"The thing about Opportunity Knocks was that you got different people on it every week. Much more variety. That's why they called it a variety show. You couldn't make it any more, though. People don't want talent shows. They want reality shows."
Balls, I'm afraid.
We were sitting at home on Saturday evening, waiting for Dermot to arrive so we could then go out partying. We found ourselves caught in the orbit of an hour long show featuring auditions. Some were good, most were bad, the programme was definitely played for entertainment, but if you were to strip off the gloss, at its core it was simply a talent show.
It wasn't a talent show with much talent, either. At its core, it was a pretty cheap "product". It's cheap, it's nasty, it's members of the public doing things on television that they shouldn't even do in private. The buzz-word for this is "reality television". It's edited to hell, and is about as real as Star Trek.
Where the contemporary talent show wins over the traditional talent show is that it doesn't need as much talent. It used to be the case that a talent show would present maybe six acts, they'd be whittled down to one, and the winners of each of six rounds would meet in a final. Seven shows, thirty-six contestants. The new approach gives us maybe a dozen contestants, with one eliminated each week over time. Ten shows, twelve contestants. Less talent, spread thinner.
The trick is in the marketing, as ever. We are encouraged to form loyalty for the competitors, to nurture and support them. In a real sense, we are encouraged to form a bond with them, so that when the finale comes, and the winner is rushed to a recording studio, we're so buoyed up with our own success that we rush out and buy product.
The whole package is designed to make money. We pay for phone calls and text messages to support our favoured competitor, we buy their merchandise when they win, we read about their sex lives in newspapers, we dress up as them on "Stars in their Eyes". Is it any wonder that the shows are so popular with advertisers.
People don't want talent shows. They don't want reality shows. We want what we're told we want. We're told that reality shows suit a sophisticated modern audience, and we believe that because it's aspirational, and because it gives us something to do while we're waiting for Dermot to come round so we can go to the pub. But it's empty television for an empty generation, and any substance that emerges is coincidental and irrelevant.
"That's a really nice, shirt," said Neasa this morning, walking in to my office without a hint of the hangover that she so richly deserves. "It really suits you."
It's not a cheap shirt, and it's a shirt that has some personal significance. It's a Paul Smith shirt, purchased from Harvey Nichols (officially my favourite place to buy groceries) in Edinburgh last month. It's also a "medium" size.
A year ago, I would never have bought it. Because I would never have worn it. Because I was - to put it mildly - chunky.
Neasa's 24. She's one of those lasses from the country who know everybody in Dublin, and like to go home at the weekends to see their favouritest horse. She doesn't like greyhounds, because they're ugly, and she has a phobia about blood. She's also slightly of a Rubenesque stature - in a good way - and she didn't know me last year. As far as she knows I've always looked this way. She didn't know me before I lost weight, you see.
Spurred on by young Dave we went a-dieting in January. And since then I've mislaid the weight of a two year old boy. Imagine carrying around a two year old child all day every day. Now stop imagining it. Imagine the relief of putting down that child. And now - and this is the best bit - imaging putting down the child and it just vanishing before it can yell at you and be annoying. Imagine the bliss.
Norman, our somewhat crusty Legal director was concerned that either my illness was caused by my weight loss or that my weight loss was caused by my illness - no matter how often I told him otherwise. Nice that he cared, though.
I'd tried to lose weight before, but most diets generally fall in to the category of "silly", or in some cases "dangerous". I've lost weight without going hungry, without going without anything completely, essentially just by cutting back a bit. And you know what - it was easy.
And I'm aware that putting it back on would be easy. I don't want to do that again soon.
John, the chunky bloke who I once described as dressing like "man at C & A" was nice about my shirt too. At lunch, I had a salad, while he had a sausage roll.
Let's pick a paragraph at random.
Sophie Amundsen was on her way home from school. She had walked the first part of the way with Joanna. They had been discussing robots. Joanna thought the human brain was like an advanced computer. Sophie was not certain she agreed. Surely a person was more than a piece of hardware.
