“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand”

February 28th, 2011

It’s been over a week since my last Gaddafi-related post, and things have moved on since then; largely in the right direction in the eyes of most people. A large proportion of news reports over the past week have naturally dealt with the effort to evacuate non-Libyans, among them Canadians and Irish, from what appears to be a rather epic endgame. Operation G.T.F.O. is well underway.

One of the stories coming out of Ireland is the case of a German pilot taking a group of Irish teachers from the horror of Tripoli airport (and having been there, I can vouch for its dreadfulness) to relative sanctuary in Istanbul. Every news report seems to lead with his nationality as if his very Germanness led him to indulge in these wonderful acts like a latter-day Moses. Whatever the case, the story reminded me of when I was three years hold and lost on a packed Killiney Beach in South County Dublin on one of those hot mid-summer days where everyone within two hours’ drive of the coast (i.e. everyone in the country) seems to load up the car and hit the sea. I walked, crying and semi-naked, up and down the beach searching for my Dad’s unique gait or the distinctive pitch of my Mother’s voice.

The Germans rescued me. Two of them, female and goddess-like. I have been told since that they were teenagers but to me at the time – in the way that when you’re three everyone over the age of six is ancient – they were grown ups. One of them put me on her shoulders and we strolled around between rock and sand searching for my family. We found them in the end.

Germans, I salute you.

Come together right now over me

February 22nd, 2011

After reading a dainty (if not a bit passive agressive) little blog post on midnightpoutine, I have decided to vent slightly here. You see, I come from Ireland, and in Ireland if a boy likes a girl or a girl likes a boy then the girl asks the boy or the boy asks the girl to join him or her for a few drinks. It’s not like in many North American cities where people actually have to drive to get anywhere, so we meet in pubs.

Irish people don’t “date”, they “go for a drink”. They treat the two as meaning the same thing, and there is your problem. Meeting up at a cafe, park or exhibition with the mutual intention of ultimately ending up in bed together (or maybe just holding hands) would be plain weird to most people from the homeland. It can be frustrating for outdoorsy, artsy or sporty types who, though they may enjoy chatting and drinking in a decent pub, are not necessarily addicted to it. It creates a uniform format for going from attraction to doing the bold thing, usually beginning with meeting in a pub and ending with awkward drunken intercourse, if you’re (un?)lucky. I’m only going on second-hand accounts because to be honest I’ve never gone out with an Irish lady.

The midnightpoutine post is refreshing. Assuming that dating sites are at least 99 per cent populated by potential rapists, scam artists and the highly desperate and unattractive, that’s not really an option for most civilised people. Unlike ‘Luc’ who wrote that post, I have not left a trail of wannabe MILFS in my wake as a result of creating some wacky profile on PlentyofFish. But he also recommends St. Denis Street as a good place for single folk to cast an eye around. He has a point; people definitely saunter rather than march along its pretty face. And even for the most feeble-armed of the companionless, it’s a stone’s throw from my apartment where I am writing this post. As Mr. Burns would say, “excellent“.

You never give me your money, you only give me your funny paper

February 22nd, 2011

It used to be that if you needed a job, apartment, car or toaster you would look in the classified ads in the newspaper. If a newspaper could build a city- or region-wide monopoly on classified ads, this became the proverbial license to print money for media outlet owners. People knew that the paper was the place to look. Hence, papers had three revenue streams: unit sales, commercial advertising and classified ads.

