Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD NOVERMBER 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.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Why I love gaelscoileanna

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 2018

 

In a rather predictable – and depressing – way, this week’s reports about interviews for pre-schoolers allowed all the usual suspects to vent the usual prejudices against the Irish language.

“Discrimination!” they cry. “Language snobs!” they screech. “This is a disgrace!” they thunder. “Why can’t they just speak English!” they lament. Ultimately, I think, what they’re saying is: “Who do these bloody gaelgeoirí think they are?”

Of course, anyone that hostile to Irish would never stoop so low as to use an actual Irish word. Or, if it absolutely couldn’t be avoided, they’d deliberately mispronounce it, to remove themselves further from the taint of this guttural speech of peasants and culchies and half-baked hippies and whoever else doesn’t fit their narrow Anglophone parameters.

In any event, it turned out that reports were exaggerated. Wannabe-bilingual ankle-biters won’t really have to sit opposite a stern-faced gaelscoil judging panel and discuss their long-term ambitions for the Irish language, on the personal and macro levels.

They’ll simply be brought in and observed while their parents chat to a teacher or principal. So, in effect, it’s mamaí agus dadaí who are being tested.

Is it discriminatory, for a gaelscoil to pick genuine Irish-speakers first, where the number of places is restricted? Yes, in the neutral and non-disparaging sense of the word: they’re choosing what they consider the better of two options, and giving preference to Irish speakers over English.

That’s a good thing, if you ask me. They have to differentiate in favour of Irish, no? Otherwise the whole point of a gaelscoil becomes meaningless.

You might as well insist that the local basketball club also coaches kids in volleyball and hacky-sack and BMX biking, otherwise they’re being discriminatory. Well, yeah…but then it wouldn’t be a basketball club anymore, would it?

Personally, I love the idea of gaelscoileanna. I love that the number of them has multiplied in recent decades, and continues to rise; that more and more kids are attending. I love that gaelscoileanna, with their core principle of full immersion in the language, are turning out thousands of youngsters who’ll leave school at least bilingual, if not fluent in many more. (Fun fact: growing up bilingual makes you better at learning other languages).

I love that younger generations of Irish people have fewer and fewer hang-ups about the native tongue than their – let’s be frank – pretty weird parents and grandparents, still tediously grousing about being “forced to learn Irish” four decades after they quit school. God, get over it already.

And you know why I love all of this? Because it makes the world a richer place. Any time a unique culture, indigenous to one place, is preserved or revived or refreshed, that makes the world a richer place – a better place.

My kids attend a gaelscoil. Not because I’m a bourgeois snob, or “they’re good schools” (at primary level, as far as I can see, they’re all basically the same standard), or for social-climbing, or because it’s now the trendy thing to do.

Those may well be part or sole cause of other people’s decision to educate the pups through Irish. I only speak for myself, and that self always wanted to be fluent in the language and regret that I am not. So – in what you might call a sort of benign vicariousness – I long-ago determined that any and all offspring would, if possible, go to a gaelscoil.

Keeping Irish alive makes the world a better place. Simple as that. It’s nothing to do with nationalism, even cultural nationalism; in some ways, in fact, the “Irish” element is maybe incidental.

It pleases me almost as much that, for instance, the Basque language is thriving. (Second fun fact: “Euskara” is the Basque word for “Basque”. Go ahead and use that in conversation!) I love that post-independence Israel revived Hebrew as the spoken word of everyday life, resurrected from its calcified state as rabbinical terminology. I think it’s wonderful that India has 22 official languages and over 1500 less-official ones.

But I am Irish, so that’s the one I root for and shout for and, I suppose, care for the most. People yammer on all the time nowadays about “diversity”: well, here it is, folks. The magical Babel of Planet Earth’s manifold tongues.

I can’t understand Irish people who are not only indifferent to gaeilge, but actively hostile against it; who, secretly or openly, want to see the language die off. It’s completely bizarre, not to mention hypocritical.

Do they also wish to see Basque die off? I mean, what’s the point of it? Why can’t they just use Spanish? Discrimination! Snobs! Disgrace! Who do these bloody Euskara-speakers think they are? (Or is it only their own language they despise?)