Many people have read these words before me. I quote them here because they're a random paragraph from a book that I picked up, opened at random, threw up on, and carefully discarded back in to the nine-for-the-price-of-two bin in Dublin's exclusive Grafton Street bookierie "The Dublin Bookshop".
It's a very simply constructed paragraph. The sentences are simple, subject-verb-object - the only grammatical construct that most of us were ever taught. Although we were probably taught it with "doing-word" in there instead of verb. Running it through Microsoft's wonderfully eccentric readability check, it comes out with a suggested reading age of nine.
And yet, there was a phase where every adult I knew was reading this book. For the record, it's Paulette Moller's translation of Jostein Gaarder's bestseller Sophie's World. God, it sounds worthy. An exciting story combined with a mystery combined with an investigation of the way that the theories of philosophy have developed through history. But at the time, everyone was reading it, and coming across as slightly disappointed, as though they were somehow not getting it. Based on the paragraph above - the opening paragraph no less, it's surprising that these readers did not degenerate into gibbering wrecks crying out "why, why, why?"
I picked the book up because Mr Twinky's reading something that he describes as "like a dumbed-down version of Sophie's World written for imbeciles" (I'm paraphrasing). I turned to a random page in the middle somewhere and read the worst-crafted passage of dialogue I'd ever seen.
When I was fourteen, our class mutinied during an English lesson. We refused to finish reading a book, and our teacher said we could, if we could find six good reasons why we didn't think it was worth reading. We found four, and she let us off. With this book, we'd have thrown it at her by the end of that first paragraph. As an adult, I can't understand why other adults would want to read this - and yet it became a bestseller. I am mystified and bemused. I still don't understand Jeffery Archer's success.
Writing that's easy to read doesn't have to be simplistic.
Read Vernon God Little instead. It doesn't say anything about philosophy, but it says a lot about our society, and it's a stonking good read. Clauses and everything.
Ah, it was all different when I was a nipper. One hint of a measle, and Mrs Oddverse (as I liked to call my Mum) would bundle me off on a train. Trains were great then. They left from the big smelly station with the road that ran through it, a giant grey monster crouching under North Bridge. This was before coffee shops, before Boots moved in, before you could buy a packet of M&S sarnies to keep you going. There was only one thing worth buying back then - tickets.
Tickets were great. They were tall and thin and they told you where you were going. The top was a red stripe, and the guard would cut the corner off on the train to show that you'd used half the ticket and it was now only valid for the return journey.
The trains smelled like proper trains in those days - stale ciggies and pee. Every pair of double seats had a full table between them, its surface a sticky black waxy substance that was probably mostly made up of layers of ersatz coffee. The floors were sticky too.
We'd rush to the platform, show our ticket to the guard and get on the train, sit, wait. Eventually, it would thunder to life, and we'd be off on our way through the night, trying to spot when we were about to go up and down the bumps on the Forth Bridge, even though the journey was in a completely different direction.
Later, we'd get to wave at the back of Uncle Jack and Auntie Isa's house. If they knew we were going to be there, they'd be out on the porch waving back. They were Mrs Oddverse's Aunt and Uncle, and so they were really really old. I watched Doctor Who from behind their sofa on the 6th of October 1979 during the ITV strike.
Eventually we'd get to our destination. I was never allowed to open the doors. They had this cunning system where there were no handles on the inside of the door, so you had to open the window, reach out, and open them from the outside. This was for security. It made it harder to open the doors accidentally, but easier for you to open the window, lean your whole upper body out and get decapitated by a tree because you were still whistling through rural Scotland at a cheery 47 miles an hour or whatever.
As we approached the platform, the doors would start to open. Young men about town, rushing back to the country to see their sweethearts would leap from the train, hoping to kick-start a jauntiness that would see them through their reunion. Mrs Oddverse would hold me and my sister back until the train had come to a complete standstill at the platform, and then - carefully minding the gap - we would rush away into the waiting arms of our grandparents. They'd be taking care of us until we were better. Hurrah.
