Strange Shores #1

If you would have asked me 15 years ago what I would be doing as I stumbled towards my late 30s, I would probably have answered, with cringing naivety: “saving the world”.

If that failed, perchance a writer of some renown. Or some kind of respected scientist pointing expensive lasers at things and wearing tweed. Maybe a farmer growing organic crops in Kerry.

Or – if I really let my imagination wander – nestled snugly between the breasts of Hope Sandoval. What I would not have answered, not in my wildest dreams, was “living in Sweden”.

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Because what did I know about Sweden? Zilch. Zero. Nada. When I first saw the country I was mildly surprised that they had building, running water and policemen. I cheered when I discovered that they had Guinness. And I cried bitterly when I could not find, no matter how hard I tried, a single bloody potato waffle.

I didn’t really plan to stay but, for a dense knot of reasons, I did. And now, 12 years later, I can no longer deny what I am: an expatriate.

Nowadays when I go back to visit Ireland, I am convinced that I am going home. And then, after a week of traffic fumes, bad cooking, ugly houses, enormous shapeless arses and chilling rain, all I can think about is going back “home” to Stockholm.

And this, my friends, is the curse of the expat: to have a foot in several cultures but not be totally at home in any of them.

Still, thanks to my green blood I get away with a lot in my adopted country. I can pretend to not understand the queuing; I am always consulted when bars have to be chosen; and the Swedish girls do love a nice Irishman.

waffles2But the potato waffles, people – how my soul simply cries out for the potato waffles!

Anyway, without further ado (well OK, well just a little ado) here we go with the first edition of the Strange Shores blog carnival.

We want to give you the sights, the sounds – and the smells – of what it is like to live in a place that feels like home but will always be just a little confusing and surreal.

The curtain, please.

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My comrade-in-blog LadyFi has been in Sweden for about as long as I have. And here she gives on a good introduction to the hows and whys of becoming an expat in the last place on Earth.

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Rottin’ in Denmark, a temporary citizen of the second best Scandinavian country, has spotted some outdoor baby parking, a grand old Danish tradition. And a decidedly odd one.

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Charlotte is an ex-South African currently living in Germany. Over at Charlotte’s Web she has some useful pointers if you ever happen to be invited to a party in Germany. And, let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be invited to a party in Germany?

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Louise, a former Londoner currently with a splendid view over Carmen Superiore, tells us about learning to drive in Italy

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Expat 21’s blog is a gold mine of fascinating articles, and one of the more exotic expats on offer today, an American woman living in the Middle East. She gives us a very thoughtful and interesting article about alcohol consumption in Muslim countries.

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American in Norway has probably been in Norway too long. And then she goes and makes some new years resolutions and proceeds to break them immediately

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Tim at Tim’s Times is another Irishman in Sweden. Tim is also a sailor. Here are his comments on the strange and rather illogical alcohol monopoly in Sweden.

Po, aka the South African Sea Monkey, finds the cold snap in her adopted country a bit tough to handle. And I’ll throw in this one too because it was fun.

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Jaywalker from Belgian Waffle is full of useful information about a country that few of us have seen, and that many of us even doubt the existence of. To get us quickly up to speed, she has prepared a nice Belgium Primer, using some toys. And, as a bonus, we can learn about the Belgian Christmas and all of its disturbing traditions.

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My fellow exile Lingon is fuming quietly over at Screaming In Sweden. And in her article she discusses a topic close to my heart: my liver. No, wait, actually she discusses how it is to work in an office with Swedes and how they spend most of their time trying to not have any conflicts and how much they love going to meetings in order to plan how best to eat cake. It’s funny because it’s true.

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Rottin’ in Denmark comes back with another one, this time about the fun-loving, beer-making, pastry-eating Danes and their outrageously racist party costumes.

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Planet Nomad takes us through the trials and tribulations associated with buying schoolbooks in Morocco. Plus a good eating-out tip – the fabulous restaurant B.O.

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Another temporary Swede, Mark Base, talks about ferries, toilets, playing music and drinking beer. And how can that be bad?

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PiNG in Denmark, another of my swelling list of Scandinavian expats, tells us all about the time a strapping young Dane man came over to see to her chimney.

