Thunder over Dalmatia

Overcast. Wanted sand twixt our toes, sights for our eyes had to do. Game of Thrones places: Purple Wedding park, Walk of Shame staircase, Red Keep. Fair amount of stairs in the wind.

Back into the old town. Every single stone a few centuries old and the ones beneath us polished smooth by millions of footsteps. Wander the grid of little backstreets – alleyways with notions, really – that climb up beneath the city walls. Few drops. Canopy. Beer and a coffee. Man up, so: beer. Proprietor takes a seat next us for a smoke.

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It begins.

Our owner / chef / waiter / friend is the winner of the most interesting man in Croatia competition. At least according to us. What the fuck is an electronic cigarette?! Says he. Have a real one. Marlboro box full there and light on the table. So long, willpower.

The beer flows. Laško – Lashko.

Then those magic words from my girlfriend, in the midst of the chats: I’m a chef, too.

Our host nearly spews out his beer, his face morphed into ecstasy. He grabs her by the arm: To the kitchen, honey!

She goes toe to toe with him because she already knows the mysteries, the culinary catechism. Then those equally magic words to let us know we’re at home: Next round on me!

Lightning flashes, thunder rumbles, and round after round appear before us. Zeus and Dionysus are evidently in accord that we’ll all be getting pissed tonight, and we are not ones to gainsay the gods.

Jigsaw life puzzle on our host, as filling as the food and drink. Wine and weed and women, no particular order. Sweden. Wife. Kids. LA. Gothenburg. Learning the trade. Catering a swanky shindig in Malibu, California, late 80s, no idea what it is. Finds out on the job: IRA fundraiser. As you do.

In his travels he meets an Irishman who’ll become his best friend. This same friend calls our host’s mother Mama Gestapo whenever he visits Croatia. Seventeen phone calls a day to ascertain her son’s whereabouts – he’s over 50 years old, keep in mind – will tell you how close to the mark he is.

Early / mid 90s and the wars back home. Not pray to the same god as me, do you? Have a bullet, a mortar, a genocide. Shells dropping and he in California on the wire to his mammy in Dubrovnik.

Boom.

Dead air.

Dead?

Yugoslavia exists no longer now – but did it ever? Passport good only for toilet roll. Down to Guatemala to get an emergency one to get home, his mother to bury.

Alive?

Alive after all?

Thank you.

Fast forward.100_6461

Eleven years a restaurateur in Dubrovnik, a damn fucking good one and all. The food the wine the warmth – reader, never have I had a mix quite like it. Banter (in the finest Irish tradition), free rounds, snack; my lord, the snack. Cheese, marmalade, lavender honey, and almonds. Surprisingly tasty. And on goes the conversation.

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They’re talking recipes to bate the band and here’s a fine thing – a mechanism – they stumble upon: do never write a fucking cook book. Do never read one. Get two chefs together, preferably from diverse culinary traditions, and have them talk it out. Film it and sell it. They will birth more recipes and combinations in twenty minutes than any one chef in any one book.

Food is a fluid thing; cuisine a kaleidoscope. Put your eye to it, your ear to it, your tongue to it, and waddle away the richer for it.

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As you read this now so do I write it. This is round two – we hastily brought ourselves home for an hour’s intermission, that’s me scribbling above – and now midnight fast approaches in the single most hospitable restaurant we’ve ever had the luck of entering. Only we’re outside, the chats reaching a frenzy as we laugh in the storm’s face.

River. A little river – a rivulet gushing beneath my feet down the white old town stones. Into the harbour. That another flash overhead? Thunder, t’was. Sure it’s a river now, and do we care? Do we, fuck!

Restaurant heaving around us and our host, who has given us a most gorgeous wine to wash down our delicious dinners – yellowfish and sea food spaghetti – is bouncing around the place, shouting orders like a battlefield general and getting stuck in with the rank and file, pouring pints and waiting tables. A Caesar for the modern day.

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The wine he gives us – a Dingač – is reportedly the finest Croatia has to offer. Now I’m no sommelier but it does appear to be an altogether delectable vintage, Tarquin.

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The banter continues apace, the recipes bubbling away nicely. I can’t make fried eggs, our host confides. I can make scrambled, poached, omelette, everything, but I can’t make fried. I break twelve eggs, honey, I use all four arms and I still fuck it up.

