Giving Up The News

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Every single story impacted upon me more than the previous.  Alan Shatter, Oscar Pistorius, Malaysian Airlines. It was my first time to open a newspaper in almost two weeks.

I’d no internet either, so it was all very easy to avoid. Completely unplugged from The Matrix. But after a fortnight on Inis Oirr in the off-season, I suddenly felt the need to re-engage with the world. Just for ten minutes.

So I walked to the shop and bought myself a paper.

The result was quite shocking. After a quick flick through I had to close it again, and put it back in the bag with the rashers and the milk. The only part I could deal with was the Farming Section. And even that was a little bit tense…

So it seems giving up The News is like giving up the cigarettes. Those things you used to crave for, now just give you a headache. And make you feel sick.

I’d much more pressing issues to attend to anyway. Things more immediately relevant I quickly had to learn. Like how not to get swept from the rocks into the Atlantic in the dark. While finding your way home in the rain with no torch…

All the rest suddenly seemed less important.

The locals there told me it was the harshest winter they could remember. Even in spring the wind cuts you in half, and waves crash against rocks with a force that renders you insignificant. I can’t even imagine the place in December…

I’d been there before but only in the summer, the week before my Junior Cert. I was doing Honours Irish back then. Before I left the mainland this time around, people kept telling me those words were there somewhere in my head. They said those words would re-emerge once I was surrounded by the sounds.

I knew those words weren’t there; they fell out of my head quickly after I did my Leaving Cert. Again a question of priorities. More pressing issues emerged back then too, like painting and drawing.

But painting and drawing are no good to me now – it’s far too windy and the pages keep flying away. I tried down by the Plassey; the rusted shipwreck made famous by Father Ted. Running around falling over rocks trying to catch flailing pages. On sea-weed. And sea-weed is slippery…

I learned that the hard way on the first day, after getting a ferocious slap. Then I pissed on myself. I feel the need to distinguish between the two very different pursuits of pissing yourself, and pissing on yourself. I did the latter. There’s a fierce wind on this island, and a distinct lack of people. So what do you do when you’re down the back end of an island – all alone – and you desperately need to pee? I’ll tell you what you do…

You pick a few blades of grass and you throw them up in the air. Good and high. Then you can see exactly which way the wind is blowing. Hence avoiding the pitfalls of that old saying – ‘pissing against the wind.’ Hitting yourself in the face with your own urine is the final humiliation. And we all know you can’t simply stop…

So the only thing you can do is swing yourself around mid-flow and try to become one with the wind. But you’re at nothing if you haven’t thrown the grass up in the air in the first place. In fact you’ll probably only make things worse.

Even worse again there could be a native strolling up the road behind you, that you didn’t see or hear when your back was turned, unzipping in the wind. That’s the sort of information they need to tell you on the boat, perhaps in some form of leaflet…

But instead of giving you leaflets on that boat, they try and sell you cider for a fiver. They know what they’re at, those cagey islanders. The rest of us haven’t a clue. But I’m slowly learning…

As the days progressed and I was developing skills, I was becoming genuinely concerned about running out of €2 coins. There is no bank machine on the island. And I’d coin operated electricity. That’s happened me before, in Tbilisi – where the electricity is prone to disappearing for days on end.

You end up trying to read books in the dark, wondering where your life went wrong. I was panicked this situation would happen to me again.

So I asked a native and explained I was starting to panic. He looked me straight in the eye and told me not to panic. He said panicking was pointless.

Usually people who impart this type of advice are people with nothing to panic about themselves.

But here was a soul who’d been trapped on an island for half a year, imprisoned by an ocean, beaten by the weather, and he was telling me not to panic. There’s a man who knows what he’s talking about. You can hang your hat on that…

As for Oscar Pistorius and his South African shotgun? As long as he’s not on my island, I don’t give a fuck…

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Sometimes Divorce is the Sensible Solution…

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If you want to market anything, the most effective method is fear.  This is how Ukraine, Georgia, and Czech Rep have sold the West the myth that Putin’s Russian empire is extending its evil grip into Europe.  When it fact it could be argued it’s the other way around.

NATO and the EU have been pushing Putin’s buttons for quite some time.  They made constant promises not to expand further eastwards, then promptly broke them all.   After the re-unification of Germany in October 1990, NATO signed agreements with Russia not to expand further east.

