'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Month: July, 2013

Cast Away Stones (Fiction)

He flicked the key and the ignition sparked into life with a growl that filled the small garage. A tiny smile came across his face as he pressed his foot on the accelerator that made the old car roar in defiance. He clutched into neutral and got out to listen to the gradual change of the engine finding its level once again; the battered rust bucket eased into a steady hum, purring like a fattened animal gorging on its latest meal.

A cigarette was reward for his work and he pulled hard on it, enjoying the mixture of smoke and petrol fumes permeating from the car. He would drink those flavours if he could, the potent contrast of the fuel vapours and tobacco.  He sucked it all in.

The evening passed as he did his repairs, moving frequently from the top of the engine to underneath the car; a task he was just about able for, considering his body was starting to creak even though he turned only fifty this year. The run down wooden-shack that was his workshop was warm from the little electrical heater in the corner and he was sheathed in perspiration underneath his blue overalls. But it was a good sweat, he thought, sweat worth spilling when the job was done at the end of the night.  He peered out the grease-smudged window of the garage toward the house across the gravel pathway. The light shining earlier from the bedroom was switched off now, the heavy curtains drawn.

The draw of the cigarette felt good on his throat, but the real kicker for him was fixing things; always was, even as a young boy. When he was nine, he watched for his parents coming back from the hospital one day because they’d told him they would be bringing home a little brother or sister for him. But his parents were the only people who got out of the car and his mother said that he would have no little brother or sister after all, ‘because her baby-making button wasn’t working’.

He had spent the following few days figuring out how they might fix it.

‘Maybe we could borrow Auntie Marie’s button? She might not need it anymore,’ he later suggested to his mother as she cooked dinner. She leaned over to stroke his face and placed an understanding kiss on his forehead.

‘Every mummy must keep their own button. They can’t be handed around.’ He thought about this for a moment.

‘Can we buy a new one?’

‘No. It’s something very special that only God can give you.’

The mention of the ‘G’ word was enough to end the matter, so he retreated outside to the swing in the back garden and sat still: thinking, thinking, thinking, until a strong summer breeze tickled the short blond hairs of his neck and arms and with a deft twist of his feet, he forced himself into the air. There was to be no brother or sister he reckoned, swinging up and down and catching glances of his mother hanging out washing on the line nearby, and the thrill of his self-made motion soon made him forget about it all.

‘Baby button,’ he laughed, before stubbing out the cigarette in the ashtray and reaching in and turning off the ignition. He looked at his watch: midnight, time to go inside; time to strip down from his overalls and boots at the back door and wash the dirt and the grease from his hardened, granite-like hands. He turned off the heater and light before locking up and walking across the pathway to the house. The night sky felt new as the stars hung low and clear overhead.

It will be a fine day tomorrow, he imagined. Perhaps the two of us can go on a drive; take the old car for a spin and see how she runs.

After scrubbing himself clean, he came into the kitchen and found the fire still aglow with chestnut blocks. He stoked them into a flame and opened a bottle of beer from the fridge. A note was left on the table beside the butter plate: Need to go into town in the morning to get a few things. He sliced some bread, buttered it and turned the note over to show that he had read it. Sitting in the armchair next to the fire, he watched the flame dance excitedly with the flickers of the cold night air travelling down the chimney, the orange flame turning blue. It was quiet in the house and he listened for his wife Lisa’s movement in the bedroom above his head. All he could hear was the faint, muffled drone of her snoring burrowing through the floor and then retreating. He could smell her; he could smell the sweet moisturising cream she applied to her face, neck, chest and hands every night, to replenish what she had lost during the day from the vigorous housework she made her daily business. He hated that smell. It had become a shield to the intimacy that mattered so much to him, intimacy that started to disappear a few weeks ago. First there was the tense, brusque behaviour when it came to the touch, and then she shielded herself from any approach at all with that thick, acrid balm. In their bed one night he went to her but there was nothing, like a light had been switched off, and darkness surrounded them ever since.

Now Michael sits into the small hours most nights with the glow of the fire, and empties his mind into its swallowing flame. Tonight however he was too tired for anything, fit for nothing but sleep.

* * * * *

The next morning was bright and dry, so they breakfasted early and drove into town in the old resurrected car. Lisa said she needed to go to the butchers and also to the small supermarket and post office.

‘How long do you think you will be?’ Michael asked, as they pulled out onto the main road.

