Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Happy Christmas

I doubt I will be blogging any more over the Christmas and New Year period, so I would like to wish all my readers a happy Christmas! And a happy New Year, too, although I deeply resent the fact that people begin wishing each other a happy New Year from St. Stephens's Day, when Christmas is still far from over).

I really appreciate all the people who've read, commented and made kind remarks in the past year. I greatly enjoy writing this blog and I'm doubly delighted that people read it.

Thank you, and happy Christmas!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Peter Hitchens is Right: There is No "Silent Majority"

This is how he puts it.

It's probably time to discard phrases like "the liberal elite" or "the common man". The mass brainwashing of the public has now been conducted so assiduously, so determinedly, and so successfully, that there is no longer some kind of submerged population who have remained immune to it-- no "simple folk", no "plain people of Ireland", no "salt of the earth" who remain more or less untouched by the sexual and moral and intellectual perversions of our day.

There are only solitary souls here and there, or perhaps families. Even the afterglow of Christian civilization is fading around us.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree by Eleanor Estes

Books that you read in childhood tend to live in your memory. Anthropologists may scoff at the old idea that we re-enact the stages of civilization in our own life (and they are doubtless right to do so), but sometimes I think there is an element of truth to this idea. Certainly, when I read about the almost superstitious respect for the written word that most pre-modern people held in common, it reminds me of my own childhood attitude towards books and writing. Anything in type was a fit subject for awe, when I was a child. Consequently I came to every book, article, advertisement and flyer with a receptiveness that I wish I could recapture in my adult life. C.S. Lewis's formula for reading-- "shut your mouth, open your ears and eyes"-- was something I then followed without thinking about it.

Even the titles of books filled me with awe. They were like the names of distant lands. I can still remember my brother describing a book about a Jewish refugee, which was entitled A Boy Called David. The title seemed to drip meaning, pathos, and promise. I can also remember-- and this was into my teens-- being given a list of suggested reading in secondary school. I remember the glamour that hung over the list of titles. One title that always stuck in my head was A Pair of Jesus Boots. I've never read either of those books, and I doubt I ever will, but I still savour the titles.

I think I felt-- on some deep level-- that if books could have a profound meaning, it meant life could have a profound meaning, too.

I remember the wonder with which I approached poetry lessons in school-- my amazement and delight in the idea that you could actually analyze lines of poetry, that you could take poetry as seriously as work or shopping or politics. I remember especially one poem-- the first poem we studied in second year, and a kind of ice-breaker-- by Prunella Power, called "First Day at Boarding School". It wasn't especially good but of course my imagination seized upon it. The line that remains in my memory (referring to the other girls at the boarding school to which a new girl is sent) is:

What did they comprehend
Of Africa's space and silence?

Whenever I want to excite myself about reading poetry, I think of the words "Africa's space and silence", which-- because of the memory they trigger-- do the trick better than lines that are far, far superior.

One of the books that had quite an effect on me as a kid-- and I can't remember how old I was when I read it-- was The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree by Eleanor Estes. It's a short book, easily read a in day even by a slow reader like me. I read it again today, considering it is seasonal. I don't have my original copy, but I bought it again online last year.

My little brother remembered it, too, and he agreed with me about its most salient feature-- it's a curiously melancholy book. It captures, in an almost uncanny way, the mingled excitement and disappointment of childhood-- and, even more than that, its extraordinary rawness.

But it's not a gritty book, or an account of a deprived childhood. It's the story of Marianna, a ten-year-old girl who desperately wants a Christmas tree. Her mother, however, is a contrarian who refuses to be like every "Tom, Dick and Harry". Marianna and her brother Kenny-- who is one year older-- drag home various abandoned Christmas trees (left by college students going home for the holidays) in the hope that they can change their mother's mind. Their mother, however, is having none of it.

The slim story also describes Marianna's friendship with Allie McKaye, a classmate who lives on a barge and is deeply embarrassed and secretive about it. More than anything else, Allie wants to live in a house like every other little girl. More than anything else, Marianna wants to have a Christmas tree like every other little girl.

This obviously gives the story some emotional heft to almost every reader. Who doesn't remember, as a child, yearning to be like everybody else in one way or another?

The most extraordinary thing about this book is its atmosphere. It takes me back to the tempo of childhood-- the expectancy, the uncertainty, the ambivalence of it all. Children spend their lives watching and wondering and guessing. Everything seems to happen with agonising slowness. And if that makes the book sound rather depressing, that would be an unfair impression to give. It also does justice to childhood's excitement, generosity and wonderment.

One thing I especially love is its description of the last day before school, instantly recognisable to schoolchildren everywhere:

"The minute anyone opened the door at P.S. 9 he would know it was Christmas. Smell of pine, sound of carols being rehearsed, pictures on the windowpanes of Santa Claus, wreaths, houses brightly lighted, and angels, children talking out loud and laughing, no one saying 'Be quiet'."

One of the many reasons I'm grateful to work in a university library is that the last day before the Christmas holidays retains an echo of that last-schoolday-before-Christmas atmosphere. Unfortunatey, it only seems a matter of time before the Christmas holidays themselves are whittled away-- down with evil public sector workers!

The portrait of the children's mother is well-done. She never seems to be entirely listening to her kids, preoccupied instead with the newborn baby and the possibility of a letter from her husband who is away on a work trip. She seems entirely oblivious to the cruelty of her ban on Christmas trees. And yet, Estes manages to quite skillfully convey that she is not a negligent or uncaring mother. The book very effectively reminds me of my childhood impression of adults-- beings who could never get excited about anything because they were always too worried about washing, groceries, work or other evils.

Perhaps the most brilliant stroke in the entire book, and the passage that impressed me most even as a child, was this one:

"I'm glad my name is Marianna. Who'm I named after?"

"Your grandmother. That is-- my mother. She died when I was a baby. On Christmas Eve."

"Christmas Eve" said Marianna again. She stood stock still, stunned as though she had had a terrible blow to her head. She looked at her mother as though she saw her for the first time...

Suddenly she felt she didn't know her mother at all. She felt the way she had once when, not expecting to see her, she came upon her in the museum the day Marianna's class was visiting. That time she had had this same funny feeling of knowing, yet not knowing her mother. Her heart had pounded. She didn't want to speak to her. She had pretended she had not seen her. She was awfully familiar and awfully strange at the same time..just like now, when Marianna had learned for the first time that her mother had died on Christmas Eve."

Wow! That knocked me over as a kid. I knew exactly the frame of mind that the author was describing.

The story has a happy ending (which you can pretty much guess from the title). Or has it? As a child, I thought it was a straightforwardly happy ending. Even last year, when I read it again for the first time as an adult, I thought it was. Only this year did I notice a haunting note of ambiguity in the final line:

Because...a coat-hanger Christmas tree is a Christmas tree, isn't it?

The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree is a work of psychological realism for children. Now, I certainly don't think that most books for children should be of this order. Most books for children should be gripping tales full of marvels, like the stories of Roald Dahl, or the utterly wonderful Harry Potter series. In fact, the best children's books are of this kind.

But I certainly think that a work like The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree might stir something slightly different in the hearts of older children, and of adults.

I Just Heard a Lady on the Radio...

...saying that she loves her Kindle but that it doesn't replace books. If she likes a book enough on Kindle, she buys the paper copy.

It seems to me that this is quibbling over the word "replace". Kindles (or e-readers, I suppose I should so) may not make books obsolete but it seems to me inevitable that they will replace some books, or even many books, or even most books. What also seems inevitable to me is that only famous or best-selling books will be easily available in paper, while most-- and the most interesting and eccentric ones, much of the time-- will be relegated to cyberspace.

We constantly hear the analogy that, when TV became a popular medium, people fretted that it would be the death of cinema. Well, it wasn't the death of cinema, but it was certainly the death of cinema as it had existed until then. There were fifty-six cinemas in Dublin in 1956 (it says here). Today I doubt there are even twenty. Admittedly, the cinemas in the fifties would have been single-screen cinemas, and the cinemas today are mostly multiplex. But, on the other hand, Dublin was about half the size it is now in 1956.

I will never read an e-book. I'm resolved.

On Leaving Facebook

Several months ago-- more than six months ago already, I think-- I deleted my Facebook account. (I would write that I permanently deleted my Facebook account, but I imagine that would simply betray my naivety.) Since then, my life has been one long holiday of blissful relaxation.

OK, that's overstating the case more than a little. But the truth is that, even now, I sometimes find myself actively enjoying my absence from Facebook. It feels a little bit like being invisible, and perhaps rather more like lying on a desert island with all your favourite books conveniently washed up with you.

I no longer have to get worked up about provocative comments being posted about the Catholic Church, or the nature of marriage, or the purpose of art and entertainment, or the innocence of childhood, or whether fairy tales can or should be "updated", or the desirability of a society based around the motor-car.

All that-- and more (much much much more) is raging in the cyber-seas of Facebook right now. But I am deliciously, gloriously, serenely immune to it all.

Why would someone who loves the idea of debate so much be so relieved at this?

Well, because I don't think the debates that happen on Facebook are debates at all-- not in any serious sense of the term. It's not just that the combatants already have their minds made up and are unlikely to change them. This is true of pretty much all debates anyway.

It's that the medium makes civilized debate impossible. For me, what is really required to have a proper debate-- a debate where something of value occurs, even if the value only comes in the urbane pleasure taken in the debate-- is leisure.

This means that the parties need time to form and express their arguments. It also helps raise the thing to a higher level if they have time, not only to express their arguments, but to do so with some finesse. A debate that is ruthlessly focused upon the points at issue and that has no time for asides, anecdotes, humour, gracious tributes to one's opponent, and so forth, is barely a debate at all.

A debate should either be conducted face-to-face-- with both participants sharing the same time and space, rather than hollering at each other across timezones or at irregular intervals-- or else should be the opposite pole entirely, a debate in which there is no pressure of time and space, in which participants can reply to each other at book length and after years of rumination.

Facebook, alas, is the worst of all worlds for debate. Aside from the above considerations, there is the bane of hypertext.

