Sunday, 23 December 2012

A Kind of Christmas Card ...

The (temporary) creative pause from posting regularly on this blog which I decided to acknowledge (or give myself – I’m not sure which is closer to the truth; probably both) is something that I’m actually finding very pleasant. Just tooling around, doing the stuff that has to be done, spontaneously doing other stuff I feel like doing, it’s all very relaxing. But then there are other things; the things that fall into that wide convergence zone between want to and have to, between can and must.

Including writing this. I’ve never been a Christmas card person, though I remember their contribution to that exciting crescendo of anticipation which is my childhood memory of December, the expectation which is the very soul of the season known as Advent. Back in the day; a pre-digital age, a time when we didn’t even have a telephone (imagine that, if you can!) so that communication between people who didn’t meet regularly was limited to pen and paper, envelopes and stamps, and a postman on a bicycle.

They came daily through our letterbox, first a trickle, increasing to a daily flood as Christmas grew nearer. I remember my mother making a long list of people, buying cards and sheets of stamps and then writing them all. A few would be left in reserve to be sent to those from whom cards were received who had been forgotten on the original list.

And the cards poured in, being opened and set out on every available surface, when these were all used up hung from the walls or ceiling on string catenaries. We use to decorate the house for Christmas in those days too, paper and tinsel chains and garlands hung from the ceiling. As a kid I loved it all; it turned the familiar geography of our living room into a wonderful world of glitter and magic, ruled by the twin sovereigns of the Christmas tree and the crib, Mary and Joseph, the ox, the donkey and the shepherds all gathered around a central empty focus, that space where the baby in the manger would be placed on the evening of Christmas Eve, the first certain signal that Christmas was actually, inevitably here.

I don’t know if people still decorate their living rooms in Ireland today they way they used to do when I was a child. I suspect that fewer do – increased sophistication and a more developed sense of kitch are always purchased at the price of a certain innocent naïveté, and one of the basic facts of temps perdu is that it is like virginity, once lost it is irretrievable. Maybe this is one of the deeper reasons why so many adults are ultimately so often disappointed by Christmas; it is a seductive, insatiable longing for the innocent joy of childhood – a joy which, if truth be told, was probably never as unalloyed in reality as memory likes to present it. But memory is inclined to do that, isn’t it?

However, I realise that my thoughts are wandering in a direction which I had not planned, a direction with intimations of more darkness than I want in this … this what?

I started this by mentioning that I’ve never been a Christmas card person – after I left home, where such things fell primarily in my mother’s area of responsibility, I somehow never managed to make the exercise part of my own personal self-organisation. For too long, I suppose, I was intoxicated by the ephemeral, self-centred, invulnerable immediacy of youth, for too long afterwards I was involved in struggling with my own private demons and the trip-wires they had been busy installing for me in my life.

It’s well over a decade now since I managed to banish most of those demons, or at least to cage them so securely that they can no longer urgently threaten my life or my happiness. In those early days of putting my life back together again I realised the importance of friends and people who love me, and it became clear to me that the ordinary rituals of keeping in touch, however fleetingly, are an important part of nourishing those relationships.

Although I realised that the sending of Christmas cards is one of these important rituals, I consciously decided not to take that way. There had been too many caesuras in my life, too many friends for whom I had no longer addresses, for many of whom I had no contact details whatsoever. But the realisation of these losses, and the personal impoverishment they had given rise to, fortunately coincided with the spread of general digital connectedness at the beginning of the new century.

I had started to renew contact with many old friends, often using the internet to find them. And, as more and more people acquired e-mail accounts, I decided, instead of sending Christmas cards, to commit myself to the new virtual reality and send a longer personal e-mail to all the friends who could be reached by means of a web-tag containing that old mercantile symbol - @.

So, for many years now, I have been writing my Christmas e-mail. But the digital world changes, changes, changes, and my use of it changes too. In the past decade I have made many new acquaintances and established a number of what I regard as real friendships with people whom I have never met in real life. There are people, old friends and new, people all over the world, with whom most of my regular contacts now take place through various social networks; facebook, Google+, blogger, wordpress, and all the other virtual equivalents of the Irish pub, or the 18th Century coffee house.

Therefore, my friends, I have decided to move my Christmas mail here this year. And all of this has been nothing more than my usual rambling, roundabout, long-winded way of getting around to wishing you all a very happy Christmas.

Over the past couple of years I have published a number of essays here on Christmas and I feel no urge to repeat myself – if you really feel like reading them, just type “Christmas” into the search bar on the right of the page. But there was just one idea that occurred to me, which I would like to share with you.

In the Christian version of the much older urge to celebrate mid-winter/new year which seems instinctive to humanity in the northern hemisphere, the angels sing of “peace on earth.” There is something deeply quiet, inherently peaceful, about these shortest days of the year, when nature sleeps and we follow a deep urge to seek sharing and harmony with those we love. It is, perhaps, this longing for fellowship, generosity and solidarity which we try to express in the circle of our loved ones at this time which makes all the violence, injustice and needless pain which humans are capable of inflicting on each other appear so particularly horrible and useless. Whether in Newtown, Connecticut or Aleppo, Syria, in Timbuktu, Mali or Bethlehem, Palestine, the wrongness and futility of violence, hatred and killing strike us particularly at this time of year.

This Christmas, my friends, I wish you and me, us all and the world peace. Peace in our hearts, in our families, our communities, and our countries. Peace on earth. A wish as unfulfilled now as it was two thousand years ago. And yet, a wish still worth wishing. Maybe our wishing it – our really wishing it – is the only thing which stops us from finally and completely destroying ourselves.

Happy Christmas. And peace on earth. Salaam. Shalom. 

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Ireland's Abortion Legislation Mess

It is not an easy thing to say, particularly to say publicly in a forum like this for the whole world to read. But it is the way I have been feeling for the past week or so.

At the moment, I am ashamed to be Irish.

On November 14, the Irish Times published an article telling the story of Savita Halappanavar, who died in an Irish hospital on October 28. The immediate cause of death was septicaemia, more commonly known as blood poisoning, resulting from the miscarriage of a foetus in the 17th week of pregnancy.

A tragedy. Something which commonly happened a hundred years ago, which – thankfully – seldom happens now, at least in developed countries with a generally well functioning health system.

The massive septicaemia was able to take hold because Savita spent three days in a condition of cervical dilation with amniotic fluid leaking. There is an overwhelming medical consensus that in such a situation the foetus is not viable and will inevitably die. The basic medical procedure is, therefore, to terminate the pregnancy as quickly as possible in order to avoid the kind of complication which killed Savita. As a medical professional (a dentist), Savita was well aware of this and repeatedly over the three days begged that the birth be induced so that her life could be saved – a procedure which is, technically, an abortion. According to her husband, she was told that this was not possible, because Ireland was “a Catholic country.” Savita spent three days in great pain until the foetal heartbeat finally ceased without outside assistance and the dead foetus was removed. In all probability, the septicaemia had gained such a hold during this time that it was impossible to combat.

