The run of the country

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The view.

There is a lot to be said for urban living. You can walk to the shops, stumble home from pubs, access public transport, be around other humans or just take a walk after dark without reenacting The Evil Dead, thanks to the miracle of streetlighting. Since I left home two decades ago, I have always lived in urban spaces, first in Cork city, then the scorched hellscapes of Dublin, then back in the heart of the bustling market town of Midleton. But things changed, and now my family and I live in the house I grew up in, three miles outside of Midleton, on the back Dungourney road (not to be confused with the main Dungourney autobahn). The house is a money pit. We should really have known this, as the house is two days older than dirt – or, to put it another way, 41, the same age as myself. And, also like myself, it needed a lot of cosmetic and structural work. So we set to it, knocking a wall or two and blocking up doorways, which has led to the amusing scene of me almost walking into walls, expecting a door to be there.

The biggest job, however, is the windows. Just like the accursed OS that bears their name, installing windows is an expensive, tedious and generally awful experience that nobody willfully goes through. But we live in a house with floor to ceiling bay windows – a single-paned, teak-framed latticework that allows heat out with the same enthusiasm that it lets the rain in. Large houses are always cold, or expensive to heat, but we are up on a hill, with rubbish windows, and now some nights I go to bed in two hoodies, gloves and a scarf. And none of those are euphemisms. We got a quote from the ever illusive Munster Joinery for a complete refit – 22k. Also, the roofs of the aforementioned bay windows need to be redone at the same time, so that will bring the total cost into the region of 30k. So as a classic #dadhack (ie, cheap, impractical solution), I bought us all parkas, which we now wear around the house, like scientists at an Arctic research base, conducting important research into the effects of sub-zero temperatures on chaise longues and cornicing. I just hope no-one calls only to witness the sight of six parka-clad townies struggling to survive one of the mildest winters on record.

Living in the country makes you aware of how much the state actually does for you. For all urban dwellers they provide clean water and sewerage systems, as well as offering public transport, roads, paths, streetlights – the list goes on. You move to the sticks and all that ends. Suddenly we are worrying about wells, pumps, septic tanks, sluggish broadband and darkness. And money; we are also worrying about money.

Most people assumed we would sell this place, and there have been times in the last few months when we wished we had. But those weren’t dad’s wishes. He loved this house – the views, the fresh air, the silence. However, a large part of the reason he would never leave is that my sister died here. She had a heart attack in the shower at the age of 22. She had grand mal epilepsy and was sick for more than half her life. Her bedroom was never changed after her death, and it was only when we started to renovate that her belongings were removed. Behind a radiator we found a Noddy book, with her name on the inside cover, the L in Lucy written backwards in her child’s writing. Dad used to say he could never leave my mum and Lucy as he saw them still in the house. I woke a few times in the night and thought about it, the idea of my sister or my mother drifting from room to room, watching us sleep. It brings little comfort. I prefer my version of reality to my dad’s – the dead are dead and that is that. But I sometimes feel like I am living in a poorly insulated mausoleum. Not helping the Daphne du Maurier vibe is the fact that my youngest son keeps pointing at random corners and shouting ‘ghost’. Either he is watching too much Scooby Doo or the caul he was born with is finally starting to work.

Not far from where I live there is a massive, gothic, grand old pile, once part of a massive, grand estate, and it is known locally as bringing ill fortune on all who live there. I was only in it once, when my mum brought me to visit a woman who was dying of cancer. She was in a huge upstairs bedroom, with her young daughter playing a piano in the corner. I don’t remember much about it other than that, apart from the dormant fountain outside being full of frogspawn. The (very Catholic) story I was told about the house was that a previous owner had hung himself off one of the trees along the driveway and that the property was doomed after that. It’s not hard to see how people cling to this belief – the various families who have lived there have suffered an uncanny amount of tragedy; decrepitude, immolation, drowning, and a series of young deaths. Also, the house looks like something out of a Hammer Horror film –  you can see for yourself, as it is on AirBnB. But the reality is that the house isn’t all that different, it’s just the comforts of superstition, a sort of diluted, organic version of religion that tells you the same thing – there is Something Else. Every home has suffered tragedies and losses; at least, that’s what I try to tell myself this as I struggle to cope with being the last member of my family, wandering around a house looking for doorways and faces that aren’t here anymore.

I started writing this post six months ago after we moved in. Now it’s June and the days are longer, the nights are warmer and things generally are improving, both for us as a family and inside my head. The grief of it all is starting to subside a little, and I am coming to terms with dad’s passing. I still have bad days, but not like over the first few months, when at times I thought I was losing my mind. I randomly broke down so many times I lost count – I met one of the palliative care nurses who looked after dad, and I broke down; my wife told me how proud dad would have been of me, and I broke down. Even things seemingly unconnected to dad made me crumble – one day a Down Syndrome child in the hospital walked over and hugged me, and I broke down. It’s basically been a few months of me either A) cracking wise like a dickhead, as is my wont, or B) sobbing openly. But the pain is easing, though I am still haunted by the sense of my own looming demise. I never really thought about death all that much, not like this, with a very real sense of the absolute finality. It still pops into my head from time to time; I just stop for a moment and realise that one day I will be completely and utterly dead, and the shock of it makes me sick. But then you busy yourself with other things and forget for another while, until the next moment of existential despair.