I don't like hypertext. I try to use it sparingly in this blog. I prize the integrity of a piece of prose. Books, and written texts in general, have always seemed like a shelter or a refuge to me. There is something inestimably cosy about print, and type, and written words. When you read, you are in a private world; a world bound between two covers. It is your own little sanctuary. Though it can take you on an imaginative journey to ancient Egypt or the microscopic world of DNA or alien civilizations, you still remain snugly ensconsed in the text. (As I write this, I have a picture of myself walking around the schoolyard while reading 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke.)

Admittedly, writing on the internet is not a book or a magazine. But I see no reason why it shouldn't seek to emulate the printed page. And perhaps I am not the only internet user who feels an unpleasant sense of disorientation when, working my way down a page of text, I suddenly find that I have to click into a totally different page to follow the argument. It is like a pit opening in front of you. Nor do you have any idea whether you are required to read a fifty word thesis or a five thousand word dissertation.

So, this is another reason for my dislike of Facebook debates; the constant dragging-in of second-hand material. In a face-to-face debate, someone might say: "You should read The Peril of Subliminal Messages by P.Z. Vermillion. What Vermillion says is..." On Facebook, there is simply a link to the homepage of P.Z. Vermillion, with its dozens of articles, each one containing thousands of words.

Then there is the acrimony of Facebook debates. All debates are in danger of becoming heated, and face-to-face debates can often become uncomfortably bitter, but Facebook seems especially prone to this-- even more so than the internet in general. It's funny that this should be so, since Facebook is not anonymous, and the discussion is supposedly conducted between "friends" (or, at least, friends of friends).

Finally, when it comes to Facebook debates, there is the phenomenon of the long-winded winner. The person who "wins" the debate is simply the one who is willing and able to keep going after everybody else has been worn down.

Of course, Facebook isn't just about debates. It is also about stupid jokes, reproduction of other peoples' witticisms, photographs of cats, photographs of cats doing "funny" things, subtle displays of one upmanship (look at all the parties I go to!), a preoccupation with pop culture and celebrity news, and friend requests from people you knew twenty years ago and who you're not especially keen to be in touch with again.

Then again, I was my own worst enemy. When I was on Facebook I would post several times a day. I liked to think it was because I had so much to say, and found so much to remark upon in my peregrinations around the city. Doubtless the truth was less flattering.

Of course, it's impossible to fully escape from Facebook. Even if you find yourself in a properly social situation, like a party or a dinner, it's a very high likelihood that the conversation will turn towards what Jenny posted on her account, and soon the i-phones will come out and you will wonder whether the virtual world is a shadow of the real world or vice versa. Or you will find yourself posing for photographs which are destined for Facebook, and whose appearance online will mean that the event has "really" happened.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Don't Feed the Frenzy

Once more, horrific news of a shooting has shocked the world, and once more the media is giving it saturation coverage, combing over all the sickening details and speculating over all the mysteries.

Don't get sucked in. Turn off the television. Turn off the radio. At least, change the channel to one that isn't featuring the story at that moment.

At the end of the day, we can't blame the media. We can only blame ourselves. If the public didn't want it, the media wouldn't dish it out. If the public decided that, once the basic facts have been reported, no public interest is served by a remorseless spotlight being shone on private grief, or by maximum publicity being given to a madman who then becomes a role model for other unbalanced individuals, then the media would soon come into line.

Don't watch. Don't read it. Don't listen to it. Don't play along.

How Can Anyone Continue to Doubt...

...that the real concern of the Irish Labour Party is not poverty or social justice but the advancement of the liberal agenda?

They've come a long way since the time they were described as "the political wing of the St. Vincent de Paul".

"Mr Gilmore said the key issue for Labour was whether the party should be in Government or outside it in Opposition. “I believe we should be in Government to shape the future in accordance with the principles of the Labour Party,” he said in an interview last night."

Translation: Who cares about social welfare when we are this close to introducing abortion?

(If the "key issue" in politics is whether you are in power or in opposition, then the logical thing to do is to decide your policies through market research.)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

John Waters Talk Sponsored by the Iona Institute

As I've mentioned in the post below, last night I attended a talk by the Irish newspaper columnist and author John Waters, held in the Davenport Hotel in Dublin. John Waters began as a rock journalist in the eighties and then (I hope I am getting this right) branched out into cultural and social commentary. He has been willing to take on unfashionable causes, like the rights of fathers. In more recent years, he has gone even further and actually dared to warn Irish society against turning away from the transcendent and the Absolute. He described his spiritual journey in the book Lapsed Agnostic, (a priest in UCD recently drew on this book for his homily).

John Waters has also been highly critical of the internet and of bloggers-- both very sensible positions to take, in my view.

I thoroughly enjoyed the talk, despite being seated to the speaker's left and developing a sore neck towards the end. Mr. Waters recapitulated many of the ideas he has explored in his books and articles, but I think he went a little deeper into some of the ideas.

I was surprised that he spoke so fluently and so eagerly (David Quinn, the chairman, struggled to get him to wind up), since in his book Lapsed Agnostic he confessed that speaking in public terrified him. Maybe he's over that.

Amusingly, a Skeptic's society was having a meeting in the conference room next door. Mr. Waters, beginning his talk, said, "Maybe we're the real sceptics". This wasn't simply a swipe, but was close to being the very theme of his talk-- reflected in the fact that, in his closing remarks, he adverted to it again.

The title of the talk was "Ireland and the Abolition of God". Put crudely, Waters believes that God has been demoted to a kind of minority interest in Ireland. It is permissible to talk about Him in church, or in a religious education class (maybe), or perhaps in a philosophy seminar, but He is no longer a presence in everyday life or in everyday conversation. Mr. Waters returned again and again to the hypothetical scenario of somebody listening to the radio and watching television, non-stop, from seven a.m. to midnight or beyond. His point is that such a person would be presented with a picture of human life in which nothing was offered us except our roles as worker, commuter, student, consumer, and so forth. The human yearning for the transcendent, for the infinite, for mystery, is ignored.

Taking a phrase from the current Pope, Mr. Waters calls this prison of man's self-created reality-- a reality that is empirical, utilitarian, positivistic, and serves to block us from the wonder and fear and wildness of ultimate reality-- "the bunker". He insisted that our task today is "to make the bunker visible", a phrase he repeated again and again.

In a previous post, I complained that Mr. Waters was becoming tedious in his overuse of the bunker metaphor. I see now that this constant repetition is not accidental. Mr. Waters is trying to din this concept of the bunker into the Irish public, and he is right to do so.

What is truly refreshing and remarkable about Mr. Waters is the approach he takes to faith and spirituality. He is not in revolt against the modern world. He is not a nostalgist. He is not a reactionary. And he very consciously strives to escape the ghetto mentality that can close around a religious believer in today's Western society-- especially, indeed, in today's Ireland.

He spoke about the assumption, shared today by both anti-religious and religious people, that belief in God is a mere legacy, a relic. Very interestingly, he pointed out that this sense of preserving an historical trust against modern attacks can make religious believers more fervent and dedicated. However, this spirit of a rearguard action is ultimately limiting. Religious believers, given this assumption, are always on the backfoot, always on the defensive, always half-acquiescing in the idea that we are an anachronism.

Mr. Waters seemed to be saying that religious belief, an orientation towards the ultimate and absolute and transcendent, should not be seen primarily as a legacy from the past, but as a proper reaction to the wonder and awe and mystery of the world around us. The advance of science is so often seen to be hostile to religion, but Mr. Waters made the point that those on the cutting edge of scientific discovery often feel a particular sense of exposure to this primordial mystery. (I didn't know tha the last thing Buzz Aldrin did before stepping onto the moon was to take communion, though I did know that Neil Armstrong's reaction to the experience was intensely spiritual.)

It was also interesting that Mr. Waters evoked the size of the universe-- indeed, the size of the possible multiverse-- as another source of awe and wonder leading him towards an awareness of God. The size of the universe is so often used as an argument against the existence of God, it is important to be reminded that there is no good reason why this should be so-- no good reason why the opposite should not be the case.

Indeed, at one point Mr. Waters threw all caution and convention overboard and suggested that human evolution itself-- that trump card of the New Atheists, and indeed of the old atheists-- was such an unlikely and marvellous occurence that it, too, led us to the contemplation of a Divine Being.

Mr. Waters also had some extremely pertinent things to say about public discussion in Ireland. He seems shocked-- and indeed, he should be shocked, and we should all be shocked-- in the way in which all serious reference to God has been dropped from public debate. As he put it, it has happened in five years, at the least, and twenty-five years at most. It is as though there has been some kind of tacit agreement that mankind's profoundest and greatest and most consequential idea-- the idea of God-- is obsolete. It is as though some scientific finding or philosophical breakthrough or advance in human consciousness had disproved Him-- but, of course, no such thing has happened.

In this regard, I always find myself thinking of a moment in my favourite film, Groundhog Day, when Bill Murray says: "Well, maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe He's not omnipotent at all, He's just been around so long that he knows everything." I love that incidental acknowledgment of God's existence, in a conversation that is far from being pious or theological. Some people might say that it is good for us to always have to defend this thesis, that it exercises both our reason and our faith to always have to assert our belief in a Deity, to live in a world where that assumption no longer applies. But why is it better for the opposite assumption to hold? Why is that any less unthinking and complacent?

Considering that the speaker made such efforts to avoid a mere tribalistic or clannish Catholicism, it was rather disappointing that the atmosphere at the talk was both clannish and tribalistic. Perhaps this is inevitable at any meeting of like-minded people. But I winced a little every time Mr. Waters made a joke at the expense of secularists or atheists that was met with loud and rather artificial guffaws.

As should be obvious, I was greatly impressed by John Waters, and especially by the fact that he had arrived at religious faith from such an existentialist or philosophical or imaginative route. I think that a story such as his own is a powerful witness that religious belief is not simply inherited like freckles, or an irrational and defensive reaction to a scary and rapidly-changing world.

And yet, and yet...for all my admiration of the route he has taken, and the witness he bears, I still can't help thinking that the sight of a woman saying a rosary on the bus is an even more powerful witness.

In other words, I do not think we should be too dismissive of rote-learned, breast-beating, Miraculous-Medal-wearing, metaphysically naive, candle-lighting Catholicism, either. I think we need that sort of example, just as we need the example of a free spirit and enquiring mind like that of John Waters.

Why Breda O'Brien is Still a Columnist

I can see what search terms lead people to my blog, and today I saw that someone got here by typing this question into a search engine: "Why is Breda O'Brien still a columnist?".

Well, because she is a fine writer, most importantly, with lots of to say on important public issues. And also because she speaks for a lot of people out there, people who don't have much of a voice elsewhere in the media.

Thankfully, for all the many justified complaints about the Irish media, it has not quite reached the level of Pravda and the Volkischer Beobachter-- though I am sure there are plenty of people out there who would like to see certain voices silenced. As far as I can see, "liberalism" has become a long list of all the things you're not allowed to say and not allowed to do-- and all to protect freedom, of course.

Not Hugely Impressed by this Video from the Iona Institute

I can only hope they know what moves public opinion better than I do, but it seems patronising and simplistic.

Not that I'm knocking the Iona Institute. Yesterday I attended another of their excellent talks, this time given by John Waters. I half-expected that, since I have read his last three books and read so many of his articles, I would have heard it all before but he said some new things. I might post my impressions of the talk soon.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Deeply Depressing Letter in the Irish Independent Today... it here.

Basically the author, obviously responding to the current flag controversy in Belfast, is griping about the use of flags at all.

He writes: "We should all have our roots in rootlessness, and favour the invisible flag. Every time I see an apparently flagless flagpole, my eyes mist over and I feel a great sense of pride. I say to myself "hooray, they are flying my flag today!"

So much of the modern distate for everything solid, fertile and positive-- for the nation, for the family, for tradition, for gender roles, for social conventions, for minor inconveniences (like buying something in a shop rather than online), and (increasingly) for alcoholic drinks-- is illustrative of Oscar Wilde's very wise words: "A cynic is someone who knows the cost of everything, and the value of nothing."

Somebody has pointed out that "Imagine", the John Lennon song that has become the definitive anthem of protest, is an entirely negative vision. Imagine no possessions. Imagine there's no countries. Imagine there's no Heaven.

I always prefer people who can proclaim what they love and stand by, rather than what they hate and would like to see abolished.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

What Happened to Foil Christmas Garlands?

You know, the sort that you hang across walls and ceilings at Christmas time, and that open out like accordions?

For several years in a row now, I have only been able to find them in one shop within miles of my home-- that is, Euro Giant in the Northside Shopping Centre in Coolock.

There is a whole shop dedicated (pretty much) to Christmas decorations in the Omni centre in Santry and I couldn't find any there. Nor could I find any in the discount shop that had shelves of other Christmas decorations, in Tesco, or in any of the several other shops that sold Christmas decorations in the Omni Centre. And I knew there will be none in my local Ballymun Shopping Centre without even having to look (I've looked before).

Even looking at the other decorations available made me feel rather depressed. They are so itty bitty. Tiny little figures and baubles, plastic wreaths the size of onion rings, fibre-optic Christmas trees you could crush in your fist, and so on.

It's not that I think Christmas decorations should be big, necessarily. But they should be expansive.

Is the idea that people will have to buy more to fill up a room and a house? Surely not, since the Infallible Laws of the Market are meant to guarantee that, where there is a demand, there will be a supply, and surely there would be a supply of the old-fashioned foil garlands if people still wanted them?

Or is there some crazy idea abroad that Christmas decorations should be restrained, understated and sophisticated?

Yuk! Yuk! Yuk!

Come to think of it, I can go along with that idea if you are going to have purely religious ornaments. A crib, an Advent calender, a Jesse tree, an Advent candle-- that would be admirably refined and simple.

But, if you are going to have modern, secular ornaments as well, it seems inexcusable to me not to make Christmas a time of gaudy splendour and abundance. A time of red and gold foil and fuzzy tinsel. To introduce tastefulness into Christmas seems to be contrary to its childish, democratic, hearty spirit.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Anthony Trollope's Two Thousand and Fifty Words Before Breakfast

In recent years, I have found myself almost unable to read fiction. When I was a child, I read a great deal of fiction, but I think I read it because I never thought of reading anything else. And some novels moved me deeply. I read Lord of the Rings before I was ten years old, although I don't think I took very much of it in; a little later, I enjoyed browsing through The Fellowship of the Ring, which was the only volume in the house. I loved the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis and I acquired them one by one (except for The Last Battle, which I could never find; when I did get to read it, I was appalled, like a lot of readers, by some of the unpleasant surprises in it.) Today, even though I am a huge C.S. Lewis fan, Narnia seems like a pasteboard world to me, and I can't see what I once saw in it. (One of the very few novels I have enjoyed in recent years has been Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, which I actually read twice, and which I think has one of the funniest last lines of any book whatsoever; but I didn't much like the other two novels of the Space Trilogy.)

In my teens and twenties, I enjoyed Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (which I read again and again and which seemed like the most brilliant observation of everyday life imaginable). I became a fan of Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster books. The comic novels of Flann O'Brien appealed to me, though not as much as his Cruiskeen Lawn columns. At my father's recommendation, I read Diary of a Nobody when I was eighteen and ever since then I have considered it the funniest book ever written.

Perhaps my most singular and idiosyncratic enthusiasm, when it comes to fiction, was the Irish author J.P. Donleavy. Somehow or other-- I never could trace where exactly it came from-- I picked up a copy of his very odd account of a (sort of) fictional sport and its genesis, De Alfonce Tennis. (This book is so obscure that there isn't even one review of it on Amazon.) Soon I was fascinated by it and went in search of more Donleavy. His novella, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, excited me so much that I remember-- when I was sixteen-- pacing up and down my bedroom in excitement, and writing a pastiche of it for one of my English assignments. I also gorged myself on his famous first work The Ginger Man (there are rumours of a film version to star Johnny Depp) and perhaps his best work, A Fairytale of New York (if the title sounds familiar it's because Shane McGowan nicked it for his excellent but infuriatingly overplayed Christmas song.)

I don't think I really loved Donleavy as a fiction writer, though-- I loved him as a prose poet, a lyricist. He could put the most exquisite topspin on familiar words and phrases. He made the English language dance. I was completely intoxicated-- so much so that I actually went to interview him in 1998, and found him a most charming (if rather odd) host.

But I don't read him anymore. I think my very excess of enthusiasm, back in the day, makes his strangely inaccessible to me now.

I had other favourites; a rather obscure novel by Compton Mackenzie (author of Whiskey Galore) called Carnival, which featured the story of a feisty Cockney ballerina, determinedly independent of men, whose heart is broken by a self-described dilettante and who then marries a wealthy Puritan farmer in Cornwall, for the sake of her beloved and disfigured sister. (For all its lack of fame today, it was filmed several times.) I liked Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of science-fiction novels, and several of Somerset Maugham's works, especially The Razor's Edge. In my teens I was an admirer of the twentieth century Irish novelist Walter Macken (his Brown Lord of the Mountain, which was not amongst my favourites, was one of the three books I borrowed the first time I borrowed books from a library.) The still-living English comic novelist Tom Sharpe, whose books combine a rather scholarly style with bawdy and slapstick subject matter, became a favourite in my college years. I started reading him simply because I liked the title of his most famous novel, Porterhouse Blue.

The first time I read David Copperfield is very vivid in my memory; not only because it was on the first night of Operation Desert Storm, but because its scenes and characters seemed so real to me, so distinctive. David Copperfield seems like the ultimate protagonist, both in his virtues and his faults, the Decent Young Man, red-blooded and earnest and pleasure-loving and loyal. But for every novel I read and enjoyed I think I must have read at least five I didn't, including many classics such as Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein and Crime and Punishment

In the past five years or so I have only ever really read fiction as a task. Even when I discovered Chesterton, I trudged my way through his novels and short stories. I have no desire to read The Man Who Was Thursday or The Napoleon of Notting Hill again. Chesterton wrote, somewhere or other, that he preferred to see ideas wrestling naked rather than veiled behind characters and plots. I feel the same way-- especially when it comes to a writer like Chesterton, who (I feel) is always writing an essay or a polemic even when he is writing a story.

I like to be addressed directly by an author. I like to go straight to the ideas, to the theme, to the substance. If I have five minutes to spend reading a book, I would rather read a couple of pages (I'm a slow reader) in which a few complete ideas are adumbrated than a leisurely description of the layout of Squire Masterson's grounds.

And yet, and yet....I don't really feel satisfied at that. Even if I feel no appetite for fiction, I have a hunch that it is a necessary part of any literary diet, that it reaches places in the soul (and in the intellect) that nothing else can reach. I feel, in short, that I am being a philistine.

So today I started reading The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago. And so far I am enthralled. (Yes, I've read Middlemarch, and several other Eliot novels. No, I didn't like any of them. I've never enjoyed Jane Austen, either.)

I am very amused by a passage in the introduction, written by a Laurence Lerner (I love books with introductions):

"Trollope's reputation was already declining, and the Autobiography gave it a firm push downwards. It showed an author so different from the conventional Romantic picture of the artist, that it would be embarrassing to admire him....a hunting, whist-playing clubman with a huge gusto for living; a solid citizen and wealthy paterfamilias, who wrote 2,500 words before breakfast every morning, and attributed his success 'altogether to the virtue of early rising':

'All those who have lived as literary men-- working daily as literary labourers-- will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then he should have so trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours-- so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time become my custom-- and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself-- to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been as forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.'

"The serious reader [Lerner goes on], now as then, can only feel repelled by this. Wanting to learn of les affres du style, of the pain of creation and the deep levels of the personality where art is born, he finds that Trollope sees art as merely craft, as a way of keeping the reader entertained; and sees the novelist as an industrious craftsman who does not fritter away his time. Even the hearty tone-- 'as much as a man ought to write'-- adds to the embarrassment."

