Thursday 30 August 2007

BMW: Copied in China

Le Monde reports that BMW and Daimler are threatening legal action against Chinese car constructors, notably Shuanghuan, for copying their designs.

A scan of the news shows that this story broke some time ago but it's getting attention now because Angela Merkel on a visit to China, has backed the German auto companies by saying that this kind of copying is not acceptable. The other issue of timing is that the International Auto Fair is due to open in Frankfurt in a couple of weeks and the Germans are threatening to expel the offending Chinese maker, Shuaghuan.

Apparently the Chinese maker has made a an SUV called the CEO that is strikingly like the BMW offering, the X5. And they have released a micro-car, Noble, that looks like a clone of Daimler's micro, Smart.

It is easy to see how the Chinese could devastate their German rivals if they get away with this form of copyright fraud. If the Chinese have in fact copied the German designs their behaviour is cheating pure and simple.

The German makers will attempt to sell at their marginal cost, which is a function of their variable and fixed costs. Certainly the Chinese will benefit from cheaper variable costs, essentially cheaper labour and other variable inputs. But the crux of the matter is the fixed costs. These encompass the cost of not just the plant but crucially the R&D work that has put German makers at the top end of the quality market. If Chinese makers simply copy the German design, they are avoiding a huge chunk of the fixed costs.

Of course, the Chinese are probably a long way off hitting the German quality, but there is no reason to believe that if allowed to simply copy their European rivals, they will eventually reach a level sufficient to do real damage. Recall how the Japanese took the American market by storm in the 80s (Not by copying but by reaching high quality and availing of favourable exchange rates. The latter is also in favour of the Chinese far more dramatically then for the Japanese).

This tiff is another symptom of Globalisation and its corollary, the rise of Asia (the article also noted that this year China is set to pass Germany as world largest exporter). Information flows so easily and markets are so open and accessible that a leader can be quickly undermined. That would be fine if the playing field was level. But in this case, clearly it is not.

I would certainly hope that Germany can prevail in making China play by the rules. But I'm not confident that the means exist to make that happen. The result of failure to do so, however, will put relentless pressure on European jobs.

Wednesday 29 August 2007

When Economics Gets Personal

In 1977 my father quit smoking. He had been a fairly committed smoker since his early twenties, but he was still only 33, and though addicted to the weed, he wasn't totally at its mercy. He was confident he could stop. And he did.

By the standards of the time, 1977 was a pretty good year in Ireland (South of the Border). Economic growth was pretty strong. A substantial construction boom was under way, and my father worked as a lorry driver for Readymix PLC. Things were looking good. That year my father upgraded his car and our family moved house. My sister Sheila arrived to join myself (then 4) and my brother Paul(then 2).

Enter Jack Lynch and George Colley. In July of that fateful year, 1977, Fianna Fail were returned to power with Lynch as Taoiseach. He appointed Colley as minister for Finance. The public finances were already in deficit, yet the new government promised wide ranging tax cuts without any corresponding cut in spending. If anything they exceeded their promise. Car tax cut. Property Rates cut. And so on. Public sector wages grew. In effect Lynch and Colley engaged in a frenzy of economic vandalism. A whole generation would pay the price.

Their reckless management set the public finances in a tail spin. And it was all down hill from there. Sadly successive governments didn't really take the critical steps to recover control until 1987. Garret Fitzgerald and Fine Gael recognised the acute need for fiscal rectitude when they entered power in '82, but their Labour partners effectively blocked efforts to make the deep and necessary cuts to the public sector. Perhaps the most they can be credited with is not making the fiscal situation worse, but the overall economy continued to churn out P45s.

In 1985 my father received one of those P45s. It was a terrible year. By mid-summer my father had found himself with no work and my mother had just given birth to my youngest sister, her fourth child. Tens of thousands were leaving the country, unemployment was in double figures. There was little prospect of my father finding work.

My parents' worries didn't end there, however. I was 12 and all set for secondary school. Perhaps it's hard to believe now, but even the expense of secondary school would be a considerable burden then. New uniforms, books and stationary were not for nothing.

Sorrows, said the bard, come not in single spies but in battalions. My sister Sheila was mentally handicapped from birth and was a huge burden on my parents. She required, and still does, 24 hour supervision. Try that with an infant and two boys in the house. In the end, my parents had to commit her to care. In that summer of 85 she was admitted to an institution for the mentally handicapped. My parents were lucky that there was still a place for her, as in the dire economic circumstances, the disabled were always an easy target for cuts. But her departure from home, though necessary, came close to breaking my parents' hearts.

At the time I was innocently oblivious to the turmoil in that adult world where my parents lived. My only worry was that I was dreading secondary school. I was always a shy boy and no-one from my primary class would be heading to the school that my parents had chosen for me. The only signal I picked up was that my father had taken up smoking again. But I didn't know why. I merely found it curious that after 8 years he'd restart such a horrible habit.

Monday 27 August 2007

Labour is Doomed to Subordinate Role

I have bad news for the next Labour leader - only an earthquake in the Irish political landscape will enable Labour to shake off its second tier status. They don't need branding, a new message, a makeover. They need an earthquake.

In order for Labour to fulfil its ambitions it just has to make a break through on the middle ground. This is the only way to grow politically in an Ireland where the middle class is predominant and where traditional Labour territory is shrinking (union power and worker-driven issues). Moving to the middle is exactly what Pat Rabitte tried, with his business-friendly commitment to "maintain a prosperous, enterprising economy". He even pledged to reduce taxes. But pitching for the middle ground was never going to work, for there was never enough space to admit Labour.

The trouble is that the two bigger parties are all-encompassing, flexible, and often populist. Fianna Fáil is the tree frog that instantly changes colour. If you want green, Fianna Fáil are green. If you want red, Bertie is a socialist. If you want enterprise, Fianna Fáil are pro-business. If you want stability, Fianna Fáil are conservative. And Fine Gael are just poor imitations of the same. But above all, both are firmly anchored in the centre.

But Labour Made it In Britain?

That's right. But Labour surged ahead of the Whigs cum Liberals in the early part of the 20th century. This was a time, however, when Britain and Europe were undergoing fundamental change. For decades, the question of the Labour versus Capital had dominated political debate. The tyranny of capital was about to be replaced by the tyranny of planned economy. Britain's empire was beginning to crumble. To paraphrase Tony Blair, the kaleidoscope had been shaken, and the pieces were in flux. When those pieces settled, Labour had moved from 2nd tier to first in British politics.

