Monday 29 October 2012

Forget the billions - focus on the victims!

 If our governments want us to feel disinterested and detached from our economic destiny, they’re doing a good job. While counting on our fingers to see if we can afford a bag of coal this week, we become blinded and bored in equal measure by the constant talk of the billions and trillions involved in global economics.
How does this World of Billions affect me? Isn’t it all beyond my control?
Well, if you want a seat at the table with Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde, you may be out of luck, but there is one thing we can do, which in the long run will make a massive difference to our lives.
We must concentrate less on the pathetic sham of the Troika’s policies, and focus on the human victims they create.
I’m far from bored with the news. In fact I’m hurting: gut-twisting pain born of watching the most terrible mistakes of history being made all over again.
There’s no avoiding the dark irony that by desperately trying to avoid recreating the inflation and unemployment that brought about the rise of Hitler’s National Socialists, Merkel’s Germany is making war zones out of Greece and Spain, where as a result, the extreme Left and Right are thriving.
Forget the billions - focus on the victims. We need to get down and dirty with the people, our neighbours here in our very own continent. Right now in modern Europe basic medical care for children is being sacrificed on the altar of Fiscal Responsibility, while pensioners are raiding wheelie bins looking for something to eat.

There is mayhem on the streets of Greece, where police are telling callers to seek help from the Golden Dawn Party, a neo-Nazi power-base with 18 MPs. When your mother is hungry and your child is sick, you don’t notice the flag over the door that looks so much like a swastika. You take their food parcels, medicines and in return they own your loyalty.

Yet this is where the ironies crash around my soul like jagged rocks in a tumble dryer. The Greeks who resisted German fascist occupation so bravely are now being driven to fascism by a German who’s frantically trying to avoid creating fascism. As Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, said:

“It’s about the cohesion of our society, which is being threatened by rising unemployment, like at the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany.”

Instead of talking over the TV news footage of yet more riots in Athens, take a look at the faces of the people. We’re all from bailout countries, but they’re being screwed more violently than us.

Even if you dare to look inside this World of Billions, it makes no sense. The dreaded Troika doesn’t even agree with itself. The IMF is begging the ECB to agree to OSI (you have to have 3 letters or nobody takes you seriously!), which would allow for either a write-down or a write-off of Greek debt, but the ECB alongside Angela M are not for turning. The Troika’s own report admits that Greece will fail to reach its debt-reduction target, while ‘Brussels Experts’ (oxymoron?) say openly that Greek national debt will be 130%-145% of GDP by 2020.

If you had 130 - 145% of your annual income on your credit card, you’d do something about it, and the Greeks are selling everything they can lay their hands on: palaces; islands; airports; roads; gas and electric companies.

To appease the Troika, Portugal was forced to sell its own €3bn power company to the Chinese, while here in Ireland they’re trying to raise the same amount of money by selling the right to run the lottery, chunks of Aer Lingus, the Electricity Supply Board and the forests.

For centuries you sang plaintive songs about the day Ireland’s rivers will run free, and now that they finally do, the trees that line them are being be sold off to pay your overlords.

More irony cascading out of Portugal, where workers are taking a government minister’s advice to “...leave their comfort zone and look for jobs beyond our borders.” They’re heading to now-affluent former Portuguese colonies. 80,000 Portuguese workers have moved to Angola since 2003, while the Angolan élite are twisting the term ‘post-colonial’ by buying up large chunks of Portugal. Looking down on their old oppressors from their Lisbon penthouses, Angolan business leaders now own 4% of all the companies listed on Lisbon's stock exchange.

José Luis Sousa, who moved from Portugal to Angola to work in a printing company says:
“Maybe some day Portugal will be a colony of Angola.”

While hunger, disease and refugees follow the economic war it wages on its own people, the EU is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Armed only with fury and the human spirit, how can we fight back?