‘Oh, I’d say an hour anyway, an hour and a half at most.’

‘Grand. I have to call into the bank and if you don’t mind I’ll pop into Brannigan’s while you do your bits.’

Lisa stared impassively at the sloping road ahead and did not respond. Michael smiled at the way he still framed his sentences with a permissive quality, even after ten years of marriage.

‘Will we have the radio on?’

‘Do you mind if we leave it off? On the way in anyway; I want to listen to this old brute, just to make sure there is nothing strange or out of the ordinary.’

She folded her arms tight, a small gesture of discontent, but he did not notice: he was concentrating on the workings of the engine as he shifted up and down the gears as they drove along the winding, deserted road.


* * * * *

Lisa followed her usual route through the narrow streets of the town but today she felt different: unable to think straight, as though floating or detached from her body. For a guiding hand, she searched her bag for the list she always made before a trip to the shops. It was then she noticed the creased brown envelope sticking out of the inside zip-pocket. It came in the post a few weeks ago. The letter detailed the results of her recent breast screening: a growth was found and they would have to operate as soon as possible, it said.

She had not told Michael any of this; she didn’t know how to break the news to him. In her mind, it was like a glass placed on the edge of a table, destined to tip over and smash any time soon – and she would have to watch it happen, in horrible slow motion, shattering their world. But even now, she was content to let it wobble perilously back and forth.

The day of the scan, he drove her to the hospital but she told him it was a routine appointment. ‘It’s only to get my blood checked by the nurse. Drop me off and get your dinner in the hotel. I won’t bother with cooking this afternoon.’  She remembered watching him drive off in another one of his restored bangers, oblivious, and how she was there, waiting, when he returned, happy as a lord and chatting with great gusto on the way home about the new value menu. ‘That was some packing, a great tightener’, his favourite phrases when it came to food. She smiled and said they would have to go together next time. Later, when they got home, Lisa went straight to bed. She did not eat, claiming tiredness from the visit to the hospital.

In her heart she hoped that once under the duvet and with the curtains drawn, the world might forget about her somehow, and in the morning she could carry on living as before. With the sheets pulled over her head, she whispered a small prayer: just loud enough for her to make things real, she thought, yet soft enough to be scattered with the leaves being blown around by the autumnal wind outside.

She had never forgotten her list before. ‘I’ll get the meat anyway and come back in for the other things,’ she declared to herself and walked towards Ryan’s butchers.  The old widow Sheila Ryan was behind the counter along with her middle-aged son Padraic. He was the worker in the business, while she took care of the front of the house.

‘Hello Lisa,’ the widow said, with a welcoming smile. ‘How are you keeping this weather?’

‘Grand thanks Mrs Ryan, and yourself?’

‘Well, I’m still here anyway, and sure isn’t that all we can hope for.’

Lisa forced a smile.

‘You’re looking well anyway,’ the widow went on, ‘If you don’t mind me saying, it looks like you’ve lost a bit of weight.’

‘Hah! Away with you at that, maybe it’s because I’ve not been in here for a couple of weeks,’ she tried to say lightly. ‘Michael is working at another old car of his and sometimes it’s hard to drag him away from it, even just for the messages.’

‘You better feed him well then, if he’s burning the oil hard. Will you have the usual package?’

‘Yes, please. But with a couple of extra on each, in case I’m as long getting back to you again. You know what men are like when they get stuck into something.’ Lisa and Mrs Ryan giggled in a girlish way: an acknowledgement that they knew this and something more, but something that would never be spoken between ladies such as themselves.

An elderly woman entered the shop and was greeted fondly by the widow, and before long they fell into a deep, hushed conversation, allowing Lisa to retreat towards the wall. She enjoyed the feeling of the cool tiles against her back as she heard the drowsy hum of the meat cutter come to life. Now and again it shrieked, as the butcher expertly guided the sheave of the cold blade cleanly through the pink, succulent joint. It reminded Lisa of when Michael would cut metal in the garage at home: she would watch the sparks fly upwards through the little window and picture his goggled face full of concentration.

‘Is that all you want cutting today Mrs Gallagher?’ asked the butcher.

* * * * *

The rain was coming down heavily as Michael sat in the car waiting for his wife, but it was not long until he sighted her in the rear-view mirror, walking briskly with her shopping bags. He always thought of her as cat-like when he first courted her all those years ago, with her coal-coloured, narrow eyes and feline movements. Lisa’s figure hadn’t changed much down the years: her curves could be seen through the dress and cardigan she was wearing, her bodylines sketched by the rain, which was laying siege to the cotton.