Their fortunes waxed and waned since then, but once the structure of the system had been altered to admit them to first rank, they'd always be a major player. A notion called "path dependency" would ensure that Labour were likely to remain in contention until the next reconfiguration, which hasn’t happened yet. (What will it be, PR for Britain, Scottish Independence?).

The idea has two levels, both of which are relevant here. First, it essentially means that “history matters”. In other words, now that Labour is first tier in Britain, it was propelled there by historical forces and it doesn't matter now that those forces aren't present. The party is locked in. The second, and related meaning is that institutions tend to be self-reinforcing. They have inertia and a propensity to ensure their own survival, regardless of their original raison d'être.

Labour should be radical?

Only if they crave oblivion. Radical politics is by definition on the fringe and is unlikely to bring electoral success. Ocassionally radical thinking happens to evolve to become mainstream, rather like the way Irish parties raided the PD wardrobe. But the PDs latched on to an historical tide: the rise of neo-liberal thinking in Washington and London. They were clever to spot it and were sufficiently tenacious to ride the wave long enough to see many of their policies being widely adopted. There was, of course, another historical force at play. It goes by the name of Charles J Haughey. A towering but hugely divisive figure, he provided the impetus for the split that gave birth to the PDs. But once both of these tides had washed over, the Party returned to obscurity, where it will surely lie, hoping forlornly for the next big wave.

To conclude, there can be no big break for Labour without that earthquake. And it has to be high on the Richter scale. Even the collapse of Fine Gael in 2002 was insufficient to shake the kaleidoscope. Certainly, a moderate recession - quite likely before the next election - would not provide enough for a Labour breakthrough. Fianna Fáil losses (certain after a recession and minus Bertie) will be shared between Fine Gael, Labour and marginal players. That might be enough to see Labour in power, but it will never be enough to allow them to play anything more than a supporting role.

Belgium: Eu founder and 28th Member?

An editorial in Le Monde places Belgium at the precipice. Attempts to form a coalition government after the general election of June 10th have exposed the widening rift between Belgium's French and Flemish speaking populations. The divide is geographic, cultural, political, and economic. The northern half of the country speak Flemish, a form of Dutch, while the Southern half speak French. The Flemish part is more populous and by far the richer. Perhaps in line with increasing regionalisation in other European countries (France, Spain, UK) the two halves in Belgium have grown apart over the last 3 decades. A fairly unitary state 30 years ago has evolved gradually into its current Federal form. Divorce in slow motion?

The trouble now is that the Flemish want to push this even further, but the Francophones are resisting, fearing that they will lose out by being further cut off from the more prosperous north. According to Le Monde, a compromise may still be reached, but the window of opportunity may eventually close, leading to a breakup "à la tchécoslovaque". Make no mistake, concludes the editorial, but Albert II's Kingdom is on the brink.

The fly in the ointment for the Belgians is Brussels, or is that vice versa? If Belgium did break up, what about the EU Capital, Brussels? It lies inside the Flemish region, but is predominantly French speaking. Which side could claim it?

It certainly would be an embarrassment for the Eu if one if its founder members and home to its capital, simply falls apart. It's not exactly the way the Eu planned to welcome its 28th member.

Friday 24 August 2007

End of an Affair

The following is a true story with names and places changed - Tomaltach

Trish was filling the kettle when her husband Tom walked in - naked with dry blood on his mouth. Her "Jesus Christ what hap.." was interrupted by Brian who appeared behind Tom. "This bastard was riding my wife". Then silence. Trish was in shock not really taking it in, just confused. Brian turned and left.

Brian and Marie Dolan, both local to Ballydoran, seemed happily married. They had two teenage children, a beautiful house, and were reasonably well off. Brian was the owner of two fruit shops - one in Ballydoran and one five miles away in Carrick. He had devoted his life to building up the business. The light would be seen in the back yard till midnight, where Brian bagged apples from large boxes, loaded the truck for Carrick or, as his begrudgers claimed, he transferred Dutch potatoes into 'Dublin' bags. Ocassionally he would have a student at peak times in summer, but none stayed very long for Brian was horrible to work for. He had a terrible temper and tolerated only perfection. But even bedgrudgers admitted he was a ferocious worker, even workaholic.

Brian decided to act when hints from his brother, Gerry, who had heard repeated rumours that Marie was having an affair with Tom Kelly, eventually lost all subtilty. Brian initially refused to believe, but when he thought more about his wife's social life and that it had become totally divorced from his, for he had none, he realised that it could be true. Then there was the gradual decline in their sex life. And she had always had great time for Tom. Still, it was hard to believe. But above all he trusted Gerry. According to the brother, his friend Paul, a lorry driver, had met Marie on a back road near the house. Paul had to stop to let Marie pass and looking down from the lorry he saw Tom lying on the back seat.

Brian travelled to Dublin every Wednesday in his truck to buy fruit and veg at good wholesale prices. According to Gerry, Marie's car would leave around 9, and could be seen returning before 10, presumably with libinal cargo on board. Every Wednesday, like clockwork.

The plan was simple, but like everything Brian did, it would be meticulously thought out. On Wednesday he would leave for Dublin at 5 am as usual. But he would only go down to Gerry's - where he had agreed to meet another man who'd do the run to Dublin. Brian would drive back to his own house in a rental car with Gerry after nine. If Marie's car was gone Gerry would drop him.

And so it turned out. The car was gone. Brian was dropped, entered the house and, climbed into the attic. An enternity filled the next half hour before he heard the crrrt of the handbrake. Keys in the door. Voices. Marie and Tom. Brian was nervous but a well of anger bolstered his resolve. The pair below took forever to come up stairs. Were they caressing? Maybe they'd have sex in the Kitchen. Is that the Tv? They're going to shag in the living room. Tom, the baldy bastard. But no. Finally steps on the stairs, and voices, and Tom gave that smug pre-coital laugh. Cunt. They went to the bedroom. After a time, the talking died down. Brian was going to lower himself from the attic now - as practiced. He lifted the trapdoor to slide it across, but waited. He wanted to catch them in full flight. His heart pounded in his chest. He slid the trap door and lowered his muscular body, a short drop, and a creek of the floorboard, but far enough from the bedroom to go unheard. He crept to the door, then swung it open.