I must not be a "serious reader", because I feel none of these sensations of repugnance when I read Trollope's reflections of writing. In fact, he seems like a refreshingly sensible and unpretentious fellow to me. I am naive enough to think that a man lacking in intellectual morbidity might actually make a rather good guide to human nature.

Maybe I am too shallow for fiction after all?

For the Feast of the Immaculate Conception...

...this lively debate between Fr. Mitch Pacwa and Dr. Walter Miller on the place of Mary, on the John Ankerberg Show. I'm not sure what year it comes from but it looks like some time in the early eighties.

As keen as I am on ecunemism, I think it's nice to see this kind of impassioned debate between a Protestant and a Catholic. Sometimes I worry that the united front that Christian churches necessarily present to an increasingly anti-Christian society might lead people to assume that the differences don't matter.

If any disagreements are worth getting impassioned about, surely doctrinal differences are. This need not involve acrimony, of course.

A treasure-house for all things Marian can be found in Mark Shea's trilogy, Mary: Mother of the Son. As well as being instructive, it's a lot of fun to read. It's become one of my very favourite books.

(P.S. I was watching the video as I typed this post, so I only realize now that it seems to end suddenly, with the Protestant theologian making a point and Fr. Mitch not getting to answer!)

The Contradictions of Modern Life

I've been sick as a dog the last few days (though I must say dogs don't strike me as being particularly sickly) and confined to lying in bed. I didn't even get to Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception today, which makes me feel bad, but I think it was a justified absence. There is a mound of tissues piled on my bed-side desk.

Yesterday I wasn't even able to sit up very comfortably, so I lay down and listened to audiobooks on my laptop (mostly Plain and Parochial Sermons by John Henry Newman). Today, a little better, I've been reading my beloved volumes of Chesterton's Illustrated London News articles.

I was struck by this passage from one of his 1928 articles:

"Now, if we look carefully at our daily life, we shall see that catch and contradiction everywhere. The forces that are conquering everything are defeating themselves. The energies that are devouring everthing are devouring themselves. Let me take another obvious example. The distant village of Hugby-in-the-Hole is very picturesque. The more respectable parts of Hoxton are not so picturesque. It is therefore very natural, and even very right, that people in Hoxton should wish to go to Hugby. Is is even natural, or at least pardonable, that they should wish to go to Hugby as quickly as possible....They go to Hugby; they settle down at Hugby; and they proceed, on the same line of argument, to set up the same machinery of rapid movement which they felt to be justified in Hoxton. They have garages of ghastly architecture, petrol-pumps of fiendish colours, advertisements of petrols and cars and all the rest, exactly like those which plaster the streets of their original home. They originally went to Hugsby because it was different from Hoxton. They then proceed to make Hugby exactly like Hoxton."

I wrote a whole post about this a long time ago; one that was, perhaps, not very felicitously expressed, but that was trying to make the same point as Chesterton.

I called it "The Pioneer Paradox, or the Cowboy Contradiction"; because I took as my symbolic figure the cowboy of the Wild West, whose entire purpose was to make the West less wild and to destroy the very romance that hangs around him.

I wrote:

"I think the same idea applies to the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs figures of this world, all the college drop-outs who eschew shirts and ties and build vast business empires clad in Bermuda shirts, huddling in computer laboratories all hours of the day with other wacky, free-spirited visionaries, living on take-away pizza and coffee.

Do they build empires of wacky, Bermuda-shirt wearing executives who skateboard into work whenever they feel like it and work till the wee hours, in between games of Nintendo?

No, they produce more and more glass and concrete cubes where more and more cubicle slaves pass their lives in mortgage slavery.

Or take inveterate tourists, or-- as they like to consider themselves-- people who are passionate about travel. They see themselves as cosmopolitan, open-minded, adventurous. They seek places "off the beaten track" and that aren't "touristy". They shop for souvenirs of actual, indigenous art.

And, to cater to their appetite, more and more books and websites and magazine articles reveal the latest "unspoiled" village or beach or valley, which soon becomes a tourist hotspot, and whose inhabitants are soon making war-masks or woven sweaters or mosaic patterns for the tourist market.

I think this principle applies, too, to liberal or left-wing nationalism. I don't understand the weird hybrid of patriotism and Marxism that Sinn Féin have embraced. I understand DeValeran protectionism, ruralism, and traditionalism; I understand the internationalism, liberalism and futurism of a thoroughgoing communist.

But how can the liberal nationalist, who sees national liberation as an end in itself, but longs for his country to become "outward-looking", "progressive", and "pluralist", not see the contradiction in his own position? Does he not see that, when the political struggle has succeeded and his country has attained its own government, his whole political philosophy has negated itself? There is no longer any reason to be a nationalist. Soon the currents of history, with his full approval, will wash away all trace of his struggles and passions; the patriotic ballads fade away, to be replaced by the honking of fancy cars and the blare of rap music.

The same applies to liberalism in general. Liberals strives for the emancipation of groups, such as Muslims or travellers or ethnic minorities, whose entire culture and survival is threatened by liberalism's own inexorable logic."

I see this cowboy contradiction, this pioneer paradox, everywhere. I see it in the rampant commercialism that loves to evoke (in its advertising, for instance) images of family life and of holidays, but actually works to erode both of those things. (In America, the Thanksgiving weekend is being shortened to one day as stores force their employees to open earlier and earlier on Black Friday, which is a day of unmitigated consumerist greed.) I see it in the pressure that is put upon holidays and happy occasions, like Christmas, so that they are no longer holidays at all but rather a very pressured form of work.

I see it in the love of "sport" that becomes more and more focused on winning and results ("winning isn't everything, it's the only thing") so that very soon there is no "sport" left in sport at all, and it is entirely a business.

I see it in politics, where we become so used to accepting the idea that politics is "the art of the possible" that eventually, electability becomes the sole criterion guiding what policies should be adopted.

I see it-- as many other people have seen it-- in "labour saving" technologies that end up increasing the workload that each person is expected to perform.

I see it in the forms of women's liberation by which women cease to be women at all, and instead become men in skirts. Have you ever noticed how the favourite entertainments of so many women-- especially the most hardheaded, professional women-- tend to hark back to pre-Women's Lib times? There is something in Jane Austen and Downtown Abbey (which I've never seen) and other windows onto a bygone age that has special appeal to women-- perhaps a hunger for a time of chivalry and ceremonial roles for both sexes.

I see it in the clamour for same-sex marriage, which seeks to expand an institution in a way that makes the whole point of that institution obsolete.

It all bewilders me. I am too simple to live in this world of Escher-like reversals and paradoxes. I'm going to go back to reading Chesterton now.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Fountain in the Omni Centre, Santry

If you ever find yourself in Santry's Omni shopping centre, be sure to sit down in either the Bagel Bar or the O'Brien's café, both of which overlook the fountain in the centre. Buy a hot chocolate (with marshmallows). If you are feeling hungry you can even buy a West Coast bagel in the Bagel Bar-- a delicious marriage of smoked salmon and cream cheese. And sit there and stare into the foaming waters.

I do it all the time. It is one of my very favourite things in the world to do. It rejuvenates me.

I have been a habitué of the Omni shopping centre for years now. I started going to its Omniplex cinema in 2001, and since then I have seen 277 films there. (That doesn't include repeat viewings of the same film. And I know because I keep a nerdy spreadsheet of all the films I go to see.)

The Omniplex is my favourite cinema in the world-- the cinema, for me-- but the Omni centre has charms of its own. Of course, it is bathed in the associations of all the films I've seen in the adjoining cinema, but there's more to it than that. I like its bright colours. I like its human scale-- there are no warehouse-like shops in it. Its music and DVD shop (Golden Discs, an Irish franchise) is so pleasantly pokey that I usually know pretty much every film that's on sale there.

The mixture of shops is a charming mix of the household (Tesco, a newsagent, a butcher's) and the mildly luxurious (cheap jewellery shops, an art and hobby shop, a beauty salon). The shoppers are generally scrubbed, well-turned out, but at their ease. They don't have either the consumerist glassy-eyed stare of the hordes in Dundrum Shopping Centre or the unshaven, worn-down look of grocery shoppers in your local corner shop. I always get the impression that a visit to the Omni centre is neither drudgery nor a big day out, and that middle-ground of human experience appeals to me vastly.

I had been going to the Omni Centre for years before I became fascinated-- really fascinated-- by the fountain at its centre.

It was when I was going through my "spiritual crisis", around the year 2009. A lifetime of not being too pushed about religion had suddenly been replaced by a conviction that it was the only really important thing in life. Nonetheless, I was still mired in my agnosticism-cum-atheism, so I was going through a lot of mental anguish.

I had downloaded an audio version of the King James Bible onto my MP3 player and I liked to listen to it on my rambles. This was for comfort more than anything else; I found the very words and tone immensely consoling. It was narrated by a fellow called Eric Martin, whose sounds like he is about 500 years old and who declaims the words as though from the top of Mount Zion. There is no nonsense about a conversational tone with Eric Martin. He recites the words of Scripture, in a high and slow and magisterial tone, and in the accent of a nineteenth century British Prime Minister. Even to call it BBC English is an understatement. It's...well, it's Biblical English.

Of course, this kind of grandfatherly sternness was exactly what I needed at the time. It was hard, listening to Eric Martin, to believe that the words he was reciting had been dreamed up by Bronze Age goat herders (as anti-Chrisians love to put it). It was much more like listening to the voice of God Himself.

(I'm not surprised Mr. Martin doesn't ponce around with a nuanced recitation. This is what I found about him on the internet: "Award-winning narrator Eric Martin has worked on the missions field fighting for persecuted Christians and helping evacuate Jews from Russia." How could a fellow like that be anything but stentorian?)

