Monday 23 February 2009

Is that a nicotine inhaler or a sin of the flesh?

The first line of the leaflet that comes with my ESB bill tells me that the Commission for Energy Regulation has approved an average price decrease of 0.6%.
Yippee, I think, maybe.
But hang on a mo. Oh blimey, they’re messing with my mind, momma! Their mad doublespeak ways are sending me Loco di Laurentis in the noodle.
Below the initial good news comes swathes of bullshit tidied into thrusting red bullet points... ‘proceeds from sale of certain ESB generating plants’... blah blah blah... ‘an increase of 2.7% in electricity unit charges’... blah blah blah... ‘identified on your bill as a ‘PSO related rebate’... blah blah blah, and somehow you know that at the end of all this crap, that lovely young price drop will have turned into a lumpy old brute of a price increase.
Sure enough, the price of the domestic 24 hour rate has gone up from €0.1597 to €0.1640, and the NightSaver Day rate (pure doublespeak itself!) has risen from €0.1706 to €0.1752.
That’s all I needed to know. I’m just a punter on the ground here, trying to work out how much I owe and how much I earn. If I was making a take-over bid for ESB, I might need to know more, but I’m not and I don’t.
Do they think we’re stupid? Don’t go telling us that prices are going down if really they’re going up, PSO related rebate or no PSO related rebate.
Off I go to Hibernian Aviva to renew my car insurance. Despite the fact that I’ve made no claims since Noah let go of the dove, my premium’s still somehow gone up over last year.
“Oh yes, insurance is up across the board,” explains the helpful Hibernian lady.
I point out that maybe just maybe my premium had gone up because Hibernian had spent billions hiring Bruce Willis, Ringo Star and any other celebrities they could find who had changed their names to appear in a massive TV ad campaign to share the tumultuous news that Hibernian was changing its name to Aviva Hibernian. Or is it Hibernian Aviva?
Why stop there? Why not get the Pope and Postman Pat? We all know that Pope hasn’t always been his real name, just like we know he’s not allergic to a little bit of rewriting history. As for Postman Pat, not many people know this, but the wholly fictional animated character’s real name is Bernard. His middle name is Padraig, from his mother’s side, and he uses it to show us all he’s a good lad who loves his mummy.
We’re not stupid. We know Hibernian isn’t really a bunch of hearty lads sporting crazy curly beards in rough knit jerseys sitting in a crusty bog house on the West Coast, trying to insure their mates’ fishing boats. We know that it’s part of a multinational conglomerate, because sadly, corporate styling works, and look, see, the Norwich Union have the same brand colours.
All they needed to do was to send one simple card through the post to existing customers saying they had changed their name. Maybe even an email.
But not this ridiculous TV campaign, which I’m now paying for on my car insurance. I don’t want to sponsor their commercials. This adbreak spectacular starring a whole bunch ageing overpriced A-listers comes to you thanks to Charlie’s Premium, because he’s a customer who really cares that you know the right name for us.
Meanwhile Chorus aka UPC aka ntl clearly want to dump the entire concept of basic cable and turn us all onto digital. When I signed up for the basic package it cost €19.99, but ntl have gradually upped the price to one euro less than the digital package, and if we upgrade they’ll throw in a digital video recorder free of charge. Oh, and they’ll send Mary round to do the dishes three times a week, and Jim will pop over on the last Thursday of the month to tidy up the garden a bit and do any odd jobs, d’ya know the kind of thing.
Thanks ntl, but I am not stupid. The basic cable is no longer good value for money, so yes, for the sake of quality channels like Film 4, BBC 3 and 4, I probably will fork out the other quid and upgrade, thereby ending up with reams of mindless channels I don’t want, never did want, but will absolutely inevitably become distracted by and end up watching, telling myself I am fascinated by their inanity, that I’m not really dumbing down, but watching all this shite as a socially anthropological experiment oh look the donkey ate the ice cream ahh, thus naturally missing the excellent movie on Film 4 or the fascinating documentary on BBC3.
Meanwhile, Hibernian Die Hard Aviva are moving in for the kill. I don’t qualify for their ‘Match More Make More’ offer, because even though my car and health insurance is with them, I insure the house contents with Quinn, because they offer cover for rentals, which Hibernian Indiana Jones and the Fabulous Four Aviva do not.
But that doesn’t stop them. All I really want in the mail is my health insurance membership cards, but instead I’m bombarded with letter after letter about their wonderful ‘Match More Make More’ offer, if only we’d please register for it online, pretty please with a cherry on top.
But I don’t qualify, so there is no bloody point. Then I find a message on my mobile from someone in Aviva Rocky Meets The Parents Hibernian asking me to register online for the offer.
I call them and tell them what they can do with their offer and will they please stop stalking me.
Doublespeak drives me mad. There’s the petrol that’s ‘better for the environment’, rather than just ‘less bad’, and now, in the best doublespeak I’ve ever heard, there’s a Nicorette ad on TV offering ‘a therapeutic dose of nicotine’.
Working on the premise that anything which makes you feel better is ‘therapeutic’:
‘This isn’t an ordinary syringe. This is a sanitised hypodermic syringe. This isn’t just heroin. This is a top grade therapeutic dose of Afghanistan’s finest.....’
But my absolute favourite is the voiceover for the Nicorette Inhaler ad:
“Satisfies your urges, and keeps your hands busy.”
It had to happen: if you leave 24 advertising agency monkeys alone for long enough, they’re bound to come up with a replacement for masturbation!

