On a wet Sunday night, what could be better than to escape the psychopaths, murderers and torturers running around the small screen, and go off to the local Odeon to see Inferno, Dan Brown’s latest silliness?
With Ron Howard directing, music by Hans Zimmer and Tom Hanks playing the lead role again, at least it promised to be stylish silliness. And any movie set in Florence, Venice and Istanbul was bound to feature its fair share of gorgeous buildings, old masters and miscellaneous antiquities.
What’s more, with the British government planning to end the teaching of archaeology, history of art and classical civilisation in our schools, the chances are that before long our kids will have to rely on the likes of The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons and Brown’s latest effort for their knowledge of such subjects.
So what would they learn from Inferno? Not a lot actually. Except that there was a chap called Dante who wrote a horrible book that gave the movie its name, and another chap called Botticelli who painted a nightmarish picture of Dante’s dream. For the first ten minutes their vision of hell swirled around the head of Hanks’s character and spilled onto the screen, filling it with all kinds of CGI nasties doing their hellish thing.
As Hanks’s deranged Professor Langdon tries to figure out what on earth is going on, we do too. The most likely outcome seems to be that the puzzle-solving academic ends up in a loony bin. His senses finally return when a gorgeous ER doctor rescues him from the attention of a hit-woman (probably the daughter of James Bond’s Rosa Kleb) dressed in Carabinieri uniform.
The plot seems to hinge on the fact that poor Langdon is being chased through Florence by not one but two sets of nutters. There’s the sinister lot who work for a security company so secret that nobody knows they exist. And then there’s another bunch of headbangers who turn out to be a SWAT team from the World Health Organisation.
The WHO? Whaat??? At this point I’m wondering if a third group might join the fun – perhaps the paramilitary wing of the Church of England, running around in big black vans, pouncing on Satanists and necromancers. I imagine Archbishop Welby, or possibly the Reverend Blofeld, white cat on lap, barking orders at fanatical novices. But no, maybe that’ll be in the next book. Or maybe I’m the one heading for the asylum.
I won’t spoil the plot by giving away too much, except to say that there’s a mad genius who plans to cull the world’s population by means of a plague. Better to take out half the human race now, he reckons, than see a total extinction event in a hundred years’ time thanks to overpopulation, war and climatic meltdown. And our hero has to stop him. Except that said genius sails off a Florentine bell-tower without a parachute two minutes into the movie. But for reasons unclear to anyone apart from the author of a best-seller, he’s left clues, and it falls upon Langdon to save the world. Again.
You get the picture by now, I imagine.
Have you ever watched a movie in which you suspend your critical faculties for a couple of hours, and then, a few hours later, you reflect on how cynically the makers have insulted your intelligence? Well, this was a case in point.
I mean, if you really wanted to unleash another Black Death, why would you give a history professor a set of bizarre clues that might enable him to cut Armageddon off at the pass? As the Irish like to say in response to requests for directions: “if I was going there I wouldn’t start from here”. Unless, of course, you believed that you were Moriarty, watching from the afterlife with whimsical curiosity to see if Langdon’s Sherlock manages to think his way out of the latest conundrum.
On the other hand, you might do it because, like the those in charge of education in Britain, you don’t consider art, archaeology and the study of the Greeks and the Roman to be essential features of our Trumpian, post-Brexit cultural wasteland, and you want to make a fool out of the good Professor and all those other effete, wannabe Kenneth Clarks before plunging the world back into the dark ages.
Howard, Hanks and Zimmer must have been pretty desperate for the money to get involved in this crock of crud. Having said that, the music was up to Zimmer’s usual standard, the plot rattled along like Disney’s Thunder Mountain, and the cinematography was pretty fine. Hanks was – how to put this kindly? – showing his age a bit during the chase sequences. Not surprising given that the poor chap has just hit sixty.
So I woke up the following morning wondering for what purpose I had wasted a precious evening of my life on a piece of Hollywood junk. After all, I could have spent the time studying the thoughts of Donald Trump, a real-life psycho, or watching horrific video clips from Aleppo, a real-life inferno.
