Friday 27 July 2007

Race Week is pure Galway, and Galway is the essence of Ireland!

Galway Races 2007!

Dublin, like many capital cities, fails to mirror the quintessential personality and culture of the nation it sits astride.
Having lived on three continents, I have seen for myself how there are many great cites which are not capitals, that somehow manage to sum up the essence of their country.
There are some cities that define countries. New York City is the heartbeat of the United States. Paris is La Belle France, and London is yer full English Monty.
Then there are yer second favourites runners, much-loved places of art and inspiration like San Francisco, Liverpool, Melbourne and... Galway?
I think not.
Galway City is only Dublin's poor relation in economic and demographic terms.
To this Englishman, Galway City is pure Ireland, and Race Week is the triple-distilled spirit of Galway City.
So Race Week is Galway, and Galway is essentially Ireland: ergo, Ireland is Race Week.
Around the world, magical festivals rip asunder all that claims to be normal, offering a brief and unique insight into the heart, guts and ailing grey matter of their host city.
Nassau has the explosion of colour and style that is Junkanoo; New Orleans simply could not exist without Mardi Gras; Pamplona hosts all that is Basque with San Fermin and the Running of the Bulls.
What does Dublin have? Please remind me.
The other day I was watching the weather forecast on RTE1.
Lo and behold, there's a massive band of rain occupying half of the country, obliterating everything west of the Shannon.
Gerry Murphy, a nice clean young man who has finally managed to overcome his nerves, but still cannot control his
'... We CAN expect We CAN expect We CAN expect',
explains how later in the day, as this band of rain moves east, we CAN expect widespread rain everywhere.
Everywhere? But like, er, derrr... the map on the tele shows half the country bathed in sunshine.
The rain is all over Dublin, therefore it is everywhere.
The psyche of this nation might be geared to Dublin.
But is Dublin the essential Ireland?
Maybe it once was, back in the dark days when it doubled up as the Irish capital whilst also carrying the dubious cachet of 'Second City of Empire' (for less ancient readers, that's the British Empire I'm on about; not the one that struck back in the second movie).
But right now, here, today, Galway City represents all the good and bad that is 21st century Ireland.
Galway has a rapidly growing population and shrinking green areas; a city centre with pubs you can stumble between, shops that still sport family names surviving alongside the multinational franchises; more buskers than silk shirts in a Haughey closet, and even more hyper-rich home-grown characters.
Galway has growing industrial estates and growing unemployment; rising inflation and thousands living below the poverty line; a Gaeltacht as well as a population that includes 10% born elsewhere (that's me folks!).
We've got 19,000 students, 786 different types of weather, 43 tons of vom on the streets; swans, herons, gannets, and wild salmon that leap out of our city centre river.
And we have water you cannot drink.
But the horses can. The gee-gees are lapping up their lovely clean cryptro-free water in the drinking troughs of Ballybrit.
Can you get more Irish than that?
And, yes, we have Race Week. And just to rub your Pale-faced nose in it, we slip the biggest social and sporting week in the country's calendar right onto the end of the nation's biggest Arts Festival.
Galway is the quintessential Irish city, and if the Film Fleadh and the Arts Festival are the sparks that fire up this city's engine each year, Race Week generates such a blazing inferno that it keeps us hot to trot all the way to next year.
Race Week is mad, bad, wonderful and horrendous.
Oh yeh, and it sends you mad. Stark staring cuckoo.
Whoever you are, and whatever you're doing, if you are around Galway City during Race Week, it will infect you, as sure as a gee-gee has a leg at each corner.
Kitchen porters clang and rush, while chefs, barmen and barwomen sweat buckets; hoteliers hop; gamblers and cards sharks are a-pumping; prossies a-jumping; and priests must go insomniac with the overtime work; our streets overflow with eaters and drinkers and dresses and hats, plastic pint glasses and a billion fag butts.
Up above choppers fly everywhere, buzzing-bizzing chugga-chigging in the air like it's all a bad dream of a Vietnam War flashback.
Or is it a film set?
Spot the difference: Galway during Race Week and the set of Apocalypse Now.
Wow. Might just take a moment.
Horror. The Horror.
The Mystery. The marvellous madness.
Race Week - it just doesn't get more Galway than this, and Ireland just doesn't get more Irish than this.
Take a tip from an old hand at Race Week. When Galway goes into fifth gear, you can hold on to neither your money nor your clothes.
But you can at least, goddamit man, at least try to hang on to your mind.
So grab a fact and stick with it, and it might just keep you sane.
To help you along the way, here's the First Annual Race Week Survival Kit.
Kind of a wee 'cut-out-and-keep' collection, courtesy of Double Vision.
All you have to do is choose at least one of the facts listed below, and force yourself to remember it, or them.
I promise you, with my hand on my heart and my cute hazel eyes staring at you as if I really care, that at some point in the coming week, you will feel like you are losing it altogether:
Whether you're watching your nag run backwards at Ballybrit, or you're stuck in a five mile traffic jam; waiting forever at the checkout in a supermarket or at a restaurant table; whether you're sitting in Accident and Emergency, or, especially, if you're working in Accident and Emergency, hanging onto and focusing on one of these free and fascinating facts might save your sanity.
Pick one and you'll be safe as houses, guv'nor. Look at me. Am I honest or am I honest? Would this face lie to you? Oh, come on, I deserve better than that!
Now here come the facts.
Did you know that -

