Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Witches' Cauldron: Live Football on Saturday

Last Friday evening I was suddenly offered a ticket for a game in the top German football league, the Bundesliga, on the following day. The really attractive thing about it was that it was a game between Schalke 04 and Bayer Leverkusen.
I have been a fan of Leverkusen – in a rather desultory fashion – for years. It was, unusually for such fan decisions, a purely rational and empirical choice, based on two factors; firstly, the realisation that following football here in Germany would be more fun if I had a team which I supported and secondly, the purely pragmatic fact that Leverkusen was the Bundesliga team geographically nearest to me, less than half an hour down the Autobahn. So, as I had nothing planned for Saturday afternoon, I immediately accepted the offer and arranged to travel with my friends, Peter and Tim (both Schalke fans), to the game.
There was, as is usually the case in such things, a small snag. The game was in the Veltins arena in Gelsenkirchen, the home stadium of Schalke in the heart of the Ruhr area. More, the tickets were for the standing area on the Nordkurve (North Curve), the stand behind one of the goals which is the spiritual heartland of the most dedicated Schalke fans (comparable to the Stretford End in Manchester’s Old Trafford, or the Kop in Liverpool’s Anfield). And dedicated Schalke fans are the kind of people the etymologists had in mind when they invented the word “fan” – short for “fanatic.”
Schalke 04 is one of Germany’s oldest traditional clubs and, despite their failure to win major honours in recent years, the second biggest club in the country after Bayern Munich. Much of this tradition is founded on that staple of really good football clubs, a strong working-class ethos, based – in Schalke’s case – on the thousands of miners who spent their life digging coal out of the surrounding pits (most of which have now been closed). They have a first-class modern stadium, opened in 2001, which accommodates nearly 62,000 and has a roof which can be closed if it rains.
After consultation with Peter and Tim (who attend games there frequently), we decided that it would not be wise for me to wear anything which might possibly identify me as a Leverkusen fan, indeed the two were adamant that I should best wear a Schalke scarf as protective camouflage, otherwise a longer stay in a local hospital to recover from “accidental” injuries endured in the course of the afternoon would be more than likely. I had my suspicions that the two of them were just availing of the wonderful chance to wind me up and had to put up with all kinds of inevitable patronising comments about my “conversion” to faith in Schalke. However, arriving at the stadium, I realised that they had not been exaggerating.
The Nordkurve was a sea of royal blue, inhabited exclusively by hard-core Schalke fans. Clinging to my protective blue and white scarf and grinning nervously, I accompanied my friends to good positions right behind the goal. The atmosphere was electric; a feeling of united fandom, an immediate sensation of shared familiarity and friendliness, the deep binds of a dearly-held common cause, a shared, unquestioned and unquestionable tradition. The familiar Du rather than the usual formal Sie form of address was obligatory, since we were all, by definition, friends and blood-brothers and sisters here, united against a common foe. In this case, Leverkusen – my club. I tried to look as friendly and harmless as possible and resolved to keep my actual feelings during the game to myself.
The season has not been going well for Schalke; six points from nine games and the third last position in the table, the necessity of a victory was an extra source of pressure on their fans and the chanting and singing in the sold-out stadium had, for this reason, an extra edge. There are many different fan songs in Schalke and a true fan knows them all. And sings them too. Proud and loud. There were also the other usual small excitements of a good live atmosphere; a few minor scuffles between fans and a group of police moving through a fan block near us to the accompaniment of jeers, whistles and shouts of “wankers” and “pigs”, a dispute between a young man standing near me and two members of the private firm paid to take care of security which resulted in him being energetically escorted to the exit.
It wasn’t the best football game I’ve ever seen, but it was ok. Leverkusen, missing a few regular players through injury, seemed relaxed but then they could well be; in fifth place before the game began, they would be satisfied with taking a point away from home and could wait to take their chances. Schalke, looking for their first home win this season needed a victory a lot more but somehow this didn’t seem to have got through to the players. The tension on the Nordkurve rose, the fans chanting louder, jumping up and down in excitement. This had rather unfortunate consequences; a group behind us had consumed rather a lot of alcohol and began jumping up and down too, forgetting in the process that they still had plastic glasses full of beer in their hands. I suddenly realised that the first thing I’d have to do when I got home would be to put my beer-soaked jacket and jeans in the laundry. But I wasn’t complaining; like a Mossad undercover agent in an Al Kaida camp, I was just happy I’d decided not to wear my yarmulke.
Then after 65 minutes it finally happened. The Leverkusen half-forward, Sidney Sam, broke through the Schalke defence, took the ball straight towards the Schalke goal and … Three square metres of a frantically waving blue flag right in front of me blocked my view of the shot but I clearly saw the ball hit the back of the net.
“Goooaaalll!,” I cried joyfully …
The two meter tall, 120 kilo, blue-clad figure standing in front of me turned and looked at me suspiciously. I struggled to control my spontaneous joy, making myself look as neutral as possible and he turned slowly back again, not sure (fortunately for me) in the tumult whether he had really heard what he thought he had heard.
I spent the rest of the game fighting to suppress a large satisfied grin which continuously threatened to break out on my face. The desperation deepened and the deprecations concerning the parentage and private sexual practices of the Leverkusen players and fans and, particularly, the referee coming from the Nordkurve grew fiercer. It didn’t help, the game ended with a win for the guests, Leverkusen moved up to third place in the table, Schalke down to second last.
On the way home I tried to cheer my friends up by pointing out that of the three of us in the car one at least was happy. They responded by speculating about how I’d find my way home if they set me out on my own on the Autobahn. I reflected that I wouldn’t mind going back to the Nordkurve sometime to see another game. But, preferably, not against Leverkusen – I don’t know if my nerves could take that kind of immersion in the witches’ cauldron again. Perhaps against Bayern Munich; then I could honestly wave a blue flag and curse the opponents with the others – and maybe even rejoice in being there when die Lederhosen got their asses well and truly kicked. There’s always hope.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Advertising blogs: Entrecard

So, here I am again, two posts in twenty four hours and that is unusual. There is of course a reason for this; bear with me and I’ll try to explain.