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Now I hate to blow my own trumpet (mostly due to not being able to bend over far enough) but I have quite a lot to say on the subject of my current country of residence. About the insects that might kill you, for example. Or about Swedish temporal cycles. And possibly my favourite, how Swedes are obsessed by the best-before dates on their food and drinks. And if you like those, there’s 353 other ones to enjoy too, but don’t eat them all at once.

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And that appear to be that. Apologies to all of you expats that didn’t make it into this edition, but I was short of time, and long of options. But there will be future opportunities! So keep your eyes on:

http://strangeshores.wordpress.com/

And mail me at strangeShores(at)gmail(dot)com should you wish to host a future edition. Go on, you know you want to. And I know that you know that you want to. Right?

/ paddy

Regrets

I was asked recently if there are any things I regretted in my life up to now.

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Now there’s a tough one. I tried very hard but could actually think of almost nothing that I regret. Decisions in life, even bad ones, lead to new things and new places and new anecdotes and new blog material.

So I hate to get all new age on your asses, but almost everything that happens in life teaches you something. And I generally have a policy of trying anything once, since I don’t want to be an old codger sitting in the home and thinking: “Damn it, why didn’t I just take that funky pill?”

But after racking my brains, I came up with 2 things I do actually regret.

1) That I did not take the opportunity to be an Erasmus student in the 90s. My University was literaly begging us physics majors to go abroad for a few months to do our final projects. I didn’t do it, and I wish I had.

2) In 1992-1993 I stayed in student rooms in Trinity College in Dublin, where I was studying. In the floor of the living room I shared with 2 other students was a trapdoor. Seriously. It led into the old university cellars (this place was 400 years old). Once me and my room mates opened the trapdoor and had a quick peek inside but did not venture any further. Now, I would give a great deal indeed to buy a rope ladder and some sturdy torches, get my arse into those ancient cellars and see what the hell is down there. Aren’t young men supposed to be curious, damn it?

And there was also that time in 1994 when I ended up in a bedroom at 3 in the morning with Sharon and Olivia…

But no, let’s not go there, shall we?

/ paddy

Happy Birthday Michael Leane

I generally have trouble remembering birthdays of friends and family. I write them down, but still I sometimes miss them. So I find it strange that I always remember that today, November 3rd, is the birthday of one of my first school friends, Michael Leane.

He’s not really a friend anymore as we drifted in different directions back when we were 12 or so. I last saw him, accidentally, in 1995 in the toilet of a nightclub in Dublin. But for the seven years before that, and all the years after, no sighting at all.

Now, I have occasionally tried to find him, on one of those days when I am bored and get an urge to track down people from my previous life and see what they are up to these days. You know, the usual way – Google, Facebook, Linked In.

Generally I can always locate some trace, but this does not seem to be the case for my old school friends from Ireland. In fact I have only one old school friend as a friend on Facebook, and that’s only because I still have contact with him in analogue life.

I don’t know why this is. It is easy enough to find people I went to university with, or people I have worked with after that. But my old school mates are untraceable. Where have they all gone? Have they all changed their names upon marriage? Are they in witness protection? Or do Irish people born in the 70s just not use the internet?

Perhaps I will never find out.  But in any case, a happy birthday to Michael Leane, pharmacist, and please feel free to drop a comment if you read this and let us all know where you have been, and if the rest of them were there, and if they are all well.

/ paddy

The Irish Passport

So my new job have decided to send me off to San Francisco in November for training purposes. They will fly me there and back, send me to the annual geekfest that is the Adobe Max conference, and put me up in a rather swish hotel, the nightly rate of which has three figures and the first figure isn’t a 1, or even a 2.

The project leader who fixed this for me and one other workmate has just announced that she is quitting, so we can only assume that this was her closing salvo to waste some of the company’s money. But, you know, whatever – I’m off to the West Coast and that’s good enough for me.

However…there is the slight matter of the Passport. I currently hold an Irish passport, and it’s a nasty piece of work. In fact it looks like it was thrown together by a kindergarten class after a hard night of rum shots.

It’s handwritten, for the love of Carl. Hand-written! Naturally enough , the US won’t accept such a dodgy piece of drivel and so now in order to get into the land of hope and glory, I will need a new passport. The Irish Embassy in Stockholm (a window in a building in the Östermalm district, about as impressive as a hot-dog stand) sent me the papers and I have spent a happy evening filling them in.

