This article originally appeared in the New York ‘Irish Examiner USA’ for April 2 2013.
‘Earth is the Alien Planet’
Last Friday there—Good Friday—I found myself going through a mass of old books in order to figure out (and if you love reading, it’s always a difficult one) which to keep and which to give to the local library or charity shop. Boy, have I read a lot of Science Fiction over the years. Or, as we used to call it more accurately in the hope that the term would catch on, Imaginative or Speculative Fiction.
I find myself smiling here. Doesn’t Imaginative Fiction sound bloody pompous now, all the same? If the ‘seventies stuff that predicted a strange culture by the year 2013 was ‘imaginative’ does that mean that old Miss Marple solving a civilized English country garden murder was ‘realistic’ fiction? No wonder I got fed up with labels of any kind over the years.
It had me thinking and amused at how much we got completely wrong in our speculations. And of course how much we got right. Thirty or so years ago we were proudly proclaiming that one day computers would be so small that they would fit into one room. If you had told us that we would be able to walk around with them in our hands—and make phone calls from them in the bargain—we would have looked around for the guys with the butterfly nets.
JG Ballard was always one of my favourite writers of any kind and has probably dated better than most, since he rarely ventured off-world and kept his speculations to what was happening on Earth. “Earth”, he would say, “is the truly alien planet.” He wasn’t wrong there. Ballard was big during one phase on the world being destroyed through what we would today call ‘climate change’. And hasn’t it been amusing to watch as all the experts who talked of ‘global warming’ have had that modern myth exploded in their faces? You rarely hear the phrase today, now it’s all ‘climate change’. Some people can’t admit when they were wrong, they just move the goal-posts. But away from that, Ballard’s tale War Fever was a chilling look at wars being run as a kind of social experiment. In that manner he was there before Gore Vidal’s non-fiction Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. And as the world has watched America in awe since the ‘sixties whilst it goes time and again into wars that can’t be won, that does look like one of the more accurate concepts.
In fact, staying with that period I’m often amazed and not a little freaked out by the amount of young Americans who seem to be under the illusion that their country ‘won’ in Vietnam. George Orwell may have foreseen the rewriting of history but I doubt that he saw it being done through Sylvester Stallone. “Do we get to win this time, sir?” asks John Rambo plaintively in a moment of tenderness that brought a tear to the eye of President Ronald Reagan. No longer was it a case of a massive military presence being beaten by the equivalent of sticks and stones; somewhere along the line it had metamorphosed into the politicians stopping the soldiers from doing what soldiers do. And for all I know, that is an entirely accurate reading of a horrific situation. In the end, it’s as good as any. And also in the end, of course, is the one consistent truth that people will die; and usually not the ones, safely behind their desks, who often deserve to.
Colonies on the moon and Mars: whoa, we were right out there. Why did the seventies, which had started off so well, see the public get more and more tired of the NASA missions? It couldn’t just be the hideous amounts of money that was poured into them because we spend far more on pointless wars. It was a source of huge irritation to my Old Man. Right up to the end, old sailor as he had been, he felt that we should be pouring that money into a more thorough exploration of the sea and seabed. (“Earth is the alien planet?”) “There’s things down there, son, that would cure a lot of ails up here”, he told me more than once. Sorry, Dad, that money is still being spent elsewhere. It didn’t go there in your lifetime and hardly looks likely to do so in mine.
On a more prosaic level: after getting hold, some years after the event, of Norman Spinrad’s brilliant ‘sixties novel Bug Jack Barron, (how could kids not be interested, when this ‘filth’ was being discussed in the House of Lords?) my peers and I were confidently predicting that by the ‘eighties the world governments would have done the sensible thing and legalised and taxed most drugs, thus driving the criminals out of business. Well, again, it all didn’t quite go that way. And once again, given some of the new information coming out of Amsterdam, maybe—maybe—it’s right that it wasn’t made too easy. Damn it, I did prefer this old world when things were more black and white. These days, I can’t write about anything without seeing more and more shades of gray.
And come to think of it, as I type the word ‘write’ I see that this is the perfect way of showing how casually we have come to live in a world that would once have been considered pretty far out Science Fiction. Consider: I can look at my watch as I did this morning and see that it’s eleven o’clock in Oranmore, County Galway. With this article due for a New York deadline of noon that gives me, because of the five-hour time difference, plenty of time to dig out whatever notes I’ve taken during the week and write, store for future reference and send across the Atlantic. Stop and think about that for a moment, because we have learned to take this for granted. I don’t finish writing until into the afternoon and yet the editor (good morning/afternoon, Grahame) gets it on time, of a New York Monday morning. All because I’ve clicked on a mouse and sent 2,000 words over 2,000 miles almost simultaneously. Man, we should NEVER take this for granted. It’s likely to be the only example of time travel I ever get to see!
