Monday 25 March 2013

Galway has a battle between bulbs and brains!

We are a magnificent species. Evolving from the primordial soup to become sentient beings with flare, imagination, spirit and initiative, we’ve rid ourselves of all predators but each other. Yes, great white sharks and tigers can eat us, but they’re not going to before next Tuesday.

Lacking a predator, we take on each other. As children we learn to beat up our brothers and sisters. As adults we go to war and kill each other.

Wars are not just those episodes we see on the news. There are many wars going on, permanently raging on several levels. Each war, in its own way, shows how brilliant and ingenious we are as a species, displaying the manifold methods we’ve dreamt of to screw ourselves up physically, mentally, spiritually and financially.

Each war has its own battles. In fact, there’s a small battle being fought around our lovely city at the moment. This war is between the realms of Order and Freedom, both ancient and noble causes. The battle, which sounds so mundane as to seem almost innocuous, concerns the replacement of roundabouts with traffic lights.

When I told you it sounded mundane I wasn’t kidding, but actually, far from dull, it’s a battle for the way our minds work.

Yesterday I left my mate’s place in Ballybane at 4.30 pm. I needed to drive right across the city, just when schools were emptying and workers were leaving their shifts (because those who today work in the engine rooms of the economy don’t actually have jobs with security and benefits, but mere shifts for which they are made to feel grateful ... don’t get me started!) and out the other side to the Clifden Road.

I know my way around Galway, so I zig-zagged, always aiming to be going the opposite direction to most of the traffic, and sure enough, I barely had to use my brake.

Crossing the river at Quincentennial Bridge, I took the right-hand lane for the roundabout. The left hand lane was packed with Ring Road and city centre traffic, but my side was clear, so I sailed around the roundabout and headed for home.

Hardly the stuff of Pulitzer prizes, but the point is that it felt good. I’d used initiative, knowledge and experience to avoid the endless (what is the collective noun? ‘Frustrations of’?) traffic lights. I’d been able to use my skill and judgement to drive smoothly, quickly and safely where, had there been a red light, I’d just have been stuck in a stagnant queue of traffic, staring at a completely empty junction, but unable to reach it.

I’m beginning to wonder if Geldof and his Rats weren’t spot on with their “Walk Don’t Walk” Rat Trap spittle back in ‘78. 

At what point do we lose everything that makes humans splendid, by simply blindly obeying the rules? Where once a car-free roundabout gave you the chance to sail through and feel human, you’re now sitting in front of a red light that’s forbidding you to drive through a completely empty junction onto an empty road.

Little by little, water through limestone, our free spirits are eroded into canyons of conformity.

It’s too simple an excuse to say this is making mountains out of molehills. It is of course a tiny squirmish (Thanks Sarah Palin!) in the great war between Freedom and Order, but it isn’t insignificant.

Brains are like muscles. They waste away if they’re not used. We need to exercise our spirits, our emotions and our intelligence. We need to get out there and have a go. We need to see and feel less red lights in life, and be awarded more trust and open roads.

Here in Ireland right now our collective self-worth has taken an almighty beating. We’ve been battling away in the background, quietly trying to make an honest living or often merely survive throughout an almighty financial collapse.

Even though there’s not vaguest notion of the public being culpable, we’ve seen our benefits and salaries and wages go to pay a debt we didn't create, to appease people who earn in a day what we dream of earning in a month.

Being forced to pay the debts of the rich doesn’t do much for our self-esteem. Those who govern and sell to us clearly think we’re worthless scum, and even though we know we’re not, there’s that water dripping through our limestone again, dissolving our pride and enthusiasm, alongside our will and desire to express ourselves.

Yet still we’re told we need more traffic lights, more roads, more ways for the people who live west of the city to go to work in the east. Apparently we need a fifth bridge, adorned doubtless with frustrations of traffic lights, and a new ring road.