Marie's terrified face looked from around Tom's fat torso, then Tom turned, his ass still hidden under the duvet, and the blood drained from his face. Terror seized him as begged in a childlike whinge "Jesus, Brian, I'm sorry, I'm sorry". Brian, stern faced but remarkably restrained "Get out to fuck". Tom slithered nervously out of the bed, then stood up quick to an angrier "Get out to fuck". By now Marie was sobbing with her hand across her mouth. As Tom reached for his trousers Brian tugged him from the room "I said you get out to fuck", and he pushed Tom's white naked body towards the stairs. Again he pushed. And on ground floor, as he pushed Tom towards the back door, Brian's voice punched out in anger "riding my wife, you big fat bastard". The violent pushes became thumps. As Tom passed into the yard Brian attacked him violently, kicking and pummelling his trembling body. Tom fell to the ground roaring pathetically "aggggg, stop, please, I'm sorry". And Brian stopped. He wanted to vent his anger through kicking. He wanted each of Tom's yelps to heal something. To undo something. But reason blocked his violence like a wall. The ball of anger in his heart morphed to an ugly, draining void. After a pause he commanded Tom "Get into the car"

No words passed between the men as they drove the narrow, tree lined road back to Tom's farmhouse where his house-bound wife had begun another ordinary day in her fight against cancer.

Thursday 23 August 2007

The Primate and the Stars, A Homily

The Catholic Primate, Archbishop Seán Brady, has made the headlines with his attack on modern Ireland. It is true that the 'new Ireland' has indeed many warts, and people have felt for some time been feeling that society has somehow lost direction. The primate's denunciation of the new Ireland, however, is puerile, incoherent, and ulitimately no more than a self serving homily.

Ireland has gone from the land of saints and scholars to the land of stocks and shares, said the Primate. This cliche jars and says nothing at all about Ireland. First, the land of saints and scholars - when was that? Roughly speaking we've had five centuries that could be summarised as conquest, colonisation, suppression, famine, and self ruin. In which of these periods was our emerald Isle the home of sainthood and scholarship? Or is the Primate referring to the early middle ages when the Irish monks saved civilisation? So when did the new Ireland begin? And since stocks and shares have been the foundation stone of prosperous nations for four centuries, why do they come in for such critque now? Perhaps the archbishop was aiming for the volatility of global finance or the fickleness of the multinational corporation. If that's the case, he should have said so.

The archbishop decries the culture of violence. True there is a serious problem we need to address. But the primate knows why it came about "And all of this has occurred as the external practice of faith has declined". Would that be faith in the institution which tortured, possibly murdered, young boys in the industrial schools? Was there less violence in the 'old Ireland' when the likes of poor Peter Tyrell (whose recently published letters recount his time in an industrial school in Connemara) suffered appalling brutality and humiliation. Hundreds of young children were stripped of their dignity and lived in sheer terror. Then there were the laundaries. But say no more. The eyes of the Primate give him selective vision of right and wrong.

Then there is the stress "of financial success and security". Yes, more horse manure. As if the 'old' Ireland of the 50s offered security to those poor divils who left in their tens of thousands. They arrived in the huge urban centres of London and Liverpool, with one arm as long as the other, mostly unskilled and utterly ill equiped to deal with the culture shock. Many clawed their way onto the deck of their host society, but many more fell over board.

Our Primate moves on from the sublime turf of violence and insecurity to a purely ridiculous attack on tarrot cards and palm reading. That the good archbishop aimed his blunderbuss at such trifles reveals an analysis of Irish society that is appallingly shallow for a man in his position.

The archbishop's homily was so silly and juvenile that it bordered on funny and he should seriously consider taking to the serious art of the horoscope.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

Cuir Deireadh leis an Ghaeltacht!

In ainm Dé cén fáth a leanaimid ar aghaidh leis an Ghaeltacht? Sé sin, cén fáth a nglacaimid le polasaí nach bhfuil ach fantaisíocht shoch-theangeolaíoch taobh thiar de? Sibhse ar grá libh an teanga, nó sibhse ar mhaith libh a caomhnú, ba chóir go mbeadh sibh ag scairteadh in ard bhur gcinn ar an rialtas deireadh a chur leis an Ghaeltacht faoi mar atá sí inniu. Ba chóir go mbeadh sibh ag impí ar an rialtas coincheap na Gaeltachta mar limistéar geografach a chur ar leataobh mar bheartas.

Ar a laghad ba chóir an limistéar a leasú. Sháinmhíníodh an limistéar Gaeltachta, faoi mar atá sé inniu, thart ar 50 bliain ó shoin. Bhí siad flaithiúil go leor an uair sin go fiú. Fágadh go leor leor paróistí sa Ghaeltacht nach raibh móran Gaeilge á labhairt iontu. Is uafásach an meath atá tágtha ar chúrsaí ó shoin.

Mar sin, teorainn cheart í teorainn na Gaeltachta: nuair a théann tú thairsti, téann tú isteacht i dtír na fantaisíochta. Tugann tú cúl don saol dáiríre agus tugann tú cuairt ar bhroinglóid ina bhfuil Gaeilge shaibhir líofa á labhairt ag páistí, áit a mbíonn seanfhir ag beannú a chéile i seanteanga na nGael, tír na draíochta a bhfuil filíocht agus seanchas i mbéal gach duine. Níl ann ach siabhrán rómánsúil.

Sa chuid is mó den Ghaeltacht, ní chloisfidh tú a oiread Gaeilge is a chloisfidh tú d'Urdu. In ainneoin sin, cuirtear deontais ar fáil is maoinítear tógra ann mar "thacaíocht don teanga". Cur amú airgid atá ann.

Scaipeann Údarás na Gaeltachta deontais ar chomhlachtaí a lonnaítear ar an taobh cheart den líne dhraíochtach seo, faoi mar a bheadh siad ag scaipeadh sneachta. Agus titeann deontais tithíochta isteach i lámha na ndaoine ar nós 's cuma liom. De réir dlí, caithfidh siad cur in iúl go dtógfaidh siad a gclann trí Ghaeilge, ach tá a fhios ag an tsaol nach bhfuil ann ach cur i gcéill.

Tá aithne agam féin ar dhaoine a fuair na deontais seo. Tá níos mó spéise acu i bhfilíocht na Síne ná mar atá acu sa Ghaeilge.

Is ar an gcaoi seo a gcuirtear acmhainní ganna amú. D'fhéadfaí iad a chur ar obair ar bhealach eile ar son na teanga. Ach níl ann ach cluiche beag polaitiúil. Spreagann an chaimiléireacht seo an tsoiniciúlacht i dtaobh na teanga atá ag fás in aghaidh an lae.