In all probability, Savita need not have died.

Abortion has always been illegal in Ireland (well, at least since 1867). Around thirty years ago, a number of right-wing Catholics decided that this was not enough. They argued that there was a danger that the elected politicians might some day decide to change the law, that, as they saw it, the right to life of the unborn child needed to be copper-fastened in the Irish constitution. In Ireland, the constitution cannot be changed by parliament; any amendment must be approved by a popular vote. A well-orchestrated public campaign began.

I remember it well; it was extremely sophisticated and very nasty. Anyone who expressed doubts about the wisdom of such a course was immediately accused of being pro-abortion, politicians were put under pressure, questions of the wisdom of trying to constitutionally regulate such a complex area of law, morality and religious belief were swept aside. Though I was a member of the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church at the time, I remember feeling very uncomfortable about the whole thing; even leaving aside my (perhaps for a “professional” Catholic unusual) personal doubts about the moral clarity of a blanket condemnation of abortion, and my deep reluctance as a man to take a definitive position on something which I regarded as really being a women’s issue, I felt that changing the constitution was no way to deal with the subject.

I voted against the amendment. Not that it mattered – it was passed by a two-thirds majority. Four years after the pope had come to visit, the Irish people felt a need to express how Catholic they were. The fact that any Irish woman who had the courage, the necessary information (and the money) could easily travel to Britain to have an abortion was generally known, accepted, disapproved of, ignored, and conveniently forgotten. Holy Catholic Ireland had won a famous victory against the menacing forces of godless international liberal left-wing secularism.

Nine years later that victory came back to haunt the self-proclaimed “pro-lifers.” The wording of the eighth amendment had been framed to try to comprehensively express Catholic teaching in a positive formulation:

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” (Irish Constitution, Article 40.3.3°)

The parents of a 14 year old girl who had been raped by a neighbour planned to take their daughter to England for an abortion (the so called X case). Their principle reason for this was because the victim had threatened suicide should she be forced to give birth to the child. Before going to England, the authorities were asked whether DNA from the aborted foetus could be used as evidence against the accused rapist. The state applied for a court injunction to prevent the girl from leaving the country, the issue quickly landed before the Supreme Court, which ruled that it was constitutionally permissible for the girl to obtain an abortion as the danger of suicide constituted a threat to her life and so was a case which fell under the category of “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.” Ironically, the danger of the amendment actually providing a constitutional ground for abortion in certain circumstances had been pointed out by its opponents during the campaign leading up to the referendum (among others by Alan Shatter, who is now the Irish Minister for Justice), but this opinion had been dismissed by its proponents. (In the event, the girl had a miscarriage before she could travel to England, the rapist was subsequently convicted.)

Justicia, ironically, is female
In a wider context, the eighth amendment, the X case, two further attempted (and rejected) “pro-life” amendments, as well as a number of other cases taken through the courts all the way to Europe, can all be seen as part of an ongoing transition of values in Ireland, particularly with regard to the waning influence of the Catholic Church in the country. But this provides only part of the background to Savita’s tragic and scandalous death a few weeks ago.

In the course of the past twenty years, the judges in the Irish Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights have been explicitly critical of the failure of the Irish Dáil (parliament) to legislate concretely for the whole area of the termination of pregnancies, even within the extremely limited circumstances they have defined as existing according to the eighth amendment to the constitution following the X Case. The judges have pointed out that it is their job to interpret the law; it is the duty of legislators to make it, to give practical form to the consequences of the interpretations provided by the courts. For twenty years now Irish governments (containing every significant political party in the state with the exception of Sinn Fein [the radical left-wing party which has historically been the political wing of the IRA] in one coalition or another) have frequently promised action and done … nothing.

As a result, doctors, counsellors, and other care professionals have no clear legal guidelines when it comes to dealing with specific situations. It is possible that the doctors in Savita’s case were reluctant to terminate the hopeless pregnancy because they could not be sure that they might be acting illegally and thus exposing themselves to possible (however unlikely) judicial consequences. This is all the more ironic, given that that the termination of her pregnancy could even possibly be justified by a line of argument following traditional Catholic moral philosophy using the Principle of Double Effect (a line of reasoning which has always struck me as being just a little too clever; casuistry, in other words).

Whatever. Why have Irish politicians failed to legislate to regulate such cases, to provide legal certainty for all involved? There are two possible reasons, both reprehensible.

It may be that they are just indifferent. The situation of pregnant women with health or serious mental conflict issues just isn’t important enough for them.

Or, more deeply, perhaps they are simply afraid. Afraid of the negative image of them the vituperative groups calling themselves “pro-life” are capable of and expert in projecting of them. Any politician who supports any legislation to legalise abortion, even in the most limited of cases, will be open to be portrayed as “anti-life,” “murderer,” promiscuous, irreligious, anti-Catholic, even, somehow, not truly Irish. An exhibition of honesty and backbone might well be toxic at the ballot-box, especially if the well-organised and well-funded (there are reasons to believe that large sums flow from the religious right-wing in the USA) anti-abortion groups decide to run negative campaigns against them.

The horrible thing about it is that they may be right. I have a sneaking fear that large numbers of my compatriots are still deeply influenced by a self-righteous, holier-than-thou picture of themselves as “pro-lifers,” secure in a reality-denying mindset made possible by the fact that any woman who really wants an abortion can easily go to godless England and get it there. And we won’t talk about it honestly. A nasty Irish version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Maybe I am too pessimistic. Maybe the erosion of that particular narrow-minded hypocritical version of Catholicism which dominated Ireland for a large part of the past century has finally reached a stage where my countrywomen and men are finally prepared to be honest with themselves, to face up to hard truths and harder realities about their collective responsibility for the society they want to make for themselves in a world in which moral opinions about the rights and wrongs of what people do (especially in the whole complex area of relationships, sex and reproduction) are informed more by humility, tolerance, compassion and honest doubt than simplistic expressions of religiously grounded infallibility.

There are all sorts of things I could write here about the difficult question of abortion. About the women I know who have had one and have told me about it. About the agonising they went through concerning their decision, both before and after. About serious moral arguments in favour of abortion. About the dangers of black-and-white absolutist arguments and the use of horrible emotive language and images to browbeat those who may not agree with you. About the fundamental truth that women become pregnant and men can’t and that, therefore, this is one issue where women should be leading the discussions and decisions on the subject and men should be playing a subordinate role.

