Gritty semolina pudding


IRELAND is by no means the laziest country on earth, it has emerged. Not by a country mile. Wouldn’t you think that would be regarded as a good thing?

The latest edition of the Lancet publishes a study suggesting that 53.2% of the people of this country are not exercising enough. This allows us to conclude – in a glass-half-full sort of way – that 46.8% are exercising enough, which, given everything we thought we knew about ourselves, comes less as a surprise than as a blinding, earth-rending shock.

However, the story was presented as bad news. ‘Half of Irish don’t get enough exercise,’ the press reported, which goes to show that the government is quite right after all about the media being too prone to pessimism. ‘Half of Irish do get enough exercise’ would have been a much better headline, being every bit as accurate and yet casting the nation in a much more flattering light. Wear the green jersey and all that.

Ireland was in 102nd place in the league of 117 countries, listed in order of inactivity. This means there are 15 countries in front of whose citizens we can justifiably gloat and crow and flex our superior biceps. Among them are Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia and – oh well now, would you look at that? – the United Kingdom. It seems 63.3% of British people are inactive, which has been a source of some smirking in the news reports this side of the Irish Sea.

Malta is the worst: 71.9% of Maltese people are inactive. But at least they have a lighter way to enjoy chocolate. And the world’s most active country is Bangladesh, where only 4.7% of people are lazy. Europe’s most active country is Greece, which should stand to them in the years to come.

Apart from the unexplained disparity between Ireland and Britain, there are some other intra-continental surprises too. For instance, Mozambique is the least lazy country in Africa, with only 7.1% of people reported as being inactive. But its tiny neighbour, Swaziland, is Africa’s least active nation, at 69%. What strange force gathers on the Mozambique-Swaziland border, and causes all activity abruptly to cease? It’s a mystery left unsolved by the survey.

The researchers use their study to impress on governments the need to promote physical activity among the populace. Physical activity helps protect against heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity and depression, and so, simply by exercising enough, you can presumably avoid the risk of dying altogether.

So the revelation about Ireland’s activity levels will have come as bad news to the sedentary types among us, who now realise that at least half the country is in better shape than we are. This leaves us more prone than ever to feelings of guilt, and more susceptible than ever to state nagging.

And boy, does the state know how to nag. Exercise for half an hour every day; eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day; don’t you dare smoke; don’t eat red meat; watch your weight; stay out of the sun; get out in the sun; eat your greens; eat oily fish; eat eggs; don’t eat eggs; brush your teeth for two minutes at a time; exercise at least five days a week; eat carbohydrates; don’t eat carbohydrates; know your BMI; don’t eat fats; eat unsaturated fats; drink two litres of water every day; on second thoughts don’t bother with the two litres of water thing – that was a mistake; don’t drink alcohol; on second thoughts drink a glass of red wine every day; don’t drink coffee; wear sunscreen; don’t eat bacon; walk to work; don’t eat cheese; substitute some sort of pallid chemical paste for proper butter; observe the food pyramid; on second thoughts, don’t bother with the food pyramid – we’ve had a change of heart about it; use the stairs; take vitamin supplements; don’t bother with vitamin supplements; measure your waistline; floss…

The authorities increasingly come across as a butch, domineering, boarding-school Physical Education teacher, perpetually bellowing at you about something. You there. Stand up straight. Buck up your ideas. Be a team player. Pass the ball. Pull your socks up. Pull your weight. Wear the green jersey.

The whole thing calls to mind damp mornings, ice cold running water, starchy uniforms, goosebumped legs, gritty semolina pudding, frost on the insides of the windows… an endless exhortation to be hardier.

It’s enough to make you forge a note from your mother, of the kind that flies about like confetti among schoolchildren: ‘Dear Teacher, Please excuse so-and-so from PE because she has chilblains/ a piano lesson/ the ague’.

Dear Authorities, please excuse us from your incessant badgering about healthy living, because even trim, fit, non-smoking teetotallers will all die in the end as well.

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 22nd July 2012

Everything in universe now explained

Sergio Bertolucci


SIT still a moment. I’m taking it upon myself here to explain to you what the Higgs boson is and what its discovery means to humankind. No, no, stay. Where are you going? Come back.

Just joking. I wouldn’t dream of explaining it. You’re more than likely every bit as capable of pretending to understand it as I am. And if not, fear not: everything you need to know is contained in this joke, via comedian Dara Ó Briain. A Higgs boson walks into a church. The priest says, “What are you doing here?” and the Higgs boson says, “You can’t have mass without me”.

So they’ve discovered the hypothetical particle that gives mass to other elementary particles. Or they’re fairly sure they have. More study is needed. Consider the following sentence: “Physicists at Cern have observed evidence of a new particle consistent with the Higgs boson.” You see the problem with that, don’t you? Isn’t it a little dry? Well here’s another one instead: “Scientists discover God particle!” There, that’s better.