Monday 16 February 2009

“England? Is that some little island somewhere?”

When I was a young boy I used to be dead proud of the British Empire. Oh yes, this drippy-dippy do-goody drenched liberal anti-racist politically-correct socialist used to sit and stare in awe and admiration at his atlas.
I just couldn't help myself. Aged six in 1966, no notions of social justice, political ideology or moral relativism existed in my head. England had just won the World Cup, beating those pesky Germans yet again.
Sometimes my brother and I played Cowboys and Indians, but mostly we just re-enacted what we thought were great moments from the war our parents had just lived through. Mostly these battles were spawned from the pages of Commando comics, where ingenious Tommy never failed to come up with a cunning ruse to foil evil Fritz.
So England was the best country in the world in my infantile mind, and upon being given my first ever atlas at school, I gazed upon the world map with disbelief.
England was tiny, absolutely minuscule, but huge swathes of the world map were coloured red, which meant they were ‘Ours’. The whole of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, India and quite a few sizeable chunks of just about everywhere else all showed that little boy that they had been beaten by ‘Us’.
There was no doubt at all that we were the best, and blissfully happy in my prepubescent ignorance, it never occurred to me that any part of it might be a bad thing.
Everything I read seemed to back me up, and oh boy, did I read! Under the covers late at night, Ladybird books were devoured by the dozen, reinforcing my youthful prejudices. It didn’t matter who the book was about, each and every one laid more foundation to the notion that the English seriously kicked evil-doer’s arses, whenever and wherever they appeared.
Sir Francis Drake was a brave explorer and a supreme tactician, seemingly defeating the Spanish Armada single-handedly; Sir Walter Raleigh was fearless explorer and a great scientist, as well as the perfect gentleman. Charles the First was a good lad, and Oliver Cromwell was also a good lad. Even when they hated each other and started civil wars, all the English lads were good lads.
Nobody told me anything different, because victory over the Nazis was only 20 years past, and what’s more, Geoff Hurst scored a hat trick against the Hun in the final at Wembley, in front of her Majesty the Queen, and if that didn’t put God on our side, well, God must just be a very silly billy indeed.
Two World Wars and One World Cup, Doo Daah, Dooo Daah.
That was as far as my historical knowledge and political awareness went before my age hit double figures.
Burdened as I am now with all the boring detritus of a social conscience and half an education, there lurks still a tiny but eternal part of me that is extremely proud of England for giving the Luftwaffe such a hammering back in 1939, and for keeping out the Nazis against all the odds, alone for years before America entered the fray.
It would be a rare Irishman who agrees with me, but I’m sure that had the English lost the Battle of Britain, allowing Hitler to launch his ground invasion, Ireland would have come under German occupation.
So in a revision of history that would make Ladybird books and Holocaust denier David Irving proud, there’s an argument to say that the British saved the Irish from being colonised by a brutal foreign power.
Funny old world, innit.
Anyway, as regular colyoomistas know, my opinions are no longer quite so right wing. My brother introduced me to socialism when I was 13, and I embraced the chance to rebel against my Tory parents. Quite possibly, part of me still does. Mind you, after travelling the globe as an Englishman for many decades, you don’t half get browned off bearing the cross of times long gone.
Wasn't me mate! I wasn’t there!
Thankfully, my inflated perception of what put the ‘Great’ into ‘Britain’ took a short sharp kick in the goolies when I first left Europe in 1984.
Lost in wonder and excitement upon arriving in New York, I felt I’d finally arrived in the modern world. Eager to play, I first needed money, so entering a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank, I asked if I could change some Travellers Cheques.
The woman took my passport, looked at it and then showed it to her colleague, who shook his head. Several minutes later, having consulted half the staff in the bank, she came back to me, pointing to the words:
“The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
“Yeh, that’s it! Great Britain! United Kingdom! You know, Queenie and Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard and all that? Err, let’s see, erm, Winston Churchill? Bobby Charlton?”
Oh good god, I was starting to sound like a Spanish tourist lost in Piccadilly. But this was New York, and surely here, just the other side of the pond, they knew about England, didn’t they?
Most probably they did, but ‘England’, the one word missing from my passport, was quite possibly the cause of the confusion.
Resisting the temptation to point to the old-fashioned writing on my passport’s inside cover page, that arrogantly stated how ‘Her Britannic Majesty requests and requires Johnny Foreigner and Donny Dago to do whatever this wonderful English person might want of them...” I smiled and pleaded until she nodded, gave me the money and handed me back my passport, asking:
“Is this some little island somewhere?”
At this I paused, thought for a little bit, then laughed out loud, agreeing with her, my patriotism finally laid to rest.
“Yes, yes, that is exactly what it is. A little island somewhere!”
“Have a nice day now.”
My rehabilitation to a reasonable global perspective came many years later, in a pub near Timoleague, Co. Cork. As an Englishman travelling with his German girlfriend, we made an odd couple, and received many raised eyebrows, but none so brilliantly minimalist and wholly damning as the one delivered by the pub’s landlord.
As he lopped the tops off our pints of Guinness, he looked over at us and calmly quietly slowly stated:
“So you are German ... and he is English ... hmmmm ... (long pause) ... well, I don’t have any particular problem with Germans.”

