11 September 2015

The Long Decade of the Hammock

The North Pool, the memorial in the footprint of the North Tower.
Ground Zero, New York, 9th November, 2014
Today marks the fourteenth anniversary of 9/11. It's a weird feeling to have people working for you who were still in primary school when the events of that day took place, who have no first-hand memory of the day and whose memories are shaped as much by disaster movie homages in the decade that followed as by the reality that unfolded before the eyes of millions of people around the world. 

This is the real gulf that exists between my generation and the one that followed, in a very real way 9/11 changed everything, not the attack itself (there have been worse atrocities, arguably there have been more visceral events witnessed en masse), but the way in which the attack was used by US/UK neo-conservatives to push a very specific agenda. For a brief moment the world stood united in solidarity, then that shared grief and compassion was hijacked and used to launch a war that continues to this day, a war outside the rule of law, a war that surgically removed compassion from the public consciousness.

When millennials are accused of being self-absorbed and egotistical, is this not really the reflection back of the world we created for them in the aftermath of the towers' fall?

I had been in the US for four weeks when the attack happened. We didn't have a TV, but after getting a phone call just after the first plane hit the towers telling me what happened, I left our apartment and headed in to a common room at the nearby university, arriving just after the second plane hit the towers. I sat and watched, like millions around the world, as the towers collapsed. I didn't know it at the time but the world I knew, the world all of us knew, collapsed with them.

The North Pool, the memorial in the footprint of the North Tower.
Ground Zero, New York, 9th November, 2014
I've read a lot over the subsequent years on the philosophical "meaning" of 9/11, particularly commentaries by the usual suspects like Zizek, Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, but oddly enough the words that struck the deepest chord with me came from a passage in Iain Banks' 2009 novel Transition:
"I first encountered her near the beginning of that golden age which nobody noticed was happening at the time; I mean the long decade between the fall of the Wall and the Fall of the Towers.

If you wish to be pedantically exact about it, those retrospectively blessed dozen years lasted from that chilly, fevered Central European night of November 9th, 1989 to that bright morning on the Eastern Seaboard of America on September 11th, 2001. One event symbolised the lifted threat of a worldwide nuclear holocaust, something which had been hanging over humanity for nearly forty years, and so ended an age of idiocy. The other ushered in a new one.

The wall's fall was not spectacular. It was night and all you saw on television was a bunch of leather-jacketed Berliners attacking reinforced concrete - mostly with hammers, rather ineffectually. Nobody died. A lot of people got drunk and stoned - and laid, no doubt. The wall itself was not a striking structure, and not very tall or especially forbidding; the real obstacle had always been the barren, sandy killing ground of mines, dog runs and razor wire behind it.

The vertical barrier was always more symbolic than anything else; a delineation, so the fact that none of the crowds of cheerful vandals scrabbling for a perch on it could do much to destroy it without access to heavy equipment was irrelevant; what mattered was that they were clambering all over the famously divisive, allegedly defensive symbol without getting machine-gunned. However, as the expression of a sudden outburst of hope and optimism and an embracing of change, one could ask for no more, I suppose. The al-Qaida attack on the USA - well, given that a nation was invaded and occupied using this as an excuse, and that this was done in the name of democracy, let's be both nationalistic and democratic about it: the Saudi Arabian attack on the USA - could hardly have offered a greater contrast.

Slung between these two wide-reaching levellings, the intervening years held civilisation happily if ignorantly scooped, as in a hammock."

- Transition, Iain Banks, 2009, p2
The Long Decade of the Hammock. Born November 9th, 1989, died September 11th, 2001.

