Archive for September, 2006

To The Manners Born

The Swearing Lady has put together a rather amusing guide to being Irish. (Don’t click on the link, mother, it’s full of dirty words)

I have a few of my own humble suggestions, restricted to the area of manners and everyday protocol, as this can be puzzling to visitors:

1. When walking down a footpath, make sure you zig-zag as much as possible so oncoming pedestrians are kept guessing until the last second;

2. If you see someone you know while out walking, but you don’t know them well enough to stop and hold a conversation beyond meaningless platitudes (“Out for a walk, what?”), feign distraction by suddenly espying a winged unicorn flying at 10,000 feet. Alternatively, feign an absence automatism.

3. If driving, accelerate if you see any pedestrians pondering whether or not to cross the street (you are assisting them in making their decision);

4. If you are in the unhappy predicament of standing a queue in a supermarket (an unfortunate relic of British rule), and the cashier opens another till, assume that the person in front of you in your queue is more than happy to continue waiting there, then dart across to the other till like a defrocked cardinal. Once safely established at the other till, if others look on in mild indignation, become engrossed by how much chewing gum wrapper design has changed down the decades;

5. Whilst the custom of saying hello to neighbours -a relic of pre-modern society- is still observed, there is no need to pester foreign-looking people with this;

6. Be very sensitive to the needs of pregnant women and old people on public transport. You may think it polite to give them your seat, but bear in mind that they might have trouble getting up again, and you cannot rely on others to help them up once you get off. Do not acknowledge their existence in any way. They will only get embarrassed.

7. Be very sensitive to passengers descending from trains and buses. Do not acknowledge their existence in any way. They will only get embarrassed. It is customary to block their path, thus preventing them from falling and breaking their neck;

8. On the street, when people say ‘sorry’, as they very often do, there is no need to say ‘I forgive you’ in response.

Petrol Persuasions

A few hundred yards north of the border on the main Dundalk – Newry road, there’s a filling station that advertises itself with a sign on the approach thus:

Fill up at [I can’t remember the name]
Northern Prices!

Given that the price of petrol has been much lower in the Republic for a very long time now, either it is a very old sign, or this is some sort of pitch to the gullible and ignorant market and the unsuspecting-tourist-in-a-hired-car market.

Let’s say it’s the latter. If you asked the owner about the sign, he might claim that the Northern Prices! actually refer to the other items in the shop, of which, if you buy enough, instead of buying them and filling up in a southern petrol station, you could make the visit to the Northern petrol station worthwhile.

These items would include neither petrol nor cigarettes, but it is quite possible that, if you buy enough Lion bars and those blue drinks that look like the stuff they used to use in sanitary towel adverts, your visit to the northern petrol station will indeed be less expensive than a visit to its southern counterpart.

Of course, no-one is such a voracious consumer of Lion bars and blue drinks that they might be inclined to fill up their car there for this reason.

We can conclude, then, that the sign is a piece of trick advertising. The trick consists in making appealing suggestions that, in order to work, rely on a person’s ignorance rather than his knowledge. So, the person who knows nothing about the state of relative petrol prices sees the sign and, if he were to decide to pull in, would follow thought processes that could be described as follows:

Scenario 1:

1) Hey! northern prices! Fantastic. I’m gonna get me a bargain.


Scenario 2:

1) This place is advertising northern prices;
2) I know nothing about petrol prices, but I guess that if they’re advertising northern prices, it’s because they are lower;
3) Hang on a second: aren’t petrol prices lower in the republic?
4) Why am I such a moron that I can’t be sure about petrol prices? Isn’t it obvious that northern prices must be lower?
5) There’s no way someone would advertise northern prices unless they were lower than southern prices. And I’m an idiot for thinking otherwise.
6) I’m going in.

I would like to think that not many people would succumb to either scenario outlined above, but under certain conditions – heavy traffic, a couple of hours driving – it might not require much for plenty of people to pull in.

My concern here is not the practices of fuel traders in the border area. If this method works, I don’t see how it’s any worse than the advert that promises automatic virility on the purchase of a razor.

What interests me is how we have the potential to make choices based not on the amount of knowledge we have at our disposal, but rather, based on our own ignorance, and in particular, on the knowledge that we are ignorant, something which can be the source of shame or inadequacy. The person in the second scenario -I hope the scenario is sufficiently realistic- chooses to pull over because it means he can find release from his shame and uncertainty. He abandons doubt and submits to the message.

I’m not racist, but you have no right to be here

From Slugger, the Tele has another story about racist abuse in Northern Ireland:

“One of the most frightening incidents was outside a local chip shop. A girl cycled right up to us and started shouting, ‘niggers’. She blocked us in with her bike and would not let us past. I was in bits. I had to phone my father to get him to come and pick us up. Even though I was with them it did not stop the abuse.”

Last week I was looking at one of the local papers in Armagh. The front page story reported on the aftermath of this one, which details how a woman fled the town with her baby after receiving racist threats.

The angle of the story is a curious one: local residents were offended that they had been cast as racist.

Apparently the police did not class the incident as ‘racially motivated’, but they had confirmed that a number of ‘racial statements’ had been made at the time. So, whilst the offending parties may have wanted the woman to get the hell out of her home, the fact that they called her a [add your own racial epithet here] had nothing to do with them wanting her to leave.


I’m rather low on inspiration these days, so I figured I’d just tell a story about a rather gross thing that happened to me once.

For a few months I lived as a lodger in an apartment with a woman in her sixties and her son in his twenties. There was a bit of a Bates Motel vibe going on. Indeed, one night I awoke wondering if I had actually ever seen the two of them in the same place.