Yet despite this, in 1999 Hungary, Czech Rep and Poland all joined NATO.  Then in 2009, Croatia and Albania also joined.  Slowly the Russians are being surrounded…

NATO have installed a Deputy Defence Minister in Kiev, the far-right extremist Dmitry Yarosh, who vows to “liquidate the Russian empire.”  

But we’ve been here before with the Putin, albeit in a slightly different guise.  In 2008, then Georgian president Mikhal Saakashvili decided to invade the disputed separatist Georgian enclaves of South Ossestia and Abkhazia.  Putin was having none of it.  

The residents of these two Russian-speaking enclaves, though technically in Georgia, are mainly ethnic Russians.  They consider themselves Russian – and hold Russian passports.  Putin reasoned it was his duty to protect his Russian citizens from Georgian aggression.  So he bombed the shit out of Gori, Stalin’s birthplace in the heart of Georgia. 

Now this new Ukrainian government face the very same prospect in the Crimea.  Although technically in Ukraine, 95% of the Crimean population are ethnically Russian, and speak Russian.  In fact, Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, until Soviet leader Khrushchev handed it over to Ukraine.  Reports from the time say he was plastered drunk when he signed the documents…

But locked or not, if the conflict in the Crimea continues, Putin may again send his boys in to protect his Russian citizens.  Just like he did in 2008 in Georgia…

And one thing Putin learned from his 2008 war with the Georgians, is that the Yanks are slow to get involved in any skirmish with the Ruskis.  Saakashvili had banked on the support of the George Bush, when the Russians started dropping bombs in highly pro-Western Georgia…  

But nobody answered the phone in the White House – the only support Saakasvili got was an off-the-cuff message of support from John McCain during his failed election campaign.  The Georgians named a street after McCain as a result….

But this recent history is not to say Putin is the good guy, the victim, the bullied-boy in the global schoolyard.  But in that same vein don’t get over excited about this new Ukrainian intern government and upcoming elections either.  Recently released Yulia Tymoshenko – the probable next Ukrainian leader  -  has an equally shady financial past as her now-fugitive predecessor Yanukovitch.

So perhaps the least-bloody solution is to allow the Crimean’s to separate, and form their own little micro-state.  They did it in Transnistria, a thin sliver of land technically part of Moldova, but who declared independence (backed by the Russians) in 1990.  Transnistria is described by the Americans as “The Black Hole of Europe” and a haven for all sorts of dodgy shenanigans.  

But I was there, and the standard of living is far higher than it it is in Moldova itself.  The Transnistrian’s have absolutely no interest in rejoining Moldova.  And those panicky Americans think anywhere without a Starbucks is dodgy…

You can’t force an identity onto people, no matter how many bombs you drop, how many times you change the language, flag or constitution.  

Sometimes a divorce is the sensible solution.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUkRy66iLUI

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Dandy in The Underworld

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People love to give out about “The Man,” when talking about global corporations and advertising.  “The Man” doesn’t have a name, so I’m going to call him Seamus.  Seamus is a bit like Jesus - we’ve all heard about him, but none of us have actually met him.

Also like Jesus, Seamus is able to transcend time and space to convince us of stuff we need to achieve in order to lead better lives.  Unlike Jesus, Seamus imparts this advice mainly through the medium of television.  At the moment he seems to place particular importance upon having plenty of hoovers and life-insurance, and doesn’t appear overly concerned about the dwindling mass attendances.  

Seamus is not really a problem for me, as I don’t watch much TV.  Not out of any highfaluting ideas about it rotting my head, or that we should all be reading books in the dark or hurling in the mist.  No, I just prefer watching films on DVDs.  I don’t like the idea that what I’m watching is also being fed to millions of other people at the very same time; a prescribed daily dose with a highly inflexible schedule.  

But while I don’t allow Seamus to annoy me, he really upsets some people.  

One recent evening I caught myself watching TV.  I can’t remember what I was watching, but it included the inevitable ad break. Seamus’ three-minute homily on hoovers and life-insurance began…

I’ve always felt fairly bullet-proof when it comes to being influenced by TV advertising.  I’m just not that easily convinced I need a load of hoovers and life insurance.  But then Seamus threw a curveball – he mixed it up a bit.  He showed me some stylish Africans, presented in highly cinematic fashion. 

These elegant Africans strut in slow-motion through the dust, dressed as Dandies in brightly coloured, perfectly tailored suits.  A voice-over briefly tells us who these lads are.  They are The Sapeurs – The Society of Elegant Persons of The Congo.  

