Friday, December 24, 2010

Season's Greetings (Or Whatever)

I don't do the whole Xmas thing - I'm not a Christian, and I hate all the vulgarity and hysterical consumerism that has sludged up around December 25th - but it's a nice time to take a break from things and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet (well it is for me, as I (thankfully) don't have children). But whatever y'all plan on doing for the season - whether it's soulful contemplation or funnelling tequila - I hope you enjoy it, and feel better afterwards than before. And here's a song which, curiously, rarely gets played on commercial radio. Funny, that.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Music

I went out this morning at around 7.45 to clean the ice off my windscreen, and as I did so I felt a slight tickle on the tip of my nose. "I hope that's not what I think it is," I thought to myself as I flung a saucepan of lukewarm water over my car. Twenty minutes later, the snow was falling so heavily that I couldn't see the trees at the end of the field behind my house and I was sending an e-mail to work informing them that I wouldn't be travelling today. If anyone ever uses the words "white Christmas" or "winter wonderland" in my presence, I'll probably run amuck and need to be restrained by several burly police officers...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dear Brian (A Letter To Our Minister For Finance In The Wake Of The Budget)

Dear Brian,
At the end of your budget speech on Tuesday last you said: "A Cheann Comhairle, there is every reason to be confident about the future of this economy and this country if we only have confidence in ourselves." An admirable sentiment, I thought. The only problem, of course, is that I don't believe you. In fact, I find it impossible to believe anything you say at this stage, because you have been utterly wrong so many times, to the point where the only credible options are that you were totally unprepared and incompetent in the face of the catastrophe that has dominated our lives since 2008, or that you are complicit in a strategy designed to protect a wealthy handful at the expense of the many. 
How else can we explain your comment on the astonishing 2008 bank guarantee, when you made the debts of Ireland's most amoral, despicable scumbags, the greedy, worthless vermin who sat on the banks' boards and ran their institutions into the ground while lavishly rewarding themselves, into a debt carried by the homeless, the unemployed, the disabled, and everyone else who lives in this godforsaken country - how could you say (with a straight face) that it was "the cheapest bailout in the world so far", when now, two years later, it has led directly to the arrival of the IMF? When the banks' losses will strangle any hope of economic activity in this State for years, possibly decades? Did you actually believe it when you said it, or was it a barefaced lie? 
Well, how about last year's Budget speech, when you said: "As we begin to emerge from the unrelenting economic gloom of the last eighteen months, we need to rediscover our optimism and our self-belief. Now more than ever, we need that confidence on which business thrives. The measures contained in this Budget, some of them unpalatable, will engender that confidence."  There's that word again! But those measures didn't engender confidence, unless you count being priced out of the bond markets a resounding success and having to call in the IMF a triumph of forward planning. If you were so wrong then, how can we possibly believe that you are right now? Especially when you have been voted Europe's worst finance minister for two years running by The Financial Times, hardly a bastion of lefties and liberals (and you were second-worst in 2008, the year you took the job).
I wish, Brian, that you would tell me (what I believe to be) the truth for once, and break the habit of a lifetime. I wish you would come out and say, some evening, on Prime Time: "We guaranteed the banks to protect our friends who were customers of those banks, because we were too deluded to believe the evidence that was right in front of our eyes, that our banks were not just bust, but so bust that they had the potential to sink the State. We gambled because we thought we could bluff our way out of it, and because Fianna Fail never really bothers to think through the consequences of its actions. We did it because that's what Fianna Fail has always done: it rescues the powerful and dumps their debts on the weak, because I'd prefer to see a crooked banker stay rich than upset the cosy status quo which pretends that the people running our top institutions have any more morals than a Sheriff Street drug dealer. And even though none of my policies have worked, and I'll be remembered as the finance minister who screwed up the country so badly that the EU and the IMF had to come in to fix it, I don't care even slightly because I'm set for life with my huge pension, and maybe a comfy position in Europe. So why should I give a toss if the peasants are rooting through dustbins for food and emigrating in their droves because anywhere is better than here?"
But that's not the Fianna Fail way, is it? Telling the truth, I mean. After all, doesn't the old joke say: "How can you tell a Fianna Fail TD is lying? His lips move." You are a part of that privileged group, along with the consultants and lawyers and semi-state directors and bankers and stockbrokers and top civil servants and all the others who comprise the golden circles in our country, who view Ireland as their own personal fiefdom, who believe that the misery and poverty of others matters not a jot as long as their bellies is full and their pockets bulging, that there is no limit to what they should be paid, that the coffers of the State are there for them to indulge themselves with, and that anyone who behaves otherwise is deserving of contempt.
Well, Brian, I'm one of those little people you so despise. I'm on a low income, and have spent the last two years in a continual state of anxiety and depression thanks to you and your mates and your 'tough decisions'. The phrase 'tough decisions', which gives right-wing economists an erection (as long as the tough decisions aren't being applied to them), is one that your Government has trotted out continuously, but it's blatantly obvious that your supposed toughness only extends to abusing the vulnerable and helpless. Where was your steely resolve when dealing with that shower of scum who ran our banks? The people who  have wrecked our economy (thanks to your guarantee) while telling you lie after lie about the state of their balance sheets? According to Morgan Kelly in October 2010, "apart from some token departures of executives too old and rich to care less, the senior management of the banks that caused this crisis continue to enjoy their richly earned rewards." Where were the sackings in 2008? Why weren't conditions included in the guarantee which made all previous pension arrangements with the banks' senior figures null and void, and any future pension arrangements subject to Department of Finance approval? How about a clause stating that any senior banker who knowingly lied to the Department would be imprisoned? Where were the speedy investigations for fraud? When Michael Fingleton, that piece of human excrement, walked away from his ruined bank with a pension worth millions, you wagged your finger and tut-tutted your disapproval, but when it came to cutting welfare you punched like Mike Tyson. Obviously, a fair fight interests you less than kicking the crutches out from under the disabled.
