Phototouring Japan

I got back from Japan a few weeks ago, and am sitting on an enormous number of pictures, so here are some interesting ones. Enjoy.

Star turn – A day in a michelin star kitchen

This is one of the more interesting commissions I’ve had lately – in March, I spent a 14 hour day working in the kitchen at the Cliff House Hotel in Waterford with Martijn Kajuiter and his team. This piece was published this week as a result. Thanks to Shane O’Neill for allowing me to use his excellent photography. He’s also blogged about this job and you can read his thoughts, somewhat amusingly entitled ‘When Alex met Martijn,’ here.

This story has generated a lot of interest on Twitter, and I’ve picked up a lot of foodie followers as a result. Hopefully you find it interesting – Alex

Star Turn
Published in The Sunday Business Post on May 15th, 2011, by Alex Meehan

How hard could it be? I’ve just persuaded Martijn Kajuiter, the Michelin-starred chef at the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Co Waterford, to let me do a stint in his kitchen.

Now I’m wondering exactly what I’ve let myself in for.

It won’t be a case of dropping in for a couple of hours – Kajuiter has made it clear that he expects me to do a full shift and that I won’t be getting any special treatment. It’s a little more than I bargained for, but it’s an opportunity that’s just too good to miss.

Kajuiter is one of the very few – six to be exact – chefs in Ireland who hold a Michelin star, and is the only one of that small group who is based outside Dublin. Born in the

Netherlands, the 35-year-old came to the Cliff House in 2008 at the invitation of owner Barry O’Callaghan, having worked with some of the biggest names in the culinary world, including Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Henk Savelberg.

A physically imposing man – he is 6 feet 8 inches tall – Kajuiter has established himself as one of the most innovative chefs working in Ireland. Winning a Michelin star in 2010 and keeping it in 2011 has put his restaurant on the map, and made the Cliff House a place that people go out of their way to visit.

While it’s hard to put an exact value on winning a star, at a time when many Irish hotels are struggling to stay open let alone turn a profit, the Cliff House enjoys enviable occupancy rates.

‘‘When we opened, everyone said, ‘oh he’s aiming for a star’ because of what we were serving, but I really wasn’t,” says Kajuiter.

‘‘I was looking for happiness in life, believe it or not. I wanted to work with a great team, be creative and cook in an amazing place. I wanted to do that with my wife and kids alongside me.

‘‘Of course I’m proud of our achievement – I am a chef after all – but the star came because of our approach and our commitment to quality, not because we set out to get one.”

What makes a Michelin-starred kitchen special? Obviously to the diner and the Michelin inspector, it’s the food on the plate – the quality of the ingredients, their seasonality, the design of the dish, the presentation and the taste. But that’s only one part of the picture.

Consistency is the real challenge. It’s one thing to be able to put together a plate of food to Michelin standard, but it’s quite another to do it on a busy Saturday night in a full restaurant, executing each and every plate to the same standard, and making sure that every dish gets to each diner at the right temperature, and at the right time.

Achieving this means starting early.

When I arrive in Kajuiter’s kitchen at 11am on a Saturday morning, the place is already buzzing. It’s relatively small for an operation of this size, but it’s functional. The main kitchen area is constructed around a central island of stoves and ovens, with each station operating in its own distinct area.

Meat and fish are in one corner, as are pastry and desserts, stocks, baking and garnishing.

At the front is the pass, the place where garnishes are finished and assembled dishes pause under the heat lamps for the few critical seconds it takes to get the chef’s approval before they are sent to the dining room.

Kajuiter shows me around, introducing me to a succession of slightly harassed looking junior chefs who are busy making stocks for sauce bases, preparing garnishes, making fresh pasta and ravioli, and otherwise prepping for lunch service in the bar and dinner in the main restaurant that night.

All of the ingredients are sourced locally – on the menu tonight are scallops from west Cork, organic salmon from Bantry Bay, Waterford spring chicken, Helvick monkfish, Black Angus beef, lamb from Lismore and duck from Skeaghanore.

