Category Archives: Uncategorized

ARCHIVE PIECE: The past is never dead online

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 18

 

Social media is once again in the headlines, and the dock, as its often-pernicious influence is debated. The tragic case of Caroline Flack has seen calls for legislation, or at least tighter controls by companies providing this service, against abuse.

Meanwhile some newly elected TDs are learning a lesson already painfully absorbed by celebrities: the internet is immortal. Whatever you put up there stays there, forever.

Several big-name stars were fired from jobs, or dropped from awards ceremonies, after eagle-eyed members of the public trawled back through their tweets and posts for material deemed offensive, bigoted or otherwise verboten.

In some cases, it doesn’t matter if the sentiments were considered acceptable at that time. In an ironic twist, the users of this immortal medium are obsessed with contemporaneity. If a celebrity’s thoughts jar at all with the prevailing mood in February 2020, they’re toast. Welcome to “cancel culture”.

Now this digital archaeology has been extended to politics, though in that case, the concept has more validity. Indeed, one could argue that, in putting yourself forward for election to the national parliament, you’re not only exposing your past to scrutiny – but the public, and the system, have the right and the duty to examine it.

These are, after all, the people who will be shaping our country, drawing up legislation, making changes, forwarding one development and preventing another. They carry a hell of a lot of responsibility (and are rewarded for it very well).

So, yes, if you tweeted five years ago that Israel was responsible for bringing down the Two Towers, that’s probably relevant when the new Taoiseach is deciding whether to make you Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Actually, Israel was the subject – big surprise – of one of the more doolally post-election social media messages which got new TDs in trouble. In this case, the politician didn’t actually reiterate that old “the Jews caused 9-11” racist canard; she merely blamed “dirty tricks” by Mossad for hobbling the chances of Jeremy Corbyn last year. As one respondent dryly pointed out, it’s perplexing how this sinister, all-powerful organisation somehow allowed her to get voted in.

There have been other social media boo-boos, from candidates victim-blaming Mairia Cahill to anti-vaccination conspiranoia to unwisely triumphant chest-beating after victory. In perhaps the oddest – and most quintessentially Irish – instance, a politician got embroiled in a Twitter spat with Rory Cowan off Fair City and Mrs Brown’s Boys.

They say in public life that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. We can now update that to: if you’re slagging off the likeable Rory Cowan on social media, merely for supporting the similarly likeable Noel Rock, you’re definitely losing.

Our politicians have been caught with their pants down online in other, more recent ways. Just think of those viral videos of winning candidates lustily belting out rebel songs; hollering “Up the ‘Ra”, as if they have the slightest idea about the reality of The Troubles, having grown up in the pampered peacefulness of our republic; or crowing about “breaking” the “Free State bastards”.

Eh? The Free State? Hey, 1922 called – they want their political references back.

But it’s the sins of the past which increasingly come back to haunt public figures. Only a complete moron will keep tweeting their deranged effluvium once they’ve been elected – I know, there are a few – and most politicians will tone it down, in public at least, from here on.

As I say, though, the internet never forgets. If you typed and hit send, any site and any time, those words are now stored on a hard-drive, somewhere.

Deleting is pointless; once you’ve been rumbled, the first thing everyone else does is take a screenshot. This compounds the original crime: people now think you’re engaged in a cover-up. Which, of course, you are.

The internet is immortal. And in a strange and slightly eerie way, it makes people immortal, not just their words. People die but their online presence sometimes lingers on, a kind of digital ghost.

During the election campaign, I searched on Twitter for mentions of Noel Whelan, the brilliant psephologist and political analyst who died last year, whose contributions was sorely missed in 2020. It was a bit of a jolt to see that Noel’s Twitter page is still up. So too is that of Keelin Shanley and the aforementioned Caroline Flack. Marian Finucance’s remained online until recently.

It seems a bit weird, even unsettling, but then you think: well, what’s to be done about it? Twitter et al may feel they don’t have the right to delete someone’s digital existence, and nobody else but the person themselves can take it down. So there it remains.

Should we nominate someone to delete our social media if we die, then? Should that form part of a will? Should Twitter do it automatically once a death is registered, and how would that even work?

