Friday, December 26, 2003

Hungry Like Ms Wolf

I see in my Sunday Times that well-known feminist Naomi Wolf has a longish article discussing/celebrating the 21st century's new generation of American Jews, who are so much more comfortable with their culture than their predecessors, such as Ms Wolf herself, were.

The article is replete with everything we associate with Ms Wolf: it's overly-earnest, humour-free (Naomi is aware of humour, and tries (earnestly, of course) to pin it down but the little rascal keeps seeming to escape her formaldehyde jar) and, like so much of Ms Wolf's opera, the piece is a long dissertation about a very short observation of dubious import.

In a fellow spirit of earnest scholarship, I'd like to propose a four point GET OVER plan for Ms Wolf to deal with the many traumas that seem to assail her as she fights her way through life. Firstly, get over being a woman; you were born that way, you're unlikely to change now, 'twasn't your fault and nobody is blaming you. Secondly, get over being Jewish; the Jewish faith is one that never prosyletises, and, in a world whose history is bloody with wars fought over religion, that's a hell of a lot to be proud of. Thirdly, get over your sense-of-humour bypass, and fourthly, why don't you get over here and make An Spailpín a nice cup of tea.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

A Seasonal Thought

As the Old Man begins his day long sleigh ride to all the good little kiddies in the world, it seems utterly apposite to share the love by introducing a little science into things, thanks to something that was published, in the seventies I believe, and posted on another site in cyberspace. Happy Holidays.

1) No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not completely rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

2) There are approximately 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn't appear to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total 378 million according to the Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that's 91.8 million homes. One presumes that there is at least one good child in each.

3) Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/lOOOth of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75 and 1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding, etc.

This means that Santa's sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second and a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

4) The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium sized Lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that "flying reindeer" (see point # 1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, the job couldn't be done with eight or even nine. We would need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload not even counting the sleigh - to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison, this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship.

5) 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as a spacecraft re entering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them and creating deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team would be vaporized within 4.26 thousandth of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250 pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion: If Santa ever did deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he's dead now.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 19, 2003

The Thady of Shalott

With sincerest and heart-felt apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The Thady of Shalott

On either side of the slash-hook lie
The cleavèd heads of passers-by,
Who didn’t know they had to die,
For you need permission to apply
To pass the site ‘round Camelot.
The penitent man must advance and kneel
Amidst the cans and orange peel,
And humbly present his sad appeal
To the Thady of Shalott.

The smell of cider pervades the air
And fills the nostrils of all who go there;
The boys are all just back from the tear
With hangovers worse than man can bear
When they return to Camelot.
But no-one’s left to walk on a grave
Or in any other way behave
To make him think you a fool or a knave,
The Thady of Shalott.

The boys arrive at twenty to two,
The dole collected and nothing to do,
Except cider to drink and grass to chew,
As rough a bunch as stood in a shoe,
Assembled outside of Camelot.
Then he arrived on a piebald ass,
Bearing his seal, a ring of pure brass,
And he called on his legion to arise, amass!
The Thady of Shalott.

Their brows all blackened a terrible frown
When they heard what had gone on in town,
And they’d have satisfaction before the sun went down.
The buffers would remember from all parts aroun’
That crazy crew of Camelot.
He’d gone to a bar and called for a drink
The guards were called and threatened the clink;
He had to retreat and all the way home did think,
The Thady of Shalott.

The crowbars were massed and carefully sent;
The cudgels and hurleys, with nails in them bent;
The bushman saws that make such a rent;
And the slash-hooks, those weapons of fearsome intent,
Distributed all through Camelot.
Then, making the sound of a thousand tin cans,
Like the last of the wrenboys with the last of the wrens,
With their master, commander, in the first of the vans,
The Thady of Shalott.

The first man met they cracked open his head,
The second months lingered on his sick bed;
The third took one look and then fled;
The fourth ran on to warn up ahead;
Of the van of vans from Camelot.
He split to the left, and he split to right;
The screams of the battle wailed on through the night;
He’d had enough parlay, he was here to fight,
The Thady of Shalott.

It took the guards from counties four,
In a fight that lasted six days or more,
Where the bodies maimed made up three score,
To haul them away and haul them ashore,
Back to their berth in Camelot.
They passed round the flagon and spoke of the battle
How the buffers they ran as if they were cattle;
Stranger, if you see him, be sure to skedattle,
From the Thady of Shalott.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

When is a Scandal Not a Scandal?

This morning's main news, concerning An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's alleged writing of an alleged letter to delay some sort of work on an alleged quarry in the alleged county Roscommon is an interesting indication of just how rotten the Irish political system is. We don't even know what a scandal is anymore.

On the face of it, an elected TD, even if he's only an opposition back-bencher, isn't meant to be sticking his snout into planning matters, the decisions of which are meant to be autonomous. However, the reality is that the chief thing we as a nation seek in a politican is someone who's sufficiently thick to have nothing better to do with his time that write letters to the Department of Social Welfare demanding a toothpaste allowance for a man with no teeth, or else bollock the head of some misfortuntate in the County Council who interprets the law (which in theory has been legislated by our bellowing friend on the end of the phone) as saying that a farmer that wants to build a pigsty modelled on the castle that was on the start credits to the Wonderful World of Disney is out of bloody luck.

We elect them to write letters and then profess to be shocked when they do? We deserve all we get.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003


It's heartening, even for a flinty-hearted Spailpín such as myself, to see the success that Lynne Truss is enjoying with Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Even though I found the tone a little twee, it's rather thrilling to see a book of rules about punctuation leaping off the shelves. Nice to know that there are standards left.

Interesting also to see the effect that here book is having already: only yesterday, An Spailpín was checking the news headlines on the text service on his television, and I discovered a semi-colon nestling happily in a land where previously only the hardy hyphen dared bloom. And it's nice to see that Lynne Truss is a woman that deserves her day in the sun; she wrote a very lovely piece about being being a woman in the men's world of sports reporting in Secrets of the Press: The Penguin Book of Journalism some years ago, and there's an equally lovely profile of her in today's Daily Telegraph. Lynne Truss is a woman that loves the Uniball Pen - is there a greater sign of taste and character?

