22 March 2015

Hungry, Hungry Hippos

Hippos. They're big. Their large size is definitely not the result of steroids, just like rugby players. Definitely.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, 1st January, 2015
Yesterday two very different events captured the attention of the Irish public, not uniformly or equally, in fact quite the opposite. In Scotland an Irish sportsball team were sportsing with a Scottish sportsball team. If the Irish sportsballers sported harder than the Scottish sportsballers, and some French sportsballers sported hard enough against a group of English sportsballers, but not hard enough to actually win, then the Irish sportsballers would be given a replica of an actual trophy that the English sportsballers presumably wouldn't be given (because they didn't sports hard enough, I guess?).

In the end that's pretty much what happened, and once again sportsball saved our nation from all its woes, at least according to the media, not that they would admit we have any woes. In fact, our woes are basically Schrodinger's Woes, as in we never seem to have any according to the media except on those times when the Government (or sportsballers) do something that makes those non-existent woes go away.

At the same time as the sportsballing occupied the media, around 80,000 people marched through the streets of Dublin demanding an end to water charges. The media put the figure attending at "only" 30,000 or 40,000, the discrepancy arising possibly because all the journalists were in the pub at the time watching the sportsballing and lost count on their way to get another round in. My own position on water charges is complicated, while I actually agree with the idea of a metered water service to drive conservation (with a suitable free allowance before charges kick in), the way in which water charges have been brought in to the detriment of the general population while grossly benefiting the nation's Top Oligarch is simultaneously sickening and saddeningly unsurprising. If you have time to read it, Broadsheet have put together probably the most comprehensive timeline of everything that is rotten in this affair.

I think this one is called Bod. Or maybe Rog. Rodge, no, Podge maybe? I want to say, um, Sexton?
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, 1st January, 2015
The division between these two events is essentially Ireland at its core. On one hand you have a small ruling elite that dominate the political, developer and banking classes and would form the traditional audience for rugby. It is this sector that benefited the most during the Tiger years, even after the effects of the recession are considered the top 10% in Ireland still control 35% of all income. On the other side you have the majority of the Irish populace who, according to the Government's own figures, actually live with the threat of poverty (50.3% are 'at risk' of poverty if social welfare payments such as child benefit were removed), with 750,000 currently classed as "living in poverty", including 16% of the population who are working poor, ie working full-time but still living below the poverty line. It is this sector of the populace for whom a water charge of €160 to €260/year is a genuine burden, and why so many are now out on the streets.

Before this weekend's outbreak of sportsball, we actually witnessed a rare event, a reaction to our current economic and political woes that for once captured the full attention of the media. A brave politician stood up and said, "No más!", that the system was broken, prejudiced against their constituents, that it was time to take a stand and speak up for those whose voices have been so cruelly silenced. The media hung on their every word, attended rally after rally and press conference after press conference. It marveled at the courageousness of the politician for taking a stand, and the dedication of an army of grass roots volunteers who overcame such terrible odds to make their voices heard.

Sadly that politician was Lucinda Creighton, and her voiceless consultants were the top 10% of the country, the banking and developer classes, for whom the country just wasn't entrepreneurial and neo-liberal enough. If you can get past the paywall this gushing account of their Long March to launch from the Grey Lady of Tara Street is worth reading just to see the alternate reality our 10% live in. The Monster Raving Luci Party was born from an "act of conscience", wherein its founder felt the Government's oppressive policy towards women's health and reproductive rights was, in fact, too liberal and she, along with a large group of mostly male colleagues, resigned from the Government as an expression of their conservative Catholic faith. And yet try as hard as you can, you will be hard-pressed to find reference to this issue in their PR material, despite this being the core issue for most of their prospective voter-base. They even went as far as to host their launch in the Science Gallery, an act of political subterfuge no doubt designed to craft the illusion of rationality.

