Tuesday, 27 April 2010


O vey! Time to post something on the blog again. I’ve got three or four pieces half ready but I don’t really feel like finishing any of them at the moment – it’s all just too much effort and I’m not sure if they’re any good anyway.

I think much of all this has to do with the fact that I’ve had toothache for the last four or five days, been to the dentist twice where he’s started messing around with the roots of a big molar (ugh!), the computer has been acting up, I’ve had to take the car for its yearly check-up (completely unnecessary waste of money, but it’s still under guarantee, which I’m not going to risk), and tomorrow is my last day of work before two and a half-weeks (well-earned) holidays which I am really looking forward to. I suppose it’s all just about the personal battery being a little run-down and the feeling that I’d like to bitch about everything, if only I had the energy to do so.

This is all only little stuff and, objectively seen, I’ve no real reason to bitch. Spring has finally established itself, it’s getting warmer and everything is becoming beautifully fresh green, with just about every fruit-tree proclaiming the end of winter in a riot of pink and white blossoms (the magnolias going spectacularly over-the-top), all of them at the same time this year (probably because spring was so late). The window is wide open and the evenings are becoming deliciously long. And I’ve got holidays starting on Thursday; I’m best man at the wedding of two dear friends that day; I’m going to the North Sea coast for a week on Monday; I have a job, my life is in order and I have family and friends whom I love and who love me.

And I wonder how much of this strange humour has to do with the fact that it’s spring and, objectively seen (as I already mentioned), everything is perfectly good is clashing with another basic existential fact: I’ll turn fifty next week. Okay, there it is, finally, out in the open. Fifty. Five-oh. Definitively, perhaps even charitably, undeniably middle-aged. The basic realisation that I’ve got (statistically seen) a lot less time in front of me than I have behind me. I’m already a grandfather for chrissakes!

And, occasionally, I find my thoughts turning back through the years, to the time when I was, say, twenty and I was fundamentally immortal, when life was an amazing smorgasbord of all sorts of wonderful experiences and choices. Would I like to be back there again? There’s a (traitorous?) part of me that would. Maybe what I miss most is that feeling of invulnerability, of boundless possibility before life taught me that things can go really pear-shaped, that the consequences of some careless or unknowing choices can be pretty damned serious, that the freedom of being an adult is also the freedom to screw-up spectacularly. Or that, sometimes, shit just happens.

So, if I could go back, would I do some things differently? On reflection, I don’t think so. “On the brave and crazy wings of youth,” to quote Jackson Browne, we do things and make choices whose consequences we cannot see; some of them disastrous, some magnificent. In the end, although a certain amount of prudence is usually a positive virtue, we cannot foresee all the consequences of any choice we take and sometimes, some of the most wonderful things we have and experience in life can be the later result of actions which were, to say the least, extremely foolhardy. Twenty-twenty hindsight can be a dangerous thing and second-guessing ourselves can frequently lead to a Hamlet-like dithering in which we find making any choice or decision ever more difficult. And life crawls or hurtles on anyway and not choosing becomes its own choice anyway.

Would I really like to be twenty again? When I think about it, there was also a lot of uncertainty and insecurity too; a fair portion of inchoate, indefinable longing which brought its own problems. And, if fifty is the final signal that I’ve definitively lost youth, I’ve also won a lot along the way, things I’ve learned to cherish, maybe even a little wisdom. As Joni Mitchell (another singer!) put it, “something’s lost and something’s gained, in living every day.”

I’ll take fifty then, with all that five decades of life have given me and look forward to a good future. It’s not as if I really have a choice, after all. And the future does look good, partly at least, despite all the crises and chaos, the prophesies of doom and downfall and even the end of the world in two years time – at least in my own little world. If there are dangers and disappointments, decay and destruction possibly waiting around the next corner, there are also magical, marvellous opportunities and encounters waiting there too. Not just at fifty, either!

(Oh, and by the way, the second visit to the dentist today also took care of the toothacheJ)

Thursday, 22 April 2010

On being a fan

When I was nine years old, my family moved from a small village in County Wicklow to Wicklow town. Moving from a small village school to a much bigger, all-boys school I quickly realised that I didn’t have an English soccer team to support. This was an intolerable situation, one completely impossible for a boy of my age to be in – without a team I was so completely out that my life was a misery. And so, for some reason not completely clear to me now (maybe the fact that they’d won the League in 1969), I decided that Leeds United was my team. I set out to find out all about them, checked the papers every Sunday to see how they’d played the day before and was rewarded for my newly pledged allegiance when they reached the FA Cup final in April 1970.

Leeds finally lost the final after a replay in Old Trafford but went on to do pretty well in the following years, among other things reaching the final of the European Cup in 1975, only to be beaten by Bayern Munich (whom I will come back to later). It was a characteristic of my team that they specialised in coming second; between 1965 and 1974 finishing second in the league five times and losing the FA Cup final three times. In that sense, Leeds were a very good lesson to me as a boy about one of the things being a fan means; you follow your team through the good and the bad times, you gloat when they/you win and you suffer ridicule when they/you lose. In fact, the very language you use changes when you become a fan, you become, in a strange fashion, part of the team and the third person is transformed, through your identification with your team to that warm, inclusive “we.” Of course, that means that you have to take the rough with the smooth, since loyalty and fidelity are part of the mystical union with your team which fanship involves.

