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Saturday Sound-off: The False God of Nostalgia

I watched something on television earlier in the week about Josef Herman, the Polish born artist who settled in South Wales where he produced iconic paintings depicting the lives of miners. The presenter and his interviewees, who included actor Michael Sheen, were full of nostalgia for the lost communities of the heyday of Welsh industry. I could not help recalling earlier works like “How Green Was My Valley” and “Rape of a Fair Country”, which deplored the destruction of the landscape brought about by industrialisation. It struck me then, how misguided is our love of nostalgia.

“How Green Was My Valley” has been exposed as a fraud, a novel written by an Englishman whilst serving in the British army in India and turned by Hollywood into a sentimental movie that created “a myth, a never-never land of pristine innocence ruined by the discovery of coal. His myth has generated more myths, of pits and singing miners and explosions, but it’s a good yarn.” [Meic Stephens, creative writing lecturer at the University of Glamorgan, quoted in an Observer article in 1999]

Last evening I attended a concert by The Black Family. For those who may be unfamiliar with this group of Irish musicians and singers, it consists of five siblings who achieved considerable success in the 1980s before going their separate ways as solo artists. Few will not have heard of either Mary Black or Frances Black. Once again, we were into the realms of nostalgia doubled; for the audience the songs with which the Black siblings achieved their original fame brought back memories of their own youth, whilst the songs themselves often recalled even earlier periods in Irish history, especially growing up in inner city Dublin in the 1960s and holidays on Rathlin Island, where their father was born.

All this reminded me, too, of that Python sketch in which three men vie with each other with stories of childhood hardship in working class homes.

Our whole political discourse seems to be imbued with this kind of false nostalgia. Britain’s decision to exit from the European Union was driven by it. The appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s rhetoric is in large part because it harks back to an age when the gap between rich and poor was less marked than today. That, too, is something of a myth. It is true that the gap has widened significantly in recent decades but that was after a rare period of narrowing. Compared to, for example, Victorian times, the poor throughout the developed world are immeasurably better off than they were. Much better off in fact than the characters depicted in either of the novels referred to above.

Even terrorism, such as that which erupted in Manchester at the start of the week, seems to be driven by nostalgia; a desire by misguided young men to return to a time when people were cowed into obedience to a god who required them to deny their natures, when women knew their place as the chattels of men and those who dared to resist were subjected to humiliating punishments.

The truth is that you can not turn back the clock. The past was never as rosy as it is sometimes painted and was often a dark place where evil reigned supreme.

Vast numbers of people are far better off than their ancestors. Much of the prosperity we enjoy has been bought by mortgaging our future, by much greater environmental damage than either Richard Llewellyn or Alexander Cordell could ever have imagined. By all means let us learn from the mistakes of the past, but let’s stop looking back and remember that the future belongs to our children.

Saturday Sound-Off: Evading Justice

Two items on last night’s news caught my eye: The escalating cost of policing the Ecuadorian embassy whilst Julian Assange holes up there like a cowardly rat, and the fact a bunch of incompetent coppers has been given time to consider their answers to questions from the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

In the first case, a man accused of rape has managed to evade trial by seeking ‘asylum’ in the embassy. He protests his innocence and blames Swedish, British and European law enforcers for his ‘imprisonment’, saying he can neither forgive nor forget the fact that ‘they’ have kept him apart form his children. The Metropolitan Police have mounted a guard at the embassy at a cost of more than £10,000 per day.

Rape is notoriously one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute successfully, requiring the subjection of the victim to humiliating scrutiny of her personal lifestyle choices. If this man truly is innocent then the proper course is for him to defend himself in a Swedish court.

Whilst the founder of Wikileaks was availing himself of the comforts of life in a Knightsbridge apartment block, sustained by food parcels delivered from Harrods, just around the corner, by ‘celebrity’ friends, a forty year old British man occupied himself by luring young gay men to his home where he drugged and murdered them, dumping their bodies in a nearby churchyard.

