Thursday, August 31, 2006

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

I finally figured out what was slowing my Mac down; a quick look at Activity Monitor (why did I not do this before?) revealed that a toolbar application called RSS Menu (it does exactly what it says on the tin) was using up a whopping 46% of CPU. A very handy application but it will no longer be gracing my screen. Use a free Newsreader such as Vienna instead if you need to read feeds; RSS Menu is not worth the hassle.

I'm Forever Blowing Burbujas

What's going on at Upton Park? West Ham United have just signed Argentinian World Cup pair Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez, the latter the South American Footballer of the Year for the past three years. Why would Señor Tevez, in particular, want to go to East London? As an article in today's Guardian says, the Hammers are now transformed into contenders for the UEFA Cup. It could all go wrong though - does anybody remember Alberto Tarantini's transfer to Birmingham after the 1978 World Cup?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

More on Keef

Apparently Keith Richards is not going to be prosecuted for smoking onstage as he was within his rights, because the stage at the open-air gig was not an enclosed space. So what dolt at Glasgow City Council didn't read the law then?

Chavez Takes The Bunkers

Hugo Chavez is seizing the golf courses! The increasingly zany and publicity-conscious Venezuelan president has said that he is going to appropriate two exclusive Caracas country club golf courses and use them to build houses for the city's poor. Señor Chavez and I are unlikely to be meeting for a four-ball any time soon, as I am no more a golfing enthusiast than he is. In theory of course seizing golf courses is a fantastic idea, and might well be reproduced with success the whole world round. But the reality is something more depressing, yet another example of Chavez's silly populist and politically cosmetic moves to consolidate his popularity. Chavez is hardly too bothered by alienating his enemies both at home and abroad any more, but he is in danger of losing many allies if he continues like this.

The US government is once again trying to oust Chavez, and after this incident and another highly-publicised one last week, in which Venezuelan customs busted a US diplomatic importation (with some justification), it will take some encouragement to repeat the failed cout d'état of four years ago. The US and many in the Western media have tried to paint Chavez as a dictator (and this has trickled down to many people I have met, who have travelled around Venezuela convinced that Chavez was some sort of Saddam Hussein or Pinochet), conveniently ignoring his successive electoral victories, his victory in a plebiscite on his reign floated by his political enemies (which international observers, including former US president Jimmy Carter declared to be fair) and the fact that he tolerates open criticism of him on national TV (which is almost all owned by his political enemies). Some of this criticism, such as baseball commentators letting fly at him during games, is of the sort that the likes of Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi would have invoked hand-picked Press Complaints Commissions to stifle. And let us not even imagine any US network tackling Bush in this way. Chavez is no angel, having himself attempted a coup d'état in 1992, while still a General, and Amnesty International have found his regime cause for concern, but by comparison with many of the tinpot dictators the US have supported in Latin America over the years he is a model democrat. The shame is that he should be engaging in such stupid and ultimately wasteful policies, which only embolden his enemies and alienate a large sector of the Venezuelan left. Venezuela is a wealthy country and redistribution of its wealth can be effected quite easily by policies that do not play into the hands of the giant to the north that would like no better excuse to re-install a compliant stooge in the Presidential Palace in Caracas.


Underachievement Department of Idiocy: a report from the BBC tells us that an architect of Iraqi descent was asked to remove a T-shirt with the legend "We will not be silenced" printed on it in both Arabic and English before boarding a flight from JFK to California. The flight staff of JetBlue, the airline concerned said that the T-shirt was offensive, after a number of inane passengers expressed concern over what the Arabic phrase meant.

Let us put aside for one moment the civil liberties issue here (it is but a small drop in the ocean after all compared to so much else engendered by the illegal Bush and Blair war) and ask how could anyone be so stupid as to think that somebody wearing a T-shirt with an Arabic slogan onto a commercial flight is likely to be a suicide bomber? An American is statistically more likely to be killed in a car crash or by food poisoning than in a terrorist attack, or even to be killed in a plane crash, caused by human error, as happened in Kentucky last week. The removal of the T-shirt seemed to have a talismanic effect though; once you take that scary alien language Arabic out of the equation, then the threat is gone. Whatever measures, long or short-term, might be taken to combat terrorism there is unfortunately little that can be done to legislate for idiocy. That will be with us long after Osama's assault on "Western values" has been reduced to a footnote of history.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

…And No Funny Stuff

Gloomy, school-masterly, high-arty, lefty misanthropic (and occasionally brilliant) Austrian film director Michael Haneke is set to remake one of his worst (and most well known) films for Hollywood, claiming that he has no intention of sanitizing it for American audiences. Which is just as well, as it was barely watchable in its original incarnation. Supposed to make us question our relationship to gratuituous movie violence, the film's disurbing ultra-violence, though superbly enacted was couched in a preacherly tone that made me want to go out and watch any dumb film by his compatriot Herr Schwarzeneggar as an act of rebellion. Does Mikey seriously think that the average audience for violent Hollywood films will pay a blind bit of attention, much less get the point?

Slovenia, not Slovakia

I promised that I would post something on Ljubljana and Slovenia, and it is now over two weeks since I got back from there. The moment has passed but I will try to gather up some impressions. The most lasting one, unfortunately, was the weather. For the first two days of my stay there was almost constant rain. Apparently it is quite common in the city, especially in August. I missed the local version of the July heatwave where it was 4o˚every day. Walking around looking for a department store to buy a change of socks is not the most pleasurable way of seeing a city, and is ever less so when you are trying to find a place open after 1pm on a Saturday afternoon - the Slovenian people two years back voted in a referendum to close shops at that time. Thankfully the bars, restaurants and museums stay open. And they were of a generally high standard as long as one's feet were dry.

Slovenia has the misfortune to be often confounded with the other Slavic country further to the north, Slovakia (as it was by none other than George W. Bush during his election campaign in 2000) and the countries' two flags are also remarkably similar. Slovenia is a much more prosperous country though, the richest of the ten newest EU members, and it was historically the richest of the Yugoslav Republics. Its Mitteleuropean civic sense, as suggested by that referendum mentioned above, set it apart from the corruption and factionalism of Croatia and Serbia in the final days of the Federal Republic. According to an exhibition on Slovenian independence in the superb Museum of Modern History the Slovenians countered Milošović's plan for a Greater Serbia with a programme for the democratic reform of the Federation. When they realised that these efforts were doomed to failure, they declared independence (after a plebiscite, of course) on December 23rd, 1990. There then followed six months later a nine-day war with the Yugoslav army, which was largely bloodless and barely impinged on any of the country's cities. Since then the country has integrated itself almost seamlessly into Western Europe; apart from a few examples of Socialist-era architecture, it is almost unrecognizable as a former Communist country.

Because of the rain, I spent most of my time in the city's museums, which are not of the greatest general interest, but the Architectural Museum was fascinating for its focus on Jozé Plečnik, the man who almost single-handedly redesigned Ljubljana in the mid-twentieth century, having a hand in everything from parks and squares to churches to bridges to war memorials and arcades, and his most famous building, the National and University Library (pictured above on the left), built on the ruins of a palace destroyed in the 1895 earthquake. It is justifiably renowned worldwide as a masterpiece, and it is similar to the romanticism and sleek lines of other centres of learning of the same period, such as Gunnar Asplund's Stockholm Municipal Library and Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow College of Art. Ljubljana is probably the only city that has as an indelible a stamp of a single architect. He designed the main bridges that cross the Ljubljanica river, including the triple bridge that links Prešernova Trg with the Old Town, and the market arcades that line the river both above and under ground, (one of these houses the best bar I was in, called Makalonca, which throws up a gobsmacking riverside view, after a descent of a staircase into what at first appears to be a cellar; the barmaid there also used to live in Lucan, of all places).

The Old Town is charming and beautiful, in a similar way to Prague or Cracow, though much smaller (the population of the city is just 330,000, with not much more than that in the greater urban area), and it is lined with bars and restaurants, whose terraces are about three times the size as their tiny indoor areas. One regrettable tendency of bar owners in the town is to pipe MTV or local radio all over their premises, including the terrace. In the age of iPods and radioblogs, you wonder is this really necessary. The beer, either Union, the local (the newly-designed brewery is pictured, at night) or Laško, from the eponymous town in the east of the country, is on a par with Czech and Slovak beer, which is the highest of praise, and is cheap, about €2 for a 50cl bottle.

Because of the rain I decided not to head off to Bled, the town and lake in the Southern Alps about an hour north of Ljubljana. It is the country's biggest tourist attraction, but I was more interested in seeing Tito's summer home, which is now a luxury hotel. Having seen the Hotel Dajtla in Tirana a couple of years back, I have developed a bit of a taste for Communist-era chic. The rain cleared up on Sunday afternoon but by then I would have been left with only an hour in Bled so I stayed in town and visited the Castle, which like the fortress in Trieste, is built on the summit of a steep hill in the centre of the town. Architecturally it is less interesting than the castle in Trieste but it was at least open. From the clock-tower there was a panoramic view of almost the whole country (it is quite small, about the size of Leinster and Munster combined). Upon descending the mount, it was time for a burek (a sort of Albanian deep-fried pizza and one of the world's great junk foods) and a beer. Some of the locals eat this stuff for breakfast and like the Italians, the Slovenes are not shy of having a beer before 11am, which took a bit of adjusting to, as none of the people I saw tippling looked either dishevelled or as if they had been out all night.

