Thursday 25 January 2007

'Older and wiser' sounds good, so why does it hurt so much?

Driving into town, I'm listening to an ancient cassette tape of Iggy Pop's 'Lust For Life' album. Parking in the Claddagh, I walk up past the river singing Iggy's lyrics out loud.
It feels good to spend a few moments reliving those dangerous fast and hot days of youth, but now there is shopping to be done, pies to be bought, and -
No! No please no!
As I walk into Marks and Spencers food department, my ears catch the tune playing on the muzak: Iggy Pop's 'Lust For Life'.
Please universe, say it ain't so.
Yes, I know Dublin Bus, along with countless others, have plundered the album's 'The Passenger' track for their TV commercial, yet that made sense in a monetary and lyrical way.
But surely that voice cannot belong to James Osterberg, a.k.a. Iggy Pop, wild frontman of blood and guts pre-punk band the Stooges and their teeth-shreddingly brilliant album 'Raw Power', who before my eyes threw himself onto a bed of broken glass on stage.
I do not accept it.
It must be a muzak session band spinning covers. Iggy couldn't have sold his soul to muzak.
When the female backing singers jump in with their inimitable chirrup, I know it's the real thing.
As I sort through the purple sprouting broccoli, Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' is playing, which already sounds like muzak anyway.
Whilst checking out the pies, I'm singing along to The Jam's 'Going Underground', and having a rather lovely time.
Punk was not born so that middle-aged men in tweed coats can have a rather lovely time whilst choosing pies in Marks and Sparks, but fair play to the marketing industry.
If they are trying to reach their target customers, they have scored a direct hit with me.
By the time I reach the cash register, The Clash's Joe Strummer is singing about whether he should stay or he should go nowwww.
I cannot stop myself from becoming a tad guttural and cockney as I sing along, interspersing pathetic attempts to appear musical with breaks to make pleasant conversation about the weather with the checkout lady.
Sure and doesn't that wind get on your nerves?
And haven't we had it for weeks now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
Deep inside me there is a burgeoning sadness. I'm not upset about being out of touch. I'm not sure I could tell a Kaiser Chief from an Arctic Monkey, and I wouldn't be the man to turn to if you wanted to separate yer Shakiras from yer Anastasias. Hopefully, today's youth are out there listening to music I neither appreciate nor understand, because teenagers should be desperate to take refuge from the tyranny of old farts such as myself.
'Lust For life' was released 30 years ago, in 1977. If the teenager I was then were to be presented with music from thirty years before that, I would be forced to listen to Bing Crosby's 'Whiffenpoof Song', and that other major 1947 hit, Doris Day's 'Papa Won't You Dance with Me?'
So why am I upset?