Monday 9 February 2009

“Sorry, I don’t speak Irish!” “But I’m talking English, ye eedjit!”

“You on holiday?”
All I’ve done is say hello to a bloke in a tiny shop in Galway City. Do I look like I’m on holiday? It’d be nice to think I looked as relaxed and happy as an aimless tourist, but I don’t. Sorry, but today I decided to leave my Kiss Me Kwik hat back at the house, oh and call me crazy, but in Ireland I prefer to wear my Union Jack underpants inside my jeans.
No, he doesn’t think I look like a tourist. He just managed to spot a funny accent.
And so for the eighty three billionth time, I run through an exchange that has been so practised and prepared over the last 17 years it now feels like yet another performance of a short play.
“No, I Live here.”
“Oh, do you?”
”Yep, arrived 17 years ago. Born in London, lived all over the place.”
“Oh, because I didn’t really detect any London in your accent.”
“Well, there’s all sorts mixed up in there. A bit of cockney, Yorkshire, California, and if I’m drinking too much whiskey and talking to a farmer from Carna, Connemara as well.”
“Oh! I see.” he says, dropping his eyes as if slightly embarrassed, and who could blame him? I’m not proud of the way my accent wobbles with the wind, but there’s precious little I can do about it.
Somewhere deep in my noodlebox lurks a powerful insecurity that tells my voicebox to make the same noises as those talking around me. I don’t know if it’s linked up to the Jewish gene that seeks to aid my survival by keeping my head down, not being too visible, loud or different in any way.
Hmm, cancel that thought, seeing as I’m spouting away in this Noble Rag, and there’s that photo of me up at the top of the page.
So if it’s not about assimilation or survival, maybe it’s just my rather pathetic attempt to be liked.
As far as my conscious mind is aware, I feel no need to talk like you, but oops, I did it again! I can hear myself turning into an American as I chat to the backpackers in the pub; there’s an Ulster crescendo coming out of me as I talk with my friend from Fermanagh; posh plummy public school tones tumble forth as I speak to my mum in the phone; my Norf Lundern credentials gurgle through the beers as I talk footie with my old Chelsea mates from over there.
After three months of working with down-to-earth lads in a garage in Australia, my Pommie accent had all but disappeared. Home-grown taxi drivers have long been the greatest arbiters of their nation’s identity, so when one of Melbourne’s finest turned round to me and exclaimed
“Chroist! Ya don’ saaarnd loike a Pom!”
I was truly taken aback. Like the Irish, Australians are rarely in a rush to pay an Englishman a compliment, let alone acknowledge them as one of their own, so I knew my mimicking skills must be in overdrive.
It’s not a particularly admirable skill to have, but there are benefits to this subconscious vocal vacillating, not the least of which is a heightened ability to spot how people react to different accents.
Even though Americans invariably think more highly of the Irish than they do of the English, upon hearing a posh English accent their jaws drop, their saliva glands shoot into surf mode, and their eyes look up longingly, imploring you to take them back to your country estate and rescue them from their humdrum existence.