Of the few Slovene writers I am familiar with, Slavoj Žižek is the most famous, mainly because of his fame on US campuses and because he writes in English (as well as French, German and his native language). A Lacanian Marxist, known to lazy journalists as the 'wild man of critical theory' (presumably because he has a full beard), he has long resisted attempts by US universities to capitalise on his fame and get him to accept tenure. He prefers instead to work as a researcher at the National Centre for Social Research at the University of Ljubljana, located in the Faculty of Philosophy building, just around the corner from Plečnik's library. It is a dull, functional building similar to hundreds other campus buildings worldwide but it is strikingly big for a Philosophy faculty. A piece of graffito on the side proclaimed, in English: 'Fuck Marx, I love Slovenia'. Žižek has no doubt seen it and was probably amused.

I hope to go back to Ljubljana, as it is a good spot for a weekend break (to such an extent that it now unfortunately becoming a destination of choice for English stag parties) but the weather is hard to divine. A bit like back home, only more so.

Not Being Evil?

More on Google; for the first time it is going into direct competition with Microsoft, launching its own range of office software, going so far as to host it itself. And the company, in contrast to AOL, as mentioned yesterday, has been holding onto search information for its MySpace equivalent, Orkut (which is the market leader only in Brazil) resisting pressure from the Brazilian government, which says the website is being used by child pornography rings.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Smoke and Mirrors

Keith Richards is facing his latest bust, for smoking on stage at a Stones gig in Hampden Park in contravention of Scotland's new anti-smoking laws. Though I am an enthusiastic supporter of such laws, surely this is the sort of move that only alienates people further in an over-zealous application of the law. Perhaps Keef should not be above the law anymore than anybody else but he is hardly going to be as put out by the fifty pound fine as your average Glaswegian might be. It is disproportionate and silly and only contributes to the impression that such laws are the conception of humourless killjoys. The fact that Richards is being rapped for smoking at an outdoor concert calls into question the wisdom of the law banning smoking in outdoor work environments. Under Ireland's much more sensible laws he would be allowed to smoke as much as he liked, provided the work-area in which he was smoking had fifty percent of its surface area exposed. Workplace smoking bans are laudable on a purely pragmatic basis; in Ireland the majority of people - including a majority of smokers - support the laws and they will gradually eliminate smoking in society over ten to fifteen years, as well as protecting the health of those previously exposed to noxious smoke. Glasgow City Council's move to prosecute Keith Richards does not fall in with this pragmatism.

Meanwhile, French health minister Xavier Bertrand has announced that a ban on smoking in public places will be implented in January of next year, with bar-tabacs, some restaurants and other places exempt for the first year. A sensible enough compromise. His own government and his own ministry however have distanced themselves from his comments, fearful of implementing a possibly unpopular law before next year's Presidential and Legislative elections. The French will not go for the ban as enthusiastically as the Scandanavians and the Irish before them, but they are not as heavy smokers as is popularly imagined. Certainly those that drink in France smoke a lot but if you go to any small town in the French provinces, the non-smoking section is generally the larger one. If the Italians could do the ban before them, and they smoke a lot more than the French, then there should not be too much trouble here.

Don't Be Evil

An interesting, and alarming, piece in today's Guardian concerning Google's use of search information. Somebody at AOL, which uses Google as its search engine, thought it would be a good idea to gather detailed search information and post it on an online database. It was taken down within a week and the person responsible sacked (just like in Monty Python). The worrying thing is that people, both on the side of the watching and that of the watched, do not seem to see the problem with such expansive access to information. Google likes to set itself up as a benign, philanthropic counter-culture company, but it is also the fastest growing company in history, and is likely to overtake Microsoft within the next ten years. There is not any great reason to trust Larry Page and Sergei Brin any more than any other, less sophisticated or culturally inclined capitalist. Page and Brin have an ambition to catalogue and map every form of information and knowledge, hence the prolific cross-pollination of information contained in their services. Of course the real secret of Google's success lies in their selling small ads, and I find it disturbing that, when I use Gmail, the ads in the sidebar are all specifically linked to keywords in my mail text. Maybe it might be time for government intervention to rein the company in before they get too strong.

Not that the present US government is terribly worried about people's right to privacy, what with its fondness for illegal phone-tapping. I have been wondering for quite some time about those ubiquitous ads for the Green Card lottery that flash every time I use a Yahoo account. They are genuine US government placements as far as I know, and a journalist friend of mine claims that they are there for the purpose of information gathering (presumably, to 'help fight against terrorism'). It sounds a bit paranoid but they have started to appear in Metro cars here in Paris and one poster claimed, quite improbably, that 70% of successful applicants have been either born in France or have lived there. There is a story to be written on this.

Dans tes rêves, Michel

The film last night was La Science des rêves, the new film by Michel Gondry. It is a truly awful piece of shite, and I am not going to waste my time appraising it in detail. Two of its more fundamental errors are imagining that other people's dreams are interesting and the erratic casting, Gael García Bernal is the lead, despite the fact that he speaks practically no French are scarcely any more English. The film only perks up when French is spoken. Gondry is working for the first time without the devilishly clever Charlie Kaufman, who scripted his last two films. He should get on the blower straight away to Charlie if he wants to make another decent film.

Final Score

The weekend's football threw up narrow victories for all three of Seanachie's sides, Sligo Rovers advanced to the quarter-finals of the FAI Cup beating Bray Wanderers for the third time this season, by two goals to one. Celtic came from behind at home to Hibs to win by the same scoreline, their new signing, the man with the longest name in football, Jan van Hennegoor of Hessilink scoring the winner. The early season still looks dicey for the Bhoys, and improvement will be needed before they face Man U and Benfica in the Champions' League. Meanwhile over here in France, St-Etienne won their third match on the trot tonight, beating Lens 3-2, though they made things difficult for themselves after leading 3-0 after 55 minutes.

In the other code, as sporting people in the West of Ireland would say, Mayo defeated Dublin in the All-Ireland football semi-final, in what was apparently a thriller, and according to my Dad, the best Gaelic football game in 20 years. Mayo will now face Kerry in a final for the third time in ten years (and their fourth final in all in that time). It seems strange as Mayo never seem to be a formidable team, and they have still not won an All-Ireland since 1952. I don't expect them to win this year but I wish them the best of luck.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

High Living on Fatty Liver

As of last week it has been illegal to sell, and therefore serve foie gras in Chicago, as a result of a a by-law passed by the City Council. Predictably enough it has been passed because of the alleged cruelty of force-feeding the geese and ducks involved in the production of the greasy liver pâté. All very well but I wonder if Chicago City Council passed a motion condemning the Israeli bombing of Lebanese civilians? I think it is highly unlikely, and the sad truth is that fowl in the south of France can muster more compassion in the West than Arabs in southern Lebanon.

Another news story on the cruelty-to-animals front is a campaign to make it illegal to slaughter horses in the US for consumption abroad. Willie Nelson and Bo Derek (remember her?) are among the, er, celebrities, that have lent their support to the campaign. I assume that many of these good people are meat eaters; as Dennis Leary used to say, you only spare the cute animals. Eating horse-flesh is one of those horrendous things that Johny Foreigner gets up to and I can understand the indignation of patriotic animal lovers seeing American horses being packed off to end up on a European dinner plate. I had foal, roasted and served in a red-wine sauce in Slovenia a few weeks ago, and I have to say I was disappointed - tough and flavourless the meat was but I would give it a go again, whatever the provenance of the equine beast.

I was a vegetarian for eight years and for much of that time I defended my rationale behind my choice not to eat meat. Now five years on from going back to meat I can no longer do that. I turned vegetarian when I was 18 and before that time I had probably never eaten in a half-decent restaurant. Nor had I left Ireland. When I started working in the catering trade, and living in France, I soon realised what a dull, philistine choice vegetarianism is. While I know that not all vegetarians are self-righteous and puritanical about not eating meat, many are. There is something infinitely smug about vegetarianism and it also bespeaks a depressing lack of curiosity about the world, about culture and about food itself. It is no coincidence that many vegetarians do not care very much for vegetables or pulses. And other than the obvious (and very different) case of Hindu vegetarianism, abstention from meat is something that exists almost exclusively in English-speaking and Nordic countries. There is a clear link with religious self-righteousness there. The thing that annoys me the most about those that abstain from meat is the way that they moan about not being catered for in countries where vegetarians are non-existent (i.e. most of mainland Europe, Latin America and Africa, and a good stretch of Asia); why in God's name should a French brasserie owner or the proprietor of a Spanish tapas bar go out of their way to provide an elaborate meat-free dish for some Anglophone with a bizarre dietary penchant, and who in most cases, makes no effort to order in the local language in the first place?

