Wednesday 30 January 2008

Heuston, we have a problem!

“Are you right sir, we’re ready to board” said an urgent voice getting closer “you can take my arm”. “Thanks very much” replied the blind man, and then he reached out and linked the waiting arm. “I’m going to take you to the carriage at the front of the train” said the voice, calmer now, and they moved off slowly along the platform. A cocktail of smell invaded the blind man’s nostrils: first came the sweet smell of fresh diesel mingled with the toxic breath of burned diesel. Then a faint stink of track gore followed. “We’re nearly there now” the voice promised. “Great” replied the blind man.

As they neared the humming engines at the front, the voice said “we’re going left here, into the carriage”. They turned in, and the arm led the blind man to his seat. “you’re next to the door, facing forward” the voice assured “all the best now, have a safe journey”. “Thank you” the blind man replied. He heard the footsteps leaving the train and disovling into the background drone after a few seconds.

He took his little bag off his shoulder and opened it, briefly rummaging before finding his book. Before he opened it, he paused in wonderment as to why no other passengers had boarded. Perhaps they hadn’t been let through yet, and anyway he was at the front of the train. He opened his book at the mark, and his finger sensed out the top of the page, and he smoothly let it scan the brail, almost automatically. As he neared the end of the first paragraph, hisssssssssss, and the doors rattled shut. But no-one had boarded. Or had they? Would the doors reopen? The man amused himself in the thought that perhaps other passengers had entered in silence, in a bizarre conspiracy to freak him out. Suddenly the train pushed forward and started rolling. But, no-one had boarded? Had the voice led him to the right train? There cannot be an empty train going to Limerick? Maybe this was the wrong train and he was heading out to some garage where they’d park it up for the night? Hold on, maybe a few quiet passengers had sneaked in at the back of the carriage. He turned towards the back an listened. Nothing. “Excuse me?” he asked, hoping for a response. The darkness ignored him and the train trundled on gaining speed. Holy God he thought, and he tightened his grip on his book. No phone, he remembered.

Just then, the door between the carriages slammed open at the back. A deep laugh boomed forward and footsteps set out towards him. In an instant he decided the laugh wasn’t sinister. As he relaxed the grip on his book he noticed his palms were damp.

This is based on a true story reported in today's Irish Times. A wrong signal at Heuston sent the Limerick train off before the passengers had boarded. Only a single passenger, a blind man who had been led to his seat, had boarded. The rest of the passengers were left stranded and the train continued to Limerick. Confusion reigned for a while before the blunder was confirmed. Iarnród Éireann refused a full refund to the irate passnegers who had to make alternative arrangements. The company apologised and offered a 50% refund.

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Long Live the Car

Our car culture is so deeply engrained that people look on you as somehow defective if you admit you cannot drive. I know because until recently I was a member of the outcasts, the non-drivers.

To say that I was a complete beginner though is wrong. I had some experience early in life. That's if you count stealing tractors in Donegal as a teenager. In our early teens we were agrarian joyriders. But we were far kinder than our urban cousins. We always returned the machines when we were done with them, usually intact. Though in one episode it almost went horribly wrong.

My brother, about 10 at the time, was the pilot. Off he went, alone, on the stolen tractor. He quickly discovered quite a serious problem: he didn't know how to stop. He was shouting back at us as he throttled away towards the main street. He was in a terrified panic, looking back as we ran after shouting "put down the clutch, the clutch". He ground to a halt metres from the T junction onto the main street. It makes the recent crash landing at Heathrow look like a picnic. Imagine, a Ferguson T20 going down the main street? Fucking Hell! As first officer, my brother deserved great credit. He had risked his own life and saved a entire village from catatrophe.

But in the car world I remained null. I found that non-drivers fall into two camps - those who keep their handicap quiet, and those who proudly announce it. I suppose I was in the latter group. I used to relish telling people that I couldn't drive. Especially to those who love cars. I couldn't understand the love of cars. It's true he motorcar was a revolution, but so was the flushable toilet. You don't see people buying glossy mags about toilet seats or ubends, I thought. Over lunch, if a car enthusiast boasted about the turbo in a new Audi or marvelled at the seductive scale of American freeways, I'd proudly announce that I had never sat behind a wheel. The reaction was usually a look of bewilderment tinged with pity. The implication was that I hadn't lived.

