Sunday 27 July 2008

When you’re five years old, a gentle canter feels like a mad stampede!

Race Week is around the corner, and our city’s raison d’ĂȘtre is about to kick in once more, in the shape of a few handsome thoroughbreds and 250,000 drunken punters.
I cannot admit to loving horses. Unlike those many who can think of nothing more wonderful than to own, ride and care for the beasts, they are to me gracious, alien, intriguing and occasionally just downright scary.
My first and definitely most influential encounter with a gee-gee was at the age of five, when for some completely misguided reason my parents thought I needed to learn how to ride.
Nurturing a dream of some kind of high-falluting romantic lifestyle for their youngest child, while drowning in bourgeois ambition, they probably thought I’d need a good steed in the stables of the mansion I would most certainly own when I became the Managing Director of the country’s foremost advertising agency.
How wrong they were. Mind you, these were the very same parents who insisted upon dressing me in a sailor’s outfit before taking me to the very suspect local photographer.
So off I went with my Mum to a riding school out in Berkshire, where I found myself trussed up aloft what felt like a massive and powerful wild animal over which I had no control whatsoever.
As an adult looking back, I can now see that I was well-equipped, and that my horse was being held on a tight line, or whatever you call it. We were standing motionless in a circle, nose to tail, with five other horses, bearing what I knew even at that tender age were insufferably precocious little brats with names like Tristan, Horatio, Christabelle and Alexandria.
Then I saw my Mum walk off. How could the woman who had slapped me (gently) on the back of my hand for standing too close to the kerb leave me here?
If it was dangerous to stand with your toes on the bloomin’ kerb, and very very bad to run into the road, how come it was alright to leave me alone, sitting high up on something that might run all the way to Africa?
Then I realised that my horse was the only one being held on a line. All these other posh kids seemed to know what they were doing, and pretty soon our tight motionless circle turned into a line, and we were walking out of the indoor ring, into a field.
The children on the other horses suddenly tucked their feet into the little metal rings, and were bouncing up and down like very silly-looking little people as their horses spread out.
My horse was evidently unused to being kept behind the group, and decided the time had come to join his mates. With one flick of his head he pulled the line from the stable lass holding him, and headed off at a gentle canter.
At least, from what I know now, I’d say it was a gentle canter. Several members of staff seemed suddenly agitated, running at speed towards me and my apparently insane animal.
As somebody whose entire experience of moving horses up to that point had been riding the wooden rocking horse in Lilly and Skinner’s shoe shop, this gentle canter appeared like a crazed and frantic stampede.
Pooping my poor little five year-old self from toe to tippy-tip-top, sure that my life was about to come to a brutal and tragically premature end, I did what any completely untrained and inexperienced person would do: aiming for the horse’s neck, I grabbed the reins and pulled like the crazy terrified little boy I was.
Now I know that horses don’t like that very much. He reared up and threw me backwards, and then I was on the ground with people crowding around me.
That was the first and last time I sat on a real horse.
Having got past the need to ride, my relationship with horses improved by leaps and bounds. As a teenager, I sat watching the racing on tele with my Dad, who impressed me no end by placing his bets on the phone, way back in the 1970’s.
Whilst in hospital after breaking my leg on a motorbike (the adolescent male version of its female horse equivalent), myself and the other biker casualties passed many afternoons with the ITV 7, a guaranteed plethora of racing, fluttering and much craic.
At 19 I worked in a big truck garage under the Kings Cross Arches, and became completely obsessed with the complex bets on offer at the local bookies. Each day, I spread my tiny stake into grids of combinations of nine races, thereby giving myself reason to spend all afternoon checking the results.
In the 80’s, my mate Chris and I went to meetings, armed with overflowing hip flasks and an absence of equine knowledge that might fill a black hole.
But the great thing about gambling is that you do win occasionally, as I did at Epsom, with Dr. Devious, in the Derby.
What a splendid memory that is! Standing under blue skies, on the inside rail just by the final furlong, cheering and roaring as the horses thundered past, shaking the ground beneath our feet.
My Mum told me long ago that the only dangerous thing about gambling is winning, and that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,. She was right on both counts, so I’ve played it safe over the years, keeping my losses to such a vast proportion of my total betting that there has never been any danger of winning too much.
As far as a little knowledge goes, well, here’s my telepathetic and multi-sensory gambling method.
First, I stare at the little form numbers (they look like this: 13324-1) that precede the horse’s name in the newspaper listings.
Then I relax my eyesight; my mind glazes over, and I try to envision which runner’s list of numbers will soon end in a ‘1’. Like, if I can see that 13324-1 will become 13324-11, I’ll put my money on it.
But beware! If there are letters in there with the numbers, ignore the horse. If it looks like this: 231-FU2P, give it a miss!
My tip for Race Week? Take to Ballybrit only what you can afford to lose. Gambling is much more fun when you realise you pay to play.

