Monday, April 14, 2014

Homes, houses and Travellers

There was an article published recently about Travellers. That’s Travellers with a capital T. I won’t refer to the person who wrote it nor the newspaper in which it was published as I haven’t read the piece. This isn’t about that. I only mention it because my twitter (yay I’m back on twitter) was somewhat exercised by that article. 

I didn’t witness many flame-wars as my current interaction with the twitterverse is tending toward echo-chamberish. That may change, but for now I’m trying to follow only those people who I’d actually like to spend time with. Despite that policy, it was impossible not to be aware that arguments were taking place, arguments inspired by that article. 

As is usually the case with almost all impassioned discussions concerning Travellers, the term ‘racism’ gets used with liberal abandon. That’s a big word; racism. Bigger even than homophobia as it doesn’t have the protection and support of a religion. But is it justified?

Can a white Irish person really, I mean really really, be racist about another white Irish person? Well, not to blame the Brits, but when they imposed/gifted us the English language, we acquired the use of Proper Nouns. We have rules about Proper Nouns. We don’t let just any group of gingers, nerds or fans use of a Proper Noun. 

Travellers have the capital T. We have, in our formal language, accepted that they are different. Kerryman versus Corkman different? No. Kerry and Cork do have cultures distinguishable from each other, though barely. And a large part of that difference is simply just taking the piss out of other. We watch the same TV, play the same sports, commit the same crimes, take the same drugs, vote for the same parties, are let down in the same way by the same heath system and live in identical semi-detached houses. 

Travellers are different. For one thing they die much younger than the rest of us. They are poorer than us. They do a lot worse in school. They have precious little political representation. And most weirdly of all, they are not wedded to private-property in that way most of the rest of us are. That may explain the term ‘traveller’ evolving into Traveller. 

So yes, a white Irish person, if he or she wishes it, can be racist towards another white Irish person. 

That’s a remarkable thing. When I was growing up I never got the chance to be racist to, or about, anyone, except the Brits. And I’m half Brit, so there’s that. One was never racist against ‘tinkers’ because ‘itinerants’ were only ‘knackers’ and sure how could a ‘pavee’ be a race? Only the ‘black babies’ in Africa and Irish people were races. And the fucking Brits of course. 

Now we have black and brown skinned people and even white (other) people who are all most certainly worthy and legitimate targets of racism. Thing is, they are too much like us. They want to watch the same TV and commit the same crimes etc, as the rest of us. Most importantly they want to live in the same houses as we do. 

Their myriad cultures will mesh with our cultures and Ireland will(is) become(ing) a whole new collection of cultures without anyone, except the most inveterate and irredeemable ancestor-worshippers, noticing or even caring.

Travellers, even with their capital T, not so much. 

This is where it gets difficult. Should they and could they integrate better? Are they in fact already integrating but we focus on a rump that contains a high proportion of criminality? What is culture anyway? Do we have a duty to support their culture? If a culture becomes economically unviable, should it be allowed evolve out of existence? Am I obliged to care and to pay? 

As I learned on twitter, (thank you James) it does very much come down to property. Growing up, besides being taught a benign contempt for Travellers, I was imbibing a culture of property-ownership. It’s a need to own a house that appreciates, protected from landlords, the State, neighbours and interlopers that is beyond reason, even if there are historical, economic and even reasoned imperatives at play. 

When I was in college nearly 20 years ago we learned about Developers (capital D) being obliged to designate 20% of every new development as Social Housing. It had been decided that the best way to cure poor people was to separate them from each other and drop them into estates with people who had bought into the buying. 

We learned this as we were training to be the carers of poor people’s children. We were certain this was a good idea, but imagine our outrage when Developers (I think back then they didn’t have the big D) threw a strop. The argument they made was, poor people are bad for property prices. 

One of my first jobs looking after the children of poor people was in a very plush housing-estate. Across the road, over to the right a bit, screened by a bank, a fence and trees, was the 20%. Developers did not get their big D for nothing. 

The people who know such things, decided property could catch poorness, and the people they pay to run the country, agreed. Thus by a clever (more smug than clever to be honest) reference to the transitive property we can deduce that Travellers are simply awful for house prices.  

That matters to me in my negative-equity millstone. I’d like my house to double in price so I can stop being terrified. If it were to double in price then when all the shit, hits all the fans, I’ll just be penniless. 

So I imagine I would be less than pleased if a Halting Site was situated near my house. If I lived in an estate, I can see where I might get a bit concerned if a Traveller family was moved in near me. And if my life had taken a different course I would say something. But my life went this way so whatever misgivings I might have, I would stifle them, because feelings are not always right. 

Can I condemn those who do have genuine property price issues? No. 

That however is but one (if significant) strand in the Gordian Knot (yeah I watched Alexander) that is the tension between us and them. They have a capital T, so it is us and them. 