The true instrument of its demise though wasn't the attack or the fall of the towers, rather it was a small piece of paper with 60 simple words at its heart. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was the law rushed in to being by President George W. Bush and passed into law on September 14th, 2001, and is the basis for every subsequent US attack, every bombing, every assassination, every drone strike in the last 14 years. At its core is a short 60-word passage that outlines the conditions under which US military force can be used in the wake of 9/11:
"That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."
The way in which this law came into being, and the way in which it has been used to justify the invasion of two countries and operations in a dozen more is covered in a very engaging collaboration by Radiolab and (of all places) Buzzfeed. The Radiolab piece is below, it's long but well worth listening to:

The AUMF ushered in our current era of war without end, but it is a war that has devastating effects for only one side. Beyond the military and those families directly connected to the armed forces, no sacrifice is asked of the American or British public. With the increasing use of drone strikes, now even the military is being relieved of the burden of sacrifice. The victims of this war are nameless and faceless, shielded from the western public by a compliant media that rates the newsworthy value of a death by the colour of the corpse's skin.

When we do finally see the victims, as they march down European motorways in search of a life free from the chaos a decade of US and UK intervention in the Middle East has caused, the first response from the UK government was to call for an increase in the bombing of their homeland. ISIS was born in the US detention camp of Bucca, in Iraq, its first commanders brought together there in 2009. Some were hardened fighters, others were in the wrong place at the wrong time and their brutal treatment at the hands of the US military radicalised them. The US action in Iraq, the camp itself and every act of torture committed against the prisoners there, all had their legal justifications in the AUMF. The waves of people trying desperately to reach the safety of Germany and Austria for a better life, these are all the children of the AUMF.

The AUMF birthed an era where the the political forces of neo-conservatism and economic forces of neoliberalism were ascendant, and unstoppable. They ruled a world where they could not be held accountable for their actions. Where a national law or international treaty favoured them, they imposed it rigorously. Where it sought to keep them in check, they declared themselves to be above it. It was a time when no-one declared that "there is no alternative", as the lack of alternative was self-evident. The Left became the Right, and the Right became the unquestioned orthodoxy.

One World Trade Center.
Ground Zero, New York, 9th November, 2014
Back in 2009 Iain Banks wrote that we had moved on, that the era of war without end was over, closing with what he called "The third Fall, the fall of Wall Street and the City, the fall of the banks and the fall of the Markets, beginning on September 15th 2008". Paul Mason calls this current cycle the start of "Post-Capitalism". Capitalism must embrace a new equality if it is to survive, says Thomas Piketty. David Harvey has already proclaimed its end. Everyone agrees that change is coming, but no-one can agree on what, or how or when. And yet still the war without end continues. We bomb the refugees to save the refugees.

So ends an age of idiocy as the Third Fall ushers in a new one.

The Long Decade of the Hammock. That was my decade. In November of 1989 I was sixteen, coming of age, seeing girls, going to discos, drinking pints, starting to be aware of the world beyond. In September 2001 I was twenty-eight, just emigrated with my long-term partner and starting a new chapter of our life together. On September 11th, 2001 the Long Decade of the Hammock came to an end, and so to in hindsight did my youth.

I fear that's why this date affects me so much each year. Perhaps it is not a shared grief or sense of global outrage, rather it is a purely selfish sense of personal lost for the halcyonic rose-coloured days of youth that drives me. But in a way, is that not the perfect emotion, the truest and most honest representation of this, our millennial age? The global tragedy rendered as an emotional selfie, reduced to the tiniest framed square of personal experience, the shared "us" distilled into the toxic "me". Is this not how we've taught the world to behave?

I really, really hope not.

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24 August 2015

Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.

While London melted in the summer heat, Dublin cosplayed as the worst flavour Squishee, ever.
Howth, Dublin, 5th July, 2015
One of the hardest things to get used to when travelling between London and Dublin is the weather. The two cities may only by 350 miles apart (or so, depending on whether or not the proverbial crow is using Google maps), but it is not unusual for London to be anywhere from 5 to 10C hotter (and yes, I used Imperial distance and metric temperature. I would also calculate the crow's weight in stones, obviously).

This "summer" (and I use the term very, very lightly in reference to Dublin) saw London hit 36.7C, the hottest July day on record in the UK. The same day in Dublin saw the thermometer skyrocket to almost 22C. In fact, according to Met Éireann last month was the coldest July in fifty years, the wettest in five years and and windiest since 1988 (though not necessarily all in the same place).