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Keep Your Mercedes-Benz - I Only Travel by Pram

Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians that when he was a child he thought as a child, he spake as a child, he understood as a child; but, when he became a man he put away childish things. If the good doctor were to return today, he would be a very unhappy man.

The infantilisation of society continues apace, with the result of the BBC's nine-month search to find the best book ever written throwing up (and I choose my words carefully) The Lord of the Rings. This is staggering - that a society of adults, after what we presume years of reading, learning and maturing, still returns a book that is written for children. And I'm not the only one staggered - Zoe Williams gives the Big Read a good shoeing in today's Guardian.

It is voguish at the moment to praise children's literature. An Spailpín can make no claim for authority in that field, but surely to God one of the definitions of a children's book is that it's aimed at the mind of children, that it operates at a child's level of understanding. If it's any more complex than this, then the child doesn't get it and the book isn't read.

All very well, but what if you're old enough to shave or (and/or, considering the way our society seems to be going) wear make-up, your brain should surely demand greater stimulation that what rang your childhood bell. As a child, I considered Battlestar Galactica to be the finest program on television. I saw the pilot again a few months ago, and I was forced to review my opinion. I have also discovered that stout is superior to fizzy orange, that children should indeed be seen and not heard, and, the greatest revolution in my childish world of all, Girls are People Too.

I like to think that my reading tastes have matured also. But what I don't understand is how, after people are grown to adulthood, they can find a book like The Lord of the Rings stimulating. In fact, I am rather surprised that children find its thousand plus pages stimulating.

The book itself commits the sin that no Work of Art can be allowed get away it - it's painfully, wretchedly, eye-wateringly, stength-to-live sappingly boring. Tolkien himself described it as "a tale that grew in the telling"; is there a better definition of bad writing than a tale that grows in the telling? It was either Steinbeck or Faulkner that said a good writer must "murder his babies"; what he meant was that a writer must go back over what he or she has written, and cut the thing to ribbons until all that's left is on the money. This is something that Tolkien manifestly fails to do in Lord of the Rings.

I call as the first witness for the prosecution, Tom Bombadil, the Ned Flanders of Middle-Earth. Come in Tom, sit down, take a load off. How can any writer, once the effects of last night's fun wore off, read Tom Bombadil and not tear up the pages in burning shame? Tom did not make the movie, currently running forever at a cinema near you, and I haven't heard one peep of complaint from the Tolkenistas. Something tells me that they too know that old Tommy is a bit of an ass, but they're too chicken to admit it.

And as you go through the book, you wade through page after page of turgid prose to look back over 1000 pages to see - nothing. There is nothing memorable in those thousand pages whatsoever. We remember Behometh the Cat from The Master and Margarita; Remedios the Beauty from One Hundred Years of Solitude; Cathy, the monster born to human parents in East of Eden; Marlowe, the man in the mean streets who is not himself afraid in anything by Chandler, but in Lord of the Rings we can see nothing. And this is the greatest book of all time?

Pass the Liga.

Monday, December 15, 2003


Nothing so terrorises film critics than when an auteur director makes a popular, or shall we more accurately say populist, picture. When the auteur sticks religiously to the idea of Cinema-with-a-Capital-C the critical fraternity are at one; another triumph of thoughtful cinema filled with arresting images from one of the major talents of our day, irrespective of how mind-numbingly dull and unspeakably boring the film may be. When the auteur makes a movie though, a movie that people will hand over hard-earned gelt to see, the Emperor has no clothes defence will no longer wash. The pretence that the critic has a greater sensibility to the masses falls when the masses are addressed by the picture, and thus we understand how critics scattered for cover this summer when Ang Lee’s Hulk was released.

There were no reviews lauding Hulk, nor were there any condemning the film. It was just there, impossible to ignore, rather like the protagonist’s own green self. I believe it performed adequately at the box office, in that it wasn’t an unmitigated stinker like the Charlie’s Angels or Matrix sequels, but neither was it a runaway success like Independence Day was all those years ago. It was just there.

An Spailpín finally caught up with Hulk courtesy of his local video library, and has come to this conclusion: Hulk is a very fine comic book film indeed, and is a worthy addition to the pantheon of comic book adaptations, up their with the great ones like Tim Burton’s Batman and the first X-Men movie, and well away from the basement, such as Joel Schumacher’s Batman and the second X-Men movie.

In choosing his source material, Ang Lee looked past the seventies TV series and to the original Incredible Hulk comics themselves. This was a brave move to begin with, as it was through the TV series that most people came to know the Hulk in the first place. Instead, Lee instructed his CGI designers to make the Hulk look more like his comic self, and less like Lou Ferrengo.

The comic’s influence is manifest throughout the picture, most marvellously in the cuts from scene to scene. Lee uses split screens and all the tricks of his trade to replicate the look of a comic strip in the movie, and it works tremendously well. The casting is good also – even a giant of the method such as Hoffman or Day Lewis would be hard to put to replicate a situation where the hero grows to twenty feet tall and turns green whenever he’s in a bit of a snit; as such, the best thing to do is to go with caricatures and take it from there. All Eric Bana has to do is look troubled, and this he does with aplomb, not least in the marvellous line, “what worries me most is, when the rage comes on me, I like it.” A great line for this movie. Jennifer Connolly must simply look equally concerned and beautiful, which is no hardship to her, and the great and legendary Sam Elliot is unable to put a foot wrong on any occasion, even in a role as thankless as his in We Were Warriors, with Mel Gibson. Even Nick Nolte hams it up like a man that comes from the Planet Egg.

The CGI graphics are very well done, sufficiently arresting of belief to stop us from asking the age old question: if the Hulk gets so massive, how come all his clothes are shredded par those necessary to preserve modesty? Far better than in Sam Rami’s Spiderman, for instance, where the CGI business was the only disappointment in an otherwise admirable adaptation.