Blogging is, when you come right down to it, an instrument of self-promotion. You have something to say, you want to say it to as many people as possible and so you put it on the web – otherwise it would be enough for you to tell it to your nearest and dearest. Part of it is, therefore, a version of the opera singer’s basic morning exercise; me-me-me-me-me-me-meeee! The problem is that there are over a hundred million bloggers out there in cyberspace, all singing a variation of the same exercise, a real cacophony for every potential listener (reader) surfing around the marvellous Vanity Fair which is the internet. So, how do you manage to stand out from all the others, what do you do to ensure that others – as many as possible – find their way to your blog, after you’ve told your family and friends about it?

There are all kinds of tips available on-line about increasing the number of hits your blog gets. Some of them are easy to do, some are complicated and time-consuming. It all depends, I suppose, how important it is to you and how much time and effort you want to put into it – and where you want to put that time and effort.

I started this project last February basically for myself; for fun, as a hobby (I really hate that word, it sounds so trivial for a description of something most of us invest so much of ourselves in, but that’s language for you!). I wanted to write and follow a feeling that I could do so in a fashion that readers would find interesting, informative and, perhaps even, good. And, so far, the feedback has been fairly positive and the number of hits on the site pleasantly satisfactory. So let me express, before I continue with this, a big thank-you to all of you who take the trouble to read what I write, particularly to those who keep coming back to read the new essays I post.

But nothing in life remains static, if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backwards, etc., etc., so I’ve been thinking recently about what I could do to increase the visibility of my blog, to increase my volume and melodiousness, if you will, in that huge choir of opera singers doing their me-me-me exercises. Or, put another way, my baby has grown up a little bit and I thought it was time for it to take a few more steps out into the virtual world.

I’d already done the obvious things like telling my friends, putting my URL on my various on-line profiles and sharing links to my posts on Facebook. But I felt that the time had come to do a little more and, having a few days holidays left before going back to work, started looking around for the best ways to do this. One of the things I came across was something called Entrecard.

If you are attentive, you will notice to the right of the text (actually, if I’ve got the length of the text here right, you should be near it now), under the list of “Followers” a new widget, a box with the bottom in black-and-gold and an “E” followed by the word “Drop”. Above this will be an image of some sort, which is actually a link to another blog. Do, by all means, click on it – after you’ve finished reading this, of course – and go and read it. For Entrecard is an advertising forum for bloggers, where they get the chance to publicise each other on their web-sites.

The whole thing is a wee bit complicated; if you want to know exactly how it works, I suggest you go to the following link: . And there you will also find the reason why I am putting up a second post within 24 hours, because, if I’ve done this right, then I’ll get five thousand EC credits for doing so which will enable me to do quite a bit to publicise this blog. (Unfortunately, there’s a deadline for all this which runs out tonight so I have to do it now.) That’s the theory anyway, how well it works is something we’ll just have to see.

It does mean giving up a tiny corner of control over my site, although, if I’ve understood Entrecard properly, I will have approval and a right to rejection of those bloggers advertising on my site, so I can promise you won’t be linked to pages plugging Scientology, or Sarah Palin, or Japanese porn. Indeed, Just Plain Tired …, the guy who’s there at the moment (, is well worth a look – and that’s an unsolicited recommendation!

In this context, I want to emphasise that this blog is basically a labour of love, and I plan to continue it as a platform to publish stuff; I hope to spend most of the time available writing for it and not playing with it. Unlike many others, I’m not dependent on it to make a living so I don’t have to plaster it with ads. I’m not ruling out the possibility that the odd advertisement may appear here sometime in the future – I may be a pinko liberal with strong socialist tendencies, but this doesn’t mean that I hate the chance of making a little extra cash. But personally, sites that are filled up with commercial links and flashing pictures annoy me and so I would always ensure that such additions are tasteful, understated and don’t take from the basic character of the blog. So don’t worry, you won’t be confronted with an extra Welcome portal with the announcement, “Attempted Essays is proudly sponsored by Runalot, the laxative that keeps you going, day and night!”

Oh yes, and I won’t do Twitter, I don’t like it and am not interested in it.

(And finally, I should mention Molly, on whose site I first came across Entrecard. Thank you, Molly, your posts are always worth reading!)

Tuesday, 26 October 2010


The Airbus 320 corrected course for its final approach on a beautifully clear morning, dipping first to the left then to the right, I could see the whole sweep of the eastern Irish coast, from Wicklow head to the south to the peaks of the Mountains of Mourne in the north. In the middle was the great spread of Dublin Bay, bracketed by Dun Laoghaire and the Hill of Howth, the approaches to the port sticking out like the tines of a tuning-fork in the middle, dominated by the twin chimneys of the Pigeon House power station.

As the plane shed altitude over Howth Head, two things struck me, as they always do when I fly into Dublin; firstly, how green everything is and secondly, how much Dublin sprawls. The green is just the actual confirmation of the original Irish cliché, a result of the island’s mild, moist climate; the sprawl is due to the deep Irish preference for everyone owning their own house, so that rather than the continental European preference for large accommodation units, Irish towns and cities basically consist of housing estates with mostly semi-detached houses, none more than two storeys high. But the generous area north of the Dublin/Wicklow Mountains leaves space enough for a Greater Dublin population of more than 1.5 million, about a third of all residents of the Republic.

I personally think that the approach to Dublin airport is the most beautiful I know, but this I suspect has much to do with my deep love for the city. I only lived there for six years, from the age of eighteen to twenty four, but even now, more than a quarter of a century after I left, I still regard it more as home than anywhere else I have lived and it’s always something special to come back there.

