Thursday, 31 July 2014

Westward Ho ho

A short drama based on an overheard conversation in the wilds of Connemara.

Scene: The wilds of Connemara, Co Galway, Ireland.

American Lady: Hey what are those white things moving in that field?
Companion: Sheep.

The End

Monday, 28 July 2014

Economics of fracking are not sustainable

Every time environmental concerns surrounding fracking are flagged up its proponents point to the huge economic benefits it will bring.
If you believe the pro-fracking lobby, in 10 years time everyone in counties Fermanagh, Leitrim and Cavan will be millionaires.
The rest of us will be on the pig’s back as well, paying just a few pence for our household energy and earning huge salaries working for multinational corporations attracted by give-away electricity prices.
Much has been made of the vast sums of money that could be invested and the employment opportunities that fracking will bring to rural communities.
Australian company Tamboran, which last week announced plans to begin exploratory drilling in Fermanagh, has in the past proposed making a £6 billion investment in Northern Ireland that would create up to 600 jobs.
However, while 600 jobs is nothing to be sniffed at in times of economic hardship let’s just look at those figures again.
For every £10 million invested, Tamboran would deliver one job. Wao.
Compare that to US blue-chip services firm Concentrix which in April announced that it would create more than 1,000 jobs in Belfast following a £36 million investment, with £3.5m support from job-creation agency Invest NI.
Last month the Newry-based technology firm First Derivatives said it would create just under 500 high-paying jobs, with £3.9m worth of support from Invest NI. That works out at about £7,800 per job.
Neither of those companies will have a long-term impact on our landscape, or pump toxic and highly explosive chemicals into the ground and potentially causing earth tremors. It is also important to remember that Tamboran are only predicting that ‘up to’ 600 jobs ‘might’ be created if they are allowed to frack in Fermanagh. Up to 600 could mean anything between zero and 599.
The ‘could’ has to be offset against the actual.
Fracking would see the large-scale industrialisation of Fermanagh’s picturesque landscape which draws in significant numbers of tourists every year.
There are an estimated 800 jobs in the county’s angling sector and hundreds of employed in tourism in hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, bars and other visitor attractions.
Is anyone really suggesting that we put these actual jobs at risk for a ‘possible’ 600 jobs or less?
Another supposed economic benefit is that Northern Ireland and the Republic will get cheaper gas and electricity.
The suggestion that those nice international conglomerates will sell shale gas to us really cheaply simply because it came from under our land is naive beyond belief.
Profit margins drive exploration companies, not pats on the head and ‘sure here’s a few quid for your troubles’ because we let them destroy our landscape with drilling sites and pipelines.
Ask the people of Scotland if their petrol has been any cheaper than in England or Wales for the past 40 years simply because they produce 65 per cent of Britain’s oil.
A quick online price comparison will tell you that the cost of diesel last week was on average higher in Scotland than in England and Wales.
And the experience of Scotland suggests that being the source of a lucrative income generator is not necessarily going to make the ordinary man and woman on the streets of Fermanagh, Leitrim or Cavan or the rest of Ireland, north or south, any better off.
The Scottish economy generates just over £26,400 per person every year, compared to £22,300 for the UK as a whole. This performance is significantly boosted by Scotland’s North Sea oil and gas industry.
However, when it comes to disposable personal income the average Scot is around £400 per year worse off, at £15,300, compared to the UK average of £15,700.
The world is hurtling towards an energy crisis as oil and gas supplies run out and many have gleefully hailed shale gas extraction as the solution.
But it is a carbon-emitting energy source and the global consensus is that if climate change is to be halted, or at least slowed, emissions must be reduced.
The environmental arguments against fracking and the need to develop renewable energies have been well flagged up but fracking supporters are trying to counter and win public approval with promises of wealth generation.
If the shale gas deposits are viable huge profits will be made by the companies who can get to it.
However, just as a planet dependent on carbon-based fuels is environmentally unsustainable the arguments being put forward by the fracker-backers that it will also bring financial rewards for Fermanagh, Cavan and Leitrim and the island’s two jurisdictions are economically unsustainable.
First published in The Irish News opinion pages on August 28 2014

