Monday 27 April 2009

Are you a word nerd? Do you know your ‘til from your till?

makeshift-knight-cartoon
I’m sure I used to have a subconscious mind, but these days all I ever hear about is the unconscious.
Everyone is passionate about something. As a kid I used to go to school on London trains, speeding past thousands of back gardens leading up to terraced houses and semis, each as different to all the other houses and gardens as it is possible for identically-built gardens and houses to be.
Everyone was into something. Right there, blurred by speed and glass, was everybody’s passion.
This one grew leeks, that one loved her roses, that one was building a pond and herself over there had put down a crazy paving patio with deck chairs.
Even as that naive teenager, I didn’t suspect she loved crazy paving. But sipping her Campari and soda of an evening, she could dream of flying to Luton Airport and looking like Lorraine Chase.
There’s loads of things in life that we love, in different ways. I love my wife, my family, my friends and then, in a different way, I love my football team, north Mayo beaches and pie chips and beans.
But for pure non-physical passion, words motivate me to think and search for truth; to master a craft and explore an art. So I’m a word nerd, and I noticed when people stopped saying subconscious.
Freud used the word unconscious and in all fields of mental medicine they use the word unconscious too, but language works on many levels, and out here on the streets where we’re just mental without the medicine, those words that mean very precise things to head doctors mean very different things to us.
In my own wee mental world, the word unconscious was what you ended up as, after three bottles of Buckie, or a swift blow to the head from that lamppost that leaped out and head butted you.
Unconscious was to me a state of being, in which you were neither thinking nor doing anything. You were on at the mains but your plug was out of the wall.
Subconscious, on the other hand, always sounded much more my cup of tea. To the mental medicine folk, the subconscious is merely where you keep your phone numbers; where thoughts of hunger come from when you smell sizzling bacon.
That’s the official version, but it’s much more fun to ignore all that and just go back to what we meant by the subconscious before we knew better.
Wasn’t your subconscious that potentially blissful and equally dangerous bubbling stew of all your darkest secret bad bits? Wasn’t it the answer to every “Where the hell did that come from?” question.
Thirty years ago, far less worried about staying alive than I am now, I dropped acid to journey into my subconscious. I wanted to go all transcendental and deep and wise and meaningful, like the Beatles and their Yogi, but sadly, I wasn’t quite ready for my Enlightenment.
All that happened was that I thought I was Sir Lancelot for three hours, and then, to the horror of my friends, I spent ten minutes shouting aggressively at some plain-clothed cops, before stumbling home and lying on my bed for four hours, wishing the feeling that I was onboard a boat would go away.
