Thursday 30 August 2012
Monday 27 August 2012
Flags have never been my favourite thing. Your very own Irish Tricolour does nothing but use the white stripe of truce to keep apart the two warring factions of Republican green and Protestant orange, but no nation in the world reveres its flag more than the United States of America.
The reason that Americans sing an anthem to their flag rather than their country, praising its political significance way beyond its physical appearance, is that the USA is designed as a naval combat unit. The President is Commander-In-Chief on the bridge, and all the organisations of government are arranged as on board a battleship of the line.
Flags are vital when you’re at war on an ocean, and Americans don’t let the tiny lickle detail that their country is actually a lump of land 3,000 miles across spoil their love of Old Glory.
My cousin used to live in the USA. He adored the place, but after 9/11 he felt overwhelmed by the flag flying. Everywhere he went the Stars and Stripes obscured the sky, and even though he understood and empathised with the pride and hurt being exhibited, the shift from patriotism to nationalism unsettled him deeply.
The old adage suggests that the patriot is proud of what their country does, while the nationalist is proud of their country no matter what it does. The first time I went to Northern Ireland, back in the bad old days, I was shocked by the plethora of flags flying. Proclaiming this village for the Irish tricolour, that housing estate for the Union Jack, those flags were aggressive symbols of a deep-seated hatred, reminding me I was entering a war zone.
Actually, as my memory serves, it wasn’t the Union Jack (or Butcher’s Apron, depending on your political bent!) but rather the Cross of St. George that the Loyalist communities flew, which seemed absolutely bizarre to this Englishman. The Union Jack is an amalgam of the crosses of the saints of three old Kingdoms: George, Patrick and Scotland's St. Andrew, so it offers at least some attraction towards which Ulster Scots might feel loyal. But those Northern Protestants were flying the Cross of St. George, which is purely English, and in the main flown only by fans of the England football team and fascists (please, as modern Irish people, resist the temptation to joke ho ho “What’s the difference?”).
In my youth the Union Jack was the exclusive symbol of the National Front, and later the BNP, so it was with absolute delight and great pride that while I was recently over in London, I saw the flag being reinvented as a worthy symbol.
As a tourist in the city of my birth, it’s much easier for me to get gooey about London. If I had to live there still, I’d be a far less happy person than I am today. I love my life out here in the West of Ireland, but there are certain things that I still miss, which fill me with joy to see when I’m back in Blighty.
Early on a sunny Summer’s evening I was on a tube train travelling down the District Line, smiling as I watched an immaculately turned-out middle class Indian family sitting to my right, with two little girls aged 7 or 8, clutching their little Union Jacks, having just come from an Olympic event at Earl’s Court.
‘How wonderful!’, I thought. ‘How long will it be before a similar Indian family living in Galway City would feel proud and comfortable and so wholly included that their children would not raise a local’s eyebrow waving the Irish flag?’
To my right sat a white woman in her mid-30s, escorting three teenage girls from the same event. All of them had their faces painted with the Union Jack, and two of the girls were draped in larger Union flags. After all the horrors of racism and the spectres of the Falklands, Gulf and manifold wars for which this flag had been flown, how wonderful it was to see it being used benignly. How great that all these diverse young people were feeling happily united by a healthy pride in a national identity, rather than any exclusive hatred of others.
Everyone on the train was buzzed up. As I glanced directly opposite me to where an older lady was sitting, I realised that I was sporting a massive smile on my lips.
She too was looking back and forth, to her left and right, and being a sentimental fool with a healthy aptitude for fiction, I figured I knew what was going through her mind.
She had lived through two World Wars, doubtless making terrible sacrifices to keep her country free from occupation and tyranny, and now, with her tired swollen legs just about able to hold her up, she was enjoying the feeling that all those historical efforts had been worth it. Peoples of many beliefs, ethnic origins and cultures had all come together to celebrate the oneness - the singularity - of being British, in a way that could offend nobody, while making this ex-pat glow and hum with love of life.
Finally her eyes met mine and we smiled at each other, sharing a truly knowing magical moment. The longer we looked at each other, the deeper we smiled. Not only was such an invasion of privacy and personal space the exact opposite of usual Londoner behaviour, but there was, I’m sure, a tremendous bonding going on in those brief seconds. I knew that she knew why I was smiling, and she was aware that I could see the same emotions in her face.
We were both proud and happy.
It’s not often I get to say that I’m proud to be British, but for those few precious moments on that tube train, all was right with the world. For 16 unique days, the flags were a force of good.