But let's get back to those tough decisions, the ones that will destroy so many lives (and this is a certainty: a whole generation will have their futures annihilated by your party's actions, but I guess it's not the first time, eh? After all, wasn't it your dear old Dad who said that there's wasn't enough room for everyone on this small island?). The problem I have with them is not simply the fact that they are barbaric; it is the fact that you've ploughed the same furrow for the past two years and it hasn't bloody worked! You've cut E14 billion out of the economy since 2008 and our problems have just gotten worse and worse. Of course, they haven't gotten worse for you or your cronies, because you've made sure that you're insulated from the deprivation you're inflicting on the poor with your huge salaries and lavish expenses. 
As I face next year, my wife and I are going to have to cut our own spending again, reducing our food bill, our fuel bill, and cancelling expenses we can no longer afford (like health insurance). All our bills will be going up at the same time as our earnings are being cut further. And every penny that we can no longer spend will provide another blow to local businesses, many of whom are already struggling to survive. A large unexpected expense (like, say, a new car) could quite literally reduce us to bankruptcy. And we're lucky, in that we have fat left to trim. How do you feel about those people who'll have to choose between food and heat this winter because of you? 
Of course, I could get another job but hey! There aren't any! Because people aren't spending money! And there we're back to that whole confidence issue again, aren't we, Brian? To fix the economy, we must have growth. To have growth, we must have jobs. To have jobs, people must spend money. To spend money, people must have money in the first place. But where are the jobs going to come from? There is no plan for stimulus in this or any budget you've proposed. Your savage cuts (and let's repeat: people will die as a result of your actions) would be almost bearable if every penny taken was being used to give Ireland world-class infrastructure, a top-notch universal health system, education facilities to rival the best, and so forth. But it isn't. It's only going to fill a hole left by Fianna Fail's appalling mismanagement of the last ten years, and if this country ever emerges from this pit, it will be even more behind its European partners than it was at the height of the boom. You're going to hobble the economy for a decade and hope that something turns up out of the blue to save you, the classic Fianna Fail policy. In terms of inspiration, it's up there with Homer Simpson's "let's hide under a pile of blankets and hope that somehow everything turns out alright." What's your plan for when more and more and more people start seriously defaulting on their mortgages as a result of these cuts, Brian? If 200,000 people can't pay back mortgages worth on average E300,000, that's E60 billion that our banks won't get back, isn't it? On top of the E50 billion that we've already pumped into these zombie institutions, and whatever other losses are hiding in the balance sheets that they've repeatedly lied about.
But that's not even the crux of the problem, Brian. The real issue, as many commentators have pointed out, is that Ireland simply cannot afford to repay the debts that you have saddled her with, regardless of how much taxes you raise or cuts you make. We're like a 35-year-old on E50,000 per annum who owes E50 million; no matter how much he cuts his spending he'll never have enough to pay it all back! Even if he were to hand over all his income and live on rainwater and twigs, it would still take decades longer than he'll probably live to hand over all the money. So this budget doesn't even bring any certainty; astonishing as it may seem, you're just kicking the problem into next year, in the anticipation of ... what, exactly, I don't know. Finding a giant stash of leprechaun gold in the Wicklow mountains? Or are Department of Finance alchemists working desperately on turning bullshit into gold, in which case you could clear off the national debt with your collected speeches? Or, cynical as it may seem, maybe you're just delaying the ultimate catastrophe until your party is safely on the opposition benches? All I know is that there's been over two years of this now: two years of stress and dread and sleepless nights, and thanks to you there's no end in sight, just the certainty of further chaos and hardship for the nation. 
Every day, I am so happy that I don't have children, and I cannot imagine the stresses that parents must be feeling right now. I wonder, as you're sitting around the dinner table this Christmas with your family, will you spare a thought for those whose pay or welfare you've reduced, who'll be having nightmares about the New Year? Or (the ultimate hypocrisy!) will you salve your conscience by giving a fraction of your enormous salary to charity? Would the sheer obscenity of such a gesture bother you? I doubt it, because, like your cabinet members, shame is an alien concept to you. If it wasn't, Brian Cowen and his whole cabinet would have resigned on September 30th 2008, the moment the bank guarantee exposed once and for all that the previous ten years were nothing more than a giant Ponzi scheme in which most of our top institutions were complicit, but instead he'll be remembered as both the second most worthless Minister for Finance (the prizewinner is your good self) and the second worst Taoiseach (the worst, obviously, being his immediate predecessor, Bertie Ahern) in the history of the State. 
You say, Brian, that we all partied in the Celtic Tiger years. I don't who this 'we' represents, but it doesn't represent me. I spent most of the Celtic Tiger earning a modest wage and spending prudently. Like many people, I was ripped off continually by my fellow countrymen, a fact which never seemed to bother the government of the day, your government. I never bought bank shares or had a credit card, and the crooks and morons running our banks never shared with me their profits, even though I'm now paying their colossal debts. I didn't buy an apartment in Bulgaria, and you probably spent more in expenses than I earned in a year. Even now, my only debt is my mortgage. But my standard of living will be destroyed by this and future budgets. And the people who partied the most are definitely not the people who are going to pay the most (unless you're an Irish Times reader who believes that not being able to afford a golfing holiday in South Africa is as serious as being made homeless). 
When you were sick recently, Brian, you no doubt received the best of care from the finest specialists, and it probably didn't bother you in the slightest that you were being jumped ahead of all those people who are poorer than you and cannot afford the most expensive private health insurance. Nothing reinforces that feeling of power like knowing that the peasants are waiting months and years for treatment that you can get instantly, does it? Nothing feels quite like sitting in your chauffeur-driven Merc as it cruises past people eating out of dustbins, or queuing for hours to collect their pittance from the dole, less in a year than you earn in a month, does it? And that's what it's all about, behind all the waffle that you excel at. The Ireland you seem to envisage is one where, to paraphrase Alan Moore, the top 10% will be better off and the bottom 10% better off dead. It will be a truly shameful legacy, and I hope that the electorate (and historians) treat you and your government with the contempt you deserve.
A Doubtful Egg.
(The above, very funny, image was borrowed from here. Copyright presumably belongs to its creator, and I hope they don't mind me using it. An excellent selection of Brian Lenihan's statements here. )