A scrum of Hippos. Or maybe they're Old Hipponians?
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, 1st January, 2015
This blend of conservative religious dogma with neoliberal capitalist economics is, of course, not unique to Ireland, or even to Christianity (though the US astro-turffed Tea-Party is its most obvious Western example). In 2013 the dictatorial rule of Recep Erdoğan in Turkey faced its greatest resistance in the Gezi Park revolt in Taksim Square. The park was scheduled for demolition, to be redeveloped as a shopping centre and mosque, and what began as a protest by the liberal urban population of Istanbul against the destruction of an ancient green area grew both into a revolt against the imposition of conservative religious policies and neoliberal consumerism, and a direct challenge against the authoritarianism of Erdoğan himself. The Turkish writer Bülent Somay described the protests in this way:
"Everybody wanted PM Erdoğan to resign. Because, many activists explained both during and after the Resistance, he was constantly meddling with their lifestyles, telling women to have at least three children, telling them not to have c-sections, not to have abortions, telling people not to drink, not to smoke, not to hold hands in public, to be obedient and religious. He was constantly telling them what was best for them ("shop and pray"). This was probably the best indication of the neo-liberal ("shop") soft-Islamic ("pray") character of the JDP rule: PM Erdoğan's utopia for Istanbul (and we should remember that he was the Mayor of Istanbul for four years) was a huge shopping mall and a huge mosque in Taksim Square and Gezi Park."
- Comradely Greetings, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Žižek, p75
Swap the minarets of the mosque for the bells of the Pro-Cathedral and what better way is there to describe not just the Monster Raving Luci Party, but the ethos of the 10%, of the political/developer/banking classes and the private Catholic rugby-playing schools that spawned them, than Shop and Pray, Shop and Pray, Shop and Pray. As the draconian cuts demanded by the Troika decimated the life-raft that the 50.3% desperately clung to, the red line in the sand the the Government held to was the corporate tax rate. "Decimate our people any way you like", said two successive Governments, "but you will only prise our Laissez-faire tax-haven regime from our cold dead hands" and the Ireland of a hundred thousand welcomes became The Best Small Country in the World in Which to do Business™.

Shop and Pray. Shop and Pray. Shop and Pray.

There were an awful lot of hippos. If one came for my marble, I'd give it to him. Immediately. So would you.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, 1st January, 2015
Hippos are big animals. Very big. During the day they basically float around in stagnant or slow moving pools of water in large herds. They also poo on each other. A hippo pooing is truly one of the Seven Wonders of the animal world. They rise up out of the water just enough to bring their backside above the water line, and then proceed to projectile-stream a torrent of semi-liquid faeces. Think of a fire extinguisher going off, only much, much yuckier. But Mr Hippo is not content to merely launch his faeces in to the air, for evolution has granted him a magical tail with the power of the fastest windscreen-wiper, which he uses to disperse his poo with all the mechanical grace of a lawn-sprinkler, fhut-fhut-fhut-fhut-fhut, over all his wallowing neighbours. On their backs, on their sides, on their fronts, on their heads. Fhut-fhut-fhut-fhut-fhut. And his neighbours just lie there, covered in his poo. They don't even bother to dive and wash it off. They just continue to float, in fetid waste that is still probably safer to drink than tapwater in Boyle.

This Saturday there were 80,000 people marching in the streets of Dublin, while 10% of the country laughed all the way to the bank. With our money.

And everyone else in between just lay in the filth, wallowing, as the poo from the 10% went fhut-fhut-fhut-fhut-fhut and covered them from head to toe.

Still, sportsball, eh?

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25 February 2015

Mr. Tembo is on his way up the hill

He knows what you are thinking, and he's never, ever going to forget.
Tarangira National Park, Tanzania, 29th December, 2014
Speaking of Babar...

It's worth saying, just in case you weren't sure, that elephants are big. If there is an elephant in the room I think it's safe to say that the awkwardness is caused by you being in a McMansion large enough to house an elephant, and you really need to go elsewhere and examine your life choices.  A sustainable city thrives on mixed-use developments, city-centre apartment living with rent controls and a multi-generational and mixed-income populace. But, you know, the Irish all want to live in their big houses to show the English we're doing so much better without them, thank you very much (did you notice the elephant, loike, it really offsets the bohemian encaustic tiles we just had put in, brings the whole room together, so maximalist, roish?).

They roll around in red mud to cool down and deal with insects, taking their green suits off first of course.
Tarangira National Park, Tanzania, 29th December, 2014
But I digress. Elephants are really big, African elephants even more so. Those long term readers of this blog will know that I have a strong disdain for the notion of any mythical angry sky-father whose hand guides all things (almost as much as I have for the notion of any mythical hand of the market guiding all things, um, hmm, maybe I just have a things against hands?), but evolution sometimes throws up some pretty crazy and unique adaptions, like the way the ears of African elephants are shaped like Africa (technically, the ear, specifically their left one), and the ears (or ear) of Indian elephants are shaped, apparently, like India, just to help us tell them apart. If the aforementioned Irish Elephant was more than a weak metaphor, no doubt Broadsheet would have an auricular field day.