Ah, it was great being ill in those days. You got a holiday and an adventure.
There was half an hour yesterday that was kind of scary.
I was in a meeting mood, which basically meant that I would sit at my desk for an hour, frozen in to inactivity because my boss had decided that the meeting that he had called could wait until an unspecified time. I'd need to be ready to jump, so I couldn't really start anything. My fingernails were beautifully manicured. Suddenly, just as he decided that he wanted to talk to me, my mobile phone started buzzing away. Lucky it.
I pulled it from my pocket. "This is Mr Oddverse," I said. I never like to use my real name at work. It keeps people on their toes.
"Hello, Mr Oddverse," said the disembodied voice. "Doctor Ndi would like to see you. Soon."
I was suddenly out of meeting mood and in to "what-the-fuck" mood. I last saw Doctor Ndi on Monday, when he sent me to the hospital for tests. I gave them about a pint of blood in different tubes, and a small plastic box full of waste matter. I bet you didn't want to know that. Tough. They told me it would be a fortnight before I had any results, and that I would have to call Doctor Ndi to get them. And then, forty-eight hours later I was summoned to see him. For the second time this week I went straight in to shock.
I bumbled my way through the meeting. "Yes, Colin, I would love to work for you forever. No, my health isn't any better, thank you for asking. Yes, I'll do you some more reports." And then I ran from the building and jumped in to the first taxi I could find.
The first taxi I could find was driven by a deaf octogenarian. He'd put a no smoking sign in his car, so he was forced to smoke by leaning out of the window - which coincidentally made it easier for him to swear at passers by. We took an unusual route, which I put down to him knowing about a traffic jam or road works.
"Where do you want to stop?" he asked, as we slowed down in front of Fallon's.
"Nowhere near here," I replied, somewhat flippantly. I had no fingernails left by this point. He'd driven me to completely the wrong street, because he hadn't been listening properly when I told him where I wanted to go. He was kind of nice about it, saying that he wasn't going to put it down to my accent. Clearly that meant that he thought it was my accent. I was too full of nerves to say anything. I was going to the doctor and he was going to give me bad news.
Obviously, it wasn't that bad. There wasn't a queue, so I could sit down immediately, and he told me straight away what it is he thinks I have (note the word "thinks" there - there's still a chance that it's wrong).
Essentially, I'm a breeding ground. Everyone is, but I've got something growing inside me that you don't. At least I hope that you don't. I've got a tropical disease. I suppose I should count myself lucky. Not everyone in Ireland has a condition that's so unusual that it has to be notified to the department of health. Not everyone is on enough medication to stop a rhino in its tracks and make it think for a minute. Not everyone has to wait a week for their medication to be imported.
At least I know what's wrong with me. I'd been thinking 'everything'. Everything from something I ate, to stress, to something that was going to make me fall over and die tomorrow. It's none of those. It could be something I've had for years, dormant. I'm kind of hoping it's something I picked up in India.
And I get to take lots of pills, and I have to keep going back to the pharmacy. I'm sure that the pharmacist was chatting me up.
Up until I was about nine, I lived about as centrally in Edinburgh as it was possible to live. If I had stuck my head out of my bedroom window I could probably have seen into the gardens of Holyrood Palace. I passed the front gate on my way to school. My local park had Arthur's Seat in it. This was my little world.
But as you get older, you realise that there are other places to live out there. We used to have one beamed in to our house everytnight, lighting up our television with its cheery depiction of the corrupt fun of life in Scotland's real capital.
To the mind of a fourteen year old, Glasgow had ideas above its station. Just because Scottish Television was based there, they thought that all of Scotland would be interested in Glasgow's local politics. So we in Edinburgh - my nice little corner of Edinburgh just round the palace - we were continually exposed to this complete irrelevance of news that masqueraded as being "Reporting Scotland". The mind of a fourteen year old is impressionable, clearly.