In the early seventies, my family moved to Sligo and I got my second lesson in fanship – Sligo Rovers. Sligo is somewhat unique for a small town in the west of Ireland in having had a professional soccer team since 1928. The reasons for this have a lot to do with a substratum in Sligo culture which is unique in having a strong, in many ways non-Gaelic, almost British working-class culture; but that’s another subject. As I said, Sligo has a professional soccer team, but this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily always a very good soccer team. Being a Rovers fan means learning some basic hard lessons about life; that you often get beaten, that the whole world – personified by fouling opponents and biased referees – is against you, that natural justice is a myth, and that Murphy was an optimist. It is, in my opinion, part of the basic state of being a Sligonian that you are a Rovers supporter and that your default mindset is one of resigned despair at the desperate performance of your team.

This is what made the season of 76-77 so special. In an unprecedented series of victories, Sligo Rovers marched to the League of Ireland Championship and all the pain and scoffing endured, all the cold wet Sunday afternoons watching Rovers being outperformed, or just playing badly, were redeemed in one glorious season, the first championship since 1937. The fans rejoiced, but I do remember feeling somewhat bemused, that this situation of actually being champions was unreal. I needn’t have worried; reality soon reasserted itself and Rovers haven’t won the championship since.

Being a fan (particularly a fan of a sports team) admits you to a strange world, one that has lots of attractions. Things are very clear. There’s us, that group/your team which you belong to and them, the other teams and their fans. (There are also, of course, people who aren’t fans of any team at all, but they are – when you are in your fan mode – beneath any practical consideration). You are in complete, simple rivalry with them, which makes everything very simple. All of this is governed by some easy rules.

1. Nothing they do can ever be good. Nothing we do can ever really be bad, since we are better than all the others. There are some qualifications however; there are usually some rivals who are particular enemies of your teams and so it is legitimate to cheer for other rivals if they are playing against one of these particular enemies. Criticism of the actions and performance of your own team is also allowed, but is best limited to internal circles (although, should your team be performing particularly badly, general comments of disgust are also permissible, as long as it is clear that this disillusionment in no way affects your basic loyalty to your team).

2. Being a fan automatically confers you with expert status. There is no particular need for any deep understanding of the issues involved, as long as you have committed yourself to the state of fanship through the gift of unconditional loyalty to your team.

3. Objectivity is not required – indeed it can often be a definite hindrance. When watching a game (the ultimate sacrament of fanship, especially when celebrated live in a stadium), your own team is to be cheered at all costs, the opposing team is to be shouted at, insulted, taunted, etc. Your team never fouls; such incidents are simply examples of the stupidity of match officials, biased in favour of your opponents. Occasional, obviously positive actions of your opponents are simply flukes, or strokes of luck – usually aided and abetted by the aforementioned biased blind officials, who are ignoring the blatant cheating continually practiced by the other side.

4. All of this takes place within a strict and elaborate framework of rules, which all involve adhere to (even if the others are constantly trying to break them). These rules allow you, from within the security of your own group (or in the privacy of your own home in front of your TV screen), to hurl deprecations and insults on your opponents (and their fans), as well as the match officials which, in the “real” world, would quickly see you facing serious legal charges. The agreed rules, however, do stipulate that the invective remains verbal and never spills over into physical conflict.

5. In the end, despite all resentment and feelings of being cheated or robbed, the result at the final whistle is binding on all sides. Defeat is to be accepted with sullen resignation, victory allows unalloyed joy.
(Thanks to Flavia for suggesting this track)
When it comes to supporting football teams, a few more comments seem appropriate. For example, there is no absolute geographical imperative to fanship. There is a certain correlation; if your town has a team then there is a fairly high likelihood that most of the residents of that town who are into football and fanship will be fans of the local team. But this is not absolute. There are residents of Liverpool who are Chelsea fans, I know of Dortmunders who are fans of Bayern Munich and many Londoners who support Manchester United. Otherwise, if your town doesn’t have a top division team, then the geographical location of your heroes is irrelevant.

The one geographical rule that does seem to apply is that towns tend to produce football teams in pairs – as if too much local unanimity is unnatural. So you have Glasgow Rangers and Celtic, Manchester City and United, Inter and AC Milan, Schalke and Dortmund.

Then there is the special category of teams with respect to whom neutrality is impossible. These are generally big, successful clubs with a very large following; Real Madrid in Spain, Juventus in Italy, Bayern Munich in Germany and, above all, Manchester United in England. These are clubs which have huge numbers of fans – every fan of every other club hates them. I once knew someone whose hatred of Bayern Munich was so pure that he watched every game in which they played which was broadcast on TV; he would lay in a good supply of beer and passionately cheer on Bayern’s opponents, no matter who they were. (Given Bayern’s general rate of success, he was more often disappointed than happy – but that fitted his overall personality.)