Goodness knows why I bothered, because being a prolific dreamer, I'd welcome a break from my subconscious.
Or is it my unconscious?
Who can truly say? There is no right or wrong with spoken language. All that ever matters is to be completely understood. So we quickly come around to the fact that wicked means great, bad means good and cool means hot.
There’s nothing new in this kind of verbal evolution. Many might like to be considered a sophisticate, but in early usage, to be accused of sophistication was to be corrupted, to have no innocence.
Words change all the time. I read and loved all of Ken Bruen’s ‘Jack Taylor’ books, but winced whenever I saw him reduce ‘until’ to 'till’. Then, high on hubris, pumping with my own pomposity, I started to see it everywhere: Till till till, all over the shop, ‘til finally, worst of all, I found it in a document several hundred years old.
Undeniably wrong, I realised all I’d been responding to was those booming words lasered into my brain by a crazed teacher at an English public school:
“A till is a cash register, Adley, neither a contraction nor a diminutive, you vile half breed ignoramus.”
Aha! The reason it’s important for me never to abbreviate ‘until’ to ‘till’ lay all along hidden in my subconscious!
Nobody else gives a damn, and quite frankly, I agree with them.
In his book ‘Made in America’, Bill Bryson claims that the English spoken by Americans is actually more historically authentic than that which we, the English and you the Irish speak. Isolated and entrenched, the English speakers of America carried on with the language with which they arrived.
If that’s right, I reckon there must have been a terrible storm on that crossing, and a bag marked ‘vowels’ must have fallen overboard and be lying deep in the North Atlantic Ocean. While aluminum, color and flavor work fine, they look to Europeans a little naked.
Maybe that bag of vowels was accidentally sent to the wrong New World, and ended up in Australia, because those Aussies seem to have ‘o’s to spare. Every word in sight is shrunk and ended with an ‘o’.
Afternoons are arvos, relatives are relos, service stations are servos and rather brilliantly, the Off Licence is a Bottlo.
So sad but true, I give a damn about words. I love them and sometimes they love me back, but the relationship is full time and never-ending. I’ve let ‘till’ go now, although I still twitch a little when I see it, like when you look at an old photo of a dead childhood pet.
Anyway, there’s already a new verbal bĂȘte noire on my block.
Nothing gets my back up more than people trying to impress with words they don’t understand. At the moment some are saying ‘apropos’ as if it’s some kind of fancy French way of saying appropriate. Yuck, but more to the point: why? If you’re going to use a word, pay the language some respect and know it makes sense, because words are only worthy if they are understood.
So, till the next time...

