I love it in old movies when someone grabs the earpiece of a bakelite phone, turns the crank a few times and demands that they be put through to a three-digit number. There’s something deeply engaging about it. Maybe it’s the fact that there’s physical activity involved. Or maybe it’s the wispy half-presence of the operator, the crucial go-between with her sensible skirt, nimble fingers and weakness for listening in. The three-digit number helps too; a subtle whisper about exclusivity and power. There’s glamour here, in short, and romance and ritual and drama. You can’t imagine someone picking up one of these old phones, going through the laborious connection process and then sighing, ‘So, any crack?’ much less ‘Would you like to take a few minutes to provide us with some feedback so that we can continue to improve our service going forward?’ No hold music either, of course, no Greensleeves played on a comb and a bit of toilet roll. No ‘Press the hash key NOW’. No ‘I wouldn’t have a clue pal, I’ll put you back to reception’. And no call waiting. Imagine that. Call waiting symbolises everything disappointing about the modern phone experience. You call someone up, not because you’ve got something important to say, but because you can. They’re engaged because someone else with nothing to say got in before you. But they know you’re out there, hanging on. They might swap calls, they might not. You’re stuck in limbo, complaining under your breath. And no one’s even listening in.
‘You can’t eat it. It’s a stick. Not food. NOT FOOD. PUT IT DOWN.’
‘No, I don’t know why Daddy has hair in his ears.’
‘Stop kicking your sister in the face!’
‘You do like toast. I know you do. I’VE SEEN YOU EATING IT.’
‘You can stop helping now. Please. STOP HELPING.’
Ever heard of Leo Gorcey? Me neither. He was an actor, by all accounts. You may not remember him from such films as Crazy Over Horses, Feudin’ Fools, or my own favourite, Dig That Uranium. But in 1967 Leo Gorcey had something in common with Laurel and Hardy, Mae West, George Bernard Shaw, Tony Curtis, Karl Marx, Marlon Brando and Shirley Temple. His likeness was one of those chosen to decorate the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ and hence the world’s first concept album (the concept being ‘Let’s get wasted and not bother so much with the concept thing’). But his face was removed before the album went to the presses because Gorcey – get this – thought he should get paid. Now, it’s not as if Ringo and co. were unknowns at the time. This isn’t a story of unrecognised opportunity, like Decca’s legendary rejection of the self-same Beatles on the grounds that guitar music was on the way out. Gorcey couldn’t have known that Sgt Pepper’s would turn out to be probably the most famous and memorable album cover of all time, but … it was the Beatles, for God’s sake! We can only conclude that he wasn’t all that bothered about immortality. Sadly for him, that’s just what he’s earned. The modern sleeve notes for the album include a list of who’s who on the cover. Gorcey’s name is still there, trailed by a smirking asterisk. The footnote, ours to ponder forever and ever and ever, reads ‘Painted out because he requested a fee.’ They’ll still be laughing at him in two hundred years time, the poor bastard. There’s a moral here somewhere, I’m sure of it.
You know those care guides that you see attached to a little stick in the soil of a new house plant? Have you noticed that they’ve gone first person? They used to be nothing more than a stern list of dos and don’ts, written in cold instructionese. Now they read like a lonely hearts ad. ‘I like to be kept out of direct sunlight and to be fed once a week in the summer months. I also enjoy wine-tasting and walks on the beach.’ Presumably, the idea is to give the plant a personality so you’ll feel guilty enough to take care of it. It works, too. I found myself apologising to one the other day and promising that, if it gave me another chance, I’d be more attentive to its needs in future. In fact, I’d like to see this approach extended to other vulnerable products. Clothes labels, for example, are currently all but meaningless. Pictures of dotted irons, circles with a letter P in them, crossed out triangles … How much better if they said things like ‘I like to be washed in water no warmer than 40 degrees and to be carefully ironed, then hung up on a proper wooden hanger. Please don’t boil wash me with the tea towels and then stuff me into a drawer while I’m still damp.’ Is that too much to ask? Cars, too, could benefit. How I wish that mine had come with a sticker saying ‘Please take care of my delicate outer shell. For example, check my rear-view mirror for poles before reversing out of your parking space last Tuesday’.