Shortly after 1pm on the 5th of July, four days after the record heat in London, I was trapped in my grandparent's house in Howth by the heaviest hailstorm my ninety year-old grandfather said he had ever seen. Looking out across Dublin Bay we watched as a proto-waterspout formed in front of us, making landfall and just missing the house as it passed up and over the hill. The path was covered in a thick carpet of white crystal slush, the size of each hailstone as remarkable as the quantity.

If you ever want to understand our historical propensity for drink and mournful tunes, I invite you all to spend a summer here.

A grand soft day in Ireland. 1:15pm, the view through a skylight.
Howth, Dublin, 5th July, 2015
In February 2014 Met Éireann released their report on the predicted impact of Climate Change on Ireland. The full report (.pdf) is well worth reading, but the key findings were that Ireland will see an increase of 1.5 to 2C by 2050, and increase in rainfall in the winter and significant reduction in the summer, stronger winter winds and weaker summer ones. The report summarises:
• The observed warming over the period 1981-2010 is expected to continue with an increase of ~1.5degrees in mean temperatures by mid-century; the strongest signals are in winter and summer.• Warming is enhanced for the extremes (i.e. hot or cold days) with highest daytime temperatures projected to rise by up to 2 degrees in summer and lowest night-time temperatures to rise by up to 2-3 degrees in winter.• Milder winters will, on average, reduce the cold-related mortality rates among the elderly and frail but this may be offset by increases due to heat stress during summer.
• Winters are expected to become wetter with increases of up to 14% in precipitation under the high emission scenarios by mid-century; summers will become drier (up to 20% reduction in precipitation under the high emission scenarios).• The frequency of heavy precipitation events during winter shows notable increases of up to 20%.• Changes in precipitation are likely to have significant impacts on river catchment hydrology.• The models predict an overall increase (0 to 8%) in the energy content of the wind for the future winter months and a decrease (4-14%) during the summer months.- Met Éireann, Ireland's Climate: The Road Ahead, p7

In this "best-case" scenario, Ireland seems likely to escape the worst extremes of Climate Change, and experts both national and international have labeled Ireland a 'lifeboat" nation, with a moral duty to aid those peoples whose own homelands are destroyed, to take in climate refugees fleeing rising sea levels, drought and extreme weather events.

However given the current political and social climate here it is virtually impossible to imagine Ireland opening up its arms to the wider world beyond. Today's bigoted taxi-driver rant is tomorrow's There-Is-No-Alternative government policy. It is not hard to imagine Direct Provision as the first pre-emptive shots in the coming climate wars, a precursor of Trump-like walls and Spike Island Lampedusas. The Ireland of a hundred thousand welcomes, wrapped up in razor-wire shamrock bouquets.

One thing for sure though, regardless of what happens, we'll still be complaining about the rain.

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23 August 2015

A roar of burning. We didn't move.

James Earley's piece dominates the Tivoli car park after this year's All City Jam.
Tivoli Car Park, Dublin, 30th July, 2015
Amongst other things on my table at the moment sits a copy of China Miéville's recent collection of short stories Three Moments of an Explosion, wherein there lies a tale of a burning stag running loose through a London estate. In uncharacteristically clipped prose he describes the scene as the creature manifests in the urban night:
"Firelight flared. There was a roar of burning. A stag walked out of the dark.
It shone. Its antlers were on fire.
The stag was huge. It regarded us without fear. The antlers were like the branches of a great tree. They rushed with flame. They sent up oily smoke, lit the cars and the lots and the pedestrians. The antlers spat.
The stag swung its brawny neck. It walked toward us with forest calm. It paused and lowered its head and lapped at a gutter.
We didn't move"
- Chine Miéville, Estate in Three Moments of an Explosion, p288
When I read Miéville, particularly his dark urban writings, I see street art. He writes in spray paint and stencils. The city is his canvas. He communicates through the alleys and walls, the grime and the refuse and the lead-stained flotsam and jetsam of half-populated streets.