For the kitchen staff, service starts in earnest at around 6.30pm, and once the first guests are seated, there is no longer time to tidy up loose ends.

One mistake can derail the whole effort, and making sure that doesn’t happen takes an enormous amount of advance preparation.

For the senior staff, the working day starts with the daily morning meeting, which is held in the dining room over freshly brewed coffee.

Kajuiter and his second in command, sous chef Dirk Mooren, sit down with Paul and Nick (the meat and fish chefs), and Gareth and Patrick (pastry, desserts, baking and petit fours) to dissect the previous night’s service and discuss their plans for the evening ahead.

Kitchens are notoriously rough and ready places to work, and while Kajuiter is soft spoken and respectful with his staff, there’s no question about who’s in charge. He is ruthless in identifying where things could have been tighter the night before, and when a suggestion is made for a potential special, he quickly points out that it’s not seasonal enough.

‘‘We have a journalist with us today, but I don’t care about that,” he says. ‘‘Everyone is to do things exactly as you otherwise would. He should see things as they are. No pretty faces just for today.”

With that, we’re up and off. The others head back to prep, and Kajuiter brings me out to one of his newly-built greenhouses in the grounds of the hotel, where he grows some of the more delicate and perishable herbs and edible flowers which he uses in his dishes.

There’s cress, marjoram, pea shoots, chervil, beetroot, rocket, fennel, sweet woodruff and edible viola, or Irish molly flowers, as well as a vast array of other unusual herbs he’s grown from seed.

Seasonality and the use of local produce are at the heart of Kajuiter’s food, but that creates its own problems.

‘‘This isn’t Dublin – if we run short of something or sell out of something, we can’t just nip out to get more,” he says. ‘‘We’re in Waterford, and that means careful planning and working with the seasons.”

With this in mind, a few years ago he came to an agreement with the managers of St Raphael’s residential and daycare centre In Youghal to bring its organic nursery back to life.

We spend part of the afternoon in the two large poly tunnels there, picking out fresh produce from the evening service.

Back in the kitchen, as the afternoon wears on things start to heat up, both literally and figuratively. Junior chefs are shouted at when it looks like standards might slip; a fire alarm goes off when someone overloads a tumble dryer, but the kitchen staff barely stop to acknowledge it; and when the staff meal is served at around 5pm, it’s eaten standing up.

It’s an intense working environment, so it’s natural that emotions run high.

The staff are all extremely skilled in their own right – most of them could easily get a head chef job somewhere else if they wanted it – but they stay because they know they’re getting the kind of experience that will stand to them for life.

At one point during the evening service, what seems like a full-scale riot breaks out in the kitchen as Kajuiter picks up on a mistake.

One of the line chefs has got his timing wrong, resulting in three main courses being ready to go at the pass, while one more is late.

The chef is not a beginner, but this is a rookie mistake.

To make matters worse, when he’s asked about his timing, he tries to cover for his error, something which riles Kajuiter more than the initial mistake. He gets a severe dressing down, while around him, his colleagues avert their gaze and keep working.

The atmosphere is extremely tense, but five minutes later things are back to normal and all seems to be forgiven.

‘‘There might be shouting or harsh words, but it’s forgotten about quickly,” Kajuiter says. ‘‘If I’m out of line I’ll apologise. I don’t believe in a culture of fear in the kitchen. It doesn’t get the best out of people, and you don’t keep staff.

‘‘People who work here do it for more than just a pay cheque.

Every single person has a function in the kitchen, and they all make it work. If the kitchen porter doesn’t deliver the goods, we’re all screwed.”

Kajuiter is acutely aware that a Michelin star can be a double-edged sword. While it has sent the profile of the Cliff House sky high, it has also probably led some people to presume that it is out of their price range.

‘‘A Michelin star puts you in a box,” he says. ‘‘It makes people think you are expensive and exclusive, but that’s the wrong way to look at it.

