The pitfalls of underestimation

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A charlatan, the media said, a ranting clown, a demagogue. And who were they talking about?  Not Trump in 2016, as it happens, but Hitler in the early 1930s.

There are always parallels in history, and lessons if we care to look, and these observations from an article in the  Guardian in November 2007 by Sir Ian Kershaw, professor of modern German history at the University of Sheffield, are very apt for right now, in the aftermath of the US presidential election, though it was written almost a decade ago, long before Trump’s political ambition had asserted itself.

Because of that, the point being made in Kershaw’s article is prescient not because it compares Trump to Hitler, but because it considers how Hitler was perceived by mainstream media and how slow British newspapers, in this instance, were to recognize Hitler’s ascent to power.

On September 29,1930, Kershaw writes, the Guardian dismissed Hitler as “the ranting clown who bangs the drum outside the National Socialist circus”. Few things were less likely than that Hitler would gain sole power in Germany, the paper asserted.  But by 1932, as the crisis of German democracy deepened, British newspapers devoted far more attention to Nazism. Even so, Kershaw notes, underestimation of Hitler was commonplace.

On February 21 1932 the Observer described Hitler as no more than a demagogue propped up by financially powerful nationalists, Kershaw writes, but the paper reversed course following his candidacy for the Reich presidency in March, when it wrote (March 20 1932) that it would be wrong to regard him  “as a mere agitator and rank outsider”.

“Here, as in the Guardian (which still implied on March 30 1932 that Hitler was no more than a charlatan) the emerging view was that he was a ‘moderate’, who might possibly develop into a statesman, but could not control his own violent and unruly movement.”

Does of any this sound familiar in the light of the past 18 months?

In a more recent post-mortem, writer Richard Ford (a Clinton voter) struck a contrite note about his own sin of underestimation  in the Guardian today (November 11): –

“A famous American jurist, the tartly named Judge Learned Hand (1872-1961) wrote once that the spirit of liberty . . . is that ‘which is not too sure it’s right’.

“One thing I was wrong about, ” writes Ford, ” – one of several – was to violate Judge Hand’s injunction. By thinking I knew what was best for the other fellow – supposedly all those rural or rust-belt, under-educated, under-employed white guys, or Latinos or blacks who don’t feel sufficiently noticed by their elected officials – I was wrong by feeling so sure I was right.

“I most certainly publicly and unreservedly derided their candidate –  calling him a moron, an incompetent, a liar, a boob, a puerile charlatan, a huckster and a sexual lout, along the way to promising as many readers as I could that this man would never, ever be president. Which, it appears, is the second thing I was wrong about, but never for one moment doubted until sometime late on Tuesday night.”

The full text of Kershaw’s piece can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2007/nov/14/research.highereducation

And Richard Ford’s here:  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/11/blame-me-i-voted-for-hillary-clinton-us-elections-richard-ford?CMP=share_btn_link

 

 

 

 

The two Es come to UCC

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I’m delighted to announce that two of the writers I most admire will read together in the first of University College Cork’s School of English reading series. Between them, they have charted the female – and Irish – experience in five different genres over 40 years.

Ireland Professor of Poetry, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and the 2015 Irish Pen Award-winning writer, Eilís Ní Dhuibhne will read together at the Creative Zone, Boole Library, on Tuesday, November 8, at 6pm. Admission is free and all are welcome. Come and join us for what is going to be a night of literary riches.

Cork-born Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Acts and Monuments (1966), winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award, The Sun-Fish (2010) which was awarded the International Griffin Poetry Award, and The Boys of Blue Hill (2015) which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize.  She is Emerita Professor of English at TCD, the founding editor of the poetry journal Cyphers and this month begins her three-year tenure as Ireland Professor of Poetry.

Eilís Ní Dhuibhne is a bilingual novelist, short story writer and playwright. She is the author of four novels – including the Orange Prize short-listed The Dancers Dancing – six collection of short stories, six novels in Irish and six children’s books. Among her awards are a Bisto Book of the Year for her children’s fiction, the Readers’ Association of Ireland Award and the Stewart Parker Award. She teaches on the MA in Creative Writing at UCD and was awarded the Pen Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature in 2015.

 

 

Being 59

elephant-1526695_960_720A survey conducted by the Department for Work and Pensions in the UK found that most people believe that old age starts at 59, while youth ends at 41. Last week – September 27, to be exact – I reached the age my father was when he died – 59 years, 8 months and 2 days.

Although this may seem a precise calibration,  I can’t say it’s something that has haunted me, except perhaps in the last few months as the deadline (and never has a word been so apt) neared. In fact, for many years, what haunted me more was a prediction by an amateur palm-reader  – is there any other kind? – who, upon looking at my lifeline when I was 18,  told me with insouciant certainty, that I would die at 55.

What strikes me having reached my father’s age is that I now have the same volume of life experience as he had.

He was a self-contained, kind of man – probably shy –  a product of his era (born 1910) who had come late, aged 41, to married life and to fatherhood. He was a devout Catholic, a devoted public servant, a stern father who disciplined his children by withdrawing his approval.