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wexford Sights (XXVI)

Earlier, as I went out on yet another icy morning, I saw a jet crossing the sky behind my house, its exhaust fumes lit by the rising sun. The photograph, lacking depth, makes it look like a falling star, and the following remarkable tune sprang to mind. 

Then I went inside and read this and this. The average bonus for AIB staff will be E16,700, nearly E100 more than what will be earned in a year by people on the new minimum wage* (which is quite possibly what those who clean the offices of the people receiving the bonuses are paid)). The original fallen angel must be laughing his Satanic little head off at this morally poisoned, irredeemably callous little sewer of a country...
(*E7.65 x 40 hours x 52 weeks: E15,912)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

While Waiting For An Egg To Boil....

I have an (hopefully not doubtful) egg boiling on the stove to fortify myself for the day ahead, as everything is still covered in snow. However, there seems to be a bit of a thaw occurring, so hopefully the white blanket on the land, which has definitely outstayed its welcome, will shortly be but a memory. 
I recently got visitor statistics on my blog, and am astounded to discover that my most popular post ever, which has so far received over three times as many visitors as the second-most popular, is this. Who'd have thunk it?
I think my egg is done! 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wexford Sights (XXV)

Rather than opening a new post every time I take a photo of something covered in snow, I'm putting them all into one post, which I'll update as I go along. From the top:

Ice hanging from a holly branch that looks startlingly like a short-bladed knife;
the shadow of icicles; 
reeds in the snow; 
two sparrows on a fence post; 
a slightly out-of-focus blackbird with a bite to eat; 
icicles hanging from the gables of my house;
the local crossroads this morning (as I was walking to the local shop to get supplies);
bird prints in the ice;
winter trees;
three pictures of the hound indulging himself;
two crows consider the snow from their vantage point on a wire;
three night pictures from around my house (the silence of a nocturnal snow-covered landscape is quite breathtaking);
the field behind my house;
two pictures of bird footprints.

My apologies for the wobbly focus in some, but my camera seems to have a problem focusing in bad light.
Here's a curiosity: if there's one thing you probably don't associate with winter and snow, it's surfing. The following song from 1964, by the Trade Winds, is about how difficult it is to be the only "surfer boy" in New York in winter, and uses surfing as a metaphor for being uprooted and moved from your old life (or something...). There'll be no surfin' there; and no one even cares!