Strangely, the Irish also respond in a positive way to the most polished of English accents. Over the years, I’ve noticed that if I have a favour to ask of an Irish stranger, I’m much more likely to be trusted if I come over all rather splendidly gushworthy and lardi-dar blue blood, than mix it up wiv a bit of Eastenders street blag, innit.
I remember being shocked to the core a while back, whilst food shopping in Dunnes, when some geezer who sounded like the bastard son of Prince Philip and Winston Churchill came over the supermarket tannoy to advise Irish shoppers of the week's special offers.
Why? Why on earth would the Irish want price advice from somebody who sounds like the evil absentee landlord who burned their great granddad's barn to the ground?
Accents evolved so that we might easily identify our kinfolk, but they don’t seem to help others identify us back. While I lived in California, my English accent was constantly mistaken for Australian. It made no difference if I gave it London Large and came over all Phil Mitchell, they still thought I was a sad bad very physically-challenged surfer from Sydney.
When I got back to Ireland I made a terrible mess of things. Sitting on a barstool chatting with a charming barmaid called Kerry, I thought it reasonable to ask her if she came from the Kingdom. Raising her eyebrows with shock and disdain, she put her hands on her hips, threw back her head and with pride announced that she came from Texas, that I should never forget it, and that maybe I’d drunk enough.
Trouble was, y’see, finding myself suddenly back in the Haemorrhoid Hisle, I mistook that strong seam of the Irish within the American accent for the real thing!
Mind you, that tale withers in comparison to the cock-up I made when I first moved to Connemara. Eager to establish myself at the local pub, I sat at the bar for many hours drinking, I er I mean investing in my rural future.
Anyway, all around me I heard an alien language, voices peaking troughing laughing and shouting words I understood not a bit.
I felt sure that given time, I’d pick up the local lingo, and knew from experience that if I sat there long enough, with a smile on my face, some kind soul would reach out and engage me in conversation.
Sure enough, a few pints later, one of the older farmer gents turned to me and asked what sounded to me at the time like:
“Didjagh kafoolly higheeloor jubblish?”
To which I replied as politely as I could:
“Sorry, but I don’t speak Irish!”
Instantly came the reply:
“Neither do I ye feckin eedjit. I’m talking English to ya!”

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Once more life is like my Chelsea - brash, brazen and unpredictable

This Sunday, live on Sky TV’s Super Sunday Match Of The Decade All New Must See Exclusive Major Television Event, my beloved Chelsea will travel to Anfield to take on Liverpool.

Will we win? Will the mighty Blues come out as one fighting unit and bury the reasonable doubts raised over the past few months? Will the players be ready to fight and die for Luiz Felipe Scolari?

Or will we Chelsea fans be treated once again to the heart-chilling sight of a bunch of overpaid eccentric selfish egomaniacs having a bit of a lackadaisical kickabout, only to finally relinquish the result and fail to attract future employers?

Strange as it might seem, I’m delighted to say that I haven’t a clue.

In what is turning out to be the best Premiership season for many years, I have got my Chelsea back.

I can’t say I’m loving it, because to be a true Chelsea fan is to suffer forty-fold for every moment of glory or joy, but at least my world is back where it belongs.