But precisely because this is primarily a women’s issue, I, as a man, won’t go into any of these points more deeply here. I will only hope that the Irish will become more honest with themselves, that their politicians will face up to their responsibilities and at least legislate for the very limited, specific cases of abortion allowed by the present constitution. Of course, ideally I would like to see a more general debate leading to the replacement of that misbegotten 1983 amendment to the constitution, but I honestly don’t think that’s going to happen in the near future.

But Savita’s case may just have started a ball rolling. The pressure of public opinion, both within Ireland and worldwide, will probably twist the politicians’ arms enough to make them legislate for cases like hers. Then this beautiful, vibrant woman won’t have died completely in vain.

And perhaps then, my feeling of shame at being Irish will start to fade.

This is not a great version of the song, but the Boomtown Rats' music is as inaccessible on YouTube as that of Bob Dylan - at least here in Germany. But it really did have to be this song!

Images retrieved from:

Monday, 12 November 2012


It’s four in the morning and I’m on the night shift. Things are quiet; the five children who are my charges are all sleeping peacefully. I’ve just been outside for a cigarette, leaving the door slightly open so that I can hear the signal, should any of the monitors to which they are all attached give alarm.

Though our little group is housed in the middle of the city, it is quiet outside. The night is slightly misty, the temperature three or four degrees above freezing point. There is plenty of light; street lamps, the neon signs on the big shopping mall next door, the illumination of the city theatre across the way. Between our little garden and the theatre is a small playground. Looking across just now, I spotted a what looked like a fat rabbit grazing on the grass between the swings and the climbing-frame. From time to time he raises his head, his ears twitching. Has he registered my presence? I move towards the fence, the distance between us finally around five metres. Now he has seen me. He raises his head head once more, looks briefly towards me, then hops slowly away. He doesn’t seem particularly concerned. Caught for a moment in the stronger light of a street lamp, I can see him even more clearly. Now I realise that my initial judgement was mistaken – from his greater size and the shape of his tail, I can see that my night-time acquaintance is, in fact, a hare.

An old acquaintance, then. I have seen him before, in the dawn light of April. Then he was much livelier, gambolling on the grass, as they are wont to do in spring. Now, as winter approaches, his life is quieter, its most dominant aspect being the need to silflay as much as possible before the dark, hard, hungry season gets into its stride.

Posts on this blog have become a bit more seldom of late. Exactly why, I am not sure. I have been playing around with a couple of ideas in my head, have even started writing about a few before giving up on them. Bored with my own ideas before I have even worked them through? Perhaps.

I feel an urge to create something special, something beautiful. Some kind of instinct to make a leap forward, move to another level, without being clear about how to go about this. Writer’s block, creative logjam, perhaps a slight attack of plain old laziness? Maybe a combination of all this, along with a significant amount of something else, some kind of factor x. If I actually knew what it was, then I might be able to do something about it.

I feel two conflicting instincts with regard to dealing with this. The first is the generally excellent piece of advice; If you’ve got nothing to say, don’t say it. Surfing the web recently I’ve been struck by a sense of how much useless, superfluous bullshit is out there. Maybe it’s just a side effect of the US presidential campaign. Although I am an Irishman, happily living in Europe, I have the feeling that, all around the globe, you’d have had to be blind, deaf and terminally stupid not to realise that the USA was choosing a new (actually re-electing the old) boss. A cacophony of shrill attempts at persuasion – of whom? A few hundred thousand voters in a couple of swing states who finally decided the election? Was all the rest of it then just the convinced preaching to the converted, modern versions of the indignation, shrieking and threatening gestures between two rival groups of monkeys meeting in a disputed forest clearing. Ritualised hind-brain aggression, formally channelled to let dangerous instinctive feelings bleed off without anyone getting the shit beaten out of him, or even killed. And in the course of this, the two tribes involved spent up to six billion dollars. Not to mention the millions of words churned out in blogs, Facebook posts and tweets. What a way to run the world! And why on earth should I add anything more to this strange circus?

The other instinct is to just start writing without any clear idea about where it’s going to go. Just type away, immersing myself into the stream of ideas swirling in my head, reflecting my own subjective perception of all the concepts and impulses and stimuli churning around in my own particular personal and cultural environment and see where it takes me. Which is, more or less, what I am actually doing now. Some kind of intuition that I generally do have something to say; one of the basic purposes of this blog being the ongoing attempt to work on how I say it – learning by doing, honing whatever kind of ability I have to create something (however modestly) worthwhile, combining form and content, media and message, into that flexible and somewhat amorphous literary category known as “the essay.”

Writing, formulating my thoughts and ideas, just doesn’t flow easily for me at the moment. That … hesitancy … I mentioned at the beginning of this piece is still there, a feeling that that I’m trying to carve this out of hard wood, with tools that aren’t sharp enough. I’ve been writing this on and off (more off than on) for more than a week now, finding myself taking directions which I then subsequently revise and ultimately reject. They don’t quite fit, though (thanks to the possibilities offered by writing with a computer) I can save these rejected fragments to perhaps revisit and use later.

One of the memes which seems to be flashing about at the moment is that of stories. Narratives. Even President Obama took it up in his victory/acceptance speech the other evening. We structure the world in which we live by creating narratives, telling stories. Crises occur in societies when narratives no longer work, when the shared collective stories become unbelievable, incapable of providing a coherent explanation of past, present and future – from families all the way up to nations.

Since 2008 the global economic story has been in fundamental crisis, a crisis much deeper than the “crash” itself. The general consensus on an economic meta-narrative, told in the language of markets, the belief in the story of the Invisible Hand guiding all to the best of all possible prosperity through free, unregulated markets, is breaking down, along with many of its themes, such as Trickle Down or Unlimited Growth. In the midst of all the doom and gloom there may just be a small hope that we can build better stories; new narratives, based perhaps on values other than those of economic worth, such as decency, morality, solidarity.

I know, I have a strong personal tendency to (unjustifiable?) optimism. Or maybe just hope.

Personally, I have also reached a stage in which I am increasingly examining my own narratives. One result of the Burnout I went through a year and a half ago was a decision to go into psychoanalysis. Currently in the middle of this process, I find myself at a point where I feel the urge to say less and listen more – to others and to myself. I have no intention of going deeper into details here – it is a process which I consider to be intensely private – but there is one realisation which I am prepared to mention. I have a tendency in many areas in my life to turn “can” and “want to” into “must” and “have to”. It is a personal characteristic I don’t particularly enjoy and one I hope to be able to give less power to in the future. Writing here is something I do because I enjoy it, because I want to do it; I will not allow it to become something I feel I am doing out of some kind of obligation.

There are themes I have briefly mentioned here which I intend to come back to; particularly that of narrative. But for now, in common with my long-eared friend, the meeting with whom I described at the beginning of this, I feel the need to listen more and, perhaps, say less. So there may be fewer posts here in the next while. But those that I do publish (and I have no intention of abandoning this project) will appear because I wanted to write them, not out of any sense that I had to publish something.