All until section 9, which demands that I locate a witness who will verify my existence. And presumably stand for the bail if I get taken for terrorist activities when I step off the plane.

The form helpfully suggests a list of possible “witnesses”, including:

  • An Irish policeman
  • A Priest
  • A Doctor
  • A Lawyer
  • A Bank Manager (!)
  • A Politician
  • A Notarius Publicus
  • A “Peace Commissioner”
  • A School Principal
  • An Accountant

So this is the official Irish list of “people who can be trusted”? Hmmm indeed. As we all know, Irish priests can always be trusted not to slip you one behind the bike shed. And Irish Politicians are as honest as the day is marzipan. Not to mention the rest of them, a sorry bunch of bandits if ever I saw one.

Luckily there is an accountant or two in my job, as well as a few lawyers. And they, despite having only know me for 3 months, can probably vouch for the fact that I have not been field-stripping AK-47s during lunch.

Hopefully the new passport, when it comes, won’t have any parts written in crayon. And it might even have those little boxes where you can mark “I am not a terrorist”, “I think the 2-party electoral system is just super” and “I promise not to steal your women, not even the ones from Ohio”.

/ paddy

His Dinner

Over my 10 days in Ireland, I was reminded of something I had thought vanished – the concept of “his dinner”.

This refers to men who are unable to make their own meals, men who must be catered for as if they were toddlers. And the daily timetable of their woman must be adjusted so that she can be home in time to prepare and serve the man “his” dinner. Should the woman have other things to occupy her – her life, or interests, or emergency surgery – then two options are available to the man:

  1. He can go to the nearest town and have “his dinner” in a bar or take-away
  2. He can be dispatched to the nearest available woman in his immediate family who will then supply him with “his” dinner

On no account will the man be called upon to actually prepare any food, or do anything more complicated in the kitchen than make a sandwich or boil some water for tea.

Back when I was growing up, this was the common practise, as the vast majority of men went directly from their mother’s care to their wife’s care. And sure, my father worked a lot on the farm, but so did my mother, and she had the added responsibility of taking care of the children. So why she had the task of also fixing ALL of the food, I have no idea. That’s just how it was.

And this, I discovered, is still going on in rural Ireland. Both of my sisters have men who require “their dinners” on a regular basis, and who on occasion get shipped to other houses when the service is not available at their own. Maybe it’s just me having lived half of my life away from home, but I find this astounding and very sad.

Can these men not be curious about food? Aren’t they even the slightest bit interested in how to do simple things like bake bread, or throw a salad together, or fix a casserole? I find this amazing, that otherwise smart and curious men can be so totally uninterested in how to put a basic meal together.

And bear in mind that Irish rural fare is not terribly complicated—for example, I wanted some garlic when I was home a few years ago and was informed by my mother that, oh no, they wouldn’t have garlic in the local village shop. (They did, as it turned out).

While discussing this phenomenon, my mother brought up, as an example of male ability in the food area, the case of my brother-in-law who was so skilled that he could manage to make his own soup and fix some bread with it for his lunch. She said this as a positive thing, and I could only grin inanely, amazed that this was the best example she could come up with.

She also mentioned how versatile I used to be in the kitchen before I left home, in the late 80s. Oh yes, I was very versatile, as long as a thing could be fried, or deep-fried, or squeezed between two pieces of bread. Jamie Oliver of the deep-fryer, that was me.

How impoverished life must be for these men, to have to rely completely on somebody else’s cooking ability their whole lives. And, as well as this, to be deprived the pleasure of cooking for yourself and other people which, to me, is one of the great joys in life: hanging around a kitchen with an apron on, sipping wine, chopping things, tasting your way, trying things out and having a laugh.

Of course, now with divorce being available in Ireland, the risk is that a lot of these men may suddenly find that “their” dinners are not on the table as expected. And this means that they will have to learn to fry sausages in a great hurry, or else get a season ticket at the local Chinese takeaway.

Or perhaps a whole bunch of them can move together in a big house and learn to cook for each other, and we can make a very sad French movie out of it where at least three people hang themselves at the end because the lamp chops were overdone, the mussels weren’t fresh, or somebody didn’t leave the Pinot Noir out to breathe.