Even the quirks of the recording added to this impression. Though Eric Martin recites in a booming voice, it sounds like this voice is coming from an immense distance, almost from the depths of space. The crackle that underlies his words makes it seem more evocative. (Have you ever noticed that smokey, sepia photographs seem more "spiritual" than modern photographs?) And there is some kind of feedback or echo in the background, too-- it sounds like a murmur of faint voices. Somehow that adds to the sense of grandeur, the sense that this is a story on a grand scale-- indeed, on a cosmic scale.

At a time when I felt lonelier and more abandoned than I had ever felt in my life, Eric Martin and the ghostly voices behind him made me feel less lonely. I didn't even listen to the words a lot of the time-- I just liked having them in my ear.

But what about the fountain?

Well, I was wondering through the Omni, listening to the Acts of the Apostles, and savouring the great sense of excitement and consequence in the book. (It was plain as a pikestaff to me, at this stage, that if atheism was true then nothing mattered, nothing had consequence. No matter what passions were aroused or what legacy was created-- even a legacy of thousands of years-- eventually it came to naught.)

I found myself looking into the fountain and all of a sudden, I saw the principle of life-- the Burning Bush, the Pillar of Fire, the Alpha and the Omega, I AM THAT I AM, the spring of water welling up eternally. I saw a symbol of That which would never fail, never run out, never falter.

I can imagine some sceptic reading this and snorting, "What rubbish! Of course the fountain will stop running, eventually. I'm sure it stops running every night." Well, of course I know that. The fountain was a symbol, nothing more. But who can describe the power of a symbol?

Since then, I have been hypnotized by the fountain. I sip my hot chocolate and stare into it for minutes on end. It has become a symbol, not only of the divine, but of the life that goes on all around it-- the life of children playing, mothers pushing buggies, teenagers talking about soccer, young women talking about the reality TV show on the night before. All that human life that is so banal, so little, so petty, and so infinitely precious.

Once I tried to tell a friend about my fountain, and she said: "You should go to Powerscourt. There's a fantastic fountain there." I felt frustrated. I don't care if there are fountains that send jets hundreds of feet in the air, that have coloured lights displays making them shimmer all the way through the spectrum, that are hundreds of years old, or that spout their waters through the jaws of magnificently-sculpted gargoyles. This is my fountain. It is unlike any other fountain in the world, and if it was any bigger or any more opulent I wouldn't like it as much as I do.

For one thing, I love the colour. It's a gorgeous turquoise, the kind of colour toothpaste manufacturers use when they want to signal freshness and mintiness. Water that colour always makes me want to jump in. (I often imagine doing this, and how it would shock the bystanders.)

I like that there are pennies at the bottom of the fountain. This seems to me like one of the most charming and picturesque customs in the whole world. A penny (or a cent, as I suppose I should say now) is a symbol of all the little, humble joys of life; cups of tea, jokes, snowfall.

I like that people sit around the edge of the fountain. It makes it seem even more a symbol of life.

I like that the fountain is decorated for the seasons. At Halloween and St. Patrick's Day and Valentine's Day and Christmas, different figures and decorations hang from the ceiling far above it. Anything that makes us look up inspires a feeling of awe, even if it is a gentle feeling of awe. One Christmas they had a mechanical Santa who endlessly climbed up and down a cable. I got a shock when I saw him, thinking it was a real person.

Sometimes the fountain is switched off. I remember one day I rang the Bagel Bar to ask if the fountain was on, since it didn't seem worth while to go to the Omni if it wasn't. The girl who answered told me that it was, and then asked-- and I don't blame her for being confused-- "Who is this?". "I'm nobody", I said and hung up.

It's my fountain. It may not quite be the Burning Bush, but it's the closest I'm ever going to get. Long may it jet and foam and bubble and spurt.

(Post Script: I got a shock today when I actually visited my fountain-- which I described so confidently above-- and realised that its waters are not "a gorgeous turquoise, the kind of colour toothpaste manufacturers use when they want to signal freshness and mintiness". They are, in fact, perfectly transparent, and take on the colour of the basin beneath them, which is the colour of black marble. I must have stared into that fountain fifty times in the last few years, if not many more. I knew my powers of observation were bad, but I didn't know they were that bad.)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Moving Forward

I think one of my least favourite words in the English language is "progressive", and it's not just for ideological reasons. I have no gripe with the word "anarchist", even though I am not an anarchist. I don't grit my teeth when I hear the word "libertarian", even though I have a cordial dislike of the libertarian philosophy (always bearing in mind that everybody should be a little bit libertarian-- indeed, everybody should be a little bit anarchistic). "Egalitarian" is a perfectly businesslike word, and not resented by me even though I am not an egalitarian in the sense usually meant by that word.

But progressive-- what does it mean?

Now, progress is a fine thing. There was a time when I was such an anti-modernist reactionary that I turned against the very notion of progress. I enjoyed quoting the words attributed to the Duke of Wellington: "Reform? Aren't things bad enough already?"

But this is an excessive reaction, and it is not a stance open to a Catholic. The Church does not teach that we should be so focused on heavenly things that we ignore worldly matters. The Church teaches that we should strive for progress, for true progress, which includes economic and social as well as spiritual progress. For instance, Pope Benedict's encylical Caritas in Veritate would provide little comfort for an out-and-out reactionary.

However, being in favour of progress is one thing, but being "progressive" is another.

What is the guiding principle of progressivism? Are we to strive to make society freer? Are we to strive to make society more equal? Are we to strive to make society more tolerant? Are we to impose a particular shape on society, or to strive to do so, or are we simply to respect certain fundamental principles and let the chips fall as they may? It seems to me that all these ideas are muddled up in "progressivism", and they inevitably cause confusion and conflict.

Is progressivism internationalist or nationalist? It is no answer for it to be nationalist when the nation in question is dark-skinned or under the heel of a stronger power, and internationalist when the nation in question is rich and prosperous and seeking to restrict immigration or impose a citizenship test.

Are progressives for or against discrimination? It is no answer to say that they are against discrimination when it comes to discrimination against homosexuals (say), but for discrimination when it comes to gender quotas in parliament. There is no discernible principle at work there.

Are progressives for or against free speech? How does it make sense to be in favour of obscene rap lyrics (say) or blasphemous art exhibitions, but to support "speech codes" that seek to avoid offending various ethnic minorities?

Are progressives in favour of rational hedonism or do they favour a sternly Republican ideal of self-sacrifice and devotion to the public good?

Is progressivism based upon an ethic of maximizing the good or minimizing ills such as intolerance, discrimination, oppression, and so forth?

Does progressivism aim towards a greater individualism, a greater communitarianism, or a perfect balance between the two?

I have no idea.

I am not merely being pedantic here, or trading in dictionary definitions. I genuinely believe that all the above confusions and contradictions are inherent in the term "progressive", as it is commonly used.

I think that scrapping the term "progressive" would constitute genuine progress when it comes to clear ideas and meaningful discussion.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ideology and the Heart

I am currently reading Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War (Fearghal McGarry, 1999), an intriguing account of the Irish volunteers who fought on both sides of that savage conflict. The author's own sympathies are pretty obvious (as signalled by his use of those loaded terms, "progressive" and "reactionary"), but for the most part he is fair and objective.

The book has set me thinking about what makes somebody a socialist, communist, conservative, fascist, or otherwise. It's probably fair to say that most people-- in terms of world history-- have had their loyalties decided by where and when they were born. (Secularists never tire of making this point about religious belief.) Moments like the Spanish Civil War or the Irish Civil War-- moments where people born in the same country, and even the same background, make radically different choices of allegiance-- seem rather rare in the grand scheme of things.

But they do happen. In the Spanish Civil War, Irishmen-- often Irishmen who had fought side by side in the War of Independence-- fought against each other in a conflict whose savagery and ruthlessness is shocking to read about.

McGarry tries to probe, from the records available to him, the motives of the men who volunteered. But they are rather inscrutable. Indeed, it occurred to me while reading the book that nearly all choices of ideology or belief system are rather inscrutable-- even our own.

I believe that they are, to a great extent, visceral. It is a deep-seated attraction, or a deep-seated aversion, that makes most people partisans of one cause or another, one world-view or another. This is easily seen when people of strongly contrasting beliefs engage in debate. Pretty soon you realise that they could fire salvoes at each other all day long without either conquering the other. Their bases are hidden far, far away from the battlefield. It is often said that "you cannot reason someone out of a position they haven't been reasoned into". True enough; but I think only one in five hundred people are reasoned into any fiercely-held position.

This is true of me as much as anybody else. Not so long ago I came upon this quotation from Malcolm Muggeridge: "I'd rather be wrong with Dante and Shakespeare and Milton, with Augustine of Hippo and Francis of Assisi, with Dr Johnson, Blake and Dostoevsky than right with Voltaire, Rousseau, the Huxleys, Herbert Spencer, H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw." That's exactly how I feel. It's not that I'm not intellectually convinced of the truth of my beliefs. But if I lost my faith tomorrow (God forbid), I would not join the ranks of the New Atheists. I would probably crawl into a hole somewhere.

But reading about Irish radicals like Frank Ryan made me remember a time when I was drawn, viscerally and imaginatively, to the radical left. This was in my childhood and my teens. Photographs and posters from the Russian Revolution always appealed to me. I liked the hats and coats that the Russians of that time wore. I liked the graininess of the photographs. I liked the Social Realist style of the posters. I liked the exciting sensation of history being begun again. (Even now the famous words of Lenin at the Second All-Soviet Congress after the Revolution-- "We will now proceed to establish the socialist order"-- gives me a thrill, even though I know Lenin was an evil mass murderer and the Bolshevik Revolution was a disaster of the first magnitude.)

Even as a child, I intuited the whole aesthetic of the Soviet worldview-- its romance of the machine, its prolixity, its rather dour earnestness, its utopianism. It all seemed clean and straight and cool and pleasingly straight-edged. Today, when the idylls and atmospheres that thrill and animate me are almost the very opposite, I can still identify with those who are starry-eyed for radical socialism.

(Not that I was ever a Marxist. When I was in college, I even boycotted the lectures of a particular lecturer because he was some kind of Marxist. At the time, I considered that Marxists had split and therefore retarded the left in the twentieth century. And, although I considered myself a socialist, I had no time at all for the liberalism and political correctness that always seemed to be associated with it. To me, socialism was about restricting working hours and funding libraries and parks and swimming pools.)

