Category Archives: Uncategorized

What we want to say to election candidates . . . and what we actually say

Published in the Herald January 14

 

The secret ballot is the best invention in human history. It means we can all be honest in our votes. We don’t have to worry about what others think of our choice at election time, about potentially losing work or friends because our politics are deemed somehow faulty. In some countries, indeed, the secret ballot can save your life and liberty.

And let’s face it: we’re all complete cowards anyway. As the first general election in four years looms on the horizon, I am reminded again of the vast chasm between what we want to say to politicians when they come canvassing for votes – and what we actually say.

Maybe it’s the in-built Irish terror of any sort of confrontation – urgh, the awkwardness! – but personally, I now can’t imagine tearing into any candidate to their face over the next few weeks. Which is sort of a contradiction, because for the last four years I’ve been doing exactly that: imagining all the caustic, hostile and uncomfortable things I’d say to them when they knocked on the door.

You know yourself: any time something goes wrong with how this country is run, the default reaction is something like, “Wait until any of that shower come asking for my vote! I’ll give them a piece of my mind!”

You picture the scene as it will undoubtedly unfold: the hapless politico and band of supporters cowering in shame and terror as you impersonate Atticus Finch with a brilliant and devastating “j’accuse!” of their many failings. How satisfying it will be, you tell yourself. Years of pent-up anger and frustration unleashed in one almighty yawp of condemnation.

In reality, I open the door to, say, a member of the government party and instead of launching into a diatribe about the ongoing snafu in housing, health or broadband that’s slower than a lame turtle taking it nice and handy on his morning walk around the park, I’ll mutter a few banal words along the lines of “Uh, okay, yeah, I’ll give you a tick, no bother.”

It doesn’t even have to be a Fine Gael TD. The local Fianna Fáiler could come a-rapping on my door, and rather than metaphorically rip their head off over bankrupting the state in 2010 and generally being a cabal of sneaky weasels lining each other’s pockets for the last 80 years, I’ll nod and hum and promise to maybe think about giving them a vote.

Am I being dishonest? Ah, yeah. I’d have to admit that. But what can you do? As I said, it’s an Irish thing. Most of us are simply not programmed for any level of confrontation.

Presumably Germans, Americans, Poles and other races who tend to be more direct in their conversation don’t have a problem with critiquing politicians in person. And I’d imagine that the candidates, in turn, don’t mind too much being reproached by voters.

For us Irish, though, even the thought of it brings on a cold sweat. And canvassers would probably feel it was a bit “bad form” of you; that’s just not the way we do things here, like.

I can imagine their hurt little faces as I ask what the hell they’ve achieved for the area since the last general election, or test them on their policies, or demand they do something about whatever issue has been grinding my gears since 2016.

“Why is he being like this?” you can almost hear them thinking. “Doesn’t he know that Irish people never say what they mean?”

Ah stop, it’d be like torturing a puppy. I simply can’t do it.

Actually what I’d really love is to have the brass neck to ask a series of surreal, bizarre, abstract and irrelevant questions of each politician at my doorstep. Forget about the usual “what can your lot do for us” or “you promised to bring such-and-such to this town the last time and now where is it” type stuff.

Far more amusing – to me at least – would be questions such as: what is the meaning of life? Does God exist, and if so, is he/she/it interventionist or non-interventionist? Where do you stand on the time-honoured Marx-v-Hegel philosophical conundrum?

How will the county’s hurlers go this year? Should a man always wear a watch with a suit, even if he doesn’t normally wear one? What’s the best way to get blood out of a top if it needs to go on a low-temperature wash? (Asking that one for a friend.)

Have you seen John Wick 3? Follow-up question: if yes, what did you think of it? Follow-up to the follow-up: do you not feel that the franchise has jumped the shark a bit and they should have stopped at John Wick 2?

I won’t be doing any of that, though. I’ll stare at the ground, accept their election pamphlet that I won’t even look at before throwing it in the recycling, and assure them that, yes, I will most certainly give you an ould vote. Oh, I hate myself sometimes.


