Monday 28 January 2013

It’s time for my Organic Galway Ramble #4,365!

As regular colyoomistas will know, I’m a strangely conflicted type of bloke. The lucky owner of a full range of social skills hewn, sanded down and polished up during years spent hitch-hiking around the planet, I can talk to and get on with anybody from any country, social stratum and culture.  

Thing is, I don’t really like to. Essentially I’m a reformed loner. Living on my own in west Connemara and north Mayo for several years, I settled into a silent life of walking, work and talking to animals. If it wasn’t for my need to watch Chelsea games I’d never have left the house.

Thankfully I was blessed in both houses with good friends to visit nearby, god love ‘em, preservers of my sanity, but inasmuch as I loved that life, I knew that it wasn’t good for me.
Whether you call it OCD or control freakery or just another scribbler going stir crazy, I started to behave obsessively:

My plate.
My knife and fork.
This goes there and nowhere else.

Not healthy at all, but thankfully from the inside I was able to recognise that it was a bit of a dark one-way street, so I returned to the city and engaged the human race once more.

Now I have the best of both worlds, with rural solitude during my working walking day and the Snapper for company in the evening. Her presence encourages me to behave as an almost fully-formed human, but truth be told, I get away with murder. Maybe it’s one of the benefits of married life: as mutual comfort levels increase and personal standards plunge into decline, I regress into slobdom.

Social skills are like all others; they require practice. So in an effort to polish up my personality, I head into town for one of my Organic Galway Rambles.

Unlike sane and sensible people, the two ingredients required for my ideal night out are a lack of people around town and, as a self-appointed honorary Galwegian, an absolute absence of firm arrangements.

Heading across Wolfe Tone bridge, chin down into the freezing north-easterly wind, I head up into Quay Street. The blackened glistening cobbles echo the utter emptiness of Galway’s social heart. The early night air is sodden with sideways rain, while the wind is whipping around my gonads like spaghetti around a spoon.

Lovely! Perfect! A freezing cold lashing-down Tuesday evening in January. It has been too long. 
Welcome home, Charlie Adley!

My anti-social ingredients increase the likelihood that there will be barstools available everywhere. Nothing worse than having to sit at a table on your own. Let me stare at the optics and space out.

But first, as ever, a feast of fish and peas in McDonaghs. Nothing else better sets me on my way mentally, physically, spiritually prepared for anything.

Belly warm and lined, I slip onto a barstool in the front bar of the Quays, where three others are sat, having a chat. A basket of hot sausages and goujons appears. The craic is quiet and mighty all at once. A late Christmas whiskey arrives in front of me, which tastes all the sweeter, because somehow the barman knew my name.

Without doubt I should stay here, chipping into the others’ conversation every now and then. There are tales of Sean McDonagh’s days, which ended just before I arrived in Galway. A welcome dip into local history and personality.

The old front bar feels comfy and civilised, without being conformist. But my arse wants to sit on another stool. My legs want to ramble and like a lost character from the Wizard of Oz, my heart wants to prove to itself that it is truly human.

My mistake.

Somebody who shall remain nameless (truth be told I can’t remember who it was, but I’d like to find out because I’d give ‘em a piece of my mind!) had said to me that a pub just away from the city centre was a bit like Taylor’s Bar. Apparently all the old Taylor’s crew went down there. I should really check it out, he said.

So I plough through the rain and walk into the empty pub, where the barman and a female companion are sitting on barstools, drinking and chatting. One other soul drinks at the far end of the bar, but as soon as my backside hits the barstool furthest from him, he drains his drink, ups and leaves.

Had he been waiting for someone to come and save him, and if so, from what?

Sitting sipping my whiskey, trying neither to look nor listen, my eyes and ears are unfortunately drawn to the only life in the place. The barman and his companion appear to be re-enacting a really bad play about Ireland in the 1950s. You know the sort. The curtain rises and as soon as you see the set, you wish you’d never left the house.

The play I’m both appearing in and simultaneously watching would be acted out on that most-dreaded set of Irish theatre: an Irish country kitchen, circa 1950something, with a bottle of Jameson on the table, doubtless a brother coming home from America, a drunken stumbling man and a drunken agitated woman.

The night is young and I don’t want to skull my whiskey because there’s yet a lot of drinking to be done, but every cell in my voluminous body wants to get the hell away from this pair. Their speech is unintelligible. I watch them flirt with each other and stumble and mumble as the rain lashes the window and the wind swirls around the pub.

It’s all too miserable.

I drain my glass and flee, free, free at last, back to the town centre. In my quest for real human beings I’d somehow found a desperate mockery of fiction. As the Snapper pointed out, if I’d wanted pub theatre, I’d have been better off going to the Kings Head for one of their lunchtime shows!