Saturday 19 July 2008

Am I on Candid Camera, or just living in Ireland?

Sometimes ye lads completely confuse and flummox me.
After 16 years, there are moments when a long-term blow-in such as myself, who loves Ireland and the Irish, can feel very definitely a part of it all. Then there are times when none of it makes sense at all, and I couldn't feel more foreign if I tried.
A couple of weeks ago I sat watching RTE TV news, my jaw dropping in disbelief at the attitudes of the general public, industrialists and politicians as they added to the kerfuffle and general national disgruntification over the change in the Provisional Driving Licence law.
Did somebody slip a tab of Acid into my tea? They must have, because all these so-called responsible law-abiding people were protesting in the strongest terms about how it was downright criminal that people who had not yet passed their Driving Tests would no longer be allowed to drive alone on Irish roads.
Paranoia, my old friend, crept into my brain. This was all so nuts that maybe it really was all nuts. Perchance I was an Adley-type Truman in a secret Reality Show, and the Director was cranking up the boundaries of perceived reality, to see how much bizarre behaviour I could swallow.
Maybe I was on Candid Camera, and they were just about to knock on my front door and tell me it had all been part of a big jovial wind-up, aha aha.
No, I just live in Ireland.
This is not a complex issue. It is simple and cold-bloodedly correct.
No matter how many exhausted and beleaguered mothers of ten from the sink estates of Cork you get on the tele news giving out about 'how isn't this change in the law going to 'make her life impossible, like, and sure isn't it brutal, like, and terrible, like, and cruel, terrible and cruel'.
Er, duh. Like like like I think you'll find that in the majority of other nations, the sole and singularly most vital reason to pass your Driving Test is that you are then able, for the first time, to drive alone.
Point is, it's all very well for me to come on all Mister High and Mighty about stuff like this, but it serves no useful purpose. If I wanted everything the same here as in other places, I wouldn't choose to live in Ireland.
The effect of all my bluster would be no greater than that of a fart in a colander. What might seem blindingly and even bleeding obvious to me clearly does not appear that way to you: the collective psyche of my adopted country; and, to be honest, that makes me rather happy.
You see, despite Colyoomistic appearances to the contrary, I'm not a fan of pompous outrage. Over the last 3 decades I've found that it's not smart to move to a place and then stick out your finger and shout:
"But look you eedjits, can't you see how stupid and wrong you are!"
If I wasn't Jewish, I might well call my indignation and shock a Protestant feeling; but we'll settle for English, which I most certainly am. England is a country where the letter of the law is sacrosanct, and the laws themselves are all pervading and ever more intrusive