He stepped out of the car to take the bags.

‘The day has taken a turn.’

Lisa nodded as she got inside. She pulled down the mirror on the passenger side and shook the raindrops from her long black hair and adjusted her fringe. After placing the bags in the boot, Michael returned to the driver’s seat. He smelt the damp, steamy air of the rain rising from his wife’s body and started the car. It chugged for a moment, stalled and then died. He tried again but with the same result.

‘Bloody thing,’ he said looking at Lisa, but she stared impassively out her window. He turned the engine over once more and this time it kicked into life, so he revved it hard and turned it over until it ran evenly.

‘Now we have you,’ he said quietly, as they pulled out to take the road home. He knew he’d have to look at the engine again tonight, but never mind.

‘You got all that you needed?’

‘I forgot my list, would you believe it? I’m useless without my list, so I only got some food shopping until I get in again. Can you take me in tomorrow perhaps? I know I’m taking you away from…’

‘No problem,’ Michael interrupted. ‘Sean Russell came into Brannigan’s and was looking for a part off me, so I can drop it in to him instead of his coming out to the house. I’ll ring him later when you decide what time you want to go in.’

‘Thanks Michael.’

The road was still quiet and the rain departed as quickly as it arrived, like some fleeting visitor whose only trace of calling was a light smudge on the ground. The day lurched its way back into itself, with the reawakened sun burnishing the glistened surface. Lisa switched on the radio to a station playing classic pop tunes and their warm familiarity padded out the peacefulness.  The sluggishness of the car worried Michael though; he could feel it in each movement.

‘It doesn’t sound too healthy Michael,’ said Lisa. ‘Will it get us up the road even?’

‘Ah yeah,’ he said casually, trying not to betray his thoughts, ‘it’s only because of the oil change I gave it last night. It’s working through, that’s all. We’ll be grand.’ He knew rightly though; the car was torpid.

* * * * *

Lisa had just changed the dial for the afternoon news headlines when it happened.

First there was a heavy, clunking sound lasting little more than a minute; the car then jolted along the empty road before fighting its last with a wheezing splutter and Michael used its momentum to steer in tight towards the ditch. The old beast’s metal heart had suddenly given up.

‘What is it?’ asked Lisa, ‘can you tell?’

‘I think so. I’ll take a look first and then ring Sean Russell; he’ll probably have to come out for a tow.’

He pulled a small lever underneath the frayed, leather-lined steering wheel, got out and dialled his phone. He lifted the hood and started talking down the line.

‘I’m praying you’re not still in Brannigan’s oul stock…’

Michael laughed at the voice coming down the line.

‘We’re in a bit of bother,’ Lisa heard him say and then his voice became muffled as he bent down to take a closer look at the engine. He popped his head around the bonnet, ‘Spot on, good man’, and gave her the thumbs up sign.

Such a simple, yet pure, sign of assurance caused all her heartache to rise to the surface, like sunken treasure washed up in a storm, as she watched her husband walk up and down the side of the car, chatting amiably on his phone. The ground that had been purposely filled with the heavy cement of distress for several weeks – stirred thick with estrangement, bitterness and jealousy – was being torn violently open again and she started to cry.

Michael saw her tears and ended the call to get back in the car.

‘Hey, what’s the matter? There’s no need for tears, no need to panic,’ he said with a smile and squeezed her hand for reassurance. ‘I spoke to Sean and he’ll be out to us as soon as he can. It’ll be an hour before he gets here as he’s on another job, but sure there’s nothing can be done about that.’

‘It’s not your fault; I’m just being silly. Things have got the better of me today for some reason… Well, for quite some time now actually, not that I need to tell you that. You’ve had to live with it.’

Michael lowered his head and let the remark pass before speaking.

‘At least we’re dry and it’s not cold. Why don’t we just bide our time. It’s not as if we’re in a rush for anything.’

A popped, childlike laugh burst from her before giving way to a bitter sweetness in her stomach.

Lisa lifted his hand into hers and then put it to her lips, before using it to wipe away the dark tracks of her tears. She looked at the years of work mapped out through the strong, thick veins and felt the callous marks on the skin, from a life forged from nothing.

‘We should talk to pass the time, Michael,’ she said softly. ‘Let’s talk.’


