Monthly Archives: November 2019

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


ARCHIVE PIECE: Pro soccer is now a giant insane asylum

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD JUNE 2019

 

In honour of the frankly ridiculous news that Jose Mourinho is the new Spurs manager, a piece from last summer about how the game has gone completely doolally (as if you didn’t know this already…)

 

We’ll have to stop using the term “football season” soon; the concept of endings and beginnings has become almost redundant. While the English and European club campaigns have pressed pause until August, the circus never stops.

At the moment the Women’s World Cup is reaching its zenith; the Copa America is midway through. The League of Ireland, of course, continues throughout the year. Early qualifier rounds for next season’s Champions and Europa Leagues begin in a matter of weeks.

More than that, the off-pitch circus is really getting revved up now; for many casual observers, that’s when the fun really starts. We’re currently in the middle of the summer transfer window, and in terms of shocks, upsets, disappointments, triumphs, entertainment and general all-round lunacy, it really is – to use a beloved punditry cliché – “top drawer, Brian”.

It’s absolutely mad. And getting crazier year after year.

I’m not talking about all those “come-and-get-me pleas” and brazen shows of disloyalty which befoul the game and make an idiot out of an adoring fan-base. Professional sport has always had careerists who care a fig not for the jersey, but for their bank balance.

I won’t even go all “ooh it were better in my day, it were” and give out about these young ‘uns with their social media and flashy jewellery and love of the limelight. Similarly, sport has always had eejits who love attention and possess the brain-capacity of a wilting house-plant.

What most boggles my mind is the money involved. The sheer sums involved are barely comprehensible. They’re surreal, they’re terrible, they’re hypnotically compelling.

I’m not quite old enough to recall Trevor Francis becoming the first million-pound transfer in 1979, but I do remember when Gianluigi Lentini became the world-record signing in 1992, moving from Torino to Milan for £13million.

We all thought this would never be topped. We wondered if the world had become one giant insane asylum. In the end, we turned out to be wrong and right, in that order.

An exponential rise in transfer fees now sees enormous money given for really quite average players. Bad enough when an all-time genius like Ronaldo earns nine figures for his club: that’s obscene. But when £50 and £60 million are considered “good value” for decent players: that’s more than obscene, it’s absurd.

Harry Maguire, for instance, is being touted around for £75 million at the moment. Surely this can’t be the talented and willing – but hardly a Beckenbauer for our age – fella who did well for England at the last World Cup. Is there a different Harry Maguire knocking around that I’m not aware of?

There’s a real “fall of the Roman Empire” feel to it all. Hysteria, decadence, excess, opulence, through-the-looking-glass weirdness and utter estrangement from normality or real life.

And not just in terms of transfers: José Mourinho, for example, chose to blow half-a-mill on hotel bills for three years, rather than be bothered renting or buying a house. There were even stories about certain managers being given a few million to meet with club owners with a view to taking charge – now people are being paid lots of money to be offered a job which pays even more money. Mad world is right.

Across all metrics, football is drowning in wealth and power. Worse than that, it’s slowly rotting from the inside out.

You’d imagine the bubble must inevitable burst at some point, but then again, why should it? Football has become such colossally large business that it probably wouldn’t matter if every single player was beamed up into heaven by God, who’d finally lost His patience at all this nonsense: clubs would simply throw 22 androids onto the pitch, and what’s more, we’d all be signed up to their Instagram accounts by full-time. #robotsdoitbetter

That’s the problem, in the end: we the public are as guilty as them the industry. Without us buying (literally and figuratively) into all this eejitry, the edifice would collapse.

Why do we do it? It’s the enduring dream, I suppose: little boys still imagine that one day they’ll be starring for Madrid or Liverpool, they’ll be revered around the world; and most of us never outgrow that boy psychologically.

But this dream is itself as ridiculous as someone paying £75 million for Harry Maguire. Given how many people play the sport, your chances of making it to the top are literally something close to one in a billion. You’re more likely to be beamed up to heaven by God, to fill in at striker because Neymar has thrown another strop and is rolling around his cloud, pretending that Saint Peter fouled him.