In this spectacular piece of miniature-cinema we see the lads hard at work, carrying wood and welding metal, before washing away the day’s toil in corrugated shanty-town shacks.  They make their precise transformations into cigar-puffing dandies.  Then they strut through the dust and converge in a big shed.  And the shed has a bar license…

These highly-attired African Dandies sent me scrambling for a laptop.  I had to see this ad again.  I wanted to know more.  I also felt a bit sick – that uniquely Irish mix of admiration and jealousy.   Like grinning through gritted teeth at a lottery winner.

With some googling I discovered that apart from this Guinness advert, there’s not much else online about this stunning spectacle happening in the “Heart of Darkness”.   This made me feel all the more queasy – pure fresh ground in documentary terms.  And the real-life story behind the images is impossibly intriguing…  

The Sapeur movement began back in colonial times, when the French were running Congo-Brazzaville.   The movement arose as the African’s ultimate two-finger salute to their European colonisers.  In history’s most beautifully vindictive act of non-violent resistance, this group of locals saved for months and months until they could eventually afford some serious style.  Then they started to dress with more swagger than their colonial overlords, taking their cues from Parisian high-fashion of the Roaring Twenties.  

If you happened to be a colonial overlord, you’d lose your fucking marbles if your servants started turning up to clean your mansion in fancier clothes than you.  Particularly if you were French…

Specifically non-violent, one sharply dressed Sapeur explains that you couldn’t possibly be involved in acts of violence while so elegantly attired…  

So, in awe of this ad and everything it said to me, I posted it on Facebook.  What happened next was interesting.

People started to re-post it.  But almost everybody who re-posted it took the time to insert an apology of sorts above the link.  Apologising for the fact they were posting an advert, and therefore the work of “The Man”.  Armchair Marxists, waging war against “The Man.”  On Facebook -  possibly  “The Man’s” most successful experiment so far!

But this dissent about “The Man” in conjunction with this ad got so ferocious I started questioning it myself.  I started trying to pick holes. “The Man” has constructed a perfectly palatable image of Africa for us; one full of vibrancy and jest.  A place you’d go on holidays to if Ryanair got their shit together.  No mention of hunger or AIDS.  

But then I watched it again, and again.  And again.  It’s not that poverty and dereliction are absent in any way.  It’s completely obvious this is a third-world country.  It’s all there – you just don’t notice it so much when the brightly dressed protagonists strut their way through it in slow motion, like a knife through butter.

You shouldn’t be praising an ad for alcohol, more voices roar.  But if you look again carefully you’ll see there’s only one pint on each table in the background.  The emphasis in the shed scene is on the slick moves being pulled by an elderly African dandy on the dance-floor – rather than any suggestion of getting locked. 

But it’s all staged, further voices scream.  Yes it is all staged, but the protagonists are very real – they are not actors. La Sape is a very real movement.  It was not invented by Guinness for the purpose of this ad.

So then I decided it makes no sense to apologise.  Especially ’cause all those voices were in my head in the first place.  I would never even have heard of The Sapeurs, if it wasn’t for “The Man.”  Neither would the armchair Marxists, and everybody’s world would be just that tiny bit greyer.

So for once, leave Seamus alone.  You haven’t a leg to stand on, especially if you won’t get off your ass to pick a DVD….

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-3sVWOxuXc

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Emmet Square – It’s Offaly Like The Ukraine

The streets of Kiev are alive with fire, as protesters clash viciously with riot police.  But as the car bounced through Kilcormac on the way back to Birr, I was told of a more relevant war.  Communist ideals versus capitalist – on a local Irish level….

And just like in Kiev, this fight has been going on for months. And just like in Kiev, the focal point of the drama is the main square.  People are getting very excited; pulses are permanently raised.  Particularly at the mention of parking spaces….

The local traders are strongly opposed to losing customer car-parking spaces if the local councillors get their way, with a design for a new Socialist-style show-piece square.  The councillors want big open spaces – think Red Square on a budget.   

And just like Red Square in Moscow or Independence Square in Kiev, this new open space would come at the cost of car-parking.  Those communists had no time for parked cars in their showpiece squares…

I heard of the grand-plans briefly before Christmas, but I hadn’t paid it much attention.  Proposals like this are ten a penny – and us Spud-Heads love a bit of righteous indignation.  But as I ventured back down to the Midlands for the first time in 2014, I realised what was mere indignation in 2013 had quickly evolved into proper wide-eyed panic.  What was once just an idea now looked on the verge of becoming reality.