They remain a minority that is self-consciously and proudly different. They have a Culture. I just don’t give a fuck about other people’s cultures. I care about individuals even though I am educated just well enough to know of the existence of sociology. 

I live in a welfare state. I could not imagine living in a country that doesn’t have a ‘safety-net.’ No matter how influenced I am by libertarian thinking, I don’t think people should live under bridges just because they have a mental-illness, or addiction problems or are hiding from an abusive partner or ran away from bad parents or simply couldn't meet the mortgage payments. Neither should they be reliant on charity. 

I want the safety-net and I am comfortable with the idea of a home being a right. I'm happy to debate how best to vindicate that right, because of all the rights our species has made up, having a home is the one I’d be happy to see us defined by. Even if a Developer does get a cut in the process. 

But how the hell does one ensure an individual has a home, if that person feels compelled to travel? 

And that one sentence, despite my twelve hundred word meandering preamble is the point of this over long blog post. And to get beyond this preamble one must simply (not simply at all) accept that the ‘home’ part of that question must trump the ‘travel’ part, every time and in every way. 

So lets take the right to a home as read (and good luck getting that right recognised beyond the haphazard, substandard and begrudging system now in play). How then do we vindicate that right for Travellers? That’s a trick-question. We don’t vindicate that right for Travellers. There is no such thing as a Traveller Culture. Travellers are just like every other group in the World, they are a collection of cultures, aspirations, tensions and individuals. 

They can broadly (very broadly) be divided into three groups. Group one are settled and wishes to remain so, they have bought into owning their property. Group two wishes to travel part of the year and have a safe, homely place to stay when not traveling. The third group wish to remain on the road more or less full time. Of course there is also a very important fourth group, anyone who changes their mind. 

The right to a home can be met in all these circumstances. This is merely a matter of will, resources, imagination and goodwill. It should not however be confused with the desire to preserve Traveler Culture. 

Anyone who demands that the preservation of Traveller Culture be the responsibility of the State should be patted on the head with maximum contempt and sent on their way. Cultures must be free to evolve. The Traveller cultures in this country should be as unrecognizable a century from now as the rest of the various other cultures on this island will be. Preservation is the job of museums, it cannot be a realistic social policy. 

Homes, permanent or temporary, of consistent quality, Halting Sites that add value to their environment, a flexibility in our services and an investment in accommodating difference is  an achievable social policy. It is an intervention by the State that just might make 'Irish on Irish' racism as stupid as it sounds. 

But how to convince tax-payers, who don’t have a capital T, but think of themselves in terms of a capital T, that this investment in social capital will have positive tangible outcomes? How does one convince people who hate Travellers that more resources used to improve the lot of Travellers will improve the lot of all? That is something for smarter people than me to work out I’m afraid. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Some songs with that sex in them

I was recently listening to ‘The Same Thing’ by Muddy Waters and it hit me just how explicitly sexual it is. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before then. The result was that my curiosity was pricked. I wanted to know if there were many songs in my collection that were similarly evocative, explicitly or implicitly. 

So I went through my collection, not an onerous task. I don’t have a lot of music and it isn’t terribly eclectic. I listen to the blues. When I’m not listening to the blues, I am listening to music that has met the blues and recognised the blues as its daddy or at the every least, its grandaddy.  

There are a few exceptions. I love listening to the soundtracks of the Lord of the Rings films. They are the closest I get to classical music without having the feeling that I’m missing something. I think or I guess that what I’m missing is context. I can dip into Lyric FM and hear a resounding piece of classical music and have my day immeasurably improved. But when I’ve attended concerts I always wonder what, if anything is being described. I know what ‘The Bridge of Khazad Dum’ is describing and I know when Gandalf falls. And I know about Faramir’s mad charge during ‘Twilight and Shadow.’ 

I feel similarly lost when listening to opera. I have a Bocelli album. Who doesn’t? It’s a series of pretty sounds. Some of the sounds are so profoundly pretty that I am moved to tears, by both the perfection of his voice and the emotion he evinces. But he could be reading from a shopping list. In my heart I know he isn’t be, but I am educated enough to know just how uneducated I am and how easily manipulated I can be. 

Which, overly long preamble aside, leads us to the point of this post, sex. 12 songs and 38 minutes of sex. And yes I am aware that 38 minutes of sex is more than a month’s supply for most us, but fortunately for our species, there are some things that there cannot be too much of.  

This song I have already mentioned, ‘The Same Thing’ by Muddy Waters. It is a wonderfully sleazy song. And it’s timeless. Try not having filthy, sweaty, in a smoked filled bar feelings as you listen to it. 

This is probably one of my favourite songs of all time. It’s also a song that manages to make me doubt my sexuality, or more accurately my gender. Ignore the sexual allusions of ‘The Red Rooster’ just listen to that voice. It starts at the base of skull and works its way down the spine. It is an aural vibrator and makes me think of a woman sitting on a spinning drier as she masturbates. He has, I think, the perfect blues voice. It’s an instrument that can sometimes make all other instruments seem superfluous. 