The idyll of the modern (or postmodern) "progressive", however-- the idyll of a society where tolerance, for its own sake, is the highest ideal, and where history and spirituality and sexuality are played with in a non-threatening, sandpit environment-- is entirely repulsive to me. I can't even begin to sympathise with the vision of a modern leftist liberal, or a libertarian, or a left-wing nationalist, or a socially liberal conservative, or a feminist. Whenever any of their adherents paint a picture of their good society, I am reminded of the words of Max Beerbohm:

So this is Utopia, is it? Well
I beg your pardon, I thought it was hell.

But thinking about all this makes me even more convinced that Catholics should do all they can, not only to evangelize using the tools of reason and argument, but to excite the imaginations of the unconverted.

Ian O'Doherty is a Particularly Unpleasant Commentator

This is from his latest Irish Independent column (he opens by describing a friend who gave five euro to a Traveller beggar, who then asked for more):

"Although it doesn't beat my best beggar experience – while sitting outside a sidewalk bar in Santa Monica Boulevard a couple of years back, a homeless guy approached and asked for a couple of bucks.

I told him I had no change but I had an unopened bottle of beer on my table (jet lag had kicked and I had about 20 minutes before I fell asleep) and I offered him the bottle of Dos Equis, which to my mind is the finest lager in the world.

His response?

"F**k you man. I don't drink!" And then he stormed off in a huff."

Well, you deserved it, Mr. O'Doherty. Offering alcohol to a homeless person is pretty insolent, maybe even downright disgusting.

This is the same fellow who volunteered with the Saint Vincent de Paul for one night and was offended to see poor people who weren't living in shacks and who had comforts like televisions.

"But when you go into a house to give someone an envelope of cash and you see that they have a bigger wide-screen telly than you yourself own, then you realise that there is no way you can equate these people with genuine, actual poverty."

His particularly simplistic brand of atheism (he makes lots of amusing and original remarks about the Sky Fairy) and free market libertarianism is, I believe, the wave of the future. At least of the immediate future. It's simply the logical progression from the current orthodoxy. Left liberalism is an unstable fusion that can't last for very long.

On the vast amount of occasions when I have given money to beggars, they have been extremely thankful. There were some exceptions, but not many.

I think people like Ian O'Doherty see what they want and expect to see.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Is it Terrible...

...that when I hear about China, North Korea or Iran clamping down on the internet and blocking certain internet pages, my immediate reaction is not "Woe, woe for free speech!" but "Hurray, hurray for national sovereignty!".

My immediate reaction, mind. On reflection, I admit that such tight regulation is contrary to freedom of speech, which is precious (but not sacred), and therefore a Bad Thing.

Still, I can't help feeling a certain dread of the borderless, mercurial, irrepressible influence of the internet, and a certain sympathy for authorities that wish to contain it.

Spiritual Warfare in Ireland

Two young working class intellectuals were sitting behind me in the bus from UCD today. I don't know if they were college students. They agreed that we descended from animals (that's why we still have residual tales), that religion had been invented to keep everything from falling apart and it had worked for a while but it wouldn't work anymore, that it was better not to argue with religious people because that "fuelled their flames" and that, in the end, their argument always came down to "faith", anyway, which was the opposite of reason.

They criticised the British government for appointing a pharmaceutics expert who they then dismissed when they discovered he was in favour of cannabis legalisation. They lamented our society's addiction to the X-Factor and Facebook and loudly proclaimed their preference for books. One of them was reading Jean-Paul Sartre at the moment and getting into existentialism. They quoted the lyrics of "Working Class Hero" by John Lennon.

They were very explicit in considering themselves intellectual rebels and anti-conformists, and in considering the general population to be sedated sheep.

I had to say something. But-- dear reader-- have you noticed that, when people give accounts of their debates and arguments and exchanges, they inevitably turn out to have made devastating epigrams that leave their opponents speechless?

I don't want to fall into that trap. Doubtless I was a coward for waiting until I rose to get up off the bus. I didn't want a long, unpleasant exchange. Doubtless I mumbled and seemed like an embittered nutter. Maybe the few other people at the back of the bus thought I was worse than the two would-be radicals.

But what I said was: "I've listened to you for twenty minutes now, and I know you think you're free thinkers. But you've just parrotted every intellectual fashion of the last thirty or forty years. There's nothing anti-establishment about that. So keep thinking." I'm pretty sure that's close to what I said, because I had been rehearsing it in my head for fifteen minutes or so.

The two working class heroes stared at me resentfully and muttered something like "Yeah, whatever"-- which is probably what I would do if a stranger berated me in public.

I went downstairs, hoped to goodness we weren't getting off at the same stop because I didn't want a protracted verbal exchange, and eventually disembarked.

I had left work an hour early to make it to the pro-life rally in Molesworth Street. I was surprised and pleased to see how many people were there-- somebody from the platform guessed it was seven to ten thousand. Many were old. Some were young. There were a lot of families. There were also a lot of religious banners. I wasn't sure if that was a good or a bad thing.

This is only the second rally I've ever attended-- the first, some years ago, was one to protest the building of a motorway close by the Hill of Tara. I feel awkward at rallies and marches and demonstrations. I'm not really one for holding placards or chanting or whooping. But I stood and listened and applauded for twenty minutes or so, before heading off. I just wanted to be there.

I thought I was going to Advent Eucharistic adoration in Ballymun's Holy Spirit Church, but when I reached it the lights were off. I must have got the wrong night.

So I went home and switched on the computer. The pro-life rally featured pretty low down RTE's news stories. A much higher place was given to the story of a woman who is seeking ther right to die by assisted suicide. "Terminally Ill Woman Wants to Die With Dignity", was the headline. She is in the final stages of MS and is taking a case to the High Court.

"When you have to be showered, toileted and fed you start to feel like a nobody," she said.

Anyone has to feel a great deal of sympathy with someone in a case like this. But it seems to me that the implication of her statement is that anybody who has to be showered, toileted and fed is right to feel like a nobody-- that life is only worth living if you can fend for yourself and live an independent life. And how further do you take this principle? Will somebody who is not economically producitive be judged unworthy of life? Will the lonely and depressed, and everybody who is going through a bleak period in their lives, win societal approval for deciding to end it all?

One evening in Ireland, at the start of Advent in 2012.

"For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places." Ephesians 6:12

How Old is Old?

Ever since I turned thirty, I had it in my head that thirty-five was the Ultima Thule of youth. And the years from thirty-five to forty, while not exactly middle age, were at least a kind of twilight zone. I also resolved that I would forswear the "long, lingering look behind" once I reached that age, that I would square my shoulders and take it in the spirit of A.E. Housman's verse:

The chestnut casts his flambeaux, and the flowers
Stream from the hawthorn on the wind away,
The doors clap to, the pane is blind with showers.
Pass me the can, lad; there's an end of May.

So when I turned thirty-five this year, I sighed and decided to get on with it without any desperate clinging onto youth.

Still, I'm rather pleased that in the last month or so I've had quite a spate of people calling me "young man".

The first was a female guard at the security check in the airport at Richmond, Virginia. My flight back to Ireland (via Philadelphia) with US Airways had been cancelled and they'd put me on a Delta flight to JFK Airport instead. I don't know whether Delta's security is more stringent, or whether it was the fact that I was flying to New York rather than Philadelphia, but the security seemed tighter. There was a sniffer dog, for one thing, who spent an uncomfortably long time investigating me.

(Speaking of age, I also noticed a sign which informed travellers over the age of 65-- or was it 75?-- that they were exempted from having to take their shoes off to get through security. That's the kind of ageism that might lead a senior citizen to terrorism, just to make a point.)

In any case, when my turn came, the rather severe-looking black lady ushered me through with "Go ahead, young man", which tickled me pink.

A few hours later, and on another continent, I was ordering a hot chocolate in the Tolka House in Glasnevin, where I was reading The Irish Catholic at my leisure. The pleasant barman there has made a habit of saying "You're a gentleman" when he finishes serving me. (I seem to get this quite a bit, from barmen and barbers and taxi-drivers. I think my social awkwardness translates as a kind of stiff gentility.) But this time he added "There you go, young man", which once again made me feel that it was perhaps earlier than I thought.

The last occasion was on Sunday, and there is quite a story attached to it. If you were in Dublin on Sunday you know it was a miserable, drizzly day. But drizzly as it was, I suddenly felt restless and inclined to a long walk, while listening to music on my MP3 player. I walked from Ballymun to Phibsborough, then turned right (for the sake of taking a route I had never taken before)and walked all the way to the Phoenix park. Then I turned around and began to walk back.

Somewhere along this route-- I won't say where, because one of the ladies in question specifically asked me not to identify the house-- I passed a house where two old ladies were standing at the gate, one of them holding a bicycle. I had my music playing, but I saw they were trying to catch my attention, so I removed the headphones.

They asked me if I could walk with them to the house and stand there as they had a look inside. That's all they wanted me to do.

They were excited and talking over each other, so it took a few moments for me to make out exactly what the story was. It seemed that the house (which belonged to one of the women) had been broken into and trashed by Romanian gypsies. (I merely report what I was told.) The two women were simply checking on it and they were both very nervous.

I stood at the door as the woman turned on her flashlight and pointed it through the (smashed) window. I couldn't make out very much inside, but it was obvious that the place had been completely ransacked. To use the conventional expression, it looked as though a bomb had hit it.

The lady (after taking some minutes to work up her courage) finally opened the door and stepped in. Perhaps I should have done that for her, but I didn't like the idea of stepping into a house that had been broken into and perhaps becoming the brunt of an accusation myself, though the ladies were perfectly pleasant. Then she locked up again and they went on their way.