Finally, the debt the movie owes to Bill Bixby and the original TV series is not entirely forgotten – there is one line in the movie that will have devotees grinning with the happiness one enjoys when one meets an old friend, and where’s the harm in spreading the joy?

Always on my Mind

Radio DJs, or 99% of them, are the most despicable shills for the music industry. There are some exceptions, but in the main the man on the radio who answers to Rick invariably declares the next release from the next plastic packet of talentless pop pap the best thing since, well, the last release from the last plastic packet of talentless pop pap, irrespective of how plastic the pap actually is.

There was one exception to this that always sticks in An Spailpín’s mind, as I have never been able to come to terms with it. When The Pet Shop Boys released their version of Always on my Mind, DJs always seemed to add the caveat that they themselves didn’t like it. It was either out of loyalty to the Willie Nelson original, or else a sort of loyalty to the Pogue’s Fairytale of New York, which was famously denied the Christmas Number One spot by Always on my Mind.

The loyalty to Willie is understandable, if not quite believable. Think back to the last time you heard Willie Nelson on the radio if you don’t believe me. That’s right, and you won’t hear him either, until the old man joins Johnny in that big honky-tonk in the sky. The loyalty to the Pogues is a sad joke. The most mentions that the Pogues ever got on mainstream radio was either for their exemplary levels of alcoholism or for the state of Shane McGowan’s teeth. The fact that Shane McGowan could write a song as beautiful as Rainy Night in Soho, which contains one of the greatest lines ever written in a pop song, “you’re the measure of my dreams,” mattered not a whit to the DJ-ing fraternity.

And yet they hated the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Always on my Mind. I never understood it at the time, but then I was in the ideal demographic for plastic packets of talentless pop pap then – at home, in my teens, doing yards of homework and listening to the radio. So when I heard the Pet Shop Boys’ Always on my Mind in a grocery store last night, I stood listening to it, to see if I had bought a pup by liking it at the time.

No, I had not. Always on my Mind by the Pet Shop Boys is one of the great pop songs of all time, it deserved to be Christmas Number One and it will still be played wherever the Eighties are remembered. The comparison to the Willie Nelson original is spurious – when Willie sang Always on my Mind, it was an old man’s song of loss; neither loss nor old men are welcome in pop music. The only reason I can figure for the Pet Shop Boys’ decision to cover the song in the first place is that the rising notes of the Always on my Mind line fitted into the soundscape of the production that they were creating at the time. They could have used a lyric from a phonebook for all the import that the lyric made to the song.

What makes the Pet Shop Boys’ Always great is the terrific electro-pop opera-fabuloso values of the production. As with Britney’s Baby One More Time you’re hooked after the first few chords, and on pretty much the same principles – Boom, boom-boom-boom-boom. The remaining three minutes of Always and Baby are just a question of rounding up the usual suspects, as the song has already won the day. The Pet Shop Boys created a fabulous electro-gothic atmosphere of heightened sensibility for the three minutes of Always that they hinted at in West End Girls, and often tried to emulate afterwards, not least in their nineties comeback attempt Go West. But it was only in Always that they reached the heights they have striven for, and to deny the Pet Shop Boys their three minutes of popular music glory is churlish and misguided at best.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

What's in a Name?

The Buffalo Sabres ice hockey team have a player who glories in the name of Miroslav Satan. Jesus - you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him, would you?

Friday, November 28, 2003

Alternative Dullster

Scared of the future and stuck in the past
May the Lord in His mercy be kind to Belfast

Wednesday's Northern Ireland Assembly elections are simultaneously deeply fascinating and utterly pointless. It's the kind of duality we've come to expect from our divided brethern.

The election doesn't matter, really. The only way that the elections can have any real impact on life and progress in the Six Counties is if the DUP have been to see Spiderman, and remember the bit where Peter Parker's Uncle tells him that with great power comes great responsibility. So Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds can go easy on the shibboleths and sit down to do some business, or they imitate that other Hound of Ulster who fought the ungovernable sea.

And if they do that, Tony Blair will have no choice but to pull the plug on the whole damned lot of them. Thirty years of this nonsense, going on forty, all because the Unionists fought tooth and nail against one man, one vote since the foundation of the statelet? Tony Blair calling in his first favour from George Bush trying to get the politicans in the North to sit down and play nice? What a bunch of babies.

Direct rule is the way to go as patience runs out. How can the Unionists not see this? That unhelpful oik Jeffrey Donaldson was talking to Vincent Browne on the radio last night, mournfully telling the people that David Trimble will have to "consider his position." Jeffrey, like Warren Beatty, has always wanted to direct. Browne nearly got it out of him that he wanted to be Big Boss of Unionism, but Jeffrey seeped away once more.

As you know if you've been following politics in the North, Jeff is death on the Good Friday Agreement. Except for the bit where the Agreement calls for joint consent - now that the majority population of the Province, that sacred majority that the Unionists used to bang on so endlessly about, are overwhelmingly in favour of the Agreement, Jeff is demanding that there must be a majority of the Unionist community in favour of the agreement. The man has the political pliability of mercury.

And Tony Blair has to put up with all this? While he has the police out beating every bush in the Home Counties for mullahs and other difficult characters, he has to fly in Belfast to babysit Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster? Yeah, right, as the young people say.

The huge, huge winners in all this are Sinn Fein, of course. For the guns to stay silent, the ballot box must remain in the ascendancy over the armalite and that's exactly what happened. Not only are Sinn Fein increasing their own popular vote, but they're managing their vote with, ahem, military precision, ensuring that the vote returns the maximum number of seats.