Those of us whose patience with Dan Brown’s fantasies has finally run out can always catch up with a real professor, the wonderful Mary Beard, deepening our understanding of the fiery hell that struck Pompeii and Herculaneum.
As for the fascinating A-Level subjects that are about to slip away from the British liberal arts curriculum, why worry? There are more than enough conspiracy theories to chew over on the History Channel, and no doubt plenty of evidence about to be revealed on National Geographic that we’re the descendants of alien reptile colonisers. Well, maybe not me, but Trump for sure – a lizard in disguise if ever I saw one. Much more fun than Socrates, Michelangelo and holes in the ground.
I, however, should really stop being such a churlish culture snob, get back into my generational box and spend my evenings watching Hercule Poirot box sets. And trying to remember my name.
OK guys, it’s time to be honest. How many of us haven’t had the occasional Trump moment in our dealings with the opposite sex? Not at a party? Not even when intoxicated with the exuberance of several pints of Newcastle Brown, or shots of Jack Daniels?
Speaking for myself, I think I can safely say that I have never thrust my tongue down anyone’s throat as the opening gambit of a courtship ritual. Or grabbed their crotch for that matter. Perhaps that’s because I never had the chutzpah – or whatever else you want to call it – to do so. Or perhaps because I’m not the kind of alpha male who considers that all women (or men) are there for the taking.
No, I can relate more easily to men like Jimmy Carter, who once famously declared – during his election campaign – that “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Which doesn’t get me off the hook, but definitely puts me in the category of a thinker rather than a doer.
All of this is strictly theoretical, of course, because, like Jimmy, I’m a happily married man.
But should I be so inclined, would I discuss my deeds and desires in a locker room, as Trump claims he does from time to time? Unlikely. I can’t think of any less congenial location for a discussion about heterosexual love and lust than a place where sweaty, half-naked men gather together, no doubt casting envious glances at their team-mates’ personal dimensions. Something faintly homoerotic about that, don’t you think?
Maybe that’s an American thing. In England, you would be more likely to have that kind of conversation about an hour into a session in the pub.
If locker rooms are the American way, I shouldn’t think that Donald has been in one for a while, unless he’s talking about a golf club full of geriatric walruses like him. He doesn’t look like a gym bunny, does he?
Anyway, back to the original question. Among the many men ready to bury Mr Trump under a heap of stones, how many are without sin? In public life, I suspect, most guys are a bit like me. Prone to the occasional sinful thought but disinclined for any number of reasons – not least the fear of being found out – to do anything about it. Those who do act on their desires tend to seduce rather than assault. Recent history is full of successful seducers among our leaders – Francois Mitterand, John Major and good ole Bill Clinton among them. But unsolicited crotch-grabbers? Not so many. The sons of Saddam Hussein perhaps, Muammar Gaddafi, Lavrenti Beria and probably a number of other powerful people who have had the means to prevent their activities from becoming publicly known at the time.
But not in America surely? Or Britain for that matter. In the case of my country, that’s one of the things the ill-fated public inquiry into the activities of Jimmy Savile and his friends is designed to find out (more on that some other time).
But I do find it interesting that back in the day, when I was growing up, sex scandals involving politicians tended to not to be the actual cause of people losing their jobs. Covering them up was the real sin. Also, at the time, we were all so paranoid about reds under (or in) the bed that we viewed ministerial indiscretions as threats to national security. Which was what the Profumo scandal was all about – the Minister of War sharing a girl with a Soviet defence attaché. Honey traps, blackmail and espionage.
These days – certainly over the past couple of decades – it seems that politicians can get away with just about anything sexual without penalty. Trump, the groping walrus, may well be seen to have crossed the line of acceptability. Yet his supporters, upright citizens, many from areas espousing strict moral standards, seem to be giving him a free pass. Is it because they share Nigel Farage’s view that they’re not electing a pope? Or that boys will be boys? And does the idea that the red menace is no longer with us – and therefore questions of national security don’t come into the equation – have anything to do with their new-found broad-mindedness? If so, perhaps they know nothing about Vladimir Putin’s time-honoured methods.