The city and the whole life there have changed enormously, of course. Most of my friends in Ireland remember the early eighties as a time of terrible gloom and hopelessness. There’s a lot of truth in this – the country was in recession, there was little money around and Ireland’s biggest export was (as it had often been before) its young people – leaving a country with nothing to offer them to make their fortunes around the world. Conservative, church-inspired views still dominated social issues; to buy a condom you had to go to a pharmacist and prove you were married, right-wing Catholic groups bullied the country into accepting a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion and a first attempt to legalise divorce failed. But this was only half the story.

Even within the Church – an area in which I was particularly involved at the time – there were strong anti-establishment currents, the most obvious being an increasing interest in liberation theology and social justice issues, at home and worldwide, which reached a provisional peak in the active involvement of many church groups in the massive protests surrounding Ronald Reagan’s visit to Dublin in 1984. There was a vibrant local music scene in Dublin, from a young U2 to the great trad-rock group, Moving Hearts, and Ireland was becoming an increasingly popular part of the international rock touring circuit; as well as local greats like Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy during those years, I saw Simon and Garfunkel and the Stones in 1982, and, during that period, Clapton and Dave Gilmour and others as well. There was a feeling that, despite the doom and gloom, there was incredible vibrancy humming under the surface, pushing to break out.

Most of it was probably that I was young, for when we are young we spend our energy with wild and passionate profligacy, secure, despite all the uncertainty and anguish of our newly discovered potency, that we are invulnerable. First love, first sex, first high, first everything, passion and longing and idealism savouring everything with an intensity that keeps you awake till dawn, drunk on joy and friendships and ideas and possibilities, dancing in the moonlight. And for me, mixed up inextricably in all this, Dublin, dear dirty Dublin, Strumpet City, a Viking-Irish-English melange of a town over a thousand years old which has seen everything; love and hatred, betrayal and heroism, sanctity and corruption, poverty and prosperity, birth and suffering and murder and ecstasy and death in every generation and survived them all.

But that joy and passion of youth is not unalloyed – it is mixed with uncertainty and insecurity and can be easily hurt and disappointed. In the middle of the eighties, in a first flowering of disillusionment, I left and a few years later that vibrancy which I had always sensed broke out in a flowering of creativity and optimism, shared by the whole country. The nineties were the early Tiger years when there was still something real behind the hype; the Mary Robinson presidency, the liberation from the heavy deadening hand of religious and nationalist tradition, imagination and enterprise bringing sweeping, heady growth, change and prosperity, Ireland finally taking a confident place among the nations of the earth. I remember coming back to visit during that period and being surprised and delighted at what was happening. Finally, I thought, at last …!

And then the century turned, the millennium came and went and optimism mutated to hubris, creativity became greed as the baby of public morality and essential groundedness and common sense was thrown out with the bathwater of dead tradition. A dangerous bubble was growing, being blown up by expectations, speculation and an atmosphere of invincibility. In the old dockland area of Dublin, glass temples of international finance were being raised and virtual money was being spun around the city, the country and the globe at increasingly dizzying speeds, accreting zeroes as it went. Dublin was a great place to visit during those years, there was an incredible buzz to the place and the town seemed thronged with happy hedonistic revellers, partying constantly under the cranes of the ubiquitous building developments. Like some other visitors, I wondered occasionally aloud about who was paying for it all and how, but everyone assumed that it was all the result of Irish talent and work. It was a tiger economy, like the Asian ones; but the Asians were building computers and making cars for export while the Irish were building houses for themselves and making money by borrowing it.

The result is well known and the pain is now only starting. I was out in Dublin last Wednesday night and took a bicycle tour of the new developments on the dockland area. Some are unfinished and probably never will be now, more are completed but empty. The restaurant (in the new Grand Canal Dock area) and the pub (the well-known traditional Mulligan’s in Poolbeg Street) we visited were both three quarters empty, something unthinkable three years ago.

But then a few days later, walking back to where my parents live on Saturday, shortly before midnight, there were many young people on the street, laughing and joking with each other, having fun. Alcohol was certainly fuelling some of it, but then it always did, didn’t it? Passing them, exchanging a short greeting, it struck me that nothing important had really changed much. For all that has happened since then, prosperity won and possibly lost, global networked connectivity and smartphones and twitter and family holidays in Florida (now perhaps a thing of the past), they could still be me, thirty years ago. You are only young once and you take your youth when and where you get it.

I got mine in Dublin. I loved it and, if I’m honest about it, that’s a large part of why I love Dublin too. I suspect I always will. Perhaps all the more so precisely because I don’t live there any more.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Luxury of Natural Beauty

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Inversnaid by Gerald Manley Hopkins is probably known to every Irishman or woman who has attended secondary school for the past forty years, for about this long, the poem seems to have been part of the syllabus for the Junior Certificate in English. I was reminded of it today when Hopkins came up in an internet discussion group I’m part of and it was with great pleasure that I found it online and read it again.

While reading it, the scenes in Stephen Frear’s The Queen, where Her Majesty, brilliantly played by Helen Mirren, drives off in her Land Rover from Balmoral Castle in a search for peace of mind in the Scottish highlands, came into my mind. Nearly a hundred years after Hopkins wrote the poem, there’s still plenty of wildness and wet left – and not just for the royal family either. Even in the Rhine-Ruhr area where I live most of the territory is green – forest, lakes, rivers, parks and fields – and this is a region with a population of around 10 million in an area about the size of County Cork in Ireland, or the State of Delaware in the USA. So have we got it right?

