On the Perils of Populism

Somewhere along the way, a tipping point may have been reached. Across the developed world, the centre is struggling to hold. The United Kingdom may be about to commit economic suicide in a fit of xenophobic pique. A far right candidate lost the vote to be Austria’s next president by a hair. The Greeks electorate decided that competency and honesty were less important factors in electing a government than raw anger and brinkmanship. And in the United States, a naked populist preaching socialist revolution came close to becoming the nominee of a major party, while a naked populist preaching fascist revolution went one further. From both sides of the ideological divide, democracy in the West is under pressure.


It’s not just a Western problem, as anyone who followed the recent election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines will be aware. But the Philippines is a relatively recent convert to democracy, and in character Duterte isn’t far removed from a Latin American strongman a la Evo Morales or Hugo Chavez. The kind of populist baksheesh these people promise resonate in those kind of countries, we tell ourselves complacently. It’s not supposed to resonate here.


There are many theories as to why the Western way of government is under such threat from populists.  The fault belongs with the so-called “elites”, goes one such theory, usually propounded by the populists themselves. In this theory, there is some sort of cabal, be it Brussels, Wall Street, or the “Liberal Media” who have, for some unexplained nefarious reasons, sought fit to rob “the People”, who are generally the audience of said populist, of their rights/taxes. To some degree, even mainstream media has bought into the notions that politicians are hopelessly out of touch elites, thereby giving populists the veneer of credibility


Then of course there is the media. Nothing sells like negativity. Papers like the Mail have effectively become nothing but mouthpieces for grouching. It feeds into a middle class notion that those better off are dishonest elites screwing the system, those worse off are dishonest scroungers screwing the system, and conveniently at the same socioeconomic level of the reader are the good, honest folk.


This climate of seeking scandal has created a whole sector of society who effectively will choose the simplest answer. This is at the nub of the Brexit debate. A poll today showed the Remain side are more inclined to trust experts, while the Leave side do not in fact trust anybody, not even pro-Brexit politicians. Were such a poll to be conducted among voters in the US, no doubt there would be a similar breakdown. In other words, there is a certain segment of the population at large who are effectively beyond all persuasion. So it is that the worries of economists over the impact of Brexit are dismissed on the grounds that they failed to predict the last financial crisis (many economists did in fact predict it, but facts are irrelevant to these people). As cabinet minister and Leave campaigner Michael Gove said “People in this country have had enough of experts”.


Men like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump (consciously in the first case, instinctively in the second) understand this. RT, Russia’s propaganda arm, has become adept at spreading false news and distortions, secure in the knowledge that its target audience in the West, while not necessarily accepting it as truth, will be more sceptical of the truth of the matter, either through a misplaced sense of false balance or a truculent refusal to be budged from their underlying beliefs. Trump, meanwhile, continues to spout the most outrageous falsehoods, which work either because his audience a) genuinely believe that Trump is honest, b) fall into the trap of “truthiness”, a form of motivated reasoning in which they will accept without question anything that sounds right or reinforces their underlying belief, or c) they don’t care that Trump is lying, they assume everything they hear is a lie.


Social media, too, has played a part. Just as in authoritarian states social media broke government monopolies on information and communication, thereby enabling protest movements to coordinate their activities, so too it has allowed fringe narratives to take hold. A holder of extremist views is no longer constrained by having to find someone in his circle who holds similar opinions. He can merely take his political discourse online, secure in the knowledge there will be others who share his views. This reinforces the sense of political introversion. Surround yourself with people who share your views and you become less cognisant of the idea that other people, for perfectly legitimate reasons, may have differing views. It merely perpetuates the idea that the only reason the government isn’t listening to the views of you “the People”, is because they are an out-of-touch “elite”.


This political nihilism takes other forms. Assume that your politicians are venal idiots and anything seems better. The role of legislature as a place for framing laws has been partially forgotten. When Irish Senator Ronan Mullen lamented that only two members of the Oireachtas were opposed to the Marriage Equality Bill in 2015, whereas a full third of the electorate rejected it, his concerns were brushed aside as bigotry, but it speaks of a deeper problem in Irish politics. Politicians in Ireland aren’t elected for ideological views. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail stand for everything and nothing. The role of a legislator in actually legislating seems to be largely a relic.


The ultimate outcome of this is takes two forms in Ireland. One was the election of protest candidates, a tactic that is becoming increasingly prevalent across the developed world. People like Paul Murphy and Ruth Coppinger have a professed opposition to compromise, or in fact governing at all. They do not see their mission as working within a system so much as overthrowing the system itself. Then of course there is voting for an Independent, a kind of non-vote, less in favour of representative democracy and more of a clientelist system whereby one sends a representative to the Dail on the understanding that he or she extracts the highest possible price for their support. The upshot of this is that scarcely half the current Dail has any interest in actually governing. Hardly a basis for competent leadership.


Of course, if a populist truly wishes to achieve power, they must broaden their appeal. Merely opposing the government isn’t enough. In general, a plurality of voters retain the good sense to realise that hanging their political classes is not necessarily going to lead to the best outcome. So they must take their negativity to another level, by directing it not only to a corrupt and out-of-touch government, but also to another section of the population, or better yet, foreigners.


Empathy is a strange beast. It has been shown that people get more upset by the death of a family pet than they do from seeing news of a mass-casualty disaster on the other side of the world. It is this differential in empathy that enables populists to target an amorphous “other”. On the left, it is the “super rich”, and on the right, it is those whose only crime was the accident of birth. Both are inherently negative arguments, in that they try to put a face upon the author of all the nation’s problems. Get rid of these people, the argument goes, and all the national woes will be resolved. This is the narrative that frames every Syrian refugee as a potential terrorist. Do not empathise with these people, it says. They are the other. As overt racism has become less tolerated in the West, so it has become more covert and insidious. Foreigners are no longer subhumans, but they have different values than us, they are collectively a security threat, or they put pressure on important public services. So it is that, rather than see increased pressure on hospitals as the logical outcome of an ageing society, there are those who retreat into the fantasy that the problem is in fact foreigners. Like many populist narratives, this is in no way borne out by the facts (In the UK, migrants make up a disproportionately high amount of NHS staff and a disproportionately low amount of patients), and like most populist narratives, the target audience aren’t particularly concerned with facts.


Bereft of any coherent argument, the Leave Side in the Brexit referendum has dragged xenophobia into the mix. Photos of (conspicuously brown) Syrian refugees have found their way into the debate, not as an appeal to common humanity, but to paint immigrants as a marauding horde who are coming to Britain. It is a naked appeal to the kind of negative populism that has become commonplace in Western public discourse.


Or, if one doesn’t wish to descend into racism, there is always the option of blaming foreign governments. When last year the Greek electorate, brutalised by years of having to live within their means for a change, finally caved into the populism of SYRIZA, the fringes finally had a chance to prove their worth in government. Like all populists, their actual plan for dealing with the country’s woes was somewhat lacking in detail. Their electoral promises hinged on convening what they called a “European debt summit” which seemed to have the express goal of allowing Greece’s creditors to magnanimously forgive her sovereign debt. In this spirit of generosity, these now former creditors would then front vast amounts of money for a Greek Marshall plan, neglecting to point out that a liquidity crunch was the eventual manifestation of Greece’s economic sclerosis, rather than the underlying cause of it.


Concurrent with this Utopian narrative was the idea that somehow Greece’s problems weren’t self-inflicted, but rather the product of the ever-present European elite, who funneled the national wealth abroad to pay off their mysterious backers in global finance. This narrative conveniently neglected the fact that Greece spent the first decade of the twenty-first century merrily cooking the books while embarking on years of debt-fueled growth, and that all this money was loaned to Greece on the assumption that it would someday be paid back.


When they found themselves in power, SYRIZA were in a quandary. To their credit, a significant proportion of the government genuinely believe the narrative they had spun. They genuinely believed that all it took was a government of honest, competent men (as they supposed themselves to be, in contrast to their supposedly dishonest, incompetent predecessors), with a “mandate from the Greek people” to get a better deal from Europe. There never seems to have been contingency planning as to what would happen were their creditors to refuse these sensible demands.


And of course, refuse they did. It turned out that the other EU governments also had a mandate from their people, one that didn’t include writing off tens of billions of monies owed to them. Greece’s behaviour thereafter offers a salutary lesson to those who think populist government makes for good government. First, they appealed over the heads of Europe’s governments to the people of Europe, who, it turned out, didn’t feel the same about Greek debt as did the people of Greece. Then they tried to claim a moral obligation from the Germans for a bailout, based on the Second World War. Eventually they resorted to threatening to bring down the eurozone with them. Inasmuch as they seem to have had any strategy once their initial request had been denied, it seems to have been to hang on and hope for socialists to be elected in Spain and Ireland. Eventually they caved.


The above demonstrates another reality. When you define yourself solely by opposition to the establishment, a coherent plan is a vote-loser. The trade-offs that come from a sound fiscal/economic policy are going to put some people off. Better to promise to smash the elites, or whatever other bogeyman one is using, promise a radiant future, and hope that the target audience assumes a causative effect. Try to go into the detail of how this comes about is too risky. Defining oneself in the negative is safer ground.


The Brexit referendum and the US election this year are classic examples of that. The Leave camp have conspicuously failed to get into detail about how they envisage a post-Brexit UK. They rosily talk about a Britain striking trade deals with emerging economies, shorn of a supposedly-protectionist EU. This of course ignores the cognitive dissonance of being pro-free trade and simultaneously withdrawing from membership of the world’s biggest trading bloc and being anti-free movement of labour. In the US, Bernie Sanders neatly mirrors this, being in favour of the free movement of labour while being against the free movement of goods (In fairness to Donald Trump, he is at least consistent, opposing both free trade and immigration).


Neither Bernie Sanders nor Donald Trump have made much effort to flesh out how they plan to bring their respective utopias to fruition. Sanders’ talk of revolution seems more reminiscent of the Tooting People’s Front than actual policy, and seems to neglect the fact that his plans would fundamentally upend the US economy. Trump, on the other hand, seems to be a reincarnation of Reed Smoot, Willis Hawley, and Benito Mussolini all rolled into one. However, because they rail against bogeymen, a certain section of the population is willing to give them a free pass on specifics. Trump, whose only specific national security policy suggestion is banning Muslims from the USA, now polls ahead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on national security matters. It is far from impossible that he will be the next president of the United States of America.




I started writing this to try to get a few ideas in my head into a coherent format. It was intended as a slightly light-hearted take on the idiots of the world and those who pander to this idiocy, be they in the media or politics.


Then yesterday a Remain MP was shot dead in the middle of the Brexit campaign by a man shouting a nationalist slogan.


It is said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. If that is indeed the case, the Leave campaign, like nationalist populists everywhere, are guilty of the worst form of scoundrelry, wrapping themselves in the cloak of nationalism to accuse their opponents of hating Britain, and using xenophobia and racism where reasoned argument fails to carry the day. Add to that a media culture that thrives on the notion that all elected representatives are corrupt narcissists.


Neither the Leave campaign nor the populist media killed Jo Cox. Their sin lies in pandering to the kinds of mind that see killing politicians as an acceptable idea. But the problem is those minds themselves, not those who pander to them. A whole section of the populace have now embraced the idea that the best use of their vote is to give two fingers to the government, foreigners, or society at large.


In a rational world, men like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump would have never made it as far as they did. Society would have recognised their economic illiteracy and basic insanity, respectively They would have been forced to demonstrate how their solutions would work, rather than simply being allowed to rail against their problems. Unfortunately, the world is far from rational, and is going in the wrong direction.


Democracies have collapsed in many ways. Foreign invasion, military coups and ethnic fragmentation have all brought down democratic societies. But now, democracy in the West may be facing an altogether more insidious threat: that we take it for granted.


By gregbowler

Party Profiles

Fine Gael

Leader: Enda Kenny

Core Voters: Anyone who isn’t homeless, renting, or on a hospital trolley, Billionaire tax exiles

Economic Policy: Previous Government’s problem

Environmental Policy: Future Government’s problem

Healthcare Policy: Studies have shown that a trolley is actually the healthiest place for a patient

Likely to Say: “Keep the Recovery going….”

Unlikely to Say: “…and eventually it might reach you”


Fianna Fail

Leader: Micheal Martin

Core Voters: Sufferers from Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and other ailments of the memory

Economic Policy: It’s Complicated…

Planning Policy: “Did I, eh, hear a briefcase opening?”

Environmental Policy: Maybe if we ignore it, it will go away

Likely to Say: “A Fianna Fail government would spread the recovery to all…”

Unlikely to Say: “…by trying to undo the damage we did the last time”



Leader: Enda Kenny

Core Voters: Guilty Liberals, Civil Servants

Economic Policy: Whatever policy Fine Gael tell them to have, with added hand-wringing over the “most vulnerable”

Environmental Policy: A comprehensive anti-flooding strategy with special focus on not falling out of canoes

Likely to Say: “We support a vigorous programme of job creation….”

Unlikely to Say: “….because a lot of our members may soon need new ones”


Sinn Fein

Leader: Gerry “I was very definitely not Chief of Staff of the IRA in 1978” Adams

Core Voters: Members of the Wolfe Tones, people who believe that Nationalism, Socialism  and having a parallel armed wing makes for a solidly democratic party

Economic Policy: Adding a million angry Protestants to the labour force is the best path to growth, Environmental Policy: Increased investment in Green Energy, particularly Green Diesel

Policy on Crime: Sure if he’s a good Republican…

Likely to say: “The Troubles are in the past and it’s time to move on”

Unlikely to say: “I can get you a really good deal on diesel and Lithuanian cigarettes”


Renua Ireland

Leader: The bastard offspring of Mother Theresa and Grover Norquist

Core Voters: Time travellers from 1958

Economic Policy: Eat the Poor

Policy on Crime: “Three strikes worked so well in America…”

Likely to say: The politics of failure have failed. We need to make them work again.

Unlikely to say: Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.


Social Democrats

Leader: Oh, that could be a potentially controversial decision, and they don’t like them

Core Voters: Slightly Less Guilty Liberals

Economic Policy: Foolishly attempting to apply Nordic efficiency to the Celts.

Policy on Crime: Something nice and inoffensive

Likely to Say: “A new kind of politics….”

Unlikely to say: “….with the same old economic realities”



Leader: Vladimir Lenin

Core Voters: Those who believe attacking building contractors to be a legitimate full-time occupation, those who describe themselves as “Social Entrepeneurs” rather than the more accurate “Unemployed and unemployable”

Economic Policy: See Environmental Policy

Environmental Policy: Planting Magical Money Trees to finance Economic Policy

Policy on Crime: It’s actually Wealth Redistribution

Likely to say: “You can shove your water meters up your fiscal space”

Unlikely to say: Anything more coherent than the above



Leader: Whoever is lucky enough to win a seat

Core Voters: Those who believe raising awareness about a problem is the most effective way to change the world, as opposed to doing something about said problem

Economic Policy: Crowdfunded Government

Environmental Policy: Naive

Likely to Say: “The people of Ireland deserve a Green voice as an honest watchdog in Government…”

Unlikely to Say: “…because that worked so well last time”


Workers and Unemployed Action Group

Leader: Josef Stalin

Also known as: The Judean People’s Front

Core Voters: Holders of Irish Credit Default Swaps

Economic Policy: Mad

Likely to Say: “Splitters”

Unlikely to say: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what has neoliberalism ever done for us?”



Leader: Raymond of the Clan Whitehead

Core Voters: Vexatious Litigants

Economic Policy: Lovecraftian

Policy on Crime: Obfuscation shall be considered a full affirmative defence

Likely to Say: “AARRGGHH, VACCINES!!!”

Unlikely to Say: “Ballot initiatives and recall elections are a dangerous mechanism as they allow a motivated minority to effectively impose their will upon a majority suffering from electoral fatigue”


Catholic Democrats

Leader: God

Core Voters: The Family

Economic Policy: The Family

Healthcare Policy: The Family

Policy on Crime: The Family

Environmental Policy: A crash programme to remove all the oestrogen contamination in Ireland’s rivers due to use of contraceptives

Likely to Say: “The homosexual lobby has corrupted this country…”

Unlikely to Say: “….through their thoroughly unreasonable demands for basic civil rights”

By gregbowler

Big (and Fat and Drunk) in Japan

Prologue: Those sandal-wearing goldfish tenders?

Japan has occupied a place on my to-do list for a while. Never quite up there with Russia, Yemen or Iran (I genuinely do wish to visit these places), but certainly the kind of place that I would wish to see, were others interested in going. This particular trip was born out of two separate conversations with people where the subject of going to Japan was broached. Fast forward several months and chop and change the lineup for the trip, and so it was that myself, Declan and Paul were off to see the Land of the Rising Sun.

There were of course the usual roadblocks. My inertia where planning things is concerned had long since superseded the well-intentioned efforts of my fellow travelers to nail things down, so the itinerary was, to put it mildly, convoluted. The trip was to last two weeks, at least that could be agreed on. A week in Tokyo was also quickly concurred upon. The rest was, to put it mildly, up in the air.

As anyone who knows me well is aware, my opinion of a film tends to be closely related to the quantity of explosions therein. I like explosions. As child, I came close to blowing up an oven after getting hold of a chemistry set and a bottle of vinegar. As a consequence, Hiroshima figured prominently on my wish list. Kyoto and Osaka were also possibles, but by the time myself and Declan (Paul having taken a different route) rocked up to the Etihad checkin desks in Dublin, things still hadn’t been sorted. Oh well. I had spent a month of poor planning in February rocking around random parts of the world and it had done no harm whatsoever. A plan would be formed in the fullness of time, as Sir Humphrey might say.

There was of course one thing that we really should have planned, and that was accommodation. We had booked a week in Tokyo on Airbnb at Declan’s recommendation, and were now having difficulty contacting our host for the stay. In other words, we were going nearly on spec. Prior to boarding our flight to Abu Dhabi, we placed another communication to our host, but were, to put it mildly, apprehensive about the whole thing.
There are advantages to knowing the person checking you in. On a full flight we had the only four empty seats between the two of us, which were also at the bulkhead. Of course, there is always the unforeseeable. In this case the unforeseeable was an Indian family seated behind us, specifically the children. As anyone who knows me well is aware, children are not my cup of tea, and these pair were among the most egregious I have had the misfortune to encounter.

The older one was sitting behind me. Either he was a malicious bastard or he wasn’t familiar with how to operate the touchscreen on the inflight entertainment system, but for whatever reason he saw fit to repeatedly bash my seat throughout the flight. While the flight itself was one of the least turbulent I have ever been on, personally I had a very turbulent time at the hands of this fellow.

The younger one was worse. For his sake I hope that there was a record executive or an opera producer on the aircraft, because otherwise a spectacular set of lungs may go to waste. His screams were less of an intermittent punctuation to the flight, and more of a continuous, aggressively intrusive nuisance. Many years ago a friend of mine, Kevin, acquired an air horn for the purpose of irritating me (Yeah, that’s the kind of friends we were. In his defence, I had spent a large part of the previous year placing thumb tacks on his seat). This was the closest analogue I can think of to the ordeal that I was forced to undergo for this flight. Having got scarcely an hour’s sleep the previous night and having designs on retrieving the situation on this flight, I was perhaps more than a little put out upon arriving in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi Airport is currently trying to become one of the world’s premier transit hubs. A gleaming new terminal is currently being constructed, but in the meantime we had to make do with the older structures, which have been put together in a somewhat ramshackle manner, leaving far too few seats for the kind of footfall the airport aims to handle. This, however, paled into insignificance against the fact that we had to each pay the equivalent of ten euro for a pint. Ireland may have something of a reputation as a ripoff, but the more I travel the more undeserved this seems in comparison to other places. On the other hand, we lucked out and finally managed to make contact with our host in Tokyo. Onwards we went.

Japanese etiquette is rather complex. I was acutely aware to be alert for any potential faux pas’s we might commit in Japan. However, this didn’t seem to have been communicated to Declan, who didn’t even wait till Japan. Unaware that the overhead call bell on the aircraft is for matters of serious import (and never to be used by a standby passenger for anything short of a heart attack), he proceeded to ring it repeatedly in search of alcohol or to enquire as to why his extant requests for alcohol had yet to be fulfilled. On the plus side, it did mean that I was kept reasonably supplied with booze without attracting the opprobrium of the cabin crew. Anyway, this flight was pleasantly children-free, and though I managed at best an hour’s sleep, we were in an altogether better humour disembarking this aircraft.

Asian culture loves enforcement of rules. Some years back I was in a station on the Bangkok elevated train line and had innocently strayed across the yellow line on the platform. No sooner had I done this than a uniformed individual ran up blowing a whistle at me and gesturing to move back behind the line. Turned out there were two guards on each platform whose sole purpose seems to have been enforcement of the yellow line rule. Similarly, immigration in Narita Airport had a number of agents imposing their will upon the queues. Declan became somewhat worried when he noticed people were being fingerprinted at the immigration kiosks. The previous evening, he had engaged in a crash program of dishwashing using caustic soda, and was vaguely uneasy that this might have had a corrosive effect upon his fingers.

For my part I was uneasy in general. In the course of my travels, I have been detained by immigration and customs officials in Los Angeles, Shannon, Dublin, the West Bank, Sydney, Melbourne, Hong Kong and Wellington. I am the shifty guy who gets stopped all the time. It was, I figured, for the best that Declan went through customs separately from me, against the possibility that I might be delayed and he might have to find Paul himself. In the event, our roles were reversed, as I got through without a hitch and he had his bags opened. Obviously he’s even shiftier than I am. Paul was waiting outside, so that was one less potential headache.

It is a constant source of frustrated amazement to me that, in this day and age, airports can continue to maintain such awful wifi networks. It is as if, in some insane naivety, they believe that the patrons all have access to mobile data and have no use for wifi. In other words, they seem to overlook the fact that many of their clients are from abroad. I am unfortunately spoilt by the fact that Dublin Airport is recognised as having some of the finest wifi bandwith in the world. Abu Dhabi’s is awful. Narita’s is much, much worse. Both my colleagues had cleverly thought to bypass the wifi dependency by purchasing Japanese SIM cards before leaving. This would have been of considerably more utility had Declan not lost his almost immediately and had Paul gone to the trouble of getting his phone unlocked to accept a different SIM. So it was that we were stuck in a random corner trying to contact our host again to sort directions out. Eventually this was sorted and we headed off to the train station, only to discover that Narita Airport Station boasted superb connectivity.

As we were to repeatedly discover, Japanese trains are exceedingly efficient. Their departure and arrival times are accurate to the minute, regardless of the distance involved. They also generally live up to their reputation of being utterly packed. Shinjuku Station, which was our transit point en route to the apartment, is the busiest station in the world. Paul managed our first noticeable faux pas by standing on the wrong side of an escalator (In Tokyo, one stands on the left side, leaving the right hand side to those who wish to walk on it. In Osaka, this is reversed. It took some trial and error to ascertain this). After some difficulties navigating Shinjuku, mostly caused by Declan’s search for a prepay card, we found the relevant subway and finally arrived at our apartment.


2: Gai-Jin (and Tonic)
Our Airbnb host’s username was Samurai. The assumption on our part was that this was advertising puff. Then we saw the samurai suit in the tatami room. Then Declan saw the sword. Then he announced it was edged. Suddenly I was in the same building as Declan and a lethal weapon. My continued existence was now contingent on the whims of a man whose mental stability I constantly question. Mind you, his continued existence was contingent on my even more questionable mental stability.

Three people is a slightly awkward number for a trip. One cannot split the group without leaving somebody on their own. This was exacerbated by our differing plans for the trip. In Declan’s case the plan was centred around his love of aikido, so he was going to multiple training sessions. Paul was playing classic tourist, sightseeing and skirt chasing. In my case, it was of course heavy drinking, with the optional extra of seeing Japan.

Having lived in Korea for three surreal months, I like to think of myself as an old Asia hand. This assumption is of course completely untrue, but I cling to my delusions. In any case, I very quickly rediscovered that the Far East is one of the worst places in the world to navigate using English. Upon visiting Roppongi for lunch on our first morning, we erroneously assumed that because a bar had English on the sandwich board outside, there would be an English speaker inside, and we could order lunch. One drink on an empty stomach later, we hastily decamped to the dining area of a nearby shopping centre, where we had one of the few Japanese meals of the trip (I hold my hands up on this one, the avoidance of Japanese places was entirely my fault. The others were fully behind sampling Japanese cuisine. Originally the agreement was that we would do one Western, one Japanese place each day. My intransigence soon undermined this and sent our diets in a decidedly Western direction).

I further de-Japanesed the trip by identifying an Irish bar in Shinjuku as a good watering hole for myself and Paul while Declan was training. In my defense, Irish bars tend to attract expatriates and have English speaking staff, which I thought might be the best way to get an inside track on what to do in Tokyo. In this case, it was a bit of a touristy spot, and more importantly lacked Wifi (My Internet addiction is perhaps worse than my alcohol one) Thankfully, Paul had thoughtfully downloaded the entirety of TripAdvisor’s guided to Tokyo, and had identified the Golden Gai as being a good spot to visit for a night out.

The Golden Gai is possibly the most surreal drinking area I have ever visited. For a start, it is rather tricky to find. We walked past it twice without noticing. Having narrowed it down to a block area, and having failed to locate it, we assumed that the map had the location wrong. A full circuit of the block reinforced this assumption. Myself and Paul (Declan being off training) decided to write off the idea. Then, as we were heading back, we spotted a dumpster-strewn alley leading into the block. A hundred yards later we discovered the densest collection of bars I have ever seen. Every premise is a bar. I suspect none can seat more than a dozen people, but there were hundreds of them.
We settled on a heavy metal bar. Maximum occupancy about ten. Cheesy music and crap movies. Heaven. It was clearly attracting tourists, as the place was full, and nobody was Oriental. We ran up a decent tab before they closed the place at 3am, whereupon we moved onwards, after adding to our troupe a British lesbian and two middle-aged Singaporean ladies who, thanks to our inexpertise at judging the age of Oriental types, myself and Declan were trying to chat up.

Like most Irish people, beyond a certain level of growth my facial hair acquires a reddish tinge. This was an object of fascination to the Singaporeans, who started making jokes about my ginger beard. I would have dismissed this but for the fact that the bartender subsequently mate the same observation. After being slagged off for a ginger beard, I suddenly feel a closer affinity with every oppressed people ever. The evening culminated around 6am with all parties getting uproariously hammered, and me ending up botching a cunning plan to dodge the subway fare on account of passing out midway through it, and forgetting about the plan upon waking up.

As might be imagined, the next day we slept late. After finally getting out of bed around 4pm, Paul announced he wanted steak. This suggestion met with mine and Declan’s approval. At this point Paul finally managed to get his phone unblocked, and suddenly we had mobile internet. TripAdvisor informed us that the best place for steak was the New York Bar and Grill in Shinjuku. Upon arriving there I realised that we had fallen into a familiar trap (for me, anyway). The place was absurdly upmarket. Three hungover twentysomethings (I’m thirty, but who’s counting) in gladrags looked absurdly out of place. Then we discovered that the bar was used in Lost in Translation. That explained the upmarketness. Nonetheless, the steak was excellent, although it was the second most expensive meal I have ever purchased (see below).

The single biggest (metaphorically and physically) attraction in Tokyo is the Imperial Palace. This is probably still the most valuable piece of real estate on the planet, but at the height of the Tokyo property bubble in the eighties, the book value of the place was higher than the aggregate value of all the property in California. Personally I don’t think it looked that expensive. Nice, but not expensive. While wandering through the palace gardens, Declan happened to notice that the spiders here were particularly large and brightly coloured, and started taking pictures of them for the benefit of scaring his arachnophobic sister. Mind you, the joke was about to turn on us.

The Japanese giant hornet is perhaps the most terrifying insect in existence. Three inches long, equipped with a stinger a full third of an inch long, and delivering a sting that kills hundreds of people a year in Asia, it kinda puts wasps to shame. So it was that when I saw a gigantic flying insect passing between myself and Declan, I immediately directed his attention to it by repeated use of the word “Fuck”. Upon noticing said insect, Declan concurred in my assessment, and proceeded to swear profusely too. The event concluded with him running one way, me hurriedly shuffling the other, and Paul (who had somehow remained oblivious to this) ambling along the intended path. Mind you, frightening and all as huge spiders and hornets are, they pale in comparison with the most terrifying of Japanese inhabitants: the Japanese cyclist.

In a sensible country, there are designated lanes provided for the use of cyclist. In a sane country, they would at least stick to the road. In Japan, there is neither sanity nor sensibility. The Japanese cyclist is a maniac provided with a vehicle he is incapable of handling. I can only assume that bicycles arrived in Japan a week before we did, as every Japanese seems to be only learning how to use them, going at inconsistent speeds in an inconsistent direction. Pedestrians are treated like bollards or other street detritus. Most bikes lack bells, so a warning of a cyclist is something of a luxury. Should a cyclist approach from behind, he may have the decency to apprise you of his presence, or at least slow down. From ahead, his assumption is that once you have seen him, any collision is your fault. Frequently I have seen cyclists accelerate towards pedestrians, forcing panicked bystanders to leap aside.