Whatever the reason, if former New York Congressman Anthony Wiener can be exposed (if that’s the right term in his case) as a serial sexter, and yet continue to stand for public office, it would seem that in America at least there is the expectation that you can do just about anything in the sexual arena and get away with it. Hence, perhaps, Donald Trump’s attitude.
There is, however, one card that sexual miscreants in the United States have up their sleeves. It’s called redemption. Americans believe in redemption, up to a point. If you confess your sins and ask for forgiveness, you touch an emotion that chimes not only with the religious right but with the multitude of Catholics in that country who go to confession on a regular basis.
However, many American voters believe in three strikes and you’re out, so if you are forgiven, you really need to make sure you don’t re-offend. And when I say they believe in redemption up to a point, I mean that their beliefs don’t stop them from happily applying the death penalty on those they see as irredeemable. But in the case of sexual transgressions, I suspect that among many of those willing to forgive – men anyway – there’s a sense of “there but for the grace of God go I”.
In Britain, we tend not to go for redemption. With the exception of some members of our Muslim population who hold fairly draconian views about what they see as sexual deviance, we do manage to keep church and state pretty well separate. But we are pretty strong in condemning the far side of sexual behaviour. We don’t like paedophiles, and we don’t like rape or any other form of sexual assault. It’s worth speculating as to whether Donald Trump, based on the allegations swirling around at the moment, would if, he was British, be prosecuted on grounds of historic sex abuse.
Perhaps not, but you can be pretty sure that over here, on the evidence presented in the media, he would be hounded out of politics in very short order by which ever political party under whose umbrella he was standing for office. Even UKIP. At least I like to think so.
One final word on Trump – at least for now. In the last debate he promised to appoint a prosecutor who would send Hillary Clinton to jail for her “crimes”. That caused a bit of a stir, given that she’s never been convicted of any, and that it’s not within the power of an American President to jail anybody.
You would think that Hillary herself has grounds to sue Trump for defamation on the basis of the numerous occasions when he has referred to her as “Crooked Hillary”. Yes, I know why she hasn’t, and probably won’t. But what about all the other public figures he has insulted and lied about with merry abandon over the past few months?
It seems that politics – both in the US and to a lesser extent in the UK – is the only arena in which people can wilfully seek to destroy the reputation of others with impunity. Perhaps a lawsuit or two be sufficient to civilise the debate next time around. Do I hear someone say that Donald is planning to sue the New York Times for their hurtful revelations?
I wouldn’t bet on it. All mouth and no trousers is a particularly apt description for the would-be leader of the free world.
I’ve tried and I’ve tried. But I cannot and will not get over it. Any more than I will drive over a cliff despite the warning signs because Satnav told me to.
Four months on from the EU referendum, if it’s not now clear to a majority of people in Britain that Brexit is a bad idea, it will not be so until it’s too late for the government to do anything about it. This is not to say that the concerns of those who voted to leave are invalid. But it should be pretty obvious by now that the anger of the electorate is directed at the wrong place. The European Union is not responsible for our under-investment in South Wales and the North East. It’s not responsible for our failure to provide adequate housing, education and health services to a growing population.
These problems can be laid partly on the doorstep of successive British governments, and partly on factors beyond the control of any single government or political bloc. The European Union, flawed though it is, is a convenient scapegoat for British politicians who want divert attention from the consequences of the policies they have implemented over the past thirty years.
The EU did not force us to rely on the City of London for economic growth at the expense of engineering, manufacturing and technology. It didn’t create seventy-odd new universities without sufficient thought as to how those institutions were to be funded, and without reference to the skills that the country actually needed.
It didn’t build a massive set of parallel bureaucracies in the National Health Service at the expense of patient care on the principle of market-driven reform. It didn’t demand that we tinker with our primary and secondary education systems with a frequency that has left our teachers bewildered and demotivated.