The interesting thing about all of this is that practically everything about fanship is not rational – yet it seems to satisfy a deep-seated human need, particularly in the male psyche. Anyone wondering about the roots of this need only watch a nature film on the subject of what happens when two groups of monkeys of the same species come into contact with each other. There is immediate hostility, jeering and heckling of the others, almost ritual threats, accompanied by cheers for those who show themselves as the heroes of the group. Once more, we’re back to one of my favourite subjects – monkey business. Despite all our subsequent evolutionary development, everything we have achieved through consciousness and rationality, all our technological, aesthetic and social sophistication, we still contain an awful lot of our pre-human primate origins.

Which, of course, leads me to wonder about the real deepest reasons why human organisations – nations and countries – go to war with each other? And then to a possible, admittedly abstruse, justification for the insane sums footballers like Lionel Messi, Franck Ribery, Christiano Ronaldo and all the others earn every year. If the sublimation of aggressive human instincts into the ritualised behaviour of fans lowers our urges to beat the shit out of others or go to war with them, why, then they’re worth every penny they’re paid …

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Whatever happened to space travel?

Space, the final frontier …

Imagine you were transported by a time machine back to 1966, the year Star Trek first appeared on television. One of the things people might ask you about, after you told them when you came from, is the extent to which space exploration had progressed after nearly half a century.

Well, you’d say, we’ve got loads of satellites revolving the earth, and there’s the ISS space-station which is nearly finished …

One space station?

Yeah, well, everyone is cooperating on that because the US Space Shuttle won’t be flying anymore after this year, but luckily the Russian rockets can keep supplying it …

What about moon bases?

We don’t have moon bases. Neil Armstrong did land there in 1969, but nobody’s been back since 1972.

Mars? Venus?

Well, unmanned little probes have landed on Mars a couple of times. There are little toy robots driving around, filming things, analysing a few rocks … I think some of them are still sending information back …

Chances are, the people would just stop believing your claims that you came from 2010. After all, Sputnik was less than ten years before and the Apollo programme was going to put a man on the moon in the next couple of years. Satellites for chrissakes, we can do that! You mean more than forty years have gone by and, basically, nothing has happened?

So, what has happened to space travel?

There are many complex answers to this and one very simple one; economics. The space race of the 60s was driven far more by political and ideological exigencies than economic ones. In one way, the spirit of it all is captured in a speech by John F. Kennedy about the US space effort in September 1962 “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And then the US went on to show the superiority of their efforts and technology while the Soviets got bogged down in engineering difficulties. The moon was reached, there was nothing immediately useful to be discovered there, détente broke out, the two superpowers cooperated on the Skylab project and suddenly the steam went out of the whole enterprise. Space exploration cost money and the payoff was meagre and, without issues of national pride and ideological competition to factor into the equation, the accountants were gaining more influence.

The space-shuttle was swallowing more and more money, was badly designed and over-engineered and then some modules started to blow up. NASA had become an inefficient bureaucratic monster and there were other uses for the money.

Ironically, the plodding Soviet project was more successful. They got Mir up there and kept it up there for a long time, often held together with little more than wire and spit and positive thinking and today, when the space-shuttle is being retired, it’s good old dependable Soviet-designed rockets that will keep its international successor going. But, while there is renewed talk about missions to the moon and Mars and the Europeans and, increasingly, the Chinese have got into the satellite business, nothing is going to happen very fast in the next few years in the area of space exploration.

So what? Don’t we have enough to worry about and spend money on, given that it still costs around $ 10.000 to lift one kilo of payload into orbit? Our contemporary knowledge of applied physics suggests that we are limited to our solar-system anyway, given that everything else is so far away that faster-than-light travel would be practically necessary to send manned missions to other stars and all models of FTL propulsion remain firmly in the domain of science-fiction. And our solar system is an environment which is not exactly friendly to humans – basically, when we go out there, we have to take everything we need to live with us and protect us and it all from an environment which is continually and indifferently trying to kill us in all sorts of interesting and effective ways. What’s the point?

In fact, there are a number of points. There are resources out there; abundant resources of many of things which are going to become scarcer on earth. Only this week, I saw a report about some studies currently being made about mining dumps and land-refills for metals thrown away in the past century, which are becoming rarer; even copper for wiring. Once you get out of earth’s gravity well, movement in space – even over large distances – becomes relatively cheap because, once you give something a push in a zero-gravity environment, it will keep going indefinitely until you just give it an equal pull to stop it. Asteroid mining is a staple in science-fiction and, even if you just follow economic laws, it will, at some time in the future, become economically feasible and sensible to go there to get the stuff we need. The fuel of the future, even – increasingly – of the present, is hydrogen, and there are the gas-giants, like Jupiter and Saturn, which are basically made of hydrogen. So, increasingly, space-based human endeavours or settlements would become more independent of earth.

