Christine Madden

journalist | editor | dramaturg | literary translator

Author: cmadmin (page 2 of 16)

Brexit: ‘What can you live with?’

Award-winning journalist Fintan O’Toole speaks about the impossibility of Brexit and why nationalism is naive

When the UK voted yes to Brexit, they forgot a minor detail. This minor detail – Ireland – will, as journalist and intellectual Fintan O’Toole explained, make negotiating any kind of Brexit at best an impossibility.

A long-time, award-winning columnist with the Irish Times, O’Toole presented a lecture at Munich’s Globe Business College on 19 January that approached the political phenomenon of Brexit from a historical and uniquely geographical viewpoint. Looking over from Ireland – a perilously close former colony of Great Britain, its closest neighbour across the Irish Sea – the prospect of Brexit appears absurd and dangerous to peace and stability – an own goal for a chimeric concept of Britishness.

The campaign for Brexit has been driven by a “visceral English nationalism”, O’Toole asserts. And it’s unusual, as the “English USP” is moderation and stability:

“They don’t do revolutions”. Their one revolution was “Glorious” because it was “bloodless”, and they didn’t have a socialist or fascist revolution in 20th century as so many of their European neighbours did. So this nationalism is poorly articulated, which made it much easier to grow without much attention.

One of the things a concept of nationalism needs is an oppressor, some kind of threat from outside, in order to engender fear, which in turn binds people together and strengthens its fabulous narrative. Because, as O’Toole states, “the basic problem of nationalism is that nations are ambiguous and fluid entities, a people held together by a common misconception of their origin”. A geographic unit of people that used to be the hub and chosen of an empire still retain an identity as an imperial power. Witness the “brilliant comedian and performance artist called Jacob Rees-Mogg” – a Eurosceptic conservative British member of parliament – who cites Agincourt, Crécy and Waterloo – all historical battlefields where the English won a resounding victory. But recalling old military successes from the Napoleonic wars of the 19th century – never mind the Hundred Years War of the 14th and 15th centuries – has embarrassingly little to do with the reality of the United Kingdom of the 21st century and its global position.

This “visceral” nationalism is naïve, claims O’Toole, especially as compared with the more tempered version across the Irish Sea. Irish nationalism is more “civilised” because “we’ve done the other bit” and have experienced the troubles – and the Troubles – it spawns. The importance of a realistic, inclusive vision of a nation is reflected in the Good Friday Agreement, achieved 20 years ago, in April 1998. The brilliance of the Good Friday Agreement,” explains O’Toole, “is not ‘what would you die for’ but ‘what could you live with?’”

Brexit has put everything that the Good Friday Agreement sought to allay back on the table. “What Northern Ireland really needed was 20 years of absolute boredom,” O’Toole says. Resting on EU law and regulation, the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is an inner-EU border, which can be crossed without notice. And this intractable, insoluble issue has inserted itself into the centre of negotiations. There can’t be a hard border in Ireland. “The British establishment know it’s not doable, so they let [the issue] drift.”

Instead, during the first round of talks, the negotiators ended up scrambling to paste over once again this huge rift in the logic of Brexit. The term they finally came up with was “full regulatory alignment”. O’Toole appealed to any mathematicians in the audience. As far as he was aware, if A = B and B = C, then A must equal C. Applied to the circumstances surrounding Brexit, he surmised, “Ireland has regulatory alignment with Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland has regulatory agreement with the UK. But Ireland also has regulatory agreement with the EU. So the UK also has to have regulatory alignment with the EU.” In other words, he says, it’s not going to work.

“This is what I think is going to happen,” O’Toole explains. Brexit will go into the second phase of trade talks and they’ll realise that no deal can be made in the designated time. Instead, the negotiators will agree a temporary treaty to carry them further into a longer limbo. The UK can achieve a kind of unattainable dream of Brexit but with full regulatory alignment. “This leaves us with a fundamental question: is it worth it?” O’Toole asks. “I think not. Somebody has to stand up and say, ‘You know, self harm is not a national policy”.”

Witches’ brew

A big pot of broth is a potion in more ways than one

It’s that time of year when just looking outside, never mind stretching a tentative finger out from under the duvet, makes you feel shivery and chilled through. Even multiple cups of fresh, hot tea aren’t always enough to tempt you to shed your blanket. The winner every time, though, is the promise of a rich and aromatic cupful of steaming broth.

I used to absolutely hate making broth. It was always an insipid disaster. Every so often I’d try making broth again, and every time it would be the same watery slop more reminiscent of rinsing water than anything else. I’d have to heave spoonfuls of powdered stock mix into just to be able to drink it.

Then, suddenly, magically, it worked. After having tried and tried again, having a go at various tips and recipes, a large potful of various ingredients suddenly turned into something incredible – rich, flavoursome and so warm and comforting. It was like magic.

What made the difference this time was treating it almost as something alchemical. I think of the people in history, wise men and women, who understood about plants and animals, fungi and minerals, who learned how to combine these things into nourishing, healing and restorative broth – potions – and how this knowledge made them respected and frequently feared.