Ah sure nobody’s perfect.

Hablas español? he says to me.

Pues claro que sí.

And he hands me a Cuban cigar, a proper Fidel Castro fuck-off cigar, for nothing at all. Esplendido. My lecturers always said languages would open doors for me. Said nothing about tobacco, though. I think of all the doors our excellent host must have open to him; he speaks fluent English, Spanish, Italian, and Swedish, as well as his native Croatian.

After every discussion of a dish, recipe, or culinary titbit, either he or my girlfriend will say to the other: Do you ever stop? To which the reply is: Do you?! A refrain that comes to pepper the night.

This is the kind of spontaneous, craic-filled encounter that makes life worth living; I’ve never had such a genuine smile riveted on my face for so long. The night stretches out before us like an old friend with open arms. We laugh and saunter into its embrace. Meanwhile, our wonderful host stands and takes out his buzzing phone.

I have to go a moment; Mama Gestapo is calling me – but will you have another beer?

De Bello Hibernico

Fas est et ab hoste doceri

“It is right to learn, even from the enemy”

 

They say the old wars are over but they’re not, they’ve just taken on a different form.

Munster meet Leinster in Thomond Park today at 5.30 in what was once the best derby in the Northern Hemisphere. These matches were the stuff of legend, the blistering showpieces of Irish rugby. These days, though? Instead of all out war it’s more akin to watching an amateur re-enactment, with plugged bayonets and blunted blades, which is why I think a timely reminder of glories past is in order, with a decent dollop of military history.

Much like Munster in rugby’s professional era, Carthage was a city with big plans punching well above its weight. Munster originally had a reputation as plucky underdogs but that eventually evolved into pure grit. They would routinely be frothing at the mouth for big European matches wherein they fought like junkyard dogs; any opposition player with a finger on the wrong side of a ruck was liable to have it bitten off. Similarly, Carthage, through maritime and commercial ingenuity, dominated the western Mediterranean from about the 5th to 3rd centuries BC.

Exactly how an Irish provincial team rose from relative obscurity to establish a decade-long romance with the lady that is European rugby will be the subject of debate and anecdote for years to come. While the French and English teams had unparalleled funds and talent to draw on, Munster had some fire deep within which kept their blood boiling red with passion. A huge measure of this tenacity was born from their eternal rivalry with Leinster, Munster’s antithesis.

For all their enmity, Rome and Carthage were not so vastly different from one another; both were empires in their infancy, each trying to strangle the other in the crib. I find reading about their wars and battles as fascinating as the Munster-Leinster derbies of yesteryear, which were among the most eagerly anticipated clashes of the season. Now, while Hannibal’s father did truly despise Rome, the comparison falters here because I doubt that Ronan O’Gara’s father ever took him to a temple to swear a blood oath of eternal hatred towards Leinster, but you never know.

 

 

Cannae – Munster 30-6 Leinster – Heineken Cup semi-final 2006

Without a doubt Hannibal’s finest moment, and indeed something which is studied even today in the world’s military academies, was the battle of Cannae. I won’t go into the minutiae of the battle here (though I would strongly recommend looking it up) but suffice it to say that the Carthaginians and their allies annihilated a Roman army twice their size, through sheer cunning and courageous execution.

One detail that does bear mentioning, however, is that once Hannibal’s superior cavalry had driven off their Roman counterparts on the flanks, they circled around to the rear and proceeded to systematically target Roman centurions and other officers. This was a very deliberate and ruthless tactic designed to leave the rank and file leaderless and panicked.

At least 60,000 Romans butchered in one day will tell you how effective it was.

Munster used a similar tactic during their very own Cannae in 2006, and put enormous pressure on Leinster’s then outhalf and on-field commander Felipe Contepomi. Deliberate and ruthless. The scoreline of 30 points to six in Munster’s favour tells its own tale, albeit several thousand magnitudes less gruesome than the original Cannae in 216 BC.

After the battle, Hannibal had the opportunity to march on Rome and put the city to the sword. For myriad reasons he didn’t. This led to his cavalry commander, Maharbal, lamenting that, “You know how to gain a victory, Hannibal, you do not know to use it.” Munster, however, had no such trouble building on their victory over Leinster and went on to finally lift the Heineken Cup at the end of the 2005-06 season, after twice losing the finals in 2000 and 2002.