A State/Church Anti-Happiness Police
What got me thinking on this was the day that was in it. Thirty years ago, hell even twenty and less, we just took it for granted that the idea of it being illegal to enter a pub or off-license on Good Friday would be a distant memory, like the unlamented Holy Hour now is. Yet it still persists to this day. In fact if you’re in a supermarket on that day you’ll notice that the booze shelves have to be covered up. I presume that is in case, in your weakness, you are driven to Do Ye the Devil’s Work and buy a bottle. And it’s not as if Good Friday is what it used to be. It’s pretty much just another day for everyone now, with the very definite exception of the banks and the bars. Well, the banks will take any chance they get to grab a day off but this business of not letting anyone into their local? It just flat out sucks.
I haven’t tasted anything stronger than a beer in many a year now, so one day isn’t going to kill me. And that’s what the usual old Holy Joe comes out with: “It’s only for one day”, they’ll announce in their usually whiny self-satisfied voices. “It’s a rank pity if they can’t do without for one day.”
And of course, as that kind always does, they are completely missing the point. It’s not about going without a drink for the day, it’s about choice. It’s about being a grown up and making up your own mind whether you darken the door of your nearest Den of Iniquity on the Day that the Lord died for your sins. And of course, risk going to Hell for such a terrible act. And whilst we’re at it, the very idea that some poor guy should be tortured, mutilated and nailed to a cross in order to cleanse you of sins 2,000 years later is absolutely stomach-turning, as well as utterly illogical. In fact, being denied the sanity of the pub I was looking at those photographs that we see at this holy time year in, year out, of mentally ill people in the Philippines having themselves literally nailed to a cross in some warped attempt to honour Jesus Christ, who to my mind would have been bloody horrified at such masochistic madness. And you think it’s tough having to eat fish for the day? It makes the carry-on of the mad Muslims look almost normal.
Then again the Jesus that I believe in (a man, not a sky pilot) would be horrified at most of the things being done in memory of him. And in fairness the Church itself does not condone the insanity in the Philippines. But it does seem to me to be the expected outcome if you have a billion people (supposedly) having as their symbol a torn, bleeding and dying man on a crucifix.
So yeah, I think that opening the pubs on Good Friday is a much healthier response to the day. In any case, I don’t see why the state should be enforcing a dictate of the Catholic Church. Nor do I see why teams of official State-payed police should be employed to go around checking on behalf of the Anti-Happiness Police, just in case someone somewhere is enjoying themselves. The last time I looked there were some real crimes being committed.
It’s as if the Church is just doing its best to hang onto the little bit of power that they still have over people. But let’s be honest, the game was up and the writing was on the wall when Bishop Casey of Galway was caught with his sticky fingers in the collection box. That was the real turning point in Ireland. I think that the Church overestimated how much the Irish could have cared less that he was also having it away with a consenting female adult. I don’t remember anyone being all that put out about it. It was more the hypocrisy of the whole thing. The money was paid back but we next found, with the genie out of the lamp, that we were staring into an abyss of pure evil in the form of an organisation literally defending paedophile predators by moving them from parish to parish as if to ensure that they continue their rottenness over as far a distance as possible.
And we’re supposed to forego the innocent pleasure of a pint for people like that, people both lay and clergy who want to suck up to the Vatican by showing that we’re the last outpost of Christianity in Europe, something that was never true in the first place. Especially at Easter what we should have been reflecting on was the idea expressed in John B. Keane’s brilliant play The Field, that you only have to scrape the surface in Ireland and what you find is paganism.
Actually I think that the Church missed a trick back in the day when it had the likes of Archbishop McQuaid ruling the roost. As well as closing the pubs they should have had the state enforcing the closing of butcher’s shops. I’m pretty sure that the butcher section was open when I was in the supermarket on Friday. So some souls are going Down Below.
As I said earlier, most of us thought—and in all honesty the average priest would probably agree—that the day of a public house closing on Good Friday would have been gone by 2013. Now I have to wonder if, in some yet unimagined future, where we are spinning around in flying cars and taking our holidays on Jupiter, that in Ireland we still won’t be able to get a drink on Good Friday—because the Church says so.
It’s been nice—for me anyway—to leave our politicians alone this week in order to enjoy their well-deserved Easter break; but I just can’t leave without mentioning Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s little whimper last week after four gardai walked out on him whilst he was boring them to death. Regular readers will know that I detest Shatter but even I didn’t know how sensitive he was. He said:
“In the context of the manner in which the members of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors conducted themselves last night, the speech delivered on their behalf by an inspector of the force, I’m pleased my wife didn’t accompany me to the event as I don’t think that their conduct could be described as courteous or reasonable.”
Run that past me again, Shatter? You’re doing everything that you can to make the lives of these guys a misery and you’re worried that a mild rebuke in a speech and a quiet walk out might upset your missus? This IS your wife Carol we’re talking about, isn’t it? Since when did she become a dainty shrinking violet and what need was there for her to go anyway?
Bloody Hell, the whole thing was very low key. I thought that they seemed quite gentlemanly. It’s not as if they brought up her fine and one-year ban for being drunk behind the wheel of a car. Damn! I’ve gone and done it for them. Good thing I’m not a gentleman.