Culture

A Limerick Limerick

To celebrate Limerick being named as 2014 City of Culture (@Limerick2014), I’ve penned a limerick about Limerick:

The Limerick Limerick

A city on the banks of the Shannon

Renowned for its rugby and gammon

Though it’s not quite Paris

It spawned Richard Harris

A man who could drink like a salmon

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“I drink, therefore I am” – Is alcohol a fundamental part of our society?

The so-called binge drinking culture and the problems of alcoholism have in recent years been the subject of much debate and government initiatives, but largely to no avail. A recent example is the Scottish government’s failed attempt to raise alcohol prices. Whether we like it or not alcohol is an integral part of the social and cultural fabric of these islands. In continental Western Europe where drunkenness is largely frowned upon the cafe culture is prevalent. The continental cafes are – much like our own pubs – social and communal meeting places, but where all sorts of food and drink (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are sold.

At the time of writing the Cartoon Museum in London has just opened a new exhibition on the relationship between alcohol and society. In a feature about the exhibition on BBC Radio 4’s morning news programme, a former newspaper editor, a recovering alcoholic himself pointed out that it would be pious to suggest that drunkenness isn’t funny – it is funny, but it’s also tragic.

We even have an entire culture based around various tribes and the type of beverages they imbibe. There is the 1980s phenomenon of the “lager lout” on the football terraces or the beaches of Ibiza, the stereotype of the bearded, jam-jar bespectacled “real ale twat” from Viz comic and in the upper strata of the society the Pimms brigade. The local pub is the social hub of a rural village or urban district, the source of gossip, where business deals are conducted, where friends and partners are made, but also where fights and arguments start and where lives are ruined.

When I was growing up in the 1980s alcohol advertising was all over the television, on giant billboard posters and on the shirts of famous footballers. This may still be the case today, but it seemed to be much more prominent back then. Although I grew up in a household where alcohol consumption was mostly confined to the odd glass of wine or sherry at Christmas or very occasionally to accompany the Sunday roast had you asked the 11-year old Ciaran Ward back in 1985 how many brands of alcoholic drinks he could name, he could have rhymed off about 10. Off the top of my head without resorting to Google the following slogans spring to mind which as an 11-year old I could have recited verbatim:

“Harp – Very much to a Viking’s liking” (as seen on billboard poster circa 1985)

“Get into the good taste of Guinness/Have a Guinness tonight”

“Smithwicks at the heart of the night/Smithwicks – it’s one great beer”

“Great stuff this Bass”

“Carlsberg – probably the best lager in the world” (spoken in a voice similar to that of Spock from Star Trek, but I’m not sure if it was definitely him)
“Fosters – the Australian for lager”
“Martini – anytime, anywhere”

Then there were the celebrities who made a tidy sum by advertising alcohol. Think of the comedian Griff Rhys-Jones as Marilyn Monroe’s plumber in the Holstein Pils ads, Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan as salt-of-the-earth Aussie stereotype in the Fosters commercials, comedian Peter Kay and John Smiths and more recently Top Gear’s James May extolling the pleasures of London Pride

Many of these ads were not surprisingly quite entertaining and innovative, given the fact that the drink manufacturers spent and continue to spend millions on promoting their wares. One particularly eye-catching commercial from the mid-80s was for a now long defunct variety of lager known as Lamot – see above. It featured an animated film of a knight in armour riding a tiger-like creature through a Tolkienesque fantasy sword and sorcery-type landscape on a quest to seek out this bog-standard beer. Such imagery would appeal to a 12-year old hobbit obsessive, who may never have tasted beer, but would certainly be imbued with the desire to try this particular brand.

It would be several years before I drank my first pint – as a naïve, awkward teenager my early experiences were with cider, then graduating to lager with a shot of lime to make it more agreeable to my inexperienced palate. But repeated exposure to the apparent pleasures and thrills of drinking alcohol during my schooldays through ruthless advertising had certainly whetted my appetite. And a few short years later those clever chaps in the drinks industry came up with a solution to the “problem” of awkward teenagers like my younger self being unfamiliar with alcohol by producing “alco-pops”, a cynical, almost criminal exploitation of the market for underage drinkers.

The impact of alcohol advertising on a pre-teen as described above is somewhat disturbing when one considers the culture of underage drinking and the binge sessions which occur throughout our towns, villages and cities on any Friday or Saturday night. And as if this wasn’t enough, during freshers’ week at universities up and down the country there are organised pub crawls and special offers of cheap drink.

