A broad in Belgium

They called it an Innovation Council Summit, but it was more like a sort of Eurovision for business people.

Except instead of latex leotards and Lordi, there was pinstripes and pencil skirts. In the end, it all seemed little more than a song and a dance.

For two days in late November 2021, several hundred of Europe’s smartest, most productive and most capable people gathered in a motoring museum (yeah, random right?) in Brussels.

And who was in the thick of it all but myself!

I wheeled up outside the rather unorthodox venue having been escorted by my aunt (more on her later, as she said she reads this blog occasionally) – I’m nothing if not well connected.

This being continental Europe, the people here were well organised, multi-lingual, mostly tall, slender and beautifully dressed. The seniors weren’t dinosaur crocks either; they had grey hair and gravitas. The youth weren’t callow and track suited – they were dressed for success. Everyone meant business moving around the area with intimidating efficiency, ignoring the cars which looked to me like glitches in the Matrix.

I didn’t know where to go. A nice man took my temperature at the door. “You’re a bit hot,” he said, concerned. “But go ahead.”

I proceeded through the main arena like Kate Moss at a cattle mart. After a stare at all the vintage cars and an unsuccessful eavesdrop for Irish accents I made my way upstairs to the stage where a beautiful man was raving about innovation.

He held a microphone and walked back and forth, commanding the stage. I’ll have whatever he’s having I thought. After some panel discussions about innovation and tech, I plucked up the courage to get a drink of water. The only problem was the damn machine was automated, and I couldn’t get the water to stop. I must have looked like Father Ted when he got lost in the bra shop. Luckily the water stopped before there was a noticeable flood.

At lunchtime I went outside to a park bench and ate the sandwich I had made that morning at the hotel. I had made it in full view of the dining room as I ate my breakfast. Over the course of my two day trip, I pilfered shamelessly from my hotel’s breakfast buffet. Sandwiches and pastries wrapped up in a napkin did me for lunch and dinner. I was determined to make the ‘all expenses paid’ thing stretch as far as humanly possible. Was this how it felt like being from Cavan?

As a rule, when the Irish go abroad they always meet other Irish. I was no different. Right before I was due to arrive at Business Eurovision I phoned my aunt after successfully ordering a decaff americano – served in a glass!! – and told her I was a short walk away from her house. Would I call in? An offer she couldn’t refuse… (or an offer she couldn’t turn down). This was my first time in her house as an adult, a beautiful townhouse typical of the Europeans. Not Irish Europeans, the Continental ones. The stylish ones, which I was seeing everywhere on the Brussels streets with their muted palettes and sharp tailoring. My aunt gave me a lift to the venue (after we bade adieu to my uncle, a retired journalist) during which she had to dodge several e-scooter riders. “These things are everywhere. People just pick them up, use them and leave them in the middle of the street,” she gestured around. Us Irish people are more for your analogue pleasures – a bike, or a simple walk. It doesn’t matter how assimilated an Irish person becomes in Europe; nothing beats a brisk walk up the Booster hill. (That’s a reference for my aunt who says she reads this blog sometimes when she’s putting off doing the hoovering.)

In the evening, I dodged the hoardes of speedy e-scooters to go back to my hotel and file some copy. Ideally, the byline would have said “by our girl in Brussels” but that might have been over-egging it. Me getting free stuff was not the story here. I made a cup of tea and went to sleep ready for an earlier start the next day.

The following morning I checked myself out of the hotel and legged it back to Business Eurovision where I was informed I would be meeting with a real-life Irish MEP. OMG! When I eventually got face to face with the MEP I tried not to stare at her like she was a sea lion doing a very impressive trick with a ball on her nose. Getting starstruck by politicians isn’t a good quality in a journalist but I can’t seem to not stare at them whenever I meet them in the flesh. I spent most of the interview internally shitting a brick, which is as uncomfortable as it sounds.

I can’t remember whether or not I shat the brick in the end, but I did decide to venture further into the city centre of Bruxelles in the hope of finding a quality waffle. My bosses said I should try a waffle and as they’d never steered me wrong before I added it to the list of ‘must dos’ – after the actual Business Eurovision which I was being paid to cover.

It being continental Europe, I was expecting sustainable, efficient public transport networks with stops all laid out in such a manner that even I, an eejit, could understand and follow. My experience with the electric buses of Brussels was… mixed. I hopped on one going right to the centre, which took around 30 minutes from where I was stationed in the thick of European society. My stop was the last one and I must have been doing a bit of gawking out the window because I was rather unceremoniously told to get off the bus by an invisible Brusseler bus driver (busseler?) who roared “Zhe Ter-min-oo!” for my benefit. That was me told. I was too shocked to say anything other than “Sorry, shite, I’m sorry,” as I poured myself and all belonging to me on the street.

Abrupt bus drivers aside, I spent a very nice few hours walking around the cobblestone streets behind the Big Palace with the Lion head statues on the pillars. I think a king lives there but I couldn’t be sure. He didn’t come out to receive one in any case. Fine by me. I declined to put my snout to the gates as there was some guards standing around waiting for something. (Anti lockdown or mask protestors I guessed). I got took some photos of funny statues and got a waffle from a man of Maghrebi extraction who offered me a choice of toppings: Nutella or caramel. Oh, the dilemma! It was Hamletian! To be or not to be… I went for caramel. For a change. It was delicious; I ate it in the street and I normally consider myself too delicate and too Patrician for such indignities. (I’m much more comfortable using automated water machines around dignitaries.)