Working in a hospital has, oddly enough, been a great help. All day I deal with people who have real problems – not ‘my giant house has old windows, boo fucking hoo’ – but actual life-challenging problems. Sometimes when I book follow-up appointments for patients for next year, I know they won’t be coming as they will be gone. Sometimes they know it too, and joke about it. ‘That’s a long while off isn’t it, well sher I might still be here’. Most of the time the patients are elderly, sometimes they are just kids. Perspective is a wonderful gift.

The good news is that, according to local superstitions, we are due yet another death in the family. I was excitedly telling a neighbour about a robin that keeps coming into the house, and he duly informed me that according to local lore, a robin coming into the house is a sign that someone who lives there will pass away. He was telling me this as we had just cut down a tree in my garden that, unbeknownst to us, contained a magpie’s nest – with two young magpies in it. So the signs are clear – we are fucked, either by the robin, the magpies, or hypothermia if the winter gets bad enough.

But even superstitions have their limits. I told my neighbour – who is now my shaman in these matters – about when we brought dad home after his diagnosis last summer, and were greeted with the sight of a crow in the living room, perched atop dad’s favourite chair. I asked if he thought that might have been a warning from the fates, some sort of sign; what did it mean. He said it probably meant there was a nest in the chimney.

Paul Ryan, dead dolphins, ortolans, country fairs

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Week five of my wafflings; eventually I will just turn into Lenny Bruce and use it as a platform for bitterly attacking anyone who I feel wronged me. But for now it’s still mostly shit jokes about deceased mammals.

 

Politics is a lonely business. Spare a moment for poor Paul Ryan, current US Speaker Of The House. An all-rounder in high school, he excelled academically and at sports, before being crowned prom king; Ryan isn’t used to being unpopular with young people. So imagine his chagrin this week when a group of eighth graders refused to have their photo taken with him, with one child going on the record as not wanting to be associated with Ryan ‘or his policies’. His attempts to win over the youth vote brought to mind one of our own politicians and their encounters with Da Kidz. In 2003, the then Justice Minister Michael McDowell was speaking to a group of schoolchildren in Laois when he uttered the immortal line: “If you listen to the MTV ethic or the Ibiza Uncovered kind of world – if you think that’s the future, it isn’t.” He was right of course, it wasn’t the future at all, as Ibiza Uncovered had come to an end six years earlier in 1997.

Thinking back to MTV’s chaotic reality show does make you yearn for a simpler time when bacchanalian mayhem was enough fun for the kids, before they needed to involve deceased aquatic lifeforms in their shenanigans. The sight of a deceased dolphin at a student party in Cork caused outrage after it was posted on that toilet of the soul, social media. Allegedly brought to the party by two non-students, the animal’s carcass was danced around the living room before being unceremoniously dumped out a window, in scenes akin to a Weekend At Bernie’s/Flipper crossover. However, the more astute observers of marine life would say it was only a matter of time until dolphins – the smartarses of the sea – began infiltrating our third level institutions. Ask anyone: They’ve been trying to get into the best tuna schools for years. Pressure to keep up with dolphins is  the last thing Ireland needs, as most school-leavers today already lack a sense of porpoise.

Donald Trump’s National Lampoon’s European Vacation finally came to a close, leaving us with many fun-filled holiday memories, from his tiny hands trying unsuccessfully to hold Melania’s, to his tiny hands dangling uselessly next to the most cheerful Pope in history, who on the day looked like Bishop Brennan after just being kicked up the arse. On his tour, Trump stomped across the world like a T-Rex, all savage maw, primitive bellowing,  and tiny little hands that almost make you feel most sorry for him. His dinosaur-like tendencies might also explain his affinity for fossil fuels.

Trump styles himself as the apex predator, but it was the leader of the nation of intellectuals who showed the power of sheer force of will.  Of all the national leaders to step up to the plate and take him on at his own game, few would have expected French president Emmanuel Macron. Perhaps it is Trump’s aggressive style that irked Macron, but given that he is French it is more likely to be the fact that Trump eats his steak well done with ketchup, a crime which I believe is still punishable by death in France.

Macron grabbed Trump’s tiny hand in his and did not let go, gazing deep into his eyes as he dragged him into an existentialist staredown that seemed to go on forever. Sadly, all good things come to an end, and much like the Americans got bored of calling French fries ‘freedom fries’ after a few months, Macron let go, and the Arc De Trumphe separated, leaving the world to bask in the afterglow of a world leader who realised that sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to crush his tiny hand as though it were a delicious ortolan.

