Wednesday 30 November 2011

Enniscorthy & Brooklyn

One upon a time I was in a teenage band. The drummer, not fancying our prospects, got married and moved to his wife’s hometown fourteen miles up the Slaney River. A rather laconic type, when next I met him he growled uncharacteristically, “You think Wexford is bad, it’s got nothin’ on Enniscorthy.”

I wonder if he’s read Colm Toibín’s wonderful novel, Brooklyn. It opened the eyes of this Wexford man – opened the heart too for I’m haunted by its heroine.

This is hardly surprising since Toibín, like Australian Thomas Keneally, is that rarity: a male novelist who brings women to life on the page.

Though I’ve long admired his writing, I picked up Brooklyn because it’s situated in two very disparate areas I’m familiar with – the borough of the title and Colm’s hometown of Enniscorthy. Oddly enough, I have more affinity for the former though I grew up a figurative stone’s throw from the latter whose inhabitants we called “scalders.”

Back then Enniscorthy seemed never less than gloomy and claustrophobic, perhaps because it doesn’t gaze out onto the sea as Wexford does. I suppose I just didn’t understand the place.

I do now. For Toibín casts light into the dark corners of this small Irish town in the 1950’s, allowing us to experience both a womb-like familiarity along with the class-consciousness and innate nosiness that paralyze such places.

Colm’s genius is that he contrasts this brooding parochialism with the turmoil of immigrant Brooklyn where cultures collide indiscriminately and the recently arrived are forced to shed whole layers of identity in order to fit into a complex and self-assured new world.

And then there is Eilis Lacey, the book’s central character. I know her. Well, not specifically but she’s a dead ringer for the older sisters of a number of my childhood friends, though instead of returning from New York City, these ladies took the boat train from Paddington for their fortnight’s holidays home from London.

Nurses or secretaries with money to burn, they were glamorous in their Cricklewood fashions as they shattered hearts in Wexford pubs and hotel dancehalls. But after a couple of Babychams, you could almost touch the longing in them to be what they once were but could never be again.

You’re on Eilis’ side from the first page of Brooklyn and you’re still there at the bittersweet ending. For like the sisters of my friends, she is loyal, lovely and brave, and will ultimately do the right thing, even if it means hurting herself and others.

In some ways, this is a tale of two cities, for Enniscorthy is a metropolis when you’ve never been anywhere else - while in Brooklyn the best of times and the worst are always close to hand.

As you might imagine, there’s a love interest in both locations and they couldn’t be more different. Each is viewed unsparingly through the prism of class-consciousness. One promises a rise in stature, reassuring but ultimately suffocating; while the other is “beneath” Eilis, and yet in such a union she might one day reach beyond herself.

I wonder do we root for her because we feel she could “do better?” Or perhaps the book leads us to question some of the choices we ourselves have made?

In real life Eilis would probably be a grandmother now, either living in one of those McBungalows that bruise the stalwart Wexford countryside, or presiding over a large, fractious Italian-Irish family in Long Island.

During the final pages she must make her choice and your heart is in your mouth for her.

I’ll never look at Enniscorthy in quite the same way again. The town seems brighter to me now, the gloom is gone and with it the claustrophobia; even the Slaney jigs to a different beat as it rushes under the new bridge on its way to Wexford and the sea.

Or have I changed and am seeing the old town through different eyes? Who knows, who cares? Great books do that to you.

Wednesday 23 November 2011


So it’s finally over – well almost – the long national nightmare of Iraq. All American combat troops are to be withdrawn by Dec. 31st. Halelujiah!

We’d still be there, of course, if Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the radical Shia Mahdi Army, hadn’t insisted we depart.

Still, almost 9 years later, 4400 deaths, 30,000 wounded, more than a trillion dollars wasted we’ve finally thrown our hat at this hellhole.

Only time and the VA will tell how many who served now suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress – upwards of a quarter of a million?

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the countless Iraqis slaughtered, maimed and dislocated.

Sorry to upset you with these figures, but they’ve been on my mind since catching a glimpse of President Bush doting on his beloved Texas Rangers during the World Series. God bless him, he still has no problem sleeping through the night.