Tuesday, 15 July 2014


IT looks like my soul could be in mortal danger and that I am facing an eternity in the fiery pits of hell. Not because I live a debauched lifestyle of hard drinking, gambling, wild women and devil worship. No, I gave all that up. However, it seems that damnation awaits me because I practice yoga.
According to a parish priest in Donegal, it is an “unsavory practice” that is endangering my soul. I have been practicing yoga for about five years now and can get into most positions, although this often entails making weird noises and pulling strangely contorted faces. Headstands are beyond me, but I can manage a shoulder stand and have even done the crow pose without breaking wind.
I go to a 90-minute class once a week and at home try to practice for at least 15 minutes every day. At first I took up yoga to help manage a dodgy back. Sitting in a car for an hour and half most days while driving to and from work and then hunched in front of an Apple Mac for hours on end is not conducive to a supple spine. Humans evolved from hunter gatherers, our bodies are made for foraging nuts and berries and hunting down bison, not staring at a computer screen with arms outstretched to tap away at a keyboard and manoeuver a mouse. But as there are few opportunities for tribal lifestyles these days I will have to stick with journalism for now and in the interest of my back keep up the yoga.
While it is true that yoga has its origins in Hinduism that does not mean that those who take part have to become Hindus to practice it. Its a bit like suggesting that people who like to eat fish on Fridays must convert to Catholicism or that those who can’t clap properly have to become saved Christians.
During a visit to India a few years ago I stayed in an ashram in the Himalayas and there were yoga classes each morning and evening in a meditation hall. At first I was reluctant to take part, unsure if I would be able to match the proficiency of Indian yogis. However, they turned out to be extremely informal sessions where the emphasis was on loosening up the body and preparing it for meditation. Some of those who took part were quite elderly and while their postures were not perfect there was a wintery elegance to their practice. I was the only westerner there and while there were one or two curious glances in my direction no-one thrust a copy of the Rig Veda or the Bhagavad Gita under my nose and insisted that I must become a Hindu.
In India physical yoga is a form of exercise that helps loosen out tensions in the body in preparation for mental yoga - meditation - so that tight muscles and cramps do not become a distraction. However, in the west yoga has, for some, become a means to an end and there is an undercurrent whereby the moves have become more important than the practice.
In fact there is a campaign among some to have it made in to an Olympic sport. Yoga gymnasts can twist themselves up into the air and balance on just their little finger, stop their hearts for half an hour while exhaling the word ‘om’ in a single breath. But. how could an Olympic judge award marks for the stillness of mind. What sort of electronic monitoring equipment would need to be developed to award points? As a spectator sport it would be quite dull. The bodily contortions might draw in an audience but watching the American and Russian contenders sitting on their meditation cushions for hours on end and cheering them on to see who is the first to achieve enlightenment is not going to bring in the punters.
All the yoga practitioners I know are sincere but there is no doubt that it has become a lifestyle choice for some, along with vegetarianism, wind chimes and burning incense sticks. That brings with it suggestions of new-age do-it-yourself religion rather than adhering to a set of practices and principles and it could be this that is concerning some members of traditional Churches. However, they might find that their suspicions about yoga are not shared by all of their fellow clergy. One of the first yoga classes I went to was held in Catholic monastery and among the participants was a priest. (This article was written for an first published in The Irish News on July 14 2014)

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Crime writer Stuart Neville has accused fellow northern Irish novelist Sam Millar of using a 'sock puppet' alias' to praise his own novels on Amazon and give them five-star ratings.
Neville also claims that Millar has used the same aliases to give poor reviews to novelists he doesn't like and single star ratings. Millar has denied the allegation.
For context read Neville's blog here and this BBC report. Below is my own commentary which appeared in on September 4.
Flare ups between writers are nothing new – Norman Mailer once punched Gore Vidal and James Joyce described WB Yeats’s Celtic Twilight movement as Cultic Twalette. The verbal war between two of the north’s best-known crime writers probably doesn’t reach those scales but it is pretty spicy all the same.
Both Stuart Neville and Sam Millar are writers of fast-paced, often violent but extremely well-written novels.
They were both included in an award-winning anthology of Irish crime fiction called Requiem for the Departed, pictured, in which I also had a story.
Although I don’t normally write crime stories I was very taken by the camaraderie among the half dozen or so writers who attended the book’s launch in No Alibis on Botanic Avenue. Stuart Neville was there, but Sam Millar couldn’t make it.
For people who spend their time describing murder, violence and twisted psyches the writers were all a very amiable lot who seemed relaxed in each other’s company and supportive of one another’s work.
The public fall out between Millar and Neville is causing ructions in the crime-fiction writing community and making some people very uncomfortable.
The literary rumble has also brought home a phenomena which has been making global headlines in recent weeks in the world of books – sock puppetry.
This is where a writer establishes an online alias, or a number of them, who writes glowing reviews of his own books and in some cases slags off those people he or she doesn’t like.
It is unethical but in a climate where writers are fighting to get attention it is probably understandable, although I have never done so myself.
In the great scheme of things this story will also play out in Millar and Neville’s favour as at least some of you who have read about their fall out will pick up their novels when you see them in a book shop or browse for them on Amazon.
In the competitive world of fiction no publicity is bad publicity – by the way did I mention my new novel A Verse to Murder will be coming out as an ebook at the end of this month.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Hollywood Cemetery by Liam O'Flaherty