In victory so often are sown the seeds of defeat and in defeat those of victory. This was true of both Munster and Carthage and of Leinster and Rome. Miraculously, after Cannae, the Romans didn’t sue for peace, as all logic and precedent dictated. Instead, with the unmoveable will of an empire-in-waiting, they clung to existence and learned that, as things stood, they would not be able to defeat Hannibal in the field. They bided their time and let Hannibal waste his time and resources campaigning around Italy; they resorted to hit-and-run tactics to keep Hannibal frustrated and at arm’s length.

Over the course of the three Punic Wars, Rome was compelled to develop their own fleet to match that of seafaring Carthage. Similarly, they drew attention away from the Italian peninsula by launching their own military campaigns in Spain, an area of massive Carthaginian influence; the city of Barcelona is supposedly named for Hannibal’s family, Barca. Eventually, Rome would learn from all its blunders and develop its military strategy far beyond that of its old foe in order to finally destroy Carthage.

Likewise, Leinster would twice see Munster lift the Heineken Cup, in 2006 and 2008, and would themselves move heaven and earth and, more importantly, the rugby ball – remember when they were the best passing team in Europe? – to finally lift it themselves. While the lion’s share of the credit is due to the players and to their two magnificent coaches, Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt, there’s no doubt that their rivalry with Munster helped hone their skills and propel them to glory.

Leinster’s majestic, soft-hands backline was undoubtedly the work of Cheika and Schmidt, but I believe that the sheer grit and cunning shown by their pack owes something to their twice-yearly battles with Munster. It took three Punic Wars for Rome to get the better of Carthage, and three years for Leinster to overtake Munster, and Leinster might have had something akin to this article’s tagline in mind along the way: it is right to learn, even from the enemy.

And leading this apprenticeship in the Leinster camp was, of course, Johnny Sexton. It was only a matter of time before he made himself known, this Scipio Africanus, to Munster’s Hannibal, Ronan O’Gara. Just like the generals in the ancient world, these two men strived to lead from the front and were the epitome of cool under pressure. Like Hannibal and Scipio, they too fought passionately for the glory of their homelands, threading a thin line between the berserker and the white walker. Fire in the stomach, ice in the mind.

The season after Munster’s second Heineken Cup triumph in 2008, Leinster had learned enough and were ready for their revenge; they were ready for the battle of Zama.

 

 

Zama – Leinster 25-6 Munster – Heineken Cup semi-final 2009

During the latter stages of the Punic Wars, some Roman senators habitually ended their orations with, “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam”, which roughly translates to “And furthermore I believe that Carthage must be destroyed.” This was the gravity with which they viewed the Carthaginian threat and the salty wound that was Cannae. Hannibal was a veritable boogieman to the Romans for decades afterwards; perhaps Ronan O’Gara was to the Leinster men, haunting their sleep with perfectly weighted kicks and piercing grubbers. It’s hard not to imagine, if just for sheer pig iron, Johnny Sexton reciting some mental equivalent of “Ronan O’Gara must be destroyed.”

Leinster’s opportunity presented itself in 2009, and on that day they didn’t so much put Munster to the sword as rip their own sword from their grasp and give them an unmerciful spanking with it. Much the same scenario played out in the battle of Zama in 202 BC.

The Romans, under General Publius Cornelius Scipio, had landed in North Africa, right in Carthage’s backyard, for a reckoning. The Carthaginian Empire, exhausted from the two previous Punic Wars, retained but a core of its former territories and military power. They still had Hannibal, however, and tradition has it that he met with Scipio for a parley before the battle. Whether history or anecdote, the conversation supposedly went like this:

Hannibal: “I made you what you are.”

Scipio: “You caused me to be. It’s not the same thing.”

Now, substitute O’Gara for Hannibal and Sexton for Scipio and you have the gist of this match. Leinster dominated their old foes from first whistle to last, playing with a verve that was entirely their own and a fortitude that had more than a hint of Munster about it. The defining moment, the photograph plastered all over the newspapers and blogs the following day, came just after the half hour mark when Leinster scored their first try: Sexton standing over O’Gara on the Munster try line, screaming joyously and belligerently in his face.

In the battle of Zama, Scipio made sure to have the superior cavalry, both Roman and allied, to avoid a repeat of Cannae. Hannibal had about 80 war elephants and, much like Munster tended to bully the opposition at the breakdown and in the set pieces, he intended to charge them headlong into the Roman formations to disrupt them, to spread fear and panic.