Later on, it was touch and go getting the bloody bus to the airport to check-in for my return flight. Buses don’t all arrive on time, even on the continent. A valuable lesson learned there. As I folded myself into the plasticy seat on the Ryanair flight home I thought of all the highlights of my brief little journalist’s sojourn: my name was misspelt; I met interesting people; I ate bread; I drank coffee; I had a waffle in the winter air; I was continental; I saw my aunt; I didn’t put my hand in my pocket; everyone and everything was nice to look at.

All in all? Douze points.

The French Dispatch: review of a 4-in-1 film

Wes Anderson’s love letter to journalists looks good but needs an editor

I know fuck all about films.

(Or are you supposed to say ‘film?’)

We are already off to a shaky start.

I couldn’t say the same for Wes Anderson, a guy who knows so much about film he’s an auteur. His latest offering started promisingly with a charming bunch of expat journalists (now there’s an oxymoron) compiling a tribute to their adopted country, called ‘The French Dispatch’ magazine.

What a cast. I’ve never seen such an illustrious attendance at an editorial meeting. Editor Bill Murray is surrounded by Owen Wilson, Elizabeth Moss and Frances McDormand. In true whimsy Wes style we’re given a glimpse of these roving reporters out on their assignments in the community. Owen Wilson’s cycle through the village is nicely shot and narrated. Oh yeah, the village these journos live in is called Ennui-sur-blasé.

As Bill’s editor puts the magazine together, we get jolted from one beautifully rendered story to the next. There’s three sub-plots to the main one about the journalists, each focused on a story featured in the magazine. All are done in black-and-white. That is a very anal way of explaining it but it’s a pretty anal plot and it doesn’t make sense. Roman Coppola, himself the son of an auteur is responsible for the story, which is, to put it nicely a bit up its own arse.

The first sub-plot is about a criminally insane artist (Benicio Del Toro) who paints abstract nudes of his prison guard lover (Lea Seydoux) which he sells to a felon art dealer, played by Adrien Brody whose face is just marvellous. Brody was made for black-and-white film.

His supercilious eyebrow raising tuxedo’d art dealer and Del Toro’s puppy-dog eyed convict elevate the whole vignette beyond the standard tortured genius trope. It’s moving, but I can’t help wondering where the journalists have gone to. Also, Tilda Swinton narrates! Suddenly I’m faced with the internet’s boyfriend, one Timothee Chalamet. What?

Chalamet, who has the small, sharp face and long-necked insignificant physique of an otter plays a revolutionary fighting against a grand cause we never really discover much about. In a way, he’s perfectly cast as a revolutionary, as he naturally looks like a startled meerkat sticking his head above the parapet.

It’s implied, with all the stylish French cafe shots of adolescents playing chess and dreaming up “manifestos” that Timmy and friends are Communists of a type. By that point in the film, I’d learned that with Wes it’s more about the style than the substance, so I stopped trying to figure out Timothee’s leanings and just enjoy the ride.

Talking of riding, Timmy bore the brunt of the film’s sexual assignments. He was a very busy boy indeed. He had a liaison with Frances McDormand’s wry smoking spinster journalist as she bashed out his aforementioned manifesto on her typewriter. We never saw them going at it but, again, a scene in her bedroom featuring a nude Timothee and a fully-clothed McDormand implied that she had sought sexual compensation for her trouble with the manifesto. My friends said that bit was creepy. I just thought Frances’ talent was under-used – by the film makers not by Timothee’s revolting revolter.

He soon moved on and got a younger model at McDormand’s spinster’s explicit encouragement. Well, you know what they say about the French. Indiscriminate fuckers, the lot of them. My friend who knows a lot about film thought that the treatment of the love scene between Timmy and his young lady friend – a motorbiking rival revolutionary – was distasteful because she got her tits out. It was “gratuitous nudity” according to her. My other friend, who is gay, said nothing. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt as she doesn’t know a lot about film either.

By this stage, I’d seen around two-and-a-half mini-films in quick succession. I was glad I’d bought a Coca-Cola because otherwise I’d have been asleep. Unhappily, the third bit was the most boring and we all agreed that it could have been cut. I think it was about a food writer who witnessed the kidnapping of a powerful man’s precocious little son who was harboured by Saoirse Ronan dressed as a hooker. But I couldn’t be sure. I was still wondering where the journalists, the horny rebels, and the artist had gone – or why they had ever been there in the first place.

The French Dispatch is billed as a “love letter” to journalists. But it’s more of a vanity project, really. Justifiably so? I reckon Wes Anderson’s aesthetic is probably enough to excuse the film’s flimsy plot in the adoring eyes of his legions of fans, yeah. Full disclosure: I think I might just be one of them.

I follow an Instagram account called ‘Accidentally Wes Anderson’ which posts images of kitsch pastel buildings that is one of my main traveling inspiration sources. I want to visit every single place. Wes’s world sure is good looking, but for a world that’s more about style than substance perhaps on this occasion Wes has bitten off more than he can chew.

All to play for

A recent conversation between my Dad and his brother-in-law turned to the GAA, as conversations involving my Dad often do.  

My uncle had come to our house for one or two beers before he headed off to the UK for work. 

And Dad, who has been spending the early part of lockdown mostly in the company of me, Mum, and his cattle, unleashed GAA anecdote after GAA anecdote on his brother in law who, in fairness, seemed interested. 

Dad has such an encyclopaedic knowledge of the GAA that he will tailor his anecdotes depending on where the person he’s talking to is from. Throw any random local club name at him and he’ll talk the hind legs off you about some local lad who used to play for them and then made it to county before doing his hamstring in an All-Ireland semi-final in 1989.  

Not for my Dad the tragedies of Shakespeare; to him, a tragedy is the scenario I just described. A talent wasted. “He almost made it.”  

