Sunday, April 18, 2010

I live on an island

Eyjafjallajökull, erupting. Image source: Reuters

Many people forget that Ireland is an island. Much to the chagrin of many 20th century nationalists, I think that many people who have never lived in Ireland picture it somewhere in northern Europe, attached to the UK. But there is a big, wide sea between Ireland and the continent, and this becomes very evident when, say, a volcano erupts and sends ash into the atmosphere, grounding all air travel to a halt for days (and maybe weeks) on end. I missed a scheduled trip, and when I was still thinking I could work it out, a friend said "can't you take a train?"

Image source: Lonely Planet

I was supposed to attend a conference in Manchester this past Thursday. I was looking forward to meeting some of the people involved in the loose research network that is linked to the project I'm working on. I dutifully packed the night before (packing, even for a few days, kind of stresses me out), and was up around 6am to get ready for the airport bus, and I looked at my phone, only to see a whack of text messages. This is a very odd thing for six in the morning. The first message to greet me was from Aer Lingus: "Due to the closure of UK airspace as a result of volcanic activity, we have no option but to cancel your flight." By now the whole world knows what is going on with old puffy over in Iceland, but I'll tell ya: this was a very odd message for my dazed and sleepy head to receive at 6am. I thought it was a joke, but then I thought - how did someone hack Aer Lingus's texting system? Too much to process at that early hour. Onto the next message: there were a few from Elisabetta, who was already at the airport en route to Italy: Check your flight before coming to the airport because a volcano exploded somewhere and the majority of the flights are mine." I immediately called Lisa, who was planning to be on the same flight as me, and then thought of Aoife, who I was expecting to run into on the airport bus, because she was off to a theatre conference in Berlin that morning, also on a 9:30am flight. I rebooked for later that day, but it was cancelled. And then all flights were cancelled on Friday. And Saturday. And today. And tomorrow...

In the last few days, Facebook has been plastered with people talking about not being able to go places, and more recently, not being able to come home. Now, if you live in London and are off in Paris for a holiday, you could take a train home instead. Yes, the trains are being booked up by stranded travellers across Europe, but eventually, they will be able to move everyone around. And there are buses, and cars for hire. And frankly, when it comes down to it, if you REALLY had to, you could get all dressed up like the characters in The Road, and walk home! But if I am not on the island of Ireland, I cannot walk home! It's not even possible. And I know that if I am suggesting that one could walk from Paris to London, then I should consider that one could swim from Holyhead to Dublin, but really, we both know that is too far to swim, unless you are Martin Strel. This is why it's a blessing in disguise that I didn't make it to that conference in Manchester - I would still be there, maybe for all of next week, I'm am so over living in a city where I don't know a single person. That was so Autumn 2009.

Anyhoo, I am getting off topic (wait, there was a topic)? What I have realised is that people here fly A LOT. I know at least 10 people whose travel plans have been affected by Eyjafjallajokull. I wondered (aloud on Facebook) if the carbon produced by the Icelandic eruption would outweigh the carbon saved by the cancellation of flights, and two friends sent me this link within minutes. The rise of Ryanair and Easyjet, and the concomitant competition this has created with other regional airlines, like Aer Lingus, has radically altered the way we travel, and we're really not disaster-proof in this area. I wonder how many fewer train trips and ferry crossings occur now, compared to the mid 1990s, when Ryanair really started to take off? It's not just a pain to catch a train instead of a flight (in terms of the time it takes, and the unexpected nature of it), but apparently, it's not even possible: stranded travellers are reporting that they can't get train tickets, because, well, everyone else thought of that as well. But if we all just considered taking the train more often - for its convenience (no full body pat-downs and invasive security scans; you only have to arrive 15 minutes early), and for its relatively small level of emissions, then we wouldn't be so f*cked when mother nature decided we all needed to be just a bit more grounded...

Much to my amazement, both Ryanair and Aer Lingus have announced that they will be refunding or rebooking all tickets without charge. This is shocking, because when other disruptions occur because of mother nature, they are not always so willing to bear the financial burden. Perhaps they realise that their clients might just start thinking about other options...

As for the volcano, it keeps erupting. My friend Angela Rawlings is keeping a blog with frequent updates and interesting tidbits. Check out No Slumber for Volcanologists. And I found this time-lapse video of today's eruptions really beautiful:

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Crystal Swing

For those of you who do not know them, Crystal Swing is a band from Cork, consisting of Mary, the mother, and Dervla and Derek, her daughter and son. Mary plays the keyboards, and her clothing and gestures are right out of 50s America. Dervla fancies herself a purer, more Irish Shania Twain, and Derek is.... well, a cross between Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Gumby.

Recently, Crystal Swing made it onto Ellen DeGeneres's show. It was a boon to Irish people all around, but Irish people in Dublin, if I can generalise for over a million individuals, think that Crystal Swing are funny. As in, silly funny.

When I first saw Crystal Swing, I thought that they had to be kidding. I thought for sure that they were ironic -- pretending to be all innocent and country bumpkinish, but really, this was all a ploy to differentiate themselves from other bands, and their performance was faux-innocent. But my friends in Ireland assured me that they were serious. Very serious. I couldn't understand -- I mean, check out Mary, and her little head bops, and her hair style and dress and makeup, and facial's so June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver! She can't be serious! And the kids -- siblings -- singing about sex to each other, all the while looking at the camera with faces of pure innocence! Is this a joke? I was really confused.

Things only got worse (for my comprehension) when Panti -- a famous drag queen here in the Dub -- did a parody of "He Drinks Tequila" in her weekly show, referring to her band as Cryshtal Shwing. I thought that Crystal Swing were already parodying something else, so how could Panti parody a parody? Is there a word for this? Linda Hutcheon, where are you when I need you?

But recently, after watching way too many YouTube videos of these folks, I figured it out. Crystal Swing are popular because they tap into what we all want, but are afraid to admit we want. They stand for hope in a world of cynicism. They make us want to believe that life could be so simple and clean. They are ... pure and innocent, and we all want to taste just a little bit of that. I heard them interviewed on Irish radio a few days ago, when they were in Los Angeles for Ellen's show. At the end of the interview, the host said that they were "genuine, warm people," and that they were good people, "and that's the truth." The fact that he felt the need to mention that last part -- to clarify that he was talking truthfully -- is telling, because it's hard to know if anyone (the performers or hosts or cheering audience members) are taking the piss. Audiences are made defensive by their earnestness. Watching Ellen DeGeneres watch Crystal Swing while they perform on her show is telling: she dances around a bit, but every few seconds, she looks over at one of her crew. The look is small and discrete, but it is clear. She is asking: are these folks for real? Do you actually LIKE this? Because, uh, I think I actually like this, but I'm not sure I'm supposed to, because I think maybe they can't really be serious. And then I would be the silly one.

And the truth is this: people like Crystal Swing, but more importantly, they want to like Crystal Swing, but they fear they will look like fools for doing so. So the telling looks appear, and the under-the-breath guffaws break the surface. I understand, because I do it as well. How could I enter into pure enjoyment while watching them, without feeling like other people might think I am naive and have bad taste? It's only possible to like them if... well... if you pretend not to. This whole discussion reminds me of what Carl Wilson writes about in his book about Celine Dion. He hates her music -- he finds it mewling and appalling -- but still, he is driven to understand why so many people are moved by it. He meditates on the nature of taste, and the elements of ego and aesthetic judgment that constitute taste.

I could say a lot more about Crystal Swing and how they provide a way to measure our perspective on contemporary life, but instead, I'll leave you with Derek, and his mouth full of adolescent teeth, doing the Hucklebuck on Ireland's Late Late Show: