Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Flaky Narrative Snow Good for Doctor Who Christmas Special

Imagine if you cooked Christmas dinner and remembered everything except the gobbler. You had ham, you had stuffing, you had roast spuds, mashed spuds, carrots, peas, gravy, cranberry sauce, the works - but you forgot the actual turkey himself, the sun around which all else revolves.

This is what happened Steven Moffat in The Snowmen, this year’s Christmas episode of Doctor Who. He had a new title sequence, a new Tardis, a new companion, as fine a scenery-chewer as is known to humanity to play the villain – but what he didn’t have was a story to pull it all together. Doctor Who is a kids’ show – it needs a narrative. Leave the other stuff to Pirandello.

It can’t be easy to write Doctor Who. The show’s fiftieth anniversary looms in eleven months from now and there is a huge population who want to see something spectacular to mark the occasion. They may be the sort of human plankton who have no lives and are in front of their laptops when they should be partaking of festive cheer, but they are people too and are capable of weeping. More to be pitied than censured, really.

Perhaps the pressure of that anniversary is getting to Steven Moffat, the man in charge of Doctor Who (now gloriously titled the “Whopremo”). He will surely want to do better than the twentieth anniversary show, which really wasn’t that good. He is also distracted by Sherlock, which is as good a show as exists on TV currently.

But for whatever reason, Moffat dropped the ball tonight with the Christmas episode. Did anybody really understand it? You correspondent didn’t and, like the Reverend Mother in Midnight’s Children, An Spailpín is not stupid, having read several books.

It’s also worth questioning the point of hiring as fine a scenery-chewer as is known to humanity and not writing lines for him to gorge on. Michael Gambon was eye-rollingly superb in Moffat’s first Christmas episode, a Christmas Carol, but Richard E Grant was wasted in The Snowmen. He got one peach of a line near the start but spent the rest of the show pretty much sucking a lemon and having to pretend he liked it.

As for Clara, the new companion, she was there and then she wasn’t. Jenna Louise-Coleman has now played the new companion as a computer-savant, a barmaid and a governess. The Doctor himself generally waits for a regeneration to make a personality change but Clara/Oswin seems to go through them in the time it takes to hard-boil an egg.

It would be nice if the powers that be were to let her aye be aye and her nay be nay. Miss Coleman is as cute as a button but she may have to keep notes written on the back of one of her dainty little hands to remember if she’s the same person after lunch as she was at elevenses.

Perhaps Moffat is just trying too hard?  The presence of those anonymous bloggers in bedrooms terrorize both young and old, but sometimes maybe you’re better to just have the Doctor let one companion go, grab the next by the hand and run down a corridor somewhere. This is Doctor Who, after all. There’s a formula that’s worked for fifty years. There’s no need to re-write it as six characters in search of an alien.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Sporting Year: Review and Preview

It is a bittersweet thing indeed that the sporting year of 2012 ends on the death of Páidí Ó Sé. “Legend” is the most overused word in sports, but Páidí Ó Sé transcended the narrow bounds of that cliché long ago.

Where other men are legends, Páidí was an icon; others on that great Kerry of the 1970s were more admired and it’s possible Eoin “The Bomber” Liston was more loved, but nobody represented parish and people, the DNA of the GAA itself, better or more proudly than Páidí Ó Sé.

His bar in Ventry is a GAA grotto. The greatest cynic of that particularly Kerry cuteness that Tom Humphries identified as “the Republic of Yerra” could not help but be swept away by the aura of the place, the rich sense of the history tucked up against the Atlantic, where so much of the world’s history and culture was once stored, many hundreds of years ago.

Páidí Ó Sé’s life was short but few lives have been so full. Suaimhneas síoraí ar a anam Gaelach uasal.

In this year’s iteration of the football championship that Páidí Ó Sé graced for so long, Mayo lost; they always lose.

In hurling, the crown tottered on Kilkenny’s head as the All-Ireland final turned into its third and final act, but Henry Shefflin did nothing less than impose the majesty of his talent on the game. Shefflin moved to centre-half forward to dominate the game and rescue Kilkenny in their hour of greatest need of this decade they have dominated. Galway had no answer in the replay and Kilkenny continue at the very top of the tree.

Donegal were the best team in the football Championship of course. If you wish to see a team as being a symbiosis of coaching, talent and tactics, seldom can the three strands have combined as well as they did for Donegal this year. Donegal swept through the Championship as a burning flame, and nobody ever really made them sweat. It was a year of sheer dominance by Donegal from start to finish, like a racehorse winning the Derby from wire to wire.

Keith Duggan wrote a stirring call to arms for Donegal in the Irish Times in the week after the final, suggesting that they had it in them to dominate football for years to come. And it’s possible, but my goodness it’s a big ask. Only two teams have retained the title in the past twenty-two years, and the intensity of Donegal this year will surely be hard to replicate in 2013 – not least after a winter of celebration.

