Sunday, December 03, 2006

A pleasant stay in Amsterdam

Friday 6 October 2006, Amsterdam, 13:30 CET

I visited Amsterdam for a conference, which was not very good. It was held in a hotel in the business park near the airport. The hotel was very nice, luxurious and had all the conveniences, services and facilities one would expect in a modern business hotel. The staff were efficient, friendly and helpful, but not over-familiar. The food was OK but not great, although the breakfast choices were good. At €180 per night – and that was conference rate – one would expect no less.

The hotel had one major drawback: it was in the middle of a business park, surrounded by corporate offices and other hotels. It was really isolated from the city and offered no opportunities to savour the life of Amsterdam. Of course, a taxi or shuttle bus could be arranged; but the former costs about €40 while the latter service ends at 11 p.m. So I spent two days totally bored and isolated in the hotel. It made me make one firm decision: I will never again attend a conference that is not held in a city location, or within very easy reach of the city.

The contrast when I moved into the city of Amsterdam could not have been more marked: a thriving, lively, buzzing city with lots of people and plenty of bars, restaurants and clubs to visit. But, at the same time, I found it a quiet and relaxed city. It is very people-friendly and bikes are everywhere. Vehicular traffic takes second place to pedestrians and bikes so there is a calmness in the city. In complete contrast to Ireland, of course, Amsterdam has a fantastic system of public transport with trams, metro, trains and buses. It works brilliantly and is so easy – and cheap – to use.

Again, in contrast to the luxury of the airport hotel, my second hotel is a budget establishment on Prinsengracht, which is on the fourth canal to the west of the city, but still within walking distance. The hotel is on the canal and consists of a number of houses that have been amalgamated into a single hotel. The buildings are traditional narrow-fronted properties rising to three or four stories. Due to their narrowness, there are no lifts; just very narrow staircases which make it a challenge to haul a big heavy suitcase up them! For this reason, almost every building has a hoisting hook near its top to enable large and heavy items to be hoisted up to the higher levels.
I observed a builder hauling up a bag of cement and later saw some people moving into a flat on the third floor of another building. So they are very practical devices. Living in a bungalow, as I do, I would have very little use for a hoist, I think.


The room I am in is tiny – probably about 8 feet by 10 feet. It has a shower and toilet separated by a studded wall. In the room is a washbasin and shelves with plenty of towels, soap and shampoo. There is a pole on which to hang clothes; no fancy wardrobes and trouser presses here! The bed is very narrow so it is lucky I did not “get lucky” because it would be impossible to fit two in the bed! Instead of a dresser, there is a formica-topped shelf about 15 inches deep, over which is a mirror. The room is overlooked at the rear, so I have to keep the curtains closed all the time. Am I painting a bad picture? Well I don’t mean to. For the €60 a night, including breakfast and taxes, it is great value and I am very pleased with it. Given that all I am doing is washing, sleeping and storing my stuff there, it is great value and I would recommend the place, once one did not expect luxury facilities.

Breakfast is 100% self-service and there is a good choice – once you don’t expect a full English or Irish breakfast! And you could probably do without that anyway! The hotel offers juices; cereal; boiled (hard) eggs; cheeses; salami; cold meat; sweet, sticky bread; jams and marmalade; white and brown bread (toast it yourself!), and tea and coffee. No fruit or yoghurt, but after you have eaten your fill of the above you probably won’t need them anyway. The dining room is very bright and airy, but very 60s! And the young Alsatian dog even comes in to greet all the diners!

Staff in the hotel are friendly but not familiar, courteous, and informative when asked. The hotel is old and old-fashioned, but it is clean. I am very happy with the hotel and would stay here again.

Jordaan, the area where the hotel is situated, is a really lovely and somewhat Bohemian area. Keeping with the theme of contrasts, it is very different to the city centre and the red light district. I think Jordaan is probably more typical of continental Europe and Amsterdam than the red light district. There are artisan shops; boutiques; many restaurants; quaint bars and lots of specialty shops. Lying within a network of canals, Jordaan is very charming and my preferred location in Amsterdam. It is definitely a good daytime location.

I had intended visiting a few museums and galleries but there were queues at them all. With only a day and a half in Amsterdam, I did not want to spend all my time queuing so I will leave them for another trip. I am more a people and pubs person anyway and really enjoyed the buzz and cut-and-thrust of human interaction, especially with foreign people in their own countries. I think I enjoy being an outsider!

I visited a few bars – even one or two gay bars – and really enjoyed them. One bar was run by a guy from Northern Ireland and he knew the area I lived in back in Dublin. He had a great interest in motor bikes so we had a great chat about that. I enjoyed myself there.

In the gay bar, the barman spent a lot of time trying to figure out where a restaurant I had visited some years ago might be. Everyone in there was very pleasant and friendly and – in case you are wondering – I left with my virtue – and everything else – intact! They don’t actually try to jump you or have sex with you the second you walk into a gay bar, it seems! I was chatting to a guy called Bram, so that led on to a conversation about Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Stoker lived very close to where I lived in Fairview, Dublin and I played in a park we called the “Crescent” opposite his house, which was in a terraced crescent. I had to explain what a crescent was to Bram and told him there were good examples in Bristol and Bath in the UK.