Images retrieved from:

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Life - interrupted

Just the other day I was at a birthday party; a birthday party for a five year old. There were presents, a cake, and a gang of kids creating excited mayhem. There were even more adults present – but that too is not unusual for a large extended family of Turkish immigrants to Germany. A perfectly normal, happy occasion.

Except that it wasn’t. The birthday girl was physically there for the occasion, but that’s about all you can say about her, because she wasn’t involved in the proceedings in any other significant fashion. It is debatable whether she had any real perception of what was going on at all. And to really explain why that is the case, I have to tell a very sad story.

When Sümeyye went to the local hospital to give birth to her second child, five years ago, there was no unusual cause for concern. She had already given birth to a healthy son, the pregnancy had been unremarkable – everything seemed routine. But during the birth the first warning biometric signs started to crop up, showing that the baby was in some distress. Ultimately, the instruments could record no more signs of life – but this was at a stage where the top of the child’s head was already showing, so a Caesarean section was impossible.

Little Kübra was pulled with forceps lifeless into this world; something having gone wrong with the supply of blood and life-giving oxygen through the umbilical at some stage of the birth. But the delivery team got working with all their collective expertise, and all the wonderful modern machines available to them and they got Kübra’s heart beating and her lungs (at least intermittently) working.

As the days went by, Kübra’s basic bodily functions stabilised. Unfortunately, the massive brain damage caused by the prolonged lack of oxygen during the birth was not reversible. Kübra was in a persistent vegetative state and would, in all likelihood, remain in this state for as long as she lived.

I’ve been working with people in a PVS for over a decade now, and I’ve written about it a number of times here already. But Kübra’s case is particular in its poignancy.

We know next to nothing of the internal world of those in a PVS, we don’t even know for certain if there is such a world. We know that these people are not brain-dead; at some levels large parts of their brains are working normally. The greatest damage – particularly in those who have landed in this state due to oxygen deprivation – is in the cerebral cortex; the part of the brain which Hercule Poirot called “the little grey cells” and which is (at least to a very significant degree) the seat of our consciousness, the physical matrix of our rationality. There are even some neurological experts who would argue that in such cases there is no more individual personality present. No more than a vegetable. Nobody home.

We just don’t know. Although our knowledge of how the brain works has been growing rapidly in the past few decades, and will certainly be one of the great fields of medical advance in the 21st Century, our explanations and maps of the brain still resemble, in many ways, the work of pre-Colombian cartographers, with many blank regions decorated only by fancy cursive scripts stating, “Here be dragons.”

There are reasons to believe that many people in a PVS do sometimes seem to perceive something, that there is some kind of awareness there, even if weak, intermittent, or badly damaged. We know that for many functions of the brain a number of different regions are simultaneously involved, and that long-term memory is stored in a different way to short-term memory. There may be reasons to believe that some of the essential parts of our personality and character are rooted deeply in multiple areas of the brain. And so, for an adult in a PVS, there are all sorts of reasons for doing biographical research, making sure that they live in a familiar environment, are in contact with people they knew and loved, playing them their favourite music, etc.

But think about Kübra and her situation. At the very moment of birth nearly everything was switched off – and then the switch itself was broken. She came into the world so badly brain-damaged that even the sucking reflex, that most primitive, necessary instinct to secure nutrition during infancy, had been wiped out. She does not suck, or chew or swallow; her eyes don’t even close when she sleeps. Even using the vastly simplified (and inaccurate) picture of a baby as a tabula rasa, a blank page which begins to be written with all sorts of wonderful things from the moment of birth onwards, in Kübra’s case there is no pen, no stylus; the page remains simply blank, there is no development of personality.

But her brain-stem seems to be generally all right; she breathes, wakes, sleeps and digests normally. Apart from a feeding tube into her stomach, and a tracheotomy tube in her windpipe (necessary because she cannot cough up phlegm), she’s not dependent on any machines. She lives on from one day to the next, locked away from the world in an, at best, permanent dream. But, being realistic, it is as least as likely that there is no self-awareness there at all, like a computer where nearly every component is ok but where the RAM just won’t work, is broken and can’t be fixed.

But, as awful as it is, Kübra’s situation isn’t really the tragic one here. For most of the time, as far as anyone can observe, she seems to live her life in supremely absent equaminity. Encapsulated within herself, her inner world – whatever that may be – seems to suffice for her. If pressed, I would have to say that generally – if she’s not disturbed by anything acute – she is quite content.

* * *
My first encounter with Sümeyye, Kübra’s mother, was around four years ago. For some reason which I no longer remember, Kübra was to spend a few days in our unit for long-term care of people in a PVS. She was very tense, worried and nervous about leaving her daughter alone with us. We smoked a cigarette together. I had the impression of a woman in a state of permanent outraged shock, someone caught up in a ghastly, unending horror film. Her baby had been horribly, irretrievably damaged and the only purpose she could see for her life was to care for her, do everything necessary for her, fight for her. And yet, so much of this constant, soul-sapping struggle was without any result; all the efforts she made would never be rewarded by as little as one smile from her baby. She would never see her walk, play, make friends, never hear her laugh, never experience her child smiling at her, embracing or kissing her, loving her back.

But beside her shock, the vast personal insult of her concrete situation, there was also another impression I had, one not quite so noble perhaps, but maybe an attitude necessary for her own essential psychic survival. I had a sense that at some level she was consciously assuming and playing a role; that of the tragic heroine – a woman hounded by fate and the cruel, malevolent gods, but bravely shouldering an unspeakably unjust, impossible burden. Well, as John Lennon once put it, whatever gets you thru the night – and Sümeyye had a lot of hard nights to get through.

Our company was involved in caring for Kübra from the beginning – from the day, a couple of months after her birth, where they finally sent her home from hospital, admitting that there was nothing more that they could do for her. A team was set up, with colleagues spending eighteen hours daily in the family home.

The intensive nursing care of such a child at home is a hugely difficult undertaking for all concerned. These families are living with a constant, unhealing, open wound in their midst. To enable them to cope, they have to put up with the presence of strangers – a continually changing parade of strangers – constantly there in the middle of their very private space. Given the stress they are under, it is understandable that they seldom have the energy and the mental balance necessary to bring the kind of tolerance, openness and sensitive respect which might form a stable foundation for a longer-term creative relationship with the nurses who daily invade their family. If some of those nurses are personally insecure or inexperienced, this quickly becomes an occasion for comment, indignation, complaints and ultimately demands that the offending person be replaced. If the nurse is competent then the problems usually take a little longer to become apparent, but they are often just as severe. Because a competent nurse will almost inevitably commit an unforgivable sin – he or she will, in many situations, know better than the mother what’s right for her child. And for desperately wounded mothers like Sümeyye, this is simply intolerable.