But the more important points go deeper. Economics are important considerations but raise a number of questions. Economic viewpoints, particularly those put into practice, are generally limited and short-term because long-term profits, far down-line, are not interesting because, in the long-term, we’re all dead and what did posterity ever do for me? The fact that politicians, who are always involved in the planning of really large economic matters because these things always have a large public dimension and involve public funding, subsidies, capitalisation or taxation issues, have to ensure that they get re-elected gives their vision a very short-term perspective too. As a result, if we simply follow the economic indicators then nothing is going to happen in space until it has to happen because everything else has become more expensive. And there are two big problems with that; firstly, because it means that we are reacting rather than acting and that isn’t usually a good way to deal with major questions, and secondly, because we’ve had enough painful experience, in recent years alone, to teach us that economic experts often don’t know what they’re talking about it.

But the deepest of all reasons for looking to space is, perhaps, the most nebulous, but the most important. For all the dangers they may pose, like fanaticism, intolerance, and senseless competitions, people need visions and ideals. I think this was the insight Kennedy, all those years ago, had with his image of “the new frontieah”, a meme which also served to strike to the heart of the American Dream.

As Gene Rodenberry put it in the intro to Star Trek, space is the final frontier, and an endless one at that, one which calls to the adventurer, the wanderer in all of us; the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road, which is the same road that Bilbo warned Frodo of, because you would never know where it would take you or what would happen to you when you put your foot on it. And speaking of Heinlein, he was the one who gave another cogent reason for space exploration with his famous comment about planet Earth being much too fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.

In the end, we have to go to space simply because we can and, as the mountain climber explained his passion, because it’s there. It is a magnificent, powerful ideal; one which can bring us to cooperate with each other, to push at the limits of what we think we can do in order to discover how much more we can actually do. Something which can inspire us to go on widening our horizons even if (or, perhaps, especially if) it occasionally means us telling the economists to f*** off.

Or maybe, just maybe, the SETI people (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) will finally pick up a signal from some of the other intelligent beings out there trying to find out whether they are not alone in the universe on the radio-telescope in Arecibo. And then we’ll have yet another good reason “to boldly go where no man has gone before …”

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

W.B. Yeats

Growing up as I did in Sligo, in the north west of Ireland, it was impossible not to come into contact with W.B. Yeats. Although Yeats was not born in Sligo, he always regarded it as his real, spiritual home, his “country of the heart” as he called it. Sligo has proudly described itself since the poet’s death as “the Yeats country” and as boy I was constantly reminded of him. I know where Wandering Aengus’s Hazel Wood is and have played in the Sally Gardens, I have visited Dooney Rock, where the fiddler played, and looked out at the wooded islands in Lough Gill and wondered which one he decided to call Inishfree. I know Glencar Waterfall, that place of “the waters and the wild” where you can find a refuge from a world “more full of weeping than you can understand.” And towering above everything, as spectacular in its own way as Table Mountain over Cape Town, “bare Benbulben’s head,” on whose slopes in Drumcliffe Churchyard the poet’s remains now peacefully “cast a cold eye on life, on death,” dominates the skyline.



Give the starting phrase, “I will arise and go now …” to anyone from Sligo and they will go on to recite “The Lake Isle of Innishfree,” although some, depending perhaps on the amount of alcohol they have consumed, may give you versions you have never heard before – the most common continuing, “… and go to feed the ducks…,” the rhyming couplet ending with a common, if somewhat coarse expression of indifference. Despite the genuine deep love and pride (after all, his Nobel medal can be seen in the local museum) that Sligonians have for Yeats, he was never truly one of them, being a member of the “quality,” that strange tribe of protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy who dominated Ireland up to the middle of the 19th Century and who have almost disappeared today, finally fading away in ostentatiously Catholic (parochial) independent Ireland. An inevitable extinction in the Ireland’s post-colonial aftermath perhaps, given all the enmity that had gone before but, in another sense, a loss of a group which gave Ireland culturally so much, from Swift, Goldsmith and Wilde to Shaw and Beckett (the last two also Nobel laureates). Yet Yeats always regarded himself as Irish and served two terms in the Senate of the new independent Irish Free State in the 1920s.

Because of (perhaps even despite) my Sligo background, I have always had a deep respect and wonder for Yeats’ poetry; a sublime distillation of aesthetic beauty, contemporary comment and intellectual depth. He is a writer whose work, always good, continually improved and developed as he grew older. He has the ability to continually grab you with a phrase or a couplet, leaving the image resonating deeply in your mind. Here are some of the greatest:

“…But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

(He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, 1899)

“…Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;…”

(An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, 1917)

“…All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”

(Easter 1916, 1921)

Sailing to Byzantium (1928) can lay claim, in my view, along with Eliot’s Prufrock and Ginsberg’s Howl!, to be one of the greatest poems in the English language in the 20th Century. It is a deep meditation on ageing and maturing, written when Yeats was 63, on the progress from action and doing in youth to introspection and spiritual searching as one grows older; a reflection on the possibility and meaning of mortality and immortality. Its centre is the appeal for liberation from an ageing body:

“…Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.”

Although one can perhaps note that ten years later, his last poem, The Circus Animals’ Desertion, (1938) expresses a more pessimistic, less hopeful view,

“…Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

Sailing to Byzantium is a poem which culturally resonates today as deeply as ever. Its opening phrase, “That is no country for old men …” was taken by Cormac McCarthy as a title for his 2005 novel, filmed by the Coen brothers in 2007.

