London: Fish and Chips

Thursday, September 26, 2019. London, England.
Soundtrack: Primus – Fish On

I just finished re-reading a masterpiece of anti-agricultural thought called Against the Grain, and the sordid history of the potato? Absolutely bonkers.

Nothing is more British than fish and chips, except maybe atavistic royalty and losing control of colonies. The question is, why is fish and chips so British?

Potatoes are and always have been poor person food. That sounds classist, but it’s a fact. You can grow potatoes on a 5-foot square plot, they’re calorically dense, and you don’t even need an oven to cook them. You just throw them into a fire and then eat them after. Bone apple teeth.

England hated potatoes and loved bread. Their devotion to tradition ensured it was the mainstay of their meals for most of their history.

So Ireland would make the wheat, and the British would take the wheat, and kick Ireland in the ribs for good measure. Trendsetters as they were back in the 19th century, most of Europe considered the potato food fit only for livestock and the Irish. The French thought it was poisonous.

It got so bad that this zany reverse-correlation developed where it was popularly believed that eating potatoes made you poor, sick, and dirty. The people eating the potato were the ones who couldn’t afford anything else, so of course they were poor, sick, and dirty.

Another reason Ireland leaned so heavy on potatoes was England clear-cut all of Ireland’s forests, and they had no fuel left. To make bread, in addition to wheat, you need a place to mill it and a place to bake it. The Irish poor had neither. They didn’t even have coal; they were burning peat. That narrowed it down.

Here’s how narrow. The Irish had a saying: “The sauce of a poor man is a little potato eating with a big one.”

In the beginning of the 19th century, populations were booming everywhere and England had more poor to contend with than they ever had before. Not even just in Ireland, either! Domestic poor. There wasn’t enough bread to go around, so they gradually began adopting potatoes, though nobody was happy about it.

And now enters the colorful little edict of “enclosure”. In the early 1800s, subsistence farmers in Ireland and England were booted off of farmlands taken for the aristocracy. It bankrupted Ireland, inasmuch as Ireland could be more bankrupted, and almost certainly played a role in the potato famine.

So these peasants aren’t peasants any more, because they lost all their fields. They had become wage workers for the nobles who scooped up their farms. No place to grow your food, and not enough money to buy it… what’s a boy to do, Jean Valjean?

The English poor started growing potatoes in what was left of their backyards. The “lazy root” was back on the table.

In industrial English tenements, there were no cooking facilities whatsoever. Industrialization sucked up all the land, and a package of calories that could be speed-cooked on the literal street became very attractive.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

Factories in England didn’t have anything resembling a concept of “worker’s rights”, and so paid their expendable machine fodder underclass in one lump sum. “Split it amongst yourselves. Shoo.”

The workers would take the wages down to the public house to split it up. The pubs did a decent business with drinks as it stood, and now everybody was coming in at least once a week with all of their money.

Well, all the people had was potatoes and occasional fish. So that’s what they cooked up and sold, on the spot, every payday and throughout the week.

And thus, fast food was born.

Appetizing, isn’t it?

I’m going to level with you; the fish was so greasy I barely made it through, and I am an insatiable human vortex. I didn’t eat any of the potatoes. They make you poor and dirty.

Another proud, closely held tradition.

Love,

B.

 

Book Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe  by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Copying books.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the boiled beef of the issue: Early Irish literature was essentially Conan the Barbarian with more dick jokes.

Noisiu, Irish warrior and protagonist, is rattling over the bogs when he runs across Derdrui, a certified hottie who is promised to some old king. Even the king’s druid has commented on her thiccness:

“High queens will ache with envy to see those lips of Parthian-red opening on her pearly teeth, and see her pure perfect body”.

Noisiu knows she’s pledged, and cursed, but he can’t help himself, and hits her with the oldest pickup line in the book:

“That’s a fine heifer going by.”

Take note, fellas.
Dedriu, not a swooner, fires back:
“As well it might be. The heifers grow big where there are no bulls.”

You called her a cow and she’s still game! Better seal the deal, Noisiu.
“You have the bull of this province all to yourself — the King of Ulster.”

It’s a bold strategy Cotton, let’s see if it pays off for him.
“Of the two, I’d pick a game young bull like you.”

