Saturday 31 May 2008

If good friends are the blood of life, I have pints aplenty!

I have felt better. If I’m confused at this stage, then lord only knows how confused you’re going to get. And now it sounds like the intro to ‘Soap’.
'Confused ... you will be.’
It’s not very difficult to understand. I’m sitting here feeling slightly less shite than I expected to, having gone out last night with a great gathering of lads to quietly acknowledge the rather bland fact that it was my 48th Birthday; to raise a longed-for glass of whiskey back home in Galway to my father, who I had buried exactly a week before in London, and to give the boys a chance to tease me, unbridled and vulnerable, on my Stag, six nights before the Snapper and I tie the knot.
I’m not offering one night; not even two; come out with me and I’ll give you three occasions in one whiskey-sodden guffaw.
Straightforward so far, but consider, or even sympathise with my addled brain a little, as I contemplate the fact that by the time you read this, the wedding ceremony and lunch will have long ago been duly performed in London. Against the towering Victorian brick chimneys and English arcadian splendour of W.S. Gilbert’s old house (he of ‘...and Sullivan’) I will have finally seen her dress, with her in it, and our ceremony and songs of commitment will have spread softly to speeches made, toasts and tipples.
And rather than hide the fact, I will have acknowledged that we planned it there especially so that my father might come. The day was hers, but in his honour.
Then, before I let things get too morbid, I will have broken the mood with some jibe about how I used to have pinup photos of Chelsea players on my walls when I was a 10 year-old, but I don’t think I ever expected my wife to have John Terry plastered over her bedroom.
When I dribbled some doubts, she explained that whilst I was a fan, she had become a convert.
“Converts are always more scary, Charlie!”.
“Yes love, but I have to lie in bed with him up there, waving his arms around and shouting down at me.”
“Oh for goodness sake get over it. He’s my boy, and you’re my man. How’s that?”
“Well, it was fine, until the ‘How’s that’ bit!”
Oh no. This is a creeper. You know the creeper hangover? You wake up feeling much better than you expected, but a few hours later (right around now in fact) you start to feel as if somebody has sewn a tightly-sprung alice band under the skin of your forehead, and it wants out.
Originally, I was going to write this colyoom on the first morning of our three night mini-honeymoon. But so great is my need to stop, completely, soon, those days have been deemed sacred. Insufficient: yes, but a start; and for relaxation, each day at the Rosleague Manor Hotel is akin to a week spent languishing in other places.
So I’m trying to do the wedding piece before the wedding to preserve my sanity, but evidently I now find out that it’s too late; my lucid brain has gone to fly swoopsies with the midges down by the bog cotton.
3-in-One: I miss my Dad. I am very middle aged. I am getting married .
It’s enough for a week.
Thankfully, there is one certainty in the midst of my maelstrom.
One fact that reigns over this moment, which is all we ever have.
Right now, I have never felt so sure that I am marrying the right woman. I have never felt love for her as I felt over the last few difficult weeks and months. She has been by my side, her back-scraping fingernails, smiling face and hugs hugs hugs, and I am truly grateful.
We both have our feet on the ground. We know we are both dangerous control freaks, each as mad in a million irritating and even nauseating ways as the other, but hell, love is a human emotion, and we are all so very human: fallible; fucked-up; freaked out and fantastic.
Weddings might be fun, but it is the marriage that matters.
Marriage is not about Happy Ever After.
Marriage is about leaning on and being leaned on, acknowledging and sharing your moments of happiness with somebody you love, and your very human life with another human being.
My Snapper is the woman I want to share it all with, hers and mine.
Through all the confusion of emotion and copy deadlines, there shines that single simple truth .
In line with all that, I now exploit most shamelessly these column inches, in order to thank people for jobs that many have not yet, as I sit here now, done. Once again though, by the time you read this, chunks of Galway will have tired smiles and throbbing heads full of memories of a night out... and these are the people that made that night; the day in England three days earlier; all of it.
Where else to start but our parents, who had the foresight, athleticism, energy and although one never wants to actually think about it, urge to bring us wee treasures into the world, thereafter to sublimate their lives to nurture and love us for ever more.
Thanks for that.
Thanks to Kev and Cian for letting us have Mo’s, and being brilliant throughout a terribly hard time.
Thanks to all the barstaff and servers who sweated and smiled and made the night. Thanks to chefs Enda, Chris, Therese and Gary for the food.
Thanks to Monty for the sensitive smoochers and pumping it up and taking us with you.
Thanks to Simon and his splendid guitar, fiddlers, goatskin and flying Irish tunes.
Thanks to Harriet for all her imagination and hard work, making the place look both astonishingly fresh and full of joy.
Thanks to Hugo, Andy, Joe, Anthony Fitz and Paul; to Isabelle, Ciaran, Anu, Hillary, Gillian , Camilla, Jen and Jenny; and best, last, most of all, still under the shadow of my father’s death, I say thanks for the fact that if good friends are the blood of life, I have pints aplenty!