How Salthill became Greenland, and I learned to love yellow!

Sometimes I can still surprise myself. One rainy morning a few weeks ago I saw some lads brushing yellow paint onto the pavement by the Mutton Island causeway. 

By now the entire length of the Prom will likely be covered in a yellow coat of Ecoflex, and regular readers of lesser mental dispositions than yours might be trembling in nervous anticipation, aware of this colyoom's campaign against Yellow Paint Syndrome, a heinous virus more deadly and subversive than our very own Crypto Spillsoutyerbum. 

For years YPS has been spreading throughout Ireland, removing the white from whitewash. 

Along our roads run double yellow lines, yellow hard shoulder lines, leading to yellow gravel drives up to yellow bungalows, where inside the people are yellow because their livers have failed, and and and calm down 

calm down. 


So, it would not be unreasonable to expect me to rant and rail against the new All Yellow Prom. 

But I like it, almost as much as I love being unpredictable. 

Well, no, I don't actually like it. I preferred the old concrete, but we are merely the feeble citizens of Galway, best left unaware that beloved Council decided beloved Prom needed to be yellow. 

Do I hate the yellow Prom? 

No, Sam I Am! 

I do not hate the yellow Prom. 

The new surface comes with strange side effects. The other morning, the universe gave us a rare blue sky, which allowed the water in the bay to turn into that deep vital crystal blue, beloved of Connemara's lakes. 

With the sun beating down on my wobbly sweaty form, I started to lose the power of sight. 

My entire world was going green. 

Below me: the Yellow Prom, dazzling in the sunlight, bouncing yellow light and burning it onto my retina; to my right: the Waterfront Hotel, the Galway Bay Hotel, the Promenade Hotel, and the Salthill Hotel: yellow all. 

To my right: Galway Bay, the blue so blue, bombing my rods and cones and all the other eye-bits that I cannot remember from biology class. 

All of a sudden my world was suffering from what I learned at my first ever day at school: If you dip your brush into the blue paint and then the yellow paint, you get green paint. 

A film of green light was wobbling around in front of my eyes, making me feel distinctly dizzy, and a bit scared of falling off the edge of the Prom down to the beach below. 

There used to be a yellow line down there to help you spot the edge. Now 'down there' looks the same as 'over there' and 'up there'. 

It's all gone green.

Is this a new eco-tactic by Galway City Council to turn us into Eco Warriors, by forcing us to see Green? 

Is this why the Emerald City was at the end of the Yellow Brick Road? 

Did Dorothy and her chums suffer from an overdose of blue skies and yellow bricks, or was it just the peyote cocktails those Munchkins were pouring? 

Please don't let me bump into somebody now, because I will have to stand in front of them and try to guess who they are in green, and I can't see, and anyway, at the best of times I'm pretty crap at knowing who people are. 

