Monday 30 March 2009

Ireland promises ‘Céad Mile Fáilte’, but “No problem at all!” is as good as it gets!

I’m in a cosy warm lightly-lit pub in Lehinch, Co Clare, sitting alone at the bar, happy as this scribbler can be.
This is what the tourists who come to Ireland want: as real a slice of Irish life as it is possible to experience.
A few families are eating fish and chips around the tables along the wall, their kids playing, dancing and generally treading that fine line between being delightfully exuberant and intrusively annoying.
But I am a visitor, and they live here.
The late afternoon March twilight has brought with it a strong westerly wind. Gigantic breakers are crashing over the sea wall, drenching intrepid walkers, yet in here, in this calm cocoon of 'Clareness', we are safe.
Well, safe from the elements, but by god, that Guinness tastes good. It took forever to settle, but was well worth the wait. What is it that country pubs do with the black stuff that city pubs cannot? Is it purely the fact that city Guinness is served so cold?
Whatever, I must savour it slowly as I’m driving, so this sweet creamy tulip of lurrrve can be my only drink.
My fish and chips arrive, and as I eat I look into the mirror behind the bar, and espy the reflection of an older gentleman. We are, in effect, sitting next to each other, each side of the wooden bar divider, and as I watch him in the mirror, slowly but deliberately eating his steak and chips, I wonder if I’m looking straight into my future.
Will I be that bloke when I’m old and grey?
At first I feel a slosh of sadness inside me at the prospect, but immediately know better.
Who am I to assume that he is lonely and sad? The barman knows his name, and their exchanges are witty and polite.
Could do worse. Could do a lot worse than feel a part of a community like this. Anchored to the edge of the Atlantic ocean, folk here know their own ways and are served dinner in the local pub by a barman who knows everybody’s name.
Himself the barkeep is evidently the hub of the place. One by one all the regular customers come up to him, dropping off keys, having a wee chat, as he flies around, smiling, calm and so on top of things that he even has time to ask me a couple of polite non-invasive questions, just to make me feel noticed and welcome.
Some out there seem to think that this recession has brought out the best in us; that now that our jobs are on longer secure, we are acting ‘nicer’ to help our struggling businesses do better.
I think that notion does us all a terrible disservice. It’s not like we’ve spent the last five years running around in togas, drinking wine from bladders, falling on top of each other in naked orgiastic heaps. Just like in every so-called ‘boom’, a few people became very rich indeed, and the rest of us found life marginally easier to get through for a few years.
We are not now modifying our behaviour because we got soundly slapped down for being too greedy and decadent. No, we are able to behave more humanly now because we have reverted to type: humans are good, generally.