Sunday 25 May 2008

How do I love da Wesht? Let me count the ways…

Over in London, supporting and being supported by my wonderful family, I am more than ever aware that this city of my birth is no longer my home.
I’m not sure if absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it certainly puts things in perspective.
From over here, right now, I see and feel so many reasons why Galway, Connacht, the entire West of Ireland feels like home.
So this week it’s payback time. This week this Englishman is paying his dues to all of ye who put up with him slagging off your country and its ways, week in week out.
Indeed, that slagging is itself one of the reasons I love living in Ireland. Of course there is an abrasion to my dry English wit which can be well satisfied by another English wit opposite, but there is something to the fusion of Jewish and Celtic that makes a lovely verbal mess of things.
I love to swap daring barbs and verbal jousts with the Irish, because I get as good as I give, and everyone knows it’s harmless, even if it sounds deadly.
I love da Wesht because the morning after those lairy ho-ho witty sessions down the pub, deeply dark clouds cover the world with a blanket of lethargy, and just as you become aware quite how dreadful you feel from the night before, the rain starts to fall, and instead of being a heinous challenge, your hangover becomes a thing of pleasure, and you build and light a fire; retire to the sofa; drift into a gentle doze to the sound of the raindrops hitting the panes at 324 miles an hour … sideways.
While we’re on the subject of sideways rain, I love the fact that in da Wesht, a day will be described as ‘mighty’ as long as the rain is falling down.
I love driving around thousands of back roads in north Mayo on a midweek afternoon, and marvel at how long it takes to see a car or another human being.
Lots of houses, but no people.
I love the view from Kilcummin Back Strand at low tide, as you round the crest of the hill from Lacken. If a person who had never been to or seen da Wesht was to dream a picture of it, that splendid panorama would surely be it: the long headland with its bottle green strip fields; the crescent of pale yellow sand drifting to the towering whiter dunes and hairy grass fields atop; the cliffs below, the islands on the horizon and the houses on the crest of the headland, all picked out as if drawn by pencil by the crisp cold North wind that comes straight in over the ocean, whipping turquoise waves with white horses from the dark black blue of the ocean.
I love the Twelve Pins, and the fact that wherever you go in Connemara, they are there, behind you, over your shoulder, then somehow straight in front of you. God’s own fruitbowl, those smooth and curvaceous hills.
Whilst in Connemara I love a pint of Guinness in O’Dowd’s in Roundstone, and I love to stumble over the rocks at Slyne Head.
I love Cleggan bay, and the myriad of perfect beaches around Claddaghduff.
Most of all, I love the Inagh Valley, preferably from North to South, where the Maamturk Mountains and the Pins come together, and Lough Inagh reflects it all.
I love to splurge dosh I don’t have, and take the Snapper to Rosleague Manor in Letterfrack, where we live the dream and chill beyond reason.
Closer to home, I love that I live 50 yards from Salthill Prom, where Galway Bay offers 365 different views each year.
I love to sit outside Neactain's on a Friday lunchtime, or inside the Quays front bar at any other time, and see who comes up Quay Street or along Cross Street. As a Londoner, I truly appreciate the simplicity of meeting in Galway. There are no major tube trips or epic bus journeys, You just sit in Quay Street and see who comes by, because sure as there’s food and drink in a pint of Guinness, somebody will.
I love the fact that the vicious rumours about a drop in standards at PJ McDonagh's proved completely untrue. Yes, the plates are now permanently the size they used to be only in Race Week, but my fish and peas last week were as splendid as they ever were, and hallelujah for that! A night out on the amble and tear would be unthinkable without the wondrous ballast of their fish and peas.
The flipside to that sitting in Quay Street and seeing who you bump into is that it had better work, because people in da Wesht are incapable of planning to socialise.
I love the fact that a big part of the craic is down to spontaneity. If you ask a Gawlegian if they would like to go for a drink next Tuesday, they’ll look at you with pure terror in their eyes as they try to conceptualise that far ahead, like, how’d I know, like, what I might be doing then, like.
It’s a lot simpler and far less cruel to just see whom you bump into.
I love to watch the River Corrib as it crashes through winters and meanders the rare dry summers; to marvel at how salmon do still leap, even in the centre of a polluting city.
I love the fact that we live at the end of the road.
In my mind, I see a monumental conveyor belt that runs from the eastern seaboard of the USA to London and then to us. Everything here will eventually become like over there, but thankfully, it’s taking its time.
And time is the key.
Having lived in England and the USA, I know how the conveyor belt that brings the big paycheques also takes away your time. People work ridiculous hours to create a lifestyle as substantial and beautiful as a silicon boob job, with the same longevity.
I love da Wesht because it has given me time. It has given me jobs and opportunities that I have loved, and always, thankfully, time.
Time to appreciate how good life is.
And just before you start becoming worried that your fave colyoomist has been kidnapped, normal service will resume next week.
But hey, thanks for giving me a home. I love it.