Looking at large areas of the so-called developed world one would be inclined to answer yes. We have learned from the past, have imposed higher standards for environmental safety and tolerance. Salmon are swimming up the Rhine again and spawning in many of its thousands of tributary rivers and streams, parks and lakes are being developed on the sites of former steel works and mines as our region moves into the so-called post-industrial phase. Even in the most built-up cities, we can jump into our cars and, in less than an hour, enjoy clean green nature somewhere nearby. Generally, even the heavy industry we have doesn’t stink and we ensure that they have to spend a lot of money to minimise their impact on the environment. Moreover we’ve started to realise the long-term consequences of our life-styles and are working on our carbon emission levels, investing in renewable energy, fuel-efficient cars and trucks, research into carbon sinks, etc.

And there is a large amount of short-sighted, self-righteous hypocrisy contained in our position in the developed west.

Let’s look at coal-mining. In countries like Germany and the United Kingdom it’s become history. This is not because the world doesn’t need coal any more or because the reserves have been mined out in Western Europe, but because it is no longer economic to exploit those reserves here. In many other countries, like Russia, the Ukraine and, especially China, they’re still digging the stuff out as fast as they can. So where’s the difference?

To some extent there is a minimal validity in the argument that in Western Europe, since the Industrial Revolution really got underway more than two hundred years ago, we’ve mined out all the coal that’s easy to get at so that it costs more to exploit the reserves that remain. But this is only a very small part of the reality. The basic fact is that coal-mining has become so expensive in the developed world because safety-standards have been continually raised – and enforced – in the past fifty years and because social developments led to mine workers being paid decently to do hard, dirty, dangerous work. An hour’s work for the few West European miners who are still around costs employers twenty euros or more. In Russia and the Ukraine it costs around a sixth of this, and a Chinese miner is lucky to earn a euro an hour. Furthermore, the ancillary costs for safety and environmentally sensitive production are much lower than those in Western Europe and the cost of producing energy with locally produced coal, even inefficiently, are also much lower because all sorts of expensive emission and pollution controls are not required. So there are lots of areas in the world where it is still economic to produce coal – as long as the workers are paid badly to work under dangerous conditions.

Let’s follow the production chain a little further. Two weeks ago, a dam at a toxic waste reservoir in Hungary broke and a million cubic metres of red sludge spilled over onto the surrounding area, killing at least nine people, contaminating at least 40 square kilometres of land and threatening to poison the whole Danube river downstream. The sludge was the by-product of an aluminium processing plant.

Western Europe uses a lot of aluminium but it’s no longer processed here. It’s a dirty, energy-intensive procedure which makes it very expensive if energy costs are high and stringent safety and environmental standards are enforced. Hungary, struggling to catch up with living standards in Western Europe and trying to remain competitive on the world market, offers cheaper energy, lower labour costs and less extensive safety regulations. And, should Hungary substantially change the rules relating to safety, the processing of aluminium becomes more expensive there and buyers on the global markets will buy elsewhere.

Beggars can’t be choosers. It’s a global jungle out there and the developed world is at the top of the food chain. One of the main reasons we in the West can increasingly look after our environment is because we can afford to. Having gone through our dirty phase, used it to reach a good standard of living for our societies and to achieve the position of global top-dog, we use that very position to profit from others who are farther down the prosperity scale. Having been the first to crawl out of the pit, we are now in the enviable position of paying others to dirty their hands and homes in a way we don’t have to any more. What’s more, it doesn’t even cost us that much because our demand controls the global markets and there are enough others farther down in the pit who will be quite happy with pittances; it’s better than the alternative – which is nothing at all.

This is one of the things which make global climate and CO2 emission discussions so intractable. It’s one thing for western nations to get all moral about global warming and the need to cap carbon waste production. From the position of the developing countries this seems more than a little disingenuous; having got to the top of the tree, the developed countries are saying that there’s not enough room there for everyone and if those farther down don’t become less greedy they’re going to bring the whole tree down. In the USA there are 700 cars for every 1000 people, in Western Europe around 500 for every thousand. Reliable figures for India and China are more difficult to find, but they are somewhere between 10 and 25 per thousand. Don’t they have just as much right to have a car as we do? But, if every second Indian and Chinese person drives a car, then the global climate will be in bad trouble.

Inversnaid, the stream and waterfall in the Scottish highlands which inspired Hopkins, is still there today and still as wonderful and wild as ever. It is not the prerogative of the Queen to visit and enjoy it – but, on the other hand, it is rather remote so the best way to get there is by car. It, like all the other natural (or re-natured) beauty spots in the developed world, remains the prerogative of an elite, those lucky enough to be born into the rich western societies. And it survives in all its beauty at least partly because other wild and beautiful areas of the world are being destroyed, so that its caretakers have the luxury to protect it.

I don’t know any easy solutions for all of this. I like my living standard here in the west, I like being able to jump in my car and in fifteen minutes being able to reach a number of streams nearly as beautiful – if not quite so spectacular – as Inversnaid. But I have the feeling that if we want to protect the millions of Inversnaids worldwide (and enable everyone to be able to enjoy them) we have to find different ways of doing things. And, in a world in which our global interdependence is becoming ever more deeper and complex, I suspect that we don’t have the luxury of going on as we have done and ignoring the questions – otherwise our whole lifestyles are going to fall down around our ears. My generation may be able to escape the worst of it, my children and grandchildren certainly won’t.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

John Lennon - overrated?

Last Saturday being John Lennon’s 70th birthday, I put up a link to “Imagine” on Facebook. A few hours later, Ian, a friend of mine in England (one of those virtual ones I referred to here recently, whom I haven’t yet met) added a one word comment – “Overrated.”

Overrated? I thought. Bloody too-clever-by-half, elitist English gobshite! How could John Lennon be overrated? That’s as unimaginable as … as … as a bishop abusing little children! And then, having overcome my shock at this expression of heresy most dire, I started to think about it. Has the world, have I overrated John Lennon, one of the few heroes I have had in life?

Ever since I became aware of modern pop and rock music, sometime around the age of ten, the Beatles were always right up there at the top. Even then, my feelings of admiration and awe for them was intensely mixed with one of deep regret that I had been born too late, discovered them too late, for they were already part of the past; they had broken up in acrimony and there seemed to be little concrete chance of a reunion, although you could always hope.