But Byzantium is not the only poem which still speaks powerfully nearly a hundred years later now. One other above all serves as a seer’s vision of the horrors which the 20th Century would bring. The Second Coming (1919) is a masterpiece of brooding, prophetic apprehension:

“…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

No wonder that this poem, with its final couplet, a packed image which could serve to inspire a Stephen King novel (and King, in fact, quotes the poem in his apocalyptic The Stand, 1978), was frequently quoted in the aftermath to 9/11.

“…And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The End of the Beatles

One would think that major, world-shattering events are clearly recorded and documented for posterity, especially when they take place in the modern media era. This however, as I have just discovered, is not always the case.

When did the Beatles break up? That’s the question. And, before anyone presumes to ask, it’s an event which I do regard as something major and world-shattering. After all, nobody can seriously argue that the Fab Four were the greatest rock group in history with an influence on contemporary music and wider culture unmatched by any other before or since. Easy, you may say. 1970, everyone knows that. But when exactly?

In fact, the break-up of the group was a long, complicated process. Their last live concert was in San Francisco in August 1966, although they did perform “All You Need Is Love” on TV in the first live global satellite link in June 1967 and some of the album Let It Be was performed on the roof of the Apple building in Saville Row on January 30th 1969. But basically, from August 1966 onwards, the Beatles were a studio group.

But what a studio group! Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album, Yellow Submarine and the break-up duo Abbey Road and Let it Be all come from this period, albums which contain dozens of songs which were works of genius, Sgt. Pepper (1967) being arguably the greatest rock album ever recorded. Nevertheless, throughout this whole period the tension in the group, and particularly between the two creative geniuses Lennon and McCartney, was growing steadily.
By 1969 it must have been clear to most observers that the band was moving towards an end. Lennon had begun his relationship with Yoko Ono and the fans, sensing that the centrifugal tendencies within the group were escalating reacted, for the most part, with deep suspicion and hostility towards John’s new Japanese muse. But the differences were deeper and more complex than Yoko’s influence. For fans, however, the prospect of the group breaking up remained unthinkable.

In September 1969 Lennon announced to the rest of the group that he was leaving but this announcement was not made public. He had already released his first single without the group, “Give Peace a Chance,” two months earlier. He never played with the other three together again. But there was still an album, Let it Be, in the works. It was released in May, 1970.

By then, though, the group was gone. On April 10th 1970, forty years ago today, Paul McCartney announced his departure from the group. Although various legal wrangling postponed the final wind-up of the group’s affairs until 1975, if any one incident can be defined as the definitive end of the Beatles, it was that public announcement.

Now you know.

“And in the end, the love you take/ Is equal to the love you make”
(The last line of “The End”, the last song all four Beatles recorded together, on the album Abbey Road)

Friday, 9 April 2010


Anna doesn’t want to be here, that much is obvious. She sits at the breakfast table sobbing quietly. She has no interest in the coffee, or the roll with marmalade. When my colleague speaks to her, suggesting that she might like to eat or drink something, she looks at her briefly, nods, mutters, “Yes” and then continues to sit there passively, the tears still running down her cheeks.
Gerry is confused. That’s nothing new. Gerry is permanently confused, insecure. His breakfast roll is on the plate before him, already cut into the top and bottom half. Knife in hand, he looks at me helplessly and asks, “And now, what should I do now?”
“Butter your roll, Gerry,” I suggest.
He does so. Then he looks at me again.
“And now?”
“What would you prefer, Gerry, sausage or cheese? Or maybe some marmalade?”
This is too complicated for Gerry. He looks at me and shrugs his shoulders.
“You usually take marmalade. Spread the marmalade on your roll.” I point to the marmalade.
This is okay. Gerry has understood me and is relieved to know what he should do next. He spreads marmalade on his roll and starts to eat.

“In the United States, Alzheimer prevalence was estimated to be 1.6% in the year 2000 both overall and in the 65–74 age group, with the rate increasing to 19% in the 75–84 group and to 42% in the greater than 84 group.” (Wikipedia). Experts generally reckon that Alzheimer’s disease accounts from somewhere between 50% and 70% of all cases of dementia. Exact figures are difficult to give, since the only sure diagnosis of the particular kind of dementia someone has been suffering from can often only be reached through an examination of brain tissue which is only possible post mortem. But given the increase in general life expectancy in the developed world and the fact that scientists have yet to discover any medical treatment which can significantly prevent the onset of Alzheimer or substantially ameliorate its progress once it has manifested itself, we are talking of millions of people worldwide, now and in the foreseeable future “In 2006 the worldwide prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease was 26.6 million. By 2050, prevalence will quadruple by which time 1 in 85 persons worldwide
will be living with the disease.”[i]