And the outcome was all so obvious. Like Yugoslavia splintering into religious and ethnic factions after the death of Marshall Tito, something similar was bound to happen in Iraq as soon Saddam Hussein was deposed by foreign forces.

People just don’t like being invaded, simple as that! Put Iraqi troops on the streets of America you think the natives will be saying, “Yoh, how you doin’, Ali? Nice to see you bro!”

How could we have been so hoodwinked into allowing Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the others talk us into this foreign misadventure?

Well, we’re suckers for good old razzmatazz. Just wave the flags, blow the trumpets, and we’ll follow any dingbat, especially with a media only too willing to be manipulated. The New York Times even saw some sense in this looming disaster, and forget about the Post, News and the puppets at the various TV networks.

President Bush and his team were not bad people, in and of themselves. I never thought they were going to war to enrich the oil industry – no, they did so on the somewhat plausible idea that if you create an American style democracy in Iraq it will fan out over the region. Hey, given time, these new Iraqi Republocrats might even accept Israel.

The best laid plans of mice and DC dreamers! Was there ever a chance of such success? Sure, the occasional nag comes in at 60/1, but your doddery old Aunt Statia is the only one with a couple of bucks on it.

You would think that after the 50,000 lost in Vietnam lessons would have been learned. But, no, hope springs eternal for the best and the brightest - especially when neither they nor their children will do the fighting.

The big question is: will we allow it to happen again?

Given the economic climate, there’s a decent shot we’ll give up the ghost on Afghanistan in 2014. Karzai’s corrupt government will fall, the Taliban and Haqqani syndicates will nail down their piece of the action, Pakistan and India will go on squabbling, and so it goes…

Then what? Will the trumpets blare and the flags wave someday for another foreign misadventure disguised as a national crisis?

The Republican presidential contenders are understandably reticent on such matters - apart from Ron Paul who level-headedly questions our armed and expensive presence in Germany and South Korea. It’s vitally important that we hear their foreign policies – or lack thereof.

Iran has already been set up as the next bogeyman – “let’s take out their nuclear weapons!” – when, given time and demographics, the mullahs will be unseated by their own people, just as would have happened with Saddam.

In memory of the 4400 who didn’t make it back alive from Iraq, let us vow that this travesty not be repeated.

And for those who did serve – especially the injured – let’s be sure we honor them not just with yellow ribbons and hollow words but with education, jobs and the simple slogan – never again!

Nothing against Texas, but there was a certain symbolism in seeing the Cardinals win the World Series. Would that all victories came at such little cost and over seven games on a bloodless October.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Occupy Wall Street

The main rap against the Occupy Wall Street Movement is that it has no discernible goals.

Contrast that with the Tea Party whose desires are easily articulated – defeat “Obamacare,” reduce deficits, and send the sheik in the White House back to Kenya or wherever he came from.

So, let me suggest three goals; but first, let’s examine the roots of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and why it’s unlikely to dissolve with the snows of winter.

Americans have been distinguished by their lack of envy of the rich, mainly because they’ve always felt there was a pathway - albeit narrow and crowded – to their own life of luxury.

Protesters would not be quite so vocal against the fabled upper 1% if they thought there was a prayer in hell of joining them in their penthouses and McMansions. What really irks the noble souls down in Zuccotti Park is that even if you’re willing to bust your butt nowadays you may never make it to the shrinking middle-class.

Once upon a time if you got into a union or went to college you could bet the farm you’d end up in the suburbs. Now graduate from Harvard and you’re still not guaranteed a gig; or get a gold-plated membership in the UAW, you’ll step onto the assembly line for 14 bucks an hour. You won’t even afford a shack out in Levittown on that paycheck – let alone get a mortgage.

To say that there’s a mass disenchantment with the state of the union would be putting it mildly.

And so to the three goals!

Number one, reform the political process. Nothing of significance can be achieved while the system is clogged and corrupted by money.