Monday 20 April 2009

If you have a heartbeat you are worth a Basic Income!

social-welfare-cartoon
There have been short periods of my life when I’ve had more money than I knew what to do with, as well as, of course, long periods when I’ve had just enough. Certainly the happiest years of my life have coincided with times when I had little dosh and a lot of time, but equally, the darkest times came when there were debts: court summons’ piling up on the chair in the corner of my squalid 1980s London flat, covered by a pile of bills in red ink, final demands, credit card bills, letters from banks and overdue rates bills.
I knew I’d made it the top of Penury Mountain when I received one day from a certain charge card company a letter in a black envelope on bright red notepaper. Their message was printed in black ink on a scarlet sheet, and even though I was spending my days squatting on my knees, in the corner of my living room farthest from the bill-piled chair, gently rocking back and forth, humming a little tune to myself, it’s all going to be fine, ha ha doo bee doo, I did feel a thrill of perverse pride at having reached such a high echelon of corporate annoyance.
Everyone I knew back in those poverty-stricken days occasionally got bills in red ink, but I never heard of anyone else getting a bill on red paper.
And oh, that black envelope was an intimidating beauty.
So having found out that being hugely in credit doesn’t really make me happy, I also have first-hand experience of how terrible a thing is debt. Back then, in my 20’s, my financial crisis was pretty much self-inflicted, through a combination of youthful ignorance and a splash or two of hedonism and indulgence.
But it was no fun. Believe me. You never want to live in London on the dole. One of the things I love about this country, and particularly the West, is that in Ireland you are rarely punished for being poor. Of course you suffer the same lifestyle barriers and human right infringements that poor people suffer all over the world, but in your dealings with the dole and others, you are not confronted by the intimidating and often terrifying attitude prevalent in Thatcher’s England.
Back in the early 90s I was briefly on the dole in Galway, and could not believe how compassionate and cheerful the interviewers were. Ten year’s earlier I had been reduced to tears by a small English woman in the Shepherd’s Bush dole office, after she saw fit to tell me how pathetic I was and no, she had no idea when my benefit money might come through.
Some of those tears were of self-pity and dejection, but mostly they were furious and full of indignation. How dare she? What gave her the right?
Of course at the moment the Irish Welfare State is overwhelmed, the queues are stretching out forever, and doubtless tempers are fraying on both sides of the glass, but if you have never tried to draw dole in England, you do not know how lucky you are.
I’ve no idea whether this disparity in how the two nations deal with poverty is down to historical, cultural and religious grounds. It’s too easy to say the Irish are more compassionate because they have suffered so much in the past. All populations have suffered.
Whatever the causes, the difference is stark. With the Euro and Sterling close to parity, a week on the dole in England right now will earn you a measly £60.50, while over the water here in Ireland, the same week will give you €204.30.
However, right now welfare systems all over Ireland are backed up with a glut of applications, and traumatised people who have recently lost their jobs are having to make the weekly trawl up to their CWO (Community Welfare Officer) to get emergency payments, so that they can feed their children and survive until the dole payments come through.
I’m hearing stories of 2-3 month waits for official payments, and it breaks my heart. Why should these people, who have suffered so much, many for the greed and sins of others, be subjected to this exhausting and demeaning Poverty Trail?
Have we not finally arrived at a time when Basic Income might be the perfect answer?
Simply put, a Basic Income is a singular amount paid to every permanent resident of a country. It is not applied for; not means tested; not predicated on age, sex, gender or anything. If you have a heartbeat you are entitled to receive a Basic Income.
There are many highly-respected organisations the world over who have explored the fine economic details of Basic Income, and in his final book ‘Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:
“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective - the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
This colyoomist is no economist, so let’s say for the sake of argument that the Irish Basic Income was set at €200 a week. There are those who would choose not to earn more than that, but equally there are many millions who prefer a better lifestyle, and would rather work than live on that subsistence level.
But oh, think of the benefits. Think of the economic savings. There would be no need for the massive bureaucracy that is the present Welfare State. Instead of processing hundreds of thousands of forms, welfare workers could concentrate on the needs of those most vulnerable in society, those very people whose schemes and day centres and projects are now the first to be slashed in the name of ‘savings’.
Instead of chasing scammers and fraudsters and dole cheats, agency workers could apply their funds and time to improving the dignity of those on the fringes of society.
There would be no need for the costly, pointless and dreaded Emergency payments; no shamed faces in the dole queue; no need for terror at the thought of being made redundant.
Right now Gordon Brown and Barack Obama are spending billions in a bid to stimulate the world economy. What could possibly do more to encourage people to spend, to invest, to share their funds, time, ideas and ingenuity, than a cash injection of human dignity?

