A Prisoner Of Fantasy

Not really anything to do with the story. My friend Abi just won a prize for this in a photography competition. Isn't it lovely?

Just watching J K Rowling giving evidence to the UK’s press ethics enquiry (“Quest For The Lost Ethic”). She speaks movingly about what it’s like to be a parent in the telescopic eye of the tabloid press, how it feels to be quite literally stalked by these agencies, the stomach-twisting feeling, as she put it, when you realise someone is watching you. How you wonder what is it they intend to write, what they’ve heard or expect to find, what they may know about you that you don’t even know yourself.

It’s interesting that she’s a fantasy author. We generally consider this something of a minority interest, but far from it; people avidly consume stories about the famous that are mostly or wholly made up. I’m not a particular fan of her writing, but she does speak interestingly about the language of the situation. For example she says she has enormous respect for journalism, which can involve reporters risking their lives to get important stories. Yet people who dedicate themselves to harassing others and getting photographs of children are also called journalists. Should there not be different words for these professions? She also uses the verb “to long-lens” someone, rather than to photograph, implying that to take a picture in situations where you cannot be seen to be taking a picture is a wholly different thing and, almost perforce, an invasion of privacy. It’s a useful distinction.

A picture emerges of someone effectively forced into hiding by the need to shield her children from the life-warping effects of publicity. She’d never make the analogy herself, but her success at, of all things, children’s fiction has brought her to a situation only a step or two away from that of Salman Rushdie. Yet the Press Complaints Commission, as currently constituted, seems unable and indeed unwilling to do anything meaningful about this sort of persecution. Even when it upholds a complaint, the tabloids seem able literally to laugh it off. After one such reprimand a paper responded by publishing a picture of her daughter as a baby. It would be hard to imagine a more subtle yet simultaneously barbaric threat.

I’m reminded of the time that one paper published a map to the home of George Michael, another known non-fan of News International and its ilk. Forced to apologise, they stated that it “had not been their intention” to reveal the location of his home. Can you think of an intention to a map other than revealing a location? But it seems that in the strange world of press regulation, a bare-faced, transparent and risible lie counts as an apology. It’s clear that the UK needs a better mechanism to punish the fantasy press for its transgressions.

The question as always is how you can do that without endangering the freedom of other papers to do good things. Well there is one simple way: Don’t buy them. Don’t ever buy them. No matter how tempting the pornography they put on their front pages, don’t buy them. It’s the only regulation that they understand.

Shed A Tier For Social Justice

Aztec ritual human sacrifice portrayed in the ...
Multi-tier medical systems in history

The €50 charge for the medical card is surely a decoy, on the list purely to make increased prescription costs and bed closures seem more acceptable. Don’t let them away with it. There are ways to save money – or save the euro – that don’t involve ritual human sacrifice. We have a two-tier health system more wasteful than you’d see in any nightmare, even if you regularly dream about inefficient public resource allocation.

Consider a moment: We have to maintain a huge national infrastructure, staffed by public employees with all that entails, and then not let the majority of people use it because they’re not poor enough. Those who don’t qualify are forced into the hands of the profit-making health industry – which we then subsidize by allowing them to use the huge public infrastructure. We’ve basically taken on their capital costs.

This government was elected on the promise of introducing a single-tier health system. OK, they could have got elected on the promise of doing a little dance, but this is the one they made and it’s a highly desirable – in fact a necessary – thing. Problem is, it looks as though they’re employing the simple expedient of killing the lower one off.

You Might Be A Racist If…

Naas Dual Carriageway

If you refuse to have anything to do with all of a certain racial or ethnic group then yes, you’re a racist. Even if some people from that group did you wrong – Hell, even if everyone you ever met from that group did you wrong.

If you punish a person with a certain skin colour or a certain religion or a certain accent because of your feelings about other people from that group, then you are thinking as a bigot thinks. You are mistreating perfectly innocent people because “they’re all the same”. And that is evil.

Yes there probably are Africans in Naas who are rude and awkward and belligerent. They are wrong to be. But I am also sure there are rude and awkward and belligerent Irish people in almost every city on Earth. If public representatives in those cities refused to deal with their Irish constituents, what would you call them? You’d call them racists.

Darren Scully, Fine Gael mayor of Naas, you are a racist. And what is more, you’re a shithead.

The Value Of Nothing

Property prices in Ireland
Property prices in Ireland converted to 2011 currency. The red line shows the pre-boom average. ©RonanLyons.com

So house prices in Dublin have reached half what they were at the height of the boom. That’s a good sign. If they halve once more they’ll be back to what they were pre-bubble. Look at the graph (ganked from the very interesting ronanlyons.com) if you don’t believe me. Converted to 2011 money, an average house cost about €100,000 for decades. At the height of the boom it peaked at nearly four times that. Well over a third of a million, for an ordinary home.

Just one question springs to mind. What the hell were we thinking? Houses costing the price of a house, plus three other houses? Cars didn’t quadruple in price in just a few years. Food didn’t, even drink and cigarettes didn’t. During boom times, market prices are supposed to fall behind rising incomes. Otherwise they wouldn’t be called boom times, they’d be called mysterious outbreaks of rampant inflation. But during ours the cost of housing left incomes for dead. Clearly, the housing market is a deeply flawed one – almost an object model in fact of how capitalism goes wrong.