It’s difficult to argue with the notion that, biologically speaking, females have got the pointy end of the stick. When it comes to reproduction, for example, men have very little to do. And, let’s be honest, that little bit isn’t so terrible. Our role is like that of a politician who smiles and snips the ribbon on a new factory. It’s herself who has to actually work there; every frigging day for nine months. We’re long gone, sipping champers in the back of the limo and telling our driver that speed limits are for the plebs. But at least pregnancy lasts a mere three quarters of a year and ends in the relaxed comfort of childbirth. The awful alternative, the monthly … eh … you know … a woman’s … natural … that lasts for decades. It’s so horrifying a prospect that we don’t even like to think about it, much less call it by its name. We prefer cryptic asides about painters and Arsenal and obscure relatives who’ve just dropped in. If a foolish male dares to engage in the hopeless battle of Who’s Got It Worse?, women have these shiny nuclear missiles to call upon. What have we got? The rusty revolver that is face-shaving. See how useless it is? You can’t even say ‘shaving’ because women shave their legs and pits. You have to be specific. ‘It’s all right for you girls, you don’t have to drag a flippin’ razor over your face every other day, except at weekends.’ As arguments go, it’s like Bill Gates telling you what a pain it is to open the begging letters. Oh well. At least we get to complain about feeling guilty. Even though we don’t. Frankly, we can’t believe our luck.
Everybody loves David Attenborough. What’s not to love? When he tilts his wise old head at the camera and tells you that this particular species of rodent has an abiding fondness for light jazz, you can’t help but take his word for it. He has natural authority, if you’ll allow the pun. But that’s not all. He also has the ability to make you genuinely care about the fate of animals – and plants, for God’s sake – without ever resorting to finger-wagging or earnest frowning. He achieves this feat by simply being knowledgable, enthusiastic and almost supernaturally pleasant. But none of that is the point. What I’m wondering is this: I used the word ‘love’. I said, ‘Everybody loves David Attenborough’. (It was only a few lines ago, you can check.) Was I just playing fast and loose with the verbs again? I’m not at all sure that I was. I suspect that a great many people literally love him, in much the same way that they love their family and friends. A bloke on the telly. A stranger. Is that possible? And if it is, where’s the floor on this thing? Can we grow to love a fictional character? What about a cartoon character? I’m talking about love, remember, not admiration or respect or any of those other sugar-free alternatives. It sounds too silly to be true but then again this is a profoundly silly world and sometimes we have to … OK. Let me get to the point. Frankly, I’m not convinced that the word ‘like’ covers the way I feel about Wile E. Coyote. There. I said it. I know he isn’t real, honestly, but … his little face! And that giggle he does just before he blows himself up again! Well, don’t look at me like that. Jesus. I didn’t say I was in love with him.
I have decided on a change of career. Writing’s all right but it really starts to hurt the tips of your fingers after a while and I need the tips of my fingers for drumming impatiently on things. I’ve thought about it hard and long and I’ve concluded that the career for me is that of futurologist. I plan to go on the lucrative lecture circuit and say things like ‘In the future, your trousers will tell you whether or not they go with your shirt’ and ‘In the future, everyone will have a small windfarm on the top of their head.’ It’s the perfect career in many ways because unlike real work, it’s consequence-free. The trick is not to say anything that will be proved to be Jackanory within your own lifetime. Stick to the long-term and you can’t go wrong. ‘In the future, tiny nanobots with nanoscissors and nanocombs will render traditional haircuts obsolete’, that sort of thing. By the time it becomes clear that you were talking out of your arse, you’ll be too dead to care. I think it’s a good idea to keep it positive, too. I mean, who wouldn’t want their own windfarm on top of their head? That kind of news is always welcome. Gloom and doom is harder to sell; ‘In the future, we’ll all be up to their necks in seawater and new aquatic species will skip stones at our sun-burned faces’. I also plan to be prolific in my predictifying. That way, you never know, I might even get one right. Maybe they’ll speak fondly of me in the year 2200, looking back in wonder at that lonely visionary who foresaw the day when sentient apples would pick themselves and roll into the shops unaided.