My brain is very small, and when I am walking the Prom (and most of the other time too), it is focused on either being away with the faeries, pondering the next chapter of my novel, or concentrating on my breathing rate, posture and pace. 

So if, after exercise, whilst pumped up on fresh oxygen and negative ions, I engage you in friendly banter and let slip a chunk of social inadequacy, it is neither a sleight of you, nor your character, nor how high I hold you in esteem. 

It's just me being pathetic. 

Yes indeedy, and if all this gushy soul-searching is starting to smell as if these coals have been burned over glowing embers of guilt, then give yourself a pat on the back. 

A month before the Prom was hit by YPS, I yelled at a man I know on the Prom, loudly berating him for having disappeared without a trace, and further accusing him - quite obscenely, as I recall - of being a slippery slimy three-toad sloth. 

Said slagging was delivered with a broad smile and good will, and might have been met and returned with equal gusto had yer man been the bloke I thought he was. 

But he wasn't, and instead, being a gentleman of the old school who knows me but a tad, he stood still for a second with his head down, his eyes squeezed tight and his brow furrowed. 

"Jeeze, Charlie, what do you mean? I've done no such thing!" 

At which point my brain suddenly lifted itself from its self-indulgent soak in the mighty Swamp of Ego, and I realised who he was. I'd thrown a stinking great pile of socially inadequate pooh into the fan, and splattered an innocent bystander. 

Rather than digging a dishonest hole, I decide to be honest; to try and keep things simple. 

"Sorry Paddy, I thought you were someone else!" 

Which was fine on one level, because it displayed the fact that I knew the gentleman's correct name, but in every other way it was a bit of a disaster. 

I mean, how rude can you get? 

In my case, very, apparently. 

So henceforth, if the yellow Prom behaves itself and remains yellow, I will, when presented with my own ignorance, plead Green Blindness. 

Tuesday 17 July 2007

How can we live in the moment when Christmas starts in June?