There is a curious dichotomy about Japan. The country exudes loud colours. Neon abounds. And yet, the average citizen seems to exalt in drabness. Every guy wears black suits during the week. Me walking around in my beige chinos and blue striped T-shirt stood out somewhat awful, even before one considers the attire of my fellows. Women too, dress conservatively. Black grey and white comprise the entirety of the Tokyo weekday attire. I suspect that had I followed my impulses and brought a few Hawaiian shirts, I could have provoked a riot.
Declan had more training that evening, so myself and Paul busied ourselves by visiting a shrine. Oddly enough, given that I am aggressively Philistine in my cultural tastes I rather enjoyed this. Even better, the exit to the shrine left us close to Shibuya. Shibuya is perhaps the most Tokyo part of of Tokyo, being a neon-soaked tide of humanity. Faced with this cultural melting pot, myself and Paul decided to go to Hooters. Having never been before, I can’t say I’m overly impressed. Aside from the fact that Asians are generally not overly endowed in the mammary department, the blatant flirting that is part of the Hooters culture is very definitely not part of the Japanese culture. As a result, the flirting of the waitresses was stilted at best. Their interest in myself and Paul left us feeling like we were zoo exhibits, rather than objects of affection. Also, they managed to pour a pint of Guinness in one go that ended up being about one third head.
After much negotiation, we agreed that Friday would be our primary drinking day. We also agreed on going to Roppongi. Roppongi is the most cosmopolitan and (not coincidentally) the dodgiest place in Japan, but it does have serious bars. A few afternoon drinks with Paul (Declan once again having gone training) ascertained a couple of possible venues in the area.
One of the bigger surprises of my time in Japan was the number of West Africans working in Roppongi. This flies in the face of what my stereotypical picture of how ethnically monolithic Japan would be. God only knows how they got here, but the men seem to have all one job, which is to act as promoters/harassers for a few of the more suspect bars in the area. One cannot stand around for any length of time without one of them coming up and informing one that he knows a really nice titty bar in the vicinity. We first became aware of this phenomenon when we got out at Roppongi subway station, and then amused ourselves by observing this from an upstairs bar. However, our reverie was interrupted when Paul’s incessant use of Tinder bore fruit and he had to go out and retrieve the other party to his online tryst, thereby allowing myself and Declan the amusement of watching him run the gauntlet. This was of course turned back on us when we decided to leave the bar and engage in street drinking with some locals we happened upon.
Eventually this harassment got so irritating that myself and Declan engaged in a competition to see who could tell them to fuck off the most. Declan won this rather spectacularly, when one of them approached at a junction and got rather upset when Declan told him to fuck off. Declan stoically ignored the fellow’s remonstrations that he was merely a salesman (engaging in an activity which, according to the signs prominently displayed in the area, is illegal), and once the gentleman finished his tirade, simply repeated “Fuck off” and walked off.
Also extremely visible in Roppongi were the prostitutes. Of all the places I have been, only Thailand comes close to matching this level of overt displays by the oldest profession. Again, like the West Africans, they cluster around the main intersection, the better to approach people waiting for the pedestrian lights to change. Repeatedly, we had our arms grabbed and turned around to see a provocatively dressed Asian girl uttering the word “Massaggy?” I initially took this to be the Japanese word for sex, before realising that it was a corruption of the word “massage”. Like everywhere else in Asia, prostitution seems to be illegal but tolerated, forcing those involved in the trade to resort to euphemism to ply their wares.
The most notorious expat bar in Tokyo is called Motown, and is located in Roppongi. When, in between uttering expletives at them, we told one of the promoters that we were going there, he advised us not to do so, on account of it being full of ladyboys. Wikitravel had also said this, though with the qualifier that most had been deported some years back. This provided myself and Declan with a modicum of amusement, as we attempted to determine which of the hookers in the bar fell into the aforementioned category. The Tokyo subway ceases operation between midnight and 5am, and we were loth to risk taking our chances with a taxi in the largest city on the planet, where nobody spoke English and we spoke no Japanese, so the evening concluded in a 24-hour bar, winding down the clock ahead of the subway reopening.
Saturday was to be our last day in Tokyo, and Paul had found perhaps the most quintessentially modern Japanese event with which to fill it: A robot stage show. I find this quite hard to describe. It was perhaps a strange frission of kabuki theatre, sci-fi, and burlesque. The first act seemed to comprise a group of furries and scantily clad women fighting against people dressed in robot suits, followed by what can only be called a mock arms race, as each of the combatants sought to put larger machines into the fray. The second act was indecipherable. Essentially, it was a large number of robots (or people in robot suits) dancing around with no apparent coordination or plot to it. Surreal stuff indeed.
I had sensibly declared that, with a long train journey ahead of us, we should stay local that evening. “Local” in this case meant a twenty-five minute walk up to Ikedaburo, in search of a bar that TripAdvsior rated rather highly, only to discover that the place had closed some time previously. Suffice it to say that my companions treated my suggestions with more scepticism thereafter. That said, it did mean that we were well set for the journey ahead.


3: Having a blast in Hiroshima


Paul is an inveterate sightseer. Unlike me, who goes on holiday with a short list of things to see, and is not overly disappointed if not all of that list is taken in, Paul deems it necessary to fill out a trip with the most things possible, even if we had never previously heard of them. It does make for a considerably more enriched, albeit regimented, trip than I would normally engage in. However, Hiroshima was all my work, or at least I had said from the get-go that it would be featuring on the itinerary. There was one hitch, and that was myself and Declan.
Paul, to his credit, has no sacred cows. It’s one of the reasons he’s a good guy to go out with, particularly for table quizzes, when we like to pick offensive team names. Previous examples include “12 Years a Slave-Owner” at a quiz celebrating Ireland’s multiculturalism, or “We’re going to beat Anders Breivik’s High Score” at the Trinity College Shooting Club. But myself and Declan are an order of magnitude worse. Having lived together for fifteen months, we have long since dispensed with anything approaching sensitivity. In a potentially sensitive situation, we actively seek out the most gratuitously offensive jokes possible. So it was that the next two days would be filled with off-colour remarks about the atomic bombing in 1945. Admittedly, given the lack of English among the general population, and myself and Declan’s reasonably pronounced Irish accents, the likelihood of someone being offended was slim.
The Japanese rail system is a marvel. Cheap, efficient, reliable, and most importantly absurdly punctual. The scheduled departure and arrival times will be accurate to the minute. If one’s ticket says three minutes will be enough to connect between trains, then indeed three minutes will suffice. The urban trains run every five minutes without fail. Japan also boasts one of the most developed high-speed rail systems in the world. So it was that Declan (or possibly Paul, or possibly both. Certainly not me, planning this far ahead was something I habitually avoid) had suggested weeks beforehand that we invest in a Japanese Railway Pass for getting around. For a price of €220 we had free travel across Japan. This wonderful piece of cardboard enabled us to go up and down Japan for the second week of our holiday without a hitch. Just show it at the turnstile and off you go.
The Shinkansen bullet trains were a marvel of technology in the 1960s. The only hitch is that they don’t appeared to have replaced the rolling stock at any point in the past few decades. While comfortable, they typically lack amenities that would be standard on their Irish counterparts, particularly when the traveler has a liking for internet access or electrical outlets. Most Shinkansens boast neither. Oh well, I had brought beer and a book, so the five hour trip to Hiroshima would be tolerable.
As I had outline earlier, my previous flight between Dublin and Abu Dhabi had been rendered nearly unbearable thanks to the presence of children seated near me. So I was less than pleased to see a mother and daughter choose to sit down beside me just outside of Kobe. Then it turned out that, far from seeking to engage in any sort of annoying behaviour, the urchin was flat terrified of me. Maybe she had never seen a Westerner before, or perhaps a scruffy, ginger-bearded Westerner who reeked of drink was the problem, but either way she spent the entire journey cowering as far away from me as possible in her seat. In some small way, I feel avenged upon the bastard from the flight.
Hiroshima has the benefit of being considerably smaller than Tokyo, which meant that we could walk to our hotel, or at least we thought so. Unfortunately, despite now having Paul’s phone with the intendant advantage of Google Maps and GPS, it still took slightly longer to find our lodgings than planned. No matter. The hotel was cheap, comfortable, and boasted that most incredible of things, the Japanese toilet.
The Japanese have elevated ablutions to an art form. At the bottom of the scale are the old-fashioned Asian squat toilets, which, after a few unpleasant experiences over the years, I have sought to avoid. Western-style toilets are pretty much ubiquitous, so one rarely gets into trouble in that department. And every so often one comes across the top end of things. These machines have dozens of buttons, virtually none of which I have been able to decipher. One button sprays warm water at one’s nether regions, another plays the sound of flushing (many Japanese men are embarrassed at having to do their business in a public toilet, and try to mask the sounds by flushing constantly. To save water, companies installed a recording of a toilet flushing). Not being able to read Japanese, I was unable to decipher the rest of the options, but the machine looked altogether fascinating.
Oddly enough, considering that it wouldn’t be on major tourist trails, two separate people had recommended the same Irish bar in Hiroshima to me. One of them had played a folk session there years previously, so after eating in a Japanese restaurant, we decamped there. Like most Irish bars in Japan, it was simply a wood-panelled place that served Guinness. In fairness, it did show live football, allowing myself and Declan (Paul having pled exhaustion and headed off) to watch a thoroughly boring Manchester derby live, albeit with Japanese commentary.
Next day we visited the various memorial sites to the atomic bombing, punctuated by myself and Declan’s various caustic remarks. The memorial site itself, particularly the bombed-out remains of the Trade Promotion Building, attracts quite a lot of tourists. In other countries, this would also attract the kind of hawkers of cheap souvenirs, mendicants and pickpockets. In Japan, that kind of solicitation would be a grotesque breach of etiquette. So far, the only Japanese who had directly approached us were prostitutes (Many Japanese would claim that these are mostly Chinese, but there are definitely a few involved) and a Jehovah’s Witness (They get everywhere). Now I was about to encounter another, and one far more terrifying from my perspective: schoolchildren.
As I mentioned earlier, five years ago I spent a traumatic three months in Korea

attempting to educate schoolchildren in the proper use of English. The entire experience left me with an abiding hatred of teaching, children, and the improper use of English. So the fact that Japanese teachers saw fit to unleash their wards upon foreign tourists with the goal of giving them a little practical English, I was less than pleased. Nonetheless, I indulged. I patiently listened while they recited preprepared statements with the kind of pronunciation that turned the whole thing into gibberish, and replied, in perfectly modulated, accent-free English, and watched them stare incomprehensibly, before they wrote down random answers to their questions. It’s important to teach them confidence, I was constantly told. Better to have them speak balderdash with confidence than to actually learn what they were doing wrong. So again, going against every instinct in me, I indulged these children in their speech. I can scarce imagine a more harrowing experience to undergo in Hiroshima.
The actual museum for the bombing is pretty good. I generally find with these places that it’s difficult to reconcile the sterility of a museum with the enormity of the events that it commemorates. Having been to Dachau a few years previously, I found this to be a particular issue. All that’s there is a few sheds, it’s difficult to imagine what went on there. In the case of Hiroshima, barring one or two buildings, the entire city has been rebuilt over the blast site, so the museum is all that links the present and the past. Oddly enough, it seemed to affect Declan more so than it did me, though as he pointed out, it was entirely a tale of Japanese victimhood. In its defence, the museum isn’t there to contextualise the events of 1945, merely to depict them.
Paul’s diggings through TripAdvisor had turned up two additional sights to visit, Hiroshima Castle and some tranquil gardens. Another Japanese hornet made the latter somewhat less tranquil, though in fairness it only passed overhead. The highlight of the day was when myself and Declan located a carp pond with feeding facilities. Disdaining the traditional method of feeding fish, ie throwing one or two pieces of food in at a time we dumped the entirety of a bag fish food into the pond at once, which triggered a highly amusing feeding frenzy. We were only doing one day in Hiroshima, so that evening, we hopped on a train and high-tailed it up to Osaka.
4: I Can’t Think Of An Osaka-Related Pun…

At this point, after much bickering, we had finally sorted out the balance of our itinerary. Given the proximity of Osaka and Kyoto, we decided to spend the balance of the trip in Osaka, and commute to Kyoto for sightseeing. Meanwhile, I had decided that it would be a far safer bet for Declan to curtail his trip by one day. Not that he would be missing out on much, as the final day was to be spent in Narita town, on account of an early flight for Paul on Saturday. The problem was the Etihad flight from Narita on Saturday looked awful for standing by. Declan stood a far better chance on Friday. While I might have difficulty (my ticket being lower priority than his), I at least had the luxury of multiple routes back to Dublin. It was also eminently feasible to get from Osaka to Narita Airport in time for the flight back to Abu Dhabi, albeit at the cost of having to get up somewhat early on the Friday morning.
Anyway, it was early evening when we rocked into Osaka. Having booked two separate reservations due to uncertainty as to whether we would stay in Kyoto or just go up for the day, we had to change hotels in Osaka after one night. The first night was spent just outside Dotonbori, which is the centre of Osaka’s nightlife. It’s also the red light district in Osaka, though the whores, while equally visible, are considerably less pushy than their Tokyo cousins. A curious facet of both hotels we used in Osaka was that the lifts there are downright homicidal. Upon opening, the doors provide just enough time for one person to pass through, and subsequently violently close upon the next person. Within a day, I had bruised shoulders from repeated assaults by lift doors.
Wandering through Dotonbori that evening we happened upon a proper expat bar. It even had a pool table. Originally, we intended to stop there for one pint, but then they put Back to the Future on the TV. That was us set. Our drinking companions for the evening included a Welshman, and American, and another Irishman. The Welshman had, to put it mildly, some curious theories on race. Curious as in they wouldn’t be out of place at an EDL rally. Himself and the Irish guy also had a penchant for conspiracy theories. Ordinarily I wouldn’t entertain such people, but they were good crack. I also spent about two hours discussing economics with the American. Ordinarily, me discussing economics with someone consists of me pontificating and them nodding vacantly, but the guy knew his stuff, so a decent discussion could be had.
Next day, having transferred our stuff from one hotel to the other, we paid a visit to Osaka Castle. Let’s just say it puts any Irish offering to shame. The thing is gigantic. More importantly, it had ice cream. That took the sting out of having to ascend fourteen flights of stairs to get to the top. Having previously ruled out any sort of mountaineering on the trip due to my extreme lack of fitness, this was an exceptionally unpleasant surprise. The funny thing is, afterwards the others seemed to be in worse shape than me, largely through hunger. I’m someone who routinely goes twenty-four hours without eating, and failing to notice this. The others were no hungry to the point of considering cannibalism. Eventually things reached a point where we had no choice but to go to a Hard Rock Cafe. Not that I objected, given that large parts of our culinary experiences were a tug of war between my conservative tastes and their wish to indulge in more authentic dining.
At Declan’s request, that evening we visited another heavy metal bar. Again, it was a typically Japanese place, in that it was up three floors in a building down an alleyway and could seat barely anybody. Still, it was a decent place, except for the fact that the smoke played hell with Paul’s asthma. This was news to me, I wasn’t even aware he was asthmatic, or that he had neglected to bring an inhaler. Trooper that he was, he hadn’t apprised either myself or Declan of this fact until things became unbearable. Lamentably it forced him to pull up early that evening, whereupon myself and Declan proceeded onwards to yet another Irish bar, although this one actually had an Irish barman, Graham, who seems to be a top chap. His party piece is apparently firebreathing, and he had the video evidence to prove this. This place was also within walking distance of our hotel. Upon the walk home, I detoured into a 7/11, and purchased a can of beer, which I proceeded to consume on the street. I believe this makes me the biggest criminal in modern Japanese history.
Kyoto is Japan’s historical and cultural centre. Unlike virtually every other major city in Japan, it was spared the widespread destruction inflicted by the United States Air Force. This wasn’t initially out of regard for its cultural value. It was because, like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kokura, and Niigata, Kyoto was considered an ideal place to field test an atomic bomb. It was later removed from the target list per the orders of Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, supposedly because he had spent his honeymoon there. In any case, inasmuch as there is a city where one can connect with Japan’s past, it is Kyoto.
Unfortunately, the major attractions aren’t really aimed at Western tourists. We lost ninety minutes of our time there due to a misjudgement as to the time of the English tour, which resulted in us wandering around the grounds of the Palace for rather longer than expected. The tour itself didn’t have an English speaking guide. Rather it had a guide with rudimentary English who supplemented this by reading from a brochure. In an unfortunate piece of timing, the inner parts of the Palace weren’t available to the general public until a few days after we had left.
Declan had once again decided to engage in aikido training. The only hitch was that his dojo of choice was located in a rather remote part of Kyoto. Myself and Paul decided to visit the Mount Inari shrine, so beyond the initial directions from Google Maps, he was on his own. Careful inspection revealed the worst. Declan would have to attempt to navigate the vagaries of a Japanese metropolitan bus service. After ascertaining that he had nothing of any use to us (on the off chance we never saw him again), we sent him on his way, with a vague agreement to meet in Osaka later.
Paul had decided that we should try Teppanyaki, which is like a Korean barbecue only with a chef preparing the food in front of you. I was a smidgin worried about this. After all, it’s much harder to refuse food when the preparer is standing in front of you, but Paul reassured me that the menu was almost all red meat. He even had a place picked out in Dotonbori. Fortunately this proved harder to find than expected. We knew we were on the exact crossroads, and it was nowhere to be found. Either they were in one of the buildings and didn’t advertise in English, or once again, TripAdvisor had directed us to somewhere that was closed. Either way, no dice. Instead we found a pizza place.
Japan does pizza surprisingly well. Certainly it does exceptional Italian-style pizza, which is something I have become increasingly partial to, as opposed to the American variety. However, with everything, there is a Japanese twist. In the case of pizza, there can be toppings on it that would be considered absurd. Honey, for example, is both an optional topping and a condiment, akin to olive oil. In fact, I accidentally spread what I believed to be rather thick oil over a pizza before realising my mistake. Popcorn, too, features on pizzas. Nonetheless they do the conventional varieties too, though finding pepperoni can sometimes be a chore. This place was particularly good. Subsequently we returned to the same bar we had been two days previously, on account of them planning to show Back to the Future II.
The final day in Osaka passed relatively quietly. Declan was off buying whiskey, Paul was souvenir shopping, and I was in the hotel knocking back a few drinkies and tying up a few loose ends. Declan was (initially) otherwise engaged, so myself and Paul decided to go for another splurge in the culinary department.
The Osaka conurbation includes Kobe, so we decided to head over there to sample some of the famous local beef. There was one small issue. The place we settled on was highly rated, but nobody spoke any English there. Eventually we settled upon a 10,000 yen set menu, without any idea what was on it. Here is what happened….


4.5: Greg and Paul try to eat Japanese food

Course 1: Sashmi. Paul informs me that this is raw meat, in the style of carpaccio. Turns out he was either mistaken or misleading. It’s raw fish. I can just about pick it up with my chopsticks. Eating it is clearly a step too far. Paul, however, is trying.
Course 2: Beans of some variant. Beans are safe. I don’t voluntarily eat beans, but at least I know where I stand with them. The pods appear to be seasoned. Not sure if one is supposed to eat the pods or not. There’s also an empty bowl provided. After some debate, myself and Paul decide to put the skins in the bowl. In all likelihood we’ve committed a massive faux pas, but this place just tried to feed me raw fish. Speaking of that, Paul’s facial expressions are a sight to behold. He gratefully accepts some advice I have on suppressing one’s gag reflex.
Course 3: Okinaki. Essentially a fried cabbage omelette. Beginning to worry about the absence of steak. Normally I would never touch cabbage, on account of not being from the countryside and having some standards. However, hunger is the best sauce, and thus I have no choice but to sample this. In its defence, it isn’t completely awful. Mind you, eating omelette with chopsticks is something of a chore.
Course 4: Deep Fried Conger Eel. Cabbage omelette took the edge off my hunger, so I’ll skip this one. I’m seriously thinking of writing off the entire meal at this point. The overwhelming likelihood is that we’ve cocked up our order and no steak will be forthcoming.
Course 5: More raw fish. Ok, time to revisit Course 4 again. I haven’t eaten fish in years, and never eaten eel at all. This was a situation I would have been quite happy never to rectify, but, having put all this money into it, I have to eat something, and better fried eel than raw tuna. The eel isn’t bad. Paul has the shivers as a result of Course 5. Good dodge on my part. A fork, a fork, my kingdom for a fork.
A knife and fork have arrived at the table. Paul’s hopes that the next course may involve steak have skyrocketed. Me, I’m not so optimistic. The way things are going, the next course is still going to be wriggling, and that’s what the forks are for.
Course 6: Kobe Steak and Chips. Finally. OK, it’s underdone to the point that the steak is still mooing, but this is the fabled Kobe Beef Steak. In its defence, it is rather good. Whether it’s worth 10,000 Yen is debatable, but hey, I’m on holiday. In an odd turn for a traditional Japanese place, they haven’t botched the chips.
Course 7: The waiter has obviously noticed that the fishier parts of the meal have not been received with the same enthusiasm as the steak. With the aid of an Ipad and Google Translate, he advises us that this course is also raw fish, and asks if we wish to skip it. Yes, yes we do.
Course 8: Ice Cream. Well, it’s about time we got something straightforward. Of course, it’s a traditional Japanese restaurant, so instead of proper flavours like chocolate and double chocolate, we have been provided with sesame seed flavoured ice cream. Tolerable.

Here endeth the saga….


5: The End (Or is it?)

That evening was to be our last as a group in Japan. Declan had to piss up to Narita Airport the next morning to catch an afternoon flight, and myself and Paul planned to follow at a more leisurely pace. Following our culinary odyssey in Kobe, myself and Paul headed back up to Osaka proper to track down another expat bar we had been advised to check out. Like most such establishments, it was virtually impossible to find. Upon arriving there, it was indeed full of expats, who were, to a man, cargo pilots.
In my experience with these individuals, they find nothing in the world interesting apart from flying over the North Pole, and their interest in that is deep to the point of putting off everyone else. It means they keep themselves to themselves, because any conversation with a non-pilot will be steered in an Arctic direction, and once it arrives there will promptly bore all non-pilots in the group to death with discussions of blizzards, the Northern Lights, and emergency diversions into Fairbanks or Thule. On the other hand, I did give the place a cursory attempt, as it had occurred to me that I might have reason to procure a jump seat in the near future. Paul and Declan might be going back to Europe, but that afternoon I had reached a decision that I would tack an addendum onto my holiday and visit Australia.
I pride myself on being an impulsive person. It’s perhaps not something to be proud of, but such is life. Even for me, though, deciding on 48 hours notice to fly to Australia is a bit sudden. Truth be told, it had been turning around in my head for a few days, and there were a few good reasons for it. Firstly was that my folks were down visiting TIm. The prospect of surprising all concerned was an attractive one. Then there were the practical considerations. Every flight from Narita to Europe looked full. I could be trying for a couple of days. I knew it all opened out in the middle of the following week, so why not spend the next few days in Melbourne? To my intense scepticism, MyIDTravel were showing a half-empty Jetstar flight from Narita to Melbourne. I’ve virtually never seen an empty flight to Australia, but nothing wagered, nothing lost.
Anyway, the pilot’s bar produced nobody who looked to be going in an Antipodean direction, so we moved back to one of the places we had been previously. Upon arrival, we got in contact with Declan, whose evening’s plans were suddenly more open. He was with Graham, the firebreathing Irish barman from some nights previously, who recommended a bar in the vicinity for us all to catch up. The place was run by two Americans and did decent rock music, happy days.
Connect Four is one of those games that anyone can play. The principle is simple in the extreme. I pride myself on being better than most at it, but it never occurred to me that someone could reach a point of aptitude in the game as to have it refined to a science. I was rather rudely disabused of this notion by one of the proprietors of the bar, who roundly thrashed me at a game that nobody should be roundly thrashed in. A few more games merely cemented this result. Afterwards, a few Japanese patrons started playing, giving me an opportunity to study this guy’s methods. I can be fairly certain that no man has ever paid as much attention to another’s game of Connect Four as I did watching him. Five or six games later I was ready. I knew how to match him blow for blow, and come out on top. Result? The bastard upped his game, and once again I tasted the bitter sting of defeat. By this time Declan had effectively decided to pull an all-nighter. To get a 3.30pm flight, realistically he didn’t have to leave Osaka before 8.30am, but he wanted to give himself as much time as possible, which meant he was getting two hours in bed at most. Oh well, somebody else’s problem and all that…
Myself and Paul weren’t as pressed for time, so we had decided to head up to Narita at an easy pace, book a hotel in the town, and head out there. Our flights were Saturday morning, so staying in Narita meant an extra hour in bed. It also meant we had a leisurely trip from Osaka up to Tokyo and onwards.
I have an unfortunate habit of cocking up something important with my holidays. In February, I had made both a mess of my visa and booked a flight for the wrong day. This trip was no different. Around 1pm, I got a call from Declan. I had misread MyIDTravel. His flight was arriving in Abu Dhabi at 330am. It was leaving Narita at 930pm. Thanks to this bungling on my part, he missed out on a lot of sleep and spent six unnecessary hours in Narita Airport. I still owe him a pint by way of apology.
Narita is an airport town. The airport is too far out from Tokyo for an easy commute, so much of the supporting infrastructure for it is in Narita town. It means that the place boasts lots of cheap hotels and restaurants. There were also a couple of bars aimed at air crew, which we decided to try out. I still had a few thousand yen to dispose of, and figured this was as good a way as any. The first one was pretty quiet, considering it was a Friday night. The second was another cargo pilot bar. Having had our fill of talk of ice in engines the previous night, we decided to head back to the hotel, leaving my spare cash unspent. Then, as we were walking up to the room, I passed a vending machine that sold beer. Problem solved.
In trying to get to Melbourne, I was breaking two of my cardinal rules for standby travel: Don’t try to get to Australia on standby and don’t go anywhere with Jetstar. Some years ago I had a thoroughly ghastly experience with them in Auckland and resolved never to attempt to fly with them again. This hatred has endured ever since, to the point that when I recently was checking in staff at the Aer Lingus standby desk in Dublin Airport, I nearly refused two Jetstar staff by way of settling a karmic debt. Thankfully, I had the good sense to avoid this, and saved myself a lot of guilt, particularly in light of how I was about to be treated.
The other thing about Jetstar is that they’re low cost. Everything costs money on board. Food, in-flight entertainment, even blankets are an optional extra for a charge. I was resigned to this, and willing to offset it by drinking myself into a stupor. Hell, I didn’t even think I was getting on. MyIDTravel said the flight had loads of tickets for sale, but that site is about as accurate as reading animal entrails. Lots of tickets for sale means nothing unless you know the airline’s oversales policy, and I was guessing it would be pretty spectacular. The only reason I was trying this was that it was a no-loss plan. If I couldn’t get out to Australia, all I lost was a night’s hotel reservation. Anyway, like I said, getting back to Europe looked messy anyway. Sure enough, when I got up to the checkin agent’s desk and said I was travelling standby, his face fell. In fact, he looked downright terrified, as if the answer he was going to deliver would cause me to get violent. Unfortunately, he said, there were no business class seats left. I would have to travel economy.
I do not ask to be upgraded. Ever. I might occasionally have a wink-wink-nudge-nudge moment with a member of cabin crew that might result in a better seat, but I never ask. I know better than to rock up and ask a company for hundreds of euro worth of free product. My ticket was for economy. Jetstar, it turns out, upgrade staff, and apparently do so to the degree that this poor fellow in front of me thought I’d be unhappy at not being upgraded, rather than being ecstatic at merely getting onto the flight. In fact, such was my euphoria at the whole business that when a few minutes later I was stopped by someone from the statistics office in Tokyo asking people to fill out a survey, I did so carefully, enthusiastically, and accurately, rather than giving one of my traditional brush-offs to the whole business.
The low cost terminal in Narita is spartan. Seriously so. After about ten minutes there I had an overwhelming urge to acquire a spear and kill Persians, that’s how spartan it was. I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry, but I was about to spend the next twelve hours on a flight with scant culinary options, so I decided to grab a bite. Unfortunately, my only option was a hot dog. There’s a reason hot dogs do well in environments of either morbidly obese or drunken people. No sober man of normal proportions would touch one. Even I, who would generally be touch-and-go on both these counts, would be reluctant to go near one, but there was literally nothing else to eat. Mind you, I could still get a beer.
I’ve never flown as a staff passenger on a low cost carrier before, so knew nothing of what to expect. Turns out the low cost bit only applies to revenue passengers. I got an empty seat beside me, free access to the inflight entertainment system, and a business class meal, as well as a couple of free drinks. Having assumed I wasn’t going to be fed at all, it was a rather pleasant surprise when a cabin crew member tapped me on the shoulder and said “you are the Bowrer?” (Being referred to as “the” is surprisingly good for one’s self-esteem, and more than offset the mispronunciation of my name) before giving a rather hearty feed when I responded in the affirmative. Better yet, the passenger two seats over was also on her own and minded to have a few drinks, so the next eight hours passed with the pair of us singlehandedly trying to rid the aircraft of alcohol. Next hurdle: Australian immigration.
Unpleasant experiences at Aussie immigration have long since become passe for me. My ones seem to go beyond the usual ones normal people undergo. Earlier this year, I had to stand by while two Customs officers went through my laptop in search of pornography. At least this time I had anticipated that problem and had safely moved anything that might be construed as being graphic in nature to somewhere where it wouldn’t be found. The problem was that a) I had booked the flight a day before, which is always a red flag, b) I had no return or onwards ticket, c) I wasn’t even sure if my e-visa was up to date, and d) a combination of fatigue and alcohol was making standing up straight or writing legibly into an ordeal. I had effectively resigned myself to getting a grilling, and only drunken apathy kept me from extreme panic. To my shock, I was waved straight through without a hitch, managing to get from aircraft door to airport door in less than fifteen minutes.
The two firmest convictions I have traditionally held from my experiences of travelling to Australia, that it was impossible to get into flying standby and that there was no easy path through immigration, had been shattered in one day. Now the third one was about to fall as well when, upon arriving at the airport hotel (it being 1am and me being in no humour to head into Melbourne in search of the various members of my family, they gave me the code for the free wifi. Wifi in Australia takes three forms. If one is really lucky, there is a limited amount of free wifi, either determined by time or data. More likely, most places will charge. Finally, it’s totally normal for a hotel not to bother with it at all. Unlimited free wifi in an Australian hotel, combined with the other two surprises, essentially constitute three of my personal signs of the apocalypse.
The next day there was a problem. I had a hangover. I get a hangover maybe twice a year if I’m unlucky, but when I do, it is as though six months of drinking have decided to make themselves felt on the same morning. This was such a morning. I spent the guts of an hour trying to suppress the urge to vomit before even considering the bus journey from the airport to the city. This also meant I was unable to check the (awful) wifi on the bus, on account of not wanting to risk even a hint of motion sickness. The net result of this was I didn’t know where my hostel was, other than a notion that it was in St Kilda. Not having the head to start trying to decipher the trams, and being too nauseous to risk getting into a cab, I did the only thing I could. I resolved to walk the six miles from Southern Cross to St Kilda, dragging my luggage behind me.
I was now in something of a dilemma. I knew of only one bar in St Kilda where I could get wifi. The Elephant and Wheelbarrow would not normally be somewhere I would frequent, particularly after an incident last February when I was accused of watching pornography on my laptop there (do Australians just assume anyone with a laptop has a porn addiction?), and being a pretty drab place in general (like a Wetherspoons only expensive), but it did at least offer a smidgen of free wifi. Just enough to get my hostel address and a location for where my folks were staying, then it started trying to charge me.
The Oslo Hotel, where I was staying, can probably best be described as “lodgings”. “Hotel” is a misnomer in the extreme. Hell, “hostel” is a bit upmarket for this place. Having spent a long time trying to ascertain just what the building was before it was converted into a hostel, I still cannot decided between convent and lunatic asylum, of which St Kilda has several. The place was falling apart. For the few days that I stayed there, every trip up the stairs (for it had no lift), was a shaky, creaky odyssey where each step might be one’s last.

I would hazard a guess that the building predates electric lighting, and as for air conditioning, that might as well be an alien technology. Ditto wifi. I suspect were I to have asked about the internet, they would have directed me to a Morse Code telegraph in the common room or something similar. Nonetheless, it had three redeeming features. I could get a single room, it was quiet, and above all, it was cheap.