The fruits of ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’


Perhaps the clue is in the title.

If I had a pound for every Boards of Canada fan bemoaning how their new album is a let down after only a few listens, then I would have £3.50 exactly (the fifty pence comes from someone who told me they “half like them”).

Here are the main complaints I have heard:

  • BOC have not moved on/progressed; they sound the same as they did in 1998.
  • Other musicians have now copied their sounds so much that they no longer have the same impact or freshness they once did.
  • The album was an anti-climax after taking eight years to make.

I first listened to the album when BOC streamed it live on the Internet for its world premier. Treating the occasion with just cause, I turned off my phone, plugged in the long lead of my Sennheisers into the laptop, lay back in bed and closed my eyes.

On the first run through I thought it was a very good album – and that it got better as it went along with each track. I knew I would buy it, but not for a few weeks, just to give myself that little bit of space between myself and one of my favourite bands.

Fortunately, I have great friends who love music as much as I do. More fortunately, my birthday fell a couple of weeks within the release date of ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’. And there it was. My mate Mark presented the shiny new vinyl as we sipped a cold beer on his roof garden, the evening sun warming our backs. It was a fantastic present and I studied the LP’s entrancing artwork: an invisible city; some sort of ghost town. Sipping our beers, we wondered where the skyline was on the front cover. My other friend, Simone – worldly, smart, and who has travelled more miles of this globe than I can even conceive in my mind – nailed it: San Francisco. I held San Francisco in my hands.

We did not play ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’. Mark – who had been listening to it incessantly since its release – cued up some Louis Armstrong instead. His musical instinct made him realise I would want to go away and listen to it down some rabbit hole, with only my headphones and perhaps a glass of malt. Yet I don’t sketch this scene to be precious or prissy about BOC – which, sadly, seems to be the default position of a lot of fans. (Someone remarked to me recently that they thought BOC fans would be fairly clued in people, until they started reading the forums and comments sections on the Internet. Alas, web warriors will never change – they will always need to be outraged over something).

It is easy for me to say that I was happy to hold ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ in my hands; BOC’s back catalogue being relatively skimpy, and it also meant they had not withdrawn into some self-imposed exile, like that former high king of electronica Richard D. James. The thought of new BOC music put a smile on my face.

In the intervening weeks, I have listened to ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ a lot, but not every day (and it does not feel like an album that you will spin back-to-back, such is its density and length). That first time I listened to it on the web I thought it a very good album – now I believe it to be an excellent album.

At times it is plain, intense, vigorous and splendid. There are moments in the album where BOC seem to empty the space of the music, to let the listener inhabit it. And this is where we, the listeners, come in. When someone does something to a high standard consistently for years, for some reason we either take it for granted or worse, become suspicious of it. We no longer see the peaks, never mind any troughs. Examples that spring readily to mind would be the Spanish national soccer team, the writing of John Updike or Wes Anderson’s films. For some reason we begin to question the very thing we love, distrust it even.

This same critical perspective is now being applied to BOC.  Brothers Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison have made us love them so much that we almost feel betrayed if they make a bad record. But surely art is about the creative process and the artist will not get it right all the time. In my case, this means ‘Geogaddi’, which is a BOC album that still will not strike home with me after all these years, no matter how many times I listen to it, despite it containing moments of brilliance.

Aural Ripples: Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison

Perversely, ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ feels like a close cousin of ‘Geogaddi’ – it has that same dark spirit, its concept more cinematic to usual BOC material. From beginning to end it feels filmic; a soundtrack to a screenplay that will never get financed. Yet ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ still has classic BOC running through it: ‘Telepath’, ‘Cold Earth’, ‘Nothing is Real’ – soft analogue synth waves, distorted vocal samples and great beats. Oh, the beats. How we sometimes forget the BOC beats!

Which leads me nicely to the crux of this essay: no one (even now) makes music like BOC. Many imitate, some wear open references on their sleeves (Kelpe, Bibio) but they still cannot come near them. They don’t have that little bit of moon dust the two brothers sprinkle on their records. Consider how ‘New Seeds’ segues into ‘Come To Dust’ (which is a reprise of the ‘single’ ‘Reach For the Dead’) in a fitting denouement to the album, before it departs with the final piece ‘Semena Mertvyhkh’, which feels like some dark spectre arriving to cover the tracks made by the brothers in the previous 16 tunes.