Another appropriate song:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wexford Sights (XXIII)

Really heavy snow last night meant that I couldn't travel to Dublin, as the roads were dangerous, for the protest being held against the Government's despicable strategy of crucifying the poor to pay the gambling debts of the rich. It's estimated that at least 50,000 people were there: that's The Irish Times figure; an ICTU official on Facebook reckons it could have been as high as 120,000. It's possible that conservative, establishment sources (such as The IT and RTE) would deliberately underestimate the figure, just as it's possible that ICTU would overestimate it! I wonder how many were would have turned up if not for the weather. So I wandered around with my camera and took a few pictures instead (although my partner will be quick to point out that she took the one of the droplet on the branch). Hopefully the weather'll clear up for the next protest!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Wexford Sights (XXII)

I'm far too depressed to write anything lengthy, but with the aim of keeping this blog at least partly alive, I might as well post something for November. The top picture is of a redshank, captured using the furthest possible zoom on my camera; the bottom is of a dead dog washed up on Tinaberna Strand a few weeks back. Here's a song:

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Some Thoughts On The Guardian's 25 Best Horror Films

Generally, I think these contrived lists are a waste of time, but seeing as I have a longstanding interest in macabre cinema I thought I'd have a quick read through what The Guardian considers to be the 25 best horror films ever. (Can you believe that, in their opinion, the best film ever, in any category, was Chinatown? To use a vulgar acronym: WTF? Even ignoring the fact that the director raped a 13-year-old, it's baffling to me that this film would be chosen over so many more worthy options!) 
But on to horror! What follows is their list, and my thoughts on each one.
25) Les Vampires (1915): I haven't seen this one, so I can't comment.
24) Carrie (1976): I hated Carrie on the first and only time I ever watched it: it's a mean-spirited, nasty piece of exploitative junk, showcasing more than anything else its director's callousness and unpleasantness, with a silly shock ending that makes no sense, and De Palma seems to take far too much pleasure in killing off his cast. The only thing that redeems this film is Sissy Spacek. 
23) The Evil Dead I and II (1981/1987): I'd agree on the second one, easily the funniest slapstick horror ever made, but the first film is pretty weak.
22) The Blair Witch Project (1999): I really liked this when I saw it in the cinema, and admire greatly both the directors and the actors for creating such a convincing ghost story out of practically nothing, but I still can't get over the feeling that it was a little too low-key to work effectively.
21) Audition (1999): I saw this again recently and can agree that not only is it pretty stomach turning at times, it's probably one of the most troubling and intelligent gore movies you're likely to see. Highly recommended.
20) Dracula (1958): In terms of influence and audaciousness alone (for the time), you can't argue with this one (although I think Hammer made better films). If we're going for 1960s Gothic, though, I'd have included Mario Bava's Black Sunday instead.
19) Les Diaboliques (1955): I haven't seen this one, so I can't comment.
18) Bride of Frankenstein (1935): I'm one of the rare people who doesn't care for this film as much as I do for the original, which I feel should have got the nod (and why not include both). This film is deeper and more complex in some ways, but is hurt by unfunny comedy and sentimentality, as well as the feeling that James Whale didn't really care for the material. 
17) Halloween (1978): Again, you can't knock it for influence (although its influence has been entirely negative) but I really don't like Halloween. It's very well done, and if you're only going to watch one slasher film, make it either this or the first Nightmare on Elm Street. But if you've seen Halloween once, watching it again becomes a chore as you sit around waiting for likeable characters to take their turn to die. 
16) The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920): No arguments here! A classic.
15) Dead of Night (1945): This film's popularity baffles me. It's the dullest, most uninteresting anthology of ghost stories I've ever seen, with only its bizarre ending rousing me out of a bored reverie. Despite what The Guardian says, it's not creepy; there's never the slightest frisson of either fear or mystery. Yawn...
14) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): No arguments here. The TCM is an assault on the senses that's pretty well unforgettable. One might object to the misogynistic nature of the violence (a distressingly common complaint of 1970s horror films) but it still deserves a place on this list.
13) The Haunting (1963): The best haunted house film ever! Should be higher on the list too.
12) Ring (1998): An innovative and damned creepy contemporary ghost story from Japan. Well worth watching.
11) The Innocents (1961): Up there with The Haunting as the best ghost story ever.
10) Peeping Tom (1960): I saw this years ago, and don't remember much about it except that I thought that it's one of those films that is more interesting to write a thesis about than to actually watch. And at this stage of my life I'm not too keen on watching yet another film about a predatory male murdering women.
9) Vampyr (1932): The Guardian says: " This really is a film that exemplifies the idea of dreaming with our eyes open". And they're right. A great film.
8) Let The Right One In (2008): I haven't seen it, but seeing as teenagers and vampires are two things that, by and large, bore me rigid, I probably won't either.
7) Nosferatu (1922): The exception to the rule above!
6) The Exorcist (1973): Definitely the most overrated horror movie ever! A friend and I rented this on video when it first became available in the late 1990s, expecting to be scared witless. Instead, we were bored out of our minds by the pretentious, exploitative stupidity of it all, and by the end were laughing hysterically and shouting "the power of shite compels you!" every time the priests appeared. Nasty, conservative nonsense. I remember The Exorcist III as being excellent, though (of John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic, let us not speak.)
5) The Shining (1980): Definitely the second most overrated horror movie ever! It has a budget and a look most horror films can only dream of, but is emotionally frigid, full of things that are supposed to be scary but end up being ridiculous (the elevator full of blood), and in the later half degenerates into the Crazy Jack Psycho Pantomime. Watch The Haunting instead, or 'The Shinning', a hilariously accurate parody by The Simpsons.
4) The Wicker Man (1973): I really liked this the first time I saw it, and it's head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries, but I've never been able to watch it again. The inevitability of Edward Woodward's demise (from the moment he lands on the island, he's a dead man), combined with the film's slow pace, seem both sadistic and tiresome to me now, without any deeper philosophical resonance that would make the unpleasantness bearable. From that era, I'd have gone with Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General.
3) Don't Look Now (1973): It's an awfully long time since I've seen this film, but I remember it as being excellent. Shame on The Guardian, though, for printing a picture along with their review which gives away the twist ending! Not everyone has seen these films, you know!
2) Rosemary's Baby (1968): Ignoring the whole "raping a 13-year-old and then fleeing to Europe rather than face the consequences" aspect of Polanski's career, I guess that Rosemary's Baby is an important enough film to warrant inclusion. I'd have gone for Repulsion myself, though.
1) Psycho (1960): It's hard to ignore Psycho's importance and it definitely warrants a place here;  however, I have a big problem with the film's structure. The first 45 minutes or so - up to the scene with Norman Bates and the car - are absolutely incredible, and the notorious shower scene remains one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen, primarily because, unlike in so many horror films where characters are expendable meat whose deaths mean nothing, one gets the sense of a real person being killed. However, the film has built to this horrifying climax as Norman watches the car sink into the swamp, and this viewer is left drained and shaking, but there's another hour and a bit to go. Essentially it starts again! But it never reaches the same heights as before, and the rest of the film I've always found a bit anti-climactic. Also, if you're a person who objects to films in which beautiful young women are killed horribly with household implements, this film is pretty hard to tolerate. I much prefer The Birds.
So that's the list. It's rendered worthless, though, by the exclusion of one film, one of the most influential and important horror films ever made. Can you guess what it is? Hint: It's included in a post I wrote last Halloween which recommended some good 'orror. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Very Short Poem