Inasmuch as I had a strategy from here, it involved attempting to surprise the rest of my family. There was a major hitch. I had no internet access. Precisely one person in Melbourne knew I was there, one of Tim’s mates, Chops (real name: Shaun O’Halloran. He’s been Chops for as long as I’ve known him). I had no way of contacting him. Even if I did, he would scarce be able to get Tim and my folks into the one place for me to burst in to the shock of all concerned. I knew the apartment block where my folks were staying. I wandered down and cased the place, even went so far as to walk the beach looking for them (on holiday they’re great walkers), to no avail. It being the day after the Australia v New Zealand final of the Rugby World Cup, I rather suspected that Chops and Tim were at least as hungover as I was, so getting Chops to coordinate something, and getting Tim to go along without copping on I was involved was perhaps a big ask. Eventually I relented and rang my parents. Turned out that was a good idea. For some reason my father was convinced I was going to drop down, so had I managed to sneak up on all, it would have surprised him not a jot. Oh well, there was still the matter of my brother…

My original hunch was correct. Tim was indeed dying of a hangover. In fairness to him, he seems to have made enormous efforts to spend as much time with my parents as possible while they were over there, and he contacted them to say he’d be going to their apartment that evening, so I made myself comfortable. By this point I had noted my father’s lack of surprise at seeing me, and had rather peevishly decided that Chops must have leaked my surprise plans to all concerned. When Tim arrived, it was clear that this was not the case. It was perhaps not as emotional as when Tim surprised my folks in Skerries last year, what with myself and him a) not being the kinda people who get emotional, or at least show any emotion, and b) this was the third time in a year I’d caught up with him, but it was still nice to see him do a double-take and shout “Greg!” as he walked into the room.

I didn’t really have a plan for the next few days, other than to attempt the impossible: relax. Disdaining my suggestions that spending a month doing nothing in Melbourne would be a rather expensive achievement in inactivity, my parents essentially decided to treat the entire holiday like they would a month in Lanzarote. In keeping with this, they quickly identified a nearby bar in which to dump themselves for the duration of their stay. In fairness, it was a tolerable sort of place, specialising in classic rock and eclectic food. It also opened onto the street, which afforded us an excellent opportunity to view the local eccentrics.

Crystal meth is big in Melbourne. Upon occasion junkies would do their thing outside the bar, to the entertainment of all concerned. Then there were the dog walkers. Australians tend towards properly sized dogs, rather than the nasty ratty things preferred by those who model themselves on vapid American socialites. There was a constant stream of passers-by with huskies, labradors, and similarly sized creatures. Upon one occasion a couple sat down at one of the street tables, took out bowls and cans of food, and proceeded to order their meals and a bowl of water from the pub while the dogs dined beside them. This elicited a fascinated reaction from the junkies at the next table, who briefly left whatever world crystal meth users inhabit to observe the dogs.

Over the course of my life I have been in many major cities. In the past year alone I can count Dublin, London, Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne, Chicago, Tokyo and Osaka among the major metropoli I have visited. As a lover of cities, I would contend that each has its various charms. I would also thing that each has an unwelcome similarity, the so-called Transport “Smart” Card.

Smart Cards are advertised as a simpler method of travel for all concerned. In reality they are a cynical attempt by cities to squeeze as much lucre as possible from tourists. I ended up having to expend twenty-six dollars on mine, between the minimum investment and the deposit for the card. Total amount spent: Nine Dollars. Let’s be realistic, these cards are primarily for picking loose change out of tourists.

Said shakedown had occurred in transit to the Melbourne Crown Entertainment Complex. Fun spot. Biggest casino in the Southern Hemisphere. I’ve been booted out of here before. Took a bit of effort to convince my father that he didn’t want to spend $50 on a blackjack table. Took more effort not to spend a lot more on the blackjack tables myself. Actually, what you really need to know is that we had decided to have a family dinner, Tim suggested having it here. The restaurants there are apparently rather good. This was about to be borne out in the most expensive way possible…

Anyone who knows me knows that I swear by pizza. Honestly. Give me the choice between pizza and beer and I would be a Mormon tomorrow. And the place we were eating in Melbourne had won an award the previous year for doing the greatest pizza on the planet. Speaking as something of an authority on pizza, it was good. Great cheese. Good ham. Maybe not as good as the Independent Pizza Company in Drumcondra, but certainly, should you find yourself in Melbourne with €80 to drop on pizza, I would suggest you give serious thought to this establishment.

Oddly enough, considering Tim habitually drops cash on the big wheel in the Crown, and considering that both myself and my father planned on investing a few (hundred) dollars on the blackjack tables, we all walked out without having gambled a penny. My own idea is that we were both setting an example to each other. Whatever it was, I can only assume that my father had a very lucky escape. In my case, I can only assume the casino had a very lucky escape…

Anyway, that was to be my last night in Melbourne. Next morning I was up bright and early (noon). In a rare moment of generosity, I gave my travel card to an American tourist in Melbourne Bus Station, hopped onto the Airport Express (Another gripe about travel cards: they never work on buses to airports) and rocked up to the Etihad checkin desk. Funnily enough, the agent there was encountering exactly the same problems with Etihad that I habitually deal with. In this case, it was a shortage of various tags for use in sorting the bags in transit in Abu Dhabi, so we had a good old bitching session about complex excess rates and baggage allowances, as well as the difficulties of sorting colour coded tags if, like me, one is colourblind. One final pizza, a few final beers, and I was on the flight.

My banter with the agent in checkin must have paid off. Whereas on every flight I had so far been on I managed to get a vacant seat beside me, this time I had the entirety of a cabin to work with. Admittedly it was only five rows, but hey, nice to pretend one has a plane to themselves. This of course didn’t last, and I was again beset by children. I amused myself by watching the three Back to the Future films in a row. That eight up a good six hours of a thirteen hour flight. The balance was spent perusing the Internet (I was spending the guts of a full day on Etihad, so $20 for inflight Wifi was a cost I was willing to pay) and knocking back a few inflight bevvies.

There was time for one more trip to an Irish bar in Abu Dhabi. “Irish” may have been something of an exaggeration in this case. While O’Leary’s is indeed a suitable name for an Irish bar, it failed the other test. Were one to ask for a pint of Guinness, the drink would be supplied from a can. I can’t help but think that the sine qua non of an Irish bar is draught Guinness. Also, as I mentioned before, the beer is exorbitantly expensive. Thankfully I had a few Australian dollars left to blow. While knocking back a Carlsberg (What kind of bar only has Carlsberg on draught?) a guy I vaguely remembered from working in Dublin Airport sat down beside me. Turns out he’s working as a dispatcher for Etihad, and was nice enough to confirm that my bag was on the flight to Dublin, a matter which had for some reason being preying on my mind, probably because everything else had gone right for me on this trip. One more flight, a few more drinks, and I was back in Dublin.

Epilogue: The End (For now)
9am I was in my apartment. A quick drink to knock me to sleep (I was still on Australian time, so as far as I’m concerned this was totally acceptable). I had a party to go to that evening (screw you, jetlag). No time to slow down, I’m afraid. I planned to take a break from alcohol the next week in fairness, but for now, the holiday would continue.

I have a drawer beside my bed. Its contents are my passport, half a dozen adaptors, open tickets for London, Spain and the East Coast, and several hundred euro in assorted currencies. It serves a few purposes for me. Firstly, it means I always know where my holiday stuff is when I head off. But it also has a psychological use. It reminds me that I could bomb off tomorrow if I wanted to. It’s not that I ever do go off at a day’s notice (or at least not that often), but it’s comforting to know that the option is there. I may have just turned thirty, but settling down seems no closer than when I was twenty. Life is good.

By gregbowler

Taxing Times

In January 2015, a curious thing happened in Greece. The tax take, which had beeen holding steady for months, dropped by between 25 and 40 percent. In other countries, the explanation for a sudden drop in revenue would most likely be something to do with the cyclical nature of tax payments or a post-Christmas slump in consumer spending, but in Greece two other factors were at work, both connected to the fact that January was election season in Greece. The first was that there was a widespread expectation that radical leftists Syriza, running on an anti-austerity platform, would win the election and abolish several unpopular taxes. In this case it would be foolish to pay a levy that might not subsequently exist. Secondly, in a peculiarly Greek tradition, there is an unspoken rule that tax enforcement is effectively suspended during election campaigns. In a cynical attempt to garner support, the governments of the day effectively let tax evaders off the hook while seeking to retain power.

There Greek financial crisis is the subject of conflicted narratives. For Syriza and the left, Greece’s woes are the result of a political elite that was willing to sell the electorate down the river in exchange for short term gains. For Europe, it was the result of a profligate state that should have been cognizant of its liabilities, and an electorate that was quite happy to go along with this. Both points have their merits. But both are dwarfed by another factor: the sheer scale of Greece’s tax woes.

Nobody knows the true amount of recoverable revenue Greece misses out on. A study in 2012 (2), based on declared incomes of self-employed professionals versus their effective borrowing power as an indicator of true income, estimated that this section of the Greek economy (self-employment constitutes 30% of the Greek workforce) failed to declare €28bn in 2009, resulting in tax losses of €11bn. VAT evasion adds another €9bn to that figure. With a black market equivalent to a quarter of the economy, it is probably fair to say that Greece loses approximately 30% of its potential tax revenue, double the figure for most Northern European countries. In other words, if Greece got its tax take in line with the rest of the eurozone, it likely would never have needed a bailout in the first place.

Greece’s tax problems don’t have a single source. Rather, they are a combination of historical, social, political, economic and legal causes. The effects go beyond loss of revenue. And the problem isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

All states tolerate tax evasion. At its lowest levels, the payoff in terms of recovered revenue simply doesn’t justify the amount of resources required for enforcement. At the top, capital is notoriously mobile, and tends to exist in a semi-legal grey economy where there is a recognition that clamping down on mobile assets might result in said assets moving elsewhere. Greece’s problem is that tax evasion pervades society. It is a high-volume, low-intensity business, with millions of offenders who individually don’t do much damage but whose collective effect is devastating.

At the very lowest level, structurally high unemployment rates, which have been badly exacerbated by the financial crisis, as well as cuts to unemployment benefits and pensions, have led to large numbers of Greeks working informally for cash, thereby depriving the exchequer of income tax.

Further up the ladder, small family-owned businesses, notably restaurants and tavernas aimed at the tourist market, have been evading VAT for decades. Again, the economic collapse has worsened an existing problem. Perhaps half of all VAT goes uncollected.

Self-employed professionals have historically been the worst offenders for income tax evasion, with doctors being particularly bad offenders, each failing to declare an average of €30,000 per annum. A huge proportion of Greece’s solicitors, engineers, and doctors claim their income is below the €25,000 threshold necessary to pay tax. A proposed 2010 law requiring mandatory audits for anyone in these professions declaring an income of less than €20,000 failed to gain sufficient support to become law.

Those at the top of the pile have both more taxes to avoid and more resources to avoid them. Nobody knows how much Greek money is salted away in tax havens. Estimates range from the billions to the hundreds of billions. Much of this, despite repeated offers of amnesty, is beyond recovery. Luxury taxes are perhaps more enforceable, though again evasion is flagrant. In 2010 a study of satellite photos revealed that, rather than Athens having 324 private swimming pools, as was claimed by tax returns, it in fact had 16,974.

Part of the reason is cultural. Greeks do not want to pay taxes. While this is true of any country, many Greeks fail to accept the tradeoff between paying taxes and a functioning state. In addition, the widespread nature of tax evasion means that there is a perception that everyone else is doing it to an equal or worse degree. The current economic circumstances mean that many Greeks are evading taxes out of (perceived) necessity, in the belief that their own individual contribution is personally vital to themselves but only a drop in the ocean for the government. Multiply that across the population and there is a tragedy of the commons situation spread over a country.

The economy itself also provides favourable conditions for tax evasion. 30% of Greece’s population are self-employed, and their incomes are self-declared. Many businesses are family-owned. Only a minority of employees work for larger companies with centralised payment structures where tax compliance can be easily enforced. In short, the tax agency is swamped with potential evaders and cannot hope to audit a proportion sufficient to deter would-be evaders.

This is of course aggravated by the relative ineffectiveness of the Greek civil service. In the boom years the civil service operated on a clientelist basis, and bribes were a quasi-accepted practice. There is even a word for it “Fakelaki”, referring to a payment made to a government official in exchange for special treatment. When larger tax evaders are uncovered the penalty may well be significantly reduced in exchange for a bung. Even if legal proceedings are taken against evaders, Greece’s legal system moves at a glacial pace. Greece ranks 155th in the world for ease of contract enforcement, behind such places as Nigeria, Haiti and Bolivia. The situation is not helped by the complexity of the taxation system, though steps have been taken to simplify this.

Finally, of course, there is political interference. Haris Theoharis, the former head of the tax agency turned centrist politician, recounted that on numerous occasions he was advised by the government to discontinue investigation into tax evaders. Having been appointed to the post in 2013 specifically to get tough on tax evasion, his entire staff was replaced twice over alleged corruption, and his tactics (calling out tax delinquents on social media was a popular one) led to the New Democracy government forcing him out within a year.

Tax evasion is more than just a matter of damage to a government’s balance sheet. Fears of a government clampdown have led rich Greeks to offshore as much as possible of their assets, and while this may be good for Switzerland, it takes liquidity out of the Greek financial system, as well as discouraging domestic investment for fear of being noticed.

Greece’s tax system also stimulates another major problem with the Greek economy: poor worker productivity. Given the scale of tax evasion, attention is logically focused on getting the bigger offenders, as this offers the best possible returns. This is an indirect subsidy to small businesses, as they are less likely to be investigated for tax fraud. Larger companies tend to have better output per worker, thanks to economies of scale such as eliminating needless duplication and better purchasing leverage. The upshot of this is that in many sections of the economy potential synergies simply don’t happen, and worker productivity is kept to a lower level than would otherwise be possible.

In a strange turn of events, Syriza might be better placed than the mainstream parties to tackle Greece’s tax problem. Not being part of the same establishment politics that the two traditional ruling parties are (the last PASOK Prime Minister, George Papandreou, was both the son and grandson of previous PM’s), they might be better placed to tackle some of the problems with politically connected individuals escaping justice. But the unfortunate reality is that any attempt to bring Greece’s tax compliance rate in line with that of other developed countries would increase effective tax rates by 20%, and no government could survive that. Much as they may rail against tax evasion, Greeks are quite happy to partake.

Greece has recently received a sharp lesson about the dangers of trusting those who promise easy answers to difficult problems. There are no easy answers to the tax situation. Even simple steps, such as streamlining the legal system, involve tackling deep-seated vested interests. And when the culture, economy, and political class are all against you, it’s always going to be an uphill struggle.

By gregbowler

Around the World in 80 Beers II: Beer Harder

Prologue: Must Try Harder


Life is interminably boring at times. Seconds become minutes, minutes hours, hours days, days weeks, weeks months, months years, years a lifetime. Most of us will spend our lives making plans or rueing the plans we never went through with. As I approach the age of thirty, I find myself beginning to settle down, despite my best efforts. Living away from my parents has consumed most of my disposable income. I’m entrenched enough in my job that the only foreseeable changes of employment are within Aer Lingus. I worry about bills and do all my own ironing. In short, I have been afflicted with the malaise of middle class life.


As most people who know me are aware, travel has been something of a passion of mine. In 2012 I spent seven weeks abroad, 2013 I managed nine. 2014, lamentably, was quieter. My lifestyle is expensive. Assembling the kind of war chest necessary for holidays requires more overtime than my indolence allows. So it is that my holidaying last year consisted of a few days in Lanzarote, New York, Vienna, and San Francisco, along with a couple of jaunts within Ireland. Perhaps, by the standards of ordinary folks, this might seem adequate, but I have loftier ambitions. There are still twelve empty pages in my passport that I have designs on filling before it expires in 2016. Oh, there were plans. Wonderful plans. But somehow, there never seemed to be the money for these. Thrift is not one of my strongest abilities.


2015 was setting up to be more of the same. Money looked to be tight, and plans were few and far between. In the runup to Christmas 2014, my main concern was making it through the holiday season without running up a major credit card debt. Then fate intervened. A good run at Christmas Eve poker covered most of my expenses. Then I got some unexpected back pay. Finally, Aer Lingus thoughtfully gave me two thousand euro for signing away my entitlements to a pension scheme I wasn’t involved in anyway. Suddenly a holiday was possible again.


Next on the agenda was getting time off. I had a week’s leave in February for some reason, and now it was a matter of calling in all the days I had painstakingly worked up over the previous few years. As February dawned I had all but covered the requisite time off, or so I hoped. Now for an itinerary.


I pride myself on my insensitivity. I am the man who makes jokes about anything, be it terrorist attacks, genocide, or even the death of Bambi’s mother. And yet, in late November, I was almost reduced to tears at the sight of my parents discovering that my brother Tim had come back from Australia without them knowing and (thanks in part to my machinations) surprised them in the family home after two years away. Beautiful stuff. Aside from the initial reunion and my Father’s 70th, I had kept a bit of a distance, largely through work commitments. In other words, I had effectively managed to miss my brother’s trip home, and that needed to be rectified. Ergo Melbourne was always going to be my first port of call.

Five days before I left, I made (for me) a pretty extraordinary decision: I would go full fare. There were a few reasons for this. Getting into Australia on standby is messy at the best of times. Even when a flight isn’t fully booked, there are a host of other standby passengers who flock to the flight that gives them the best chance of getting out. Then there’s the fact that most carriers heavily oversell their flights. This causes two problems. Firstly, it means that merely checking as to whether there are tickets available for sale is not a great indicator of whether there are seats for those tickets. Secondly, when a carrier does get caught in an oversales position, it will then attempt to rebook those passengers onto alternative flights, which can mean a flurry of late bookings for flights.


Then of course there is the wonder that is Skyscanner, which informed me that a confirmed ticket Dublin-London-Kuala Lumpur-Melbourne would only set me back €50 more than a standby ticket on the same route, and €200 more than a ticket through the Middle East, which I tend to avoid as it’s an awkward place to hang around waiting to get out on a flight. Granted, it was with Malaysia Airlines, who have had a bad year, but hey, 363 out of 365 days without a fatal accident still translates into good odds. Also, Malaysia are one of the worst offenders in the oversales department. If one is on a full fare ticket, well dressed, and willing to accept a modicum of flexibility (as all standby passengers are anyway), oversales can be used to one’s advantage in a big way. One Denied Boarding Compensation cheque would more than cover the cost of my flight. And gate agents are forever searching for well dressed types to upgrade when economy is oversold. So my jacket made a quick trip to the dry cleaners, and I brought my staff ID with me too, just in case it could be leveraged into a better seat.


On account of being a confirmed passenger, I had the luxury of checking in online. For an obsessive-compulsive type like me, this is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it eliminates a headache and allows me the best possible seat selection. The issue is that I approach seat selection with near-scientific exactitude. Picking a seat on the flight to Kuala Lumpur took me twenty minutes and repeated examinations of Seatguru.com. Then I tried checking in for the Melbourne leg, only to discover it was blocking me for some reason. I eventually traced the problem to the fact that, in my infinite carelessness, I had put the wrong date of birth in for my Australian e-visa. A frantic call to Immigration in Canberra rectified this, albeit at the cost of making me look like a complete embarrassment. I mitigated this somewhat by saying I was calling on behalf of Aer Lingus for someone else, and managed to get through the conversation talking about myself in the third person.


As this trip was even more ad-hoc than my usual escapades, a lot of things were left till the last minute. I hadn’t even sorted out all my days off till the night before I left, and as for laundry, suffice it to say that some items went into my suitcase without even being properly dried, let alone ironed. Wednesday evening, before I was due to fly out the next morning was a frantic rummage through my apartment in search of anything and everything that could possibly be useful to me. With my flight being at 6:40am, I decided it would be prudent to get an early night. The upshot of this was that I effectively lay in bed till 3am without ever really getting to sleep, and then decided I’d get up and see was there anything else left to do.

There were two last things to sort, and they were somewhat optional. The first was my itinerary. I had booked a flight to Melbourne and a week’s stay in a hotel in St Kilda. I had advised Kevin in New Zealand that I might drop down, and had even booked one night in Nelson for the Cricket World Cup (A happy coincidence, it turns out that at some point I set up an account with Hotels.com that was accumulating frequent flyer miles from my globetrotting, and now I had a chance to redeem it for a free night). Beyond that, apart from a vague plan to be in the States at the start of March, things were somewhat up in the air. Oh well, that could all be sorted at some unspecified future point.


Secondly, and more importantly, was whether I would attach a theme to this trip. Given the sheer incoherence of my plans, I like to have an overarching motif to attach to whatever random trip I take. After all, without some sort of linkage, I would simply be embarking on several random trips that happened to be more expensive than doing them separately and occur consecutively. In 2012 I had attempted to circumnavigate the globe in three weeks and down eighty different beers in the process. I failed, not on account of lack of trying, but because in a stand of principle I refused to allow light beer to be counted, which meant that in Chicago O’Hare Airport I decided to leave it at seventy-seven. The next year, when I undertook a similar trip, I declined to renew the challenge. At the time I was suffering from an abdominal pain that I was vaguely worried that was the early stages of cirrhosis, so I decided that committing to drinking myself halfway to death on an already potentially dodgy liver might be a bad idea. Thankfully, these pains disappeared some time ago. While it is entirely possible that inflamed liver tissue has turned into necrotic liver tissue, I prefer to take the positive view that, like any other part of my body, constant exercise has got my liver to a peak of physical fitness. Game on.


At about 3am on Thursday, February 5th, 2015, the day I was due to fly out, I went to my fridge to see if anything in it could be construed as breakfast. I habitually keep so little food in my apartment that were Bob Geldof to see it he would be working on a charity single on my behalf, and this occasion was no different. The larder was bare, barring a block of butter and a can of Tennent’s. After some agonising, I decided that drinking the can was preferable to taking a spoon to the butter. However, what kind of person drinks a can of Tennent’s at 3am, on their own, in their night gear, on an empty stomach, and having just gotten out of bed? In my mental gymnastics, I determined that the best way to justify this was to count it as part of the holiday. Then it occurred to me to take another crack at downing eighty different beers. This time I would do it. For a start, I had a full month, rather than the three weeks of my previous attempt. I have also matured in my attitude to alcohol. I can now look down the barrel of an eighteen hour binge secure in the knowledge that I can pace myself appropriately and never go over the edge, or at least, not often. Most importantly, the market has caught up with my slightly exotic tastes in beer. The average bar in a developed country now stocks twice as many varieties of beer as it did five years back.


Anyway, by the time I had rationalised this, I had finished the can, and there was a cab waiting outside to take me to Dublin Airport.


I: A Genius, But a Lazy Shite


I generally try to avoid Heathrow. It’s too busy, for a start. With the runway, airfield and terminal facilities perpetually bursting at the seams, one gets all sorts of absurd delays, both with flights and navigating the airport. It’s also too big. Aircraft and terminals are squirrelled away all over the place, with the result that most of the inter-terminal transfers are handled by a bus. Makes sense, but it just adds another layer of complexity to the whole business. Then there’s the taxes and charges. Secure in its position as the premier transatlantic business hub, Heathrow Holdings and the British government have seen fit to extort absurd amounts of money in ancillary charges from the average traveller. 85% of my (admittedly cheap) ticket costs were taxes and charges, mostly from Heathrow. All in all, not my favourite place in the world.


Funny thing. I work in Aer Lingus checkin, among other things. I advise passengers on the best way of connecting through airports across the world, despite the fact that I am only passing on secondhand advice. Travelling standby, as I generally do, one rarely transits an airport. I have to go through immigration and retrieve my bag on virtually every occasion. So, odd as it may seem, I was more than a little nervous in Heathrow flight connections. Needlessly, it turns out. It was relatively simple. As of now, whatever lingering sympathy I may have had for passengers who miss their onwards connections in Heathrow is extirpated. As might be inferred from this paragraph, I made it from Terminal 2 to Terminal 4 without incident.


Having ascertained that I wasn’t going to be upgraded, I was now reliant on forward planning plus clever reactions to ensure I got the optimal seat. In the absence of an upgrade, the best possible seat one can get is a seat with an empty seat beside it. As has been already mentioned, I had spent a considerable amount of time on Malaysia’s site trying to work out how best to ensure this, and upon boarding the flight I was delighted to discover that it had paid off. There was a vacant seat between me and the couple on the other side. Now to ensure it remained mine. I had procured a large amount of books for my trip. Among them was a biography of WWII German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, which I left on the empty seat. Its cover was emblazoned with a large Swastika. There can be few better ways of deterring encroachments on one’s personal space than by convincing people you are a Nazi. As a side benefit, Malaysia have free drink and obsequious cabin crew. Time to get as drunk as an uncle at a Moldovan wedding….


There are a few ways to approach a long haul flight. One can see it as a penance, and spend the duration complaining to all and sundry about the risks of Deep Vein Thrombosis. Or one can view it objectively, as a necessary method in connecting people. Finally, one can take my view. It’s an open bar that gets you from one part of the world to another. Bring a few good books, some electronic entertainment, and start knocking back the drinks. There is, however one minor problem on a flight of this length. There is a very real possibility of beer running out. This has happened to me on no fewer than four occasions. This time it wasn’t quite so bad, I thought. I was on an Airbus A380, the biggest airliner on the planet, and it wasn’t configured to max out the seats. There should be enough catering facilities to satisfy everyone. One small hitch. All Malaysia stocked were Carlsberg and Tiger, neither of which I’m particularly fond of. Deeming Tiger to be the lesser of two evils, I began what I hoped was to be one of my more epic drinking binges. Then disaster struck. About eight hours into the flight, they ran out of Tiger. In desperation, I switched to Carlsberg, only for that to run out three hours later, meaning that I was somewhere over the Bay of Bengal and at least five hundred miles and thirty-eight thousand feet from the nearest place where I could acquire a beer. Not that it mattered overmuch. I had at this point been up for twenty-two hours, and my body took advantage of this lull in drinking to switch off for the last two hours before we landed in Kuala Lumpur.


Malaysia, I have found, is a funny country. The people are helpful to the point of being nearly servile. English is commonly spoken, and spoken better than most places. Women in headscarves mingle freely with women in miniskirts. Against this must be set some strange neuroses. While sitting in a cafe in the airport I started listening to the radio channel they were playing. It opened with an advertisement by a “well-known TV personality” berating an anonymous other personality for being late, followed by a stern lecture on the importance of punctuality. They then went on, in the middle of February, to play 1984 US Christmas Number One: USA For Africa: We are the World, widely considered to be one of the worst songs ever written. This was followed by another public service announcement, this one about how it’s sometimes necessary to admit to being wrong. No wonder the country is so servile and efficient. Radio propaganda is encouraging punctuality and not arguing.


My vague sense of defeat at having to pay full whack for a ticket to Australia was largely dispelled upon boarding the Melbourne flight, which was very obviously completely full. No upgrade here, either, then, but had I travelled on a standby ticket, I wouldn’t be getting on at all. Oh well, at least I had the foresight to prerequest an aisle seat, for access to the toilet between drinks. After what I can only describe as an uneventful nine hours, we rolled up on stand in Melbourne.


Traditionally I have had a fraught relationship with security in airports. Travelling to the USA I was always the guy who got taken in for additional screening. This had largely petered out in the past few years, and I have entered Australia three times before without any hassle. This time, however, I had clearly won the reverse lottery. Immediately after going through immigration I found myself being pursued by an official, who took a second glance at my passport. Thinking nothing of it, I retrieved my bag and headed through to Customs. At this point I was directed into a completely different area than everyone else and was advised that my belongings were to be searched. First two questions were easy. Did I have explosives? No. Drugs? No. A scan of my baggage confirmed my honesty in these matters. Grand. Then came the tricky one: Did I have any pornography on my laptop?


This was a stickler. My laptop has all manner of things on it. To the best of my knowledge, none of these were explicitly pornographic, but given the amount of times I have moved data from hard drives and older computers, it was not impossible that something smutty from my teenage years had found its way onto the machine. Then there was the question of what constituted pornography. I had a copy of the film Swordfish, which features a topless Halle Berry in a brief scene. Porn? I also had a number of graphic novels, some of which may have depicted people in less than fully clothed situations, but not gratuitously so. In other words, the correct answer to that question was “erm….”. Rather than get into a philosophical discussion as to what constituted pornography, I found it expedient simply to say that I didn’t have any, and gamble that their search through my labyrinthine hard drive would yield nothing incriminating. Turns out my luck held, and after some desultory jokes about my illegal downloading of films in general (luckily, they only saw a tiny proportion of that), I was let go on my way. Tim was there to meet me. Turns out the blighter has a brand new BMW. Might be something to be said for this emigration business after all.


Australia hasn’t changed much. Still the same friendly, laid back attitude to everything. Still the same astronomical prices for everything. Still the same crap WiFi. My Internet addiction has reached the kind of lengths that don’t bear thinking about. Suffice it to say that I go into near convulsions if I don’t get to vent spleen on Facebook at least once every eight hours, and if I don’t have near instant access to the news, I get very uneasy. This need for connectivity was sorely tested when last I was in Melbourne by the fact that my hotel was charging for Wifi access. At least this hotel wasn’t doing so. The problem was that it wasn’t offering Wifi at all. The Esplanade (henceforth the Espy), one of Australia’s best-known venues and a favourite watering hole of mine, didn’t have Wifi either. In fact, it took two days of frantic searching for a pub that did, and even there it was limited to one hour per device, which led to the comical sight of me alternating between my laptop, work Ipad, Kindle, and phone, as each device exhausted its time limit.


In a rather fortunate turn of events, one night’s sleep cured me of most of my jet lag, so Saturday found me ready for a serious session, and in another fortunate turn of events there was a full complement of Six Nations and Premiership on. Only problem was the time difference, and finding somewhere to watch it. This would entail essentially an all-nighter. The first Premiership game wouldn’t start till 1130pm. The optimal place to view these was the Crown casino. Good spot to gamble. Good spot to watch sport. Bad spot to get hammered. The Crown practices that strange idea of “cutting off”, whereby if you get too drunk they stop serving you, a huge break with the Irish tradition of turning a blind eye. Mid afternoon found myself and Tim in the Espy knocking back a couple of jugs of Peroni and a bite to eat, but clearly this couldn’t be kept up indefinitely without risking crashing and burning. Not that I didn’t try. All was going well till about 6am, whereupon whatever jet lag I hadn’t dispensed with came back to haunt me.