This, in essence, represents the problem that physics is up against. Hardly anybody understands it, and things happen in it at a glacial pace. Not even archaeologists have to be as patient as physicists. Worst of all, it’s invisible, and so can’t be televised or shared on Flickr. This makes physics incompatible with life in the 21st century.

All the same, there’s a lot of money going into it, and seriously important questions inspiring it, so those with an interest in physics do their best to make it seem sexy – with mixed results, as we’ve seen.

No sooner had the findings been announced this week than there was a massive nerdish backlash against Cern, because their slides were in Comic Sans, the world’s most-ridiculed font.

Now it could be that the people at Cern don’t know the first thing about typography (in which case, ha ha, they must be so stupid).

But it’s more likely to have been an attempt on the scientists’ part to make the results more accessible. They may have reasoned that a sentence such as, “We present updated results on SM Higgs searches based on the data recorded in 2011 at √s=7 TeV (~4.9 fb-2) and 2012 at √s=8 TeV (~5.9 fb-2)” would become intelligible even to thick people if it were made to look like a clipping from the Beano.

“Oh great,” said everyone, when news of the discovery ‘leaked’. “How thrilling. And how nice for Mr Higgs.” There then followed predictable skirmishes between believers and atheists. One side believes in a theoretical, invisible energy field that pervades the whole cosmos, even though they have not seen proof of it with their own eyes; the other side believes in God.

Then people quickly began to move on. It’s 2012, our attention spans are short, what did you expect? “What happens next?” said everyone. It turns out the Large Hadron Collider will be out of commission for the whole of next year. “Oh, so nothing happens next? Really? OK, well, look, come back when you can give us time travel or something useful.”

This isn’t the first time Cern has unintentionally disappointed us either. Remember back in September 2008, when they fired the first protons through the Large Hadron Collider? The world waited, breathless with excitement, listening to live simulcasts and what have you. Then the results appeared, in the form of two tiny white dots on a computer screen. All the physicists cried tears of happiness. Everyone else looked blankly at each other and said, “Wait a second. Is that it?”

To be fair, though, the people at Cern were the soul of restraint in their comments about the significance of their discovery this week. It was the media – the mass media (forgive me, that pun would not be denied) – that became hysterical.

“It was without doubt a splitting-the-atom, DNA-double-helix, penicillin-discovering moment, a once-in-a-generation breakthrough,” panted the Irish Times. ‘Eureka!,’ bellowed the Washington Post, while also grumbling that the discovery should have happened in America. ‘Everything In Universe Now Explained,’ shrieked countless headlines, more or less.

Contrast this with the passionless official statement from Cern. “The observation of this new particle indicates the path for the future towards a more detailed understanding of what we’re seeing in the data,” said Cern research director Sergio Bertolucci. Similarly, director general Rolf Heuer remarked: “The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies”.

That was Cern’s people in celebratory mood. And to anyone who has ever answered the ‘name your ideal dinner guest’ question with ‘particle physicist’, I say, let that be a warning to you. Imagine the office parties at Cern… Well, at least, if nothing else, they have an abundance of helium for the balloons.

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday 8 July 2012

Love in the afternoon

TO say that TG4 covers Wimbledon would be a serious understatement. TG4 covers Wimbledon the way hair covers a tennis ball. So slavish is TG4’s devotion to Wimbledon that you might say of it that seldom in the field of sports broadcasting has so much been aired by so many to so few.

You get five to six hours of Wimbledon ‘beo’ every afternoon, and another hour of buaicphointí at night. This has been going on every summer for years. TG4 first began broadcasting Wimbledon back in 2005, some years after RTE dropped it.

Clearly TG4 has a viewer – at least one viewer – in mind for all this dedicated broadcasting. But who is this viewer who wants to watch Wimbledon in Irish? Who is it?

Well, let’s call him Proinsias. Imagine an earnest Gaelgóir, the sort who never strays too far from the path of righteousness. He wears both a Fáinne and a pioneer pin. He speaks Irish whenever social conditions allow, and even when they don’t, he inserts Irish phrases into conversation, even with people who don’t speak the language. He routinely says things like “Slán go fóill” and “Sin a bhfuil” and “I must go home to my leaba”.

Every morning he jogs out into the chilly dawn, his socks at half-mast, yelling “Bail ó Dhia ort!” at startled neighbours just getting into their cars for the daily commute. He coaches the local under-nine hurling team. By night he plays the bodhrán in the local pub, even though he is a teetotaller and has no appreciable musical ability.

Proinsias enjoys moderation in all things, except for Wimbledon. Wimbledon is his secret shame, his love in the afternoon (pun intended), his daytime, curtains-closed passion, complete with sound effects of grunting and moaning. For a few weeks in June ever year, Proinsias is nothing less than the very reason for TG4’s existence.