Police repeatedly failed to join the dots, making the assumption that these were unrelated instances of suicide. Ever since Stephen Port’s conviction six month ago, his victims’ families have been waiting for an explanation. The IPCC has provided the officers accused of incompetence with “more than 7,000 pages” of “pre-interview disclosure”.

In what other circumstance would an accused person be granted not a few hours or days, but several weeks to respond to interview questions? The families’ legal representative has pointed out that “the longer this drags on, the greater the chance of evidence being lost or forgotten.” To which a cynic might add that the longer it drags on the easier it will be to hide the truth.

Sources: BBC and Guardian.

The village of generals

Throughout history Irish men have fought for and against Britain and for her enemies. In the eighteenth century Catholics were not permitted to join the British army so they fought instead for France, Spain, Portugal and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Here are three vary different stories about Irish military men from the same small part of County Longford.


To outsiders, the village of Ballinalee, in Co Longford, might seem like no great shakes, just a bump in the road, a blink-and-you-miss-it spot that you’re through before you even notice. Were they to consult a map of the county, the seemingly inconsequential dot called Ballinalee might be ignored in favour of grander spots, like Longford town, Ballymahon, Granard or the pretty heritage town of Ardagh.

But that would be a mistake because lovers of history will find pure gold in its environs. For starters, it is the site of Ireland’s first convent – the remains of which are still visible – but that’s not what gets the juices flowing. No, the real interest lies elsewhere. Put it this way, how many tiny villages do you know that can claim two generals to their credit, and another military hero born just a five-minute drive away?

That third one, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir…

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There’s An Indie Publishing Gold Rush, And Guess Who’s Making A Killing?

A great post from Irish writer Tara Sparliing.. I hope nobody reading this blog thinks it’s easy to get rich from writing, or stoops so low as to try to make money off the backs of aspiring authors.

Tara Sparling writes

There's A Gold Rush In Indie Publishing, And Guess Who's Making A Killing Pulling The Plug On My Pride

One of the basic tenets of my early childhood education – mostly in the schoolyard rather than the classroom, if truth be told – was that “self-praise is no praise”. These words were particularly powerful where I came from, but it’s really a general Irish thing. Boasting is second only in social torts to not buying your round in the pub. Both are punishable by flogging, ostracization, and eventual death. Fact.

But the internet is a perilous place. It’s full of braggarts, self-aggrandisement, and general preening and strutting. It becomes infectious. One minute you’re sneering at someone’s humblebrag, the next you find yourself telling the world how SURPRISED you were that some YouTube star liked the photo you put up of the dinner you said took you 25 minutes to prepare, when in reality you spent three hours on it.

I Should Have Known Better

So there I was last Sunday week, merrily congratulating myself, telling myself I’d just had a GENIUS…

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Saturday Sound-off: Inter-generational theft is not the issue

About five years ago I wrote a review of a book called “The Candy Store Generation” in which its author had argued that everything that was wrong with the USA at the time was the fault of the Baby Boomer generation. A British politician had started the fashion for blaming the elderly in a much more widely read book (The Pinch, by David Willetts, pub. Atlantic, 2011). Now a new book gaining a lot of publicity in the USA is making similar arguments. Meanwhile in the UK one of the issues already being talked about in the General Election campaign is the so-called ‘triple lock’ on pensions. For the benefit of those not familiar with this particular device, what it means is that the basic state pension is guaranteed to increase in line with the higher of wages, prices or 2.5%.

There is a term that has been coined to describe the supposed phenomenon whereby the old take a greater share of a nation’s resources than do the young: inter-generational theft.

You can read my review of David Todd’s book here, and his review of the new American book here. For the purpose of this article I intend to restrict my comments to the situation of UK pensioners – after all, I am one – and to a refutation of the underlying notion of inter-generational theft.