Bram and I also talked about the relationship between the Dutch and the loyalists in Northern Ireland; the siege of Derry; the Battle of the Boyne; the Apprentice boys; sectarianism in Derry and a 3-some gay sex session he had with a guy from Northern Ireland and another Dutch guy one night! Apparently, the Dutch guy offended the Northern guy, who turned out to be of the “orange” persuasion (and thus a fitting partner for 2 Dutch guys). Despite his nakedness, the Northern guy became extremely aggressive and argumentative. It made an interesting piece of imagery: 3 naked queens arguing over politics and religion in Northern Ireland, having just shagged the shit – literally – out of each other! I never got to find out how the story ended, unfortunately!

I know you are wondering did I visit the Red Light District. Well of course I did, dear reader. Not to have done so would have been like going to Pisa and not seeing the tower; going to Rome and not seeing St. Peter’s; seeing Naples and not dying … well, you get the picture. I am sure that everything that could possibly be written about the Red Light District has been written, so what can I add? I find it an interesting and decadent place – but there has always been a place in my heart for Bacchanalian decadence. Look at any web site about the Red Light District and you will find out all that is on offer there. I found some of it interesting (the beautiful women); some of it strangely fascinating (the chicks with dicks); some of it compelling (the fetishists, nurses, secretaries, mistresses, school teachers); some of it repulsive (the fat uninterested ones); some of it a real turn off (the pregnant ones) and, finally, some if it rather worrying and upsetting (the seemingly very young girls, many of whom seemed to be from Eastern Europe). Anyway, in the true tradition of the best in reportage, when I encountered these sirens, I made my excuses and came!

The Dutch strike me as a very pleasant people. Their services seem to work; their lifestyle seems more relaxed that the Irish or British; they rush less and – of course – they cycle everywhere, even in the rain. Many cycle while holding up their umbrellas, which I find somewhat charming. And they have bikes especially adapted for carrying kids, tools, equipment, etc. Some have elaborate boxes attached at the front while others have trailers. Many have luxury seats for their kids, often carrying two or three on a bike. And I even saw bikes decorated with abundances of flowers!


Observing the Dutch life – albeit for a short time – and having seen the Danes, French, Spanish and Portuguese living somewhat similar lives at a far slower pace, I really wonder whether it is they, rather than us in Ireland, Britain and the USA, who have the formula right. I am inclined to believe that our future should be definitely more Berlin than Boston, more social democratic and less liberal capitalist. Sadly, the monster of capital – driven by US globalisation and cheapening of everything – seems to be winning out. We should resist this “Boston” model so beloved of Mary Harney and, with it, US and British aggression in the world. The European model appears to me to be a gentler, fairer model that, at its core, puts people at the heart of its policies and beliefs. In Ireland, I think we have sold out our children’s futures for economic success. We have made a big mistake.

Two downsides of this trip – but ones by which I was not affected – were the British “Bulldog” pubs everywhere with their constant Sky Sports, English breakfast, chips with everything and raucous customers and the other, sadly, Irish pubs that have as much connection with Ireland as Outer Mongolia. I gave neither type of establishment my custom but did look in the door of one so-called “Irish” pub. It was as expected: dark, loud, multi-Sky-Sports-screened and, ironically, had a blackboard with a complete list of all the English premiership matches that were to be shown that week on Murdoch’s Sky. The customers were loud and vulgar and not my type. These pubs – both English and Irish – are a blot on the landscape of almost every major holiday destination in the world. The sooner we get rid of them the better.

Saturday 7 October 2006, Amsterdam. 14.00 CET

I am back in the pub where I wrote yesterday’s journal. I will be heading to the airport soon on my journey back to Dublin.

The hotel worked out to be perfect to my needs. They even cleaned the room, changed the used towels and made the bed. Now, for €60 a night, that is not bad. I will be back!!!

I ate in a great Italian restaurant last night, directly across the bridge from the pub where I now write. I had minestrone soup, an enormous Lasagne and a pint of Heineken, all for €16.50. It was well worth the money.

After that, I went to the bar close to the hotel where I had been in the afternoon I arrived. It is a lovely bar and seems to be frequented by trendy – but not very young – people. The guy behind the bar was the image of Ralph Fiennes and I reckon he could make money as a double. Every feature and every expression on his face was so like Ralph that it was quite remarkable.

I wrote yesterday that I like being a stranger and what I experienced yesterday – especially in that nice pub – pretty much confirmed my feeling. I was surrounded (the pub was very packed) by 20 and 30 somethings and none of them was speaking English. Since I can’t even pick up a word of Dutch, I was very much alone and the outsider. But I felt very comfortable and at ease. I could even tell that they were talking about me but felt relaxed about it. In the end a young girl felt the need to tell me what they were saying about me. They had seen me drinking pints of Heineken instead of the more normal small beer. She told me that they thought that guys who drank pints had small dicks!!!!! I refrained from giving her the opportunity to see that she was wrong.

I got talking to a more senior citizen – an Amsterdam native named Joke. It is pronounced YO-KA. She was very nice. We had a great chat about Amsterdam and Dublin and the merits of both cities. We spoke about our kids and how they were getting on, etc. She has a new partner now, her marriage having broken up many years ago. I think I am becoming something of an exception because nearly everyone I met here and meet in Dublin is in a second or third relationship. Strange, really. But, with all its faults, I still prefer to be married to the same girl I walked down the aisle with almost 25 years ago. Through ups and downs, ins and outs, and trouble and strife, we have managed to stay together as have most of our friends, who also got married about the same time. But it seems we might be a dying breed!