I saw my incapacity in motoring as a little act of defiance against the tyranny of the car. I felt quite proud that I could always manage without a car, which is no mean achievement in a country where public transport is a patchwork of badly run networks that were designed not to interconnect. As long as I remained a non-driver, I had to believe that sometime in the future we would get it right and communal transport would at last be usable. All those car drivers would be proven wrong. Our cities would be cris-crossed with smooth, silent, metal snakes, slithering thousands to their destination with evil efficiency. You would shoot to Donegal Town from Dublin by rapid train in an hour, then connect with a local shuttle for Killybegs. En route you would watch TV, do some work on your laptop, or sink back into a slumber in your soft, reclining, leather seat.

Filling out the form for my first provisional was an a form of surrender. Finally, I had falllen into the inescapable grasp of the dreaded car. I had to acknowlege that the car is woven into the very fabric of modern society. You could reject the car entirely, but you would be rejecting life itself. You could abstain from all earthly pleasures, but you might as well spend the rest of your life as a hermit on Mount Sinai.

When I finally got on the road, I had to admit, however reluctantly, that the car offers a dimension of freedom that is simply irreplacable. The train carriage is great when bulk is required or when the journey is a beaten track. But no train will ever bring you to the Sally Gap in Wicklow or over the Bluestacks in Donegal. Indeed, while I still love travelling by train when I can, there is something liberating about the car, something that sooths our obsession with the here and now. Moreover, privacy and control are rewards in themselves, regardless of the journey. To cap it all, we live in a world without patience and where our sense of the individual needs to be indulged. The car fits.

I am still not a car worshipper. I know nothing about powerful engines, good handling or lucrative brands. I remain completely agnostic to the shape or look of a car. To paraphrase Ford, I'll take any colour as long as it works. Yet I appreciate now why the car has oozed itself into our bones.

It's a great shame that my conversion to the car comes just as its golden era ends. That era began with the fortunate concurrence of cheap oil and mass production. Buying and running a car became universally affordable. The era ended with the twin threat of climate change and peak oil. I'm confident, however, that the car is not about to go away soon. For the health of the planet, it will have to change. But some formula will be found whereby that strand of individual freedom that is the car can be preserved, even if it means building machines that are a good deal smaller and a tad slower. La voiture est morte, vive la voiture.

Thursday 10 January 2008

On People, Heroes, and Celebrities

About ten years ago I began to take an interest in photography. As usual, I pulled on my anorak and read up on techniques - arpeture, f-stops, framing, light, and so on. After a while I started taking photos that I thought were pretty decent. Then one day I was showing my holiday snaps to a friend, and she asked "they're great photos, but where are the people?".

Up till then I had kind of avoided portraits or candids of people. I felt that landscapes, architecture, nature, or arty were far more interesting. So people rarely featured in my snaps. But my friend's comment provoked a rethink and I began looking at other photos of people. I began to realise that I had been wrong from the beginning. People are far more interesting. In the end, an image which connects with the heart is far more powerful than a landscape, no matter how stunning.

I was looking at a site recently that described how to write a novel. (No, I am not writing a Novel, I hit on it by chance! Cogair, the short story is my favourite form and if I were to write fiction that's where I'd begin). The author of the site stated that "literature is about people". Obvious and self-evident but in my mind's eye I had never thought about it so bluntly. Yes, literature can be about politics, or history, or the natural world, but not really - only through people.

People then are at the centre of all great art. The question is, what kind of people? The answer to that has changed over time. Early literature was peopled with legendary heroes who were superhuman: Fionn MacCumhail, Odysseus, Beowulf. Shakespeare mastered the tragic hero - a protagonist who is great, but flawed.