During my brief times there I have found St Kilda, where I was staying, to exude a slightly bohemian feel. The population is overwhelmingly young in a district where much of the architecture (particularly on the beachfront) has an old, almost decayed feel to it. It is also, as the locus of much of the recent immigration to Melbourne, extremely cosmopolitan. By an astonishing coincidence, it’s also a great spot for a night out. Tim had to balance commitments to his missus along with a full time job, so I knew I wouldn’t be seeing a lot of him. As a result, I did something I normally find impossible: I relaxed. My hotel was set along Fitzroy Avenue, a nice boulevard lined with pubs, cafes, and a drug rehabilitation clinic/halfway house, which at least added to the street entertainment. I always feld Bethlem Mental Hospital in London (AKA Bedlam) had a wonderfully clever idea in exhibiting some of their more interesting inmates. Few things are more amusing than the right kind of lunatic.


Sunday there was some sort of street festival. I’m always uncertain about these things, just like I’m not sure I like St Patrick’s Day or New Year’s Eve. They have a way of attracting amateur drinkers, who end up drinking more than they can handle, passing out in the street, starting fights, and generally giving us hardened drinkers a bad name. However, in fairness, it was all good natured. The only downside was that the off licenses doubled their prices and imposed sales limits, which exacerbated an already problematic pricing scheme.


Australia may be the most expensive country in the world to get drunk in. If you have never been, it comes as a shock. Expect to pay the equivalent of €8 for a pint in the cities. This would perhaps be bearable except for the fact that off sales are also absurd. $20 is the standard price for six bottles. Perhaps there is the local equivalent of Dutch Gold, but I never saw it. For those of us who find Ireland to be a tough gig for financing an alcohol dependency, rest assured, it could be worse.


Anyway, one day while sitting in the internet bar checking financial news (yes, I genuinely am that sad), I was approached by a middle-aged, very gay individual who repeated the Australian Immigration’s accusation that I was watching pornography, then told me I had a nice smile, and asked me to say something sexy. I was, to put it mildly, somewhat taken aback by this. A few minutes later another gentleman passed me and asked me was I “looking at the filthies”. For some reason the entire country of Australia assumes that the only reason someone would be on the internet in a pub is to get their jollies…


There is an increasing tendency among discount hotels to follow the Ryanair model of absolutely screwing people who fail to read the small print. I narrowly avoided this in my place, noticing the day before I was due to check out that there was a note in my T&C’s that the hotel would wash any dishes that needed washing after I checked out. The price for this service? $75. Sneaky bastards. As far as I can see, the sudden influx of wealth has led to a culture of avarice in the service sector in Australia, and I’m not sure I like it.


There is only so long I can stay in one place, and Melbourne, for all its charms, is no exception. I was also a little behind schedule on the beer project, or rather, I had exhausted most of the low-hanging fruit, and would now need to move somewhere else to continue. New Zealand beckoned.


II: People Must Hate Seeing You at Table Quizzes


A usual rule of thumb for travelling standby is to avoid international sporting events wherever possible. It’s nearly impossible to get onto a flight, and vast amounts of staff are trying to do it. The Cricket World Cup was in full swing in Australia and New Zealand, so this was going to be tight. I had planned this one relatively carefully, in order to maximise my possible wriggle room and give me as many chances as possible to get to Wellington. I left Melbourne for Sydney on Friday. I was due in Nelson on Monday. Figure a day getting from Wellington to Nelson, and I had five possible flights from Sydney to Wellington before I had to panic. The problem with this thesis is while it sounds nice in the abstract, on the ground, knocking back a beer, waiting anxiously to find out whether one is getting on a flight, it’s a bit hairier.


Anyway, I had no problem getting Melbourne to Sydney. Flights every half hour, sooner or later you’re going to get on one. In this case I didn’t even have time for a drink. Straight onto a flight that was already boarding. Grand, although it perhaps made for a more panicked dash to the gate than is normal for me. After possibly the most turbulent hour of my life (for some reason Qantas flights tend to be bouncy), I arrived in the Domestic terminal at Sydney.


Sensible airport design has all terminals as close to each other as possible. Where this is impossible, they generally at least afford passengers a courtesy bus to get from one to the other. Not so Sydney. Unless one is fortunate enough to be a confirmed passenger travelling fon a through reservation, in which case Qantas lay on a bus, one has to get from one terminal to the next (which is the far side of the runways) entirely under their own steam. The only public transport option is the metro, and like everything in Australia, that’s pricey. When eventually I made it across to the Internation terminal and presented myself to checkin, I was listed and told to come back at the last minute. Not a good sign.


It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes, because of the imminence of death. I would say that there are no atheists on standby. When you’re counting on flukes like a revenue passenger’s car breaking down en route to the airport, divine assistance is what you need. And no matter how much one tries to persuade oneself that matters are out of your hands and one should relax, it’s tense. As the song goes, the waiting is the hardest part. When the time came to return to the standby desk, there was a knot of anxious looking faces clustered around. Other standbys. Half nodding acquaintance, even when you don’t know them, you know what they’re going through, and half competition for any seat that might be available. Then the denouement. One staff passenger got on. It wasn’t me. Damn. Ok, time to reassess. This is a temporary setback. I can recover.


In what is a very unusual circumstance for Qantas, the standby desk agent wasn’t in a helpful mood, but I did managed to elicit from her that there were sixteen seats available on the morning flight, with nine listed staff. That’s a grand figure. The odds against it those seats disappearing between then and the morning were slim. Next on the agenda was what to do for sixteen hours. The idea of finding a bar and drinking myself into a stupor was not without its merits. The problem was that the airport bar could close unexpectedly, and then I’d be on my own, with only Sydney Airport’s absurdly slow Wifi to comfort me. No, I would be sensible and arrange accommodation.

In this case I perhaps got overly extravagant, booking a 4-star hotel just outside the airport. That said, it wasn’t particularly expensive, and given the fact that I was due in the airport at 730am the next day, being nearby was a distinct advantage.


I always find it slightly jarring to stay in an upmarket hotel. To be honest, I prefer motel jobbies if only for the price. There’s something about the plushness of a good hotel that unmans my blue collar sensibilities. Even things like having a trouser press in one’s room do not seem to be the sort of thing a leisure traveller like me should bother with. Oh, and there’s a minibar. Minibars are a dangerous temptation, which I duly indulged in. Maybe upmarket hotels aren’t so bad after all, particularly when one has to be up at stupid o’clock to head to the airport, and there’s a shuttle service provided. Next morning I was accepted onto the Wellington flight straight away. Happy days.


I have had a longstanding opinion that children should only be allowed onto aircraft under sedation. My views were borne out by the fact that there were three little terrors seated immediately behind me. The entire flight was a cacophony of incoherent screams. One wonders where they get the energy for it.


My immigration woes continue. All my luggage was X-rayed, and I was subjected to the usual barrage of questions. Obviously society has a prejudice against single, unshaven, dishevelled, foul-smelling drunkards. I can’t for the life of me understand why. The next surprise was the weather. Wellingon isn’t much further south than Melbourne, where the temperature was in the mid-thirties, and it was the Southern Hemisphere summer. However, I would be willing to bet that the weather in Wellington in February was scarce better than that in Dublin in February.


Wellington is an exceptional city for beer drinking, considering its small size. The city centre is relatively compact, and there are about a dozen decent bars in close proximity to each other. I was only going to be there for one night, but it would provide an opportunity to make some serious headway on the project. The only problem was finding my hotel. I knew the name, I knew the street, unfortunately I had forgotten how long Willis Street is. The bus dropped me at a junction somewhere on the midpoint, leaving me with the awkward decision of whether to go left or right. I knew there were a couple of hotels to my left, so that seemed to be the sensible choice. Half a mile later I was having doubts. I was coming to the suburbs, and the road was starting to slope alarmingly uphill, something I am not a fan of. So I assumed I had chosen wrongly and went back, all the while lugging my suitcase. Going back didn’t help. I got to the opposite end of the street. No hotel. Thankfully, Wellington city centre has free wifi, so I popped out the phone. Turns out that it was a hundred yards beyond where I had given up the first time, so for the third time I started slogging back up the street. Finally finding it, I set out to deal with the most important task of the day: my laundry. This was something I should have done a long time beforehand, but procrastination being a speciality of mine and laundry seeming too much like work, I had let it get to the point that I simply had no clean clothes. Thankfully, the hotel (which looked like a converted boarding school or barracks) had one of those industrial type washing machines, which meant I could get it all done in one go.

Anyway, I was due in Nelson in South Island the next day, so I decided to take the ferry, rather than fly. There was no airline flying from Wellington to Nelson that I could get discount rates with, and besides, I felt I could do with a bit of scenery, which the Cook Strait has in spades. Problem was the ferry was going to Picton, which is eighty miles from Nelson, and had an exceptionally well-stocked bar. So of course, I started drinking, forgetting that I would be on a bus for two hours. Then, arriving in Picton, I needed to find a bar for an hour to access Wifi, and lacked the sense to stay dry. Net result was a rather miserable time down the back of the bus from Picton to Nelson, desperately trying to control my bladder.


Having read up on the tour guides for Nelson before I went, the first thing they all said was how compact the city was. Turns out they were lying, as I found out while desperately trying to find my B&B in the pitch black halfway up a mountain while lugging my suitcase along with me. Then when I arrived the lights were out and it took another few minutes to gain entry. Finally to top it off there wasn’t a liquor store for miles, so I had the indignity of going to sleep sober, thankfully I was going to make up for it the next day.


A couple of weeks earlier Kevin Walsh had rang me with an interesting proposition: to attend Ireland’s opening game in the Cricket World Cup against the West Indies. This was what had lured me downto the middle of nowhere on New Zealand’s South Island. Of course, given that the pair of us are only one stooge short of a trio, there were some mishaps before we actually settled down. We had arranged to meet in the car park, unaware that there were in fact two car parks, and had a devil of a time finding each other. Then there was the matter of my suitcase, which I had to bring as I was switching accommodations. For some reason the staff at the Saxton Oval didn’t take kindly to me trying to bring a suitcase into the ground, so we missed the start of the game lugging the damnable thing over to a car belonging to one of Kev’s mates.


Anyway, cricket is a wonderful game to watch live, limited over cricket doubly so. The slow pace means that one can pay only intermittent attention and still keep abreast with what is happening. The weather was ideal, to the point that I had to repeatedly don sunblock. And of course there’s the drinking, which is the most important aspect. The actual match is the background noise to the drinking. We went through a steady stream of Tui lager, eventually amassing a mountain of empty bottles. Tragedy struck when I got sunblock in my eye, which left me in agony for several hours, and also meant that I was sparing with the sunblock for the rest of the day, and I was duly incinerated. While this was going on Ireland won a famous victory, so we were in quite a merry mood when we headed onwards.


First on the agenda was a barbecue at one of Kev’s mates’ places, before heading into Nelson for the evening. We ended up in the same bar as several of the Irish team, who were celebrating a job well done, and subsequently encountered a very drunk Chris Gayle (from the Windies) on the street bemoaning his team’s performance. The only downer was when Kev managed to comprehensively beat me at pool, which is unusual. Rest assured, when I return, vengeance shall be mine.


I do stupid things all the time. Particularly when I’m on holiday. Sometimes I invite it. After all, a good story is a good story, no matter who the butt of it is. I seem to be worse on holiday though. Lack of anything to focus on and constant inebriation is the root cause, I expect. On an extended trip I become particularly bad at remembering what day it is. So it was that the next day I showed up in Nelson Airport to fly to Auckland, only to find I had booked a flight for the previous day. Given my exacting attitude in work and lack of sympathy for those who make that kind of mistakes, it was a serious humiliation, the more so because this was a full fare ticket (Air NZ still refusing to take Aer Lingus staff at ZED rates). I had no choice but to get another ticket, which thankfully wasn’t too extortionate, so the main victim was my pride.


Mistakes beget further mistakes I arrived in Auckland without knowing where my hostel was, or even its name. I knew the street, but that was it. So, on Kev’s advice, I took the bus from the airport to the terminus in Auckland, which was unfortunately at the bottom of a hill. Turns out that a) my hostel was at the top, and b) the bus had passed rather close to it. One more little indignity life chose to inflict on me, I suppose. A happy side effect of this was that I wandered into what turned out to be a genuine Irish bar in search of wifi.


The expat bar is a strange place, but in the best possible way. I had a particular dive I used to frequent during my brief time in Korea teaching English. In a provincial industrial town, it was only natural that the small Western population would find somewhere to congregate together. The best description I could ascribe to the place in Korea was Moe’s Tavern from the Simpsons. The clientele was mostly male, mostly on their own (if one was dating a local, it was unseemly to bring them), and mostly simply out to get as wasted as possible. It was only through good fortune that I happened upon a similar establishment on my first attempt in Auckland. As a side bonus, I found my hostel.


Hostels. To be honest, I thought I had left that kind of thing behind me. I ain’t particularly picky. I have stayed in Palestinian hotels in the West Bank. I’ve stayed in hotels in Monterrey in Mexico where the pop-pop-pop of gunfire is a curious background noise. I’ve stayed in 12-bed dorms in Amsterdam where most of the occupants are loudly trying to lose their virginity. Suffice it to say, I’ve done my share of unsalubrious accommodation. But as I get older, I find myself longing for creature comforts such as a private room and bathroom if possible.


I hadn’t planned on staying in a hostel. Bad luck on my part necessitated it. The place I was staying was bottom of the barrel territory. Full of loudmouthed French teenagers, who seemed to think playing bad rave music at 3am was a perfectly sensible move. The latter decision woke everyone in the hostel before someone put them in their place.


One evening I came home to find someone in my bed. “Someone” turned out to be a young German lady, so I chivalrously ignored the fact she was in my bed and grabbed another empty bed to sleep in. Said decision cost me a lot of sleep, as apparently the previous occupant was energetically passive-aggressive and repeatedly stared at my bed, without ever doing aught about it.

Auckland is the most isolated metropolis on the planet. To its credit, there is no sense of this in the city, which is vibrant and cosmopolitan. Unfortunately it’s also rather hot and hilly, meaning a lot of toil on my part. Living in Dublin, a relatively flat city, has spoiled me. I have since come to the conclusion that places like Auckland should really consider outdoor escalators a la Hong Kong.


In a surprising turn of events, Kev found himself in a delicate balancing act. The most impulsive human being in history has got a girlfriend and a steady job. My kind of behaviour, such as ad-hoc drinking sessions and the like, isn’t something he can partake of to any great degree anymore. In short, the bastard has sold out. To his credit, Kev made himself available for each of the nights I was in Auckland. He entered us into a table quiz one night with his missus (to our intense dissatisfaction, we failed to win).


Inasmuch as there was an underlying theme to this trip, apart from pathological beer drinking, it was incoherence. I had a token ticket out of New Zealand to Sydney to show Immigration, but the reality was that I never intended to take that flight. I cancelled the ticket upon arrival into NZ. The hope was to go to Hong Kong. Fascinating city and easy travel to Chicago. Perfect. Problem was it was Chinese New Year. Standby travel was a risk. Better not to bet the house onHong Kong. So it was that I was gonna go to Kuala Lumpur. After my hostel debacle, I resolved that I would be going upmarket this time. Thankfully, Malaysia boasts some of the cheapest five-star hotels in the world. Out of indecision, I booked one night only, on the basis that I might be able to get to Hong Kong the next day.


Most of my time in Auckland was spent in the Fiddler’s, the aforementioned expat bar. Auckland has no shortage of Irish and British expats, and there was plenty of interesting banter with both, as well as good music (for such a tiny bar, they managed to get a band in every night, no mean feat). Perhaps the most amusing bit of my time there was one afternoon when a regular brought his 4-year-old in while he had a pint. With the usual unfortunate hyperactivity of children of that age, he proceeded to make himself a nuisance, until two cardboard boxes were found to distract him. In my experience, packaging is a wonderful way of keeping children occupied. Many of my best Christmas memories were not of the toys themselves, but of the boxes, polystyrene and bubblewrap that they came in. This also seemed to apply in this instance, as the little fellow proceeded to amuse himself for two hours, pausing only when he accidentally trapped himself in one of the boxes, to the enjoyment of all (apart from him).


Kevin is primarily a cricket trader. He works for TAB (the New Zealand betting monopoly) trying to take advantage of New Zealand gamblers. On my last day I witnessed an historic result. England turned out their most pathetic ODI result in some time. Strange outcome. Kev was so confident of this going the distance that he wanted me to go to his office and bring cans. Sensibly, I demurred. I had a flight at 1.30am, and getting smashed in someone’s workplace might not have dovetailed with that.


Mind you, by the time I reached the airport I was perhaps less than sober. Perhaps not the best situation. I was pretty sure this was a safe bet from a standby perspective, even accounting for Malaysia’s sneaky habit of overselling flights. However, I got a minor scare at checkin when the staff dithered for a minute about whether to accept a standby passenger. Given my slight difficulty maintaining verticality at this point on account of intoxication, I had wanted the whole transaction to be concluded as quickly as possible, lest my inebriation be noticed. Thankfully the dithering ended and I was checked in. Next stop, the bar. After all, one needs one’s top-ups and I had quite a few NZ dollars to get shot of.


Unlike most people, I generally like to be the last to board a flight. Few reasons. Firstly, it means less time sitting around an aircraft and more time productively drinking in the bar. Secondly, nobody’s going to climb over you. Finally, and in this case most importantly, the airline probably isn’t going to enquire too closely as to how drunk you are if you’re one of the last to board, as they’re anxious to get going and offloading you and retrieving your bag would only cause a delay. Upon taking my seat, I discovered that I was sitting beside Osama Bin Laden. Seriously. I didn’t care that the Americans had killed him in Pakistan some years previously. This was him. I now found myself in two minds. On the one hand, there was serious money out for this guy. Twenty-five million dollars at last count. That translates into about seventeen million cans of cheap lager. On the downside, I was now sharing a flight with Osama Bin Laden. He wouldn’t have come back from the dead and taken a flight without intending to do something on it. I summoned my inner Steven Seagal and braced myself, ready to thwart whatever dastardly plot the man had. Then the bar cart came around and Bin Laden ordered a beer. I started to relax. Whatever about coming back from the dead and boarding a flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur, the idea of Osama Bin Laden drinking beer was a step too far. Dispelling my mind of any notions of the riches that could have been had from turning this fellow in, I also ordered a beer. Then another. Then I passed out for most of the remainder of the flight.


III: Oh, And He Drank Beer For Breakfast


Inasmuch as there is a crossroads to this planet, Malaysia lays a strong claim to be it. It is the most popular tourist destination for Muslims in the world, yet alcohol is sold in every shop. It is a country where women can sport the hijab and a miniskirt simultaneously. It is 40% Chinese, yet boasts perhaps the most competent English speakers in the Far East. Virtually every word adopted since 1850 is a phonetic rendition of the English. Immigration becomes Immigresun, Station becomes Stesun, Custom becomes Kustam, et cetera. It is a country where most of what the West defines as boundaries simply don’t exist. Like most Asian countries, the borders between indoors and outdoors, day and night, and private and public property are largely ignored. Bars spill over onto the street and serve till nobody wants to drink anymore. Though in theory, public drunkenness is seriously frowned upon (Read: The Malaysian equivalent of a Booting), I saw no evidence of any disapproval during my time there.


I had booked for one night, still hoping to get to Hong Kong. Then I decided I liked being pampered in a five star hotel and booked for another night. Then I noticed one of my colleagues was heading down and booked for another two nights. Happy days. There was one slight hitch. I was in a Muslim country, and we all know how those folks feel about alcohol. Granted, there are bars aplenty, but there isn’t much in the way of variety, as I discovered in what would become my first watering hole in KL, Delaney’s, which was in a hotel, and not a proper Irish bar in any sense of the word. While my hopes were seriously raised by the row of bottles on top of the bar, it turned out that these were display only, and the actual selection was limited to stuff I had already drank. No matter, beer is beer, and if Tiger I must drink, then Tiger I will drink.


The first day was primarily concerned with recovering, and then getting my bearings. For a big city, KL has a conveniently small centre. Most of the good bars are concentrated on three streets, which are in relatively close proximity to each other. The heat and humidity created a strong incentive to stay off the streets where possible, as did the constant pesterings of the various street traders trying to ply their wares onto those who are perhaps less worldly than I am. Then there is the Asian traffic. I have never been in a country in Asia where there is any sort of respect paid to traffic etiquette. I cannot even ascribe this to some sort of inferiority among Orientals in driving skills. The only road accident I was ever involved in was in Korea, and was entirely my fault, when I opened a door into traffic. I blame the climate. Whatever the causes, large parts of Asian metropoli are simply not pedestrian-friendly, beyond the densely-packed city centres where the sheer volume of people makes any sort of dangerous driving impossible.

Anyway, day one having identified a convenient bar, day two was spent doing a smattering of rambling and sightseeing. To be honest, the only sight truly worth seeing (if you don’t have an interest in modern mosques) is the Petronas complex, boasting as it does the former tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas Twin Towers (Note: The Twin Towers’ height included their spire, which the Committee on Tall Buildings failed to notice, therefore there is a strong case to make that their height never exceeded the Sears/Willis Tower in Chicago. The Committee’s response was to include a spire in the height of a building, and exclude antennae, which would also have favoured Chicago). Thankfully, the good citizenry of Malaysia have seen fit to circumvent the entire traffic/humidity/monsoon problem by providing an elevated, covered, air conditioned walkway connecting the area I was in with the complex. Oddly enough, I decided not to go up the towers. There isn’t much reason to go up to get the best view of a city when the only bit of the skyline worth seeing is the only bit you cannot see on account of being inside it.

Now back to the decidedly un-Islamic stuff. I decided that today would be my personal protest against ISIS. Or rather I didn’t. I just tend to break a lot of sharia rules in my general life (I can’t recall the last time I stoned an adulterer to death…). I felt like pizza. To this end, I found myself a Pizza Hut. One slight hitch. There were two types of pepperoni on the menu. This may not seem to be a problem (I have at one point kept three different types in my fridge) but for one major problem: The options were chicken pepperoni or beef pepperoni. Pizza Hut, one of the stalwarts of humanity’s headlong rush towards a globalised monoculture, had seen fit to accede to narrowminded prohibitions on pork. The Hawaiian pizza, which I subsequently chose for, could also claim that no pigs were harmed in its production. While I have no animus towards pigs, I can’t but help that if god hadn’t wanted us to eat pork, he would have made it less delicious.

My search for proper pizza thwarted, I now returned to the narrative for this trip and went back to Delaney’s. I went without any serious plan for the evening, beyond advancing a few levels at Candy Crush and catching up with my emails and the like, all in the comfort of an environment that served beer. Anyway, the nice thing about business hotel bars is that they tend to throw up a lot of solitary travellers who are not averse to getting drunk in the company of strangers. In this case, I got talking to a Canadian guy who was originally from Bangladesh. The barman was also Bangladeshi. A few words of Bengali later and I was suddenly in receipt of free beer. Thankfully my newfound friend (I think his name was Zak) was not a particularly observant Muslim (he freely admitted to having left Bangladesh because he found Islam not to be fun), and we proceeded to get gloriously, uproariously drunk, to the background of varying attempts by locals to do Western songs on a karaoke machine. FInally, we decided to try our hand, and an Irishman and a Bangladeshi Canadian found ourselves singing an American folk ballad, Country Roads, in a Malaysian bar to an audience of Asians, Aussies, and Europeans. Truly, karaoke is the great leveller.


Unsurprisingly, I slept late the next day, and woke up somewhat under par. Fearing a hangover, I immediately returned to the same bar. Zak wasn’t there, but the barman was. Ordering a beer, I was pleasantly surprised to be confronted with neither bill or tab. Repeating the process, the process repeated itself. I was now in receipt of free beer, possibly at the expense of a random encounter from the previous night. While this would seem to be the idealisation of heaven, I was unhappy with the idea of subjecting a friend of mine’s tab to the vagaries of an aggressive Irishman. When my conscience got the better of me in this matter, the barman informed that neither Zak nor myself were in any way on the hook for our tab, the barman had in fact put the whole thing on the tab of a random English fellow who had been aggressively and racistly drunk the previous evening, thereby enabling me to get free beer and the barman to settle (metaphorical) accounts with someone who had abused him.


I had decided on a side project. I would have a pint in every Irish bar in Kuala Lumpur. Not that the list was particularly long. To fill it out, I had to visit two places that shared the name of Healy Mac’s. Subsequently, the Irish Times named one of these establishments as the best Irish bar in the world outside of Ireland, so I can make a claim to have been there before it was famous. They are indeed fine bars. To their credit, they are neither the stereotypical “Oirish” places that one finds in the USA, identikit bars tailored to simply look the part, nor the standard Irish bar in Asia, which is essentially Moe’s Tavern with Guinness on tap. They were essentially an upmarket Asian bar with a heavy Irish influence. More importantly, they had the best pizza I’ve ever had in Asia, this time with proper pork.


In a fortunate turn of events, Paul, a colleague of mine, was also in Malaysia, so rather than trawling expat bars and business hotels to find other misanthropic alcoholics for company, I had drinking company sorted in advance. Wonderful. They were on the other side of the city, but KL’s centre is nice and walkable, so that wasn’t a problem. After one particular night where a lot of drink was consumed, as well as shisha of all things, I decided to walk back to my hotel. This inadvertently took me through the red light district.


I like to think of myself as a worldly person. I have wandered through red light districts in several cities. Yeah, they’re generally not the most salubrious of areas. But at the same time, they are business districts, and all the stakeholders have an interest in keeping the area as attractive as possible for potential clients. So it was surprising when a West African hooker decided to get rather pushy with me. After I politely declined her initial advances, she persisted in trying to take advantage of a visibly drunk Westerner. The thing is, no matter how hammered I am, I retain certain instincts. A few years ago a would-be pickpocket in Benidorm ended up with rather sore fingers after trying to get overly touchy with my waistline, and this time was no different. I know a scam when I see it. Genuine hookers tend to back off after one refusal. If I had taken her up on her advances I would either have had my wallet pinched in short order, or gone back to my hotel room with her only to wake up sans wallet, passport, and any portable electronic devices. The problem was that even after realising that doing a dippideedoodah on my wallet was a non-starter, she continued to pester me. I even tried to fake homosexuality to get rid of her, and that didn’t work. Eventually I managed to palm her off to another potential victim, whom she evidently decided might be an easier mark.


There was one final destination on my itinerary: Chicago. There was snag. The only transpacific flight that looked good from a standby perspective was Cathay Pacific out of Hong Kong. The same problem that had afflicted me out of Auckland, namely Chinese New Year, was now inhibiting me getting into Hong Kong. I was now going to have to contemplate going the long way round, via Abu Dhabi. At least I knew the availability, and it was doable.


As I may have mentioned, I was now somewhat behind in my project. Kuala Lumpur lacks a decent brewpub, and most establishments only serve a small number of beers. I had assumed that, being Islamic, there would be serious restrictions on the sale of alcohol in shops, so imagine my surprise when I discovered, the day before I was due to leave, that there were no such restrictions, and that the shop across from my hotel specialised in extra-strength Dutch lagers. Rather than risk killing myself from necking a few cans of 12% stuff, I wisely decided to grab a few Burmese offerings, which, while bland, at least meant I could get to the airport and still be able to stand up.


One thing about Etihad: They’re exacting Staff have to follow the same procedures worldwide. So do staff passengers. In Dublin, when working for them, we can be tyrannical about dress codes. So it was to my immense shock that the handlers in Kuala Lumpur International Airport neither inspected my attire, used my name, or stood up to greet me. This harrowing experience was capped by me being given my luggage receipt, not on a docket as I had previously deemed customary, but on the back of my boarding card, a procedure that I supposed only happened at lesser airlines. Like I say, a harrowing experience.


Airlines like to brag to their passengers. Malaysian are bad offenders, prefixing all their television with ads for the joys of Kuala Lumpur. Etihad are perhaps worse, subjecting all their passengers to what can be described as propaganda through the on board entertainment systems. They also never miss an opportunity to remind passengers (or guests, as they refer to them) that they are the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, a sly dig at their much larger rival down the road in Dubai.


That said, their inflight service is good, and they have a better beer selection than most airlines, with the possible exceptions of Qantas and a few of the American carriers. Unusually, they also provide decent food onboard, and the seats are quite good from the point of view of sleeping, so I arrived in Abu Dhabi in quite a good humour. Slightly nervous about my prospects of getting to Chicago (the flight had been quite tight when I left KL, and there may have been a few more tickets sold since), but happy nonetheless. My happiness was only intensified when I got accepted onto the Chicago flight, and into (what I thought) was a decent seat. Seventeen hours later, when I got off the aircraft in O’Hare, whatever reserves of happiness I had were long gone, and I had the look of a man who had experienced a deep personal trauma.


I think it is fair to say that, having gone through the US preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi Airport, I now have a fair idea of hell looks like. One goes through X-rays and metal detectors three times, has one’s documents verified three times, and queues for every single interaction. Security and immigration staff seem a good deal more thorough than their Dublin counterparts, presumably because of the longstanding belief in America that darker people are all potential terrorists. Then there’s the babies. So many babies. At any given time there are three or four of them making a racket or trying to escape their parents’ clutches by running under barriers. When one gets through this rigmarole, one now has to deal with the fact that there are not, in fact, any passenger facilities once one has cleared. What seems to have happened is that three enclosed gates were simply given a second entrance. Then they noticed the lack of a toilet. So one has to descend a lift to a lower floor to do one’s ablutions. There doesn’t appear to be a stairs down, so god knows what would happen if the lift were to break. After boarding the flight, it then remained on stand for an hour for no apparent reason.


There is a certain seating etiquette that regular fliers are aware of. If you want to sleep, use a window seat. If you are the kind of person who plans on frequent trips to the toilet, take the aisle. As you can imagine, I’m an aisle person. Unfortunately, the fellow occupying the window seat should have been in an aisle seat too. The blighter must have made twenty trips to the toilet, all of which grotesquely inconvenienced me. It’s hard to amass a stockpile of drinks when you have to move them and fold up your table every hour because some idiot can’t control his bladder. So heavy drinking wasn’t on the cards, and getting any sort of sleep was going to be a problem too.


The flight was going to be taking a somewhat unorthodox route. The conventional route from Abu Dhabi to Chicago would have gone over Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Ukraine. Between ISIS and the People’s Republic of Donetsk, this was perhaps somewhat risky, particularly given the latter’s predilections towards shooting down airliners. The net result was that the flight plan added about thirty minutes onto the normal flight time.


Some years ago Boeing had a great idea. Their flagship widebody, the 777, was built with nine-abreast seating in economy class. But with some narrowing of the aisle and shaving an inch off every seat, they could in fact squeeze ten seats into every row. I was on such an aircraft now, and was about to discover that a narrow aisle was a huge problem if one was in the aisle seat. Every time someone walked past I was knocked in the shoulder. This problem was particularly acute when some South Asian lady who was build along the same dimensions as a sofa made one of her frequent trips to the toilet. Now drinking and sleeping were out of the question, and I was going to be spending a fifteen hour flight being constantly disturbed by the guy inside me’s toilet trips. So I think it wasn’t unreasonable for me to be somewhat dishevelled and haggard. Oh well, time was short, and there was beer to be drank. And I had come to the perfect place for it.


