Friday 29 June 2007

A Broken Link

I had an old grand uncle, Liam Bernard, who lived in a remote part of rural Ireland. He lived as a bachelor in the old family house which had literally fallen asunder. Originally a three room cottage, only a single room remained intact by the time I got to know old Liam. In fact, the roof had fallen in on the other parts and the walls had long started to crumble.

That was 1977. There was no electric in the house and no running water. There was an open fire and old parafin cooker, an oil lamp and a few candles. That was the extent of the technology in Liam Bernard's.

But uncle Liam had been born there and that's where he wanted to stay. He and his one brother - my grandfather - were only infants when their mother died of TB, and they had been raised by the communal efforts of their father and a number of old bachelor uncles.

Liam Bernard eked out a living by a combination of odd jobs - a day in the bog here for a neighbour, a week at the hay there for a nephew - and, of course, the dole when he could get it. He used to cycle the four or so miles to the village to sign for the dole and to buy a few bits. Later on, when he grew too frail to cycle, he would get a lift with the nephew, my uncle Tom, who lived half a mile away. He seemed contented enough with his lot. He read a bit, enjoyed the quiet life, occasionaly played cards with a neighbour, and loved a good joke. Indeed, he was extraordinarily witty.

Liam Bernard had but a single wordly possession: his mother's engagement ring which his father had given him. From time to time he'd take it out when Tom and I called in to see if he'd be on for the bog the next day. We'd start talking about old times, the chat would move on to weddings. And then a smile would break out on his lips and for a second it was as if he couldn't see us. Then he'd ask if we'd seen the ring. He'd root though an old trunk at the bottom of the bed. "Ah there it is" he'd tell himself, turning as he unwrapped the ring from an old greyed handkerchief. His eyes would smile as he'd take the ring between finger and thumb and tell us proudly "that was my mother's ring". In his head, the ring must have brought her back, and for a split second he could hold her in the eye of his mind, right there, as real as she would ever be for him.

* * * * *

The door between the room where Liam Bernard lived and what was the kitchen, now served as an outside door, for the roof of the kitchen was completely gone. And so the door had no lock.

One evening as he returned from a while in the bog, Liam Bernard unhooked the latch and was stunned. The contents of his trunk were strewn everywhere. Before his mind could muster a conscious response, a dart of dread shot out into his limbs. His legs got weak. He slowly lifted the trunk, and rustled through the scattered contents. Again he searched. And again, this time wider and more thoroughly. By now he was consumed with sadness and was beginning to grieve the mother he had never known.

Handing Over

As I watched the handover from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown the other day, I couldn't help marvelling at how dignified and orderly the process is. The Blair familiy bade their goodbye to number 10, and Tony and Cherrie boarded pegasus - the prime ministerial car - and were driven off to Buckingham Palace where Blair tendered his resignation to Her Majesty. Soon after, Gordon Brown was phoned at number 11 and requested to come to the Palace. He and Sarah arrived in his ministerial car, entered the Palace where he had a private audience with the Queen. He was asked to form a government and received his seal of office. Gordon and Sarah emerged from the palace, where pegasus was waiting. And off they headed, driving across to whitehall and to number 10.

Not a huge amount of pomp and circumstance by British standards, but full to the brim with tradition nevertheless. The transition was perfectly formal and exercised with precision. Not glamourous, but stately and deferring to what is a magnificent tradition.

The whole thing was dignified and though exciting, there was a touch of the sombre. Nowadays, when democracy is taken for granted, this kind of event is important. For just one day, every few years, people are reminded that they live in a democracy. Whatever its flaws, people know that Churchill was right to say that democracy is the worst form of government...apart from all the others. In far too many countries, people learn of a change of government when they see the tanks rolling down the street, or when their tv broadcast is interrupted by a fat, thuggish general who announces he is the new leader.

So the British ought to be very proud of and very thankful for their tradition of evolution and orderly transition. And for their institutions which go back hundreds and hundreds of years. Such institutions, and conventions, are the very roots of democracy, even if in the strict sense they preceded modern democracy itself. This extraordinary heritage confers a solidness and stability on the entire British political system. It is precious indeed and where it needs to be tweaked, tweak by all means, but never tear it down. So long live Pegasus, long live number 10, and dare I say it, long live the Queen.

Thursday 28 June 2007

I'm losing it

I have a confession to make. I have inherited a terrible genetic flaw: baldness. My grandfathers both went bald in their 50s. My dad started thinning out on top in his 30s - by now, three decades on, a huge curve of skull has edged out from the fur. And alas, I too, now in my 30s am showing the symptoms. The hairline is receding back like a real slow waning moon. And on top, a little circle contains no more than a handful of follicles. Why worry? Well, there are many reasons to be anxious. First and foremost, as Homer Simpson ably demonstrated, bald men don't even have a modicum of credibility. And second, every day I stare more and more at my fellow sufferers, and I start to see the different strains of baldness. There the rapidly receding hairline variety. This is probably the most benign. At least from behind you still look human. There's the little-circle type. Tolerable, but is only an intermediate phase on the way to big-circle type. That's when most people lose their job or their wife. But the most catastrophic variety is the locks-above-the-ears strain. The sufferer becomes a laughable, nervous wreck, incapable of any serious thought or of taking decisions. Friends stop answering the phone and the dog runs away howling. But sadist of all is the plight of those who evoke a mixture of pity and scorn, those suffering from the deadly "I'm-not-loosing-my-hair-I-just-shave-it" strain. Like a drunk man faking sobreity, this just doesn't walk. No matter how tight the blade nor how smooth the skull, the tiny stublettes give the game away: this man is bald.

Wednesday 27 June 2007

Reflecting on Tara

Twenty years ago a new road was planned near the charming little village where I come from. But when work got under way they discovered that a lone hawthorn tree stood in the path of the new road. The trouble was that no one would uproot the hawthorn. In the end, the builders deferred to tradition and custom regarding the hawthorn, and the road was re-routed.

Now, the nation faces a greater dilemma: work has begun on a motorway which will pass through the Tara Skryne Valley. This time, no mere hawthorn is at stake, but a landscape and a momument whose significance is probably huge, but not yet fully understood.

That the road got this far says a lot about our political cutlure and our civic responsibility. Even on purely economic or functional grounds, it was a bad idea, because protest, controversy, and probably legal challenges will slow (or stop?) the progress and multiply the cost.

A fairly impressive weight of expert opinion has underlined the importance of Tara - at Irish and European level. The remarkable thing is that the Tara complex and its memory and mythology has survived at all. That alone is a treasure. Also intriguing is the mystery surrounding the exact purpose that Tara served down through the millenia as each civilisation came and went.

Down to our own day that is. For there is no mystery about what our "civilisation" wants to do with it. Apparently, we want to dig it up, cover it with tar, and use it as a short cut.

What does that say about us? Given that we have such an incomplete knowledge of the site, why can we not do as our forefathers have done, and leave it for posterity to marvel, to ponder, or at worst, to ignore? If we can preserve Tara, having become one of the richest nations on earth, it would be a symbol that we still retain a modicum of humility. We could show ourselves, as well as others, that in our increasingly material world, we still respect the things we do not understand. I cannot think of a more noble act than for us to show that things sacred to our ancestors can be sacred for us too. Now is the hour, to save Tara for those unborn, or to plough into yet another Great Irish Shame.