And we’ll call it, of course, “Son Dîner”.

/ paddy

3 Lears in a Boat

I am currently reading, for the fifth time, one of my favourite books ever – 3 Men in a Boat. For those of you who don’t know (and shame on you, let me add), this is the story of 3 Victorian gentlemen and a dog who head off on the Thames for a boating holiday. The trip itself is funny, but far more hilarious are the small anecdotes all the way through, which had me actually laughing out loud.

I had never read this book until about 3 years ago. This is interesting, in that I studied “English” in school where we were supposed to have been exposed to things like this – examples of good literature. But no – instead we were exposed to the gothic charms of Wuthering Heights (quite a good book actually, despite all the hand-wringing and head-pounding) and the dubious charms of a Mr. William Shakespeare.

Just reading Shakespeare (and not actually performing or seeing it) is, to say the least, rather dry, and not the best way to get young minds involved in reading classic literature for fun. But this wasn’t the main problem. Oh no, you see, we were told in great detail that he was one of the best playwrights of all time, and then we were sent out to buy the books. Which were censored.

Yes, the Irish Catholic school version of the brilliant Mr. Shakespeare were snipped and poked to remove all the rude parts. So you pick out a famous bawdy playwright for 16-year-olds to study and then you excise all the bawdy bits, which, to be honest, was the fun part of reading that stuff in the first place? What would a Shakespeare play be without the innuendo, and smutty humour? Why, it’s simply a dry play with a few good one-liners and a rather daft and improbable story. And that’s it.

Isn’t it a big double message: that a great work of literature can be presented for consumption only after a room full of nuns and wrinkly moralists have been at it with a pair of scissors and a red pen?

Luckily I bought the unabridged and non-school version of King Lear. And I made a point of sticking up my hand every so often and pointing out – “But sir, what about that paragraph with the milk-maid?” To which my teacher, Mr. O’ Sullivan, would give a coy grin and say, “Mr. K, just put your hand down and read it quietly to yourself.”

There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.” – Mr. S

/ paddy

Empty Rooms

In Dublin they have something that I have never seen in another capital city: derelict buildings in the middle of town.

In a city where property prices are going ape-shit insane, how can there be buildings quite literally smack in the centre of the city that are boarded up and empty? It boggles the mind.

In Stockholm, and probably most other cities these places would be snapped up and either tastily renovated or else levelled to make make way for nasty modern apartments. Can there really be an economic advantage to having prime property not in use?

And, at the same time, there is a building boom in Ireland. You cannot get hold of a builder these days unless you promise him a wad of cash and a blow-job, while 220,000 houses and apartments in the country lie vacant. The whole thing stinks of cash in unmarked brown envelopes.

It was this way in Dublin when I lived there in the early 90s, but I thought with all the cash floating about these days, it would have changed. But no.

This situation has also caught the attention of a few bloggers, one of whom is making a little photo collection of derelict buildings in Dublin. Worth a look. And a ponder.

/ paddy

Wet Ground, Angry Sky

Apologies if I have not replied to your recent comment – I have been in hibernation on a sofa in Ireland with the new Harry Potter book. But now we’re back in business!

In Ireland it has rained 55 days in a row. I know this because I have been there for the last 14 of them, and friends confirm that the previous 31 have, in fact, been just as miserable – not a single 24-hour period without rain. There was, in short, no summer.

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The cause of all this is of course the permanent raining curse placed on the British Isles by angry wizards who did not get a mention in the new Harry Potter book. And severe flooding has duly followed.

Most politicians like to blame all of this on global warming as soon as they get a microphone in front of them. But the truth is that flooding has more to do with decades of bad structural planning and basic ineptitude.

A case in point is when a stream burst its banks in July 17 in Dublin and caused bad localised flooding; local council workers immediately put the blame on global warming. However it turned out that the same council workers had been given (and accepted) a wad of money 5 years earlier to improve flood protection on the stream but had forgotten to do the actual work.

And then we have the fact that people have built their houses on flood plains. This is an extravagantly bad idea, as flood plains tend to flood quite regularly. In fact they are part of our natural flood defences, a place where excess surface water can rest before it is absorbed by the earth. And by building houses and roads on these natural sponges, we vastly reduce their area and their ability to absorb water, making every flood far worse than it would otherwise be.