Another feature of vegetarianism, and associated strains of anthropomorphism is the consumerist easy political choice it offers; one can have a conscience without having to think about any of the nasty things going on in the world, without even having to vote. I wonder if it sits easy on the conscience of a mobile-phone-owning vegetarian the knowledge that the current war in south-east Congo is being fuelled by the tungsten trade, which is vital to the mobile telecommunications industry? It may or may not, and many people would not be too bothered. And perhaps they shouldn't be. Other than feeling mild guilt, there is not an awful lot that any of us can do about it. I have yet to meet anybody that has given up using a mobile for this reason. For my part it does not really bother me that a duck or a goose suffers during the production of foie gras. I would like to say it does, but I really do not care, even if I can hardly call myself a big fan of the stuff. I just find it depressing that people in the US or elsewhere would interest themselves in foie gras only because of its association with avian cruelty. One thing that always annoyed me when I was vegetarian was somebody pointing out for the umpteenth time that Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian too, as if there were any correlation between compassion for animals and being a psychopath. I don't do that when discussing vegetarianism but vegetarians do share a certain belief that they are absolutely right married with a lack of adventure of anything beyond what they know.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Barley Water

Winner of this year's Cannes Palme d'Or, Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley arrives in France, fresh from its good box-office showing in Ireland and its predictable success in getting the wind up the right-wing tabloids in Britain, an achievement, however facile, that is much to its credit. I cannot say however that I find the film itself hugely satisfying, even if I find myself in agreement with many of its political stands.

This is often the case with Loach's work, in which I usually find more to admire than to love. He is at his best when he focuses on a single character, usually a 'little man', who is caught up in minor events beyond his comprehension or ability to surmount, which are woven into the socio-political actuality. There is rarely a triumph in his films, and when there is, it is usually modest enough, or heavily mitigated. Among his best films of this sort are Kes, Raining Stones, and My Name is Joe. The new film falls in with his previous historical work, such as the 1975 TV-mini-series Days of Hope and his Spanish Civil War drama Land and Freedom. The brushstrokes are broader and the political pronouncements more explicit. Which does not necessarily make for a good film.

The film concerns the political awakening of a young medical student from West Cork, played by Cillian Murphy, who after a serious of suitably dastardly raids by the Black and Tans on his village at the start of the film, abandons the hospital job he has just taken on in England to devote himself to the cause of Irish Independence, in which, conveniently enough, his older brother is already a local commander. Loach and his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty were probably right to use Cork as a backdrop as the south-western corner of the country was the main theatre - and the most vicious one - of both the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. It does however present the Irish viewer at least with a difficult obstacle to overcome: sympathising with a shower of Cork people. But disbelief can be suspended, even within oneself, and given that it is the Black and Tans and the slightly more benign British Army pitted against them, they don't look so bad after all. The opening fifteen minutes are shamelessly manipulative however, on Loach's part. We have barely got to know any of the characters before we know them as victims, and victims only. The Tans break up a hurling match (inserted into the opening credits for its maximal visual value), citing it as a prohibited gathering. They then beat and hang a local teenager, who refuses to give his name in English (as ever in Irish films, the Gaelic pronunciation hangs very uneasily, and unconvincingly, on gallgeoir lips). Then a Dublin train driver, a former Citizen Army POW played by Liam Cunningham, is beaten by the Tans after refusing to transport British Army personnel or material, as ordered by his union, the ITGWU, in front of the medical student, O'Donovan, who promptly turns back to sign up for the Cause.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of the two wars, and indeed anyone with a close knowledge of any liberation struggle throughout history, will find the plot the least interesting thing about the film. The film ends predictably enough, though credibly so. Not surprisingly, the famous brother-versus-brother character of the Civil War is played out within the hero's family. Loach, unlike Neil Jordan in Michael Collins (who tried to convince us that Collins, armed to the teeth by the British 'died trying to take the gun out of Irish politics) is firmly on the side of the Republicans, and the film does enumerate in its various creakily mounted debates (a reprise of Land and Freedom) some of the sound historical arguments for rejecting the Treaty: the unacceptable threat of violence by the British in the event of its rejection (not unlike the behaviour of the US and Israel in this day), which in any case was most likely a bluff, as the UK would probably have courted too much disfavour both in the US and Europe by doing so; the disputing of the narrow election victory for the Free Staters in June 1923 as the Free State Constitution was made available only the morning of the ballot, something that would have had modern-day election observers seriously doubting the validity of such an election.

Loach views the Republican cause through the prism of the Republican left, which, by 1922 had the wind knocked out of it both by the decimation of the ICA in the 1916 Rising and the abstention of the Labour Party in the 1918 elections to accomodate Sinn Féin. Loach and Laverty are not fanciful enough to believe that the left was any stronger than it actually was, though at times their political matrix is thrust upon the characters in an ungainly way. Much of the political dialogue heaves in the mouths of the young actors, particularly Murphy's speechifying. I have never been convinced by Murphy's acting abilities; he is much too devoid of energy and life to carry a film but I can understand him being cast because of his bankability and his Cork origins. While the accents elsewhere in the film are better than average in an Irish film, there are one or two that bear the imprint of late twentieth century exposure to foreign media (and did anyone in Cork in 1920 ever speak of the King's "ass"?) and Orla Fitzgerald, as the token woman revolutionary, has both an accent a bit too plummy for a West Cork peasant girl and a very contemporary frizzy perm (to be lost to the villainous Tans in a spectacularly badly-directed scene that is supposed to be harrowing). When Murphy says at one point in the film that he hopes that the Republic he is fighting for will be worth the effort, he is showing a prescience far beyond anything that he demonstrates elsewhere in the film. His relationship with Cunningham's socialist train driver is cursorily treated and Murphy's social conscience never seems to be rooted in anything deeper than outrage at the Black and Tan attacks he witnesses. That a soot-faced Jackeen like the train driver, no matter how egalitarianist and internationalist, would have had that much time for the Corkonians in this film is itself questionable.

There are some remarkable sequences in the film however, such as the training drill early on in the film, where the more experienced IRB men laconically inform the new recruits how many of them would have been dead had they exposed their positions in combat. The violence is also treated in a brutal, unromanticised way. Loach also gives us a great stock character, in the local Unionist landlord Sir John Hamilton, played by Roger Allam, who recently played Steve Coogan's agent in A Cock and Bull Story. Allam has a wonderfully patrician contempt for all and sundry and he looks and sounds just like Christopher Hitchens, which makes him all the more imposing, and maddening. The final scene where Murphy's character refuses to cross over to the Free Staters, despite his brother's pleas, is also great, and thankfully Loach refuses to cast O'Donovan in a messianic way, as many a lesser director would have done.

The British tabloids of course did not like the film for its uncomplimentary portrayal of British security forces. I am not one of those Irish nationalists that views the British occupation of Ireland as one long simple narrative of brutality and repression, there were many nuances to it, and the Irish were quite often willing collaborators in the colonial project. But it is impossible to traduce the memory of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliary Police; they were filth and no amount of socio-historical reasoning, be it their status as lumpen proletariat, their exploitation by a cynical ruling class, or trauma suffered during the Great War can mitigate this. They should be viewed as the US military personnel who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere and judged on their own personal refusal to allow the dignity of their victims. Anti-republicans in Ireland are wont to say that films such as this give 'succour' to the present-day IRA but the gulf between the idealists of the War of Independance and the base gangsters of the Provos is too wide to give this view credence. Not that the Old IRA were saints, and they were given to atrocities that will remain unpardonable in the eyes of anyone. But they were also up against a formidable and unfettered brutal adversary. Loach never glorifies the violence committed by the Irish in the film, even if he does emphasise that of the British a bit more than necessary.

At Cannes Loach and Laverty compared the situation during the Civil War with the Occupation of Iraq; there is certainly the parallel of a subjugated people not necessarily thankful for the intervention of a foreign force, but the Insurrection in Iraq is a far more heterogenous grouping than the IRA of the time, and in some parts a hell of a lot more vicious. But Loach's message that viciousness on the part of the state will only beget more is well put. As a film overall though it is one of Loach's weaker ones. The drama is sloppily presented and, as I mentioned before, the film's dialectics are over-demonstrative and the dialogue hangs uneasily on the action. Loach seems too hamstrung by hammering his message home to allow the film an organic life. That said, a Loach film even when it is very bad, like the film about the LA janitors' struggle for labour rights Bread and Roses, is always stirring stuff, and the emotional impact of The Wind That Shakes The Barley is considerable. But, even in a poor year at Cannes, it is not a worthy Palme d'Or winner. Hopefully Loach will step back from World History for his next film and get back to the little man.