Having seen and stayed in Jordaan in Amsterdam, the Red Light District pales into insignificance. What a pity Amsterdam is known more for the latter than the former. Jordaan is a fantastic place full of culture, chic and elegant, relaxed ambience. This is Amsterdam! Situated between Jordaan and the Red Light District is the main shopping area with H&M, Levis, Foot Locker, McDonalds, etc. Avoid it unless you absolutely must go there. Yesterday I had to buy an umbrella, so there I went. But it is like Grafton Street (no longer a wonderland), Oxford Street, Strøget in Copenhagen, and every other corporate-owned city centre in the world. So stick to the outlying areas; and in Amsterdam, that is wonderful Jordaan. This is a place to which I will return.

I went back earlier yesterday to the pub I was in that was run by the Northern Ireland guy, Brian Campbell. He’s a nice guy. This time I met a couple from Australia, Karl and Ruth. Karl was 59 and worked in construction. Ruth was about the same age, or a little younger, and worked in a hospital in Fremantle. They were very nice and chatty. Karl, who left Yorkshire when he was two years old, has been in Aus all his life and loves the country. He comes to Europe every year for about six weeks. Both he and Ruth are in a post-previous-marriage relationship. And it is funny, because we talked about kids again (Jaysus, I must bore people when I am away!). They could not wait to get theirs out of the house, whereas I can’t bear the thought of mine leaving, even though they are adults.

In the Dutch pub I am now writing in, there is something else I really like about it. They draw a plan of every table and bar space in the pub and write down – in longhand – every drink and meal served. That’s the tab! I also saw this in another pub and found it fascinating.

By tram and train, I got to the airport from the city centre in about 30 minutes, at the princely cost of €5.20. One cannot help but be impressed at the efficiency of the Dutch transport system. It is absolutely marvellous and – on the theme of contrasts – so different to what passes for a public transport system in Ireland.

My trip to Amsterdam was really marvellous and I hope to return in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fail

The Progressive Democtats' attitude to, and continuing engagement with, the discredited Fianna Fail party, and especially the Taoiseach and his Ministers, is proof positive that if you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Finscéal 2006 - A Writer's Trail of Fingal

Congratulations to Fingal County Council's Libraries and Arts Office for organising another excellent festival of readers' and writers' events during September 2006. The events run from 12 to 30 September in a variety of locations around Fingal county. At the many workshops, which are facilitated by published writers and people involved in the publishing industry, participants can learn to write a book in a year; improve their creative writing and deal with writer's block; listen to and share poetry; enjoy a murder mystery in the magnificent Ardgillan Castle, and spend a day with successful Irish women authors. The authors Nell McCafferty and Evelyn Conlon will also share their long experience with participants.

I attended one workshop last year and it was excellent, so I am really looking forward to this year's programme. Further details can be got from
Fingal Arts Office on +353-1-890 6237 or you can email Sarah O'Neill.

A small worm turns

In September 2005, I wrote a blog entry about the ejection of an 83 year old man from the British Labour Party conference during a speech by Jack Straw. I was incensed that such a breach of civil liberties should occur.

I’m glad to say that the worm has turned and that the members of the Labour Party have now elected the man, Mr. Walter Wolfgang, to the party’s national executive committee. Mr. Wolfgang has pledged to campaign for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon and a withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. He also wants Blair to quit as leader. How delightful and I hope that Mr. Wolfgang becomes a constant thorn in Blair’s side.


Good on ya, Walter, and here’s to your long life and good health.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Air travel set to get worse

I learned with horror on the Irish news programme, RTE’s Morning Ireland, that it may be possible in as little as a few months to use personal mobile phones on aeroplanes. While applauding the Kerry-based company that is developing this technology, I dread the day I get on a plane to, say, France, and have to listen to some jumped up self-important idiot talking to his business associates or his girlfriend or his solicitor or his counsellor while I am trying to have a relaxing flight and forget about my terror at being in a steel tube hurtling through the air at about 500 miles an hour.

This must surely be one of the worst inventions ever and will make air travel more stressful, more unpleasant and more fraught than ever. There is nothing worse that listening to someone else’s telephone conversation under any circumstances but, in the confined space of an aeroplane – when it might not be possible to change seats – it will be truly awful. I hold the view that all devices that make any sort of noise should be banned from aeroplanes. But, once these damned mobile phones are permitted on board, I will be using my iPOD on full volume at all times and, if a loquacious arsehole ever sits beside me, I will do everything possible to disrupt his or her conversation.

I recently travelled from Cork to Dublin on the new fancy train in first class, at a cost of €115 return, excluding food. So, in all, the cost of the trip was probably about €150. No sooner had my colleague and I sat down than some asshole behind me got on the blower and proceeded to conduct his business in the loudest voice possible on the train. If he had kept it to a single call, perhaps, I would have tolerated it but this idiot – who was obviously too important to be off air even for a minute – proceeded to make and take call after call. If he had kept his voice quiet, maybe that would have been OK but he bellowed so loudly that I wondered why he needed the phone at all.

I complained to the steward on the train and he relayed my complaint to the offending prattler. From then on, he made and took his calls outside the train carriage. Problem solved, as far as I was concerned. But he was not too happy with this. As if I gave a shit that this plonker was upset!