After many years of compulsory government health warnings featuring prominently on tobacco products we now have similar warnings on bottles and cans, promoting the “Drinkaware” website. This is a move in the right direction, but in my humble opinion, not enough. The roots of the problem must be addressed.
It may be an unpopular proposal, especially among those who wish to stem the influence of the “nanny state”, but although I enjoy the odd drink or two myself, I personally believe that all forms of alcohol advertising should be banned. The manufacturers, distributors and the pub and off-licence trades would no doubt be up in arms at such a move, but in desperate times desperate measures need to be taken. The burden on an already struggling health service in dealing with alcohol-related injuries and illnesses is phenomenal. An all-out ban on alcohol advertising wouldn’t stop those who already drink from continuing to drink, but if young children and teenagers were less familiar with well-known brands the desire to start drinking in the first place may well to a certain extent be quelled. We can still enjoy our favourite tipple down a t the local without having to see it on TV, at football matches or billboard posters.

Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter

Another inglorious end to England’s overinflated World Cup dreams and the post mortems go on.  Was it due to discord in the camp?  Did Capello get the tactics wrong?  Was it the disallowed goal that disrupted the flow of play?  Were the players just worn out after a hectic Premiere League and Champions League schedule?  Did manager and players just not connect?

At the end of the day it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for a bunch of overpaid, overrated, overindulged bunch of tattooed philandering underachievers who earn more in a week than most of their supporters earn in five years.  The fans who travelled several thousand miles and spent several thousand miles deserve better.  If Never has there been a stronger argument for the introduction of performance-related pay in football.

But whether England win or lose, the tabloid press always have a field day.  The punning headlines never fail to impress,  The front page of the Mirror screamed “ROUT OF AFRICA” (rather than the less politically correct KRAUT ROUT) on its front page and TORN TO FRITZ on its second page, while its back page responded with the line FABIGO.  Even the more subtle Times got in on the act with EIN ZWEI DREI…YOUR TEARS.

 But the possibilities are endless.  We could also have had:

 ENGLAND’S WÜRST EVER PERFORMANCE

 THE END OF THE FRAULEIN FOR ENGLAND

 ENGLAND HERR TODAY GONE TOMORROW

LAST OF THE SUMMER SCHWEIN

 Or if an England fan had put money at the bookies on England to win the World Cup the headline could have read:

 AUF WIEDERSEHEN BET!

 If German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been at the match and a bad decision had gone against Germany she might have invaded the pitch to angrily remonstrate with the referee:

 MAJOR FRAU ERUPTS.

 And finally anyone who says the Germans have no sense of humour should check out this marvellously satirical and self-deprecatory song from the mid-‘80s by Udo Lindenberg, Lindenberg,a well known and respected rock musician in his own country plays on the stereotypical images of his compatriots – ie a highly efficient and hardworking, but ultimately dull and humourless people.  But Lindenberg can hardly be described as dull or humourless.

The blond german Fräuleins are pretty, but vain
You say ‘Guten Tag’ and they say ‘Auf wiedersehen’
They’re very hard workers, from Monday to Friday
Make love on the weekends, and yodel like Heidi
  [This line followed by some very impressive yodelling]

Classic stuff.

The Scarlet Beehive – A Return to the 1980s?

Plus ça change plus c'est la meme chose

Another election over.  It was the result I had predicted (see previous blog post “Never a frown with Gordon Brown), although not the one I had hoped for.  Nevertheless, as the Ant and Dec of politics begin their historic coalition government we can rest assured that interesting times lie ahead.

As regular readers of this blog (both of them in fact) will know I tend to find myself stuck in a time warp from the 1980s recalling the heady days of my youth.  Back then the Conservative Party led by a certain M. Thatcher (but albeit without the help of the Lib Dems) was in power.  Thatcher’s iron-fisted rule led to a certain discontentment among a section of society resulting in a flurry of creative activity within the fields of art, literature, comedy, cinema and music.  With retro-nostalgia back in vogue one wonders if we’re in for something of an artistic renaissance.

Thanks to modern technology (Youtube take a bow) I’m able to recreate the memories of my youth.

Thanks to the said site I was able to find two songs from late 1980s which I hadn’t heard for over 20 years.

