Archive for March, 2009

28
Mar
09

Cowengate Debate on RTE, not yet

The discussion on The Late Late Show regarding the (artificially created) controversy for those paintings was a typically pathetic attempt by RTÉ to ‘address’ the issue, in that it completely missed the point. In case you missed it, Senator Ronan Mullen, Comedian Alan Shortt, Sunday Tribune editor Noirin Hegarty and Mammy O’Rourke TD were invited on to discuss the issue. And by ‘discuss’, I mean Shortt told some jokes that reminded us how awful Bull Island was (he even pulled out a wig, for fuck sake), Senator Ronan claimed the paintings didn’t count as satire as they didn’t say anything (or it might have been because they were funny enough. His argument was so inane that I couldn’t identify anything that might be described as a “point”), and Mammy displayed (not for the first time) an inability to distinguish between popular opinion and her own perception of events. After whining that we would have been up-in-arms had the subject of the paintings been one of our female politicians (or “Marys”, as she referred to them), she then claimed that the paintings were in particular bad taste as Cowen has two daughters. By that rational, any parent is entitled to a limit being placed on criticism or reproach, due to the impact it may have on their child. Even Joe O’Reilly wouldn’t have thought of that one.

So, the focus of the discussion stayed squarely on whether the paintings were satire or just a mean-spirited attack on Cowen’s physique. I would argue that they are satire as they depict the holder of the highest office in our land naked and vulnerable as the rest of us. You could also draw comparisons between The Emperor’s New Clothes and what happened to our economy, but I’m sidetracking myself by mentioning this as the purpose of the paintings is now irrelevant. Only Hegarty touched on the real significance of this story, by saying it should have died on Monday night rather that grow and become an international phenomenon. Pat did mention that RTÉ may be somewhat responsible for this, but he did this in a manner that was so limp-wristed and uncommitted that it doesn’t count. RTÉ is undoubtedly (though not solely) responsible for this. The reason this story has grown is not because it was an insult and not because somebody illicitly hung paintings in two of our state galleries. It’s because of the over-response of our government and our state bodies, and because of the implication that free speech is now limited in this country. None of this was addressed on the Late Late last night.

It also seemed odd to me that the discussion was never opened up the audience, as is typical for this kind of item. I’m not suggesting this was a deliberate attempt to restrict a discussion. It could have been just an oversight on the producer’s part. Either way, this was missed opportunity as audience participation might have invited some real insights on this. I mean, here is a scenario where the state broadcaster backs down so readily and cops are sent to the offices of a commercial radio station to look at e-mails even though nobody is convinced an actual crime has been committed (and this at a time when we can’t know the identities of the Anglo 10 because of “due process”). There is clearly something to say on this regarding our freedoms. Ireland’s reputation on the international stage has already been sullied by the meteoric collapse of our economy and the scandals that have emerged in our banking system. On top of this, we now look like a tin-pot dictatorship where criticism of our leader does not go unpunished. The fault for this does not lie with the media (RTÉ excepted) or bloggers (despite what John Waters would have us believe) and certainly does not lie with Conor Casby. Responsibility lies purely with the powers that be. Cowen may have been embarrassed by the pics, but we as a nation have (once again) been humiliated by our government. As for RTÉ, it is possible, I suppose, that they withdrew the story independent of pressure from the Taoiseach’s office, but this does nothing to make the station appear as any less of a weak-willed, unprofessional news body that refused to stand by a story. In fact it makes them seem a lot worse.

Hopefully we’ll get a proper debate on Questions & Answers on Monday.

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25
Mar
09

I’m soooo, soooooo sorry

Last night’s nine o’clock news on RTÉ was one of the most craven displays of cowardice I’ve ever witnessed, even by this country’s standards. If you’re unfamiliar with the story (though there’s really no reason for you to be at this stage) RTÉ apologised for a story they ran the night before regarding two paintings for our glorious Taoiseach Biffo in the nip. As usual, Suzy was first out of the paddock on this one. Just to be clear, nobody in RTÉ was responsible for the painting, and their report merely highlighted that these works were somehow displayed in two state galleries. And this has apparently evoked enough anger in the Taoiseach’s office to get the state broadcaster, OUR broadcaster, to apologise.