ARCHIVE PIECE: The culture that defined my decade

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD DECEMBER 27

 

Show me a man’s bookcase, someone once wrote, and I’ll show you the contents of his soul. If that be true, I’m about to peel back every last layer of my own soul, by revealing what defined this decade for me, not only in literature but across arts and entertainment.

I know some folks contextualise time passed in terms of politics, social trends, or sport. Personally, my deepest engagement with the age tends to be through culture. So these are the things that most rocked my world from 2010 to 2019:

 

Music

In 2011 I fell in love. Her name is Agnes Obel, she’s Danish, seems nice…and the most spectacularly gifted musician I’ve come across in quarter-of-a-century. In fact, Agnes is my artist of the decade, in any art-form: the woman is a genius.

Her haunting, otherworldly chamber-pop songs and instrumentals are beautifully wrought, her singing almost literally angelic. Shivers all up and down the spine.

Lykke Li was another Scandinavian woman who reshaped rock and pop into fascinating forms, as did Anna Calvi, St Vincent and Feist. Meanwhile, turning the volume up, Wolf Alice reminded me how exciting rock can be with their unique blend of grunge, power-pop and even a little folk.

The mighty Suede returned with one great album, two good ones and a string of barnstorming gigs. David Bowie signed off with Blackstar, a fittingly eccentric mélange of jazz noodlings, industrial drumbeats and melancholy lyrics.

David Lynch released two even weirder, but brilliant, albums. I also liked A-Ha’s Unplugged, Heligoland by Massive Attack, and the unashamedly meat-and-two-veg rock The Black Keys’ El Camino.

Not too many other albums stayed with me, though there were a lot of great individual songs: Old Town Road by Lil Nas X is a current fave. Props to the nine-year-old for the recommendation…

(EDIT: Hillary Woods’ album Birthmarks, released in March of this year, would absolutely have made the cut if she’d brought it out a few months earlier. It’s fantastic. Never before has sheer noise sounded so beautiful. Not that it’s only noise: there are lovely melodies too. But the noise! The discordance! I love the way it rattles through the bones; Birthmarks is almost as much a visceral/bodily/vibrational experience as an audio one. I’m a little bit obsessed with this record, to the point that I think it’s even turned up in my dreams a few times. It sounds like the inside of David Lynch’s head…if you know what I mean.)

 

Movies

Generally I can’t stand “tasteful”, middle-brow, Oscar-nominated fare. For me it’s either well-crafted genre pulp, or really arty art-house.

So, from the former category, I really enjoyed stomping actioners John Wick, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception and The Raid; horror films The Babadook, You’re Next and Housebound; the Coen brothers’ western True Grit. From the latter, I loved dreamy films where nothing really happens, and very slowly: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Only Lovers Left Alive, Cosmopolis.

Skyfall, The Revenant, Django Unchained and Drive sort of combined the best of both: artfulness and mainstream thrills. Meanwhile Frozen was the best kids’ film of the decade – and I don’t care what you’re going to say.

 

TV

Many of the real giants of this so-called Golden Age of TV left me cold and/or bored: Westworld was lame, Breaking Bad was dull, Game of Thrones was mostly horrible. But all three seasons of Fargo are as good as anything ever seen on the medium; the first season of True Detective likewise. Twin Peaks: The Return was elegiac, enigmatic and often terrifying (I literally shuddered at Agent Cooper’s final line).

Narcos and Mindhunter were brilliant dramas hewn from real-life stories; Channel 4’s Utopia had memorable characters and a phenomenally clever conspiracy at its heart. We weren’t left behind here either: Love/Hate and Dublin Murders, in different ways, were excellent.

Archer is still the funniest cartoon (funniest show, period) of the millennium. Bridget & Eamon remains deliriously daft and very amusing. Inside No 9 mixed comedy and horror in incredibly well-written scripts.

But the best show of the decade? Justified. US Marshall Raylan Givens is the coolest SOB ever to wear a Stetson, bringing rough justice to the hills of Kentucky. Finally, the great Elmore Leonard is done justice on-screen.