Simply because these days I find it impossible to summon up the linear black-and-white passion that I enjoyed in those days. Driven by a certainty that I was right about everything; that Socialism and Punk Music were the only things that mattered, I argued and pogoed and sweated and sniffed and drank, just as you're supposed to do at 17 years of age.
The idea of being older and wiser sounds great doesn't it? I understand more than I did back then, but far from making me feel happy, I now yearn for the times when Right and Wrong lived at opposite ends of the street.
Thankfully, I still hold dear the same ideals, nurture the same beliefs and sense of social justice, but along with wisdom has come cynicism.
Wisdom can be defined as the marriage of two essential ingredients: knowledge and experience. Alone each is powerful, yet together they offer a snapshot of understanding.
This understanding brings with it the knowledge that whilst people are essentially good, we are also massively selfish. Every day we listen to horror stories of hospital patients waiting for weeks on trolleys in A & E departments, because there are no beds or no nurses.
The Irish people complain constantly about the dreadful state of their health service, yet come election time they will vote for Fianna Fail all over again, because, as US Democratic Party strategist James Carville famously said years ago,. 'It's the economy stupid'.
Unless it's your granny dying of cancer with inadequate medical care, or your wife or child waiting interminable lengths of time in Accident and Emergency departments, you prefer your HD TVs to your NHS; your DVD players to CT Scanners; your PCs to M.R.I.s.
My heart breaks for Ireland as I watch the feeding frenzy surrounding the maturing of all those SSIAs. The Celtic Tiger has eaten up the sick, old and infirm, vomiting out millions of Euros in freebie government payments to those lucky few who could afford to participate in these saving schemes.
I'm not saying that Fine Gael, Labour or the Green Party present a better alternative. I am saying that the next election is already all but won, with a massive vote for the status quo, in the form of a government who gave away millions to those with SSIAs.
Fianna Fail know that, given the opportunity to choose between your own pocket and your Health Service, you'll choose the SSIA handouts and a new patio over the beds and wards, doctors and nurses every time.
For the first time ever, Ireland has billions of Euro to spare in the Exchequer's purse, but instead of demanding what truly matters, you line your nests and devil take the hindmost.
The teenage punk that I used to be has become a tempered pragmatist who accepts that for most of you, looking after Number One is the order of the day. The Health Service will die before people take the trouble to look beyond their perceived needs and wants.
Somehow I don't believe that the Irish will vote for change, or demand massive investment in what really matters.
Mind you, if The Clash can become supermarket muzak, anything can happen.
Sure, and maybe I'll do a little pogo to the Ramones, but not in Marks and Sparks Menswear Department, if you don't mind.