Back Home In Derry

Well done to Derry City, who have advanced to the First Round proper of the UEFA Cup, having seen off Gretna 7-3 on aggregate following an impressive first-leg drubbing away in Scotland. Commiserations to Drogheda United, who, in the same competition and after finishing level on aggregate to the Norwegians Start - managed by former Liverpool player Stig Inge Byornebye - went down 11-10 in a marathon penalty shoot-out. The unfortunate Graham Gartland missed both the first and the last kicks, possibly the first player ever to have missed two kicks in the same penalty shoot-out. Derry's reward is a tie with Paris St-Germain, and as I am an anyone-but-PSG-man, I hope to shoot down to the Parc des Princes to cheer the Candystripes on. Meanwhile, next year's European contenders-in-waiting Sligo Rovers, face Bray Wanderers, who they have already beaten twice this season, including last weekend, in the third round of the FAI Cup. C'mon the Bit o'Red!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Heat Is On

Further to my post yesterday on my iBook's underperformance, it appears that Apple are recalling 1.8 million laptop batteries issued between 2003 and 2006, which includes mine, due to over-heating. Not that I have ever noticed my computer overheating. What should I do? Is it connected to my problem?

Underachievement - Special Hello! Edition

Malaysian popstar Siti Nurhaliza yesterday married the presumably very wealthy businessman Datuk Khalid Mohamad Jiwa at a highly-publicised ceremony in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. Apparently it caused a bit of a stir in Malaysia, as Nurhalzia has been accused of wrecking the previous marriage of Khalid, 20 years her elder, and has lost a bit of the goodwill of the Malaysian public. Ms Nurhalzia's music is unknown to me, though she is hugely popular in South-East Asia and my guess is that I would hardly find her warblings any more listenable than those of her Western counterparts. What this episode (which was broadcast in both Malaysia and Indonesia live from a real mosque) demonstrates is the possibility of Islam co-existing with the modern West. They really are, as the Onion would say, into the same dumb shit as us. Not the good people of South-East Asia to hate our freedom. Hell, if it's packaged by MTV, bring it on!

Kiss Me, Hardly

Washington has made another 'overture' to Cuba, renewing a four-year-old offer to lift the economic embargo if Cuba 'embraces' democracy. Of course, the democracy on offer is rather something that will facilitate the return of Cuban-Miami fascists to the island and for US capital to make inroads once again in the Cuban market. A sensible foreign policy would have spurned the Helms-Burton act a long time ago, which only shored up support for Castro among his own people and won sympathy for the regime abroad; the Clinton adminstration protested to the Canadian government ten years back for doing business with Cuba and Ottawa duly told Washington where to go.

Unlike a lot of the left in the Northern Hemisphere I am no cheerleader for Castro; his time has long passed and the much-repeated mantra of 'the best literacy rates and health service in the world' are not enough to justify a continuation of his decrepit regime. Which is not to say that his intervention in 1959 was a negative thing in itself, nor that the only regime change that the Cuban people want is a neo-liberal stooge for the Bush administration. It may well be that the clichéd use of the word 'embrace' in that news report is the BBC's own but it is strange how it has come to be used in conjunction with 'democracy' so much. It conjures up a vampiric image, hardly worthy of a lofty ideal such as democracy. In fact it reminds me of the embrace and the kiss on the lips that Michael Corleone gives his brother Fredo in The Godfather Part II at the New Year's Eve party in Havana shortly before Fidel and Che run Batista and his Fortune 500 backers out of town. And we all know what happens to Fredo in that film.

Nothing About Nothing

In the search for extra modes of income, I came across ads on writing websites looking for people to write copy for commercial websites. The pay is pretty awful ($7 per 400-word article, and some others pay as little as $2 for the same) but there is a large workload per week so I decided if I could master the format I could start knocking them out in less than half an hour, and make decent supplementary cash. Perhaps it would be good writing practice, writing huge amount of copy to set criteria; I even had some conception of myself becoming a macho Stakhanovite hack, unflappable in the face of fearsome labour, like Gary Cooper's architect working in a quarry in the film version of The Fountainhead.

When I attempted the first of the trial assignments that were sent me though, I soon wilted. I was asked to write 400 words on, mentioning key words five times throughout the passage. There were various other strictures, all of which are designed to provide a final text that is bland and barely informative in a sale-pitch way. A big disadvantage for me was the fact that I know nothing about 'body kits' and even if I decided to ad-lib the copy would be shot down for inaccuracy. After brooding over 80 words, completely lost, for over an hour, I gave up. Writing something about nothing has never held any fear for me; in fact, it's probably what I'm best at, that old school-detention assignment,"write ten pages on the inside of a golf ball" is grist to my mill. Writing nothing about nothing however is beyond me. I imagine there are people that do hundreds of these sorts of things, at an equally incredible rate, every week and earn a decent living off them. I dop my hat to them, in some way they are better men (and women) than me. I started the week envying (and admiring) the great Grigory Perelman, for his genius and his nonchalance in declining the Field's Medal (as featured in the film Good Will Hunting). I am now in awe of people much more ordinary than him.

Black Cat Back In The Fold

Niall Quinn is finding the going a bit tough as Sunderland chair-manager after the Black Cat's calamitous start to the season, so he has drafted in his old friend Roy Keane as manager. Niall, in the press conference to announce the appointment, described Roy as a 'world-class' manager, which is startling progress for a novice. Apparently Niall and Roy are getting on better these days; it must be all that Gift Grub therapy they've been undergoing together. But I wonder if Roy the Gaffer will tolerate any backchat?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Brogue an mBó

Anthropomorphism gone crazy in the UK with the revelation that cows speak in regional accents; no doubt in the Home Counties they will moo with a cut-glass bovine equivalent of Received Pronunciation. This former vegetarian will however not have any qualms about eating beef from a cow that may once have had a charming Meath accent, though given the frequency with which livestock is carted about these days, I would say that most strains would be a bit all over the place.

The Mayor, The Deputy and The War

Something I do not normally do on this blog, cutting and pasting a passage from another source, this being a comment on the website relating to the ongoing saga of Michael Bloomberg, the town of Ballymote, Co. Sligo (where Seanachie spent his formative years), Deppity John Perry and the local anti-war movement. The comment is in turn cut-and-pasted from an article in last week's Sligo Weekender, but unfortunately the Weekender archives only some of its published material:

(Article from "Sligo Weekender" August 15th 2006)

Over two-thirds of people questioned in Ballymote say the absence of the New York mayor should not have meant postponing the unveiling of their national monument.

The Sligo Weekender asked the question as part of a survey conducted in the town last week.

The results showed that opinion on whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg should have been invited at all was more divided.

The New York mayor was due to travel to Ballymote on Friday, July 28 to unveil a national monument to Brigadier General Michael Corcoran, a Ballymote man who became a US Civil War hero.

The ceremony was postponed when the mayor cancelled his travel plans because of an electricity crises in New York.

Mr Bloomberg is now due to unveil the monument next Tuesday, August 22.
However, Labour party councillor Declan Bree and party activist Tim Mulcahy, say that somebody other than Mr Bloomberg should be invited to perform the ceremony. They believe he is unsuitable because of his position on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.

Mr Mulcahy has claimed that local feeling in Ballymote is against the visit.
We decided to test local opinion on this issue and on suggestions that the unveiling should not have been postponed after the mayor cancelled his trip.
We spoke to 22 people on the streets of Ballymote last Friday.

Of those polled, 68 per cent (15 out of 22) said that the ceremony should have gone ahead without Mr Bloomberg.

Many people had travelled to Ballymote for the occasion, some came all the way from the USA. But the visitors were left disappointed when they learnt that the ceremony would not go ahead until Mayor Bloomberg could reschedule his visit.

On the separate question of Mr Bloomberg’s stance on Israel, 45.5 per cent of those asked thought that he should not have been invited at all because of his strong support for Israel in the current crisis in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, 36.5 per cent agreed that the mayor should be invited to unveil the monument. The remaining 18 per cent had no opinion on the matter.

Ballymote-based TD John Perry, who has been heavily involved in arranging the visit, completely dismissed the results. He said: "In light of the fact that only 22 people were polled, I would discount this opinion entirely.

“The Israeli question is nothing whatsoever to do with the people in Ballymote, and this visit has the full recognition of the offices of the State".

When asked about the disappointed people who had travelled to Ballymote for the unveiling ceremony, Mr Perry said: "The majority of the people that came from the US were members of the Sligo Association of New York, and did so at no personal expense".

Deputy Perry then pointed out that the comments of Tim Mulcahy, who is an employee of Iarnrod Eireann, did not represent the company, as Dr John Lynch, an Iarnrod Eireann director, would be attending the ceremony. Deputy Perry said: "As he is a State employee, he should put the opinion of his employers first".

Deputy Perry (whom, I must disclose, was my first employer, at the age of 14) has a point about the 22 people polled but, out of a town whose entire population is 2,000, this can hardly be called an unusually low sample. His final comment there about Tim Mulcany, the local Iarnrod Eireann station master and former Labour Party member, being obliged to 'put the opinion of his employers first' does Deppity Perry no credit though. It smacks a bit of the prevalent political thinking in many of the 'strong states' of 1930's Europe. I don't think John Perry is a reactionary in any way - he is much too gormless to be one, and I say that having known him personally, but Tim Mulcahy is right in saying that Deputy Perry has no concept of what is going on in the Middle East. And, it would appear, neither has he any concept of how ordinary people in Sligo feel about the slaughter of ordinary people in Lebanon and Iraq.