19th Century Realism introduced the ordinary, by way of characters such as Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Modernism followed, and not only introduced the ordinary man and woman but attempted to portray the fragmentation and alienation of modern, particularly urban, life (For example TS Eliot - remember J Alfred Prufrock?). And it explored the mental landscape of its protagonist, often using innovative techniques such as stream of conciousness (for example Joyce).

All of the above applies to film as well. People at the centre of things, with a progagonist who falls along the specturm between ordinary person and super hero. We feel touched by the experiences of the common woman or man with whom we identify; or we admire the courage of those who are braver than ourselves; or we are fascinated by lives which seem behond the realm of the human;

Are these the impulses which lie behind our celebrity culture? The innate desire to explore the human experience? The urge to drop the weary yoke of reality and enter another world for a while?

In the early days of celebrity there were two kinds of famous people. Those who were truly talented or who had made some kind of impact in the social, cultural, political or sporting worlds: Monroe, DiMaggio, Elvis, JFK, etc. And those who were famous because they were exposed by the new mass media of first, hollywood, then TV. These people were often famous for being associates of the former category and having some additional charm. For example, Jackie Kennedy because she was glamorous and first lady. Even so, celebrity still had a scarcity value and there was at least some 'substance' to the idolatory. It had more parallels to the literary heroes. Some were great, others flawed, and it was compelling to see how each would deal with the vicissitudes of life.

But another component began to creep into the celebrity phenomenon: emotional attachment. As the media culture proliferated and advanced it developed a sophisticated ability to construct a seductive, if fanastical, alternative reality.

JFK was probably the first to exploit this during his election campaign for the white house - the first in history where TV was a crucial battleground. Kennedy used the medium to great effect by creating a myth around himself - young, ready for change, athletic, family man. In reality he was a womanizer, unhealthy and had political ideas which were far less radical than the message he relayed to voters. This is not to say that Kennedy did not represent a break with the past entirely, the point is that his presidency was the utlimate celebridisation of politics. The mass media combined with his charisma created the illusion of intimacy. Much of the outpouring of grief at his assisination was not because people thought a great political future was terminated, but because people felt they knew him. It was an early version of the Diana phenomenon.

Today the celebrity culture has become multi-tiered and is even ranked in common parlance - A, B, and C, etc. It is far more pervasive - fame is no longer the preserve of sport, politics, glamour, and film. In the current culture the myth is that celebrity might come your way too (even if only for Warhol's 15 minutes!). You too can now be a famous chef, or a famous gardner; a famous newsreader, or an infamous pervert. Celebrity now is far more vacuous and shallow. People are famous by self-promotion, by accident, or hell I can't remember. Or because for very quirky or shallow reasons, the media propelled them there. No need for greatness, for glamour, for tragedy, or the compelling plight of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The celebrity industry has become shamelessly voyeuristic, salacious, and truly banal. Yes, there still exists what you might call 'real' celebirty, but the vast bulk of what bombards is, to put it mildly, low grade. And more ephemeral. The media now indulge in the curious and often cruel game of creating celebrities and then destroying them.

Mass media and the 'success' of capitalism lie behind the phenomenon. Who can imagine the frenetic celebrity culture of today without TV, cheap magazines, and the internet? Thanks to the fruit of economic growth, the masses now have buckets of disposable income to access these outlets. In recent years too the media has perfected a very simple formula for sensationalising the gossip: sex, death, violence, obsenity, drugs, breakdown, crime. Anyone remotely well known who can do any of these things is destined for the cover of some trashy magazine.

Clearly though, the masses have a voracious appetite for celebrity. How much of that is innate and how much is created by clever marketing is hard to say. Perhaps our capitalist world has just found a way to exploit the instinct for watching others as a way of exploring ourselves.

Moreover, people have always had a desire to escape the travails and the tedium of everyday life. In the past people could exit reality for a while by accompanying Oisín to Tír na nÓg or Odysseus on his journey home. But after the trip, one would return to normality. Today, however, the manufactured unreality has become part of real life. It is no longer a temporary escape. The tears after Diana's death were real.