Slow, graceful and surprisingly quiet. Also, vegetarian.
Tarangira National Park, Tanzania, 29th December, 2014
Herds of African elephants are even bigger still. We started our safari in Tarangira National Park, and we were pretty quickly surrounded by a massive herd. I don't think anything can prepare you for such an encounter, not simply the presence of such a massive, living, breathing creature but the effect of encountering them in such numbers. They surrounded our Land Rover but took almost no notice of us whatsoever, we were just another ignorable object on a landscape that they clearly dominated.

if your house has a room big enough to fit this, you are probably part of the problem, not the solution
Tarangira National Park, Tanzania, 29th December, 2014
There is something that goes deep to our ancestral core when suddenly confronted by a mass of slow moving giants on the African savanna, a sense of what our true place in the world is supposed to be, small, insignificant and hairless apes scratching around in the dust at the edge of a dried out water hole. As Apu's wedding guest said, "you are not Ganesh, Ganesh is graceful". He was talking to Homer in a Ganesh costume, but he may as well have been talking to all of humanity.

He was probably looking for the Amarula. We washed our plates with that water later...
Ngorongoro Crater Rim, Tanzania, 1st January, 2015
Elephants are graceful. They're also pretty damn terrifying when they wander in to your campsite in the evening and start helping themselves to the tank of water you use to cook. This I know from experience, for two elephants wandered in to our campsite on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater for a few scoops and a bit of a look around, a truly hilarious experience when you realize that the top of your tent doesn't even come up to an elephant's thigh and you can't remember if they can see well in the dark (apparently, not so much).

Yes, this was exactly as terrifyingly awesome as it looks.
Ngorongoro Crater Rim, Tanzania, 1st January, 2015
There is a subconscious risk-to-reward calculation that goes through your mind when clutching a camera and staring up at something whose nose is bigger than you (you mightn't realize you have the ability to perform this calculation, it runs on junk-DNA left over from our monkey-with-a-stick days), so I was happy to stand back and let Mr Tembo make his way on up the hill.

I will also now be replacing "cat amongst the pigeons" with "elephant amongst the campers" in my lexicon of metaphors.

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24 February 2015

Not everything in black and white makes sense

It's like watching the Abbey Road webcam, in the sky, possibly with diamonds.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, 2nd January, 2015
See, every now and then the stars align and you have your camera ready for what will truly be the most awesomest visual pun ever, but only for those of you who speak proper English, not the corrupted can't-deal-with-the-letter-U version our friends across the Atlantic foist upon the rest of the world with their default spell-checkers.

Yes, it's a ZEBRA CROSSING!!!

<drops mic>

Black and white and ridiculously cute all over. Like the Irish Times, except cute, and worth reading.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, 2nd January, 2015
So here's the thing about zebras, they look like they shouldn't be, as in they really shouldn't exist. While their colouring and stripes are apparently a natural insect repellant there is still something jarring about seeing a nearly monochromatic animal (their stripes have a brownish hue that gets darker as they age) in the middle of a lush, verdant landscape, that screams "hey, lions, I'm over here and I'm very, very tasty".

Unfortunately for lions they are also very, very fast and travel in herds. Large herds, accompanied by equally large numbers of wildebeest.

Zebras should be herd and not scene, um, seen in a herd, um, look, basically there were lots of them.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, 2nd January, 2015
It is difficult to understand what a real herd is when your greatest exposure to animals has been seeing a flock of 20 or so cows (I'm a city boy, rural nomenclature is not a key skill for me). We spent a few days in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Sernegeti National Park in north-western Tanzania, and a sight that will stay with me till the day I shuffle off my slightly-shop-soiled mortal coil will be barreling round a mountainside corner and seeing a valley unfold below with a Maasai boma (a walled village) surrounded by their flocks of goats interspersed with hundreds of wild zebra and wildebeest, just ambling around munching the grass and taking no notice whatsoever of the Maasai herders (who, to be fair, seemed pretty damn chilled themselves).

So, months from now when baby zebra photos on the internet are the new cat photos on the internet, remember where it started.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, 2nd January, 2015
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a 8,300 km protected area, set aside to preserve the wildlife, flora, peoples and culture of the region. The Maasai that live there can carry out their traditional semi-nomadic herding lifestyle, but development and any other human activity (mainly tourism) is strictly controlled.