I drove on London’s orbital M25 motorway the day it first opened, and instantly knew it already needed more than its 6 lanes. Even now, with 8, 10 and sometimes 12 lanes, the M25 is completely jammed. It always will be, because roads create traffic.

Here’s a thought: if so many people live in the west of the city yet work on the east, why not spare the kazillion you’re going to spend on that new bridge and ring road, and invest it in industry on the west side of the city?

That way people in Knocknacarra can work near their homes, saving petrol by eliminating their commute, and more importantly, increasing their leisure time and enriching their lives.

Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the city, the unemployed masses of Doughiska and Ballybane can fill the jobs vacated in the Ballybane and Parkmore industrial estates.

Hey, I think I’m onto something. Move the jobs to the people.

No, that’d never work. If things were done for us that actually improved our lives in any substantial or meaningful ways, it would make us feel far too good about ourselves. We might start gaining confidence and drive through red lights, and that’d never do.

Monday 18 March 2013

Chocolate Trading is dangerous for my mental health!

Haven’t seen me for a while? That’s because for the last three days I’ve been drying my hands. I’m standing in a public toilet, holding my hands under a machine called something like Storm-Eco-Hygi-Dry, which is emitting onto my wet palms a tepid breeze more minuscule than a butterfly’s fart.

I try to keep my hands clean, but it’s no easy task. Having pumped a portion of liquid resembling a minor marsupial’s ejaculate onto my hands from the soap dispenser, I pressed the hot tap in vain, eventually washing the soap off in cold water. Finally, knowing my hands are far from germ-free, I give up and act the boy, drying my hands on my jeans.

As I walk out, I wonder if we haven’t all gone bananas over health and hygiene. I’m no Howard Hughes, but must confess that with the norovirus raging rampant, when visiting hospital loos I wash with hot water and soap, then antiseptic gel, and then, as I leave, wrap my coat sleeve around the door handle that everyone else has used, with all their varying levels of cleanliness.

In UK airports they have hands-free loos. Entry doors have been replaced by twisting hallways. Soap, hot water and strong blasts of warm drying air all turn themselves off and on with impressive efficiency.

Mind you, we are innovative types in the West of Ireland. Before watching a three hour long film at the Galway Omniplex, I visit the Gents, because missing any part of a film is like viewing a portrait with its eyes obscured.

Sometimes in public situations you just can’t get started. So I was very impressed that the good folk of the Omniplex had instslled a motion sensor water jet that serves as some kind of Pavlovian flow accelerator: the sound and vision of gushing works a treat

As society obsesses about clean hands, I’m reminded of what my next-door neighbour used to tell me when I was a little lad: “You have to eat a bag of dirt before you die!”

In a world where people are becoming allergic to everything from peanuts to plastic, it makes sense to keep our immune systems battling away. I have no doubt that today’s super-clean homes contribute more to immune disorders than they benefit our health.

Trouble is, we are bombarded with so much nonsense about health and hygiene, we don’t know if we’re coming or going, so it’s just as well that the Universe made them different colours.

We’re told to eat lots of carbs and then told carbs are terrible for us. We are mammals raised on milk yet now, apparently dairy products are no good for us. Lactose intolerance is on the up, so the food industry has come up with a new kind of milk. I saw it advertised in one of those red-top Sunday tabloid supplements.

“Milk intolerant? Digest this.”

runs the headline on the ad, but in the small print at the bottom of the page they say that this product is

“… not suitable for anyone medically diagnosed with galactosaemia, lactose intolerance, a milk allergy or other milk protein intolerances.”

Do-what guv’nor? Milk intolerant? Digest this, but not if you’re milk intolerant.
A couple of pages further on I hit their Health Page, where they run an article entitled

“Cold and Flu, We’re So Over You!”

which offers the following advice on how best to fight coughs:

“DON’T: spend a fortune on medicines - a recent study by Which? reported that many well-known cough remedies offer little proof to back up their claims.
help the little ones with honey - research has found it to be an effective way for kids with coughs to sleep. Give them 10g manuka honey half an hour before bed. Medibee Manuka honey, £18.99.