Politicians may huff and puff about issues but nowadays politics is all about the mighty buck – raise enough of them, stay off Page 6, and you too can get elected.

And you ain’t seen nothing yet! With the new Super PAC bundlers and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate donations, the floodgates of crony capitalism have just opened.

There is a solution – tighter campaign donation laws. But this obviously won’t come from politicians; it has to come from us – and the good God in heaven who might whack a couple of backwoodsmen on the Supreme Court.

With or without divine help - if we don’t act soon the Republic will sink even deeper into this current cesspit of legal bribery known as politics.

There is no way to create the new industries that will provide well-paying jobs for the protestors – and everyone else - unless we invest in research, education and the national infrastructure. But where will the money come from, unless taxes are raised – and who wants to pay the piper nowadays?

Which brings us to goal number two: there is no reason - philosophical or practical - why the US has to spend more on defense than every other country in the world combined.

The armed forces are a great employer of last resort but few would dispute that defense budgets are bloated, while the cost of weapons perennially exceeds estimate.

President Eisenhower warned against the growth of the military-industrial complex. The poor old soldier must have been doing somersaults in his grave watching arms industry lobbyists and alarmist hawks double the defense budget since 9/11.

On to goal number three: Healthcare! We spend double the amount of every other industrialized country but trail much of the world in actual good health.

Costs must be reined in before the whole country is turned into a hospital waiting room. A decent first step would be for opportunistic politicians to stop their paranoiac and misleading yelping about “death panels” and “socialized medicine.” Some hope, right?

A federally guaranteed single-payer system is the only shot. Administrative costs would drop, deals could be cut with a rampaging drug industry, and businesses could actually budget ahead. As it stands, employers can’t afford to hire new workers because of burgeoning health insurance costs – hence, so much outsourcing.

Enough said! I’ve got some flyers to print. See you down Zuccotti Park!

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Killing The Thing You Love

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Oscar Wilde wrote many a brilliant verse but none more troubling than the above.

I was reminded of it recently when a young man spoke to me about his hope for a career in the music industry.

Oddly enough, I never thought of such a step back in Wexford. Music was something I more or less fell into.

The conditions were very different; rock music was then on the cutting edge of politics and social change. Few people saw it as a business.

The genre has very little connection to politics nowadays as demonstrated by its pathetic reaction to the War in Iraq. Hip-Hop has long supplanted it as a vital social force, though more so internationally where it continues to fuel the Arab Spring.

I considered warning the young man about the heartbreaks ahead but he had the fire in his eyes. Besides he could spend his life in many a more boring and equally financially insecure career. The once $20 an hour jobs that he might aspire to are being downgraded to $10, sometimes even less; not to mention that most musicians get to sleep late in the morning!

Rock music, unfortunately, lost much of its social drive – and some would say, soul - when it was co-opted by MTV and the advertising industry in the plastic 80’s.

How ironic though that fans of the genre are now themselves killing the very thing they love by both legal and illegal downloading.

Not that there won’t be interesting “serious” artists and even superb cookie-cutter pop; those with the fire in their eyes will adapt to the changing fortunes of the biz. But the era of the independent rock & roll band touring the country is winding down because of the imminent disappearance of the CD.

Why so? Well, sales of CDs subsidize traveling bands, particularly if the musicians retain their proprietary rights and can manufacture them inexpensively.

What about downloads? Well, an album of them retails for $9.99 at the most, whereas a CD brings in $15. Do the math!
But even worse, most people nowadays download individual songs for 99 cents rather than whole albums. Give Steve Jobs his 30% and the vendor who has set up the deal another 10%, and you get the picture.

But that’s only a start. Many managers now advise artists to give their music away free; and they have a point, since 90% of downloads are illegal and available at no cost.

And forget about Spotify and all the other new fangled rip-off platforms – do you actually think musicians are getting much of this pie – no it’s a carve-up between the old baronial record companies, the few platinum artists and the new digital cowboy start-ups funded by investment bankers.

Depressing? Each man kills the thing he loves? Well, it’s just the way of the world. My generation downsized to groups from the larger showbands who in turn had shrunk the big band ethos. Life goes on and we’ve entered the age of the downsized, economically viable unit.