When the latter started to move online about ten years ago, it dealt a massive blow to the former two. The most used classified ads site in North America is craigslist; it is so pervasive that it has now joined facebook and google in the list of nouns that are also used as verbs. As a young journalist one might think I would resent the existence of online classified ads sites, but no, I do not. In the past two weeks I have bought a microwave, a lamp, a tea pot and a couple of air mattresses off such sites, and I’m still hunting for speakers, a bass guitar and another lamp. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The ballad of Colonel Kenny (Two of us riding nowhere spending someone’s hard earned pay)

February 18th, 2011

It was just after my 11th birthday when I first became acquainted with the banalities of political campaigning. “Vote Enda Kennaaayyyy, that’s Enda Kennaaayyyy number one,” slurred some man through a megaphone out of the back of a van. Or maybe it was a tractor. Or a car. I can’t really remember. The important thing was that our short family holiday to the beautiful Achill island, off the west coast of Ireland, was constantly being interupted by this chump trying to get locals to give their vote to a man called Enda Kenny. It was the long bank holiday weekend just before the 1997 general election and it occured to me that Enda is a funny name. I still think it’s a funny name, and that’s coming from a Hugo. Enda also likes his ice cream.

A dozen years later I was on my way to Accra, Ghana for an internship with the Ghanaian Times. The Dublin to Accra flight route has, strangely enough, never been too popular or commericially viable, so I had to make a stop in Tripoli, Libya. The first thing that you see on landing is this:

Well isn’t that nice? The Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Muammar al-Gaddafi (I’ll stick to this spelling solely for consistency purposes rather than Qaddadi, Gadhafi, Qadhafi, Kadafi, etc.), welcomes visitors with a smile and a message. If the gold-bedecked 7.5% owner of Juventus Football Club, 100% owner of an all-female bodyguard unit, pitcher of tents in Manhattan and general doer of wacky things wants to say ‘hi’, what’s the harm? But then you go inside the airport building. Revolutionary slogans adorn the walls and The Guide is now leading with a stick rather than a carrot with images that seem to suggest ‘Don’t mess with me’. This photograph is from the arrivals terminal:

I’ll give him one thing; he’s a lot cooler looking than Enda with an ice cream. Tripoli airport, however, is the most awful airport I’ve ever been in. There are two check-in desks for the entire departures area and the bathroom was a tiled floor covered in human excrement. Actually, I can’t be sure it was all human; there may have been bat or bird in there as well.

A couple of weeks later in Ghana I was attending a press conference in Accra as a Ghanaian Times reporter. The press briefing was supposed to announce details of an imminent visit from Gaddafi. A group of West African Chiefs had invited him down for a conference, and the story goes that at the last minute he cancelled because his request to be crowned “King of Kings” would not transpire. A more likely story is that the Ghanaian government begged the Chiefs not to have Gaddafi in town two weeks after a visit from Barack Obama; Investor confidence and all that. Hence, I never actually saw Gaffafi either in Libya or Ghana, just a lot of images of him and words about him.

And this brings us neatly back to Enda. This time next week Enda will be Taoiseach or Prime Minister of Ireland, but his party, having tried to get rid of him last summer, are now merely trying to keep him as inconspicious as possible. Enda did their work for them by refusing to attend the first leaders’ debate last week and saying that the empty chair would symbolise the emigration of Irish youth. Really? That surely has to be one of the dodgiest ad-libs I’ve ever seen. It can’t possibly be the case that he sat down and plotted out that line with his fellow Fine Gaelers. It’s like 1997 all over again, but instead of having a man shouting out of the back of an automobile on his behalf Kenny is doing all the weird stuff for himself. When I was 11 I asked myself, ‘surely this sort if thing doesn’t really make people vote for him.’ and now, after the empty chair-emigration thing, I’m asking myself that all over again.

One thing I noticed in Tripoli airport was how bored all the airport staff looked, how many of them there were, and how little they seemed to be doing. Most of them were born after Gaddafi came to power in a 1969 coup, so for many of them it must seem like Libya and Gaddafi are synonyms. This was 2009 however, when Gaddafi was the meat in a Ben Ali-Mubarak sandwich between Tunisia and Egypt. Now that it Libya an island of repression in a sea of revolution (please rate my metaphors on a scale of 1 to meta-metaphorist), those same workers are becoming more active.