In The City and the City he writes of two towns that physically occupy the same space, overlapping and cross-hatching yet with the population of each rigorously ignoring all evidence of the other. My life these last two years has been this cross-hatched streetscape, the damp grey concrete and pox-scarred potholed streets of Dublin lying buried beneath the heat-scorched petrol-fumed ring-roads and orbitals of London, impossible to tell where the angry belching thunder of hurtling crimson-red buses end and the piss-soaked bottle-smashed stains of a Friday night begin.

I live in both in parallel and am at home in neither.

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30 April 2015

Equality Street

Equality, two for fifty. Get yer Equality here. Last of the Equality, now.
Equality Pop-up, Stephen's Green Shopping Centre, Dublin, 30th April, 2015
There is a new shop in the Stephen's Green Shopping Centre selling equality, and not just any old equality, but the finest quality equality.  I know the Stephen's Green Centre is more synonymous with, as the Trinity College strategic review would put it, "value brands", but this equality shop really is selling the good stuff, strictly top-shelf.

I dropped in today and had a good imaginary chat with the very friendly Equality-monger, and in my head that chat went a little like this:

Equality-Monger: "Good day sir, could I interest you in some of my finest quality equality?"

Unkie Dave: "Why thank you, but as a straight white middle-class male I believe I already have all the equality. All of it."

Equality-Monger: "Of course sir, right you are. Then might sir care to purchase some equality for a neighbour, a friend perhaps?"

Unkie Dave: "Ah, but if your equality can only be enjoyed by those who can afford it, how then can it be genuine equality?"

Equality-Monger: "Look, do you want a badge or not?"

And so purchase a badge I did.

While that conversation may have been entirely imaginary, the Equality pop-up isn't. It exists, of course, to highlight the upcoming Marriage Equality Referendum on May 22nd, where the good citizens of this blessed land will be asked to amend the Constitution with the wording, "Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex", or after much too-ing and fro-ing, the Irish equivalent  “Féadfaidh beirt, gan beann ar a ngnéas, conradh pósta a dhéanamh de réir dlí.”, revised after the original may or may not have allowed Gaelic speakers to marry their tractors.

This puts me in the uncomfortable position of, for once, advocating a Yes vote in a Referendum. I'm not sure if I even know how to tick the box beside the Y-word. Muscle memory may yet defeat me. The irony of my position is that I am actually vehemently against the State sanctioning of private relationships between people - I believe the State should have no role in legitimizing a personal relationship, what two (or more) people want to do with each other is their business, and no-one else's, and the attempted control of people's relationships and private lives by the State through legislation and a preferential tax code is a huge bugbear of mine.

However the issue of State sanctioning of private relationships is of secondary importance in this Referendum, for the core issue is one of Equality. If one part of the citizenry enjoys certain rights enshrined in the Constitution, then all citizens should enjoy those rights. It doesn't matter if it is marriage, voting or hot air ballooning (which may not be in the current Constitution, but I'm pretty sure it was in the 1922 Free State one), either everyone is equal or no-one is equal.

Watching the No Campaign these last few weeks, it is obvious that this idea of equality for all, or none, is anathema to them. The whole basis of their argument is that by giving someone else rights that they currently enjoy exclusively, it somehow diminishes those rights, that rights are only something worthwhile as long as other people don't have them. Rights are like buying a Range Rover, only fun if you can drive it around in front of all the proles and rub their noses in it. No doubt the Iona version of Cribs starts off with someone on Aislebury Road opening the door shouting, "Look at my marriage, be-atches, yo, check out the rims!", or something similar.