It often amazes me how few musicians are aware of the shifting ground beneath their feet. Don’t get me wrong, I love albums/CDs – the idea that an artist can stretch and deliver a work defined by a concept, sound or series of lyrics.

Unfortunately, “it’s the economy, stupid!” The new breed of musicians will more likely be entrepreneurs who record a series of singles at home using computers; they’ll come to terms with the financial reality of iTunes and Spotify, and supplement their income by branding themselves in the worlds of advertising, fashion and pop culture.

They’ll love music just as much as Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, Brendan Bowyer and Benny Goodman. Hopefully, some will be real innovators and, while creating music, will change society rather than merely reflecting it.

And perhaps they won’t kill the thing they love and prove old Oscar wrong once and for all.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Slouching towards DC

As we slouch towards another presidential election the common wisdom is that we are undeserving of the current crop of Washington politicians, as if they were foisted upon us by some divine hand.

This is probably inevitable since many of the elected feel that the much-saluted deity who provides home runs to baseball sluggers has also had a hand in guiding their footsteps into congress.

Still the sad fact is – we voted for this posse of political procrastinators, grandstanders and poll watchers.

So, what to do in 2012? Well, a rule of thumb would be to vote for some person, idea or course of action rather than against.

Cutting spending in the midst of an economic downturn is like closing the stable door long after the nag has wandered off. The time to do that was when we were cutting taxes and fighting two wars on a Chinese credit card.

And you’re quite right, that is water under the bridge, besides which the current occupant of the White House is indeed still fighting a war without end in Afghanistan and has as yet been unable to turn the economy around.

You’d also be right in saying that, just like President Bush after 9/11, President Obama blew a great watershed moment after his election by a reluctance to go for the political jugular coupled with a lofty desire to rule by consensus.

And yet, let’s consider the alternatives. I seem to hear just two major ideas from the Republican Party – cut taxes and regulations. Am I mistaken or were those not the two domestic policies at the core of the Bush presidency?

I beg your pardon I have not mentioned Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax policy - all credit to a candidate who has at least offered a concrete suggestion. His proposal would certainly bring change – an even greater handover of wealth to the top 10% earners and a further flaying of the working and middle classes.

And all hail Michele Bachman for reminding us that if you turn Mr. Cain’s figures on their heads you will be confronted with the mark of the devil – who would have suspected that she was a closet Black Sabbath fan!

There is no doubting that either Mr. Cain or Rep. Bachman would provide more exciting presidencies than the present ho-hum and steady-as-we-go office-holder. But I’m still flummoxed that an electorate so badly burned by the recent financial crises would be willing to jump straight out of the frying pan and back into the fire of tax and regulation cuts.

How anyone can be for eviscerating the anemic Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act baffles me? But I suppose credit card companies, mortgage brokers and banks have mothers that love them too and should be protected from a rapacious public sick of being overcharged and taken advantage of.

Even more troubling - neither the SEC nor the Treasury has a finger upon the almost daily dizzying lurches on various stock exchanges. Has anyone even suggested regulating high frequency program trading on super-computers? But that will come too – after a seismic crash.

Less regulation, you say, Governors Romney and Perry? You obviously haven’t got your 401(k) shekels invested in mutual funds like many regular Americans.

Tax cuts should work to some degree but of late that hasn’t been the case; probably because of the double-whammy housing bubble-burst and the reluctance of banks to give credit. Tax cut recipients are wisely paying down debt rather than rushing out to buy new flat-screens or Manolo stilettos.

Now is the hour for investment in American infrastructure; the cost of labor, capital and equipment will never again be as inexpensive – and it better be done soon or the joint will come crashing down around our ears.

Sure, it will raise the deficit in the short term but a resurgent economy will inevitably reduce it as happened in the Clinton years.

Tax and regulation cuts are yesterday’s solutions. In fact they caused today’s problems.

So come on you nattering nabobs of negativity, time to reboot and come up with a couple of decent new ideas.