IV: Really Book Smart, But No Common Sense


Chicago. I have extolled its virtues many times. Unlike many American cities, with identikit freeways and endless suburbs, Chicago has a soul. It’s a dark, gritty soul, but it is the kind of soul that encapsulates much of America. It is Anytown, USA writ large. It is the America of doughnut-eating cops, rail yards, and picket-fenced wooden houses. It is the industrial America, the Rust Belt America, and the post-industrial America rolled into one. It is simultaneously an Irish-American city, a German-American city, an African-American city and a Hispanic-American city. Whereas New York subsumes all these identities into the portmanteau of simply being a New Yorker, Chicagoans retain an affinity with their roots. The net result is one of the most interesting cities on the planet.


Chicago is also probably the best city in America for drinking. Certainly, it offers an incredible range of bars.The true Chicago bar is the dive, a dirty, dim place whose sole bartender is the proprietor. But there is a whole spectrum of bars to choose from. There is the extreme upmarket (The cocktail bar at the Peninsula), the upmarket (the Signature Room), the mid-range (Timmy O’Tooles on Ontario or the Lodge on Division), and the downmarket with a vestige of class (Pippin’s on Rush). Essentially, no matter your station in life, Chicago will provide a drinking establishment for you.


March can do weird things to Chicago. In this case, it was an unseasonably cold March. Lake Michigan was still frozen. There was snow on the street. This made hauling my suitcase over a few blocks something of a chore, and caked both my suitcase and shoes in slush upon arrival at my hotel.


I had gone to Chicago to catch up with Dave Grimes. He wasn’t due to arrive for a few days yet. I was therefore left to my own devices, which gave me the perfect opportunity to finish the project. Timmy O’Tooles supplied me with a clutch of decent ales on Friday, as well as a pretty awesome steak. So it was that the next day I walked into Pippin’s, with only four beers to go, and trying to work out how to finish the project in style.

One thing that I had learned over my travels was to get on with strangers. In this case, my unintended drinking companions were a company executive from the East Coast and a ship’s captain from New Orleans who lived in the John Hancock Building. In these situations I tend to downplay the minutiae of my job and play up the more interesting aspects. As a result, my newfound friends were under the impression that my duties were entirely about credit card fraud. It was at some point that afternoon that a pint of Stella Artois became my eightieth different beer of my trip. Mission accomplished. The ghosts of three years ago were laid to rest.


There are half a million homeless people in America. Chicago is home to an awful lot of them. However, in my experience, cold snaps tend to have an adverse effect on visibly homeless people. I hadn’t seen a single vagrant in my time there. Then Dave rang and asked me to meet him at the most suitable L-Train station. Arriving early, and without a nearby bar to duck into, I detoured into a nearby McDonald’s. Suddenly I discovered where the homeless population of Chicago went for the winter. I was the only non-transient customer in the place, and thus became the focus of their mendicancy. Ten minutes of requests for change can turn someone very rightwing indeed.


David Grimes is one of the few people to whom I would ever defer. The bastard had an astounding amount of knowledge about scientific matters, and a vaguely worrying amount about everything else. He’s also a decent chap to go drinking with. He was over on a junket, which at least allowed me to lord my previous experience of Chicago over him (believe you me, for my fragile ego, this matters). More importantly, I got to take advantage of his expenses, albeit on a small scale.


Chicago is a city that doesn’t really have a proper tourist scene. Navy Pier on a frozen Lake Michigan was perhaps the only thing I could show Dave. Even the freeze was a bit of a diasppointment, as the thaw seemed to have hit at an inopportune moment. On the other hand, the people Mr Grimes was visiting/junketing were most interesting. Suffice it to say that the state of Illinois paid for a few drinks for me, though this wasn’t my intention. Also, should you be a true carnivore, I would heartily recommend the Swine & Wine on Michigan. Though perhaps having pork brain on the menu might be a bit much.


Myself and Dave have a few shared passions. Both of us hate stupidity. Both of us have issues with the idea of a God or the amount of money spent on the Irish language. But, most importantly as the evening proved, both of us love Jim Steinman. If you don’t know who Jim Steinman is, you don’t deserve to be reading this. Google Jim Steinman, listen to a few Meat Loaf songs, and come back enriched. That’s the way it is.


The final evening found us in Pippin’s again. This bar has a sign on the door forbidding bringing in handguns. Not specifically relevant, but important to understand the nature of Pippin’s. It’s a slightly dodgy establishment. Mind you, me and Dave basically monopolised the jukebox, which meant that the unfortunate patrons of said bar were subjected to various Wagnerian Rock masterpieces for the evening. At least it beats the last time I was in Chicago, when an unnamed friend decided that playing B’Witched would be a good idea. All in all though, a good way to round off the trip.


In the five years that I have been a regular user of Chicago O’Hare International Airport, the International terminal has undergone a vast improvement. When I first went there, the sole airside facilities were a newsagent and a stand that sold bottles of beer. Now there are restaurants and decent bars, as well as duty free facilities. In other words everything someone like me needs. At this stage I was down to my last reserves of cash, so the fact that I was heading home was a welcome relief. A month is a long time to be abroad.


Epilogue: Greg Bowler: Died from Living?


They say travel broadens the mind. I’ve never been too sure of that. When I crept into my own bed on the morning of March 5th, 2015, I suppose that my main emotion was relief. Reality was going to reassert itself. Admittedly it was a reality of sixty-hour weeks and austerity. A month abroad had cost me far more than planned. I needed normality, if only for the sake of financial sense.


And yet, returning to work that evening wasn’t closure. Having taken four weeks off, flown nearly forty thousand miles, and drank eighty-six different beers, it takes some time to get back into reality. Granted, I owed thousands of euros to various individuals. That kind of thing tends to focus the mind wonderfully. But as I dealt with that new reality, one more associated with the Greek government, I was more relaxed than might be expected.


I’m feckless with money. I earn it. I spend it. I accumulate a certain amount. I spend it on a holiday. I have fun. Reset and repeat. Maybe I get a bit more indebted than I should. Maybe I could have some sort of coherent plan for the future. But the future isn’t within my control. I could die tomorrow. I could end up sacrificing the present on the altar of the future, and then what? The true reality is that of memories, and given the choice between accumulating money and memories, I know what I would choose.

Appendix: Beer Chart


1: Tennent’s on Couch at home on morning of departure

2: Slaney in the Slaney

3: Creans on the 152

4: Bombardier in Heathrow T4

5: Bridge in the Bridge

6: Tiger on MH3

7: Carlsberg on MH3

8: Asahi in KLIA

9: Heineken on MH129

10: Peroni in the Espy

11: Fat Yak in the hotel

12: Corona in Tim’s place

13: James Boag in the Crown

14: Carlton Draught in the motel

15: Kosciusko in the Elephant and Wheelbarrow

16: James Squire Pale in the E&W

17: Little Creatures in the E&W

18: Sierra Nevada in the Fifth Province

19: Little Creatures Bright in the E&W

20: White Rabbit Pale in the E&W

21: Squire’s Golden in the E&W

22: Cascade Pale Ale in the Fifth Province

23: Cooper’s in the Fifth Province

24: Tsingtao in the Motel

25: Little Ripper in the AV8

26: XXXX Gold on QF161

27: Monteith Golden in WLG

28: Hollandia in the Leisure Inn

29: Parrot Dog in a random Wellington pub

30: Assembly Pale Ale in another random Wellington pub

31: Founders 2009 in the same random Wellington pub

32: Founders 1981 in the Residence in Wellington

33: “Beer” (Variety undisclosed, apparently some sort of House Lager) in the Bresolin, Wellington

34: Flying Fortress in the George, Wellington

35: North End on the Straitsman Ferry, Wellington

36: Tui at the cricket game

37: NZ Pale ale in a random gaff

38: Three Wolves Pale Ale in random pub in Nelson

39: Sprig and Fern Pale Ale in Nelson

40: Sprig and Fern Blonde in Nelson

41: Steinlager in NSN

42: Hawkes Bay Pure Lager in the Fiddler

43: Hawkes Bay Amber Ale in the Fiddler

44: Southern Star Pale Ale in the Shakespeare

45: Emerson Pale Ale in the Windsor Castle

46: Speights in the Windsor Castle

47: Sawmill Pale Ale in the Paddington

48: Mac’s Gold in the Paddington

49: Speight’s 5 Malt Dark in AKL

50: Myanmar in the Swiss Garden

51: Paulaner in HealyMac’s

52: Kronenbourg on EY413

53: Modelo in the Red Roof

54: Goose Island 312 in Pippin’s

55: Dos Equis in Pippin’s

56: Dogfish head in Pippin’s

57: Goose Island Green Line in Pippin’s

58: Boulevard 80 Acre in Pippin’s

59: Goose Island ten hill in Harry Corry’s

60: Goose Island Honkers in Harry Corry’s

61: Sam Adams Cold Snap in Timmy O’Toole’s

62: Founder’s All Day IPA in Timmy O’Toole’s

63: Revolution Fist City in Timmy O’Toole’s

64: Sam Adams Boston Lager in Timmy O’Toole’s

65: Oskar Blues Pinner in Timmy O’Toole’s

66: Fat Tire in Timmy O’Toole’s

67: 3 Floyd’s Gumball Head in Timmy O’Tooles

68: Pier Pale Ale in the Signature

69: Five Rabbit in the Hyatt

70: Begyle Blonde in Timothy O’Toole’s

71: Harp in Pippin’s

72: Chainbreaker in Timmy O’Toole’s

73: Lagunitas IPA in Timmy O’Toole’s

74: PBR in the Red Roof Inn

75: Mad Hatter in Pippin’s

76: Smithwick’s in Pippins

77: New Belgium Snapshot in Pippin’s

78: Revolution Seasonal in Pippin’s

79: Miller High Life in Pippin’s

80: Stella Artois in Pippin’s

81: Krankschaft Kolsch in Pippin’s

82: Dales Pale Ale in Pippin’s

83: Jubelale in Pippin’s

84: Estrella Damm in the Swine and Wine

85: Mythos in the Swine and Wine

86: Revolution Antihero in Pippin’s

By gregbowler

Random Miscellany: 60 things you never knew you didn’t need to know

In 1898, an author named Morgan Robertson wrote a book, “Futility, or the wreck of the Titan”, detailing a disaster in which an “unsinkable” liner, the Titan, sank in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg, and caused great loss of life as a result of carrying too few lifeboats. Fourteen years later, fiction became reality when RMS Titanic sank.

The last English monarch to die in battle was Richard III in 1485 at Bosworth Field, having made the mistake of wearing his crown into battle.

William Buckland, who was the first person to identify and name a dinosaur, was noted for his attempt to eat every single animal, of which he considered bluebottle and mole to be the worst-tasting. Upon another occasion, he was at a stately home that contained the embalmed heart of Louis XIV of France. Upon hearing this, Buckland said that he had eaten many strange things, but never the heart of a king, and proceeded to rectify this by eating the heart raw.

It is believed that, due to the large prison population there, there are more rapes committed against men than against women in the United States every year

Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray once claimed that e=mc2 was a “sexed” equation, as it prioritised the speed of light over other, “more feminine” speeds.

In Biblical law, it is prohibited to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk. In addition, if two men are fighting and the wife of one of the men grabs the other’s privates, her hand is to be cut off.

Roald Dahl is best remembered as a children’s author, but among his other exploits was writing the script for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. The film was the first Bond to differ significantly from the source material, the only similarity was the names of the characters and the Japanese setting.

Most of the original research on the dangers of smoking was done by the Nazis. This fact was used by tobacco companies to smear anti-smoking campaigners

Rather than execution, William I of England preferred blinding criminals, as they would then remain in society as a visible deterrent to others.

During the Battle of Jaffa in 1192 against Saladin, Richard the Lionheart’s horse was killed by an arrow. Saladin ordered that one of his personal horses be sent across the line as a replacement

The five Marx brothers were Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo. Their real names were, respectively, Leonard, Adolph, Julius, Herbert and Milton Marx. A sixth brother, Manfred, died in infancy.

In the 1950s, most of the USA’s atomic bomb tests took place in Nevada, a few miles northwest of Las Vegas. As a consequence, hotels in Vegas advertised “bomb parties” on nights where a test was scheduled for dawn. Guests would spend the evening drinking cocktails before proceeding to a viewing area to watch the detonation.

Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent.

Despite the fact that they are technically a fruit, by US law, tomatoes are considered vegetables.

During one week in July 1943, Britain’s Bomber Command managed to kill more German civilians than the Germans managed in six years of bombing Britain.

Statistically, if you travel 25 miles in any direction in Papua New Guinea, you will cross a language barrier.

Between 1651 and 1986, Holland was technically at war with the Isles of Scilly.

There is an ongoing territorial dispute between the Vatican and Italy. The territory in question has an area of 180m2

Distilled alcohol was invented by Muslims.

The first official slave owner in Virginia, Anthony Johnson, was black.

The word “Kamikaze” literally means “Divine Wind”, a reference to the typhoon that smashed a Mongol fleet in  1281, saving Japan from invasion.

“Alan Smithee” was a directorial name attached to any Hollywood film that its original director disavowed, usually as a result of artistic differences with the studio. Mr Smithee is credited with over twenty films

The Phantom of the Opera is the most successful entertainment event in history, having grossed over $5 billion

Contrary to popular belief, the Dead Sea is not the saltiest body of water in the world. Don Juan Pond in Antarctica has more than twice the salinity levels, and is so salty that it remains liquid at -30 degrees.

During the Second World War, one of the most common non-combat causes of death for the Red Army was poisoning. This was because conscripts would often supplement their vodka rations with antifreeze intended for their tanks

Alaska is both the easternmost and westernmost state in the USA

In the 15th century, the Portuguese referred to Muslims as “rumes” This was derived from the Sultanate of Rum, which, ironically, took its name from Rome in Italy.

The longest mountain range on Earth is the Mid-Atlantic ridge. Almost all of its 40,000km length is underwater.

In the past half-century, over 50 dogs have jumped off Overtoun Bridge in Dumbarton, Scotland. The reason for this has never been established.

With a capacity of 150,000, the Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea  is the largest in the world today. However, the Maracana Municipal Stadium in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, was once listed as having a capacity of 200,000. The (now-defunct) Strahov stadiumin Prague, Czech Republic, had a capacity of 220,000. This is dwarfed by the (technically not a stadium) Indianapolis Speedway, with a capacity of 257,325, and the (now-demolished) Circus Maximus in Rome, which seated 250,000

The last invasion of Britain took place in 1797 in Fishguard, Wales, by the French. Despite an overwhelming superiority in local numbers, the French force quickly surrendered. A number of French soldiers were captured by local women and locked in a church.

Nobel Peace Laureates Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin, and Sean MacBride were respectively former heads of the PLO, the Irgun, and the IRA, three of the most notorious terrorist organisations of modern times.

Reaching a depth of over 230m at some points, the Congo is the deepest river in the world. Lake Baikal in Russia is the world’s deepest lake, at a maximum depth of 1,642m. The deepest point on Earth is Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, estimated at 10,916m deep.

Hollywood legend James Stewart, known for his roles in It’s a Wonderful Life and a number of Alfred Hitchcock films, enlisted in the United States Army Air Force as a private. After numerous attempts by the Army to use his celebrity status for PR purposes, he finally saw combat action in 1943, completing multiple bombing tours of Germany and accumulating numerous decorations, as well as rising to the rank of colonel. Following the war he stayed in the Air Force reserves, participating in missions over Vietnam, before retiring as a general, all the while keeping up with his acting career.

Legendary British authors CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley both died on November 22, 1963. Their deaths were almost completely unreported in the media, as they occurred on the same day as the assassination of JFK. Curiously enough, exactly thirty years later, on November 22, 1993, legendary British author Anthony Burgess died.

With a height of 7,570 metres, Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan is the highest mountain in the world never to have been climbed. Up until the 1990s, there had been no successful expedition, and since 2003, mountaineering has been banned entirely.

The man who invented Zyklon-B, Fritz Haber, was Jewish.

The 1956 film the Conqueror was a biopic of Genghis Khan starring a horribly miscast John Wayne. It was filmed downwind of the United States’ primary nuclear test site. By 1981, of the 220 credited cast and crew, 91 had contracted cancer, of whom half died as a result, including Wayne.

The scientific name for the Brown Bear is Ursus Arctos, a portmanteau of Greek and Latin. Ursus is Latin for bear and Arctos is Greek for bear, meaning it translates as ‘bear bear’. The main subspecies, the Eurasian Brown Bear, is Ursus Arctos Arctos, or ‘bear bear bear’.

A common way to detect forgeries of paintings that ostensibly predate 1945 is to analyse the paint for traces of Caesium-137 or Strontium-90. Both of these substances only came into existence on Earth as a result of nuclear reactions, so if they are found in the paint, then the painting was made post-1945

There is a bridge over the Neretva River in Bosnia that has been blown up four times. The first two occasions were in the Second World War, firstly by the Yugoslav Partisans and then by the Luftwaffe. The Yugoslav government financed a lavish movie adaptation of these events. For the sake of realism, the director, Veljko Bulajic, decided to blow up the rebuilt bridge. Unfortunately, smoke from the detonation obscured the shot, so the bridge was rebuilt, then blown up again. The same problem occured, and the explosion shots were eventually filmed on a sound stage.

Neither haggis, kilts, nor bagpipes are originally from Scotland

Peter the Great of Russia was noted as being a keen amateur dentist, to the point that a rather cruel joke at court was to inform the Tsar that a courtier had a toothache, whereupon Peter would insist on having the unfortunate individual held down and removing a tooth, regardless of whether it was the aching tooth or whether they had a toothache in the first place

The character of Ebenezer Scrooge was largely based on a real person, 18th-century English politician John Elwes. Elwes was noted for invariably going to bed at sundown to save money on candles. His clothes were so shabby that he often received money from those who mistook him for a beggar, and his country house was largely derelict. A relative once had to move a bed into a different room to avoid a hole in the roof through which rain was pouring through.

Michel Ney was one of Napoleon’s marshals, noted for his near-suicidal bravery. At the battle of Waterloo, he had six horses shot from under him while charging British guns. Following Napoleon’s defeat, a court sentenced Ney to death by firing squad. Ney’s final request was that he be allowed to give the order to fire. His last words were, “Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, Fire!”[

Footballer Jimmy Greaves was due to sign for Tottenham Hotspur from AC Milan for £100,000 in 1961. However, neither the player nor Spurs’ manager, Bill Nicholson, were happy with the prospect of the first transfer to break six figures, so AC Milan agreed to knock £1 off the fee, meaning he sold for £99,999

In the Second World War, the British Special Operations Executive carried out a number of bizarre missions against the Germans. One of these involved passing vast amounts of itching powder to resistance movements in Europe, who used it in various textile factories manufacturing German uniforms. Among their most notable successes were when a German U-Boat returned to port after the crew became convinced they had contracted a skin disease, and the hospitalisation of a number of German soldiers based in Norway after the Resistance managed to have powder put in army-issue condoms.

Saudi Arabia is unique in being the only country named after its ruling family, the only country where women are forbidden from driving, and the only country where crucifixion is still practiced.

Thieves once attempted to rob the Spanish house of Hollywood hardman Dolph Lundgren. After tying up his wife and children, the intruders proceeded to search the place for valuables, before seeing a family photo and realising they had made a terrible mistake, then fleeing without taking anything.

Karl Marx’s last words were “Last words are for fools who believe they have not yet said enough”

Paro Airport is Bhutan’s only international airport. However, the landing is so hazardous that there are only eight pilots licensed to land there.

Contrary to popular belief, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 wasn’t defeated by the winter. Far more men were lost in the summer through a combination of desertion, disease, starvation, suicide and battle casualties than died during the winter months.

Despite its name, the Northern Line is the southernmost of the London Underground lines.

Though it is the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest is not an overly dangerous climb anymore. For every 100 people who successfully ascend, statistically there will be 5 deaths, a low figure considering the amount of amateurs who attempt the climb. In contrast, the fatality/success ratio for K2, the second highest mountain is about 24/100, and for every 100 people who successfully ascended Annapurna, the tenth highest, there are 38 who went up but never made it back.

World War II was the deadliest conflict in history, with an estimated death toll of 70 million. It also contained the deadliest battle in history (Battle of Stalingrad or Siege of Leningrad, depending on how it’s counted), the deadliest shark attack (the sinking of the Indianapolis) and the deadliest crocodile attack (the battle of Ramree Island)

The highest scoring seven-letter word in Scrabble is QUARTZY. Placed across a triple word score with the Q on a double letter score, it will get 164 points.

The landmark chariot race in the 1925 version of Ben Hur wasn’t staged. In order to achieve a realistic feel, director Fred Niblo had the stuntmen race for real and offered $100 to the winner, a fortune at the time. As a result, at least one stuntman and dozens of horses died during the filming of the race.

British doctor Harold Shipman is the most prolific serial killer of all time by proven victims, with at least 218 deaths ascribed to him. However, Colombian Luis Garavito is suspected of up to 400 murders, with 138 confirmed victims. Finnish sniper Simo Hayha is credited with 505 confirmed kills in a three month period fighting the the Soviet Union in 1939/40. However, all these figures are dwarfed by Russian NKVD member Vasily Blokhin, who personally executed most of the 7,000 victims of the Katyn Massacre in a four-week period in 1940, and is believed to have killed tens of thousands of people over the course of his career in the NKVD.

The average smartphone contains a higher percentage of gold than the equivalent weight in gold ore.

The maximum possible break in snooker is generally 147, however under exceptional circumstances it is possible to score a break of 155, if a foul resulting in a free ball occurs before any red has been potted. The only tournament break exceeding 147 was a 148 in the qualifying for the 2004 UK Championships, and only one instance of a 155 break has ever been recorded, in a practice game in 2005.

By gregbowler

Per Ardua ad Australia

Prologue: Fail to plan, plan to muddle through….

I am a great maker of plans. I would say I have a very fertile mind where schemes are concerned, particularly as regards travel and the like. Every year I come up with ever more elaborate destinations to visit, and every year singularly fail to visit most of them. This is because where planning is concerned, great and all as I am at generating ideas, I lack that edge that turns a general set of ideas into a campaign so finely wrought it could have come from the mind of Napoleon or von Moltke. In short, I fail to cover everything. The fun bits of planning, I can do. The nitty-gritty, and the discipline to see these through, less so. By way of example, look at my apartment-searching over the past year. While myself and Michael were all talk about things like what sort of food would we be able to both eat and the kind of soirees that would be thrown, the actual business of finding an apartment and sourcing references was relegated to the category of “stuff to be done at some unspecified point in the future”.

Even keeping an account of my travels over the past few months fell into this trap of inactivity. I simply wouldn’t keep abreast of documenting my various trips, and by the time I felt like doing it, I had forgotten most of the interesting things that happened, so the project would be shelved. In short, I, like most of the population of the planet, am a half-assed procrastinator. Still, it’s worked so far.

Anyway, this is preamble to the planning of my main trip for the year. The plan started out relatively vague. I would take a holiday in October, and possibly September. This had been the plan for months. Beyond a notion that I should visit my brother in Melbourne, there was nothing else. Sure, there were grandiose schemes. I would take six weeks off. I would visit Tokyo, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, San Francisco and finish in Chicago again, in what was essentially a scaled-up version of my trip last year.

Of course, reality was having none of this. While theoretically I could have taken the six weeks leave necessary for this trip, my own slovenly sense of organisation was never going to ensure I had all my days sorted out. In addition, in a rather surprising turn of events, my apartment hunting finally bore fruit, though my input in the whole business was, to put it mildly, marginal. While independence is a nice thing, self-responsibility consumes more time and money than living at home. Financial discipline while in Ireland, the cornerstone of my whole grandiose plan, was out the window. In its place came drink-fuelled nights out in town and paying airport prices for a lunch I didn’t have time to make before work (or at least, was not willing to get out of bed to make).

So anyway, six weeks became five, which became a month, which contracted to three weeks, exactly the same amount of time I spent on my last trip. I could at least ensure I had this much time off. Next was an itinerary. Australia was a necessity, what with not having seen the brother in a year. Finishing in Chicago seemed like a good idea too, it made it easy to get home, and I could drag a few heads over from Ireland to join me. However, this left a week in the middle that I really couldn’t work out what to do with.

Of course, humans are wonderful at adapting to adverse situations. The fact that I kept putting things off left me with a huge workload for the two days before I left, but decades of procrastination has left me a master of doing things last-minute. Paperwork was hurriedly printed out while at work. My packing process, always quick, was condensed into a few minutes by the simple expedient of carefully removing each of the drawers from my wardrobe and tipping the contents into a suitcase. Ok, somewhere down the line this might leave me with a disproportionate amount of certain types of clothes, but this has never been a problem before. When one item runs short, I simply purchase more. Of course, I was vaguely aware that at some point on my trip I would have to wash clothes, but I put this thought as far out of my mind as possible. After all, a major reason for taking a holiday was to take a break from the unending race against my laundry.

Certain lessons had been learned from last year’s experiences in Dubai and Hong Kong. I wasn’t going to get caught out having to pay a thousand euro for a full fare ticket at the last minute. Sensibly, I decided to go full fare for the last leg, and book well in advance. All that was left was to get to Kuala Lumpur in time for my flight. My route of choice was via Amsterdam. I have a deep-seated hatred of Heathrow, Frankfurt’s scheduling was awkward, and in my experience European carriers are nicer to standbys than their Middle Eastern counterparts.

A good standby passenger must be an acute observer of the industry, and I would like to think of myself as being good at standby. I have a policy when travelling of flying with loss-making airlines where possible. If they are losing money, it means that they have priced themselves out of the market, and probably aren’t filling aircraft. Ergo, lots of standby seats. In Europe, the best candidate for me was KLM. So Amsterdam it was.

Regular followers of my misadventures will know that last year I attempted to do eighty different beers while travelling around the world, only to go down in graceful defeat rather than finish off with three light beers. I briefly contemplated repeating the attempt this year, but demurred. The liver I am bringing with me is not what it was last year. My alcohol tolerance has bombed, and to be honest, spending three weeks in a drunken haze doesn’t sound like as much fun as it used to. I grow old.  In the end, I resolved to head off and simply have as much fun as possible, and if it happens to be in a drunken haze, so much the better.

So anyway, having decided on a routing out of Dublin, a year to the day after I left the last time, I appeared at the Aer Lingus standby desk, hoping and praying I hadn’t forgotten anything too important.



Part I: Amsterdamned if you do, Amsterdamned if you don’t.

I have a longstanding gripe, as an airline customer service agent, that airlines are overly accommodating to passengers travelling with children. It is as if the mere act of squeezing out a sprog entitles you to privileges that those of us who are sensible enough not to contribute to global overpopulation do not get. If you travel with a child, you can appear at the airport any time and still get your choice of seat (“He’s only eight, he can’t sit on his own”, as if every other passenger on the plane was a paedophile), you can board first (“I need to get them settled”), you can bring obscene amounts of handluggage on board (“It’s for the kids”), and you can’t be held to account for whatever horrors your brat inflicts on other passengers (“He’s just a little high-spirited….”). DAA have introduced another concession to the childbearing crowd, namely, a dedicated security queue for families. Of course, I know that this is actually a concession to the rest of us. Buggies are a nightmare to get through security. As a result, families, far from getting a free pass, are instead corralled into an area where the only people inconvenienced by their little bundles of terror are other families.

There is an art to getting through airport screening, particularly in off peak in Dublin. Political pressure from the grey brigade has meant that the only people with the time and money for holidays in October are generally the elderly. As a result, a seasoned traveller knows to look for the least wrinkled queue in security. As George Clooney said of elderly passengers in Up in the Air, their bodies are littered with hidden pieces of metal and they have no appreciation for how little time they have left. It’s knowledge like this that minimises the hassle of travel.

Anyway, with these hurdles cleared, I settled down in the Slaney bar in Dublin Airport. Lack of food in the apartment led me to forgo breakfast that morning, so I dealt with that issue in the Slaney, if you can call a pint of Smithwick’s breakfast.

Inasmuch as I’ve ever had an uneventful flight, the Dublin to Amsterdam one on October 1st was it. A nice, straight flight path, no turbulence, three seats to myself, a beer and a book, what more could one ask? And MyIdtravel.com, the Google for standby travel, still had my Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight as being wide open, so things were looking up nicely.

I like the Dutch. They are almost as efficient as the Germans, but far more laid back. Their favourite English word is “Sure”. Schipol Airport, while big, is very easy to navigate, and for this and a few other reasons is now my preferred place to connect on to other flights. The big reason, of course, is that KLM virtually always have seats available on their flights. Even when they are tight, there’s usually a pile of passengers misconnecting, so one usually gets a seat in the end. Sometimes, however, it gets very hairy indeed.

I can only assume that a number of passengers on the early morning flight to Kuala Lumpur misconnected and were moved to the later flight, because when I got into Schipol the picture wasn’t nearly as rosy as MyIdtravel.com had led me to believe. I walked up to the standby desk and asked what my chances were, whereupon the agent started looking up the flight on the computer and muttering to herself that the flight was oversold by eight, before informing me that it was “hard to tell”. Speaking as someone who has worked behind a standby desk, I can tell you that “hard to tell” actually means “you don’t have a hope but I’m not in the humour to hear a sob story”.

Ok, this was beginning to look like deja vu, with one major difference. Last year, I was on completely flexible tickets, so all I was losing was time if I couldn’t get out on flights. Even so, I had to shell out serious wedge on confirmed tickets booked at the last minute. This time, in order to save that problem occurring again, I had a confirmed ticket from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney. The issue was that everything was predicated on me reaching Kuala Lumpur in time for my next flight. Suddenly this was looking unlikely in the extreme. Extensive research revealed two equally unpleasant options: The first was flying to Paris, then to Hong ong, then to KL and hoping I could change my booking en route for a minimal fee. The second was flying to Paris, from there to Shanghai, and chancing my arm going standby on a Qantas flight from Shanghai to Sydney. Either way had the potential to be an expensive repeat of the year before.

Then came the miracle. I was at the gate, waiting to find out my fate, when one of the staff asked me if I was willing to sit in a crew seat. Somehow I managed to say yes without getting on my knees and pleading for it. Twelve hours in the cockpit might not have been pleasant, but it sure beat arsing around Schipol and getting a morning flight to Paris to endure the same rigmarole there.