 

Books

The two best novels I read this decade couldn’t be more different. Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland by Dublin author Mia Gallagher is fractured, oblique and strange, filled with unnerving reverie and remarkably vivid characters; I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is a rollercoaster of a thriller which feels like being punched in the face for 800 pages – and enjoying it. But they were equally impressive.

In fiction I also really admired Colson Whitehead’s take on zombies, Zone One; Francis Spufford’s bravura history of post-war Communist Russia, Red Plenty; Night Film by Marisha Pessl, a wildly spooky mystery; Haruki Murakami’s epic alternate-universe drama 1Q84; and The Pier Falls, an exceptional story collection by Mark Haddon.

In non-fiction, Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard provided the required fix for us Ballard devotees, now that the great man has passed away. Morrissey’s Autobiography was often self-indulgent, even petulant, but captured the essence of its subject perfectly: the point, surely, of any memoir.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, Time Travel: A History by James Gleick and The Zoomable Universe by Caleb Scharf were peerless works of pop-science. Daniel Kalder’s Dictator Literature showed that politics is often far more bizarre than any fiction.

Finally, HHhH by Laurent Binet was a little bit of everything and a real one-of-a-kind: artily written fiction blurring into recorded fact, a meta-textual history of the famous assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, the author commenting on his own writing process throughout. Flann O’Brien would have approved.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Quit lecturing us, celebrities

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD DECEMBER 10

 

Apart from the fact that he’s got a cool retro-sounding name which could be found on a character from a Roddy Doyle novel, politician John Paul Phelan has at least done the state some service by speaking in a rather un-politician type way.

Minister of State in the Department of Housing, his comments about celebrity homelessness campaigners may be wrong or right – we’ll come back to that – but at least he gave an honest opinion.

That’s not really how it’s done, is it? Usually politicians bluster and plámas, hum and haw, not committing to anything for fear of offending someone or other.

Phelan, by contrast, was refreshingly blunt: he said he “didn’t see the point” in artists and entertainers “banging on” about the issue because they know “little or nothing” about it. He added, “It’s all well and good artists like Cillian Murphy and Glen Hansard, banging on about housing and homelessness – but what exactly are they achieving? They’re just complaining from the sidelines.”

It feels a bit churlish to criticise anyone, including famous people, trying to better the condition of those less fortunate than themselves. But be that as it may, there is, I think, a grain of truth in what Phelan said.

For one thing, do these celebrity interventions ever actually work? Take the last US election: Hillary Clinton had virtually every big name on her side, and Donald Trump still won.

It could be argued that the involvement of pampered superstars like Katy Perry and Jay-Z had the opposite effect to that intended and only antagonised Trump’s base further, reinforcing the notion that Hillary was part of a gilded elite and didn’t speak for them.

The same thing appeared to happen before the Brexit referendum, when footage of Bob Geldof and well-known chums hollering at some fishermen did little to disprove notions of the EU as a bureaucratic machine for the rich and powerful.

I don’t doubt that Murphy and Hansard, at least, are sincere in their views. They’ve always come across as decent, very un-Hollywood lads.

But for every sincere intervention, there are a dozen examples of celebrities using hot topics to lecture the plebs, feel good about themselves, drive a personal agenda, attack those they dislike or – the simplest and deepest motivation of all – further their careers. (I think it was the late Lemmy from Motorhead who admitted, “I don’t know if Live Aid was good for Africa – but it was certainly good for our record sales.”)

They adopt babies from Africa. They visit the world’s poorest places and performatively “feel the pain” of the destitute, all on camera of course. They do stupid telethons and encourage their fan-base to support this cause or retweet them using that hashtag.

They look fabulous while wearing those chic Repeal sweaters (black is very slimming, dahling, and very on-trend this season). They rep for Unicef. They make grandstanding speeches at awards ceremonies. They talk down to the lumpen proles, all the time, everywhere they can.

And guess what? Many of us are thoroughly sick of it.

There’s something slightly nauseating about being lectured in moral virtues by the most privileged people on the planet. Especially when you consider how hypocritical most of them are.

Hollywood, television, tech giants, the music business, professional sport: these are some of the most unethical industries on the planet, and these hectoring celebrities are some of the worst people on the planet.