Money, in itself, is never the problem. Having had the pleasure of hanging out with the Duke of Bedford and Lord Montague of Beaulieu, I found the old blue bloods as down-to-earth and grounded as you or me. Daft as brushes and twice as fruity, just like the rest of us, but fine human beings who know how to handle their dosh, because they were born to it.
Here the trouble came, as ever, with new money. The Irish suffered predictably from their first taste of affluence, and have doubtless learned from the experience.
Damn, that Guinness is nearly gone, but I daren't have another. Some text that’d be to the Snapper as she arrives at Shannon Airport:
‘Sorry love, pissed in Lehinch. Get a taxi here or home and I’ll catch you tomorrow.’
Hmm. No. Self control, Adley.
“How was your fish and chips?”
”Great! Lovely, thanks very much!”
“No problem. No problem at all!”
says he, as he swings into the kitchen to ferry another load of grub to punters, a smile of sweet pride spread over his lips.
Yes indeed, the Irish are back to being their old selves again, and
“No problem at all!”
is as good as it gets.
There are so many unique ways that the Irish have made the English language their own. Through everyday giants like ‘Mighty’ and ‘Grand’ to the guilt-laden depths of the word ‘Shame’, the Irish have superimposed their culture, religion and souls over the words of the Old Enemy.
But with their ‘No problem’ the Irish have nailed their history to their vocabulary. Everywhere I have ever been in the world, food, goods and services are delivered with something akin to ‘It’s a pleasure’; ‘Thanks’ ; ‘You’re Welcome’ or ‘Enjoy!’
Here in Ireland they evidently decided that they’ve suffered enough. No longer subjugated, they adamantly refuse to feel they must serve anybody, an atitude which can cause problems in the service industryI
By twisting the customer/server relationship until it is a mirror-image of itself, their ‘No problem’ makes you, the punter, feel inordinately lucky to have been given anything, so the very least you can do is pay for it.
I give you money.
You give me beer.
What part of that might ever be a problem?
But then my mobile phone rings and it turns out to be the woman from Hibernian Aviva, calling about the car insurance.
She just wanted to let me know that the Underwriters had authorised her to go ahead and give me my refund retrospectively!
I am momentarily dumbfounded. A couple of weeks ago I had mentioned to her that I might be worthy of a refund, but I never really expected to hear from her again. Yet behind the scenes, for absolutely no profit to Hibernian Aviva save goodwill, she has been beavering away on my behalf and just saved me €80.
I thank her profusely.
“You’re very welcome!” she says, “It was my pleasure!”
Fantastic, splendid and, of course, bugger.
Shows just how wrong I can be.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Is Jury’s car park a Testicular Priority Zone?