Rather quickly the No Campaign realised that this Rich-Kids-Of-Instagram approach wasn't going to win them too many votes, so they reached into their back pocket and pulled out their well-worn trump card, "Oh won't somebody please think of the children?", and posters appeared throughout the land with a depth and breadth and speed almost certainly unconnected to the current near-historically low exchange rate of the Dollar-to-Euro, warning voters that Same-Sex marriage will lead to all manner of horrors as an avalanche of baby factories emerge to cope with the market-driven demand for progeny from the biologically-homogenous hordes with disposable income that the redefinition of marriage will open the floodgates too

"Children deserve a Mother and a Father" say the posters, despite evidence that suggests the exact opposite. A recent study suggests that in fact children of same-sex couples enjoy more quality time with their parents than those of different sex couples, mainly because heterosexual dads are pretty terrible at being parents. The study concludes: 
"our study finds that women and men in same-sex relationships and women in different-sex relationships do not differ in the amount of time they spend in child-focused activities (about 100 minutes a day). We did find one difference, however, as men in different-sex relationships spend only half as much child-focused time as the other three types of parents. Averaging across mothers and fathers, we determined that children with same-sex parents received an hour more of child-focused parent time a day (3.5 hours) than children in different-sex families (2.5 hours)."
So if the No Campaign were genuinely thinking of the children, their posters should read "a child deserves two dads, two mums, or just a single very hard working mum". 

That last bit certainly worked for me, by the way.

The other problem with the No Campaign (aside from basing their entire poster strategy on The Lego Movie Batman song) is that their position stems from belief, from the argument that their beliefs should be held in higher regard than actual rights. Their position is based on their Christian faith and that to grant someone the same human rights as they have goes against their Christian faith, which is an attack on their own rights as Christians. I would argue that everyone has the right to believe whatever they want, but those beliefs are a consequence of that right, not the right itself. Beliefs do not equal rights, they are subordinate and subservient too them. You may argue that your right to believe something is equal to my right to marry (which I'm not sure I would agree with), but the product of your belief is certainly not equal to my right to marry.

There's an interesting podcast of a recent lecture by Kimberley Brownlee on the nature of civil disobedience, where she highlights how the State is often more forgiving of conscientious objectors who refuse to carry out individual acts on the basis of their own religious beliefs than those who take to the streets and actively resist what they consider to be unjust laws from a more secular and rights-based standpoint. The religious objector says a law goes against their beliefs, the secularist says the law is wrong in absolute terms. The State will more readily accept an objector's "moral right" to passively resist when it stems from religious conviction than when a secularist resists against an unjust law, mainly because the religious objector isn't seeking to challenge the State's blanket authority, merely to force the State to excuse that individual from its authority for that issue alone on the grounds of their belief. The secularist is challenging the State's authority on a universal level, not a personal one, and that is where the danger lies for the State.

This is why the Government has been happy to put the issue of marriage equality to the people, to deal with it via referendum and not legislation. A referendum allows the the traditional conservative Catholic voter base of Fine Gael to act against marriage equality on the basis of their personal belief without challenging the authority of the Party and the Government when they vote against it. Their actions become moral resistance and not civil disobedience, and well worth contrasting with the way the Establishment frames the actions and voices of water protesters. Through the mechanism of the Referendum the Government and its State broadcaster hold sacrosanct the concept of equal time (to the second) being given to those who oppose the Government's own position on religiously held grounds, while outside the fig-leaf of Referendum mechanics, those who oppose the Government on civil grounds are labeled "extremists" and tactics for dealing with them are the subject of police job interviews.

Thus while I have many friends in same-sex relationships that are married, not married, have children and don't have children, voting Yes for me is not just about them and their happiness (though that is a significant part), it's about the wider issue of what sort of a society do I want to live in. Do I want to live in one that treats all its citizens equally, or one that continues to enshrine discrimination in its Constitution? The Marriage Equality Referendum won't fix all of our ills, the treatment of women within the Constitution in general and the 8th Amendment in particular are two pretty egregious examples still to be resolved, but it's a pretty good way-station on the road to a truly just society.

I'm Unkie Dave. I'm a white heterosexual middle-class man with all the equality, who doesn't even agree with State-sanctioned marriage, and I'm still voting Yes.

What's your excuse?

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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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