It is Monday, 27th December in Dublin and I’m waiting outside a department store called Arnott’s. There is mayhem at the Henry Street entrance where a thousand people trying to exit the shop and a thousand people trying to enter are on the point of cancelling each other out. So the gardai are called in. The January Sales, sorry, the Winter Sales started today and the idea of “50% OFF” is just too much temptation for anyone in this constitutionally Catholic country where, quite visibly, money is the new religion. No matter how fervently I try to convince the people around me that they’re not actually saving money they’re just spending less, the more they look at me as if I’m the devil trying to steal their bargain-basement-soul. So I’m not even going down the road of “you wouldn’t be buying all this stuff if it wasn’t reduced and if you hadn’t been convinced by the government and big businesses that unless you spend all the money you have, and all the money you don’t have, before and after Christmas then the country’s economy would grind to a halt”. Besides which, the gardai are looking at me funny, and I’m starting to wonder if they haven’t actually been called in to make sure people buy rather than merely browse.
Of course, I’m not simply here in the role of the cynically on-looking alter-mondialist. I’m after a new leather jacket. Perhaps with a fur collar. I’ve tried several shops already and even in the popular Arnott’s there’s nothing that takes my fancy, so it’s over the street to Diffney’s. I make it sound all very easy, but it took half an hour to get in to Arnott’s and another half-hour to get out. Diffney’s is a much smaller men’s shop, but this just serves to make the mayhem that much more apparent. However it is here that I find what I am looking for, and after much debating about whether or not I would find a better deal somewhere else, I join the queue of credit card holders readying myself to indulge in the hellish pleasures of buying.
The man at the till looks like your archetypal spiv: died blond spiky hair, cheap grey suit, thumb ring, and the obligatory fat Half-Windsor knotted tie. The soon to be MINE-ALL-MINE leather jacket is folded and placed in a paper carrier bag (plastic bags have a levy in the Republic of Ireland). My French visa card is handed over and all hell breaks loose
Smartcards were invented in 1974 by Frenchman Roland Moreno. Their first practical application was in payphones but by 1992 the microchip was embedded in every single Carte Bleue, reducing bankcard fraud in France by 80 percent. Last year saw Britain and Ireland introduce these smartcards dubbing the technology ‘Chip and Pin’ and ‘Chip and Pin Ireland’, respectively. When I first saw the promotional adverts on British television, I was struck by the way they made Chip and Pin look like another great feat in the British appliance of science. Although the UK Chip and Pin website doesn’t deny that the system has been around in France for over 10 years and has decreased considerably the cases of fraud, neither does it make any reference to Moreno or to the man who patented the latest generation of chip embedded cards (including SIM cards), Michel Ugon another Frenchman. And that patent dates back to 1977. If we do show some interest in the background to Chip and Pin, then what we can read is that “The UK retail and banking industries have joined forces for a ground-breaking programme called chip and PIN to combat the problem of credit and debit card fraud in the UK”. Of course, this won’t stop the Brits openly blaming the French when it all goes horribly wrong.
And it did all go horribly wrong in Diffney’s on Henry Street in Dublin on Monday 27th December 2004.
And I blamed the Irish.
The spiv saw that I had a Chip and Pin card and so promptly inserted it ‘Continental Style’ as opposed to the ‘Anglo-Celt Swipe’ method into his terminal. But the Computer said “no”. He pulled it out, covered the microchip with the grease from his thumb, and tried again. For a second time, the Computer said “no”. I suggested that he swipe the card, and when that didn’t work he reverted to punching in my card’s number. And when that didn’t work We’ve all been there: a long queue of ardent shoppers burning with the desire to purchase behind you and, in front, a pair of scissors waiting to eat its way through any plastic it can get its serrated edges into. It can only end in total humiliation with the security staff ushering you outside as you realise that you omitted to put trousers on that morning. And to top it all, the cold sharp Dublin air isn’t doing your masculinity any favours.
Okay, so it’s not quite what happened. The spiv actually turned out to be all right and offered to hold on to the jacket for the time it would take me to get the money out from a hole-in-the-wall. There were only two jackets left in my size with about an hour to go before the shop would be devoured of all its goods. I made a swift exit and headed for the nearest bank. After a 20-minute wait I’m standing before the machine as it asks me how much money I would like to withdraw. I was given the usual choices and hit the 300 option. For the third time the Computer said “no”. Riled, I moved away and this is when I started blaming the Irish, Ireland, and the chap in front of me who’d suddenly stopped to look at something in the window. I know it was bad of me.
What was really annoying was being left unable to access the hard earned cash I knew I had. I’ve always had problems when it comes to banking. Having never been in debt or overdrawn, having never taken out a loan or even bought anything on hire-purchase, I’ve fallen between the cracks of our credit-driven society. I’m trouble. A bit shady. Bankers don’t know what to make of me. Where have I come from? How have I managed to survive this long on money I’ve earned rather than money other people have yet to earn? What do you mean you “budget”? You’re not meant to be able to do that, that’s how we make our money After banking with Lloyds for 21 years they still won’t give me a proper credit card because I have no “credit history” and therefore, it seems, I do not exist.
But for somebody who doesn’t exist, I can feel the bloody cold and I want my leather jacket with the fur collar, damn it.