The looser, generally more humane and user-friendly attitude the Irish have to the letter of the law suits me well.
Indeed, it was one of the very first discoveries I made when, 16 years ago next week, I walked off the boat from Roscoff and into Cork City.
Arriving in Ireland was my long journey's end. I had been around the world twice but never visited the country next door, and I somehow knew that it would be perfect.
It was a wet Saturday morning, and I dived into a big shop called Dunnes, and purchased a set of cheap waterproofs, all the time brazenly looking into the faces of the women in my new home, curious to see if they might be a bevy of beauties.
Next, I made for the pub, and sitting at a bar with my first pint of Irish Guinness, I immediately became engaged in conversation with the giant of a man on the barstool next to me. He shook my hand, with fingers the size of redwood trees gripping me like a boa constrictor, and announced his name was Con.
Having neither met nor ever heard of anybody called Con, I wondered whether the man might be taking the piss, but no. He was genuinely concerned I find a Bed & Breakfast that night, and while buying me another pint, he instructed the bar maid to make phone calls.
By the time our second pints were drained, the barmaid told me I had a room in a nice wee place up by the station.
"Now, you can relax, and have another drink!" smiled Con, as I started to think I might like Ireland.
Several hours later I dragged my drunken shabby arse over the river and up a long steep hill to the B &B, where sweaty and dishevelled I flopped onto the bed, and shook out a Marlboro Light from the packet in my pocket.
But hang on, was I allowed to smoke in here?
Oh man, not now. I really needed to chill and just have a quiet fag.
And then I noticed it, on the shelf by the bed. A great bit chunky glass ashtray.
Hoorah. Yippetty dippetty zip zip.
As I sat up to reach the ashtray, I noticed that behind it there was a sign stuck onto the wall.
'No Smoking' it declared, in bold white letters on a red background.
Ashtray. Sign.
Sign. Ashtray.
And then in my first display of what I now know might reasonably be considered Irish behaviour and thought, I spluttered aloud:
"Ahhsurefuckit.!" and lit up.
If I tried to reason rationally whether the sign negated the ashtray or the ashtray negated the sign, my brain might have blown up, like a confused Star Trek computer, shooting sparks into the room out of my eye sockets.
But the simpler reaction, the Irish one, was just to relax, do what suited me, and appreciate the ashtray.
Refusing the tyranny of stupid laws whilst obeying at least the spirit of others is admirable, and I have grown to love the Irish attitude. But passing your Driving Test is a pretty damn good idea too.