All this took about twenty minutes, since the ladies were anxious to tell me every detail of the story. They told me the gypsies had broken into the house several times, that some of them had gone to jail but that others hadn't turned up for the court summons, that they wanted to take possession rather than merely burgle the place. They told me a house opposite had suffered the same fate, and six in a row not far off from it. They told me old people were living in terror and the gardai wouldn't do anything about it.

One of the ladies told me she would happily pay a gang to shoot the miscreants in the head and drop them in the canal. She said this several times.

It took me some time to take my leave, they were so eager to thank me and to tell me their story. The lady who owned the house was especially eager to convince me not to believe the politically correct whitewashing of incidents such as this one.

"I know you're young", she said. "How old are you?"

"Thirty-five", I said.

"That's young", she said.

So there you go. It's official. For another year at least.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Two Comedians

Some hilarious comedy from Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins. Unfortunately they don't realise they are being funny.

At one point, the comedian that isn't Richard Dawkins claims that you can't win an argument with a religious believer because their best argument is "it's just faith".

I have never, ever heard a religious believer make this "argument", as far as I can remember-- except today, when I watched a clip from the Bill Maher film Religulous, in which a man dressed as Jesus makes this very claim.

Other highlights:

Richard Dawkins claims that the world is more amazing and wonderful if it is all a meaningless accident.

The two Richards agree that determinism doesn't matter as long as you feel like you have free will. I thought we were the ones who were supposed to believe in comforting illusions?

The comedian that isn't Richard Dawkins, in attempting to rebut the argument that life is too wonderful to be an accident, quotes the famous parable of the atheist wisdom writer Douglas Adams, in which a puddle thinks there must be a deity because he is so snug and happy where he is. But the fact that puddles don't, actually, think anything should tip him off to the fallacy of this argument.

They also agree that Hitler was a Catholic, and that Stalin didn't do the bad things he did because he was an atheist. I'm sorry, boys, but dialectical materialism and its lack of a belief in absolute standards of justice were absolutely based upon atheism. Also, the persecutions of religion in the USSR (funnily enough, Stalin wasn't as bad as Lenin and Kruschev in this regard) entirely flowed from their militant atheism.

It's good to listen to religion-bashers now and again. It buoys up one's faith.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Listening to the RTE radio show "The Business" Just a Moment Ago...

...three convictions sprang into my brain.

1) There is nothing wrong with trade and commerce. Marxists and quasi-Marxists and all those who attribute the root of all ills to "capitalism" or "consumerism" are (I think) totally off the mark. In a free society, goods and services will inevitably change hands for an agreed price.

Nor is there anything intrinsically mean or squalid about it. There is a romance and poetry to shops and markets and places of business. There is something in the human psyche that cries out for work, for some serious activity to get your teeth into-- and this urge can't be satisfied just by voluntary activity, no matter how much we love that voluntary acitivity. No matter how much we love painting watercolours or writing philosophical tracts or making flower arrangements, and even though this might be way more satisfying and meaningful to us than our "day jobs", sooner or later we languish without some task that we can't just take up and leave down as we wish.

2) Although there is nothing wrong with trade and commerce, there is something wrong with a society whose main activity is trade and commerce. Buying and selling should not be the central drama of human existence. Fields of human life such as politics, sports, the arts, and childhood should enjoy a certain detachment from the fray of buying and selling. Theatres named after private companies or soccer players sold for millions of pounds are symptoms that our society is over-commercialized. So are colour supplements in newspapers whose articles are all more or less a form of advertising. So are cartoons that exist to make children buy actions figures and dolls.

Though there is nothing ignoble about commerce, I do think there should be a limit to how seriously it should be taken. A grown man should not appear on television or in the print media saying, with a straight face, something like: "I'm passionate about giving customers the very best mobile phone converage", or "I never stop looking for ways to improve the shopping experience". Really? You have a few brief years on Earth, surrounded by all the mysteries and wonders and dramas of human existence, and you can really and truly waste your passion on such matters? Surely there is a point, in business, at which good enough should be good enough, and any additional care or dedication is filched from more important parts of our lives-- our from more important parts of our employees' or customers' lives, or from society's life.

3) This does not mean we should start looking around for some way to make wholesale changes to the way our society is run. Wholesale changes to the way society is run usually lead to war, famine, disaster and untold misery. In fact, I think the most important thing we can do is simply be aware of this excess of buying and selling. Man should have a sense of dissatisfaction with a hyper-commercialized society even if there seems nothing practicable to be done about it.

Every time there is a recession we hear the usual cries, intoxicated with vindication, that the goose of "capitalism" is cooked and that it will only be a little while now before the whole thing falls apart. Remarkably, "capitalism" always seems to get back on its feet.

I don't think we should be fretting about "capitalism", which is here to stay (unless, maybe, technological advances make it obsolete at some stage). We should be more worried about what sort of capitalism we bring about (to the extent that we have any control over it, which isn't always very much), and our collective and individual attitude towards "capitalism".

That's what came into my head. Maybe I'm wrong. But that's how it seems to me.

Friday, November 30, 2012

My Favourite Non-Catholic Religions

In this month's edition of First Things (an American inter-religious magazine), there is an article about Eastern Orthodoxy and its growing influence in the West. It got me thinking about other religions (both Christian and non-Christian) and which ones I could most easily imagine subscribing to, if I was not a Catholic.

What drew me into this train of thought was the awareness that Orthodoxy has a strong appeal to many Westerners of a conservative, traditionalist persuasion. It seems even more anti-modern and anti-progressive than Catholicism.

As the article (entitled "The Orthodox Renaissance") tell us: "To simplify the frequently invoked dichotomies, the allegedly individualistic, legalistic, rationalistic, positivistic, and anthropocentric Western religious thought was contrasted with the allegedly communitarian, holistic, mystical and theocentric Orthodox thoughts...often it is this sanitized picture of Orthodoxy that has the greatest appeal to Western inquirers."

Of course, the Catholic Church does not exist as a haven from modernism or progressivism (nor does the Orthodox Church). Anyone who embraces any form of Christianity in a purely reactionary spirit is misguided. Having said that, none of us are entirely uninfluenced by such "pull factors". I found myself wondering why I felt no pull towards the Orthodox Churches, since I have such a powerful bias in favour of tradition and conservatism myself.

And that got me musing about what religions, other than Catholicism, seem the most appealing to me. And the winners are....

1) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to give them their preferred name. I am fascinated by Mormonism, and have read quite a lot about it. I never entertained the possibility it was true, but I can enter into the mind of a convinced Mormon easier than I can enter into the mind of a convinced Anglican or Buddhist. The very boldness of the Mormon creed gives it a certain counter-intuitive plausibility. ("I believe it because it is ridiculous".) Besides, the fact that it has its own body of (supposed) revelation also makes it compelling. The stories of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the great Trek to Utah, and all the other narratives of Mormon history make facinating reading. And as for their theology-- the Trinity as distinct persons, the idea that even the Deity is a material being, the belief in baptism of ancestors-- its very weirdness lends it a certain glamour.

I also admire Mormons because they tend to be socially conservative and dedicated to their faith.

(I hasten to add that I put Mormonism at the top of my list only because I find it interesting. I have sometimes encountered the sardonic expression, which people sometimes apply to theories that are way off, "not even wrong". Well, I consider Mormonism to be "not even a heresy". But I do find it fascinating, and I respect the fact that its practioners take their own beliefs seriously.)

2) Judaism. I went through a "Jewish" phase. It wasn't that I believed Judaism was the true religion (I didn't believe anything was the true religion back then), but I thrilled to its thousands-year-old history, its traditions, and its aesthetic appeal. I read Paul Johnson's History of the Jews with avidity. I especially liked the Jewish people's dedication to study and knowledge, their esteem for marriage, their ritualism, and their particularism. (The universalism of Christianity seemed rather dull to me at this time.)

I retain my fascination with Judaism. Recently I visited the Irish Jewish Museum, which has a synagogue (no longer in use) upstairs. I heartily recommend it, not only because of its subject, but also because it is very far from being one of these awful, modernistic, multi-media-besotted and installation-filled museums.

3) Anglicanism; that is, the Church of England. Because I am an anglophile, and because the Church of England is such a weird hybrid. How do rapping lesbian vicars share a church with Daily Mail-reading retired colonels? It seems clear to me that, although many members of the Church of England only pay lip service to historic Christianity, others do genuinely consider it to preserve the apostolic succession and to be one branch of the universal Catholic Church. The Church of England contains, fossilized within it, so much of the history of England. The fact that it survives as an established chuch in an increasingly anti-Christian country is rather amazing, and I am intrigued as to how this will play out in the coming years.

4) Confucianism. Is it a religion? Perhaps not. But I think its emphasis on honouring ancestors, preserving public order, and dedication to study is admirable. Passages from the Analects often come into my mind. "He has not lived in vain who dies the day he is told about the Way."

5) The Amish, the Mennonites, the exclusive Plymouth Brethren, and other religious groups who boldly separate themselves from modern society. (I am aware that the term "Amish" and "Mennonite" covers a broad range of different groups. But you know the ones I mean.)

This list is just for fun. I respect every religion, pretty much, and I think they all contain glimmers of the truth-- some more than others.

But, to me, the only real options were always either atheism or the Catholic Church.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

I am Rightly Rebuked

On the letters page of The Irish Catholic this week, a Pat Mullin of Drumcondra takes me to task:

"Dear Editor

In The Irish Catholic of October 25, Maolsheachlainn O'Ceallaigh makes reference to the street preachers of various denominations on O'Connell St. on Saturdays and bemoans the absence of Catholic preachers on the streets.

May I suggest that he extend his walk to Henry St/Mary St or to Grafton Street in Dublin, where he will see Legion of Mary personnel speaking with shoppers about their faith and the need to practise it. In additions its personnel visit the sick in hospital as well as visiting people in their homes encouraging them to practise their faith.

I am sure that his local branch of the Legion would be very happy to have him as a member and any friends he might care to bring along."

Well, I deserved that. As a matter of fact my letter was edited and, in one of the missing sentences, I admitted that I would be no good at street preaching. (I am so nervous about approaching strangers that I will wander for ages, hopelessly lost, before asking anybody directions.) Also, the letter was about evangelization in general, rather than street preaching in particular.