Friday 25 January 2013

Is there such a thing as a suburban fox?

Photo: Andrew Downes

This is the full feature that appears in edited form in today's Irish Examiner:

After washing up the dishes and wiping down the kitchen surfaces, I feel a sad need to reassert an idea of manhood.

Stepping outside the back door, I inhale deeply of the cold sweet country air, the deep darkness of the night and the aspirant silence of winter.

Wandering off to nowhere in particular in the garden, I scent my territory as only a man can, and enjoy feeling a bit primal for a minute or two.

Evidently not primal enough, because the next morning as I wander the garden I notice a fresh fox pooh laid directly over the spot where I scented the night before. 

And so it begins. Wherever I scent, the fox poohs on top. I moved in to the house last March and by June there’s a pile of tiny baby fox poohs alongside the regular contribution from Himself. Or Herself? I’ve no idea. If there are cubs then you’d think it must be a vixen, but to me he feels like a male, maybe because his territorial behaviour makes me feel empathic towards him. 

He has his patch all to himself for years, and then before you can say ‘blow-in’ there’s another bloke, leaving scents all over the place. He’s not having it. Not at all. Listen human, this just isn’t going to happen. So he drops his turd on my scent, telling me in no uncertain terms that I am on his patch. And that’s the order of things.

I’ve been able to watch him really close up, and he looks like a male. About a month ago I stepped out of the house an hour after dusk. Closing the door behind me with my usual enthusiasm I crunched quickly over the gravel driveway and then froze in my tracks. The exterior light was on, illuminating a large and completely oblivious fox on the front lawn. He didn’t give a damn. I’d slammed the door and made a right racket storming along the drive, but he hadn’t even bothered to lift his nose from the grass. Running in huge figures of 8 he tracked something that was running at high speed and then he dipped, ate it and wandered about. 

Being a friendly type of idiot, I softly whispered to him, as if that might help start peace talks over our border issues. He was magnificent, almost a metre long with a long sunburst brush to match. Relaxed and cool as butterscotch sundaes, he just pootled around, as disinterested in me as I was captivated by him.

There have been more similar encounters, which helped to build a fictional notion within me that we were building some kind of relationship, even if on the most base level.

Just over the stone wall is a farmyard with ducks, geese, and chickens running around, yet I’ve heard of no fowl killed by this fox. One late evening last midsummer, there was an almighty kerfuffle in the woods behind the house. The local neighbourhood pheasant hen was desperately trying to protect her chicks from a predator, which I could only imagine was Himself. A few weeks later I saw Madame pheasant strolling about accompanied by nine healthy leggy fluff balls. 

So he doesn't eat chicks or chickens, ducks or geese. Maybe he’s alright, this fox.

Would that it were so. 

Pulled into the side of the house for the winter is my huge rosemary plant, newly ensconced in a half tub container, alongside a smaller lavender plant in a terracotta pot. Being a lazy git who hasn’t made it to the garden centre, I have no special fleece to protect my tender and much-loved plants from frost. Instead I throw an old Oxfam quasi-Peruvian rug over them on very cold nights.

That proves adequate until the morning I step outside the back door to find the rug lying in a heap in the middle of lawn. There had been no wind at all that night, and anyway, it would need a gale to lift that rug. 

Looking closer, I can see from the disruption to the frosty dew on the grass that the rug has been dragged along and dumped. 

There’s not many wild creatures in rural Ireland that could do that, and even fewer who’d want to.

My protective instincts tell me that himself is now going to war with me, via my plants. He couldn’t have picked a more sensitive spot. Yes I know it’s a ridiculous notion, but it fits. 

Well fox, you can mess with me but you don’t muck around with my plants. You’ve got the whole countryside to deal with.

But has he? When I watch him on the lawn, he knows I’m there looking at him, but he doesn’t care. I’d expect those high levels of confidence from an urban fox, but this is a rural area.  

Well, it is but it isn’t. Yes, it’s mostly farmland but there has been a plethora of new houses built around here in the last 20 years. Fox ranges must have shrunk dramatically. 

So if he’s neither a rural fox nor an urban fox, does he become a suburban fox?

Makes me shudder to call this area suburban. It couldn’t be more beautiful, so very different to the outer London suburbs that I grew up in, or the anodyne city-less suburbs that sprawl across the USA. But the population which was once pure farmer is now shared with those who drive half an hour to work in the city, so while being so rural that one can see the Milky Way, it is also suburban.

Maybe the fox is too.

Monday 21 January 2013

Why is a man’s car his faithful companion?