The following was written by Sir Charles Sedley (1639 – 1701), described by Wikipedia as "a notorious rake and libertine, part of the "Merry Gang" gang of courtiers which included the Earl of Rochester and Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. In 1663 an indecent frolic in Bow Street, for which he was heavily fined, made Sedley notorious. In this escapade Sedley and Lord Buckhurst stripped off on the balcony of a tavern in Bow Street and assumed various indecent postures with each other before Sedley washed his penis in a glass of wine with which he subsequently drank the king's health." It's entitled 'To Julius' and seems to sum up his view of life:
"Thou swear'st thou'lt drink no more; Kind Heaven send Me such a Cook or Coach-man, but no Friend."
I'm posting this because I want to draw attention to the fact that I've modified my last post to include a short video of the hedgehog that lives in our garden, if you want to see it. I suppose it's lucky not to be a wallaby, as can be shown from this article. One of the surprising things revealed by this is that one needs a license to own a dog, but not a python or a crocodile, and these can be sold on the web without any restriction whatsoever!
Anyway, here's a song:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wexford Sights (XXI): Down The Garden At Night

I was watching the wonderful Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari last night when the hound started scratching at the front door to go out. After I'd let him out I went back to my film, but then heard an unholy racket coming from down the garden. The hound was barking with an enthusiasm unusual for that time of night, so I ventured out with the torch, as it was pitch-dark. He was down by the hedge at the bottom of the garden, staring into the undergrowth and letting out yelps of frustration because he was prevented by his electric collar from diving in at whatever he was smelling in there. I shone the torch in and saw a tiny hodgeheg - sorry, hedgehog - curled up in a ball; one could see the spines stretch and contract as it breathed, no doubt terrified of this huge creature threatening it. I dragged the hound back into the house, and got my camera. It's not the best photo in the world, but I'm chuffed with it!
An update: The hedgehog was back last night, and so I took the opportunity to get a better picture. As it was already in a state of terror from our dog's barking, I don't think it made a difference to the frightened creature that I flipped it over to get this picture (I try to avoid hurting or scaring animals unless it's absolutely avoidable (as in putting down mousetraps, and even then I feel guilty as hell when I dump their tiny lifeless bodies in the bin):
And finally: the hedgehog was out in broad daylight today, and I got this short film, which is, I promise, my final word on hedgehogs (unless he does something unexpected, like burst into song or devour our house).
And to go with that, here's a cute Russian cartoon (like a lot of YouTube videos it's framed in widescreen and doesn't fit my Blogger page, but if you go to YouTube there are several versions of it available):