Forget the billions  - focus on the victims. Follow the lead of Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, the mayor of Marinaleda, a small town in Southern Spain. Despite Spain’s economic devastation, in his town there is full employment, people rent homes for €15 a month, and everybody who works in the agricultural cooperative, including the mayor, earns the same salary. For themselves, by themselves, the people of the town have built 350 new affordable homes.

Awarded the nickname "Robin Hood" by newspaper El Pais, Gordillo declared “The crisis has a face and a name. There are many families who can't afford to eat.” He then led local farm workers into a supermarket, where they filled their trolleys with pasta, sugar, chickpeas and milk, left without paying, and distributed the food to local food banks.

To survive the World of Billions, we must cling to our humanity. When the Celtic Tiger died, people on the streets of Galway muttered about how we could now be human again. Uncomfortable with material obsession, they longed for the return of that feeling we in the West of Ireland enjoyed in the past: of looking after each other.

Sunday 21 October 2012

I’m a control freak, not an arsonist!

The ear plugs are in, the double whiskey has been digested and I’m finally dropping off to sleep in the Premier Inn.


Bloody Hell! What’s that?

Wrenching out my earplugs and blinding myself by hitting the full row of light switches beside the bed, I leap up and … well, stand there.

I don’t know what to do. It sure as hell sounds like a fire alarm. At least, it would do if it was a constant noise, or even a dopplery crescendo siren, but it’s arhythmic.


Whatever it is, it’s happening and I want to stay alive. From my top floor eyrie window I can see the whole hotel, and there’s no sign of smoke, fire or any apparent danger.

A small crowd of people are milling around outside the hotel entrance, smoking fags.


But really, am I going to get back into bed and try and sleep? I’ve got to get outside. How much of a plonker will I look if I’m rescued by firemen in 20 minutes?

Dammit dammit dammit. I so needed a good night’s sleep before my flight from Luton to Knock. I know what I’m like. I can make this journey home feel like an Antarctic expedition if I put my mind to it, so I’d already wrestled with my conflicting instincts.

When I was a youth worker I heard my boss point out to a sixteen year-old that self-knowledge, on its own, is worthless. We’d been trying to make the lads start to think about what they did, become aware of the consequences of their behaviours. But as my boss explained to the confused teenager

“You can understand all your behaviours but that means nothing unless you do something about it.”

‘Cor, that’s good!’ I thought to myself, slightly embarrassed to have only just learned what I evidently needed to know as a spotty yoof.

So now I’ve not only become more aware of my unhelpful and destructive behaviour patterns, but I also try to do something about them. Not all are matters of life and death. Indeed, many just help eradicate pointless self-made stress. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve made this journey, from Edgware up the M1 to Luton; refuel the rental car; return the rental car and take the shuttle to the terminal; check in.

Hardly Shackleton, but invariably I massively overestimate how long it’s all going to take, because there might be a 24 truck pile-up on the M1 or my car might blow up and I’ll have to hitch to the airport and you can see where this is going, can’t you? I end up leaving the hotel ridiculously early to avoid the stress of having to worry about being late for my plane, always arriving at the terminal an hour before the check-in desk is even open.

Thankfully I have the ability to stare into space for hours, so being early is great, save for the fact that I could have had another hour in bed.

That might have been nice.

On this trip my flight home leaves Luton a few hours later than normal, so there’s a chance I could be there crazily early, and that would be plain stupid, so I spend most of the day mentally reminding myself not to pack before I go to bed.

Just relax, sleep on, chill out, and then pack after a shower in the morning.
Shoofty shoofty. Easy does it.

Right, but there’s this other part of me: the control freak anal retentive be ready for anything alpha male leader ug ug chest hairs sprouting that does not allow slack behaviour.

So with this erratic alarm going off in my ears, I’m immediately able to slip into my ready-laid out clothes (and when I say laid out, I mean in a pile of order dressed; sad but true), slide into my available boots and zip up my already-packed bag.