Monday 20 August 2012
Two weeks ago I was at my friend The Goat’s 65th birthday party in Clifden, and as Stretch tuned up his guitar with a few bars of Pink Floyd, I realised that it had been 20 years since I first walked into Terry’s pub and watched these boys play… (cue wavy screen and diddydiddlydiddly harp music…)
It’s 9th April 1992, and the Conservatives have won their fourth consecutive English General Election. I’ve just finished writing a novel, feel the British public deserve their Tory fate, walk into a travel agents and ask for the cheapest one-way ticket out of the country. £39 flies me to to Malaga and then I hitch, looking for a new home.
Saturday August 1st, I step off the French ferry from Roscoff onto Irish soil for the first time. Over the previous 20 years I’ve been around the planet a couple of times, but never visited the country next door. I have neither friends nor family here, no addresses, a clean sheet, which feels perfect. I’ve run out of countries, so Ireland’s going to be my home. Flipping on the TV in a Cork City B&B, I watch the Galway Races.
After cold calling for jobs in Cork I head to Kinsale, work split shifts as a kitchen porter while living in a hostel, go mad and flee to Galway, where I fall deeply in love with Connemara. I find a room to rent in Salthill. It’s 24 hour party people, Crusties and lost souls such as myself.
One month later I have this colyoom and a FAS course working as a youth worker in the Rahoon Flats. Escaping the other blow-ins I meet the mightiest crew of local lads in the shape of Blitz, The Body and Whispering Blue, but exhausted by the craic, I plot my escape from Galway.
May 1994 sees me loading all my worldlies into the back of my transit van and driving off to the first house I’ve ever lived in alone. Off the road between Ballyconneely and Slyne Head, Bunowen is bliss. I walk and write another novel and walk more and write six columns under six different names and then fall in love and move to America to be married.
Four years later I return to Galway, failed and lost, to be rescued by old friends who offer me a room to rent in their house in the Claddagh. The good people of this noble rag offer me back this colyoom, for which I am truly grateful.
Evidently I’d had to leave my home to realise that, after a lifetime’s search, I’d already found it in the West of Ireland. Whiskey and mayhem ensue between Taylor’s Bar and Harriet’s Nimmo’s, but I keep it together enough to open and run a charity shop for Age Action, write minority sports interviews for the Irish Examiner and plot my escape from Galway.
The Snapper serves me at Nimmo’s and my life once more becomes a C&W song: “Just when luuuuurvve’s a million miles from my mii-iind, she smiles and pours me a glass of wii-ii-iine.”
In March 2001, I move to a beautiful farmhouse outside Killala, Co. Mayo, but am then trapped indoors by the Foot and Mouth epidemic. I’m writing this colyoom and Diary of a Blow-In, a column for the Irish Examiner, and selling bags of features to the Examiner and the Irish Post in London, but I’m such an emotional wreck from my failed marriage, I can’t write fiction.
My first two years in that house are exceptionally happy. North Mayo is Ireland’s best kept secret, with virgin white sand beaches and the most excellent bunch of people, pleased to have me in their midst.
By my third year in Killala I realise that no locals ever visit my house. Scenting the first whiffs of loneliness, I start to plot my escape to Galway. Ironically, the entire village arrives at my house to throw me a surprise leaving party. Truly wonderful, if only they'd visited earlier...
Eventually I find a one bedroom house in Salthill and get a job as a youth worker in Ballybane. My boss is so brilliant at his work, I learn as much about myself as the teenagers with whom I’m working.
The Snapper and I move into a new house together. Sadly I leave my job, as I’m spending so much time in England with my chronically unwell father. I’m finally getting to grips with the fourth novel, and then my father dies and the Snapper and I are married two weeks later. With the help of friends we throw a wedding bash at Massimo's that blows us and half of Galway away; truly a celebration of life.
The Celtic Tiger dies, the freelance market dries up, and this colyoom is cancelled in 2009. I go through a deeply dark year with no income and no dole, forced to spend my father’s inheritance just to buy the groceries, which breaks my heart.
I work crazy hours trying to earn money and when our families buy us a holiday, I end up in a French hospital with a massive panic attack. Time to learn that I’m not invulnerable. At Public School they told us we were worthless pieces of scum and exceptionally gifted leaders of men, which screwed me and most of my friends up for life, but now I know: showing weakness is allowed.
I sell a couple of features to the Irish Times, but columns are rare as sunny Galway summers. The Snapper and I hunker down with the rest of the nation, moving out to a lovely house, half an hour from Galway.
At last I don’t have to plot an escape, because now I have both country and city. A couple of months later this noble rag offers me back this colyoom. Hoorah.
This is a very Happy Anniversary! Thank you, the West Of Ireland! Here’s to the next 20!