Monday 13 April 2009

A glass of wine with your food? Isn't that what Jesus would do?

good-friday-drinking-cartoon
Easter, and Ireland is about once again to be gripped by Good Friday fever. The pubs will be closed for one day, and there will be only one topic of conversation: where is the booze, how do I get there and how much might I consume?
It’s ridiculous to assume that this is the behaviour of a nation of alcoholics doing their darndest to live up to their stereotypes. Ridiculous, yes, but then again, the frenzy that accompanies this one single publess day is absurd in the extreme.
In truth, it’s only the Irish showing how wonderfully fallibly magically human they are. God and the Law combine to take away a favourite toy, and all hell lets loose.
Back when I was an idiotic imbiber, there was more than pure hedonism in the Easter Galway air. The young Irish I was then befriending had had enough of being told what they could and could not believe in and wear on their genitals, so when informed there would be no drink taken, they all went teenage mental and drank as if there was no Judgement Day.
Thankfully, Ireland has come a heck of a long way since then. Last September, Judge Mary Fahy refused to fine several Galway City restaurateurs for serving wine to customers on Good Friday. Acknowledging that technically they had broken the law, she understood how ludicrous it would be to criminalise tourists and families who wanted a glass of wine with their meals in a modern city centre.
How refreshing was it to read a news story about a Judge who was actually in touch with what’s going on in the country, instead of the usual horror stories about Judges who think Peter Stringer owns a nightclub and Girls Aloud is a permission slip?
Most people probably believe Christmas to be the holiest Christian festival, but as a Jewish lad at a Protestant school, I became very quickly aware that Easter was Number One. A hot time for a Jew, at Easter some of the other kids used to have a go at the ‘Christ killer’, but I managed to avoid violence by using my Jewish skills, and talking them around.
“What are you on about?” I yelled at them as they made ready to do unspeakable things to my terrified schoolboy self. “He was a Jew, just like me. Don’t you see, if you hit me it’d be like hitting Jesus? No no no, I’m not saying I’m as good as Jesus, but when they put him on the cross he was Jewish, and all you Christians came later. So back off!”
To this day I’m still a bit confused about whether Jesus might at any point of his life be considered a Christian, or whether, by definition, the followers of the Christ came after his death.
Whatever, whoever, I understand that Easter is the holiest time of year for Christians, and I’m sure to those of true faith it matters not one minuscule drop whether in a different place, others of varied credes, orthodoxies and appetites are able to swig a glass of Cabernet with their carpaccio.
It’s not a matter of disrespecting the Christian Church, its traditions and the people that believe in them. Nothing can shake a strong true faith, and Ireland’s restaurateurs are not in the business of killing religion. They just want to make a living while offering a service and let’s face it, running a restaurant is a thankless task.
80% of new Irish restaurants fail within their first year, and to succeed you not only have to be open all the hours God gave you (apt and not intentionally offensive!) but also you have to maximise your income during those brief periods when the punters pack in.
In this 21st century you simply cannot tell a couple of tourists from Manchester that even though they’ve wisely decided to visit Ireland over the long Easter weekend, they’ll not be able to have a drink.
For weeks, nay months I watched the eager and exciting contestants on BBC’s Masterchef turn out new dishes, work under pressure in top-class kitchens and uniformly, as one, declare their dream was to open a little restaurant where they could do what they loved for a living.
It broke my heart every time I heard it. Why is it that, having found the one thing we most love to do, we assume that we can make a living out of it? Cooking good food and running a successful business are two totally different and very specialised skills, and unless you have excessive lashings of the latter you dare not dream of opening up a restaurant.
Once you know the business, you might proceed to create a special place, in a great building; of cultivating a unique atmosphere, employing talented chefs and building up a regular faithful clientele.
For all of the above, we in Galway City were very lucky a few years back to have Harriet Leander’s Nimmo’s. An exceptional place, marrying a genial almost clubbish ambience to the cosy woods, eclectic art and soft tones of the building, Nimmo’s chefs were excellent, the staff all true individuals, eccentric to the last, offering service as glorious as the fresh local ingredients in her cuisine.
Inasmuch as Harriet’s Nimmo’s offered a true alternative to the fairly formulaic menus on Quay Street, so now her colleague and friend Seamus Sheridan has opened a restaurant above his eponymous pub on the docks.
With a menu that changes monthly and a tremendous team in the kitchen, Sheridan’s restaurant is very much its own place, yet (along with much of the art and style that made Nimmos so great) it carries on Harriet’s ethos of improving the restaurant experience in Galway, of making eating out and drinking wine a real and special pleasure, for which we are truly grateful.
So whether you are contemplating your faith in God, and marvelling at the sacrifice Jesus made so that you might be saved, or simply enjoying a bite to eat and a drink with your loved-ones in a restaurant, enjoy your Good Friday and this Easter weekend.
After all, even as we approach the fast of Yom Kippur, our most holy day, we Jews still drink the blessed wine as we break bread together. And Jesus was one of us, like it or not.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

All seriousness aside, if this is Spring Fever, I don’t want to be cured!

