Wednesday 27 January 2010

Falling out of Love with Politics

I sat up half the night on April 9th 1992, waiting on the very tight British election to be called. It was supposed to be a narrow but comfortable win for Labour after thirteen years of Conservative rule. But in the end, it went to the wire and Labour lost.

Since then I have waited up on many an election, including the 1997 Irish election, when I think news emerged that Fine Gael's Nora Owen lost her seat. (Her constituency was one of the trial constituencies for electronic voting).

Over the years I have always tried to keep abreast of key political developments in Ireland, Britain, America, and, during and after living there, France. I was never a true political anorak, however. I always failed to muster the interest in peripheral figures or precise election tallies for example.

I became (an inactive) member of a political party, though again, I failed to be interested in the down and dirty of local political activism. I have a deep admiration for those volunteers who organise, discuss, canvass, and so on. They have amazing perseverance and unshakable resolve. They are truly remarkable, and they are the life blood of democracy. But unfortunately I found the minutiae and machinations of local political life terribly boring. Local constituency meetings often get bogged down in mind numbing procedural and organisational matters. A bewildering diversity of opinion is aired at them, and much of it is pretty bland, and a lot of it, I have to say, is downright lamentable. Some one will pipe up about economics without the faintest idea of how economics works, someone else will rage about banks, or someone will issue a general fatwa against farmers. It isn't an enlightening place to be. One interesting thing is how the multitude of voices, noise essentially, gets filtered as it passes up through the layers of an organisation, to emerge at party level at something that is coherent enough to call a policy.

Eventually I had to admit to myself that I'm not really a political animal and that my interest is more in the theory than the practice!

Nevertheless, I managed to remain very interested in the theory part! And I kept hooked in to the main national, and party, debates. But over the last 12 months I have noticed a change in myself. I am reading the political sections of the newspapers less often (I used to track them religiously), and I'm finding myself less and less in front of a political program on TV (Despite making a brief contribution myself to a recent edition of the Frontline). I think that unconsciously I have begun to tune out from politics.

I think I know why. Pure disillusionment. I have ceased to believe that any substantial change is possible no matter who you vote for. The structure and culture of say the Irish political system is set in thick granite. It cannot be shaken. A decade and a half or tribunals revealling the noxious relationship between politics and business has not lead to a new dawn. In fact, bar minor changes, the old system rolls on. And on political reform one report after another rolls out (on say Seanad reform) only to be quietly shuffled off to gather dust. And make no mistake - the proposed banking inquiry will deliver the same quantity of change: none.

Regarding the theory - I am still fascinated by the big questions. About the shape of a constitution, the structural biases of a polity, how much the state should be involved in the economy, where the line should be drawn between the rights of the individual and those of the collective, the efficacy of supranational organisations, the effect of globalisation on the state, and so on.

But on the practical side and the nitty gritty, I feel that life is far too short. It might be fun to know how a glacier shapes a valley over a million years, but few would derive much excitement from watching its progress in a day. The same is for me and political change. It just feels as though it isn't happening, so I am not going to bother watching too closely. I will continue to vote and keep an eye on developments, but my passion for politics has cooled.

In a way I feel a little liberated, though perhaps it is only a fool's paradise. I can gladly miss the six o'clock news (like I did today, home early from work and got back into a fantastic book) and I can mostly forget about the papers! A great ocean of time has opened up before me and I feel free enough now to explore it without being weighed down by the most common emotions relating to Irish politics - frustration, bewilderment, sadness, embarrassment, and often, anger. Time to forget about political life and get on with the real thing.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

A Short Reflection on 2009

As we start into a fresh and challenging decade I am tempted to look back at the last ten years of my life. But even a cursory glance back is enough for me to realise that a great number of chapters were added to my life over the decade – some delightful and others less so – to pore over the details here. (The truth is that right now I have neither the mental energy to relive and reflect on a full decade nor the physical time to document my meditations.) Instead, maybe I can take a peek back at 2009 just to see if it will reveals whether it was, as it sometimes feels now, a year of heavy lifting, or just another typical year in the middle of life.