Friday 16 May 2008

Watching the footie will never be the same again!

My Dad died.
I have seen many people lose parents, siblings, friends and even children, and the most tragic losses are the ones in which there lingers something unfinished. As the minutes ooze from the time of death, that lingering becomes malingering, and pain follows close behind.
Dad made it easy for me, because he had been so unwell for so long, I had time to tell him everything I wanted to say.
And oy, he put up a fight! Year after year, Dad grumped and exploded his way through procedures, operations, scrapings and inflations. Towards the end he lost his joie de vivre, but never his sense of humour, although my mother, his rock, his redeemer, and a great force of nature, mentioned how she sometimes missed the sound of laughter.
Watching somebody you love head slowly lethewards erases from your mind the image of the person they once were. When I think now of my father, all my mind offers is a weak old man in much discomfort, fed up with life, yet absolutely unwilling to die.
Naturally, I do not have to scrape much dust from my memories to see Dad as a younger man, and as I do, my heart races a little faster and a smile comes to my tear-sodden eyes.
So I am very happy to have told him what I thought of him, before he went.
A few months ago, he was sitting in his armchair next to my mum on the sofa. I had to be tactful, because despite the Jewish spirit, my parents' home and behaviour is quintessentially Olde Englishe, like the marmalade. Hence to avoid melodrama, I had to tread carefully when trying to explain to my father that he had always been my inspiration.
To that Octogenarian these words came as a surprise; one which I had anticipated, and thought might fire his spirit and confidence a tad.
I told him, in front of Mum, that he had been my inspiration throughout my life, in two different ways.
At a most vital level, I appreciated how hard he had worked, how many decades he had climbed into his car at 7.40 am, and driven off through the dirthy sludge of London's constipated commute, all the way to Soho, where he worked all his life for Pearl and Dean.
At weekends he ran a small chain of three record shops, until one of his managers did the dirty, and sent the business down the pan.
From my privileged and relatively cushy life, I am in awe of how hard Dad worked, so that we might enjoy the upbringing we had.
His was the last generation that would ever enjoy the 'job for life' culture, but even so, I embarrass myself when I think of how few hours I have to spend earning money each week.
Somehow, back in the early 1960's he earned enough money to take all five of us on holidays to Europe every other year, with trips to Devon and Somerset in the intervening summers.
"Thanks Dad!" I told him. "I didn't appreciate it when I was a kid, but I do appreciate it now."
My mum spluttered out that she thought that was very nice, and my Dad did something with his mouth that showed he was grateful.
But then I looked over, into his eyes, and I sent them a twinkle.
"There's another way you inspired me, Dad. Your mountains, mate! Remember all your books from the 1930's and 1950's about the conquests of Kachenjunga, K2 and Everest? They all had the same kind of tan cloth covers, and were packed with photos and maps and tales of these great mountaineers, walking around the Annapurna Circuit and reaching for the skies.
Well, it took a while for me to realise it, but all my travelling; the way I've lived my life; it's down to you. Didn't cop on when I was a teenager, because all that hitching just felt so good, and looked to me a million miles from the life you lived, and the one you wanted for me. But when I went off for my first roundy-worldy jaunt in 1984, you whispered
'Say hello to the mountains for me!'
and it all made sense.
Yes, in that instant I understood why I was who I was. I knew that your spirit of adventure was kindled in me; that the boy who read those books gave birth to another who could go and see them.
And the greatest thing about a sprit of adventure is that it helps you live your life less dominated by fear.
So thanks Dad! You worked your arse off so that I might have a good childhood, and you also lifted my eyes, my horizons and my understanding of ambition, so that when I felt happy in my life, I might know that I was a success."
What I didn't say to him then, but do now, was that unfortunately, I don't think you ever enjoyed the same self-confidence that you helped build in me.
You were a possessor of great charm and unquestioning generosity.
You taught me how to appreciate fine wines, how to carry myself in any situation, and always assured me that while fine things were alright, you could never beat the pleasure and honesty of a pie and a pint.
Wherever I have been in the world, we always had time for the Chelsea.
Remember that time when you were almost unconscious in hospital, and the Special One came on the TV in your hospital room?
"Mou mou mou rinho!" you spluttered, as you entered consciousness.
But my favourite of all time, was a year ago last Spring, when we were all standing round your bed in Intensive Care. We'd nearly lost you in the ambulance, and had been discussing how to cancel your big 80th birthday party.
Unaware of where you were, or how close you had come to death, your first words as you opened your eyes:
'Who's ordering the wine for the party?"
You couldn't understand why we all fell about laughing. Your spirit was so strong it will live forever amongst us.
I love you Dad. I love you very much.
God knows, I'll miss you.