We drink to life - L'Chaim!
Tuesday 14 August 2012
This Sunday I’ll be watching FA Cup Winners and Champions of Europe Chelsea play Premiership Champions Manchester City, in the ceremonial season opener, the Community Shield.
Yes, it‘s all about to start again, and as each big game comes along, a part of my mind will wander off to remember my Dad.
When a parent dies after a long slow decline, your mind races around trying to find memories of them that don’t correspond to the ailing ageing person you just lost.
When my Dad died in 2008, my family and I found it difficult to recall how he had looked and behaved in his youthful healthy years, but one memory came to my mind and has stayed there ever since.
In some ways it’s more a memory of my childhood, but the fact that it has stayed with me for 43 years shows why we shouldn’t underestimate the influence that football has in parental bonding.
It was 1969, and a very excited Charlie Adley was bouncing up and down on his bed. Today was the day that Dad was taking me to Stamford Bridge for the very first time. We were going to see Chelsea play Sunderland, just me and my Dad, and as he walked into the bedroom he smiled excitedly and said
“Your namesake is playing today!”
We humans are funny buggers, aren’t we! The excitement I felt as a 9 year-old was so severely tempered by the embarrassment of not knowing what ‘namesake’ meant, especially at a moment when I really didn’t want to deaden our mutual excitement, that I remember it now, 43 years later. Thankfully, my Dad respected anyone who wanted to learn, so I was not too afraid to ask:
“What’s a namesake?”
“A namesake is someone with the same name as you, so my favourite player, Charlie Cooke, is your namesake!”
Off we went to the game to watch Charlie Cooke’s silky skills as he dribbled the ball up the wing, and over the next 6 years my Dad and I went to all the games we could together, including 2 cup finals at Wembley.
Without a doubt those Saturday afternoons were the most powerfully important times I spent with my Dad. Through our shared love of football, Chelsea and each other, we built a strong relationship that lives to this day, even though he is just a memory now.
Sure, just a memory.
That’s why I’m sitting here choking back the tears as I write.
So it was with delight and a thrill of pure excitement that early on a Sunday morning last year I drove across the city to Mervue United’s excellent facilities, to interview Charlie Cooke, who had come to Galway as part of his Coerver Coaching duties.
Exhibiting a mop of grey hair, a ton of enthusiasm and an undying love for the game, Charlie Cooke was working with young local lads in the training cages. He ran and shouted and laughed and ran some more, teaching his many and varied skills and deep understanding of the game to this decade’s young generation.
According to his assistant, I was meant to interview him during his lunch break, but there had been a breakdown of communications. He knew neither about me nor the interview, yet still he remained polite and patient.
So it was that instead of a relaxed half an hour in which I could ask him all my prepared questions, I had only 10 minutes to chat with the man while he ate his lunch. Abandoning the idea of a proper interview, I took the opportunity to ask him to sign a couple of old Chelsea Programmes from games that I’d seen him play in, and managed to slip under his nose a sheet on which I’d prepared my top all-time Chelsea XI, because yes indeed, very sad, but this is the kind of thing football fans do when a little starstruck.
Perusing the teamsheet, he traced his fingers from player to player, considered his thoughts for a few moments and then declared in utterly dismissive terms:
“That’s bullshit, that is!”
We both laughed, but feeling rather like that excited little nine year-old Charlie, I didn't dare to ask him why he though my choices were ‘bullshit’. This was the man who played years of beautifully slick and exciting football for Chelsea. He helped us win the FA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup back in the 1970s, and more to the point, he was my Dad’s footballing hero.
My hero’s hero.
So if he thought my team was rubbish, it was rubbish. End of.
Watching the great man head off to coach another session, I wondered how many of today’s Premiership stars would turn out early on a Sunday morning to train young’uns, and shocked myself by deciding that actually, the game is not in such bad shape.
Slagging off today’s crop of overpaid over-pampered out-of-touch-with-reality players is so easy, it’s not much of a sport, but you can’t blame young lads for chasing £200,000 a week, and although today’s Prima Donnas fall over and writhe in pain as soon as you so much as look at them, several of the Premiership’s current crop of players have opened training academies in Third World countries, into which they pour their pay, passion and performance skills.
We all need heroes, but far too often the reality of the person falls far short of our image of them. Meeting Charlie Cooke was far from an anticlimax. It was an absolute pleasure. Dad would have loved the opportunity, so I did it for him.
From what I saw I can thoroughly recommend Coerver Coaching Youth Diploma, the purpose of which is to give attendees, whether a professional academy coach, junior coach, teacher, or parent, a greater understanding of how to plan and deliver more effective coaching sessions.Those interested should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday 6 August 2012
We are very lucky in the West of Ireland to have so many family-owned businesses on our high streets. We have bakers and butchers and greengrocers and fishmongers still, while in England they are all but a thing of the past.