One of the great things about walking into Galway City is that you never know exactly what might happen. If you look straight ahead and do not engage with the rest of the world, there’s a chance you might get everything crossed off your list and be back at the car, job done, nifty nifty.
There’s also the chance that, even if you send out the ‘don’t come near me I am a dangerous predator’ vibes, the sister of the bloke your mate went out with will suddenly feel overcome by the desire to walk over and say hello, and even though you haven’t a clue who they are, they seem nice and sure, let’s go for a coffee, and before you know it four hours have passed and you have to dash home and liberate the kitty from the clutches of the hamster.
All very possible, as long as your car is not in a Pay and Display spot, because then you’ll only have two hours to do everything, see everybody and get back to your motor.
So I go to Jury’s car park, because there I get a ticket which is payable upon leaving, leaving me free to enjoy Galway as long as I want to. A typical example of the late 20th century multi-storey, Jury’s car park has sharp bends, steep ramps, and white-lined parking bays that are just wide enough to squeeze yer family saloon into, using both side mirrors. But once your motor is safely ensconced in Jury’s, you are free to linger in town or leg it out, do a runner sharpish, depending on whether you bump into friend of foe.
Unlike anywhere else in town, your time in Galway is not dictated by the time on your ticket.
But the Snapper, by her own admission “doesn’t do Jury’s car park”, and neither does Angel’s wife, and nor do several other women of my acquaintance.
Much as we men are constantly reminded by ye women that we are useless at multi-tasking (and me here right now all typing, thinking, blinking and breathing, simultaneous and co-ordinated despite dangly bits between the legs) you are surely fairly willing to accept some limitations in the arena of spatial aptitude.
We know that women are safe drivers, because insurance companies are interested only in making money and they rate women drivers as better risks than men, but is there something about all those twisty-turny first gear climbs and manoeuvring into tight-squeezed spaces that puts the wind up the fairer gender?
Is Jury’s car park a Testicular Priority Zone?
Before you start plunging your lubed Rabbits into my jugular vein, take a deep breath and realise that I’m only asking. Of course there are some females who use Jury’s car park, but many don’t, yet not one bloke I know would hesitate to swing in there and enjoy its temporal benefits.
So let me know if you’re a woman who uses it, enjoys it, and also, could you please tell me if any of you stop using Jury’s during your PMS days?
Is it possible that like the adult arachnophobe who was once a six year-old who suffered a scary spider in his sandwich, some of the women who refuse to use Jury’s car park were traumatised by their first attempt, which unbeknownst to them happened to coincide with a dose of Pre-menstrual syndrome?
Believe me, I’m well aware that my hypothesis at this point looks ridiculously obscure, preposterous and irrelevant enough to score a massive funding grant from some high-blown academic research institute, but it has long been accepted that during the pre-menstrual days, there is a pronounced drop in the level of a woman’s mechanical and mental efficiency, causing impaired reactions and judgement.
And why do I give a damn? What have the workings of a woman’s inner sanctum got to do with this lowly scribbler?
Nothing personal, ladies. I’m just curious.
At this point I cite the case made by the American lawyer, jurist, and political commentator Alan M. Dershowitz, in his 1994 report: ‘The PMS Defense, The Abuse Excuse, and Other Cop-outs, Sob Stories and Evasions of Responsibility’ in which he describes an incident involving a female orthopaedic surgeon who was pulled over by a US state trooper on Thanksgiving night, after he saw her swerving her BMW.
When the trooper asked the driver how much she’d had to drink, she identified herself as “a doctor” and told the trooper that it was none of his “damn business.”
The trooper then asked her to place her hands on top of her head, but instead she tried to kick him in the groin, yelling: “You son of a [expletive]; you [expletive] can't do this to me; I'm a doctor. I hope you [expletive] get shot and come into my hospital so I can refuse to treat you, or if any other trooper gets shot, I will also refuse to treat them.”
After being arrested, the driver kicked the Breathalyzer machine, before failing the test and being charged with drunken driving.
The driver’s lawyer argued that women absorb alcohol more quickly during their pre-menstrual cycle and that women with PMS became more irritable and hostile than other people.
Amazingly the Virginia judge figured this made a lot of legal sense, and acquitted the woman. Needless to say, the doctor and her lawyer were ecstatic, but my point is this:
As the first-known instance of a PMS acquittal, it may well prove to be a test case, serving as a precedent for future cases.
As a bloke I am the least-able person to judge whether a woman suffering from PMS might be safe behind the wheel, or an insanely raging hormonal death deliverer in charge of a fast-moving lethal weapon.
According to the above court of Virginian law, a women suffering from PMS is also the least-able person to judge her own driving. If she can’t even control herself when talking to a copper, how is she meant to keep to the Highway Code?
Even though I can already feel your female fury bubbling up as I scribble, there is no hint here of sexism.
Simply, if you’re a woman driver who frequently uses Jury’s car park in Galway, please let me know if it feels more challenging parking in there when you’re suffering from PMS, and if so, ergo, do you think you are safe to drive?