And here is another thing that really bugs me: why do people on aeroplanes have to talk on their phones prior to take off, almost up up to the point that the wheels are lifted? And why do they also feel the need to turn on their mobile phones again as soon as the rubber hits the tarmac? How sad are these bastards? What sort of lives must they lead? What makes them think they are so important?

You have probably gathered that I am not a great fan of mobile phones but that is not correct. I actually have three of them. But I manage to arrange my life reasonably well and to get things done efficiently enough so that people do not have the need to ring me too often, nor I them. I actually look forward to the day when mobile phones go out of fashion because they are a damned nuisance. As soon as I can, I am dumping mine, but that probably won’t happen until I retire!

Anyway, dear reader, please have some consideration for other people when you are using your mobile phone. Try to have some simple manners and show respect for other people. Speak quietly and keep your call as short as possible. Oh, and don’t be an asshole like our fellow traveller on the train from Cork.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My week and a bit!

Lazy fortnight
I have been off work for the last two weeks and have been totally lazy! I spent most of the time on the Internet chatting to friends; trying to tidy things up; getting more use out of web sites; setting up news feeds; personalising Google, Yahoo and MSN and lots of other wasteful stuff! I also met some nice new people online.

New iMAC
I got a new iMAC and really like it. The design is excellent and, if it were not for the fact that all my stuff is on an old Windows laptop, I'd probably shift over excluslvely to the MAC. But I have so much stuff on the windows laptop and so many applications installed that it would be a bit of a pain. I'll see how things go and maybe shift over gradually. I love the screen on the iMAC and, with my eyesight getting poorer, it is really great. The interface is very nice but a little hard to get used to when you have been using PCs since the '80s. I have not fully mastered the file management system yet, nor the way applications are set up and managed. But I am sure it will not be that hard.

You can get a lot for free online
Having so much time on my hands has enabled me to explore what the various free service providers like Google, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, AOL and Skype have to offer. Once again, I have to say that I am quite impressed. Besides free mail, chat and cheap or free voice telephony, many of them offer complete personalisation of their home page for RSS feeds; mail client links; chat links; calendar facilities; weather reports; flight tracking, etc. It is really good and all free. Google also offer a free spreadsheet program at http://spreadsheet.google.com, which is quite good. I have used it and it is possible to share spreadsheets with other users. An excellent free service. It's also possible to get reminders and log birthdays, anniversaries, etc, with many of the calendar offferings. If this becomes a trend the future of paid-for software might be limited. In fact, one idea I had for the iMAC was to put free software only on it to see how far I get.

Privacy concerns
Given this trend towards free hosted software services, which must be paid for by advertising, I suppose one worry could be privacy. While most apparently reputable providers have privacy policies, do we have any guarantees about the security and privacy of the information we store online? What would happen, for example if a predatory organisation - perhaps an unscrupulous one - took over an existing provider and sold customer information or pried into personal stuff. And, of course, there is always Big Brother and Uncle Sam!

Israel's murderous campaign in Lebanon continues
The Israelis continue to perpetrate heinous war crimes on the innocent citizens of Lebanon. Children are massacred, women mutilated and men torn to pieces by bullet and bomb. The infrastructure of that country is being destroyed by the Israeli terrorists, supported by the real sponsor of world terrorism, George Bush, aided and abetted by his lapdog Tony Blair. I know what Hezbollah are doing is wrong, but the response of the Israeli murderers is totally disproportionate. Surely some Western nation has the guts to stand up and say clearly that what Israel is doing is wrong and call it what it is - genocide and war crimes. I am horrified at what I see each day on the television and read in the papers.

Western support needed for Israeli murder to prosper
Nothing can describe my contempt for these Israeli murderers and I hope that some day they will reap the whirlwind they deserve. Is it any wonder that those of the Islamic faith - and the Arab world in general - hate us Westerners when they see their countries destroyed by Western armaments and their natural resources plundered by Western economic interests. A people under such pressure and suffering so much will, naturally, resort to so-called "terrorist" retaliation, as we know all too well in Ireland. And who is the terrorist - the invader in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine or Lebanon or the freedom fighter trying to defend his country? And what gave us the right to impose our Western values or standards on other cultures and nations? In the West our leaders and some commentators argue that Islam wants to take over the world and destroy it while, every day, we do this by economic expansion, unfair trading practices, plundering of natural resources, military might, etc. Are they a people fighting for victory or for survival? Maybe we should think about that sometime.

How far will Israel go to "defend" itself?
When will the international community get the courage to call these murdering bastards in Israel what they are - war criminals, every one of them. But as long as Israel is supported by that bastard in the White House, their terrorist government will never be brought to justice. And how can a heavily armed army, located deep in another country's territory and perpetrating indiscriminate bombing raids on its soil, be called a "defence force"? They are an army of terror and of occupation and should be called such. News media - like our own RTE in Ireland - should stop referring to these murderers as the "IDF" (Israeli Defence Forces) and at least call them what they are - an army at least and a terrorist band of murdering bandits at worst.