Oh look, I’ve got a metallic silver car that’s invisible in fog, so I know what I’ll do. When it’s really foggy, I won’t drive with my lights on. All you others drivers have lit headlights, so why should I? 

Even better, if I can find a red car, a really safe colour which stands out, then I’ll just drive really close to their rear bumper. That way I can feed off the safety of their car colour and their fog lights, while still posing a threat to my safety, theirs and everyone else’s.

I’d much rather save my fab fog lights for a night when the air is clear, so that I can completely dazzle and harass other drivers with the brilliance of my lights. If I get the angle just right, they’ll be completely blinded when they look in their rear view mirror!

Is it arrogance or pure idiocy that affects the minds of some Irish drivers? You’re much more safety-conscious than you used to be. For rainclouds, dusk and dawn your headlights are lit, dipped and lovely. But for a reason I cannot fathom, when the fog comes down, there’s a high percentage of you that decide to drive blind.

No, you’re not blind (I hope!) but we cannot see you. Metallic silver is a popular yet fantastically dangerous car colour, which makes me wonder at the wisdom of recently selling my much beloved Shiny Car, (a bright red Toyota Corolla), and purchasing a metallic silver Suzuki Liana.

The new car’s called Bennett, after my much-missed friend Lee-Ann, who many years ago appeared in this colyoom as Artist In Blue Towel. So what’s the deal with giving my cars names? Isn’t it a bit twee and cutie pie and not very male at all?

Well, ironically, the habit started when I was a teenager, driven by unreconstructed male behaviours. In every imaginable way, I was driven by motor bikes. I rode them, dreamed of them, and hung around with a pack of bikers who all gave names to their choppers (and their bikes, arf!).

So when at the age of 17 I bought my first car, it seemed natural to give it a name. And lo, verily, its name sung out from its registration plate: BKX 458F. Box! It had to be called Box, and it was a box. 
A lime green mini van (not the modern people carrier, this was 1977!) it was a small square van-car, which I promptly decked out with shagpile carpet, cushions and wallpaper in the back, for the sole purpose of impressing the birds.

What proved less impressive to the birds was that I didn’t know there was a hole half way up the petrol tank, so when filled with petrol, the contents of the top half of the tank spilled out onto the road below.

The ladies in the back, excited to accept my offer of a lift to the pub,were less enthralled when they could barely breathe through the toxic fumes, while I screamed at them to please please refrain from lighting that ciggie, ‘cos it’ll blow us all to kingdom come!

Box was followed by a dark green long and bulbous Vauxhall Viva Estate (HB SL90, since you ask, guv’nor) which bore an uncanny resemblance to Thunderbird 2, so rather imaginatively I called it TB2, a choice which proved perfect when I traded it in for a smaller pale blue Vauxhall Viva saloon, which naturally had to be called TB1.

Around this time I was temping as a caretaker/driver in an import-export company. What I great gig! Most days I was given a sparkly Daimler and sent off to drive around London to pick up clients from Heathrow Airport.

That beautiful car whetted my appetite for driving fine motors, which later became available to me in the form of company cars. From my very first ‘new’ Escort as a lowly sales rep in 1981, I rose up the corporate ranks until two years later I was a right little marketing whizz-kid. Then I had use of a range of luxury motors including Audis 80 and 100, a Ford Granada and an Alfa Romeo. Company cars were fantastic. I was given a petrol agency card, set loose on the road, and I loved it.

But I hated my job, so I left, and working as a scribbler ever since, my cars have been second hand. Long-suffering Colyoomistas might recall Betsy the Blue Bubble, a Mazda in which I drove to all four corners of this island, and then Shiny Car, whose big ends were finally going. So I invested in Bennett, who despite already having a name as yet displays no personality.

Why bother to anthropomorphise my cars? Why refer to lumps of metal as if they have emotions? For want of a better expression, it feels like a relationship between me and my steed.

Sometimes these strange emotions can be expressed at very inopportune times. Back when I was driving TB2, I was entangled in a platonic love affair with a lass whose father was not a big fan of my presence.

She lived in a posh suburb, in a detached house up a sloping driveway. Her dad had just spent a fortune laying his drive with the latest trendy purple tarmac. One night as I pulled in to pick her up, TB2’s engine decided to die rather spectacularly, vomiting a sump full of foul engine oil all over his driveway.

While her dad wailed as a sizeable slick of black oil ran down his purple hill, all I could do was stand bereft, softly intoning

“TB2 gone. TB2 dead. TB2 gone.”

He may have lost a load of dosh, but I’d lost a friend.

