretty harmless.

The Royals are just another branch of what I like to call the Celebrity-Industrial Complex. They’re essentially no different to Hollywood, the Kardashians, Justin Bieber or, at its most money-drenched levels, professional sport.

Sure, it’s all meaningless nonsense. But so are Hollywood, the Kardashians, Justin Bieber and professional sport. In fact most things that ever happen, to anyone, are meaningless nonsense.

Not that I actually follow the Royals, mind you. I’m like most people: I pay a little attention when one of them dies, marries, divorces, visits Ireland, is embroiled in a hilarious scandal involving nude pool and/or Nazi-themed costume parties…or has a baby.

And that brings us to Kate Middleton and Prince William, who just had their third. At time of writing, the sex of the child is known – male – but not the name. So we have lots of fevered speculation about what the couple will call him.

Which is where the Windsor soap opera starkly diverges from similar real-life melodramas involving celebs, top athletes and movie stars. The Royals always, always go for something stately and classic and, well, royal.

Kate and Wills’ first two grommets are George and Charlotte. His brother was christened Henry. His dad is Charles. His granny is Elizabeth and granddad is Philip. His uncles are Andrew and Edward. His aunt is Anne. And he, clearly, is William.

All good, solid, tried-and-tested kingly/queenly names. The kind of name you can foresee being introduced to foreign dignitaries at some Commonwealth ball, without spooking the diplomatic horses.

And really, it has to be so. Could you imagine the Queen of Swaziland or Lord Ulbrecht of the Holy Roman Empire waiting there, preparing to curtsey humbly, and the bewigged footman solemnly intoning, “May I please present His Highness the Royal Princeling and fifth heir to the English Crown…Cletus LaBooyah Junior”?

Eh…no, you may not.

So this nipper will assuredly be given a similar moniker. Bookies currently make Arthur the favourite, followed by Albert, Philip and Thomas. Oddly enough, one reason why Arthur is being tipped is that Kate and Wills apparently made sure to seek out and wave to a photographer friend of theirs, called Arthur, when presenting the baby to the world in one of those “All hail the Mighty God-Child and Bow Your Heads in Terror!” photo-ops outside the hospital.

This seems shaky enough logic to me. By that rationale, we should be piling our money on Roger – name of a policeman on crowd-control duty across the road – or Darren, seen cheering loudly and waving one of those funny miniature Union Jack flags 200 yards up the street.

Anyway, it’ll definitely be one of those mentioned. There’s also room for a John in there. Maybe James. Possibly Alexander. And if he’d been a she, we’d be looking at names such as Victoria, Margaret, Catherine, Elizabeth, Philippa and Beatrice.

What we would not be looking at is something like True, which is what one or other of the Kardashians named their latest organic paparazzi-magnet. (Khloe? Kourtney? Krusty? I can’t tell one from the other.)

It turned out True was actually an old Kardashian family name, but that’s irrelevant: this is the kind of irredeemably stupid non-name that celebs always unfairly saddle their kids with.

North West. Apple Paltrow-Martin. Rocket Zot Worthington. Bronx Mowgli Simpson. Brooklyn Beckham. Ode Mountain DeLorenzo Malone. Ace Knute Simpson. Audio Science Sossamon.

These are less names than random groupings of words. Meet my son Bridge Electricity. This is my daughter Dictaphone Anti-Matter. Have you been introduced to Socialism Bipolar-Disorder? Oh you’ll really like him.

Even those celebs who try to play down their celeb-ness are at it. Prime example, Jamie Oliver: Mister “ooh luvvly jubbly awroight mate my old man’s a dustman” himself. His kids are River Rocket, Daisy Boo, Petal Blossom Rainbow, Buddy Bear Oliver and Poppy Honey, which sounds like the cast-list of a really tedious children’s film about anthropomorphic woodland creatures.