Scipio, however, knew that this was exactly what was coming.

In order to neutralise the elephantine threat, he had it so arranged that when they charged, his troops would pull aside and leave corridors through which they would harmlessly trundle. This they did and they were dispatched to the great watering hole beyond with relative ease at the rear of the Roman formation.

Scipio went on to carry the day and received the glorious agnomen Africanus for his troubles. Hannibal, for his part, fled Carthage before its eventual sack and served hither and thither around the Eastern Mediterranean as a military advisor, Roman agents ever at his heels.

The boogieman could not be allowed to live.

Now, while O’Gara wasn’t hunted to the earth’s end in the wake of Munster’s defeat, he never again achieved that former glory with his club. Seeing Leinster lift their first Heineken Cup not long after their Zama must have been particularly nauseating for O’Gara, much as one can imagine an embittered Hannibal drinking away his old age while Rome’s influence grew all around the Mediterranean, until he finally acquainted his lips with poison.

Rome forged their empire in battle with Carthage and Leinster marched over Munster on the way to their first of three Heineken Cup titles in four years.

Both feats were unprecedented.

Alas, just as Rome was eventually torn apart by barbarians, so too was Leinster, and by the oldest barbarian of them all: money. The financial might of the French and English clubs may well dominate European rugby for decades to come.

In the new wars, old rivalries such as Munster and Leinster’s are quaint relics. Modern clashes are often toothless re-enactments of the old glories, and rugby is so much poorer for it.

Oh but how I’d love to be proven wrong in today’s encounter.

‘You’ll be waiting one hour’ – cue 13 hours in hell

After one half of a human day staring at the words Accident and Emergency painted red on the wall, they appeared to my sleep-deprived mind to spell out ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’. . .

Friday evening last week I went to my GP (general practitioner) with mild but persistent pains in my chest – I’d been having them on and off all week long. It hurt to eat or even to breathe too deeply. The doctor couldn’t pinpoint the cause and so, wanting to rule out anything wrong with the heart or lungs, sent me to the A&E for more tests. To the hospital I went, girlfriend by my side and book in my hand, thinking I’d have a wait of five or six hours.

It ended up a 13 hour wait to see a doctor – from 6.30 pm Friday evening to 7.30 am Saturday morning – and ne’er a wink of sleep in between. Now I realise that in any A&E department there are going to be backlogs and waiting times of a few hours, but this situation dragged us firmly into the realm of absurdity.

These people do their best with limited resources; I admire their cool and ability to handle stress in the face of aggressive drunks and hypochondriac junkies. But the fact is that it was an extremely quiet night; my girlfriend and I had been expecting truckloads of Friday night drunks. There was talk of popcorn to accompany the entertainment.

No need: there were only two drunks and two junkies in the whole 13 hours we sat there.

The title of this post comes from a seminal moment in the night when I asked a nurse who was taking my blood sample how long more I’d be waiting to see a doctor. One hour, she said (it’ll be grand, she said). Two hours later I went to the desk to ask an administrator why I hadn’t been seen yet. When I said that a nurse had told me (two hours previously) I’d be waiting an hour, the administrator laughed in my face. The insolence of bureaucracy is astounding, sometimes; she was lucky there was a thick pane of glass between us.

Eventually I was seen, diagnosed with nothing more than bad chest muscle pains, given a prescription and sent on my way. We then slept away our Saturday, my girlfriend and I.

As fumingly pissed off as I was at the time (we were near tears more than once), I see, now that a few days have passed, that it was not the fault of the administrators, nurses and doctor who dealt with me. They are hamstringed by their circumstances; understaffed and overworked, dealing with too much bureaucracy, often working with outdated practices and technologies. Their entire IT system was apparently down the whole time we were there, in fact. This is simply unacceptable in a hospital that deals with a catchment area of about 400,000 people.

All of this is because the Irish government has no clue how to effectively manage its healthcare system. Why not take a lesson from the Netherlands, France or Canada, whose health systems are lauded the world over? I realise the same economies of scale may not apply given the population disparities, but only by investigating new methods and implementing changes, however small, will things improve.