And then they bang it out, presumably in the middle of the road.

That was the flavor of the early literature. Here’s another go around, featuring Cuchalainn, alleged to be the Irish Achilles, and Emer, the girl he’s come a-courtin’:

“May your road be blessed!” cries Emer on his approach.
“May the apple of your eye see only good,” says Cuchulainn,
presumably reciting a wood graving his mom has hanging over the front door. Then, peering down her dress: “I see a sweet country. I could rest my weapon there.”

Z-z-ZAMN! Emer plays hard to get by rattling off a list of obscure, murderous deeds a man would have to perform before winning her sweet country.

“No man will travel this country until he has killed a hundred men at every ford from Scenmenn ford on the river Ailbine, to Banchuing… where the frothy Brea makes Fedelm leap.”

“In that sweet country, I’ll rest my weapon,” says Cuchulainn.

“No man will travel this country until he has done the feat of the salmon-leap carrying twice his weight in gold, and struck down three groups of nine men with a single stroke, leaving the middle man of each nine unharmed.”

“In that sweet country, I’ll rest my weapon.”

“No man will travel this country who hasn’t gone sleepless from Samain (Halloween), when summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc (Candlemass/Groundhog Day), when the ewes are ilked at spring’s beginning; from Imbolc to Beltaine (Mother’s day) at the summer’s beginning and from Beltaine to Bron Trogain, earth’s sorrowing autumn.”

“It is said and done.”

Remember that old “mayor of tiddy city” sketch? The whole of the Tain cycle can be summarized with: “Long story short — dong on tiddies.”

Fabulous. Now, the Irish were functionally still barbarians at the time of this writing — shocker, I know — but they had a fledgling culture developing, characterized mostly by these outrageous pre-adolescent campfire stories about celtic Hercules (and celtic Xena, considering how many brassy female leads wound up in their stories), along with the Iron Age moral code of “generous, handsome, and brave”. What set them apart from other Iron Age hero-worshipping civilizations from Mesopotamia right up through Greece was the casual brutality and monstrous metamorphosis they loved sticking to their protagonists. Berserkergang’s Irish cousin was called the “Warp-spasm”, and when the battle rage hit the Irish they would full-on mutate into demons. The descriptions played out like something out of Spawn. Let’s have a taste:

The first warp-spasm seized Cuchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from heat to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front … On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child… he sucked one eye so deep into his head than a wild crane couldn’t probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his longs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram’s fleece reached his mouth from his throat… The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.”

That’s the hero of the story. That’s Irish Batman.

From there, the book follows the trajectory of the Roman empire dealing with these and other barbarians, its eventual fall, and what became of classical learning from that point.

Up until the 4th century AD, books were academic third-person affairs, even fiction. Enter our boy Augustine, virtually inventing the concept of written self-disclosure and, functionally, psychotherapeutic journaling:

“I carried inside me a cut and bleeding soul, and how to get rid of it I just didn’t know. I sought every pleasure — the countryside, sports, fooling around, the peace of a garden, friends and good company, sex, reading. My soul floundered in the void — and came back upon me. For where could my heart flee from my heart? Where could I escape from myself?”

Not only did he introduce narrative stream-of-consciousness, he blazed a trail that would be travelled by goth and emo teenagers for millenia to come. His escape would eventually come in the form of God, surprise surprise, but not before he changed the whole landscape of literature.

Meanwhile, another saint, by the name of Patrick, was becoming a particularly prominent figure in the Catholic church. He was yoinked from Britain and enslaved by the Irish for ten years, then escaped, then decided he liked the Irish more and went proselytizing all over the Emerald Isle, adopting them as his people. The Irish went absolutely bananas for this. The BALLS on this guy! Everywhere Patty went, he left a cluster of churches in his wake, with the Irish trading their arbitrary clubfights and whatever for the hoo-rah tough guy mystique of hermitage. The druids transformed seamlessly into the Green Martyrs, since nothing really changed, aside from God being brought into it.

And like every good barbarian hero in fiction, once the Irish learned about books proper, they were hooked. Irish monks in particular could not and would not stop copying every scrap of paper they could find into increasingly complex codices, which they added embellishments to in classically overdramatic Irish fashion.