Hans gets up from the breakfast table and walks purposefully towards the door. The first time he came with his wife to our day-care centre, it took me a little while to realise that he was the one suffering from dementia. He is neatly dressed, with an open, competent expression, a firm handshake and a pleasant, expressive, “Pleased to meet you.” His wife looks harried and stressed-out. A few sentences later I realise that this is all a façade, a façade with a desperately ruined building behind it.
Hans cannot sit still for longer than five minutes at a time. He’s in his early seventies, still physically fit and has a burning source of internal energy for which he can find no channel other than movement. It’s no wonder his wife looks so all-in. She tells me he’s like this all the time. He follows her everywhere at home, even to the toilet. She has to lock the doors because otherwise he’ll leave the house and promptly get lost. She has to keep him in view all the time. Mercifully, he usually manages to tire himself out enough during the day so that he sleeps soundly. She, needless to say, doesn’t.
We can generally let Hans walk, at least for the first couple of hours on the days he spends with us, although we have to watch him. He doesn’t usually leave the premises, although sometimes after lunch he announces that he’s got to go home now and heads for the exit. Generally he lets himself be persuaded by the argument that he lives five kilometres away and that it’s too far to walk, that his wife isn’t at home at the moment and that we’ll drive him home in a couple of hours anyway.

Dementia (whether of the Alzheimer or vascular – the second most common – type) is a progressive, gradual disintegration of the personality. Short-term memory is usually one of the first things to go (although this should not be confused with an increase in forgetfulness – a general characteristic of ageing), things stored in long-term memory are generally much more resilient, so that people suffering from dementia can often tell you what happened fifty years ago but haven’t a clue about what happened yesterday, or an hour ago. But then other things start to go too, like language and facial recognition. More and more basic competences disappear; the ability to dress and feed oneself, continence. In the final stages even basic functions like standing, walking and chewing may fade away.

Anna’s dementia is pretty advanced. She’s lost a lot of her linguistic capability, so she usually can’t manage a comprehensible sentence. She is incontinent. She is also frequently sad, or frustrated, or angry, or all of these at the same time.
Like Hans, she often has problems sitting still. This is one of those days. She is walking around, checking doors, obviously frustrated that she has to be here. She clearly wants to be somewhere else, probably at home with her husband, whom she still recognises. But he needs the three days a week she spends with us, just to be able to continue coping with her for the rest of the time. He had his eightieth birthday a few weeks ago. My nose tells me that she needs to be taken to the toilet and cleaned. This is a constant problem, sometimes three or four times daily.
As a teenager, at the end of World War II, Anna spent a number of years as a forced-labour prisoner in the Soviet Union, before being allowed to return to Germany. She was almost certainly repeatedly raped during that period – it was the order of the day for German women who had contact with a Red Army furious at the treatment of their country by the Nazi invaders. Sometimes she lets me clean her, but more often her reaction to me in this very intimate situation is aggressive.
I manage to guide her to the toilet but that’s as far as I get. After she tries to hit and kick me, I give up. A quarter of an hour later my (female) colleague has more luck.

People suffering from dementia live in a world of constant stress and insecurity. Every day they are faced with situations with which they cannot cope and with people (frequently those they love and who love them most) who cannot understand that they cannot cope. They themselves cannot understand that they cannot cope, since their capacity to understand things is shrinking daily.
In the early stages they often try to cover up the insufficiencies they experience and many become quite practiced and convincing at it. Not being able to remember something, they invent explanations for themselves and others – the term professionals use to describe this is “confabulation.”

Lunch is over and the majority of the visitors in the day-care centre are taking a nap. Anna, Gerry and Hans are not among them, they are all too uneasy. Hans heads for the exit. I intercept him.
“Hans, where do you want to go?”
“I just … well … you know …”
“Hans, you have to stay here for another while. Your wife isn’t at home right now.”
“Yes … right … it’s just … you know …”
He pauses. The words are not there. Suddenly the competent façade is gone and his face expresses the real Hans behind it; confusion, fear, despair. My heart wrenches.
“It’s part of the illness you have, Hans,” I tell him. “You just forget things. This morning you knew you were going to spend the day here, just like last week and the week before and the week before that too. You’ve forgotten it. It’s not your fault. It’s just that fucking Alzheimer.”
His face brightens a bit. I’ve made the right judgement, risking honesty.
“It’s terrible,” he says. “I know sometimes … but then …”
He breaks off again, confused. The thought was too complicated to follow through. But the peak of the stress is gone.
“Let’s see if we can’t find a cup of coffee,” I suggest. He grins at me and we walk back together to the living room.
As we enter we hear Gerry, querulous;
“And now, what happens now …?”

[i] Ron Brookmeyer, Elizabeth Johnson, Kathryn Ziegler-Graham, and H. Michael Arrighi, “Forecasting the global burden of Alzheimer’s disease” John Hopkins University, 2007

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Catholic Church - again

Once more I feel I have to write about a continuing theme I really don’t want to have to concentrate on in this blog – I am referring of course to the Catholic church and the positions being taken by many of those in authority there, right up to and including the pope. I think I need to explain something of this reluctance before commenting on current developments.