Céard a deireann na heagraíochta Gaeilge i dtaobh na calaoise seo? Tada. Faic. Cén fáth nach bhfuil siad ag impí ar an rialtas an polasaí a athleasú? Cad chuige nach bhfuil siad ag gearán faoin chur amú airgid?

Ceist: Cén fáth an ciúnas seo? An Freagra: Tharraingeodh an fhírinne aird ar stáid na Gaeilge sa Ghaeltacht - go bhfuil sí ar an dé deiridh.

De réir mar a thuigim rinneadh stáidéar le déanaí ar úsáid na Gaeilge sa Ghaeltacht. Tá sé faoi bhráid an Aire Ó'Cuiv faoi láthair. Ach tabharfaidh mé buile faoi thuairim ar céard a dhéanfar leis. Go leor cainte is cabaireachta faoin Ghaeilge, ach dheamhain athrú a fheicfear.

Leanfar leis an bhréag go bhfuil an teanga faoi bhrú ach ag streachailt léi. Leanfar leis an cur i gcéill gurb í an Ghaeltacht croílár agus todhchaí na Gaeilge agus go bhfuil gach tacaíocht riachtanach agus tuilte. Leanfaidh na heagraíochtaí Gaeilge ag cur a gcuid ama féin is airgead na tíre amú.

Mura mbrisfear an bhréag seo, ní thiocfaidh deireadh ar mheath gasta na Gaeilge.

Féach an t-alt "Death of the Irish Language"

Five things to hate about Property Booms

Before considering the negative effects of the Irish property boom you need to understand its scale. You need to appreciate that for the last few years we have been building 6 times more houses per capita than Britain. That the Irish construction sector now employes more than the entire manufacturing sector. That over 20% of GNP is dependant on construction. That we are completing something in the region of 90,000 units a year.

So the downsides. Here goes...

1.Capital gets diverted from other purposes. The construction industry snowballs into a massive destination for investment. Capital that might have been employed in other ways - like building tramways, bridges, factories, or schools, is channelled into property. About 2/3 of the Irish construction activity is in residential or retail. The National Competitive Council said that the frenzy of investment in residential is "crowding out" investment in manufacturing and exporting.

2.Labour gets diverted from other resources. The boom drives up wages which sucks people away from other activities, including ones that might have more long term benefits or which are more strategic. Even the so called knowledge economy gets hit. As the wages in some construction areas hit the sky even highly qualified people choose manual labour over a job that involves their brain power. Today's indo leads with a piece describing how some kids with over 500 points are snubbing their white collar work for the hod. What effect will this have long term?

3.Ideas to build sustainable communities gets steamrolled. When the snowball gets so big it just rolls over anything in its way. The priority shifts from 'better' to 'more'. Our political system in Ireland proved incapable of controlling development in a more sustained way. One-off housing directives got queitly dropped. Cities spread further and further out into ever increasing commuter belts. Consideration for commutes times, viable concentration for vital services, or for greenhouse emissions, were simply drowned out.

4.The boom gathers so much momentum that it starts becoming the only game in town. Our ISEQ is now (to our peril) dominated by stocks depending on the building boom - Banks and Construction Firms. Our national eggs are piling into one big brittle basket. Add to this the 'wealth effect' - where people (or investors) who have seen their property prices rocket are now spending or investing more on the back of it. This had tearful consequences elsewhere when the big snowball turned to slush.

5.The return on residential and retail not only draws in investment from other economic activity (as in point 1), it results in the destruction of other pieces of infrastructure. In Dublin, pubs and petrol stations have been converted and bulldozed respectively in order to make way for residential - such was the mark up on the latter. The most spectacular example of this is the destruction of two historic and prestigious hotels in Ballsbridge to make way for .... flats. What is this doing to the social infrastructure of the city? ( I concede that this phenomenon may be the smallest and most transient of the five, but if sustained is concerning nonetheless.)

Monday 20 August 2007

Incredible India!

India has just celebrated her 60th year of independence. Western media have marked the event by doing specials (Time), featured articles (Irish Times), or documentaries (BBC). The tone of the coverage has been overwhelmingly upbeat – the flourishing high tech centre at Bangalore, the new middle class, the strength of Indian democracy. Some did mention that much work has to be done on the poverty front, but none that I saw came anywhere near conveying the magnitude of India’s chronic poverty problem.

I visited India two years ago as part of my honeymoon trip. Initially I wasn’t that interested, but my wife persuaded me. It turned out to be one of the richest experiences I’ve ever had. India is intense, in your face, charming, exhausting, magnificent, and utterly unforgettable. That’s all for another day. Here I want to write about poverty.

Nothing can prepare you for the scale of poverty in India – not even Africa. Between them, the two regions are home to the vast bulk of the world’s extreme poor. But the poverty in India is more intense because it is far more densely populated. India is home to about 400 million more souls than Africa, yet incredibly, the latter is almost 10 times as large.

Owing to its recent prosperity, India is by no means the World’s poorest country on average (GDP per capita $3,800 versus $1,300 in Mali and $44,000 in Ireland), but its wealth is distributed so unequally that the average hides the severity and extent of deprivation there. The earnings for India’s 300 million severely poor are so low that income is of limited use in measuring the severity of their destitution. Perhaps the best indicator is calorie intake. About 200 million people in India suffer malnourishment. According to Amartya Sen, about half of all Indian children are malnourished. The figure for Sub-Saharan Africa is around 40%. In the rural state of Assam a staggering 45% of households do not have access to two square meals per day.

Another measure is adult literacy. Here the rates in some Indian states for female and male literacy compare with those in some of Africa’s poorest nations. The rates for Burkina Faso are 10 and 31 while those in the Bahraich Administrative District in Uttar Pradesh are 11 and 36. Similarly for infant mortality. The average value in Sub-Saharan Africa is 104 per 1000. In the state of Uttar Pradesh (population greater than Russia) the figure is 97 per 1000. (For comparison the rate in Ireland is 5 per 1000).

An anecdote from the city of Jaipur will illustrate what these figures mean on the ground. We hired a rickshaw driver for the day for about 5 euros. His name was Abdullah and he took us on a tour of his native city. We saw the Temple of the Winds, the Markets, and the fabulous Jaigur Fort. But we also took a tour around the heart of the city’s slum area –near to where Abdullah lives. The slum was vast and miserable. Sewage ran openly in the streets, collecting in green putrid pools. Shelter ranged from sticks and canvass to more solid structures like sheds. No running water or sanitation of any kind. Temperatures ran close to 40 degrees. The stench is easily imagined. We made the following observation in our diary:

You can tell their degree of poverty by their sewage-there's about 4 categories- stagnant pools= lowest of the low, flowing openly down a channel= a little bit better, flowing openly but with little walkways over it= shop people, and finally if it's not visible at all= you're quite well off.”