Life's cheap when you are a Lebanese baby
Two pictures in an Irish newspaper today (Wednesday) encapsulated our twisted Western view of and value for human life. On one page was a picture of conjoined twins who were separated following a lengthy operation. They are American and no expense was spared to separate them and save their lives last Monday. The other picture showed a dead Lebanese baby being carried in the arms of a rescue worker. She was about two years old and to see her lifeless body silhouetted against a Lebanese sky was appalling. In her case, no expense was spared in killing her. Thanks to American money and science, two children have a chance to live while, in Lebanon the same money and science ensures the death of so many children. What sort of people can do this to the innocent and helpless? People are bombed in their homes, they are strafed as they flee in cars, they are buried under rubble and they are maimed and scarred for life. Nothing justifies this; nothing.

Irish experience of occupation and terror
There was a very good programme on RTE television on Tuesday night about the burning, sacking and looting of Cork in 1920. It described in some detail the events leading up to this war crime perpetrated by the British forces of occupation on the Irish and on Cork city at that time. The callousness, brutality and murderous intent of the British forces was quite remarkable. And, as I watched the programme over 80 years after the event, I saw the children and grandchildren of those murdered by the British interviewed today and speaking with passion and anger about how their ancestors were treated. This is what leads to resistance and civil strife and it can help us to understand what happened for 30 years in Northern Ireland.

A Secret History of the IRA
I am reading Ed Moloney's book "A Secret History of the IRA", which is also a good read. It helps us to understand why things happened the way they did. Today we abhor - rightly - all terrorist acts, but we must acknowledge that the impetus for these actions often came from some action on the part of others - usually the oppression and subjugation of a native people. A simplistic view, perhaps, but one that might have at least some merit. More as I go through the book.

Holidaying in Ireland? Then it has to rain on me!
It is typical of me to take time off work when the weather changes. For several weeks prior to my holidays the weather was brilliant and then, as soon as I take holidays, it changes to wind, cold and rain. This always happens when I stay in Ireland for my holidays and I remember now why I go away every year. I won't stay in Ireland next year for the holidays. Maybe I will take a week abroad later in the year.

The gout got me bad
And as if the weather wasn't bad enough, for the first week of my break from work, I was stricken with gout and the pain was excruciating. Men don't do pain well and I do it particularly badly! I thought my foot was going to burst. I was hobbling around like an old cripple and felt very sorry for myself. Needless to say, I got little sympathy from others, seeing how they associate it with high living, rich food and alcohol. As if I would! I am on various tablets to clear it up and it is nearly better now. And I don't know what I would have done without Difene - it is a great drug and really helped. I will always keep it handy in future if I can.

Mixed exerience in Howth
Howth is a fishing village north of Dublin city and I spent many happy times there when I was a child, teenager, adult and parent. The family and I popped over the other day for a visit and I have to say I was very disappointed at how this nice quaint fishing harbour has become a tacky and tawdry extension of Dublin suburbia. The harbour was alright but the shopping side of the street is a real disappointment. Garish moden buildings with little or no architectural merit line the once quaint promenade. As usual, apartments abound and some of them are hideous. One apartment block has a bin bay and a car park at street level - no shops or nice apartments, but smelly bins, iron gates and cars locked away. How horrible. The old Time and Tide pub, formerly the St. Lawrence Hotel (where I met my wife, as it happens), retained its original facade but tacked on an ugly glass structure on the side. I was so disappointed to see these changes, which I do not think have been for the better. I won't be rushing back, except for the fresh fish (see below).

Not much in the way of decent pubs
We stopped into the Pier House pub, where I used to love to have a pint and watch the old timers and fishermen enjoying a pint, a chat and a game of pool, rings or darts. It is being renovated at the moment and whoever is doing the job has succeeded in removing all character from the place. It is now an overly bright, cold and unfriendly place and we really did not enjoy it. We left there after one drink and visited another pub, the Waterside. This was too dark and looked just like a plastic pub. We ordered food, which was very ordinary, though reasonably priced. Unfortunately my food was cold and when I sent it back it was simply zapped in the microwave and returned to me, complete with the fish I sent back with one mouthful missing. I was disappointed here also so we decided to forget having another drink.

Nicky's Plaice for fish
We called back down the harbour to Nickys Plaice (www.nickysplaice.ie), where we bought some crab claws, cod and seafood chowder mix. According to their website, the shop got a mention in Rick Stein's book, "Rick Stein's Seafood Lovers' Guide". This is a great shop and the fish was lovely and fresh and very reasonably priced. I ate the crab claws today, made really nice seafood chowder (for a recipe have a look at http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/database/seafoodchowder_73917.shtml), and grilled the cod, which we ate with brown soda bread and a fresh salad. Bliss!

I love cooking
Cooking is a favourite interest of mine and I really lik the BBC web site. You have access to all the great English and Irish chefs and a wealth of recipes for free. But any search on the web for recipes will provide fantastic information on food and recipes. I will be doing a bit more cooking before I go back to work next week.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

My Week

I have been lazy again and have not been paying attention to my blog. Not a lot happened this week, really. The hot and humid weather in Dublin finally broke and we have returned to a more familiar pattern of wind, rain and cooler conditions. But it is not too bad.

The entire family went to see Billy Joel in concert in Croke Park, Dublin, last night and it was a fantastic event. Joel was superb and the band he assembled was awesome! I can't remember their names, but the saxophonist (also flute and clarinet), trumpeter and drummer were superb and were fully in synch with Joel's cool piano playing.

He did all the standards and, as expected, finished the show with Piano Man, leaving the audience enthralled and satisfied. He also included some material from his early years and it was absolutely perfect, particularly the song about the fishing communities of New York's islanders. That was a highlight for me.