If you want to see what real, hard working hands look like, get yourself to an agricultural show, a sort of Electric Picnic where the headline acts are a massive tractor, oversized bull, and a weird sheep that looks like it could be cast as the devil in a Ken Russell film. Outings like the agricultural show are important parts of the rural calendar, as the broadband is so poor that there is little reason to stay in the house: Since moving to the country I have dragged my kids to two holy wells, eight woods, and the site of a War Of Independence massacre, which, oddly enough, was located in someone’s front garden and was guarded by a cheerful corgi, an ironic choice given that it was Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite breed.

Agricultural shows make you more aware where our food actually comes from, and the gruelling work that goes into producing it. It reminds you that, unlike the libertarian mindset of people like Paul Ryan and Trump, none of us exist in isolation, and we are all reliant on each other – even if it’s just to help push a people carrier out of a muddy field.

LinkedIn, Minecraft, fidget spinners, doomsday

I hate LinkedIn. Perhaps it’s because I have no career to speak of and thus nothing to post on there, but I also think it is a clunky fucking mess. So that was the jumping off point for my column in last week’s Indo. Enjoy!

 

In terms of the various selves that we project online – stylista on Insta, thoughtful commentator on Twitter, twitchy comedian on Snapchat – it is on LinkedIn that we are farthest from our own reality. In its clunky interface we paint a portrait of our many academic and professional achievements like a digital Ozymandias, demanding all look on our mighty works and despair at how diligent, agile, and Lean we are.

But we cannot shift the bang of want, as LinkedIn transforms us into Jack Lemmon’s doomed salesman from Glengarry Glen Ross, begging everyone we know for the good leads. And then there are the helpful LinkedIn updates, which, like a disappointed mother, email you to tell you how well everyone else is doing and asking if you would like to congratulate them on being superior to you in every way.

The good news is that LinkedIn is about to get even more depressing. From June 6,  LinkedIn will feature a ‘members in your area’ feature that tells you when your contacts are nearby, so you can run far, far away from them in case they challenge you over your wild claims about management experience or ask you to explain what Six Sigma actually is. Of course it will be a great tool for those attending a conference who want to play a version of Pokemon Go, only instead of chasing a rare MewTwo, you will be hunting down that recruitment guy who told you your CV was amazing and then tried to traffick you into a zero hour contract in a call centre.

To another online world filled with grandiose, non-existent monuments  – Minecraft. The sandbox game came under fire recently as it included a mechanic in the game whereby you could breed parrots if you fed them chocolate chip cookies. Like almost everything else that happens in the world today, this caused much gnashing of teeth by concerned keyboard warriors, who pointed out that feeding real-life chocolate to real-life parrots causes them not to breed, but to die. Obviously, if your child is smart enough to figure out the mechanics of virtual parrot breeding in Minecraft, they are probably smart enough to understand that it is not representative of real life, and that parrots, in their natural habitat, do not eat chocolate chip cookies.

Explaining the cookie conundrum, one of the game developers said that they were terribly sorry, and that the cookie idea came from the song Polly by Nirvana – a song which A) has zero mention of cookies, instead using the obvious line of ‘Polly wants a cracker’, and B) was actually written about the abduction and rape of a 14 year old in 1987. So whoever gave that explanation can remove ‘public relations’ from his LinkedIn skill cloud.

Whatever dangers Minecraft may pose to our kids, it is nothing in comparison to the biggest threat to civilisation as we know it – fidget spinners. These small spinning toys are banned from most school playgrounds, with notes being sent home to parents warning them of confiscation if they are seen on school property. Thanks god our schools are keeping our kids safe from harm, and are directing them towards more delicate pastimes, such as hurling, once astutely described as ‘a cross between hockey and murder’.

I can’t help but wonder if prohibition is the way to deal with the fidget spinner craze, since kids are clearly already hooked. Driving the trade underground will only empower the dealers who control the supply. Before you know it, schools all over Ireland will be like an episode of Narcos enacted by six year olds, with all out war in playgrounds – purple nurples, Chinese burns, dead legs; you name it, these cartels will sink as low as they can to ensure they stay in control.

Soon the child you love will become as a stranger to you, arriving home at 4am in a chaffeur driven limo, dizzy from all the fidget spinning, stumbling into their cot through boxes of fidget spinners stacked high like Jenga. Before you know it you have lost them to the spinning scene, and shortly thereafter society will fall completely asunder. Or we will just move on to the next moral panic.

Something actually worth panicking about is the news that the vault containing the key to human survival in post apocalyptic hellscape might be leaking. The Svalbard vault, buried deep in a hillside in Norway’s frozen north, apparently had a sudden gush of water through its doors, as the permafrost around it melted. The vault contains samples of close to a million plants, so that we can replant the earth once we are finished waterboarding it.