Gaddafi is a leader whose political career began in 1969 and whose leadership, for want of a better term, is starting to crack. Kenny has been in the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, since 1975 and will now become leader of his state for the first time. One of them has been trying for decades to stay in power, the other to get into power. Both are now on the brink of changes in career direction that are largely out of their hands. Do you know what we need? More images of Gaddafi eating ice cream and more giant paintings of Enda wearing sunglasses in Dublin airport.

“I feel fine”

February 17th, 2011

The French language has an emotional intensity far beyond that of English. When you accidentally bump into someone in a supermarket you are not sorry, but desolated. The play you went to last night was not good or great, but formidable. French ploughs the emotional extremes, as shown by the love affair with the subjunctive mood that French people seem to have. They would never use such a benign word as ‘nice’ to describe anything.

But that’s the French, as in those for whom France is called home. In the last couple of weeks in Quebec I have heard a response to the question ‘ça va?’ (‘how are you?’) that one would never hear in France; I know this because a couple of Parisian friends have told me so. Whereas French people usually define how they feel in the most expressive terms, Quebecers often define themselves by what they are not. ‘Pas si pire’, they say. ‘Not so bad’. Defining how you are by how you are not is not very French and sounds odd and quirky when done in the French language. If anything, it’s a very Irish thing to do – a relic of a time when the closest thing to going to a mental health therapist was confession.

So why would Quebecers respond to ‘how are you?’ by saying ‘not so bad’? I have a theory.

Like the Irish, Canadians are defined internationally and, to a lesser extent, domestically by what they are not. Canadians are not Americans, and the Irish (well, most of them) are not British. As if to prove the point, a good chunk of Canadians sow a little maple leaf flag onto their luggage when travelling. ‘Yank I ain’t!’, screams the square inch of cotton (and probably with good reason). Canadians and Americans might share a continent, but they don’t necessarily share a mindset.

Zooming in a little more, Quebecers don’t necessarily share a mindset with either Americans or fellow Canadians or even with themselves. Emotions? They’re for wrapping up with lashings of tape and stuffing somewhere between your heart and your mouth, never to be heard. And you know that famous ‘gift of the gab’ that Irish people are so famous for? It’s only there to avoid talking about actual feelings. Emotions? Lock ‘em up and throw away the key while you tell us another story about your uncle. Defining what you are by what you are not is not exclusive to identity – it can also influence the use of language.

As many as 40% of French-speaking Quebecers have Irish ancestry on at least one side of the family. So here is my theory: ‘pas si pire’ is a direct translation of ‘not so bad’ that began with the Irish in Quebec using an intensely outwardly emotional language with a way of thinking that was introverted and secretive. Thoughts? Perhaps you’re too secretive to comment . . .

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup

February 14th, 2011

There is a hilarious short scene in an old Simpsons episode where Bart is interviewing Homer for a school project. ‘Dad’, asks Bart, ‘do you wear boxers or briefs?’ The assumption is of course that every man wears one or the other. Homer looks into his pants and says ‘no’.

I use this reference by way of introduction due to a text message that I received from somebody in Ireland yesterday. It read: ‘How is Ireland – in its current state – viewed by your average Canadian and also by the press?’. The assumption in this instance is that the press here actually has a view of Ireland. But it does not.

On the Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, National Post and Toronto Star websites, only one article dealing primarily with Irish political, economic or social life was published during the last week and a half. Other than that, the only Ireland-related articles were on the plane crash in Cork airport four days ago. In ten days the Republic of Ireland will hold a general election, an election in which a party that has won a plurality of the popular vote in every election since 1932 will be heavily walloped. If ever Ireland is to be newsworthy outside of Europe, it is now. Egpyt might have had something to do with a lack of international news about Ireland, methinks.

Let’s start with the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest-circulation national newspaper. On their very user-friendly and comprehensive website, the freshest non-plane crash stories to be found are from February 1. One is titled ‘Irish PM dissolves parliament, calls early election’ and the other ‘Next Irish government faces dire economy’. Stories that made it into the paper this week ahead of anything related to Ireland included: ‘Prince Harry to be best man, Pippa Midleton maid of honour’ and ‘3 women honored in Italy for best letters to Juliet’.