It's interesting to note the way in which the notion of 'personality' has taken over all facets of our lives. And how it seems to have become the ultimate value - the prime commodity. Using round figures: teacher 40k - Pat Kenny 800k; nurse 40k - premier league footballer 5m; engineer 40k - ceo VHI 500k; train driver 40k - popstar millions; And so on.

The whole notion of celebrity and personality has now taken over the business world (it's surprising they waited this long). I'm not talking about the top 5 CEOs in the US - all CEOs now carry an air of "a somebody" about them. They are innovative, smart, risky, and, we are told, scarce. It's a form of the celebrity culture. Surely this has contributed to the astronomic rise in CEO remuneration the US and, to a lesser extent, here is well. And now, since the public sector imitates the private, the same aura of "the indispensible hero" is forming around the leaders of state bodys here. Hence the machinations of benchmarking which will now essentially make sure that the elite layer in the state enjoy the same outrageous multiple of average earnings as does their counter parts in private industry.

Even if we ignore the debasement of culture and the dumbing down of society, our love affair with celebrity and personality comes at a price: inequality and structural elitism. Is it a price worth paying to watch someone undress on big brother?

An Drochshaol san Iaráic

Tugadh le fios dúinn go bhfuil an "Borradh" (Surge) ag obair san Iaráic. Ar bhealach, tá. Tháinig laghdú suntasach ar líon na ndaoine a mairítear gach seachtain de bharr buamaí agus ionsaithe seicteacha. Is léir freisin go bhfuil cúrsaí slándála i bhfad níos fearr i gceanair áirithe i mBaghdad. Mar sin, an bhfuil cúis dóchais ann go dtiocfaidh deireadh leis an chruatán agus leis an anró?

Níl, dar liom. I dtús, níl an Borradh i bhfeidhm i ngach áit. Baineann sé le roinnt ceantar san ardchathair. Anuas air sin níl ann ach beart sealadach. De réir an phlean cuirfear deireadh leis an Bhorradh i lár na bliana seo (bliain an olltoghcháin!) agus laghdófar líon na saighdiúirí arís ina dhiaidh sin de réir a chéile. Nach bhfuil seans maith ann go rachaidh ionsaithe Al Qaeda i dtreise nuair a thosaíonn Saighdiúirí Mheiriceá ag imeacht. Is deacair a chreidiúint nach mbeidh na treallchogaithe ag maíomh gur bhuaigh siad an cogadh.

Ach thar aon rud eile, ní mór tuiscint cé chomh dona is atá cúrsaí faoi láthair don ghnáthdhuine. Is fear é Michael Massing a choinnigh súil ghéar ar an Iaráic ó thús an chogaidh agus a dhéanann sár-iarracht, in aineoinn neamh-shuim na meán cumarsáide, cruachás an ghnáth-Iaráicigh a chur in iúl don phobal. Seo an méid a scríobh sé le déanaí ar an New York Review of Books:

Tá fearg agus gruaim ar an gháthdhuine. Tá siad éadóchasach ar fad faoin todhchaí. Síleann siad go bhfuil an tóin ag titim as an tsochaí ar fad de bharr an fhoréigin, na coiriúlachta agus na brúidiúlachta ó threallchogaithe, mílístí, jihadíthe, sceimhlitheoirí, saighdiúirí, póilíní, gardaí cosanta, buíonta marfacha, tiarnaí cogaidh, agus fuadaitheoirí. Réab na coireanna uafásacha seo saol sóisialta, eacnamaíoch, agus gairmiúil na tíre ó chéile.

Tá sceimhlitheoirí fós ag cur coisc ar dhaoine taisteal ó áit gó háit. Bíonn seicphointí acu ó bhun go bun na tíre taobh amuigh den lear beag ceantar a bhfuil na Meiriceánaigh i réim. Stopann said daoine. Má cheapann said go mbaineann na daoine seo le pobal ar leith, nó go raibh ceangail acu leis na Meiriceánaigh nó le baicle ar leith, cuirtear chun báis iad.

Teitheann go leor daoine a bhfuil oideachas orthu - múinteoirí, dochtúirí, lucht dlí, innealtóirí. S'iad an eagla agus an t-amhras atá i bhfeidhm. Briseadh an tsibhialtacht féin. An t-aon síol amháin atá curtha: an ghráin.