Friday 9 May 2008

Oh Ireland, my friend, with this singing turkey, you really spoil me!

Dustin the Turkey Eurovision

Ireland has been really good to me, and I have grown to love it back. Trouble is, love comes with more baggage than the backed-up halls of Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5.
When one of my close friends is making a complete arse of themselves, or exposing an embarrassing weakness, love pours forth from me in the guises of compassion and empathy.
I hurt for my friend.
I wish they could see that what they were doing was wrong.
I wish they realised how silly they had been, and I wished that they might see their own strengths.
Even as a wee child back in London in the 1960s, we knew that Eurovision was nothing more than a bit of a laugh. Of course there was great glory for the winning singer and kudos for the song, and we sat as a family, whooping and cheering and booing and never ever took it seriously.
But over here you thought Eurovision mattered, producing the execrable mediocrity of Johnny Logan and desperate melancholy of Brendan Graham's Rock'n'Roll Kids.
When that one made Ireland third time winners in a row, I collapsed back in my armchair, fearful that my beloved adopted country would never grow up.
And then came Dustin and 'Irelande Douze Pointe', and once more I could breathe. There was hope for my friend yet.
At last Ireland has woken up to its own genius.
As they say in Yorkshire: There's none so blind as them won't see. Maybe some kind of national post-colonial (steady steady, I know there's still that bit up north) head injury has led the Irish to seek one new master after another.
Maybe colonialism acts a little like being stuck in a mental hospital, or a prison? After you're let out, you kind of miss the comfort zone of not having to think for yourselves. You used to be able to sit around and complain, validly bemoaning your victim status, whilst all the while knowing exactly where you were and what was going on.
But then the newly-formed Republic chose to dance the necessary evil of the economic pas-de-deux with the old colonial master. To this day I can recall the looks of pure joy and vengeful bliss on the faces of Galwegians when, in the early 1990s, the Irish Punt became briefly worth more than the Pound Sterling. At that moment I understood how profoundly the Irish had willingly enslaved themselves once more.
Then came the European Union, and 7.6 billion euros of Structural Adjustment Funds, and well, just would ye ever look at that, now, sure, isn't your economy booming?
Throughout my 16 years in this country, successive governments have chosen to offer massive tax subsidies and financial incentives to foreign, mostly American companies, who come in, employ as few permanent staff as possible, make their money and naff off back to their homeland as soon as the Dollar flops or the Euro rises.
They don't give a damn about Ireland, and yet the Irish hand over to them all the financial breaks, without ever uttering a word against them when they destroy local lives and communities by leaving.
Collectively the Irish are some of the smartest folk I know, yet for the longest most painful time, they have been unable to see that what the rest of the world has known all along: that you are intelligent, hard-working (when you want to be), ingenious, imaginative, tenacious and adventurous.
But for some reason when the hands that built America work on a road in their own country, they think that filling a pothole with loose gravel and pouring on some pitch is good enough.
Seeing how the rest of the world take you seriously, isn't it about time you got your priorities right, and exploited your strengths on the home front?
Doing Irish the Irish way; the way the Irish know best, finally having the confidence to trust your own talent.
Like Dustin.
'Twould be marvellous if the national enlightenment vis-รก-vis the gravitas of the Eurovision Song Contest was merely the spark that lit the pilot light of Irish self-confidence. Turn your national backs on the financial incentives for the likes of Digital and other fly-by-nights, and demand that such monies are redirected into a new wave of electrifying and ingenious Irish start-up companies run by people who care about the country, and the well-being of the people who live in it.
So good luck to Dustin in the Serbian capital Belgrade on 20 May and hopefully the final, four days later.
Or maybe not. After all, there are more important things.
Nobody could ever say it clearer than your very own singing turkey:
"Oh I come, from a nation
What knows how to write a song
Oh Europe, where or where did it all go wrong?
COME ON!!!!!!"
Blissfully unaware that they are creating layer upon layer of absurd parody, satirising the nightmare that is the European Parliament itself, a bunch called 'The Governing Body of the European Broadcasting Union's (EBU) Eurovision Song Contest Reference Group' (EBUESCRG), (love it already) which, is described in the words of their own website as: "... a. group representative of EBU member countries participating in the Eurovision Song contest which liaises directly with the EBU to guide and approve the major elements of the concept, development and preparation of the Eurovision Song Contest" have been gently kicking up a storm about some of the Irish entry's lyrics.
Indeed, unofficially, the EBUESCRG has asked the Irish delegation to change a few of the words in Dustin's song.
At a point in the song when the Irish turkey sings a list of the names of several countries, he refers to 'Macedonia'.
Trouble is, apparently some people prefer it being called the 'Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia', while others like it trimmed down to 'FYR Macedonia'.
Blissfully unaware of how droningly dull it is to dissect wit, the EBU has planted its official backside on the fence, refusing to state clearly if a request has come from somewhere to change these lyrics, and if so who so, and if the Greeks why now, and whatever happened to humour?
Yet it matters not a jot, and that is my point. The entire event is worthy of nothing more than a whimsical glance, and now I can love the Irish all the more because I know that you believe it too!
Shooo boopy doo.
Catchy that.

Friday 2 May 2008

Finding a manager means more than just looking for fella who sounds like a pasta!