Tuesday 16 January 2007

I put rubbish into the neighbour's wheelie bin, yet I am innocent!

Oh lordy lord, I hope the neighbours don't see me!
If there were CCTV cameras around here now, I'd be caught, bang to rights guv'nor.
Should anyone in the vicinity be looking, I'm lifting a bag of rubbish out of my grey bin and dumping it into one of my neighbour's bins, an activity that in the past would certainly have qualified as 'strange behaviour'.
However now, in these days of Pay-By-Weight refuse collection, what I'm doing looks downright criminal.
But I am innocent. Straight as a die, me, your Worshipfulness, cor blimey yes, and vat's va truth.
When we moved into this house back in March of last year, the estate agent who rents it asked if we wanted to switch to the City Bin Company.
My wee brainbox was dealing with the infinite and tedious logistics of moving, so I took refuge in my old pal, the Law of Inertia, which requires that if something is not moving, the probability is that it will not.
Add a dash of 'If It Ain't Broke Don't Fix It', and a healthy post-Thatcherite suspicion of essential public services being loaded onto the scary ship Free Enterprise, and I decided to stick with the Council, at least until the end of the year; see if the City Bin Company was a flash in the pan, or demonstrably unethical.
Where health, housing and education are concerned, I believe that our needs will always be greater than those demanded by the prophet Profit, but equally, monopolies are free to rip us off.(vis:ESB).
So we looked to see if Galway Council had reacted to local market forces by dropping their prices.
The service they supplied was without fault. Galway City was recently given an award for becoming more litter-free, and in my heart I would rather sell them my rubbish than the Shiny Orange Lids of capitalism.
But it only took a short glance at comparative pricing for me to abandon all my grandiose notions, and kiss capitalism right on its puckered red ring.
Like, hey, look at those prices dude! Capitalism rocks! Up with the Orange Lids!
Humans make fantastically fickle customers, and I would have been willing to pay marginally more to stay with the Council, had they applied a tad more psychology to their pricing structure.
They need to raise 'X' amount from each punter, so why not do what the City Bin Company do, and apply that charge exclusively to the grey landfill bin?
By spreading their costs over the three bins, the Council are charging us for recycling, which they forced us to do in the first place.
Fine, I will wash and dry my milk containers and tins, wondering as I watch the warm water and detergent going down the sink how on earth this is saving the planet, but do not make me pay for it.
Spare me the letter from the Council reminding me that recycling is an expensive business. I know it is, but humans as punters are a weird mob at the best of times. Here I am, trying to stay with you, but your prices are higher than the City Bin Company across the board, and your charges are spread over the three bins, and I don't like that.
So nyah.
At which point I pass proceedings over to the Snapper, who calls the City Bin Company and encounters a fluffy huggy salesperson who wants to have our babies.
Three days later, three shiny bins and a Welcome Pack arrive at our house, but I am away, inebriated and unaware.
When I return home I am not in a good state at all. My Christmas was pleasantly quiet, but I made up for it in some style, and know that today there's only a couple of hours of non-sofa life left in me.
Dragging myself down the Prom I force myself to walk and breathe before the inevitably supine fireside snoring marathon starts this afternoon.
Somewhat refreshed as I walk back home, I decide to tackle the new bins. Due to a lack of information, our bins were not emptied after Christmas, so now I have to somehow transfer all the stinky detritus of the holiday season from the Council bins to the Shiny Orange bins.
My pathetic sleep-deprived hungover attempt to walk briskly has produced a sweat upon me, and my head has started to spin. My mouth is dry and dirty and every bone and muscle in my body is dreading the task ahead.
Stumbling now, I lift the lids of our old bins and - oh joy and bliss and yes baby yes rapture!
They are empty! Perchance the City Bin Company are indeed angels from heaven and they have already taken away our old trash and given us a new start.
At the bottom of the old grey bin there lies one small white plastic bag, which I retrieve and place in the new Shiny Orange Bin with the grey lid.
Then, rushing with a tsunami of delight, I swing all the old bins away from the wall to make way for the shiny new oh-so empty bins.
As I turn to face the old bins my eye catches a glaring detail that my addled brain missed before. There, in huge white paint strokes, is the number of the house next door.
Adley, ye feckin' eedjit.
Almost falling over as I spin on my heels, I realise that I am shooting loose with bins that are not my own. I have transgressed from mine own wheelies, and am clearly off my tiny head.
As my heart, spirit and balance sink to the heels of my boots, I lift the lids of the correct bins, and sure they are packed so full it will be a monster task to even fit all that crap into the Shiny Orange bins.
And what with the Pay-By-Weight, I'm damned if I'm going to pay for that white bag I lifted out of my neighbour's bin. We don't even use white bags! How could I have failed to notice that?
So I have to put it back, but that means me standing here, looking dead suspicious, moving a bag from my bin to someone else's.
But you know that I am innocent.
Lost, gone completely bingly-bongly in the head, yes.
But as honest as the day is long.