Oh, the complexities and confusions of modern life, where the technology of the future keeps us ever looking backwards. As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


ARCHIVE PIECE: Why I stopped voting for Sinn Féin

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 10

 

There’s nothing worse than being a prophet who’s unrecognised in his own time. But that, sadly, is the position I find myself in.

Oddly enough, for a man who is in many ways an unreconstructed dinosaur, I actually have form for being ahead of my time on certain matters. A few examples: I was wearing those “Buddy Holly” glasses years before they became popular with hipsters; I had a beard years before they became popular with every male on earth; I was vegetarian for years before it became the done thing for environmental or health reasons; I was reusing, recycling and being eco-friendly for years before it became socially and legally mandatory; I was into Korean movies for years before one of them became the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar; I was doing feminism-friendly “women in GAA” special editions as editor of a Gaelic games magazine years before the 20/20 campaign.

My life, in some regards, has been a broader version of the guy at a music festival, pointing at the wildly successful band on-stage and snottily declaring, “Yeah, well, I was into them before it was cool.”

And like that guy, I sometimes lose interest in something, as it reaches the critical mass of being loved by Joe Public and Mary Housecoat. Which brings me, sort of, to Sinn Féin.

Their remarkable election results – I’m officially obliged to use the word “surge” here, under various journalistic bylaws and sub-regulations – have propelled the party into the first division of Irish politics.

Sinn Féin have secured the highest number of first-preference votes. They’ll almost certainly be involved in the next government, despite all the “oh no they won’t” pantomime protestations from others beforehand. They’ve shattered the old two-party system. Even some fervently anti-republican commentators have had Pauline conversions and now clasp Sinn Féin to their bosom.

They’re definitively major players in the current Game of Thrones. And my main takeaway from all of this is: if only it had happened five or ten years ago.

I can’t take any real happiness or satisfaction from Sinn Féin’s rise, you see, because I no longer vote for them. From young adulthood up to a few years back, I only voted for them and the Green Party. “Green and green”, I would wittily reply when asked who I’d gone for in an election.

I was seduced, probably, by the glamour of “revolutionary chic”; the edgy, vaguely disreputable air surrounding people like Sinn Féin, Che Guevara or Leon Trotsky is attractive to callow minds. They feel like rebels, and when you’re young, that’s all you want to be. Smash the system, man!

I was also pretty nationalist in my inclinations. Not quite to the point of condoning murder and torture, but certainly more than willing to contextualise it and argue that, sometimes, armed “resistance” is justified.

So had Sinn Féin delivered this spectacular election result when I was in my thirties, I’d have celebrated like, well, a crowd of yahoos roaring Come Out Ye Black and Tans at a count centre. I might even have been one of those yahoos.

Unfortunately, at some stage over the last decade, the love died for me. There are various reasons, not least the continued association with an unelected, secretive and, let’s be honest, rather terrifying militia sequestered in the Badlands north of the border. Call me a boring old fuddy-duddy if you must, but there’s something undemocratic about that.

And there were other reasons. Sinn Féin always seemed to be criticising everything, but never proposing practical solutions to problems. They’re hideously anti-Israel, an automatic minus-point for me. They spent decades moaning about the EU, urging a No vote in every referendum, yet when Britain chose to leave they suddenly transformed into the EU’s biggest fans. That stupid three-year stand-off at Stormont.

What really broke the camel’s back was the – have to be careful here – alleged cover-up of alleged sexual assault of women and girls by IRA members. For a party which has traded heavily on identity politics, including feminism, when it suits, there didn’t appear to be a whole lot of #MeToo and #IBelieveHer going on in that instance.

Anyway, that’s where it lies: I was a strong Sinn Féin supporter when few other people were, and now that everyone loves them, I’ve jumped ship. Contrarian or what?

There’s also a quandary for anyone seeking an alternative to the political mainstream. Who do you vote for, if you want to stick it to the Man? Sinn Féin now are the Man, and will likely soon be in power.

Labour seem pointless, as do the Soc Dems. The various socialist mini-parties are laughable. A lot of Independents seem daft, and besides they have little influence. There’s always the Greens, of course, but other than that, options for proper protest voting are slim.

Sinn Féin. I preferred their earlier stuff, man. Before they sold out and went all commercial, you know?