Anyway, enough of that crush and more of another. This is the first of two Nina Simone songs on this list. I saw her live once, which means that if the god of the Rapture exists, I will get a straight pass to heaven because I was a witness to the divine incarnate. You see that’s the problem with being an atheist, we don’t have access the same language of effusiveness. Oh well. This is so sexy and an instance of a saxophone that doesn’t make me hurl. ‘I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl.’

This one is ethereally sexy. ‘Turn Me On.’

I know this is an Aretha Franklin standard and may suffer from being a song we are over-familiar with, but put it on, crank up the volume, and listen to her wail. Odin’s Teeth but she has it bad. 'I Never Loved a Man.'

Right, seven to go. I should have mentioned this earlier, play them loud and take the time to listen to them loud. Even the controversial ones to follow. 

This is Dean Martin and ‘Sway.’ I have no idea how this ended up in my collection and the gap between this and creepy cruse-ship crooner targeting lonely old widows is wafer thin, but oh my he nails this, puts it to bed and leaves all involved suitably satisfied. He’s older than your dad but you would give him a second thought. 

Up to about The Fugees phenomenon I took an active interest in hip-hop. I used to go to nightclubs then and no one was playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ so one had to adapt. But other than De La Soul and then The Fugees none of it was music you’d take home to meet the parents. So after The Fugees most of my engagement with hip-hop was of the Shazam kind. With that came the ability to have one’s attention grabbed by a snippet accidentally heard. That’s how I heard of one Dizzee Rascal and 'Dance Wiv Me.' This is pure alpha-male bullshit and there is nothing wrong with that. A time and a place as it were. It evokes the idea of instant attraction. Think more of this when you hear the final song. You’ll know why. 

The ‘212’ by Azealia Banks. This is gloriously sexually aggressive alpa-female. Lyrics and sentiments really not safe for work. 

This a proper old-school rock song. ‘I’m Shakin’ by The Blaster.  No subtly, no finesse, no nonsense (even has a saxophone) pean to a woman. And it is a damning reminder that I really need to add some Elvis to my collection. To have Eminem but not Elvis is just plain ignorant. 

I have one song by Beyonce, ‘Crazy in Love.’ Have you seen the video? Nuff said. 

Old school blues-rock combo The Black Keys teamed up with some hip-hop artists to make Blakroc. It works, they are cousins after all, remember who the granddaddy is? It’s all the blues when you get right down to it. ‘What You Do To Me.’ 

And finally song 12 and a massive change of pace. A move from a celebration of the libertine to the morality play. Etta James was a genius and is sorely missed. This is her version of ‘Almost Persuaded.’ Wonderful story-telling. Who hasn’t been that soldier? Who hasn’t done this kind of cost-benefit analysis? 

I hope you enjoy. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Secularists versus Secularists

Not having an academic background and not being very well read can lead me to butchering the meaning of, or simply misusing terms when I try to write about issues of ideology. Take for example my description of myself as a liberal. What does that actually mean? Well it means pretty much whatever I wish it to mean. Liberalism is such a broad church that in Australia the Liberal Party are the conservative party, while in the US, liberal is a term of insult used by conservatives.

Broadly speaking, liberalism is an ideology of individual freedom. Again that can mean all things to all people. It can mean both ‘low tax, Small Government’ and ‘high tax, Big Government.’ And it can mean different things in different continents, nations and even within different parties. But it remains rooted in the freedom of the individual, even if definitions of freedom and the individual are entirely flexible.

I hope that’s clear. 

Describing the left should be a tad easier, I think. On one level it overlaps with liberalism and on another level it’s entirely inimical to liberalism. Again the left values freedom and it values the individual, but not to the same extent as liberalism. The left, in its several multihued and multifaceted manifestations, embraces collectivism in a way liberals can’t be comfortable with. It’s a collectivism that is supposed to lead to equality or is the enforced equality suppose to leads to a collective ideal. I’m not sure which. Whatever the aims of the Left are, their main strength is their description of the present i.e. an exploited class, suffering the depredations of an exploiter class. It’s a bit melodramatic, but only those blinded by ideology cannot see that 21st Century capitalism (as practiced in liberal democracies) is eating itself, or more accurately is serving us all up on a platter to the 1%. 

(Despite my liberal disdain for collectivism, 21st Century capitalism could do with a healthy dose of socialism right now. But I digress)

Anyway, if one takes liberalism too far one gets libertarianism. One goes too far left and that way communism lies. I suppose take any ideology to its extreme, and nonsense will ensue, possibly with added death for good measure. 

My point being is that liberals are best at seeing the world in terms of the individual and his or her relationship with power, while the left are better at seeing the collectives, the societies, the cultures and their places in the prevailing power structures.

That is how I understand things at the moment. No doubt as I read more, I’ll have to amend this, with a blushing face. 