Meanwhile, the world burned. Rome fell, and with it classic literature. Anything Latin was systematically destroyed, pillaged, and burned. The world screeched to a halt, then tumbled into the Dark Ages, where it stayed until the renaissance. The renaissance, as made evident by its etymology, was “REbirth” because the initial birth had been the classical age. That knowledge had been rediscovered.

It was available for rediscovery because of all the compulsively meticulous Irish monks who copied thousands upon thousands of freehand codices and passed them down through their families. The book wraps up with a report of a farmer in Cork County in the mid 1800s who was reading his own familial codex on the train.

It was an excellent and thorough, if somewhat meandering book. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

View all my reviews

Bog Bodies and Bad Beer

It was about time to start my cultural tour of the Emerald Isle’s most iconic city not featuring a stone you kiss, and the Irish archaeology museum seemed as a good place to start as any. Unfortunately, I missed it the first time through because the museum entrance was right next to a school which was presently being protested, in Gaelic, by dozens of children and parents. Everyone was waving signs I couldn’t read and everyone was deeply upset.

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I watched from the corner at this shouting legion of children and what I believe are called, in that part of the world, “mums”, cognizant only of the fact that they had been 21 years waiting for something. Most of them didn’t look 21 to me. My phone GPS insisted I was right on top of the archaeology museum, but that really only helped me stare blankly at said phone.

A man next to me was taking pictures with a gorgeous camera. I asked if he could tell me what the signs said, and he said “No, I am… I am French. I do not speak.” I told him me either, but then he asked the woman who’s head I accidentally photographed the back of and she told us they’ve been waiting on a new school that they paid for 21 years ago. The word “prefab” was used. I still didn’t have much understanding of what was going on, but I was relieved to find this wasn’t an abortion thing, since those are the only protests you ever see kids at back in the States. Which is… really grim, when you just put it out there. In any event, I looked into it after the fact and though this wasn’t the school, it certainly provides some context.

Another pass down the street and I evaded the children and slipped into the alley that led to the archaeology museum. I expressed surprise to the man at the desk that admission was free, and he said something that sounded vaguely barbed about how their government uses money. Yeah, preaching to the choir there, bud.

For those not acquainted with the concept, Ireland’s bogs preserve bodies really well, and in its sordid ancient history the locals were fond of mutilating human sacrifices and chucking them into the bog to appease… well, whatever needed appeasement, really. Fast forward a couple thousand years (2300, give or take) and baby, you got yourself a mummy goin’.

Most of the museum was devoted to old pots and piles of badly banged up golden bracelets. Considering that the bog bodies are the main attraction, they were really well hidden, but I imagine that was a reflection of the initial rediscovery of the bodies by what I can only imagine were fisherman or hikers.

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This was the Cashel Man, presumed to be from the Bronze Age (around 2000 BCE). He was around 25 when it happened. His arm was broken, as was his back, in two places. This should give an indication of how seriously the early Irish took their appeasements.

In the past I’ve made reference to poking around, exploring places said to be spiritual, like the Sedona vortexes. Vortices. Vortexi. This is all smug nihilist posturing, of course, just like the rest of my personality.

I could feel the bad juju coming off the Clonycavan man, though.

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He was an Iron Age king from around 2300 BCE. They think he was murdered; you can still see the gashes from the axe wounds through his face. Others were along the back of his head, and brain matter had been found in them, but it was the blow that split the bridge of his nose that killed him.

Once upon a time, I knew a punk rock girl who took acid and insisted on reading my aura. We sat down on a friend’s apartment floor and she touched my palms and closed her eyes and when she opened them again they were big and shiny, pupils dilated far beyond the point you’d think that amount of LSD would permit.

“It’s just mouths… screaming.”

At the time I said something like, “Yeah, try livin’ with it.” But now I think I have some frame of reference. Maybe it was the uncanny aspect of his split face, being able to read the expression on it, or maybe it was vengeful Irish ghosts, but something about that exhibit shook me. I had to talk myself into taking a picture, as my old witch friends back in the day assured me that’s the quickest way to drag malevolent spirits around with you.

I also found a tasteful medieval Irish cowboy hat.