Cocaine users are just a few steps from killers

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD JANUARY 21

 

When did cocaine use become so socially acceptable? I’m genuinely asking, because I’m genuinely bewildered. At what point did we, in the western world and specifically Ireland, decide that this, of the “harder” illegal drugs out there, was okay for “regular people” to regularly consume?

It used to be that drink and fags were considered fine, ethically speaking, because they were sold by legitimate vendors. A puff of a joint or magic mushrooms were alright too, don’t get caught by your parents but no real harm done.

Meanwhile acid wasn’t easy to come by but I don’t recall it having the fierce social stigma surrounding illegal drugs, possibly because it was – still is – sometimes used in a therapeutic setting.

Cocaine, alongside the likes of heroin or speed, was seen as dirty, dangerous, scummy. Apart from the risks, short- and long-term, to health, finances and quality of life, coke was recognised as coming from some of the world’s worst people: narcotics traffickers.

Buying it was handing money to the criminals. Every twenty quid hoovered up your nose was twenty quid for these animals to purchase more guns and wreak more horror on their enemies, communities and countries.

And guess what? It still is. You’re literally two or three steps away from the psychopaths who chopped up a 17-year-old gang member and scattered his body parts around last week.

The gangs have no power, no anything, without money. By giving them your money, you’re handing them that power to bring down ruination and misery.

Not to mention that you’re indirectly – but not too indirectly – contributing to the absolute hellhole situations in the source countries of these drugs. Mexico, Colombia, Afghanistan: they’re essentially ungovernable because comparatively rich westerners hand over billions annually to cartels.

Yet cocaine is now A-OK with the cool people. Apparently use in Ireland has surpassed even the deranged Celtic Tiger era, and is seen across all social classes and locations. And age demographics: one report yesterday said kids are now sorting out coke for their Debs balls.

As I say, I find it absolutely amazing how this drug is now so acceptable. Apart from everything else – and there’s a lot of everything else, as documented above – there’s a rank hypocrisy.

The same people who’d look down their noses at the poor misfortunates hooked on heroin or crystal meth have no problem using cocaine. But is there any real difference between either choice?

Indeed, if anything, the world would probably be a safer place if people took heroin rather than coke. The former puts you into a drowsy stupor of bliss and indifference; the user is pacific, only a threat when they need money to buy more heroin. Cocaine, in sharp contrast, makes people obnoxious, abrasive, reckless and, in some cases, violent.

Yet one is anathema to all “right-thinking people”, whereas the other is just hunky-dory. I’ve been offered coke twice in my life, and was agog and speechless each time.

Once was at a house-party, late on in the night: it felt a bit surreal, to be honest, but at least this was that “let’s do something a bit wild” part of the evening. The other time was in a pub, having a few post-work pints – at half-six in the evening.

I remember thinking, “What the hell? Home & Away hasn’t even come on yet, and here’s some guy asking me if I want to do coke in the pub toilets.”

Could you imagine someone enquiring as to whether you’d like to come smoke some heroin at tea-time? Hey, let’s nip into the bathroom and do a little crack. Go on, it’ll be fun.

This mental disconnect is utterly mystifying, and it’s not the only one. Cocaine users seem incapable of drawing that line between the powder on their table and the murderous cabals who sold it to them.

It’s always bought off “a friend of a friend” or “a guy I know, he’s grand, he’s not a criminal, he just has access to it”. Yeah, he may not be a criminal – but the person he bought it off certainly is.

Maybe the next time they’re wringing their hands about gangland crime, they should ask themselves: what am I doing to enable all this horror? It really is that simple. No buyers means no money means no power for the gangsters.

People are pretty good nowadays for ethical consumerism: they’ll boycott companies with poor conditions for their workers, insist on Fair Trade coffee, demand more accountability and higher taxes for corporations. All well and good, very admirable.

They might think about also applying these principles to the underbelly of the capitalist structure. Narco-traffickers are corporations, just not legally recognised as such; and we, the consumers, have the wherewithal to hobble their reign of terror.

Personally, I think drugs should be decriminalised, as the only way to wrest power from the gangs; until that unlikely day, maybe consider just saying no.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Why must everything now be done in public?