Throwing on my overcoat, I enter a corridor lined by people with bleary eyes wearing jim-jams, hanging out of their bedroom doors, asking each other what the hell’s going on.

Just like me, they can’t understand keeps sounding on and off intermittently, and there's no staff to be seen.

Suddenly they all stop talking. They’re all looking at me, standing there fully-clothed to airport-smart standards, as if I’d somehow expected all this to happen.

“Bloody ‘ell mate! You’re ready a bit bloody sharpish, encha?”

Smiling as I walk past them, I successfully resist the temptation to scream

“Yes I’m ready, but that’s because I’m a neurotic freak and not because I’m a bloody arsonist, okay! I didn’t start the fire, all right?!”

because that might possibly sound a tad suspicious.

Down in the lobby the night porter is pressing buttons on an electrical board, but it’s all pretty chaotic.

Eventually we’re sent back to our rooms, assured that all is safe. Doesn’t feel very safe, but I need sleep.

In the morning I ask a member of staff if they are trained to come up to the corridors when a fire alarm goes off. He doesn’t understand my question. I ask two others, who point out the letter of apology we all had shoved under our bedroom doors, but it’s not until I speak to a third person behind the reception desk that I’m assured that there should have been staff up in the corridors, guiding us to a fire escape.

However, my favourite comment of the night came from the 30something wide boy salesman in the room next to mine. While we were standing in the corridor, unsure whether we were in danger of being burnt to a crisp in a raging inferno, he’d referenced Premier Inn’s guarantee of a good night’s sleep or your money back.

“Free night for us mate. That’s what this is! Guaranteed!”

Monday 15 October 2012

Intelligent human hotspots and volume problems!

You’ll get no sense out of me today. My brain’s gone whackadoodle in reaction to the Man Flu. While my physical symptoms are boring, more interesting and varied are the ways being ill affects my brainbox. This time there’s definitely been a-wandering. My brain has taken itself off into a place of idiotic fantasy, where long periods are spent contemplating the tiniest detail.

Stop the front page! Scoop ! Scoop! Charlie Adley is a space cadet.

In fevered nights I dream of a crazed Galway City, which has four hour Pay and Display Parking limits. It’s still €2 an hour for the first two hours, but then the rate drops to €1 an hour, up to four hours. Dangerous and radical stuff, allowing people time to both shop and have a meal in our lovely city.

Why on earth would Galway City Council want to let people enjoy themselves and spend money with local retailers and restaurateurs?

No, two hours is just enough to do nothing at all and return to your car. That way we can make sure that local traders can’t earn enough to pay their rates to the council.
Lovely. That makes sense.

But still the nightmares tumble around my fevered brow, insane images, not of notorious Intelligent Traffic Lights, but instead, the horror the horror, Intelligent Humans.

I know! Who’d’ve thought of such a thing!

Tossing and turning through wheezy sweaty nights of delirium, I imagine impossibly Intelligent Humans who actually test transport plans before implementing them. Humans capable of counting the number of exits on a roundabout before they demolish it. Humans who understand the insanity of bus lanes that have no buses and right-turn lanes inaccessible to those who need to turn right. 

Mad, these Intelligent Humans.

Just as well they don’t exist, or Galway would run like clockwork and make a fortune.
Another minuscule peccadillo spinning around my sick cerebellum right now concerns the bloke down the garden centre. His smile is endearing, revealing a gentility and complete absence of thought.

When I go down there I secretly hope he won’t be on duty, because I appreciate the greater experience of his colleagues. But sure enough, there he was, walking right past me as I dragged a huge wooden container towards my car.

“Hiya! Just wondered if you knew the capacity of these half barrel containers?” I asked him. “How many litres would it take to fill this?”
“PshooOOOOoooossshhhh….. Wouldn’t know. 150 maybe.”
“Great, thanks! So I’ll take two of those 75 litre bags of compost please.”
“Oh … compost is it? I thought you were talking about water. Sure you’d only need one of these bags of compost to fill that.”
“Oh really I er but oh, I sort of thought it’d be about the same, compost and water in litres?
“Oh no. No no, not at all.”