There is just no defending this. It is simply not something happens in a free country. A commenter on Suzy’s post has argued that RTÉ was right to apologise as the paintings are personally offensive. It could also be argued that they were libellous, and as we all know repeat of libel is still libel (though from what I understand of precedent law RTÉ has automatically admitted liability by issuing an apology). Though I can respect this argument, I disagree with it strongly. By buckling under pressure from the government, RTÉ has effectively stated that limits are to be placed on to satire and, more importantly, free speech. What’s weird is that RTÉ wasn’t the only, or even the first, media outlet to report this. Even the Guardian had it today, reporting that the Gardaí are tracking down the anonymous artist. They even called into Today FM’s office because Ray D’arcy was reportedly in contact with him. If ever this country was made to look like more of a banana republic then I shudder to think what that might have been.

I don’t want to get any further into the ridiculousness of this as it’s already been well discussed by the blogosphere. Instead, in a spirit of public activism (I know we still have it in us), I want to propose what we should do about it. Many people have said they e-mailed the department of the Taoiseach and RTÉ to express their disgust over this. This is completely understandable, but I have a better idea. Instead of getting ourselves worked up with complaining, why not go the other way with mass apologies. Here’s what I’m proposing: we go through our old posts looking for anything that might be perceived as offensive to our leader or the government, and send a letter of apology to the Taoiseach’s office for everything we find. We highlight in these letters that were are doing this under the new restrictions that have been placed on public discourse in light of RTÉ’s cowardice. If you can afford to post rather than e-mail, I suggest you do that. Forcing them to deal with hard-copies of letters will ensure this is a nuisance for them. There’s no need to let RTÉ off the hook either. We can send them letters highlighting further instances where they might like to apologise. I realise this will be difficult without access to their archive, but I’m sure memory will serve. And theirs always stuff we can find on the internet.

I’m completely serious about this. I’m going to e-mail some of our better satirists to ask if they’re interested in participating. But I think the blogosphere is where most of the heat of this will come from, if I comes from anywhere. You might say this idea is childish and petty, but it’s no less childish and petty that what has given rise to it.

22
Mar
09

Recessionary nostaglia

With unemployment levels reaching numbers we thought we’d left behind in the 80s, there has emerged a sort of nostalgia for the other things we left behind a generation ago. The ever excellent fashion journalist Hadley Freeman was recently asked to discuss the return of shoulder-pads in her column in the Guardian’s “G2” supplement, and in the same supplement Sam Leith later wrote about how apparently we were all happiest in 1976. The problem with nostalgia, however, is that we sometimes tend to remember fondly things that really should have stayed forgotten. It is therefore worth looking at various aspects of a generation past that could possibly find themselves exhumed, regardless of whether or not they should be.

Rubik’s Cubes

It’s hard to see this fad returning. It was utterly pointless in the first place, and you had to be a super genius to complete it anyway. Sure we have Playstations now.

Great bad music

Absolutely essential! We’ve become far too clever with our musical tastes since the Noughties, what with our Kings of Leon and Band of Horses or some crowd equally brilliant but not so much that most people have heard of them. I sometimes wonder if we deliberately seek out obscure bands just to seem cool when other people ask, “who?” I’m not for an instant saying I’m above this (or below this, depending on your perspective). My favourite band is Lambchop. On the other hand, we award mass-popularity to insufferably bland acts that for the good of humanity need to stop (© Coldplay, Snow Patrol or any Scrubs soundtrack). We’re a bit self-congratulatory when we remember music from the 80s, in that we consider it naff compared to our more sophisticated contemporary ears. Regardless, few can honestly deny the toe-tapping appeal of these songs and this is something we really need to get back. There has, admittedly, been some move in this direction recently, with the likes of Lily Allen and that Katy Perry song about a poor lad who’s hot and cold all the time (he should get a nice cardie), but I really don’t think these stand up to Grandmaster Flash and Kids in America, et al. We need bands to save pop music from Louis Walsh and reclaim the naff as an art-form again. This being said, there is absolutely no need to return to the television of the 80s. Recession or not, Knight Rider was always shit and we have The Wire now.