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I beat feet out of the museum and thought it was about time to try the oft-vaunted Irish beer. I found a likely pub, settled in, and ordered a local craft porter, as I am of the unpopular opinion that Guinness is undrinkable garbage water.

Don’t mistake me for a beer snob. I will happily drink Lionshead and PBR, I keep my fridge stocked with Yuengling to go with dinner. I even like Murphy’s stout, and that barely makes the cutoff for being beer.

The Russian bartender started pouring it, then frowned.

“Doesn’t look like a porter,” he said, and he was right, it was several shades too light. In Ireland, I learned there’s a particular way of pouring I never saw stateside where they fill it near the top, let the foam fizzle down, then fill it the rest of the way. I tried to take it after what looked like he was done pouring and he was flabbergasted.

“It is not done,” he said. “Why would I give you half beer?”

I shrugged. “First beer I’ve ordered in Ireland. When in Rome, you know?”

He gave me a look that suggested we were not in Rome, which I couldn’t dispute.

The porter tasted like Guinness. Over the next day and a half, I would drink two more local, craft stouts. Both would also taste like Guinness.

Why?

On my rambling, misdirected walkabout back to the hostel to finally sleep, I saw this sign in front of a comic shop and I was given pause:

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Can you imagine seeing the absolute absurdity of seeing Captain Any-Other-Country while in America? Just walking down main street, seeing a sign for Admiral Canada? Lieutenant Scotland? Who else could get away with something like that but good ol’ USA #1?

I slept for roughly a day then spent a night out in Dublin. By the time I had gotten a beer in me, all the restaurants had closed except for a shawarma shop, so that’s what I had. It was… a cultural experience, certainly.

I reviewed my options that night and learned that if I didn’t book a plane out of Dublin the following day, ticket prices would increase 4x until the following Monday. All that remained on my Dublin itinerary was The Leprechaun Museum, and I doubted I could squeeze a full week out of that. I booked a ticket on the shadiest available airline to Barcelona.

Yesterday’s post might have seemed to end a little suddenly. That’s because I was sitting in the airport, waiting to board my flight, when a nearby plane burst into honest-to-God flames. Fortunately, they had a firetruck… suspiciously close at hand.

I’ll tell you about Barcelona later!

Love,

The Bastard

 

The Rocky Road to Dublin

October 24, 2017. Dublin, Ireland.

Another interactive post! For most authentic results, play this song over and over until you lose the ability to sleep for three days.

After my disastrous layover in Boston, my master plan was to sleep all six hours of my first intercontinental flight and then spring into action, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, upon arriving in Dublin. But you know what they say, the best laid plans of mice and men… something. Once on the plane, I traded seats with some guy so he could sit next to his “wife” or whatever, which put me next to a fellow wanderer who was very excited about backpacking Ireland. She’d been to Europe four other times so she was giving me a lot of helpful advice and asking a battery of pertinent questions, which I appreciated, even as she kept aborting my attempts to get any sleep at all in my life ever. Then again, my engines run just south of nuclear at the most serene of times, so it’s unlikely I would’ve managed to get much sleep anyway while hurtling through the sky over shark-infested waters in a giant metal tube toward the land of my foremothers.

My irrepressibly inquisitive single-serving friend and I parted ways after customs in an appropriately Irish goodbye. Thereafter, I figured out how buses work. You give them money, and they scowl at you, and then you hit the button before it gets to your stop or they’ll drop you off at the next stop.

♫ In Dublin next arrived, I thought it such a pity
to be so soon deprived a view of this fine city ♫

Unfortunately, I got off the bus in center city at 6 AM, not realizing that Ireland doesn’t open until 8. I had booked in advanced at a hostel called The Four Courts which was so closed that there was a cage in front of the door. My options had narrowed.

So like the idiot protagonist of the aforementioned folk song, I decided to take a stroll. In the rain. For two hours. Desperate for breakfast.

There was one place, called The Pantry, that opened a half hour before the rest of Dublin. I skittered in and ordered the “jumbo” breakfast, whereupon I learned jumbo means something different here than it does in America. Still, they gave me a truly devastating quantity of pig flesh.

pigs

I hadn’t realized there were so many ways to turn pigs into breakfast. You see those little disks on the right? That’s fried blood. It’s alleged that it’s “pudding”, but they have to be aware of the other kind of pudding, that rarely contains blood. I believe this known colloquially as “taking the piss”. And then one lone hash brown, in solemn remembrance.