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Wexford Sights (XX): More Mushrooms

The appalling financial news emanating from Ireland this week has depressed me so much that it's hard to focus on it, so I'm trying to concentrate on one of the few positive aspects of life in this benighted country: the extraordinary profusion of different types of fungus (which I've already documented in previous posts). And they can be so transient: the black-rimmed, frilly mushroom in the bottom photograph popped up in a patch of waste ground up the lane beside our house, and two days later it had disappeared, probably flattened by a tractor. But here's a picture more relevant to a whole lot of people living in Ireland today: 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Another Rant

For those lucky enough to be unaware of him, Kevin Myers is a columnist for The Irish Independent newspaper whose idea of 'opinion' is ugly, reactionary bilge, filled with coarse, hysterical hyperbole and belligerent, sarcastic denunciations of anyone who disagrees with him even slightly. Usually, his bullying drivel is hardly worth commenting on - he's one of those writers who seems to feed on tiresomely pointless provocation - but this week's column contains a particularly poisonous misrepresentation of the facts, even for him, so I feel I cannot let it go unchallenged.
Like so many right-wing loudmouths, Myers has a venomous hatred of 'liberals' and 'political correctness', which he uses to refer to anyone he happens to object to at any particular time. In this article (see here) he asks: Just whose moral guidance would you prefer? That of the Pope, or Stephen Fry? His central point seems to be that Fry is a hypocrite for protesting about the Pope's visit to Britain, because he hasn't protested about visits from other heads of state who espouse equally intolerant doctrines, including Jacob Zuma from South Africa (until we get to the end of his article, where he goes into an all-purpose rant about secularism and about how we need a "moral compass", which should be provided by the Pope and other religious types).
Can you spot the central flaw in his argument? It is that the heads of state from South Africa, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or wherever, cannot be said to have any global influence, however odious their domestic policies, and certainly cannot have any influence on policy in the UK. By contrast, the Pope is the head of an worldwide organisation which encourages its followers to put loyalty to itself before loyalty to the state, and which, if allowed, would enthusiastically force everyone in the world to bend the knee to its doctrines, just like it did in Ireland for all those miserable decades. It is also an organisation which views homosexuality as evil, and encourages its followers around the globe to do likewise. Stephen Fry is gay, so is it not fair that when an organisation of global reach labels him, because of his sexuality, as evil, that he protest against it? (This is, of course, not the only reason he objects to the Church; see the video below for his very eloquent defense of his position.)
But that's not what inspired this article. It is Myers' breathtakingly inaccurate and hateful assertion, while talking about the church's opposition to contraception in AIDS-ridden Africa, that:
I could equally declare that the legislators who removed the legal ban on sexual relations between men in the USA brought about 400,000 deaths by AIDS. You might not like it, but that is the indisputable truth: after liberalisation, homosexual men began to behave largely as conservative opponents of that liberalisation had warned they would, to much liberal derision (mine included). As it turned out, the consequences were far worse than predicted. Of course, no letter-writer to 'The Guardian' would ever dream of declaring what was actually true -- that sexual liberalisation helped bring about a human catastrophe. Why? Because liberal laws on sexuality are deemed to be 'good' laws, no matter their consequences, whereas Catholic laws on human sexuality are necessarily 'bad' laws, even if their consequences are largely identical.
Where does one begin with such a vile and misleading comment, assuming that Myers is talking about the devastation caused by AIDS in gay communities in places like San Francisco in the early eighties? To claim "that sexual liberalisation helped bring about a human catastrophe" is preposterous, for he wilfully ignores that, in the late seventies, almost nobody knew that AIDS existed! AIDS was a catastrophe for many, but it was not a "consequence" of lifting the ban on homosexuality, any more than being killed by a out-of-control car is a "consequence" of walking on a footpath! There was no reason to believe, in the 1970s, that removing the ban on homosexuality was anything other than admirable and enlightened; as I said before, nobody could have predicted AIDS was around the corner. Conservatives objected to such sexual liberalisation not out of concern for gay men's health; it was because (for whatever reason) they opposed the very idea of homosexuality being accepted by society. Besides, being criminalised has never stopped gay men from having sex, has it? Although it has certainly made their lives more painful and difficult. But, and correct me if I'm wrong, it wasn't until 1982 that the connection was made between the abnormally high illness rate in seemingly healthy gay men and their lifestyle.