Santa's Summer Holidays

Here we are trying to be good little citizens, keeping our heads down, building up our credit card bills, and generally doing what we are told.
Alongside that we willingly swallow all the hogwash that we are fed about what will make our lives longer and more liveable.
Together with all the traditional 'Don't smoke that fag you smelly toe-rag; get up and exercise more, you lazy piece of snivelling lardass' advice, we also absorb the happy smiley luvvy duvvy New Agey spectrum, which has us putting good things out into the universe (botty burps notwithstanding), washing our hair in tree bark extract (why, pray, are we meant to assume that tree bark is good for hair? On the rare occasions I have encountered tree bark close up, I've never suffered from the urge to rub my head on it.)
and aspiring to that greatest piece of New Age Old Hippy Ancient Eastern wisdom fusion: Being in the moment.
Sarcy remarks apart, I am a great believer of making the most of now. Having failed to decide whether I'm an atheist or a pantheist, I do believe that this life is all we have, and to live in the past, which we can no longer influence, or to live obsessed by the future in such a way as to guarantee a ticket out of here into some kind of everlasting future (see: all organised religion) is to miss the point.
But how the bleedin' hell am I meant to succeed when the society I live in cannot wait to drag me out of the present?
After the night of the 21st June, if one was to be a miserable anal-retentive stickler for statistic, one might say 'Ah now, da nights are drawing in, so they are!'
Equally, one might not, because we are still in the middle of summer, a fact we all realise the moment the nasty black cloud moves away from the sun, and we once more exclaim in empirical ecstasy: 'Wow! That sun is hot!'
On the morning of June 22nd, a few short hours after the longest day had passed, I was waltzing down the Prom when I spotted a large sign outside Leisureland, advertising the arrival of an ice rink for Christmas.
"Coming Soon!" it proudly declared.
As a regular Prom pounder, I will now have to look at this sign every day for the next six months. While I was, I suppose, grateful that they had waited at least a couple of hours past Midsummer's Day to advertise their rink, I could not miss the irony of that 'Coming Soon'.
There is not a single point of the year further from Christmas.
Despite my best efforts to appreciate the 'now', this Tigerish profit-driven greed and madness plunges me each day into a vortex that seeks to send me off to the cold dark days of winter before I've barely touched my summer.
Every year, the achingly dreadful inevitability of this glitzy modern mutation of a noble ancient holiday obscures the majesty of the calm dark season. I used to wish we could just one year transport Christmas to early July, just for the hell of it.
However, having seen a snow flake advertising Christmas in Galway in midsummer, I retract my wish.
Leave Christmas in December, and leave us to enjoy our summer and autumn.
Don't force us to wish our lives away before we can appreciate what is happening around us at this unique moment.
As the Arts Festival hits town, some of you might be planning a wee excursion to Connemara to escape the crowds.
Whatever the weather, it is simply impossible to feel let down by the sight of the Maamturks, the Pins, the lakes and the hills of Joyce's Country.
Sadly, however, it's extremely likely that you will enjoy an uneven experience whilst grabbing a bite in the area's pubs.
On a recent Sunday, the Snapper and myself hit the road and headed off towards Letterfrack, stopping for a pint and a toasted sarny in Keane's Pub at Maam, which commands a stunning view back over the valley.
With gentle courtesy, yer man poured me a most excellent pint of Guinness and herself a diet coke. She had a cheese toasty and I, being more of a glutton, splashed out on a ham and cheese.
Although they arrived in that old 1970's-style placcy wrap, both were excellent (the ham in mine was stuffed thick and tasted great), and himself behind the bar kindly produced a range of condiments: mustard, mayo, relish.
Fortified and relaxed, we set off, having parted with the exceptionally reasonable sum of ¤11.00, for both our drinks and toasties. For a while I went uncharacteristically quiet, once again pondering the benefits of life in the country.
Such childish notions were dispelled the next day, when we stopped in Oughterrard for some lunch. We have regularly enjoyed the burger at the Boat Inn, but on this occasion, we both ordered the Club Sandwich ("One without tomato, please." "What was that?" "One without tomato please." "Okay, so that's two club sandwiches, one without tomato?" "Yes, that's right, one without tomato, please!"), which coming with salad garnish and chips, cost ¤8.95.
We waited and we waited, wondering how long it might take to make a sandwich. To amuse ourselves and build up our expectations we once again read the description on the menu, and our hungers grew and grew.
When the two sandwiches arrived (30 minutes after they were ordered) I felt I had been propelled back in time to those dark gastronomic days of early '90's Ireland. The bread was semi-toasted on one side, soggy white and wet on the other. There was neither butter nor mayonnaise holding the sandwich together, and when the cold fatty slices of bacon and chunks of what appeared to be reconstituted chicken breast fell out from their damp bready hosts onto the plate, they looked as forlorn as we felt. Both came with tomato, and neither of us enjoyed any of it. We parted with just under 20 quid for two dud sandwiches, with drinks extra.
Hopefully it was just an off day at the Boat Inn.
In the past we have eaten well there, but the point is, such an apparent lack of consistency in quality and service will neither please our tourists nor encourage them to return.

Monday 9 July 2007

I love film - it's cinemas that I find difficult!