Looking at it in retrospect, I suspect it wasn't as biased as I felt at the time, but I think of how it would make you feel if you were prone to an extreme reaction.
I've met people who believe that, you know. I've given up arguing with them.
I'm sure that "media types" could argue with me that news coverage reflects the world around it, but I doubt that they could succesfully argue that news coverage does not influence the world it inhabits. Television news, like newspapers, is all about competition, and audience share. It's about being slick, and convincing the viewer that you're worth watching more than the competition.
In the UK, television news tries to compete by being fairer, slicker, and more accessible. Tabloid newspapers compete by using shorter words, having more breasts inside, or having better sports coverage. In the US, news media compete for your attention with entertainment media and use sensationalism, scare tactics ("The damning exposé of manicurists that you CANNOT AFFORD TO MISS").
The line between reportage and opinion is blurred and erased on an hourly basis. As a society, we've been groomed to demand information, to demand it quickly. How can we expect our journalists to respond to that without making judgement calls, and without basing their presentation on their own perception of society's priorities?
"So you deleted your web site?" asked Laura, peering at me over the narrow frame of her glasses.
"Err, yes," I replied, looking down in to my cider.
"Would that be something that you would classify as, perhaps, foolhardy?"
Personally, I could think of a number of excuses. The pressure of work. The novelty of the whole thing, and the excitement of having a new, clean set of templates to work with. A vagary of the browser at work, where sometimes it'll jump half a screen between the start of a mouse-click and the end. It's Bill Gates. Always Bill's fault.
"You should be more careful, Doctor Oddverse, shouldn't you?"
"Errr.... " you get the idea.
I've learned since then a salutory lesson about backing up. Backing up is one of those lessons that one should learn early and learn often. Because in today's world it's incredibly easy to throw things away and not be able to get them back. I read that in a fortune cookie once.
I then ate the fortune cookie, and felt much less than fortunate. Fortune cookies are not nice.
So... some things still won't quite work right, but that was always the case, wasn't it? I've rebuilt 26 templates today. Yes, 26. So much for having a clean design that's easy to maintain. I've also consumed about a gallon of coffee, and that will doubtless have caused my coding to speed up and my accuracy to degrade dramatically.
So... a deep breath, and relax. Welcome back. I missed you.
Oh England, my lionheart
Peter Pan steals the kids in Kensington Park
Peter Pan is one of children's literature's greatest creations. He's the boy who never grew up, isn't he? And which of us wants to grow up? We can all relate to that. He's exciting. He opens the minds of three young children and takes them off to a world of adventure, where they meet mermaids, and pirates, and badly stereotyped Native Americans, and they have a thrilling time, before they go home and live their humdrum lives again.
That's Peter Pan in a nutshell, isn't it? It doesn't capture the details of the plot, but it captures the spirit of it.
Rubbish, I'm afraid. Peter Pan is far more complex and interesting than that.
Peter Pan is a perpetual child. Look at any small boy you know. The chances are that he is sometimes sweet and innocent, and sometimes a complete monster. Barrie describes all children as "gay and innocent and heartless", and Peter Pan is the ultimate child. He is fickle and self-centred, and utterly charming. He's not the boy who never grew up. He's the boy who refused to grow up, and who refused to let any of his friends grow up either.
The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out; but at this time there were six of them, counting the twins as two.
I don't like the sound of that. Thinning them out. It all sounds so callous. But that's Peter for you. He sets Wendy up in a house of her own, and turns her into his mother. This consists mainly of sewing and of giving out medicine. Thrilling, eh? He's so desparate to hang on to his own childhood that he denies Wendy hers. Seems to work for Wendy, though. Odd girl. Head turned by the thought of seeing mermaids, helped along by a hefty dose of fairy dust.