‘‘Having one star means that you are an exceptionally good restaurant in your own category. It’s about what’s on the plate – your restaurant could be in a shed in the middle of the mountains, but if you are cooking fantastic food, you could get a star.

It has nothing to do with being expensive, or Having Wedgwood plates, or what the room is like.”

Prices haven’t gone up in the restaurant since the star was awarded – a three-course meal costs €65,while an eight-course tasting menu costs €85.Matched wines cost €25 or €40 per person with the tasting menu.

If Kajuiter could ask one thing of his customers, it’s that they don’t pre-judge the experience of eating in his restaurant.

‘‘Sometimes people have such high expectations that if one little thing isn’t how they think it should be, then the whole experience is ruined for them,” he says. ‘‘If something isn’t right, it isn’t right – and please tell us if that’s the case – but this isn’t a competition between the kitchen and the guest. It’s a celebration.

We want you to be thrilled.”

It’s 8.30pm, and service is in full flow. The restaurant is packed; 72 guests are eating dinner tonight, and 14 of them are having the tasting menu.

Earlier in the day I’d prepared garnishes and helped with prep, but for the last hour or so I’d been watching from the sidelines, as service started in earnest.

Suddenly Kajuiter is explaining tome what he wants done and how to do it.

The dish is a salmon starter I saw prepared earlier – the organic fish from Bantry Bay is served as a ballotine, as an ice cream and also marinated, along with preserved cucumber and beetroot textures.

It has to be plated up with herbs and leaves in just the right place, and with sauces added dot by dot, in the right order and quantity.

At the pass, it’s topped with a glass dome, and a special gadget is used to ignite oak sawdust, which is then pumped under the dome.

The plate is then whisked away to the dining room, where the server presents it to the diner by lifting off the dome and releasing the smoke. It’s a clever take on smoked salmon – or maybe smoking salmon would be a more accurate description.

By now I’ve watched quite a few of these plates make it to the pass and enjoyed the theatre of the final preparation.

Now, Kajuiter is beside me. ‘‘So you’ve seen how to do it, yes? Okay, time to get those pristine whites dirty.”

He has me plate up with him, watching each step to see if I’ve got it right.

The atmosphere is suddenly tense, and I’m aware that he’s not treating me like a guest in his kitchen any more – we’re working on food that is going out to the dining room.

‘‘Okay, that’s good. Do four more.”

He moves away, leaving a plate for me to copy and I’m on my own, concentrating as hard as I ever have.

The noise and bustle behind me fade away while I hunch over the plate.

A minute later he’s back, examining my work.

‘‘Yes, that’s it. Good. Okay, take them to the pass.”

At the front of the kitchen, the restaurant manager and two servers are waiting.

Kajuiter is beside me, telling me to hurry up.

I load up the smoke burner, switch on the pump and get ready to light the wood. It’s a fiddly job, and Kajuiter is getting impatient with the delay – there are paying guests waiting for this food, and the salmon must go to the table at exactly the same time as other dishes, which have just arrived on the pass.

I’m suddenly painfully conscious of the audience of servers, management and other chefs watching me from the corner of their eye.

‘‘Okay, go! Add the smoke. Like that. No, add more. Okay, and the next plate. Hurry up. Get it right. Too slow! Okay, there. It’s done. SERVICE! Go go go!” The plates are taken away, and I’m struggling to turn the blowtorch off. I’m sweating and my heart is racing. Kajuiter is smiling.

‘‘How did that feel? Scary, huh? That’s how Marco made me feel my first service with him. It’s a buzz, isn’t it?”

Fourteen hours after I arrived, I’m sitting in Kajuiter’s office having a coffee. In the dining room, the last guest is nibbling on petits fours, while in the kitchen, the staff are starting the clean-down process, scrubbing the room until it gleams and is ready for it all to happen again tomorrow.

Including amuses bouches, sorbets, starters, main courses and desserts,430 plates of food have left the kitchen this evening. It has been an exhausting and exhilarating experience.