A segment about the triple lock on BBC news the other evening explained that, whereas in the past senior citizen incomes were substantially below average earnings, they are now slightly ahead. (You can see a graph of this alongside this BBC article). Some have used this fact to argue that the ‘double lock’ – linking pensions to cost of living or wages – is adequate and that 2.5% is an unnecessary additional burden on the exchequer. On the face of it, and bearing in mind the other ‘perks’ that senior citizens receive, from winter heating allowance to free TV licenses and subsidised public transport, it is a compelling argument.

At a time when the crisis in social care in the UK means that some old people are occupying hospital beds and resources when they could be cared for at home, why not eliminate the 2.5% guarantee and use the money to provide more home care, or care home places?

The use of averages for this comparison is, as is often the case, misleading. The figure for ‘average pensioner incomes’ includes many for whom the state pension is only a small part of their total income because they have private pensions and investments. For them the 2.5% guarantee is virtually meaningless. However, there remains a significant degree of pensioner poverty in the UK. As one of those fortunate to have a private pension, I can well see that anyone who has to rely solely upon the state pension must find it extremely difficult to make ends meet. For such people the little extra that the 2.5% represents is important.

At the same time I can understand how the young, faced with student loans, low wages and the high cost of housing, might resent the fact that some older people seem to lead a feather-bedded existence.

My contention, however, remains the same as when I reviewed Todd’s book: it is as wrong to pit one generation against another as it is to blame a particular ethnic group or nationality for all that is wrong with the world. (See my article about the dangers of scapegoating here). Every generation has its share of people who prefer scamming the system to working; every generation has a few who use their power and influence to screw over everyone else. And, yes, there are more people with power and influence among the old than among the young. But whilst taking from the rich to give to the poor is a good idea, taking from every old person to give to the young is not.

Ireland’s Civil War – when truth was stranger than fiction… | historywithatwist

A new book on the way about the Irish civil war, a brief but bloody affair that followed the signing of the treaty that created the Republic from 26 of the island’s 32 counties.


Source: Ireland’s Civil War – when truth was stranger than fiction… | historywithatwist

Michael Collins makes for an easy hero – good-looking, vibrant, devil-may-care, intelligent, ruthless, brilliant, passionate, loyal… what’s not to love? But he was petulant, too, and careless, and unpredictable and argumentative and arrogant and single-minded. It’s why he appeals to so many people – he’s loved for his flaws as much as his finer traits.

When Collins was buried in 1922 following his fatal ambush at Beal na mBlath, friend and foe wept. And in his dying – gun in hand and bullets whizzing past – the legend that had mushroomed during the War of Independence, was cemented for eternity.


Michael Collins

The bane of the British Empire fell in full bloom, which was a tragedy but also a blessing for those who like to wear their spectacles rose-tinted. He died so young that there was little…

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Saturday Sound Off: Double Standards in Foreign Affairs

Am I alone in being cynical about the reaction throughout the West to the chemical attack in Syria earlier this week? In the context of six years of atrocities, of tens of thousands of deaths and many more mutilations, of millions driven from their homes, what makes is this particular act more reprehensible than a thousand others?

We – the Western powers, the ‘good guys’ – maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons which we are prepared to use if threatened. We permit certain other nations to do the same whilst imposing sanctions intended to prevent their acquisition by nations we fear. And we have trade deals worth $billions with Saudi Arabia, including the sale and maintenance of state-of-the-art weapon systems despite what that nation is doing to its neighbour, Yemen.

Is the plight of children starving in Yemen because the Saudis refuse to allow food aid to be delivered any less deplorable than that of the victims of chemical warfare in Syria? Or those being used as human shields in Mosul? Both conflicts now driven from our television screens by this latest Syrian atrocity.

The Middle East is a mess. It has been so for as long as I can remember. Every time one or other of the more powerful nations of the world, including the ‘good guys’, has intervened it has made things worse. Shelling an airfield might make Trump and his supporters feel good. I doubt it will make any difference to the lives of children in any Arab land.

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