But what if Proinsias’s friends were to discover his clandestine love of this quintessentially English game? What would his unreconstructed republican Gaelgóir friends, of whom there are very, very many, and for whom Irishness is a terrifyingly narrow spectrum, think of him if they knew?

At one end of this spectrum of Irishness you’ve got your full-on, Gaelic-speaking, regular-mass-going, jig-loving, Brits-out, 800 Years Irishman. For this sort, De Valera’s “contest of athletic youths” doesn’t permit anything more exotic than the ongoing GAA omission that is the game of rounders. He actively disapproves of even loveless League of Ireland soccer, and cannot contemplate the idea of anyone mincing around a lawn tennis court in London SW19.

From there the spectrum fades into lesser and lesser gradations of Irishness, or rather, increasing gradations of west Britishness. It takes in those who forget everything about the Irish language except for how to ask for permission to go to the toilet, yet who remember, in a flash, what ‘Géill Slí’ means while driving around the Gaeltacht. It also includes those who’ve never actually been to the Gaeltacht – “I keep meaning to go… Do they really speak Irish there? Is it not just a wheeze to get grants?”

It takes in those who always preferred coffee to tea, and not just since coffee became ubiquitous; those who call their mothers Mum instead of Mammy; those who like traditional music well enough for the first five minutes but start feeling increasingly, inexplicably homicidal thereafter, necessitating an abrupt departure from the potential crime scene.

It reaches towards those who find they don’t actually mind the queen, really, especially since her visit – didn’t she seem such a nice lady, and so energetic, bless her, standing around smiling for all those hours?

And at the very end of the spectrum, at the invisible, infrared end, are Protestants, heaven help us, who don’t even get to be called Irish without attaching the cumbersome prefix ‘Anglo’, a word that has come to be even more loathed than ever in the past few years.

Judged by those standards, liking Wimbledon is a betrayal. Whatever the men of 1916 died for, it wasn’t so that their descendants could watch John Bull eating strawberries and cream between the showers.

But happily, Wimbledon Beo is the solution – or at least the mitigation – of that problem. Not only are you watching tennis on Irish television, instead of on the BBC, but you’re watching it in Irish. This more than offsets any perceived west Britishness associated with watching tennis.

In fact, it’s such a weighty counterbalance that you could probably watch Wimbledon Beo while sipping Pimm’s from a jubilee commemoration highball glass and shouting abuse at the lower orders, and it still wouldn’t matter. I’d go so far as to say you could have the misery of an entire subcontinent on your conscience, and watching Wimbledon in Irish would make up for it.

It’s also strangely addictive, even for those of us who aren’t all that gone on tennis. At first it’s just the usual, monotonous pock, grunt, pock, grunt, pock, grunt, cheer. But gradually you find yourself drawn in… Is it the tennis, or could it be the unexpected refresher course in Irish?

“Aw, go deas, aw, go deas… Oh, beidh sé mí-shásta leis sin… Agus tá sé aige!…” Once or twice it even seems as if the umpire has started to throw in the odd cúpla focail. Did he just say “uafásach” after that serve?

Multilingual tennis throws up a multitude of pleasures. Even grunting is different in different languages. David Ferrer, we discover, grunts in Spanish. Maith thú, a Daithí. Older viewers might contrast this with the grunt of the pioneer, Jimmy Connors, whose grunt was an American grunt. Maria Sharapova also grunts in American, despite being Russian. Maith thú, a Mháire. If you were watching Wimbledon in English, you wouldn’t notice these things.

So you see it becomes clear why Proinsias has his curtains drawn all afternoon. Anyone for leadóg?


TO complement Wimbledon Beo, TG4 also presents an English-Irish dictionary of tennis terms on its website. It includes the words comórtas (match), maor (umpire), dias (deuce), buntáiste (advantage) and amuigh (out). Racket is raicéad, although there’s no mention of racquets.

It also has phrases such as “new balls” (“liathróidí nua”) and “prolonged rally”, which translates as ““an t-imreoir a bhuafaidh sa chaitheamh dreas fada”, and by the time you’ve finished saying all that the rally will surely be over.

But some other terms have been omitted which might prove useful to those looking for an understanding of the sport, as follows:

Tá sé ag cur báiste: “It’s raining.”

Tá sé ag cur báiste go fóill: “It’s still raining.”

Tá sé ag cur báiste arís: “It’s raining again.”

Tá tú ag magadh: “You cannot be serious” (catchphrase of John McEnroe)

Hóigh!: (loosely) “Oh, I say!” Catchphrase of the late commentator Dan Maskell, formerly the BBC’s ‘voice of tennis.’

Ag deireadh an lae: “At the end of the day” and

Bhí gach seans aige: “He had every chance” and

Bua do leadóige: “a victory for tennis” (essential phrases when speaking about any sport).

And finally, love, strictly speaking, is náid, because of course love means nothing to a tennis player. But who is there to criticise you for saying grá? No one is watching.

Published in the Irish Daily Mail, Tuesday 3rd July 2012