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.
August for me has always had a dream-like quality, especially in Britain, my home country. You could easily imagine that half the world shuts down, as politicians, journalists, neighbours and schoolchildren disappear on their holidays. The roads are almost civilised in the morning, thanks to the lack of cars delivering little ones to their places of education. And when we get a run of decent weather, as we are at the moment, we seem to go into a strawberry trance.
This year we’ve been blessed with the sight of rowers, shooters, hockey players, gymnasts and synchronised swimmers going through their bizarre routines in Rio. Sporting mayflies emerging into the spotlight of prime time television for their quadrennial moment of fame. No matter that we won’t see them again until 2020, and that most of us slumped in front of our tellies in holiday resorts, pubs and quiet sitting rooms at home watched with bemused fascination as judges judged on criteria beyond our understanding, and referees intervened to enforce rules so arcane that they could only have been created by committees of Pharisees.
I suppose we all got a bit of a lift when our plucky Brits bumped the Chinese from second place in the medal table – about the only way we “pull above our weight” these days. And it was genuinely heartening to see these athletes, professionals to a greater or lesser extent, succeeding through determination, expert coaching and liberal doses of money, courtesy of the nation’s enthusiasm for the National Lottery.
While we bask in the post-orgasmic glow of all those smiling faces bearing medals, the occasional reminders of the ludicrous reality we have left behind for a short few weeks begin to surface. Boris Johnson running the country. Jeremy Corbyn sitting on the floor of one of Richard Branson’s trains. And Nigel Farage milking the applause at a Trump rally.
No doubt more serious stuff awaits us in September. In fact, the world has never stopped being deadly serious, even if we haven’t been paying attention to it.
Several national newspapers have been busy alerting us to the new Yellow Peril. No, not hordes of Japanese soldiers kicking us out of our empire and forcing our soldiers to build railways. This time it’s China’s attempt to build stuff within our shores. The Hinkley Point nuclear power project, we are warned, is not only a bad deal commercially, but dangerous because the Chinese, who will be a partner in the project, will thereby gain a foothold in the UK’s critical infrastructure. They have already bought a large chunk of our North Sea oil production. What next? Will they soon be building our warships and missiles, and running GCHQ on our behalf? Unlikely, but you never know.
Certainly it doesn’t bode well for the future of post-Brexit Britain that we no longer have the expertise to build our own nuclear power stations. For the Faragists among us, it must be almost as mortifying that we have to rely on France, our prickly enemy/friend, for the engineering capability to make Hinkley Point happen.
Further afield, the multidimensional war in Syria and Iraq is becoming more baffling than ever. Has there ever been a more complex matrix of interests, ambitions and alliances than in the Middle East today? The only constant is death.
Then there’s the turmoil in Turkey. Despite the post-coup purge of the armed forces, the government has still managed to summon up enough troops and tanks to overwhelm ISIS in a key Syrian border town, not – if you believe some narratives – to destroy ISIS but to take the town before the Kurds get there.
And is it any wonder that the average observer outside Turkey fails to understand the paranoia about the Gülen Movement. Why should Mr Erdogan be so obsessed by this seemingly mainstream Muslim organisation, whose followers believe in religious toleration and liberal education? Is it a cult? Is it a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Did its leader, an elderly and seemingly avuncular cleric, orchestrate the attempted coup from his eyrie in Pennsylvania? Is he a Trotsky or a Khomeini, plotting and planning in exile to bring about the downfall of the established order? Or is he just a convenient scapegoat, whose followers are a convenient enemy within?
I don’t know enough about Turkish politics to judge with any confidence, but one thing’s for sure: in the West, his PR is more effective than Erdogan’s. The President is seen as an increasingly authoritarian figure, locking up journalists and purging thousands of army officers, judges, civil servants and teachers suspected of being Gülenist sympathisers. But if you believe the Gülenists, they are no more threatening to the established order than the Methodists were in eighteenth-century Britain.
In any event, I’m hoping that A Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel – which I’m ploughing through at the moment – will give me more insight into the current mindset within Turkey. The book traces the life of an Anatolian street vendor in Istanbul. Through his eyes we see the growth of the city and the evolution of the wider Turkish state since the late Sixties. Two things are already apparent. First, the gulf between the cosmopolitan Istanbul elite and the conservative societies in Anatolia from which most of the city’s new population have come. And second, the corrosive effect of successive military coups and of the authoritarian regimes that followed. No wonder the Turks pushed back with great courage against the latest attempt.
Another tome I’ve just finished serves as a reminder that the kind of multidimensional conflict we’re currently witnessing in the Middle East is by no means unique. Max Hastings’ latest book, The Secret War – Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945, does what it says on the tin.