But, most importantly, it didn’t kill me.

Pixies fan? Watch this cover

This is just awesome. Really worth watching.

This guy does this using an acoustic guitar, and a loop recorder to record bits and repeat them as he goes. Really really impressive.

Article: Tearing up the script

Tearing up the script
Published in The Sunday Business Post on December 19th, 2010, by Alex Meehan

Acting may be one of the most insecure professions of all, but even in a recession it seems there’s no shortage of people willing to follow their dream of treading the boards.

The Gaiety School of Acting is 25 years old next year, and with alumni like Colin Farrell, Stuart Townsend, Flora Montgomery and PJ Gallagher, it has fostered more than its fair share of talent.

With a record 540 people currently enrolled in courses at the school, it seems that the downturn hasn’t been bad for business.

‘‘We’ve been very surprised at the take-up of the courses this year,” says Clíona Dukes, marketing and part-time courses coordinator with the school.

‘‘We were expecting a bad year just like everyone else out there, but actually we’ve seen a huge uptake in our adult classes. It’s hard to say why – certainly, acting is unusual, in that you can dip your toe in the water while still having a full-time job doing something else. It takes work and effort, but that’s what our part time courses are about.”

Founded in 1986 by theatre director Joe Dowling in response to the lack of full-time actor training programmes in Ireland at that time, the Gaiety School of Acting trains people for work in theatre, film and television. It offers a variety of courses lasting from three to four weeks right up to two years, aimed at people of all ages.

‘‘Some want to dabble in acting in their spare time, or they sign up for a short course because they’re looking for a hobby or social activity,” says Dukes. ‘‘Sometimes they just want to meet new people, and I know a lot of people do it because it’s been suggested to them that it might boost their confidence or help their presentation skills in work.”

For people looking to turn an interest in the theatre, TV or film into a full career, however, the school also offers full-time intensive actor training.

‘‘Lots of those people treat the full-time courses as a stepping stone to a career in acting, and our actors have appeared in all of Ireland’s theatres, in film and on television nationally and internationally, and in theatres across Ireland and England,” says Dukes.

While a number of the school’s current students have enrolled after losing their jobs, others have given up their careers to try and break into acting. Among them is Paul Marron, who quit his job in IT to follow his dream.

‘‘Acting was something I’ve always wanted to do, even as a youngster,” he says. ‘‘But when I was about 17 I got carried along towards college, and ended up studying engineering and getting a proper job. I was good at engineering and liked it, but after a few years in the IT sector I knew that acting was an itch I’d just have to scratch.”

Marron is 28, and worked as a telecoms engineer for an IT company contracted to mobile phone company Meteor for five years before deciding to throw in the towel.

He’s now half way through the second year of a two-year, full-time professional acting course.

‘‘I’d been doing some amateur dramatics in my spare time and had some success with it at festivals – I won some awards – and I reckoned that if I didn’t go for it now, I never would. I did an audition for the Gaiety and, as soon as I was accepted, I handed in my notice,” he says. ‘‘Some people thought I was totally mad to throw in a perfectly good job, but others said, ‘Good on you, follow your dream’.

‘‘The way I looked at it, I’d had money and security in my last job, and that really made me realise that those things are not the be all and

end all of life. I’d prefer to have less cash and less security, but really enjoy what I do every day.

Acting isn’t the best paying job in the world, but it won’t feel like work.”

The two-year, full-time course costs €4,950 per year, while a one year part-time course which involves two classes per week, over three ten-week terms, costs €1,800 per year.

Marron saved up in order to afford to do the course, and is happy that his existing IT skills will help him earn a living while he gets established as a jobbing actor.

‘‘When I graduate, I may have to use both my telecoms background and my acting to keep things going, but hopefully if the acting is successful I can go with that,” he says. ‘‘I’d like to go wherever it takes me – the stage, TV, cinema, whatever. I love theatre, but would love to break into film as well.”