So after that 400 word preamble, I will get to the point of this attempt to explain to myself why liberals and leftists clash so consistently over Islam in particular and religion in general. 

I’m a liberal and an atheist and secularist. I have nothing but contempt for religion, but hold to the right of any individual to believe anything they want, as long as that belief isn’t used as an excuse to harm me, or anyone else for that matter, except the believer themselves e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses. I may think their ban on receiving blood products is contemptible rubbish, but I would never interfere with that nonsense. When it comes to their children however, then I think I get a say. An 18 year old can let themselves die, but a 17 year doesn’t get that right. And yes 18 is an arbitrary number, but it’s the age of majority in this jurisdiction, so that’s what we must go with for now. 

Living in my very white, slowly evolving post-Roman Catholic part of the world, my ‘clash’ with the ‘dark forces’ of religion is at worst irksome. I can’t be the President or a Judge. Boohoo. As I’m a childless man, our Roman Catholic dominated education and health systems don’t impact on my life. And anyway these are issues that liberals and leftists broadly agree on. My white part of the world is not at issue here. 

The issue is when Muslims, who are inconveniently, mostly not white, interact with a population of largely white people. A potential for conflict given an extra piquancy by the fact that Muslims tend to come from countries that generate some spectacularly ugly religious nonsense. 

Into this tension plops Dawkins. Now I love Dawkins, he’s a genius, but his scientist mind confuses correctness with being right. It’s not an ignoble fault, it just makes him all too easily dismissible by leftists, even when he’s essentially correct. Islam does produce some truly extraordinarily awful bollix. 

Dawkins, like me and most European atheists come from a place where the native superstition has been all but routed, even if it can still bar us from high office, can still deny a woman full reproductive rights and has yet to give gay and lesbian people the full protection of the law. In essence, the secularist struggle in Europe, especially in Western Europe, is at the mopping up stage. That’s great, but that can easily be misconstrued as European (white) exceptionalism. 

And some elements of the extreme right, those who are implacably opposed to their mythologised culture evolving in tandem with the cultures of Muslim (dark skinned) emigrants, point to our liberal laws as a sign of our genetic/cultural/religious/political superiority. They tout this supposed superiority as justification for the othering of the dark-skinned, for the barring from Europe of more of the dark-skinned. 

When one’s words find favour among the thuggish atavists, then one has a duty to apply more care to what one says. 

When we liberals decry the practice of FGM we are often stunned with disgust at the apparent relativism of the left. We say FGM is a black and white issue. Some on the left demur. We dismiss the witless apologists of the left as morally compromised. Thing is, issues like FGM are black and white. There may be people on the left who think all cultures deserve equal dignity but I say fuck those amoral pricks. 

But black and white as FGM is, the real issue is how do we combat such horrors in ways that actually succeed in ending this barbarity? We have to look to the left for something that is more than just pointing out that something is wrong.  

To that end we must bring an end to othering. It means that individuals/cultures that are sympathetic to FGM are drawn into and encouraged to be a part of and to contribute to, the evolution of European culture and cultures so that all individuals and cultures are transformed. 

Simultaneously we use every facet of the criminal justice system to hound and imprison (in liberal prisons) those who perpetrate this vicious crime. 

It would also help if we didn’t listen to the self appointed loons who claim to represent Muslims. That helps nobody. 

It must also be accepted that multiculturalism is a sham based on a fallacy. No culture is cast in stone, unless it’s in a museum. Cultures are a product of evolution and this evolution continues every time two people interact. Ensure everyone’s individual rights and let cultures look after themselves. 

That leaves us with the vexing debate over what we are supposed to think about the Muslim world. Yes it’s easy to dismiss the entire area as a morass of medievalist religious cruelty and oppression. I know the liberal in me keeps having to stop myself from offering the simple solution of just introducing liberal democracy to cure all ills. This again is where the left can be maddening but not wrong. 

The middle-east is a construct of the Western World. We fucked it up and we work very hard to maintain that status-quo. It is after all, where our oil comes from. Better to deal with a despotic scum-bag who’s ‘take’ from the oil revenue is tiny compared to what a free people demanding education and health services would cost. 

We can still condemn the religious extremism but it has to be done with nuance and an understanding of the context within which that nastiness exists and thrives. It is a part of the world where people who put their heads above the parapets get them smashed in by truncheons and boots supplied by the West. While in my world my biggest gripe is that I can’t be the President. 

That’s why Dawkins can come across as a dickhead. He is of course correct, but he gets to be a correct dickhead, in a safe environment and be well rewarded for it. 

The cause of atheism and the much more important cause of liberal secularism are not best served by highlighting the horrible blind-spots some on the left have. We are not best served by merely being correct. 

We need to be more precise, more nuanced, more contextual and most importantly, pause to consider, if anything we say can rest easily on the tongue of a racist. We need to dial down the self-righteousness a bit, despite being certain that we are right about everything. 

