Journal, 11th – 16th March

I always dreaded becoming one of those people who complains about their life on the internet – this website used to have a rule that said I would never, ever talk about myself, which I removed once it became awkward – but this week has made it more difficult than usual. My enforced waiting-for-a-work-permit layoff has now ticked past 7 weeks, which is officially diagnosed as the “climbing the fucking walls” stage; Bob Crow and Tony Benn have both died, which means there are two less of the Kind Of Person We Need A Whole Lot More Of; their reward in death has been to be patronised by complete arseholes to a degree that would kill them all over again through acute nausea; one of the rare occasions I actually enjoyed a game of rugby was soured by a stupid iPhone photo being circulated as the latest Best Of A Thing Ever, reducing a brilliant sporting spectacle into some sort of aura-cleansing party to which the whole of Ireland imagines itself to be invited; and March 17th is nearly here, the only day in the calendar I truly hate. It has been Not A Good Week.

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The deaths would be upsetting on their own, of course. Bob Crow was a sometimes over-zealous but highly intelligent man, who worked bloody hard for people who would otherwise have shit pay and no respect. Tony Benn was someone I wholeheartedly admired, not just for his political insight but his general flintlike beauty. I’m just about old enough to remember a point when he was literally considered the devil incarnate by many, which is why the ‘towering figure’ blather is now borderline emetic. A few weeks before he died, Bob Crow was described on the Question Time as “the fat man with the red face and the pina coladas,” and admittedly this was by David fucking Starkey, but it’s the BBC who still give that obnoxious misogynistic prick access to the airwaves, and politicians who agree to sit opposite him. Besides, the room tittered at his daring transgressiveness rather than telling him to shut his stupid piehole. So it’s a bit rich that everyone has now issued tributes, most of which started with “I didn’t agree with him, but…”

This isn’t to say that they should have been jumping up and down to say he was a fat fuck and they only wished he’d died earlier, but just that if you don’t like a public figure who dies, the best thing is to keep your sodding mouth shut rather than pissing over their death with platitudinous blandery.

The reason this annoys me is simply that, of all the things that annoy me about contemporary narratives both fictional and factual, it’s the insistence on knocking off the awkward edges. I think Bob Crow was a fantastic trade union leader and hugely impressive man, who voiced (entirely sensible) opinions that were highly radical by contemporary standards, and was rewarded by press mockery for having a working-class accent and wearing loud shirts on holiday. He was at an apex of tabloid-lead viciousness and pure decorous spite, so it’s hardly surprising he operated on a war footing: as a result he fought battles when it wasn’t necessary, alienated chunks of the public who might otherwise have supported him, and made a tit of himself on Have I Got News For You. To boil him down to a goop of “tough opponent” and “fought for his members” is to emasculate history and do him a disservice.

And as for Tony Benn – this process of softening him to a pipe-smoking grandfather figure had begun before his death. In fact he was dangerous, with all the good and bad things that implies. As well as being left-wing, Benn was nationalistic in ways that were often completely out of step with mainstream thought. He insisted loudly and publicly that there was no difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber, in a post-2001, post-Iraq world when such a thing was political heresy; yet, because he was tacitly perceived as an idealistic welfare-state out-of-touch granduncle, it was held up as a “he’s still got it” moment, just like people chortle indulgently at a nonagenarian at wedding who says the bride looks like a whore (oh, granddad’s as sharp as ever, he’s such a character). Years earlier, Benn made similar statements about American aggression in a Cold War world (that it was no less than that of the Soviets, not that it looked like a whore), and was denounced as a public menace. Rather than engage with the pure sense behind what they said, Crow was made ridiculous, Benn was made cuddly. And both were ignored.

Apparently Benn remarked, not long before his death, that his whole life had been a failure. The fact is that he didn’t fail, it was those around him who failed. The Labour Party had a choice between Tony Benn and Denis “oh, bribery is fine, really” Healey, and they chose Healey. That’s failure, right there, and it wasn’t Tony Benn’s. Healey’s old too, well into his 90s. When he’s gone I’ll probably read about him with academic interest. When Tony Benn died, I read his letter to his grandchildren and bawled my eyes out.