Abdullah brought us to his house. He was moderately well off by Indian standards. He lived with his wife and 4 children in a two room house. Each room was about the size of an Irish box-room and both were built on top of another building. They had no sanitation or running water. Cooking was done outside. His entire worldly possessions fitted in one small trunk at the foot of the bed. He took out a little bunch of photos. He’d been married earlier in life but his first wife had died – he didn’t say how. Abdullah was earning enough from his Rickshaw driving to feed his family and to send his kids to school. But it was a difficult slog – he worked nearly all the time and never got breaks. Income was unreliable and at times he couldn’t meet the rent for the rickshaw. His family were by no means utterly destitute – indeed, his children would have some hope of a better future if they managed to stay at school. But their welfare was extremely precarious – should Abdullah fall ill or have an accident, this family would meet catastrophe. For Abdullah then, the India of high tech and consumer goods simply didn’t exist. That there are not millions, but hundreds of millions far worse off than he, gives some idea of the challenge facing India.

We saw much evidence of progress – new roads were being built; Delhi’s metro line was under construction; a middle class, wealthy and confident, was clearly on the increase; modern shopping malls had sprung recently up in the bigger cities; But in the city slums and rural villages, an unimaginably vast number of poor and destitute eke out miserable diminished lives.

The India Ministry of Tourism promotes their country with the slogan “Incredible India”. For me it was exactly that – an enormous, culturally rich, diverse, and brutally unequal place. Simply incredible.

Infrastructure, Irish Style

As I watched the Cork-Meath game yesterday on the box, I was struck by the number of empty seats in Croker. We have built a magnificent stadium in our Capital city, one of the biggest and one of the finest in Europe, but I couldn't help thinking there was something odd about all those empty seats! Meath are only down the road, and Cork is perhaps the finest GAA county of them all, and here we have a stadium that both teams cannot fill even for an All Ireland semi-final. At the same time, only a few miles away, the cranes are getting stuck in building another top class stadium.
Meanwhile our hopes for a first class, state of the art, children's hospital are on hold. Why is it that we can build such magnificent venues to play games - more and bigger than we need, but we cannot build venues to treat our sick children?
You might rush to point out the complexities of building a hospital versus building a stadium, but surely it's a matter of staying focused on our priorities, setting our goals, and pushing ahead with determination. The sad part is that the money is there. And if other countries can do it, why not we?
I cannot help thinking that the machinery we use to deliver key public infrastructure is broken down. The worn cogs of Government and its agencies, the brake of the planning process, and the drag of vested interest, are all conspiring to ensure that Dublin is a great place to play, but a terrible place to be sick.

Friday 17 August 2007

For Uncle Willie

The pitchforks darted and jabbed
As the men flung the hay to your feet.
You levelled and trampled as the stack grew
above the plum trees in the garden.

I was five, and I stood with the women
who came with tea and sandwiches
to feed the builders
of the last hay stack.

The following autumn the garden was silent
Black polythene covered heaped grass
And oozed the stink of silage.

You went on fixing fences
And cutting turf on McGee's hill
Long after the rest stopped caring.

When I visited,
Your disarming smile and innocent wit
Reminded me of an earlier time

When you said the matchstick men
Came to visit from the moon
To take away their empty boxes from your fireside.

Then you fell ill
Eight months you lay in the Shield*
Knowing that Cancer wouldn't be beaten.

Two weeks from the end
While I was touring in Asia
You were lonely and afraid

When I returned
The peaty earth of Caiseal Ard
had swallowed you forever.

* Shield Hospital, Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal

Thursday 16 August 2007

The Death of the Irish Language

I learned Irish at college while doing my degree. First I attended evening classes for a year, and then I did a two year diploma in written and spoken Irish. I love the language and learning it was a deeply rewarding experience. All this makes it painful for me to have reached the following conclusion: Irish is now but a minuscule part of the Irish identity and is doomed as a living language.

An Ghaeilge remains important to the identity of certain Gaeltacht communities, notably those in parts of Conemara. But for the general population it is almost irrelevant. It seems to me that the only time people think about Irish is when they fill the census form. Then they suffer a little rush of nostalgia and set down their wish instead of their competence.

Now and then my friends mention a program they've seen on TG4 - but invariably they were reading subtitles or watching an English language program. I know very few people who speak Irish regularly or read any Irish language literature. In bookshops, the section marked “Gaeilge” has been shrinking for years, and in some cases has disappeared entirely. This I’m sure is a reflection of demand.

I welcome the fact that Irish speakers can now increasingly demand state services and publications in Irish. But given limited resources available for Irish text books and learning aides, provision should be on a practical not universal level. Ceadúnais tiomána or bileoaga eolais are fine, but will European treaties or obscure directives really be read by a public who will not, or cannot, read Caisleáin Óir?

Another deficiency undermines claims that Irish is central to our identity: it does not support a voice with a difference, an alternative “world view”. Irish language media has too narrow a reach and too few notable commentators to really enable a distinct brand of debate to take place. Regardless of the subject, from globalisation to bin charges, invariably, the main players seen on TG4 or in Foinse are drawn from the pool of English language pundits or they are simply offering a translation of a line taken already in English. All too often the subject matter is the language itself. TG4's slogan "Súil Eile" breaks under the weight of the facts.

In The Wind that Shakes the Barley, the Irish language is given a token role. Amhrán na bhFiann is sung going into battle or for the occasional exchange between insurgents, but none of the characters use it for everyday communication. The depiction rings true. Certainly the fathers of rebellious Irish Nationalism had a genuine competence in and desire to revive the language, but outside a narrow group, interest was low. Put simply, the idea never caught on.

Since so few people can speak the language, and so few are aware of its literary cannon, how can it be considered important to our identity? If it has no otherness about it, and people don’t engage with it, how is it central to who we are? If tomorrow the last Irish speaker were to die, no shock would be observed in Irish people's conception of themselves. The phrase, "In Ireland we have our own language too" could be used only in the past tense, but nothing else would change.

The second part of my conclusion is perhaps more depressing. There is now, I believe, almost no hope of maintaining Irish as a community language, even at the limited scale that exists today. The Gaelscoil phenomenon presents little evidence that it sprouts sustainable bi-lingual families, much less communities. As far as I can see, no substantial Irish speaking community exists outside the Gaeltacht, which is undeniably in decline.