They never do anything practical and constructive to make the world a better place; they never do a protest which might cost them personally or financially. They just talk the talk, never walking the walk.

So, for instance, it’s easy for movie stars to harangue “society” about how it “must do better” on sexism or racism or whatever the cause-du-jour might be. It’s not so easy, apparently, to demand that the studios cease using slave labour to produce the merchandise that you’re now hawking to children.

There’s one way you could instantly improve the lives of millions of non-white people, millions of women and girls (sadly, they often are mere girls): insist that the toys and lunchboxes from your new superhero blockbuster are made by staff given a good wage and safe working conditions.

Yet I have never read of an actor boycotting a film or studio, until those massively important problems are corrected. Not once.

The worst thing is, it would be so easy. The stars and studios would hardly notice the loss, such are the immeasurable oceans of money in which they swim. But much wants more, I suppose, and still they refuse. “Raising awareness”, after all, doesn’t affect the bank balance.

These clowns will then pontificate about how “we need” more female directors winning Oscars, or demand the introduction of gender-neutral toys. So long as they’re only costing a penny each to produce in a Third World sweatshop, though, right?

It all reminds me of the rich guy in a Simpsons episode who, on taking up some government job pro bono, declared piously, “I wanted to give something back to society. Not the money, but something.”


On the eve of Hannukah: why I’m a Philo-Semite

Beginning on Sunday and lasting for eight days is 2019’s Hanukkah. Also known as the Festival of Lights, this Jewish holiday isn’t hugely important in religious terms, but has attained a significant place in the cultural calendar, especially in North America.

I don’t have any particular grá for Judaism, though I respect their right to believe. What Hannukah signifies to this atheist is something else: an annual reminder of how much I admire Jewish people.

The world is full of anti-Semitic sentiment (including in Ireland, shamefully; Irish Times journalist Kitty Holland recently tweeted something so obnoxious and offensive, it was genuinely shocking). But I’m among the small band of gentiles at the far-end: not only do I abhor anti-Jewish prejudice, I’m a Philo-Semite.

Now, this isn’t about Israel. I certainly support their right to self-determination and self-defence, but the Palestinian situation is complicated, and I don’t have the knowledge or moral authority to lecture either side.

This is about the worldwide community of Jews, modern-day and historical, as a people and culture. I have massive regard for both, especially their dedication to books and learning.

Presumably it wasn’t always so, growing up; I don’t remember. But by young adulthood, having read enough about their achievements, I’d become a big admirer. That feeling has strengthened over the years. As far as I can see, pretty much everything that makes up modern civilisation is due to Jewish people.

An enormous proportion of the most influential figures of recent centuries are Jews. Einstein, Spinoza, Freud, Neils Bohr, Trotsky, Wolfgang Pauli, Marx, Richard Feynman…this is but the tip of the iceberg.

In physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, technology, psychology, psychiatry, political science and elsewhere, Jews have essentially shaped the world we live in. It’s richer, healthier, freer, more equal, more peaceful.

And it continues: whatever high-tech gizmo is currently saving your life or delivering this column to your screen, chances are a Jewish scientist was involved in its creation.

In short, Jews have made life much better, recognised in this gobsmacking fact: 22.5 percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish, despite comprising only 0.2 percent of the planetary population. They’re punching above their weight by 11,000 percent!

It’s not just hard or soft sciences; there are countless great Jewish authors, artists, comedians, musicians and filmmakers. Proust, Kafka, Anne Frank, Lauren Bacall, Philip Roth, Harry Houdini, Joan Rivers, Irving Berlin, Groucho Marx, Diane Arbus, Yehudi Menuhin, Steven Spielberg, Mel Brooks, Natalie Portman, Primo Levi, Jack Kirby…again, merely the tip, not the full iceberg.

Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin were feminist pioneers. Susan Sontag was a ground-breaking cultural critic, Noam Chomsky equally ground-breaking in linguistics. Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer ruled the arcane realm of chess. Wittgenstein, Derrida, Hannah Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg are among the formative philosophers of our time.