I paid then got terribly lost, but I’m told that’s part of the experience. You’d think it would be easy to orient yourself by the giant river that cuts through the middle of town. I kept losing it. Poor visibility from the rain, I imagine, and also everyone in a car was trying to kill everyone else in a car as loudly as possible.

Four or five miles later, I found this sign that I recognized from my failed attempt at getting into my hostel earlier.

surgery
seems legit

I gained access this time by pressing a metal button. Apparently, I could have done that three hours prior too. You win this round, The Four Courts.

I’ve technically been awake for two days but my bed won’t be ready until 3 pm and there’s enough caffeine pounding through my bloodstream to reanimate a notably large corpse.

yall need anything

I think I’ll swing by the Tri-C and stock up on the trifecta: coffee, cadavers, and Christ. Y’all need anything?

Love,

The Bastard

 

The Frozen North: Where the Wildlings Are

That’s what they called me in high school

October 17, 2017. Pittston, Pennsylvania.

In preparation for my punctuated WanderjahrI swung up to the derelict smokestacks of my youth to drop off what remained of my worldly possessions. Everything fit in my subcompact car, with room to spare. The next step is cramming it all onto a bindle and riding the rails out Californee way. Full disclosure, I did forget my insulated lunchbox full of preserved animal skulls, but that’s remarkably low on my priority list.

The Frozen North was ranked unhappiest place in the U.S. by a combined Harvard/British Columbia study, as determined by reviewing phone polls from 2005 to 2009. There’s a potential confound in this self-report, obviously. All this proves is that people from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area are most likely to tell strangers on the telephone that they’re miserable, and that isn’t exactly a revelation to anyone who’s ever heard the local news’s Talkback segment.

After delivering the payload, I called up some friends and a sibling to see if they wanted to grab a beer. Also, to ask where I should go to get a beer. Last time I was in the Frozen North, there was a delightful little hole in the wall called The Rattler that shared interior design plans with the inside of my aforementioned lunchbox, but I knew that had shut down a while ago.

They brought me out to Saints and Sinners, an equally charming little dive that recently received media attention for a pistol murder resulting from a botched handshake. Be it ever so humble!

The bartender was a sprightly little manic (as the best bartenders often are) wearing Muppet skin boots that she, sadly, did not kill with her own hands. She introduced herself as Peter Goesinya, clarifying that it was Italian. I said it certainly sounds it. When I asked if they had Black and Tans, she reeled.

“Did you just ask if I had black tits?”

“No, this would be a terrible time to ask that. Do you have Black and Tans?”

“Oh! Like, Yuengling? No, we don’t have them.”

“Okay. Lager then. But since you brought it up, do you?”

She did not.

The girls on the other side of the bar were much, much drunker than I could hope to become, especially on individual lagers. They spent what had to be a week’s paycheck on Touchtunes and were belting their way through a Celine Dion song that they knew the majority of the words to, if not the key.

When they stumbled out to drunk drive home, the mood turned dour, owing only in part to Tom Waits on the space-jukebox.

There was another room with a whole different bar, and it was filled with people my age, most of whom I probably went to school with / wrestled on coal banks full of broken glass and needles. It was quiet at this bar. They drank in silence, most scowling.

I waxed sociological on the way back to my stool. Was angry drinking the local custom? Did economic grad students from Harvard corroborate their study results by poking through recent NEPA crime scenes? Wouldn’t that sort of skew the data?

It was as I finished my third glass that I realized, wait.

It’s Tuesday.

Nobody’s heading out to the hate crime murder bar on a Tuesday to celebrate how well things are going.

I returned to the storage room at my dad’s and slept on a mattress covered in phantom dog hair, since dogs don’t have thumbs and can’t enter that room. The next day we went to Bobby-O’s, a 50’s themed diner maintained by kind, lovable grannies (sort of like the old Waffle Crisp commercials only without the clandestine agenda), whereupon I ate three feet of corned beef hoagie before making the return trek northward.

3 more days, and then all the way to Dublin. Whack fol-la-de-dah.