Our company spent around three years nursing Kübra at home and then Sümeyye fired us. She thought she had found another nursing company who could do it better. It was all part of that kind of fevered, desperate activism in the face of the hopelessness of her child’s illness so common among parents in her position. It is part of human nature to hope beyond hope, to believe in a brighter future even if the present offers no prospect of it. We tell stories like that of Lorenzo’s Oil, asserting a fundamental conviction that if you do everything possible, don’t give up, carry on fighting against an unjust fate, storm heaven with prayers, then, finally, you will triumph over adversity and achieve your dream. Reality is often much harder; Snow White dies of the poisoned apple and Sam and Frodo are caught by the Orcs long before they reach Mordor. But after Pandora opened the forbidden box and released all the ills to which humanity is heir, hope remained – without it, however ungrounded it may be, life would most probably be unbearable.

The new nursing company brought no miracle. At the beginning of the year Sümeyye renewed her contact with us. She just couldn’t go on any longer. An agreement was reached that Kübra would spend a couple of months in the little group of five children we had just set up. In the meantime, our company would try to set up a new team to take over the care of the little girl at home.

Six months after she came to us, Kübra is still there. Unlike in Hollywood, we’re in the nursing, not the miracle business and, as yet, our firm has not been able to find enough trained and willing nurses to establish a team for her in her home city, around fifty miles away in the Ruhr area. Being realistic about it, probably every qualified available nurse in her city interested in this kind of work has already been there and doesn’t want to go back. Such home assignments are something hardly anyone can do for an indefinite period; the contradictions you have to endure, day in day out, are just too wearing. I should know – I spent a year doing it in three different settings and it nearly resulted in my own ruin

Another development has also taken place. Sümeyye is more relaxed, more engaged in living her own life. She handed her child over to us, taking the leap of faith that we can look after her. She can finally get on with living, begin to free herself from the nightmare which began five years ago.

Maybe. Perhaps. The situation is still very fragile. The facts that I have outlined in the previous two paragraphs are not discussed openly. Officially we are doing everything possible to establish a team to nurse Kübra at home, ostensibly Sümeyye can hardly wait for this day to come.

Unspoken truths. Truths which are probably better left unspoken, because they are just too hard to be too clearly expressed at the moment. Sümeyye has a long journey ahead of her before she can hopefully accept that the situation of her child is not her fault, that having us care for Kübra is not a sign that she is abandoning her child, that she has other responsibilities in life – her son, her husband. That the most basic responsibility she has is that for herself.

It is her journey and she must make it at her own speed. If she makes it at all.

* * *
So, having explained all this, you can now better understand why I spent last Friday afternoon and evening accompanying Kübra to her own birthday party, an occasion which didn’t interest her in the least. Indeed, the whole business was more stress for her than anything else. But then, this celebration wasn’t really about her anyway. It was the commemoration of a dream, and the refusal to accept that its mutation into a nightmare is the only truth there is. It was a signal that all concerned understand the deeper, unspoken truths and understand that the others also understand them, but that these truths are too fragile to be spoken aloud. And so all collude to keep up the official fiction.

Life is messy. Sometimes everyone doesn’t live happily ever after. And sometimes you have to accept uncomfortable compromises, because they’re the best you can get at the moment.

Pictures retrieved from:

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Michael Schumacher and the (Male) German Psyche

The news spread like a brushfire through the German media on Friday morning: Mercedes had fired their legendary Formula One driver, Michael Schumacher. Well, to be completely accurate, the reports were that they would not be renewing his contract beyond the end of this season, which amounts to more or less the same thing. Therefore the chances are good that, at the age of forty three, Schumacher will be retiring for the second time from the first division of motor racing – this time for good.

So what? Another overpaid top sportsman finally quits. Like Michael Jordan, Zinedine Zidane, Carl Lewis, David Beckham, and all the others. They entertained and were idolised by hundreds of millions, earned hundreds of millions and then rode off into the sunset, turning up occasionally as experts or “celebrities” on TV, their doings (particularly if there was even a whiff of scandal about them) being breathlessly reported in illustrated magazines and the more sensationalist of newspapers and (increasingly) web-sites. Big deal.

And the same is largely true of Schumacher. In 2010, one source estimated his net worth at around 830 million US dollars. That was the year he came back to Formula One after three years in retirement, Mercedes reportedly paying him around 30 million US$ annually to do so (not including what he earns from endorsements).

The argument often made with regards to the insane amounts earned by top sportsmen is that – in terms of returns – they are actually worth it, earning through their success much larger sums (through sponsorships, advertising value, TV-rights – especially TV-rights) for those who are actually paying them their millions. The irony about Schumacher is that success has eluded him and his Mercedes paymasters for the past three years; the best he has achieved in that period is one third place in a Grand Prix. 90 million dollars plus for that kind of performance? Nice work, if you can get it.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so small minded. Formula One is a global business where the millions are simply sloshing around, and Bernie Ecclestone, the geriatric Andy Warhol lookalike who actually owns the whole circus, is much richer than Schumacher. Economically rising and wannabe prestige-hungry countries like India, Russia, Turkey and Bahrain (to mention but a few) are all spending millions on purpose-built circuits just to attract this circus for an annual visit. They are also prepared – according to most reports – to pay Mr. Ecclestone handsomely for the privilege. And if there are human-rights or other such issues (as, most famously, in Bahrain recently), well, that kind of thing doesn’t really bother Bernie. Sport is sport and politics is politics and, hey folks, the show must go on. Bernie has been known to express some rather strange political views (about not everything being old Adolf’s fault, for instance) but then, there may be the onset of some slight senility here. His comrade in arms for much of his career, Max Mosley (boss of the FIA, the sporting body responsible for Fomula One), had the dubious distinction of being the son of the old British fascist, Sir Oswald Mosley – but then, we can’t choose our parents, can we?

Schumacher – to be fair to him – doesn’t really seem to be driven by greed; not as much as many of the others involved in his business/sport at any rate. He is quite a generous philanthropist, most famously donating $ 10 million in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami/Earthquake of 2004. On the other hand, he moved his main residence from Germany to Switzerland, apparently for tax purposes. But then, a reluctance to pay taxes on their massive earnings in their native countries is a characteristic he shares with many of his racing colleagues, quite a few of whom prefer Monte Carlo as their place of residence. And from the beginning of his career up to a few years ago he was managed by the notorious, larger-than-life Willi Weber, a German impresario with a tendency to occasionally questionable business practices and a sharp eye for the best deal in every conceivable situation. Weber discovered the young Schumacher, gambling on his talent and bankrolling his entrance into Formula One in 1991 in return for a fifth of all Schumacher’s earnings for the next ten years, thus gaining him the nickname “Mr. Twenty Percent.” That deal gave Weber a powerful incentive to maximally market his client in every conceivable way, and he was diligent indeed.