Then a second miracle. There were about a dozen staff passengers trying to get out on that flight. Three got seats. I was the third. Granted, it was a middle seat behind the bassinets, but beggars can’t be choosers, and in standby terms, I was the equivalent of the scruffy guys on O’Connell Street asking for money for a hostel/heroin.

KLM fly Boeing 777s on the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur route. Not my favourite type of aircraft. At some point in the past some genius noticed that with care, the plane could seat ten passengers abreast, rather than the nine it had been designed for. Great idea from the point of view of the bottom line, but from the point of view of a fat bastard like me, the inch or two reduction in the width of my seat was a sore price to pay. Other problems emerge. Suddenly, there’s additional demand for the toilets, a facility 777s never had in abundance anyway. In addition, the catering facilities were designed for a smaller amount of passengers. Net result, two of the three flights I have ever been on that have run out of Heineken have been 777s, and given that this was only my third time on such an aircraft, that represented a 100% strike rate so far.

Twelve hours in an unnaturally narrow middle seat was not my idea of a good time, as can be imagined. Then there was the food. Like every European carrier, KLM has seen fit to prune its catering budget to near nothingness. To this could be added the general awfulness of Dutch food. Lacking a serious ethnic cuisine, the Duth have seen fit to appropriate the food of others. However, in order to give it a distinctive feel, they add grease. Lots of grease. Anytime I order pizza in Holland I find myself obliged to tilt it at a steep angle in order to pour off vast amounts of the stuff. Also, Malaysia is a Muslim country. KLM had a simple policy to ensure that nobody was forced to eat non-halal food. Everyone got a halal meal. The true implications of this would not become obvious until breakfast time, when I realised that there wasn’t going to be bacon. I know all of this is more than offset by the gratitude I bear KLM for getting me to Malaysia in the first place, but it is human nature that we forget big favours and remember small indignities. Bacon is the greatest of foods, and to have my expectations of bacon punctured on religious grounds was sore.

It occurs to me that I have now seen all three Iron Man films for the first time on aircraft. Twelve hours of flying allowed me to get in not only Iron Man III, but also Man of Steel, Skyfall and A Good Day to Die Hard, which I forced myself to endure again, largely out of masochism and a need to confirm it was as bad as I remembered. After four stellar Die Hards, the latter is an abomination equivalent to the Golden Calf or the Qatar World Cup. Anyway, at 3pm local time, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and worryingly sober from lack of alcohol, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur.


Part II: One Lumpur Two

I had only ever been a distant observer of Malaysia, and my observations were far from pleasant. It is effectively a nondemocratic country that routinely discriminates against Christians and non-Malays. The standard way of sidelining political opponents is to accuse them of homosexuality. As a result, my decision to go via Kuala Lumpur was more motivated by lack of other options. My experiences last year taught me that it was cheaper to go full-fare for the last leg into Australia, so an intermediary destination was required. Unfortunately, sitting square in between Europe and Australia are a line of countries that are, to put it bluntly, Muslim. While Sharia law has many admirable traits such as rules about charity (strongly encouraged) and racism (strictly proscribed) the fact remains that Islam has issues with the kind of things I consider fun. Eighteen hours in Dubai Airport without so much as a pint of beer last year meant I was now extremely wary about where I would make my stopover. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar were out on account of being not particularly fun and generally being expensive to get to Australia from. Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore were tight both coming and going. And so I was left with Kuala Lumpur. Islamic, but not excessively so. Quite cosmopolitan, and tolerant of alcohol. And of course, cheap to fly onwards from, but more on that later.

Casual racist that I am, I have a few opinions about the Far East. Based on previous observation, I have noticed that they combine dislike and fascination in their attitudes towards foreigners, and that if there is even a hint of money about you, you get treated like royalty. So it was that I walked into my hotel in a suit and tipping generously (by Asian standards, where any tip is generous), and suddenly people were falling over themselves to help me out, as though I were a young member of the Rothschild dynasty.

Though I have been to Southeast Asia before, I always marvel at how cheap everything is. A night in a high-end hotel, a meal and a few beers, breakfast and a pint in the airport, and a meal and a dozen beers on board my flight came to less than five hundred Malaysian ringgit, or one hundred and twenty euro. Anyway, by this point I was so tired that I could barely stand up, so I hit the bed at 7pm local time, and to my surprise managed to sleep for eleven hours undisturbed.

Next day in the airport bus station I got something of a surprise. My previous assumption that looking rich encouraged the royal treatment was mistaken. While walking through the bus station, no fewer than four different bus drivers approached me, not to solicit business, but to give me directions to the relevant bus. When I dropped a few coins, two people picked them up and returned them to me. All parties refused any sort of tips. Clearly my impression of Malaysians as xenophobes was wrong in the extreme. They seem to be a genuinely friendly people. In addition, everyone there spoke perfect English, something I have never encountered in Asia, even in Hong Kong.

Malay itself seems to have borrowed an awful lot of what is called “Panglish”, or global English. Bus Station has become Bas Stasun, and a description for high quality food is “Hameed” (Homemade). If ever I was aware of the global imperative towards English it was that morning in Kuala Lumpur Airport. To my eye (which is rather good in this matter), the queue for checkin was comprised of Bangladeshis, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Australians, all of whom addressed the (Malay) checkin agent in English. Much as it may upset the French, English is now the true world language.

Of course, the primary reason I was flying through Kuala Lumpur was price, and here KL had a huge advantage over other airports. When Michael O’Leary has sex, he probably thinks about AirAsia. The airline boasts the lowest cost base in the world, and consequently offers insanely cheap fares. One suspects a number of corners may have been cut (a common practice with Southeast Asian carriers, many of whom are banned from flying to the EU on safety grounds), but they haven’t had an incident yet, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Of course, I dreaded the onboard facilities. I had cleverly selected my seat in the premium area and in such a way that there was a strong chance the seat beside me would remain vacant. However, given that they were managing to squeeze 377 seats onto an aircraft that Aer Lingus would put 322 on, I was pretty sure it was going to be a cramped trip.

To my delighted shock, the flight was nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated. I did indeed have an empty seat to work with, and the cabin crew positively forced (cheap) beer onto me. Oddly enough, I am more likely to drink heavily on a flight where I have to pay, as it reduces the guilt I feel at abusing the facility. The only downside was the food. Ok, it was cheap, but asking for a cheese pizza slice means just cheese. This problem had hit me the night before too, when a pepperoni pizza contained all sorts of unwanted extras, such as onions, peppers, and most awfully, mushrooms. I would not be an overly fussy eater, but I draw the line at mushrooms. To put it simply, they trigger my gag reflex. Unfortunately, Malaysia seems to be insane about the things. The two pizzas I had were slathered in them, and the chefs had a gift for concealment, which meant that I had to carefully peel each layer of the pizza to ensure that none of the blighters remained. Mind you, compared to KLM’s fare, it was a marked improvement, and I felt positively enthusiastic disembarking in Sydney, despite my knowledge of the ordeal that was Australian immigration.

A quarter of a million people migrate to Australia every year. This is an insane number for a country that doesn’t border a warzone, but given how rich and empty the Australia is, the number makes a kind of sense. It is the job of Australian Immigration officials to make life as miserable as possible on tourists The last time I was in Oz I spent the guts of an hour queueing and enduring nonsensical questions about my job (“I do as little as possible”), my marital status (“you must be joking”), and my onwards travel plans (“The sooner the better”). Hell, they are the only immigration service in the world that has a documentary about them. Should I be detained, at least I might become famous.

Thankfully, none of these eventualities occured. I made it through immigration and customs without becoming an impromptu TV star. In fact, the worst immigration experience to this point was getiing through Amsterdam, which as an EU citizen, should really be a cinch but government cutbacks have obviously afflicted this area too. The next hurdle was getting a cab. My hotel was a local run, which meant I was going to make an enemy of whichever taxi driver was at the front of the rank. My standard way around this is to tip generously, but when I walked up to the chosen cab, there was no driver to be found. A quick recce of the vicinity determined that my driver was in the middle of a fistfight with another driver. Despite my best efforts to find another taxi, I was saddled with this violent madman, who, after an experience that deserved a commentary by Murray Walker, promptly delivered me to the wrong hotel. Eventually, a less crazed cabbie rectified this mistake, and I settled down at the correct hotel.


Part III: The Melbourne Identity

My knowledge of Australia is sketchy at best, and largely gathered from media sources of inconsistent quality. I know that centuries of trying have failed to produce a single decent lager, I know that their elections are basically tests in who can make the most horrible promises about refugees, and I know that disparaging the Boot is a Bootable Offence. Beyond, that it was all going to be a learning experience.

Sydney-Melbourne is the third busiest air route in the world. A quick glance at the schedule showed I had a flight every half hour to choose from. I assumed that, like us with Dublin-Heathrow, there wouldn’t be much waiting around. I even decided to have lunch before the flights, arriving in the airport at 11am to hopefully get on a 1.30pm flight. Of course, this being me, I was to be mistaken. The afternoon degenerated into a routine of going over to the desk every fifteen minutes before each flight, and being told that I would be waiting for the next one, whereupon I would have a rushed pint before repeating the process. End result was that when I got the 5pm flight, I was perhaps a little more unsteady than I should have been. I had summoned up my stock answer if necessary (when a man tells you he’s not drunk, he’s a stroke victim, few people query overmuch), but I was waved on board, feeling quite miffed at a wasted afternoon. My grumpiness was somewhat assuaged when another standby passenger sat down beside me and informed me he had been waiting unsuccessfully since the 10am flight, and we proceeded to trade horror stories of our experiences in various airports.

The first and most important thing I was to discover about Australia is how expensive it is. My one visit to a Sydney sports bar had obviously been an outlier, as the booze was cheap even by Irish standards. At time of writing the Aussie dollar is trading at about $1.40 to the euro, so use that as a point of reference. By the time I had got to my hotel in Melbourne, I had spent a hundred dollars on taxi fares in two days. Other horror stories include seven dollars for half a pint of beer, and an astonishing twenty-four dollars for a six pack of party cans from a convenience store. Anyway suffice it to say that Melbourne actually manages to beat New York in the price stakes.

Waiting for me at the hotel was my brother. I haven’t seen Tim in over a year, and I am delighted to say he hasn’t changed much. As might be expected, the first priority was to grab a few drinks in the hotel, followed by heading into the city. Melbourne seems a serious nightlife spot, with plenty of pubs in the city centre.

There is a kind of etiquette to dealing with close friends or family members whom one hasn’t really communicated with in the past year. Simply put, beyond the basic “how are you?”, one cannot probe too deeply. Even a basic outline of the past year’s activities would put too much of a strain on both speaker and listener. As a result, it is implied that all parties are fine, meaning that any problems can now be glossed over, in keeping with the great Irish tradition. In any case, I can but assume Tim is fine, as he is the kind of individual who generally lands on his feet, or at least isn’t overly perturbed if he gets his knees dirty.

There are many ways to get on my bad side. Merely being born makes it a statistical likelihood that I won’t like you, as some of your views will be things I don’t hold with. Having the temerity to travel by air all but makes it a certainty. However, just about the surest way of all to make an enemy of me is to charge for Wifi and make it sound like you’re doing me a favour.

Some years ago, Finland decided that internet access was a fundamental human right. This I agree with. It pains me to be apart from emails, CNN, or meaningless Facebook updates for any amount of time. So it was that when I discovered my hotel charged for Wifi, I seriously considered finding a hotel that didn’t. And when I enquired about the rates, and the receptionist told me it was “only” five dollars per hour or fifteen for the day, I started ruminating on the possibility of acquiring a firearm and causing an event. Those who know anything about me at all would be aware I find it a chore to be without internet for any length of time, and though time has mellowed me in this regard (I managed a whole week in Spain earlier on this year without access to Gmail,  the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Cracked or any of the other outlets that make my life that bit less irritating), suffice it to say that to say that charging for wifi is one of those unpleasant little extras that any sane society would outlaw.

St Kilda really is a delightful place, combining a late-colonial feel with all the amenities a sophisticated decadent such as myself could wish for, internet excluded. I randomly wandered  into the Esplanade hotel as my first port of call the next day, which, it turned out, is apprently a well-known music venue. The important thing was that they do a good steak, at prices that would be competitive  in Dublin, to say nothing of Melbourne. I had difficulty raising Tim that afternoon, discovering to my amusement that the previous night’s festivities had left him somewhat hungover. Being a very occasional sufferer of hangovers, I tend not to reflect on the fact that alcohol has an after effect on some unfortunates.

Anyway, Tim’s hangover soon dissipated, particularly in the face of other priorities. Everton were playing that evening, and the only place likely to be showing the match was the Crown casino. I have spent my life avoiding such venues, largely out of fear of how expensive a night one could have in there, but hey, when in Rome and whatnot. In the end it wasn’t gambling that was the problem. At some point in the wee hours security obviously cottoned on as to how much I had drank and refused me anything further. The epilogue to the night was an argument Tim had with the cabbie on the way back towards St Kilda about Tim’s desire to touch one of the buttons in the cab…

There is a stereotypical view of Australians, particularly among Atlanticists, that they are essentially backwoodsy Europeans, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Ok, my experience of Australia is limited to the two biggest cities. Quite possibly there exists in the Outback the kind of six-toothed, sheep-shearing, incestuous type portrayed in the media, but Sydney and Melbourne must rank up there with London, New York or Vancouver for how cosmopolitan they are. The Asia-Pacific area may be the crucible of global geopolitics for the next century, but I suspect an awfully large amount of people are unaware of how integrated the region is. Apparently Australia is actively seeking Korean immigrants in particular, partly because they are willing to work long and hard for little recompense, but mostly because when they finish on a Friday they will almost certainly be back in on Monday, a trait that is not necessarily true of Europeans.

A couple of nights later found us out in the city centre, alongside Shaun “Chops” O’Halloran, who had accompanied Tim to Australia. While I was in regular email contact with Tim over the past year, Chops’ goings-on were largely unknown to me. Almost the entirety of his Facebook updates consisted of claims he was gay, loved men, loved penises, or some other permutation thereof. Apparently he had a bad habit of leaving his Facebook account signed in when he left the room, a fact that my brother and others soon took advantage of.

McDonald’s is one of those unsung Meccas to a seasoned traveller. Much as the pretentious may crow about how one must enjoy local cuisine on holiday, the fact is that local cuisine in the Asia-Pacific region can consist of anything up to dog, seaweed, or cockroaches. As Prince Philip once pointed out, if it has legs and isn’t a chair, if it flies and isn’t a plane, or if it swims and isn’t a submarine, then the Cantonese will eat it. So anyone who has ever been an expat quickly learns the value of McDonald’s. The food may be mediocre at best, but the service is quick, the food is cheap, and one knows exactly what one is getting. Of course, there is no difficulty getting Western food in Australia, it was the lateness of the hour rather than squeamishness that drove us into McDonald’s. Judging by the group of (I was informed) crackheads who were our only company in the place, begging in Melbourne is a lot more lucrative than in Dublin.

The next night was my last in Melbourne, and was not particularly eventful. Somehow, it’s exponentially easier to part with someone a second time, especially after only a brief reunion. In any case, both myself and Tim were in flitters, and I was due in Melbourne for a 9am flight to Wellington the next morning. Still, one of the advantages of modern air travel is that nowhere is truly distant anymore. It took me three and €450 days to get to Melbourne by air, travelling at a very leisurely pace. That’s nothing too strenuous. Emigration is no longer the near-permanent severance it once was, and that is a major comfort.


Part IV: One does not simply walk into New Zealand

My next destination was more a product of indecision than decision. I was due to leave Melbourne on October 10th. I was due to arrive in Chicago on the 16th. Thanks to the vagaries of the International Date Line, that effectively left me a week for moping around the Asia-Pacific area.  And options were plentiful. If I had the money (which I didn’t), I could have gone to Hong Kong, as has been a longstanding ambition. I knew people in Thailand, Singapore, Tokyo, San Francisco and Sydney who I could visit. And yet, up until three days before I left Melbourne, I still hadn’t the foggiest where I would be going next.

Visiting Kev in Wellington was always the easiest option. I could get there on standby and there was no mucking about with the bloody Date Line or the Equator. Also, I had been in Wellington before, and it is a grand city for having the crack. The problem was that I found myself completely unable to get in contact with Kevin. I had emailed him, Facebooked him and used both his old and current numbers to get in contact. Granted, he isn’t known for checking his emails or Facebook, but I was getting worried.

Then, finally, he rings me off a number I had not previously seen, and gives me his current contact number. It turns out the number I had for him was off by one digit. Given that most of the texts I have sent him in the past year or so have been things that were, quite frankly, too obscene for any of my other friends, there is quite possibly a New Zealander wandering around traumatised after receiving filthy texts from a stranger. Anyway, having finally made contact, arrangements were made to meet up, and thus I found myself in Melbourne Airport at 7am.

If I have one dominant personality trait in work, it is a lack of tolerance or sympathy for mistakes. As far as I am concerned, it is entirely a passenger’s fault if they failed to read the small print to assidiously, or had an overly casual attitude towards the documentation they require to visit the USA. In fact, I delude myself on being a perfectionist. It is therefore quite ironic that as a passenger I am guilty of many of the foibles that I fulminate about in others. I am forever caught bringing liquids through security, due to me forgetting to empty my bag of them when switching it from work to travel. And, at Qantas checkin in Melbourne, I made another cardinal error: I forgot to book a ticket out of New Zealand.

In this situation, my first reaction was a sort of racist indignancy. I am a Caucasian, do I look like the person who would be an illegal immigrant? Then of course comes the realisation that the Irish have been serial offenders in that regard in the past few years, and I am a shifty-looking fellow after all. Last year, when I had purchased all my tickets in advance (at a ruinous cost, counting backups), the problem had never arisen. This year, MyIdtravel.com had liberated me from having to buy all my tickets in advance, but at the same time, it had given me a casual attitude to buying tickets. Suddenly I had been impaled on a sword upon which I had thrust so many others over  the years. Thankfully, a panicked visit to MyIdtravel rectified matters with minutes to spare.

In fairness to Qantas, they do as much as possible to assist staff passengers. I have never had a bad seat with them. Where possible they will give staff an empty seat beside them to work with (On long haul flights, this is nearly as good as an upgrade). And in Melbourne they gave me a priority pass, which was an absolute godsend. There can be few greater meaningless pleasures in life than watching the plebs queueing for security as one strolls past the queue and uses an empty machine. Two hurried pints later and I was on my way to New Zealand.

Wellington is both the southernmost and most isolated capital city in the world, figuratively and literally. The only regular international flights to Wellington are from Australia, probably out of necessity. New Zealand seems to be surrounded by some sort of vortex of turbulence. I have never had a flight in, through or out of New Zealand that didn’t seem like a theme park ride.

I realise this is beginning to become an exposition on the evils of airline food, but as far as I can determine, the quality has declined dramatically in the past year. Yes, last year I was using premium carriers and this year I am using cash-strapped European and budget Asian airlines, but surely Qantas would have the decency to be consistent. Lamentably, this was not the case. Breakfast was advertised as including chorizo sausage. I found one tiny piece of it, buried among beans and sauce. Yes, meat is expensive and beans are not, but it would be nice nonetheless to have a breakfast that contained acceptable portions of its stated ingredients.

If you are in any way a poor air traveller, it is probably advisable not to fly into Wellington Airport. The airfield sits between two steep hills, creating a wind tunnel in an already windy area. Also, the runway juts out into the sea, so one is left with the feeling of being bounced around while just over the water.

Having been quite fortunate with my adventures through immigration, it was inevitable that I would run out of luck sooner or later. So it was that clearing immigration and customs in New Zealand took nearly and hour of forms, questions and bag examinations. Anyway, once this rigmarole had been passed, it was time to head into the city. Unsure as to my arrival time, and because Kevin was working late, I had decided to book into a hotel for the first night. I then proceeded to head out for a few pints, and stumbled into a table quiz, which presented a dilemma: Do I enter on my own and risk winning? I decided to pass, on the grounds that table quizzes are a dime a dozen in Wellington.

Life occasionally imitates art, with hilarious consequences. I had occasion to use the hotel bar upon a morning. The plan was a Coke to wake me up, and a beer to counteract the effects of the Coke. I realise this could have been adequately achieved by simply having a glass of water, but that wouldn’t have been fun, and besides, my internal organs need exercise just as much as the rest of me. Anyway, after ordering the beer, I asked for a Coke, whereupon the the bartender asked what kind of beer that was. I repeated, slowly “Coca-Cola”, and she went and started to pour another beer. I accept that the thickness of my accent and the general incoherence of my voice may have complicated matters, but surely this was a bit much.

Wellington is essentially what would happen if one got the trendier bits of a larger city and dispensed with the rest. Pubs generally have a broad selection of craft beers, there seem to be a plethora of independent bookshops, and as I say there are piles of pub quizzes. In the city centre at least, the population seems to be young and cosmopolitan. In other words, a perfect place to live. Except, of course, for all of the potential natural disasters that could befall the city. Wellington is extremely vulnerable to tsunamis, even a small one would knock out most of the seafront. In addition the North Island of New Zealand is highly volcanic and earthquake prone. In other words, living in Wellington is akin to playing Russian roulette with a machine gun.

Then, of course, there is the weather. I would consider myself a reasonably well travelled individual. I have been in Mexico when the temperature was in the mid-40s, I have been in Chicago when it was nearly thirty below, and I have been in Korea for a typhoon. All of these have one unifying feature: They are expected and can be prepared for accordingly. Not so Wellington. Six days out of seven the weather is somehow unpleasant, in a multitude of varieties. Either it is pouring rain, oppressively foggy, or there are the kind of gales that a more temperate society would see as a sign of divine wrath. I had one sunny day there. The next day the winds were gusting at over 100km/h. This is considered perfectly normal.

For over a decade now, myself and Kevin have engaged in a passive-aggressive game of trying to irritate each other. My tactics have generally consisted of things like getting him kicked out of class in school or stabbing him with a pen. He was in the habit of refusing to flush the toilet under any circumstances and displaying his genitalia to me at unexpected moments. However, while here, I happened upon a new irritant which rather annoyed him: Leaving lights on in his apartment. I am normally fastidious about turning lights off when not in use, but after seeing Kevin’s reaction when I accidentally forgot to do so, I decided to do quite the opposite. Just before he was due back from work, I would switch every light in his apartment on and imply that they had been on for the day, which would send him into paroxysms of rage.

The night before I left we attended a table quiz. I take such matters extremely seriously. Woe betide any member of my team who even has a phone on the table. I play to win and do not like accusations of impropriety. This is particularly the case in situations like that evening, when there were only two of us on the team, and a victory might look a little dubious. We duly won an eighty dollar bar tab valid for the next week. The problem was that I was leaving the next day and the bar was closing within an hour. A lot of hurried drinking followed, and a sizeable dent was made in the tab.

Anyway, all things come to an end, so next day, I was in Wellington Airport, getting ready for just about the longest journey I have ever undertaken, and the next leg of my trip.


Part V: From Windy City to Windy City

Certain people shouldn’t be let out of the house, let alone allowed into airports. It was my misfortune to be stuck behind one of these daft besoms in security at Wellington. Obviously she had no concept of airport security in general or metal detectors in particular, as she walked straight through without removing any items, which elicited the expected alarm from the machine. Sent back to try again, she took out her wallet, and set it off again. The keys came out this time, she tried again, and once more set it off. Phone. Alarm. Jacket. Alarm. Shoes. Alarm. Alarm. Alarm. Then she remembers she has a steel hip, and a quick scan confirms this, so after six or seven attempts and a queue of exasperated passengers behind her, she was finally released back upon the world.

I had an overnight stay in Sydney planned. Due to the early hour of my next flight, I decided to stay in the same hotel near Sydney Airport that I had used a fortnight earlier. There was the added bonus of a sports bar down the road. Sports bars in Australia seem to break the rule of insane prices. Drinks there seem to cost less than in Ireland. Perhaps they make up for it with the revenues from the pokies, which they generally have in abundance.

There is a certain type of alcoholic lunatic I have found to be universal. Almost every bar in the world can boast of one such specimen. They are invariably a male aged 35-55 or so. Either they were operating off a previous mental problem or a decade-long binge has left them unbalanced. They are the stuff of barkeepers’ nightmares. On the one hand, their presence can be off-putting for other patrons, but on the other hand, alcoholics are nothing if not lucrative customers. They also have a disturbing habit of intruding upon strangers in a bar, no doubt because regulars are wise to them.  I seem to have a gift for attracting these maniacs, and that night was to be no exception.

I had actually encountered the fellow a fortnight before. When he heard that I was Irish, he launched into an incoherent spiel, the only phrases of which I could understand were “IRA” and “SAS”, both of which he seemed to find hilarious. This time around I made a point of sitting as far away as possible. Unfortunately, he then decided to use the pinball machine beside me. I suddenly found myself being pestered for change and asked if I wished to play, when clearly all I wanted was some privacy. The ordeal culminated with him asking for my jacket to wipe off some beer he spilled on the pinball table.

The next day was going to be a long one. Sydney to Los Angeles is a fourteen hour flight. LA to Chicago is a further four hours. I planned to do them all in one sitting. Then I discovered that I couldn’t buy tickets for United Airlines or American Airways on MyIdtravel. Another bloody amateur mistake on my part, but one which left me pinning all my hopes on getting a seat on a full Virgin America flight from LA. Qantas, at least, were able to accommodate me on the flight to LA. Once again, though, I was forced to face the horrors of a middle seat on a longhaul flight.

I’m not actually a bad sleeper on aircraft. Ok, aircraft sleep is a poor substitue for real sleep, but it’s better than nothing. Alas, for some reason I cannot sleep on Qantas flights. Don’t ask me why. This specific insomnia afflicted neither of the people sitting beside me, with the net result that I endured half a day over the Pacific Ocean with two people snoring in my ears. The other disadvantage of middle seats in this situation is when one wishes to use the toilet. In order to avoid this unpleasant eventuality, I abstained from alcohol for the flight, and whenever the fellow in the aisle left his seat, I took advantage of the moment to visit the lavatory. In fairness to Qantas, while their food on the whole leaves much to be desired, on longhaul flights they have a whole lot of it. Two meals and snacks galore took some of the sting out of the ordeal.

Qantas operate flights to LA from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. They are all scheduled to arrive at approximately the same time, and which one gets in first is largely random. What this means is one can either be the first person at US Immigration or find a crowd of about a thousand people ahead of them, and it is blind luck into which category one falls. In my case it was the latter. An hour’s queueing ensued, followed by a grilling from the guy in Immigration, an experience I haven’t had in several years. This unpleasant business was worsened by the fact that, nearly ninety minutes after I had disembarked, the luggage wasn’t yet on the carousel.

LAX, like Los Angeles in general, is a pretty awful place. Its sole redeeming feature is that it is easy to navigate, a fact that didn’t prevent me going the wrong way twice. I would blame the fact that I had been up for nineteen hours at the time. Having rectified these errors, I presented myself at Virgin America checkin and went off to a bar to play the waiting game. As is normal for me when I’m on my own in airports, I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveller, which culminated in him attempting to purchase a AU$50 note off me to add to his collection, before deciding better of it. Then I got paged and discovered that, once again, I had got the last seat on a flight. Thank God for small mercies. On to Chicago.


Part VI: The Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Pale Ale

It can be said that there are three kinds of people in this world: Those who find Chicago to be the best city in the United States, those who have never been to Chicago, and those who are plain wrong. Unlike New York, which is simply too big to get one’s head around, Chicago is both big enough to feel like a proper metropolis, and small enough not to be mindboggling. Ten million souls call the city and its environs home, which, while an insanely high figure for a Dubliner to contemplate, at least falls far short of the twenty million or so New Yorkers. The city has a kind of working-class charm, coupled with a bourgeoise sophistication that is uncommon in America.

By the time I arrived in the hotel and met up with the others, I was, to put it mildly, somewhat tired. Twenty-seven hours without sleep can do that to a man. Nonetheless, I summoned up whatever reserves of energy and headed out. Thankfully jet lag works both ways, and the other members of my party, Paul, John, Ellen and Rob, were equally exhausted, so we were all back in the hotel at a relatively sane hour. Following the trauma of sharing a bed in Chicago last year, I wasn’t in any mood to repeat the experience, and quite happily paid a premium for a twin room.

If Chicago has one defining attribute, it is its architecture. Not for nothing was it used as Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s films. The city abounds with impressive structures, ranging from faux-Gothic skyscrapers to ultramodern buildings. It is as if planning applications can be rejected on the grounds of poor aesthetics. Somewhere like Dublin, where an office block is essentially a glass-covered cuboid, could learn a lot from this. The river tour of Chicago’s architecture is an extremely interesting, albeit somewhat pricey experience.

Rumour has it that the finest view of the city is to be had from the women’s bathroom of the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Building, one of the more iconic pieces of the Chicago skyline. Lacking the appropriate genitalia, I have never been able to verify this. This time around, we had a new tactic. Ellen was going to bring back photographic evidence of the view, though someone taking photos in a women’s bathroom might arouse suspicion, to say the least. However it turns out the rumour is unfounded. There is of course no window in the bathroom.

That evening we went to Division and Rush, one of the better areas in the inner city for the social scene, though it is perhaps rather tourist-oriented. Inasmuch as I have a local in Chicago, it would be the Lodge, a rather cramped bar with cheap drink, free peanuts, and most importantly a jukebox. I am a dangerous person to be allowed near such a contraption. My music tastes are rather eclectic. As a result, people in the bar may have been subjected to rather more 80’s hair metal than they wished for. This was nothing to what John decided to inflict on unsuspecting patrons. A live version of B’Witched was bad enough, but after he played Barbie Girl, we had to flee, lest we be tarred, feathered, and buried under the crossroads with stakes through our hearts.

The plan for the next day involved an ice hockey game. I was rather sceptical about this. Ice hockey is one of those games that simply fails to interest me. Were I a better skater, this might be different. The problem with ice skating is that, on account of the speed of the puck, one doesn’t know what is going on until after it has happened. This is perhaps the reason why fights are allowed in NHL. The game we were going to was a tier lower, the AHL.

Live sports games in the USA are oddly comparable to professional wrestling, in that they mix hardcore sport with theatrics. Ice hockey is perhaps the most extreme example, outside of the WWE itself. Every interval and timeout must be filled with something to keep the punters occupied. This may be a result of the sheer volume of stoppages in a typical American game. There can be five or six ten-minute stoppages in a game of ice hockey. Each of these must have something else to keep people’s attention. So there are pyrotechnics, there are coordinated skating events, and there are free T-shirts. This may also be a consequence of the fact that a lot of people at the game seem to have even less of an idea of what is going on than I do.