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD DECEMBER 2019

 

The first thing that struck me about that row between climate change hero Greta Thunberg and German rail network Deutsche Bahn was a memory. I looked at that by-now-viral photo of Greta sitting between carriages, surrounded by rucksacks, gazing out the window, and thought: that’s exactly how every train journey I took as a student went.

There were never enough seats during Friday evening and Sunday night rush-hour on the Cork-Dublin line in the 1990s. Never. You didn’t expect to get a seat.

What you expected was to sit in discomfort, smoking to while away the time and kill the boredom (you were allowed smoke on trains back then – the past wasn’t all bad), and forlornly hoping that the cute girl with the nose-ring, sitting with her own rucksacks across the way, might notice the copy of Kierkegaard or Wide Sargasso Sea that you were ostentatiously pretending to read, and then initiate conversation.

Today’s young ‘uns clearly expect more from life, though, as Greta took to Twitter with a mild critique of the situation. Deutsche Bahn clarified that she did, in fact, have a seat for much of the journey, as did her team/staff/whatever, finishing with a slightly petty query as to why she didn’t compliment their staff on how nicely they’d treated her. Greta countered the counter by saying that she didn’t mind sitting between carriages, it wasn’t necessarily meant as a critique, and anyway isn’t a packed train a good sign that humanity is moving away from airplanes and roads.

Who’s in the right here? I couldn’t say, and more importantly, I couldn’t care less. My main takeaway from the whole farrago was: is this the way it is now, forever? Must every disagreement be hashed out in the klieg-light glare of social media?

No celebrity, politician, footballer, artist or other public figure is now capable of engaging with someone in an argument, unless it’s across the hell-blasted electronic pages of Twitter, Facebook and wherever else.

Donald Trump has practically started World War III on social media, for God’s sake. EU apparatchiks seem to be forever getting in sly digs on Twitter about those annoying Brits and their pesky desire to leave. Recently here at home Twink, with her spiteful words about Shane MacGowan, came perilously close to kicking off a second Civil War against the Tipp legend’s many devoted followers.

The situation has reached a sort of metaphysical crescendo, which we can express in a question: if two people have a row but they don’t splash it across Twitter, has it actually happened?

I can half-understand your Hollywood stars and mouthy musicians and Reality TV oxygen-thiefs constantly revving up rows online. Part of their job description is keeping themselves in the public eye, and what better way to do that than slag off a rival?

I can also half-understand us lumpen proles doing it. Let’s face it, most of us don’t have anything better to do with our lives; might as well count down the clock to impending mortality by screeching at random strangers about abortion or Lisa Chambers or why they’re sub-human scum for liking some movie that we didn’t like.

But politicians should be above that. Public servants should be above that. The US President and EU negotiators and business leaders and the great and good of society should all be above it.

Dammit, Deutsche Bahn should be above it too. And so should Greta Thunberg. If she’s old enough to address the United Nations, she’s old enough to show a bit of decorum when things go mildly askew.

There’s something depressing about the way these matters are now played out on the internet. Nothing is handled in private anymore, in a sober, responsible and grown-up way.

I guess it’s all representative of how “public” life has become. Nothing matters in 2019 unless everyone sees it happen. Notions of privacy, tact and discretion have been made redundant by the accursed demi-gods of the digital age.

The stiff upper lip is derided. Holding things in is considered a symptom of some deep-rooted mental illness. Not talking about every single goddamn thing, all the time, in public is now considered the sign of a suspect, and possibly deficient, personality. Everything must be vomited forth for literally anyone on the planet to read.

But maybe I’m wrong, and it was always like this. We didn’t have the internet, of course, until shortly before the millennium. But maybe disgruntled politicos and celebs and German rail companies were at each other’s throats regardless, only back then it was done via the newspaper letters pages or splenetic TV interviews.

It may even go back further than that. For all I know, some pharaoh of Ancient Egypt had abusive remarks about his successor chiselled into the stone on his terrifyingly immense burial shrine. Then the next guy would hit back with some shade of his own when he died and they were building another pyramid.

That’s the human condition, really. We’re idiots and we always have been. #TutankhamunIsALoser


What we want to say to election candidates . . . and what we actually say

Published in the Herald January 14

 

The secret ballot is the best invention in human history. It means we can all be honest in our votes. We don’t have to worry about what others think of our choice at election time, about potentially losing work or friends because our politics are deemed somehow faulty. In some countries, indeed, the secret ballot can save your life and liberty.