MTUSA

The rest of the world may have had MTV, but for the paddies it was all Music Television: USA. This was a show that guided 80s kids on the coolest new sounds and latest trends. We do have plenty of similar outlets today, but few that are free from unwitting self-parody and ironic bullshit of NME and whathaveyou. A music show that avoids being too clever for its own good would be very welcome in today’s age. However, the problem with MTUSA is that it was a product of an age when America was seen as a refuge in recessionary times, rather than, say, the sources of it. Today “MTUSA” provides an unfortunate acronym that may serve to reflect the state of the US Federal Reserve.

Moustaches

What I remember most from MTUSA was the presenter’s impressive lip-fuzz, a seemingly popular trend of the day. I recall several uncles who sported similar face-fungus at the time, as well as Kevin off Coronation Street. It’s impossible to say with certainty what caused this trend (it might have been Mangum PI, but who can be sure), so it would be foolish to think we’ll never see another outbreak. We can only hope this horrible condition is behind us.

U2 recording an album worth listening to

Irrelevant. It’s not going to happen.

Custard Creams

I recall biscuits in my formative years being a very simple affair. The criterion for a good biscuit was something mildly sweet that you could dip into a cup, and so custard creams, bourbon creams, or perhaps a Rich Tea satisfied us perfectly. If we wanted to splash out we’d opt for a digestive with cholocate on it, or perhaps even a Jammie Dodger. However, things changed when we started using the term “cookies”. Suddenly the simple biscuit wasn’t good enough. We demanded niceties with chocolate chips in them. They started putting hazelnut bits in them and we weren’t even satisfied with that. We demanded whole hazelnuts, in biscuits the size of saucers. The less likely that it would fit in a cup, the better. In a way, our tastes in biscuits symbolise our universal greed during the Celtic Tiger years. As the money came rolling in, we blew in on chocolate-coated trifles (figuratively but perhaps also literally). One hopes, now that our priorities are shifting, we will once again regard the humble custard cream with fondness.

Mullets

On last Monday’s Questions & Answers, one of the Dragons Den Dragons (I forget which one) argued that we’re wasting time squabbling over who’s to blame for the financial downturn, and that we should instead unite to concentrate on finding a cure. It’s a nice thought, but one easily dismissed. If we fail to establish the crisis’ causal factors, we’re only setting ourselves up for another bubble burst. I’ve already given an indirect example of this, by highlighting the continued risk of a resurgence of the moustache craze. Well, proof may come in the recent spate of Mullets around our city centres (I’m surely not the only one who’s noticed this). The trend stopped so we thought it had gone away for good. And now it’s back because we failed to address its root causes. Haircuts have as much to teach us about the recession as biscuits do.

22
Mar
09

Watchmen: apparently it really happened

There are peculiar goings on with the Nielsen BookScan weekly charts (as published in the “Review” supplement in the weekend’s Guardian) lately. The comic Watchmen is listed as the second most popular book in its category this week, a jump from its position of 5th last week. Hardly that odd! With the hype over the film adaptation, people are obviously trying to see what the fuss is about. Prior to the film’s release several reviewers (particularly in the newspaper supplements) suggested that despite the comic’s cult following it was largely forgotten by mainstream readers, which was a handy way of admitting, “we may be writers on popular culture, but we’ve never heard of this thing before.” With Watchmen, a lot of people are having to catch up with a culture they’re supposedly experts on.