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Resolution for Zero Eight

He's a man I know for decades, yet I don't really know him. He probably knows me a bit better, but not terribly well either. Our relationship is a thin shell of knowledge with love inside. I wish the shell was thicker.

What I know of him comes from others or from deductions based on his behaviour - but he has revealed nothing to me directly. I know his outward character, the persona that the public sees : humorous, gentle, careful, generous, obliging, likeable, clever. The inner workings remain a mystery. He's getting old now, and I wonder if he feels the chill of the void. He has suffered a number of health scares which turned out to be minor. But if they caused him to worry, and I think they did, he never told me. He will retire next year, but I have never heard him say how he feels. Does he look forward to being freed from the shackles of work? Or does he dread the potential boredom? What are his plans?

I speak to him often, but it never gets personal. I sometimes feel like I'm talking to a stranger. We always talk about other people, never about ourselves. The weather is more often a subject than life itself. A recent defeat or an unexpected joy never feature. We are both fully aware of this close distance, this peculiar state of something that is almost. After interacting on this basis for so many years, it's as if an impenetrable and invisible barrier has grown up between us. I imagine us walking along, guided by the barrier. It has become a kind of stability in our relationship. We fear that if it were shattered, everything else would fall apart. So I feel that, if I suddenly poured out my heart, there'd be a wrenching silence, as if I had just revealed some terrible secret.

I want to find a way to rewind the fibres of our lives. To knit them together properly, to make them connect. This year I promise to start by slowly untying the knots. First, nothing direct. An oblique question maybe? Or a nugget of self-knowledge. A wonder if. Disarm. Open up. Enter the dreamfield. Start again.

Friday 4 January 2008

What would we do without China?

I read an interesting article in Le Monde about China which claims that change is underway and that economic anti-Chinese hysteria is completely misplaced. Not sure I agree with everything he says, but here is a rough translation, apologies for errors.

China is a blessing. No, certainly not for human rights or for the environment - but for the world economy. Yet the exact opposite is the view in the west. In a TNS opinion poll for the German Marshall Fund, an American Foundation, 51% of Americans and 55% of Europeans said they view Chinese growth as a threat. These numbers rise to 57% for Germans, 60% for Italians, and 64% of French.

People in the developed world blame the Chinese for the flight of textile and toy factories out of their countries. Reluctant to begrudge the Chinese their paltry salaries, they have made the chinese yuan their bête noire. Thus 63% of Americans and 55% of Europeans believe a revaluation of the yuan would help protect employment in the West against competition from Asia.

This just shows that Western leaders, who flocked to Beijing in November and December 2007 to campaign for a stronger yuan, were acting on behalf of employees at home. Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy, governer of the ECB, Trichet, the European Commissioner Almunia and the American secratary of state, Paulson, raised the same issue with president Hu Jintao. "We can no longer tolerate such huge trade deficits: 158 billion euros for the US and 112 billion for Europe, and doubtless these figures will be higher in 2007" they lamented. "Our traditional industries have been badly hit by your fierce competition. You must stop exporting such enormous volumes. To that end, you need to raise your salaries, provide minimal social protection, and above all revalue your currency which is 20% to 30% below its real exchange value, which gives you an unfair advantage"

The leaders in Beijing responded "It is out of the question that we accelerate our reform program and risk the double digit growth which we need to drag our population of 1.3 billion out of poverty. We are already doing the best we can".

They are right. To achieve the goal of a "harmoneous society", advocated by president Hu Jintau, Beijing has in recent months been tighening the financial and monetary belt. On the 21st of December their central bank increase its rates for the sixth time in 2007, bringing rates to 7.47% for loans and 4.14% for deposits. The aim is to reduce the growth in bank loans to an annual rate of 12%, down from 22% for 2007. The yuan too has increased against the dollar by 7% over the last year, up from 3.3% growth in 2006. And the government is considering widening the band within which the yuan is pegged to the dollar.