No wonder we’re all confused. Don’t spend a fortune on medicines but take a mortgage out to buy a pot of honey?

I refuse to believe that we’re all as dumb as they make us out to be. When you snarf a sausage roll or a slice of chocolate fudge cake, you’re not pretending that you’re eating healthily. We all know pretty damn well that sugar, fat and salt are bad for us, but we’re going to eat them anyway, so my advice is to enjoy yourself. I’m not saying go forth and become morbidly obese, but I do think that it’s counterproductive to worry about eating badly.

Devour the cream cake and the bacon sandwich, revel in your cocktail of self-indulgence and self-loathing, but don’t exist on either. Fearing your food is a pointless and dangerous game.

Mind you, I’m a long way from perfect in such matters. The other day I found myself caught up in a bizarre game of Chocolate Trading, while making a cup of tea.

Carbon Trading is that particularly insane process whereby wealthy heavily-polluting countries pretend they care about the environment by trading their filthy air for ‘clean air’ quotas from poorer, less polluting nations.

Well, Chocolate Trading is much the same, but performed on a domestic level. As the kettle came to the boil I reached for the chocolate digestive biscuits, but remembered how the doctor said that of all the bad things that ever existed, chocolate biscuits topped the league. Crammed with butter, sugar and salt, those chocolate digies were death disguised as little discs of heaven.

‘Hmmm….’ thought I, ‘I’ve got a bar of 70% dark chocolate in the other room. Doesn’t that stuff dilate my veins? Why, it’s almost good for me! If I don’t eat the biscuits I could probably snarf that entire bar and still feel I’d eaten something good!’

Chocolate Trading: digestive biscuits for a whole bar of chocolate and a clean conscience.
Maybe I really am as confused and whackadoodle about health as they say I am.

Monday 11 March 2013

What must you have yet can never use?

 In a (happily) very rare and extremely unwelcome act of censorship, the incredibly innocuous first paragraphs of this week’s Double Vision were cut from the newspaper.

And there was me thinking this country’s attitude to the Church has changed in the last 10 years.
Anyway, here it is in full, and I very much doubt any one of you will feel the slightest bit offended

Insurance: what is it good for? You have to have it, but can never use it. I’ve searched the cosmoverse for anything else that fits the paradigm of insurance, and sadly the only equally vital and simultaneously useless things I can find are the Pope’s plums. 

Usually when people say “With the greatest respect…” they mean the exact opposite, so I hope my devout Catholic colyoomistas will truly believe me when I say that I mean no disrespect to their faith by resorting to such base comparison.

It’s just that when you’re trying to make a point, it helps to illustrate, but insurance dwells in a rare and lonely land.

Without his plums the Pontiff could not be considered a man and therefore could not do his job. But if he ever used them, he’d not be allowed to do his job.

If I don’t have insurance I’m not allowed to drive, yet if I ever use my insurance, my premium goes through the roof, and I can’t afford to drive.

A few years ago a good friend of mine lost all his possessions in a house fire. I was extremely impressed that even as a tenant, he’d insured all the contents of his house.

Inspired, I decided to display some adult behaviour, found a company that would offer me a contents-only policy, and sat back feeling all safe and secure.

During one of the storms a few weeks ago we lost all power to the house for 18 hours. After a sleepless night of torches, rattling roof tiles and crashing hail stones, I felt and looked a lot like the contents of my freezer: mushy and well dodgy, respectively.

Hauling all the spoiled food into a bin bag, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I was insured. I’d been a grown-up and paid good money, so that a minor inconvenience like this needn’t turn into a disaster.

There was about €140 worth of grub in there, so we’re not talking about economic ruin, but doubtless like many of you, these days I’m not in a position to add that figure to any week’s budget without hurting a fair bit.