The Irish language competence of the younger generation in Gaeltacht areas is worryingly low. A recent study (undertaken on behalf of the Department of Gaeltacht and Rural Affairs and leaked to Foinse) showed that only 24% of Gaeltacht secondary school students used Irish when they spoke to peers. Furthermore, a staggering 46% of students in these schools have either no Irish or little ability to converse in the language. Apparently up to 40% of all leaving cert classes in the Gaeltacht are given through English. We can only guess why Minister O'Cuiv has refused to publish the full findings of the study.

In the past some linguists underplayed the significance of this by arguing that very often young people who abandon the language in adolescence, return to it when they mature. There's a grain of truth in this, but I am convinced that proficiency in Irish among today's 30 somethings in the Gaeltacht lags significantly behind that of the previous generation. I know far too many people whose parents were native speakers but whose own Irish is only passable. The drop in language ability in childhood feeds through to adulthood.

In my minds eye, I imagine a stone bridge joining the banks of a river. The death of each native Irish speaker is like removing another stone from the arch of the bridge. It is a slow process, but one day the removal of a single stone will cause the masonry to collapse and the bridge will become impassable. We will be forever stranded on this bank, the side where no Irish is spoken. To me at least, the bridge will be allowed to crumble because the desire to visit the other side simply disappeared.

Wednesday 15 August 2007

Garda Headgear

This short post is actually a comment I placed on The Honest Hack.

I happened to be living in France the time the government banned the Islamic headscarf. I thought it was wrong. And I think the ban on the Turban for the Gardaí is wrong.

Of course the fluffy notion that we should all respect one another, and let everyone practice their culture no matter what is sheer madness. Like all ideas that claim to be universal it will be a disaster. There has to be a meeting half way - both assimilationism (a la France, where minorities are simply not recognised, everyone being seen only as a citizen of the republic) and laissez-faire multiculturalism (as in Britain where the idea was that everyone can have their own community with, if need be its own culture, language, and religion) are doomed to fail.

If we meet half way, we have to draw lines. We would not and should not allow female mutilation just because it's part of African culture. We could not allow, say, Muslims females to demand that all-female public facilities be provided in place of those which society has decided should be mixed.

So yes there are limits. No absolutes. This means the extra effort and complexity of making calls on a case by case basis. And building one compromise on another. That's basically the way most of our other social norms have evolved.

If we need to make a call on the turban, let's start by asking, what benefit is there to society in banning the turban in the Gardaí? Precious little I imagine. What are the gains? A visible gesture towards integration. As matters go, this is an easy call. A shame if we miss it.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

FF and Donegal South West

In the recent election, two FF TDs, Mary Coughlan and Pat "The Cope" Gallagher, comfortably retained their seats in Donegal South West. It is truly astonishing that support for Fianna Fáil remains solid in a rural constituency which stands out for all the wrong reasons.

Despite a decade of extraordinary growth, unemployment there remains stubbornly high. The fishing industry, which was crucial to the local economy in the south and west of the constituency, has been allowed to deteriorate. Recently big employers such as multinational Hospira or the famous clothing company, Magee, have shut down or offshored most of their operations. School drop out rates are abnormally high, third level educational attainment, worringly low.

Though the local economy is in far better shape than it was a decade ago, much of it is based on the boom in the construction industry. There is, therefore, serious potential for disaster in the event of a downturn in the building trade, because many of those who now make a decent living from it have no other skills. In fact, this is a constituency which seems not to be making the transition to the knowledge economy. I am not aware of any significant progress in creating high skilled jobs in the area.

Furthermore, in a region blessed with a stunning landscape and coastline, the tourism industry remains curiously understated. So much more could be done.

The two Fianna Fáil ministers who have represented this constituency for a very long time were returned. They have have had real power to make a difference, yet the legacy I have described speaks for itself. It is depressing to know that for some strange reason, the rural voter places loyalty over accountability, and above all, it seems, has a peculiar aversion to change.

Look up: it's more FF bungling

Fintan O'Toole makes an interesting point when he shows how voters in the Clare and Limerick areas overwhelmingly voted for parties who had made it clear they'd support privatisation of Aer Lingus. O'Toole shows that support for FF + PD in the area is very strong (over 50%) and given that FG too were broadly speaking in favour of "a partial sale of Aer Lingus" the total support for pro-sale parties was huge. O'Toole says, you get what you vote for so how can people now complain.

My first response here is that this supposes that retaining Aer Lingus's Heathrow slots was a high priority for the majority of voters. But we don't actually know that. There has been a vocal response from certain business interests, but when cannot know without further analysis if the general population feel the same way. In particular we'd need to establish if they rated the retention of the Heathrow link higher than say, the priority of choosing (what they may have felt to be) stable government which favours low tax. Or they may simply have rejected other elements of say, Labour's, program, on the basis that they disliked it more than the idea of loosing Aer Lingus.

And to complicate matters more, it is extremely difficult to extract a stable and fair set of preferences from a set of listed numerical priorities thrown up by a voting system. Kenneth Arrow won the Nobel for his mathematical demonstration of this in a thoerem now known as Arrows Impossibility Theorem.

But the nub of this whole matter is not really about voting preferences. It's down to two separate issues which happen to intersect in this case.

The First is the debate between private versus public service. And in particular, which is best for an Aerline. Should the state (even on an Island) really be running an Airline? Right wing economists think it's absurd. But I did note that just around the privatisation Moore McDowell was asked by Vincent Browne, what advantage exactly will accrue from the sale of Aer Lingus, given that it was run very successfully (in recent years) despite being in government ownership. McDowell didn't really have a convincing answer - merely the usual stuff about government running the country and someone else running an airline.

I would argue that if certain routes can be shown to be strategic - whether regional or not - then we need to ensure their survival. If government ownership is the only way then so be it. We have no fear that Aer Lingus will start charging 600eu for flights to London - the Market is different now and those days are not about to return. But perhaps government ownership is not needed: perhaps the social or strategic goals, if you will, can be achieved by some form of regulatory framework or subsidy mechanism. This is applied with reasonable success in other areas (including the privision of internal flights to places like Kerry and Donegal). This model would be better, for it allows the Market to do all but a tiny part of the work.