Monday 14 July 2008

Do I really need my mobile to go to the shop?

Heading out of the door to go to the shop, I stop in my tracks.
Forgot my phone.
Do I really need my phone to go to the bloody shop?
Motionless, with one leg out of the front door and one leg in the house, I lose a minute or two debating the issue.
All I want to do is nip down to the Maxol in Lower Salthill and pick up the newspapers. What’s likely to happen on this trip that might require a mobile phone? It’s 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, so nothing at all.
Mind you, of course, the car might break down, and then I’d be stuck on the roadside wishing to hell and back that I’d bought my phone. Or some as yet unknown incompetent eedjit might decide to drive straight out of Monksfield and slam bang into the side of Shaaanny Car. You just never know what might happen, so I might as well be prepared. Go get my phone, and stop with all this procrastinating.
Clearly unconvinced by this line of argument, my legs still remain rigid, frozen in indecision.
Yes, alright, okay, I am fully aware that anything might and probably will happen, but that was always and is always and will be forever the case. Does that mean, ergo, that I really need my mobile phone by my side at all times, ad infinitum?
Closing the door behind me I climb into the car, phoneless and vexed. Here I am, worrying whether I need my mobile to go down to the shops for fear of a car crash, or for a walk on the Prom, for fear of cardiac arrest or spontaneous human combustion, Alien invasion or gord knows what.
Alongside their obvious benefits, mobile phones bring a huge chunk of fear into our lives; fears that have always existed in the background, now suddenly becoming immediate and demanding, sitting on our shoulders as invisibly, silently and powerfully as the radiation from the mobile in my pocket is frying my goolies; as the microwaves from our mobiles parental phone masts which have wiped out the sparrows of London, and are causing mayhem in migratory bird patterns; and while we’re spreading conspiracy theory-level fear about with mobile abandon - what about the bees? Maybe our mobiles and their microwaves are the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, the enigmatic disaster that has trashed the bee population of North America and threatens to change the face of the natural world.
Blimey. See how scary it gets inside your colyoomist’s head, and all this just because I wondered whether I should take my mobile down to the shops.
I have my phone with me all the time, but I wish I didn’t. With or without mobile phones, I would be concerned about her Snappership late at night, and the fact that I can ascertain her safety is a great boon, but beyond that, I don’t really buy into a lot of the other supposed so-called benefits of total communication.
Galway City, of all places, was and is always driven by the bumping into of other people, the chance encounters and grabbed cuppas that lead to sessions. This city doesn’t need mobile phones, and neither does the rural West of Ireland, where you go round to see people, and if they are in then grand, put the kettle on, and if not, well grand, we’ll try another day.
Mind you, if I had children I’d be singing a different tune.
And then again, maybe (especially in England) the veil of security afforded by the mobile phone, the idea that as long as you can talk to your kids all will be fine, has allowed the bond between parents and their children to stretch and fray further than ever before.
If I hadn’t had my mobile on holiday with me in years gone by, I would not have found out whilst in Spain that my four year-old friend had died, and I would not have known last March that my Dad was in Intensive Care.
But equally, the panic, worry, sadness and fear that ensued having received those particular pieces of news served absolutely no purpose. Dad survived long after that scare, and as far as my lovely little friend was concerned, the rushing was over: amen.
Managing to find the comical within the intrinsically tragic, the wonderful Dom Joly forever destroyed those who use their mobiles at ill-judged times and in inappropriate places with his huge mock phone and his raucous yell:
“Hello! I’m on the beach/bus/toilet/.”
But the dangers of our widespread use of mobiles goes beyond the natural world, the lives of the birds and bees and our own gonads. We all passively and stoically accept that while we have our phones switched on, anyone - all governments, some corporate forces and any individual with the requisite technology - can find out what we are doing and where.
How many times will we hear the reactionary cry: ‘If you’ve done nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear’? Maybe they’ll only stop when we’ve completely lost our privacy and liberty.
All this in mobile phones? Who knew?
Meanwhile, I’m finally considering giving up on predictive texting. I came to mobiles late, and was instructed by all those whom I love and trust that predictive is the only way to go, but I am so very very tired of finishing writing a long text message, only to find that, instead of arranging a drive to the country, followed by a picnic and a few pints in the pub, I’ve actually invited myself to cycle over and screw my friends goat, set fire to her pubic hair and sell her mother to a nun at the whorehouse.
And this is meant to be helpful? Consider slowly and carefully just how many people you might deeply upset by failing to spot every vital predictive text anomaly:
‘I love you. We have Aids’ (ages).
Somehow, the ‘Happy/Gassy’ mix-up feels a lot less frightening, but is still very capable of being wonderfully misunderstood.
Meanwhile, somewhere on the internet:
“My friend Steve texted me when we were planning a trip to Alton Towers:
“I can't wait to have a go on all the sheep!” (rides)

Sunday 6 July 2008

I can tell you what I’m not going to write about!