And let’s face it: we’re all complete cowards anyway. As the first general election in four years looms on the horizon, I am reminded again of the vast chasm between what we want to say to politicians when they come canvassing for votes – and what we actually say.

Maybe it’s the in-built Irish terror of any sort of confrontation – urgh, the awkwardness! – but personally, I now can’t imagine tearing into any candidate to their face over the next few weeks. Which is sort of a contradiction, because for the last four years I’ve been doing exactly that: imagining all the caustic, hostile and uncomfortable things I’d say to them when they knocked on the door.

You know yourself: any time something goes wrong with how this country is run, the default reaction is something like, “Wait until any of that shower come asking for my vote! I’ll give them a piece of my mind!”

You picture the scene as it will undoubtedly unfold: the hapless politico and band of supporters cowering in shame and terror as you impersonate Atticus Finch with a brilliant and devastating “j’accuse!” of their many failings. How satisfying it will be, you tell yourself. Years of pent-up anger and frustration unleashed in one almighty yawp of condemnation.

In reality, I open the door to, say, a member of the government party and instead of launching into a diatribe about the ongoing snafu in housing, health or broadband that’s slower than a lame turtle taking it nice and handy on his morning walk around the park, I’ll mutter a few banal words along the lines of “Uh, okay, yeah, I’ll give you a tick, no bother.”

It doesn’t even have to be a Fine Gael TD. The local Fianna Fáiler could come a-rapping on my door, and rather than metaphorically rip their head off over bankrupting the state in 2010 and generally being a cabal of sneaky weasels lining each other’s pockets for the last 80 years, I’ll nod and hum and promise to maybe think about giving them a vote.

Am I being dishonest? Ah, yeah. I’d have to admit that. But what can you do? As I said, it’s an Irish thing. Most of us are simply not programmed for any level of confrontation.

Presumably Germans, Americans, Poles and other races who tend to be more direct in their conversation don’t have a problem with critiquing politicians in person. And I’d imagine that the candidates, in turn, don’t mind too much being reproached by voters.

For us Irish, though, even the thought of it brings on a cold sweat. And canvassers would probably feel it was a bit “bad form” of you; that’s just not the way we do things here, like.

I can imagine their hurt little faces as I ask what the hell they’ve achieved for the area since the last general election, or test them on their policies, or demand they do something about whatever issue has been grinding my gears since 2016.

“Why is he being like this?” you can almost hear them thinking. “Doesn’t he know that Irish people never say what they mean?”

Ah stop, it’d be like torturing a puppy. I simply can’t do it.

Actually what I’d really love is to have the brass neck to ask a series of surreal, bizarre, abstract and irrelevant questions of each politician at my doorstep. Forget about the usual “what can your lot do for us” or “you promised to bring such-and-such to this town the last time and now where is it” type stuff.

Far more amusing – to me at least – would be questions such as: what is the meaning of life? Does God exist, and if so, is he/she/it interventionist or non-interventionist? Where do you stand on the time-honoured Marx-v-Hegel philosophical conundrum?

How will the county’s hurlers go this year? Should a man always wear a watch with a suit, even if he doesn’t normally wear one? What’s the best way to get blood out of a top if it needs to go on a low-temperature wash? (Asking that one for a friend.)

Have you seen John Wick 3? Follow-up question: if yes, what did you think of it? Follow-up to the follow-up: do you not feel that the franchise has jumped the shark a bit and they should have stopped at John Wick 2?

I won’t be doing any of that, though. I’ll stare at the ground, accept their election pamphlet that I won’t even look at before throwing it in the recycling, and assure them that, yes, I will most certainly give you an ould vote. Oh, I hate myself sometimes.


ARCHIVE PIECE: The culture that defined my decade

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD DECEMBER 27

 

Show me a man’s bookcase, someone once wrote, and I’ll show you the contents of his soul. If that be true, I’m about to peel back every last layer of my own soul, by revealing what defined this decade for me, not only in literature but across arts and entertainment.