Far better off aiming to emulate someone like Con O’Callaghan or TJ Reid. No big fortune involved, but you get all the glory, satisfaction, pride, enjoyment, camaraderie and adoration. You’ll be immortalised, treated like a god for the rest of your days. Best of all, a real, normal life awaits at the end of it.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Bad weather

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD MARCH 2018

 

Another day, another weather warning. In what seems the thousandth meteorological emergency of this so-far brief year – but is probably only the hundredth – Ireland is braced for a double-whammy.

Storm Emma is rushing at us from Portugal. Arriving at a statelier pace, the so-called Beast from the East: a gigantic cold front originating in Siberia. And to misquote the opening voiceover of Hart to Hart, “when they meet – it’s gonna be moidah.”

We can, according to Met Éireann, expect several days of frost, ice, blizzards, high winds and bitter cold. We can also, according to past experience, expect the whole country to react as if it’s the End of Days.

Ireland in shutdown! Stock up on survival provisions! We’ve never seen it as bad! It’s Snowmageddon!

Were we always like this? In my memory – admittedly not the best, now or indeed at any time – we used to be much more stoical about the climate.

Fair enough, this Emma-Beast mash-up looks as if it’s going to be pretty gnarly. But aside from these rare climatic events, it seems that hardly a week now goes by without some class of colour-coded warning being issued to the populace.

Status Yellow. Status Red. Status Disaster. Status Say Your Final Prayers. Status The End is Nigh.

It’s all “alert” this and “warning” that and “emergency planning” the other. Back in the day, though, this was all known simply as “the weather”.

I mean, we live in North-West Europe: a miserable climate is not exactly rare. This is a windswept, rain-lashed rock, right on the edge of the wildest ocean on the planet. What do you expect, sunshine and gentle breezes tickling your neck as you sip lattes outdoors?

In its default setting, Irish weather resembles the more overwrought passages of Wuthering Heights: lashing rain, Herculean winds, noise and chaos, petrified people scurrying for cover from the elements’ assault. The average day runs the gamut from raging storm to miserable drizzle and back to the storm.

When I was a kid, we’d spend entire days, if not weeks, huddled indoors like burrowing animals who didn’t have the wit to just sleep through the whole thing. Bored out of our tree, gazing forlornly at the pounding monsoon outside and hoping to God that the Columbo episode about to start on telly wasn’t one we’d seen already.

And you know what? We never stopped complaining.

But at least there was an acceptance – a grouchy, resentful acceptance – that this was how it was in Ireland. More importantly, we didn’t act as if it was some big catastrophe waiting to happen. It was just…the weather.

Nowadays it’s all Status Reds and national emergency programmes and Met Éireann experts live-streaming 24 hours a day from a secure bunker somewhere under Government buildings.

Years ago, though, something like The Beast from the East would merely be described as “a cold snap”. You might out on a pair of gloves when you went outside, maybe wincing a bit when the air hit you and saying things such as “Nippy enough today, hah?” or, if it was super-freezing outside, “Jaysus ’tis bitter”.

Torrential rain? Wear a coat. Flooding? Wear wellies. Fog? Brill, it’s like being in a Sherlock Holmes story. Snow? Snowball fight! Gale-force winds? Do that thing where you pretend your unzipped jacket is a parachute and you’re a marine dropping into Nazi Germany under cover of darkness.

What happened us, Ireland? We used to be bad-ass, meteorologically speaking. We used to be rock ‘n’ roll. We used to be tough, insouciant, devil-may-care. We used to be – no pun intended – cool.

These constant weather warnings are only compounding the problem, making us even less rock ‘n’ roll than we already are. They get people all worked up and tense and worried, like the climate equivalent of endless shock-horror headlines and spirit-sapping conversations about Trump or Brexit.

And am I the only person in Ireland who finds the weather – well – kind of boring? I pay the barest attention to what’s going on.

I literally didn’t know about Storm Ophelia until that morning, when I noticed the trampoline attempting to leave the back garden by means of aerial propulsion. In fact, I didn’t even realise there was a Storm Emma on the way this week, as well as The Beast, until half-an-hour ago when I did some prep for this article.

I hadn’t heard about these things because I was doing something more stimulating and fun than reading about the weather. Which is pretty much everything else in the world, e.g. watching an episode of Columbo that you’ve already seen.

As with the other dismal obsessions of modern life – rugby, property prices, abortion, jogging, social media, prestige TV, “the banks” – you feel almost obliged to have an interest, and know all about it. But I just can’t; it’s too boring. Sorry, my fellow citizens, to rain on your parade.