To me it all seemed very simple – particularly after a week of watching Russia Today.  Even though it’s been raging for months, until very recently we haven’t heard much about this ongoing Ukrainian battle on RTE or Sky News.  Russia Today was the only news channel devoting any significant – albeit biased – coverage to what is increasingly looking like a bleak civil war situation in The Ukraine.  

The trouble all started a few months back – just like in Birr – when Ukrainian President big Viktor Yanukovich looked like he was about to cosy up to the West – and turn his back on Mother Russia.  This would have paved the way for Ukraine to eventually join the EU – and give two fingers to the Ruskis.  

The Russians weren’t happy to put it mildly – little Vladimimr Putin was foaming at the mouth.  He was understandably keen to hang onto the perceived loyalty of 46 million former Soviet citizens.  And he doesn’t like being given two fingers.  Over anything….

So just as the Ukrainian’s historic deal with Europe looked on the verge of being signed in November, little Vlad made a quick phone call to big Viktor – and suddenly the whole thing collapsed.  Big Viktor gratefully accepted the expensive engagement ring little Vlad had bought him, without even making him get down on one knee.

I have travelled through the Ukraine, and even before these recent clashes it was a bitterly divided nation.  A massive chasm exists between the east and west of the country, in both geographical and metaphorical senses of the words.  In the eastern half of Ukraine the citizens speak Russian, and are extremely keen to hang onto their age-old ties with the former communist Soviet Union. 

In the Western half of the country they speak Ukrainian – and are eager to be part of the forever capitalist European Union. 

So when the Ukrainian president did his sudden reversal, wide-scale protests began.  

We didn’t hear much about it here, far too busy watching pop-stars get arrested from the comfort of reclining couches.  

And it’s easy to espouse Socialist values from the comfort of those reclining couches.  But just like Mick Wallace – the somehow ‘socialist’ Celtic-Tiger property developer – it’s an ironic fit.  Socialism is a lovely idea in theory, but in practice history has consistently shown us it doesn’t really work.  It goes against basic human instincts, and that’s always going to be a losing battle.  

I have been to, and lived in, many former communist countries.  Bar the odd bit of novelty nostalgia for the tourists, nobody has a good word to say about their country’s communist past.  Old women sell granny-knickers and cigarette lighters on cold city streets in an attempt to make ends meet.   

A taxi driver in Kiev explained it all very simply to me one day as he waved his hand at a flock of pensioners.  He said the reason those pensioners were out on the ice-stricken streets flogging their wares was because they never had a chance to build up any savings under the communist regime.  Then suddenly the free-market exploded almost overnight, but the once-adequate state pensions didn’t adjust for inflation with the new capitalist age.  Therefore anyone pushing towards retirement was suddenly in serious trouble, without sufficiant time for stockpiling…

What used to cost a ruble in communist times – like a taxi journey or a haircut – overnight started to cost 10 or 20 rubles, as the younger generations were suddenly allowed make money.  And so pensioners roam the streets hawking oranges…  

Other friends of mine in Budapest have parents who dared to question the party-line in communist times, and were resigned to the sidelines of their professions as a result.  Another drawback to the one-party system.  Some of them are still out there on those sidelines, sitting in crumbling Soviet-era apartments.  On couches that definitely don’t recline….

Yet our reclining couched-Marxists will tell you that the system just hadn’t been implemented properly.  Surrealist musician Frank Zappa said that any system that doesn’t allow ownership is a “system with a fatal design flaw.”  

Is there a fatal design flaw about to happen in that square in Birr?  Or will change be a good thing, just like those town councillors insist? 

I don’t know, time will tell.  But one thing’s for sure – you won’t hear about it on Sky News.  

Just like in Kiev….

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Neknomination & Gerry Ryan

Neknomination is the worst thing to happen us since Gerry Ryan died.  The teacher’s left the classroom, the pilot’s on the shandies, and the lifeguard’s left the deck.  Daddy’s in charge for the night, and he doesn’t know the proper bedtime.