On the night my uncle, who is from Charlestown in Co. Mayo called over, Dad was on fine form talking about Mayo GAA. Sometimes when he got too bogged down in sundry detail, my Mum would half-heartedly tell him to give us all a break, but he was unstoppable.  

Names of players who hadn’t seen the inside of a club hall in donkey’s years were mentioned. Webb brothers from Charlestown. So-and-so did his cruciate and Dad had advised him not to play county but he did and Dad received a phone call from him the next day to say he would be out for six months due to injury.  

There was more, and a lot more, but I must admit I rarely listen to my Dad when he talks about GAA, or his other love, farming. Some details in the above hastily related anecdotes might be incorrect. So-and-so might have been off for six weeks instead of six months and the Webb brothers might have been from Corofin, or Killererin, or some other GAA stronghold. 

How am I supposed to know; I can’t stand the bloody GAA.  

The reason I endured it at all was that I am old enough to appreciate it when somebody speaks passionately about something that interests them. And my Dad is passionate about GAA. One might even say he’s cracked for it.  

All of my Dad’s teachable moments were communicated to his children via GAA metaphors. This used to make my brother and me roll our eyes and my Mum to say “Ah for god’s sake…” like an editor willing Dad to reconsider his audience.  

But while we rolled our eyes at his mawkish metaphors Dad always got his point across. I might not have liked it but the GAA is quite conducive to teaching teenagers values. (Please, nobody tell him I said that; like all sports fans he has a tendency to gloat).  

The most thing I learned from Dad’s GAA sermons over the years is that you can love and respect somebody even if you don’t have any interests in common with them.  

When I was a teenager, I used to say to Dad, “Why can’t you be a musician or something; if you were any good, we might have money and connections.” 

He only laughed at me and I deserved it. Another thing I learned from my Dad is to be yourself and don’t change for anyone – especially not a snotty teenager.  

In my defence, this outburst was probably a response to him telling me I should be more disciplined in my studies like whatever star mid-fielder he was training at the time.  

I was never going to be disciplined any more than he was going to suddenly join The Rolling Stones. It has taken a few years and a few rows but we have both come around to the idea that neither of us will change.  

He has, of course, missed the GAA terribly this Summer and he is delighted at the news it will resume in July sometime. I’m bracing myself for the Sunday afternoon I’ll walk into the kitchen for my breakfast and a quiet read of the papers only to find Dad stretched out in front of the TV blaring The Sunday Game. He always has it on optimum volume partly because he’s a bit deaf and partly because he loves subjecting everyone else in the house to the not-so-dulcet tones of Joe Brolly.  

I have PTSD-like flashbacks every time I hear the now-retired Kerry man Micheal O Muircheartaigh on the airwaves. (Then again, I’ve never been good with Munster’s more, shall we say, regional accents…)  

Over the years we’ve learned to filter the noise out. We’re happy to see him sitting down for longer than it takes him to eat a few sandwiches; the amount of farming he does – even on the weekends – would make one feel quite slovenly for spending Sunday mostly on the sofa with the papers and coffee. 

A few years ago, after he had his heart attack, or cardiac arrest, as he pompously – okay, accurately – calls it, he got a defibrillator fitted to minimise the effect of any future “arrests” should they happen. Dad put the thing to the test one day at a particularly exciting hurling match in Pearce Stadium. Galway was playing Kilkenny or Tipp or one of those teams and it might have been the Connaught final or something. Dad came home with a big, red head on him and told us his defibrillator was activated at a crucial moment in the game. He felt like he’d been “kicked in the chest by a horse.” We were concerned. Mum said he might have to give the matches a miss for a while. “Ah, but it was an exhibition of hurling,” he said, eyes glowing like two hot coals. 

He isn’t just a spectator; he’s a trainer as well – an All-Ireland winning trainer, as he might like me to point out here. In 2008 he brought his parish’s intermediate team to victory in Croke Park, where they beat Dublin’s Fingal Ravens team. Don’t ask me what the score was; I was 13 and habitually mortified at being from Moycullen. I played on my Nintendo DS for the whole match, although I do remember bursting with pride and love when Dad ran out on to the pitch after the final whistle was blown. He was leaping like a child. Perhaps he was crying tears of joy. (Mario wasn’t jumping on mushrooms anymore.) 

And of course, I didn’t fully comprehend what this victory meant to him then but I think I get it now. He loves the game and he cared about the lads who played the game. They won the final, not him or any of the selectors or the physio. Dad cared about the lads who played for him, even if it didn’t sound like he did when he’d ring them up in the evenings and give out to them. I used to hear him sometimes almost roaring down the phone at lads who let him down on the training pitch. Beer, laziness, and college lifestyles were usually to blame for lads missing training sessions or not being match-fit. Dad’s policy was he wouldn’t play them if they didn’t put the hours in at training, no matter how good they were. He’d do anything for the “good lads” – the sound lads who worked hard, had a bit of respect and were honest both on the field and off it. He is a fair man. 

He doesn’t train teams anymore because it’s too time-consuming to do on top of the farming he does. There are no more hour-long gossip sessions with his selectors or notebooks with formation diagrams scribbled inside them lying around the house. But the Sunday Game is still a ritual and all the many, many friends he has made over the years through football still remember him. I used to hate going into the village with him when he was training the parish team because he’d be forever getting stopped by people talking football at him. “That was so and so’s mother”, he might say when she eventually left him alone after talking about her sons for twenty minutes in the middle of SuperValu. He knows everyone and everyone knows him.  