Tired and grumpy, I knew I needed to call the insurance company pronto, but suspected the whole thing might turn into a hassle. I wobbled off to read the policy manual and felt calmer. Freezer contents were covered to an unlimited amount, and there was no excess to pay.

Exhausted, I tried to put on my happy smiley face and called the insurance company.
After explaining the situation to a woman in the claims department, I asked two questions:

Is claiming for my freezer contents going to be a major hassle?
And if I claim, will that affect my premium?

She told me that no, it shouldn’t be a hassle at all. She didn’t suppose I’d taken photos of the freezer contents?

Forcing down my exhausted emotions as one would if resisting projectile vomit, I told her that no, ha ha, as it happens, ha ha, when I finally abandoned trying to sleep last night, and then found my food all soggy and stinky, it didn’t cross my mind that this squidgy mess of rotting ready meals might look rather natty in the family photo album.

Instead I suggested I’d keep the receipts of all the shopping I’d do, to replace the lost items. How about that, eh? Then there’d be proof that I was out of pocket.

Fine, said she, giving me the Dublin phone number of a claims handler and a claim number. Apparently the claims handler would be the one to advise me as to whether my premium would go up or not.

“Oh and could you please send me a claims form?”
“Of course. It’ll be in the post to you today.”

Thinking it very strange that the insurance company didn’t know about the workings of their own policy, I called the claims handler who said no, he couldn’t help me, because he was a claims handler and didn’t actually work for the insurance company directly. All he could do was look at my claim form, when I’d filled it in.

I could feel his impatient restraint, having to explain the bleedin’ obvious to someone he suspected of being an imbecile.

“Now, what you need to do, Mr Adley,” said he, as if to a 4 year-old child, “is to call the insurance company, do you see? It’s their policy, do you see, so they’re the ones who can advise you about your premium.”

“You’d think so, wouldn't you!” I replied, putting the phone down before bellowing a crude and impressive stream of Germanic expletives into my living room.

Then I called the insurance brokers, from whom I’d actually bought the policy.  At last, a helpful person on the other end of the phone, telling me that yes, unfortunately, if I claimed I’d lose my No Claims Bonus, and my premium would go up. And I’d be back to Year 1 on my No Claims Bonus.

Bloody Nora! I didn’t even know there was a No Claims Bonus on contents insurance. But seeing as how we’re applying the same rules as car insurance, aren’t there certain small claims - like windscreen replacement - that don’t affect the price of the policy?

“No, Mr. Adley. No there aren't. All claims affect the price of the policy.”

“So what you’re saying is that, in effect, by claiming this €140 I’ll make a net loss over the next three years, due to the increases in my premium.”

“Well, Mr. Adley, we’re only the brokers. I suggest you call the insurance company and take that up with them.”

“No, no, I’ll not be calling them again. I’ll wait until the claim forms arrive and then, most probably, just abandon the idea altogether.”

At that point I’d pretty much already decided to drop the matter, a decision that proved wise, as the supposedly-mailed claims forms never even arrived!

Monday 4 March 2013

An Englishman rambling on an Irish ramble!

This morning I walked on melting frost in late winter chill, under early spring blue skies. The higher sun pours scorn on these late season freezes, while pregnant buds struggle to survive.

But they will. They'll survive, as will we all, emerging from the darkness into the light, breathing collective sighs of relief that we made it through.

Even though this cold dry air grips me by the gonads, I’ll take it every time over endless wind and rain. Winter in the West of Ireland offers fantastic colours, moments of perfect silence and festive mayhem, but as the months go by we feel more and more beaten up by the weather.

Hunkered down into our coats, we dip our chins toward the ground, denying ourselves the chance of human contact. We walk hunched, subservient to the storms, like a defeated army in a war with weather.

