Monday 26 January 2009
Back in the days before digital doodads, the Departures and Arrivals boards in airports used to display information on ladders of plastic slats, and when a plane left or landed, the whole gismo would suddenly go shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty, as the slats flew around to assimilate the new information. The whole effect was quite trippy and hypnotic, because the names and numbers appeared to flow upwards, like the waters of a river, as the sign updated itself.
25 years ago I was sitting on a seat in Auckland airport watching just such a sign. As was my youthful travelling way back then, I’d slept in the airport to save money, patiently waiting to take my first step towards Australia, via Noumea, or New Caledonia, as the imperialists would have it.
I didn’t really want to go to Noumea at all, but to score the cheap flight to Sydney, I had to travel with an airline called UTA, the less well-known Pacific branch of Air France. All the young travellers flew UTA around the Pacific Rim in those days, despite the fact that the French cared for the airline just as they treated the people of their Polynesian colonies: with contempt, neglect and disregard for health.
With the now common exodus of young people on Round-The-World trips, I’m sure that standards have risen enormously, but then, among we few travellers, UTA stood for ‘Unknown Time of Arrival’, with flights invariably delayed, overbooked or cancelled.
But boy, were they cheap! Even though UTA pilots always seemed to plot a course across the Pacific Ocean through every lightning-flashing thunder-crashing storm, I flew them all the time, simply because without them I couldn’t afford to travel.
My flight to Noumea had been delayed for a few hours, but it was estimated at 09:30, so I shuffled off to the bathroom to wash and make myself feel almost human. It had been another long wait, but as long as I’m ready and have everything I need, this control freak can do all the waiting that’s out there.
But it would be good to move on. I’d enjoyed an unbelievably wonderful few months, hitching around New Zealand, but after the relative solitude of the road I was eager to reach Australia, to see old friends who had decades before left England.
But I had some reservations about this trip to Noumea, if you’ll excuse the pun. There was a civil war going on there, especially notable as a triangular conflict. There were the colonial Caldoches, the native Kanaks and the regular French (if anyone can really be called ‘regular’ when operating in a country as far away from their own as it is possible to go in this world), all having a go at each other over an island rich in nickel.
There’s always a natural resource in the mix somewhere. War follows natural resources as poopers follows peepers.
Having scraped the detritus of another rough night’s sleeping off my teeth and tongue, I threw my blue bag over my shoulder and walked with vigour towards to check-in desk. Passing the Departures board, I threw it a cursory glance, more out of habit than interest, and off it went, as if propelled by my very own eyes:
shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty.
shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty,-shifty shufty-shufty-shifty.
The ripple of slatty movement arrived at the slat with my own flight on it, and whoooshhhh! It was off, moving around, who knew if up or down...
shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty shufty-shufty-shifty.
shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty shufty-shufty-shifty.
My feet were frozen mid-stride as I waited for the plastic flow to settle.
And there it was.
UTA flight to Noumea: ‘Delayed Indefinitely’.
Delayed indefinitely? What did that mean? I have seen all manner of delays; every possible reason any airline or airport might give to delay a flight, but ultimately, always either ‘Cancelled’ or ‘Estimated at...’.
Only UTA could come up with ‘Delayed Indefinitely’.
No. No no pleeeeeeeaaaaase no. I was here all bloody night and everything was okay until I went to brush my teeth and then there was the bad shufty-shufty-shifty and now what? Some kind of existential holding pattern?
Was I meant to sit there for the rest of my life?
And what of that plane? Had it left L.A. or not? If it hadn’t, then when was it going to, and if it had, how was it delayed indefinitely?
A gaggle of emaciated sunburned young things were crowded into the tiny UTA office by the time I got there, so I heard from several over-excited youthfully exuberant types that our plane had come down on Vanuatu; had been hijacked in Tahiti; had crash landed into the ocean; had an engine on fire and had to turn back...
To this day I still don’t know what happened to that plane. Instead, void of Kiwi dollars and resigned to my fate, I waited another 24 hours in that airport, trying to enjoy and learn from the experience of being delayed indefinitely.