He still measures time in the most abstract way. Every major event in his life is recalled alongside a parallel universe where only GAA exists. His wedding, the births of his children, the time he had the flu in 2014 – all can be traced back to whatever was going on in the GAA at the time. You’d wonder if he would forget everything that ever happened to him without it. It’s pathetic but somehow remarkable. He is indeed blessed and obsessed to paraphrase the title of an autobiography one Christmas. He doesn’t read fiction but he did read Mick O’Dwyer’s autobiography. 

To an outsider, the GAA is a brotherhood of bad shorts, a sisterhood of bruised shins. It is its own unique kind of theatre, featuring the kinds of “characters” Spike Milligan himself couldn’t dream up. It has its own decades of iconography; the flask of tea and the sandwiches eaten in the stand, the bottle of Lucozade sport, the proud matriarch screaming dog’s abuse at an oblivious referee. All these things we associate with the GAA.  

It’s a part of our country and a part of our country’s people just as Ulysses and Guinness and rain are. You can’t call yourself an Irish nerd until you’ve been whacked in the skull with one of those distinctive white footballs. I’ll never forget the first time I was hit in the face with a ball by Dad when he’d taken my brother and me out to the garden for a kickabout. I don’t think he meant the ball to hit my face; he was never a very skilful player. Once, I asked him if he was disappointed that I gave up training when I was eleven. “Ah, no,” he said without looking up from the sports section of the paper, “Sure, you were shite anyway.” 

Ah, ref. 

What the dogs in the street already know about this government

Question: Who knew that Katharine Zappone was a shoo-in to get the job of Special Envoy for Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

Answer: They knew, we knew, everyone and his mother and the dogs in the street and their mothers too knew. Piglet, Pooh (more on them later) and the animals in Dublin Zoo knew.

Recap for those of us who have no idea what’s going on: Taoiseach Micheal Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney got themselves in more trouble than they thought they deserved after it was revealed Coveney brazenly bypassed normal procedures to appoint his chosen candidate Katharine Zappone to the aforementioned special envoy job. Not content with leaving the cronyism at that, Zappone had a posh outdoor soiree for 50 chums at the Merrion Hotel (where a room could set us back a month’s rent for one lousy night) and invited Leo, Simon and lots of others. Meanwhile, the Taoiseach allegedly didn’t know about her new job until it was raised at cabinet which is fishy because don’t you think Coveney would have briefed him beforehand – even though he is from a different party? (N.B: party is not the same as soiree, though both can get you in trouble if you’re not au fait with the right ones…) Leo alleged that he didn’t know about Zappone’s job either but he has form when it comes to fibs and lots of people on Twitter who don’t like him called for his resignation. To add yet another layer to this sad, sorry tale of cronyism, didn’t the Attorney General get involved to tell us all that, actually, Simon, Katharine et. al were not in the wrong and we should just forget about it all and here’s an idea: now we can have up to 200 people at outdoor events so aren’t we all fair and square again now?

How stupid do all these party people think the likes of us are??? Answers on the back of a monogrammed napkin, please. They are clearly making it up as they fuck it up. It is not a joy to behold.

The Covid rules didn’t apply to them, and not just because they are so too-faced it wouldn’t matter whether they wore a mask or not. This was about entitlement and cute hoorism. As usual, the party poopers from the opposition benches started yelling about how great they were that they didn’t go, probably because they weren’t even invited. Would they have gone if they were invited though? Was there an open bar? What kind of person would refuse an open bar on principal? A Sinn Féin TD? Like the rest of us, politician and plebeian alike, they’d take a free drink from the Taliban itself if it was offering, like.

But to go back to the initial question, the one that was finally, definitively, without reasonable doubt answered for us today: who knew about this.

Short answer: everyone.

Leo Varadkar maintained all along that he did not know about Coveney appointing Zappone, and today he posted the pics to prove it. Yes, an actual government minister put out screenshots of a text message conversation he had with Zappone about the party. All they proved, however, is that he is one of these people who (a) doesn’t use emojis and (b) texts sentence by sentence instead of just getting it all out in a nice paragraph. In other words, his texts are rather leaky…

At least Katharine texts in full, coherent paragraphs. Had she not been sort of forced to refuse the special envoy job in the end she would have made a fine example to all those bad people who text like Leo. That should be something the next envoy of freedom of opinion and expression bans outright. If you’re going to text it, get it out in one go or forever hold your piece.

I wonder if Leo asked Katharine if she minded him posting those screenshots of their conversation in an effort to save his bacon, because, at first glance it looked as if she referred to herself as “Piglet.” In a bizarre, but easily explainable twist, Zappone greeted Leo with a text that read “Hi, Leo from the Piglet!” She meant the Dublin restaurant, but the Great Unwasheds’ minds went straight to Pooh, as they do. Who was Tigger, Eeyore etc in this scenario, they wondered, eager to lean into the ridiculousness of it all.

Whatever about Zappone as Piglet, Leo as Pooh and sad-eyed Micheal as Eeyore, Simon Coveney is definitely Tigger. Silly ol’ Tigger, you couldn’t trust him as far as you’d throw him. He said the other day before some government committee or other that he didn’t tell anyone in cabinet about Zappone. She didn’t lobby him for the role either, and everything was above board and everyone should just let him away with a spring in his… spring, like the beloved cartoon tiger.

Unfortunately for politicians, they tend to be held accountable for more things than goofy talking tigers are so Simon couldn’t spring his way out of this one quite as easily as he might have liked. Earlier today, he told reporters that he had deleted all of his correspondences with Zappone so they couldn’t see if he was telling porkies about her or not.

Unwisely he said he deleted his texts because his phone was hacked and deleting texts is apparently something he does the whole time in case hackers get to them. Yeah. Sell us another sausage. This was starting to look less Winnie the Pooh and more Animal Farm. Not a peep from the Attorney General btw. And that, comrades, is when Varadkar decided to wade in to the pigpen and prove how pure he was by publishing his texts, thereby stabbing his fellow party member in the back. What a godawful mess.