For those that cannot get enough of this entralling affair, here is a news report on the original fiasco, detailed a few weeks ago on this blog, from the Irish Examiner (an Irish-American organ and not the parish newsletter of 'Ireland's other city'), in which Seanachie Senior makes a surprise appearance, like Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Computer Addiction

I have been trying to curtail my time spent online of late as it is generally the least productive environment for getting anything done and I have the annoying habit of whiling away the hours exploring meaningless avenues and adding to my already bulging store of useless knowledge. But even offline computers can be consuming companions. My current obsession is trying to improve the performability of my iBook; it's a G4 so it has still got a good bit of whoomph. I have tried regular defragging, ridding applications of superfluous languages to free up space, moving to the trash all those unused widgets that I thought would be a great idea to download a year ago, sacrificing the Mac interface's cool animations such as the magnifiable dock and the genie effect so as to speed things up. And still I see that spinning beach-ball where the cursor should be.

But secretly I like spending all this time on the damn thing as it prevents me from doing other stuff and allows me to put things off. Anybody who uses a computer regularly will know exactly what I'm talking about. Apologies to the lay men and women for a boring computer post but I have little else to write about today. I may go and see The Wind That Shakes The Barley later on; it just got released over here. As they said in that awful Guinness ad of a couple of years back, now we'll have something to talk about.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Flicka Knife

There is a funny scene in the otherwise unmemorable film version of High Fidelity, where John Cusack's record-store owner catches a crowd of brooding skate kids in the act of stealing records. When their spoils fall out onto the pavement, Cusack is appalled to see a Ryuichi Sakomoto album among them. It has always been a very particular person that likes Sakomoto (and I can't say I am that type of person) but I have a feeling that he would have always gone down well in the Dreijer household in Stockholm, home to Olof and his sister Karin, who record under the name The Knife. Just as folky types Vashti Bunyan, CocoRosie and The Polyphonic Spree have found that their time has come due to a fortuitous turn in musical tastes, so music derived from synth-meisters like Sakomoto, Gary Numan, Tangerine Dream and Robert Fripp is all of a sudden sellable again.

I got The Knife on the third strike. A Swedish ex-girlfriend tried to interest me in their self-titled debut album two years ago, but I didn't jump. Then a year later my sister gave me their second album Deep Cuts on mp3 but it remained scarcely listened to for months. The music is not what you would call catchy, until you turn a corner that is, and then it becomes addictive. And so with the release of their third album Silent Shout, I finally saw the attraction. People are claiming that it moves the group in a new direction but, apart from a levelling off of the more dancey aspects of the first two albums, the music is largely the same. Or, is different in the same way. There are more synthetic sounds in the mix, like the bleeps that underpin the album's most upbeat track 'Like a Pen', which is not unlike the Orbital of ten years ago, but more expansive and with an orthodox verse-chorus-brige-verse structure that reminds you of something more commercial. Except The Knife, despite their international success, are not in any discernible way commercial. The single 'We Share Our Mother's Health' is packed with the band's trademark shrill vocals and looped half-melodies that build up to more the sum of their parts only after about twenty plays. Not an obvious track to lead with, but in the age of Internet music anything is possible.

The band seldom play live gigs and I missed what I think was their first Paris gig a couple of months back which was reportedly impressive but very short at under an hour. Though all three albums are strong and get better the more you get under their deceptive surfaces Deep Cuts is the best, possibly because it is the one that is least like The Knife themselves; the presence of a wheezy tenor sax and a melancholic tinge, as opposed to the icy dispassion that permeates most of the music, makes it slightly more interesting. Can we call it pop music though?

Hot Off The Press

An amusing news article from Sweden about the surprise appearance of a Czech porn film in the background of news magazine programme Rapport. Sweden is a very efficient country most of the time but it is heartening that stuff like this can slip through from time to time. It makes the rest of us seem not so useless after all.

Watching An Old Classic Again

Another film I watched for the second time last weekend was Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari, a canonical work from 1953. The experience was unfortunately a disappointment; I had just been caught in a downpour before I went into the cinema so I watched the film sitting in sodden clothes. This may or may not have had any bearing on the film not being quite as good as when I saw it last about eight years ago. The tale of two brothers, one a successful potter and the other a simpleton with delusions about being a Samurai, and their two wives caught up in the Japanese civil wars of the 16th century. One brother goes off and finagles his way into a Samurai position by killing a genuine soldier and claiming his booty as his own. Meanwhile his wife, at home and unprotected is raped by marauding soldiers and eventually sells herself into prostitution. The other brother is duped into a bigamous marriage with an admiring aristocrat, who it turns out is a ghost. When he returns home he discovers that his wife has been killed by more soldiers.

The film is a caution against pride and hubris, and while it might seem conservative in the synopsis above, there is a strongly transgressive nature to it, as in all Mizoguchi's work. The portrayal of a Samurai as a cowardly impostor would have been unthinkable ten years before under the Empire, and as is common with Mizoguchi, the women are far more admirable characters. I remember thinking the film was one of the best thirty or so I had ever seen but on second viewing it appeared lugubrious (the friend I saw it with, someone not adverse to such films, claimed that he was bored). The shimmering monochrome photography of the great Kazuo Miyagawa, who also worked with Kurosawa, Ozu and Ichikawa among others, is still fantastic, as is the portrayal of the mad brother by Eitarô Ozawa, which is disturbing in direct proportion to how annoying it is. And the famous (or at least to hardcore cinéphiles) scene towards the end where Genjurô the potter returns to his family, not knowing that the wife he sees is but a ghost, is as moving as it was last time I saw it.

Perhaps the film needs another watch; I have seen about ten films by Mizoguchi since I last saw Ugetsu and they are of varying quality. Some are boring and too stately, others such as Sansho Dayu and Streets of Shame are exhilarating. The interest in many of them is the way they reflect the time in which they were made, as Mizoguchi worked from the early silent era, through the Imperial era and into the post-war democratic age, making over 100 films, about half of which have been lost. There is still enough in Ugetsu Monagatari (which, incidentally, means 'Tale of the Pale and Silvery Moon after the Rain') for it to remain indisputably a great film, but the nature of such slow and old-fashioned work is fragile and something can go amiss on second viewing.


Further to a posting of a few weeks back concerning New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's failure to open a memorial to American Civil war hero Michael Corcoran in Seanachie's homestead, Ballymote, County Sligo, RTÉ reports that the ceremony is going to take place today. The local anti-war movement plan a protest because of Bloomberg's support for Israel's bombing of Lebanon. It should be fun.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Keeping It In The Family

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about The Godfather after having gone to watch it in a new print; two nights ago I saw, at the same cinema, Part II, a film that I had always imagined to be better than the first. Now however I think that there is little qualitative difference between the two: both are very good. Part II is Pacino's film, as his ruthlessness mounts until he becomes a Cosimo Medici-type monster that is far from his apparent principledness of the beginning of the saga. He becomes an even better 'businessman' than his father, simply because he has managed to immerse himself in the crime culture much better, imposing his might as the only rationale and the only argument. The scene in which Diane Keaton's Kay tells him that her miscarriage was an abortion and that she is leaving him is harrowing as much for the implied slight to Corleone and the family as it is for the violence. Family members and old associates are all disposed of as the web of deceit is unravelled. The film has a broader visual palette than the first one, moving from vivid colour in the Sicilian scenes, to brown, almost sepia in the early New York days, to the icy, high-contrast chiaroscuro of the final hour in the snow-bound lakehouse in Nevada. There is a similar escalation of tone and contrast in the first film, but here the effect is more intense, without ever losing control. It is strange how Gordon Willis, who lit both films, and later some of Woody Allen's best work, has for the past twenty years worked as a journeyman technician on largely uninteresting films. His work on both of these films is breathtaking.

The most remarkable quality of the two Godfather films is the way that they appear so mature, so endowed with seriousness of intent, compared to films these days. It is hard to imagine a film with such a persuasive attention to detail and with such an intelligent script and mise en scène coming out of Hollywood today. It is the cinematic equivalent of joined writing, while today's Hollywood produces pretentious, overblown 'quality' films that are littered with ostentatious cultural references and improbable plot turns, a large printed scrawl in comparison to the early cinema of Coppola, Cimino, Scorsese and Malick. I have yet to see Part III as the general consensus is that it tarnishes the earlier films by its association. But I think I might give it a go, out of curiosity if nothing else.

John Berger on Gunther Grass

More on Gunther Grass; a fine defence of him from fellow writer John Berger. I think Berger soft-pedals the question of Grass' possible hypocrisy on concealing his past in the Waffen SS but overall his argument is sound. Modern morality does indeed exist in a vacuum.