Tuesday 9 January 2007

I was meant to be beaten up Charlie - if not by someone else, then by myself!

You know how your brain can drift off in strange directions. I was reading about how Archie Young, a 14 year-old chorister at Westminster Abbey, recently foiled a mugger on the streets of London. Having been told to hand over his iPod, the youngster just said
"I'd rather not!" and precipitated a conversation that ended up confusing the would-be thief, who eventually walked away.
Instead of delving deeper into the magazine interview, my mind settled upon a Saturday lunchtime a good few years back, when I met the Guru in the Quays.
Much to my horror, my friend's face was bearing the scars of a terrible beating. There was a fresh red bloody scabby wound on his chin, and across his forehead another fresh long gash that had only recently stopped bleeding.
Clearly the Guru had been in a punch-up, and inside me this triggered a deep hurt and a feeling of offence. Not offense, as in attacking, a desire to go out and rip to shreds the people who had done this to my mate, but offence, as if to say I felt offended by the world on the Guru's behalf.
I felt embarrassed to be part of a world that could do such a thing to a man like the Guru.
I have known him since I was nine years old, and as youths we broke plenty of rules, rebelled more than most, and since then have both made sure to live our own lives, and not those proscribed by others, or convention itself.
The Guru has for several decades been a student of Peace: a spiritual, vegetarian, non-violent human of the first order, neither cloying with hippy sweetness, nor burdened with annoying New Age Evangelical nonsensicals.
Sometimes he has been unable to enjoy within himself the calm he projects to others, but he looks at the world in a most balanced manner.
"Bloody hell mate! What happened to you? Who was it? Tell me their name!"
"I didn't get beaten up, Charlie. Somebody wanted to, but it never happened!"
"But but, so then but why did you that how...?"
"Okay, so last night I went out to Arus na Gael, and then decided to walk back home along the river. As I was going past the university residences, I saw this bloke having a go at his girlfriend. It didn't look pretty, so I sort of yelled out to him 'Oi!' "
"And then he came over and thwacked you?"
"Well no, but he stopped fighting with her, and they both turned on me, and I thought 'Oh blimey, why can't I keep my mouth shut!' "
"Then what?"
"Well then he was standing in front of me, telling me to mind my own fucking business, and he pulled his arm back to punch me in the face. Suddenly I spread my arms out wide, stretched out as far as they could go, and looked him in the eye, and smiled a huge smile at him, and stood there ready to take it. He hesitated and I was laughing, saying
'You're not really going to hit me are you? You don't really want to, do you?', and then we looked at each other for ages, while his girlfriend stood there telling him to do it."
"Gordhelpus Guru, you've got some nerve!" I offered, looking at my bloodied messed-up friend's face.
"Not really! You see, before I knew it, he had collapsed into my open arms and was weeping and hugging me, and saying over and over again that he didn't want to do it. We hugged for a while, and then he pulled away, nodded at me, grabbed his girlfriend's hand and walked away."
"Ayyy-mayyy-zing! Bloody hell! Only you mate! Only you! But if he didn't beat you up, how did you ...who did it?"
"I did it to myself Charlie!"
For a second I considered the possibility of the Guru self-flagellating, but instantly I knew he was as unlikely to harm himself as he was to attack another.
"But how?"
"Well, after they walked off I was filled with a powerful euphoria... I was so full of myself, burning with light and love, and oh aren't I great, and wasn't that wonderful, and all that stuff, that I didn't look where I was going. My foot must have hit a tree stump or something, because before I could take a single step, I fell flat on my face right onto the gravel, so suddenly and quickly that I had no chance to put a hand out or anything!'"
"..and that's how you...?"
"...yeh, that made this!" he said, pointing to his two bloodied wounds.
"So you managed to save yourself from a beating, but you ended up beating up yourself!"
"Well Charlie, the way I'm coming to see it is that I was meant to be beaten up last night, one way or another."
"Jeezus peezus Guru, sometimes your thinking goes a step too far for me!"
For a while I just couldn't stop laughing.
Then I looked at my friend's face, his poor innocent mashed-up face, and thought of how strange the other guy must have felt; how confused his girlfriend must have been; how amazing the Guru is, not only to try something like that, but also to pull it off, make it work, and quite possibly in the process change the other man's life for good.
Sometimes I just don't know what to say. At such moments as this, I find the following most helpful:
"Can I buy you a drink?"
"Oh, go on then!"
"Good. At least that makes sense to me!"
We raised glasses and looked each other in the eyes, laughed hearty head-thrown back manly guffaws at the wonder and madness of it all, and drank to life, l'Chaiim."
So messy is my desk that only today I found an item meant for the 2006 DV Awards.
Better late than never, the 'Freudian Slip When I Say Udders I Mean Mammy' DV for Meaning What You Said The First Time goes to the newsreader on Today FM, who reported that Taioseach Bertie Ahern had declared 2006 his 'Anus Horribilis'.
Possibly Bertie actually said it was his 'Annus Horribilis'; thereby admitting having had a terrible year, but I prefer to believe what the female journalist stated in her story: that Bertie really knows he's a dreadful arsehole.

Tuesday 2 January 2007

When hitcher becomes driver, there are new rules for the road!