The National Post, a more overtly conservative publication than the others, has an AFP sourced article dated January 24 with the headline ‘Ireland in tatters as coalition falls apart’. The word ‘tatters’ is so ubiquitous at the moment that a group of my friends has taken away a syllable so that it becomes ‘tats’ (for example – “my car’s brakes are in tats”). Another article published online on January 24 is titled ‘Stagflation looms for Ireland’. There is perhaps no more scary verb in the English language than ‘to loom’; almost always used in a negative context, it gets the idea across that the sword of Damocles is hovering just above the scalp, ready to be released by some malign agent. Stagflation is the free market supporter’s idea of hell, the nadir of possible outcomes.

The Toronto Star’s most recent non-plane crash Ireland story is dated January 22 and comes with the headline ‘Irish prime minister resigns, plans to stay government (sic) until next election’. The fact that the paper missed the word ‘in’ in the headline probably shows how long it spent on the story. Stories that made it in this week ahead of the Irish election included: ‘Google unveils ‘Map your Valentine” and ‘First photograph of Prince Philip revealed’.

The only newspaper of the four to carry a story on Irish politics and economics was the Ottawa Citizen, which two days ago published an article titled ‘Irish parties pledge to re-negotiate EU-IMF bailout’. The article is accompanied by a rather sad, frustrated and lonely looking Brian Cowen.

And there you have it. Ireland really does not matter much at the moment. Our election is probably seen, if at all, as either boring or insignificant. Hence, it does not ‘make good copy’, as they say.

Tomorrow never knows

February 11th, 2011

Sent my article to the Irish Times yesterday. I had to keep it to 800 words, which is quite short for a feature with plenty of interviews. After the first draft it was 996 words long, but I managed to tighten it down to 810. I don’t know if it will be published. And if it is published, I don’t know when you might be able to see it. Given that the deadline was Thursday morning, I reckon that if it is published it will be in Saturday’s weekend section.

Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble…

February 8th, 2011

In the past 24 hours, two curious little events have brought the issue of the French language and the Conservative Party of Canada right back into the media radar.

First, there was Prime Minister Stephen Harper giving a joint press conference with President Barack Obama in Washington. The usual pleasantries were exchanged, beginning with Obama saying that their relationship was not only strategic, but also based on friendship. Harper replied in English, agreeing with that sentiment. For American viewers, this is what they heard before American news networks cut their coverage of the press conference: “Well, first of all, thank you, Barack.  Both — thank you for your friendship both personal and national.  And thank you for all the work you’ve done and all of your people have done to bring us to our announcement today.”

So why would the news networks, and I mean not some of them but all of them, panic and cut to studio discussion of what is going on in Egypt? It’s because Harper suddenly began a lengthy monologue in French. Uh-oh. Harper is perfectly cabable of speaking English; in fact English is his mother tongue, with his fluency in French being a more recent acquisition following more cumbersome efforts two decades ago as a Reform Party MP. So why did he give the lion’s share of his speech in Washington in French, in doing so forcing Obama into making bad jokes and leaving a bunch of journalists twiddling their thumbs?

The answer can be given in a simple way or a more complex way. First, the simple way. Harper is Prime Minister of a minority government that currently holds only 10 of 75 seats in Québec, the only province with a predominantly French-speaking population. These are facts. Another fact is that the last federal election was in 2008, so every day that passes is one day closer to another round of voting. Harper knows that grabbing, say, a dozen or 15 Québec seats at the next election could be the difference between remaining as Prime Minister or not. That’s the simple explanation, but it’s not as straightforward as that.