I know some folks contextualise time passed in terms of politics, social trends, or sport. Personally, my deepest engagement with the age tends to be through culture. So these are the things that most rocked my world from 2010 to 2019:

 

Music

In 2011 I fell in love. Her name is Agnes Obel, she’s Danish, seems nice…and the most spectacularly gifted musician I’ve come across in quarter-of-a-century. In fact, Agnes is my artist of the decade, in any art-form: the woman is a genius.

Her haunting, otherworldly chamber-pop songs and instrumentals are beautifully wrought, her singing almost literally angelic. Shivers all up and down the spine.

Lykke Li was another Scandinavian woman who reshaped pop into fascinating forms, while – turning the volume up – Wolf Alice reminded me how exciting rock can be with their unique blend of grunge, power-pop and even a little folk.

The mighty Suede returned with one great album, two good ones and a string of barnstorming gigs. David Bowie signed off with Blackstar, a fittingly eccentric mélange of jazz noodlings, industrial drumbeats and melancholy lyrics.

David Lynch released two even weirder, but brilliant, albums. I also liked A-Ha’s Unplugged, Heligoland by Massive Attack, and the unashamedly meat-and-two-veg rock The Black Keys’ El Camino.

Not too many other albums stayed with me, though there were a lot of great individual songs: Old Town Road by Lil Nas X is my current obsession. Props to the nine-year-old for the recommendation…

 

Movies

Generally I can’t stand “tasteful”, middle-brow, Oscar-nominated fare. For me it’s either well-crafted genre pulp, or really arty art-house.

So, from the former category, I really enjoyed stomping actioners John Wick, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception and The Raid; horror films The Babadook, You’re Next and Housebound; the Coen brothers’ western True Grit. From the latter, I loved dreamy films where nothing really happens, and very slowly: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Only Lovers Left Alive, Cosmopolis.

Skyfall, The Revenant, Django Unchained and Drive sort of combined the best of both: artfulness and mainstream thrills. Meanwhile Frozen was the best kids’ film of the decade – and I don’t care what you’re going to say.

 

TV

Many of the real giants of this so-called Golden Age of TV left me cold and/or bored: Westworld was lame, Breaking Bad was dull, Game of Thrones was mostly horrible. But all three seasons of Fargo are as good as anything ever seen on the medium; the first season of True Detective likewise. Twin Peaks: The Return was elegiac, enigmatic and often terrifying (I literally shuddered at Agent Cooper’s final line).

Narcos and Mindhunter were brilliant dramas hewn from real-life stories; Channel 4’s Utopia had memorable characters and a phenomenally clever conspiracy at its heart. We weren’t left behind here either: Love/Hate and Dublin Murders, in different ways, were excellent.

Archer is still the funniest cartoon (funniest show, period) of the millennium. Bridget & Eamon remains deliriously daft and very amusing. Inside No 9 mixed comedy and horror in incredibly well-written scripts.

But the best show of the decade? Justified. US Marshall Raylan Givens is the coolest SOB ever to wear a Stetson, bringing rough justice to the hills of Kentucky. Finally, the great Elmore Leonard is done justice on-screen.

 

Books

The two best novels I read this decade couldn’t be more different. Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland by Dublin author Mia Gallagher is fractured, oblique and strange, filled with unnerving reverie and remarkably vivid characters; I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is a rollercoaster of a thriller which feels like being punched in the face for 800 pages – and enjoying it. But they were equally impressive.

In fiction I also really admired Colson Whitehead’s take on zombies, Zone One; Francis Spufford’s bravura history of post-war Communist Russia, Red Plenty; Night Film by Marisha Pessl, a wildly spooky mystery; Haruki Murakami’s epic alternate-universe drama 1Q84; and The Pier Falls, an exceptional story collection by Mark Haddon.

In non-fiction, Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard provided the required fix for us Ballard devotees, now that the great man has passed away. Morrissey’s Autobiography was often self-indulgent, even petulant, but captured the essence of its subject perfectly: the point, surely, of any memoir.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, Time Travel: A History by James Gleick and The Zoomable Universe by Caleb Scharf were peerless works of pop-science. Daniel Kalder’s Dictator Literature showed that politics is often far more bizarre than any fiction.