Christmas songs in shops: give me silence or give me death

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD NOVEMBER 11

 

Thank you, The York Gin Shop. If I’m ever in that beautiful city in the north of England and feeling in need of a little medicinal balm derived from the juniper berry, I’ll certainly be paying you a visit.

The reason for my warm feelings towards is that they’ve banned certain Christmas songs “to keep staff and customers happy”. The shop reckons it would “ruin” Christmas for workers who had to endure the “cheesy” likes of Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody all day.

Darn right. Being forced to endure horrible Christmas singles, for close to two months, is tantamount to torture.

Indeed, music has actually been used as torture in the past: George Bush the First famously had invading troops blast lame poodle-rock, at incredibly loud volumes, outside the compound of Panamanian dictator General Noriega in 1986, in a bid to ferret him out.

And back in 17th century New England, suspected witches would crack under the pressure of repeated renditions of Nearer My God to Thee and Scarborough Fair by the local church choir, and confess to consorting with the devil, turning their neighbours’ cows’ milk sour, and being in possession of a sneaky-looking black cat.

Anyway, York Gin Shop staff and customers will at least be spared some of the most egregious Yuletide offences against music. That said, they don’t get away scot-free: the store, housed in a 16th century Tudor building, will be playing some festive favourites: White Crosby, seasonal classical music, and so on

That’s a bit better than wall-to-wall (literally and metaphorically) Mistletoe by Justin Bieber, or Bon Jovi’s rather outré-sounding Backdoor Santa. But it’s not totally acceptable, either.

Personally I’d ban all Yuletide music, at least until the start of December. And I’d limit the playlist to the only decent ones ever written, real classics such as Fairytale of New York, Eartha Kitt growling Santa Baby, and of course, All I Want for Christmas is Me Two Front Teeth.

In fact, I’d go further than that, and ban music from shops entirely. I’ve never fully understood this practice.

It’s up there with other great philosophical questions which humanity wrestles with. What is God? Is life really just a dream? And why the hell do shops insist on playing piped music all the time?

For the last few decades – I’m not entirely sure when this phenomenon really began in earnest – it has been impossible to shop in silence, with the honourable exception of those huge German supermarkets which have stripped down the consumer experience to such a basic level, their outlets barely have shelves. (That’s not an insult, by the way.)

But why, though? Why do shops feel it necessary to blare out Beyoncé’s latest slice of derivative funk as I try to decide between regular soya milk and new, calcium-enriched soya milk?

I can understand why they all do it at Christmas, annoying as it may be. And I can kind of understand why the one remaining record store on planet earth might play music all day. Here’s the latest record by such-and-such, they’re saying; and guess what, we sell it! So, you know, buy it.

Sports shops, too, can just about argue the case for blaring out brain-bleeding techno crap, purely as a means of muddling the track-suited punters’ minds so much that they won’t realise they’re stumping up sixty quid for a flimsy scrap of acrylic that was cobbled together by a fleet-fingered Thai child for twenty pee.

But grocery stores, furniture shops, clothing retailers, even some petrol stations: do these places absolutely have to play their rubbishy CD collection all day, every day?

Sometimes I feel like telling the manager, “This inescapable aural invasion is making me leave your shop. Do you understand? I want to stay here and browse through your fabulous collection of carpet samples, I really do, but I feel like I’m trapped inside the music collection of a fifteen-year-old girl. Which, obviously, just won’t do.”

On a tangential point, is it appropriate for shops to play music with sexual lyrics during the middle of the day, when children are wandering around with their parents? I once heard a charming little ditty in the supermarket, the chorus of which went, ‘Let’s get back to bed, boy, let’s get back to bed, boy’ in a rather repetitive fashion.

I’m not going to get all Daily Mail on you. I don’t care what kind of lyrics people listen to in the privacy of their own hovel.

But is it too much to expect that little kids don’t have to? They’re just picking out breakfast cereals with their parents, for God’s sake.

Just imagine the squirming embarrassment: ‘Mummy, why does that lady have to go back to bed? Who is she talking to?’ ‘Umm…her teddy. Her teddy called Boy. And she’s got the flu, and has to stay home from school. Now come along, Poppy.’

Please, retailers: quit it with the music. Give me silence or give me death.