I bought one bag and drove home, my tiny brain spinning, just as it is now, fascinated not in any intellectual way by the obvious error of judgment, but more experiencing envy: I want to be inside his head.

I want to experience the universe through the eyes of somebody who thinks like that.
Not for long, mind, like that cruel old Dylan song, where he wishes that for just one day you could stand inside his shoes and he could stand in yours, so then you'd know what a drag it is to see you.

Except I don’t think it would be a drag to be inside that lad’s head. It would be marvellous.
“What mpg do you get out of your car?”
“Dunno, it’s red.”

I want to think like that, just for a wee while.
If it were plain stupidity there’d be no elegance to it, but from within my sick stupor something about it beguiles me; enchants me.

While I’m imagining looking through Garden Centre Boy’s Eye’s, I’m simultaneously captivated by a story by Will Pavia, writing for The (London)Times, that represents all that is magnificent about the human race, apart from the heinous truth that we have homeless people living in our so-called Developed World.

Each year Austin,Texas hosts a convention of social media and technology entrepreneurs called the Next Big Thing. Last month, while all the nerdy billionaires were inside the convention centre, the greatest technological innovation was happening outside the building, where the local homeless community had turned themselves into human wi-fi hotspots.
Clarence Jones, who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina, declared that he accepted PayPal:

“I’m a 4G hotspot!” pitched the 54 year-old on the street, “You don’t have to go in the building no more. Homeless people are outside. We do the outside thing!”

 Forgive me if you’ve been led in any way to believe this colyoom is heading towards some kind of meaningful conclusion. To be fair, I did warn you. When I’m both physically ill and mentally incapacitated, these colyooms can’t do their regular thing of ending all neatly.
 With Intelligent Humans, homeless hotspots and garden centres, that might not be possible this week.

Although to be honest, deep inside me I do feel a strong common bond, a unique link that encompasses all these stories:
I love the human race.

We can conceptualise the beginning of time and space yet find ourselves unable to count roundabout exits or understand the nature of volume.

We live in affluent societies so cruel as to deny that most basic human right: of a roof; a home; a bed; of safety. Yet being human, invested with spirit and imagination, those that others disregard turn a tragic situation to their advantage, reinventing themselves as marketable commodities.

But they are neither products nor services. They are simply magnificent human beings, using their initiative and making an income by parodying the corporate culture that discarded them as expendable.

Monday 8 October 2012

Enda’s Michelin star is a great Galway stew!


 All power to Aniar restaurant proprietors Drigín Gaffey, Jp McMahon and head chef, Enda McEvoy. Being awarded Galway's first Michelin star is a massive achievement. While they deserve no end of credit, this success is the result of a wonderful Galway stew, with contributions from patrons, entrepreneurs and talented people from several continents.

Apologies if I forget one or two of the stew’s ingredients. This is more an anecdotal memoir than a fact-perfect account.

I’ve always got on well with chefs. Passionate, vibrant and all just slightly crazy, they speak my language.

Long-serving colyoomistas will remember my very excellent friend Grumpy Chef, who is now neither grumpy nor a chef (if one can ever truly un-chef oneself!) but happy and a father with a family in Hobart, Tasmania.

But one night back in 2000, whilst drinking in the back of the sadly-still-missed Taylor’s bar, he met another young chef called Enda McEvoy. They did what chefs do - they drank and talked about food and drank some more, so when Grumpy was heading off to India, he suggested that Enda fill in for him as downstairs chef at Harriet Leander’s Nimmos, which with her approval he did.