Finally, HHhH by Laurent Binet was a little bit of everything and a real one-of-a-kind: artily written fiction blurring into recorded fact, a meta-textual history of the famous assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, the author commenting on his own writing process throughout. Flann O’Brien would have approved.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Quit lecturing us, celebrities

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD DECEMBER 10

 

Apart from the fact that he’s got a cool retro-sounding name which could be found on a character from a Roddy Doyle novel, politician John Paul Phelan has at least done the state some service by speaking in a rather un-politician type way.

Minister of State in the Department of Housing, his comments about celebrity homelessness campaigners may be wrong or right – we’ll come back to that – but at least he gave an honest opinion.

That’s not really how it’s done, is it? Usually politicians bluster and plámas, hum and haw, not committing to anything for fear of offending someone or other.

Phelan, by contrast, was refreshingly blunt: he said he “didn’t see the point” in artists and entertainers “banging on” about the issue because they know “little or nothing” about it. He added, “It’s all well and good artists like Cillian Murphy and Glen Hansard, banging on about housing and homelessness – but what exactly are they achieving? They’re just complaining from the sidelines.”

It feels a bit churlish to criticise anyone, including famous people, trying to better the condition of those less fortunate than themselves. But be that as it may, there is, I think, a grain of truth in what Phelan said.

For one thing, do these celebrity interventions ever actually work? Take the last US election: Hillary Clinton had virtually every big name on her side, and Donald Trump still won.

It could be argued that the involvement of pampered superstars like Katy Perry and Jay-Z had the opposite effect to that intended and only antagonised Trump’s base further, reinforcing the notion that Hillary was part of a gilded elite and didn’t speak for them.

The same thing appeared to happen before the Brexit referendum, when footage of Bob Geldof and well-known chums hollering at some fishermen did little to disprove notions of the EU as a bureaucratic machine for the rich and powerful.

I don’t doubt that Murphy and Hansard, at least, are sincere in their views. They’ve always come across as decent, very un-Hollywood lads.

But for every sincere intervention, there are a dozen examples of celebrities using hot topics to lecture the plebs, feel good about themselves, drive a personal agenda, attack those they dislike or – the simplest and deepest motivation of all – further their careers. (I think it was the late Lemmy from Motorhead who admitted, “I don’t know if Live Aid was good for Africa – but it was certainly good for our record sales.”)

They adopt babies from Africa. They visit the world’s poorest places and performatively “feel the pain” of the destitute, all on camera of course. They do stupid telethons and encourage their fan-base to support this cause or retweet them using that hashtag.

They look fabulous while wearing those chic Repeal sweaters (black is very slimming, dahling, and very on-trend this season). They rep for Unicef. They make grandstanding speeches at awards ceremonies. They talk down to the lumpen proles, all the time, everywhere they can.

And guess what? Many of us are thoroughly sick of it.

There’s something slightly nauseating about being lectured in moral virtues by the most privileged people on the planet. Especially when you consider how hypocritical most of them are.

Hollywood, television, tech giants, the music business, professional sport: these are some of the most unethical industries on the planet, and these hectoring celebrities are some of the worst people on the planet.

They never do anything practical and constructive to make the world a better place; they never do a protest which might cost them personally or financially. They just talk the talk, never walking the walk.

So, for instance, it’s easy for movie stars to harangue “society” about how it “must do better” on sexism or racism or whatever the cause-du-jour might be. It’s not so easy, apparently, to demand that the studios cease using slave labour to produce the merchandise that you’re now hawking to children.

There’s one way you could instantly improve the lives of millions of non-white people, millions of women and girls (sadly, they often are mere girls): insist that the toys and lunchboxes from your new superhero blockbuster are made by staff given a good wage and safe working conditions.

Yet I have never read of an actor boycotting a film or studio, until those massively important problems are corrected. Not once.

The worst thing is, it would be so easy. The stars and studios would hardly notice the loss, such are the immeasurable oceans of money in which they swim. But much wants more, I suppose, and still they refuse. “Raising awareness”, after all, doesn’t affect the bank balance.

These clowns will then pontificate about how “we need” more female directors winning Oscars, or demand the introduction of gender-neutral toys. So long as they’re only costing a penny each to produce in a Third World sweatshop, though, right?

It all reminds me of the rich guy in a Simpsons episode who, on taking up some government job pro bono, declared piously, “I wanted to give something back to society. Not the money, but something.”