And when a leftist does not give their whole hearted support to the ending of FGM or any other extremist religious nonsense, find out why. They may be a prick who embraces cultural relativism. Or they may have an enlightening and enriching point of view on that particular issue. 

Certainty on one’s goals is admirable, certainty on how to achieve those goals is just shortsighted. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bilbo Courts Smaug

Last month I entered a Hobbit inspired writing competition run by I didn't win of course. A tad bitter about that. I do have a beard after all. The competition called for a short piece of original fiction, based in The Hobbit, but in the style of Jane Austen. The following was my effort. 


Bilbo Courts Smaug


Paul WS Bowler

Bilbo dithered endlessly over his cravat. It was a fine cravat, the best that hobbit tailoring could provide, but it served merely to remind him of his disadvantageous station. A fine home and a fully stocked larder he may have, but to look so high for a match smacked of vainglorious adventurism. The stone-flagged floor shook beneath him. Motes of dust fell from the delved ceiling, leaving a finely flecked pattern on his shoulders. He sighed in weary resolution. If he would dare look so high, then he must be prepared to be cast appropriately low. His class may be considered middling, his prospects more middling and his income more middling again, but he could boast a character and reputation without blemish. His recent association with vagabond dwarves notwithstanding.  

Cravat assembled into some semblance of acceptability he turned and left the anteroom. He began to descend the stone carved stairs. He took care with each step, dwarven carved, they were designed with a slightly taller being in mind. He did not pay any attention to the amassed wealth. The several tonnage of gold, jewels and gems. The coveted treasure of a kingdom. Such gaudy displays were dismissed by Bilbo as unspeakably vulgar. It was in the nature of Bilbo’s class to practice discretion in all areas of personal wealth or lack there of. In this instance, Bilbo was of a mind to make allowances. A noble was of course afforded a certain latitude in the area of good manners. The strain and responsibility of power must necessarily take its toll on the graces of the graced. 

He paused as the steps ended at a floor of gold. Bilbo carefully placed a questing foot on the countless coins. The priceless pile did not give way. He walked. Skirting the haphazard heaps of silver dining sets there, golden cups here and the sparkling hills of mixed gems catching the light of the moon. Bilbo looked for the source of the moonlight, unable to see how the light was brought into the centre of the mountain.

Bilbo grimaced as he pondered how hobbit society would react if he returned to The Shire with such tasteless baubles in toe. No this would not do. If this match was to avoid universal disapprobation, then there would be changes. He would not allow his peers think him a gauche poltroon. 

He kept walking until he saw the telltale vapour of exhaled breath. He situated himself in a position he judged to be to the front of his quarry and cleared his throat loudly. Nothing. He cleared his throat again, this time with a degree of violence that could not fail to stir even the most stubbornly reticent.

A cascade, a mighty king of old’s ransom, tumbled. Then there it was, the reptilian eye, the creature chose to bestir itself. Bilbo clasped his hands behind his back, adopting the stern but solicitous pose of the dutiful suitor. 

He began to speak. The words were not prepared, but on the long journey to The Lonely Mountain he had pondered hard the themes. He spoke with a firm voice, a voice full of the authority of a hobbit who knows his place in the world, but a hobbit with a heart open to an enterprise above the dreams he had been taught.

“Oh Smaug the Magnificent, I am Bilbo Baggins of The Shire. I have traveled through some truly squalid weather and impertinent company to lay my suit at your mighty talons.”

An avalanche of gold. Only a hobbit, or an elf, could have stayed upright to gaze on the emerging spectacle. Bilbo looked from far off wing-tip to far off wing-tip and then back again to the emerging head. The mouth opened and teeth, each as long as Bilbo was tall appeared. The sickly scent of sulphur filled Bilbo’s nose. His countenance may have paled ever so slightly, but he remained stolidly in earnest. Seemingly endless seconds passed as Smaug stood to present himself to his caller.

“Bilbo Baggins of The Shire? I had wondered at the scent assailing my nostrils these last few hours.” His voice filled the cavern; deep, sibilant, noble, cruel. “You are unknown to me. The Shire is unknown to me. You are of little stature and I would venture, even less standing.” Smaug laughed deep in his belly, proud of this dart.

Bilbo bristled with wounded pride, but he kept bitterness from his lips. It was only meet that the superior being demand the inferior prove his worth. For Bilbo to take offense now would be rank arrogance.

“Oh Smaug the Destroyer of Kingdoms, the Glory of this Age or any other Age, I stand stooped in awe at your mighty presence. Yet I stand, for I have conceived of a deep and abiding respect for you. It is a respect I am confident that with the correct nurturing, could grow to esteem. And from esteem then to love. I would have us joined before the local authorities and Eru. Joined as one.”

Smaug lowered his head, using one of his mighty golden eyes to examine this upstart hobbit. 