Whilst over in England recently, 'twas my rare honour and absolute pleasure to be personally invited to attend a meeting of MOPE, (Managers and Owners Private Enclosure).
As I walked through the huge oak doors, I was quickly swept to one side by an immaculately-uniformed doorman.
"Very sorry, Sir! Mind how you go there!"
Walking back and forth from one side of the hallway to the other was a tall and strange-looking man, with sad vulnerable eyes. Apparently oblivious to everything else around him, he took three steps, walked into the wall, banging his long gnarly nose, pointy chin and bandy knees, swung around on his heel muttering 'Vieira! Vieira!', and then walked three paces until his nose, chin and knees hit the other wall.
The doorman's hand gently moved me along.
"Nearly bumped into Arsene Wenger there, Sir. A very clever man, so I'm told, the Arsenal Manager, Sir. His problem? Most of the time he can see fine, just like you and me, Sir. Drives a big fancy car, he does too, Sir, but any given time, he goes completely blind. Why, just last week we only found him trying to dunk his chocolate croissant in a skip down off the Seven Sisters Road. Bless him.
Eyes like a hawk he has Sir, when he's watching very young French men. He doesn't miss a trick, signs them up for the Arsenal, and turns them into free-flowing skilled artistes.
Then he goes blind and just keeps saying 'Hi deede not see yit, zo hi cannot zay!' over and over again.
Now come on through, Sir."
Entering a large darkly-lit oak-panelled room, I asked for a large Scotch at the bar, and turned to see an older grey-haired red-faced man, chewing gum and drinking wine.
"Aye. I was there once. Scotland. Worked at Aberdeen, aye. But ye kinna get the wine that far north. See this, son? Ahhm drinking a Chateaux Margaux, so I am. Nivva mind it's wan o'the most dearest wines in the world, the quality of this lad really stands oot. I give it a chance to breathe, see. Goes perfect with the Spearmint, does the Chateau Margaux. Ye look more of a white wine man, son, if ye don't mind me saying so. Now, tell me I'm wrong, but with white wine, Juicy Fruit is the only gum. Aye, Spearmint for the red, and Juicy Fruit for the white. Tell me I'm wrong, son. Go on! Tell me! Tell me!"
The barman whispered
"He plays this game with everyone, does Sir Alex. If you tell him he's wrong, he won't speak to you ever again."
"Thanks for letting me know. Another nutter, then?""Well you might say that. But he's the most successful nutter of all time."
'What's over there, in the corner? Is that a boxing ring or a jacuzzi?"
"Oh, that's our 'This Is Anfield' section, Sir. With Liverpool being European City of Culture, we are offering Traditional Spanish-American Face Slapping in the ring, featuring Razor Raffa and Piercer Parry, followed by classes in the Ancient Merseyside Martial Art of Back-Stabbing, given by Masters Hicks and Gillet. A really good show it is too, Sir, Why, sometimes, there's so much blood, you'd almost believe they really harboured a dislike for each other."