And it didn’t insist that we allow hundreds of thousands of non-EU workers to enter the country – either to study (thereby propping up our cash-strapped universities) or to make good urgent skill shortages in organisations such as the NHS.
Now we learn from no less a source than the Treasury, an arm of the British government, that the version of Brexit that the same government has in mind will cost us as much as £66 billion a year in lost gross domestic product, more than eight times the amount of money saved by our leaving the EU. The Treasury made this prediction before the referendum, but, significantly, still stands by it today.
And what of the sovereignty we urgently wish to restore? The main bit of control we want to restore is not over the size of bananas, or even human rights law. It’s over immigration. This appears to be the objective of our new Prime Minister, who seems to have forgotten that her brief is now much wider than the Home Office. It appears to be more important than membership of the Single European Market that accounts for 45% of our exports.
Despite the hot air rising from the Conservative Party conference a couple of weeks ago, I have a message for the doctors, nurses, care-home workers, scientists, bankers, software designers, baristas and fruit pickers who hold foreign passports and currently work in the United Kingdom. Don’t worry. You will still be needed here in ten years’ time.
Here are some reasons why.
Let’s start with the medics. Regardless of what sort of Brexit emerges at the other end of the coming negotiations – open, closed, hard, soft or plain suicidal – people will still get sick and die in increasing numbers. Demographics sees to that. More people are getting older every year.
What about the government’s plan to train more British doctors and claw back their training costs if they fail to complete a specified period working within the NHS, you might ask? It won’t work. People looking at a career in medicine will be put off by the prospect of what appears to be indentured labour. Already a large proportion of doctors are leaving medicine within a few years of qualifying. Junior doctors are no longer prepared to put up with the ordeal of endurance that has been part of the culture of British medicine since the foundation of the NHS. Measures that made their ridiculous working hours more meaningful – mentoring, for example – have disappeared in the welter of reorganisations that have taken place over the past two decades.
As for the scientists and engineers, even the hard Brexit supporters accept that we will need to import foreign expertise long after Brexit becomes a reality. Likewise the IT specialists. All assuming, of course, that the employers – many of which are foreign-owned – of these skilled individuals don’t decide that it’s simply too much hassle to maintain workforces in such numbers in the UK because the government puts up too many barriers against their employment. An irony, considering that we’re leaving the EU because we’re fed up with its bureaucracy and red tape.
Even in the fields of Norfolk, is it really likely that our indigenous workforce, loaded up to the gunwales with degrees, diplomas and matching ambitions, will pick up the slack to replace the foreign fruit pickers? I don’t think so. At least not unless they’re paid considerably more than the living wage. Which will mean that the supermarkets will have the choice of paying our farmers more for the produce, or importing tariff-laden produce from the EU. In either case, we the consumers pay more, which we won’t be happy about, and in the latter case the farmers will simply go out of business, with the knock-on effect of depressing yet more areas of the country.
And finally consider the tens of thousands of foreign workers who look after our elderly up and down the country. The same scenario applies. Would we be able to replace them all with British workers? Not without a wage hike. How would our politicians react to old people’s homes going out of business up and down the country because either they can’t fill their vacancies or local councils refuse to pay the fee increases they would need to demand in order to remain sustainable?
So no, I won’t get over it, and neither should the 48% of the voters who elected to stay in the EU, not to mention a significant proportion of the Leave voters who were misled by opportunistic claims and who probably have now realised it. The people of Sunderland, for example, who voted to leave the EU and are now discovering that Nissan is reconsidering further investment in their local manufacturing plant.
At the very least, the government should test the will of Parliament by putting the decision to invoke Clause 50 to the test. There are enough MPs of all political stripes who oppose Brexit to bring the whole project crashing down. Whether they have the courage to do so is another matter. At whatever stage, the most important measure since our entry to the market must be subject to Parliamentary endorsement. If our MPs have the right to debate and vote down the annual budget, why should they not have the right to scrutinise the consequences of an advisory referendum, and ultimately the terms of Brexit?
