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.


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.