Their efforts to stimulate demand are no less significant. In 2008, in three provinces, the government offered an experimental tax rebate of 13% to tens of millions of peanants on the purchase of TVs, mobile phones, fridges, and air con. The cut-off point for entering the tax net was also raised from 1600 yuan (150 euro) to 2000 yuan. This should make 70% of employees exempt from tax, up from 50% today.

Better still, a significant piece of legislation on working conditions came into effect on 1st January. The new law makes employment more secure, provides for redundancy compensation, and obliges employers to pay social indemnities on salaries (retirement, unemployment, health). The penalties for infringement suggest that these norms will eventually be adopted. The cost of labour and Chinese exports will be increased in consequence. This should be to everyone's satisfaction.

The anti-Chinese hysteria therefore, accentuated by the electoral race in the US, has no foundation. A biannual report on trade by the Tresory contradicts the complaints of the American Congress by its finding that Beijing is not manipulating its currency to benefit trade. The report welcomes the rise of the yuan and approves further progress which is under way or in the pipeline. It even goes so far as to acknowledge that the performance of the Chinese economy has been a wind in the sails of the global economy.

But such official recognition is no more than what is right from a country which, last Summer, might well have pushed the world economy into recession due to failures in its banking system which resulted from an inability to manage high risk loans. Who is preventing the world economic growth rate from falling below 4.5%? Not the US, which touches close to recession as this year begins; nor Europe, with its anemic 2% growth; but China which steams ahead at 11%.

Who prevents the dollar from collapsing dramatically, if not China, which holds 70% of its gigantic reserves of 1,400 billion dollars in US Tresury bonds? Who provided the cash injection to American banks Bear Stearns and Morgan Stanley to enable them to bridge enormous debts they incurred through bad management? Not the quoted pension funds in Wall street or London, but the sovereign funds of Beijing.

Low Chinese prices have helped control inflation in the west, thereby preserving the purchasing power of industrialised nations. The Chinese buy massive quantities of African primary resources thereby proping up the price of metals as well as agricultural produce. Not only do they provide valuble currency to weaker economies, but they also sell them manufactued goods which are cheaper and better adapted then those from the rich countries.

Finally, China provides loans and long awaited donations for construction projects for ports, schools, hospitals and electricity lines. Here again, China makes up the shortfall left by Western nations: she announced 5 billion dollars in aid between 2007 and 2009 which will surely be welcome since the G7 countries have renaged on the promise of 25 billion dollars in annual aid to Africa which they promised in 2005. Yes, all things considered, thank you China.

Wednesday 2 January 2008

Le Scaphandre et le Papillon

Je viens de lire un très très beau livre: le scaphandre et le papillon. A cause d'une attaque cérébrale, le journaliste, Jean-Dominque Bauby, a été plongé dans un coma. Quand il s'en sort, il decouvre qu'il a perdu toutes ses fonctions motrices - sauf que'il peut cligner l'oeil gauche. Il était prisonnier dans sons propre corps. En fait, le mouvement de son oeil gauche lui permet de garder son contact avec le monde, surtout avec ses proches, et de dicter ce petit livre.

L'ouvrage, apparu en 1997, a été adapté au cinéma par Julian Schnabel. Le film a gagné le Prix de la mis en scène au Festival de Cannes, 2007 (Quelques jours après la parution de son livre, Mr Bauby est mort du Locked-in-syndrome.)

Après son accident vasculaire, il ne ressent plus rien, ni les caresses sur son visage, ni les baisers de ses enfants. Mais il n'a pas perdu son esprit, ni le pouvoir d'imaginer le monde, ni l'amour. Enfermé dans sa prison corporelle, il nous envoi des carnets de son voyage intérieur - dans son esprit.

Très emouvant, un peu triste et effrayant, mais pas sentimental, et très beau, ce petit livre m'a beacoup touché. Il nous fait vouloir profiter de chaque minute de notre vie qui est si delicate que le battement d'un coeur ou ... le battement d'une paupière..

C'est magnifique et j'ai hate de regarder le film que je vais commander très bientôt sur