“You speak stirringly tiny thing but how can we not be cognisant of our vastly differing stations. You have boasted of no titles and no great treasure. Come, be you a timid and shy creature, unwilling to speak of your nobility?”

Bilbo smiled ruefully.

‘Oh my most noble Smaug, I am all that stands before you. I see a single jewel caught in the scales about your left eye that alone far surpasses my entire fortune. As for titles, I am a gentlehobbit and as such I feel myself the equal to all I meet, save this company alone.”

Smaug delicately dislodged the half pound of blood red ruby from his face. He allowed the stone to carelessly fall to the coin floor. 

“You speak nobly for someone of no account Mister Hobbit. Do not think me wholly unmoved. You offer me esteem, you offer marriage, yet I am truly offered nothing. I am master of all I survey, in marriage I become master of only half of that whole. Why would I choose such a diminution?”

“Most Majestic Smaug I offer you more than treasure, more than power, more even than the unbridled kingship you now enjoy. I offer you purpose. I offer you a use for your intellect and superiority, beyond mere suzerainty. I offer you my companionship, I offer you an entry into respectable society, I offer you the calming eternity of family.” Bilbo stretched out his hand and gently stroked Smaug between his steaming nostrils. Smaug purred.

“You contend Mister Bilbo, that despite being the master of all, I can be more, if I reduce myself through marriage to you? Am I not entitled to skepticism, nay, perhaps a thimble of scorn at such a notion?” There was heat in his words, but he did not draw his head away from Bilbo’s fingers.

“I contend, Smaug the Wondrous, that you are slumbering thorough a half-life. I offer you the fullest expression of your existence. In marriage to me, you will be part of society as well as being apart from it due to your obvious exalted nobility. How better to enjoy your power than to share it and to excercise it?” 

Bilbo tasted the truth of his own words. In his heart and imagination he already loved Smaug. His very magnificence demanded devotion. Bilbo might not be able to still the twitching curtains of his inquisitive neighbours, but they would be slow to voice their disapproval within hearing of such a noble creature. They may look down on their betters, but they would do so as they bowed and curtsied.

“I will not say I am not intrigued Mister Baggins. I often wonder if dispatching all the dwarves of this kingdom was a mistake. Keeping a number of them would have made my claim to rulership more plausible. It is an unfortunate quirk of power, that it only exists if there is someone to dominate. If I return to this Shire, I would be sovereign over how many creatures?”

“Oh many thousands.” 

Smaug snapped his jaws, consuming Bilbo in a half second. He was a morsel, but a well fattened one. Smaug’s lips curled into a grin. 

“So, The Shire awaits a ruler. Oh! Damn and blast it. I forgot to ask where this benighted Shire is.”

He growled in frustration. 

`Marry below my station indeed. If all hobbits are similarly ignorant of what constitutes an appropriate match, then mayhap I am best served by not knowing where they are. They seem wholly disreputable creatures.”

Smaug cast two enormous golden eyes over his hoard. He took note of every single item. He felt at piece. He burrowed his enormity below the floor of gold and returned to his slumber, dreaming of weddings and hairy feet. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Oh woe to woo

If the anti-fluoride people had come to me and argued that forced mass medication is a heinous imposition, I would have signed up immediately. Especially if they had used words like ‘heinous’ and ‘imposition.’ If they’d then gone on to use the word ‘Orwellian’ I’d now be flogging a calendar featuring my big bare belly and a very small fig leaf. Yes, fluoride made my willy tiny. 

I’m big on saying no to being told what to do by those who have the power to tell me what to do. It’s rational to be suspicious of power. Look at what the powerful do with power, the bad bastards that they are. Of course if I’m being really reasonable I’d have to admit that I don’t like people with power because of my conflictual relationship with my father. But as I won’t accept anyone as having the power to deny me the right to base my entire belief structure on unresolved oedipal issues, I shall continue as is. 

Perhaps that’s why I think that the day after the scientists prove the existence of a god, they should begin working on a way to kill it. I will still be an atheist the day after the scientists prove the existence of a god. Facts should not get in the way of a dearly held prejudice. The nation-state would fall with such clarity. 

So I am, possibly, pathological in my dislike of authority. It led me to support, in principle, the referendums on Dáil Committees and judicial pay, but to vote against them because the wording was a bit too vague in the whole curtailing the power of mediocre teachers department. It’s why I’m in Fine Gael. I don’t particularly like the party, but they annoy me less than the others and no fucking way I’m not having at least a minor say in the laws that oppress, I mean, affect me. 

I really should be on the side of the anti-fluoride people. No father I will not eat my greens. Yes father I accept that they may indeed be good for me, that they are rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre. And that they form the basis of any good diet. But father I simply will not be told. No father I will not go to my room, I am 39. 