Trouble is, we’re terrible at using them. Supermarkets make life so easy, and as the independent retailers close by the dozen, we puff and whoosh and say ‘Isn’t it terrible to see that shop close down?’
My butcher lays out his wares so appealingly, has time for a chat, knows my name, and is passionate about his meat, which he butchers and hangs himself. While his prices are similar to the supermarket, he’s fond of throwing in a goodwill freebie.
But he’s not sure if his business will survive. If it fails it won’t be down to his lack of effort or expertise, but not everyone is as dedicated to pleasing their customers.
I’m amazed how little thought some of our local businesses put into building customer loyalty. Having grown up in a family that always did and still does work in retail, I know how the hight street works: customers are fickle unfaithful beasts, always looking for that little bit more; that touch of class; that special offer or smile of recognition. We choose a fifteen yard walk from the car park to the supermarket over a three minute walk to the butchers shop.
I want to enjoy using small local businesses, but I’m no better at it than any of you.
One of the first things I do when I move home is choose my new café. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about trying to find the perfect blend of bean bags, biscotti and Javanese beans from a south-facing slope.
No, your colyoomist is not a man for hanging around in mocha frappaccino land with the wonderful wi-fi folk. When I say ‘café’ I really mean ‘caff’, as in greasy spoon, as in a copy of the Daily Mirror read from the back pages forwards on a Saturday morning, ideally during the soccer season. I want a heaving assortment of porky products and 2 fresh fried eggs, toast and marmalade, and a pot of strong tea, delivered with a smile.
If you can supply that, I will reward your efforts by coming to your caff every week.
My first breakfast in my new village caff proved excellent. It was a bit pricey, coming in at eleven quid with the euro tip, but I was happy to pay the extra, because the bloke was friendly.
Even better, the following week he remembered my order, which sealed the deal. Lovely to be recognised for the right reasons, and to feel a little bit special on my day off.
Sadly the third week, yer man wasn’t there and a very stressed server gave out to me, saying the place didn’t really open until 10 and I was too early.
I’d eaten there at 9.30 the previous 2 weeks, but really I want my breakfast caff to open at 9 at the latest, and I certainly didn’t feel like being guilt-tripped about my tiny but significant little treat.
Still, I cut yer one some slack. Everyone’s entitled to a bad day.
The next week the server gave out again and all of a sudden paying that little bit more than everywhere else started to feel less fun.
Dammit, so this was not going to be my caff after all. The following Saturday I headed off to the nearby town, where I found a pub that opens at 8, which serves a sound yet unremarkable breakfast for 2 quid less than the caff in the village.
‘That’ll do!’ I said to myself, but the following week, I spotted another caff in the town. To be fair, I think this place would call itself a café, because beside the ingredients on the menu, they’ve printed their history, where they came from, what little piggy had for dinner before he was cruelly slaughtered for my digestive delight, so I popped in, expecting a right royal feast.
The moment I sat down the only waitress in the place walked out the front door, disappearing into the morning rain, leaving me bombarded by 2 different radios blaring a cacophonous duet.
I sat alone in the place for 20 minutes, and then she returned, and finally delivered me the cup of tea she should have brought me an age before.
When my breakfast finally arrived, the eggs were burned and the locally-sourced organically macrobiotically biodynamically chemical-free ingredients were soaked in so much oil I alerted Greenpeace that a slick had been sighted near Galway.
So now I’m a breakfast regular at the pub. Why? Because the waitress there is a delight. She smiles and chats just a little, but not too much. She makes me feel very welcome, and that, rather than a lecture about opening times, is all it takes to win me over.
Sometimes in their wisdom local businesses make it impossible for us to give them our money. Last Sunday at 11 am I drove to my favourite garden centre, only to find that it doesn't open until 1 o’clock on Sundays.
There were three cars in front of me, lost customers all staring open-mouthed at the locked gates. How many of us were going to be arsed to hang around for 2 hours? Why oh why were they closed? Call me crazy, but if I ran a garden centre I think I might open at 10 on Sundays in midsummer.
All I wanted was to invest my cash in a business run by locals for locals. I ended up taking my euros to multinational B&Q, which was of course open, yet I felt sad.
Why don’t local businesses understand my completely unexceptional needs? I want breakfast at 9.30 on a Saturday and I want to do gardening on Sunday mornings.
Right now the small businesses of Ireland really need loyal customers, so please, consider your customers a little, eh?