The Irish government not too long ago was praising itself for exiting its bailout programme, oblivious to the fact that this means absolutely nothing to the average citizen who faces the same bleak economic outlook as ever.

Successive Irish governments have treated their people with utter disdain, preferring to salvage corrupt and bankrupt banks than to ensure decent healthcare and education systems. They facetiously claim that unemployment is falling, not mentioning that this is because people are emigrating at an alarming rate.

A friend argued, not long ago, that the communist system failed when the Berlin Wall fell, and the capitalist system failed when the banks fell – and were bailed out.

I do not think he was wrong.

Anyone reading this from a different country, please comment and let us know how long you can expect to be waiting for treatment in an emergency department there.

‘If you’re quiet, there’s something wrong with you’

This is the biggest and most frustrating lie on which just about all social interaction is built. If you’re not the loud, assertive, life-of-the-party type then there’s something amiss with you. Obviously. ‘What’s wrong with you, don’t you like having FUN?!’ Now this may be shocking to some, but what constitutes ‘fun’ differs from person to person. I’m sorry you had to read that, come back to me after you’ve had a cup of tea and the shaking stops…

I will now borrow some warped wisdom from Coolio (because, you know, why not?): Been spending most my life living in an extrovert’s paradise. We are living under a paradigm that Susan Cain, in her magnificent book Quiet, calls the Extrovert Ideal. It is pretty self-explanatory – the ‘ideal person’ (in the Western world, at least) is an extrovert; he is outgoing, loud, assertive, ‘fun’ etc. (I put ‘fun’ in inverted commas because people say it like there is only one version of it, like it’s an absolute value that everyone shares.) The problem is, though, that I’m an introvert. About one third to one half of everyone on the planet is, in fact. The prevalence of the Extrovert Ideal puts us quiet ones in a very awkward position indeed.

We are often and summarily accused of being no fun, of being too quiet for our own good, of being socially awkward. In her eye-opening book, Cain extols the very qualities that are so often the reason for which introverts are on the periphery – or altogether outside – of social interaction. Deep thinking and a propensity for quiet and meaningful conversation do not a party animal make. They do have their own set of advantages, however, which often come to fruition later in life.

Being a teenager is hard enough, and being an introverted teenager is harder still. I know this because I was one. While everyone was going out and drinking and discovering the world through socialising, I was happier most of the time to stay in reading and – dare I say it – studying. Persistence is a hallmark of the introvert, and I realise now that it is mostly thanks to this temperament that I have learned French and Spanish.

But I did of course have to learn how to interact with people too; it just took me a little longer to get the hang of it. These days, though, I’m very happy to go to a house party full of friends and have a great time, as long as I have some quiet time beforehand or the day after to unwind. Unwinding for me constitutes silence and a good book, or playing a video game for a few hours, speaking of which…

A friend asked me recently if I played any videogames online. When I told him that online gaming didn’t interest me, he surmised that I’d had a bad experience by getting killed too many times in Call of Duty or one of the other shoot ‘em ups. He got a good laugh out of his hypothesis but the reason I play videogames alone is that I want to get away from people, not interact with them more. Escapism, in a word.

Similarly, not being able to get away from people for eight hours every day takes a huge toll on me. I’m talking of course about the particular hell that an introvert suffers in a noisy open plan office. Oh for the days of cubicles! I hate small talk, and I especially hate the open plan office variety. I have no doubt this makes me seem distant and aloof to my colleagues, but the very way our workspace is set up is geared towards their (mostly) extroverted personalities.

And so if you’re an introvert struggling to fit in, take comfort from the fact that the world just isn’t geared towards your temperament. If you’re a raging extrovert, enjoy being ideal but for the love of god cut the introverts around you some slack, and maybe, just maybe, learn to be quiet every now and again!

The Ernest Nature of Bell-tolling

Disclaimer: this post is my personal interpretation of a work of literature. I accept no responsibility for anyone’s hurt feelings or offended sensibilities, especially those of fans of the author.

I’ve just read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. If you haven’t at least heard of this book or its author then please stop reading this post and go read a book – any book – right now. I’ll wait…

This tome was sitting on my shelf for a full five years before I deigned to tackle it, and I’m so glad I finally did. The story is that of an American academic, Robert Jordan, who is fighting with Republican guerrillas during the Spanish Civil War. His objective is to blow a strategic bridge before a major offensive so as to hamstring the Nationalists’ (read: Fascists) ability to counter it. Despite being almost 500 pages long, the narrative deals with a time span of less than a week. This fact alone should tell you most of what you need to know about Hemingway’s writing style i.e. it’s incredibly dense.