‘Jacquard Causeway’ is probably the standout track. But the album has great balance too and it is welcome to see the duo give a little more legs to tracks, which before, they would have sketched in and out quickly (‘White Cyclosa’, ‘Transmisiones Ferox’).

BOC’s starting point, ‘Music Has The Right To Children’ and where they stand now are my favourite works – which is quite an achievement for any musician if you think about it.

As for those complaints that I have heard and which I referred to at the start of the piece, well I have heard the same accusations being made to one of my other favourite bands, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

But to say BOC or GYBE! have not progressed their sound or have less impact nowadays is akin to saying the same about the Beatles after 1962, because everyone else began using guitars, or that the Beach Boys did not evolve from their first album to their last because they were still using harmonies.

Why should musicians give up sounds they helped create just because everyone else is trying to do the same? Why would BOC give up the ground they have broken to allow others claim the spoils?

BOC have progressed – they have got better with every record and the “eight years in the making” tag is a weight unfairly placed on the album’s shoulders – it is too easy a stick with which to knock ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’. What does it matter? Boards of Canada are two brothers who make fantastic music, no more and no less – and ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ is another great album to add to their canon.

Miroslav Tichý [1926-2011]


Paean to a Public Treasure

Let me ask you a question. Where can you go in your town or city that is stimulating, warm, interactive, comfortable, and available at almost any time you wish, and most significantly, free and open to everyone?

Yes, learned reader, you’ve guessed correctly: the library.

Your public library is often the beating heart of any town or city, continuously pumping its flow of knowledge like a lifeblood to the people passing through its doors (upwards of 16 million visits a year according to the Irish Library Council); at its most basic, it provides us with the tools for our advancement. Having long been a centre for learning, the public library gives a focal point for the community it serves and engenders a feeling of togetherness and social cohesion.

Sadly, they are under increasing threat in this age of austerity, with the Government scrambling for belt-tightening measures and cuts from some of the softest targets in the state. The previous Fianna Fáil government planned to reduce the amount of money spent on public library stock by 25 per cent (a decline from €13.5m in 2009 to €10m in 2010). It’s depressing to think that when it comes to fundamental reforms, our elected representatives look at cutting back on a service that is a catalyst for learning and the benefit of our citizens.

Libraries have a crucial role to play if education is to be a truly egalitarian concept. If politicians continue to espouse the vague mantra of a ‘knowledge-based economy’ for the future of the country, then we need these beacons of scholarship to light the way. Softening the blow somewhat, Fine Gael’s Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Phil Hogan declared a new Capital Programme for libraries, with the majority of the money to be spent on new libraries and refurbishment of older buildings and mobile units.(Could the other coalition partner, the Labour party, justify any major cuts to this service when a founding father of Irish socialism, James Connolly, spent much of his time educating himself in the National Library?). Hogan’s announcement is heartening and one sees the incentive of putting resources into our libraries when visiting Rathmines public library, which reopened its doors after being closed for a number of years due to major renovation work.

The new-look building is impressive as you enter. Leaving the bustling village behind, you immediately get the feeling of entering a space for the mind: a place where one can discover, learn and think in quiet contemplation. The building juxtaposes modern fixtures with the original architecture, to give it a feeling of relaxed grandeur, like a wealthy, old uncle reading an e-book in his favourite armchair.

Sunlight pours in through the large Georgian windows, painting the white stucco walls in bright light to give a sense of enlightenment and potential empowerment: the luminescence glows with an energy that anything is possible; it’s up to you how you shine. The staff members are friendly and helpful; all the necessary facilities are there (aside from books, there are lots of computers, newspapers and periodicals, a children’s area, a lift for access to the different floors, tea and coffee). But the most important feature is the people utilising these tools – our library is only as good as we are and vice-versa. Our relationship is symbiotic. A computer is redundant unless it is manned by one of us, as a book has little point in being written if it remains unread.

Stuttgart City Library| Yi Architects

To see such a microcosm of learning and a culture of self-improvement is inspiring and reaffirms one of the reasons for our existence: the pursuit of knowledge and betterment of ourselves and the world around us. Without doubt, the library remains a great facilitator in helping to do this. Rathmines was throbbing with activity during my recent visit: a pensioner was reading about Syria in the newspaper and the latest dissent blossoming from the ‘Arab Spring’; a teenager watched space footage courtesy of NASA on the web, while hastily scribbling notes in a dog-eared jotter; a young woman was happily perched at the wonderful, old wooden reading desks on the second floor, engrossed in a book on flower arranging, to give just a few examples. Outside of universities and schools, where else in society do we have such a centre allowing us to increase our knowledge and understanding of our world and everything else that goes with it?