But at least our fathers and their fathers knew all about ‘The Shame’.  As a result they did their solo-drinking in public – sitting alone at the bar.  If necessary they’d rattle off a few pre-determined lines about tomorrows’ weather forecast.  The bit of chat.  They didn’t like people with ideas above their station.  They thought a broadband connection was something to do with a tractor.   It was all Miley Byrne, and no Miley Cyrus.  

But now the good Miley’s gone.  Now their sons and daughters live online, jabbering away with empty phrases like “totes amazeballs”, then crying themselves to sleep after downing a litre of cider through a straw.

Since the introduction of the internet we’ve rapidly evolved from grinning like awkward eejits down the back of GAA photos, to posing for photos every five minutes, then posting them online.   Photos we take ourselves.  Where’s ‘The Shame’ when it’s needed?! 

Dead and gone – slowly eroded by social networking.  Like it or not, this crippling sense of shame was only thing that preserved our social graces throughout the ages.  It’s the only thing that for better or for worse, distinguished us from almost every other nationality, and kept us on the straight and narrow.

But now with this disastrous breakthrough that is ‘Neknomination’, we have social drinking designed to go with along with our social networking.  So now we can get legitimately locked all alone, without incurring ‘The Shame’.  Just as long as we have broadband.

This online erosion of our sacred shame started abroad.  ‘Neknomination’ first became popular in Australia.  Then the Irish emigrants got wind.  Throughout history our emigrants have had a habit of giving the all the rest of us a bad name, and now they’re doing it again.  The Irish never had an international reputation for alcoholic excess, until the lads went over building things for the Brits and the Yanks, back in the day.  

But you couldn’t build things in the dark, so in their time off from the sites they drank away the loneliness, in Kilburn and the Bronx.  Dreaming of muddy GAA pitches but surrounded by foreign concrete.

Then the locals in the Bronx started telling tales about plastered Paddies, and the gossip quickly spread.  Somewhere along the twisted tangent we recognised the importance of living up to a stereotype – or maybe we just realised the potential for dollars.  So we gave up on the Benediction and took up the Buckfast, and have since made a fortune peddling over-priced pints to tourists in Temple Bar.

But time is cyclical, not linear.  Because now it’s happening to us all over again.  The new breed of Irish emigrants are drinking pints of cider through straws in Sydney, then posting videos of it online, daring their friends at home in Athlone to emulate the task.  Seeing all these videos, the Brits and the Yanks are once again gossiping about those plastered Paddies.

This celebration of excess is nothing new.  And it’s certainly not an Irish phenomenon.  In fact, quite the opposite – ‘The Shame’ usually sends us to great lengths to hide our excesses.  Hence the frosted glass in street-level pub windows, and the boarded-up windows in bookies to block the view inside.  Vows of secrecy on par with the confessional. 

The Yanks however, have no such sense of shame.  They particularly enjoy watching people indulge in excess, and they make reality TV shows about it.  Hence the rise of competitive eating, and the uniquely grotesque Man v Food.  We’re not taking the blame for this one, ‘Neknomination’ or not…

The premise of this disgusting reality TV show is an irritatingly chirpy chap who travels around the States stuffing his fat face with burgers and chips, or whatever the local speciality happens to be.  He refers to these jaunts as his ‘challenges’.  Other often hefty individuals crowd around his table, clapping and cheering in encouragement, as his girth expands before their eyes.   It’s an embarrassing reflection on western society; an Al-Qaeda recruitment video waiting to happen.

Beads of sweat roll down his thick jowls, and in the darker parts of your Spud-Head soul you catch yourself hoping for severe health ramifications in the gluttonous slob’s future.  That’s the difference between us and the Yanks.  The Yanks would never think dark thoughts like that.  The Yanks just clap.

And that’s why social networking and ‘Neknomination’ doesn’t suit our Spud-Head souls.  It’s custom designed for the American-flavoured sunny disposition.  The frantic positivity we just don’t possess.  It suggests we should be friends with everyone we’ve ever met, it encourages us to post smiley faces all over the place, and it reminds us to make damn sure to wish everyone a happy birthday and “like” updates about their grandmothers funeral arrangements.  

That’s all harmless enough, if a bit irritating.  But the danger begins when social media presumes we possess the self-control to partake in digital drinking games, without turning them into ‘life threatening stunts’ as the moral panic brigade have quickly re-branded it here.  

Gerry would be spinning…

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Avoid the acid and lay off the pints (of milk)

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Forty Shades of Grey (Israel/Palestine)

Finally, the full film is now available to stream for free for the first time here…

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