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Meanwhile, back in the Bank branch, I’m trying to be nice and remain calm!


It’s official. The word ‘iconic’ has just become iconic. It’s an iconic word. Pure iconic.
Our 21st century culture craves ultimates as if there indeed is no tomorrow. The God of Greed no longer sits up high on Mount Olympus, so you need to find a new inspiration, seeking hyperbole and exaggeration where adjectives and a varied vocabulary used to do a fair job. It’s no longer sufficient for anything to be unique, special, vital or extraordinary.
If it’s not iconic it’s not worth a busted light bulb.
In the past few days I have heard Salt and Vinegar being described as an iconic crisp flavour; Granny Smiths declared an iconic apple variety, and Charlie Haughey referred to as an iconic leader.
Tell me pray, where does cheeky Charlie’s iconic photo fit on the iconic Irish dresser? Somewhere between the Pope and Jacks Kennedy and Charlton?


Rain or shine, rich or poor, every time I undress I have always emptied any change in my pockets into my coin jars. The €1 and €2 coins go into the Jameson Twelve gift-set bottle holder, and all the smaller ones clish-clash into the regular Jameson bottle holder.
Living as I do on a 24 hour financial cycle, as soon as I have notes in my wallet I break them into change, which I empty into my jars like a man possessed, or to be truthful, like a man who knows only too well how quickly those crisp notes disappear and how great it is to have a replenished coin jar when the cash is no longer flowing in.
I dip daily in and out of the Euro jar, but never ever touch the change jar. When that is full it's mine to use as a special treat, maybe a meal out with the Snapper or a new pair of walking boots.
So it was with a smile and a spring in my step that I set out to the bank to swap my carefully-counted coin bags for lovely fresh folding notes.
Thankfully the bank was really quiet. I always seem to be the bloke in queue stuck behind the bloke with the bloody bag full of coins that need sorting, and that day I was that bloke with the bag of coins, and didn’t want to hold anybody up.
But cushty, straight up to the counter and having established that it’s okay to swap coin, I put my bags on the counter, a thrill running through me about the €163 about to fall into my eager palm.
The teller was a 50 year-old woman who I think was having a bad day. Hey, I’m a compassionate guy, and well aware how hard it must be working in a bank these days. As the major point of contact between the bank and public, tellers have been subjugated to abuse from punters who need to vent their anger at the banks’ greed and ineptitude.
I knew this, and have worked many years in retail, so I sympathise with the workers’ plight. I smiled and engaged the woman, like
“...oh yes I must say we really seem to be into Spring now the evenings are drawing out and the mornings well it’s so light so early now...”
kinda thing, d’ya know, to ease her load and show her I’m not angry with her at all, because I never kill the messenger, and am sure that her worst crimes concern a fleeting kiss with Mikey round the back of the barn when she was 22 and going out with Seanie and should have known better, and awarding herself an extra 25 points when she was playing Scrabble with her sister-in-law who she just cannot stand, sure isn’t it terrible, but she just can’t seem to stop herself thinking she’s a conniving cow that one is, so she is, not even close to worthy of her brother, so she isn’t.
An evil investment banker who has fraudulently robbed millions she was not.
But for once my smile and social skills failed miserably.
As the teller turned to look at my coin bags, the first words out of her mouth were:
“That one is short. Hmmph, and that one looks more than a tenner.”
Having sat for two hours at my kitchen table with aching back, blackened fingers, pen and pad, I felt pretty sure my bags were all correct, but nevertheless my heart sank. Yer wan behind the counter was way more experienced at spotting errant coin bags than I ever could be, so maybe it was all about to go horribly wrong.
But no. All the bags were taken off, weighed and counted, and she came back and stated simply:
Sadly and rather embarrassingly, this made me feel instantly and ridiculously proud and as happy as if I had just been awarded the Nobel prize for Literature.
I had made the miserable teller eat coin bag, and now she was going to give me three €50 notes, a€10, a and three €1 coins.
“Now, that’s €163, less €2 charge, so €161.”
“Oh, when did you start charging?”
“We always have charged if you are not lodging.”
“Oh well, in that case I must have enjoyed a great deal of goodwill up to now, as I have been doing this about once every six months for years, and nobody has ever charged me before.”
And then came her weird and basically nasty reply:
“Oh, you never got caught yet?”
Caught? Pardon me? I’m well aware that the task she just performed took a little time, and that the bank made nothing from the transaction, but well, bloody hell, pubs don’t charge you for a glass of water, do they?
It’s just seen as common decency. I was a simple bloke emptying his coin jar, hoping that the bank would swap coins for notes, on a non-formal non-commercial level.
I wasn’t a robber, or a criminal pervert, or god forbid, a banker!
Let’s face it, right now banks surely need to learn some Public Relations skills, drastically and massively. Where is Max Clifford when you need him? Goodwill as ever comes from the banks in the form af accusation, impatience and disrespect.
Meanwhile back in the branch your colyoomist was trying to remain calm.
Be nice.
Don’t seethe.
Don’t curse.
“No, madam, I could never have been ‘caught’, because I wasn’t trying to get away with anything!”

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Three pubes on the bed said ‘Good old Ireland’ is still the home of ‘Bad old Ireland’!