Having lived in much warmer climes, I’m always surprised how much I love the climate in Connacht. Yes, the rain can bring me down, but then I call it ‘good writing weather’ and it serves me well. Yes, my heart sinks when I see RTE TV’s weather forecaster telling me in July that

“Tomorrow it might even go as high as 20˚C!”
As high as 20? What am I doing living here?

But I know. I know why I’m here. I’m here because I love it. Warmer climes are all very well, but here there are no forest fires. The ground doesn’t suddenly quake under my feet. There might be the odd mudslide and a fair bit of flooding but there aren’t the country-wide catastrophes that exist elsewhere.

For 300 days a year we live with sunshine and showers and temperatures that dwell between 10 and 20˚C. It’s all very moderate, temperate as meteorological types would have it, and that’s fine. When I lived in Northern California not a dribble of rain fell on my village from May to November, and when those first drops finally fell, this mad Englishman was to be seen dancing loopy in the street with joy.

There's truth in what the auld fella on Dominick Street told me many years ago. We were sheltering in a shopfront, watching Galway's notorious sideways rain fly past us up the road, and he turned to me and said

“God’s gift to Ireland, the rain! Without the rain there’d be hotels on every cliff top and not an empty beach to walk.”

A man after my own heart.

Yes I love it here, and today the sun kisses my cheeks with the promise of warmth to come. Turning onto the bog road, my mind drifts naturally to politics. For me, observing Irish politics is like watching a repeat of the English version from 20 years ago. It was painful to live through another construction-driven boom and bust, because I’d seen that deadly cocktail of greed and house prices in Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s.

Frustration rose in me recently as I watched those late night Dail sessions, because I was witnessing a political act that created a cultural change which will serve this country ill.

In the past you used to hide your money under the mattress so that your English overlords could not rob your childrens’ inheritance. Now you’ve swept your debts under the carpet to hide it from your European overlords, forcing your children to live their adult lives in debt.

Sorry, I’m making the grave error of equating the people with their politicians. I am not Margaret Thatcher any more than you are Albert Reynolds. I will not hold you responsible for the wrong-doings of your elected representatives, but I will point my finger at you and accuse you of being predictable.

The only thing I was immediately and absolutely sure of when the death of Fianna Fail was announced after the last general election was that they would most certainly win the next. Just as Thatcher claimed her Conservatives to be, Fianna Fail is surely the natural party of government in this country.

They’ll be back, because you’ll vote for them. Yes you will, because this shower might be just a little bit straighter and slightly less corrupt, but they’re so damned dull. When you Irish are down the pub you don’t want to hang with the guys with their shirt collars tucked inside their v-neck sweaters, sitting quietly at a table, having a mild chuckle, their sensible Japanese hatchbacks insured and washed and parked between the lines outside.

No, the Irish are drawn towards the other lads, having a rare auld time at the bar. The chancers with their big German cars illegally parked on the street, their wads of cash and smart italian suits. They look like they’re really living the life, so they do.

You’ll vote for them next time. I know you will.

Labour? Who?

So you’re not responsible for what your politicians do, only for voting them in. You’re not responsible for the weather, either, but you are collectively responsible for making me a better person.

After my walk I pop into the shop to buy my newspaper. Yer man behind the counter is vociferously grateful.

“How’re ye? Great day great day great day! Now there you are! Good man! Thanks a million, thanks a million, good man!”

At this point, were I still in England, I might well be expected to ask
“ ‘Ere mate, are you taking the piss? I’m only buying a bloody newspaper.”

But instead I say nothing, and he goes on.

“Mighty mighty! Thanks a million! Great day out there now! Fair play to you, fair play! Thanks now, thanks a million!”

To which, at risk of sounding like a plastic Paddy, this Englishman replies

“Fair play to you too. Cheers now!” 
and have it on my legs.

I’d so much rather be this person than that other Englishman, forever hovering on the edge of aggression. So thanks for that, for introducing me to the world of ‘Mighty mighty not a bother on me!’