John Howard's Lucky Day

A story from the Beeb about the unusually generous attitude of the John Howard government towards ten Sierra Leone athletes who applied for asylum at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in March. I do not know what the ranking of Sierra Leone currently is on the list of 'at-risk' countries that is used by Western countries in determining such applications but the swiftness and the willingness of the Canberra powers-that-be to process these ten cases is at odds with their generally unwelcoming attitude towards non-white immigrants. The Sierra Leone government alleges that Australia is acting merely to poach world class athletes, which, at the risk of sounding too crass, is not that far-fetched. The Aussies do like their sport.

Follow Me Up To KKKarlow

Earlier on today I came across a strange article in the print affair of the Sunday Independant (it's an Irish paper, unfortunately), which claimed that Ku-Klux Klan behaviour in Carlow has enjoyed a particular (re)crudescence in the past month. (Thanks to the legendary Steel Pulse for the picture there). Local 'sources' (i.e. friends of the hacks on duty) have said that locals are terrified by a number of nocturnal raids in the area by people dressed in the famous white hoods, which might suggest that the Klan has sold out like any other radical organization in beginning to terrorize its natural constituency. The Sindo, of course, is the source of news stories as reliable as those that used to tell us every six months back in the late 80s that Richard Dean Anderson (aka McGyver) was dead . And, who knows, perhaps those tall tales originated in no place other than Middle Abbey Street. I have tried to furnish you with a hyperlink to this story but Unison's own search (under standard Boolean principles) reported 1,010 links for 'Carlow+Ku Klux Klan'; it's impossible! I have always felt a certain respect for Ireland's least-known county, but maybe they have a bit of explaining to do, even if local Gardaí have said that it is probably more youthful pranksters than 'genuine' racists at play here.

Another non-story in the Sindo was the tale of a Dublin Fianna Fáil councillor being photographed snorting cocaine (well, Sir AJF O'Reilly is probably a bit too Cavan at heart to pay for pictures of Kate-fucking-Moss, so what do you expect?). Cllr Liam Kelly has claimed that the picture was fabricated, but already head padrino Bertie Ahern doubts him, claiming that Cllr Kelly's claims to be victim of an extortion racket to be 'peculiar'. Very good, Bertie. I don't know what Cllr Kelly would be so afraid of though, surely every mother and father in the Fianna Fáil heartland of Castleknock would know that their under-educated (at an expense) children are already doing it like the hammers of hell. No better a representative for the next generation, I should say.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Ireland's Quality Daily

The Irish Times, the self-styled 'Ireland's quality daily' has been flying off my radar for a long time, mainly because I don't bother going near it online, as their pompously named Internet service, charges €79 per year to use it. Not a huge amount I suppose but €79 more than many better newspapers charge for access to their online editions.

A friend currently visiting from Ireland, who has similar reservations about the 'Old Lady of d'Olier Street, has recently sparked me out of my slumber with news of its considerable rightward turn since the appointment of Geraldine Kennedy, former PD TD (it sounds suitably clinical that double acronym) as editor. Admittedly that is a few years back now, but he did report of hearing a source close to Kennedy recently boast of dispatching legendary do-gooding lefty Fintan O'Toole to a position abroad where his political views might be less troublesome. The Times, it appears, is learning to stop worrying and love the Iraq war. Other lefties have been claiming to feel the pinch too.

To balance all this, the middle-brow reactionary Kevin Myers, a man who has been earning good money off bizarre right-wing blogging since long before blogs existed, has moved to the Irish Independent, where his rants have got lost in the general anonymity of the mediocre Indo, surely the only large circulation daily in the Western world whose regular readers can hardly name one of the journalists they read every day. This has not deterred the Times from pathetically aping both the Indo's layout and typeface three years ago in an effort to stem their falling sales rate. The introduction of that €79 figure dates from the same time. The Times is still in serious debt following years of mismanagement.

Given that the pinko (though it was always a very pale hue of pink) version of the paper was always irritating enough for me in the past, with its uptight, schoolmasterly authorial voice, its idolatry of Bertie Ahern (always at least one promotional photo per week), its many shoddy writers, including one of the world's worst film critics, Michael Dwyer, who systematically whinges about the arthouse films at Cannes every year, its legions of syndicated articles that have already appeared the previous week in a British newspaper half the cover price, the putative new direction does not disturb me too much. At least my lookalike fellow-Connachtman mad John Waters is still there to liven things up (and be right 20% of the time, which is not a bad average for a Times opinion writer). But is there not something wrong with the world when one would sooner read the unspeakable Sunday Independant than 'Ireland's quality daily'? At least the Sindo has Gene Kerrigan, Declan Lynch and the rising star of GAA reporting Eamonn Sweeney.

The Pain of Checking One's Bank Balance

Many people have a grave fear of checking their bank balance, and I am no different. And so, for the past four days since I have returned from my trip I have put it off. Although to be honest it was a sensible thing to do as all the transactions have thus been accounted for. It turned out to be even worse than I suspected but at the same time I feel relief, because the abstract fear was greater than the material reality of being overdrawn. Belt-tightening is on the agenda for the next six weeks and also a serious effort to find a new job. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Holy Seat

Just as some gay men and women know from an early age that they are homosexual so I knew quite young, despite my Catholic upbringing that I was an atheist, or at least inhabiting that ante-room to atheism, agnosticism. (I know that my Dad is going to scroll down through that last sentence way too quickly and cheerily announce to everyone that I have outed myself on the Internet, but alas the Lord is going to have to damn me on lack of faith rather than anything proscribed in Leviticus). That said I am drawn to churches and other places of worship, probably because of their calm and grace and also because, from long before Christ to the present day, temples, mosques and churches have usually been able to guarantee a high standard of architecture. I have many favourites, such as the Romanesque churches of Cologne; a more recent post-war Church of Sankt Jakob in the same city; Sigurd Lewerentz's wonderful Markuskyrkan (pictured) in the suburbs of Stockholm; Chartres Cathedral (one of the most stunning works of art I have ever seen); two beautiful parish churches in Donegal from the 1960s, at Burt and Creeslough and churches I have more recently seen such as the Cathedral of San Giusto in Trieste and the Franciscan Church on Presernov Trg in Ljubljana.

One thing I noticed in Italy however is the religious' real annoyance at their sites of worship being visited for nothing but their artistic merit, or more often simply because of their banal fame. Italian churches famously ban women in halter tops and men in shorts from their premises and in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, beside Santa Lucia Station in Venice, one sandwich board posted beside the front door scolded potential visitors in five languages, reminding them that churches are not art galleries or museums. Fair enough, but there are churches that have no problem in charging admission fees to defray parochial and maintenance costs. The Churches have always had a mercantile side to them but they usually prefered gather money from the faithful rather than from uninterested outsiders. The churches' real problem was crystallised in something I saw in Santa Maria Maggiore. I noticed the door to an old oaken confessional ajar and inside I saw, instead of a old wooden bench for the priest to sit on, a standard revolving office chair. It is hard to remain nonchalantly in the sacral domain when quotidian furniture design is itself irreducibly profane.

Gunther Grass' Nazi Past

The big news story of the moment is Gunther Grass' admission that he was a member of the Waffen SS during the Second World War. Grass, one of my own favourite writers and certainly the most esteemed German writer of the late twentieth century, has confessed in a forthcoming memoir that he was a member of the Nazi Secret Service military wing and not a Wehrmacht conscript as he had previously claimed. Naturally people, particularly members of the Christian Democrats, whom he mercilessly pilloried for years over their incorporation of ex-Nazis into their party, are on the offensive, and with reason: Grass' principled stands and accusations in the past now appear hypocritical and self-serving to say the least. Those that claim he should return the Nobel Prize for Literature that he won in 1999 do have a point (though I am not sure if Knut Hamsun, the 1912 laureate and later Nazi supporter was urged to do the same thing before his death in 1950). Grass' reputation is certainly tarnished and he would have been better advised to have come out with this a lot earlier in his life. But at the same time I do not find the revelation terribly surprising, and though Grass was certainly wrong in his choice of career, no matter how young he was, there is no proof that he was an enthusiastic Nazi, nor that he committed any atrocities. If his literary and political career since then has been motivated by expiation, then I think it has been successful, though an earlier disclosure would have been more honourable.

There is a tendency among us these days to view former Nazi associations as the ultimate in evil. This is not entirely objectionable but if one persists in this idea, it is far too easy to caricature the Nazis as abominable villains, which in turn obscures a true understanding of how they rose to power. In Spike Lee's film of this year Inside Man, the central plot motive is exposition of the Nazi past of a prominent New York banker, a device that was so banal as well as predictable that the film lost steam well before its midway point. When people as varied as the current Pope and Gunther Grass reveal their past in Nazi organisations, and others such as Ingmar Bergman and IKEA founder Ingmar Kamprad reveal their past support for the Nazis, it is instructive for us to question what it is that makes ordinary people, of certain decent values do such things. I myself had a great-uncle, whom I never met, who flirted, at a great distance with Nazism in the 1930s, going so far as to have received official party literature. He was motivated more by Anglophobia and muddled thinking than by genuine conviction but it is not something that I am proud of. It is best that Gunther Grass disclosed this information now rather than after his death, when his reputation would have been irremiadebly marred. He should have done all this a long time ago, but in my opinion neither his work nor his analysis of the German Twentieth Century is devalued by this news. Don't be put off reading Gunther Grass because of dubious decisions he took in his youth.