There have been times, thankfully few and very far between, when depression has hit me like a hammer to the knees. What’s going on at the moment is nothing like that; more like a bad head cold to pneumonia; half a shandy to a double whiskey.
‘Twould be strange not to show and feel some repercussions, having just buried my father and married my wife (simply wouldn’t do to marry somebody else’s), and I’m nothing if not tremendously human.
My dad’s death came at the end of an eleven year decline, during which time I lived increasingly on permanent stand-by to return to London. Dad’s many hospital emergencies necessitated frequent visits over there, which were inevitably announced by the ringing of the phone, and gradually I grew to fear the landline.
So now I’m eager, willing and ready to embrace my new life, support my beloved family and nurture and love my wife. I want to lose weight and walk miles and finish the bleedin’ novel and knock out tremendous colyooms for all you loyal and accidental types who are sucked into reading this.
But I can’t.
If you do not live with depression then it’s quite possible you imagine it comes in a singular way: the same dose each time.
Speaking personally, I know that I am at the moment displaying and presenting symptoms that I recognise as some of the ingredients of depression, but equally I’m able to function; not knocked out; not feeling alienated; not disoriented.
I was disoriented a few weeks ago, stumbling down Shop Street as if on the deck of a galleon sailing the high seas.
And now I’m not, and that’s it. That’s why I am not accepting that I’m depressed at the moment. I’m not a kid who wants to stay home from school. I don’t want to shrink away from life right now. I want to go out and live it and sit here and write it.
(Bravado pumps through me as, sitting here with held breath, I barely allow myself to put commas into these pompous and inconsequential pronouncements.)
But there are some things I cannot do.
I cannot stay awake very long, of an evening.
I cannot force or rush the grieving process, much as I would like to. My feelings of loss and sadness are seeping through, as marble in stone, and it’s irritating. I want to feel a rushing flooding gush of it, yet instead I have mini-blubbers, like when I found myself crying at a bloody re-run of Scrubs when JD’s dad died.
Surely I can do better than that? Please god.
The germane and most immediate thing that I found myself unable to do was to decide upon a topic for this week’s colyoom.
Over the last 16 years I have naturally developed several fail-safe mechanisms that guarantee you the chance of reading something vaguely cohesive and very occasionally, maybe perceptive or witty.
I have my notes, and clippings. I have my life and each week presents the chance encounter that might and probably will happen with somebody on a Galway street that’ll set my mental cabbage soup to simmer.
And then, like so many of us, I have my working ritual: my pre-colyoom Sunday morning walk on the Prom , the leisurely breakfast and finally, the moment which has delivered more colyooms than any other device: the last visit to the bathroom before sitting down to work.
Week after week, despite having no clear idea of how I am going to produce these 1,000 words, for some reason I feel very calm, both physically and spiritually, and while I brush my teeth, sloosh the mouthwash and have a final peeper, a thought dribbles into my brain and nudges a nerve-ending.
And by the time I am sitting here a few short seconds later, it’s all coming together and I’m off.
But today, it wasn’t like that at all.
Today, Mr. I Am Not Depressed could not for some reason prioritise what he wanted to say.
And an hour later, (YIKES!) he started writing in the Third Person.
So evidently for me, depression comes in many ways. Although I become tired, I do still have energy that would be completely lacking during those rare dark times.
But while my black dog is not sitting hard and heavy on my chest, he is still out there, prowling the perimeter fence.
Even though I am able to function fairly well as a human being, the simple truth that I cannot decide what to write about is, for a columnist, at best an inconvenience, at worst, some might feel, something of a drawback.
For the reader it’s nothing less than an imposition. You entered into this page in good faith, expecting a theme, a topic at least, noch!
And what do you get for your troubles? What kind of colyoom action are you having to accept as reward? Not a whiff of humour; not a single arrogant finger-pointing lecture mocking either you or your life-style; not even an outrageous piece of hyperbole by which you could have become instantly disgusted and appalled.
Given this massive deficiency on my side of the writer-reader pact, it seems only fair that I should offer something in return, for your troubles, as it were.
So after not very long and ill-considered reflection, I’ve decided that the very least I can do at this stage is tell you what I’m not going to write about.
Enter if you will the tremendously anti-climactic territory that is this scribbler’s brain. If you are condemned to read this colyoom week after week, there will doubtless have been many when, upon either finishing the entirety or giving up at some earlier point, you thought to yourself:
‘How the hell does he get away with this drivel?’
To you, I say, consider this: by revealing to you all what I was going to write about and yet decided against, you will realise that that ‘drivel’, madam, that ‘drivel’ was, at the particular moment of its writing, the very pinnacle of my own creativity.
When you see what pathetic and inconsequential musings might have made it onto the sacrosanct pages of this Noble Rag, I will have nowhere to run.
My craven lack of talent will be forever exposed.
Aw shucks, we’ve run out of room.
I’ll get back to you about all that drivel.