I don’t know about you, but I do know this: everyone now knows, thanks to Varadkar, that everyone in government – except possible poor ol’ Eeyore Martin himself – that Zappone’s appointment was a fix. And here’s another thing I know: this government has got to go. The Irish people don’t deserve its horseshit.

To lighten the mood somewhat and to leave you feeling less like Eeyore and more happy and wonderful like Tigger, I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting Orwell’s seven Animal Farm commandments for the #MerrionGate era.

“The Seven Commandments After #MerrionGate:
Whatever goes upon two legs, wears a Blueshirt and publishes your private text messages to save his skin is an enemy.
Whatever goes upon four legs in a scramble to recover your legitimacy is a friend/ Attorney General.
No Merrion attendee shall face consequences.
No politician shall sleep with a free conscience.
No TD shall drink alcohol without first performing thorough damage limitations.
No Minister shall kill a story because it makes them look like a hypocrite.
All animals are equal, some are less equal depending on what they know or don’t know.”

Did that work? Any issues just complain to the relevant envoy. They’ll probably be inventing that any day now.

Barking mad: rules of engagement for classy canines

Like most people obeying the lockdown laws, my world has shrunk and I haven’t had as much human contact as I’d ordinarily like. Luckily, my covid bubble, or family, includes a dog, German-Shepherd Rottweiler cross, Ruby, who has proven herself an excellent companion on 5 kilometre walks – even if she does take a few too many toilet breaks.

Our preferred route on which to stretch our six legs is fairly remote, but we usually meet a couple of trucks on their way to the nearby quarry as well as some other people out walking their dogs. Once or twice we’ve even met dogs walking their humans.

A few months of not being able to gossip freely with my friends has clearly affected me; I am now reduced to judging people’s dogs based on how they interact with my own. Yes, we’ve tried Zoom and long walks and al fresco coffees, but our brand of misanthropy requires …. never you mind.

For now, I’ve no choice to accept my fate of living vicariously through my dog.

I’m not sure where she got it from, but Ruby is a frightful snob. Most members of the canine community are, as I am discovering. It might have something to do with nominative determinism; people seem to give their dogs names they would be mortified to give their children. Then they wonder why their beloved ‘Coco’ won’t sit when she’s bloody well told. I’ve never met a Coco that wasn’t an absolute brat. Ruby was a rescue who was originally named ‘Bee’ for her colouring, but we changed that to Ruby because we thought naming a dog after an insect might cause some identity problems when she grew older. Now we have a dog with a stripper’s name and a Hollywood actress’s sensibility.

As you can probably imagine, sparks fly when Ruby meets the the local Coco and co. Despite her breed’s reputation for aggression, Ruby’s a pretty genteel girl who doesn’t want to cause trouble with the neighbourhood bitches, but that doesn’t mean they can mistake her for a pushover either. Ruby’s worst enemy is a black-and-white puppy named Mia, who has the audacity to be the village’s beautiful young ingenue. Recently, Ruby met a more mature white labrador whose name, Phoebe, comes straight out of a 90s sitcom.

I know the dog’s name is Phoebe because her owners yelled at her to come back to them as soon as they came upon us when we were out for a walk one day, but it was too late; Phoebe bounded towards Ruby completely oblivious to her owner’s increasingly futile pleas to “heel, Phoebe, heel.” He was so worried that something untoward would happen that I did my usual trick of half-heartedly brandishing the lead at Ruby, even though I knew she’d just pretend not to hear me. Sometimes I watch her retreating into the middle distance with barely concealed glee and I wonder where she learned to be such an anarchic bitch. Perhaps it is my fault; my Mum is much stricter with her.

But my Mum indulges her too. Recently, our laissez-faire lead policy came under review when Mum and Ruby met a lady out walking who was not shy in disclosing her fear of dogs. “Please put that dog on a lead,” she trembled, as her companion – a human male – tried to reason with her. Mum said after the incident that she was shocked a woman could go through life with such a debilitating fear of something as ordinary as a dog. I agreed. Who could be afraid of Ruby running through the woods with her ears back and her tongue hanging out for adventure?

Plenty of people it seems. In fact I used to be one of them before I met Ruby. She changed me. Our family first met Ruby at an adoption day for puppies set up by dog rescue charity Madra. We held tiny chocolate coloured labrador pups in our arms, but it was at the perimeter of the pen housing the slightly older puppies that our lives were enriched. Funny story: it was my brother who noticed her first because she was, as he said, eating the other puppies’ poo. He thought this was hilarious, and as he was the designated family dog person his vote won.

As far as I know, Ruby has matured beyond the need to eat poo, although she will eat almost anything else.

More of a gobbler than a gourmand, she was nearly fatally poisoned a few years ago. Luckily, she made a full and miraculous recovery after a few days of TLC at the vets.

We think she’s in her teen years at the moment because she’s gotten into a bad habit of answering back. No, really. She follows me around some days vocalising that she wants to go for a walk, like, right now. She pesters me at my laptop when I’m working and barks loud tantrums during meetings, a classic attention-seeking behaviour.

There’s a litany of manuals for dealing with pets and dogs, but Ruby prefers to do things by the bark than the book – I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s better than a sister and only slightly smellier.

Terms & Conditions

I’ve a few conditions. I won’t list them today as then I would have to get into terms and I don’t want to be writing about terms and conditions.

But anyway one of the conditions I have is very bad. Absolutely chronic and although it’s not terminal for me, it can make other people around me feel as though something terminal is imminent for them.