The major federal parties in Canada have come to realise that it is not clever politics to have a unilingual leader. Rightly or wrongly, leaders need to be not just bilingual, but conspicuously so. They need to slip some French in while in Saskatoon and slide a bit of English in there while in Québec City. The Conservatives, Brian Mulroney aside, have traditionally been inept – sorry, suicidal – when it comes to the sensitive politics of language. What would you think if I told you that George Drew, Conservative leader in 1950s, actually called French Canadians “a defeated race” and labelled the Quebecois “French Canadian bastards”? Does that sound like good politics to you? Since the 1980s, Harper has moved from the Drew school of thinking to a far more pragmatic style of leadership. That’s why he gave his speech in Washington in French. Sure, the vast majority of viewers and people in the room had no idea what he was saying and probably thought ‘oh look, here’s some Canadian again with his fancy French that I cannot understand,’ in doing so reinforcing the widely-held view in the USA that Canada simply does not matter. But Harper had only one constituency in mind during that press conference, and it wasn’t Obama or CNN viewers, but rather Canadian voters. More specifically, Quebecois voters. That’s what makes him such a formidable politician – he is simply magnificent at knowing who he wants to speak to and staying in power.

That same weekend, however, Harper’s Québec lieutenant, MP Maxime Bernier, told a Nova Scotia radio station that there is no need for Bill 101 in Québec. This Bill is the one that, among other things, legally established French as the predominant language in business, economics and politics in the province in the 1970s. It is the main reason why I have always thought of the Parti Québécois as ‘un parti conservateur de la gauche’ – a left-wing conservative party. The Bill works in a zero-sum sort of way, with the tipping of the scales in favour of French being at the expense of English, and can be seen as reactionary. Many Quebecois embrace this reaction. So was it good politics for Bernier to publicly oppose the now-entrenched Bill 101 on the same weekend that Harper forewent the opportunity to butter-up an American audience so that he could appeal to Québec voters? Indeed, did Harper and his team decide to go French in Washington so as to limit the damage that Bernier might have done? Do the two cancel each other out? Are the Conservatives going to mess up on Quebec forever? Whatever the case, conservative commentator Tasha Kheiriddin credits Bill 101 for saving Canada even though she doesn’t actually like it. So there you go.

You know my name (look up the number?)

February 4th, 2011

As mentioned in my previous post, I made three pitches in one to the features editor of The Irish Times. It turns out that while fighting for crumbs off the table I managed to find an entire cookie; the editor liked one of my ideas and wants 800 words by Thursday morning Irish time. There’s not much point in me going through the other two, but the one that stuck is this: at Concordia University, one of the two large English-speaking universities in Montréal, there is a department of Canadian Irish Studies where, among other pursuits, a load of Quebecois and other nationalities are learning Irish. Some of these fine people have never been to Ireland.

Last night at one of those generic Irish pubs that are so popular everywhere save Ireland itself there was a ‘Networking and Integration evening’ for recently arrived Irish immigrants. I made it my business to find someone from Concordia as soon as I got there. I struck gold, finding not only the director of the Centre for Canadian Irish Studies but also an Irish teacher from Spiddal, Co. Galway. I’m meeting the director, Michael Kenneally, at his office in about three hours. I asked for his number but he said I should just show up; “It’s on the ninth floor and you turn left,” he said. Aoife, the teacher, was more forthcoming with her digits. She’s also allowing me to sit in on a class this Tuesday where I will get a chance to interview some students.

Unfortunately, my Olympus voice recorder gave up the ghost this week. Some moisture seems to have infiltrated it on the journey from Dublin to Montréal via London. I’ve looked up a replacement on craigslist – the online hub of many a transaction in North America – but can only meet the seller over the weekend. Hence, when I meet Mr. Kenneally today I will be recording him using a Blackberry that I got last week. Let’s hope I don’t mess up the recording. As a back up, I think I’ll use the traditional pen and paper format too.

A beginning

February 3rd, 2011

There is probably a fine line between being bold and being naive, and I don’t quite know on which side of that line I now stand. An application for an online sports writing job has been sent, by me, to some email address hidden under a craigslist-given pseudonym. There is nothing to lose, I tell myself, even though I know that it would be a great and welcome surprise – “a miracle”, if I believed in such things – if I hear back from them, let alone actually get the job. Additionally, I just fired off three feature story ideas to the features, foreign and diary editors from The Irish Times. Fighting for the crumbs off the table.