I’m not on the side of the anti-fluoride people simply because the enemy of atheism and secularism is not supernaturalism (well not today at least). The real enemy is woo. Not because woo is wrong. I’m a capitalist for Gandalf’s sake, I believe in all kinds of wrong stuff. If woo were simply and merely wrong, then I could politely file wooists under people who are weird but harmless, like pagans, Garth Brooks’ fans and people who don’t like Lord of the Rings. 

The anti-fluoride woo is dangerous. Not dangerous in the sense that if they convince our mediocre teachers to stop adding fluoride to our water, people might die. Poorer children may suffer a deterioration in dental heath, but poor people don’t tend to matter to wooists. Wooism is very much a middle-class disease. 

The danger is that reason and science will have been discounted in a major public policy decision. Nonsense populism will have won the day. Even if our mediocre teachers then decided to add fluoride to milk and salt like our European neighbours, the anti-fluoride crowd will, with inflated egos and undeserved credibility, begin looking for the next idiocy to champion. 

I don’t want to suggest that the anti-fluoride brigade are as woo wrong as the homeopaths, the chemtrail weirdos, the disgraced anti-vaxers, angel healers, the Elvis is still alive, kidnapped by an alien, tin-foil hat wearing loons that inhabit the Conspiracy Theory hell-pits of the internet. I really don’t want to imply that at all. But according to Neuro-linguistic programming, just putting them all in the same paragraph is sufficient to suggest that they are all in fact, up their own fundaments, speaking through their fundaments and/or are a bunch of fundaments.   

I’m not on the side of the anti-fluoride people because they represent a regression, an evolutionary cul-de-sac, an idiocracy that threatens lives. This country already has a positive surfeit of native stupidity to contend with. We use Sellotape to mis-teach teenagers about sex and I can’t be the President because I’m an atheist. That’s the only reason under the sun, that I can’t be President. Not a single thing else would stand in my way. And our bankruptcy system can trap individuals for up to eight years. Yes, I said eight years. Yeah my party brought that in. Eight fucking years. Mediocre teachers every one of them. 

Then there’s our deference to authority and our lack of respect for authority. Often a dichotomy contained in the same person. What’s that about? I won’t compare the wooists to the Barbarians at Rome’s gates or the Ottomans standing before at Venice. Those would be overly dramatic references. More showing off really and possibly saying more about me than the wooists. (The allusion I’m aiming for here is floodgates. I think it works. Comments on a postcard please...)  

If we allow the wooists a victory, even an empty and relatively unimportant one as this, then we may as well begin handing out the tinfoil hats now, for the idiocracy will be in the ascendancy. (That’s an astrology allusion by the way. You’re welcome) Our politicians will have surrendered to a populism so dumb and scary that a Conspiracy Theorist would think that our mediocre teachers are simply following the mob where ever it may take them, even if it’s down the rabbit hole, or up a conspiracy theorist’s fundament just to stay in power. Not realising that mediocre teachers are just that dumb. 

(Just a few links to the fight against woo)

One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, NineTen and Eleven          

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A multiplicity of Irish Identities

“St Patrick’s Day is a universal celebration of Irishness and shallowness. With a national identity translated universally, we are left with little meaning except marketing. Irishness is now a connotation abroad, hollowed of content at home.” Gerard Howlin (The Irish Examiner)

I read this article recently. It’s a strange one as I am left wondering if I agree with the overall thesis or profoundly disagree with it. In my first read all I could discern was that old and debased saw, ‘in the good old days.’ Yes, they were the ‘good old days’ but only for a very small cohort of the population and even then they still had terrible teeth. In the ‘good old days’ Irish national identity, which was code for cowed catholic, was the stick used to beat all those who erred from the proscribed path. The mentally ill, the women who dared get pregnant in non church approved ways, actually any woman with a brain was scary, gays, lesbians, the poor, children and those perverse enough to play garrison games were all victims of this ‘good old days‘ identity. 

I hold these ‘good old days’ in as much contempt as I do those who dare express any misty eyed sentiment for those foul, violent and oppressive days. On the other hand, the days when Irish identity was that bastard amalgam of 19th century nationalism and revanchist catholicism were easy on those who did not wish to question who and what they were. One could go through an entire lifetime, sated with the certainty that Irishness was this thing and not any other thing. That is easy, that is safe. That created the monoculture, the economic stagnation and political waywardness that led to a country with two dominant parties who don’t have as much as the width of a cigarette paper between them on any issue. Other than mutual acrimony of course. (And I say that as a member of one of those parties.) 

“This is a country with an identity crisis so acute we are largely unaware of it. Life goes on, but out national conversation has essentially stopped and stultified.” Gerard Howlin (The Irish Examiner)

Today we don’t have an Irish culture, an Irish identity. We have a plurality of Irish cultures and Irish identities. We have about 4.5 million identities in this jurisdiction. About another 1.8 very different different identities in Northern Ireland and Gandalf knows how many other different identities across the Globe. I can’t think of anything healthier. 