I suppose, in a way, it’s quite a handy condition. There’s worse.

I’m not the only one who has RBF – it’s been written about before – but I’m not sure if it’s ever been pointed out by fellow sufferers that it’s a sneaky syndrome because it tends to interact with other afflictions. (RBF – that’s Resting Bitch Face, btw, is a chronic condition that flares up in me when I’m feeling a bit shite)

Unlike RBF, there is a clinical name for “feeling a bit shite” but I don’t care to use such terms when describing MY conditions.

There’s too many labels around these days I think. I go to bed for a while and shut up.

Usually, when I emerge from the bed and re-enter society I can be a bit green around the gills for a few days afterwards. In other words, I have a fierce bad case of RBF and if you didn’t know who I was and you passed me on the street you might say: “Jesus yer one looks miserable.”

You’d be half right.

Sometimes people cross the road my RBF is so bad. I can’t help it mostly.

Yesterday I went into town after a few days of Ts&Cs and I hit for the bookshop for a bit of retail therapy. It was a fine afternoon spent in one of my favourite shops browsing quietly and ignoring absolutely everybody except the books whose blurbs called to me. Trouble was too many of them started calling to me and I have only a finite bank balance so I went to pay before I let myself get tempted by yet another rogue tome.

Even in full health, I wouldn’t be known for my quick reflexes so when the nice man behind the till called “next please” I hesitated for a few seconds and a woman darted in front of me with a great welcome for herself.

And what a welcome. She was a loud type and I might have looked at her askance on account of it. Ok, I probably glared at her (accidentally) and she possibly felt the burn of my stare (even with the mask) like the branding of two hot coals on her back, because it suddenly dawned on her that she had skipped the queue.

“Oh dear I skipped the queue I think,” she breathed, all clammily chummily at the nice man behind the desk, “I can feel I’m getting daggers here!”

Well, I can tell you the RBF ramped up by about 500% when she came out with that. We RBF sufferers cannot stand passive aggression in any form.

The nice man told her she was “entitled” and, of course, she agreed. He meant it positively.

Not two metres away, I stabbed my PIN 1-2-3-4 on the cash machine, purchased my books, and left without looking at her purchase pile – probably self-help books; she looked the type.

I’ve no doubt she got a receipt.

One can never be too careful of the Ts&Cs.

The Italian job

“It’s amazing how interested they get when there’s a few punt involved,” my Mum said to my Dad (showing her age).

The two of them were having a good laugh at my expense, as they do whenever the opportunity presents itself. Today’s opportunity was my uncharacteristic embrace of the Euros and soccer-spectatorship.

It was only a brief embrace – it started around 8pm and it definitely won’t last until midnight because Belgium’s bowing out of the competition at the quarter-finals stage means all bets – or all my bets, at least – are off.

It was fate and a fiver that brought me and Belgium’s soccer team together tonight. I drew the team in a sweepstakes competition at work, which involved me paying a fiver ‘for the craic.’ It wasn’t a very high risk payout so I went for it, all in.

Drawing Belgium, my better informed colleagues informed me, was good because Belgium are good at soccer. Well that’s good, I thought, I won’t pay them any attention for fear I might jinx them.

But I had to watch the quarter-finals didn’t I? The television was on and I stretched in front of it, sealing Belgium’s fate and waving farewell to my fiver.

The game progressed and those Italian feckers got their goals, and some lad from Belgium also got one – when I wasn’t paying attention incidentally – although that could have been about 85% of the game so they can’t use that excuse.

I began to get invested in the game-play. (Game-play is an expression I can imagine Eamon Dunphy coming out with in his lovvaly broad Dubbalin brogue). And not just financially.

The language got a bit colourful. Numerous four-letter words were associated with the Italian people, who on mature reflection, are a fine bunch who have contributed so much to the world like pasta, pizza, coffee, fashion, Leonardo DaVinci and those Renaissance fellas, myths, flirting, opera, Dolmio days, and who could forget bunga-bunga.

(What has Belgium done? Colonised the Congo and Rwanda, chips with mayonnaise, posh chocolate, the European Parliament. Meh.)

Thoughts of these Italian greats didn’t dissuade me from shouting abuse at the Italian goalie who delayed his kick outs stalling for the final whistle to blow. The same goalie, who I’d been feeling sorry for a few minutes earlier when he’d taken an elbow to the ribs. In my defence, I thought he was the Belgian goalie and was showing some solidarity.

(How are you supposed to know which end is which? It’s all the same field to me.)

Anyway, I was quickly disabused of any notion I was to feel sorry for this Italian diving goalie when the camera showed the Italian manager, a neat man with a two-tone badger hair-do, who looks like a Tory who cheats on his wife, acting worried.

It was all over then, a few seconds later. I’ll never forget my time in the trenches with Lukaku (me auld flower), Doku, and the other one who looks like Prince Harry. I wish them well. I still don’t know which one the goalie was, but I bear him no ill will despite the fact his two mistakes cost me a fiver and my reputation, which is only a little bit cheaper.

Allez les Belges! Our Dolmio day will have to wait.

Country roads, take me home

Another dawn, another day waiting for whatever emails I sent the day before to bear fruit. Somewhere between 2 pm and 3 pm I decided I wasn’t going to hear back from The Guardian about the pitch I’d sent them so I checked my emails again – only to find this time a rejection from the HR department of a shoe-shop I’d applied to.

“Well, feck them!” I said to myself in that good-natured way people who are used to such rejection emails do in order to conserve their sanity. Some of us don’t have a lot to spare in the first place. In case you’re wondering why I, an entry-level nobody, pitch to such illustrious outlets like The Guardian, it is because that’s what I do instead of playing the lotto. I like to write and I don’t have much shame – ergo, I pitch to lots of editors routinely (BUT NEVER AT THE SAME TIME because they don’t like that). Most have been very constructive and kind in their “thanks but I’ll pass on this” emails which gives me heart that someday my pitch will land.