And then there is my CV (a resume here is called a CV – “say vay” – by French speakers), which has an element of the Marge Simpsons about it.. When she asked Smithers what to do with a machine after getting a job in the nuclear power plant, Mr Burns’ camp sycophant says ‘Mrs Simpson, according to your resume you invented this machine.’ Now, I have not told fibs like that, but my stated trilingualism now demands that I bring my solid posh conversational French up (down?) to fluent Québécois French and that potential employers might be mildly impressed with the fact that I can speak Irish. Well, I could a few years ago anyway.

This is the blog of a 24 year-old Irish emigrant to Montréal, Québec, Canada. It’s going to be a blog about a writer-journalist-sub looking for work, hopefully finding some, and what he thinks about it all. Oh it’s all so terribly self-important, you say. Yes, this first post is, and for that I offer an apology couched in the language of well-it-couldn’t-be-any-other-way. This blog, though, is about an industry – the words industry. You won’t find it as a career category on job search sites, but it exists and has existed for millennia. Robert Harris, the brilliant English journalist-come-author, has in recent years published two novels written in the first person through the moniker of Tiro, Cicero’s servant and scribe. This was over 2,000 years ago, and Tiro’s main job was to research, write and express. His game was words, as is mine today.

Lots of people will tell you that this industry is dying, and they are right, but only if we think of the words and journalism industries as synonyms and only if we think of journalism as meaning newspapers. Are newspapers dying? Probably. Any young journalist should expect their undeniably rapid decline to be terminal and take any future change to this process as some sort of bonus. It’s a sort of dour yet Monty Python-esque always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life mélange of attitudes. Most people in the business don’t seem to know for how long news and comment will continue to be produced and consumed via chemicals placed on dead trees; they may guess, but they don’t know.

Furthermore, journalism is moving and moving fast. If newspapers are on a permanent downward curve, it is primarily because of THE invention of our times, the Internet. News comes within minutes of the event, in some cases being consumed live like a Chinaman eating fish. Let’s play a little game. I’ll list some words that have been newsworthy recently and you count how many of them you first heard about in a newspaper: Egypt, Thierry Henry handball, Haiti, Chilean Miners, Michael Jackson, Icelandic volcano, flooding, Gulf oil spill. Get it? Most of us can understand the emotional sadness at the demise of some wonderful titles in recent years, but only the most conservative writers could call the move towards online journalism a bad thing in itself.

While one can’t really say that the words industry is in better health than ever, I propose that we don’t see the decline of newspapers as a decline in the industry itself. Think of it as a Venn diagram. We have all the jobs there are where one of the major responsibilities is to write and write well. Journalism is a subset, and within that subset is another called print, and within that is another called newspapers. While newspapers sell fewer copies and take in far less revenue through advertising than before, sales of iPads and Androids go up. As my late granddad used to say, “easy come, easy go.” And as the case of Tiro shows, the words industry gives writers the chance to work in areas that are not necessarily journalism. If Tiro was around today, we might think of him as a spokesperson for a political party; a sort of Alastair Campbell of the ancient world, but without the spite. Politics and online copywriting are just two of the many areas inside the words subset but outside the journalism subset.

This blog is more than just the musings of a young man who can’t quite figure out what he’s doing with his career, however. You, dear reader, will have to put up with me trying to figure out what this place is and what it means. In recent years I have developed an odd fascination with Canada, despite having spent only four days and three nights in the country. And that was in Vancouver, a couple of thousand miles away. I did my postgraduate dissertation on how federal politics is reported in two Québécois newspapers, La Presse and Le Devoir. I regularly stayed up until 3am in Dublin watching ice hockey on satellite television. I have only ever met one nasty Canadian, a rather loathsome girl from British Columbia who treated a good friend of mine terribly, and thus far she is the exception that has proved a rule – Canadians are fantastic people.