easter-egg-cartoon
It’s 06:56 am, and I have been wide awake for half an hour, my head tumbling with all manner of pointless nonsensicals.
Why?
Because bright sunshine is bursting through my bedroom curtains and being a nerdy old prat from wayback, I know that Ireland is in one of those high pressure systems that tend to settle here in Spring and Autumn.
As long as that breeze brushing the tall trees outside my window keeps coming from an easterly direction, we’ve got a couple of days of dry sunny weather, safe as houses.
Yippee! It’s Spring!
A mammal who loves his seasons, I leap out of bed eager to leave the cave.
The fresh-squeezed juice of a lemon sees me out of the door and into Shiny car. Ain’t got no money, but there’s a tank of fuel below me and a bright beautiful blue sky above.
That’s all I need.
In days gone by all I’d need was my thumb, but it’s good to be in Shiny as we sweep through a pre-rush hour Galway City, straight through town and out the other side before most school kids have forced opened an unwilling eye.
The early morning mist has lifted from the fields either side of the N17, and the stone walls and green grass bring Sham tunes into my head.
Having been way too healthy earlier on, I stop and snarf a sausage and bacon roll before turning off the main road. Slowing the car I now have time to spot the unbelievably white lamblets, gambolling in rolling lush pasture, and suckling calves lingering in old farmyards.
Miles from anywhere, yet in the middle of wonder, that old hitcher inside of me demands I stop and get out of the car. The trouble with driving is that you become so intent on arrival you forget to stop, look and listen to the silence of the country.
So now I’m standing in the warmth of the early morning sun, smelling the sweet dampness lifting from the long grasses, simply taking the time to appreciate the wonderful, almost intimidating power of Spring.
Under the ground and all around, burgeoning and inexorable pumps nature’s desire to bloom, breed, blossom and billow.
And yes, we are a part of that. Despite our arrogance, ignorance and notions of grandeur, we are part of it all. It’s so easy to become blinded by bills and banks and being broke, but here, now, this is mine, yours, free and everlasting.
We are indeed fools if we think we’re above loving the country, unappreciative of how it nurtures us.
A short drive through the back ways and bohreens brings me into the tiny car park by my favourite beach, near my old home in North Mayo.
Not a soul in sight; golden beach as far as my legs will take me, and a tide that just turned, leaving damp hard sand for my feet to speed upon.
Man, I am buzzing like a crazy happy beast. Aaahhve got the Spring Fever and ahh don’t want no cure!
Isolated and ecstatic, normally I’d find myself a warm comfy rock and sit upon it for several hours, contemplating the ocean, my backside and all physical and philosophical points betwixt the two, but today that’s not going to happen. The strong south-easterly breeze is whipping up the sand into whispy twisty snaky strands, making it a little uncomfortable to linger
But anyway, I am not on a mission of pure self-indulgence, having long-wanted to thank my friend who lives around the corner from this beach for the massive favour she did for me.
Her text says she’ll be home at 11.
At 11:20 I go up there, but she’s not home.
Back to the beach! ‘How bad?’ thinks I, and by 12 I am drinking tea in my friend's farmhouse kitchen.
Another good friend, a man for whom I have the greatest of time, has texted to tell me he’ll be at his place by 2, so having had a good old goss and two slices of homemade fruit cake, I head off inland a few miles to find my other friend is also late.
Well, no. Nobody’s been late, just running to the speed of a sunny day deep in the Irish countryside, while I’m still on Galway City time, where 11 means, well, 11:10-ish.
I’m so happy to sit and wait and do nothing for a sunny hour or so in the country, and my friend's dog Boogie is overjoyed to have me around. We go for a wee walk, exploirfy an old house and investimagate a big muddy puddle together.
A few years back things were not so happy in this friend's home, and during that time Boogie and myself became firm friends, so now he’s all over me like a licking loving rash
Mind you, he’s a soft git anyway, and would probably lick and love the Devil himself, were Beelzebub to take his hols in North Mayo.
Yes, Charlie. Just stop. Slow down, sit down and play with Boogie.
The greatest gift that money cannot buy: a free sunny West of Ireland Spring afternoon in the middle of nowhere.
Eventually my mate turns up, and we talk, and laugh and drink and visit the village and have a little talk and laugh and drink. Then we return to his place, feed the children and put them to bed, have a little drink, laugh and talk until his wife turns up, when we sit, talk, laugh and drink some more.
A perfect little road trip, costing next to nothing and filling every vacant hole in my soul. As the heat from the coal and wood roasting in their huge fireplace rises, the standards of conversation tumbles.
By the time all those little drinkies have combined as one, my friend's’ wife and I are mercilessly mocking himself, with all his wandering tangential amorphous ramblings.
He raises his hands to protest:
“Now now now!” he bellows defensively, eager to plead his case. “All seriousness aside -” says he, blissfully unaware of the wee verbal slip that has caused us, his audience, to both fall physically from our chairs in inebriated mirth.
But now thinking back, my friend has the last laugh, as some wisdom lurks in his inadvertent and hysterical error:
All seriousness aside?
Isn’t that the best medicine in the world?