Hastings sets out to provide a panoramic view of intelligence activities of all the main participants in the Second World War, as well as the various partisan movements and embryonic special forces deployed by the combatants. So we learn about the familiar stories – the Ultra decryptions by Bletchley Park, the bumbling German Abwehr organisation and the far more effective spies of the Soviet NKVD. We also encounter the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunners of the SAS and the CIA respectively.
What emerges is that the masters of these organisations, in particular Stalin and Hitler, rejected much of the intelligence presented to them because it ran contrary to their own views. Thus Stalin ignored overwhelming evidence that Hitler was about to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. And Hitler fell victim to deception tactics in advance of Operation Bagration, the Soviet offensive in 1944. He also swallowed the Allied deception designed to convince Germany the invasion of France in 1944 would centre on the Pas de Calais. Similarly, the US ignored compelling evidence of Japanese plans for the attack on Pearl Harbour.
What is perhaps less well-known is the infighting and rivalry between the intelligence services within each of the combatants – the mutual contempt between the British MI6 and the SOE, and in the US, between the FBI and the OSS. Perhaps more surprisingly, the fact that in the latter part of the war, intelligence and special forces activities, especially those of the Soviet Union and the US, were largely focused on the post-war future. To that end, allies spied on allies, and on the odd occasion carried out hostile acts against each other. For example, US fighters shot down two British aircraft carrying French forces on their way to infiltrate into Japanese-occupied Indo-China.
During the Asian conflict, rivalry between the British and the Americans centred on Roosevelt’s anti-colonial views. He was determined to thwart British efforts to re-establish dominion over the colonies they lost to the Japanese, and sought instead to establish areas of American economic influence. The OSS was one of his tools for achieving this end, with the result that it and its British counterpart the SOE hardly spoke to each other. The Soviets, of course, were focused on penetrating the Manhattan Project that resulted in the development of the atom bomb. This they did with some success.
In case we imagine that World War Two was a conflict in which the allies were solely devoted to winning the war, Hastings reminds us that the victors were also determined to act in their own long-term interests in anticipation of the post-war order, even if that meant acting against each other during the conflict.
In reading terms, Pamuk and Hastings are not exactly summer salad for the mind. But I’ve always been a meat eater, so that’s fine. For a little dessert, I’ve turned to Dead – a Celebration of Mortality, by Charles Saatchi. I picked it up for five quid in a local charity shop. It had not been opened, so clearly someone didn’t relish someone else’s idea of a cheery gift. Perhaps it was an eightieth birthday present.
Anyway, despite my misgivings about the author, who grew rich coming up with natty ads for Margaret Thatcher, cornered the market in modern art of questionable merit, and was caught on camera with his hands around his wife’s throat, I am interested in his chosen subject. After all, I’m closer to that momentous event than many.
And very appetising it is too. Saatchi has come up with a hundred-or-so short vignettes, mostly factual, on various aspects of death. No turgid philosophising, though I imagine he sees his choice of subjects as a philosophical statement in itself. He writes with dry wit about Russian gangsters, gallows humour, near-death experiences, of living Indians in Bihar declared dead by relatives to get hold of their meagre inheritances and a host of other subjects. The book cover looks like a tombstone, and the layout reminds you of a Word document in the hands of someone who couldn’t use the table of contents and footer features. Except that it’s clearly a deliberate effect.
Dead is an entertaining, even if rather a cold and cynical, study of the fate that awaits us all. Its bite-sized chapters are easy to read and never boring. The last chapter is short and sweet:
SOME LIVES LEAVE A MARK. OTHERS LEAVE A STAIN.
ALMOST EVERYBODY LIVES A LIFE OF LITTLE CONSEQUENCE TO MANKIND.
BUT WOULDN’T YOU PREFER TO HAVE SPENT YOUR YEARS RATHER USELESSLY, BUT ENTERTAININGLY – EVEN IF YOUR EXISTENCE DIDN’T ACHIEVE ANYTHING MEMORABLY SIGNIFICANT AT ALL?
I wonder if that’s how Saatchi sees his own life. Certainly, it seems to me, his final words are those of a melancholy man. Be that as it may, Dead is perfect fare for the fading days of summer. Available from a charity shop near you, no doubt.
I for one will continue to enjoy my ant-like existence, blissfully unaware of the manner in which the Great Foot will descend on me, but newly enlightened on the vast array of possible exits.
And now, September approaches and the kinderpanzers get ready to reclaim the morning roads. Our attention turns from burkinis to Brexit, as the politicians continue to flounder in the mess they created.
Time to go on holiday.