There are those of course who are uncomfortable with this democracy and plurality of identities and cultures. How can there be millions of Irish cultures and also just one? How can there be mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws, but only one family? 

I am atheist, thus barred from certain Public Offices, I can’t speak Irish and have no interest in doing so, I hold our Constitution in contempt, I support marriage equality, full reproductive rights for women, the decriminalisation of drugs, I wish people would be a little bit more German when it comes to parking their cars, I hold a British Passport, have a proud English woman as a mother and I think the ’16 Rising was a mistake. I am a Kerry man first, a European second and yet I remain an Irish man. There are those who think my identity disqualifies me from any claim to Irishness. To them I say, go fuck yourselves. Croziers, guns, nor even the universities get to tell me who or what I am. 

If a person cannot comfortably hold many identities at once nor comfortably accommodate the plurality of identities in others, then I fear they have that limited intellect most beloved of the fascists. One can simultaneously cringe at the shamrock nonsense going on over at The White House on Paddy’s Day and still accept the economic benefit of such fawning. And one must make room for those who are genuinely touched by our Taoiseach being given access to the most powerful man on earth, so he can celebrate Irishness (or a version there of at least). There are those who still find a part of their identity in St Patrick’s Day celebrations. Who am I to criticise where they find their Irishness?

“The independent Irish state was itself the rump expression of the rump population, remaining un-emigrated in the southern part of the island” Gerard Howlin (The Irish Examiner)

This however, is a wonderful sentence. All else can be dismissed as the unfortunate sentimentality of atavist nationalism, but this is purest accuracy in a single sentence. This should be the point entire of the column. 

Has there been an impact on our collective identity by being the 'left-behind?' Was that the basis of our earlier cruelty to the most vulnerable among us? Did we lose imagination, radicalism, vision, confidence, empathy and sympathy because the best of us left? 

I’m in a bind here, because I am the product of emigration. My dad left Kerry back in the 60s. I wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t been forced to leave. I have had no negative experiences of emigration. I am comfortable with my many and varied identities. But this little country is smaller than it should be or could be. The collective identity that is 4.5 million identities, the ‘soul’ of our nation, to use the sentimental term, cannot but be marred by such stunting. That stifling, if it exists, is worth exploring. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Allergic to my Arwen?

Today my doctor told me I may be allergic to Arwen. Imagine that, allergic to my Arwen. How did this happen you may ask? Arwen has been with me since August 14, 2010. Why now? How now? Apparently there is a price to be paid for eating as if there is no price to be paid. I have managed to compromise my own immune-system by being a greedy little bollix. As I count down the months and weeks to my fortieth birthday, it appears this year will be the year I finally have to take my health more seriously than I would an occasional hobby.  

I am overweight, I now have chronic rhinitis, I have a few tiny sores on my legs, which refuse to heal, reflux and acidic indigestion and I feel lethargic a lot of the time. And eight hours are not enough when until recently, seven hours sleep was plenty. 

If tests should confirm that Arwen is the cause of my eye watering, neck stiffening, shoulder tensing and facing aching fatigue then that’s tough for me, because she sleeps on my bed and has done so since she moved in, so I’m just going to have to adjust. Take my meds and thank Gandalf I can afford them.

The annoying thing was that within minutes of getting home I had thrown my entire chocolate biscuit stash in the fire (burning calories the easy way. Anyone? Anyone? Well Paula laughed) and was looking up fad diets. Oh how I love fad diets, anything that involves me not having to think for myself everyday, make decisions every day, take responsibility for my own actions, everyday. Oh please can I have someone take me by the hand and do the grown up stuff for me. 

Gallingly, this need for reasonable dieting coincides with finally having mastered a few dishes I’d happily (yet nervously) serve my foodie friends. Granted one of those is steak, but oh my Odin, people who like food have no patience for less than perfect steak. It also coincides with having belatedly discovered some very good food in Tralee. And it is happening in a year where I intended eating my own weight in French food as hey, it’s my birthday. 

Most importantly, it is a reminder that I am in fact now at an age where I can no longer merely complain about my weight, then go for a second and a third helping. I am now seriously courting danger. That terrifies me, but like Global Warning, my human brain cannot easily compute what may happen tomorrow, when a feta-cheese risotto is staring me in the face today. 

Yet it is not a terror of death, but a terror of a slow decline given extra pace. I do not wish to spend the next 20 years back and forth to the doctor, I want to spend the next 40 years living. I do not want to spend the next 20 years with a chronic illness, obesity. 

I threw my chocolate biscuits in the fire. I have paracetamol ready if I get sugar withdrawal. I am going grocery shopping tomorrow. I am trying to work out what vegetables I’ll eat, when not smothered in garlic butter. I am trying to find some vegetarian options that don’t appall me. I am trying to hold onto the fear just long enough to create a new lifestyle. 

And I am hoping my blood-tests show I’m allergic to sugar rather than Arwen. Wouldn’t that be serendipity?