I was at the Dublin v Offaly Leinster final recently and had a great time, complemented by a superb Dublin win built on a superior second half performance. Dublin now face Westmeath in the next round and I would expect them to win. We had a good few beers before the game and a few more after it - a great way to go to a game.

I am horrified by the atrocities being perpetrated in Lebanon, largely by the totally disproportionate actions of the Israelis to Hezbollah attacks. While I agree that the attacks and kidnaps visited on Israel are completely wrong, the aggression of the Israelis - when they know that they must inevitably kill civilians - are reprehensible and, in my view, amount to war crimes. Today's massacre of women and children is appalling and cannot be excused on any level. George Bush and Tony Blair - Bush's poodle - can't escape blame for this atrocity, since they both support the Israeli action. Bush is on the way out, at least; the sooner the Labour Party has the sense to get rid of Blair, the better. But's let hope they don't replace him with that cretin, Brown. Any man who has not had the balls to challenge the leader when he knows he is wrong and when they clearly disagree on many issues is not, himself, a leader and does not deserve a leadership role. At least Jack Straw, belatedly, had the guts to disagree publicly with Blair.

I'm delighted to say that I have discovered a new author and that is always a fantastic thrill. Although he is not a new writer (he is a veteran, in fact), James Lee Burke is new to me. I picked up one of his books by accident and, in the next three weeks, read five of them in a row. He places his characters in Louisiana - a place I am familiar with - and Montana. He writes in the first person, which suits his style perfectly but which I would probably find hard to do. He writes in the dialect and idiom of south Louisiana and I cannot praise his books highly enough. His plots can be quite complicated, although I think I have discovered a bit of a formula in his writing. But, nevertheless, he is a great author and I recommend him highly. His book about the American Civil War, White Doves At Morning, is probably one of the best I have ever read. Other crime novels I have read are Heaven's Prisoners; The Neon Rain; Crusader's Cross, all of which feature detective Dave Robicheaux, and Heartwood, which features lawyer, Billy Bob Holland. Read these books and enjoy great American writing.

In complete contract, I picked up an omnibus by Colin Forbes and never read such pathetic, episodic, stale, sterile, confusing and incoherent drivel in my life. What a load of old rubbish. I did not even get past page 70 of this crap and will never waste my time on such awful shite again.

Watching the Gaelic football today on the television, I can't help but be very disappointed at the amount of pushing, dragging, falling and basic cheating in the modern game. I think fans deserve better.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Planes highjacked in Dublin

Dateline: Dublin, 10 April 2006

In a well planned and cunningly executed manoeuvre, the entire Aer Lingus fleet was hijacked in Dublin last Tuesday. What is remarkable about the hijack is that it was widely known for some time that dissident groups were planning a spectacular event. Informed sources had warned of the likelihood of a hijack but, despite this, neither the security services, the Government, Aer Lingus management or airport authorities seems to have taken any preventative action. Management at Aer Lingus has been severely criticised for not doing more to prevent the hijack. The socialist TD, Joe “Mr. Indignation” Higgins, was reported to be apoplectic when he learned that planes were hijacked both on the ground and in the air. “How can a management … how can a management … how can ... eh, eh, eh … a management that calls itself … ‘professional’ … stand idly by and see its entire fleet – ITS ENTIRE FLEET – (mind you) – hijacked by this … so-called republican band of thieves and brigands,” he said on the popular RTE radio programme Anocht le Vincenzo de Brun.

Although the highjackers’ demands are not yet known, it seems to be a pre-emptive grab of a state asset that is likely to be ransomed to the highest bidder. This is similar to what happened in 1997 when another state company, Eircom, was hijacked by Mary “Bather” O’Rourke. On that occasion, almost the entire Irish nation was duped into handing over millions of euros to the hijackers, for something they already owned. The hijackers subsequently sold the company on, laundered the proceeds and made a small number of people extremely rich in the process. Unless quick action is taken and efforts made to recover the hijacked planes, it is likely that a similar rip-off will happen again, perhaps as soon as June or September.

The government, although it has a stated policy of not dealing with hijackers, seems poised on this occasion to break with previous practice and give in to their demands. It is likely that this will be done by a crack team of highly paid lawyers, bankers, accountants, stockbrokers, political lobbyists and general hangers-on. Their job, it is understood, will be to hand over the money to the hijackers and – this is the strange part – not bother to get the planes back! The government seems to feel that, if it distances itself from this transaction, it will not suffer in subsequent polls. Under the leadership of the notorious northsider, Bi Bi Bi Bertie “Bassman” Ahern, this will be their most spectacular achievement to date: letting an entire fleet of aeroplanes disappear from under the noses of the Irish public.

It is not clear yet whether certain investment properties in London, known as the “Heathrow Slots,” were also hijacked. The Minister for Justice, Michael “Knee-high Jackboot” McDowell, is understood to have asked the Criminal Assets Bureau to investigate this matter and to report to him, but not until after the hijackers have been paid off. This will make it look like he is taking action, while not actually doing anything.