Another student at the school, Anne Doyle, had flirted with the stage during her college years, but it was only after a series of health scares and upheaval in her professional life that she gave serious thought to quitting her job as a consultant psychiatrist in order to pursue acting.

‘‘I worked with the National Health Service in the UK for about 20 years but unfortunately got a tumour, and then, five years later, a second one. My work situation also changed – the service I was working on was going to close down, and I’d been invited to work on a new one,” she says.

‘‘Initially I thought that was very exciting, but after the surgery to remove the second tumour I started to rethink things. I realised that while it would be a challenge, I felt I’d already made my contribution To medicine, and maybe it was time to look at something different.”

Doyle first got a taste for acting at university in Galway in the 1970s when she was a member of the NUIG drama society with Garry Hynes and Marie Mullen, who later went on to found the Druid theatre company with Mick Lally.

‘‘I’d had a really good experience with them at that time, so when I decided that I wasn’t going back to psychiatry, I thought I’d love to have another shot at drama. Initially I thought I might be too old, but I’m doing it anyway,” she says.

She has just finished the first term of her first year, and says the experience has been physically very challenging: ‘‘There’s a big physical component to the training; it was exhausting for the first few weeks, but I absolutely love it. I sometimes pinch myself to check I’m really here doing something I enjoy so much.

My only advice to someone else in my situation thinking of going for it is to make sure you’re physically prepared for it.”

She also advises anyone considering a similar path to simplify their life as much as possible.

‘‘There’s lots of homework to be done, and it’s a full-on commitment. You need to be able to dedicate yourself to it fully to get the most out of it.

For someone like me, who gives up a career, there’s no point in only half doing it.”

Article: Equality of access to marriage, a conversation with Evan Wolfson

A very civil defence
Published in The Sunday Business Post on December 5th, 2010, by Alex Meehan

Given that homosexuality was decriminalised here only in 1993, it might sound surprising to hear a leading US human rights lawyer state that Ireland is showing international leadership in the public acceptance of gay rights.

However, according to Evan Wolfson, the fact that civil partnership is set to be enacted into law here next year means that is exactly what is happening.

‘‘In Ireland, around 70 per cent of people are in favour of full and equal access to marriage, so it’s now up to the politicians to catch up with public opinion and make that law,” Wolfson says. ‘‘In the US, we also have politicians who need to catch up, but the difference is that it’s only been this year that we finally saw research showing a majority of American people supporting the freedom to marry.

That was an important milestone, and it shows we’re on the right path.”

Wolfson is founder and executive director of Freedom to Marry, a non-profit organisation in the US that advocates the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Widely recognised as one of the most prominent public faces of gay marriage in the US, he has been named as one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine.

But while Wolfson, who was in Dublin as a guest of the lobby Group Marriage Equality, lauds the progress that has been made in Ireland so far, he believes there is much more to be done.

‘‘In some respects, Ireland is ahead of the US – you now have a law that acknowledges gay families and couples, and begins to provide some very important protections and responsibilities,” he says.

‘‘It’s far short of what those families need and deserve – which is the same protection and inclusion of marriage that other families have – but nevertheless it is a national acknowledgment of these families and the beginning of the provision of better protections and responsibilities.

We have nothing like that at all at a federal level in the US.”

Wolfson’s career has closely followed the breaking wave of public attitudes to homosexuality and civil rights in the US.

Born in New York, he grew up in Pittsburgh before attending Yale, doing a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in west Africa, and then returning to the US to study for a legal doctorate at Harvard.

But instead of opting for a high paying job as a private attorney, he sought out challenges in the public sector.

‘‘I’d always wanted to be in public service and had no particular in interest in earning lots of money,” he says. ‘‘For me, it was always much more about finding ways to make my love of history, law and politics come together to make a difference.”

He took a job as a public prosecutor in Kings County, Brooklyn, and at the same time began volunteering in his spare time for a small civil rights organisation, Lambda Legal, which was committed to seeking equal rights for gay people.