Bring on the æons.
Delay me for epochs, see if I care, declared the control freak inside me defiantly.
I’m not sure if I really learned my lesson that day, because I am still a passenger on my very own Control Freak Express, departing Freedom City daily, stopping at Anxiety, Stress, Exhaustion and all stations to Self-Inflicted Misery.
Still, the delay meant that I had only three days to get through on Noumea instead of four, and then I would be in Australia at last. Three days on a tropical island? How bad could that possibly be, compared to being stuck, ‘Delayed Indefinitely’, in an airport?
Well, quite bad, as it turned out. The Scouser lad that sat next to me on the bus from Noumea Airport to the hotel decided it was would be a great idea - “Crackin’ “ - to get out his huge camera and take lots of photos of all the military planes and tanks lined up in the fields outside.
He was promptly arrested and yanked off the bus, never to be seen again. Suspected of being his companion, I was placed under house arrest, unable to leave a tiny room for the entirety of my stay.
One minute I’m delayed indefinitely, freed from everything but progress for all eternity.
The next I’m imprisoned, stuck for a finite time into a tiny space.
Life’s wee tricks, eh? No wonder I’m a control freak. Sod it, if that’s the worst of me, I came out okay.
Sunday 18 January 2009
I dread to think what might have happened or still be happening in Gaza by the time you read this, but oh, this hurts, in a supremely selfish and egocentric way.
My grandfather had to leave Germany to escape the Nazis. If he hadn’t, you would not be reading this.
Last May in Tuam, Co. Galway, an elderly Jewish couple had their car burned out, swastikas painted onto their windows, and ‘Go Home Jew’ painted on their driveway walls. Herb Meyer and his partner Armida Walsh are planning to move to England, joining the exodus of Jewish people from Ireland. In 1940 there were 5,500 Jewish people in Ireland, and now there’s a paltry 1,700. Even though this decline of a Jewish population in a free country is unique in the modern world, I don’t believe the Irish are any more or less anti-semitic than the English.
When my Dad used to tell me we were only visitors in England, and one day we might have to leave, it wasn’t empty rhetoric.
Go Home. That’s what they always say, and the fact that I am an atheist will count for nothing. You can philosophise all you like about whether being Jewish is a religious or racial matter, but I can tell you from the inside, that’s what I am, God or no God.
Cries of “I don’t believe in God!” would not have saved my life in Dachau.
For me it’s a matter or survival, that strongest and most basic of instincts. If countries closed their doors to fleeing Jews, as they did in the 1930’s, there’s only one place where I might go. Yet here I am, funky and free, grateful not to be Israeli.
To be Israeli is to live in constant fear of your life, your home and your children’s future; to live surrounded by nations sworn to your own nation’s destruction.
Since its inception in 1948, Israel has been invaded three times, and involved in five separate territorial wars, as well as the ongoing Intifada.
We interrupt this colyoom to bring you a news flash.
There have been heavy casualties in a fresh wave of missile attacks on Monaghan and Dundalk. As part of a sustained campaign that has lasted for several years now, the People’s Army for the Death and Destruction of Ireland (PADDI) have launched thousands of rockets from Armagh and Newry onto the cities of Monaghan and Dundalk. Today there were violent clashes on the streets of Dublin, as protesters demanded that the Irish government defend the nation. The Taioseach has to date refused to sanction any response to these missile attacks, claiming that to target the densely-populated civilian areas from where PADDI launch their rockets would be in contravention of the Geneva Convention, not to mention Irish neutrality.
Thousands of refugees have fled Dundalk and Monaghan, heading south.
And now, back to the colyoom.
Whatever happens, never get sucked into that Middle Eastern ulcer. You know the one, where Israel wouldn’t bomb the Palestinians if Hamas didn’t fire rockets, but they’re only firing rockets because the Israelis are blockading Gaza and making it impossible for Palestinians to go to their jobs in Israel, which is creating terrible poverty in Gaza, which wouldn’t be necessary if the Palestinians who worked in Israel didn’t bring with them suicide bombers who blew up innocent Israelis, but the suicide bombers wouldn’t want to blow themselves up if the Israelis weren't living on Palestinian land in the first place, but the Israelis say they were there first and the Palestinians say they were there first and yes you did no I didn’t yes you did no I didn’t.