When he knew he was dying – and he knew for much longer than we did – he gave his three elder children (my brothers and I, aged 17,16 and 13 respectively; my younger sister was only 4) a valedictory speech.  Speech makes it sound more formal than it was. He told us of his pride in us, his sorrow at what he was going to miss.  He tried to cram a lifetime’s fatherly advice into ten short minutes.

He did this without breaking down, without giving into his own emotions. How dignified and composed he was talking about our life without him in it, particularly for a man, whom I suspect, found it hard to declare his feelings. In retrospect, he seems so damned grown-up whereas I don’t know if I would have the same command facing the ultimate loss.

Having passed this personal landmark, I’m left wondering if perhaps I’ve inherited my mother’s age gene – she’s 92.  If so, how do I prepare for the next three decades? Can I ?

If the general perception is that passing into one’s sixties is a landmark, a shift into the third age, I also have to ask, like an impatient child in the back of the car – am I there yet? Am I now  – officially – old?

A National look at O’Casey

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Sean O’Casey is being remembered this weekend at a conference at the National Theatre, London entitled – In-Depth: The Dublin Plays of Sean O’Casey.  I will be joining Prof James Moran of Nottingham University and Dr Nicholas Grene of Trinity College Dublin to discuss O’Casey’s trilogy, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.

The conference – on Saturday September 24 – will examine the circumstances of the original performances of the plays, how they related to O’Casey’s own life, and will place them in the context of Ireland’s revolutionary decade. There will also be staged readings from the plays.

The National Theatre has enjoyed a long association with O’Casey’s work – Laurence Olivier directed Juno and The Paycock at the theatre shortly after O’Casey’s death in 1964. Olivier had seen the Royalty Theatre’s acclaimed production of the play in 1925 – with several Abbey stalwarts, including Sara Allgood and Arthur Sinclair – as an aspiring 18-year-old actor.

Olivier’s response to the play, according to Christopher Murray, one of O’Casey’s biographers, was that Juno was both life-like and tightly constructed.  “It is, in fact, closer to Osborne than to Chekhov.  There is no playing about with it, it is all there and it is as clear as daylight. . .”

My place at the conference is owing to The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press) my 2013 novel which re-imagines the life of Bella Casey, the playwright’s sister and dramatizes the writing of O’Casey’s six volumes of autobiography. Episodes and characters from the Dublin plays are woven into the narrative.The novel was nominated for the Dublin Impac Award in 2014.

For those interested in attending, the conference takes place at the Clore Learning Centre, Cottesloe Room, National Theatre and runs from 10.30 to 4.30pm.

(Poster image courtesy of the Irish Classical Theatre, Buffalo, NY)

 

Drag

Clothes maketh the man, Mother used to say.  Her words stay with you as you riffle through the hanging ghosts in your wardrobe.  It’s a moment of infinite anticipation.  What to wear?  The evening’s expectations are secreted among the limp fall of fabrics, the yielding crush of shoulder pads, the sly whispers of silk.  You whisk two or three recruits from the comradely army in the closet and set them up around the room – over the mirror, on the twin mother-of-pearl inlaid handles of the wardrobe, or fainting on the bed.  It makes it seem more like play; makes more of a ritual of it.

Often the bedroom will end up strewn with discarded clothes, denuded hangers, fleets of shoes poised in the second position and still, you won’t have made a choice.  You find such disarray intoxicatingly seedy, though nothing could be further from the truth.  You’re a careful dresser, in fact, discreet, but unambiguously feminine.

Continue reading “Drag”

Déjà Vu

The treatment doesn’t make me sick, it makes me dazed. And tired. Dog-tired. Fatigue strikes like a power cut and I have to sit down ─ now ─ or I think I’ll die. The hospital is a stone’s throw from Suesey Street, the part of town I used to frequent a decade ago, when we were an item. Last week, after my session, I found myself wandering there when I had one of my turns. It was a thundery kind of day; the sun was spiteful. There I was, passing “our” pub. Where we would meet on days like this one, hot and humid, or on brown afternoons threatening rain, during our two seasons together. Either way, this was where we would meet in secret and hide from the prevailing climate of prying eyes. Continue reading “Déjà Vu”

The Children of Lar

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Eva reversed the Starlet out of the car port with a rasping roar, cursing Lar out loud. Since they’d got married, the car was the one place she could be absolutely alone. When they’d got together, Lar had called the Starlet a typical single girl’s drive. He’d said it fondly, or so she’d thought. Then he’d offered to help her with financing a replacement, and she wasn’t so sure. But she had insisted on keeping it; it was her first car and she was attached to it. The Starlet was a womb, the last remnant of her old life. Life before Lar.

Aren’t you taking on a lot, her friends had said when she’d told them she was getting married. Their foreheads creased with worry, I mean, three kids? But Eva had felt invincible; in her head she’d already taken on the three kids. The only difference was she was getting Lar into the bargain. He was besotted with her and Eva had succumbed to his humid gratitude which, if her friends had asked, she’d have told them had its own sexual allure. Continue reading “The Children of Lar”