‘‘By day I worked in the appeals bureau,” Wolfson says. ‘‘When I asked about doing pro bono work for Lambda, it turned out this was the first time any assistant district attorney had ever asked to do any pro bono work, let alone on such a contentious issue. The office said I’d have to take that all the way up to the district attorney and let her decide.”

One unintentional side-effect was that Wolfson’s personal sexuality became widely known in his workplace.

‘‘It was a de facto ‘coming out’ to the entire office, and all the way up the hierarchy to the DA,” he says. ‘‘I wasn’t not out before – my employers knew I was gay because of the work I’d done before and what it said on my resume¤ , so I wasn’t hiding anything – but even so most people didn’t know. It was a political act that came from a personal commitment to doing something positive.”

He had first become interested in the politics of sexuality as a 21-yearold working with the Peace Corps in Togo, when he realised just how lucky he was as a gay man to have been born in the US.

‘‘I met people for the first time who, had they lived in a more welcoming, inclusive and respectful country, would have been openly gay,” he says. ‘‘But because they lived in a country where they didn’t have that vocabulary, let alone those kind of social choices, they ended up living lives that were not true to who they were.

‘‘I realised that what your society is like and what opportunities and freedoms you have can shape who you are in a very strong and profound way.”

When he came back from Africa to study law, he was further inspired to work for equality when he read the book which he says changed his life: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality by John Boswell.

‘‘It was a pioneering, groundbreaking book in which he traced the history of homosexuality through the millennia of western history, going back through the ancient world to roughly the 1300s,” Wolfson says. ‘‘Boswell showed that the way in which our society today treats homosexuality is not something set in stone through history.

‘‘In fact, it’s profoundly different to how the ancient world understood sexuality and how different periods in the medieval world treated it, and even how the Catholic Church has evolved over time in its attitudes to homosexuality.”

For the first time, Wolfson’s main interests in the area of politics and history came together with his own personal identity as a gay man.

‘‘It made me realise that being gay and how society treats gay people is not just a question of people’s personal and private life – it’s about what kind of society we have, and what our commitments to inclusion and respect are,” he says. ‘‘It also made me realise that if it had been different before, it could be different again, and we could change things.”

It wasn’t just in the area of gay rights that Wolfson found himself involved in high-profile legal cases. During his time as a prosecutor in Brooklyn, he also worked on challenging the marital rape exemption, a piece of law at one time common in all parts of the world which had inherited the British legal system.

‘‘A man could not be prosecuted for raping his wife because he was entitled to take what the law termed as ‘what belongs to him’,” he says.

‘‘This was part of the so-called traditional definition of marriage. I wound up as a prosecutor getting to challenge that law, writing a brief that ultimately went to the high court of New York and struck down that exemption.

‘‘This wasn’t 100 or even 50 years ago: this was in 1984.

That just shows you how long these so-called traditional definitions that we think of as being unacceptable prevailed in law.

The idea that women became the legal property of men when they married passed from religious tradition into secular law, and even as recently as the 1980s was being defended by religious voices who asserted that women should subordinate themselves to men.

‘‘The vast majority of people now feel it is a good thing that this law got changed; the world didn’t end, and society is better off as a result. It just shows you that sometimes, even attitudes thought to be set in stone can change.”

It is in this context that Wolfson wants people to reconsider their views on same-sex marriage. For a start, he wants them to realise that as far as he’s concerned, there is no religious element to the issue.

‘‘Firstly, we’re not fighting for gay marriage in Ireland or in the US – what we’re actually fighting for is an end to exclusion from marriage itself,” he says. ‘‘There is a difference.

‘‘Marriage in the US and here is a legal institution that is regulated by the government, that is created by the issuance of civil licences.

The government doesn’t issue communion licences or bar mitzvah licenses or whatever, but it does issue marriage licences, because marriage is a legal institution that brings with it a vast array of tangible and intangible consequences.