Now the Shinners are casting eager and calculating eyes South, where the opportunities seem limitless. There is no opposition to the present Government, a void into which Sinn Fein would naturally fit. The war is fading fast from the public mind, as wars invariably do. Sinn Fein, the one-time pariahs, are now the white hats of the political process. The European Elections on either side of the border will be fascinating, but an offhand comment on the Vincent Browne show from someone, I know not whom but I'm presuming a professional psephologist of the kind that only ever surface at time's like this, indicated that the Greatest Symbolic Prize of all could be within Sinn Fein's grasp.

Let's say Tony Blair does bring Direct Rule back to North, just to shut them up for a while. For Gerry Adams, his work is done. The hardliners will not be happy with a return to direct rule, but Adams and McGuinness have been spectacular in their success in selling peace to the hardliners, without getting Beal na Bláthed on the way. So, now that there is no more work to be done in the Six Counties, what can the most popular politician in the Republic in poll after poll do for an encore?

If Mary MacAleese doesn't run again, or if Fine Gael is sufficiently foolish to try and trigger an election, Gerry Adams could carry the Sinn Fein standard in a Presidential election. And, as things currently stand, he'd romp home as the first Sinn Fein member elected head of State since Eamon DeValera in 1919.

Bertie will not want to see that happen. But it could, it could. The day could come.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Up to a Point, Lord Copper

Those of you who pay close and rapt attention to the literary pages of the English broadsheets will have noted the excellent reviews Lynne Truss has been getting for Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Guide to Punctuation. And rightly so - one of the many great aphorisms that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has given Western culture is Tara's pithy comment on why she no longer surfs the Internet: "I used to go online but everyone's spelling is so bad, it's depressing."

And she's right, of course. Most of people that post to fora (oh, forums, then, if you must) are either unspeakably lazy or virtual illiterates. And if even the basic courtesy of correct spelling is not being observed, what hope punctuation, grammar and syntax?

None at all, I'm afraid. Miss Truss's book is good, but not as good as I had hoped. I'm not sure I care for the tone she employs in the book - all the best correct English usage books have gloried in extremely arch tones, as best typified by the legendary HW Fowler and his great work, The King's English. HW always gave the impression that any time he caught a man with the blood of a split infinitive on his hands, he gave the bounder a damned good thrashing.

Utterly OTT, but there's no other way to go about it I'm afraid. To say that a living language, any language, has rules is fallacious - a language has conventions. That whole business about split infinitives that so concerned old school grammarians - it's a throwback from Latin, it has nothing to do with English. There is no good reason not to split an infinitive in English, and the very powerful one that infinitives should indeed be split, if it adds power and clarity to what is being communicated. To boldly go is to show the pioneering spirit; to go boldly is not to forget one's galoshes.

While the conventions are not rules set in stone like the Ten Commandments, that does not excuse for one instant people being either ignorant or oblivous to them. The reasons these conventions exist is so that everybody can tell what everyone else is talking about. We must agree on what words mean, and what punctuation marks mean, for, if we don't, then we build our very own Tower of Babel, and we're reduced to hieroglyphics.

Always presuming we're not reduced to hieroglyphics already, as those cursed emoticons invade all forms of communication and correspodance. I've just thought of my own emoticon for the correct treatment of the emoticon devotee:


Can you guess what it is yet?

If anybody has trawled south this far, I presume that you have some interest in the language, its future and its correct use. As such, may I reccomend the finest guide to punctuation that I ever came across. These Notes on Punctuation are from a book called The Medusa and the Snail by Lewis Thomas, and it's Thomas' genius to use the punctuation symbols to illustrate their meanings, and all in less than one thousand words. In five minutes, the secret to correct punctuation is yours, and then the world is at your feet.

Thomas Boswell on Warren Spahn

Anyone who doubts that Thomas Boswell is one of the great sportswriters of his generation, if not ever, just has to read his eulogy on the late Warren Spahn in today's Washington Post. Beautiful, beautiful writing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Intolerable Cruelty

Intolerable Cruelty is a wonderful movie. But beneath that wonderful Coen brothers romantic fantasia lie the rotting remains of the really terrible movie that the inchoate Intolerable Cruelty must have been. The remains of that stinker are like the Tell-Tale Heart in the Edgar Allan Poe story - every so often, you hear the thump-thump, thump-thump, that tells you the Coens have buried something under the floorboards.

I don't buy into the auteur theory of cinema. As William Goldman points out in Adventures in the Screen Trade, there are so very many things that can go horribly wrong in a movie, there are so many people involved in the creative process, that to ascribe it all to one eminence grise with jodphurs and a loudhailer is stretching things a bit.

This creative process is visible in Intolerable Cruelty. This is the first movie that the Coens have not scripted themselves, and one of the movie's fascinations is to see how the Coens have taken a so-so formulaic script and dragged it, kicking and screaming, into Coenville, that strange cinematic space that's populated with Barton Finks, Marge Gundersons, Ulysses McGills, and of course, Dudes.

That's the joy of a Coen brothers movie - the Coens take you to a place that only exists in their heads, meaning that when you return to the reality of the world outside the cinema you know more about it after seeing what things are like in a world that is not real, a world that is Coenville.

In their other movies, because the movies were scripted and owed their genesis entirely to the Coens, the traces of the real world never intruded. In Intolerable Cruelty, the real world has left traces - the thump-thump, thump-thump of the Tell Tale Heart is the remaining clunky dialogue or the awkward or cliched mis-en-scenes. But the rest of the movie is either coated in Coenville, or the Coens drag the scenario so far into Coenville that we forgive them the etches of mortality.

What is the essence of Coenville in Intolerable Cruelty? The guitar-playing priest and Billy Bob Thornton's Howard D. Doyle are all elements that can only have been introduced by the Coens, reaching their zenith in Herb Myerson, senior partner. What are the traces of the boring, the mundane, the cliched, the real? That awful Massey Pre-Nup McGuffin, the lazy plotting, the awful moments of less than pedestrian dialogue.

Can we see the joins? Yes, sometimes. Consider George Clooney's speech to the lawyers' convention in Las Vegas. The speech is awful, while Clooney punching the air at the end, with those goggling manic eyes he first used in O Brother, is wonderful. The mundane, the Coen.