One is I walk the earth – the official anthem of the Rambler Association (not really, but it would be a good idea) by the “Anglo-American college rock/alternative band” (Wikipedia’s description, not mine) Voice of the Beehive, who had a string of hits at this time, but son faded back into obscurity.  Which is a shame as they did make some decent tunes.

The other song is a one hit wonder (and a rather good one at that), Scarlet Fantastic’s No Memory – the official anthem of the Amnesiacs Association (very bad taste I know).  No doubt complaints will flood in – that is if anyone actually reads this blog!  Big hair and cleavage were the order of the day in this video.

It’s funny how listening to a certain pierce of music can trigger off memories in the subconscious. 

 Think inner city riots, anti-apartheid demonstrations, boycotting South African fruit in the supermarkets, skeletal bearded men wrapped in blankets in filthy shit-smeared prison cells, running battles between police and striking miners, Russian tanks rolling over Afghanistan, Americans in Grenada, warfare amidst the penguins and sheep on wind-swept South Atlantic islands, loud-mouthed Dubliners ranting about famine in Ethiopia, the Chernobyl disaster, statues of communist dictators being toppled, BMX bikes, footballers in tight shorts with bubble perms and moustaches, Joan Collins in shoulder pads, Rubiks cubes, grotesque rubber puppets imitating the politicians and celebrities of the day…I could go on all day.

A high Viz-ibility comic

viz_big_hard_number_two_300x400

I first came across that disgusting (yet sometimes incredibly funny) rag called Viz at the age of 15 or 16 when a copy (owned by a chap called Donagh McCullagh and ably assisted and encouraged by Paul McGrade, neither of whom I’ve seen for some time) was doing the rounds of the 4th year classrooms.

The idea that a comic could contain bad language, extreme violence (albeit rather surreal cartoon-style violence), biting satire and “adult” humour (although adolescent or schoolboy/student humour may be a more appropriate description) was a novel one.  Another major appealing factor was that I’d read more traditional children’s comics of the day like the Beano and Dandy in my youth, but Viz went a step further by employing a similar style, yet creating grotesque parodies of these familiar characters.

 20 years later I’m still an avid reader…

Billy Connolly, when questioned about his style once said words to the effect of “I’d like to think I’m ‘dangerous’. I’d like to imagine there’s a 15-year old somewhere listening to one of my tapes, but he’s got the volume turned down low, because he doesn’t want his parents to know”. It was a similar illicit thrill with Viz. Smuggling copies into your bedroom under the noses of your parents was all part of the adventure.

It was during that time of life when there are certain things you can’t legally do. So buying Viz at the newsagents was like the thrill of getting served alcohol on licensed premises or being admitted to an 18 cert film when you’re still only 17¾.

As well as the traditional comic strip stories there are also of course the Joke newspaper tabloid-style headlines of bizarre celebrity scoops, letters from readers and handy tips.

Biffa gets hoofed in the "knackaz" once again.

Biffa gets hoofed in the "knackaz" once again.

I remember once being tortured while driving down the M25 to a wedding in Kent by my highly irritating passenger (who incidentally is also an occasional contributor to this blog) who consistently asked the question “what does the tattoo on Biffa Bacon’s mum’s arm say?” I felt like deliberately crashing the car just to put a stop to this. My passenger remains unrepentant to this day.

The multitudinous characters and stories which have graced the pages of Viz over the last 30 years are too numerous to mention here, but I’ll touch on a few of my favourites.

Jack Black and his dog – parody of the boy’s own adventure story or Enid Blyton style Famous Five adventure, sending up the right wing attitudes and xenophobic conservative values espoused by such children’s literature of the day.  In the standard formulaic plots young Jack Black and his dog are perpetually on summer holiday at his Aunt Meg’s cottage in some idyllic rural village, the type of place where strangers, particularly foreign ones aren’t tolerated.  Jack notices that one of the locals (or a recent incomer to the area) has been acting strangely of late and some unusual events are occurring in the village. With the help of his faithful dog and the local friendly bobby Jack unravels the mystery, which is usually something ludicrous involving Nazi war criminals, Islamic fundamentalists or drug and prostitution rings. The guilty party is generally brought to justice by meeting an unpleasant end at the hands of the enraged villagers. Cruel, but not that far removed from the stories it sends up.