The current All-Ireland odds have Donegal as joint favourites with Kerry. This is a little surprising as Kerry are meant to be rebuilding, but then anytime the Championship seems wide open it’s the Usual Suspect that generally collects it.

Jim Gavin’s new model Dublin could be worth a bet at a best price 5/1 while it’s hard to know quite what to make of Cork in Championship terms. The Rebels are undoubted League specialists with their three League titles in a row and that can never be taken away from them. The League is the second most important inter-county competition after all.

Mayo are the last of the top five contenders at best price 12/1, shorter than they generally start seasons. After a semi-final in James Horan’s first year and a final in his second, there are only two places for Horan to go in his third year, and all Mayo prays it’ll be the good place rather than the alternative.

Mayo’s series of All-Ireland failures mean that the Championship for them is now a seventy-minute one, that doesn’t start until half-three on the third Sunday in September. Everything else is just a super-long League. It’s neither fair nor just, but that’s how it is.

Rugby has the excitement of a Lions tour next summer, which always adds a frisson for the home nations in the Championship. It’s hard to know how Ireland will do; the golden generation is now dead and gone and there is evidence for a reasonable campaign in the Six Nations and for an abject disaster. As ever, the first game sets the tone and Ireland’s campaign begins in Cardiff, where the Welsh are reeling from the effects of a disappointing summer and a particularly wretched autumn. We’ll wait and see.

2012 was an Olympic year of course, with Katie Taylor’s victory (and Seán Bán Breathnach’s marvellous commentary) the highlight for Ireland. Good for Katie but it’s fair to say, now that the dust has died down, that people got carried away hailing her as the greatest Irish sportswoman ever. This blog coughs discreetly, and suggests that honour remains with Sonia O’Sullivan.

In soccer, 2012 will be remembered as the year when the plucky Irish lost their major Championship innocence. After the drama of Saipan, the glory of America, the incredible, nation-building summers of 1990 and 1988, Ireland’s dream lasted just three minutes, until Mario Mandžukić headed home the goal that exposed Ireland as a busted flush.

The dream lasted as long as it takes to boil an egg. Ireland were humiliated and Giovanni Trapattoni’s reputation left in tatters in a series of nightmare matches. The best reaction was Liam Brady’s during the Spanish game, when the great man remarked that the majority of the Irish team had never played against the likes of the Spanish. They were as baffled by them as a Sunday league pub side would be.

And in the meantime, the supporters sang on. There was some vicious reaction back home to the singing, but in truth, what else could they do? There were people in Mayo jersies out drinking pints after the All-Ireland. Life goes on, and there’s always next year to dream anew.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Another Kick in the Head for Connacht Rugby

In what way is the ERC’s cavalier attitude to smaller rugby nations different from the IRFU’S cavalier attitude to its smallest province? On the face of it, they seem birds of a feather.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, a recap. The ERC is the organisation that runs the Heineken Cup. France and England have the richest clubs and they don’t think they’re getting a fair shake in the competition because they have to qualify from their own quite competitive domestic leagues whereas teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy do not. The French and English clubs are petitioning the ERC to rejig the Heineken Cup qualification rules so that participation is based on merit, rather than geography.

The Irish Times’ rugby correspondent Gerry Thornley can be relied on for a regular one thousand words of scandalised outrage that money should talk in these circumstances. He, like the majority of the Irish rugby establishment, is utterly horrified at the prospect of any of the advantages three of the Irish provinces have traditionally enjoyed in the Heineken Cup being diluted by one whit, jot, or iota.

And in the green corner: the IRFU is the organisation that runs Irish rugby. Leinster, Munster and Ulster are the provinces with traditionally strong rugby traditions in Ireland, and they always get a fair shake in domestic Irish rugby because any time Connacht ever shows any vague chance of improving someone comes along and poaches their players.

Connacht screams long and loud when this happens, at which time the rugby establishment puts on its best hurt face and says: sorry little buddy. We think you’re doing great here in the bog but, you know, money talks. Of course you can have players. You just can’t have any ones that are any good.

How Connacht rugby gets a following at all is beyond your current correspondent. Sisyphus has a better chance of getting that boulder to the top of the hill than Connacht ever has of being a presence in European rugby.

Leinster, Ulster and Munster all know that there’s only so much food to go around. They could diet for a few years themselves in other to better the nation as a whole, or they could say what we have, we hold. Pull up the drawbridge, and let nature take its course.

They should be careful what they wish for. While the IRFU’s lack of vision is crushing Connacht now, it may crush all of Irish rugby in the end. It is a fact that the Irish provinces can’t survive as independent financial entities. They are dependent on the IRFU and the IRFU should extract a quid pro quo for that dependency by imposing quotas on the specialist positions so the national team will never be short of props or out-halves. How can they look out for Connacht when they barely have the wit to look out for themselves?

