Archive for April, 2005

Chávez: Free Doorstops for All!

Ok, perhaps that was a bit uncharitable. But as someone who has failed on numerous occasions to get the whole way through Don Quixote, I fear that the enthusiasm among Venezuelans for the free copies of the book being distributed by Chávez’s government may soon give way to resignation. It’s a rather, erm, quixotic thing for a government to do, but still, if you’re going to give away one book for free it might as well be this one.

Coffee Dock Republicanism

Debates about Irish culture or Irishness (what it is, if it really exists, are we really British?) often entail long riffs on the pre-eminence of British, American or Anglo-American influences on Irish life. Irish people are pretty much the same as British or American people, the argument goes, because they spend all day speaking English, shop in M&S or House of Frazer, they get their lunch in McDonalds or KFC, and they go home and watch Friends, Will and Grace or Desperate Housewives.

All true, but the focus is normally on what is consumed, and not on what is produced. We tend to overlook how much the culture of work in Ireland has changed the country over the past twenty or so years.

A key part of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ (blech) was the arrival of large, mainly American-run multinationals. The changes these have brought to daily life in Ireland still have not been fully explored. As well as bringing much-needed employment, these organizations also brought antiseptic codes of bourgeois niceness, euphemistic and hyperbolic job titles, pyramid structures and deferential working practices. This has, of course, coincided with the worldwide spread, Japanese knotweed-style, of management-speak.

This type of working culture inevitably leads to severe lexical contortions, such as the arbitrary appropriation of a noun for use as a verb. So I might talk about ‘sunsetting’ this blog, or ‘laddering’ someone’s salary (don’t ask). Also, empty intensifiers become the norm, so instead of saying ‘uh-huh’, or ‘aye’, or even ‘yes’ in order to express agreement, one feels compelled to respond with ‘absolutely’. And rather than just saying ‘it is a better way to travel’, one should say ‘it is effectively a better way to travel’.

It is an unwritten rule, in the codes of ‘niceness’ that underpin these places, that in order to ‘get on’, one should refrain from discussing any topic that could possibly be construed as controversial in the working environment. In chance meetings at the coffee-dock, then, little is left to chance. Topics for conversation rarely deviate from the weather, the weekend, canteen food, traffic, the awfulness of the coffee, and maybe the odd uncontroversial news item like the smoking ban.

It all makes for a rather dull day.

There is one person in my own place of work who eschews the straitjacket of the sunny, subtext-free, coffee-dock encounter, and is totally unfettered in his use of language and his expression of opinions.

The problem is that he’s an out-and-out Provo: perhaps the type you only get among those whose only visit north ever has been to do the Christmas shopping in Sainsbury’s in Newry. And because I am from the North, I’m the ideal candidate for an impromptu pow-wow about the evils of partition, or the intransigence of unionists, or how Orangemen walking down the Garvaghy Road is like the Ku Klux Klan walking through Harlem. Either his quasi-evangelical zeal blinds him to the fact that I’m rather uncomfortable with my role as Real World Sounding Board for his ideas about the North, or else it impels him to carry on regardless.

“Have you read this yet?” he says.

“Eh, no.”

“Look at this here [he shows me a Daily Ireland article about some unionist indiscretion or other]. If it had been a Sinn Fein rep got caught doing that you’d never have heard the end of it from that securocrat lovin’ asshole Jim Cusack in the Indo or that racist bollix McDowell.”

Assorted middle managers queue to pour themselves coffee, and I nod uncomfortably.

“Ah well, I don’t get much time to look at that sort of stuff these days. To be honest I just ignore most of it.” I say, cursing my 9-to-5 bourgeois niceness.

I don’t want to encourage him, after all.

Such, Such Were the Joys

Andrew McCann at A Tangled Web praises the Limavady teacher who allegedly referred to Sinn Fein as full of ‘IRA scum’.

The across-the-barricades SF parliamentary candidate for the area, Billy Leonard, displayed the measured language for which SF have become famed in response:

“This is like something out of a George Orwell novel. It is an attempt at brain washing of the most frightening kind.
“I have already left messages with the chairman of the board of governors to meet with myself and Brenda Chivers immediately to address this issue.”

Hollow laughs aside at SF complaints about brainwashing, or citing George Orwell, it ill befits any political representative to circumvent the authority of the school principal and staff in order to pry into either the day-to-day running of a school or what was said or not in the dynamic of a classroom.

The tactic of informing the press to say that you are contacting ‘as many of the pupils’ parents as [you can] ’, in order to ‘establish the facts’ may work well when compiling a list of grievances against the PSNI, but it undermines the school’s authority. The message sent out to parents is that the school is incapable of managing the issue to the best interests of the students. If Leonard and his colleague truly had the best interests of the students at heart, they would leave this matter well alone.

On the matter of whether or not the children should have been allowed to wear tricolours: if there is a school uniform, no additions to the school uniform should be tolerated, regardless of how noble the wearer believes them to be.