There is a kind of fake sports fan who inflicts absolute misery on others. They attend sports because someone they care about also cares about sport and they want to show willing. They pretend to be interested. And, without fail, they bring some sort of noisemaking device with them. In footballing terms, I would hazard a guess that there is an inverse correlation between the amount of noise a spectator makes and the probability that they understand the offside rule. Given the amount of non-fans at American sports games, it tends to make for very noisy affairs. At this particular game, a middle-aged woman with a face like the sole of a shoe had seen fit to furnish herself with a cowbell, which she seemed to ring at inopportune times. Even when the team scored, she was a few seconds behind the curve, reaffirming my suspicion that she wasn’t paying attention at all.

Anyway, the next day was supposed to be museum day. Hurried research indicated that the L-Trains passed quite close to the Science Museum. Unfortunately, due to a misappreciation of the size of Chicago, “quite close” turned out to be several miles away. The upshot of this was that we ended up arriving at the museum fifteen minutes before it was due to close, which I suppose is another demonstration of the shoddiness of our preparations. This was further exposed when we found a train station right beside the museum.

Somewhere along the way Rob and John had got the idea of karaoke into their heads, and were rather reluctant to let go of it. So it was that evening we found ourselves in a gay bar that had a karaoke machine. Karaoke in a gay bar seems to differ from elsewhere in the profusion of songs from musicals. Perhaps the most surreal aspect of the whole business was when John attempted a rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart, with moderate success.

By this point my odyssey was nearing its end, and 364 days since I had last been there, I found myself in the International Terminal in O’Hare Airport. T5 in O’Hare has traditionally been one of the most boring places on earth once one passes security. The bar consisted of a kiosk with an icebox, and should one wish to eat, too bad. Thankfully, some judicious shifting of the security barriers meant that there were now a few duty free shops and restaurants on the air side of the operation, which meant that we could have one last meal. For once, I knew that there would be no issues with this flight. In contrast with the madness of the summer on the transatlantic routes, there were nearly two hundred seats available, which gave us ample space to spread out.

I tend to be recognised when boarding flights. If I am not recognised immediately, I will endeavour to ensure I am noticed as quickly as possible. Unusually, none of the cabin crew were familiar to me, possibly because of my tendency to work only late shifts. In addition, I was now sporting a beard, something I haven’t done in many years. Eventually, someone must have realised I worked for Aer Lingus, and a couple of drinks ensued. Happy days.

Epilogue: Rebel without a Pause?

Somewhere over the North Atlantic…

Normality is a very subjective concept. For most of my life, normality was food, board and laundry at home. Since I’ve moved out, normality is coming home at four in the morning and going to bed sleeping with earplugs. My travels have created a new normality, one of hotel beds and beer at lunchtime. Three weeks does wonders in shifting one’s perceptions. Soon, normality will be normal again.

I am not by nature a charitable person. Not out of selfishness or spite, just jaded cynicism. Most of one’s donations (with noble exceptions such as the Salvation Army or, oddly enough, Ronald McDonald’s Children’s Charities) ends up frittered away on legal and administrative costs, or into the pockets of management. However, Unicef were about to do very well indeed out of me.

I had been very lucky the ways things worked out on this trip, considering all the ways life could have messed with me. Eight standby journeys with very little hassle is rare enough. I had accumulated vast quantities of change on my travels, largely because coin is harder to identify the nationality of than notes, ergo I was paying for everything in notes to avoid embarassment. That all went into the Unicef envelope on the flight. Then the notes. Malaysian Ringgitt, Aussie Dollars, NZ Dollars, Canadian Dollars, HK Dollars, and US Dollars. Paying off a karma debt, if you will.

But perhaps there was more than simply divesting myself of surplus currency in thanks for my good fortune. While in New Zealand I had turned twenty-eight. For the first time in several years, I was going home from a trip without a coherent idea of when my next one would be. Maybe this wasn’t coincidence. Since I joined Aer Lingus three years ago, twenty-eight was always a kind of mental cutoff point. Did I really want to be stuck there indefinitely? Admittedly, said cutoff point had moved from being an exit point to simply being a chance to reevaluate where I stood.

For much of the past ten years I have been a rebel of sorts. I spent four years in college, and the next two in denial about graduating. College was never about exams for me. Lecturers used to complain that I spent classes doing the Irish Times Crossword. Classes and essays were the things that filled up the bits between indulging myself. Then I got a job that allowed me the flexibility to go out on the piss on a Tuesday night if it suited me, and to travel. I habitually spend nearly two months a year away from home. Work now became the thing that filled in the gaps between holidays.

And yet, dimly, I knew, and indeed know, that this hedonistic sybaritism would not last indefinitely. Sooner or later I would have to pull the proverbial finger out and start seeing employment in terms of prospects for the future rather than just a means to short term pleasures. I would, in other words, have to make peace with the establishment. While I was away, a Business Analyst’s position came up within Aer Lingus Ground Ops. Being on holiday precluded me from properly applying, but it’s not an opportunity I could afford to pass up again.

Slowly too, those around me have changed. Some of the people I went to school and college with are married. Some have mortgages. Most have cars. Many don’t seem to want to go out as much as the good old days. Somehow, everyone has changed. Life is trying to drag me along with it.

And yet, the prospects of middle class, middle aged life hold no great pleasure for me. Drinking mediocre Chilean red and pretending it’s Bordeaux, playing squash every Tuesday evening, worrying about property prices and pension plans, it just doesn’t feel right for me. Four weeks off a year is hardly worth the expense of buying a passport. When one settles down, one commits oneself for forty years. For the next four decades, fun would come in prepackaged pieces, either on the television, or at some resort in Tenerife. Maybe I’m mad, but that’s not my idea of fun. Fun is doing things and seeing people. Fun isn’t about accumulating wealth, it’s about accumulating memories. And then what? Retiring at seventy, finally having both the time and the money to again think of adventure, only to discover that some time in the previous four decades, life snuffed out the spark. Life as a kind of living death.

And that is why Unicef didn’t get all my dollars. Somehow, I reckon I might have a bit more rebelling left in me…

By gregbowler

The Crimes of Andrew Wakefield

At what point does causation become culpability, ignorance malice, or recklessness murder? In 1919 in the case of Schenk v United States, US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes opined that the right to free speech did not extend to falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre, as such speech served no purpose other than to cause a panic and result in injury to others. Clearly, free speech does not absolve us of a duty to watch what we say.

At time of writing there is an outbreak of measles in Wales. So far there have been thousands, with only one fatality (in fairness, the fatality rate for measles is miniscule). In the past fifteen years, the West has seen an increase in the incidence of measles, resulting in a couple of dozen deaths. Small stuff in the greater scheme of things, but each of those deaths represents a tragedy to someone. A double tragedy, because those deaths were preventable. Nobody should be dying of measles in the Western World any more than they should be dying of smallpox or polio. A vaccine has been in existence since the 1960s, and is administered freely in most countries. In addition, it also prevents mumps and rubella (German measles). A simple product, but one which has saved millions of lives since its creation. And a product which, thanks to some cynical scientific fabrication coupled with a sensationalist media ever ready to jump on any controversy, real or imagined, that anything up to a fifth of the population will not allow their children to have it.

Medical myths abound. There have been cases taken (unsuccessfully) against the Irish government to stop putting flourine in drinking water, on the grounds of any number of supposed consequences. By way of some anecdotal evidence (this is not a scientific article, so I can get away with it), in 2009 and 2010 a large volume of stickers appeared on Dublin lampposts warning that swine flu jabs were made from (I kid thee not) embalming fluid and crushed foetuses. However, the MMR/Autism hoax is one of the few that found its way beyond those sections of the community who wear tinfoil hats to prevent mind control messages being beamed into their heads. This is due to the fact that, unlike the claims outlined above, the MMR hoax was propagated by a real doctor, with a research paper published in a reputable journal with a dozen listed coauthors.

Andrew Wakefield was an unremarkable individual prior to 1998. The son of two medical professionals, it is perhaps unsurprising that he followed both of them into medicine. He published a number of papers, none of which ever broke out of the rarified circles of medical researchers. He became something of an authority on Crohn’s Disease, but beyond that, few would have guessed what would follow. Curiously, in 1996, he linked the above condition with MMR, though that has never been proven. In any case, it was only a prelude to the main event

The story goes something like this. In 1998 Wakefield, along with a dozen coauthors, published an article in respected medical journal The Lancet. Amidst much hedging, it alleged, based on reports from parents of children with autism, that there may have been a link between the condition and the MMR vaccine. This, however was not the central tenet. Had that been propagated as the main point, The Lancet would most likely have declined to publish. The central point was a link between autism and bowel disorders, on which Wakefield, given his earlier work with Crohn’s Disease, was a respected figure. He even proposed a new name for the condition, autistic enterocolitis. So far, so uncontroversial.

However, to coincide with the publication of the paper, a press conference was held in the Royal Free Hospital in London. Here the link between MMR and autism was first proposed to the press. A minor media circus ensued, in which all the potential scientific biases of the article (tiny sample size, reliance on self-reporting, possible use of loaded questions, etc) were ignored. Even the main thrust of the article was set aside in favour of a speculative claim by one of the authors who, as will be explained later, had rather darker motives for making that claim than were known at the time. Wakefield suggested that the MMR jab be suspended and replaced with three separate jabs.

The story did not begin to gain real traction till the early 2000s, when Wakefield published a number of articles explicitly claiming a link between MMR, autism and bowel conditions, as well as attacking its effectiveness as a vaccine against measles. This time, the fallout was anything but minor. What followed was a major drop in vaccination rates coupled with masses of uninformed speculation in the British media, backed by anecdotal evidence as to the supposed horrors of MMR. British Prime Minister Tony Blair caused a minor political ruckus by claiming the vaccine was safe while at the same time refusing to comment on whether his son Leo had received it.

Two things happened after this. The first was that measles and mumps, which had been sitting on the verge of eradication in Britain for years, began to make an unwelcome reappearance. Given how infectious measles is, a vaccination rate of over 90% is required to achieve so-called “herd immunity” a point where there simply aren’t enough potential carriers for the disease to spread effectively. The second was the complete collapse in the credibility of Wakefield and his hypothesis.

In 2004 it emerged that, prior to the publication of The Lancet paper, Wakefield had received sizeable payments (initially thought to be £50,000, then found to be over £400,000) from solicitors attempting to build a case against MMR. This explained both his earlier attempts to link Crohn’s Disease with the vaccine and his focus on the side issue of MMR in The Lancet article and the ensuing press conference. Thanks to the research of Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer, Wakefield’s financial interests in bringing down MMR were coming to light. Apart from the litigation money, it also emerged that he had filed a patent on an alternative method of administering the vaccine, as well as for diagnostic kits for his fictional disease of autistics enterocolitis. By attacking MMR, Wakefield hoped to clear the field for his invention, potentially netting him millions.

Following these revelations, most of the coauthors repudiated the 1998 paper’s conclusion. The paper itself has since been revealed to be largely fabricated, with results changed to suit Wakefield’s conclusion. Nobody has since been able to duplicate the results outlined in 1998 and The Lancet has subsequently retracted it in full. In addition, Wakefield has had to pay substantial compensation to some of his research subjects. Following a five-year investigation, in 2011 Andrew Wakefield was struck off the medical register and banned from practicing in the UK.

From a scientific point of view, the issue is now closed. The link between autism and MMR has been thoroughly discredited, as has been the individual who propagated it. The problem is that this is quite simply insufficient. Vaccination rates for MMR have never fully recovered. Significant trust issues exist among the general public. And Wakefield is still propounding his chicanery, beyond the reach of the General Medical Council. At the moment he operates out of Texas, where a number of well-backed organisations continue to spread this dangerous misinformation. There is no doubt that, struck off or not, Andrew Wakefield has profited hugely from attacking MMR.

Wakefield has long since resorted to the traditional defences used by quacks. His opponents are shills of Big Pharma, which has striven to hide the truth. Brian Deer, a journalist in good repute, is a “hitman” brought in by Big Pharma to “take him down”. In Wakefield’s world, he should be venerated as a hero who stood up to this amorphous evil, rather than decried as a fraud.

A huge amount of the blame for this scandal lies with the mass media. From the start, in 1998, they bought Wakefield’s hypothesis hook, line and sinker. In 2002, when the controversy was in full swing, far more columns in the British media went on stories critical of MMR rather than any attempt to look at the story in a balanced manner. A huge amount of effort was expended trying to determine whether Leo Blair had received the vaccine, as if the Prime Minister had damaging information about MMR that was not available to the general public (It subsequently emerged that Leo had, in fact, received the MMR jab).

In America, a huge amount of publicity was given to the story by daytime TV luminary Oprah Winfrey. Swimsuit model, jobbing actress, and definite non-doctor Jenny McCarthy went further, claiming MMR had given her son autism. Subsequently she ascribed his cure to chelation therapy, another discredited idea.

Nor can any of the coauthors of the 1998 paper be absolved of guilt. None of them jumped ship on Wakefield until it became clear that said ship was sinking. These were individuals who were comfortable with sitting on the sidelines until it became apparent which way the tide was turning, and who then made the decision to retract their interpretation.

However, the bulk of the blame still lies with Andrew Wakefield. He was the one who generated the false data that the 1998 paper was based on. He was the one who used that paper to discredit MMR for personal gain, and he is the one who continues to propound this theory for profit.

Scientific fraud is nothing new, as Paul Kammerer, Hwang Woo-Suk, or generations of alchemists throughout history demonstrate. Nor are medical panics. The tragedy of the MMR scandal was how both came together in such a damaging way. Andrew Wakefield would never have gained this level of attention but for the fact that he was a doctor in good standing. Despite such outliers as the Daily Mail and Express, the British media has a reasonably responsible attitude when it comes to medical reporting, and quacks, tricksters and mountebanks rarely get any airtime. It was the fact that this was a genuine doctor who fabricated the data that made it credible, as Wakefield knew it would.

To this day Wakefield has shown no remorse over his fraud, or the consequences. He has profited enormously from the debacle, at the cost of thousands of victims of measles, mumps and rubella who should never have been vulnerable to those conditions. Even today, despite its scientific bankruptcy, the MMR/autism link is still believed by a significant portion of the general population, and as a result, there are still deaths from preventable diseases.

The tragedy is that Andrew Wakefield will never face justice for his crimes. The causational chain linking the deaths of measles victims back to his discreditation of MMR is simply too weak. Too many actors, including The Lancet, the coauthors, the mass media and above all parents who made a decision not to vaccinate stand between Wakefield and the consequences of his actions. His crimes are inchoate, and not covered by any existing laws.

Certain countries have scientific fraud laws on the books, and others have found ways to bring fraudsters to book. Hwang Woo-Suk was incarcerated for embezzlement of state money used for his fraud. Clearly a stronger standard needs to be adopted. Exactly how it would be done is unclear. Perhaps an extension of current fraud laws to cover scientific falsifications for profit could be enacted, though enforcement would be, to put it mildly, a tricky matter. But something must be done. Already, dozens of deaths can be attributed to Andrew Wakefield’s fraud, and that number can only go in one direction.

Had he actually physically killed a child, Andrew Wakefield would now be spending the rest of his life in prison. The fact that children have died as a result of claims he has made may absolve him from criminal culpability, but it does not absolve him from responsibility. Freedom of speech does not extend to shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre, especially if one is a firefighter. The law may never catch up with Wakefield, but it should make sure nobody else gets away with what he did.

By gregbowler

The Cyprus Fiasco

Eighteen months ago, in the darkest days of the Eurozone crisis, Cyprus barely figured on anyone’s radar. Against the possibility of Greece, Spain or Italy going to the wall, Cyprus was a minnow. Now, even as the danger has receded for the three larger countries, it has grown for Cyprus to crisis levels. Suddenly there is a strong likelihood that, barely five years after joining, Cyprus will become the first country to leave the euro.

That this has grabbed the world’s attention is testament both to the fact that the euro crisis is not as bad as it once was (there aren’t worse stories to drive it off the front pages) but also to the enduring troubles facing the bloc. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how quickly the talk has moved from bailout to outright exit from the EU. It took two years of missed targets and broken commitments before EU politicians began to speak openly about Greece leaving the euro. During the recent Italian election and the aftermath, which saw anti-establishment parties gain a majority, other countries made a point of not commenting on Italy’s economic viability in the eurozone. So why exactly has Cyprus moved so quickly towards the exit door? And why has the Troika decided to break one of its cardinal tenets, that bank depositors will be paid in full?

To answer, it is necessary to understand that this crisis has not appeared out of nowhere. Since the start of 2012, it has been obvious that Cyprus would have to bail out its banks, and would require external sources of financing to do so. Domestic consumption has largely been flat, and the country’s current-account deficit to GDP ratio has been hovering around the 10% mark for a few years. Almost all economic growth has been driven by the banking sector, which now has liabilities equivalent to approximately 800% of Cyprus’s GDP. Unlike Ireland, which entered its banking crisis with strong public finances, Cyprus’s debt-to-GDP ratio is already 84% and climbing.


In addition, Cyprus has found itself hard hit by externalities. In 2009, tempted by high bond yields, Cypriot banks bought large amounts of Greek debt, and were thus battered when Greece defaulted. Also, in July 2011 a massive munitions explosion flattened the largest power plant in the country. The comparatively low death toll of thirteen meant that it received relatively little coverage in the global media, despite the fact that the scale of the detonation was comparable to that of a tactical nuclear weapon. The direct cost of the explosion has been estimated at nearly €3bn, with additional costs incurred from the loss of nearly half of Cyprus’s electricity supply. As a result of the disaster, the ratings agencies hastily downgraded Cypriot debt.

Cyprus now finds itself in a perfect storm. Its banks are in dire need of recapitalisation and the government’s borrowing position is unsustainable. It has essentially been hit by a combination of the twin factors that drove Ireland and Greece out of the borrowing markets and into bailouts. For fifteen months the Cypriot government has been engaged in quiet talks with the EU/IMF about a loan, alongside the one it already has from Russia. There is one major stumbling block: Will Cyprus ever be able to repay the money?

As it stands, Cyprus’s public debt is just outside the danger zone. In order to bail out the banks and cover borrowing needs, Cyprus would require an additional €17bn, almost exactly 100% of GDP. This would push it’s overall debt position to nearly 200% of GDP, an unsustainable amount. Even at the low end estimates, Cyprus’s bank bailout will probably end up being 50% larger (relative to GDP) than Ireland’s, and may well exceed Indonesia’s bailout in 1997, currently the record holder. Present figures suggest that, prior to the events of the past week or two, the recapitalisation of Cypriot banks would cost Cyprus 56% of its GDP. With the loss in confidence this week, that figure is likely to face a substantial upward revision.


Assuming that Cyprus were to receive the desired sum, a debt restructuring would become inevitable. As the Troika would automatically become the most senior bondholder (a precondition of the previous bailout agreements), the burden of this writedown would fall upon the private holders of Cypriot debt, those who account for the existing bonds. Unfortunately, those bondholders largely consist of Cypriot banks. So the Troika would be bailing out the Cypriot government to bail out the Cypriot banks, who would then require additional cash to cover their losses on Cypriot bonds. In the case of Greece, the banks were smaller and more conservative, and were thus better able to survive a default. The balance sheets of Cyprus’s banks are too weak to withstand any additional asset impairments.

For the Troika, this was a Morton’s Fork. There was no satisfactory outcome. Within the above constraints, only three options existed. Cut Cyprus loose, front them cash that they would never repay, or very quickly find a way to improve the debt position of either the Cypriot government or its banks. Hence the decision to tax deposits. In terms of rectifying Cyprus’s debt position, it makes a lot of sense. Not only does it automatically reduce the banking liabilities, it also provides the government with ready cash that can be used to further improve the balance sheets. In terms of the political impact, however, the decision is irrational to the point of insanity.

Firstly, the banking situation. The claim is that this tax is a one off, but one man’s exception is another man’s precedent. Even accepting that Cyprus is a unique case, that this is a once-off, that its banking debts are too high to be repaid and that it would be wrong for Europe to simply give Cyprus the money will not reassure depositors in Cypriot banks. If, as is likely, the balance sheet is worse than first estimated, will more money be raided? For that matter, bringing this in is guaranteed to worsen the banks’ positions, as the strength of a bank lies in the confidence people have in it. Already Cyprus dithers as to when to reopen the banks, in the knowledge that a bank run is now a strong possibility. All of this was foreseeable. Equally, the tax was poorly sold by both the Troika and Cypriot politicians. The bailout is all that stands between Cyprus and a banking collapse, in which depositors would lose far more. This fact has not been made clear to the Cypriot people, who simply regard it as a raid on their savings.

More than anything, the picture that is coming out about this bailout is one of confusion. Fifteen months of negotiations yielded an agreement that pleases nobody. EU diplomats speak of frustration at Cypriot vacillation. One gets the impression that the deal was the product of exasperation rather than agreement. For its part, the Cypriot government only belatedly started seeking alternative ways of closing the gap between what it needs and what the Troika will give it. Eventually, the inevitable was accepted and depositors were hit.

Cypriots can ask why their country has been singled out for such draconian terms. Nowhere else in the eurozone has targeted depositors. The problem is that the Cypriot case combines reckless economic policies with a very low reservoir of goodwill from the rest of Europe. Since it joined the EU in 2004, it has faced criticisms from other members about its loose business regulations. Cyprus has become a specialist in low-tax offshoring, notably of Russian assets. In addition, Cyprus boasts the fourth largest merchant fleet in the world, due to its status as a flag of convenience and ties to Greece. There is more than an element of reaping what has been sown to the EU’s attitude.

In the political sphere Cyprus has proved to be a nuisance for the EU, particularly in its relations with Turkey. In 2004, when a UN proposal for the reunification of Cyprus with the internationally unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was put to a referendum in both territories. The Cypriot narrative in the conflict was that the TRNC was the spoiler, and that Cyprus was willing to make any concessions necessary for reunification. As a result, Cyprus was promised EU membership, with or without the TRNC, and the TRNC were told that the only path to EU membership lay through reunificiation. The voters of the TRNC duly obliged, agreeing to reunification by a two-to-one margin. Unfortunately their southern counterparts refused to play ball, with three out of four voters rejecting the the measure. The result: Cyprus entered the EU amidst accusations of bad faith. Since then, the Cyprus issue has poisoned relatons between the EU and Turkey, with the Cypriots stalling all attempts by the Turks to move their membership bid forward.

It is now obvious that Cyprus overstimated the strength of its negotiating position. EU diplomats complain that over a year of negotiations the Cypriots have failed to come up with any concrete proposals as to how to close the gap between what Cyprus needs and what the Troika will give them, assuming that sooner or later the EU would give them what they needed. Similarly, the assumption that Russia might be able to make good on any shortfall wa misguided. While Dmitri Medvedev may fulminate at the perfidy of the EU for targeting Russian deposits (and may well be justified in doing so), the fact remains that the main loser from the activities of Cypriot banks was Russia itself, in the form of lost revenues on offshore deposits. Finally, Cyprus put its faith in the idea that no eurozone country would be allowed to go to the wall. After all, the Troika was quite willing to throw good money after bad in Greece. However, the losses resulting from cutting Cyprus loose would be tiny in comparison to the potential liabilities of a so-called “Grexit”. Nor is it clear that ordinary Cypriots fully appreciate the gravity of their situation. On the streets, conspiracy theories abound. It is a plot by the Germans to destroy the Cypriot financial system, they claim.

It is now clear that, having rejected the deposit levy, Cyprus had no choice but to swallow it. Large depositors could lose up to half their cash. Meanwhile, the financial system exists in a strange halfway house, with capital controls imposed on an EU member state and withdrawals initially limited to €300 a day. Clearly, this situation is untenable. The question is, what happens when the dam breaks? And how long till normality returns?

Assuming that Cyprus avoids a run on its banks, their troubles have only just begun. The loss of confidence in the banks will probably necessitate a bigger bailout than originally agreed. Meanwhile, austerity is likely to take a growing toll on Cypriots over the next few years. Factor in a political system where the Communist party is often in government and the likelihood of Cyprus lasting through a prolonged spell of austerity is slim. The financial sector, a vital part of the Cypriot economy, is going to go into a tailspin. The polity has shown itself to be extremely volatile. As a result, even if the wider global economy steadies, Cyprus may only have put off the day of reckoning. Even the promised revenues from large natural gas deposits may end up being illusory. The vast amount of unconventional  fuels coming onto the market means that the medium term price trend for gas is downwards.

The best estimates are that Cyprus will see a contraction of 8-10% of GDP in 2013, with a further contraction in 2014. Its future as a financial centre is nonexistent. Its banks are worthless shells. The rest of the eurozone has no great desire to prop it up. It has lost most of the goodwill it had from Russia. And it now faces years, if not decades, of austerity and uncertainty.

Even when things were at their worst, other European leaders were unwavering in their desire to keep Greece in the eurozone. The rhetoric for Cyprus has been less supportive. Perhaps it is merely a matter of nuance. But in the opaque world of the eurozone crisis, nuance counts. Those Cypriot pounds lying around houses in Cyprus may soon be worth something again.

By gregbowler

Around the World in Eighty Beers

Prologue: Dublin Airport, 2nd of October.


I am, to put it mildly, a somewhat impulsive individual. What had begun as a trip down to New Zealand evolved rather rapidly, becoming initially a visit to some of the Pacific Islands, before settling on a full-blown circumnavigation of the globe, taking in Dubai, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Exactly why I chose to do this is unclear. There was undoubtedly an element of discovery for me (New Zealand, Australia and Canada are all terra incognita as far as I’m concerned). In addition, I would be touching base with a number of individuals who I haven’t seen for some time. However, if pressed, I would have to admit that a major factor in this trip is satisfying myself that the Earth is in fact round, rather than the eminently more sensible flat shape.

Ok, the last bit is a lie, but there is something about going round the world that appeals to me, beyond the places one sees along the way. Perhaps this is why I intended to squeeze so much into three weeks. Boredom is my greatest fear. I don’t holiday to relax, quite the opposite. A circumnavigation would keep me busy at all times, I hoped.

Having settled upon that, the next question was what theme to go on. Around The World In Eighty Days would probably fall afoul of some sort of copyright legislation, and in any case I would be beating Phileas Fogg’s target by more than eight weeks. So, after some thought, I resolved to go around the world in eighty beers, beer drinking being something of a hobby of mine. Eighty beers in three weeks would not make much of a challenge (I have upon occasion drank that much in one week), so to make it more interesting I decided it would have to be eighty different beers. This would present some tactical challenges. Wherever I went, I would have to drink the most obscure thing I could find, as anything mainstream (Bud, Heineken, etc) could be drank elsewhere. For that matter, I had no idea whether it was physically possible to find eighty different brews upon my route, barring finding New Zealand’s equivalent of the Porterhouse.

So  anyway, with a vague plan, I set out. Phase one went off without a hitch, I got straight onto an Emirates flight from Dublin to Dubai. Of course, I ended up in a middle seat at the back, but this, to a seasoned traveller, is no bad thing. Being in a middle seat virtually prevents you from sitting beside a kid, and on a longhaul flight, this is a godsend. Sitting at the back is par for the course. Everyone wants a seat as close to the front as possible, so an easy way to balance the aircraft is to throw the staff to the back.

A problem arose very quickly into the flight. Given that Emirates is consistently rated among the best airlines in the world, my assumption was that there would be a wide selection of beers available. In this I was to be disappointed. Obviously Skytrax is full of wine drinkers, as Emirates can get away with offering the pitiful combination of either Heineken or Budweiser. Oh well, needs must, and I managed to cross those two off my list. In another point of pride for me, once again I found myself on an aircraft that had grossly underestimated the quantity of Heineken required by its passengers. Unlike with Asiana a few years ago, which was primarily down to heroic efforts on my part, I would have to share credit for drinking this flight dry with a number of people sitting around me, whose bacchanalian exertions matched or surpassed my own.

Over the years, relentless cost-cutting has meant that the average meal served on a plane would not be used for pigswill on the ground. Everyone is familiar with the horrors of UHT milk, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Lower air pressure makes it impossible to get a good hot cup of tea or coffee. The meals themselves are masterpieces of thrift. Everything is off the rack, and stuffed with enough preservatives that future archaeologists will have a wealth of data on the diet of early 21st century man. In fairness to Emirates, their meals are significantly better than the norm (Apparently Emirates spend £27 per passenger on catering, which would dwarf any Western carrier). The highlight of the affair was a praline and cream desert, which to my horror was declined by the person sitting beside me before I could persuade them otherwise.


I: Dubai.

Everyone I know says wonderful things about Dubai. This may be part of the reason I have absolutely no desire to visit the place. It seems to me to exude a false sort of glamour. I mean, it’s all very well and good to build the world’s tallest building on account of high land prices, but to do so simply for the sake of building the world’s tallest building? It smacks of trying too hard, and as everyone knows, it isn’t cool if you’re trying. All in all, as far as I could see the place is a gaudier, tackier version of Las Vegas, another destination that features prominently on my list of places not to go.

As a result, I was absolutely delighted when Servisair in Dublin decided to check my bags straight through to Sydney. This would give me a chance of getting the 2:15am flight rather than waiting to the morning. Lamentably, it was not to be. As I had known before leaving Dublin, that flight was jammed to the gills, and my prospects of getting on were only marginally better than my prospects of flying to Sydney on my own. No bother, time to wait for the morning flight. It was here that things began to come unstuck.

The first problem was retrieving my bag. If I was going to sit in an airport for nine hours I might as well have a change of clothes. It turned out Emirates had other ideas. As far as they were concerned, that bag was staying in the hall until such time as I got on a flight. Damnation…

The next problem waswhat to do. Given that the goal of this trip was widescale beer consumption, it was pretty obvious that the less time spent in an Islamic country, the better. For all the wonderful amenities offered on the far side of security, the landside part of Dubai Airport Terminal 3 is very sparse indeed. A (halal) Burger King, three coffee shops, and a (halal) Subway seemed to be the lot, which was not a good thing for a man chasing a bacon sandwich and some sort of obscure beer. Oh well, at the least the place had wi-fi, and the contents of my external hard drive kept me going for the rest. Messrs Simpson and Blackadder are a surprisingly good way of passing time in airports, as I was to repeatedly discover.

Anyway, six hours later I was back over in the standby area, when I hear two of the most dreaded phrases in staff travel: oversold and weight restricted. The former meant that there weren’t going to be any seats, the latter that even if there were, I wasn’t going to get one. Clearly, Sydney was out of the question for the next few days. As it turned out, so was anywhere in Australia. Time to recalculate.

A quick perusal of the departures for the day showed a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong at 18:10. Granted, it meant another nine hours in camel country, but at least I’d be on my way. A quick glance at the Cathay Pacific website said both that flight and one onwards to Auckland the next day were wide open. A one way ticket from Dubai to Auckland via Hong Kong could be had for four hundred euro. Of course, my miserly side kicked in and pointed out that a one way standby ticket could be had for half that, and if confirmed tickets were so cheap, then there should be no difficulty getting aboard. Standby it was, then.