The quartet from Liverpool were all fab in their own way; Ringo was funny, George was a cool guitarist, Paul wrote great songs (although there were some niggling problems about Paul I’ll come back to directly) and John, well, John was in a league all of his own, somewhere near God (actually, in his own controversial words, more popular than Jesus). Witty, intelligent, idealistic, rebellious, irreverent – the combination was irresistible. Let the girls swoon over the sweet love-songs of the apple-cheeked Paul, John was the soul, the mind, the conscience of the Beatles, the one who, more than all the others, took the Fab Four out of the realm of simple pop singers and made them into something important, something significant for society at large.

Or so I saw it back in the early 70s, a few years after the break-up. Today, with more distance, more knowledge, more hindsight, I can see how much of this viewpoint was itself the product of legend, a projection of my own desires and wishes onto my hero, a simplification (at least) of a much more complex reality. But, of course, I was not alone in this simplification, it was one shared by millions of Beatles and Lennon fans worldwide.

The conventional story of the final Beatles years was pretty simple (if not always completely consistent), involving a distracted hero, a supporting actor – in turn striving desperately to save the group as well as occasionally succumbing to megalomania – and a villainess. John, of course, was the hero, Paul the supporting man and the villainess – well, that one’s easy; Yoko Ono was born for the role. If only that strange oriental had not seduced John, making him try to have her accepted as the fifth Beatle (forget for a moment that this role was already occupied by, variously, Brian Epstein and George Martin), the group would still be together, making marvellous music while the sun shone down from a diamond sky upon Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields.

The truth is somewhat different. In retrospect, I would suggest that the Beatles as a group had been slowly dying on the vine since they gave up performing live in 1966, the release of Sergeant Pepper, their masterpiece album and the death of their manager, Brain Epstein in 1967. They were all maturing and developing individually; musically and personally and the group was simply becoming too small for all of them. This is, above all, true of Lennon. Even prior to the advent of Yoko (who first turned up in 1968 during the recording of the White Album), he had, I believe, simply started to lose interest in the group, at least musically. He had entered into a period of personal development involving much confusion, including extensive use of drugs, among others LSD and heroin. He needed to find his own way, dealing with his own demons as he did so, and this way led beyond the Beatles and would have done anyway, even without Yoko.

All this leads me to a first hint about what made John Lennon artistically and musically important; there are few artists in the pop and rock area who have been able to use their talent so openly and honestly to portray their own inner struggles – Johnny Cash is an honourable exception who comes to mind – most not getting beyond lyrical descriptions of unhappy or terminated love-affairs (not that I would deny the intensity of significance of such events when we are involved with them). But songs such as Mother, which explores the fraught relationship between himself and his mother (“Mother, you had me, but I never had you …”) or Cold Turkey, which describes his withdrawal from heroin, have a quality of universality which goes beyond strict musical categories. His relationship with Yoko Ono, as much as it can get on one’s nerves, serves as an inspiration for many compositions and his song for his son Sean, Beautiful Boy, released on the Double Fantasy album a few months before his death, contains one of the greatest and wisest lines ever included in a pop-song; “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Then there’s the whole corpus of music which exists under the label, Lennon and McCartney. Every Beatle fan knows that, while all songs are credited to both of them, the ones Paul sings were written mainly by him, while John sings those songs on which he did most of the work. In the later Beatles years, when the atmosphere between the two was increasingly tense, their collaboration was, in most cases, minimal. But they still usually performed their ideas first before each other and there generally followed a phase of suggestions, corrections and amendments. Looking at the Beatles song catalogue, it is striking that the greatest popular hits, and most of the songs that could be described as having become part of the general world cultural musical heritage, like Yesterday, Hey Jude or Let It Be, are McCartney songs (in terms of their primary composition). Paul’s feeling for a catchy tune was always greater than John’s. Still, it was often Lennon’s acerbic wit which saved McCartney’s songs from maudlin sentimentality. In this context, I’m reminded that the working title for Yesterday before the lyrics were written was “Scrambled Eggs” – a real Lennonism, if ever there was one – and I can still break up in laughter at the thought of McCartney, his big, drooping eyes dripping sincerity, hunched over the piano, soulfully singing, “I said something wrong, now I long for scrambled eggs … I believe in scrambled eggs.” And if they had still been collaborating in 1977, I am convinced that a few clever Lennon amendments would have saved McCartney’s biggest selling hit, Mull of Kintyre, from its tendency to drive diabetics into sugar shock.

Still, despite all the caveats and reservations, the Lennon/McCartney catalogue has to be considered as a whole as the combined work of both composers. It is interesting that even in the phases where the relationship between both was at its most acrimonious – apart from a few niggling comments – neither of them ever seriously questioned the collaborative attestation of their music. And, following the Beatles break-up, Lennon himself produced some fine songs like Jealous Guy, Working Class Hero, Watching the Wheels and, of course, the sublime Imagine.

But, in the end, the ultimate reason why it is impossible to regard Lennon as “overrated” is his symbolic role as a public cultural avatar for the second half of the 20th Century, a role finally set in stone by his assassination on December 8, 1980. John Lennon, his music, his utterances and his life became the incarnation of so many of the themes, memes and concerns of the baby-boomer generation that he became a cultural receptacle, a popular icon. He shares this role, along with the Beatles in general, only with Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan in the musical sense, and in terms of the whole range of broader cultural themes, particularly many of those which occupied the public consciousness in the 60s and 70s – drugs, war and (especially) peace, protest, rebellion, relationships, feminism and the roles of women and men, etc. – he stands above all the others. If he had not died, ironically, it would probably have been different. Today he’d be just another filthy rich, ageing pop/rock superstar like McCartney, Phil Collins, Mick Jagger and all the others. Certainly, he would probably have added considerably to his musical portfolio and it is slightly interesting to speculate about how he would have reacted to many particular events and issues – could Bob Geldof have talked him into a Beatles reunion for Live Aid in 1985 (possible), would he have given his name for commercial sponsorship and advertising as Pink Floyd and the Stones, among others, did in the 90s (unlikely), would he have split with Yoko or had an affair with Madonna (unknowable), etc? It remains speculation, because John died, or rather was killed in the quintessential way so typical for his adopted homeland, the USA, in treating its anointed heroes, particularly those of the 60s, and so achieved sainthood in a moment, along with King and the Kennedy brothers, or Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and various other rock and roll heroes.