Of course, there is a sweet irony to the fact that the so called Doomsday Vault has been damaged by the very thing that that will probably doom us all – global warming. Perhaps we can chuckle about that in a few decades as we sit atop a mountain surrounded by water, while we burn copies of JG Ballard’s Drowned World to keep warm, and hunt iguanas using fidget spinners, like we used to hunt business connections on LinkedIn.

 

 

 

Twilight of the gods

First, a death. Aleck Crichton, above, passed away recently at the age of 98, an impressive age for anyone, but especially for someone who led a tank battalion through Normandy in the aftermath of the D-Day landings. Somewhat ominously named after an uncle who died in the Great War, Crichton was badly injured in 1944. Returning home to Ireland, he took up a role in the family business – Jameson. He was part of the team who engineered the merger between the last big distilleries in Ireland, an act which most likely saved our industry from extinction. Part of that difficult transition meant that, in 1984, the decision was made to concentrate on Jameson – a decision that has paid off some three decades later. Richard Burrows, speaking to Ivor Kenny in 2001, noted how this singular focus was difficult because the family members of the original distillers were still on the board: “They paid lip service to marketing – they may sound harsh, but I believe it’s true. Their interest was whether their Jameson, or their Powers, or their Paddy was getting the promotional money.”

Crichton was also chair of the Yeats Society, fitting given that his parents were friends of Yeats’s, a regular visitor to their home on Fitzwilliam Square. Crichton’s memories of Ireland’s Most Emo Nerd were thus: “I would play tag with his children on the square and we were always getting into trouble,” he recalled.

“I don’t remember him ever actually talking to us but he didn’t ignore us either.”

“He always dressed impeccably, always wore a bow tie and silver buckles on his shoes. My father and mother were huge friends and he was often in our home for tea.”

Good old poets – loads of money for shoe buckles, none for buying their own tea.

The foundations laid by Crichton and the rest of the board of IDL are being reaped in the Irish whiskey boom of today – just look at Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery, who recently got a rather large chunk of investment cash. Sez the press release:

Phase 1 of our project was the purchase of the Guinness Brewery from Diageo in December 2014 for €7.5m. We then spent €2m during 2015 converting it to a modern distillery; developed a unique barley supply chain; distilled 1m litres of new spirit traceable to 46 farm terroirs by January 2017; and established a bespoke warehouse complex at Ballygarran.

Phase 1 is now complete, on budget and on schedule. The quality of the spirit is first rate supported by both taste and analysis.

We now move to phase II, as outlined in our plan, the total focus of building up stock volumes to 5m litres.

Distilling is an expensive business. And with no revenue stream (deliberately) at this early stage, all the more so.

It is a testament to the strength of the company – the Facilitator, people, shareholders and spirit – that it has secured €20m new funding for Phase II with the investment of €5.8m from BGF (Business Growth Fund) and a €14.4m debt facility with Ulster Bank.

At the same time as the Ulster facility, BGF was invited to make their first investment in an Irish business. We’re delighted to have them aboard.

This €20m funding of whisky stock leads, inevitably, to Phase III, the exciting bit, bringing the whisky to market. Roll out those barrels.

Another snippet of news also came from Waterford Distillery around the same time – the departure of one of the key members of the team. Lisa Ryan had worked on site when it was Diageo’s Guinness brewery,  and was head brewer after Reynier took over (her father also supplied some of the barley for their whiskey). So this came as something of a surprise:

Ten years ago you either worked for Cooley, Bushmills or IDL or you didn’t work in distilling. Now we have a growing industry, and a desperate search for staff with experience. Staff being able to move from distillery will be good for the industry and for the category. People will do good things with a brand and get headhunted, and a knowledge economy will be created. So the future is bright – even Diageo are back in the game. They jettisoned Bushmills not long ago and now are building a distillery in their Dublin campus. You can peruse their plans for the St James’s Gate Power House on the DCC site, but here are a few snippets:

There is a really insightful analysis of the move by Louise McGuane here, which explains the smart business of getting rid of one distillery only to build another. Diageo have resurrected the George Roe brand for a sourced blend, presumably from Bushmills, although who knows – with Irish whiskey it’s never exactly crystal clear. The issue of transparency is one that rapidly becoming an unhealthy obsession for me. It’s like Tesco’s fake farms that they use in branding their meat – they say consumers don’t care, and perhaps they are right. But I think that if you stood at the checkout and explained to people that they have no idea where their food came from, and that the shop selling it to them had to invent a place to make that fact seem less unsettling, then they might be less inclined to buy that giant chicken for three euro.

The same goes for whiskey brands – here’s an example of food marketing: This is the pre-release image of The Whistler, a sourced whiskey from Boann Distillery –

And this is what the label actually says:

We can argue semantics all day, but changing from bottled to crafted suggests the hand of marketing. It’s disappointing, not least because I had a few of the Boann whiskeys at Whiskey Live Dublin and thought they had a very strong product. Boann are legitimate distillers who are building a brand while stocks mature – so why bother with the use of the term crafted? It is a weasel word, and the category would be better off without it.

