Monthly Archives: April 2014

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.