As a generally unobtrusive tenant, I got on well with both of them, but my rent terms were pretty restrictive (no use of the kitchen cooking equipment bar the microwave; no use of the washing machine without paying), a fact which tended to stick in the craw somewhat, although I figured I could tough it out for the duration.

Since I was unable to do any cooking, I tended to do a lot of eating out. One day I came back from dinner and found that the son -whom I had not seen for a day or so- had taken to his bed, something the normally talkative mother didn’t wish to elaborate on.

The next day at lunchtime, when I returned to the apartment from work, I was sitting at the kitchen table when the son came in wearing pyjamas, walking gingerly. His mother lifted a saucepan and filled it with hot water and some salt, and handed it to him. I watched him take it out of the room into the bathroom, which was just beside the kitchen. Perhaps naturally enough, I was rather curious.

Later on, I asked him if he was feeling all right. He said, yeah, he was just tired because he had to go into hospital for a minor procedure. I asked him what the story was with the saucepan and the hot salty water.

He said, well, I might as well tell you. I got circumcised yesterday and just need to keep everything clean.

In that moment I was never more thankful for being ripped off on rent in my life.

Behead Myself With Wonder

This whole civilisational clash thing is all getting a bit highbrow, innit? First you had the cartoons. Then you had the Pope. Now it’s Mozart’s Idomeneo. A work with which I am intimately familiar, naturellement.

Assuming the threats were real, how did the threateners find out? Are they opera buffs?

And take your friggin’ Alhambra with you….

I laughed quite a lot at this interview in English given by Aznar a few months back. It’s not as if the man were ever intelligent, or had his own ideas about anything, but his failure to rhyme off bits from the Bush Administration War on Terror phrasebook even half convincingly left me wondering how such an apparently hapless and ignorant moron could have managed to win two elections. And you’d think he’d have undergone some intensive English tuition to help with all those lucrative after-dinner speeches and think-tank addresses that awaited him after he left office. Then again, maybe he did.

Despite his ramblingly incoherent unoriginality, he’d still be far better off sticking with other people’s ideas, if his latest declarations at the Hudson Institute are anything to go by. He said:

‘A load of people throughout the world are demanding that the Pope apologise for his speech, but no Muslim has apologised to me for occupying Spain during 8 centuries.’

(My translation from the Spanish in El Pais. He gave the speech in English, so I’ve probably done him a favour here.)

Leaving aside a couple of minor points- that the Muslim ‘occupation’ of Spain ended some 461 years before José María Aznar was born; that it might have been rather unreasonable even back in 1492 to ask a Muslim fleeing Spain to apologise for 800 years of ‘occupation’; that after 800 years, Spain reverted to the same old country it always had been- it is rather interesting to see how he sees apologies made by the Pope and apologies made to him as attaining a comparable level of significance.

I be short of material at the weekends

Further to Gerry’s inquiries into words that only Irish people use, I wish to add my own: the verb to be.

In standard English, this verb is irregular:

I am

You are

He is

She is etc.

In Irish English, the irregular version of the verb is also used, in exactly the same situations as in standard English, but there is also a regular version of the verb, that is, it follows the same rules as verbs such as play, jump, kick, fart:

I be

You be

He bes

She bes etc.

The regular version of the verb is used specifically to denote an action performed habitually:

I be out drinking in the field every Tuesday night;

The midges be eating the scalp clean off you in summertime;

He bes at the golf (i.e. he is a keen golfer)

It doesn’t be used interchangeably with the irregular version.

I’m not quite sure of the origins of this. I know that in Irish you have a verb – bheith- which performs the same function, and this may well have been borrowed from there.

It bes quare and useful, though. I quite like it.

Flintstonian Idealism?

‘Talking to a correspondent of the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes to be shown on Sunday evening, General Musharraf claims that the warning was delivered to his own director of intelligence by the US Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Armitage. “The intelligence director told me that [Armitage] said, ‘Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age

Regeneration Redux

Ever bought a record and thought it was the greatest thing since Leatherass died, only to tire of it somewhat inexplicably, and then return to it a few months later to find that it was, in fact, shite?

This happened to me with the Magic Numbers’ album, the Strokes’ first album (I still like their second album though), the Vines’ first album, the Thrills’ first album (I didn’t bother with their second), and, to give an example from the far more distant past, Sleeps With Angels by Neil Young.

More rare, I think, is the album you gave a couple of listens and discarded because you thought it was totally dire, and then you returned to it to find that, in fact, it is rather good.

This has happened to me with The Divine Comedy’s Regeneration. I got an iPod for my birthday, and I’ve started about loading all my CDs on to it. I thought I had lost this particular CD, although I hadn’t exactly killed myself trying to find it. But I came across it this morning and have given it a few listens, and I now think I was very harsh in my initial assessment.

It has little of the pomp and circumstance or louche personae of any of his other albums, and since that’s one of the things you might find most alluring about, say, Casanova or Victory for the Comic Muse, it could be this absence that makes it difficult to get into. This work is a lot more understated and restrained in production and lyrics, yet after a few listens this becomes part of its appeal.

Hegemony or Non-survival

Even by Hugo Chávez’s standards, this is funny:

‘But compared with Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mr. Chávez was just more colorful. He brandished a copy of Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance” and recommended it to members of the General Assembly to read. Later, he told a news conference that one of his greatest regrets was not getting to meet Mr. Chomsky before he died. (Mr. Chomsky, 77, is still alive.) ‘

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September 2006