Ireland is in particularly trouble here as years of economic growth has led to thousands of ugly show-off houses sprouting up on every spare bit of land, and flood plains are no exception.

To millions of uninsured across the globe, flooding is not news. Unfortunately these people don’t buy the Times or own flowery sofas so fuck ‘em. The only thing that will get some fire under the arse of governments worldwide, who look around and shrug whenever the topic of climate and responsibility come up, is a few middle and upper class homes getting a bit of a moistening. That and insurance companies holding a gun to their heads.

Expect more stories from my Irish sabbatical over the next few weeks. It’s good to be back.

/ paddy

Mobile Traditions

When a Swedish person answers their mobile telephone, they always give their name. As in “Yes hello, this is Sven?”

This is a throwback to the days of home telephones, when the person calling might be looking for somebody else or may be high as a kite and forgot entirely who he just called and needs to be reminded.

But in the mobile world, this behaviour is pointless. Of course it is me who answers my mobile, why would it be anybody else? This is the whole point of a mobile, that it is my personal phone. Unless you are picking numbers completely at random, you will be perfectly well aware of who you are calling.

I answer my mobile in the following way: “Hello?” And even though the person calling knows who they are calling, they quite often ask, in a timid voice: “Um, hello, is this XXX?” And I feel like saying, “Why yes it is, who the fuck else did you expect, Larry King?”

In Ireland you answer the phone in this way, with a cheesy “Hello?” You assume the person calling has the intelligence to work out that if they called Tammy’s mobile, then it will be Tammy who answers. I am working to introduce this lean, efficient system in Sweden, partly to save time, partly because I think the Swedish way is stupid and outdated, but mainly to make the person on the other end of my mobile flustered and irritated, and making people flustered and irritated is, of course, what I do best.

/ paddy

A Scar Upon the Land

Isn’t it funny about cars? The more comfortable they get, and the nicer they are to hang around in, the more drivers complain about being in them. And so, to soothe the addled nerves of those who carry large metal living rooms around with them, we builld more roads.

Take this example, lifted from the blog of OR Melling, showing the M3 motorway currently under construction in Ireland. It passes through the Hill of Tara archaeological complex, an important historical site (as well as a nice looking area).

Now, is there any way in hell that a fat ribbon of tarmac, covered in a river of metal and fumes, is better than the countryside it will dissect and ruin?

So what if it takes time to get somewhere in a car? If you ask me, it fucking should. You think it is problematic that moving between two physically seperated locations incurs a temporal cost? So what do you people want here, wormholes? Magic spells? Of should we cover the whole world in permanent trails on the off chance that you may want to use them some day?

Oh but people will “save time” with this motorway (at least temporarily – all the indications are that more road surface encourages more car use). Yeah, fantastic, and what will they do with this time they have saved? Work extra? Go shopping? Drink beer? Or perhaps watch TV?

I know – instead of building roads and encouraging more cars to use them why not just ban television? And there you go – you’ve now saved everybody 4 hours a day at least without sticking a single spade in the ground or insulting the bones of our ancient dead! What a bargain!

/ paddy

Green Graffiti Gormley Gouda

Today I discovered that the Irish Green Party are in government. They have formed a coalition with their arch-enemies, the odious Fianna Fáil, and my old buddy John Gormley has become minister for the environment.

Now this important fact was completely ignored (swept under the rug, if you will – nice…) by the Swedish media. I mean, who cares what happens in Ireland, right? You might think it would demand SOME attention, at least from the “serious” newspapers – but instead we got “How much is YOUR car worth?” and “New hidden sickness affecting SWEDISH women!”

So I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. Green minister for the environment…sure, great; but coalition with Ireland’s Most Corrupt Party(tm)? Well, now I’m not sure at all.

I was searching for more info about this and found, naturally enough, a lot of disgruntled people out there. The questions most on their minds were: Have the Irish Greens sold out? Did they ever have anything important to say, or were they just appealing to middle-class guilt? Were they really just after the power all along?