I won’t go into the plot but rather I will talk about the style and message of the novel. Hemingway’s writing is usually described as hard and clean, lacking all superfluity; I would agree that perhaps 90% of the novel adheres to this. With under a hundred pages to go, however, I found myself crying out for the end. I’d had enough of thee, thou and thy to last me a lifetime. The setting was firmly established, the characters were fully developed, the plot was ripe and yet there was narrative inertia.

Then, to my delight, it was the last forty or so pages that packed the real emotional punch; when the shit hits the fan you can feel it and smell it spattering all over you. Your heart sinks and, through the sadness, you’re just very happy you’ve kept on reading.

I’d already read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (a must for any Paris-lovers) before this. Yet if you’d asked me, half way through For Whom the Bell Tolls, would I read another of his books, it would have been a resounding ‘No’. Now with my next paycheque I’m going straight to the bookstore to pick up some more of his work.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a striking novel, as potent now as when it was first published in 1940. It casts a cold eye on the embellished horrors peculiar to civil wars, when small villages turn on themselves and vendetta-settling often takes precedence over politics. Nothing scars a country greater than civil war. With so many similar conflicts around the globe today, this novel is very necessary, as is its message.

I look forward to seeing, in the fullness of time, what rough-hewn literary gems such tragic conflicts as the ongoing Syrian Civil War might produce. I hope not to appear callous in thinking (for the purposes of this post) only of the literary output of such conflicts, but even the darkest clouds of war must have silver linings. War is, after all, the mother of invention, and this includes literary invention. Switzerland, for example, has been neutral for centuries now, and the most interesting things it has produced are a stable banking system and good chocolate. Perhaps these facts speak for themselves.

Back to Hemingway. Rarely has a novel’s title been better chosen: it is from a John Donne poem which stresses that one man killing another affects all of mankind for the worse. There is a fair amount of Albert Camus-like philosophy surrounding this novel in that it extols fighting for what one believes in, for the betterment of humanity. This is hardly surprising given that they were contemporaries and were essentially seeing the world burn around them.

Hemingway once said: ‘Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.’ Camus too abhorred violence, and would have believed that a bell tolling for the death of one man might as well be doing so for the death of all men, and that you should ‘therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’

‘It’ll be better before you’re married’

Most if not all Irish people will be familiar with this expression. Little Johnny has fallen and scraped his knee or cut his arm while playing. Mammy to the rescue, cleaning the wound and kissing it better with this adorable expression on her lips: ‘It’ll be better before you’re married’. It has been a staple saying of parents (read: the children-afflicted) for generations. Its beauty lies in the fact that its semantic value is on a par with ‘If you fall and break both your legs, don’t come running to me’. And what child hasn’t heard that one while trying to scale a tree, wall or fellow human being?

Back to marriage. The more cerebral child will be thinking, ‘It’ll only be better before I’m married? That’s years away! How serious is this wound, mother?’ Little Johnny is very precocious, you see. This vague future date is, you will soon come to understand, when all your dreams will come true, and not just the immediate wish for haemostasis.

And why must it be better before you’re married? Why is there such pressure on toddlers and preteens to settle down? We should be telling them that it’ll be better before bedtime or before the next time the ice cream man comes around; sometime in the near future. There should be something tangible for their minds to wrap around, to take them away from the blood and the pain.

But it’s a blatant lie in any case. It will not be better before you’re married. The scrape will heal of course and disappear in a few days. And yet it – life, existence – will, objectively, only get more difficult. Life is never easier for us than when all we have to worry about are cuts and bruises, contracting cooties, and where our next sugar fix is coming from. It is never better than when we can scream as loud as we want in public (try this aged 35), for no reason at all, and have people smile and laugh and not get overly annoyed at us.

Let me be clear in that I am not at all taking issue with this expression, I’m simply using it to illustrate the point that life is never as straightforward as everyone would have you believe. And I do mean everyone. School, college, job, marriage, kids; right? No, I’m sorry, but balls to that – there is too much variety and freedom in our world today for everyone to follow this rigid structure. There is in fact almost infinite freedom of choice which is, as it turns out, mind-freezingly terrifying. Nowhere is the crippling inertia and stuttering indecision that accompanies endless freedom better epitomised than in Jonathan Franzen’s magnificent novel… Freedom.