In theory the price of something is set by supply and demand, which is both efficient and ethical. Well let’s pretend it is for now, it works well enough for most things. Why does it go wrong here? Because the supply and demand of housing is almost irrelevant to the housing market.

What does a house cost? It’s an interesting question. A house in an appropriate location can be a very important asset, so in general people will spend the absolute maximum on a house they think they can afford. That’s clearly unlike wine or cars or dinners or phones. So in short, the answer to the question “How much does a house cost?” is “Whadya got?”

Or more precisely, what can you raise? If easier money is available therefore, people will borrow more. They’ll pretty much have to, as prices will rise to meet the available credit. Of course they have the option of only borrowing as much as they would have before prices went strange, but if they do they’ll get a much worse house than they could previously have afforded, while those willing to avail of the softer terms will get the shorter commutes, the better school catchment areas, the safer neighbourhoods. Competing for their and their children’s futures, it is hard to blame them for taking all that the banks and other financial institutions offered.

Speculation happens in such runaway markets of course. People will buy houses in the hope of selling them at a profit, just as if they were buying shares or gold or currency. Capitalism teaches that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The vast, vast majority however are buying houses because they need a house. And while some postponed purchasing in the hope that prices would come down, far more rushed into buying out of fear that they would not.

There are other factors, but we shouldn’t overemphasise them. People had become better off, yes. But did your income double? Mine sure as **** didn’t. The euro facilitated the boom because such an influx of credit would otherwise have exploded the currency, but it didn’t cause it. Houses were said to be “historically underpriced”, but even if you can bring yourself to believe a thing could be consistently underpriced for decades without anyone noticing, could it seriously be by a factor of two, even four?

And there was net immigration, that could have been expected to fuel the market. After all prices go up when demand outstrips supply. Only… Supply vastly outstripped demand. People were building houses up the sides of cliffs.

There are no two ways about it. We had a housing price bubble because we had an oversupply of credit. The blame rests squarely with the financial institutions that offered these loans. That is, all of them. Major banks should have known better and could have resisted. Had just a couple of lesser institutions been left to their excessive lending the larger banks would have lost custom, yes. But they would have survived. And minor institutions could not by themselves have super-inflated house prices.

But these lending practices were adopted by the whole industry, and quite literally they forced people to pay too much – far, far too much – for houses. There is a clear case for debt forgiveness therefore. There is also a case for punishment – though of the lenders who made the irresponsible loans rather than the borrowers who had little choice except to take them. And by punishment, I seriously mean prison sentences. There must surely be some law against business practices so reckless that they ruin individuals, families, even a whole country.

Isn’t there?

Mystery Metal of Ancient Ireland

Wenzel Hollar's historical map of Ireland
Ireland used to be a different shape

Today was spent at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, a curious seat of learning I have written of before. I was there for Tionól, a symposium on Celtic Studies. Not my usual stomping ground, but it’s good to go off and explore sometimes.

Ireland is fascinating because so much of what seems like the distant past happened so recently. (And vice versa.) The coming of Christianity didn’t overwrite pagan social structures. Much of their law and their system of values continued alongside the new religion. Nor did Viking settlement or Norman invasion destroy that cuture; it was only in Elizabethan times that real efforts to replace it began. So it’s almost as though we moved from the pre-Roman era directly to the early modern.

Yet there is so much we don’t understand about that past. When the change came it came fast, and though it left us a rich supply of written records, we do not always understand them.

For example, there is a word findruine that means…. Well, from its context it appears to be a precious metal. Stories speak of valuable objects of “gold, silver, findruine and bronze’ – in some it even outranks silver to become the most precious substance after gold. Yet we don’t know what it was.

Theories abound of course. My own first thought was that it might be a special version of bronze, with more copper in the mix. Or perhaps one that substituted zinc for the tin to make gold-coloured brass. But all these have been suggested over the years. Our speaker argued that none of them were right, and that the material was bronze (and perhaps other metals) that had been ‘tinned‘.

Which is not to say it had been put into cans. Tinning is the art of heating metal and then introducing solid tin to it. Tin melts at a relatively low temperature, so it spreads out on the hot surface, bonds with it, and forms a bright silver-coloured coating that resists corrosion and tarnish. The art was widely practiced until quite recent times – it gives its name to the trade of ‘tinker’ – and we know it was done by the ancients because, though it’s less robust than a pure metal, some beautiful articles of tinned work still exist.

So perhaps an ancient riddle has been solved. In the scheme of things though, it’s a relatively minor one. For example one of the most important roles in traditional Irish society was that of file. The word is usually translated as ‘poet’, yet fully qualified members of the file class were social equals to kings. And we still don’t know exactly what it was they did.

I hope to return to this.

And My Fourth Career Is…

I wrote a play last night. Well I exaggerrate – I reached the end of the first draft of a play. Well, of a rewrite of a play I originally finished fifteen years ago. And I’ve been working on it for three weeks. But these caveats aside, I can say with some pride that last night, I finished writing a play.

Today I started writing it again.

German Oversight

Reichstag building seen from the west, before ...
Head Office

Whatever the exact mechanism, it seems beyond dispute that the German parliament knew details of our budget before ours did. It may not have been the whole budget of course, but it still doesn’t look good.

Particularly in this context. What Merkel has proposed for the Eurozone is EU oversight of members’ budgets. Critics will say that that amounts to German oversight. So this is embarrassing even more for Germany than it is for Ireland.