‘‘What we’re looking for is an end to the denial of marriage, whether in Ireland or elsewhere, to people who have made a commitment to each other and who want that commitment recognised in law.” Wolfson says he isn’t trying to tell ‘‘any church, temple, synagogue or mosque’’ who they should or shouldn’t marry.

‘‘But what we are saying is that no church, temple, synagogue or mosque should be dictating to the civil government who can get a marriage licence and enjoy the legal status that goes with that,” he says. ‘‘It’s not about telling any church what to do, it’s about telling the government that it should not be discriminating against some of its citizens.

‘‘When people bring up religion as a reason to oppose equal justice under the law, I ask them to really dig deep into their religious values and ask themselves what those values teach.

They teach respect for love and respect for commitment.

‘‘Ending the denial of marriage imposes nothing on anyone else, but it allows people who have made a commitment to each other to live lives that strengthens society and the world around them.”,

Lilou – the cat that got the train

My sister and some friends made a short one minute film recreating the story of a cat that took a ride on the suburban rail network here in Dublin. The story was broadcast on the news and the cat became a minor celebrity. Nice film, well done Ruth!

Sweet, eh?


Right, so for those people not living in Ireland, or living under a rock in Ireland, here’s what happened yesterday morning.

Mmm, lovely pints.

Our Taoiseach (pronounced tee-shock) Brian Cowen is currently attending a party ‘think-in’, or strategy meeting with the rest of the Fianna Fail party at a hotel in the country. Normally, these things consist of meetings during the day, and then dinner in the evening and not surprisingly, a trip to the bar. Ireland has a peculiar attitude to drinking and while things are much improved, it’s still the case that most social events revolve around bars and drinking. Usually it’s good fun, and even in this case, I don’t have a problem at all with politicians having a few pints and winding down together after a day’s work.

Those attending the event are paying for it themselves as it’s not a government function, but rather a private party function. So what’s the problem exactly? Well apparently on Monday evening events in the bar ran late and the Taoiseach had a late night – heading to bed around 3:30am. The only problem was that he agreed to do a media interview with Ireland’s main news outlet at 8:55am the next morning, and when he went on air, he sounded . . . worse for wear. Now, maybe he was singing, smoking or shouting late at night — apparently he’s quite good fun in the right circumstances — all of which would lead to a husky voice the next morning, but he also sounded slightly like he was slurring his words. Here, have a listen:

Anyway, an opposition politician who heard the interview couldn’t resist tweeting about it – basically saying our glorious leader sounded either drunk or hung over – and all hell broke loose. Since then, the story has gone around the world, and Cowen has been forced to officially deny he was drunk at 9am in the morning. Not a shining day for Irish politics. But here’s the thing – amidst all the coverage and the countless hours of talk shows that have covered the issue here, nobody has addressed a point I think is pretty important.

I don’t begrudge anyone a pint. It would be pretty hypocritical of me — I’m a light to moderate drinker but I have had my moments. So I don’t think it’s a problem for a politician to be a drinker – really I’m more interested in their ability to do the job they were elected to do. Drinking is only an issue for me in so far as it impacts that ability.

And here’s the issue. Cowen was seen drinking on the night in question, but he apparently only drank water until after dinner when he switched to pints. That’s fairly responsible, but should the Taoiseach or prime minister of a country drink at all?

Much of the coverage of this (non)event has focused on how he sounded in the interview, but this misses the point. It seems to me that a state leader should be ready to do his job 24 hours a day. Of course they have to sleep, and have down time but if they have to be woken at two or three in the morning in the event of a national crises, ideally they won’t have had six or eight pints before bed.

The fact that this angle hasn’t been mentioned in the public debate on what has been dubbed Cowen-gate is indicative of the lack of maturity of Irish society when it comes to attitudes to alcohol. Also, why did the Taoiseach choose to do the interview at all? He could easily have said “I’ll do it later.” Bizarre.