Adventures ensue, but at the end of the day, Wendy wants her own mother - she wants to take her brothers home. Peter won't let them - he wants them to stay, although it's quite clear that he would be likely to forget about them fairly quickly. He is offered the chance to stay with Wendy, but this would mean growing up. He declines.
"Oh, all right," Peter said, as if he had asked her from politeness merely; but Mrs. Darling saw his mouth twitch, and she made this handsome offer: to let Wendy go to him for a week every year to do his spring cleaning. Wendy would have preferred a more permanent arrangement; and it seemed to her that spring would be long in coming; but this promise sent Peter away quite gay again. He had no sense of time, and was so full of adventures that all I have told you about him is only a halfpenny-worth of them. I suppose it was because Wendy knew this that her last words to him were these rather plaintive ones:
"You won't forget me, Peter, will you, before spring cleaning time comes?"
Pan, however, has the attention span of a child. He remembers the next year, although he has forgotten much of the adventures of the year before.
She had looked forward to thrilling talks with him about old times, but new adventures had crowded the old ones from his mind.
"Who is Captain Hook?" he asked with interest when she spoke of the arch enemy.
"Don't you remember," she asked, amazed, "how you killed him and saved all our lives?"
"I forget them after I kill them," he replied carelessly.
When she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her he said, "Who is Tinker Bell?"
"O Peter," she said, shocked; but even when she explained he could not remember.
"There are such a lot of them," he said. "I expect she is no more."
The year after, he forgets to come for her, and by the time he remembers again, Wendy has grown up and has a daughter of her own. He takes her instead, and when she too grows too old, it is Wendy's granddaughter that goes with him.
Frankly, I loved the down-beat nature of the ending. It really drew out the childlike qualities of Pan for me - his innocent and heartless side. It surprised me though. I don't remember that from the Disney version.
Overall, I was surprised when I read this book. I was surprised at the sympathy I felt towards Hook, despite the fact that he was clearly a heartless villain, and I was surprised at the animosity I felt towards Peter Pan, who was the hero in a story of his own writing, who didn't care for anyone else, and whose final victory was hollow and ultimately meaningless.
What's the point of winning, if all it means is moving on to the next excitement?
The rock was very small now; soon it would be submerged. Pale rays of light tiptoed across the waters; and by and by there was to be heard a sound at once the most musical and the most melancholy in the world: the mermaids calling to the moon.
Peter was not quite like other boys; but he was afraid at last. A tremour ran through him, like a shudder passing over the sea; but on the sea one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and Peter felt just the one. Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, "To die will be an awfully big adventure."
Now the thing about rituals, the important thing is that the nature of the ritual is completely irrelevant. It's not about what you do, it's not even about how you do it. What matters is why you do it, and why you have to do something.
"Drive carefully," was almost the last thing that Officer Egan said to us as we were leaving. There was never any danger that we were going to do anything else, though.
It must have been lunchtime-ish when we were leaving the hotel. We'd been up partying most of the night, as you do when you've got music and moonlight and wine and company, and as a result we were somewhat on the fragile side, although not as fragile as we could have been, or should have been. We were going to drive carefully, no doubt about it. Officer Egan - technically retired, but still a policeman at heart - was wise to warn us. Six people had died in road accidents the night before. We drove back to Dublin safely.
I'm used to anonymous strangers dying. Anonymous strangers die all the time. Most of them die due to illness or through the natural and inevitable process of organ failure. In Ireland, there's pretty much a violent death in Dublin every night, and accidents on the roads are common. There are worse ways to die. There are more media-focussed ways to die. It needs to be a big glamorous death to merit more than a passing mention on the news. But it's reassuring that murder is still worth mentioning. Some things should never become commonplace.
Death is not just an ending, though. It's the beginning of a new feeling, a new way of living. It's the beginning of living without. It's a sudden change - and no matter how long you think you've prepared for it, it's always sudden. A life is gone.