I’m not saying that leaving the EU might not work out in the long run. No doubt we can and will muddle through. But it’s no less a colossal risk now than it was at the time of the referendum. And if we ignore the very obvious pitfalls and unknowns, and jump blindly into the void, those who allowed it to happen will pay for it with the destruction of their careers, and we, the voters, will live with the consequences for decades ahead.
It is not petulant or grumpy – or whatever other epithet the “get over it” merchants use to describe people like me who profoundly oppose Brexit – to continue to speak up against what we believe is a horrendous mistake. Nor, as the UK Daily Mail suggests in one of its more virulent editorials (Whinging. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic. Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British People), are those who urge a re-think “sore losers”. The referendum was not a contest intended to produce winners and losers. It was a debate involving many shades of opinion and political allegiance on a matter of fundamental national importance. The debate was deeply flawed, and was subject to shameless manipulation by politicians and other public figures who should have known better.
My voice is not loud. I have no axe to grind. I have little to lose materially whether or not we leave the EU – or at least little that I value. I won’t be around to see the long-term consequences. But my kids will, and so will my friends’ kids. I care about them, and about their future.
It’s not too late to call a halt to this madness. But the clock is ticking towards March 2017, when the government proposes to press the exit button. Time for the politicians to show some guts for a change, methinks.
For what it’s worth, this is a short meditation on Syria. Why now? Get to the end and all will be revealed.
I haven’t written about the Syrian conflict for a while, because at the micro level I can’t pretend to be an expert on the shifting allegiances of the global, regional and local players, none of which seem to be to the benefit of the stricken population.
But this much I do understand.
We should not be surprised that governments are capable of bombing cities, attacking aid convoys and wiping out the only places the victims of the bombs can turn to for medical help. And when we’re talking about governments, let’s not forget that those who lead them are human beings, no matter how dehumanised their actions make them appear to be.
They’re not dehumanised. If human beings were constitutionally averse to shedding the blood of other humans, then our history would be very different. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have a history at all, because the chances are that we would remain a pastoral species among many, rather than one that has evolved through organisation, competition and subjugation.
What makes events in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya harder to ignore than any previous conflicts is that they take place in front of a global audience, often in real time. As communications technology develops, we, the non-combatants, are able, if we wish, to look inside, above and around every conflict.
Trace a line from the reports received in London weeks after the fact about battles in the Crimean War, through the two world wars of the 20th century, Vietnam and the Gulf wars to Syria today. The intensity and diversity of reportage grows in direct proportion to the bandwidth and accessibility of communications. Along, of course, with the potency and sophistication of the weapons brought to bear.
What also makes the Syrian conflict – unparalleled is its multiple dimensions. It’s a platform not only for local sectarian and political rivalries but for proxy wars between distrustful state actors: Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US and Russia are involved because neither wishes to see the eventual outcomes diminish their influence and physical foothold in the region. Those countries that have chosen to support the US in attacking ISIS are of relatively little account – without American involvement they would most likely fade out of the conflict. And now Turkey, ever fearful of its Kurdish minority and the success of the Kurdish fighters in the conflict zone, has joined in.
So it’s wrong to say that this conflict is, as some argue, like any other with local origins. That it will eventually burn out when the combatants on the ground run out of weapons, the desire to fight and an expectation that things will turn out to their advantage. For as long as the regional and global rivalries persist, Syria will have plenty of injections of arms, manpower and motivation for years to come. And so, for that matter, will Iraq, Yemen and Libya.
Even if ISIS are finally expelled from Syria, their destruction will not be a game-changer. Who will move into the vacuum? Assad with his mercenaries? The Syrian Kurds? One or more of the other rival factions aligned either side of the US/Russian/Saudi/Iranian divide? Or all of them?
The only way one can see an end to the Syrian conflict would be for Iran and Saudi Arabia to agree on limits to their ambitions for regional hegemony, and for the US and Russia to re-establish a stable détente. But none of these players seem to have recognised that they have reached the limit of the advantage they can extract from the current situation.
