Goodnight sweet prints, myanmar, fake news, nuclear war

Week 21 of the column, in which I perform a remarkable about-face on my attitude to print media, now that I am making some money from it. Lol jk – journalism is actually important. Stories are great, but there has to be facts.

 

When I left the newspaper industry three years ago, I thought we were heading into a brave new world. I had spent 12 years working as a subeditor in a regional paper, and saw how the digital revolution democratised communications and gave everyone a voice. I thought this was going to be great – everyone would be a citizen journalist, reporting live from global events, large and small; instead of having a small number of media outlets, we would have a chorus of unbiased, verifiable sources for our information.

The reality, of course, is slightly different. When you buy a newspaper, you are invested in it. You generally read it cover to cover, as you paid for it and are committed to it. You are exposed to things you would otherwise not see, opinions you might not like, ideas and information that you could otherwise miss. The commercial aspect of newspapers also meant that if they get things wrong, they get sued; there is accountability.  The overall ethos of the paper you buy may reflect your world view, but you are still opening your mind to a variety of opinions, insights and facts.

On the internet we tend to only look at the things we like – this is anything from cat videos to celebrity nip slips. The more we hit that like button, the more the internet gives us what we want. It refuses to challenge us. In an age when we have the entire world at our fingertips, we seem more concerned with being entertained than informed. This was brought home to me when I asked a friend if he thought Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan still sing Unplayed Piano, the ballad they wrote in 2004 about Aung San Suu Kyi, now that she has been released from house arrest and seems intent on looking the other way while ethnic cleansing takes place in her country. I got a blank stare. Whatever about knowing the back catalogue of Rice and Hannigan, I thought he might have heard about a massacre that has left an estimated thousand dead. He had not. For all the time we spend on our phones, we seem a lot less connected to the world around us. The grim eventuality of this is currently being playing out across the Atlantic.

In 1938 Orson Welles decided to teach America a lesson. He felt they swallowed everything they heard on the radio a little too readily, and created The War Of The Worlds, a radio play that led many to believe that the planet was under attack from aliens. The Trump election campaign did something similar – it deceived people into believing they were under attack, that aliens were coming for them, and that only one man could save them. Trump said the media organisations that tried to hold him to account were fakes, and people believed him, not them. If there is a lesson there for us, it is that actual news matters more than ever.

Three years ago I picked up my redundancy cheque and headed off into my brave new world, where I believed news would be truly democratic. I was, as I am much of the time, dead wrong. Now I am seeing that newspapers matter, because facts matter. And I’m not just saying that because I get paid to write this, but because the bright lights of news media need to be kept on, for all our sakes.

The death of Harry Dean Stanton didn’t come as a surprise. At 91, there were periods of the last decade when he would pop up in a cameo and I would suddenly remember that he wasn’t actually dead. Like all great character actors, he disappeared into the roles he took. He was the go-to for the hangdog American everyman, and seemed to play a succession of people who had not-quite achieved the American dream. The film critic Roger Ebert once said that no film with Harry Dean Stanton can be altogether bad, although he later qualified this by adding that teen body swap comedy Dream A Little Dream, starring Coreys Haim and Feldman, was a clear violation of this rule.

His greatest role was in Paris Texas, where he played a drifter walking the roads of the southern states as a form of atonement. I loved the film from the first time I saw it as a troubled teenager, but it was only years later I could see that this was because it spoke to me. Being adopted, then central themes of family, abandonment and redemption all resonated in my teenage subconscious. As an adult, I love Paris Texas because I spend much of my time like Stanton’s character Travis, wondering if my family would be better off without me, if I should take to the highways and byways of Munster as penance for being a fairly dismal parent. But as this is Ireland, I probably wouldn’t get far before I got clipped by a passing SUV or drowned in a pothole.

A less notable death this year was that of Stanislav Petrov, aged 77. Although he passed away in May, news is only breaking now of his passing and of the minor incident in 1983 that saw him save the world.  In the depths of the Second Cold War, Russian satellite warning system alerted authorities that a nuclear missile had been launched by the US, and was followed by several others, all headed for Russia. This was an act of war, and the Russians had to scramble to retaliate. Lt Col. Petrov, however, discerned that it was a false alarm, stood down the Russian weapons systems, and prevented what could well have been the end of civilization as we know it. It seems strange that one man had the presence of mind – and faith in humanity – to know that this was a malfunction. Despite all the technology teling him otherwise, Petrov knew that the computers were wrong: He saw information on a screen, and was able to discern that it was false. If only we all had this ability.

Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi gave an address to her nation yesterday. She condemned any human rights violations in her country, and previously said an iceberg of false information was being put forward about the situation. All she needs to do now is stick on a little red cap and claim there are good people on both sides, before promising to build a wall around the Rohingya, who the UN have said are victims of a military ethnic cleansing programme. Here in Ireland, people seem strangely on the fence. In a poll of 1,000 adults for Claire Byrne Live, 42% of people said they think the Myanmar leader’s award of the Freedom Of Dublin should be rescinded, 11% disagreed and 47% were unsure. Assuming the 11% were just massive fans of the song Unplayed Piano, it is still incredible that 47% were unsure how to feel about what is happening in Myanmar. If ever there was a case to be made for people to just pick up a paper and have a proper read of it, there it is.

Snakes on an astral plane

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So the Indo asked me to write a bit for Paddy’s Day. It was meant to be 17 signs you’re Irish, or alternatives way to mark the day, so I got confused and ended up with something between those two. Of all the things I wrote for the paper this was the one I stumbled over the most. Thus, it ended up being a somewhat overwrought and overlong 1,200 words on whatever the hell this is: 

 

I want to tell you a story. A story about a young man from a country far away, who yearned for a better life. Lured here with promises of a great job and excellent working conditions, he found himself forced into slavery, working in filthy conditions and surrounded by animals. No, I’m not talking about Brent Pope, but of our patron saint, Patrick. Like all young men growing up in Wales he dreamed only of playing rugby in a coal mine with the rest of his choir, but after spotting an ad in the local ogham stone looking for young talent to work overseas, he signed up and was shipped off to Ireland to herd sheep. Granted, it could have been worse – he could have been forced to work the late shift in a Spar on O’Connell Street, and while he really ought to have heard alarms bells when the recruitment agency was run by a man named Niall Of The Nine Hostages, his fate – and ours – were forever entwined thereafter.

 

He did escape eventually, but after a brief interlude back home, presumably working as a roadie for Tom Jones, he spotted a gap in the market back in Ireland for guilt. Our national identity has been linked – for better or worse – with the Catholic faith ever since, but perhaps now is a good time to think about all the things that make us who we are.

 