It's not surprising that society builds rituals to cope with this, builds ways to offer the hope that perhaps you will meet your loved one again in the great unknown. Otherwise, it would be so easy to let grief consume you, to withdraw from society and live inside your own head, with your memories. Even the least spiritual of us needs some view about death to cling to, even if that view is that it is inevitable, natural and needs rational acceptance.
Violent death is particularly hard.
When we left the hotel on Sunday, we knew that six people had died on the roads. We heard their grizzly epitaphs on the radio on the way home, sandwiched between Satellite of Love and Brian McFadden. Six young lives gone. By the end of the weekend, there had been ten fatalities in road accidents in Ireland.
I didn't know any of them, but my colleague Niamh did. She's 23, and her friend was 22. They studied together. They weren't the best buddies on the planet, but they were close enough that Niamh felt that she ought to be at the funeral. Apparently there were hundreds of mourners, mostly under the age of 25.
I always think that grief is an intensely personal thing. I don't think that anyone should be told how to grieve, or that they're not grieving enough. And yet, in the midst of all of this personal emotion, comes the funeral. Perhaps the oddest ritual in the panoply of human rituals, and one of the most powerful.
It can be a way to vent, to let some of the anger at the injustice out. It can be a way to remember, and to celebrate. It can be a meaningless thing, attended only to show support to those who need it. To me, at least, a funeral is about living, about remembering the good things - those we have lost, and those we still retain.
Everything passes, but life goes on.
"What are you doing down there?" asked Laura.
I must have made a ludicrous sight, crawling under the table on my hands and knees, trying to find the one Euro coin that had slipped from my wallet.
"Nothing," I replied. "Just trying to look up your skirt."
"I wish," she said. For a second, I believed her.
We were in the beer garden at Scholars. Scholars being our local, a car crash of a pub, where bad taste meets worse taste in a crazy mishmash that ought not to work, and doesn't.
Back in the day, it was a School. I think it was St Kevin's National School, but being a foreigner, I neither know what a National School means, nor do I really care. Then, as is the way with all old public buildings that fall in to disuse, it was turned in to a pub. They called it Scholars because of the School connection, you see. They're clever like that round our way. They kept most of the structure, the wood panelling, had pictures of old school sports teams on the wall. It was quite dark, and it was quite quaint, and it sold bottles of wine for take out at two in the morning at ridiculously over-inflated prices. It had a food section that didn't serve food, and looked like it hadn't for years. That's how posh it was.
Back in January they closed for refurbishment. When they reopened, everything was cream and beige, the bar had moved, and the beer garden had been expanded. Less of a garden, though, more an ugly patio with a sun-shade and a few hardwired braziers. Televisions everywhere inside so that people can watch sports, ashtrays outside so that people can enjoy the delights of the smoking ban in comfort, although they have to peer inside if they want to see who's thrashing who at the Hurling. Now, after a shaky start where they attracted those poor unfortunate souls who rely on the scent of sawdust to achieve arousal, they are now doing great bsuiness with people who don't have Sky Sports, or funeral parties who want to go for a damn fine knees up.
And we go there too. Because it's local, and because it's sometimes quite quiet, when the local kids stop throwing empty cans up on to the awning and asking us why we're sitting outside when we're not smoking.
So I was down on the ground, trying to pick up this coin while retaining as much dignity as I could with my arse in the air. Mr Twinky and Laura were talking - as usual - about architecture and employment, and for a second, just for a second, I realised that I was looking at the world from a strange angle, seeing shoes and ankles, looking up through the wire mesh of the table top at the braziers and canopies.
Crawling around on the floor is a shit place to be. It's not anywhere that I'd really choose to be, but at that point in my life it was the culmination of every choice that there had been up to that point.
What the hell, I thought, make the most of it. So I tied her shoelaces together.
odd·verse noun (òd-vï¿½rs')
The less conventional of two possible alternatives, cases, or sides: the oddverse of science is, more often than not, pixies.