However, it isn’t entirely fair to single Boann out – after all there are other independent bottlers who are using far more misleading tactics – but the entire category is going to have a credibility issue until this sort of behaviour is abandoned. Yes, we only had three distilleries for the last few decades, and yes we have hundreds of brands from those same three sources, all trying to create their own identity – but our image abroad will not improve unless we call a halt to the theatrical flourishes of food marketing firms.  There are few sights more depressing than Americans tweeting at independent bottlers to ask them about opening times of their non-existent distilleries – and it is happening. Consumers will end up disillusioned when they discover that the brand they love has endeavored to convince them that their whiskey comes from a distillery that does not exist, and our grand plans for whiskey tourism will be for naught.

And it isn’t just small bottlers sending out confusing signals, the biggest of them all is guilty too, as every bottle of Jameson carries the address of ‘Bow Street, Dublin’ proudly on the label, as though the liquid contained within is actually made there. The liquid is made in Cork, the IDL HQ is in Ballsbridge, and while Bow Street is the tourism HQ, when it comes to the whiskey itself, that address is a phantom limb.

As the interest in Irish whiskey grows worldwide, I am seeing more and more chatter online about the issue of transparency – I don’t want us to be seen as some sort of snake oil tricksters, slinging whiskey distilled in Fidder’s Green by the magical folk, when it all comes from one branch of the holy trinity of Cooley/Midleton/Bushmills. Supply deals may include a privacy clause, but brands can still be more honest – do it in small print on the back label, the geeks will appreciate it and everyone else won’t care enough to read it. The IWA aren’t going to enforce this – one member told me as much when I asked them about false provenance. They told me copyright was basically all they were concerned with right now. It is understandable: The IWA is just an industry body – the consumers’ best interests are not their top priority.

However, I was pleased to see the Irish Whiskey Society are holding a night on this topic soon. Here are the details:

On May 25th, the Irish Whiskey Society will be inviting 8 of the industry’s most vocal movers and shakers for a panel discussion on the liquid identity of our national drink: its making, its labelling, its sales, and its spirit. From startup indies to growing global brands, the panel will include brand builders, critics, distillers, and publicans – for a look at the liquid as its trickling off today.

If there is change, it will be the geeks and the indies who lead it – they understand that if you make transparency and honesty the core of your sales pitch, you can’t go wrong.

There was more good news recently for the orphan of Irish whiskey – Bushmills. I find it frustrating to see this brand languishing as it has, and while I was optimistic that the new owners would bring some fresh thinking, I haven’t seen much evidence yet, from the poorly-received Steamship series to the woefully titled Red Bush. They must have some incredible stock there just waiting for the right treatment – gives us some single barrel, some quality age statements – after all, the place is actually doing quite well:

Northern Ireland’s best-known whiskey maker enjoyed a bumper year in 2015, according to its most-recently filed accounts.

Part of the 18 months in the accounting period covers a period under the ownership of Mexican drinks giant Jose Cuervos, after the sale of Bushmills by Diageo.

The brand’s new owners filed a planning application for a major expansion of the Bushmills facility in a bid to double production capacity. It plans to build a £30m expansion to its current distillery and has now been given permission for the facility which, it says, will “effectively double production capacity”.

It’s also planning to build almost 30 huge warehouses to mature its world-famous Irish whiskey. A strategic report filed with the accounts says its new owners are planning to develop the company through expanding into new markets and increasing sales.

Increase the sales by all means but please increase the quality of the releases while you’re at it. That place deserves to shine.

As titans like Bushmills meander, there are of course numerous challengers approaching. There’s Cape Clear Distillery and the man behind it, Adrian Fitzgibbbon, a financier who was one of the leading lights in the Irish wing of Sachsen LLB.  Mr Fitzgibbon initially aimed to set up a distillery and visitors centre on his own property, Horse Island, a small chunk of land about 800 metres off the coast of Skibbereen. Designer Terry Greene, who is behind the neo-celt aesthetic of Barr An Uisce, did some sterling work on the brand:

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When that was refused, Mr Fitzgibbon moved his attention to the nearby island of Cape Clear, where the plan has been accepted and is now the funding stage. Here are the plans:

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Again, Terry Greene is working on the design:

Cape Clear is beautiful, and one would hope that with Fitzgibbon’s background in finance, they will have no trouble whipping up the cash to make it the dream a reality.

Another Cork resident with a background in finance is Michael Scully, a farmer turned property developer, the latter part of which you can read more about here. He is behind the Clonakilty Atlantic Distillery, which is dues to be built within a unit set up for Ulster Bank before the economy tanked. It later became a gaelscoil. Here are some visuals:

There’s also Gortinore, who have plans for the old mill in Kilmacthomas, Tipperary Boutique, who are forging ahead with plans for a grain-to-glass operation near Cahir, Sliabh Liag up in Donegal – there are many planned distilleries and it is going to be interesting to see who makes it to market in five to ten years and who falls by the wayside. It is going to be an interesting decade for Irish whiskey, but my own two cents are thus – all the mentoring in the world isn’t going to ensure integrity. The financial collapse in 2008 showed that there is no ‘invisible hand of the market’ which guides best practise, and that humans will generally do whatever suits them best – even if it means lying to the public. The whiskey business has had a tolerance of subterfuge that needs to be ditched so that we – consumers and producers – hold our heads high and make Irish whiskey great again.