Again: all these things make the world a richer place. Irish does too – and gaelscoileanna are helping with this very noble cause.


How to get girls interested in sport – and keep them interested

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD NOVEMBER 4

Katie Taylor just created history – as in, another bit to add to all the bits of history she’s already created – by becoming only the third Irish boxer, and first woman, to win world titles at two different weight levels.

Meanwhile the Irish women’s hockey team, fresh from their World Cup heroics last summer, have qualified for next year’s Tokyo Olympics after a nail-biting penalty shoot-out victory over Canada. Merely qualifying is a considerable achievement in itself: hockey is played seriously in over 80 countries around the world, and only 12 teams make it through to the 2020 Games. And who knows how far they can go now?

So, it’s been a very good sporting weekend for our women and girls. And speaking of 2020: the 20×20 campaign is also doing its bit these times, in encouraging journalists, teachers, family and community members to “to shift Ireland’s cultural perception of women’s sport” with a 20% rise in media coverage, female participation and attendance at women’s games and events by next year.

The all-conquering Dublin football team showed their support a few months ago, joining the county’s camogie and women’s football teams with a 20×20 “jersey takeover” during their Super 8s game against Cork.

All very admirable, and sure to help in raising the numbers of girls taking up sport – and more importantly, considering the huge drop-off rates during adolescence and young adulthood, keeping at it.

Successful female athletes, confident and articulate role models, more women’s events on telly, a greater media profile: it’s a truism that these things are useful in what we might call a deeper “normalisation” of girls doing sport. And that goes from a healthy lifelong involvement at the club or local level, right up to the highest reaches of sporting glory: making a career from it, or having grand ambitions for Taylor-esque achievements which capture the attention of the whole nation.

However, it’s also true, I believe, that the “big” stuff like this is only part of the solution. The key, as is often the case, lies more in the microscopic than macroscopic.

I was once talking to a pal – a highly intelligent nerd who never made a contention until he was absolutely sure he had all his facts in order – about how Dublin’s 1995 All-Ireland win was great for football in the capital. Sam Maguire, John O’Leary and Charlie Redmond, the Hill alive alive-oh, boom boom let me hear you say Jayo: the capital was buzzing on it and this had knock-on effects on participation in local GAA clubs.

Au contraire, my likeably nebbish friend retorted: it was shown by statistics (yes, he had them to hand) that numbers didn’t in fact go up in the wake of the All-Ireland win. That only happened once the county board, using Sam as an added driver, rolled out a legion of coaches for schools and clubs across Dublin.

As in war, so in sport: it’s mostly about boots on the ground. So I would argue that the best thing any sports fan can do for their girls, or womankind in general, is to get involved themselves, in practical ways. (It should be noted that this is also a policy cornerstone of the 20×20 campaign.)

Bring them to training. Drive them to matches. Practise with them at home. Yeah, it’s boring, waiting for little girls to hit that sliothar and missing it over and over again – suck it up. That’s your job, as their parent, to be patient and encouraging.

And don’t limit these efforts to just your own kids: become a member of your local club, volunteer to help with coaching, drive others’ girls to matches, line the pitches, paint the dressing-rooms, fundraise for new gear – whatever is needed.

That’s the thing about all this: it takes work. It takes time and effort. Our local under-8 camogie team has six or seven adults there at coaching, every single session. Then there’s the under-6s, the under-10s, the 12s and 14s. Each of those groups requires several adults too.

So get out there and be one those people. It’s easy to rant on Twitter or in a newspaper article about how society is failing girls in sport, or insisting that the government or the media do this and that. It’s easy to blare on about institutionalised sexism or the patriarchy. It’s easy to loudly demand that RTE or Sky Sports show more women’s sport.

It’s easy because talk is easy – and it’s cheap. Doing is the hard part. So what are you doing about all of this?

Clubs need volunteers. They need your time and work. Therefore, I would humbly suggest that people pee or get off the pot: if you want to get girls into sport, power down the laptop and give up two hours a week to your local club.