Film and cinema
It's 'F' time in Galway City again. With the arrival of the Film Fleadh we hit Festival Season so welcome, all you fans of film. My love of film reigns supreme among the Arts, but it's my relationship with cinemas that gives good tale.
Back in 1982, when E.T. was released on video, nobody was going to the cinema. Mega-Plexes had not yet been invented, and cinemas were decaying single-screen theatres with ancient seats, sticky carpets and crappy sound.
Everyone just wanted to stay home and watch videos.
Unfortunately, I chose this abysmal period to find a job with the famous screen advertising company, Pearl and Dean, (...the tunnel, those flashing lights and the 'ba-bapbap ba-babap ba-babap baaaah!).
It was my job to head off to the southwest of England and Wales and try to sell little local adverts to little local companies. You know those 15 and 30 second shorts, showing the interior of a restaurant, garage, clothes shop that bear absolutely no relation to the one being advertised at all, followed by an obviously different, usually deep male voice that declares:
"Shirley's Boutique, Union Street, just around the corner from this cinema!"
Nobody wanted to advertise at the cinema, because nobody was going to the cinema, but my real problem was not the fact that I offered a shoddy product from an ailing industry, but more that I am not a total shit.
I cannot sell something to somebody, if I know it will do them no good whatsoever.
Picture a tiny Welsh valley community; half way up a mountainside hangs a row of old mining cottages.
"But why would I want to advertise at the Picture House? I am the only baker in the village! Everyone knows where I am!"
Indeed, sir, and although I cannot say it aloud, you have the same face as the rest of the village as well.
Visiting the local cinema manager whilst in town was seen as a simple Public Relations exercise, and in one far-flung west Welsh town, I noticed that the manager's name was distinctly Arabic.
Visiting in the afternoon, I met his wife, a local woman brimming with vitality and a certain hippy charm. Himself was apparently Moroccan, and would be back later. Why didn't I come back that evening, and have dinner with them?
What a lovely invitation! Working as a travelling salesman can be a terribly lonely affair, so I accepted, and enjoyed a great meal and a few bottles of wine.
Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' was the movie of that moment, and I confessed to having not yet seen it.
"Well let's put it on then!" said himself, with a distinct twinkle in his eye.
So we sat, the three of us, alone in his cinema, watching the rock movie, polishing off a plate of home-baked biccies.
Half way through the film, I realised that those cookies weren't just chocolate chip, and enjoyed anew this suddenly epic and brilliant piece of film-making with extraordinary enthusiasm.
Citizens of that rain-lashed Welsh industrial wasteland town were that night serenaded by a singular Adley chorus, as I stumbled hotel-wards through the dark drippy streets:
"Hiiiiigh don' neeeeed noooowww wEddge-yoo-kaaayyy-shuuurrrn!
During that period of employment, I sat one memorable Saturday afternoon with a large group of friends, imbibing way too much alcohol. Pumped up on hubris, I suddenly declared that I could get us all in to the cinema for free.
Off we went, as a raggledy-baggledy drunken army, to the ABC cinema at Edgware Road.
Waving my arms wildly outside the cinema, I shepherded my tipsy giggly flock, explaining that they had to wait there, so that I could keep it together enough to speak to the manager, and do the deal.
Like the Usual Suspects, they all lined up along the huge plate glass window, looking in and waving in that particularly embarrassing way friends do when they know you are trying to keep it together.
Once inside, I took a moment to breathe, groom my hand through my hair, pull up my jeans, tuck in my shirt and stride, purposefully, as a man who means business, towards a door that looked like an office.
Ka-booomph!! Ouch! Bloody Hell!
The worst part of what had happened was how long it took me to realise what had happened.
To my friends lined up outside, to all the staff and punters in the cinema lobby, I had just walked at full speed into a wall-sized mirror, but my alcohol-addled brain just couldn't work out who was this fat bastard geezer who was blocking my way. He wouldn't bloody budge, and he had head-butted me, and as I flailed my arms in an effort to hit him, he somehow managed to punch me back in exactly the same place that I punched him, at exactly the same time.
Finally falling backwards, the terrible truth hit me as hard as had my imaginary opponent.
My head hit the carpet, and I rolled over to see that each of my friends outside was also at ground level, having collapsed in hysterical uncontrollable laughter.
Oh yes, I love a good film, but those cinemas can be a real challenge!
Just in case Galway's water debacle is not over when you read this, a wee plea from me to you.
A close friend of mine and I went recently to the excellent Kashmir Restaurant. Indian Sub-Continental cuisine in Galway has improved beyond all measure in the last 15 years, and we enjoyed a splendid meal, top notch food and service.
But what was this ¤3.95 for a bottle of water? We had asked for some water, and given Galway's bug in the bog, the restaurant had to serve mineral water, and as they paid for it themselves, I expected to be charged, but only the cost price which they paid for it.
Instead they slapped a whacking great big greedy profit on it, and when I pointed it out to our charming waiter, he went behind the counter to ask his superior, who merely shook his head.
On the night I let it go, but now, I urge you all, if you would normally be happy drinking tap water at your table, refuse to pay profit prices for bottled water in Galway restaurants. As Johnny Rotten might have sang:
"Making profits from holidaymakers in other people's miser-eeeee...."