Mention of Clooney is a reminder of how much of a collaborative effort film-making is. With any two leads other than Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the film could have sunk to depths so deep that not even the Coens could save it. With these two stars, and I choose my words carefully, it can't go wrong. Clooney is in the pantheon of the Hollywood greats, and, as for Catherine Zeta-Jones, she is a woman for whom luminous could have been invented. As well as being A Star, she can act too, as she showed in Traffic and so magnificently in Chicago.

Intolerably Cruelty is eminently qualified to stand in the Coen cannon - not as sublime as The Big Lebowski or O Brother, but a real return to form after the hideously disappointing Man Who Wasn't There.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Their Hearts Are Cold - They Love Only Gold. Only Gold.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only US President to be elected four times, tried to introduce legislation to move the Thanksgiving Holiday one week early, from the fourth to the third Thursday in November, in order to give trade an extra week's Christmas shopping. The US was just coming out of the depression, Roosevelt was aware of his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge's, remark that the business of America is business, so he naturally thought he was on a winner.

Bizarrely, he wasn't. The people liked the holidays just as they were, and Thanksgiving remains the fourth Thursday in November.

Here in Ireland, where we no longer claim to be religious but do claim to be spiritual (in a Celtic sense, of course), I saw my first Christmas ad on the TV before Halloween. The streets already have lights up, the stores are packed with gifts and gift shoppers, you could easily get stampeded if you're not on your guard on Grafton Street between now and Christmas Eve.

We still have ten days until Thanksgiving in the States. The Business of Ireland is - what, exactly?

Captain Kirk

It's genuinely astonishing to believe that it will be twenty years since New Zealand, the power of International Rugby Union Football since the 1905 tour of the British Isles when they were first christened "All-Blacks," will have last won the Rugby World Cup when the next one rolls around. And what's all the more astonishing is that the reason they've lost is because, hard though it may be to believe, they're chokers.

New Zealand choked against South Africa in 1995, they choked against France in 1999 and they choked last weekend against Australia. New Zealand went into each game not just as favourites, but as a team that were going to revolutionize the way rugby is played and thought of, and each time with a player that was the best in the world at that time - Lomu in 1995, Christian Cullen in 1999 and Carlos Spenser this year.

Is it a co-incidence that all these players were backs? New Zealand rugby was always built on the notion of ferocious and unforgiving forward play - Gareth Edwards wrote in his autobiography that being caught at the bottom of an All-Black ruck was like getting caught in a combine harvester - but those days appear to be over. The people aren't scared of the All-Black jersey and the silver fern any more. New Zealand can't back up the haka no more.

And if you don't believe me, ask David Kirk. David Kirk is the only captain of New Zealand to raise the William Webb Ellis trophy, and it's a honour he's only dying to share. But he doesn't think it that likely.

Friday, November 14, 2003


So Mike Catt is the saviour of English rugby now, is he? They'd be as well off picking Bagpuss.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The Red Star and the Emerald Isle

The country has been captivated - in a narcoleptic sense, of course - by the ongoing Tribunals in Dublin Castle. There's a marvellous feature piece in today's Irish Independent newspaper about the arrival at the Moriarity Tribunal of Ireland's Leading Businessman, Denis O'Brien, home for Portugal to explain how exactly he won the state's lucrative second mobile phone license.

I don't know who wrote the piece - I'm guessing it's the Indo's quite marvellous Miriam Lord, who writes most of these sort of features for them - but she does a lovely job of tying in Mr O'Brien's remarks of a week or so ago about how Ireland is now a communist state because of the way it's chasing down honest capitalists like, er, himself.

No less remarkable are the remarks of Mr Justice Moriarity as soon as Denis appeared before him. It's an interesting thing - you can't report from a court without the court's permission in Ireland. If you do you're in contempt of court, and you will stay in the calaboose at the judge's discretion. But as I'm quoting from the Indo, I hope that getting jugged for repeating Mr Justice Moriarity's remarks in this forum is out of the question. I woudn't be the first Spailpín to see the cells you know.

"Since we last met in this place, you have been significantly involved in the very commendable and great success of the Special Olympics. It would be churlish of me not to acknowledge and commend you for that success and for your own, not inconsiderable, role in it. It is no secret that on occasions in the past two years and some months, relations between yourself and your advisors and the tribunal have had their low moments. I want to assure you that I welcome the opportunity now of hearing your side of these important events."

Remarkable. Quite remarkable.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

I Hear a Voice, Crying in the Wilderness

Jimmy Breslin has for years been one of the top newspaper columnists in the USA, if not the English speaking world. What makes Breslin great? Two things: firstly, instead of sitting on his keyster and mouthing off until he reaches eight hundred words and collects a fat cheque at the end of the working week, Breslin gets off his ass and goes out into the world. He talks to people, and gets their stories, which is what newspapermen are supposed to do but often do not.

The second thing that makes Breslin great is his anger. When he's pissed off, you know it. The rage is shot through his columns, and it's very real. Most so-called tell-it-to-straight columnists, like the hateful Richard Littlejohn of the Sun, are as sounding brass or clanging cymbals when it comes to their worked-up frothing at the mouth outrage. But Jimmy is permanently pissed off, and he's not afraid to speak his mind.

Right now Breslin has noted the shameful treatment by the US of its war dead in Iraq. Nearly all other dead from US foreign wars have been flown home and buried with full honours - Breslin is of the opinion that the body bags look a little too real on television for President Bush to feel comfortable about, and are therefore buried with a minimum of ceremony. So every week Breslin lists in his column who's been killed, where they were from, and how they died. Why they died is up to you.

One of the soldier's funerals was in Newark, near New York. Breslin went to it, and wrote this excoriating article on the dead man and why he died. Fantastic, fantastic writing.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003


As Ireland's moment of destiny approaches, I'm going rugger crazy. There's a nice piece about the rivalry between South Africa and New Zealand in the Rugby Heaven site that Melbourne's The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald Newspapers seem to be collaborating on.