Although details are still sketchy, it appears that the latest hijack was carried out by the nefarious Al "Martino" Cullen, a well-known privateer from Waterford. Cullen is thought to have been the mastermind behind the 50 million heist that almost resulted in the hijacking of the entire electoral system in Ireland some years ago. Although thwarted on that occasion by a group of vigilant engineers from the Software Technical Squad, Cullen escaped with a significant arsenal of several hundred items of hardware. It is believed that these are stored in several bunkers throughout Waterford. With the current paper electoral process restored, Cullen is unlikely to ever use these devices, which many believe could destroy democracy at the touch of a button. Informed sources in the Electoral Security Commission believe that they will eventually be secretly destroyed as part of a future decommissioning process.

When contacted, the Garda press office would not comment on the hijacking, although off-the-record sources advised that the Gardai are not asking anyone to help them with their enquiries and are not seeking any suspects. The location of the aeroplanes remains a mystery, but it is likely that they are being hidden in various places in One World, thus making it harder to recover them. Some may already have been re-painted in the livery of other airlines, perhaps even Ryanair.

The leader of the Labour Party, Pat “The Razor” Rabbitte, has warned that further hijacks are a real threat. “It is well known in political circles,” he said, “that every Government Minister is polishing the family silver (including the famous “Haughey teapot”) in case it is needed for future hijacks. We also know that there are sleeper cells from the infamous Moore School of Economics operating in Ireland trying to identify further state assets to hijack.”

Asked to comment, the Ryanair boss, “Mild” Michael O’Leary, said, “This is what happens when you let a shower of feckin muppets run a country. This hijacking would not have happened if Ahern had been on the ball instead of gulping down pints of Bass in Fagan’s in Drumcondra. As always, Ryanair offers the best cheap flights with cheap service to cheap locations, like the new airport we recently discovered near Derry. This is part of Ryanair’s new initiative to bring “Magical Mystery Flights” to the public: you get on a plane but don’t know where it will land! Sure, Jaysus, its great craic altogether. Now feck off, would ya, and let me look at the racing.”

Meanwhile, in a move certain to upset O’Leary, and which could possibly lead to a bloody war of attrition, Aer Lingus workers are threatening to hijack the airport in retaliation for the taking of their aeroplanes.

Management at Aer Lingus was not available for comment and there are rumours that they were last seen boarding a British Airways flight leaving the country for the Easter holidays. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Willie “The Wizard” Walsh may have been at the controls of the aircraft.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Sea by John Banville

I recently finished this book by the Irish author, John Banville, whose brother Vincent (also an author writing under the name Vincent Lawrence) taught me mathematics many years ago in St. Joseph's School in Fairview. The story is about a man, Max Morden, whose wife dies of cancer. Following her death, he returns to the seaside town in Wexford where he spent his childhood holidays. It is written in flashback style and moves effortlessly and seamlessly from the present and the death of his wife to his childhood memories. It also deals with his very difficult relationship with his daughter. There is also a hidden tragedy lurking in the book that shocks when it is encountered.

This is a most beautiful book. What particularly struck me about it was the quality of the language and the imagery used. It is almost old-fashioned in its respect for language. Morden's parents had a difficult relationship and eventually the father left them, which caused great resentment in the child that lasted in the man. He captures the tensions perhaps felt by many men, however, when he speaks of his father taking the train down to their holiday retreat "in a wordless fury, bearing the frustrations of his day like so much luggage clutched in his clenched fists." How many men come home from work every evening feeling exactly that sense of frustration from their day? In similar vein, he later asks, "Are not the majority of men disappointed with their lot, languishing in quiet desperation in their chains."

Coming to terms with his wife's impending demise, Morden could see on all sides "portents of mortality." "My life", he says, "seemed to be passing before me, not in a flash as it is said to do for those about to drown, but in a sort of leisurely convulsion, emptying itself of its secrets and its quotidian mysteries in preparation for the moment when I must step into the black boat on the shadowed river with the coin of passage cold in my already coldening hand." What absolutely marvellous use of language, resplendent with mythical echoes!

Recalling his marriage to Anna, his wife, when so many people today decide not to marry, he says, "Today, when only the lower orders and what remains of the gentry bother to marry, and everybody else takes a partner, as if life were a dance, or a business venture, it is perhaps hard to appreciate how vertiginous a leap it was back then to plight one's troth." What a lovely observation on current attitudes to marriage in contrast to the excitement of many years ago.

Talking of God, he says, "Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him." A simple observation, but worth of consideration, nevertheless.

The traumatic events revealed in the book and the subsequent uncovering of the complete mysteries of the story make this a delightful read. The story is so beautifully constructed and so eloquently told that this book was, without doubt, a worthy winner of the Man Booker Prize 2005. Banville himself, I think, called it a "little book." In my view it is a little book that everybody should read and that should also be on the school curriculum. It is a long time since I have read such a beautifully written book. Reading it on the train while commuting to work, I suffered the embarrasment, on more than one occasion, of having to wipe a small tear from the corner of my eye.

When language has become so debased through the utilitarianism of business; the equivocation of politicians; the "spin" of advisors; texting; electronic mail, and the vulgarity of much modern discourse, it is no small pleasure indeed to read a truly eloquent novel.

Derry City


I spent a few days in Derry this week at a conference. Before I went I had been given the impression that it was a pretty boring city but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised at what I found there.

Derry lies on Lough Swilly, into which the Foyle river flows. It nestles in a valley between two highlands and one can almost get the sense of threat that this location must have presented in the past. The lough and the river are really beautiful and it must be beautiful in summer.