  1. Form a disorderly queue: Few things capture the essence of Irishness like the depressing mayhem of our attempts to queue. Having been raised with the horizontal battlefront queueing system in pubs, our transition from jostling pintbabies to confused pintmen and pintladies every time we are expected to form a straight line is something to behold. Like a particularly drug-addled horse at the start of the Grand National, our restless spirit won’t allow us to simply stand in a line waiting our turn for anything, be it to board an Expressway bus, select from a breakfast buffet, use self-service checkouts, or attend a removal.  
  2. Do what thou wilt and that shall be the whole of the law: For a country with so many zany self-imposed religious rules, we really struggle to comply with some of the more basic statutory ones. Any rule we don’t like becomes John Bull’s Law, and thus is to be ignored until we become four green fields once more. This list includes TV licenses, any and all avoidable taxes, picking up after your dog, and a whole host of others. This St Patrick’s Day why not celebrate our innate lawlessness by parking in in a junction box, walking in a cycle lane, cycling on a footpath, or simply wandering into a random queue at the halfway point.
  3. Avoid confrontation: We love a good donnybrook, even going so far as ironically naming a well-to-do part of Dublin after our beloved mass brawls. But those are collective affairs – we are the fighting Irish, not the fighting Irish person. One-on-one, we are terrible at standing our ground. You can point to any number of historical reasons for it, but we are completely incapable of asking someone to stop cycling on the footpath, or to not skip the queue, or to stop spitting their gum onto your shoes. Even when we do try to confront an issue, it ends coming out as a series of increasingly apologetic ‘sorrys’. So when some giant stands right in front of you at the parade, or a sleeveen slithers in to get served ahead of you at the bar, swallow that anger down, and store it up for the next donnybrook. On Paddy’s Day you shouldn’t have too long to wait.
  4. Talk without speaking: We are a nation of talkers, and we love nothing more than chewing over the important issues of the day, such as potatoes, rain, or the effects of rain on potatoes. Just as the Inuit have a veritable blizzard of words for snow, we have a dozen flowery words for potato and more than nine million for rain, but they all carry deeper layers of meaning. Here are a few translations to get you started:
    ‘Tis fine out’ – I am filled with a sense of doom.
    ‘The forecast is for rain’ – All is right with the world.
    ‘Are these the new potatoes?’ – I no longer love you.
  5. Is there anything to be said for another Mass: Most of us are products of the Catholic education system, where the central tenet, as Billy Connolly once noted, was ‘Jesus is dead and it’s all your fault’. St Patrick may have helped wrap our national identity in the shroud of the holy Roman Catholic empire, but there are other faiths in this world and this land, and we could do with learning a bit more about them. As a country that venerates Foster And Allen, Gerry Adams and Daithi O Se, we should have no problem understanding any religion that worships lads with beards. Which is basically all of them.
  6. An béal bocht: Apart from the Belle Époque of 2006-2007, during which we pretended to be rich, nothing satisfies us like pretending to be poor. Everything is a struggle, we tell the person seated next to us on the flight to Mallorca. We are finding it so hard to make ends meet, we tell the car dealer as he hands over the keys to a 171 ozone killer. When will John Bull stop his insane tax laws, we ask the bank manager as we remortgage our third home to buy another. The poor mouth is an integral part of our identity, and even with big ticket purchases we go to great lengths of humblebrag about how they were the deal of the century, despite everyone knowing full well that you didn’t get that Fabergé egg in TK Maxx.  
  7. Demonic possessiveness: Our grasp of history may not be the sharpest, given that 90% of our schooling was given over to Catholic Guilt 101, and what we do know mostly relates to John Bull and his cockamamy laws that we refuse to abide by. However, woe betide anyone from another country try to claim something Irish as their own. All we need is to hear a simple phrase like ‘award-winning British actor Michael Fassbender’ and we turn into a nation of Wolverines. Granted, Fassy was born in Germany, but when he emotes as Professor Mutato in X-Men, or expresses anguish in that film about Copperface Jacks, Shame, and the Kerry accshint comes out, it is as stirring to us as listening to A Nation Once Again whilst eating a bowl of lovely floury pops on a grand soft day atop Carrauntoohil. Anyone who thinks they can lay claim to him, or any other Irish success story – be it whiskey, Olympic boxers, or the cure for leprosy – can pull themselves a nice cold pint of cop on.
  8. Be pernickety about St Patrick’s Day: The American use of the four-leaf clover in place of a shamrock is annoying enough (who does the fourth leaf symbolise, Colonel Sanders?), but it’s their cheerful use of ‘St Patty’ that seems to get under our skin the most. Perhaps this is because at any one time there are about two million Patricks in this country and not one of them is known as Patty. But sher as long as they keep mislabelling 50,000 of our lads over there as ‘undocumented’ as opposed to ‘illegal immigrants’, they can call him whatever they want.
  9. Pessimistic optimism: The Irish carry in their hearts the sense that things are fairly terrible, but they could always be worse. We like talking about our ‘Third World health/education/transport system’, despite the fact that it is now known as the developing world, and despite the fact that we have clearly never been there. The same mind that can spend 25 minutes describing a crater-sized pothole will eventually grudgingly admit that there are probably worse potholes in Alleppo and that what’s happening there is actually pretty bad and, to be fair, this really is a great country if only they could build a roof over it, and that postman in the Blue Stacks said our summer will be so hot that the earth will slam into the sun, so everything will be grand in the end, we can’t go on, we will go on.
  10. Make and do: Whether it be poetry, music, human life, or sovereign debt, the Irish create at an exponential rate, and our cultural impact on this planet is something to behold. We somehow managed to consensually colonise much of the civilised world, peddling craic and multiplying like Tribbles. What other country has a national day of celebration that the whole world wants to be part of? The UK talks of a special relationship with the US, but it’s a relationship where date night involves invading Iraq. We roll up to the White House once a year with a bowl of small weeds we dug up in the back lawn and somehow the entire month of March is given over to a celebration of us. To be Irish is something of a little miracle, a nation of dreamers that weaponised charm and spread out across the world like a cheerful green mold – and that is something worth celebrating, even if it is by standing in the rain watching a parade of disco dancing toddlers and tractors for two hours. Sher where else would you be?