Is Myers saying that it was wrong to decriminalise homosexuality on the grounds that legislators should have taken into account a disease which they had no reason to suspect existed? Or that gay men should thank conservatives of the time for objecting to this law, on the same grounds? What kind of nonsense is this? The media at the time liked to portray AIDS as a "gay plague", but in 1982, "[h]ealth authorities soon realised that nearly half of the people identified with the syndrome were not homosexual men. The same opportunistic infections were also reported among haemophiliacs, heterosexual intravenous drug users, and Haitian immigrants" (see here). And what happened in gay communities once the nature of AIDS was understood? They put rubber sheaths over their members and went back to enjoying their sexuality, in the knowledge that they could not be thrown in jail for doing so. And more power to them, I say! I'm open to correction here, but the same laws still exist in the US today, don't they? But the AIDS epidemic among gay men, as it existed in the early 1980s, is now merely a cautionary and tragic history lesson.
To claim that the Catholic Church's objection to the use of condoms in Africa, in an era in which the method of transmission of AIDS is understood fully, is anything other than reprehensible, is misguided to say the least. Condoms are not infallible - nothing is - but in the battle against AIDS they are a vital tool to prevent its spread, and should be encouraged, along with abstinence and faithfulness to one partner only. To fail to do so is not just irresponsible; it is despicable. And I do not object to the Catholic prohibition on condoms in Africa simply because it is the official position of the Catholic Church, based as it is on their twisted and puritanical view of sexuality, and because as a secular atheist and occasional Guardian reader I automatically and instantly object to anything the Catholic Church ever says on any subject. Being able to think for myself and weigh up evidence, I disagree with it because I believe it is a dangerous and ill-advised strategy (and, by the way, it's not a 'law') that will result in people dying needlessly.
Let us also point out the most laughable aspect of Myers' article: that we should turn to the Pope for moral guidance! I'm sorry, but the words "fifty" and "year" and "cover-up" and "child rape" just do keep coming to mind, don't they? And these words are indelibly linked with "Catholic" and "dominance" and "Ireland" in my mind, seeing as we were under the thumb of the Vatican for such a long time. No matter how often the Pope wants to lecture a secular atheist like myself on morality, the beam in his own eye will always be greater than the mote in mine! And Myers seems to be taking the approach of a lot of Catholic apologists here, in that he chooses to completely ignore this major aspect of the Church's recent history. No matter how thoughtful or laudatory the Pope's teachings on other matters may be, and by all accounts he is a fine theologian, this festering, poisonous moral lapse at the very heart of the church will invalidate everything he says until such time as he and his fellow clergymen make full restitution for their crimes. 
A while back I wrote a post (here) about the tactics the Catholic Church uses to justify its appalling record on child abuse, but there was one I missed which is becoming more and more prevalent. This is, as Kevin Myers demonstrates, to attack anyone who objects to the Church or the Pope as an intolerant secularist, and to claim that secularism is somehow responsible for the supposed decline in moral values in society (because Ireland in the 1950s was such a fucking moral place, wasn't it?). Ignoring the fact that, by and large, the Catholic Church has shown nothing but intolerance throughout its 2000-year history for anyone who questioned its dogmas or, more crucially, its power, most atheists and secularists that I know are entirely tolerant of other people's faith. I should know; my partner is a Catholic! Some are not, I admit, but any intolerance on the secular side can be matched above and beyond the call of duty on the religious side. It's a smear campaign, of course; Catholic apologists will dig up the most fervent, fanatically anti-religious types and insist that they are entirely representative of anyone who has any kind of issue with the church, thus enabling them to dismiss any valid argument brought against themselves as "secular intolerance". Well, I have no problem with religion of any kind as long as it respects my choice not to worship at its altars and doesn't insist that its beliefs are enshrined in law, but this view has never been shared by the Catholic Church, which has always sought to force everyone within its orbit to behave according to its strictures. But here's the man himself, Stephen Fry, discussing why he believes the Catholic Church is not a force for good in the world (and my apologies for borrowing one or two of his ideas in the above). Tell me if you spot any secular intolerance. 
An update: a letter to the Irish Independent here