Anyway, now that I’ve sold my safe red car and bought a metallic silver one, I must remember to leave my lights off in the fog, so I can be invisible.

Monday 14 January 2013

Corporations keep us customers from their Camelots!

Every single one of you has stood alone and angry, a complaint stoking the fires of rage in your soul, as you struggle to approach the giant corporation or massive institution, henceforth collectively known as ‘Monoliths’.

We are sold the lie that Capitalism brings choice which is good for consumers. The truth we deal with every day is that while the brands and logos might differ, the way we are treated is uniform and universal: with contempt.

On September 15th last year I dropped off my rental car to the Hertz facility in Faro Airport, Portugal. The 10 day rental wasn’t cheap, and on arrival we’d been informed that if we wanted to drive on the motorway at all, we had to pay for the computery toll thingy in the car.

Being hit up for this invisible extra was only mildly irritating at the time, and as we sped along the motorway towards our rented housheen, I smiled each time the little gadget went beep.

“Probably paid for itself already!” I said to the Snapper, quite reasonably imagining that the 18-plus extra quid we’d just paid was covering the cost of the toll.

Then came the credit card bill, showing a charge for €18.45 on the 18th September, which must have been the toll fee. We’d only used the motorway to get to and from our destination, so for 8 days of the 10 we’d paid no toll at all. So what were these other charges?

On September 25th I’d been charged €2.70 by Hertz Portugal, and on October 5th another €2.70 by Hertz Portugal and €11.85 by Hertz Ireland.

A shot of fear ran through me. My credit card number was doing the rounds of the Hertz Corporation, and while the amounts were tiny, the situation was mental. I figured that the two €2.70s were probably my card being wrongly charged for somebody else using the same car, but the Hertz Ireland charge was so wrong it was terrifying.

Unable to find any customer service phone number, I sent an irate email to Hertz’s online help service. Did I need to cancel my credit card? What the hell was going on?  The Monoliths we deal with take the time and trouble to tell us that calls are monitored, so it’s only fair that as a courtesy, I always mention that very possibly I’ll be writing about this in my newspaper column.

The auto-reply email guaranteed me a response in ten days. I’m still waiting, and the only reason I have a story to tell you is that I’m one persistent mad-arsed fucker when wronged.

To be honest, way beyond my desire for refunds and explanations, a sense of duty comes over me: I’m doing it for all you others, who have neither the time nor the energy to take on the Monoliths. The task is made easier by the fact that I’m working on a story, as well as trying to identify the thieving tykes that have been robbing my credit card.

As we all know to our cost, trying to find real humans to speak to at Head Offices impossibly removed from customers is the 21st century Grail. The Monoliths protect themselves in communicatory Camelots, pouring buckets of boiling contempt over their walls at their pathetic customers, struggling to be heard in their quest for justice. To divert us they have created international firewalls called Call Centres that exist only to remove the filthy customer as far from the glitzy corridors of power as possible.

I started making phone calls, always polite, invariably thwarted, until my problem became less that I had lost money and more that the story was going nowhere.

As I repeatedly told an endless line of enthusiastic and willing people who successively failed to help me, a furious punter does not a great story make. Angry copy only amuses readers for a little while. Counterbalance is king.

What I needed from Hertz was an explanation, an apology and a statement, so that I’d be able to write a balanced account of events.

My problem was that as I was steered this way and sent from that department to this customer service person and back, Hertz were just making things worse for themselves.

Finally, having admitted that they had no idea why or how the Hertz Ireland charge was made against me, they offered to refund me that money

“… as a gesture of (sic) a goodwill.”

Having robbed me, repeatedly failing to explain how or why it had happened, and nowhere near convincing me it wouldn't happen again, their best tactic was to imply I was making it up?

After months of idly simmering ire, my anger shot up to a steaming rolling boil. I finally wrote a long and reasoned account of the entire matter, explaining that this was their last chance. If they couldn't deal with it in any way better, I’d just write the story as a one-sided rant.

I received an email from Hertz’s Director of Global HR Communications and International Public Relations. She explained, apologised and came up with almost satisfactory solutions. I’ll never buy her guff about the toll charges, because it made no sense. She promised an upgrade of membership and compensatory vouchers. She admitted that the Hertz Ireland charge was a mistake.

All amounts have been refunded, but I’m still waiting for that upgraded membership card and those vouchers.

Still, I live in hope.

It is ridiculous that we customers have to work so hard to attain our basic consumer rights. It’s also absurd that rather than being able to deal with this fairly pedestrian matter at customer service level, a Director had to deal with it herself. My desire was not to trouble the highest tiers of the Monolith, but simply to attain what must be the absolute lowest echelon of expectation as a customer: the right not to be robbed.

