Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Watching the Late Late Show

Yesterday, I was watching some old episodes and clips of the Late Late Show on YouTube. I mean, of course, from the time that Gay Byrne presented it. It was quite the nostalgia kick.

I'm at the age for nostalgia, undoubtedly. Admittedly, I've always been a nostalgist, but the call of the past seems especially compelling in one's forties. All of my siblings seem to be going through this right now (we are all aged between forty and sixty-- my younger brother just turned forty last week). They're all immersed in genealogical research, though I tend to be more drawn to oral traditions and collective memories.

Mortality has been much on my mind this week. I discovered that a friend of mine died last month. I call him a friend, but we hadn't been in touch for a few years. He was an elderly gentleman, somewhat cranky and argumentative, but I appreciated his flair for self-dramatization and the stories he would tell about his past. I knew he was lonely at the end but I hadn't seen him in a few years, so I feel guilty about that. I finally sent him an email a few weeks ago, not realizing it was already too late. Only when he didn't reply did I scan for obituaries.

Watching the Late Late Show certainly reinforced this sense of omnipresent mortality, of the world of my youth slipping over the horizon. One of the clips I watched was Gay Byrne interviewing Jack Charlton, the manager of the Irish international soccer team from 1985 to 1996. Both have died recently, Gay Byrne in 2019 and Jack Charlton in 2020. And, of course, my father also died in 2019. He was a huge admirer of Jack Charlton (though not of Gay Byrne).

I think about nostalgia a lot. Whenever anyone waxes lyrical about the days of their youth, or about some vanished era, the cynics are wont to say: "That's just nostalgia". But why use the word just there? Nostalgia is fascinating in itself. I can easily imagine a world without it, a world in which our vision of the past would be as clear-eyed and passionless as security camera footage. The strangest thing about nostalgia is its existence.

I like the fact that the human mind is not a passive receptacle of memory, that it does something with it. I've spent a lot of time wondering why we get nostalgic. There could be all sorts of reasons, of course; the most obvious being that the past really is better than the present, often enough.

But would that even be enough for nostalgia? After all, it's not simply a comparison of better to worse, which would hardly be much in itself. It's a particular atmosphere, a particular mood. Music is often be described as "nostalgic", even when there is no lyrics. For instance, Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on Greensleeves" sounds nostalgic, even though there are no words.


One reason I think we feel nostalgia is because we suddenly see the past, or a particular period, as complete in itself, as possessing a certain wholeness. Anarchy is replaced by a pattern. Cacophony becomes music. It's somewhat akin, I imagine, to the reaction astronouts report when they look back at the earth and suddenly see it as one shining blue pebble in the darkness of space.

I know the nineteen-eighties was not really a good time in Ireland. All anyone ever seemed to talk about was emigration, unemployment, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, drugs, and so forth.

But, in a strange way, I feel "at home" in that period of Irish history more than any other. It was a time when just having a job was seen as a good thing, an achievement. Everybody was poor (or so it seems to me, looking back) so there was more solidarity, and less careerism and consumerism.

Catholicism, too, remained omnipresent in Irish society, even though the iceberg of the sex scandals was floating towards us. In the Jack Charlton interview, he describes the Irish team meeting the Pope during the World Cup finals in Italy in 1990. That story has often been told, but more interesting was his statement that he regularly arranged Mass for the team on away games. I wonder if that still happens?


One of the episodes I watched was a tribute to Paul McGrath, the legendary defender who was the foundation of Charlton's Irish team. It was a This Is Your Life type of episode, with various friends of the great man giving their memories of him. Among these was one man, someone who had worked as a security guard with McGrath in his younger days, who was now a Catholic priest. He was a reasonably young fellow, too. (He describes McGrath as "coloured" at one point, a poignant reminder of the pre-political correctness days. Nobody bats an eyelid.)

The Catholicism of eighties Ireland, as I've said elsewhere, was mellow and self-confident in a way that no longer seems possible. Certainly, this mellowness and self-confidence could just as well be called inertia and complacency. And it was, to some extent. But not entirely. It was simply accepted (for the most part) that religion was a feature of Irish life, and a good thing-- that the Catholic Church was a pillar of teh nation.

The Late Late Show was (and still is) broadcast on Friday night, when school was as far away as it would ever be, outside the holidays. I remember falling asleep, week after week, with "Uncle Gaybo's" velvety tones washing over me. Actually, I didn't like Uncle Gaybo much at the time, perhaps because my father didn't like him much. But my mother adored him, as did middle-aged and elderly women all over Ireland. He had the boyish good looks and gentle, smooth manner that seemed to appeal to older Irish women at that time.

More than anything else, in retrospect, The Late Late Show seemed like a kind of fireplace of the Irish nation, where it gathered once a week. It made the nation seem like one big extended family. This has always been my favourite conception of nationality. "The nation is the family writ large", as Patrick Pearse said.

I've often wondered what it must feel like to come from a "great nation"-- great in the sense of big. I've only ever known the cosiness of a small nation. I wouldn't trade it for greatness.

I could write much more about The Late Late Show, but perhaps that's enough for now.

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