Jewish people were instrumental in constructing the music industry as we know it, and basically invented the movies. (I once overheard someone sneer, “The Jews run Hollywood!” I thought, “Yeah, they do – because they built it, out of nothing, in the middle of a desert, having been excluded from the professions by WASP bigots.”) Their sense of amused irony has become the default setting for everyone in a post-modern culture.

For me, Jews represent modernity. Some people may not like the modern world – that’s their right – but it’s hypocritical to enjoy its manifold benefits while despising the people who more-or-less created it.

Every time some barbaric zealot kills a Jewish person, it’s not just a strike against them: it’s an assault on everything that makes life better than it was.

Two things in particular I most admire about Jewish culture. Years ago I asked a Jewish Londoner, why are you guys such high-achievers? She said (I paraphrase) it was because of reverence for the written word, learning, the life of the mind, the higher realms.

The second involves an irony. While strongly connected to their past, to rituals and traditions, Jews also seem incredibly practical-minded. On a press trip to Israel, I was amused that the reaction to almost everything was the same: a shrug, a rueful smile and something like, “It’s a problem; we have to work out a solution.”

They might have been discussing water shortages, wonky air-conditioning – or bloodthirsty gangs of jihadis massing just across the Syrian border. The response was the same: this is a problem, let’s fix it.

We could do worse than adopt some of that attitude. Read, think, be practical. Don’t moan or wait for someone else to fix things: get educated and fix it yourself. It’s worked pretty well for Jews, the most remarkable ethnic group on the planet.


A List of Names for Bands, Taken Directly from the Chapter and Section Headers of JG Ballard’s Experimental Masterpiece, “The Atrocity Exhibition”

Probably the type of bands, incidentally, which are better at coming up with cool names for themselves than actually writing good songs, having some talent etc. etc.

Anyway, bagsy me Autogeddon, Zapruder Frame 235 and Indicators of Sexual Arousal for a few side-projects/supergroups I’m working on…