The 20×20 slogan runs, “She can’t be it if she can’t see it.” True. But I’d also like to add another familiar catchphrase of our times: “Be the change you want to see.”

 


ARCHIVE PIECE: Space tourism

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 2018

 

David Bowie famously asked, “Is there life on Mars?” We may soon be finding out…if you have the money, that is.

Billionaire space-pioneer Elon Musk used the Bowie classic to mark this week’s launch of Falcon Heavy, last seen heading in the general direction of Mars. The biggest rocket to take-off in 45 years, it’s a major stage in SpaceX’s plans for travel to the moon, the Red Planet and – who knows? – maybe even further. A number of other companies, and state agencies, are working on projects to get us into orbit, some with Irish involvement.

Almost half a century after mankind last visited the moon, are we entering a second Golden Age of space exploration? And why, exactly, do we persist in this Icarus-like fight against the binds of gravity? Why do we find space travel so exciting?

Because you’d have to admit that nothing ever results from it, really (kudos on those Teflon frying pans, though). On an objective i.e. boring level, there probably isn’t much point to going into space.

We’re never actually going to colonise the cosmos; the place is just too damn big. And as Arthur C Clarke pointed out, even if we did, the folks at home would never know about it, simply because information travels too slowly. They call them “light years” for a reason.

But still… The thought of it, the promise of something massive, out there, beyond us, greater than us: it’s irresistible. It’s fascinating, awe-inspiring. It appeals to our inner wonderstruck child.

I’d like to think it all stems from that innate curiosity, the sense of some incipient mystery or enchantment to the universe, which first compelled our ancestors to leave Africa and colonise this planet. Or in this case, as the poet had it, to “slip the surly bonds of earth” and traverse the stars.

Of course, it might just be because dweebs like me absolutely love stuff such as zero gravity, warp drives, lasers, humanoid robot things, doors that open with a cool “zzhhuummm” noise… I think this may be a male thing, being honest.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful to explore the cosmos? For one thing, it’d make up for the bitter disappointment suffered by us Generation Xers, who grew up with the lunar landings having just happened, our heads filled with fantastical expectations of what was next.

Simply because Neal Armstrong and chums managed to land their rust-bucket on the moon and successfully return to talk about it on The Johnny Carson Show, we assumed trips to Mars were the inevitable next step.

We’d soon be holidaying on Venus, sunbathing by the Sea of Tranquillity and opening up theme bars on the seventh ring of Saturn. Light-speed pods would ferry us across the galaxy. Deep space would be mined for uranium and plutonium and probably some other minerals we didn’t even know existed yet.

Stressed-out businessmen could float around in a time-warp bubble for several centuries, then return to earth, fully refreshed, the day before they left it. Extreme sports enthusiasts could bungee-jump into the sun’s fiery maw, or snowboard down Pluto’s glacial slopes in those ridiculous beanie caps they wear. Good wholesome fun for all the family.

Eventually, contact would be made with intelligent aliens who had huge blue foreheads and inexplicably spoke English despite coming from a quadrant eight billion miles away. Back then, the sky truly was the limit in our imagination.

As we’re now depressingly aware, none of this actually happened. Now, however, things are looking – ahem – up. An off-world trip would perfectly complete those annoying bucket-lists people make nowadays. In terms of bourgeois aspirational holidaying, it even beats wine-tasting in Tuscany or whittling your own snake-charmer basket in rural Pakistan.

But there’s a snag: you have to be surreally wealthy to afford it. Thus far there have been a mere seven space tourists: all were stinking rich. The cheapest flight cost $20million – and that was for a jaunt around our upper atmosphere, never-mind reaching the moon, Mars or, indeed, a quadrant eight billion miles away.

Space travel is a billionaire’s playground, and will likely remain so. But for promotional purposes, SpaceX et al will surely fire up a few celebrities too.

For renowned spacers like Shirley MacLaine, Uri Geller or Lady Gaga, it’ll be almost like returning home. Maybe Oprah could do a special broadcast, in which she “feels the pain” of an inscrutable alien intelligence, trapped in the infinite loneliness of a faraway asteroid belt.