In the Gents I saw an ugly sad and dejected-looking man, dressed up as Eeyore, painting the red walls blue whilst being whipped by a bald, evidently sadistic man from Manchester. All of the cubicle doors had been removed, and upon a giant throne erected where the toilets once were sat a stubbly Russian oligarch, yelling to his bald henchman:
"Kenyon, explain him now we still must be cutting off one of his hands for winning nothing, but is not so bad, for also we now will give him one hundred meeeelion pounds to buy players!"
At this his laughed erupted with a boom to strike fear into the hearts of peasants the world over.
It was all just too weird and exciting for me. I bolted for the fresh polluted air of London's West End, and struggled to breath as I took in the horror.
Gone are the days when footballers mattered. While there are of course a few (very few) footballing superstars, there are no charismatic heroes with muddy knees on match day. Compared with the mass ranks of mad Managers and crazed Owners, the players are less than a paltry bunch of overpaid journeymen.
Can you imagine having an interesting conversation, or even a wild night out with Stevie G and Frank Lampard? Sure, you'd get drunk and snowed up, but where's the thrill in that?
No, for real fun and frolics you need those hybrid bastard love children of The Sopranos and Dirty Sexy Money: the Managers and Owners.
Thankfully there are exceptions that prove the rule. American Owner, Randy Lerner, seems to have grasped the idea that an excellent Manager like Martin O'Neill needs years, freedom, time and support to build the strong squad amassing at Aston Villa.
But from Fulham's Mohamed Al Fayed to the drooling Amish-with-Attitude-looking Glazer Family who own Manchester United, there is no doubt that the Owners and Managers are the true stars of the Premier League.
And now the Republic of Ireland has its own bona fide eccentric National Team Manager.
Admittedly, Snr. Trapattoni has one of the most impressive footballing CV's I have ever seen, but I print the quotation below to let you (and England!) know that there's more to choosing your country's coach than just looking for fella who sounds like a pasta.
(Apologies to those loyal colyoomistas who remember this quotation being used herein many many moons ago, before there was any connection between Giovanni and Ireland.)
Giovanni Trapattoni, then the coach of Austrian soccer champions, Red Bull Salzburg, was being grilled by German journalists, who by way of revenge, broke the habits of a lifetime, and reported exactly, word for word, what Trapattoni said:
"Our training is strong. Is modern. Training wins also. I have 21 trophies. There is blah, blah, blah from you. Fools write who know nothing. Blah, blah, blah, blah. I can understand people paying. No problema! Let whistle, is right. Have lost. But run 90 minutes! I am a professional when it comes to psychology. We train, make fitness. You people always make qua, qua, qua! Shit fools!"