This season has been Connacht rugby in a nutshell. The season began with Dan Parks debut at outhalf for Connacht. Dan Parks, an Australian who won an astonishing 67 caps for Scotland. Not so much a has-been as a never-was. It was like Galway United had signed Emile Heskey, and expected to wire it up to Barcelona the next time they were at the Noukamp.

And then, by God, Parks, the clapped out old rust-bucket, found a vein of form. Nobody was going to mistake Dan Parks for Dan Carter, but Connacht played him to his strengths – the boot, the boot and nothing but the boot – and got some victories on the board, none more impressive than the win over Biarritz in Galway last Friday. Connacht looked like they were finally going somewhere.

But while Parks made the headlines, second row Mike McCarthy was the star of the team. So much so that he played for Ireland in the autumn internationals and looked completely at home on the greatest stage. For Connacht, the future looked bright.

So it fits the pattern, then, that McCarthy has already packed his bags and will be gone by the summer. To Leinster, of all places. And the more Connacht howl the more the usual suspects shrug their shoulders and say whaddya gonna do? That’s business. McCarthy is only following the money. It’s a professional game, after all.

The ERC know it’s a professional game too. They’ll do the math of the big clubs and the little clubs and the big countries and little countries and give the IRFU in the end exactly what the IRFU are giving to Connacht. The shaft. It will be a bad for Irish rugby but with their scandalous treatment of Connacht, it’s very hard to say the IRFU won’t deserve it.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Has the Irish Electorate Given Up on Governance?

Nate Silver’s triumph of the number-cruncher's art in the US Presidential election last month makes everyone interested in politics look on polls with a more gimlet eye, but even the great Silver himself would wear out the keys on his calculator trying to parse what’s going to happen in Ireland come the next election. The prospect of a look at one of the Minister for Health’s famous logarithms would be a source of delight to any statistician of course, but the rest would be pretty much bedlam, everywhere Silver looked.

The Sunday Business Post released a poll yesterday that saw Fine Gael support crumble, Fianna Fáil continue their slow (but inexorable) rise, and support flock to the Independents. There has been speculation that the fall in Fine Gael support arises from the horrors of the Savita Halappanavar case, but that doesn’t quite fit the case.

Like the rest of the parties, Fine Gael are split on the issue of abortion. The extent of the split depends on just what legislation is proposed, and it seems a leap to say that the fall in Fine Gael support is because of Fine Gael’s position on abortion. They don’t have a position – that’s the point. Some of them shilly, some of them shally, but there is no one Fine Gael position on the issue. We have to look further to find out why Fine Gael have lost support.

One extraordinary thing about the poll, and about the current Dáil, is strength of support of the Independents. It’s extraordinary for this reason – a vote for an Independent in the current situation is a vote for something other than governance.

Which means that when a voter votes for an Independent, she is not voting for a government. She has prioritized something else above governance. What that something is depends on the individual candidate. Is there a commonality at all between Shane Ross, Mattie McGrath and Mick Wallace? It’s hard to see it.

The Independents currently in the Dáil may be understood as loosely left, but that doesn’t sum up them all. You couldn’t accuse Mr Michael Lowry, Independent TD for Tipperary North, of being anti-business, for instance. So even though we group Independents together for convenience, what defines them is what they’re not rather than what they are. As a collective, they’re all over the spectrum.

But what is interesting is that the Independent voter has decided that governance is secondary, and that’s significant and worrying. All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill liked to remark, but the question now arises if Irish politics crossed a Rubicon where voters have given up on the idea of governance entirely?

We heard a lot before the election about how Ireland had lost her sovereignty because of the bank bailout. Did the voters believe it? Is that the evidence of the current Dáil and, on the evidence of current polling, the next?

Has the Irish nation now given up completely on the idea of an independent Irish parliament that legislates for an independent Irish nation? Pat Rabbitte was eager to tell Claire Byrne on Saturday that the Government must absolutely do what the Troika tells them. Is the nation taking the Minister at his word, and deciding that, if they can’t have a government, maybe they can have someone to kick up a fuss when their local hospital is closed or when the rats overrun the local school? Does the nation settle for a TD who will fight for the parish, and isn’t that fussed about who’s Taoiseach because who’s Taoiseach doesn’t really matter at all?

If this week’s budget passes – and the many leaks that have occurred suggest that the Government is determined to test the water, just in case – Ireland will have completed 85% of the Austerity Program. It’s stung and will sting for some time yet, but there haven’t been any Morgan Kelly style riots in the streets. Ireland has taken her medicine.

So the question then is will Ireland return to electing governments once the Troika have moved on and normality is restored, or is faith in the system broken forever? Or, even more worrying, what if the whole thing has all been a cod?

Just how sovereign was Ireland, really? How much can a country with few indigenous resources and that is heavily reliant on foreign investment – the majority of which is still from the former colonial ruler, ninety years after independence – ever be truly “free”?