In the UK there are plans to have libraries run by volunteers and community groups to save money, as council cuts threaten their existence. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) recently reported on pilot projects that included basing libraries in churches and local halls, self-service borrowing points for books in charity shops and integrating services such as health centres into existing libraries.

The Conservative government – who still desperately clings on to its ‘Big Society’ brainwave – claim that such moves would be innovative and allow creative partnerships between the private and public sector, and would enable libraries to remain ‘relevant’ in the 21st century. But libraries, which date as far back as the time of Alexandria, will never be irrelevant as long as there is thirst for knowledge.

One abiding memory of visiting the Central Library in my time living in Belfast was always spotting, without fail, a certain man in the large reading room who, it would be fair to say had all the signs of a drink problem. There he was: lying face down, with a large art book beside him, happily visiting the land of nod. He never snored, so did not disturb anyone, but the look of deep contentment on his face was priceless (so too was watching him taking the studied bother of pulling down a book on renaissance painting to strategically place in front of him) as he descended into slumber, safe in the knowledge that he could do so without any danger in the warm, hushed, softly-lit room.

The library provided a place where he could rest easy for a couple of hours, without any worry about being harassed. It might not have done much for his reading, but it certainly did a lot for his peace of mind. Libraries provide sanctuary for many people, for various reasons, and in various ways. We should deal with our places of learning in the same way the staff in Belfast did with the man in the reading room: let them be.

The Stack

Currently on the bedside table:

Reappraisals – Tony Judt

Waterlog – Roger Deakin

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen (finally getting around to it)

Dialogues – Seneca

Letters to Monica – Philip Larkin

The Sonnets – William Shakespeare

Richard Burton Diaries

The Portable Thoreau

Everyman’s Collection of Irish Poems

The Energy Efficiency Dilemma

How we source our energy is a quandary at the forefront of our minds again in the wake of the natural disasters in Japan, which have left the population exposed to the potentially catastrophic dangers of their nuclear power plants.

Twenty-five years on from the Chernobyl disaster, nuclear power was being considered by many – including environmentalists – as a viable solution in meeting our growing energy consumption; we could use it to move away from our dependency on finite fuels and as a result begin to turn back the clock on global warming.

Now, the fall out in Japan will fundamentally change the nuclear energy debate – yet a question that must also be addressed is how we use our existing energy sources.

Scientists at Trinity College Dublin made a major breakthrough recently in discovering a way to capture and recycle heat that would otherwise be wasted by machines. It is a significant development, as it is hoped this lost heat can be generated into electricity – in a process comparable to breaking down a Lego construction into individual blocks, each of which take on a new energy when separated from the mass.

The research is important as it has the potential to attract international investment and generate jobs if the new coalition government attempts to develop Ireland’s ‘green economy’ and technology for renewable energy – especially now that the world’s leading superpower China has fired the gun on a green growth race.

In typical neo-Communist fashion, the Red State launched a five-year plan this year, which will switch the emphasis of growth from industrial development to an economic blueprint focusing on renewable energy and efficiency. Last year China invested 34 billion dollars in clean technology compared to 18 billion dollars by the US. China is clearly setting itself up to be a world leader in this field and one hopes that our ministers have the innovative thinking in reaching out to try and grab a piece of this huge financial pie.

Broadening the argument, however, there could be a major downside to green schemes and the drive for our machines to be more energy efficient. For if our machines use less energy then will we use them more and as a result negate any environmental benefits?

China is already the world’s number one greenhouse gas emitter and arguably the most polluted nation on earth. If they do succeed in moving away from industrially polluting the planet to a more green future – where machines are more efficient – then could this lead a new environmental threat: excessive consumption, especially considering this is a continent-sized nation with a population of 1.4 billion people.

Energy efficiency has been called ‘the fifth fuel’ (after coal, petroleum, nuclear power and renewables) and is regarded as a cost-free switch in the move to a green-energy economy. Environmental think tanks argue that it is “not a free lunch, but a lunch you are paid to eat”. However, some experts believe that efforts to improve energy efficiency will instead negate any environmental gains – a theory that is illustrated by what is known as the Jevons paradox.