But that’s not what I’m on about here. What’s odd about Watchmen’s placing is the chart in which it’s placed. Nielsen seems to consider the book a paperback non-fiction, along with such publications as Marley & Me and Jamie’s Red Nose Recipes. I had thought it was fiction myself, indeed, science fiction. But no, it seems there really was a bunch of superheroes in the 80s, including a great big blue fellow who reconstructed himself at a molecular level, and there really was a nuclear standoff between the US and USSR that only ended when half of New York was levelled by an artificial “alien” squid. It’s just that I didn’t notice this before.

Sarcasm aside, it’s hard to see this as anything but sneer on books produced in the graphic novel format. They simply don’t belong in the chart for real novels (which, incidentally, is topped this week by Marion Keyes). Personally, there is not much I despise more than when people insist on calling comics “graphic novels”. To me it’s a desperate attempt for comic books to be regarded as serious literature, which only serves to admit that comic books’ standing as serious literature needs to be defended. I grew up reading comics and I’m not ashamed of that. Nonetheless, it’s a genre that does deserve at least a little respect. Watchmen is a book that accomplishes more than most proper novels I’ve read, and if sales reflect that then so should the charts.

It could be argued, I suppose, that Watchmen is more than simple fiction. It is, in fact, a treatise on the superhero genre, and as such is provides a non-fiction discussion on this genre’s usual tropes and literary devices. It’s an interesting hypothesis, and I look forward to an academic discussion on it. However, it’s a hypothesis outside the scope of a sales chart. I can’t see this as anything other than snobbery, which there is far too much of in literature.

16
Mar
09

The tabloid media and cultural necrophilia: or where are we going as a society?

I’ve really wanted to post something on Jade Goody, but honestly I haven’t had the nerve. So I’m just going to link to Alan Moloney’s thoughts on the issue, as it says everything I was thinking on the issue.

I realise I’m mad late jumping on this bandwagon, but fuck it.

16
Mar
09

Today’s top stories: Cheer up, you miserable gits

Today’s Sunday Tribune was just the most bizarre thing I’ve read in months. Ok, I can appreciate what they were trying to do, and given the moaning I’ve had about constant pessimism in the media I’d be a hypocrite for attacking a newspaper just for taking a positive stand. Some optimistic reports on this recession were certainly welcome. But jasus, they went a bit mad with the happy rays of sunshine.

In case you missed it, they called it “Guaranteed Positive”, complete with a suitable play on the old Guaranteed Irish logo. “Remember, the future we see is the future we’ll get,” warned Miss Hegarty’s editorial, which rather dramatically appeared on the front page. At least the splash was comparatively more composed in its buoyancy, with a headline declaring, “We’ll return to full employment within six years, ERSI predicts.” Uplifting, perhaps, but we really have to wait until 2015 to find a job. The front page item that really caught my attention, however, was a banner on the very top declaring the paper to be “an issue dedicated to positive thinking and a fresh perspective on the Great Recession”. So it’s the Great Recession now, not some silly, everyday recession unworthy of capitals. This was the most depressing angle on the recession that I’ve encountered so far.

The content within the newspaper did little to cheer me up. There were some interesting pieces on people whose businesses are picking up in recent month, second-hand clothes shops and renewable energy companies and the like. The problem with this is that, logically, if the economy does pick up, as they promise, these companies can expect a drop in their revenues. Worse is the “Why Irish eyes should be smiling” segments, where various Irish dignitaries provided a few paragraphs on the positives or our current condition. These range from somewhat qualified, highly specific reasons to be happy to downright fantasies.

I don’t have room to discuss them all, so I’m just going to highlight what I feel was the worst, that being one by businessman Gerry Robinson (I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have heard of him, but I haven’t). He claims, “We’re like a rowing boat badly rocked by a big storm that was not of our making.” Not true! This is a big storm that we are very much responsible for. In fact, we should grateful to the big storm for punishing us for sailing in waters we had no business in to begin with. After opening with the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” paragraph from A Tales of Two Cities and asking if it sounds familiar (it doesn’t. This isn’t an age of wisdom in bad times. It’s an age of desperately groping around dark looking for exits but finding only deeper holes), he points out, “We’re hurt and we’re looking for someone to blame.”