Meanwhile, Bono has always given the impression that he considers himself at least a minor deity, so he could kill two birds with one intergalactic stone by combining a holiday with subtly angling for the big fella’s job. The possibilities, rather like the universe itself, are endless.


Dublin Murders finale: it ain’t what you say, it’s how you say it

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD ON NOVEMBER 9

 

So could you work out what had happened by the end of Dublin Murders? Nah, me neither. It didn’t matter, though – I loved the show, found it gripping and stylish, and would happily binge on a second series.

I may well be in the minority with my love for Dublin Murders, as the crime drama was panned by critics – alongside a fair bit of enthusiastic praise – mostly for the same reasons. While laurel wreaths have been tossed for the acting, especially Sarah Greene and Killian Scott, and the overall quality of production, Dublin Murders was lambasted for plot inconsistencies and implausibility, and a failure to tie up loose ends.

As usual, the consensus view is wrong – well, partly – and I am here, good people, to detail exactly how. For starters, crime stories being far-fetched, and not always making perfect logical sense, is par for the course. In fact, it’s a good thing, a necessary framework for the genre.

It’s similar to how, say, Gothic horror always has a supernatural element. Sure we all know that ghosts and vampires are ludicrous and not reality, but the genre wouldn’t work without them.

Same thing in crime: it’s incredibly hard to write a compelling mystery without utilising a large dose of coincidence, lucky breaks and unlikely events (I know, because I’ve tried, and failed). They enrich the tale, make it more exciting, help build tension and momentum.

So I had no issue with Dublin Murders being implausible. Besides, they call it “suspension of disbelief” for a reason.

Rob surviving a childhood trauma, moving to England and coming home to work as a detective, eventually being assigned a case involving the same woods where he vanished? It’s unlikely, but not nearly impossible.

Similarly, Cassie having an eerily striking lookalike? It happens. Life is strange, sometimes even stranger than fiction.

Had Rob and Cassie been abducted by Flash Gordon, or one of them discovered a magic wand in the glove compartment, that would have strained credibility to breaking point. As it was, a little mental lean-in made the events of Dublin Murders perfectly palatable for viewers.

As for the lack of resolution, I guess that’s a matter of subjective taste. Personally I’m fine when a story is wrapped up in a neat bow at the end, but I’m also fine with things being left unsaid, unfinished, even baffling.

The job of art, as Francis Bacon said, is to “deepen the mystery”. It’s nice sometimes when a drama doesn’t explain every last thing to the audience. That leaves room for your own imagination to fill it.

Also, this ambiguity fitted well with Dublin Murders’ air of ominous gloom and strangeness; the vague sense that maybe, just maybe, there were otherworldly forces at work here. And as it happened, the two main “whodunit” storylines were fully resolved; we were only left hanging on peripheral matters e.g. the 1980s disappearances and who was the Jane Doe inhabiting Cassie’s undercover persona.

That’s the nuts and bolts. On a more fundamental level, I loved Dublin Murders for this simple reason: it was really, really well-made. The naturalistic acting, smart dialogue, beautiful camerawork, expert pacing.

I loved the dreamlike Fargo/Twin Peaks-esque intimations of the supernatural. I loved how reality and fantasy seemed to blur together at times. I loved how it was funny, horrifying, moving, sometimes in the same scene. I loved the artfulness of it all.

I especially enjoyed the little details – the sort of thing you imagine the actors might have come up with during the filming process – such as Cassie showing off chewed-up food in her mouth when Rob slags off her sandwich, or him catching her belt loop as she leaned into a freezer.

It was all a reminder of the huge resources of artistic talent and ambition we have in this country: very timely, given the Genghis Khan-esque reign of terror about to sweep through RTÉ, who co-produced this show with BBC. Horrendous cuts are planned for the national broadcaster, which could be a disaster for indigenous actors, directors and crew. It’s a small country and there are very few outlets apart from RTÉ.