I also notice that the English press is getting wildly sensitive about the Pom bashing that's going on at the moment, with that clown of a flanker doing his bit for international diplomacy and ratching things up another notch.

The English should be grateful that it's taking attention away from those awful jerseys. I know that the sculpted look is in, but it looks less horrid in black or blue than it does in white. And having to call a prop off the line if you need to take it off, as he's the only one with sufficient strength to wrench the thing off a man? Good God.

Beats me why the RFU (note that's not ERFU - and the English wonder why people think they're arrogant?) don't just send out Johnners and co buck naked, and spray paint the jerseys and numbers on them. There would be a danger of being tackled in the tackle (if you get my drift) but that could easily be aliviated by simply castrating the players before they left Blighty. There would be some objections, of course, rugger players being what they are, but surely it's a small price to pay when a man is playing for Queen and country?

Why Buffy Matters

Within the space of four hours yesterday, Irish TV viewers could delight in the joys of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on BBC2 at 6.30, The West Wing on E4 at 9, and CSI: Miami on Network 2 at 9.30. And the bizarre thing about that trio is that the programmes about forensic science and US politics are phonies, while the show ostensibly about vampire slaying tells us more about the world and our roles in the world than any programme in recent memory.

The West Wing is probably the show with the greatest percentage of snake oil. The West Wing, for those of you that are strictly Ibiza Uncovered men, is a TV show about a fictional Democratic President who wins the Presidency against all the odds and proves to be the greatest and most just President in the history of these United States.

It's possible that one of the reasons that the West Wing became such a success is because President Josiah Bartlett was sworn into his fictional office around the same time that President George W. Bush was sworn into his all-too-real office. The contrast between the two men could not be greater, but it is best summed up thus: President Bartlett is clever, and President Bush, well, Dubya is very, very happy.

So what makes this a fraud? What's so terrible about the perfect President? This is what's so terrible: it's a fairy story. The characters in The West Wing, these people who never take holidays and are on call 25 hours a day, do not exist any more than a unicorn. They are a fantasy. Their dialogue is equally fantastic, as they fire fusillades of GNP percentages back and forth, and then cut to Bartlett who's doing a cute scene about a dog in the rose garden.

What's so terrible about a fairy story? Nothing. When we were children thrilled to them but when we became men we put away childish things, after Paul's advice to the Corinthians. Do we enjoy The West Wing? we do, but it's a guilty pleasure - we know deep down that we're being had. Are there any circumstances in which The West Wing could be considered Art? I'm afraid not, no.

If The West Wing is less than perfect, then CSI is less than good. Every time we watch it we feel dirty and used. CSI has no interest in telling us more about the world - CSI's hook, what makes it addictive, is that it bombards us with facts, facts, facts.

In good drama, dialogue should be used to move the story along, or to reveal more about the characters in the drama, and, by implication, more about the people around us and ourselves. The dialogue in CSI exists only to expose more of this tidal wave of facts. Say a body is brought into the morgue by that fat guy that was in the original Manhunter. He and the coroner then spend the next five minutes telling each other what they themselves already know. There is no need for TFGTWITOM to be told by the coroner that rigor mortis sets in after an hour - he already knows that. It's you and me, slumped in front of our TV, that this dialogue is meant to resonate with.

After a full season of CSI, what have we learned? We are in a position to walk down Dublin's O'Connell and identify, from the splatter marks and the pools of blood, whether any particular murder victim what shot or stabbed. Why would one Dubliner would shoot or stab his neighbour? We'll have to look further than CSI to find that out.

As enthusiasts of the Buffyverse, is there any possibility that we would consider that the Dubliner whose blood now thickens within the shadow of the Millennial Spire has been the victim of a vampire, of one of the Undead, the Legion of the Night?

Of course not - that would be silly.

Vampires in Buffy are metaphors, just as all our fiction has relied on symbolism to get its message across. Even the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church now holds that many Biblical stories are parables, and are not to be taken literally. A pity that they didn't realise this when Thomas de Torquemada was welding those hot tongs in Spain, but better late than never I suppose.

What do vampires represent? In a nutshell, vampires in Buffy represent the old fashioned concept of evil, but evil operates in a much more layered way in the Buffyverse than it does in the canonical vampire stories that you find in Stoker or King, or in movies ranging from Bela Lugoisi in the thirties to Kiefer Sutherland and The Lost Boys in the eighties.

The Buffyverse, that place where Sunnydale, CA, is located, where the action of Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes place, is possibly unique in television in that the Buffyverse is a place where bad things happen, and where bad things happen for no reason.

This is a huge conceptual step for Buffy. TV, and especially teen TV that Buffy is mistakenly bracketed with, presents ordered universes. If you work hard, you'll get to College. Those girls that are cruel to you always get found out in the end. Your football team will win because they worked hard for it. This is buncombe - the world is not like that, the world is where you do not get to College even though you sweated blood, where the girls who are cruel at school go on to be women who are cruel in the workplace, where your football team gets stomped in the first round, even though everybody showed up at training.

This capricious world is the world that is reflected in the Buffyverse. Beloved characters, like Buffy's mother Joyce, like Willow's girlfriend Tara, die, and they die for no reason. They don't die in a noble effort to save the world, they die the same, pointless, arbitrary death that awaits us all.

The question of what are we to do in such an arbitrarily cruel world is the question that is addressed by existential philosophers since the nineteenth century. Friedrich Nietzche thought that we must decide whether we are men or supermen, and be governed or govern accordingly. Soren Kierkegaard thought that we must take a leap of faith, that we must embrace God even though we have no rational basis for believing He exists, because the alternative, the reality of our existence in a world that means nothing, is too horrifying to live with.

And then there is Albert Camus. Camus wrote The Plague about a town that is attached by a plague, and how the townspeople react. What interested Camus was: why should one live a moral life when the chief originator of morality, the Divine, is a concept that you cannot believe in?