Of course, this eejitry has been going on for years: it’s half a century since Frank Zappa named his daughter Moon Unit. But he could get away with it, because Frank Zappa was incredibly cool and a bit of an off-key genius. Jamie Oliver, Chris Martin and Krusty Kardashian are neither.

In a funny way, though, the Royals are kind of cool too, for sticking to their traditionalist guns and not lumbering their children with ridiculous names. Until little Cletus LaBooyah Junior comes along, anyway.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Christmas creep

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD NOVEMBER 2018

 

“Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, please put a penny in the old man’s…”

Hold on a second. Christmas is coming? How can that be, it was only Halloween a few days ago. Yet there it is, all around, the irrefutable evidence: Christmas ads on the telly, Christmas offers in the shops, Christmas catalogues with your supermarket shopping.

Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. Will I say it a few more times, just so the word really sticks in your mind?

It’s mostly to do with sales and business, you will have noticed. For every one human being asking, “Well, have you any plans for the Christmas?”, you’ll encounter ten thousand adverts for things you don’t really want or need to buy.

They call this phenomenon “Christmas Creep”. That sounds like it could the main character from a festive-themed horror movie – possible one about a weirdo who stalks cheerleaders while pairing his customary trench-coat with a fetching Santa hat and “hilarious” Christmas jumper.

In reality, it’s something even more horrifying: the rapacious, all-devouring monster that is consumerism.

Oh, look, I know this is an annual complaint. “It seems to be coming earlier every year,” we moan. “It’s lost all meaning now,” we wail. “They’ll be selling crackers and turkeys in March before we know it,” we hyperbolically predict.

And it’s not a new thing, despite what everyone assumes. I seem to remember, in my childhood, ads for toys running on children’s telly in November, if not even October.

Probably, if you go back far enough in time, the people of 1st century AD Judea were giving out about how the star which announced Jesus’ birth was appearing earlier in the eastern sky every year, and they were sick of the local market giving it the hard-sell on discounted frankincense and myrrh. (“A perfect luxury gift for the person who has everything!”)

I even understand why shops push all this stuff at us for such a long period. Eh, it’s to make money. Obviously. That’s what shops do; it’s the entire raison d’être of free-market capitalism, sure. Not saying I like it, but I do at least understand it.

What I don’t understand are those folks who put up Christmas decorations immediately after the clock strikes midnight on November 1st. Now, this isn’t some wearying comment on tastes in interior design or anything – it’s far more simple, and profound than that.

Do they not get really sick of looking at Christmas decorations for two full months (plus change, as these people always insist on leaving it all up until at least the seventh day of January)? That’s a sixth of the entire year that you’re sitting there, surrounded by shiny baubles, green tinsel, Nutcracker figurines and amusingly-large stockings.

I don’t mind Yuletide decorations too much, generally speaking. They make our cities and towns look nicer for a while during the most hellish parts of winter. They make standalone houses stand out, beacons of light in the darkness.

They’re cheery and cheering; they remind us of childhood and provide a sweet little link between the generations. It’s pleasant to bring out the old bits and bobs that you’ve saved from your own past, showing them to the children, explaining where they came from or what they mean.

But two months of eyeballing the angel on top of the tree, and being eyeballed in turn by the Santa on top of the telly? Good God. I think I’d go postal if I had to endure that.

Still, I presume these early-adopters don’t mind – well, clearly they don’t, or they wouldn’t be doing this. I also presume that they’re the same people who throw up fake cobwebs and decapitated clown-heads around the middle of September.

They paint the house green and tattoo a shamrock onto their forehead in the third week of January. They order in catering-sized pallets of chocolate eggs and brush up on their catechism a good two months before Easter.

They’ve already booked the holidays for next summer, and the summer after that. Right now they’re searching online for tickets to the 2028 Olympic Games and the series of Garth Brooks of Croke Park concerts provisionally pencilled in for June 2041 (it’ll take that long to get permission from the local residents). You can never be too early with the preparations.