Distressing stuff from Lansdowne Road last night, where Ireland went down to their heaviest defeat in twenty-one years, 4-0 against Holland, a team we are usually quite comfortable playing. The last defeat this bad was against the great Danish team of Elkjaer, Michael Laudrup, Morten Olsen and Sivebaek in 1985. I did not get to see any of the action last night but I believe that it could have been even more, but there is a strong case for seeing this as an abberrant result. Ireland were severely depleted, missing practically all their key players, including Shay Given, who possibly might have reduced the score by two or three. It does however highlight two worrying problems, one being a general lack of organisation in the Staunton set-up, and secondly the fact that Ireland are only five or six injuries away from being a very weak side. But then again one can say the same thing about England, who beat the European Champions Greece (yes they're still the European Champions) 4-0 in Steve McLaren's first game in charge. Not a bad start and this should provide the Brits with nourishment for their regular biannual delusion, the fact that they are going to win a major tournament. Betting website, bet365 has already got the ball rolling, naming England, naturally, as favourites for Euro 2008. The World Cup is already a distant memory.

As for Ireland, I still think that with a strengthened side, a draw in Germany is not impossible, but our backs will be to the wall for most of that game.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Star Trac

Vikash Dhorasoo, one of the more enigmatic members of the French World Cup sqaud, announced last week that he was not going to play for les Bleus anymore, while pointing out that he was not going to actually announce his retirement, as "that would be pretentious, I'm not an important enough player to say that sort of thing." Admirably modest. But more interesting is the news that he plans to make a behind-the-scenes documentary using footage he shot during the World Cup. Batty, astrology-obsessed manager Raymond Domenech has indicated that he wants to be cut from the film, which will be unlikely to happen I think. Domenech has long been seen in France as being overly fond of Dhorasoo, having coached him since the player was a schoolboy. But will their relationship survive the film, which Dhorasoo hopes will get a cinema release?

Condi Clare

My contacts in the troublesome Anti-War campaign in Ireland tell me that Condoleeza Rice made an unpublicised stopover in Shannon this morning. Was it on a rendition flight I wonder?

Difficult From Here

As I remarked in the last post, Trieste's second train station, the Campo San Marzio, has been closed for a long time so there is now no direct connection to nearby Ljubljana, save for a nightly train to Budapest that goes via Zagreb, quite a detour. I asked a the man at the enquiries desk at Centrale station if there were any other connections, and he said that in good English, that "it is difficult from here." He told me to take a train to Monfalcone but gave me the impression that there was only one per day, thereby necessitating another afternoon in Trieste.

I decided to get a second opinion at the ticket office, and while waiting for a French-speaking teller to come free, another teller, speaking nothing but Italian succeeded in getting me to buy a ticket for the Slovenian capital via Monfalcone the following morning, as I required. Sometimes not speaking a language at all is more useful than speaking half a language.

A Quiet City

Trieste is a city that willingly chose the quiet life. A vibrant port, the main sea-portal of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1919, today it is a sleepy, if pleasant city that is not quite dead, but certainly has none of the bustle that it would have had when James Joyce lived there a century ago. In the hands of the Austrians since the fifteenth century, the city remained culturally Italian (though it is also on the border with Slovenia and there is a significant Slovene-speaking minority living in the city's hinterland) and the city's wealthy merchants, made rich by trade with the Hapsburg Empire, were for the most part irredendist, and upon the collapse of that Empire after the First World War, Trieste and the peninsula of Istria to the south rejoined Italy. (It is strange how the word 'irredentist' is not as common in usage in Ireland as it is in Italy, considering how appropriate it is to the Irish situation.) Istria later reverted to Yugoslavia after the next war and now forms part of both Slovenia and Croatia, but Trieste is still Italian.

As the train swung south from Monfalcone, the most familiar Triestine characteristic, the rain, made an appearance and did not stop for another 24 hours. The city is not too eager to attract tourists; there is no tourist office and the only map I could find was so old that Slovenia was referred to as Yugoslavia. It also included the disused Campo San Marzio railway station, detailing its connections to Klagenfurt and Ljubljana. When I finally found the hotel I was staying in, right beside the first of Joyce's many addresses in the city, I found that it was practically empty.

Trieste has a dramatic setting, the hills of the Karst rising to the north and the east and the city itself is quite hilly, with the old Venetian-build castle and the charming Romanesque Cathedral of San Giusto sitting on a height that towers over the seafront streets below. The harbour is practically unused these days, Italy had less urgent use for a new port than the inland Austrians did, a few fishing trawlers and some pleasure boats being the only vessels to be seen. Only in the marina to the south of the Old Port was there a sign of any activity. But the city, apart from the derelict dockyard buildings, does not look like it is suffering too badly. The city has a range of impressive Belle Époque architecture bequeathed it by the Austrians - stout, ornate Central European buildings, and the main square, Piazza de la Unità d'Italia, with the City Hall and a number of old merchant's mansions is beautiful. There is a lot of interesting Fascist-era modern architecture too; it is as if Mussolini was spoiling the lost child that had just returned to the family.

Joyce left Trieste when war broke out in 1914, even though Italy did not enter it until the following year, and when he returned in 1919 he found that the old glory of the city had vanished and he went off again to Paris. He is the writer most closely associated with the city, though the locals, apart from one statue and a small museum in the Municipal Library do not seem too bothered by the connection. Much more revered are the Triestine writers, such as Italo Svevo, who was taught English by the young Joyce and eventually championed in France by the Dubliner, and even more so the poet Umberto Bava. I had a bit of bad luck with the city as many of the museums were closed for the month of August, as was the famous Caffè San Marco, which was frequented by both Joyce and Svevo, and which gets a chapter to itself in the Triestine writer Claudio Magris' superb Microcosms. So instead I took a look at the city's synagogue, built in 1914 and which survived the Nazi occupation. It is reputedly one of the biggest in Europe and I would well believe it, it is a huge edifice, modelled on ancient Syrian temples, that dominates the small street on which it is located. The closest thing I have seen like it is the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, though this is a neater, more clinical work, though every bit as impressive.

The best museum I saw on my trip was a small one housed in the city's enormous Post Office. It was the Postal Museum of Mitteleuropa, and was a fascinating documentation of the history of Post in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even better than the permanent collection, which includes postmen's uniforms from the 19th century and old telegraph machines, was the collection of stamps and first-day issues from around the world that told the story, comic-strip style of the Friulian earthquake of 1976. Also included are postcards to and from the stricken region shortly after the quake, all of them stamped with the haunting 'Zona Torrematta'.

The beer is better in Trieste than elsewhere in Italy because of the historical connections with Central Europe, but the problem is trying to get a place that stays open after 10pm. As I said, they like the quiet life here. Two days was enough. I can't imagine I will be going back, but a pleasant city, one that has stepped into the slow lane of History.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Difficult Second Album

While in a bookshop in Trieste last week my attention was caught by a peculiar book, a compilation of Panini World Cup sticker albums from 1970 to 2002. Most male European adults of my generation (and more) will have spent their childhood years desperately trying to fill at least one of these things (the North American equivalent, and no doubt, the original model, is the baseball card). I managed to complete a couple of the Football League (as it was known back then) albums and also the World Cup ones of 1986 and 1990, though to be honest, at the age of 14 in 1990, I already knew I was a bit old for it, and I kept the operation secret. All the more impressive that I finished the thing without having a single person of my own age to swop doubles with.

Though I am as prone as anyone else to making purchases that I afterwards find hard to justify, I did not buy this one, a bit pricey at €18. But I did spend quite a while flicking through it, triggering off memories from my formative years. The sticker albums are presented with the stickers as mere pictures, which I could not help thinking as a form of cheating, having put so much effort and expense into filling those albums years back. Some posterior amendments have been made such as naming the birthplace of a Soviet player from the '82 World Cup as St. Petersburg - it was still Leningrad at the time - and Andreas Escobar has been removed from the Colombian team of USA 94, presumably out of respect for the fact that he was murdered by gangsters a week after his team's exit. It was strange to see that of the old Soviet teams, so few were Russian, the bulk of the teams were Ukrainian, Georgian or Belorussian. It was also poignant to see the Yugoslav teams of the 1980s, where the Bosnian Muslims Haris Skoro and Faruk Hadzibegic lined up beside the Bosnian Serb Vujovic twins, shortly before their respective nations would be at one anothers' throats. I also noticed something that I am surprised I failed to see at the time, that Argentina included in its squad for USA 94 one Carlos Javier MacAllister, and he had a similar face (and widow's peak) to his old country namesake Gary.