Monday 7 January 2013

Is having more time always a good thing?

 “Press 1 for sales, 2 for account enquiries, 3 for technical support, 4 If you need more time, 5 if -”
I can’t tell you what 5 is for, because my mind has stumbled and fallen headlong in love with 4.

Press 4 if you need more time.

Wow. How the hell do they do that? More to the point, how does the ‘more’ time come? Does it arrive as an extra hour on a pre-appointed day? Maybe it just sneakily drifts into your life, adding a few seconds here to a minute there. But no, that wouldn’t work. If you’ve got 65 minutes in a random hidden hour, you’re either going to burn the dinner or miss the train.

Maybe it’s more profound. Perchance by pressing 4 I might start to move through the universe at a slightly different speed. To have more time, would I need to move more slowly or more quickly? Have to admit, I get a bit confused when the cameramen on the tele explain how they achieved these incredibly slow motion shots of orca chowing down on baby seals by using super-fast film.

If I moved faster then I’d be travelling through more time than you, but it’d feel like I was losing time not gaining it. So if they’re going to deliver their promise that I’ll have more time, I need to be trudging through the universe at a slightly slower speed than everyone else. That way each moment would seem longer as I experience it.

What the bloomin' 'eck am I on about? Of course I know they don’t mean that by pressing 4 I’ll have more time. You must have thought I'd finally walked backwards through the fruit loop. How on earth could the pressing of a single button change my relationship with the entire history of the universe?

Unless … unless that button has the power of a religious experience. Now that’s more likely! If you can attain eternal life by doing something as simple as bowing to a suitable deity, there’s no reason I can see why pressing 4 might not offer something similar. Yeh, I’m going with that. Pressing 4 is far too significant an action to offer anything as trivial as a few extra minutes shoved into a moment.

No, clearly what they mean by asking ‘Do you need more time?’ is whether you feel you’ll have enough time shuffling around this mortal coil to fulfil your true destiny.

Well, we could all do with a bit more time. Couldn’t we?

To be honest, no. Personally speaking I’m not a great fan of extending our lifespans ad infinitum. For the last couple of years of his life, my dad completely lost his joy of life. It was painful to watch him clinging on for no other reason than his fear of the alternative. Modern medical science is capable of performing what in biblical times would have been considered miracles. We can bring people back from the dead. We can cure blindness and enable the lame to walk.

But sometimes, it’s just your time to go, and I hope that when mine comes, I’m allowed to drift lethewards in peace.

Not planning on it anytime soon though, because right now I’m loving living, and time is, as always, playing a massive role in my peace of mind and the happiness I’m feeling.

With the house to myself by 7:50 am, I've all the time that fills a long country day. Thankfully I love time and I love my work, so there’s no conflict there. Apart from relatively tedious domestic duties, there’s plenty of time to scribble nonsense; time to walk; time to stare into space.

Although it’s one of my favourite activities, I used to feel slightly guilty about the staring into space stuff, until l heard the brilliant writer Philip Pullman being interviewed on a high-fallutin’ BBC Radio 4 arts programme. When asked about his working day he replied:

“I just stare out of the window.”
“And then you write?”
“No, I just stare out of the window.”

When I heard that I exclaimed out loud: “Thank you so much!”, remembering how years before I’d asked my friend Yoda to teach me how to meditate.

“You're kidding me!" he replied, "There’s nothing I can teach you about meditating, mate. We’ve sat in this kitchen together day in day out for months, with you staring out of that window, lost, gone, tuned in and turned off all at once. You’re a Master meditator, mate.”

“Cor! Thanks! And to think I never knew!”

But I did know, if only I’d thought about it. As a child I’d become engrossed staring at a tiny clump of muddy grass for ages, feeling that somehow all life lay therein.

As the song says, ‘You never know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone!’ so it wasn’t until I lived in the USA that I discovered how much I needed time.

From having a glut of time living in Connemara, I was transported to an existence in California which offered no time. Every minute was taken. With no time to assimilate all the new things I was experiencing, and no time to catch up with myself, I gradually lost my mind over a period of 4 years.

Press 4 if you need more time.

Now I have the time to stand on my front step and watch the winter sunsets of the West of Ireland. So different to their splendid summer cousins, winter sunsets are no less spectacular.

In fact, I prefer them. Brash beetroot and crimson shafts of light bursting through pitch black rainclouds; the air calm; cows calling each other in the distance.

I stand there lost in wonder, until l realise I’m bloomin’ freezing.

Time to light the fire.

Do I need more time? Not right now.

I’ve all the time I need, I’m delighted to say.
Someone else can press 4.