  • The Atrocity Exhibition
  • University of Death
  • Assassination Weapon
  • You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe
  • Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown
  • The Great American Nude
  • Summer Cannibals
  • Tolerances of the Human Face
  • You and Me and the Continuum
  • Love and Napalm
  • Export USA
  • Crash!
  • The Generations of America
  • Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan
  • Downhill Motor Race
  • Princess Margaret’s Face Lift
  • Internal Landscapes
  • The Weapons Range
  • Who Laughed at Nagasaki?
  • Serial Deaths
  • The Casualties Union
  • Pirate Radio
  • Marey’s Chronograms
  • The Skin Area
  • Neoplasm
  • The Lost Symmetry of the Blastosphere
  • Eurydice in a Used Car Lot
  • The Concentration City
  • How Garbo Died
  • War-Zone D
  • Danger Area
  • The Enormous Face
  • Exploding Madonna
  • Terminal Posture
  • The Conceptual Death
  • Auto-erotic
  • Obscene Mannequin
  • Left Orbit and Temple
  • Shabby Voyeur
  • The Image Maze
  • Spinal Levels
  • Towards the DMZ
  • Mimetized Disasters
  • No U-Turn
  • Persistence of Memory
  • The Annunciation
  • The Geometry of Her Face
  • Transliterated Pudenda
  • Stochastic Analysis
  • Crash Magazine
  • Cosmetic Problem
  • The Sixty-Minute Zoom
  • Unidentified Female Orifice
  • Optimum Wound Profile
  • The Impact Zone
  • Unusual Poses
  • Idiosyncrasies and Sin-crazed Idioms
  • Speed Trials
  • The Acceleration Couch
  • Interlocked Bodies
  • The Helicopters are Burning
  • Fractured Smile
  • Thoracic Drop
  • Autogeddon
  • Googolplex
  • Your Eyelids Deflagrate
  • Xero
  • The Impossible Room
  • Beach Fatigue
  • Pontiac Starchief
  • The Million-Year Girl
  • Pre-uterine Claims
  • Unidentified Radio-source
  • Cassiopeia
  • The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even
  • Venus Smiles
  • Rune-filled Eyes
  • The Water World
  • Existential Yes
  • The Terminal Zone
  • Robing of the Bride
  • Fragmentation
  • The Soft Death of Marilyn Monroe
  • Indefinite Divisibility
  • Enneper’s Surface
  • False Space and Time of the Apartment
  • Suite Mentale
  • The Dead Planetarium
  • Silent Tableau
  • Appearance of Coma
  • Dune Arabesque
  • Persistence of the Beach
  • Assumption of the Sand-dune
  • Epiphany of This Death
  • The Impact Zone
  • Polite Wassermann
  • The University of Death
  • Indicators of Sexual Arousal
  • The Transition Area
  • Algebra of the Sky
  • Watching Trinity
  • The Karen Novotny Experience
  • Pentax Zoom
  • Cosmogonic Venus
  • The Abandoned Motorcade
  • Operating Formulae
  • Planes Intersect
  • The Soft Quasars
  • The Departure Platform
  • A Mere Modulus
  • The Target Vehicle
  • Command Module
  • Zapruder Frame 235
  • Serial Angels
  • The Skin Area
  • The New Eros
  • Diagram of Bones
  • See-Through Brain
  • Profane Marriage
  • A History of Nothing
  • Landscapes of the Dream
  • Baby Dolls
  • Nervous Bride
  • Auto-Zoomar
  • Action Sequence
  • The Sex Kit
  • The Primary Act
  • Central Casting
  • An Unpleasant Orifice
  • Geometry of Guilt
  • Exposed Placenta
  • Locus Solus
  • The Yes or No of the Borderzone
  • B-Movie
  • Love Among the Mannequins
  • A Confusion of Mathematical Models
  • Soft Geometry
  • Non-Communicating Dialogue
  • Krafft-Ebing
  • Geometry and Posture
  • The Solarium
  • Imaginary Perversions
  • Elements of an Orgasm
  • Post-Coitum Triste
  • Foreplay
  • Contours of Desire
  • Some Bloody Accident
  • Love Scene
  • Zone of Nothing
  • 5 Minutes 3 Seconds
  • Hidden Faces
  • Fake Newsreels
  • The Casualty Ward
  • Hard Edge
  • The Private Evacuations
  • Actual Size
  • Tolerances of the Human Face in Crash Impacts
  • The Death of Affect
  • Six-Second Epic
  • New Algebra
  • Madonna of the Multi-Storey Car Park
  • Internal Emigré
  • Cinecity
  • Too Bad
  • Homage to Abraham Zapruder
  • Go, No-Go Detector
  • Sex Deaths of Karen Novotny
  • The Dream Scenario
  • Biomorphic Horror
  • Sink Speeds
  • Imaginary Diseases
  • Marriage of Freud and Euclid
  • Chase Sequence
  • Che as Pre-Pubertal Figure
  • The Film of Her Death
  • Brachycephalic
  • Coded Sleep
  • Export Credit Guarantees
  • Five Hundred Feet High
  • Gioconda
  • Imago Tapes
  • Jackie Kennedy, I See You in My Dreams
  • Kodachrome
  • Lieutenant 70
  • Minkowski Space-Time
  • Narcissistic
  • Ontologically Speaking
  • Placenta
  • Speed-King
  • The Him
  • UHF
  • Vega
  • Xoanon
  • Ypres Reunion
  • Zodiac
  • The Planes of Her Face
  • Cars of the Abandoned Motorcade
  • The Complete Silence
  • Geometry of a Murder
  • Visions of Helicopters
  • The Corridors of Sleep
  • Legions of the Bereaved
  • Overflights of B-52s
  • Drowned Causeways of the Delta
  • Unique Ciphers
  • Violence and Desire
  • The Deserted Cinema
  • Images of Colliding Motor Cars
  • Slow-motion Newsreels
  • Realisation of Dreams
  • Immobility
  • Nightmares of Anxiety
  • Generations of America
  • Assassination Fantasies
  • Presidential Contender
  • A Thousand Television Screens
  • Motion Picture Studies
  • Conceptual Orgasm

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.