Another way of phrasing that is: should we do our duty? What is our duty? How are we to behave in this world we are forced to share with other people?

Duty is a less than fashionable concept in our society, but duty is central to understanding what makes Buffy important. Buffy Summers is chosen, "the one girl in all the world," and she has no choice in this. This is her duty in life, a duty she can accept, or a duty she can refuse and rebel against, as Faith, the rogue Slayer, does.

Buffy accepts. Buffy is important, Buffy matters, because life is a continual series of decisions between what's the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do. So why is Buffy so powerful in getting this message across?

Because Buffy Summers runs away.

Like Christ in Gethsemane, it all gets too much for the Slayer. Buffy says, in one of her truly poignant speeches in the final episode of the first ever season, "I'm sixteen years old Giles; I don't want to die."

Buffy doesn't want to be the Slayer. She wants to be a cheerleader, she wants to be Homecoming Queen, she wants to go to ice dancing with Brian Boitano - she wants to be normal. But she cannot - she is the Slayer, the one girl in all the world chosen to fight the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness.

And this is a mantle that Buffy accepts, but she is only human, and she has limits. Four times in the seven seasons of Buffy Buffy turns tail and runs. Buffy runs away after killing Angel at the end of Season Two. Buffy becomes catatonic when she realises that she cannot defeat Glory in the third last episode of Season Five, the greatest season of Buffy. Buffy finds the notion that she's a mental patient in a hospital in Los Angeles and that her entire Sunnydale existence as the Slayer is a delusion more appealing than living her actual life in a harrowing episode in Season Six. And most significantly of all, when Buffy dives to her death in the final episode of Season Five, she is not just saving the world - she is walking away from her role in it. Buffy Summers has been the Slayer for five years - she's had enough, and she wants to rest.

What is this if not our natural reaction to the reverses of the world in which we live? This continual struggle to do the right thing even when we're not always sure what the right thing is. The fact that we, like the Slayer, are fundamentally alone when it comes to the big decisions in our life. When push comes to shove, we are alone, and we must stand alone against our fate, using only such character and courage as time and breeding have left us with.

So, if the Buffyverse is so bleak, why isn't Ray Winstone playing the Slayer, and Ingmar Bergman directing? How can any human being, exhausted after a hard day's work, be expected to be able to stomach such a bleak world after a long day at the office and a hellish commute home?

Because of the quality of the writing. In writing, subtlety and nuance are all. It is the difference between being told and being shown, between knowledge and understanding, between being caressed by an angel and being wrassled by a bear.

The standard of writing in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is such that even the writers are hailed by fans, in direct contradiction to the Hollywood starlets' axiom that you should never sleep with a writer, as nobody cares what the writers think.

The writers have been hailed for the hipness of their dialogue, for the constant pop-culture references, for the neologisms such as five-by-five, the uses of -age and -y as suffixes, and for the continually high standard of the jokes ("Did your whole life flash before your eyes? Cup o' tea, cup o' tea, nearly got a shag, cup o' tea?"). But there's more to good dramatic writing than being able to wisecrack. Good dramatic writing consists of excellent dialogue yes, but it must also further develop our understanding of the characters and do so in a naturalistic way in a medium that is obviously not natural.

Consider this exchange between Buffy and Spike from midway through Season Six, the episode titled "Hell's Bells." Buffy has been in a relationship with Spike, but she breaks it off. They meet at Xander and Anya's wedding, to which Spike has brought a date:

CLOSE ON BUFFY, who is about to go get Anya and Xander to start the wedding. She stops when she sees Spike across the room, alone. His "date" nowhere to be found. She moves to him.

Hello, Buffy.


Happy occasion. You meet my friend?

Haven't met. She seems like a very nice attempt at making me jealous.

Is it working?

Buffy looks at him a moment.

BUFFY Yes. It doesn't change anything, but if you're wildly curious, yeah, it hurts.

I'm sorry. Or...
You want us to go?

No, no... I mean, you have the right to... I mean I pretty much deserve...

That's not true, you... God this is hard.

I know.

I think we'll go.

Go where? To your place?

Yeah I suppose... that was the idea.



Of course.

But I won't. Or I... I'll just go. Give 'em my best or whatever. The happy couple.

I will.

It's nice, watching you be happy. For them, even. I don't see it a lot. You, um... you glow.

That's because my dress is radioactive.

She sees activity nearby.

BUFFY (cont'd)
I should...


They turn to go--

SPIKE (cont'd)
But it hurts.


(very quiet.)

She watches him go off to his date.

(just as quiet)

The "welcome" at the end, delivered by Sarah Michelle Gellar in just above a whisper, is perfect. What a fabulous show this is.

Television is the epic form of our day. The realistic novel is all but extinct. Poetry hasn't had an epic since Milton, and hasn't had a poet of real stature since Yeats at before World War Two. Film and television are the chief art forms of our day, the fora where creative people try to get their message across to as broad a constituency as they can reach. Television is not epic in scope, but in actual length, in minutes.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran for seven seasons, a total of 156 episodes. Allowing for forty-five minutes an episode, to watch the entire canon of Buffy would take four days and one night. It is impossible to watch four days' television continually and enjoy it. The writing can only lag, as every season will have its fillers, and there will be episodes were the standard dropped a little. It is only those who were lucky enough to turn on to Buffy first, or those with sufficient willpower to ration their Buffy allocation into reasonable chunks, that will be able to look past the poor episodes (the awful Buffy meets Dracula, the brave but flawed musical episode, the dreaded Riley Finn era, the sad fact that Buffy should really have ended after Season Five and the two subsequent seasons are best understood as coda to the series) and see that, in the seven years that she was with us, Buffy Summers was the one girl chosen in the all the world to fight the demons, the vampires and the forces of brainwashing and lowest-common-denominatorism in TV scheduling.