Stay away from that ulcer. That’s precisely the spiral of thinking that sends us into destructive despair and yet another war.
This colyoomist is not a monster who seeks to survive at the expense of others. My personal need for the State of Israel to exist in no way suggests that others should suffer. My freedom from persecution must not come at the expense of another’s.
This is where it really hurts.
My heart breaks when I see that monstrous wall on the West Bank.
I crumble inside when crazed Jewish settlers are interviewed once more on the TV news, as yet again the outside world will imagine the words of these nutters represents the thinking of Jewish people around the world.
My tears flow as I watch innocent blood spilt on the streets of Gaza. I feel shamed to my core that my own people could bring about such wanton destruction of human life. I loathe the way the Israelis close the Palestinian universities, the way they impose embargoes and blockades, but then I remember.
I remember talking to my friend in Tel Aviv on the phone the night that a suicide bomber blew himself up in a pizza restaurant in Tel Aviv. I remember hearing the utter terror in her voice as she screamed and cut me off to call and make sure her daughter was still alive.
I remember that unlike Egypt, who after so many terrible wars sought peace and co-operation with Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah have no desire to negotiate for peace, as they are both sworn to the annihilation of Israel.
I remember that after Israel voluntarily withdrew their army barracks and settlements from Gaza in 2005, Hamas have launched over 7,000 rockets into Israel from Gaza.
I do not believe Hamas want their own people to suffer, but for the achievement of their ultimate aim it does them no harm to have a radicalised young population that has suffered terribly at the hands of the oppressor.
The Irish psyche is synaptically turbocharged to support any oppressed people, but in their rush to see justice done, the Irish do the truth a disservice. It is crass to see Israel as baddies and Hamas as goodies. There are no goodies or baddies. There is only dreadful human tragedy, on all sides. There is no moral high ground in this conflict, only terrible crimes of scale. All loss of innocent life is a crime against humanity.
I cry for each terrorised Palestinian.
I cry for each terrorised Israeli.
Think only of the people on all sides and humanity might have a chance.
No single human life is lesser or greater than another.
This atheist prays for a free Israel, a free Palestine and lasting peace.
Monday 12 January 2009
Everyone seems to like the Motilium frog, that fat amphibian who lies on his back groaning and moaning about the state of his belly. Mr. Frog has been seriously overdoing the consumption, and is now painfully filled to the brim, farting like a wizard in a colander, and having more painful contractions than when your young Beatrice had her quads, eight pound each they were, god bless her.
Brilliant, so now when we’ve turned into turgid lumps of blubber leaking dribble onto the carpet as we use our human snouts to sniff out more irresistible delights, all we have to do is take a wee pill and our stomachs will suddenly leap into action and it’ll be as if nothing ever happened.
Or, call me crazy, we get off the continental shelves that our arses have become and drag our lardy sacks of body fat out of the house for a walk.
Blimey, look at that! One foot in front of the other and all of a sudden you’re breathing better, your muscles are working, your spirit is getting a lift and oooeeerrrr, yes, yes the stomach, something is happening in the stomach. It’s moving now alright. Blimey, is it moving. OOOOoooh motherrrrrr....
Before the boys and girls from legal get onto me, I’m quite sure Motilium is a great drug,
but we have all become dangerously confused about the putrid privy that houses both the illegal drug and pharmaceutical industries.
We encounter all manner of drugs every day of our lives, and for our convenience, we endeavour to split them up in our minds, into two groups. There’s harmful and safe, and also legal and illegal.
Safe is removed instantly from the list, as any single substance consumed in too large an amount can be lethal. Sure, you can drown after drinking too many glasses of water, so nothing is safe.
That, you see, is why the universe invented intelligence.
Now we’re left with drugs legal and illegal, and here's where intelligence really comes into its own. In the last two weeks I’ve seen two different children, one a toddler and the other a baby in a pushchair, sucking on their cans of Red Bull, as if drinking from Venus’ own nipples.