I recently decided, possibly due to sleep deprivation, that the world would be a better place if everyone learned a few magic tricks. That’s tricks, mind, not illusions. When David Copperfield waves his arms around in his ludicrous billowy shirt and turns one of his mates into an elephant (or vice versa), it’s never all that impressive. Too remote, too grand. You mumble the word ‘mirrors’ and get on with your life, possibly pausing to wonder if he wooed Claudia Schiffer by telling her that, with the right glamorous assistant, he could make his lad disappear. A trick, on the other hand, is something simple that’s done right under your nose. You should be able to work out how it’s done, but you can’t. That is its entire appeal. With a little collective effort, we could harness this simple truth for the betterment of all. How about using mini-miracles as a form of greeting? You’d bump into someone you’d hadn’t seen since for ages, rip up a fifty Euro note under her nose and then put it back together. ‘So how have you been?’ Your friend would pluck a pencil from her top pocket and ram it through the palm of her hand, only to withdraw it immediately, and no harm done. ‘Grand. Yourself?’ Tricks could become our national icebreaker. Enda could announce it in the Dail and when he was finished, he could link a couple of metal rings. No? Suit yourselves. Last time I try to make the world a better place.
There were so many hilarious moments – and candidates – in the recent Irish Presidential campaign that it’s hard to pick just one comedy highlight. But, gun to my head, I’d have to go with this astounding broadcast from Gay Mitchell. The first ten or so times I watched it, I genuinely thought it was a joke. It looks like someone gave the production gig to their fourteen year-old nephew who had a new MacBook and an afternoon off. The reader will have his or her own favourite moments but just for grins, I’ve added mine below.
25 seconds: Gay is almost run over. Look how the car’s weight shifts as its driver impatiently taps the brakes. There might as well be a Thinks Cloud over it saying ‘GET OFF THE FUCKING ROAD’.
30 seconds: Gay has an unrealistic meeting with a youth. And you just know that’s how the director referred to the lad – ‘Bring on the youth! Push it towards Gay!’
34 seconds: Gay seems to be talking to himself in the mirror. To put it at its mildest, this does not inspire confidence.
40 seconds: Gay loses focus entirely. It’s hard to shake the feeling that they meant to cut this bit out but forgot.
46 seconds: Gay wanders through a field, talking to himself like an unfortunate. OK, you can see what they were going for here. He’s a man with a vision! He’s in touch with our pastoral heritage! Etc.! But it really, really doesn’t work. He doesn’t look like a visionary, he looks like he’s slipped away from his carer.
1 minute 12 seconds: Gay sinks slowly out of the frame. Apparently, no one involved in this clip’s production looked at that and said, ‘Wait a minute – is SINKING really the visual metaphor we want?’ Amazing.
1 minute 30 seconds: Gay stares at nothing while Enda Kenny spoofs on about what a great guy he is. This is perhaps the highlight of highlights. He looks like he’s just been teleported there from somewhere else and is eagerly anticipating the moment when someone will take him aside and explain what the hell is going on.
You know Bosco, the popular children’s entertainer and all-round cultural icon of yesterweek? Well, I don’t. Couldn’t tell you the first thing about him (it is a him, isn’t it?). Likewise Wanderly Wagon. Ditto Forty Coats. Not a clue, me. But this isn’t one of those embarrassing cases where a couple of uptight trendy parents sniffed and preened and decided that their children would be much better off if they came home from school and relaxed in front of a nice Proust. It’s just that the house in Monaghan where I grew up (after a fashion) is located in some sort of televisual blind spot. We could pick up the British channels that wafted over the border from the North but RTE, for some reason, failed to penetrate. The reception wasn’t so much snowy as avalanchey. If you sat six inches from the screen and squinted, you could occasionally make out something that looked like a face but could just as easily have been a clock. It didn’t bother me back then but I must say that I feel a certain loss today, now that fifty percent of my generation’s conversations are about the TV programmes of our vanished youth. When talk turns to Bosco, for example, I feel like a foreign language student who was doing fine for a while before everyone got drunk and started talking faster. I catch an occasional phrase that makes sense but spend most of my time smiling politely and sneaking peeks at my watch. Oh well. I don’t suppose I missed out on very much. Bosco, who was some sort of puppet by all accounts, sounds like a pain in the hoop. And I’ll have always have Rainbow. They can’t take that away from me.