No, Ian, neither John Lennon, nor the Beatles, are overrated. Musically he and the others remain giants, even if others, many others, could sing and play their instruments better. But above all, John Lennon cannot be overrated because he was made into a legend, a symbol for the hopes and dreams – for the very identity – of a whole generation. A symbol who achieved immutable immortality by dying young and thus taking himself beyond the inevitable relativising reality which would have come with time and age. Still, I’m thankful to you for raising the question, for forcing me to think about my own unquestioned idols – even if I choose to leave this one on his pedestal. And I take the gobshite back. J

Friday, 8 October 2010

Real Virtuality

Time to feed the blog again.

And, as I realised before sitting down to this, for the fiftieth time. A half century. If I were a cricket player, like my friend Neil (who I hope is reading this) used to be in his younger days, this would be quite a respectable total. Neil tells great stories of long ago cricket games (and rugby league games as well), of the ineffable joy of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against all odds and can, when he waxes lyrical, even enthral an Irishman like me, whose general prejudiced view of cricket involves daft, upper-class Englishmen spending most of several days standing around on a perfectly manicured grass field using funny terms like LBW and googly (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with an internet moloch).

My friend Neil is someone I have never seen. This is something he has in common with Chris and Molly and Gabby and Ashok and Ed and quite a few others. For they are all friends I have made on-line in the past couple of years. And I use the word “friend” here quite deliberately. It is a word which has suffered under a peculiar kind of inflation on-line, particularly since the burgeoning popularity of Facebook and other social networking sites in the past few years. One of my “friends” on Facebook (and he is someone I do actually know) has nearly 4,000 friends there. Nobody has 4,000 friends, at least not in the sense in which I understand friendships; people you know, acquaintances, certainly, but not friends. To be fair, I will immediately add that the person I am referring to is self-employed in the entertainment industry, so that social networking and business networking are one and the same for him and he needs to hustle to make a decent living, therefore I can understand why he uses Facebook the way he does. But me, I couldn't even begin to keep track of my news feed with that kind of volume and friendships for me involve a basic mutuality, an interest in what my friends are saying and doing as well as me telling them what I'm up to.

And there is a little more to it as well. While I know that, practically seen, there are many of my virtual friends whom I will never meet in the “real” world, the hope that I will be able to develop at least some of these relationships face-to-face is very real. Last year on holidays in the Netherlands I was able to spend some time with Allan, who up till then I had only known on-line, and I certainly hope to meet with him again. And Ashok, among other things, organises excursions into the foothills of the Himalayas and, if everything works out well, I have plans to be part of one of those next year. Largely due to the efforts of my mother, Clare, I've made contact with branches of her family, the founders of which left Ireland for the USA over seventy years ago and there's a wonderful deepening of relationships going on in that area at the moment. The boundaries between “virtuality” and “reality” are permeable – and that's the way it should be.

For me it has worked in the other direction as well. Through the internet I have been able to re-establish and maintain old friendships, some of them going back to my childhood. And when I visit Ireland for a couple of days in a few weeks time, I'll be meeting some of them too.

Like most major revolutions in life, most of us have become so accustomed to (and dependent on) the internet so quickly that we now take it for granted. Yet for nearly everyone, all this has happened in the last 20 years. A few figures and dates make this clear. The term World Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 (the year the Berlin Wall fell) and the Web made its public debut in 1991. At the end of 1995 there were 10 million world internet hosts, today there are over 700 million. Also in 1995 (the year O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of double murder) Microsoft released its Internet Explorer 1 and Yahoo!, and Ebay went on-line. In 1998 the Google search engine hit the web (Bill Clinton denied he had “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky) and Wikipedia appeared in 2001, the year the twin towers fell. Facebook and World of Warcraft were launched in 2004, the same year the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami killed around a quarter of a million people. YouTube has only existed for five years.

Maybe it's just that I'm getting older, but all of this seems to have happened only yesterday. In common with Google, I've been on-line for twelve years and during this time the internet has become an important part of my life, for all sorts of things from banking to shopping to finding and booking flights (and, in the past year or two, checking in as well). In retrospect, getting broadband a couple of years ago really boosted my use of the web – and can you remember what it was like with a dial-up modem, waiting for ages for that loading-bar in the corner to finally turn completely blue?

Of course, like any other major technological advance in human history, the internet has had its victims too; large areas of the retail industry, or travel agents, for example. The newspaper business is in trouble in many areas and is having to painfully reinvent itself to avoid going the way saddlers did after the invention of the motor-car. And spare a thought for those people who used to sell encyclopedias door-to-door, they seem to have disappeared as completely as the dinosaurs.

And that's no wonder, because one of the most significant effects of the internet has been the availability of simple information. The verb “to google” has entered many languages in the past few years and, for most of us, unlimited information is only a couple of mouse-clicks away. Of course, information is not knowledge let alone wisdom and the whole issue of the truth of that information is another big question. With the plethora of information instantly available, we have needed and continue to need to develop new skills to filter and find what we are looking for. And to try to be aware of when and how we are being manipulated. Everything we do on-line leaves a trace and we leave all sorts of information about ourselves “out there” which others can use for all sorts of things. Shopping and consumer profiles, for example. Or future employers. Or criminals. Or governments.