What goes around comes around, but the way this idea is manifested in reality is often complex.
Most of the time the karmic cycle works not in any straightforward, but rather a most mysterious way.
If Johnny steals your cake, it's very unlikely that somebody out there will steal Johnny's cake. More likely, that particularly fateful roundabout will spin for thirty three years after you lost your cake to Johnny, until just when he needs it most, he will lose his mobile phone down a toilet.
Karma is not a linear phenomenon. As water passing through concrete, fate balances through ├Žons of random and apparently inconsequential event.
But sometimes, just sometimes, it all comes together in a simple and poetic way.
A few weeks ago, I was driving from Galway City to visit a friend in Clifden.
The strains of the pre-Christmas rush had already created golf balls of lumpy tension in my back muscles.
My own needs and those of others were whirling around my tiny brain like a load in a tumble dryer, rising and falling, swirling incessantly.
All I needed was time to sort out my head, and no finer opportunity to do that than whilst driving through Connemara .
That's what I love about my hills. As soon as I am among the Pins and the Maamturks, everything somehow makes more sense.
The wind was blowing hard, driving the cold winter rain sideways. Flashes of blue sky disappeared and revealed themselves, as black white and grey clouds shot past each other on three separate levels of sky.
Just past Ballynahinch Lake I passed two farmers hitching at the roadside.
'Twas a dirty old day to be outside, and clearly the lads wanted a ride to Clifden for a bit of shopping, and a nip of festive cheer.
As I waited for them to walk up to the car, my mind imploded on itself.
Oh no, what have I done?
Why did I stop, when I needed this time and space to myself?
Why did I stop? Perchance because between the ages of 15 and 35, I hitched no fewer than a quarter of a million miles. I hitched to school and back; to countless pubs, clubs and many many jobs. I hitched all over the motorways of England, until there was barely a mile I had not covered. I hitched half of each year as a teenager, all over western Europe, and then in my 20's I hitched the east and west coasts of America; the Hulme and Princes Highways of Australia.
Over two visits and nine months, I lost myself and my inhibitions in New Zealand, for weeks on end achieving a rare and blissful 'On The Road' state of hitching nirvana: just 'going with the lifts'; that is to say, when they ask you where you are going, you just say:
'Wherever you are going, if you don't mind'.
Once they understood that I was merely suffering from an overdose of freedom, and neither a psychotic killer nor an obsessive weirdo stalker in search of rare satanic walnuts from the bad witch's mud bath, many people took me along with them.
During those weeks, I developed a trust in humanity alongside a faith in the process of 'journey' that has influenced me more than any other single phenomenon, person or place in my life.
So that's why I stopped for these two lads, and as they clambered into my car I sensed their massive physical presence.
Inside their sodden Day-Glo oilskins, I saw flashes of human hewn from granite; burly creased yet comfortable bodies packed with years of bacon and pints of da Harpic; faces mottled with clumps of white hair sprouting from inside ears, outside noses, even some on top of their heads.
Himself in the back tried to climb on top of a box filled with cassettes, and while I was waving my arms around trying to explain that he might want to slide across and sit on the other side, I saw out of the corner of my eye himself in the front about to settle his massive bulk onto the full plastic bottle of water that was just waiting to be squashed on the passenger seat.
Having sorted out safe landings for them both, and made sure they were safely belted in, I was showered with friendly and effusive greetings:
"Sh-cholar and Gentleman so ye are!" "Fair play to ye sir, Gentleman and a Sh-cholar!" "Not from around here then? Where are ye from?"
After 14 years in Ireland, I have been asked that question 83,459,869,803,929 times, and wanted to answer and engage in another such conversation as much as I wanted to choke to death on my own ligaments and entrails.
At that moment, all I wanted was to give these lads a ride, help them out, but also I desperately needed another 20 minutes of space, time and awareness of the beauty of the countryside.
Maybe it's because I am all grown up, or maybe it was goes-around comes-around karmic payback for all those decades of being a lift, but I decided that I could be successful if strong, tactful and assertive.
Surely there was a way to achieve all I needed, give them what they wanted, and still remain polite?
Speaking slowly, calmly and pleasantly, I felt a strong deep voice rise within me:
"Gentlemen, you are very welcome in my car. I am delighted to drive us into Clifden, but I'm not really up to chatting. No offence at all, but I have a lot of things on my mind, and I need a few minutes to sort myself out before I arrive in Clifden!"
"Sure! Not a bother! Fine, fine, go ahead, so!"
And so we drove on in silence. It was a good silence. A respectful silence.
I had managed to be fairly rude without causing offence.
Once again, the spirit of the road was working for me. For once, the karmic comes-around goes-around was working in a straight line of exchange through hitching.
As I dropped off the gentlemen - for that is what they were - I wished them a happy Christmas.
Himself in the front seat turned to me, and offered as enigmatic a chunk of Connemara wisdom as I could ever hope for:
"Ah well now, ye said ye have a lot on your mind. Sure, and isn't there a lot of that about!"