While I wait for my pitch to land/prince to come, I’ve been trying to get a regular retail job to keep me going until something else comes along, but that’s not going so hot either. On the day I got the rejection from the shoe-shop I didn’t react like I sometimes do – take to the bed – instead, I didn’t let it faze me and I went for a long walk through the country-side accompanied by the dog, who wouldn’t reject a wretch like me.

I’d made the mistake of taking what my phone’s forecast app said verbatim and I went out dressed in long-sleeves and a rain-jacket. Despite it being 14 degrees and sunny out, my phone said it would rain soon, and sure enough, the sky was boiling for showers, as they say. By the time I’d reached the end of one road still dry I insisted to the dog we’d go down the next one. She was having none of it. She froze on the spot and wouldn’t respond to my pleas; I felt like the husband of a sherry-drunk wife making a scene at an English dinner party. I picked her up and hefted her a metre or two across the road. She got the message; “There, I’m stubborner than you,” I panted.

We walked on until we met a man we’d seen before on another day when he’d glared at us from his garden after one of us made his dog bark. On this occasion he was on neutral territory, walking on the lane-way. In my best diplomatic tone I stated: “Howya doin'” as we passed him – this has become my standard countryside greeting over the past few months. It’s obviously inspired by Joey Tribbiani, and a smather of Miley from the Riordans. The man clearly didn’t appreciate that because he just grunted “uh” at me for having the temerity to walk past his farmland. I knew then looking at him that he’d be the type that wouldn’t think twice about putting a bullet in my head or the dog’s head, either, for that matter. (And she didn’t even say anything to him.)

We walked on, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit dejected, like I’d been rejected by HR all over again – only this time HR was one contrary ‘aul lad wearing filthy clothes and the disgruntled expression (and huge swollen stomach) of someone with a seriously advanced case of GERD. Either that or he was in the final days of trying to beat the record set by the Malian woman who’d given birth to nine kids in one go.

My fruitless encounter with the unfriendly farmer got me thinking about the importance of first impressions. Clearly he was impervious to the standard “Howya doin” which works on everyone else I meet when I’m out walking. The trick is, I think, to state it rather than say it; country people have no respect for a pushover or a mumbler. You have to say your chosen greeting out loud and proud and then move on quickly lest you make a fool of yourself. If it’s your neighbour you might stop and have a word about the weather, a subject of endless fascination.

I haven’t fully gotten the hang of first impressions in a professional interview setting yet. When the dog and I eventually reached home, I pondered that as I tucked ice under my armpits and checked my hide for bullets. Maybe it’s my glasses, I thought to myself; maybe they think I’m an intellectual who’s hopelessly unsuited to customer service. (Only the second part of that sentence is true). If they gave me a job I’d be able to save for laser eye surgery, or at least a less pretentious pair of specs. I like the ones I have but they do make me look as if I’m about to define postmodernism at any second. I swear to god I barely even know what postmodernism is and I wrote a thesis on it; I just want to make a living wage. Ironically, when I apply to customer service jobs I lie about my education, because having two Master’s degrees and no job makes you seem like a mad scientist on paper. At my lowest I’ve thought of leaning in to the way my face looks and doing a PhD, but I’ve decided it’s slightly less mad endeavouring to get work in my area while also trying to make a quick buck or two working for people who think my lack of enthusiasm for serving customers means I’m secretly fantasising about postmodernism. I’m not, I’m thinking about a holiday in France just like everyone else. At this stage though, I’d settle for a by-line or even a howya from the peevish country-man with the quintuplets in his belly.

Bob Dylan at 80: It ain’t for me, babe.

Bob Dylan is 80 today.

By most, if not all, accounts, he is a deeply unpleasant little man who hates the world almost as much as he hates himself. (Like fellow aged “genius” Van Morrison).

People must find that sort of schtick very relatable or radical or something, because Dylan has a huge fanbase and some of that fanbase includes music journalists, who have been writing almost non-stop about the little blighter for the past fortnight in the lead-up to this, his eightieth birthday.

I’ve tried to understand what it is that Bob’s boys – for his fanbase is mostly made up of unremarkable men over 40 – love so much about his music, if one could even call it that. The man cannot sing. He sounds like an advanced-stage emphysema patient gargling gravel. In other words, he’s painful to listen to because he sounds pained himself. He whines. He growls. And, to make matters worse he insists on using that bloody harmonica, which makes every song sound mawkish and folksy – in the worst way possible.

If Bob’s focus has always been primarily on the lyrics – which is the defence his fans use to explain away his lack of vocal talent (and personal charm) – why does he obscure them with that blasted harmonica of his? Oh, if I had that harmonica I would shove it so far up your hole you’d be spitting it out of your gob, Bob. To be fair to him, for a second, as he is in his dotage, and I am in the rudest of health, the problem with Mr. Dylan is not the man himself, it’s all the fuss made of him by sycophantic, tone-deaf hero-worshippers. I get it, Dylan fans are passionate, but they need to stop calling him a genius, for Christ’s sake. If he was a genius, he’d know that he can’t sing, and more importantly, he’d know that a harmonica in the bin is better than a harmonica in the wrong hands.

Never a fan of folk music, I’d always wrongly presumed that harmonicas were, without exception, evil little bastards. Having seen the excellent documentary ‘Satan & Adam’ (on Netflix) about folk/blues duo Mister Satan and Adam Gussow, who played on the streets of Harlem in the 80s and 90s, I now know there is a right way to play the harmonica. It might be sacrilege to say, but Bob’s harmonica is in the ha’penney place compared to these blues musicians, who knew how to use its distinctive warble in a way Bob could never.