William Stanley Jevons, a 29-year-old Englishman, published a book in the 19th century called ‘The Coal Question’, which argued: “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” Jevons referred to Britain’s global iron industry, which was fuelled by coal. He argued if a more efficient way to use coal to create iron was found, then the price of iron would fall, increasing demand for it and thereby requiring more coal to produce it.

To bring the argument into a modern, micro scale, we can look at everyday objects in our homes. In an Irish household, the average fridge uses three-quarters less energy than a 1975 model – despite it being 20 per cent larger and costing a lot less. However, bigger fridges mean we purchase and consume more food, which requires not only more energy to cool store them, but also energy to produce, package and transport these goods. And it does not end there. In the West we now throw out 40 per cent of our food that has gone off (mainly vegetables) and as a pay-off for doing so, we are essentially wasting the energy we have spent to store that food by chucking it out.

(There may be a corollary in our growing obesity rate and large American-styled fridges in the Irish home, but that is for another day).

We can also look at our consumer-driven innovations in the last decade of mobile phones, laptops, mp3 players and the Internet – ubiquitous products we never had to concern ourselves with before, and which are pitched as ‘smart’ technology, yet require vast amounts of energy to function.

English economist Len Brookes has written: “When we talk about increasing energy efficiency, what we’re really talking about is increasing the productivity of energy. And if you increase the productivity of anything, you have the effect of reducing its implicit price, because you get more return for the same money, which means the demand goes up.”

Our cars also validate the Jevons paradox; economical use of fuel does not result in diminished consumption but instead sees an overall increase. Latest models are more efficient than their predecessors and a lot more comfortable as well.  Consequently, we drive longer distances and make journeys more frequently, which again increase our energy use. And more cars on the road mean more maintenance and expansion of our travel network – further expenditure of our finite resources.

It is also sometimes forgotten that air-conditioning – which is standard in many cars now – increases fuel consumption by 20 per cent and environmentalists wonder if we need such a feature, considering Ireland’s moderate climate – one green campaigner pertinently describes air-conditioning in motors as “an indulgent way of moving air from one place to another”.

Increased comfort and efficiency of our cars means we drive more than ever before and as a result are hit where it hurts most right now: at the pumps.

With fuel prices soaring to €1.50 per litre and the price of oil rising continually, Irish drivers will hope the findings of the Trinity research team can soon be put into practice – in the future the research could be used to run electric cars reliably over long distances.

Nevertheless, what will help the future of the planet more – increased efficiency or reduced consumption? Governments, economists and free-trade capitalists readily advocate the former, but maybe we should be looking the other way, by capping our emissions, introducing higher energy taxes or an individual surtax on our energy usage.

We need to step back to see that the key to the environmental argument is more about what is sustainable – and less about using energy more efficiently or developing volatile man-made power, such as nuclear energy, which is a by-product of the nuclear weapons industry left over from the Cold War.

We need to take another approach. Let’s hope our low-energy light bulbs soon start flickering above our heads.


  • Article first appeared in the Sunday Times

Nobody Knew (dialogue sketch)

–         The strange thing was how no one had noticed it before. Not until that night he smacked her in the teeth anyway.

–         That must have looked bad.

–         What other way could it look? Jeez. No, what I mean is, that up until then, they seemed like a regular loving couple.

–         But nobody knew.

–         Nobody knew.

Every night they got home, after being out for drinks or dinner or whatever with friends, she was kicking the shit out of him.

–         Behind closed doors.

–         Right. Bustin’ him around his own home.

–         But nobody knew.

–         Nobody knew.

And then to top it all, she goes and bangs his best friend.

–         But you knew.

–         I knew.

–         Jeez. Was she on drugs?

–         She should’ve been! A lethal injection that’s what I’d have given her.

–         And how long was this going on?

–         Couple of years.

–         But nobody knew.

–         Nobody knew.

–         Some operator.

–         Right. And then he smacks her square in the teeth, in a crowded bar, with loads of people around.

–         And do they know?

–         They don’t know.

–         No. They don’t know.

–         He’s never hit anybody in his life for Christ sake!

–         I know that.

–         I know you know that.

–         All that hatred, and fear, and bitterness, of getting the shit kicked out of you every night for years must have just boiled over.

–         And he flipped his lid.

–         He flipped his lid.

–         Have you talked to him since?

–         Just for a little while. He’s looking to keep a low profile.

–         Understandably.

–         Exactly. Now everybody knows.

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