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Anyway, the rugbyball was genuinely fantastic this year. The problem with rugby isn’t the game, which is OK, but all the crap that goes around it: the pretensions to nobility and honesty, the moral superiority of rugby to all other sports, the pure branded tedium of it. Oh, and George Hook, obviously. So like all right-thinking people I tried quite hard to dislike Brian O’Driscoll for many years, because of his Southside accent and irritating self-possession, and also because I don’t trust anyone who makes difficult things look effortless. It’s not sustainable thought, because however much he whined on about that spear tackle, he did seem to be a genuinely decent fella and fairly witty too.

The point when I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love etc. was when a friend encountered him in Bruxelles. Well… I say encountered, what actually happened was O’Driscoll came to the bar and stood next to my friend, who’d been waiting some time to get served. When the barman did come over he made a beeline for The Famous Man, who just pointed at my friend and said “He was here before me.” I don’t really care how many hospitals he visited, that’s how you earn respect.

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And while there’s nothing more pathetic than doing a men/women comparison, I can say that there’s a 75% accurate split in the reaction to that story: most men react by widening their eyes with incredulity and then trying to find a way to encapsulate their admiration, while most women look confused and wait for me to get to the good bit. Now, I could try making a point about the real way you can judge people is how they act when there’s no expectation whatsoever of them to be generous, and while people expect sporting figures to visit Sick Children In Hospital to some degree, nobody expects someone to tell a barman to tend to someone else’s need for ethanol. Which is plausible, but if I’m honest, men are just generally a bit weird about getting served at a bar.

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Knocking off the edges is entirely what St Patrick’s Day is about, now. For me it’ll always be the day that they cleared Occupy out of Dame Street, and henceforth the day that the Arseholes won. More than that though, it’s overtly about reducing Irishness to a brand; the day that even Irish people are asked to play along with all the leprechaun shite and silly hats, their irony co-opted by marketing men. It’s the day people collectively pat themselves on the back for Taytos and Denny Sausages and Irish Mammies, whether or not they like Taytos and Denny Sausages, even if they’ve never called their mother “Mammy” in their life. Huge swathes of Irish people don’t enjoy this, let’s be clear, and either do their best to join in anyway or just try and ignore it. Since I hate joining in with anything, due to the odious surfeit of Other People, my dislike may be my problem. But…

…no, it is warped, I’m afraid. We’re told March 17th is good because it’s a global day of Irishnessness, when Ireland gets proof that the whole world loves it. In fact, plenty of people quietly fucking hate the global nature of Irishnessness. They hate that the New York parade won’t invite the gayz or the PSNI, for starters. They also have an imperialistic contempt for Irish emigrant communities having the temerity to do things differently. Corned beef and cabbage, four leaf clovers, St Patty’s Day… these can’t just be parallel customs that an emigrant community can develop as part of its own heritage, they’re just wrong and that’s all there is to it. You might as well be watching Raj officers looking down their nose at the natives for using the wrong fork.

I have a feeling that my sense of alienation isn’t actually to do with my sort-of-Englishness, it’s just a natural place for anxiety about sort-of-Englishness to live. Plenty of Properly Irish People feel like outsiders too, I’m sure. But here’s the thing: a few years ago, March 17th was an annoyance – the only day I ever felt foreign, but not something to get to worked up about. Now I don’t live in Ireland, St Welshbloke’s Day is weirdly painful in a way I didn’t expect. It should be a connection to home, but instead it just brings sharply hollow, empty feelings of distance. Seeing a pantomime version of your home played out globally on the city-streets, replete with product-placement, isn’t a celebration of any country at all; it’s just an advertising jingle where a poem should be. Happy Green Consumerist Phantasmagoria Day, everyone!

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Right, this is only the second journal entry, and what was supposed to be a chatty weekly log already reads like a depressive’s list of gripes. I’ll be more cheerful next week, honest.

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