On the whole 2009 was stressful. I have had to work harder, by an order of magnitude, than ever before. I now work in a small firm whose very survival depends on the next generation of its product which is a couple of years behind the ideal market window. The team is small – about ten – and we have had to work about an extra day each week for far too many months. Perhaps an extra day a week doesn't sound like much, but there was on top the incessant intensity of the work. This is not the place to go into the details of that story, but I think the burden has begun to take its toll on my mental state and even perhaps on my physical health: I have gone down with a number of severe cold/flus over the last month. This might be pure bad luck with what has been a bad winter for bugs, with swine flu and so on, but I feel that I have succumbed more readily this year than before. Just today our boss has impressed upon us the importance of, to use his words, “keeping our foot on the pedal” until the end of January. The trouble is, that was the message for November and none of us believe there is less than another two or three months of heavy hours ahead.

But the main story on the work front in 2009 was that I had some! In the autumn of the year before I was laid off and was very fortunate to start a new job in January '09. To start a new job in in 2009 and still be in it at the end was, given the wretched economic climate in Ireland, a considerable achievement.

But January of 09 brought a more sobering experience too. I visited a friend of mine, I'll call him John, who was severly ill with lung cancer. He had been ill for about a year. I hadn't seen him since about the time he was diagnosed (he was abroad for a good part of the time). His wife let me in and I passed in to the living room where John was sitting with a blanket over his knees. A warm but emaciated smile greeted me. I found it hard to conceal my shock at the feeble, emaciated figure before me. From one angle John seemed to have aged by about twenty years.

Outwardly at least he was in good spirits, and spoke as loquaciously and intelligently as ever. But I wasn't close enough to him to learn the of what must have been his inner horror. His wife showed as much a sign of the strain as he did: she seemed worn and embattled, and it was clearly a big job to manage John's illness both physically and mentally.

John's two teenage children returned for lunch from school. I didn't know them that well, but at least to my eye they hadn't yet realised how gravely ill their father was.

I thought I detected a distance in his eyes when John said that he was now beginning a six month schedule of chemotherapy, and then that “after that we'll see”. (his cancer had already spread and this was his second series of chemo).

Eventually I had to leave to catch a train and at the same time John's wife was reminding him that he was already late for a hospital appointment and that they had to leave immediately. So we left together and I walked them to their car. I said good bye as normal, but it wasn't a normal good bye. I think both of us knew. After I had walked off I turned to look back, and John was slowly bending to climb into the car. That would be the last time I would see him.

I don't know whether John's death caused my perspective on life to shift or whether it merely accelerated a change that was already under way, but over the last year I have been engaged more than ever by nagging questions concerning the direction of my life, my priorities, and what shape real tragedy takes. I have become a bit more anxious, more pressed to realise approximations of happiness, more worried about trying to weave all the ungovernable strands of a modern life into a some kind of reassuring fabric. Probably the biggest change over the last year is a realisation that old recurring dreams should be shelved in favour of more modest, but more achievable destinations. Yet when I do this exercise – banish the romantic to make way for the pragmatic – all I'm really doing is learning to grow old.

But the two greatest things in my life, bean Thomaltaigh, and my son, mac Thomaltaigh, help make growing old a pleasure in itself. They both made 2009, despite all its shadows, a very rewarding place to be alive. Bean Thomaltaigh, possessed of that silent, inner strength, that voracious instinct for life that only women have, was a support without which I could scarcely have faced 2009 let alone survived it. Bean Thomaltaigh is loved and lovable and capable of sustained generosity. And mac Thomaltaigh, now two, is at the right age to be a perfect antidote to self-doubt, age, and existential uncertainty. I see in him the mad, carefree, and relentless hunger for life that is possible only in youth. His disarming innocence, his tumbling and frolicking, all have made our living room a surer and more fun place to be.

[ There was loads more of course, and I hope to come back to this and add a little more later]

When I look at it in the round I see in 2009 a plodding, difficult year. But in the grand scheme of life, it was a year that gave as much as it took. During the year I think I've grown (as well as grown older!). In some ways it was a year I set out to survive, a holding period, a place to seek refuge in a storm, but it gave its joys as well, and even getting to its end, intact, if a little battered, gives a sense of achievement. It taught me (again and more deeply) that this is life – vagarious, relentless, rewarding, punctuated with great joys and wrenching pain, bearable, unyielding, in short, very livable.