But even still, I don't really have a right to complain about a lack of street evangelization if I am not willing to do it myself.

(Incidentally, I wonder why people constantly spell my Christian name with an "-ainn" at the end rather than an "ann"? I never spell it like that. It must look more intuitive or something.)

This Link Gives me a Kick...'s from the website of urban legend expert Jan Harold Brunvand.

Where Life Has Been

On a battered Monopoly board;
On a dog-eared deck of cards;
In football boots that have scored
Four thousand goals; on yards
Where generations have played and passed, like changing guards.

In a chipped Coronation mug
In a letter-filled biscuit tin;
In the teddy you used to hug
And the bed that you slept in
When life was a drama waiting to begin.

In the pounded, muddy path
That the cows come home along;
In a battle’s aftermath
Of ruin, and tale, and song;
In an empty dancehall dreaming of its scattered throng.

In an old, old story spoken
By a low fire’s dying light—
Of promises made and broken
Or old wrongs put to right;
That hushes the room, while the wind howls on a winter’s night.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why is the Phrase "The War on Christmas"...

....only applied when it is called Winterfest, or when "Happy Holidays" is used as a greeting, and not also applied to the tacky and crass commercialization of the season, and to the promotion of merchandise such as sexy lingerie and ultra-violent DVDs as Christmas gifts?

All that aside, I am happy to see that we still have a crib in O'Connell Street, and also in the General Post Office.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Abortion and Liberalism

I've been thinking a lot recently about abortion and the right to life-- hardly surprising, given the headlines in Ireland at the moment. It struck me today-- as I was drying my hands, which seems to be when a lot of things do strike me (maybe because hand dryers are so bloody slow)-- how crazy it is that we think of pregnancy as a hard case, a kind of aberration, when it comes to the rights of the person.

I had been thinking how difficult it is (in terms of argument; in terms of right and wrong, it seems crystal clear to me) to disentangle the rights of one person from the rights of another, when one of them happens to be inside the body of the other, and uttterly dependent upon the other for its existence.

Then it occurred to me how ridiculous it was that I was, unthinkingly, looking at the situation as a kind of chance, one-in-a-million occurence, like the philosophical thought experiments about half of one person's brain being grafted onto half of another person's brain.

It struck me how easily we become trapped in a mental system. Our entire outlook, when it comes to the theory of rights, rests upon the assumption that the ethical subject is an autonomous individual who makes informed decisions and gives consent.

Of course, this ignores (or at least begs the question) that every human being on the planet spent a considerable amount of time as an individual who was utterly dependent upon another individual for his or her existence, and indeed contained within her body.

And not only that, but that every single human being on the planet then spent a period of years being incapable of giving informed consent or acting as an autonomous agent.

And furthermore, that every human being on the planet is quite likely to spend at least some period of time having passed beyond the stage of being able to make informed consent or act autonomously.

Our entire way of talking about rights is based on the assumption that human beings pop into existence, their mental and physical faculties fully formed, and then pop out again when they feel like it.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

How to be Objective About Faith

One of my favourite sites on the internet-- come to think of it, it's probably my very favourite-- is As you almost certainly know, it's a site devoted to the subject of urban legends, misinformation, and rumours. It's not just a "debunking" site. It tries to say something about the themes and psychology behind the various tall tales that get passed about in schoolyards and coffee mornings and sleepovers.

I like pretty much everything about the site. I like its colour scheme (which is pleasantly bright and clear). I like the length of the articles, which are just right. And I think Barbara Mikkelson, the woman who does most of the writing, is a wonderful stylist, with a superb light touch.

Another thing I like is the site's attitude to religion. Since most of the stories analysed on the site are shown to be untrue, and since those relating to religion tend to be of the more hysterical variety, it would have been easy for the site to have an anti-religious tone. But in fact the treatment of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is deeply respectful and tactful. The miraculous and the supernatural are never ruled out in principle. I find this especially admirable because I get the impression that the site is written from a left-liberal and secular perspective (though I could well be wrong about that).

I think Snopes could be a model for how to write about religion in a neutral tone.

Our Avenue

For the first twenty-three years of my life, my home was an apartment on the seventh (and top) floor of the Ballymun Flats. The concrete stairwells, whose walls were covered with graffiti and from which any other trace of ornamentation had long been ripped, seemed to me as mysterious and full of possibility as the caverns of some fantasy world. (In fact, when I saw the Mines of Moriah in Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring film, my sense of awe was moved in the same way.)

They were both scary and strangely exciting. You never knew who you would meet; it felt a little like a dungeon or stone castle corridor in a computer game. I vividly remember the time a boy blocked my passage up the stairs with his bicycle and told me I couldn't pass unless I gave him ten pence. (Ten pence was the price of most chocolate bars and packets of crisps in the local van-shops.)

I remember, as a child, falling down the concrete stairs on many occasions. Even at such a young age, I found myself analysing the calm thought process that runs through your mind as you are falling: "I've done it now and I'm going to hit the landing in a moment." I also remember the time I dropped a Jelly Tot (a child's sweet) down the slit at the edge of the stairwell. Apparently I went into convulsions and even my mother's promise (we were coming home from the shops) that she would buy me a new packet couldn't console me. I wanted that Jelly Tot and no other. (I can well believe this story. The loss of the particular and irreplaceable still fills me with grief.)

There was a lift (an elevator, for my American readers) but it was very often broken. I lived in terror of the cable snapping and sending me plunging to the bottom. My brothers and sisters, and other kids, discussed this possibility avidly. There were two schools of thought on what to do if this happened. One recommended jumping in the air at the moment of impact. The other advocated hoisting yourself off the floor by pressing your arms and legs against the walls. I think I dimly understood that neither of these actions would be of much help. Thankfully, the cable remained miraculously unsnapped.

But the lift had other horrors to it. There were two metal doors, a silver-coloured inner door and a red-coloured outer door. Sometimes only the inner door would open and you would find yourself staring at the red door. For me and my little brother, the Red Door came to be as archetypal and haunting as Edgar Allen Poe's Red Death, or the Thirteenth Floor of so many horror stories. I can't remember how we got out when the dread Red Door did reveal itself.

Other times the lift would open between floors. I can't remember how this was resolved, either.

The lift, along with everything else in Ballymun, was regularly vandalised. Sometimes people would urinate on the floor. At one point, one public-spirited fellow decided to scrawl on the lift wall "SECUTIRY CAMERAS INSTALLED (sic)". It was anti-vandalistic vandalism, like the Dadaist's anti-artistic art.

I still dream of the flats constantly. I have dreams that I am trying to get home, trying to get back to number 62 at the very top, trying to get back to my mother and father and the snack that will be waiting for me after school. But in these dreams, the stairs are often missing, whole chunks of them having fallen away. When I take the lift (in these dreams) it often keeps rising into the air after we have passed the top floor, like the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

When people visited us on the top floor, they said two things. "It's so hot!". (And it was; the central heating was out of our control. My father worried that me and my brother, who were not the most outdoorsy types, would end up having thinned blood "like the African soccer players who have to wear leggings when they play in England".) They also said: "What a wonderful view!". It was a pretty good view. You could see the mountains, the two huge chimneys of the Poolbeg generating station, and a little bit of the sea in the distance. At night, it was a forest of lights, which was even more magical.

But you can only look at a view for so long. (Incidentally, I remember, as a child, resolving to look out the window and catch the exact moment when day became night.) And it is probably a result of my childhood and teens, when the only thing that passed outside the window were seagulls, that hearing voices just outside the walls of my house seems unspeakably magical.

I live in a house now. There are eight houses in this row; four on each side of the avenue outside the sitting room window.

Right now, as I type these very words, little girls are running up and down the path between the houses, playing some game. I do not think there is any sound more beautiful than the excited voices of children playing. It seems strangely ancient and immortal to me, as though I am hearing, not just these children, but the eternal and deathless spirit of childhood.

But whatever sound it is that drifts from outside my sitting room window-- the hobbling of an old lady's walking-frame, the lifting of the latch of a gate, the furtive voices of teenagers-- it is more evocative to me than the tinkling of wind-chimes or the whistling of the wind through branches in the dead of night. Somehow it seems inexhaustably fascinating to me that they are out there while I am in here, even though we are within a whisker of each other.

The world begins in the avenue outside my garden. When I am presented with the vastness of the world in terms of statistics-- billions of people, hundreds of thousands of cities, hundreds of millions of Snickers bars sold per day, and so forth-- it repulses me. But somehow, when I see the vastness of the world through the lens of something small-- like the avenue outside my garden-- the greatness of the world seems sublime rather than repugnant. Because it is a greatness made up, not of units, but of every sort of contrast-- sleepy back streets and bustling boulevardes, half-empty pub lounges, crowded public squares.

My daily commute is an extensive one, and it often takes me an hour to two hours to get home. I take two buses. I don't mind so much. I get to read on the bus (unless it's standing room only). I walk down Grafton Street every day, which I like, especially when the Christmas lights are up.

There are moments when I always try to stop and look and savour-- like when I cross over the Liffey, or when I come to a crossroards (which seems to me like a place of deep symbolic significance), or when I pass the rowan tree that was planted in memory of my mother, outside my old school.

But I always feel a special tingle when I make the final turn, onto the path that runs outside my garden, on our own little avenue. This is the smallest part of the public world that I can call home. It is even more home than my country, or my city, or my neighbourhood. It is where my ship pulls into harbour. In terms of the J.R.R. Tolkien song-- "The road goes on and ever on, far from the path where it began"-- this is the path where all roads begin, the roads that lead to the ends of the Earth.

I wish people were more patriotic about the rows and avenues and crescents that they live on. I do think a man should be a citizen of the world. I do think he should be a patriot. I do think he should be a proud son of his city, and feel a sense of belonging towards his neigbourhood.

But why stop there? What is wrong with being a patriot of places so small, they don't even have names on the map? In my ideal world, every little avenue would have a flag and an assembly and a festival of its own.