It’s not just the political right who come in for ridicule though. There is “The ModernParents” – Malcolm and Cressida, parents whose obsession with political correctness, rights for indigenous peoples and social minorities, third world issues and alternative new age lifestyles leads to ridiculous situations much to the bemusement of their long-suffering children.  A magnificent parody of the liberal middle class type parents whose hypocrisy is always exposed at the end of each story.  There’s also Millie Tant, a stereotypical radical lesbian feminist who regularly becomes victim of her own highly strung principles. 

Millie Tant

Millie Tant

One of the comic’s most celebrated stories has to be “Biffa Bacon”, a character loosely based on Bully Beef from the Dandy. The Bacons, a dysfunctional family from the north-east of England who thrive on extreme physical cartoon violence. Mutha, Fatha (and occasionally Uncle Dekka who get their kicks from inflicting pain on their long-suffering son Biffa on the flimisiest of pretexts, who in turn takes it out on unsuspecting members of the public. But unlike the Beano et al, where the tormented underdog finally gives the bully his come-uppance there is rarely any justice at the end. Biffa or the innocent bystander usually ends up in a worse state than they started. In effect, Viz often subverts the traditional comic formula by letting evil triumph over good, thus reflecting real life much more accurately!

The fact that the dialogue is spelt phonetically to reflect the Geordie dialect makes it all the more authentic.

Roger Mellie (“the man on the telly”) – a foul-mouthed, bigoted, lecherous drunken TV presenter who despite (and often because of) his constantly atrocious behaviour always manages to maintain his lucrative broadcasting career. Not that far-removed from reality when you think about the high jinks of the despicable Jonathan Ross and his Houdini-style escapes from public justice.

Roger Mellie

Roger Mellie

Then there are the characters with ludicrous attributes such as Buster Gonad the boy with giant-sized testicles who often finds himself in excruciatingly painful situations, Felix and his amazing underpants , Finbarr Saunders, a boy who finds highly suggestive sexual innuendoes within the most innocuous phrases, like an extreme version of the “Carry On” films or the “saucy” English seaside postcards.

Mr Logic – a socially inept individual obsessed with  pedantry– who usually pays for his blinkered literal mindedness by getting beaten up or killed at the end of each story, yet returns in the following month’s issue as if nothing had happened.

Suicidal Syd – constantly depressed, but always fails his suicide attempts, then discovers that life isn’t so bad and decides to make a fresh start, only to come to a sticky end through bizarre and totally unexpected accident.

plodPostman Plod – a lazy, bad-tempered postal worker who takes pleasure in opening other people’s mail, skiving off work and playing football with the parcels in the sorting office – an ingenious send-up of the children’s character Postman Pat.

The comic has come a long way since the days of a few photocopies pages stapled together and sold by two brothers in the pubs of Newcastle.

And yes, some of the sexual and scatological humour ranges from the distasteful to the downright disgusting and is not always pleasant to digest, but Viz will be Viz.   Long may it continue to be!

The “Nice video, shame about the song” effect

Nice video - shame about the song

Nice video - shame about the song

In the early 1980s the popular BBC comedy show Not the Nine O’Clock News mocked the pretensions of the contemporary pop video phenomenon in the famous sketch “Nice Video Shame About the Song” (avaialble on Youtube if you’re interested).  It was a magnificent piece of satire, highlighting the fact that pop videos had become over-elaborate and relied heavily on the state of the art special effects of the time like Quantel and Paintbox, as if in an attempt to make up for the crapness of the song.  Bands like the Human League, Duran Duran and Visage were particularly guilty of this.

I was reminded of this recently when on a Ryanair flight which arrived at its destination ahead of schedule.  To celebrate this momentous event a trumpet fanfare was played and an American voice announced over the tannoy how great Ryanair was. I’ve been a regular flyer with Ryanair for the best part of a decade now. To be fair, I’ve only had two bad experiences with them, one of which was mostly my own fault for being late. So, in principle I’ve got no problem in flying with Ryanair, but I can’t say I care much for the airline’s chief executive, the publicity-seeking, money-grabbing Michael O’Leary as I’ve made clear in a previous post.

Essentially what I’m getting at here is the fact that it is quite possible to admire great works of art, literature and music without liking their creator.