I’m heading north up the N17 to visit the Whispering Giant of Derry City. It feels good to be on the road, and even better to stop in Ballindine and wonder where I’m going to spend this extra night that I’ve allowed myself.
Dude, I’m all open-minded and free of spirit.
Well, as full of all that fallutin’ tootin’ hippy stuff as I can be, having planned this moment of ‘pure spontaneity’ several weeks ago.
A few minutes later I realise that I have never had a Breakfast Roll. All that I have ever had is something I though might be a Breakfast Roll, but was only in fact a roll crammed with sausages and rashers and sauces of many colours.
All the lads in front of me are asking for breakfast rolls, but they follow their orders with specifics that I cannot make out. I can just ask for a sausage and bacon roll, but as I’ve just explained, in my ignorance that was what I then believed a Breakfast Roll to be!
Ever eager to be one of the lads, I ask her for a Breakfast Roll, and then she asks if I want everything, and I say yes, please.
And then I stand back, silently impotent (oooerr) as she proceeds to overstuff my baguette with so many differing and unlikely items I wonder if this really is the famous/notorious Irish Breakfast Roll, or whether I am in fact on Candid Camera, or simply having the piss ripped out of me because she’s had a bad night and I look like I deserve it.
Sitting down to eat, I feel a rush of admiration for all the lads out there who live on these things, if this thing is truly their thing.
Impossible to eat as a sandwich, I pick out the mushrooms, onions, olives, Albanian Goatherd testicles and deep-fried cat nipples and basically proceed to shnarf a Full Irish breakfast in my fingers: bloody lovely, but lads, seriously, time to hit the Benecol.
The radio spouts dire warnings of a major weather system coming in off the Atlantic. Expect flooding and structural damage.
Yippee, think I! Quite apart from the Rory Gallagher connection, I’ve always wanted to go to Ballyshannon, and tonight the place will be whipped good and proper by that storm. Nothing like sitting in a cosy pub on a winter’s night with half the Atlantic ocean being thrown onto the roof. Lovely!
North of Sligo, opposite the imposing Ben Bulben, I swing into Yeat’s Pub for a break, cup of tea, hmm, nice.
Well, er no. Not nice. Bland grey glass steel and stone, modern and anonymous. As soon as I walk into the bar I wish I hadn’t. I desperately hope nobody sees me, but they do. Sad pale customers, a scattered few, helpless and forlorn, look over at me plaintiff, as if their souls have been sucked out and might only return if I rescue them from this antiseptic godforsaken place. The barperson looks over smiling, but it’s too late. I’m out of there before you can say ‘Waiting Room For Hell’.
Give me a wooden pub with a fire, three old fellas and a dog dribbling on the carpet: lovely. If you’re naming something after an Irish poet, then let it be a tiny bit lyrical and Irish. Otherwise just call it the Munich Bar or the Dallas Inn, and be done with it.
As it turns out, it’s just as well I don’t take a break, as the weather is really kicking in. Trees are bending horizontal, and I’m mighty pleased to pull into the hotel car park in Ballyshannon.
The three ladies in reception quote me a price which sounds pretty steep, but so tired am I and aware that this is my one night away on my own, that I accept and make conversation. As soon as they discover I live in Salthill, and so am no longer an English tourist, the price suddenly drops by 20 quid for the night.
Whoopee! Up the Irish! Up the English!
Right up.
My room is spacious, clean and lovely, but colder than a day-old polar bear peeper, so I call down and ask ever so politely what time the heating might be coming on, please?
The lady is gushingly apologetic, and acts immediately to counteract the storm that wants to share my room.
Fair enough, can’t do better. Except, perchance, heat two or three vacant rooms, on the off chance of customers?
Then off into the howling gale rain-lashed Ballyshannon night, where I find a tiny wooden bar with two fellas, a woman and no dog, but I am home. The gents are conversing about their days. Himself didn’t get up ‘til midday. De other fella woke up at 10, had a fag and a cup of tea, and took himself back to bed.
I grew up in England and will never cease to admire the brazen lack of work ethic in parts of Irish society. Back in Blighty these lads would have to sound either apologetic or extremely appreciative of their lie-ins, yet here it’s just seen as a way of getting through the winter, and ah sure feckit.
The next morning, going to breakfast early, i find the lights on in the restaurant but nobody home. I can hear a cook in the kitchen behind the door, but nobody knows I’m here.
After sitting like a sad solitary plonker for 15 minutes I knock on the kitchen door, whereupon the cook calls the waitress.
Far from apologising, she basically tells me off for not having walked past reception, to alert the woman there that I wanted breakfast.
“Oh, so are you that woman on reception?” I ask.
“I am!” she declares, walking into the kitchen to chat with the cook.
When I check out the same lass is back at the reception desk. I tell her that the room was lovely, save for the three big fat black pubes I found on my sheets as I turned down the bedcovers.
She covers her mouth with her hand and splutters
“Oh no! That’s disgusting!” through her splayed fingers.
But that’s all she says. There isn’t going to be an apology or, (dare one dream a little?) a discount.
Ballyshannon was great, but as ever good old Ireland is still the home of bad old Ireland!

Monday 2 March 2009

The time has come to stand in the streets together and be counted!

