Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Door's Still Open

I''m still writing my weekly column on G.K. Chesterton for The Open Door magazine. It's a local magazine distributed for free over a small region in the east of Ireland. Every Wednesday (usually), I wrote four hundred and twenty words about some aspect of G.K. Chesterton's thought. Every Friday (usually) I get the previous week's edition in my pigeon-hole in work. I have a big stack of them now, with their distinctive red covers, heaped up in my bedroom. It's a bona fide Tradition, having run for about three years now.

Rather surprisingly, given its limited reach, quite a lot of people have seen the articles and mentioned them to me.

Writing this column gives me great pleasure for several reasons:

1) I'm spreading Chesterton's ideas.

2) I always get a thrill from having my words published in print, in whatever form. It doesn't get old.

3) I like the fact that it's local.

4) I like the fact that it's seasonal.

Let me say something about localism. (I've resisted the temptation to decorate this post with a picture of the shopkeeper in The League of Gentlemen TV series, famous for his "this is a local shop for local people" catchphrase.) 

I'm a localist, as well as a nationalist and a regionalist. I like everything to have an identity. I like small things. I think small is beautiful. I wish every neighbourhood had its own flag. (As with my nationalism, my localism is more cultural than political.)

G.K. Chesterton was also a localist, and his Napoleon of Notting Hill is possibly the only localist novel ever written. It's a fantasy in which the different boroughs of London are given autonomy, develop all the ceremony and regalia of Medieval city states, and even go to war with each other.

The global is not particularly exciting, now that every Facebook post and tweet can be visible to the whole world. But a magazine that's generally only available in a very small geographical territory...I find that exciting.

On the Irish Catholic Forum, where I often post, one gentleman is a partisan of a confederal Ireland, the idea that every region in Ireland should seek become semi-autonomous, develop its own identity, and that Ireland would become a federation. This is a point of view that has won quite a few adherents in Ireland over the years. I'm not opposed to the idea of local autonomy, but I do dislike it if localism or regionalism is seen as an alternative to nationalism, rather than a complement to nationalism. (The most famous proponent of this idea, Desmond Fennell, seems to see it in this way. He wrote a book called Beyond Nationalism.)

This is how I argued it on the forum. (I would no longer agree that Irish nationalism was a secular and Protestant creation and that I'm OK with that. I'm certainly OK with the Protestant input, but my Irish nationalism is innately Catholic and it's only the Catholic strain of Irish nationalism with which I identify.)
This is an interesting discussion because it is making me examine my own suppositions. Why does local identity seem subsidiary to national identity, to me? I think it's because the very virtues of local identity are also its shortcomings. It would be great if everybody was involved in their local community and knew the place and the people very well, but I feel cultural identity does have to be bigger than that-- the air you breathe, the backdrop of your existence. It has to be 'meta', to some extent, to include places you haven't been and people you have never met, to evoke the atmosphere of the sublime. Ulysses returning to Ithica is certainly coming home in a special sense, but the Greeks who went to Troy with him were his wider culture.

Desmond Fennell himself even hints of this when he uses the phrase 'a representative community' to describe a nation. Local communities are not going to have airports and world-class poets and universities and hospitals and all the things that are part of national life; they will always seem more partial and fragmentary, part of a whole, than a nation. (But, once again, I'm not at all opposed to the project of decentralisation of media and government.)

I also dislike the waste of abandoned projects which don't have to be abandoned. I agree that modern nationalism was a secular and Protestant invention, but I don't have a problem with that. Generations put a huge amount of effort into the project of 'traditional' Irish nationalism, and great gains were made. It seems to dishonour that, in my view, if we decide that old-fashioned nationalism was on the wrong path, especially if there is no compelling reason to do so. I am for reviving that project, which has demonstrated that it can galvanise tens of thousands of people (or more).

So, in brief; I am all in favour of strengthening and promoting local identities, but within the umbrella of cultural nationalism rather than as an alternative to it. If it is done as 'the next thing', yet another form of revisionism, I am even against it. You cannot preserve or create traditions by continually starting again.

And finally, a word about seasonality.

The "unto everything there is a season" passage in Ecclesiastes is one of the most sublime pieces of poetry ever written, in my view. Seasonality is utterly fascinating. I love boundaries in both time and space. I love the idea that "this is here, not anywhere else". Or, "This is now, not any other time". Or "We are us, not them."

I've always loved collections of newspaper columns. I love reading articles that pertain to a particular moment in time, whether it's something regular and widespread like Christmas, or something much more specific like a general election, or a political scandal, or a papal visit. I like coming across cultural and topical references which are now obscure.

I love especially reading these articles long, long after they are written.

Such writing has a charm all its own. It's not like some timeless and deathless poem (Poe's 'Raven', for example) which transcends its era and original audience and speaks to the ages, to universal humanity. It's not so grandiose. Its very limits give it its charm. It feels more intimate.

So I enjoy putting references to the time of year, and to recent events, in my weekly column.

When I was a kid, I came across a yellowed page from a newspaper-- I think it might have been used as lining for the bottom of a drawer-- that showed a picture of a woman in a bikini, on the beach, and had the headline "Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer". I'd never heard the phrase before and found it madly evocative. (I still do.) But the thing I really found delicious was the contrast between the yellowed newspaper, used to line the bottom of a drawer, and the glamour of the picture. Somehow the distance in time and atmosphere made the summer seem more real, more summery.

I reminds me of the last two verses of Philip Larkin's 'Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album':

So I am left
To mourn (without a chance of consequence)
You, balanced on a bike against a fence;
To wonder if you'd spot the theft
Of this one of you bathing; to condense,

In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer as the years go by.

No comments:

Post a Comment