As I saw their proud mothers and fathers walk by, I wondered and saddened all at once.
These were smartly-dressed adults who had purchased splendid pushchairs. Far from ill-educated people, you’d think. Maybe they just bought a can of Red Bull in the shop, because they could, thinking that if they could it must be safe. The thought of the Red Bull baby was scary enough, but actually I span out of control in my grey noodle stew when I saw the second child, the toddler, slugging back his taurine testicular extract and caffeine cocktail.
I mean, the thing about babies is that they don’t toddle. They roll, pooh, puke and make more noise than a small atomic bomb, but they don’t run around insanely destroying everything in sight, like Supernanny off the tele’s worst acid trip nightmare: a toddler on Red Bull.
Thankfully, most of us have at least a small part of our brains working, and understand that just because some drugs are legal, they are not necessarily compulsory. We’ve got enough addictions going on as it is, and as you fall asleep from drunkenness and drop your burning fag butt down the side of your armchair, never forget we are in a state of war.
Well two states of war, if you count the War on Terror, which is in fact very similar to the War on Drugs. We had no choice about our involvement in either, and yet we deeply feel in all our hearts that each is worse than pointless.
While the War on Terror perpetuates itself by creating more hatred, radicalising more swathes of population and turning them into recruits, the War on Drugs supports a global
industry of organised crime, whilst simultaneously criminalising so many millions of users that the very stigma of criminalisation becomes diminished.
Sorry, are you feeling a little delitaco, lying there like post-festive beached beluga whales?
Well, even though this colyoom doesn’t usually approve of such things, I’ll give you a number, because going by your hangover and the size of your ‘orrible swollen belly, and because you are now coming down off alcohol, sugar, caffeine, nicotine, paracetamol, Rennies, Motilium, Alka Seltzer, aspartame, salt and gord knows what other drugs and chemicals, I reckon a simple single number is just about the only thing you might understand.
200 million people are at this moment using and misusing illegal drugs.
There you go. Wasn’t too painful was it? Consider that for a second. That’s 40 Irelands!
Generally I am very wary of using numbers, but this one I trust, because it came from the very excellent Danny Kushlick, founder of Transform Drug Policy Foundations.
The man himself explained to the Observer’s Carl Wilkinson:
“Drugs should be legalised because they are dangerous, not because they are safe. They should be brought within the law where consumers would have information like ingredients and purity. We need to manage the people who use them and not criminalise them. In prisons I saw drug users who were damaged in almost every way they could be - the last thing they needed was to be incarcerated. People who want to use illegal drugs are already using them, their illegality is not a deterrent”
Kushlick is passionate about his fight. He cites the way that the mafia rose and grew out of 13 years of alcohol prohibition in America.
“It created the mafia and corrupted every US federal institution. When you have that kind of money involved combined with that level of demand, you have one of the largest commodity markets on earth, totally unregulated.”
These days, the prohibition of drugs allows organised crime to make €180 billion a year, every year. If these dangerous and addictive drugs were legalised, regulated and controlled, the very personal agonies of addiction and self-control could be removed from the hands of the criminal cartels who exploit farmers, and mafiosi who blackmail mules to smuggle for peanuts.
How widespread is the problem? Well consider the fact that almost every single bank note in the UK is contaminated with cocaine. Yes, I know Sterling is cheap right now, but don’t go getting any ideas. There’s only a billionth of a gram per note!
Friday 2 January 2009
My judgement must have been severely impaired when I bought this year’s Christmas tree. The young man selling them was trying to show me better trees, and knowing him well as I do, I should have respected his greater understanding of such things. Frozen in my memory is the image of him standing by what looks now to have been a perfectly shaped medium to small tree.
But no. I knew best, didn’t I, so off I marched down the row, pointing like Dr. Watson to a fresh corpse.
“There! That there!”
And now I sit and stare at this most bizarre of Christmas trees. The Snapper has performed a minor miracle with lights and decorations, and it is most certainly now a pretty tree, but the real miracle is that it got away with pretending to be a Christmas tree at all.