 

 

Authoritarian

I did a steaming hot take on the Clinton/Patterson book for the Indo, and here it is: 

 

When it was announced that Bill Clinton was writing a book, most people assumed it would be a cross between 50 Shades and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Sadly, our hopes of a steamy memoir about Slick Willy Clinton polling the electorate were dashed when it was announced that human bestseller machine James Patterson would be co-authoring. Patterson is what you might call box office, one of the most successful – and richest – authors in the world, even if he has his critics – as horror maestro Stephen King bluntly put it, Patterson is a terrible writer but he’s very successful.

So the book will be a hit, no matter what, even if the title – The President Is Missing, which according to the publishers is about a president that goes missing – doesn’t suggest a gripping, unputdownable page-turner. But not every politician has had success when dabbling in the creative arts.

Painting – Churchill painted to alleviate depression, Hitler was a failed artist, and Franco was  better than you would think. But beyond all those were the paintings of George W Bush, whose portraits of world leaders – and himself in the shower – were startlingly poor. Of course, art is completely subjective, but when a 14 year old entrant in the Texaco Art Competition makes W’s works look like a potato print, it is time to retire the easel. However, he did exactly the opposite – he released a book of portraits, this time on a subject that meant nobody could criticise his work: War veterans. Frankly it was the least he could do after starting a war himself.

Acting – It should set off alarm bells for all of us that so many actors become highly successful politicians. Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Glenda Jackson; it is a surprisingly smooth transition from pretending to be someone, to being a politician. Perhaps the oddest transition was that of Illona Staller, known by her stage name la Cicciolina. The Hungarian-born model (and porn star) stood for the Green Party in Italy and served one term, one of the most memorable moments of which was when she offered to sleep with Saddam Hussein in return for peace in his country. Perhaps if George W had painted that scenario he might sell a few more copies of his book.  However, he would have to compete with the talents of conceptualist artist Jeff Koons, who married Staller and created a series of massive portraits of he and his wife engaged in explicit sexual acts. So politics isn’t all paperwork.

Music – Wyclef Jean ran for president of Haiti, Youssou N’Dour ran for office in Senegal, Sonny Bono became a US congressman, and our own Bono seems to have more influence with world leaders than our politicians do. It’s not surprising to see idealistic musicians attempt to turn their lyrics into actions. And then there’s former TD Paul Gogarty, who brought his baby to a Green Party press conference calling for a general election, and on another occasion shouted ‘f**k you’ across the floor of the Dáil at Labour TD Emmet Stagg. If he was to record music, you would assume it would lie somewhere between The Sex Pistols and the theme music from In The Night Garden. But Gogarty’s project, His Sweet Surprise, is a very sweet surprise – synth-heavy pop songs with catchy choruses. His time in politics may have been brief, but his music (and swearing) definitely made more of an impression than his party colleagues, such as the lightbulb guy or the other guy, you know, the one who cycled everywhere.

Writing – Clinton’s foray into writing is unusual in that it is a work of fiction. Most former presidents just churn out a memoir or three, along with several impassioned books on how they could make the world a better place if only they were still in charge. The only previous work of fiction Clinton was affiliated with was the Chinese counterfeiting of his memoir, the imaginatively titled My Life. The Chinese version of it – which came out before the book was actually released – featured countless anecdotes of Clinton talking about how great China was and how their technology was vastly superior to America’s. It also included a scene in which Bill informs Hilary this his nickname is Big Watermelon, which somehow seems entirely plausible.

But when it comes to forays into the world of creative writing by politicians, few come close to our own Alan Shatter. His one novel, Laura: A Story You Will Never Forget, shot to prominence when a complaint was made to the censors office about it. Fittingly for a man born on Valentine’s Day, Mr Shatter included a few scenes of the protagonists engaging in the physical act of love – which is what they called sex back in 1989 when the book was first published. After the complaint to the censors board and subsequent furore, the book was republished, proving that the old adage of ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ is true in the arts, if not in politics.

While Mr Shatter is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant minds to have graced Dáil Éireann in modern times, one does have to wonder if the much talked-about sex scenes in Laura would have been better if he was a little less brilliant – perhaps a little less mind and a little more body would have turned his well-written, sterile prose into top-notch filth. He does, however, get bonus points for including this classic Irish chat-up manoeuvre:  “She knew that she had been foolish for not taking the necessary precautions herself, but Brannigan had assured her that he always withdrew in time and that she was not at risk.”

It was either that or tell her his nickname was The Big Potato.