During the Jose Mourinho years, everything was ridiculously predictable. We had a manager who was not only handsome compared to other football managers (mind you, a shaved pineapple singing ‘My Way’ would walk away with the best-looking bird at the Premiership Managers Ball) but also so cool and charismatic that along with American Express, every woman and half of the men in the world wanted to own him; have him; use him for their own depraved ends.

But all Mourinho wanted to do was to inspire the ‘Group’, and for a few brief years Chelsea metamorphosed into the antithesis of all they had ever stood for as a club.

We couldn't be beaten at home. We won back-to-back league titles, and picked up domestic cups as if they were birthday presents; ours by right each year.

Everybody hated that Chelsea, and even the most true Blue fans such as my sad self could not pretend to enjoy the remorselessly effective football that pulverised opponents.

Like watching a glacier grind a mountainside, it was always impressive, yet not great spectator sport.

Now that Chelsea have returned to normal, everything can go wrong and invariably does.

Manchester United didn’t just beat us, they destroyed us, and the egos in the Blues dressing room are bouncing around like a teenager’s testicles.

Scolari is clearly an intelligent and pleasant man. Having won the World Cup with Brazil, he’s a cross between Gene Hackman and Garfield the cartoon cat.

Larger-than-life, whilst still cuddly and cute, he might not be the perfect man to manage a Premiership-winning side (Sir Alex is undoubtedly the blueprint for that), Scolari represents the purest essence of what a Chelsea manager should be.

He thinks that everybody loves him, even when it is clear that most people think he’s lost the plot, and he never had a sub-plot to turn to in emergencies.

Despite a massive improvement in his English, I watch him on tele, wondering how inspiring his pep talks can possibly be, to players such as John Terry and Michael Ballack, whose skills represent, shall we say, the more utilitarian and less beautiful side of football.

When Big Phil goes:

“Today is game is ver’ ver’ himportan’, because we do not go boom boom, but bap bap bap and then pip pop on the left and yesterday in training must not be again, never never again, because I want you all to love Chelsea and never not give hup!”

Do J.T. and Frank Frank Super Frankie Lampard understand what their manager is after at all, or do they just nod, smile and go

“Yeh, right boss, we’ll put the boot right in, good and proper!”

So now my football team once more reflects the way I see life, wherein victories are precious and unpredictable affairs to be cherished, while losses and draws are accepted with nobility and humility, learned from and promptly forgotten.

Even though I deeply suspect that Manchester United will once again win the league this year, I live in hope, and in the meantime take great delight in watching our rivals losing their minds.

Each year Raffa Benitez and Arsene Wenger look and sound less like classy intelligent football managers, and more like characters out of a Samuel Beckett play:

‘Waiting for Chewy’ 

in which a Spaniard and a Frenchman sit on a bench, ranting and raving in paranoiac and unintelligible outbursts either side of a silent gum-chewing Scotsman. 

Away from mad managers there are always the players, those bastions of sanity and wisdom who crash their 2 day-old quarter million pound Ferraris into walls without raising their heartbeat, and know no more about the price of eggs than a chicken does about taking penalties. 

Back in the bad old days of Chelsea’s inglorious past, we had characters on the playing staff that'd make the indubitably talented pretty boy Christiano Ronaldo look like the vacuous pompous and pimply little twerp he truly is.

Blond striker Teddy Maybank first played for Chelsea in 1975, but is best remembered for an appearance on Cilla Black’s TV show, ‘Blind Date.’

Everything went well on his romantic weekend away with his TV date, but he really should have told his wife, who watched the show on tele and kicked him where no stud should ever stray.

The wonderful Mickey Thomas had many successful years at Chelsea in the 1980’s, but in 1993 he was coaching Wrexham, and passing forged £10 notes to his own players. After he was nicked good and proper, Mickey had the presence of mind to ask in court 

“Anyone got a tenner for the phone?”

This verbal genius, from the same source of pure Chelsea humour who when asked to comment on high player wages, responded:

“Roy Keane’s on a 100 Grand a week. So was I until the police found my printing machine!” 

Win lose or draw, I’ll stay Chelsea blue to the end. Manchester United might win more championships and trophies than Chelsea, but their records are marked only by what they fail to achieve.

There is precious little joy in their victories, only feelings of failure when they are beaten. 

Now that Chelsea are back to their unpredictable worst, I’ll celebrate each Chelsea goal as it comes along, aware that like each breath I take, it might be the last!