No, no, no! I could easily carry on in this vein for the rest of the essay, the slightly supercilious tone of the university-educated, left-leaning, eco-conscious, culture-vulture, politically-correct intellectual I suppose I am, doing the usual condescending deconstruction of one of the favourite sports of the shallow, media-conned masses. This kind of thing practically writes itself. I could sneer about all the things that irritate me about Michael Schumacher, particularly his deification by so many ordinary German men, the kind who read the Bild newspaper, pin up Playboy centrefolds in their places of work, wash their cars every Saturday, go to Majorca with their mates from the bowling-club for a long weekend of boozing and tail-chasing every year, and dream of driving expensive cars with three-pointed stars or blue and white badges. Let me try another approach …

Benz Patent Motorwagen 1885
Germans have a particular fascination with motor cars. Although there were many people working on the concept of the “horseless carriage” in the second half of the 19th Century, it is generally agreed that the inventor of the automobile was the German Karl Benz, who took out a patent for it in 1886. Many of the other significant names working in the area were also German, Gottlieb Daimler and Rudolf Diesel, for instance. So from the very beginning there has been a deep connection between Germans and the automobile, something they themselves are well conscious of, frequently calling the car “des Deutschen liebstes Kind / the German’s favourite child.”

The argument I am developing here may be contradicted by many Americans, who can justifiably mention the central role the automobile has played in American consciousness for a hundred years, referring to Buicks and Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Chryslers and pointing out that Henry Ford was mass-producing Model Ts decades before Adolf Hitler ordered Ferdinand Porsche to design a “Peoples’ Car” / Volkswagen. And there is, of course, much truth in this.

However, I would contend that the essential difference between Americans and Germans in this regard is that the American fascination is fundamentally that with the road, while the German obsession is with the car itself. Both have to do with mobility, of course, but the meme of the road, as central to the understanding of the American psyche, goes far beyond the means of transportation to encompass all sorts of themes like freedom, frontier, adventure, leaving it all behind, a whole way of life and consciousness. The German preoccupation with the car has more to do with the object itself; its possibilities, its design, its engineering, speed and comfort. The car as a symbol of … status, power, even freedom.

For many Germans, the car itself quickly becomes an object of obsession, almost a fetish. While the dusty, battered pick-up is one of the cultural icons of a particular American rugged identity, the idea of driving a dirty, dinged car is almost physically painful to most German motorists. The following ad, highlighting one of the differences between the French and the Germans, illustrates the point I am trying to make very well:

For the typical German male, his car is one of his most treasured possessions. It is carefully looked after, regularly serviced, the smallest defect is immediately taken care of, and it is washed, waxed and polished regularly (traditionally on Saturdays, though for environmental reasons the private washing of cars is today generally prohibited). Even the smallest, most insignificant scrape between two cars will, in Germany, immediately lead to the police being called (so that questions of liability can be cleared up immediately, in case of possible dispute), where everywhere else people are quite happy to simply exchange insurance numbers. Though in many respects I have become completely “Germanised” after twenty six years in this country, in this case I am, and will remain, obstinately foreign; I regard an automobile as nothing more than a comfortable means of conveyance from A to B and still do not understand why nearly all modern cars are sold with bumpers painted the same colour as the rest of the vehicle.

While I don’t want to get into sexism or genderism here, I think it is generally accepted that an interest in the “mechanics” of things is more prevalent among the male of the species. Combine this with a fascination for speed, and a strong competitive instinct (also more typical masculine preoccupations) and you start to understand the seemingly mindless pleasure men derive from watching cars driving at speed around in circles, or – even better – driving them themselves.

Almost uniquely, the Germans – normally so uptight and controlling about things – actually allow everyone with a driving licence the possibility to live this out to an extent. On the German Autobahns there is no speed-limit, so that you can actually personally check out the top speed specifications the manufacturer claims for your car. Of course, large parts of the motorways do have speed limits for all sorts of safety reasons, but there are also enough long straight stretches where you can really let it rip. Despite a general acceptance of all sorts of “green” consciousness by Germans, none of the major political parties (with the obvious exception of the Greens) are prepared to put general Autobahn speed-limits into their programmes – it’s an absolute vote killer. And let me tell you, there is something viscerally very satisfying about driving at well over a hundred miles an hour, your concentration completely on what you are doing – and fuck the fact that you’re burning twenty per cent more fuel than you would be by driving more sedately. Need for speed, yeah!

But, of course, to do this at the really top speeds possible, in competition with others, demands a level of skills very few of us have, a willingness to risk one’s life continually in order to win, and the kind of motorised technology beyond the financial possibilities of most of us. Hence motor racing.

And then there’s that other thing, the thing we don’t like to admit to, that deeper truth which comes from that more savage, dark, primitive part of our nature. The thing that set our ancestors howling on the stands of the Roman gladiatorial arenas, hissing at medieval beheadings, or heretic or witch burnings, looking on with grim, self-righteous approval at 19th Century public hangings. That part of us which isn’t just appreciating the speed of the competitors, their skills in overtaking opponents, the clever strategy of a pit-stop judged just right. The cruel, bloodthirsty part of us which is just waiting for – to be honest, hoping for – the crash. Wreckage and maybe even blood and body parts flying all over the place. Burn, baby, burn!

Ok, so what about Schumacher? Get on with it!

A combination of circumstances can sometimes give rise to a situation where a figure of general public interest may become something more than this; an avatar of the hopes and aspirations of a whole group or nation. The most complete and perfect way to this kind of transformation comes through sudden, usually (though not always) violent death. Examples of this kind of apotheosis are Elvis, John Lennon and, of course, Princess Diana. But it happens to the living too, like a kind of aura which comes over them and lets them shine in an almost inhuman way for particular groups, nations or transnational groups for a while. It happened to Bob Dylan in the early sixties, and the Beatles soon after that. Muhammad Ali was one, so was Michael Jordan. Bob Marley (already before his death in his native Jamaica, after it worldwide).

During the 1990s Michael Schumacher’s popularity grew steadily in his native Germany, particularly after he won the World Championships in 1994 and 1995. In the 1996 season he moved to Ferrari and over the next few years worked with the Italian team to establish the combination of the best driver in the best car in Formula One. The result was an unprecedented period from 2000 to 2004, when Schumacher was World Champion for five years in a row.

This was the period when Schumacher became immortal for his German fans and an icon of the hopes and dreams of millions of German men. Ordinary men, what you might call “blue-collar” men.

At the end of the last century, many of the traditional self-defining characteristics of the ordinary German blue-collar male were coming under pressure. The increasing mainstream acceptance of much of the feminist agenda had much to do with this (as in the rest of the developed world), but there were also other, specifically German factors. The economic and social pressures caused by reunification were starting to make themselves felt, as were the effects of increasing globalisation. Immigrants were making up an ever more visible part of the human landscape.