It’s hard to answer, although (name dropping ahead…) when I knew John Gormley I was convinced that the man DID give a shit about justice and environment and all the rest of it. And if given the offer to be Minister for the Environment…well, how could a Green turn that down, even if he will be severely hobbled by his centre-right paymasters?

However…while searching I found a few articles about John Gormley and his battle against graffiti. To quote his actual speech from the Dail (the Irish Parliament):

“This is not a harmless activity. Householders and shopkeepers must remove the graffiti and this costs a considerable amount of money. I know the owner of the pen shop on Dame Street had to remove graffiti from his windows and stonework on at least three occasions. Not only that, but graffiti gives rise to a sense of urban blight and lawlessness.”

Indeed: “urban blight and lawlessness”. Now this starts to worry me greatly, as a hatred of graffiti is a major symptom of developing conservative views. Just yesterday I got a leaflet from the Swedish Moderates (in power these last 6 months) where they blamed pretty much everything wrong with Stockholm on the “graffiti problem”. Not privatising hospitals; not cutting social support; not driving big fat murder-gas spewing cars around; not selling off state-owned businesses and apartments for quick cash, but…graffiti.

Now just what is the fucking problem with graffiti? Sure it isn’t always pretty, but it CAN be pretty. And even if it isn’t pretty, what is the PROBLEM? Why must it be stopped and removed at huge cost, producing pristine empty places that will attract even more graffiti? I can think of twenty-five things in the modern urban environment that are a great deal more ugly than graffiti, things that nobody is spending a million dollars a year to remove.

So this graffiti crusade is obviously, to me at least, an attempt to appeal to public sentiment on an issue that is “topical” but actually completely and utterly pointless. Paint on a building doesn’t matter, not even slightly. Graffiti is as old as civilisation, so get fucking used to it. And if you are “coming out against graffiti” then you are a useless middle-class lump who thinks the kids are out on control and that everything was better before.

As well as this, graffiti can indeed be art. And if you don’t believe me, then please take some time to explore the work of Mr. Banksy, one of the most relevant artists alive.

And please, you Irish readers – give me your opinion on this, because I don’t really know enough to draw a conclusion, as I have not really been Irish for 10 years. I like John Gormley, really I do, but I’m just a bit out of touch here. A lot can change in 10 years.

/ paddy

Cigg-a-licious

Here’s a little something I borrowed from Orlaith’s blog: cigarettes in Ireland will no longer be available in small packs (meaning 10) but only in 20s. The reasoning behind this is that kids will be less inclined to smoke.

Aha, more powerful thinking by the penises in charge! In fact they pulled the same trick in Sweden a few years back. One day there were suddenly no 10 packs in the shops. And I, a very occasional smoker, was forced to buy a pack of 20 when I only wanted a pack of 10 (well, I really only wanted 2).

So let’s summarise that, shall we: in an attempt to make me cut down on smoking, the state has encouraged me to buy even more cigarettes. Does this make any sense in any reality?

For fuck’s sake, it’s not like there could be any real economic reason behind this: the kids these days have more money than I do. And on top of this, they can do basic addition. There we are, teaching the kids maths in school and yet we don’t suppose they will apply it to a real-life problem such as: “I want fags, Timmy wants fags, fags may be purchased and divided into two lots. Now, how do I get me fags?”

In fact, all you are really doing with this law is ensuring that kids that smoke will become better friends with other friends that smoke. A win-win situation for creating new indie bands, but perhaps not the goal originally in mind.

And while on the subject, can we please drop all the anti-cigarette advertising that tries to tell us that “smoking is not cool”. Excuse me? An activity that may kill you, that society practically forbids you to do? How can it NOT be cool?

Smoking defines cool. If you ask the kids to pack in the cigs, then try arguments such as: “You will taste like an old pub and nobody will snog you”; “Your clothes will stink for days”; “Your teeth will go all brown”; “You will be crap at sports”; “Your skin and teeth will be all wrinkly”; “You may, or may not, die earlier than expected”. There’s loads of fine, usable arguments, so please mention those and not the whiny, pathetic “Oh, smoking isn’t coooool, kiddies!”.

And, pray tell me, what IS cool then? Wearing Nike? Saying your prayers? Eating your veg and prancing about on a football field like a smarmy dick? Oh just gimme the fucking fags.

/ paddy