Liam O’Flaherty abandons his usual stark tone and dark storylines for slapstick comedy in this hard-to-find 1934 novel.
The main character Brian Carey is a recognisable O'Flaherty creation - a sullen, arrogant, hard-drinking writer whose belief in his own genius makes him contemptuous of many of those whom he meets.
The rights for one of his books has been purchased by Hollywood media mogul Jack Mortimer who wants to turn it into a movie.
The novel opens in Ireland where Mortimer, reluctantly accompanied by Carey, is searching for a female lead.
The wild, promiscuous girl he choses is reinvented as Angela Devlin who is brought by Mortimer back to Hollywood but no-one is allowed to see her face as the mogul manufactures a media frenzy about his mysterious new starlet.
Carey, who despite initial hostility towards her has fallen in love with Angela, is bribed, blackmailed and eventually threatened with assassination to play along with the scheme.
O'Flaherty's portrayal of Hollywood is cartoonish - everyone is on the make, no-one, apart from Carey, has any real talent. Mortimer doesn't want to shoot the movie in Ireland because he reckons he can create a more authentic version of Ireland in his Hollywood studio.
The story becomes more convoluted to the point of absurdity as the novel progresses, any semblance of plot disintegrating in the process.
The brashness and falsity of Hollywood and the prostitution of talent for the sake of a quick buck is old hat these days, but that this novel was published nearly 80 years ago.
O'Flaherty was a native Irish speaker, born on the Aran Islands, who fought for the British army in the First World War, tried to lead a communist uprising in Dublin during the Civil War and became a prolific short story writer and novelist. He had direct experience of the movie industry. His novel The Informer was made into a film by his cousin John Ford.
He also worked in Hollywood during the 1930s, trying to make a living as a screenwriter, and so it can be presumed that this ultimately unsuccessful novel, is based on at least some personal experience.
As in interesting foot note, a quick web search on Hollywood Cemetery brought up this little nugget:
Sometimes an author arrives unheralded on the literary scene, publishes one book, then disappears without a trace. That seems to be the case with Mary Cavendish Gore, who appears to have produced one novel and nothing else. (The only Google hit shows that she renewed the copyright in 1961.) Or could the author, whose voice is masculine, be using a pseudonym? Could the author, in fact, be Liam O’Flaherty (best known for The Informer), whose life roughly parallels that of the protagonist? I admit that's not likely, but it would be fun, if true.
Mad Hatter’s Village by Mary Cavendish Gore. Alfred H. King (1934), 306 pp.
A pedantic writer hopes that his latest novel will bring him fame and fortune. In the meantime he lives in a shack on a beach near Los Angeles and ekes out a living on his pension check from the British army. Several of his friends are similarly strapped for cash. He is pursued by a nearly divorced woman with two children. Although he finds her unattractive, uncouth, and unresponsive, they start an affair. He can’t open up to her but can’t break it off the relationship either.
Despite its satirical edge, in the last analysis this is a plaintive story of a decent if talentless fellow who must cope with painful memories, unrealistic aspirations, and dire poverty. He tries to solve his problems by walling himself off emotionally, a strategy that fails in the novel’s surprise (and inadequately foreshadowed) ending. The protagonist, if not exactly likable, is credible and skillfully drawn. The same may be said for the girlfriend and the minor characters. In a just world this thoughtful and well written book would takes its place with other struggling-writer novels, such as Martin Eden and Ask the Dust. As it is, potential readers will be lucky to find a copy.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan by David Dalton

Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan is more a psychological analysis than a biography. It presumes that the reader already has a firm grasp of its subject—Dylan’s life story, the supporting characters, and the changing times in which he lived.
The reader should also be aware of additional costs that come with reading this study because David Dalton takes each of Dylan’s albums in his hands, holds it up to the light, and turns it at different angles to look for clues about his subject’s state of mind.
It is not just the lyrics that are dissected, but the guitar chord changes, the linear notes, and even the pictures used on the album cover. If you don’t already have them in your collection there is a serious temptation to go out and buy them, or in the case of this reviewer rebuy them, to compare notes with the author (musical and written).
Mr. Dalton contends that each Dylan album brought with it not only a change in musical style but a change in persona—the protest singer of The Times They Are a Changin’, the Rimbaudian beat poet with electric guitar who released Highway 61 Revisited, the trippy hippy from Blonde on Blonde, the country singer from Nashville Skyline, the abandoned husband of Blood on Tracks, and the Saved born-again preacher, etc.
Then there are the films he made, Renaldo and Clara and Don’t Look Back, his novel Tarantula, and autobiography Chronicles Volume I.
It is not a new thesis and has already been explored in the film I’m Not There in which different actors, including Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and Cate Blanchett portrayed different phases of Dylan’s public persona.
Mr. Dalton writes: “From his more than 500 songs to his linear notes, interviews, Chronicles, and heavily allegorical movies, Dylan is the most prolific writer of musical autobiographies of all time. But these are essentially works of fiction, and behind them there is a man who writes compelling tales about his character in a series of self-portraits that he then peevishly paints over. That’s who we want to know about.”
Mr. Dalton takes Dylan’s self-spun mythology by the throat in a bid to strangle out the truth.
When he arrived in New York in the early 60s Dylan claimed to have visited Woody Guthrie on his deathbed and been given his blessing to become his musical successor. Not true, insists Mr. Dalton saying that Guthrie would have been so ill at the time Dylan said he had visited him that he could hardly recognize his own family.
For years Dylan claimed that he was an orphan, even though his parents were alive and well and even attending his concerts.
The motorcycle crash that nearly claimed his life in 1966 was no more than a tumble that Dylan exaggerated, claims author Dalton, firstly to create a new level of mystique but also as an excuse to withdraw from public attention.
The main focus of Who Is That Man? is the iconic Dylan of the mid-1960s—the one who wrote “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “I Want You”—and who, according to Mr. Dalton, spent the following decades trying to flee.
The Dylan of the 1970s, the country singer and ex-Jewish born-again Christian also come under close scrutiny, but the 80s, 90s, and OOs are skipped over. Nonetheless, the portrait that emerges is no less interesting.
Mr. Dalton’s stated task of discovering the true nature of the man behind the multiple personas ultimately proves to be fruitless as he concludes Dylan himself could probably not untangle the fabrications, self-mythologizing, and urban legends that have grown around him from who he truly is.
That does not devalue this study. Who Is That Man? is a superb dissection of one of the most enigmatic figures in modern music. This review was written for and first published on New York Journal of Books

Friday, 10 August 2012

The Welkinn Complex by Keving Kiely (interview)

US PSYCHOLOGIST Darren Welkinn fantasises about seducing his female patients, is unfaithful to his wife and administers trial drugs to his patients knowing that they might have dangerous side affects.
He travels from the States to take up a position on the island of Guernesy in an exclusive clinic, the owner of which is testing XcellN - a new drug with psychedelic properties that brings to the fore suppressed memories and unleashes other psychological material.
The Welkinn Complex has big themes and insights into the world of psychology but these are a mere vehicle for a dissection of the twisted psyche of Dr Welkinn.
Author Kevin Kiely, who was born in Co Down and now lives in Derry, says he wrote his new novel while lecturing in the US.
"The idea for it came to me after talking to people in the US who had gone to clinics and told me about this practice," he said.
"People are being used to test drugs at clinics and the doctors who are administering them see this simply as part of their job and are ignoring the ethics.
"And clearly the pharmaceutical industry has a vested interest in making sure that their products continue to be used - there could be as many as 2.5 million people addicted to prescription tranquilisers in the UK alone."
Written in jerky, almost note-like form, The Welkinn Complex reflects the style in which Dr Welkinn might write up the case notes on one of his patients.
However, the real subject being analysed is Welkinn himself - his unethical medical behaviour, his self-obsession and his philandering.
He desperately scrambles for self-preservation after the police launch an investigation into the death by suicide of his lover, who Welkinn knew was psychologically unbalanced and vulnerable.
"Welkin is an icy person inside and was drawn from my experience of some types of Americans that I met," says Kiely.
"There are many Americans who have never gone to Europe, Republican Americans - Wasps - who see us as a museum, going back in time, and Welkinn is one of those.
"I'm not anti-American but they do tend to live much more in the present than we do here in Europe.
"Welkinn is surrounded by people who are cracking up and yet he functions with a cold detachment." This interview was first published in The Irish News.