The second major issue here is balanced regional development. This is whether the current and previous administrations have been dreadful. Almost everyone agrees that we need counterweights to Dublin (for its own good as well as to share out development). Yet the government's approach has been an utter farce: the decentralisation program which rejected their own fairly sensible spatial strategy in favour of clientelism. They peppered the departments out across the country willy nilly depending on which constituencies needed their seats secured or whether a minister lived at X or Y in a county. This was FF in its purest form. There are other aspects to this farce - like the very questionable 5bn metro to Dublin airport when transport around other cities is barely skeletal.

In the final analysis, the Shannon / Aer Lingus debacle is merely one example among a thousand where FF gets it wrong. The pattern is all too familiar. Government gets strategy wrong through clientelsim or, in this case, pure neglect (for Shannon and regional development). Localised uproar. Minsiter huffs and puffs blaming everone else. Issue dies down or superceded. Nothing done or, at best, some token gesture is made. And move on to the next blunder. Yip, that's FF for you

Friday 10 August 2007

Páiste Fir!

Saolaíodh mac dom trí lá ó shoin - ar an 7ú lá de mhí Lúnasa. Tháinig sé ar an tsaol ag 17.09 agus é 8.5 punt meáchain. Is deacair an ócáid a chur i bhfocail. Ba chineál catha í an bhreith féin, a mhair uair a chloig (nílim ag caint ar an tinneas clainne a mhair 4 huaire dhéag). Bhí cnáimhseach ann, altra, agus cnáimhseoir. Ba chosúil go raibh chuile dhuine ag troid go dian ar son an pháiste - seachas mé féin, nach raibh ar mo chumas ach iarracht a dhéanamh mo bhean a spreagadh. Ar aon nós, sa deireadh chonaic mé an ceann beag ag teacht, agus faoi cheann cúpla bomaite, baineadh amach an leanbh, is caitheadh suas ar bhrollach mo mhná é. Bheic sé! Bhí sé corcra ar feadh bomaite nó dhó ach de réir a chéile tháinig sé chuige féin is shocraigh sé. Thug mé póg dó, is bhog mo chroí le tréan áthais. Bhí deoir i mo shúile. Níor fágadh focal agam. D'imigh an lucht leighis. Thit draíocht orainn triúr agus muid ag iarraidh aithne a chur ar a chéile mar chlann don chéad uair. Bhí mé féin corraithe chun sonais, bhí mé rud beag trína chéile - faoi mar a bhí mo bhean - ach bhí suaimhneas againn freisin. Bomaite ar leith. Is fada a mhairfidh sé im aigne.

Monday 6 August 2007

Inequality in Ireland (circa 1740)

Last weekend I paid a visit to the magnificent Russborough House, just outside Blessington. We hear so much talk about inequality these days that during my visit to the Great House, I couldn’t help imagining the great divide between rich and poor in the 18th century.

But first the house. It stands on a hill overlooking the Poll a’ Phúca reservoir on the border between Wicklow and Kildare, and is surrounded by grounds of some 200 acres, much of it covered by mature broadleaf woodland.

The house was built in 1741 for Joseph Leeson, the first Earl of Miltown. Or rather, it was begun in 1741, for it took a full 10 years to build. It is built from Wicklow granite and is in the Palladian style – a rather austere central block joined by colonnades to wings on either side.

It is well worth a visit for the grounds and exterior alone, but it is the interior which really makes it worthwhile. The interior is perfectly preserved as is much of the enormous collection of contents which various owners acquired down the years.

The tour, therefore, is well worth the 6 euros. Our guide gave us a summary of the ownership of the house down the years and provided an authorative, but not long winded, description of the lavish furnishings and objets d’art that adorn the interior.

I will list a few items here will give some idea of how sumptuous this residence was: the five doors which lead from the main hallway to the reception rooms are finished with exquisitely carved architraves of West Indian mahogany; the salon has a sprung mahogany floor and a curved rococo ceiling that has been attributed to the Francini brothers of Italy; the salon also has a pair of Japanese lacquer cabinets and a chimney piece in English Marble; the staircase hall is adorned with marble walls which continue up to the landing. And so on.

Russborough is rich and a tad grandiose, descriptions which could equally apply to our friend, the Earl of Milltown. We can imagine the circles where the good Earl spent his time: the great and good of Ascendency politics (he had a peerage and later became Viscount Russborough); the tiny elite who monopolized Irish law (some things never change!), the movers and shakers of Dublin’s merchant class (his father was a brewer), and what he himself would have called “society”.

Outside his gates lay a different world. One of dispossession and humiliation. Roman Catholics, still by far in a majority, had seen their ownership of land decline from say 40% the previous century to near the single digits now. Most would live and die knowing no greater luxury than a mud hut. Their lives were hungry, miserable, and short.

Not all had been dispossessed – and much recent work has shown that 17th century Ireland was a far more complex place than we might imagine. One example will suffice here to show that it wasn’t always a one way street. In 1708 Catholic Merchants in Cork succeeded in forcing the council to rescind laws that targeted their business (*).

But a few swallows in Cork does not a summer make, and the overwhelming picture is one of Catholic supression and decline. As the (probably RC) labours hoisted the granite stones into place for our friend the Earl, a piece of legislation entitled “An Act for better regulating Elections of Members to serve in Parliament” was passed by the Irish Parliament. Part of it ran thus:

I do solemnly and truly affirm, that I am a freeholder... of the clear yearly value of 10 pounds, or of 40 shillings ... and that I am not a papist, or married to a papist, and that I do not educate or suffer to be educated, any of my children under the age of 14 years in the popish religion. So help me God“.

The Gaelic bards, it is true, served those who cared as little about the peasant in the mud hut as did the conquerer. Nevertheless, by now the utter annihilation of the old order, and the upheavel which attended it, must have brought unspeakable suffering to the middle and lower ranks as well. To turn today’s familiar byword on its head, an ebbing Roman Catholic tide must have stranded the small vessels with the large. And if the Gaelic poets who were contemporaries of the Earl didn’t speak for the poor, at least they articulated the decline and tumult that has roaring away outside the gates of Russborough. For that, it is hard to improve upon the words of Aogán Ó Rathaille (1675-1729):

“Do shearg mo chroí im chlíteach, do bhuair mo leann,

Na seabhaic nár fríth cinnte, agár dhual an eang,

Ó Chaiseal go Toinn Chlíona ‘s go Tuamhain Thall,

A mbailte ‘s a dtír díthchreachta ag sluaghaibh Gall”

“My heart has dried in my ribs, my humours soured,

That those never-niggardly lords, whose holdings ranged,

From Caiseal to Clíona’s wave and out to Thomond,

Are savaged by alien hordes, in land and townland.”(**)

* "Modern Ireland 1600-1972" by RF Foster
** "An Duanaire: 1600-1900 - Poems of the Dispossessed" Ed Ó'Tuama and Kinsella

Thursday 2 August 2007


Tá mo chéad pháiste fós gan bhreith - ach, le cuidiú Dé is gearr go mbeidh sí, nó sé, linn.