When just about anything is possible, how do we choose what to do with our lives?

Most of us simply go for what’s probable; the rigid structure referred to above is a safety net, a comfortable alternative to searching out what it really is that drives and excites us. We are taught – forced, almost – to want objects and the money that will procure them. We are taught to want marriage for the security and ‘status’ it brings. And so we pursue careers in such banal things as Accounting, IT and Insurance, the mental hazards of which I’ve already discussed here.

To highlight a perennial example, everyone and their mother keeps telling me about how important it is to have a smartphone. And that’s not to mention every second or third piece of advertising I’m assailed with. Important to whom, exactly? To Apple and their profit margins? No thanks, my ten pound (in both price and weight) prehistoric brick of a phone will do just fine. It can make and receive calls AND send these things called ‘text messages’. Magic!

What I’m trying to say is: enough of what they want us to want, what the fuck do we want?

Ming the Vandal

The latest lie they are trying to tell us is this: Luke Flanagan committed an act of vandalism in the Dáil. Now, when you and I hear the word ‘vandalism’ we think of graffiti, broken windows and burnt-out cars; damaged property, in other words. What we do not think of are the ring stains caused by a solitary glass of water on the poor, sacred wood of the Irish Republic’s government chambers.

So what did Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan do? He marched across the chamber and presented a glass of contaminated drinking water from his own constituency to Minister of State for the Environment, Fergus O’Dowd. He challenged Mr. O’Dowd – charged with toeing the government line in a debate on the incoming water charges – to drink the ‘glorified piss’. He declined and Mr. Flanagan then walked out of the chamber, his point made. This short incident, in all its parliamentary splendour, can be seen here.

Judging by their reactions, Irish politicians are not fans of show and tell.

Seán Barrett, the Dáil Ceann Comhairle  (chairperson or speaker), called what Luke Flanagan did an ‘act of vandalism’. Mr. Barrett’s grasp of the English language is bewilderingly tenuous for the lofty position he holds. Ming Flanagan is not a vandal, despite the fact that he would not look out of place on a battlefield of the Early Middle Ages. His trademark beard is impressive and is the source of his tongue-in-cheek nickname – the liberal Mr. Flanagan is about as far from Flash Gordon’s nemesis as you could get.

In keeping with their astounding knack for insulting the Irish people on a weekly basis, the government, through Mr. Barrett, called an emergency meeting of the Dáil’s committee on Procedure and Privileges. It will not have escaped notice that they failed to call an emergency meeting to discuss and resolve the presence of cryptosporidium in drinking water in a certain part of the country. No, they are far more concerned with disciplining Mr. Flanagan for his ‘outrageous and unacceptable behaviour’.

They’re a sensitive lot, those TDs, to get so worked up over the word ‘piss’ and a possible water-stain.

I believe that this incident highlights (as if there were any doubt) where the priorities of the vast majority of Irish politicians lie. Rather than tackle the piss-poor drinking water with which some parts of the country are afflicted, they are far more concerned with making sure that their comfortable existence – their procedures and privileges – remain intact. The only thing they take seriously is an attempt to rattle their cage.

In my opinion, Ming Flanagan is something of a champion of the people. He is an independent TD, not beholden to any party. He is best known for campaigning to legalise marijuana. With his comfy jumper and pointy beard, he is more down to earth than just about every other politician Ireland has to offer (read: inflict upon) its people. He is the only one to fight tooth and nail for his constituency – the people who elected him to represent them – and not himself, his bank account or anything else.

He is rightfully challenging the government’s plans to introduce water charges the length and breadth of the country. That they have the audacity to do this when they can’t even guarantee uninterrupted water supply to Dublin, the nation’s capital and biggest city, shows the utter disdain with which they view their people. These shortages of course have had the added effect of hamstringing the economy with many business and restaurants unable to function properly. Ireland is indeed a third world country when it comes to water, and even more so when it comes to the calibre of its politicians.

Suffice it to say that Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan is the one flickering candle of hope in what is otherwise the dank and dreary cellar of Irish politics.

 

p.s. I must apologise for the overabundance of links in this post – they’re for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with Irish politics and recent events.