She was the Slayer, and this why Buffy matters.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

See Rap

I see where the suits of the Atlanta Falcons American Football team are in a tizzy over their half-time entertainment during a game against Philadelphia last Sunday. According to a report in today's Sports Illustrated, a rapper named Bonecrusher didn't sing about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens - he preferred to give the people a fairly graphic description of what it's like one fellow shoots another fellow in the head.

It's not that nice, apparently.

Anyway, the Falcons are a bit shocked at this. Beats me why - rap has been banging on with the same stuff since it first came on the scene. Whenever rappers are asked about their propensity to glamourise violence, to persistently and doggedly refer to women as bitches and hos, they always looked quite shocked, and explain to the interview that he or she doesn't understand. The rapper is merely in character - he is rapping a part, he is sharing with a his audience a visceral but very real insight into urban life, into what it's like on the streets.

Yeah. How come then it's always the same character that the rappers portray? When Bonecrusher or Youngbloodz get on stage to rap about a sensitive gay boy growing up in the projects, dreaming about getting his poetry published and wearing taffeta, well, I'll be very surprised.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Indomitable Irishry

If George Smyth is going to wear a perfectly enormous handle on his head, I don’t see for one second why he should be surprised if an opposition tackler takes a good strong hold of it.

Smyth is a beautiful rugby player. The man is an animal in the best sense. The changes in the game have reduced one of the great traditional confrontations of rugby, the bullying of the stand off half by the openside flanker, almost to a thing of the past, but old men like Ian Kirkpatrick and Frik du Preez and Fergus Slattery must have had their hearts gladdened when Smyth came roaring off the scrum to ding Irish outhalf Ronan O’Gara good.

And then he did it again. Australia were bossing Ireland completely on Saturday evening in Melbourne, and it looked for a long time (twenty minutes that were as twenty years to the indomitable Irishry) as though the Australians were going to run riot.

And then Brian O’Driscoll hauled Smyth to the turf and the world came tumbling around Australia as a result.

O’Driscoll was penalised for the tackle, as by the letter of the law it was high. But it was a statement of intent, and that intent, to wire it up to the Australians, was carried out by some of the outstanding Irish rugby footballers of their generation, if not ever. O’Driscoll himself had become a target of ridiculous criticism in some quarters of the Irish media, but it never bothered him. It would be easy for a player of O’Driscoll’s stature to become a Luis Figo clone, there for the glory and absent for the work, but Brian O’Driscoll is and has been one of the most consistent tacklers on the Irish team. The talent was always in him and he knew it, and it’s one of the signs of a great player that he does his funky stuff on the great stages. Great players aren’t going to bothered playing for Old Leftfooterstone’s against the President’s XV, but show them the world champions and then slip their leash, and see what havoc will result.

So it was with O’Driscoll. The try from nothing, the most beautiful ugly drop goal of the tournament, and the constant smashing, jarring tackles all over the field of engagement. Add in the pulling of Georgie’s pigtails and the day was almost perfect.

O’Driscoll was not alone. Simon Easterby came of age at blindside flanker. Paul O’Connell bestrides the rugby world like a colossus, one of the stars of the 2003 World Cup. The Bull Hayes is taking over the Claw’s ermine mantle. Kevin Maggs is the unsung hero of the team, but the greatest and bravest and the finest was, is and has been since 1994, the gallant Irish captain, Keith Wood.

This is Wood’s last hurrah, and if old Henry Devil were to rise out of the fiery pit of Hell, Keith Wood would still put down the head and charge. Wood is magnificent. He’s in more places than McCavity the Mystery Cat, and he even kicks. When Ireland’s World Cup comes to an end as it surely must, Keith Wood will walk into the sunset and there will be a void that cannot be filled. Ní bheidh a leithid arís ann.

When the World Cup ends though, is an interesting one. Ireland lost more than a chance to bloody an Aussie nose on Saturday in Melbourne – they lost the easy route to the semi finals, over a dead-but-not-fallen-over Scotland in a quarter-final in Brisbane. Now they must journey through the representatives of that land of Mordor where they drink wine instead of porter, where they eat snails instead of bacon, and on whom your correspondent has invested his ten lids to win the William Webb Ellis trophy.

France start as fourteen point favourites to beat Ireland at an hour when all right thinking Irishmen and Irishwomen will be sitting up in front of their TVs, shivering with the porter sweats. Eddie O’Sullivan is getting annoyed at the plucky Irish tag and rightly so – Ireland have only lost three of their last twenty-one games including three out of four against the French themselves, and are deserving of more than a fighting Irish cliché. Unfortunately, all fighters have limits, and there is a very great danger that this golden generation of Irish rugby players are reaching the bottom of their reserves of strength.

It should not be forgotten that the Irish were already at a disadvantage before a ball was kicked in the World Cup when they lost fullback Geordan Murphy to a broken leg. Now a torn Achilles tendon has cost them Dennis Hickie. Both two of the great attacking players in World Rugby, both men who would walk onto any side. This hugely reduces their scoring threat.

Also, the Irish back row play has been unconvincing, and now that back row must face the Three Musketeers of French loose forward play, the supreme talents of the evergreen Olivier Magne and Serge Betsen, and the terrifying sorcerer’s apprentice at Number 8, Imanol Hardinordoquy. It’s a big ask for any team to face that sort of forward talent, with Fabien Galthie to orchestrate wave after wave of French attack over the no-man’s land that the Musketeers have claimed as their own, but Ireland still have a chance. It’s a slim one, but it exists.

A friend of An Spailpin is convinced that big Donnacha O’Callaghan could be the answer at Number Eight. Why Donnacha? In a nutshell, because he’s a broth of an Irish boy. The fighting Irish tag might be a cliché, but the fact is there is a considerable amount of divil in Big Donnacha, and he could cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war if he got amongst some Frenchmen who really haven’t been tested in the fire so far in this World Cup.

It’s probably too much of a reach – that last minute drop goal that sailed right and wide in Melbourne’s dying minutes probably took the Irish hopes with it. But whatever happens this Irish team, Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter are united behind him them now. If they die, they die on their feet. Roll on Sunday.