I also (also) presume that such people buy their Christmas gifts ridiculously early. You know, they swagger over with a smug expression sometime in mid-August and declare, “Yep – all the old Christmas shopping done now. Just need to order the Brussel sprouts for 2021 and we’ll be set.”

So, despite the fact that their enthusiasm for Christmas is at a level somewhere between “incomprehensible” and “downright weird”, all those ads currently colonising the telly and billboards are wasted on them. What an irony.


Reading the millennium – my favourite 100 books published since 2000

The end of this decade is coming into view – which means a raft of articles on the best of the 2010s, be that books, movies, music or whatever else. I haven’t listened to much new music since around 1998, and couldn’t be bothered checking out most new films (Scream is demanding to be rewatched for the millionth time, after all). But I do, and have, read quite a lot of new books.

The other day I wrote a short piece for the Irish Independent on my two favourite books of the decade…and it was hellishly difficult, narrowing the choice down to just two. So I’ve decided to expand the concept, numerically speaking, and throw up my favourite 100. However – and following the Guardian’s recent example – I’ve further decided to go the whole hog and select from the entire millennium so far. The final results, after much head-scratching, are presented below.

(These aren’t, by the way, necessarily my favourites of what I’ve read during the last two decades. I’d tend to skew towards older stuff/classics etc. etc. But these are the best I’ve read which were first published since the millennium.)

A few brief notes:

  • I’m cheating a little here in including Ballard, Orwell, Calvino and Zweig. These stories or essays were written long before the 20th century ended. But they were first published in this complete form post-2000, so for me, these count as books of the new millennium.
  • Publication dates for non-English books are for the first English translation (as far as I can work it out). Some of them were out in their original language several years before that.
  • A few mildly interesting stats (interesting to me, at any rate): 29 of the books on this list are non-fiction, 63 are novels and there are seven short story collections; 80% men versus 20% women (no particular reason, just how it worked out; I guess more men get published in general? I’m certainly not one of those ridiculous people who “only” reads one or other sex. A good book is a good book, full stop); 12 books in translation; nine Irish works make the cut.
  • The most common entries? Don DeLillo with four (ish*), Margaret Atwood with three and JG Ballard with 3 (also ish*). No big surprise there, as those three are probably my all-time favourite authors. (William Gibson on the subs’ bench.) * The “ish” refers to the fact that one DeLillo, and one Ballard, are actually collections of interviews with them, not fiction. But – it’s all their own words and thoughts, so again, I’ll allow it.
  • Decade by decade, my top 100 breaks down thus: the 2000s get 39, the 2010s get 60. Meanwhile the “worst” years, for my liking, were 2001, 2002 and 2003 – each with just one entry. “Best” year was 2017, with 11. In fairness, there’s probably a weighting towards later years because I didn’t start reading for review/work purposes until c. 2006, so would have read more (and probably better) books from that time onwards…
  • AND FINALLY: eagle-eyed and/or mathematically minded people might have noticed that some of my sums don’t add up, e.g. 39 plus 60 does not make 100. That’s because I left the list at 99 – in the hope that you, dear (fellow) reader, might suggest a hundredth in the comments section below…

 

MY FAVOURITE 100 BOOKS OF THE MILLENNIUM SO FAR

The Blind Assassin (2000), Margaret Atwood

Shirker (2000), Chad Taylor

The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), Alain de Botton

True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), Peter Carey

Europeana (2001), Patrik Ourednik

Essays (2002), George Orwell

Cosmopolis (2003), Don DeLillo

2666 (2004), Roberto Bolaño

Oryx and Crake (2004), Margaret Atwood

Cloud Atlas (2004), David Mitchell

The Plot Against America (2004), Philip Roth

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (2004), Francis Wheen

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke

A Short History of Nearly Everything (2004), Bill Bryson

Mutants (2004), Armand Marie Leroi

Conversations with Don DeLillo (2005), Thomas DePietro ed.