He goes on, “Probably there are some people in Ireland who carry a bit of blame, but not many.” Wrong again. We are ALL to blame, every one of us. We allowed ourselves to be blinded by easy credit-based (ie, non-existent) wealth and as a result bankrupted ourselves. We also recognised the failures of our government in providing to our society’s weakest members (sick, elderly, schools, etc) yet voted for them anyway, because we were sure this was the crowd to keep us in pocket money. We tolerated wasteful spending of public money because, well, there was plenty more where that came from. And now there a backlash against the government because their bubble has burst. But guess what, we’re as much to blame as they are.

Of course Gerry highlights the inevitability of all this. “Things have gone wrong. They were always going to. The kind of success that Ireland has enjoyed simply couldn’t last forever,” he claims, admittedly quite correctly. However, if it was that obvious why did the government continue to rely on a housing market that was clearly heading for a downturn for its tax revenue? Why did we continue to raise wages under the guise of “social partnership”, fuelling inflation and making the country uncompetitive for multinationals? Why did we place blind faith in Seanie Fitz and the likes for our banking system? It’s true that there is an international banking crisis, yet even with this our banks look like that of a third world country. Even years before this banking crisis hit, foreign investors knew to stay out of Ireland.

The highlight of the paper for me is the “20 people who will save Ireland,” unbelievable as any superheroes yarn it’s made to resemble. I mean, Brendan Drumm, the man who couldn’t fix the health service during the good years, is now going to do this in bad times? There’s Bono, who they feebly speculate will move back the businesses U2 shipped to the Netherlands to avoid paying tax. And as for Giovanni Trapattoni, that’s just taking the piss.

I really hate to sound so cynical. I know there’s too much of that these days and I know the Trib was just trying to combat some of this. But devoting the entire paper to such up-beatism smacks of propaganda, the worst “Kitchener’s Army” kind of propaganda that sprung up during world wars to assure people everything will be tickity-boo if you just do your part. A level of this is of course needed, but the way it appeared in today’s Sunday Tribune is just misleading.

14
Mar
09

Marley & Me

I went to see Marley & Me last night. Having enjoyed the book recently (quite against my will), I felt obliged to see it. I was initially put off by the concept of a largely fictionalised adaptation of a memoir (particularly one as personal as Marley & Me), but I figured it’s no more abnormal than Frost/Nixon and the likes. Seemingly few others are bothered by this, as the cinema was packed. I guess there’s something in a story about a dog that really strikes a cord with people. Or maybe it was because it’s about a family that’s actually quite happy. Not many films like this are ever made. Either way, a packed screen meant that there were a lot of chitty-chatty people not used to common cinema manners. I really longed for that guy who shouted “shut up!” at Watchmen last week.

As for the film, I’m afraid to say it translates very, very poorly. It comes across as a formulaic tear-jerker, in that it’s cheap, manipulative and (worst of all) very, very cheesy, all of which the book avoided. Now I’m very much a dog-person, but Jennifer Aniston has a line towards the end that made me want to kick a puppy. The thing is, I knew beforehand it would be like this, and I was well up for it. I was genuinely in the mood for “ahhhs” and “cooos” and even the occasional tear. Now I don’t deny there was a lump in my throat when Marley’s story reached its inevitable conclusion, and there were a few moments when I found it quite charming, but as a whole it comes across as quite a cynical film. It’s the kind of thing optioned by Hollywood executives purely because they saw the source material making millions, and didn’t really understand, much less care, what it was that made it so popular.

For all its faults, Watchmen can at least be said to be a labour of love. This, however, is little more than a cash-in. If you’re thinking of seeing it, I recommend you save your self the bother. Rent Babe or something instead.