I spent nine years of my life as a member of a Catholic religious order which I left a year after I had been ordained a priest. Those nine years were exciting, formative, positive and negative, inspiring and frustrating; in hindsight, twenty four years later, a completely normal experience of full-tilt, confusing, ecstatic, exploring, orientating, completely-alive early adulthood. My personal journey through life has taken me much farther since then, away from Catholicism, beyond Christianity, into an open atheistically-inclined agnosticism with which I am generally quite content. As such, the vestigial continuing interest I have in things Catholic could be compared to the interest one has in hearing news of an old lover, with whom one has little current contact but where the mutually inflicted wounds and injuries have long healed over. I feel that I have basically sorted out many of the issues that I had with the church while I was a “professional” member by realising that it was not for me and, following the logic of that recognition, leaving. It took me a few years after leaving to complete this realisation but, from my point of view and that of most of the brothers who remained in the order, the hurts have been forgotten and the bitterness transcended.

On reflection, I would even go a step further, and state that, in many respects, I feel deeply thankful to the Dominican Order in particular for many things, for deep abiding friendships, for a wonderful atmosphere of open intellectual enquiry, for marvellous memories and a personal experience, generally, of great (some might even have said at the time, too great) tolerance. But then, I was part of the whole thing during a period from 1977 to 1986 when the atmosphere was more open and positive than it is today – or such is my impression at any rate. (And, at the same time, there was an unspeakable and unspoken shadow-side of which I was unaware, hundreds of priests abusing children with impunity and – in many cases – with the knowledge of their superiors.)

This is the background to that reluctance to comment I mentioned above. But it is also the background which makes me so angry at the position I see being taken by many “official” representatives of the church during the past couple of weeks. In his Good Friday sermon in the presence of the pope, Benedict’s personal preacher, Raniero Cantalamessa, compared the treatment of the church over sex abuse to “the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism”. Cantalamessa claimed that this comment came from a letter from an unnamed “Jewish friend” and subsequently half-heartedly apologised “if …I hurt the sensibilities of Jews and victims of paedophilia.” There are two points which arise here. Firstly I am somewhat sceptical of the authenticity of the source of the letter quoted. “The more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism”? One might ask what the less shameful aspects of anti-Semitism are. (And before someone accuses me of nit-picking here, let me add that the author of the sermon must have been aware that his words would be reported worldwide.) I find it difficult to believe that a Jew would have written these words. Secondly, the so-called apology is not a retraction of the comparison, but only an expression of sorrow if Jews or victims of paedophilia were offended. The intent is clear, the comparison remains.

All this fits in with other comments coming from official Vatican sources. Among others, Frederico Lombardi, the official Vatican spokesman, has repeatedly referred to a defamation campaign being carried out by those ill-disposed to the church. In an unprecedented laudation before the pope on Easter Sunday, the dean of the college of cardinals, Angelo Sodano, said that the church would not be intimidated by chiacchiericcio, meaning idle chatter or petty gossip.

This approach is a continuation of the knee-jerk reaction of Catholic church authorities in the past decades to any form of criticism. Rather than making any attempt to listen to what is being said, the strategy seems to be to immediately try to discredit those who are expressing the criticism. It is an easy and cheap form of ad hominem argumentation, attacking the messenger who brings bad news rather than taking the message itself seriously.

It is also insulting. It insults those thousands of us critics, most of whom do not spend their lives simply looking for sticks with which to bash the Catholic church (we have better things to do with our lives), many of whom, in fact, may wish the church well. It insults those millions of believing Catholics who, despite the moral abyss in which they see their leaders lost, still try to carry on living their faith. It insults those many sincere sisters, brothers, priests and lay-people who continue to work for the gospel, for the ideals in which they believe. It betrays that very message which these men purport to represent – and, in the spirit of the story the church officially remembered last week, one wonders when the man who claims the title of Peter’s successor will hear the cock crow? How hurtful it must be for those who were actually abused and subsequently let down by the men who had the power to stop the abuse and see the abusers legally dealt with – their superiors – and who instead chose to browbeat the victims, swear them to silence and ignore their suffering is beyond imagination. And now, some of these same men (or, in the case of the bishop of Rome, their spokesmen) try to justify themselves by pointing to campaigns by enemies of the church or by arguing that the whole affair is the result of secularisation and a general weakening of the faith. To quote Scripture, Jesus wept!

On Good Friday, Father Cantalamessa knowingly brought anti-Semitism and, by implication, the Holocaust into the discussion. It would have been better for him to remember that millions of those reading reports of his words know enough history to be reminded of other possible parallels to the Nazi period. I, for one, was led to think of the Nuremberg trials and some of the justifications given by those in the dock concerning obedience to orders and the necessity of some suffering in order to achieve a greater goal.

If these men had any mature sense of moral responsibility, any of them even passively implicated in any cover-up, in any failure to report abuse to the civil authorities would resign. Every time they celebrate mass, they publicly ask forgiveness “for what I have done and for what I have failed to do.” Such gestures might just show the beginning of a way to honestly dealing with the issues which have arisen. Instead, only a few resignations have taken place, practically all of them under pressure and with little or no acknowledgement that the men involved have even understood why they had to go.