The Trudeau Vector (2005), Juris Jurjevics

Empires of the Word (2005), Nicholas Ostler

Molly and the Cyclops (2006), Ailbhe Keogan

Complete Short Stories Vol I (2006), JG Ballard

Complete Short Stories Vol II (2006), JG Ballard

A Brief History of Misogyny (2006), Jack Holland

Blindsight (2006), Peter Watts

Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006), Marisha Pessl

Tenderwire (2006), Claire Kilroy

Darkmans (2007), Nicola Barker

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), Michael Chabon

The Savage Detectives (2007), Roberto Bolaño

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century (2007), Alex Ross

The Ghost (2007), Robert Harris

The Raw Shark Texts (2007), Steven Hall

Return of the Player (2007), Michael Tolkin

Falling Man (2007), Don DeLillo

Netherland (2008), Joseph O’Neill

The Book of Silence (2008), Sara Maitland

The Complete Cosmicomics (2009), Italo Calvino

The City and the City (2009), China Miéville

Blood’s a Rover (2009), James Ellroy

You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe (2009), Christopher Potter

Day for Night (2010), Frederik Reiken

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe (2010), Andrew O’Hagan

Lights Out in Wonderland (2010), DBC Pierre

Zone One (2010), Colson Whitehead

Red Plenty (2010), Francis Spufford

1Q84 (2011), Haruki Murakami

The Prague Cemetery (2011), Umberto Eco

The Sisters Brothers (2011), Patrick deWitt

Ready Player One (2011), Ernest Cline

The Angel Esmeralda (2011), Don DeLillo

HHhH (2012), Laurent Binet

Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard (2012), Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara eds.

The Last Testament: A Memoir by God (2012), David Javerbaum

Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures (2013), Stefan Zweig

Night Film (2013), Marisha Pessl

The Circle (2013), Dave Eggers

Autobiography (2013), Morrissey

Consumed (2013), David Cronenberg

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), Mohsin Hamid

I Am Pilgrim (2013), Terry Hayes

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), Yuval Noah Harari

Bleeding Edge (2014), Thomas Pynchon

Sinker (2014), Jason Johnson

The First 15 Lives of Harry August (2014), Claire North

We Are all Completely Beside Ourselves (2014), Karen Joy Fowler

Aurora (2015), Kim Stanley Robinson

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015), Salman Rushdie

The Pier Falls (2016), Mark Haddon

I Am No One (2016), Patrick Flanery

The Gene (2016), Siddhartha Mukherjee

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (2016), Norman Ohler

The Secret History of Twin Peaks (2016), Mark Frost

Time Travel: A History (2016), James Gleick

Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (2016), Mia Gallagher

Solar Bones (2016), Mike McCormack

The Zoomable Universe (2017), Caleb Scharf

Amberlough (2017), Lara Elena Donnelly

We Have No Idea (2017), Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson

Universal Harvester (2017), John Darnielle

Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism (2017), Bill Schutt

Hag-Seed (2017), Margaret Atwood

Madness is Better Than Defeat (2017), Ned Beauman

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (2017), Stephen Greenblatt

Manhattan Beach (2017), Jennifer Egan

Artemis (2017), Andy Weir

Before the Fall (2017), Noah Hawley

The Line Becomes a River (2018), Francisco Cantú

Dictator Literature (2018), Daniel Kalder

The First Sunday in September (2018), Tadhg Coakley

The Consolations of Physics (2018), Tim Radford

Coal Black Mornings (2018), Brett Anderson

The Silence of the Girls (2018), Pat Barker

How to Change Your Mind (2018), Michael Pollan

The Paper Wasp (2019), Lauren Acampora

Underland (2019), Robert Macfarlane

Daisy Jones & The Six (2019), Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Moon (2019), Oliver Morton

The Chain (2019), Adrian McKinty

Paris Syndrome (2019), Lucy Sweeney Byrne

The Last (2019), Hanna Jameson