Maybe, contrary to our liberal greenie beliefs, trees of the pine forest do not have much fun stuck out in the cold, and pray to their arboreal gods to be taken to Tree Nirvana, where they become Christmas trees, to be draped with lights and garish plastic shite of all description.
We can leave the deeper mysteries of trees and their religious beliefs until the day comes that I am sufficiently barking crazy to finally oh yes finally be able to hear and understand what the trees are telling me.
Maybe the miracle is none other than the fact that I knew this thick-trunked beast would perfectly reflect the year that’s been. Maybe as I picked out this tree, I knew that its destiny in tree mythology was far greater than it could ever have been, had it been merely a pyramidal symmetrical no-gaps perfectly-formed Christmas tree.
This tree will henceforth be known as the Contrivance Tree, because I’m contriving to suggest that it is just as mad and bad and glorious and wonderful as this year has been for me.
With its towering top lopped off, my tree does exactly what a Christmas tree shouldn’t: it has huge gaps and branches like interest rates, that go up as well as down. It defies symmetry, throwing long strong shoots there and short thick twigs here and here and here.
Oh and it’s huge. Yeh, it’s rude, crude, brash and barmy, and I love it.
And just as I like my tree for all its imperfections, I still love life. Some years have a reasonable amount of life crammed into them, while others are fairly gentle and simple. 2008 was for me a year packed with so much life that I can feel some satisfaction to now sound so positive.
This time last year I had just finished the first draft of my novel, and was taking a break for the festive season. Then life in intervened as only life can, when threatened with death.
My Dad, who had been unwell for many years, began his final lengthy decline, and many of the first months of the year were spent over there, with my family. I had just lost a dear friend to cancer, and was already a little wobbly, but this was no time to be weak. There was life to deal with, and a wedding to plan. Just in case my Dad might make it, we planned a ceremony and lunch in England for family and close friends, followed by party two days later in Galway.
But first it was off to California, to visit the Last Chance Mountains, Bishop and San Francisco. Had I made up the locations in my book such a trip would have been unnecessary, but real people lived out there in the desert, and I had to go and meet them, crossing seven mountain ranges in a rushed road trip that bought new friends and a lifetime of beautiful landscapes to my brainbox. Also, it was fantastic to return to San Francisco, not only vital for my book, but also to enjoy an emotional reclamation, after having spent some sad years in a superb place.
Fired up with the spirit of adventure gained by having faced my fears and succeeded, I worked alongside my woman organising the wedding, whilst flying back and forth to England.
Dad died two weeks before our big day, and my mum was strong, beautiful and graceful as we all enjoyed our ceremony, followed by (hallelujah!) the most fantastic party we could have hoped for. With the sun shining solidly all weekend, Galway showed all the friends and family that had flown in how beautiful it can be, and our Galwegian friends and blow-ins alike pulled together to blast the night away in serious sty-all and fash-un.
And then I worked and worked and worked, and somewhere along the way a couple of weeks ago I finally finished my book. Off I went straight afterwards, to England to visit the family, but evidently it was a trip too far. Somewhere between my father’s death and my marriage to the most loving and loyal of women; between the days driving over American mountain roads and month after month spent crouched, scribbling in front of this keyboard, there lay hidden a gargantuan backlash of stress that unleashed itself upon the muscles of my back and legs last month, crippling me into submission, finally forcing this stubborn brute of a bear to stop.
Were it not for the pure genius of one local masseuse, I might not have been able to spoil your last ten minutes by writing this, but lucky you! The pain is on the way out, and any day now I might once again be able to walk the Prom.
So this year, like my tree, has been ugly, brash and painful; joyous, thrilling and emotional.
What? You saying my tree’s not emotional? Man, if you could only hear it talk, and watch it listening to Mozart, you might understand it the way I do!
Sorry folks, I lied to you last year! No DV Awards this year, and yes, I know, I know, that’s two years in succession. Well, I promise that should this Noble Rag still desire my scribbles, next year those beloved DV Awards will return.
In the meantime, I hope you may enjoy a happy, healthy and not too broke 2009. As they say in my culture: I vish you all you vish yourself!