Derry's city walls are a major attraction and they are quite impressive. I walked around them and got a sense of the history of the city and how people must have lived there. Of course, the famous historical event was the siege of Derry, which lasted for 105 days from 1688 to 1689 and is now commemorated by the annual Apprentice Boys' March.

Inside the walls are some lovely little streets with quaint shops in them. They reminded me of some of the places I have seen in continental Europe. Lovely little shops and apartments with elevated walkways make it almost a magical little enclave and haven from the large housing estates outside the walls.

On one side of the walls lie the Waterside and Fountaine, largely loyalist areas and on the other the Bogside, a largely nationalist area. Being from southern Ireland, I decided to visit the Bogside and look at some of the murals there that commemorate the events of the conflict in Northern Ireland since 1969. Although they portray a sectarian past, it is hard not to be impressed by them. They are a feature of both the Catholic and protestant pasts in Derry (or Londonderry, as the loyalists call it) and they really are interesting.

I decided to call into the Bogside Inn for a pint or two and, while I was not greeted by the locals or bade a fair welcome, I was at least left alone to enjoy my pints in peace. The walls of the pub have a gallery of excellent black and white photographs depicting scenes from the troubles: British soldiers attacking the Bogside and being repulsed by local youths; a bearded and youthful Martin McGuinness and friends leaning against a car holding a Tricolour; soldiers roughing up locals; crowds marching and rioting; Bill Clinton visiting the area; houses and buildings lying in ruins and razeds to the ground. One chilling picture showed several coffins lined up and I wondered what chilling event they were the sad result of but did not venture to ask. The photography is excellent and, once again, one can get a sense of the history of the place. I think one can also see why it is so real for so many people, even still.

I looked at the small group of men in the Bogside Inn: mostly middle-aged or old men. They were watching the horse racing on several huge televisions and, quite incongruously in my view, also watching Countdown on Channel 4 and answering the questions! They were almost all smoking.

I imagined what these men might have been at some 35 years ago - almost 40 now. Were they the children on the streets? Were the older ones the gunmen hiding in the shadows? Maybe so. But is sure was good to see them doing what old men do: having a few pints, betting on the horses and talking the usual rubbish you hear in pubs. Far better than shooting, bombing and mayhem.

There was one sour note to my visit, however. I went to the Metro Bar with a colleague one night and the staff could not have been nicer or more friendly to us. Sadly, we were faced with sectarian bitterness and hatred from one customer.
What shocked me was that she was a beautiful blonde girl, perhaps in her mid twenties. My colleague, a chap from the Falls Road in Belfast, offered her his hand in friendship after she uttered a sectarian insult to us, but she spurned his offer.

How sad for such a young person to still harbour sectarian bitterness and irrational hatred of people, simply because of their religion. And this some ten years after the first ceasefires and the start of the peace process. Well, someone bred this hatred into this otherwise beautiful girl. Sadly, her face was twisted with the bitterness in her heart and it showed in the tightly stretched lips, the jaw clenched and the eyes filled with contempt for us, but particularly for my decent friend. Her companion - a very pleasant girl of a mixed marriage - apologised to us for her behaviour and we appreciated this nice gesture. Nevertheless, we decided to leave the bar rather than be confronted by this type of sectarianism.

But I would definitely recommend the Metro Bar, nevertheless. The staff were so nice, particularly a very nice brunette lady who looked after us most of the night. We enjoyed the place. We also visited the Strand Bar as well and this was also a good and friendly place. And for excellent drink and food at the keenest prices, Weatherspoons on the Diamond is worth a visit.

There is a nice war memorial here to the fallen of the first and second world wars.

Although Derry is part of Northern Ireland - and there is something quite British about Northern Ireland towns in my view - it has a very Southern Ireland feel to it. There is something about it that reminds me of my regular experience in the Republic.

All in all, I found Derry to be a very nice city and would be glad to visit again. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and, of course, it is only a stone's throw from beautiful Donegal.

The drive up from Dublin is probably about three and a half to four hours, without stops, and depending on traffic. Unfortunately, much of the road beyond Ardee is single carriageway and it can be difficult to overtake. And on the way back, it took me at least 20 minutes to get through Castleblaney and as long to get through Monaghan. Despite this, however, it is a visit well worth the making. I recommend it highly .

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Book Choices

Looking at some of my recent book choices, I have to say that I did not enjoy "That They May Face The Rising Sun" by John McGahern. I found it to be a very boring book and even a bit confusing. Just a lot of dialogue about simple, almost trivial things. Didn't finish it, I'm afraid.

On the other hand, I was most surprised that I enjoyed a book called "Blue Ocean Strategy" by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. I am sometimes sceptical of new paradigms that seem to be built on thin foundations. However, I found the book to be very interesting and stimulating. It provides another approach to strategy development that seems to be quite creative. While I do not think that the method would work solely on its own, I think that, coupled with more established strategy development approaches, it can offer something new and worthwhile. It gives another view of strategy, customers, markets, pricing, and leadership; this is useful. One element of the book that really surprised me was its treatment of "tipping point leadership." This is an idea that I was really sceptical of, but found Kim and Mauborgne's simple treatment of the topic quite compelling.


I recommend this book to all who are interested in strategy development. I think that it can add further useful tools to the strategy toolkit. I intend to use the ideas in the book in developing strategy for my new position, where a creative, challenging strategy is badly needed. I hope to report further on this topic shortly.