Through the heart of Dublin flows the Liffey, imposing a geographical divide on the city between the Northside and Southside. This partition dates back to at least 1745 when the 20th Earl of Kildare decided to build his home on the then less popular Southside to test his powers as a trendsetter. His powers were mighty. Now the two banks of the river represent a social and economic gulf between the two halves of the city. O’Connell Street on the Northside, Dublin’s main civic thoroughfare is almost a negative reflection of the pedestrian Grafton Street on the Southside. The former is dominated by the greystones of such Neo-Classical/late-Georgian period pieces as the General Post Office, the latter by the many redbrick buildings of Victorian architecture. Whereas Southsiders are pleasant, affluent, middle-class folk, Northsiders are poor scheming knackers. At least that’s the popular image portrayed by, well, by the Southsiders. It’s this that leads Jimmy Rabbitte in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments to say, “The Irish are the blacks of Europe, the Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and Northsiders are the blacks of Dublin. So say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!”
The Republic of Ireland has become a hugely wealthy place, but this comes at a price as income inequality is one of the largest in the European Union (along with Spain, Portugal and the UK). As with most capitalist economies the rich get richer and the poor more numerous. Home-owning may become a thing of the past. Worldwide, Dublin house prices have seen the highest increase in real terms, rising by 207 percent in just under 25 years (almost twice as much as New York). People supposedly in a “good job” are finding themselves out-priced. Both of my brothers-in-law have found themselves forced back into the family home, unable to afford to rent without flat-sharing. Something that’s not so much fun when you’re close to 40 or married. The divide between the Northside and Southside of Dublin, as well as between Dublin and the rest of the country, may in fact be worsening. Still, as James Joyce wrote in Ulysses “The Irishman’s house is his coffin”. And you can get an ex-factory eco-coffin in the Republic of Ireland for about 310.
Before setting off for Dublin I had lunch with a friend who is one of the chief news editors for a major French national radio station. He suggested that I do a piece either on the smoking ban or on the recent developments in Northern Ireland. So, after having greeted my parents-in-law, I headed down to the pub to see what the general consensus was. Northern Ireland doesn’t seem to be an issue with the affluent Dubliners I encountered that night. The possibility of physically cutting it off from the Republic and letting it float away into the Atlantic seemed the closest thing to a real agreement. The Republic’s new found wealth has largely come from its wish to be a fully integrated part of the European Union and it has benefited immensely from EU grants. The old Gaullist himself, Jacques Chirac, hailed Ireland’s recent presidency of the EU as the best. A united Europe seems to have eclipsed the idea of a united Ireland at least from the perspective of the growing Dublin middle-class. Perhaps the economic decline of Germany after its unification appears to have served as a warning to the Celtic Tiger.
The smoking ban has had quite a visible effect on Dublin. Not only has it had an impact on cigarette sales, but it has also changed the very physical nature of street life. Beer gardens now offer more than just some dodgy garden furniture. They now come equipped with heaters where smokers can indulge in a social life far from the moaning smoke-free ‘insiders’. Whereas the ‘insiders’ discuss how good it is that their clothes no longer smell of smoke, that they can bring their children into pubs, that they can finally breathe, the ‘outsiders’ are having a good time far from the underlying stench of BO and farts that was once disguised by their “disgusting habit”. Smokers are reviving the art of small talk and fleeting conversations. They meet more people, from different walks of life and different age groups. Though there is no denying that smoking is bad for you, the ‘insiders’ still look on at the smokers outside with envy (when they could be busy buying deodorant).
If there’s room on the pavement then, the bars and cafés now also sport continental style terrasses. But added to the fact that the (often newly town-planned) pavements aren’t really wide enough for both terrasses and pedestrians, on the two occasions I had a chance to test out the experience of people watching over a slow espresso, it was raining. Beyond the meteorological contre-temps though, I can’t say these ‘beer pavements’ particularly enthralled me. For the first time the dirty old town seemed twee to me with its misplaced terrasses and newly paved, spanking clean roads.
But back to the important subject of shopping. If parallels are to be drawn then, they should be between Grafton Street and Henry Street (a tributary of O’Connell Street), where I found myself freezing and cursing at some poor bloke looking at a pair of discount shoes. Both streets are pedestrian and most of the shops on Henry Street have twins on Grafton Street. And so as not to be outdone, at the bottom of Henry Street you’ll find the Jervis Centre reflecting the Stephen’s Green Centre at the top of Grafton Street. And that’s where I was heading because that’s where the Southside Diffney’s is to be found. Dublin is small and its city centre compact. It only took me a quarter of an hour to make my way across the river, past Trinity College Dublin and the Tart with the Cart (the heavingly bosomed statue of Molly Malone fruit and veg seller by day, forbidden fruit peddler by night). Once at the bottom of Grafton Street it was just a question of avoiding the buskers, flower-sellers, anti-abortionists, charity collectors, beggars, tourists, oh, and general shoppers, who by now were all out to get my jacket before I did.
Southside Diffney’s offered a more hushed experience. A mature well-dressed gentleman offered his advice on the size that might best suit me and he then took my card and quietly went through the different payment options until one finally worked. He wished me good day and within five minutes my bank account was 300 lighter and I was considerably warmer thanks both to the fur collar and the endorphin-fuelled feeling of having satisfied some primeval consumerist desire. And boy did I deserve it.