U2 are without doubt a fine bunch of musicians, but their lead singer is equally without doubt a egomaniacal, sanctimonious, self-righteous irritating little tosser – as I’ve made clear in a previous piece.  Another loud-mouthed Dubliner, not quite as nauseating, but almost as sanctimonious was a fine musician and songwriter in his day. I don’t like Mondays, Rat Trap and Banana Republic are among the greatest songs of the 1970s, but the man who wrote them is an arrogant tosser.

Also, take Andrew Lloyd-Webber for instance.  Cats, Evita and Phantom of the Opera are all outstanding works of musical theatre, even though their creator is an obnoxious trout-faced, medieval-haired twat.

An obnoxious trout-faced medieval-haired twat

An obnoxious trout-faced medieval-haired twat

Blackadder is in my view one of the greatest comedy shows ever – but I don’t care much for its co-writers Ben Elton and Richard Curtis and their smug, self-righteous “oh look how great we are” demeanours.

So when you bring Ben Elton and Andrew Lloyd-Webber together (a match made in Hell if ever there was one) as was the case for The Beautiful Game, a musical about a Belfast youth soccer club amidst the backdrop of the violence which enguled the city in the early days of the troubles, the result is an abomination.  Two rich middle class prats from the English Home Counties lecturing people on how bad it all was in Belfast back then.  It’s almost as bad as mega-rich rock musicians from Dublin lecturing the world on how bad things are in Africa.  If they really feel that strongly about it they should go and live in Africa.

At this point I will grudgingly admit that I was a teenage U2 fan during my younger and more foolish days.  Then I gradually saw the error of my ways.

Nice songs,  shame about the singer, etc.

 

 
 

 

A Reasoned and Considered Rant against Big Corporate Brands and Globalisation

The anti-globalisation movement hasn’t had the best public image, with the stereotype of the dreadlock-adorned, dayglo-wearing lentil and organic rice-eating new age type with multiple piercings and henna tattoos. But in the age of global economic meltdown and credit crunches, such beliefs are becoming more mainstream.

Opposition to the dominance of big corporate brands over small businesses and traditional cottage industries shouldn’t by any means be in the exclusive interests of dreadlock-adorned, dayglo-wearing lentil and organic rice-eating new age types, nor even of the political left. We should all be concerned.

Do we want the traditional earthy pub like the Blue Tiger, the Frog and Fuck, the Puke of Pork – with their real ales beloved of bearded chunky sweater wearing CAMRA types, the old guy in the corner who reminisces about the old times to anyone who’ll listen to him, the barstool bore who knows the solution to all the world’s problems but will only tell you if you buy him a pint, the amateur Casanova who, despite rapidly expanding beer belly and thinning hairline tries (however unsuccessfully) to chat up the well-endowed barmaid – to be replaced by shallow, characterless chains like Whateverspoons or All Bar None frequented by pin-striped city types crying into their Pimms or trendy designer lagers, (a bottle of which costs the equivalent of the government bail-out of the said banks) after being made redundant by Deutsche Wank and blowing their million pound pay-offs on coke and hookers.

Imagine your local town centre being taken over by Starfucks, Boots, Specsavers, McDonalds, O’Neills (the plastic Paddy Irish pub chain that is, not the popular Irish sportswear manufacturer), WH Smiths et al. Or has this already happened?

It’s a trend that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the comedian and Socialist Workers party supporter Mark Steel in his latest book “What’s It All About”:

 

“Now you could go to a shopping centre in Croydon, Penzance, Lincoln or Dundee, and guarantee there’d be a Body Shop, Clinton Cards, Going Places Travel, HMV, Waterstones, fake Irish pub, Wetherspoons, Pizza Hut with a little glass screw-top jar of Parmesan cheese, JJB Sports, Burger King, a bloke in a green pullover trying to recruit you into the AA and a bunch of Peruvians playing ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ on the poxy panpipes”.
 

 

Go to an independent café rather than Starfucks or Costa Coffe (Costa Fortune more like) and you invariably get more generous portions often of superior quality and value for money. Who wants to go to Caffe Grande Cazzo sponsored by Figlio di Putana casual wear and pay £5.50 for a prosciutto and mozarella pannini (basically a glorified ham and cheese toastie) or £3.00 for a thimble full of espresso which you can down in one go and it barely fill a cavity in your tooth?

An Americano used to be what Clint Eastwood in a poncho was called by the Mexican bandits in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, but now it’s a fucking coffee.  And I thought moccachinos were what Italian American Indians wore on their feet.

You couldn’t make it up.