I live in Germany and Germans are very touchy about personal privacy and data protection. Google Street View, for example, is having huge problems being launched here, because many people are insisting on their right not to have pictures of their homes available on the web and Google has been legally obliged to pixelate the faces of any individuals photographed to make them unrecognisable. While I don't share the extreme views of many of my German friends (some of which I frankly regard as paranoid), I am very glad that this critical position is well and eloquently represented as a counterweight to those who seem to have no compunctions in this area at all.

But, in the end, the most important thing about the internet for me is the amazing avenues it opens for communication, for “talking” to each other. Of which blogging is just one. The fulfilment of a desire to let others know what one thinks about things, to reach out, to make contact. Mixed, of course, with many other motivations (for nothing that we do is simple); the need to create something, something good perhaps, the need for the approval of others, maybe a desire to influence the thoughts and opinions of others and thus to have some tiny, minuscule effect on the way the human world turns. I plead guilty – on all counts. But, in my own case, there are also a few other reasons. Curiosity about myself, about my own capacity to take a particular form (the essay) and see what I could do with it. A need to test my own ability to keep my self-chosen project going, to see where my instincts for creativity would bring me and whether I would be able to reach others, to get them to join me, for a little way, on my own journey. About a month after I started it, I installed a counter here and since then this blog has had nearly 8,000 visits. Eight months, fifty posts and an estimated 70,000 words (and that's a good half of a decent-sized book) later, I'm content enough with the result to keep going.

So, my friends, new and old, tarry a while with me on my journey. Let us wander together the ways between real and virtual, and virtual and real. There are themes and subjects enough. Let us share ideas, and thoughts, and feelings, carried in bits and bytes, bringing us together in the most real of all worlds – the world of human interpersonal encounter.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

W. B. Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A Tale of Two Countries

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …

The famous beginning of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities comes to my mind when I think of the two countries which I regard as home, Ireland and Germany. This weekend Germany is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the reunification of its eastern and western parts. This weekend Ireland is trying to come to terms with the practical ramifications of the final bill now estimated for the Irish taxpayers to bail out their national financial institutions, destroyed by the crash; 50 billion euros (around 65 billion dollars).

Following the euphoria of reunification, Germany looks back at twenty difficult years, dominated by the effort of paying for it and adjusting the country’s economic system to cope with the effects of globalisation, at the end of which (despite increased strains on public finances as a result of the events which began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers two years ago) it is enjoying healthy economic growth and falling unemployment. Ireland looks back at eighteen years of unprecedented prosperity followed by two years of increasing stress as it has become clear that the Celtic Tiger was constructed entirely out of paper and that this paper consists entirely of IOUs, the economy, such as it is, in free-fall and unemployment rocketing.

At the beginning of the millennium, Germany was regarded by most experts as the sick man of Europe. The former GDR had turned out to be a gigantic economic ruin, its industry (which had provided full employment under the communist system) destroyed by its monumental inefficiency. Shortly after unification, Kohl had promised “blooming landscapes” and claimed that the price could be paid from the petty cash account. That had turned out to be a classical case of whistling in the dark. Unemployment in the east, ten years after reunification, was running close to 20% and billions of tax earnings were being funnelled annually from west to east. West German industry was stagnating; crippled by restrictive practices and high wage costs it was increasingly unable to compete on the global market with products produced in Eastern Europe and the new tiger economies.

At the beginning of the millennium, the Celtic Tiger was really getting into its stride. Given a kick-start by generous structural funding from the EU at the beginning of the 90s, Ireland – long a land whose greatest export was its children – was nearing full employment. Multi-national corporations were rushing into the country – companies like Microsoft, Dell and Intel – eager to establish bases within the European single market, attracted by an environment with a young, well-educated, English-speaking population, moderate wage levels and very low corporate taxation. International financial institutions were setting up subsidiaries in Dublin’s developing financial district and domestic banks too were getting into the exciting game of financial products which seemed to able to grow profits like mushrooms in the dark as long as they were being fed a steady diet of bullshit. Drawn by the boom, immigrants were starting to come to Ireland, most of them from Eastern Europe, attracted by good wages in the building and general services area.

By around 2003, the Social Democrat/Green coalition in Germany realised that major reforms were necessary in the labour area and social services if the country was going to be able to bring its spending under control and make itself competitive on the world market. The so-called Agenda 2010 was pushed through against fierce opposition (particularly internally among the Social Democrats themselves), ushering in harsh controls and cuts in the area of social spending, liberalising the labour market by creating opportunities for the development of a low-wage sector and cutting taxes. Unemployment, which had peaked at 5.2 million at the beginning of 2005 is today down to 3 million and before the crash threw everything out of kilter Germany was expecting a balanced budget by 2010/2011.

I’m not going to get into a discussion of the specific issues and measures involved in the Agenda – many of which I am decidedly critical about. I won’t even begin to comment on the creation of a new caste of working poor, the dismantling of whole areas of basic workers’ rights, the continuing structural weaknesses in the former GDR. I will remain silent about the growing gap between rich and poor in the country. We went through hard years and there are many – very many – who still have it tough. But (seen at least from a classical economic perspective) the cure worked. The price for those who pushed it through was high; the Social Democrats faced a party split with many of its more left-tending members leaving to join a new left-wing party formed together with the remnants of the former East German communists, and Gerhard Schröder, the SPD Chancellor who championed the reform, lost power in 2005.

Throughout the first decade of the century, Ireland continued to boom, growth being increasingly driven by the property sector. There was building going on everywhere and real estate prices were rocketing. Ordinary people were paying more than half a million for normal homes, sometimes far more than an hour’s drive from their places of work. Various financial institutions had no problem lending them the money (in many cases all the money) for the purchases. Government revenue was buoyant, basically as a result of stamp duties, a tax on property sales.