In each of those countries, there are naturally many people who are appalled at the human destruction taking place on a daily basis. But not so outraged as to persuade their leaders that the political consequences of backing off are not even more unacceptable than the price Syria is paying in lives. In other words, national self-interest – and political ambition – is more important than lives. So the killing continues.
What can we, the bystanders who have little influence over events and yet are assailed daily by reminders of the suffering, do beyond wringing our hands and saying “stop – all of you”?
The populations of each of the leading players see the conflict through their own perspectives. The United States has a presidential candidate who, until recently, was unaware of who or what Aleppo is – and most likely he’s far from alone in his ignorance. Russians by and large back their president in his ambition to do what it takes to restore his country’s power and prestige – for now. Iranians are cowed by the mullahs and their praetorian guard, for whom the maintenance of political control and influence trumps all other considerations. Saudi Arabians are unable to express their views through the exercise of conventional democracy, and their ability to protest via other means is limited. And the rest of us lack the individual or collective power even to shame the participants except by the use of well-meaning but ultimately impotent grass-roots campaigns.
What we can do is help to clear up the mess, and come to the aid of those who are wounded – physically or mentally – by the conflict. We can support neighbouring countries that are hosting millions of refugees. We can open our hearts and our borders to those who have fled, but only if our leaders have the strength to look beyond the fears of their electorates – a strength that appears to be diminishing every day.
And as individuals, we can make clear to our leaders – elected or otherwise – by any means necessary that we expect them to exert such influence as they have to bring the leading actors to the table. Not Russia and America, or Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But all of them.
And we can be kind and respectful to the minorities in our own countries, whether they are citizens, economic migrants or refugees. Because even if our leaders in their bubbles of power worry about economics, demographics and geopolitics, we are the people who encounter our neighbours every day.
Call me a pious metropolitan liberal if you like. But during the many years I spent living and working in the Arab world, there were three words that I heard and appreciated more often than any others: you are welcome.
When we neglect to say those words, and retreat within the confines of culture, ethnicity and nationality, we set ourselves up for future division and conflict.
Theresa May, Britain’s new Prime Minister, said yesterday in an address to her party’s annual conference:
If you believe that you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means.
She’s wrong. I for one do understand what citizenship means: responsibility and accountability. And in my world, it is possible to be a good citizen of a nation without abandoning those who are suffering beyond our borders.
We are citizens of the world, whether we like it or not. And Syria should matter to each and every one of us.
The other night my wife and I took ourselves off to the National Theatre in London to watch The Plough and the Stars, Seán O’Casey’s epic play about the 1916 Easter Rising.
Every Irish schoolkid learns about the insurrection in Dublin that took place against the backdrop of World War One. Of how Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and others led a few hundred armed volunteers on an ill-fated attempt to throw off the British yoke. They had chosen a time of perceived weakness on the part of what they saw as the occupying state. But the response was not as weak as they hoped. The rebellion was crushed, the leaders were executed, and much of the centre of Dublin ended up a charred ruin. The Rising took its place in the hallowed narrative of Irish independence.
Ten years later, O’Casey’s play caused riots on its debut in Dublin, largely because it humanised the hallowed. The good folk of the capital were also not pleased at the appearance of a prostitute in Act Two, and some less than complimentary references to religion.
Ninety years on, the Catholic church in Ireland has lost its grip on the morals of the nation, partly because of its resistance to divorce, abortion and contraception, and partly because of the paedophilia scandals that have shaken Catholicism across the world. Buy an Irish tabloid and you will enter a world full of page three girls, and stories of adultery, broken marriages and unconventional sex that would make Eamonn De Valera turn in his grave.
But the heroes of the Rising are still heroes, and the dead are still martyrs – except of course for the soldiers and policemen, many of whom were also Irish, who died trying to suppress the revolt.
For reasons only partly connected to the Easter Rising, I found the play hard to sit through.