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Purple Mushroom

My partner was walking in the same glade where I took the previous mushroom photos (in the last post but one), and noticed this little beauty poking through the undergrowth. The image has not been treated in any way: it really is that colour! Imagine the appearance of a soup made from those (assuming, of course, that they are not bowel-shatteringly poisonous...) (I am aware that there is an extreme rude meaning to the phrase 'purple mushroom', but I'll not go into it here.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Cycling in County Wexford

Being too poor to afford membership of a gym or a swimming pool, I recently got on my bike (as they say) and took up cycling the local roads as a form of exercise. This activity, although physically rewarding, is not without perils. The following guidelines for cycling safely on Ireland's inconstant country roads applies only to daylight perambulation; cycling by night on the same unlit roads is only for those who feel they have little left to live for; unlike in well-lit urban centres, the enveloping rural darkness will not be illuminated by the brightest clip-on torch on your handlebars, and even the most brilliantly lit cyclist runs the almost inevitable risk of ending up as a nasty stretched stain on the tarmac.
When venturing forth in daylight, you must firstly, of course, take into account the weather. The last few months have, by and large, been exceptionally pleasant and warm, but you know in your heart, as sure as rain follows the sunshine, that ... er ... the rain will follow the sunshine, and you stands a good chance of being soaked through on your excursion. Rain gear in a backpack is a must, for if you wear it and the sun is glowing like a 1000w bulb, you will rapidly become lathered in sweat and pass out with heatstroke. Of course, when the deluge starts with little warning and visibility is reduced to a few feet by the sheets of rain, by the time you've leapt off your bike, opened your backpack, wrestled your coiled-up rain gear out of it, picked up the map that fell out and began transforming into illegible clotted paper sludge, and got your over-trousers and plastic jacket on, you'll be sodden anyway. Besides, for me, wearing glasses means that my visibility will be minimal in any case, rendering progress difficult. I remember once in Dublin, the rain was sheeting at such an angle that it went over the tops of my spectacles and beat directly on my eyeballs like little lasers. What fun... Surface water will also render certain parts of the roads slippy and lethal, especially if hurtling downhill. "A bad wet death", as Sergeant Pluck would say, could be the outcome, so caution is advised. On rainy days it can be hard to tell whether the puddle you're heading towards is simply a skin of water on the tarmac or a submerged pothole; you'll find out as it severely dents your front tyre and hurls you over the handlebars into the ditch.
The heat which we've recently enjoyed has been wonderful; the only drawback while cycling, aside from the risk of dehydration (bring ample water) and occasional blindness (wear sunglasses if you can), is the propensity of insects to fly into your face or, more disconcertingly, into your open mouth. Trying to maintain control of your bike while going downhill with an angry wasp lodged in your throat is not recommended. And on sunny days, the luxuriant vegetation creates deep pools of shadows which may hide potholes, so constant vigilance is mandatory.
Next, there is the roads. One has two choices: the main roads (where one risks being killed by speeding motorists) and the side roads (where one risks being killed by speeding motorists). The main roads have the advantage of being wide (more room for cars to pull out when passing you) and having (relatively) good verges. They also tend to be straighter, thus giving the passing motorists more time to see you, and either take evasive action or throw rubbish and insults out the window as they fly past. One may at times have to pull out to avoid roadkill, which can range from the standard mashed rats and rabbits to the rarer badger, cat, and, occasionally, stray dog (I passed a handsome and very dead sheepdog lying stiff and cold on the main road to Wexford two days ago, a sight which depressed me inordinately). Side roads, on the other hand, are quite often appallingly surfaced, with open potholes, crudely filled potholes, crumbling verges, hidden entrances, and overgrown hedgerows, which lash the bare arms with briars and nettles as you cycle past. They are also fiendishly winding and home to hairpin bends, a fact which doesn't prevent the locals from driving at ridiculously high speeds. There is also the ever-present danger of half-blind elderly motorists pulling put of their hidden driveways right in front of you, then muttering vaguely "what was that?" after you've smashed into the side of their car, gone head over heels through the air, and been embedded in the road like a hairy pancake.
It must also be remembered that on rural roads local dogs will chase your bike and sometimes try to latch on to your leg; amusing if it's a terrier, not so amusing if it's an rottweiler. Make sure your water-bottle is clipped to your bike and has a nozzle; that way you can spray them in the face, something most dogs hate. Never oiling your brakes can also work; the unmerciful screech as you slow down will frighten off all but the most determined. In the case where neither works and the horrid little brute is trying to tear a chunk out of your exposed calf, a boot in the face will usually do the job, although it's not to be admired.
Remember at all times that you are an unexpected sight on most Irish roads, especially of the main ones. The average God-fearing Irish(wo)man cannot conceive of travelling anywhere except by car, and believes that bikes and buses are for people who are too young, too old, or too poor to afford one. Women on bikes in particular can occasionally be subject to crude exhortations or outright abuse from passing boneheads, which explains why they are a very rare sight indeed (except on Sundays, when various sporting groups take to the roads). And remember a story of what happened to a friend of mine several years ago: while she was out cycling with a companion on a bright summer afternoon in the hard shoulder, a motorcyclist decided to give them as scare by driving between them. Unfortunately, he misjudged the distance between the two, hit off the girl on the outside, lost control of his motorbike, and slammed into my friend, throwing her over the handlebars for some distance and knocking her unconscious. She was fine afterwards, but still bears a small scar on her forehead as a result of this irresponsible dimwit. Happy cycling, y'all!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Wexford Sights (XVIX): Mushrooms

There's a wood near me which is little visited and therefore fairly undisturbed, and the recent rain, combined with the still-warm weather, has lead to an eruption of mushrooms, some of which are shown above. I wonder which of them are edible; I imagine the red one isn't! Note the slug in the bottom two photos, heading towards the mushroom with breakfast in mind, no doubt. The top image is of an unusual (to me) tree fungus, a mushroom growing around a lump on the bark which looks disconcertingly like a gnome's urinal. The place was also alive with industrious spiders, one of whom I captured brooding at the centre of his web.