I’ve been trying really hard not to write about the financial crisis blah recession blah economic downturn blah blah, because if you’re anything like me, you’re fed up to the back teeth with it. If you lost your job or can’t find a new one, the only thing you need less than the sight of failed bankers and corrupt politicians talking at you from your tele is yet more printed matter running past your eyes going oooh errr isn’t it awful.
Yeh, you’re probably as bored of all the excreta that has already been dribbled about this banking crisis as I am, and yet there’s one gripe inside me, like a mental tapeworm, niggling my thoughts, growing off my annoyance, biting into my anger, becoming gigantic gorging on my outrage.
The only way I can stop this parasite popping its head out of my mouth and sinking its chomping great fangs into my head is to dump it on you, so here goes.
Did you hear the one about Paddy O’Reilly? A few years ago, at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom, Paddy wanted to start a business, so off he went to his bank and filled out all the forms, after which he was given a whacking great loan.
Trouble was, Paddy’s inflatable pineapple business went down the pan. Exhausted and depressed, Paddy applied for another loan, got it, but instead of using it wisely, he proceeded to blow the money on fast cars and slow women. Unable to make the repayments, Paddy went to see his bank manager, asking for money to pay off the loan.
His bank manager said that the bank would be delighted to give Paddy all the money he needed. The bank would pay off the loan, no strings, and in fact, the bank would add a bit extra, like, do ya know the way, like, to make sure that Paddy could get back on his feet after all his troubles, maybe buy the missis a nice day at the spa.
Paddy was over the moon. He walked away debt free, with a wad of cash in his pocket and a present for the wife.
What was that you said? You didn’t hear that one?
Well no, neither did I, because it never happened.
Coming soon to an Inferiority Complex near you: ‘Robin Hood Through the Looking Glass’, a classic tale of robbing the poor to pay the rich. From the makers of Recession, directed by people who told you that you lost your job in the name of efficiency, comes the sensational idea that to boost the economy, governments need to rob the public and give their money to banks.
You can try to blind me with financial science; twist my brain with explanations of short selling; contort my consciousness with talk of derivatives and send me hoolallly noony trying to justify hedge funds ‘til you’re blue in the face, it’ll make no difference.
We get it. We understand. We know that we, in good faith, gave banks our money, which they gambled greedily and lost. We know that our money doesn’t really sit in a vault at the back of the branch. We know that banks don’t even own the money they loan as mortgages, which begs the question: how are they able to repossess our houses?
What’s more, we now know that there is no real money at all, but instead electronic signals that rise, fall, or sink without trace at the drop of a noodle in Tokyo, or a flash of sunspot activity.
We know that if we lived our lives budgeting in the same way as governments and banks, we’d all be broke, jobless and licking the pavement for something to eat.
So given all that, here’s the niggling thought that has eaten me up for months:
Why do we have to give up our heard-earned wages to save failed banks? When did banks become more important than people? Why do we need to be the medicine? The idea of them doing the same for us, of banks being there for us normal human beings when times get tough, is as ridiculous as Paddy O'Reilly's tale.
We know how it works with banks. When you’re in the money they love you, and send you stuff in the post all the time, encouraging you to become beholden to them by debt as quickly as possible.
When you haven’t got money, or when times are hard, banks don’t want to know.
‘You should have been more prudent when you had that cash!’ they tell you.
‘Come back and see us when you have some collateral or capita!’ they say.
‘Why not start a savings account, and try to build up your financial base?’ they ask.
Basically, get lost poor boy, we don’t want to know.
And now, having behaved worse than a bunch of drunken gambling addicts on speed and Daddy’s yacht, they expect us to give them our money.
Many people seem to think that the welfare of banks is more important than that of we, the people. If you know what I’m missing here, please let me know.
In the meantime, I’m wondering if it’s not time for our worm to turn. Why should you be jobless just because some tosspot in a button-down collar decided to short sell your company’s shares? Why are our wages going to pay for the bankers’ bookies bills? What chance would you have turning up at your local bank branch with a failed betting slip from the 3.45 at Punchestown Races, and insisting they give you the money that you would have won if your horse had possessed a leg at each corner. Yes, you admit, you backed a horse that had three legs, but the odds were astronomical, just too good to resist, so give me the money.
Of course it’s absurd, yet no less absurd than banks expecting the same favours from us.
At what point do the downtrodden masses decide that we are as mad as hell and not willing to take it any more? The French, as usual, were first to scent revolution, marching disgruntled (as only the French can) through the streets of Paris, protesting about the way the people were being made to suffer for the sins of the bankers.
Maybe this is the big one. Maybe it’s time to stand in the streets together, and be counted.