Inné a bhíomar ag súil léi - samhlaím féin gur beainín atá inti. Faoi láthair tá an créatúr ag streachailt léi i mbroinn mo mhná céile. Tá caidreamh agam léi cheana féin, nó sin a cheapaim. Bíonn mé ag labhairt léi is ag rá amhrán di (nach uirthi atá an t-ádh!).

Seinimid ceol di ó am go chéile. Cé nár bhlais sí den aer, is nach bhfaca sí solas na gréine, is cinnte go bhfuil sí ar an tsaol seo. Is cinnte, go bhfuil sí inár measc. Bogann sí - go tréan is go minic. Éisteann sí. Bíonn an snag uirthi. Sea, tá sí chomh beo inniu is a bheas sí riamh.

Is dóiche go ndéanann sí brionglóid - nó broinnlóid - ar a bhfuil i ndán di amach i dtír iontach an tsolais agus na fuaime.

Guím gach ráth ar an chréatúr, agus tá súil agam nach bhfeicfidh sí na rudaí is duibhe sa tsaol seo agus go mblaisfidh sí a sáith den áthas. Is cinnte go mbrisfear a croí ach tá súil agam go bhfaighidh sí faoiseamh. Feicfidh sí pian - ach guím go mbeidh clann is cairde ag a taobh leis an chuid is measa a leigheas.

Agus tá súil agam gur fada an bealach a bheis aici ar an tsaol seo is go n-ólfaidh sí dá áilleacht. Is tá súil agam go gcasfaidh daoine cneasta uirthi ar an tslí. Tá súil agam go gcluinfidh sí ceol rúndiamhair an tsaoil.

Tá súil agam do dtitfidh sí i ngrá. Is go ndéarfaidh sí paidir dá páiste féin sula dtiocfaidh sé amach chuig an tír a bhfuil briseadh croí is sonas ann.

The Greedy Farmer II

According to Teagasc's National Farm Subsidy, of which a summary can be found here, a stunning 98% of Family Farm income is earned in the form of subsidies.

This is precisely why I get so angry when the IFA refuses to let walkers on their land unless they receive still more payments from the state.

I want to qualify this by saying that I know many small farmers who are deeply attached to their land. It is reasonable to guess that some of the older farmers I know would have known their grandparents who might have had direct experience of the latter phases of the land war. So their bond with the land is deep in their psyche.

It is also true that, even if their payments are from the state, many farmers work very hard. The hours are long, irregular, and holidays can often be few and far between.

Nevertheless, as Mary Raftery points out in an excellent piece in the Times, we, as a society need to start asking hard questions about the future of Farming and the countryside.

The percentage of people living off the land will decline still further. How best can we manage this so that rural communities stay economically viable?

If small farmers are to be the guardians of our countryside, what kind of structure can be put in place to ensure that this is both sensible and effective?

And how can there be more of a handshake between tourism and farming in those areas - like my beloved Donegal - where farming alone is practically unviable, but where a huge reserve of potential for tourism lies untapped.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Stupid Men

In a thought provoking piece, Brian Greene ponders on the stupid wars that have swept away so many lives over the last 100 years or so.

He asks why it took the Allies so long to intervene militarily to stop Facism.

Well, arguably the Allies would have went to War much sooner to stop the rise of Facism but for the fact they’d just been through the nightmare of the Great War that saw several Empires crumble and others crippled. Neither the leaders nor their peoples could stomach another fight. And some leaders made the brutal mistake of thinking Hitler might be appeased. He might settle for a chunk of Austria. Ok then a bit of the Czech Republic. Etc. And no one, of course, would have imagined how insane the German Nazi regime would become. Sadly, then it was a case where the stitch in time didn’t occur.

But men have been stupid for as long as two balls have hung between human legs. That’s us: stupid (And that's why I find the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey so powerful. In a scene depicting human ancestors, one of the apes, you'll recall, discovered that a bone could be used as a tool - a weapon. The little fucker clubs the shit out of another ape. In a magnificent sequence he throws the bone in the air, and we follow the rotating bone higher and higher. Cut to a man made space station.) .

The Horror of the 20th Century was immense because the stupidity hadn't gone away, yet we developed the means to wage total war. Nice combination!

If we have to discern one shred of a silver lining behind that horrid cloud that was the 20th century, it is this: we weren’t quite stupid enough to start a thermonuclear war. But we came damned close.

Oh, and the 20th century proved something else - which wouldn't have pleased the fathers of the enlightenment. None of our rights, or social contracts, or freedom, can apply a brake on runaway stupidity when leaders hunger for war and power. The whole enlightenment edifice melts ways, and the demos, blind and gullible follow on, into one horror after another.

Automated Anguish

I have discovered the true reason for our increased stress levels: the automated phone menu. The other day I attempted to book a couple of cinema tickets using a phone booking system. It was one of the longest and most painful discussions that I ever had with a machine.

After yes-ing and no-ing, and up-ing and down-ing I finally reached the option to enter my credit card number. I punched in my number. The machine, however, was in a terrible mood. It was a "computer says no" moment from the comedy, Little Britain. Due to a technical fault - or bad humour - the machine couldn't book my ticket. Instead it placed me in the queue for a human operator.

My trouble was only starting. "You are number four in the queue" the machine said, in a tone that made it clear I wasn't going anywhere. And I waited and waited and waited. Just before I hung up, a ray of light "You are number three". I dug deep into my vast reserves of patience and held on in hope. Still number three. Minutes pass away. Then two. More waiting and finally, I'm next.

Then shock, horror: "thank you for holding, you are number three in the queue". THREE? Evidently the machine was in foul spirits. It is probably on the minimum wage or has had its pension downgraded. Nonetheless, even machines deserve a second chance, so I persevered, chanting Hindu mantras to keep my soul from imploding.

Finally, an operator, a human being, and I began my booking. All the detail again, film, time, etc. Then, just as I gave my credit card details the call was cut off (I suspect that bloody machine). My wife heard me screaming, and thrashing the furniture. Oh the pain, oh the anguish, and still no film.