Yes, the plot was far-fetched and not 100% plausible. But none of that particularly matters to me, because in the end, the plot doesn’t matter.

This might seem counterintuitive, given that mysteries are more-or-less all about plot. But in truth, there are only so many stories to tell – someone once wrote that there are only seven basic narratives in the whole of human art/creativity – and fundamentally, all crime stories are the same.

I’ve written a few novels myself: crime and Young Adult mystery. Each had a pretty decent plot but ultimately they were bought by publishers because those plots were told with a bit of style, imagination, wit and art.

It ain’t what you say so much as how you say it. What matters is how well you tell it, and Dublin Murders told its story exceedingly well.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Star Wars spin-offs

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD, JANUARY 2018

Much like the actual universe, the Star Wars universe is expanding at an incomprehensible rate. This week sees the release of The Last Jedi, movie number eight in a trilogy of trilogies.

Next spring we’ll get the Han Solo spin-off, following last year’s Rogue One and ahead of the mooted Boba Fett film. They’ve also announced a whole stand-alone trilogy. And there’s a TV series in the works.

Then there was that Clones cartoon in 2009. Not to mention the plethora of other TV shows. And cartoons. Videogames. Books. Branded merchandise.

And you know what? It will never end. Star Wars is now a black hole of entertainment: infinitely powerful, with infinite gravitational pull, slowly but surely absorbing the entire cosmos into its infinitely greedy maw. Slurp.

But what are you gonna do? If you can’t beat ‘em (to death, with the blunt end of a lightsabre), join ‘em. So here are our suggestions for further Star Wars “product”. We’re in the book, Disney…

  • “R2D2 – An Origins Story”: eight-hour epic, directed by George Lucas himself in a triumphant return from semi-retirement, following the adventures of a tiny piece of metal which will one day become soldered to a larger piece of metal which then forms part of a computer processor which eventually is inserted into the artificial brain of the lovable trundling kitchen bin-shaped robot from the early movies. The part that makes him go “biddly-BEEP-beep-beep-biddly-bwooOOOooh.”
  • “Star Wars versus Avengers Assemble versus Justice League”: fanboy ecstasy unconfined as the three biggest, wildest and LOUDEST movie franchises collide in a literally head-splitting smash-up. All your favourite heroes and villains are rendered in state-of-the-art CGI, the camerawork and editing range from hyperactive to epileptic, the plot was written on the back of a Carroll’s packet, and the film will make absolutely no sense whatsoever.
  • “Rey of Sunshine”: Daisy Ridley records an album of cheery, insanely catchy songs for charity, including Good Vibrations, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Livin’ on a Prayer and Cannibal Corpse’s Devoured by Vermin. Ed Sheeran probably pops up at some point.
  • “Star Wars does Eight out of Ten Cats does Countdown”: Jimmy Carr hosts this smug-tastic panel show where the laughs are “out of this world”! Allegedly.
  • “Star Wars does the News”: the title says it all.
  • “Star Wars does the Weather”: self-evident.
  • “Star Wars Ear to the Ground special”: pretty much what you’d expect.
  • “Star Wars Scrapes the Barrel”: intriguingly meta-textual outing which satirises the process of squeezing all possible revenues out of a successful brand…while squeezing all possible revenues out of a successful brand.
  • “Chew Baccie”: chewing tobacco with a tenuous name-related connection to the much-loved Wookie/walking fireside-rug. Sale restricted to over-18s.
  • The “Luke, I Am Your Father” paternity test: semi-reliable DNA-measuring chemistry set type gizmo, which helps make the family court’s job of assigning responsibility to deadbeat dads a good bit more fun than it normally is. (Note: only relevant if the child in question is called Luke.)
  • “Dart Invader” dolls: illegal knock-offs that bear hardly any resemblance to the Star Wars character, in name or appearance, but might just about do the job if you’re badly stuck for a present for your nephew and the shops are almost closed. And you don’t like him very much.

I am currently away from my desk

As you can see, I haven’t posted much to this website over the last half-year and more. Because, well…what’s the point, really?

The situation will stay like this for the foreseeable future.

Au revoir.