The old social consensus of the Bonner Republik was in flux, the model according to which anyone prepared to work hard would find a job, be able to live a decent live with a modicum of comfort with his family and look forward to a happy old age, backed up by a secure contributory state pension. Tax money was flowing in billions into the former GDR, leaving less for the old West Germany, semi-skilled jobs were melting away, wandering into Eastern Europe or Asia where wage-costs were much lower. The old, relaxed, certain world of the work place was coming more under the turbo pressure of performance maximisation and targets, rationalisation, increased continual training and expertise requirements. Brain trumped brawn everywhere and it was the young business graduates with their suits and computers who seemed to be taking control of everything.

But against all this, there was Schumi, the kid from an ordinary working-class family, without privilege and attitude (or even much formal education), who wouldn’t even had had enough money and influence to break into the elite super-rich world of Formula One, despite his talent, if Willi Weber hadn’t financed him. But he did break into it and showed the world what an ordinary German man, possessing the characteristics of an ordinary German man, the ability to work hard, be dependable, and know motors, could do. He was the typical kid next door and allowed the fantasy that – had Lady Luck just tossed the dice a little differently – you or me could have done this as well. After all, every German man is secretly convinced that he too is an excellent driver. Not to deny, of course, that Unser Michael / our Michael is supremely talented, a consummate sportsman, and deserves every million he earns.

Unser Michael. For a particular segment of Germans, Schumacher became an embodiment of Everyman, a universal figure of identification. Even in the name the connection was there, the Deutscher Michel being a personified representation of ordinary Germanness, like John Bull or Joe Bloggs in the UK, or Joe Sixpack in the USA. All of this cannily encouraged by Weber’s comprehensive marketing and the fact that RTL, the most popular private TV channel in Germany and one whose strategy was to broadcast programmes for the “ordinary” German with a large dollop of naked tits, sensationalist reporting, Jerry Springer-like talk shows, and docu-soaps, had the franchise for Formula One. And it was this identification which turned Schumi into a figure of adulation; important enough to get millions of German men up before 6.00 a.m. on a Sunday morning to watch him race live in the Australian or Japanese Grand Prix. And win.

Such avatar phenomena are finite. Dylan gradually lost his after his controversial decision to go electric and Schumacher’s slowly faded after his (first) retirement in late 2006. The comeback was always going to be a risky business – of all such icons, Muhammad Ali was the only one who can be said to have managed it, and Ali was a special case because his retirement was forced at such a young age. And (dare I say it?) because his whole personality and character are exceptional in a way that Schumacher’s are not.

Of course, all this could just be pseudo-intellectual bullshit and Michael Schumacher may still really be the latest incarnation of Jesus Christ. Whatever, I still don’t like the lantern-jawed bastard!

Pictures retrieved from:

(Comments: I'll be away for the next few days and my internet presence may be sporadic, so don't worry if it takes some time for your comments to appear.)

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Expletive F***ing Deleted

Fuck it. I wonder if others who write have often had that experience of roughly knowing what they want to say, but not being able to find the proper beginning. That bitch of a Muse of mine doesn’t seem to have got her lazy ass out of bed this morning. Shit!

I started thinking about this whole subject after reading something my fellow blogger, Lisa Golden wrote, “I'm trying to not curse. It's an experiment, an exercise in self restraint …” and where she went on to talk about “season[ing] every sentence with a sulfuric dash of that oh so versatile word fuck.”

Actually, I don’t. Or at least don’t very frequently, if only because of the fact that around 90% of the time I’m generally speaking German rather than English and cursing is different in German. Indeed, of around the half dozen languages in which I manage to be more or less incoherent, in none of the others can what is sometimes called “foul language” be so consistently and comprehensively integrated as in English.

Oh, there are certainly flowery and expressive expressions available in other languages. One need only think of the Spanish, “La puta madre que te pario!” or the Italian, “Stronzo! Figlio di puttana!” The Mediterranean languages seem to have a tendency to go beyond simply calling someone a bastard to directly stating that his mother was a whore. But English is the only language I know which offers the possibility of taking a vulgar word for copulation and then inserting it as an adjectival or adverbial qualification with almost unlimited frequency in every sentence.

It makes me wonder about how translators sometimes deal with this particular variety of colloquialism. Of course, colloquialism is always a difficult area for translation, since it involves a very good command of both languages as well as a healthy portion of imagination.

Many years ago, after first coming to Germany, I spent a while working as an English teacher. There is a German colloquial expression for extreme indifference, Scheiss egal. I remember a student once telling me with some pride that something was “shit equal” to him.

“No, Stefan, you can’t say it like that in English,” I told him.

“Ok, well then, how do you say Scheiss egal in English?”

I thought about it for a moment and then grinned. I had the perfect English equivalent.

“Right, Stefan, remember this one, because this is really good English. Though you wouldn’t say it to your granny, any more than you’d say Scheiss egal to her. The English for Es ist mir scheiss egal is … I don’t give a fuck!”

But on reflection, that one was easy. There are however other scenarios.

This is not working, at least not the way I want it to. There’re all kinds of ideas I have about this subject but they’re just not gelling. Fragments. No fucking flow

There is a nexus about bad language; it’s all associated with sex and digestive waste elimination, penis and vagina and anus, urine and faeces – fuck and prick and cock and cunt, piss and shit. And it all has to do with common, low, vulgar words. Calling a woman “you copulating vagina!” doesn’t really cut it, anymore than telling someone to urinate or copulate off does.

This is all very Freudian, of course, perhaps even a kind of practical proof that the old papa of psychoanalysis was onto something pretty basic with his categorisation of oral, anal and genital phases (though the oral phase doesn’t play any significant role when it comes to cursing). And in terms of national characteristics, the Freudian interpretation can also be carried through to an interpretation of the German psyche as based on linguistic characteristics.

Where in English bad language the copulatory “fuck” or “fucking” is the most common linguistic qualifier, in German it’s Scheisse or Scheiss-. And whereas in English probably the most common denigratory personal expression is “bastard,” in German it’s Arsch [arse] or, most frequent of all, Arschloch [arse-/asshole]. Which suggests that Germans are – in the Freudian sense – extraordinarily anally fixated. Which explains why Germany is a country where so much emphasis is placed on organisation, discipline, administration and efficiency (even if it often doesn’t work and is frequently counterproductive). Anally fixated, the whole lot of them, real controlling arseholes. Just ask the Greeks.