At the heart of the region is the Ngorongoro Crater, a volcanic caldera that is home to a ridiculous range and number of beasties. Entry to the crater is even more tightly controlled, with a limited number of visitors per day, which means you camp on the rim of the crater (more about that in a future post) and travel down into the crater itself at dawn (in a Land Rover, no pedestrians allowed for obvious reasons) and then nip around for a few hours trying not to get too blasé about the wildlife you encounter (Oh, another Black Rhino? *stifles yawn* Well there are 26 of them here, Sweetie).

Oh, this one? Just some zebras hanging out with two Black Rhinos. Basically Africa is exactly like in Babar.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, 2nd January, 2015
We actually visited the Crater on the last day of a five day safari (which actually just means "journey" in Swahili, and "painfully poor browser" in OSX), and I'm not saying that people should bucket list things (because "to bucket list" isn't a verb and anyone who uses it as such should really be shuffled off ahead of schedule, certainly before they have time to do anything on the proposed list), but going on safari is something that is painfully impossible to describe and pictures are woefully inadequate at conveying the sheer damn majesty of it all.

Let me put it this way, to go on safari I willingly camped for four nights. In a tent. And didn't complain.

Those of you who know me in the Really Real World will know just how astonishing that is.

That's how amazing it is.

Also, zebras!

(still to come, more animals!)

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Elections don't come cheap. It's always good to have as many funding streams as possible.
Karatu, Tanzania, 30th December, 2014
Now, before you all start calling the Coast Guard or Mountain Rescue,  or slapping a whatever-the-opposite-of-inexplicably-is embarrassing photo of me (because Lorde knows there are heaps of them) up on a milk carton or lamp-post, let me just say that I have not been abducted by aliens or run off to join any one of several intolerant hate-filled hierarchical and conservative religious clubs that are currently vying for global recruits. Despite my background as a consulting theologian, there are two things about the phrase "organised religion" that fill me with enough dread as to make the alternative probing by ET seem the undeniable lesser of two evils, should either option have been offered to account for my absence.

No, I have instead been a) mostly in Tanzania and b) turning 42, both of which I'm sure you can understand have had a profound effect on me and so filled me with things to write about that, like the multitude of germs pushing through the open door of Mr Burn's immune system, they have successfully held each other perfectly in check and enabled the recent output on this blog to approach absolute zero.

(Not unlike the weather that greeted me here in Dublin upon my return. Brrrrrrr)

So long has it been since writing, in fact, that I am no longer even sure if the word "blog" is still a thing. I could try dropping my laptop down the stairs to see I could make it Tumblr,  that seems to be what all the cool kids were doing two years ago. If I had cats or bland-looking identikit friends doing EXTREME things like beard-wearing or ironing (both of which I was doing before it was cool, I'll have you know) I could snappity-chat pics to you instead, as I think all the cool kids were doing last year. Or, like the paisley shirts I finally was able to buy after almost twenty years, I could just hang around and wait for blogging to eventually come back in to fashion.

No prizes really for which one I'm going for.

And while we're waiting for the Mayan Apocalypse Wheels of Fashion to rotate round this way again, you will be delighted to know that I intend to subject you to a series of Attenborough-esque photos (the wildlife guy, not the dinosaur-theme-park-of-death one) mixed in with the usual moderately ill-informed opinions and conjecture, only slightly moderated by the wisdom that comes with increased age.


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16 November 2014

Nostalgia? Where we're going, we don't need... nostalgia.

If you look very carefully you can see the ghost of a feral squirrel staring menacingly out at you through the window.
Dwight Street, New Haven, November 8th, 2014
There is a well worn saying that you can’t go back, used frequently without ever seeming to refer to exactly what it is that you are going back to and negated by the reality of simply placing one foot behind the other and shifting one’s weight. Often this is accompanied by the statement that the past is a different country to which your entry visa long ago expired, and sadly now you can only bore people with your holiday snaps of how fantastic it all was.

Last weekend I filled the Mr Fusion with a dozen stale banana peels, set the chronometer to 2002 and cranked up my imaginary DeLorean to 88mph, blasting through space and time back to the shady days of the last decade when Unkie Dave had yet to even turn thirty and sat alone in a squirrel-filled house in the fabulous New Haven, Connecticut while the Very Understanding Girlfriend sat a million miles away in Africa doing fieldwork. 

Seeing as how The Very Understand Girlfriend is currently sitting a million miles away in Africa doing her fieldwork, it seemed only appropriate that given the work-related necessity of being on the East Coast of the US of A I should travel up to the Have’ and relive those glory days of post-Millennial bliss.