Cities, Eurovision, giant rats

Column Watch – week three. The mood is tense. Somehow it hasn’t been cancelled yet, but this one might do the trick: 

 

We are flocking to cities. According to the data provided by Census 2016, nearly two thirds of the population of Ireland now lives in an urban area, with 25% of us living in Dublin. Perhaps it is the lure of The Pale’s high quality broadband,  Starbucks and Subway on every street corner, or the fact it has every mode of public transport short of a monorail, but we are heading in our droves towards its bright lights. However, there is a downside.

The Japanese understand the negative effects of too much time spent in cities, as the greater Tokyo area is the most populous metropolitan area in the world. The Japanese  have a word for healing the soul through a return to nature – shinrin-yoku. Its closest translation is ‘forest bathing’, or simply the medicinal benefits of taking a walk in the woods.

It is one of many Japanese words that have no direct translation into English, another being Shogania  –  or ‘a situation that can’t be helped, and also is out of our control’, much like our epic losing streak in Eurovision.  

Japan aren’t in the Eurovision – but it can only be a matter of time. The presence of Australia in the competition is an open door to all of planet Earth (and much of our solar system) who fancies having a go at music’s zaniest song contest. This year’s spectacle even featured a streaker, draped in an Australian flag, baring his backside, presumably as an allusion to a nation from the arse-end of the globe taking part in what is theoretically a European event.

The culprit turned out to be a Ukrainian who has made a name for himself in the worst currency of all – pranks. The ancient art of pranking had died a well-deserved death until YouTube came along and made upsetting children/the elderly/cats into an actual career for the chronically annoying. But Vitalii Sediuk, the man behind the behind, made a rookie error – he chose to try and make his mark on a TV event that looks like an explosion in a fireworks factory. For all his ‘hilarious’ efforts, he ended up a vanilla also-ran on a night of giddy, deranged cabaret.

But beyond the buttocks, dancing Harambe and yodelling, the most striking thing about the competition was how eerily familiar the songs sounded, from Germany’s take on David Guetta and Sia’s Titanium, to Moldova’s Saxobeat-aping take on the sax solo from My Lovely Horse. The winning act, a young psychology graduate from Portugal, made a plea for ‘real music’, which would suggest he didn’t take much notice in college when they covered passive aggressive behaviour. Salvador Sobral’s lofty stance was a bit rich, coming from someone who came seventh in Portugal’s version of Pop Idol, singing a song that sounded like a knockoff from the soundtrack to LaLa Land. However homogenised the music seemed, it was nice to hear Sobral singing in his native tongue, especially for some Portuguese speakers who have taken up residence in Ireland.

The awkwardly titled coypu is native to Brazil, but has settled right into the grassy savannahs of the Lee Fields on the edge of Cork city. Also known by the less appealing name of ‘swamp beaver’ (or the terror-inducing ‘giant river rat’), they have a thick, dark pelt and bright orange teeth, much like a 1970s TV presenter.

The coypu have fit right in Cork – AKA Ireland’s Brazil –  with its subtropical climate, passionate footballers, lilting dialects and oppressive Catholicism. While the coypu pose no direct threat to humans, and are noted for being friendly – or as friendly as one would want to be with a giant river rat – they have caused extensive damage in other countries, devouring aquatic plants, collapsing riverbanks and generally freaking people out by virtue of the fact that they are, as already stated, giant river rats. Although if building on swamps and collapsing banks is their forte, they could always go into property development.

The important news about our newfound fauna is, of course, that they are edible. Their meat is low in cholesterol and they are bred for food markets in countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as ‘a poor man’s meat’, which is really only a negative if you consider how poor the average person in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is.

A recent upsurge in their popularity (as food, not friends) has been noted in Moscow, where a hipster restaurant has put them on the menu as burgers and hotdogs. The meat is described as being ‘somewhere’ between turkey and pork, a flavour description so vague that it is somehow less appetising than the entire concept of eating a giant river rat.

But Cork tastes are exotic. Thus, given the Rebel City’s love of tripe and drisheen washed down with Tanora and Beamish, chowing down on a massive rodent should be no bother, especially when it is cost effective. Like most city dwellers, Corkonians have a crippling addiction to dining out and overpriced coffee, leading to a state that the Japanese call Kuidaore – or to have bankrupted oneself buying good food and drink. So the next time you go wandering the banks of your own lovely Lee in pursuit of some shinrin-yoku, it might be an idea to bring some condiments with you.

 

Communion: A True Story

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So my son made his First Holy Communion. He goes to a Catholic school, was baptised, and we generally operate within the structures of Catholic Ireland – simply because it is easier than trying to operate outside it. There are few non-religious schools, and to be honest, I went to a minority faith school and always felt like a bit of an outsider in the community, although that might have had something to do with my Camus-style existentialist angst. Nobody needs a guy quoting Nietzsche on the sidelines of a hurling match. Community is as much about who is excluded as who is included. Much of Ireland operates on this level – who ‘we’ are not.

