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Saturday Sound-off: Weak, Unstable and Disunited

Once again Britain has shown itself to have become a divided society. Polarised between young and old, between those who see the advantages of being a part of the European Union and those who don’t, between those who believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and those who think the state should provide for all their basic needs. Long gone are the days when Labour and Conservative parties did well to achieve much above 30% of the vote, with the middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrats snapping at their heels with a vote share above 20% and ‘New Labour’ adopting many of their policies.

Mrs May gambled and failed to win. But nor did she lose, still receiving the greatest share of the votes cast and the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. She wanted “strong and stable”, a majority large enough to overcome what she saw as the flakiness of those of her colleagues who were less committed to her vision of post-brexit Britain. She hoped for a resounding endorsement of that vision from those she described as ordinary people “just about managing”. Now it is she who is just about managing to hold onto the vision. She now hopes to continue just abut managing for the next five years. That shows a degree of optimism verging on the arrogant.

Warning Signals

The people she will be relying upon to sustain the vision, the DUP, certainly share some of that vision. But already there are warning signals. Thursday’s result for the Tory’s was achieved in large part because of the success of their campaign in Scotland, masterminded by an openly gay woman, who is engaged to a catholic Irish woman. The fiercely protestant DUP have resolutely fought to maintain Northern Ireland as the only part of the British Islands in which same sex marriage is still not permitted.

It could be argued that the DUP are responsible for the breakdown of the power sharing arrangement under which Northern Ireland has been governed for since December 1999. The refusal of their new leader to step down whilst an enquiry takes place into the failings of an alternative energy project over seen by her when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was the catalyst for the initial breakdown. Talks aimed at restoring the agreement have failed to reach a conclusion with the two parties to the agreement, the DUP and Sinn Fein, at loggerheads.

What this means for the rest of the UK over the coming months which will inevitably be dominated by the Brexit negotiations is hard to predict. The DUP oppose a so-called hard Brexit. Moreover, if, as seems to be the case, Thursday’s result was driven by an increase in the number of young people taking part when it is also true that young people are more disposed to remain in the EU, then it is reasonable to argue it represented a softening of opinion on membership of the single market. So, too, did the collapse of support for UKIP.

To many outsiders it seems as though May has spent most of her tenure as Prime Minister trying to put off a decision about how to approach the negotiations. She apparently made her decision to call the election whilst climbing a mountain in Wales. She still has a much more important mountain to climb. The election has not made that climb any easier for her.

Saturday Sound-off: More Generational Theft

When I last tackled this subject I was focusing on the narrowing gap between earnings and pensions in the UK. I concluded that it was not something to get over excited about. There are, however, other more serious forms of generational theft, as one of my commenters on that post reminded me. Two of them came to attention this week.

My generation and that of my son have, by our excess consumption, created a world in which our grand children and their children will be faced by enormous difficulties. Resource and commodity shortages are already responsible for wars which will inevitably continue and become more widespread as time goes on. Whilst many of our rivers are less polluted than they were a generation ago, this is largely down to the demise of mining and heavy industries in Western Europe and North America. The imposition of levies on the sale of plastic bags and exhortations to recycle paper, plastic and metal have yet to have a significant impact on the tonnage of such waste cluttering our seas.


Image from

Driving around the Irish countryside over the past few days is to see monster machines engaged in the harvesting of grass for silage and the subsequent spreading of slurry on the fields. The unsavoury odours that greet you as you encounter such activities are evidence of agriculture’s contribution to global warming gases. The potential for pollution of water courses by the application of fertilisers is supposedly limited by strict controls on the timing of such applications. Controls which, incidentally, will no longer apply in the UK once her exit from the EU is achieved, one of many rules and regulations which will need to be re-incorporated into UK laws if the farming lobby can be placated.

Which brings me to Donald Trump’s unsurprising decision to withdraw the USA from the Paris Agreement. This is surely a measure aimed at an older generation of US citizens nostalgic for the return of mining and heavy industry. Of course, those jobs are unlikely to return. But we will see an increase in the highly polluting activity of fracking and a continuation of the long distance transport of oil with the concomitant dangers of pipeline leakage, rail car derailments and sea borne tanker groundings.

Election 2017

The second example of inter-generational conflict was exemplified by a programme on the BBC earlier in the week, in which two groups of people were brought together to discuss issues pertinent to the UK general election. One group consisted of under 30s, the other of over 60s. One contribution in particular caught my attention. An elderly gentleman in the audience pointed out that not only did he have free university tuition but he also received a maintenance grant. Once his education was completed he was able to purchase a house costing around three times his salary. Today’s UK graduates not only leave university burdened with debt, they will be lucky to find a house costing less than ten times what they are able to earn.

It struck me that no-one mentioned the fact that the elderly gent was one of fewer than 10% of youngsters who went to university in those days, whilst the majority learned on the job and studied for a professional qualification in their ‘spare’ time. Now we push close to 50% into academia.