[If my memory serves me correctly (for it is many years since I read the book) Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying offers corroboration for this viewpoint. She describes a particular kind of toilet bowl, common in Germany at the time, which has a kind of porcelain shelf on which the turd lands after a bowel movement rather than landing directly in the water, so that it can be examined by its producer before being flushed away – another indication of anal fixation. However, I can also report that in the almost forty years since the book was published, such toilet bowls are becoming increasingly rare in Germany. Whether that is a deeper indication of a “loosening-up” in the collective German psyche is a judgement I’m not prepared to make.]

All right, all right, this shit is finally starting to go somewhere! Down the toilet. But, Jesus Christ, there’s that fucking wall again – just when I think I’m on a roll, my shite imagination runs out of fucking ideas and I have to start on another track. Bollocks!

There is also a tremendous amount of ambivalence, not to mention hypocrisy, about this whole subject. We were taught as kids (and, indeed, most kids are still taught today) that these are all naughty words, bad words, and that it’s wrong to use them. But of course children do, teaching each other all the words, whispering them to each other before they have an idea what many of them actually mean, giggling about them. Because they know that, somehow, they are words of secrecy and power, words which refer to that uncertain world of pleasure and danger which is adult and seductive and scary all at the same time. Sex, in other words. Ah, Freud, there he is again!

Bad language, it’s called; cursing or swearing. In fact, of course, it is neither of these. Cursing means a formal wishing or calling down of ill or evil on someone. Swearing is a formal declaration of the truth of something. Saying “fuck,” “shit,” “cunt,” “prick,” or “arse” has nothing to do with either of these activities. But, in my old-fashioned, early Catholic education, I was taught that this was “cursing,” and cursing was a sin. So you went to confession and said, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It’s two weeks since my last confession. I cursed twenty seven times.” And you got absolution for it, and a penance – maybe three Hail Marys, something like that.

Now, exclamations like “Jesus Christ!” or “Mother of God!” are something of a different case. From a religious point of view they could be conceivably called sinful on the basis of “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” On the other hand, their frequent use could also be seen as a sign of fundamental religiosity, an expression of a subconscious awareness of the continual presence and support of God and his saints in one’s life, so that one is constantly moved to spontaneous prayer, the repeated invocation of divine support in every moment. Calling on God, even in the moment of climax.

Oh God! That bitch of a Muse of mine is really fucking lazy today. I need a blow-job from her to finish this and I don’t even get a prick-tease. Cunt!

Our society has been loosening up in this whole area over the last fifty years or so. In 1960, the publication of the unabridged version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was finally allowed by the courts in the UK (a year earlier in the USA). Apart from the explicit descriptions of sex, one of the major complaints about the book was the use of the words “fuck” and “cunt” in it. Today, broad-band networks are being clogged with millions of downloads of Fifty Shades of Grey and no one gives a shit. You’ll find “shit” and “fuck” turning up even in quality newspapers occasionally – without conventional circumlocutory asterisks – particularly in interviews or quoted speech. In Germany, it was the young Green politician, Joschka Fischer (who later became Foreign Minister), who first broke a parliamentary taboo in the Bundestag in 1984 with his famous statement to the deputy speaker, "Mit Verlaub, Herr Präsident, Sie sind ein Arschloch.". ["If I may say so, Mr. President, you are an arsehole"] – using, one notes in passing, the polite Sie rather than the familiar du form of address.

In the list of 105 films which use the word “fuck” more than 150 times in Wikipedia, only five were made before 1990. Martin Scorsese makes the Top 30 twice (Goodfellas [1990] 11 – with “fuck” or its derivatives occurring 300 times in the course of the film – and The Departed [2006] 28 – 237 “fucks”). But the use of “explicit” language has even spread beyond cinema and into television. The Wire, in my opinion probably the best series ever made (though fans of Breaking Bad, and Mad Men may, with some justification, disagree), has a classic scene, where two cops, Bunk and McNulty, spend five minutes investigating a crime scene and solving a mystery in the process and in which the entire dialogue consists solely of “fuck” or derivatives thereof. It doesn’t get any better than this.

  “Bad” language is a characteristic of almost every character in The Wire, from the drug dealers on the street, to the politicians in City Hall and beyond. Worth mentioning particularly here is State Senator Clay Davis, with his marvellous, “Sheee-it!” And, speaking of politicians, it is reported that President Obama has stated that The Wire is his favourite TV show. Which gets me to wondering about how The Wire would have portrayed the president telling Secretary of State Clinton about the planned attack on Osama Bin Laden:

Yo, bitch, we gonna fuck that motherfucker Bin Laden, shit, we gonna waste his nigger Ay-rab ass!”

Though to be completely accurate, motherfucker would become mo-fuh in Baltimore project slang.

Well, fuck you, Muse, I’ve finally managed to get to the home stretch of this bitchin’ essay, Just goes to show that you haven’t left me entirely on my fucking own. Gimme a last little kiss, you cunt!

Nothing is as sensitive to inflation as bad language. My general philosophy is not to forbid myself its use – either in speech or in my writing here – but to use it very sparingly (with the obvious exception of this somewhat experimental essay). It works much better that way, retaining its original potency to emphasise, to shock, to pull the reader up suddenly and refocus her or his attention on what you want to say. It’s like the difference between the marvellously seductive promise of a skilfully erotic hint of a flashed nipple and the jaded tawdry tiredness of a spread-legged full-frontal cheap porn centrefold. Sometimes “fuck” is the only way to say it, more often you don’t need to.

And, despite all the authenticity and spontaneity of modern film and TV, our use of expletives is far more under our conscious control than we would often like to admit. Even the most habitual serial foul-mouthed punk will be able to control his expletives if he suddenly finds himself in the company of half a dozen nuns. We have a remarkable linguistic flexibility which enables us to instinctively almost completely adapt our language styles to the environment. Even people who in many situations cuss with an instinctive fluid frequency will automatically “tone down” their language in the presence of their children, or children generally. Not to mention in the presence of their mothers …

Shit! I’ve just realised my mother reads every fucking thing I post here.

* * *

[Note on the music: I usually put some music at the end of a post which has some kind of connection to the theme I’ve been writing about, and I usually don’t insult the intelligence of those who visit my blog by explaining the connection. But this one needs some background.

When John Lennon recorded Working Class Heroforty-two (!) years ago, the song caused some furore by containing the word “fucking” twice at a time when this kind of language in the music of a major star was almost unheard of. It’s a perfect example of an excellent use of “bad” language – “fucking” being used naturally and perfectly to give just the right emphasis to the mood and expression of the sentiments involved in their context. There’s not a hint of gratuity or prurience about it.

The two lines in question are:
“’Till you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules.”
“But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see.”

Thirty seven years later, Green Day released an excellent cover of the song, as part of an Amnesty International Campaign about Darfour. In the official video the two “fuckings” are blended out. Ah, the eternal hypocrisy of the music business! If you prefer to listen to an uncensored version you can find it here]

Pictures retrieved from:


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