In the light of all that is unfolding, I am glad to be able to say that I am no longer a Catholic. And yet, that part of me which was Catholic, which believed in the liberation and joy, the potential for good in the Christian message, which, as part of my personal history, is still part of who I am today, feels sorrow and shame. It was a comment on an earlier post published on this blog by a kinswoman of mine, who like me has had a complex history with the Catholic church, which gave me the deciding motivation to write this piece. Maureen, you summed it up so well: “My dear friend, a Maryknoll Sister, gave her life in El Salvador to protect the powerless against the ruthless. Now the ruthless run the Church. It makes me so very sad.”

(Sources: The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, L’Osservatore Romano,

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Helmut Kohl

When Germans today think of the year 1989, they remember above all the evening of November 9th, when, following a misunderstanding of a note passed to him, the East German politburo member, Gunter Schabowski, announced that the borders to West Germany were to be opened “immediately, without delay.” That evening, the pictures of thousands of Berliners flocking from East to West, celebrating on top of the wall and even spontaneously starting to demolish it with pickaxes swept around the world. However, when historians examine that year more closely another date comes into focus, that of September 11th. On that day, if a group of prominent dissidents within the German Christian Democrat Party had had their way, Helmut Kohl would have been deposed as party leader, and his position as Chancellor of West Germany would have become untenable. The wall would probably still have come down, but it can be argued that the subsequent course of inner German history and the road to reunification would conceivably have been very different.

In mid-1989 Kohl was in serious difficulty. His party’s popularity was low and his own was still lower. A general election was due the following year and more and more people within the party had become convinced that their leader was a liability and that it was time to ditch him in favour of a more modern-looking, media-friendly candidate. The choice had fallen on Lothar Späth, the prime minister of Baden-Württenburg. Späth was popular within the party, with a good reputation for intelligence and economic competence. There was a groundswell of discontentment with Kohl within the party, much of it having to do with a perceived dictatorial and high-handed style and the fact that the public perception of him as a bumbling, stumbling, fat intellectual lightweight was growing. Nothing focuses a political party more than the prospect of a lost election and more and more commentators were convinced that Kohl’s days were numbered. A party conference was scheduled for September 10th and 11th in Bremen and the planning of the group of rebels under the leadership of Heiner Geissler, a man who had been one of Kohl’s closest associates from the beginning of his political career and whom Kohl had just fired as General Secretary of the party, became more concrete.

As if all this wasn’t enough, in the week before September 11th Kohl had to deal with a major personal problem. His doctors had diagnosed major prostate problems and urged immediate surgery. The chancellor however decided that an absence from public view would mean the definitive end of his career and travelled to Bremen with a catheter and a urologist to fight for his political life.

During the summer, thousands of East Germans had prolonged their holidays in Hungary indefinitely by taking refuge in the West German embassy in Budapest, hoping for permission to travel through Hungary to Austria and West Germany. The situation in the embassy was difficult and tense and West German negotiators were working hard with the Hungarian authorities to find a solution. On September 10th, the Hungarian authorities announced that the refugees would be allowed to leave for West Germany.

The announcement saved Kohl’s political life. The mood in West Germany shifted to one of hope and anticipation and when he gave his keynote speech on the 11th and referred publicly for the first time to German reunification the delegates responded with tumultuous applause. Those planning the putsch realised that their chance had disappeared and there was no challenge made to Kohl’s leadership.

The rest, as they say, is history. In the following months Helmut Kohl was able to use his very particular talents to network with and manipulate people with consummate skill, playing off George H. Bush, Francois Mitterand and Mikhail Gorbachev against each other (isolating Margaret Thatcher, the one allied leader who was implacably and completely opposed to any kind of German reunification, in the process) and riding the rapidly unfolding political developments with an instinctive security until the GDR formally disappeared a year later, on October 3rd, 1990. Documents released in Moscow and Paris in the past year reveal that Mitterand was also initially opposed to unification and only pledged his final support in return for a commitment from Kohl to commit Germany to the goal of European economic and monetary union. History records that Kohl honoured this commitment.

Today Helmut Kohl celebrates his 80th birthday. He is, according to all reports, seriously ill, confined to a wheelchair and has been unable to speak for the past two years. Following his retirement from active politics, he has been intensely conscious of his historical reputation and has not hesitated to take legal steps whenever he has seen that reputation as threatened, even if this has meant distancing himself from his own Christian Democrat party and those who were his faithful supporters throughout his active political life, up to and including Angela Merkel. But in this also, he has remained faithful to his guiding principle to sacrifice anything and everything, anyone and everyone to his own political vision.

I have never been an admirer of Helmut Kohl. But, like most of his critics, I am forced unwillingly to the conclusion that in 1989 he was the right man in the right place. Probably only someone with Kohl’s monumental sense of his own importance and the rightness of his own viewpoint, coupled with his capacity to manipulate and use others for his own purposes, could have pushed through German unification the way he did. Without him, Germany and Europe might be very different today. And so, finally, I concede his right to the sobriquet he has chosen for himself as his historical title, “Kanzler der Einheit” [the Unity Chancellor].


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