As to the opinion expressed by the teacher in question: the fact that the students had already chosen to come to school wearing tricolours indicates that it was in their best interests to hear an alternative opinion. If this was expressed in intemperate language, that is unfortunate, but not a matter of such importance that the national media had to get involved.

Perhaps I’m not the best person to comment on this. As some teachers in my school openly criticised the IRA, perhaps I’ve been brainwashed too.

Their Man In Basingstoke

Almost completely uninterested in the upcoming British parliamentary elections, for a variety of reasons. However, in a half-hearted attempt to please those who visit this site and are into that sort of thing, I shall post related items that catch my eye.

This brief portrait of DUP man Andrew Hunter’s former constituency was diverting:

”A member of the Orange Order, he was one of the few MPs to vote against the Good Friday Agreement (or, as he puts it, ‘one of only a handful of mainland MPs who have consistently opposed the sell-out to terrorism in Northern Ireland’). He resigned from the Conservative Party in October 2002 so that he could stand for Ian Paisley’s DUP in Lagan Valley in the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly elections. He didn’t win. In December last year, still Basingstoke’s MP, he joined the DUP anyway, which caused some consternation, though it should hardly have come as a surprise. The local Conservatives found it ‘sad’; one more sanguine resident told a national newspaper that everyone needed to have a hobby.

Erecting Language Barriers

Good article in the Guardian on the effect of language in electoral campaigning.

“The rhetoric used by both Labour and the Conservatives slips over from the language of perversion and the management of epidemics,” says the novelist and vice chairwoman of English PEN, Lisa Appignanesi. “Wife abuse, child abuse, alcohol abuse and now asylum abuse. Hey presto – the persecuted poor and with them all immigrants, new and already established, are tainted with malign practices. Like bugs we have to control them and protect ourselves against their coming.”

White Lines: Don’t Be At It

At Christmas time I travelled North, and in now established tradition went out for a few pints with a couple of old friends in my old local. Until recently the pub was neither glamorous nor demi-monde, but just a typical unassuming small-town pub where the biggest attractions were the pool table out the back and the midweek quiz. After a bit of a makeover comprising an extension and decoration with local memorabilia, it had started attracting a younger crowd, although many of the older faces were still there.

Nothing remarkable or particularly new so far, but what was definitely new was the group of local guys in their mid-twenties doing lines of coke on the cisterns in the toilets. It is not that I have any particular objection to people doing it, as that is a matter of personal choice, but I thought it a rather strange place to do it.

Once people start doing cocaine in small-town Northern pub toilets on a wet and windy night in December, you can draw the following conclusions:

a) There is too much of it about.
b) Delusions of grandeur abound.
c) Buckfast has lost its allure.

There are enough shite-talkers in Ireland as it is without having to put up with every bogman and redneck revelling in their new-found ability to hold forth with their opinions, in fully formed sentences, after 12 or 13 pints.

Which is why I welcome this.

Benedictus Qui Venit

Yesterday, on seeing that that Joseph Ratzinger was going to be the new Pope, I disconnected from the internet and darted out the door, pushing past the crowds huddled round his TV image, where he was singing his first papal hymn. I was late for my train.

What do I know about him so far? Only what I have read in newspapers and on-line commentary. I know that he had a reputation as doctrinal enforcer for PJP2, that he had been dubbed the Panzer Cardinal due to his forcefulness, and that as a boy he had been in the Hitler Youth. And for some reason he reminds me of Ernest Borgnine.

Public reaction to his appointment will be shaped largely by his portrayal in the media. After a homily described as hardline and stern earlier this week, it looks as though this Pope will have a more severe and austere public image and reputation than that of his immediate predecessor, even though there may be little doctrinal difference between the two. Much space will be dedicated to his conservatism, his tough line on abortion, contraception and sexual morality. The implications of his membership of the Hitler Youth will be scrutinized continually, perhaps for the duration of his papacy.

But how do you properly define the importance of a Pope? When consuming most news articles and TV programmes about the Catholic Church, or indeed any religious institution, we receive information filtered according to the Church’s role in a continuum defined by the media: one of urgent political concerns and contemporary lifestyle considerations. In general, these opinions and images are given coherence in terms of decades of living memory. It is on that basis, and not from the pulpit, that a Pope’s image is formed in the public eye. The terms of reference for PJP2’s papacy were the Second World War and the downfall of Communism. Ratzinger’s papacy, assuming he lasts 6 or 7 years, will be framed in the Western media by other events, perhaps the AIDS epidemic in Africa, maybe the rising influence of Latin America, although the Second World War will of course still loom large.

But it is not the role of any Pope to be popular or to fit into neat historical categorisations. Objecting to the Pope’s position on contraception, homosexuality or women priests because these are contemporary issues that should be addressed misses the point. They can only be addressed in accordance with more enduring concerns, on the basis of doctrine developed over many centuries. A reminder for this is found in the compelling pageantry of white smoke/black smoke, seemingly outlandish garments, and Latin proclamations.

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April 2005
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