I have a passing familiarity with Ireland. My children are half-Irish, from which you can deduce that my wife is from the Republic. I love the country. I’ve always found its people to be welcoming and full of humour. It has landscape and seascape that matches anything to be found on the bigger island next door.
You’re waiting for the but, so here it is. We’re only a decade on from the latest episode of the Troubles, in which organisations such as the IRA, Sinn Fein, the Ulster Volunteers, the Ulster Freedom Fighters dominated the headlines of British newspapers almost on a daily basis. Po-faced protagonists would justify the bombings, the casual murders, the divisions of families and communities in the name of their causes. It was nasty, vicious and often motivated by factors far removed from political idealism: religious bigotry, drug-smuggling, illicit trading across the border with the south and, of course, personal vendettas and power struggles.
Were the motives of the players in 1916 pure and unalloyed? Not according to O’Casey. And it was power struggles between the leading factions that contributed to the relatively quick end to the conflict. Ireland was by no means united behind the republican uprising, and the characters in The Plough and the Stars reflect the differences. The cynical communist who sees everything in terms of the class struggle, the fighter’s wife who desperately tries to detach her husband from the cause as she sees the imminent destruction of her family life. The unionist neighbour who pours scorn on the preening volunteers.
Many British people who lived through the period of bombings on the mainland felt – rightly or wrongly – that the cause of the bombers was not their concern. They would have been happy to have seen the North peacefully united with the South. But references in the play to the organisations of 1916 – the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army and the ever-present Sinn Fein were a disturbing reminder that the most recent Troubles have deep roots. Even if the South has evolved into a mature state, the political undercurrents are still flowing, and may surface again in the North.
None of which fully explains why I found O’Casey’s work so hard to bear. I suppose the main reason was that everyone was so bloody angry with everyone else. From start to finish the play was one long caterwaul. The whole thing was enacted at such high volume that I’m amazed the actors’ voices have lasted for the run. The volume was not confined to human output. At one stage there was a bang so loud that I would have expected a couple of fatal heart attacks – or at the very least mass incontinence – among the well-heeled audience. Of course, in the best traditions of English politeness, no doubt those sitting next to the suddenly expired would have had the courtesy to wait until the interval to remove the corpses.
If you’ve ever witnessed a frank discussion between my wife and one of our daughters you might ask why I’m surprised at the emotional intensity on stage. And no doubt the tenement dwellers O’Casey portrays had much to be angry about. But two hours of unrelenting bawling was an ordeal. At least in my family the disagreements subside, just as do the stormy interludes in a Beethoven symphony.
By the time we got to Act Four – in which Nora, the wife of the volunteer fighter who loses her baby and fails to drag her husband back from the brink, becomes demented with the pain of it all – I’m ashamed to say that I just wanted her to put us out of our misery and jump out of a window. In the manner of Father Ted’s housekeeper, I longed to stand up and shout “ah goo on – yer know yer want ter”.
I daresay the Dublin worthies of 1926 were also not enthralled by the portrayal of drunkenness and looting during the Rising. Fecklessness, opportunism and love of the bottle are aspects of the cartoon Oirishness that have powered a thousand jokes on the mainland and found full expression in TV comedy series that became hits in the UK – such as Ballykissangel, Father Ted and latterly Mrs Brown’s Boys. Weave them in with the pathos of so many episodes in Irish history – the Famine, the emigration, the independence struggle, the Troubles and the recent banking crisis – and you have the basis for a large slice of Irish literature and drama over the past couple of centuries.
For the Irish, so good at laughing at themselves, being Irish is not a joke. For many, it’s a passion. I guess The Plough and the Stars reminds the rest of us of the dark side of rapture.
But boy, was it hard to watch. So hard that we took ourselves off the next night to watch Bridget Jones’s Baby, where a similar audience hooted and howled with laughter through two hours of English eccentricity. Are we English so different from the Irish? Only, perhaps, in our innate and thoroughly unwarranted sense of superiority.