He might have written some 500 songs during his life, and there’s life in the old Bob yet, but I can’t help wondering what all the fuss is about. I get, to an extent, the love people have for artists like Bruce Springsteen, another great American singer-songwriter whose worshippers, a fraction of whom I am related to, can come off as a tad over-zealous. Springsteen is a nice man and a genial conversationalist, as well as a charismatic performer. Bob Dylan, god help him, is neither. Like his contemporary Van the Man, Bob is famously grumpy, and he remains as unwilling as ever to engage, with his fans or even the Nobel Prize Committee.

If you ask me, and nobody did, Leonard Cohen should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature instead of Bob Dylan. On paper, and that’s where these two famous lyricists shone, after all, Cohen’s style was similar to Dylan’s; indeed, the two are often mentioned together. But how anyone in their right mind can say Dylan is a greater artist and lyricist than Cohen was is beyond me. Before Leonard Cohen took up music and song-writing, he was a sometimes struggling poet in Montreal, an experience which no doubt humbled him. Much later in life, he became a Buddhist before dying – Nobel Prizeless! – at 82 in 2016.

I don’t know the first thing about Bob Dylan’s life, except that he spent a lot of time in cafes pretending to write things (this much we have in common, at least) and I don’t care to know either. His songs are second-rate and his delivery is whiny and pathetic. He has none of Cohen’s gravelly gravitas or Springsteen’s generous stage-presence. According to French singer Francoise Hardy, who Dylan tried and failed to seduce, “He wasn’t a very attractive man, and didn’t seem well in himself.”

He is an anaemic, miserable mystery of a man and if that’s how he likes it, perhaps his fans should leave him to it. He was the voice of a generation for a hot second back in the 60s, before he disappeared up his own hole. It’s hard to tell whether he is socially awkward, rude, or just playing the part of an ageing sixties withering flower-child, but Bob is no genius. As he said himself, “All I can do is be me, whoever that is.”

Well, Bob, it’s not enough.

Happy (?) World Goth Day

Bela Lugosi’s dead. The bats have left the bell tower. The victims have been bled.

Today (22 May) is World Goth Day – a very sombre occasion if observed correctly. And observe it we must! *Vampiric cackles*

Whether one is a full-blown bride of Frankenstein or merely a dabbler in the dark arts, like myself, you’ve got to agree that the gothic aesthetic is unique. Part of its uniqueness stems from its long evolution. It started out with pointy bits on churches, before morphing into scary scenes dreamed up by the minds of Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan LeFanu, Bram Stoker et. al. Nowadays, the word ‘goth’ has become an umbrella term for all sorts of micro-trends popular with teenagers, like ‘pastel goth’ and ‘cyber goth’.

Goth culture, as mired in the past as it is, even it goes through changes, so Goth when I was growing up is not what it is now. When I think of Goth culture as it is at the moment I think of mall culture.

Jhonen Vasquez, cartoonist

Somewhere in between things went a bit awry and goths became associated with satanism, especially during America’s ‘Satanic Panic’ years. That’s the reason lots of people don’t like it. They see black lipstick and they have a conniption. I think that’s an unfair generalisation as most aspects of goth culture (ie. not the devil-worshipping, people murdering, animal sacrificing, sex-cult-weirdness) are perfectly acceptable. Unless you think black fishnets are tacky – and you’d be wrong there; it’s all about context.

But mostly, goth is about mood and atmosphere. Dressing ‘gothily’ is not just a ‘look at me, I’m dressed as a reanimated corpse and I’m here to scare the bejaysus out of your granny;’ it’s a way of communicating one’s sensibilities to a world that fetishises happiness and wellness. Sometimes it is okay to be “silent and grey,” to paraphrase Morrissey. Plus, dark colours are universally flattering.

Arguably more important than dressing like a goth if you’re a goth, that is, is listening like a goth. It’s a universally acknowledged truth – on this blog anyway – that goths and their guitars go together like black goes with more black. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of my favourite ‘goth’ artists: The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Echo & the Bunnymen, Nick Cave, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Smiths, Evanescence, Rammstein, Kate Bush, Slipknot, Korn, Lou Reed, Lana Del Rey, Editors, Placebo, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Depeche Mode, The Jesus and Mary Chain…

I believe that if you listen hard enough you can find a bit of a goth in Britney, even. Well, maybe not. But Madonna, perhaps. Like A Prayer is a bit moody in places. I think I lost the purists somewhere at Lana Del Rey and the really, really hardcore purists probably would object to even Echo & the Bunnymen being called goth but they can climb back in their tombs.

Interestingly, when I was looking for goth quotes I found this from reluctant Gothfather himself, Robert Smith, who is more of a New Waver/New Romantic than anything:

It’s only people that aren’t goths that think the Cure are a goth band.

So, what is goth then? Most people seem to know what it isn’t, but most seem reluctant to define what it is or indeed to identify as ‘it’ themselves. Even Robert Smith doesn’t want to be a goth it seems. Someone should tell his face, perhaps.

Most of us self-identified goths don’t look half as goth-y as Robert Smith and Marilyn Manson and all those ghastly looking fellows, but we call ourselves goths, often jokingly, because we’ve got a penchant for black, bats, old books and other portents of gloom.

As the bass player in the best goth-band-that-didn’t-look-goth of them all said:

Nobody is the same. If we were all the same it would be bloody boring.

Peter Hook

Let’s celebrate the sepulchral.

Undead. Undead. Undead.