This Boy's Still Green

Seanachie's heart is beating a bit faster than usual this morning, as tomorrow sees the return of the Irish football team to action (why, instead of the insipid 'Boys in Green' can we not call them 'an foireann', something cool, like the Italian Squadra, the German Mannschaft, the Portuguese Seleçao, even the damn Swiss have one: the Nati). It is a friendly game at home against the Dutch, preparation for the Euro qualifying opener against Germany in 2 weeks time. I can't say that I was terribly enthusiastic upon hearing of Steve Staunton's appointment a few months back; the last thing the Irish team needs is another residuum of the Charlton era. But now that he's there, we may as well put up with it. The win against Sweden in March was convincing but then we surrendered meekly to Chile in May; little should be read into either result. Ireland have ahead of them a tough but not impossible qualification group, facing the formidable-but-predictable Germans, the Czechs, who are on the slide, the rising stars of Slovakia and the tricky Welsh. With two to advance from that group, we should be aiming to qualify. Let's hope that Staunton tackles the task honestly without resorting to the excuses that marred the end of the Brian Kerr era; Bobby Robson's stroke has deprived Staunton of his mentor (however little he likes Robson to be called that) and the latest news reports say that, in a thoroughly bizarre incident, a man has been arrested for threatening Staunton outside the team hotel in Portmarnock with an imitation Uzi. It is like an incident out of an obscure Central European novel, or something. The BBC report says that Staunton is 'unharmed' after the incident. I should hope so.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Breaking the Law

Ljubljana is an admirable little city, of which I will speak more in later posts. I did have my first brush with the local law last night when I absent-mindedly jaywalked an empty thoroughfare, only to see two patrolling officers in front of me. I feared the worst, which was really only a fine, I know enough about Slovenia to know that it is not ridden with institutional corruption, like Russia or Belarus. They took a high hand though, asking me in roughly-Slavic English, if I knew what a pedestrian crossing was, and then if I knew what the penalty for not using one was? Ten thousand tolars they said, alternating the above comments like the Knights that Say 'Ni' in Monty Python. The fine in reality is not so fearsome, €40.60 to be precise, and the good officers let me off, telling me that I should carry an original of my passport, which was held as security in my hotel, though they did compliment me on my foresight to carry a photocopy. Slovenia is more like Austria or Switzerland than the Balkans, or Sweden even, as a young Swedish couple I met today approvingly remarked. I'm on my last chance now though and I am standing stock still with all those Slovenians until I see that little green man...

In Absentia

Sporadic posts because of logistical problems. In Italy of late one is required to hand in one's passport when one uses an Internet cafe and the proprietor is then required to periodically hand in log on records to the police. In the name of fighting terrorism of course. A lot of other countries manage to get by well enough without that measure, and the foiled bomb attack at Heathrow the other day notwithstanding, I think that former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's fondness for censorship might be more relevant to this law. Italy last year slipped to 53 in the world league table for press freedom. Keeping tabs on troublesome journalists that log on in cyber cafes might be a temptation too much.

Well at least Silvio is gone and a sensible Venetian proprietor facilitated me even though I did have ID on me at the time, hence the last post. Since then I have not been on because of not being able to find access inTrieste (a strange town indeed, and I mean that in a good way), while here in Ljubljana, where I am now, most commercial enterprises close at 1pm on a Saturday. Added to that I have to labour with both a Slavic keyboard (it is however more logical than a French one) and Internet Explorer (when will people ever learn). Back in Paris on Monday. Will post more then.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

High Campanile

Venice was the unwanted child on this trip; I only spent a day here due to the fact that a flight to Treviso was the cheapest way of getting to Trieste and Ljubljana. Not that I don't find the city charming, but in August, overrun as it by tourists it is not near as pleasant as it might otherwise be. I want to save it for another time, like not wanting to know the score before watching the edited highlights of a football game. It will probably be a windy November afternoon when I will be up to my ankles in floodwater from the swollen canals (St. Mark's Square is invaded by water a staggering 250 days per year). But in some way I would find that more enjoyable than standing in the interminable queues for St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace. The latter being the only thing I wanted to see, because of its marked influence on Ragnar Östberg's Stockholm City Hall, I was a bit dismayed. The queue for the Campanile was much shorter and so I took the lift up. Once up there the meridonal aspect of the city explodes in a mass of terracotta roofs and countless other campaniles that make you really feel that you have been conned into paying 6 euros just to get to the top of this one, until you realise then that the campanile, which has always had architectural cachet in English, means merely 'belltower' in Italian. More fool we.

On the ground I took a more unorthodox approach to exploring the city, by just getting lost. Except that you never really get lost in Venice. There is no point in using a map for anything more than the most basic of landmarks; the streetnames are only to be used as a last resort and in fact do not figure in postal addresses at all, each of the siesti or districts function in that way with the houses individually numbered in a fashion that is indiscernible to the untrained eye. But even so, you are never too far from emerging in a place that you will recognise (for all its labyrithine character the city is very small). And just as one is said to be never more than ten feet away from a rat in London, so you are never more than a street away from a tourist in Venice, no matter how isolated you think the street you are wandering on is. On some of the less glamorous squares in San Polo, where the price of everything suddenly plummets, could be seen people, mainly foreigners sketching. The squares look like a quietly morose di Chirico tableau, with the shadow cast by a crumbling building drawing the campo into its stern geometry. The town is messy, like much of the rest of Italy but it is never ugly. It wears the urban nuisances of fly-posting and grafitti well; they suit it even.

But the expense of Venice is the most frustrating, if hardly surprising thing. Though it is no more costly than most Western European capitals, the fact remains that it is a small provincial city, albeit a unique one. It is hard to filter out the rubbish from the genuine, particularly foodwise (OK, I could have bought a guidebook but I didn't really feel the need for one day, least of all spoiling my unwanted child like that) and the food in the main was mediocre. Passing by one trattoria I saw the blackboard advertising the day's fish special, in English: 'Today. Flounder, Venetian style.' Quite. Hit and miss I suppose, but the Venetians built their city on commerce and, even if the trade these days is less vaunted and less exotic than in the past, they are unlikely to change soon. And why, you can ask yourself, would they? It's not a bad pay-off for having your town overrun by strangers for most the year.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Jocks Strapped

The Scottish Premier League - the original "Premier" league, established twelve years before the Premiership - is into its second week and the surprise leaders are St. Mirren, little of whom has been seen at this level since the late eighties, when Fun Boy Frank McAvennie and current assistant to José Mourinho, Steve Clarke were helping them win the Scottish Cup. The Paisley club are a prime example of the wonderful names that dot this sadly-retrograded championship: some of them conceived as clubs: Hamilton Academical, Queen of the South (possibly the only football club to draw their name from the Bible), Airdrieonians (now known as the boring old Airdrie United), St. Johnstone, others named after famous cultural references: Heart of Midlothian and others simply benefiting from the richness of Lowland Scots placenames: Cowdenbeath, Stenhousemuir.

My own team Celtic are of course the big yins these days though they did suffer a second-day reverse yesterday away to last years' runners-up Hearts. The Jambos are making a fair effort at re-introducing a third horse into the race. Gone are the days of the 1980s when the 'New Firm' of Aberdeen and Dundee United won the league as often as the Glasgow giants, and the Dons, managed by Alex Ferguson, beat Real Madrid in the Cup-Winners' Cup final. United also reached the 1987 UEFA Cup final and were robbed of a rightful Champions' Cup final place in 1984 by some appalling refereeing decisions that allowed Roma to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit. It has since been proven that the referee was bribed. Nowadays the Pittodrie club struggle to make any impression on the Premier League and were even knocked out of Europe by Bohemians a couple of years back, as for Dundee United and their famous tangerine shirts, simply remaining the number one club on Tayside is tough enough.

The Bosman ruling put paid to clubs from countries like Scotland (and Sweden, whose IFK beat Dundee United in 1987) ever having the same prospects again. The bigger European clubs are too strong and their perpetual success, and the relative smallness of Scotland, means that they generate far more money. A few years ago Celtic were knocked out of the Champions' League by Lyon and the French champions pocketed five times as much in TV rights money as Celtic would have had they progressed. Because the French market is that much bigger. Celtic and Rangers have for a number of years been trying to enter the English championship, logically as they would face tougher opposition on a weekly basis, thereby increasing their chances at European level, which is really the only important thing once the basics of winning in Scotland are taken care of. They have been obstructed by smaller Premiership clubs, for good reason: they would not only be taking two certain top-flight places but also biting into the pooled finances, a share of which is far in excess of what either club currently make in a year. English people I know sneer at the Scottish Premier League but Celtic dispatched Blackburn and Liverpool comfortably enough on their way to the UEFA Cup final three years ago. Celtic would be regular top-six finishers in the Premiership, on their current form alone. If they were to have the financial resources currently denied them, they would win quite a few titles. They are, with the exception of Man U, the biggest and best-supported club in Britain.

The sad thing though is that such a move would have a catastrophic effect on Scottish football. But at this point there is little that can be done about that.