As my friend explained to me:
“Over the next few years we worked together at Nimmos and became firm friends with plenty of banter and piss taking of each other. Since my departure to Australia I have worked with him every time I’ve been back, on weddings, game dinners and other functions. I’m also very blessed to be Godfather to his lovely boy Fin.”

Nimmos was a fantastic place back in those days. The tiny downstairs kitchen turned out great bistro food, while upstairs, chef Jacky Lelievre pretty much singlehandedly introduced fine dining to Galway City. Jacky had already worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants in France, so it must have been great for Enda to encounter such a combination of flair, experience, passion and charm as offered by Harriet’s unique influence and Jacky’s imagination and shining professionalism.

After Harriet sold Nimmos, Enda went to work for her friend and erstwhile colleague, Seamus Sheridan, at the restaurant above his eponymous pub on the docks. Seamus could see Enda’s potential and gave him all the staff, time and financial support he could to bring out the young chef’s talent.

By now Enda was passionate about foraging, and would be out each morning at dawn, prowling woodlands and beaches, collecting local wild produce for Sheridan’s kitchen.
There he worked alongside a talented team including John McInnes, Jeremy Hunt and Pawel Karnafel, some of whom would later move with him to Aniar, when Sheridan's was sadly forced to close.

We now take a slight sideways step to recognise the work of another young chef, Alan Williams, who years before had taken the bold step of opening his own restaurant, Abalone, in what was then the culinary desert of Dominick Street.

Williams’ success attracted Jp McMahon to open the incredibly successful Spanish restaurant Cava next door to Abalone, and subsequently the street, and indeed the entire West End, has become a stroganoff of culinary delight, with Rouge, Creole, La Fine Bouche and Jess Murphy’s award-winning Kai Cafe added to the mix.

When Abalone closed, Jp seized the opportunity to continue the work that Seamus Sheridan had started. Aniar was born.

Inbetween Sheridan’s and Aniar, Enda collaborated with John McInnes on the Cook Wild Project, a pop-up restaurant offering degustation nights. When chef René Redzepi then offered him the chance to work a stage at what many consider to be the world’s finest restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, Enda leaped at the opportunity to contribute to the natural home of foraging cuisine.

Inspired by his experience in Denmark and lucky once again to have a visionary patron behind him, Enda and the Aniar team worked their socks off to create their own terroir-based menu, inspired by the wild food of the West of Ireland. Enda’s recognition comes well-deserved and timely.

Last month the Snapper and I were lucky enough to be invited to Co. Offaly, to celebrate Enda’s marriage to his better half, the mother of his children and frequent foraging widow, the wonderful Sinead. It was a beautiful event, strange only because we found ourselves at the bride’s family farm, far culturally and geographically from Galway, yet surrounded by the entire restaurant workforce of the city.

Pity the poor punters who tried to find good food and service in town that night!

As the bonhomie and alcohol worked their magic, all the hard work the bride’s family had done paid off. An atmosphere of a mini-festival started to imbue the Midlands air.

The respect that Enda has earned from those who influence our food in Galway was evident everywhere. In the garden Jp McMahon was supervising the pulling of a huge pig that had been roasting on a spit for several decades. Inside the marquee there stood the most sublime and bizarre wedding cake I’ve ever seen - built entirely of rings of Sheridan’s cheeses, it caught the eye and brought a smile to our lips, more as an art installation than traditional sliceable.

Later in the evening, as the music started to play, I sat at a table and watched Enda dancing, eyes closed, his little boy clasped to his chest. Lost in an exhausted joyous reverie, he’d just married his sweetheart, been nominated Food and Wine's Best Chef in Connacht and been awarded 4.5 stars out of 5 in that day’s Sunday Times review.
I sent him a silent pulse of love, hoping that he appreciated how it felt to be at the top of the tree.

But I was wrong. The best was yet to come.

Thanks to the talent, spirit, faith and hard work of all the ingredients in this massive stew, Galway has a star. Michelins may come and go. Hopefully Enda’s will only rise.