Once this decision had been made, there was the small matter of retrieving my bag, which was currently MIA in the bowels of the transfer hall. In this respect I must say that Emirates’ legendary efficiency fell far short of my expectations. In their desire to standardise everything, they had a procedure for recovering luggage in this situation, which unfortunately took three hours. On the plus side, I managed to catch up on some sleep. Being asleep in Dubai was only marginally less interesting than being awake.

Eventually I was reunited with the bag, and more importantly the deodorant within. A seven hour flight, coupled with fourteen hours sitting around in a desert climate, had not done my hygiene any favours. To put it mildly, I smelled like the interior of a sausage factory. While in other circumstances this could prove useful (nothing guarantees an empty seat beside  you on a flight like stinking to high heaven, short of taking out a Koran and periodically shouting “Allahu Akhbar”), Cathay Pac are A) notorious for being picky about what constitutes acceptable staff, and B) notable for being one of the few airlines that maybe, just maybe, might upgrade staff.

Anyway, bag recovered and Portugese shower had, I made my way over to Cathay Pacific, and was rewarded by being checked in immediately. Once again sucking diesel, I boarded the flight and immediately passed out, reviving on only four occasions, when I needed more Carlsberg (Cathay once again having a rather limited beer selection). Seven hours later I staggered off the aircraft in Hong Kong.


II: Hong Kong

Funny sort of situation. For years I had wanted to visit Hong Kong. I was already in the early planning stages for a trip there in February 2013. Now I was given the option of a full day there. Which I declined. A day in Hong Kong didn’t seem enough. If I did a day there, I wouldn’t see anything, I’d be in a rush, plus I’d be hauling around my luggage. And most importantly, I’d have an excuse not to go next year, having been there already. In addition, sighteseeing would have used up valuable beer and sleep time. At this point I had maybe four hours kip from the past forty-eight, so sitting down for a beer in Hong Kong proper might havecaused me to miss the flight on account of nodding off. So I resolved to wait around for fifteen hours in Chep Lap Kok Airport, and catch up with all the beer I didn’t get to drink in Dubai.

Fast forward eleven hours, and I’m deeply bored. Time to check in, methinks. Only it wasn’t. To my horror, the flight to Auckland, which had been wide open the previous day, had filled up alarmingly. In addition, all the flights to Australia were even fuller, so a lot of staff had decided to try their hand at Auckland. Nightmare. Suddenly I was on the standby list, with mixed prospects of getting on. With so many staff from Cathay Pac trying to get out, I kinda knew my chances were poor, but went through the motions. Back to the bar for three hours, before returning to the standby desk. No dice. At this point, two days behind schedule and largely dead from lack of sleep, I did the unthinkable: I purchased a full fare ticket for the next day.

For anyone who has never travelled standby, this is the ultimate defeat. It is a last resort action undertaken by those who have no choice. It also meant booking a hotel for the night, which on the plus side gave me another day in Hong Kong. On the minus side it maxed out my credit card. Oh well, shit happens. A quick cab and train ride into the city, and a quick trip to the nearest shop, and I conked out for the night in the Ramada.

Next day, the same problem presented itself. Ok, I was in Hong Kong proper, but on the other hand, I was still lugging a suitcase about, so sightseeing would be limited. In particular, the Peak was out. On the other hand, trying to take in Hong Kong in even two days would be an insult. I resolved to wander into the city centre, but only briefly, and to save a trip there for the future.

The next item on the agenda was to try and procure an upgrade. Having had to pay through the nose for a flight ticket, I figured I’d try and get bumped up to business class. After all, if the flight was as full as it looked, they might have to give a few lucky souls seats up the front. Once again, I was to be disappointed. On the plus side, I was now safely en route to Auckland. This flight seemed to have better beer stocks than the preceding ones, with the result I managed to put myself a few beers closer to my goal, though I was still behind schedule with that as well. To my chagrin, the flight once again ran out of Heineken, which seems to be recurring with worrying frequency. Anyway, eleven hours and a few dozen cans later, I was in New Zealand.

III: New Zealand

Standby travel has taught me a few things. Being able to blag is important. Listing for flights is not. United Airlines see you as more important than regular passengers. American Airlines staff will routinely lie to you about your prospects of getting on. Emirates staff in Dubai see you as a necessary evil. And, as I arrived in Auckland, I was about to learn another lesson: Under no circumstances travel with Jetstar. I had hoped to avoid it. Initially, Air New Zealand was going to be my carrier of choice, till Aer Lingus and them had a bit of a tiff, with the result that they no longer accept our tickets. However, what with me being a bit of a chancer, I decided to try anyway. Once again, my bad luck held, and a sharp-eyed checkin agent copped the lack of validity, to which I feigned ignorance. Oh well, Jetstar it was.

This meant three hours waiting. Once again, the pub was my friend here. However, I first went up to Jetstar to see what their procedure was. Essentially, I was fobbed off with the “come back a half an hour before and we’ll see” line. Fair enough, but I knew there were seats, so I could wait. Anyway, come the time, they declined to take me, while freely admitting the flight wasn’t full. “We’re not taking standby”, was the line. No reason advanced. It was a short flight, so there could be no weight issues. I can only assume they weren’t bothered taking me. At this point, thoroughly exasperated, I purchased another full fare ticket with Air New Zealand.

Anyway, the Wellington-Auckland flight is notoriously bouncy, so I largely discounted any sleep prospects on it, and planned to pass the time catching up with my Terry Pratchett collection. Problem was, my metabolism had other ideas. Sleep was happening whether I wanted it or not. No sooner had I taken the book out than it went into the seat pocket and I nodded off, sleeping through takeoff, approach and landing and only being awoken when the aircraft was largely disembarked by the passenger inside me, whose politeness and concern for my welfare had finally been overcome by his desire to get off the aircraft. Mortified, I fled the plane, only realising afterwards that I had left my book on board. I suppose at least some Air New Zealand staff may discover the wonders of Discworld as a result, but that to me is poor consolation.

The next matter was finding Kevin. Disdaining the traditional method of travelling to the airport to meet me, he had left a key for his apartment under a box outside, and vague instructions as to how to find him, what with he being out on the lash in Wellington. Finding the apartment was comparatively easy. A bit of practice with Google Earth had meant that all I needed was a bus number, which Kev supplied. Subsequently, things got rather Laurel and Hardy-esque. Having  spent quitea bit on credit during the previous four days (Dubai-Ireland-New Zealand calls costing rather more than one would suspect), I was somewhat miffed to find that, once again, I had run out. My irritation was further increased by the fact that my backup plan involving payphones was stymied by their demands for my maxed-out credit card. As a consequence, I was forced to resort to the pre-mobile method of wandering into the city and checking bars until I found him. In a city of 300,000 soulds, this was perhaps ambitious, and soon enough I was forced to reconsider. A quick trip onto bar wifi sorted out my credit problem, and once again myself and Kevin were in phone communication. This didn’t really improve matters, as the directions he provided for the pub were about as much use as an open bar for a Muslim. Eventually, through a combination of blind luck and trial and error, I found him.

I shan’t burden you with the minutiae of the evening. Suffice it to say that Kevin remains his old self, amiably wandering through life without the kind of filter circuits that prevents normal people getting up to the nonsense he does. Having expended fifty-odd NZ dollars on a glass of whiskey (following considerable efforts in the beer department) and shouted this fact to all and sundry, Herr Walsh decided to head back to his place (An unusual occurrence, normally I’m the one who gives up). At some point during the journey back he discovered that his phone had taken an unplanned leave of absence, and only my frantic, sleep-starved persuasions convinced him to let the matter lie till the morning. Unfortunately, As we were entering the apartment building, I ventured an opinion as to where the phone might be found, whereupon Kevin decided to head back into the city with the goal of recovering it. Against all odds, this endeavour was successful. Unfortunately, in the effort to retrieve the phone, he lost the keys to the apartment. Efforts to kick the door down generated a lot of noise and damaged the door not a jot, so we were forced to sleep on the landing, not a pleasant situation at all. At some point in the early hours of Sunday we finally managed to call a locksmith, and proper sleep could be had.

Wellington is a nice city. Granted, it lacks the kind of tourist attractions a proper city should have, but it has character, a far rarer and more valuable currency. The sheer range of ethnic restaurants was perhaps unnerving for me, given that my idea of ethnic food extends no further than nachos, kebabs and pizza, but the city exudes the kind of cosmopolitan nature that poor Americans hate and rich Americans fake. Thankfully, microbreweries and speciality pubs were plentiful, allowing me to make up a lot of lost ground on my beer project. The days passed with plenty of references to my man-boobs and Kevin’s girth, but anyone who has met us knows this is par for the course between us. Mind you, the usual nonsense prevailed. Upon an evening where we encountered a random girl in a random pub, I decided to leave the field clear for Kev, and came up with the (to my drunken mind) wonderful idea of pretending to be gay to drive off the competition. Upon another occasion, I attempted to hustle someone at pool, only for him to attempt to hustle me back, and only blind luck saved me from a big payout. The aggrieved party subsequently squared up with Kev, but diplomacy and a bouncer prevented matters from escalating.

Anyway, hunger adequately sated, thirst adequately slaked, and horizons adequately broadened, it was time to travel onwards. Next on the itinerary was Sydney, where I would be spending two days before heading back to the Western Hemisphere. For once, fortune was with me, and I got onto the Qantas flight without a hitch. Considering my misadventures with standby travel, it was nice to meet someone who took the trouble to tell me the score, and even nicer to finally receive good news.

IV: Sydney and onwards

I am fond of the old gag about the difference between a yoghurt and Australia, namely that if you leave a yoghurt for three centuries it will at least develop a culture. That said, I like Aussies. Like Hong Kong, Sydney features prominently on my list of places to visit proper, rather than the two days I managed this time. More importantly from the circumnavigation point of view, I was rather pleased with Qantas from Wellington to Sydney (Pedants may note that this flight is in fact operated by a wholly owned subsidiary of Qantas, Jetconnect, but to be honest it’s much the same, and I suspect I am the only person who ever noticed). Suddenly the idea of a thirteen-hour flight across the Pacific looked less daunting.

Every standby traveller harbours a secret hope of being upgraded, tempered by the knowledge that it never happens (except when it does…). However, failing the business class seat, there is one other favour that staff can do for each other, and that is to provide an extra seat. On those occasions that I man a standby desk, space permitting, staff will get two seats. After all, if it’s going a-begging, it might as well go to someone who’ll appreciate it. Qantas seem to have the same idea, and so I found myself flying to Sydney with three seats to play around with. Happy days. I like to have somewhere to dump books and whatnot, plus I am an awful person to sit beside, particularly if you have designs on the armrest. To quote Daffy Duck, it’s mine, all mine. Anyway, Qantas’s revenue passengers were spared the dubious pleasures of my company.

Wags occasionally deride Australians as being Americans in training, and it is true that the American influence is very prominent. However, there is a strong English feel to Sydney, and it is rather classier than I would have been led to believe. In contrast to Ireland, but in common with the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world, pale ale was to be had in plentiful quantities. For someone whose experiences with Australian beer up to that point constituted Fosters (pretend beer, to be honest), and Castlemain XXXX (a very versatile brew, being both good for getting drunk and removing nail varnish) it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the country had a whole range of craft ales.

Aussie bars are much the same as any other bars except in one important respect: the pokies. Australians gamble twice as much as Irish every year, and nowhere is this more visible than in the bars. Jokes about two-up aside, the country has the same issues with gambling that Ireland has with booze, namely that the sheer prevalence of it masks those with genuine problems. Pokies (slot machines) are to be found in every bar, sometimes tucked to one side, sometimes not. The (usually male) patrons sit vacantly in front of them, periodically reloading them with more of the monopoly money that Australians call currency. I must say, the sight of all those tragically addicted people really was depressing, but another few beers cured me of that….

Periodically, coincidences happen. Occasionally, the odds these coincidences overcome can be staggering. So it was that when I was doing the tourist walk and was walking onto Circular Quay, the Pogues version of “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” came on my Ipod. For the ignorant, the climax of this song is about the protagonist being carried onto Circular Quay, having lost his legs in Gallipoli. Out of five thousand or so songs on my Ipod, the only one that references Circular Quay came on. Such coincidences are the things that scare men into believing in God, though in my case I was more stoic. After all, there were about a dozen songs about Australia that hadn’t come on, nor did I hear any New Zealand related tune during my time there. “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” coming on as I walked onto Circular Quay may have been a long shot, but hey, sooner or later, long shots happen.

Anyway, Sydney was about the only place I played proper tourist. Lacking my Hawaiian shirt, I made do with wandering around and gawking at the buildings like an idiot. Somewhere on my phone I have photos of Sydney Harbour Bridge (a wonderful piece of infrastructure) and Sydney Opera House (given how uncultured they are, one had to wonder why Australia needs such a building). In any case, the whole Sydney business was by way of an extended interlude between New Zealand and my next destination: Canada. So it was that on the morning of October 13th, my 27th birthday, I showed up in Sydney Airport, head hurting, desperately in need of a drink, and ready to fly to Los Angeles.

Considering how jealously they guard their respective borders, getting onto a flight from Australia to the USA was simplicity itself. Walk up like a normal passenger, I was told, and I duly complied. None of this waiting around nonsense, I was checked in straight away, albeit down the back. My momentary irritation at this was quickly suppressed when I discovered that Qantas had once again provided me with three seats to play with. As birthday presents go, it was just what I always wanted.

Of course, every silver lining has a cloud, and so it was to prove on this flight. Presumably in recognition of the fact that long-haul passengers like to sleep, Qantas seats recline rather steeply. As soon as our flight reached cruising altitude, I was rather painfully apprised of this fact by the passenger in front of me. In an attempt to save my knees, I reclined my own seat, only for an Asian lady to tap me on the shoulder and say “Solly? Please to not lean your seat” Fair enough. I don’t like putting others out, and as a standby passenger, my place is at the bottom of the pile. My seat duly went forward again. Some time later I had occasion to visit the toilet and discovered that the Asian lady wasn’t sitting behinde me, her daughter was. A daughter who, if she stretched her legs out fully, might just have reached the seat in front. A daughter who was watching TV and making lots of noise. And most importantly, a daughter who had her own seat fully reclined. Well, everyone has limits, and no amount of Sollies was going to keep my seat upright at this point.

Somewhere around this point we crossed the International Date Line, which meant it was the 12th of October again. Some time later it became the 13th again, which meant that I celebrated my 28th birthday within a few hours of my 27th, and was still 27. Confusing, I know. Meanwhile, the Asian problem behind me continued as the kid decided it would be a good idea to kick my seat and start making additional noise. Then the turbulence started. I like mild turbulence, but this was grab your cup turbulence, stuff was falling all over the place. In typical Aussie laid-backedness, at no point was there any instruction for passengers to return to their seats, despite the fact that people were being bounced around rather forcefully. On the plus side side, Qantas went to some effort to stuff me full of food so I arrived in Los Angeles less annoyed than might have been the case.

LA is truly a horrible place. It is as if someone read Dante’s Inferno or the book of Revelations and decided to attempt to put them into practice. It is a giant, featureless indictment of all that is wrong with modern society. Being essentially an overgrown suburb, the city lacks most of the things that give cities character, and instead offers unending legions of homeless people. The airport reflects these, and is in effect a monument to human misery. One queues at immigration. One queues to retrieve one’s bag. One queues for customs. One queues for checking in. One queues for security. One queues, it seems, in praise of human idleness. In fact, the queues make LAX less of an infrastructural hub and more of a temple to wasted time. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I was forced to endure this rigmarole for three hours as the price of getting to Vancouver.

Unique among all the airlines I travelled with on this trip, Alaska Airlines supply ale on board. Dead tired and all as I was, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to add one to the collection. As it happened, sleep was to prove a difficult objective as, to my horror, a group of about thirty drunken Greeks were seated around me. The last thing one wants in this situation is to be surrounded by several dozen citizens of a nation renowned for their talkativeness, doubly so when they are on holiday. Having already endured a child on the previous flight and endured LAX in between, this seemed like a rather cruel little addendum from an especially capricious god. In any case, the flight, at two and a half hours, was mercifully short, and I arrived in Canada.

V: Canada

Sometimes, one has these weird revelations of self. Here I am, having travelled twenty thousand or so miles and having seen a large amount of the world, particularly its airports. More importantly, here I am, more than halfway through my trip and with thirty-eight beers yet to drink. Clearly, the project was falling behind schedule and urgent steps would have to be taken to get back on track.

The Pacific Northwest and British Columbia are consistently cited as being the most liveable region in the world, with Vancouver as its finest city. Certainly, the place is insanely cosmopolitan and high-brow. On the first night myself and Dara visited a pub with something of the order of forty draught beers on sale, a feat no Irish establishment could hope to match. The selection was breathtaking, especially in light of the fact that virtually all of it was local. Resolving not to make repeat choices of drink, we embarked on one of the most varied nights of beer consumption I have ever engaged in. Fortunately, myself and Dara being rather more level-headed than myself and Kevin, this binge did not result in any disappearing keys or nights spent sleeping rough.

At this point, jetlag was finally catching up with me. Several days I slept till four in the afternoon, rising to wander down to the city. Like Wellington and Sydney, the place boasts a crazy breadth of restaurants, reflecting its melting-pot nature. More unusually, North Vancouver is effectively separate from the rest of the city. Unlike Dublin, where the Liffey is a barrier only to the more snobbish denizens of the South Side, the Burrard Inlet divides Vancouver nearly as effectively as the Berlin Wall. Two bridges at opposite ends of the city and a ferry in the middle are all that link the disparate parts. In another cruel turn of fate, Dara and Ciaran have chosen to settle up a hill.

In one respect, I arrived at a bad time. Dara’s jobsearching had finally paid off bigtime, and he was starting while I was there. The presence of a tourist from the old country whose only objective was to get you drunk was perhaps of dubious benefit in these circumstances, though I managed to dial back my worst excesses (I hope). I even consented to a non-alcoholic evening, involving a visit to the cinema. In fairness, it was to a Bruce Willis film, so I can’t claim it was completely involuntary.

An interesting point about Irish bars in Vancouver (and also in Chicago, as I found out) is that the staff dress in attire more suited to Hooter’s than traditional bars of a country whose traditional attire for women was something rather more conservative. Mind you, as traditions go, it would be a good one to start. Our attempts to find a table quiz in proving fruitless, myself and Dara instead decided our best bet lay in sampling the Irish drinking houses. Once again, Vancouver’s fine selection of beers served us well, and more importantly kept me in hot pursuit of my goals.

Perhaps the oddest experience of my travels occurred in the equivalent of Moe’s Tavern in Vancouver. Myself and Dara were enjoying a couple of Sunday evening pints when we were accosted by an individual from “up north” (his words). Were one to draw a picture of the stereotypical Canadian twentysomething male, it would be a good description of this fellow. Burly, wearing a lumberjack shirt, and looking like he was shortchanged in the great-grandparent department. Also rather drunk. Anyway, upon figuring out we were Irish, he regaled us with his one bit of knowledge about Ireland. “Well then, I suppose you like…..potatoes!!!!”, as if this was a joke worthy of Oscar Wilde. A number of variants upon this joke (“How about those potatoes?” “How come you’re not eating potatoes”, etc) followed, as wel as repeated references to the Irish as spudmunchers. While I would admit to occasionally eating the odd potato, there is something surreal about being derided for stereotypes by a guy who looked like his hobbies were ice hockey and seal clubbing and whose lifetime’s ambition was to become a Mountie.

Anyway, next on the agenda: Chicago. To my surprise, I managed to navigate the complexities of Vancouver’s public transport system rather easily, so I made it to the airport in plenty of time. Like most American carriers, United have the vaguely irritating habit of keeping you on standby right up until boarding time, before taking you at the gate. Unlike the others, they don’t seem too inclined to contact you, you have to contact them. This presented a problem, as I only figured this out as the flight was boarding. The only person who was at the gate was a surly looking middle aged dispatcher, who really appeared as if he had far better things to be doing than facilitating a bedraggled staff passenger. I was left standing till the last minute, and deeply worried that he was simply going to ignore me, till without a word he handed me a boarding card. Only when I got on did I realise I had been upgraded to premium economy. Shows what I know about people.

VI: Chicago

To an outside observer, it would appear that I have something of a liking for Chicago, having been there three times this year. They would be right. Smaller and less hectic than New York, the city is still big enough to have a very distinctive character. Also, everyone is trying to screw you in one way, shape or form. My past two trips have seen me on the receiving end of a dodgy hotel bill and a conman, so at least this time I was somewhat prepared. And it would not be long before that preparedness was tested.

I was getting in a day ahead of the lads, so I had decided to take a room at a motel beside the airport for the night. When I informed the cabbie of my destination, his anger was palpable. After all, he could have been queueing in the rank for some time, and suddenly he was going to get a local run. I knew it, he knew it, and I was going to assuage his anger with a decent tip, until he switched off the meter and informed me that the journey would cost thirty dollars, at least three times what it should have. Having got the drop on me, he drove off in blissful ignorance of what I had planned.

A conversation about God and religion (I can fake religion very easily and he professed a deep faith) guilted the fellow into dropping his fare to a still extortionate twenty-five dollars. I duly produced the cash, then asked for a receipt. He explained that he couldn’t give me one. I explained that the sign on the back of his seat said he was obliged to, and that I had his cab number. Stalemate persisted until I told him I needed a receipt for any expenses over ten dollars, whereupon he felt compelled to revise his price downwards to a figure more to my liking and bearing some relationship to the actual cost of the trip. That’ll learn him.

Anyway, I managed to safely ensconce myself in my motel and acquire a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon to keep me company for the night. That, coupled with the largest Subway sandwich I have ever eaten, rather assuaged my irritation at the avaricious cabbie. Anyway, next day was time to meet the lads, who to my mild surprise managed to navigate the intricacies of standby travel and US immigration with a minimum of hassle. Onwards into the city.

Of course, differentials in jetlag were clearly going to play a part. I had been moving east the whole time, and shattered and all, I was still in a better state than my colleagues, who had just had their day extended by six hours, coupled with the tiring effect of air travel in and of itself. As a result, only Michael was able to keep up, Dave and Ross having given up at a relatively early stage. However, at this point, things were beginning to take their toll on me. At a pub on Division & Rush, Michael discovered a basketball and hoop, to his delight. The problem was that I decided to join in. Michael blind drunk would be better at basketball than me blind sober, so some of my efforts were going rather astray, which may have contributed to the fact that it was me who was ejected from the pub, despite Michael, by his own admission, being as drunk or worse than me. In any case, it was something of the order of 3am, and perhaps a good time to head back.

I should mention at this point that due to budgetary constraints, I had made the decision that we would book a room with two double beds and share. As any heterosexual male who has ever had to share a bed with another heterosexual male knows, this is a delicate situation that is usually resolved by both parties keeping a good deal of personal space between themselves and effectively sleeping at opposite edges of the bed. Unfortunately Dave hadn’t been informed of this tradition, and thus he improvised his own method. This involved dividing the bed into Dave’s space, which basically meant as much as he wanted, and my space, which meant anything he didn’t. The practical upshot of this was I found myself lying on the absolute edge of the bed, where any careless movement would result in an untimely encounter with the floor.

A further problem arose in the early hours of the next morning. Dave and Ross’s decision to go to bed early was paying dividends, as they woke up at six o’clock rather refreshed. Ross decided to celebrate this by shotgunning six cans, which woke myself and, about half an hour later, Michael. Being still inebriated from the previous night, Michael assumed that because he was awake it was now time to get up, with the result that he had us all dragged out of bed by eight in the morning, a situation that did not sit well with my hungover self. Nonetheless, it was decided to visit Navy Pier. At this point, Michael began to come to terms with just how much drink and how little sleep he had the previous night, and was wandering around like something out of a George Romero film. Disdaining the walk up and down the pier, he found a convenient bench and went to sleep for an hour.

Anyway, next on the agenda was the Signature Bar at the John Hancock Building for a few afternoon drinks, followed by dinner. The latter proved a trickier proposition than anticipated, as everywhere was requiring advance reservations. Finally, we found a pizzeria, which suited me as I had been singing the praises of deep dish pizzas. Only problem was there was a 90-minute waiting list. Oh well, at least we were getting fed. The next question was where to spend the next hour and a half. We resolved to try the hotel across the road, and found ourselves in the most upmarket bar I have ever seen. The place didn’t even serve draught beer. It resembled nothing so much as a bar from a James Bond film. The only stain against its character was that they would let four such disreputable individuals as ourselves  in at all. As can be imagined, we stood out like a hatless guy at the Wailing Wall.

Not for the last time, we made a miscalculation about the size of portions at Chicago restaurants, which meant that when we finally got around to getting fed, nearly half our meal was left uneaten. Various solutions were proposed, ranging from the simple (my solution of just leaving it), to the crazy (Michael’s solution of selling it to someone in the queue to eat). Eventually, a compromise was agreed upon whereby Ross and Dave, who had once again pulled up short in the night’s drinking, having got rascally drunk during the day, attempted to donate it to one of the city’s homeless population on their way back to the hotel. When this failed, they left it on top of a bin outside the hotel and amused themselves by seeing how long before it was removed.

Anyway, next day was sports day, which was a problem as there were no NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL or MLS games to be had. A solution was found in the form of a college football game, which I am informed is a better live event than the NFL anyway. Of course, to my horror, the stadium was dry, but in fairness that was somewhat predictable. Live American football is considerably more engaging than its TV counterpart, and for once I believe I now know the rules, leaving the layout of logarithmic equations as the only thing I cannot remember no matter how many times I am told. Of course, the usual nonsense of constant stoppages prevailed, which breaks the flow of the game rather irritatingly. Myself and Michael amused ourselves with nonsense bets. In the end the game went right down to the wire, no doubt to the chagrin of the thousands of fans who left when the result looked beyond doubt, only to receive a shock when they turned on their car radios.

In most respects, that evening was a rather odd clone of the preceding one. Both times we ordered pizza for dinner. Both times we ordered too much. And both times it was only myself and Michael left standing at the end, though to give him his dues Dave put in a valiant effort to keep up. Ross’s drinking habit consists of lashing in the pints at a far greater rate than the rest of us, said tactic resulting in him crashing and burning at an early stage, and staggering off to the hotel. Capacious and all as Ross’s stomach is, he fails to understand that binge drinking is a marathon, not a sprint. At some point in the evening I referred to Michael as being a sex offender, which he then assumed was believed by all, and consequently spent the evening trying to refute said allegation to all and sundry, despite the fact that a) nobody believed me in the first place, and b) most of those who he denied it to were unaware of the original allegation.

Shopping is an activity I do only under protest. Clothes use money that could be spent on beer, and given the choice, I’d rather be naked and drunk than sober and clothed. Nonetheless, the others insisted, and so we spent Sunday making our way to an out-of-town mall in what can fairly be described as the middle of nowhere. While I went along, it was with some misgivings about whether or not I should buy anything. As a consequence, when the opportunity came to mind the bags while sitting in a bar, I volunteered my services, with the result that no shopping was done.

As I said, the mall was, to put it mildly, remote. Our public transport option consisted of an hour in a train followed by a twenty-minute cab ride. Unfortunately, we misconnected with our cab for the return journey, which meant that we missed our train and had to wait till midnight for the next one. This was subsequently compounded by our failure to locate a liquor store, with the result that our alcohol inventory consisted solely of one can of PBR that I had put in my bag for emergencies. So it was that when, at 2am, we made it back to the hotel, we were dangerously sober, and a trip to a pub seemed in order. Only problem was finding a place that was open. This was finally rectified and we found a rather fancy looking place with a revolving door. Of course, no sooner did I walk through then the bouncer told me to keep going in a voice that suggested that any dissent would be met with violence, so a hasty exit was on the cards. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me that, bedraggled and bearded as I was after three weeks travelling, he might have taken me for one of the city’s homeless population.

Our final day in Chicago was spent on an architectural cruise, which I must say was a rather high-brow addition to what had been a singularly low-brow weekend. The lads were all happily quaffing ale and the like, while I was feeling drained. Three weeks of hard living were finally catching up with me. However, never show weakness in front of the troops and all that, I made a spirited attempt to match them drink for drink. By late afternoon, my exhaustion was largely forgotten (It would return the next day, when I slept for twenty-six hours), and it was in good spirits that we headed to the airport and homewards.


This was going to go down to the wire. Three hours to go, and three beers left to knock off the list. Aer Lingus would not be any use here, I knew the menu intimately and had checked its contents off long before. So it was O’Hare or bust. A perusal of the selection gave me an out. Bud Light, Miller Light and Amstel Light were available. Then I realised something. I couldn’t do it. I could not sully the seventy-seven different fine brews I had consumed over my travels by finishing on those three bottles of carbonated urine. No, far better to go down in gracious defeat than to win such a tainted victory. And so it was that I failed, but felt the better for it, and the bottle of Corona I had instead was that bit better for that knowledge.

Anyway, before long it was time to board the plane. As I was boarding the cabin manager recognised me, and asked if I wanted to sit up the front. Twenty-eight thousand miles, eighteen time zones, seven countries, and all of it in economy, bar a short flight in premium. And now, finally, an upgrade. So I did the unthinkable. I declined. After all, I was with the lads. And holidays are all about the people you’re with. I didn’t go to Wellington or Vancouver because they were places I really wanted to visit. I went to see Kev and Dara. Chicago was great and all, but the venue is merely a backdrop to the people, and I would take six hours in good economy class company over the solitude of a business class seat anytime. In any case, we were well-supplied with drink, and for once I was on a flight that didn’t run out of Heineken, so all’s well that ends well.


List of Beers consumed (Incomplete)

Blue Moon









Kirin Ichiban

John Smith


San Miguel










Croucher Pale

Sprig & Fern Blonde

American Amber Ale

Fern Lager

Fern IPA

Monteith Golden Lager

Export Extra Cold

Chomp Pale Ale

Summit Pale Ale



Kosciusko Pale Ale

James Squire Golden Ale

Boston Pale

Coopers Pale

Carlton Draught

Pure Blonde Lager


Alaska Amber

Pabst Blue Ribbon



Rickard’s Pale

Red Truck


Blue Buck Ale

North Shore Ale

Hoyne Pale Ale


Steamworks Witbier

Granville Limited

Chainbreaker IPA



Okenagen 1516

Okenagen Pale

Granville Winter

Lagunita’s IPA

Old Style

Goose Island

Fat Tire

Bitter End

Green Line

Cain and Abel


Sam Adams


Argus IPA

Sam Adams Oktoberfest

Harpoon IPA

Whip Cord

By gregbowler