I couldn’t help wondering if policy makers had focused more on building homes and less on university campuses might we be less likely to be facing a housing shortage? If the same policy makers had encouraged practical skills instead of academic achievement might we be less reliant on immigrant labour? And if parents had been left to get on with the business of raising children instead of packing them off to be cared for by people with sociology degrees so that both parents could go out to work, might we have fewer disaffected young people?

I’ve known for a long time that my generation, the one that reached adulthood in the sixties, was the lucky generation. I am now coming to realise that we and our children are guilty of taking far too many of the planet’s resources and putting back little of real value.

Two Writers Share Their Wisdom

Writer’s Week at Listowel provides an opportunity to learn from some of the most successful names in the business. There are workshops on various aspects of the craft, this year including song writing. And then there are readings and discussion sessions with various authors. In this post I hope to share some of the wisdom I gained yesterday from Emma Donoghue and Colm Toibin.

Donoghue answered questions from her audience and, afterwards, signed copies of her books. Her latest novel, “The Wonder”, was on sale at a special discount price, thanks to Easons and The Irish Times.

She talked about research and how it is the absence of information that presents the writer of historical fiction with the opportunity to use her imagination to make things up. “The Sealed Letter” is about a real divorce trial in which the legal representatives kept referring to the contents of a sealed envelope but the actual contents were never revealed. Thus she was able to invent what it might have been. She used the same context to explain that she always tries to avoid painting her villains as all bad. Whilst her sympathy at the start of the project was very much with the wife, the more she got to know about the husband and his background, especially the mores of the time which prevented men from showing emotion, the more she came to care for him, too.

Her research often involves her children, as in when she wrapped her son in an old rug to see how the escape method she’d devised for Ma and Jack in “Room” would work. Now that she has started writing for children she regularly bounces ideas off them.


Inevitably a lot of questions concerned the filming of “Room” and the extent of her involvement with the process. She said that she had been determined not to give up the film rights to the Hollywood machine. She had several offers that she turned down until Lenny Abrahamson approached her with a ten page treatment which she liked. She was able to work with him and his team on the basis of trust, taking the project to an advanced stage before signing the final contract. She was full of admiration for the dedication of the team and the detail that went into the design of sets and costumes. She added that the process of translating the story from written word to film was illuminating, particularly in the way that cinematic techniques can often make dialogue superfluous.

Killing Clytemnestra

Toibin read several long extracts from “House of Names”, linked with brief outlines of the story. His reading voice made the most of the lyric quality of his writing. In answers to questions he described the process of writing the scenes of violence in the novel as extremely harrowing. He wrote the murder of Clytemnestra in a single ‘take’ and did not attempt a re-draft. He wrote outside and on his return to the house a friend was concerned that he looked so drained. “I’ve just killed Clytemnestra,” he explained.

He said that he could see parallels between Greek myths and Irish legends, especially that of “The Children of Lyr”, not least the significance of swans in both traditions. But he deliberately concentrated on the characters, avoiding suggestions of intercession from the spirit world or the gods.

Answering a question about “The Testament of Mary”, Toibin said he had been influenced by the prominent place of Mary in Irish Catholicism, alongside the fact that she is only ever in the background in the gospels. He wondered what she would say if she were allowed to do so. He wrote it more or less in a single uninterrupted session and kept it short enough to be read also in a single sitting.

His advice to young writers: never leave anything unfinished. As someone with several incomplete projects on my hard drive, I found that personally hard to take!

Donoghue, incidentally, stated that she always has several projects on the go at various stages of development, not that any of hers are likely to remain unfinished for long!

Random thoughts from Listowel Writers’ Week opening night

Richard Ford, in his opening speech, spoke about second acts – the writer’s desire to improve on his first work. Ford has just completed his 12th ‘second act’ (his 13th novel). He claims that he advises students who want to write to try their hardest to talk themselves out of it. He gives the same advice to those planning to marry.

There were awards galore, many of them for young writers from county Kerry. A life time achievement award was presented to the poet Brendan Kennelly by Colm Toibin. The award is named after Listowel born writer John.B Keane and Kennelly regaled us with anecdotes about the late playwright and novelist whom he knew and admired. Apparently Keane was persuaded by his wife to give up alcohol. After six weeks she persuaded him to start drinking again – he was insufferable. This struck me as a very Irish writer’s foible.

Kennelly went on to read from Keane’s work, to sing one of the songs from Keane’s play ‘Sive’ and to recite his own poem ‘Begin‘ which he claimed came to him when he regained consciousness after heart by-pass surgery. It is a poem full of hope in this troubled world.

The major award of the evening was for the Kerry Group Irish Book of the Year. This went to Kit De Waal for ‘My Name is Leon’. Also short listed for this award was Emma Donoghue who will be answering questions about her writing life later this morning. I’m looking forward to that and to meeting Colm Toibin later in the day.

The night concluded with a stunning performance by young Irish poet Stephen Murphy.

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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