Nostalgia is a funny beast, it allows you to be simultaneously delighted by the sudden influx of pleasant memories of the past while saddened at how different your life has turned out in the intervening years. I would have to admit that my 29-year old self would never have imagined the direction my life would have taken between there and here, but there is a definite sense that he would raise his eyebrows and question some of my life decisions. He would also be surprised and disappointed by the lack of alcohol in my life, which is probably why I am a better person than he.

Welcome to Mid-life Angst, Population: Me.

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20 October 2014

And round the prow they read her name

My grandmother on her wedding day, with her father and sisters.
Dublin, November, 1950
This day last week my grandmother passed away. Her passing was a slow spiral that gave enough time for all who loved her to prepare, yet in the end was still somehow sudden.

I have only ever known her as my grandmother, an elderly woman who had lived a difficult life, and if there is any good to come from this last week is that I had many opportunities to talk with my grandfather, aunts and uncles to see a different side of her, to see her as a young woman, a mother and a life-long companion. What moved me the most though was reading through old letters that she had written almost fifty years ago, and through those I think I finally got a glimpse into who she was in her own right, as a person not seen through the lens of other people's labels.

It would seem that only through her writing could she express who she truly was, how she really felt, and it was beautiful. I wish I had known this person more.


27 September 2014

The Art of Ω (a weekend of resistance and resistors)

Ceramic intervention on the V&A façade By Carrie Reichardt and the Treatment Rooms Collective, 2014
V&A Museum, London, 21st September, 2014
Last weekend I was mostly in... London.

Now I realise that this might come as something of less than a surprise, but you need to remember that I actually de-emigrated from London three weeks ago. So, the cause of this boomerang visitation -  did I leave the gas on in our old flat? Did I leave my wallet on the tube? Did the experience of being in Ireland and exposure to our cultural malignancy and institutional hypocrisy for two weeks sicken me to the point of existential dysentery, forcing me to flee the hot zone for a safer refuge abroad?

Occupy Sandy information poster, the people's disaster response for an abandoned community
V&A Museum, London, 21st September, 2014
Sadly, none of the above (though the hot zone escape did look pretty tempting after less than 48 hours), for it was work that brought me back to the land of the Sasenachs, though I did time my trip to arrive mere hours before the Scottish polls closed in the hope of waking up in the rump "United" Kingdom. Alas, this was not to be.

I was taking part in the Digital Design Weekend in the V&A Museum, which was fun. A mixture of quirky technology showcase and hands on hacking, making and modding, over 13,000 visitors passed through and saw that DIY-technology doesn't have to be scary and intimidating. Unless you 3D print guns. Which nobody did.

Here's some you can make at home...
V&A Museum, London, 21st September, 2014
During a brief quiet moment on Sunday, I nipped downstairs to the Disobedient Objects exhibition, and was pleasantly surprised. Showcasing the art of people's resistance movements across the globe, and curated with the participation of those groups themselves, it was actually a moving and engaging testament to the strength and ingenuity of people who stand up and say "No más".

It was also more than a little bizarre to see objects that I have seen in person used in the front lines of resistance now hanging in a museum, removed from their original context but strangely more powerful for it, as if the experience of transition from object/symbol to pure symbol has somehow infused them with all the significance of the entire act of resistance, of which they originally were juts a small part of.

Book Blocs (for knowledge shall be your shield), from Manchester and Italy
V&A Museum, London, 21st September, 2014
The exhibition is running from July through to February of next year, and it is more than a little ironic that I only encountered something like this that is so close to my heart after I had actually moved away from London, and through the medium of work rather than my life in the Really Real World.

I think that speaks volumes of the badly weighted see-saw upon which my work-life balance rests precariously.

Ceramic intervention on the V&A façade By Carrie Reichardt and the Treatment Rooms Collective, 2014
V&A Museum, London, 21st September, 2014

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14 September 2014

Great Cthulhu's Beard!

The stars are aligned, or the salad is off. Or both.
South Great George's Street, Dublin, 14th September, 2014
Dublin Fringe is on at the minute, which I hope and pray suppose accounts for this little squamous beauty on George's Street this afternoon. Either that or one of Mr McGrath's Luscious Lime salads has gone a little too zesty...

It looks like the work of Filthy Luker, and I for one welcome our new inflatable overlords.

Update (27/09/2014)

Sadly this look like it was less a work of Fringe-related art and more a fringe-faced promo for a mobile phone company's ad campaign (which is sushi-related, and not as eldritch as originally thought). Still, I popped a pic of this up on Twitter and it appears to have viraled (a perfectly cromulent word), proving the stars were aligned for someone something.

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