It was a classic bubble scenario, but the few voices of warning were ridiculed. In an overheating economy, wages were rising and – following Ireland’s accession to the Euro zone – the conventional strategy for controlling such a bubble (basically allowing interest rates and inflation to increase) wasn’t possible; the European Central Bank was keeping interest rates low to stimulate growth in the rest of the zone, where it was stubbornly sluggish, and to keep inflation down. The competitive edge which had started the tiger roaring in the 90s was long gone. Seen from an international perspective, Ireland was pricing itself out of the market.

Few people in Ireland (and, to be fair, few international observers at that) noticed, instead many Irish were losing all contact with reality. It became fashionable for thousands to fly to New York to do their Christmas shopping – the dollar being weak and the euro strong. Visiting Ireland during this period, I was ever more bemused at the way money was being thrown around and, simply, at the horrendous cost of everything. While I sometimes wondered wryly at my own stupidity at having left a poor country for a rich one, only to see my host country grow poorer and my homeland grow steadily richer, at the same time, I had the niggling feeling that this couldn’t last. Ordinary people were paying more for a house an hour’s drive or more from Dublin than a well-off professional would pay for one in the most fashionable district of Munich! Who was actually earning all this money?

Nobody, as it turned out. Most of the money flying around was being lent on the basis of notional profits, generated by complex financial schemes nobody understood. When the crash came, the Irish financial institutions and the Irish people were left holding the baby. It was like a game of musical chairs when the music stops and there’s no chair left for you. The property market crashed and the revenue which it had been generating – which had been keeping Ireland’s public finances afloat – vanished.

Like nearly every other country in the world, Germany took a hard hit from the crash too. It has a strongly export-driven economy and the uncertainty worldwide meant that, in the short-term, orders plummeted. The goal of balancing the budget had to be abandoned, extra funds provided to help businesses let hundreds of thousands of employees go on short-time work (much preferable to complete lay-offs), various stimulus measures implemented to keep up a basic domestic demand, above all, billions to bail out the banks. But Germany had a large, fundamentally healthy economy, based on production and manufacturing, mostly in the hands of small and middling sized businesses rather than mega-corporations and could, once the dust started to settle, borrow the money for these measures pretty cheaply. Two years after the crash, the German economy has bounced back better than even the optimists had predicted. And the government is continuing to try to consolidate the public finances – although the methods being proposed and implemented are the subject of heated public debate. But that’s another aspect of issues (about which I do have decided opinions) I don’t want to go into here.

Ireland’s political leaders would love to have Germany’s problems. Those they have to deal with are of another dimension entirely. Ireland doesn’t have toxic areas of the banking system to deal with, the whole Irish financial system is, at the moment, one gigantic bad bank. And the Irish government has guaranteed all the resultant debt from the public purse. Boiled down to per capita terms, this means € 10.000 for every man, woman and child in Ireland. This is not the national debt, mind you, it’s just the cost of sanitizing the financial sector. And this means that the Irish people are facing not some very hard years, but some very hard decades.

Amazingly, Ireland’s political leaders still seem to be more concerned with spin and power than talking openly about and tackling the consequences of the fecklessness of the past two decades. If the Irish are to deal with their problems rapidly and in a dignified manner, fuelled by hope, solidarity and hard work, they need inspired, open, honest, principled leadership. Looking at the quality of the present incumbents (and, indeed, most of the current parliamentary alternatives), I could easily tend to despair. But then I think of the basic decency, generosity, creativity and capacity for hard work of most of my compatriots and begin to think that they will, somehow, manage.

Europe will bail Ireland out; out of self-interest more than anything else, because Ireland is a member of the euro-zone and the alternative would be far more expensive. But Europe will demand a price, and that price will be stiff. The signs are already firming up; Ireland will have to present detailed budgetary plans for the next four years, at the end of which the deficit may not be more than 3% of GDP (one of the basic Maastricht criteria). In return, Ireland will be guaranteed affordable financing to clean up the banking mess.

But one of the many pounds of flesh which will be demanded involves a central aspect of Irish economic policy, one that has been a thorn in German eyes, in particular, for many years; Ireland’s low rate of corporation taxation (12.5%). Transnational corporations have found Ireland very attractive in the past decades for tax-avoidance. The recipe is very simple – through internal accounting, you ensure that your profits are low in countries where taxation is relatively high and high were taxation is low. Germany has had to accept many corporations making poor returns in Germany while their Irish subsidiaries were recording large profits. To add insult to injury, it was a spectacular case of fumbling investment irresponsibility by an Irish subsidiary, which led to the most spectacular almost-crash of a German bank, the Bavarian Hypo Real Estate, and cost the German exchequer billions following the Lehman fiasco.

Irish politicians have stated in the past few days that Ireland’s corporation tax policy is not open for discussion and have been making noises about sovereignty. Understandably, it’s one of the few major incentives Ireland still offers foreign companies to locate there. It means drastically necessary investment and jobs. But beggars can’t be choosers and, to mix my metaphors, Germany, as the largest and arguably healthiest economy in the euro-zone, will be paying the piper. And the EU economics commissioner, Olli Rehn said two days ago; “It’s a fact of life that after what has happened, Ireland will not continue as a low-tax country, but it will rather become a normal tax country in the European context.

“You ask about tax increases, I do not want to take any precise stand on an issue which is for the Irish Government to decide, but I would not rule out any option at this stage.”[1]

It may, in the long term, even be a blessing in disguise. For the past forty years, Ireland has relied almost exclusively on attracting big foreign companies to invest in the country. They have come when it suited them and gone when it suited them, first bringing and then destroying jobs, long before anyone apart from a few financial specialists knew the name Lehman. Maybe the time has come for the Irish to rely more on their own talents and capabilities. But, one way or the other, the next years are going to be very difficult. I’ll finish this as I started it with a Dickensian allusion; Hard Times. Indeed.


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