The pic above of us at the Communion without the youngest two kiddies just makes me wonder WTF happened to my jawline – I look like Earthworm Jim.

Also, fans of terrible writing – and if you’re reading this I assume you are – will note that the post title was taken from Whitley Strieber’s tale of how he was abducted by aliens, which is 30 years old this year. I love this from Wikipedia:

Following the popularity of the book, the author’s account was subject to intense scrutiny and even derision. Some disparagement came from within the publishing world itself: Although published as non-fiction, the book editor of the Los Angeles Times pronounced the follow-up title, Transformation (1988),[12] to be fiction and removed it from the non-fiction best-seller list (it nonetheless made the top 10 on the fiction side of the chart).

“It’s a reprehensible thing,” Strieber responded.

“My book is a true story … Placing this book on the fiction list is an ugly example of exactly the kind of blind prejudice that has hurt human progress for many generations.”

Personally, I believe that challenging non-scientific nonsense is the only hope we have of saving ourselves – and that includes made-up aliens and nonexistent gods.  Anyway, I wrote some nonsense about religion – it’s worth noting that there were many takes on religion here the week, a notable coming one from maverick distiller Peter Mulryan in the paper of record. But here’s my lukewarm/not-that-funny take on it all:

 

First Holy Communion season is here again, or ‘Loan Shark Week’ as it is also known. It is a special day in a young Catholic’s life, when boys get to wear their school uniform on a Saturday and be given enough money for a PS4 Pro before they have left the church, while the girls get to wear a miniature wedding dress, as though they were about to enter an arranged marriage with a 2,000-year old carpenter from the Middle East. If they’re very lucky they might also get a silk umbrella, which would come in very handy if there was a chance of sun, which, as with any special occasion in Ireland, there will not be.

At our son’s ceremony we were informed that we should respect the sacred rites and not take photographs during the Mass. However, the good news was that the guy with the massive video camera and lighting rig in front of the altar would be selling DVDs of the day later in the week. Obviously my son’s teacher hadn’t been schooling him in the ancient traditions of Ireland, as he turned to me and whispered ‘what’s a DVD?’ Naturally, I cleared my schedule for the afternoon to teach him the audiovisual catechisms of my youth, from the old testament’s primal sin of not rewinding VHS tapes before returning them to the store, to the one commandment of DVDs, ‘thou wouldst not steal a car, so why wouldst thou pirate a DVD?’. It was a day of revelations for my son, who concluded that the olden ways are weird. Just wait until he learns that the Irish State was considering taking a blasphemy charge against the Cheshire cat from Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland.

While it seems odd that Stephen Fry’s comments were broadcast at all, given that they aire on a station that still considers the Angelus a valid part of its daily programming, it is curiouser and curiouser that they were on a show titled The Meaning Of Life – surely a fair warning that there would be a discussion of all aspects of human existence. Fry’s comments on what he might say to a god, were he to meet one, weren’t even directed at Catholic Jesus, but rather all Jesuses everywhere, including the tax-efficient sci-fi laser Jesus of Scientology.

Perhaps Fry’s comments would have been less hurtful if they were made by an Irish person, who had served their time here in the dour days of the Eighties and Nineties, being dragged from holy well to moving statue, and from Novenas to Knock, in pursuit of enlightenment. But anyone who did go through that period would tell you that it is almost impossible to discuss religion without offending someone. It is much like the sporting world – get fans of two opposing teams to discuss whose team is superior and watch as it descends into a screeching match of such escalating frequency that only Roy Keane’s beloved dog Trigger can hear them – and Triggs has been in doggy heaven for five years now. Or he might be in doggy hell, it really depends on how he felt about Saipan, in which Keano was either a fearless messiah or a blaspheming heretic, depending on your own personal beliefs, or whether you are from Cork or not.

The whole Fry blasphemy debacle has been slightly embarrassing, not least because the laws themselves are so incredibly vague that Jesus Himself would probably have to show up to get a prosecution. And I’m fairly sure he is busy giving sending DMs to televangelists.

The Irish blasphemy laws also garnered a large amount of pointed throat-clearing and eyebrow-raising from atheists, as the statutes do not categorise as a religion ‘any organisation that employs excessive psychological manipulation of its followers’, which is really a description of all religions, as well as the GAA, various weight loss groups, sci-fi conventions, and those National Lottery ads that suggest you might want to buy an island.

For anyone who does wish to go back to the good/bad old days in Ireland, when were weren’t allowed to question faith at all and Fr Ted was considered highly sacrilegious, there is good news from religion’s arch nemesis – science. Mathematicians from the University of British Columbia and the University of Maryland have published a study this week which proposes that, mathematically at least, time travel is possible. Great news for anyone wishing to head back to the more innocent days of the early Nineties, when the abortion debate was raging in Ireland, America was at war in the Middle East, and Johnny Logan was writing Eurovision winners for us. Just remember to bring your XtraVision card.