Good enough to publish is good enough to pay for

I work as a freelance journalist, and have done, on and off, since 1996. This is actually pretty unusual – in journalism in Ireland, freelancing is typically seen as something you do as a means to landing a staff job with a newspaper.

For me however, that has never really been a goal – I freelance because it’s a great way to have a lot of say over how you use your time, who you work for and basically to get maximum control over your work life balance. However, because the newspaper market is small (and contracting, but that’s another blog entry) most full time long term freelances know each other – particularly when they specialise in a niche. Recently, a journalism student inquired in an online media forum about how to break into journalism in Ireland.

As a rule, I don’t really participate in online forums. I just don’t have the time these days, and ultimately find them to be unsatisfying — rarely is anything achieved or resolved, so it’s usually a better use of my time to steer clear of them. Anyway, I got drawn into this conversation because the question is one which everyone starting out has asked at some point. In addition, someone claiming to be a working journalist advised the original poster that they should expect to work for free for some time until they get established. I appreciate that things are tough out there, and it’s hard for new people to get a foot in the door, but I do believe that if a story is good enough to print, then it’s good enough to be paid for.

The idea that people should have to work for free is slightly sinister to me.

That said, I will say that quality is a factor here – if you don’t have experience, then the odds are that your copy is going to need work before it can be printed. Good editors will do this for new people maybe once or twice if, and only if, the story is worth it – but you don’t want to wear out precious goodwill that way if you’re trying to get established.

Freelancing is a business like lots of others – the trick is to come up with good ideas and then identify the media outlet that the idea would best suit. Then pitch it properly, having made sure that the outlet in question hasn’t recently published the same idea – in other words know the market you’re selling to. Time your pitch so that it doesn’t arrive just as the commissioning editor is having a melt down on deadline day – and if it’s a good idea they may bite.

They might ask to see examples of your work, and if you have good tight copy, send it in, but that’s never really happened with me. Normally, they just commission the piece – the trick then is write your story and make sure it’s extremely clean. Know the house style of the outlet your writing it for, and make sure your copy needs minimal work. Also make sure it fits the brief of the commission.

If you’ve done all that, then you deserve to be paid. If you’re easy to work with, deliver on time and have good ideas, you’ll get lots of work. If your copy is sloppy, not to brief, badly researched, late and you’re difficult to deal with, you won’t.

I’m happy to concede that things may be harder now than they were when I got my start, but people used to say the same things to me back then too.

I do remember wondering how the hell anyone made a living out of this game when I was struggling to get one or two features published a month – I literally wasn’t making enough money to pay my rent, let alone eat anything. The reason was I was pitching for work to the same national papers everyone else was – there was a lot of competition for column inches.

So one piece of advice I’d give to people starting out is to identify a niche and attack your goal in a roundabout way through that niche. Not everyone can have big features published every day in a national paper, but you also don’t need that. There are many trade journals and specialty magazines that aren’t having their doors beaten down by newcomers and while the pay won’t be great, you probably will get work if you make it your business to find out what they publish and how to pitch to them.

It may sound like awful work – who wants to write for a veterinarian magazine or for an industry trade mag? – but what you need to build up is a steady core income. Once you have that, you can afford to pitch for more prestigious outlets because you won’t be depending on them. If you get one or two a month, then that’s fine. Your goal is to build your reputation with the commissioning editors you know. Over time, you can develop your reputation and slowly phase out work you’re not that interested in for work you are.

Article on freelancing

I clicked a link on twitter today passed on by Niall Stanage, via Nadine O’Regan at the SBP, and thoroughly enjoyed reading “Seven years as a freelance writer, or how to make vitamin soup”

Awesome piece that articulates the freelance condition accurately.

Choice quote:

“The editor will never choose you over the publication to which they are married. It will not even be a fleeting thought in the editor’s mind. The freelancer can have a lot of fun, but is ultimately the editor’s plaything. And any one freelancer is, above all things, unnecessary and replaceable. I always felt like the most fumbling juggling act in the industry.”