It’s the alchemy of cooking that keeps me interested in it (as well as the daily need for something tasty to eat). Every time I make a yeast dough, I actually get a thrill observing how the ingredients physically transform during kneading from a big, swampy slosh into the elastic and resilient ball. It’s perennially exciting to watch a variety of ingredients interacting with heat, physical intervention and each other to metamorphose into something you’d not only instagram but also put in your mouth and consume with pleasure.

Treating the individual ingredients and every step reverentially – from meat and bones to onions, carrots and herbs – seems to draw out and combine the individual energy of the ingredients into something extraordinary. I think of how people were pursued for this knowledge as I watch the various colourful ingredients of the broth bubble away in the water and am grateful to live in a time of ample provision, and a time in which scientific curiosity in the world is not persecuted and punished. Of course you can get all kinds of broth in all kinds of supermarkets, any time of the day or night. It’s frequently a lifesaver to have that convenience in days filled with work and stress. But there’s something especially warming and nourishing about making your own. You won’t be changing lead into gold, but then again, in a way, maybe you will.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, episode 24

This is the final instalment of the advent-calendar whodunnit published in December 2017. To start at the beginning, click here

The real Santa

The silence in the sitting room was absolute. It was like the moment after an explosion when dust sifts noiselessly down upon the debris. At the same time, there was a weird sense of energy fizzling out, not unlike when a sparkler sizzles down to the bottom and goes cold.

Granny was the first thing in the room to stir. “Ah, feck.” She let herself fall into a slumping position on the couch.

“Are you all right, Anna?” Marie asked, going over to her. She put her hand on Granny’s shoulder, but Granny shook it off.

“What actually just happened here?” Joe said. He glanced over at his mother, his children, the two gardaí. Holly and Noel looked dazed.

“Eh, well,” garda Selina Brady started. What could she say? What could they do? “Did all just see the same thing?”

“Yes,” said Holly. “There was a fake Santa who was Granny’s boyfriend and then he was a real Santa and then he was a bad Santa when Rudolf and the real Santa came and then they all left.”

“We can’t write that up,” said garda Paul McNamara.

“No.” Garda Brady had been in situations before when the facts had to be a bit massaged. She’d never been in a situation in which the entire situation had to be massaged. It was unpleasant, but she shook herself. “It wasn’t you who called for the guards yourselves in the first place, did you?” she asked Joe and Marie. They shook their heads.

“Do you have any further need of us?”

Joe and Marie’s eyes met. “I guess not,” Marie said.

“We’ll just move on, then,” said garda Brady. “Domestic dispute, minor injuries. Lots of them every Christmas. We’ll be off, then. Have a – ” She couldn’t quite bring herself to wish them a merry Christmas. “Have a healthy and peaceful holiday.”

“Happy holidays,” garda McNamara repeated, as he walked behind garda Brady through the front door. They continued silently to the car and got in. But after belting up, Selina Brady paused before turning the ignition. “Best if we never mention this again, to anyone. Even each other,” she said. Could she tell her sister? she thought. Probably not.

“Agreed.” As the car engine roared into life, Paul silently resolved to delete his Tinder account. It was a minefield out there and – especially as a public servant – he shouldn’t be compromising himself like that anymore. And anyway, he’d met someone now. It was the real thing. She already said she’d like him to meet her family and friends. She was a bit older than he was, but Tamsin was definitely the one.

In the house, Joe hobbled over to Marie and Granny. “Mam, are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” Granny said stoutly. “I’ll cry later.”

“Are you sure?” Marie asked.

“Of course I’m sad and disappointed,” Granny reasoned. “But he lied to me. I wasted months with that hooligan. And now he’s gone. Alone again, naturally. And at my age, who knows how much time I’ve got?”

“Oh, Anna,” Marie apologised. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry it didn’t work out and – ” She stopped, remembering everything that happened that night. It seemed a bit trivial to sum it by saying things hadn’t worked out.

Granny shrugged. “I don’t know if I was even actually in love with him. It was mostly about the – ”

“NO! Don’t say it! I don’t want to know!” cried Joe.

“The ROMANCE, you squeamish old eejit,” Granny snapped. “Did you think I was going to say sex? That’s not what I was after. I just wanted some companionship.”

“We’ll be your companions, Granny,” said Holly.

“That’s not what she means,” Noel muttered to her.

There was another silence. The Carroll family surveyed the room. The ceiling lamp was still blazing. There were blood and tea stains on the white carpet, still dotted with shards of amber glass from the broken whiskey bottle. It felt very empty.

“I guess I believe in Santa again,” Noel announced.

“Well, I don’t,” Holly huffed. “I didn’t like Santa. He was just a big eejit who didn’t want to share and let his fake Rudolf bully everyone.”

Joe groaned. “Oh God, has she got Stockholm Syndrome?”

“More like North Pole syndrome,” Granny said. “You don’t think that Kris or Brendan or whoever should be Santa, do you?”

“No. He was mean and lied to you,” Holly said. “I believe in Mum and Dad. I believe in us. We’re the real Santa.”

Granny sat up. “Good girl!”

“She’s right,” said Noel. “We don’t need them. We can make our own Christmas.”

“That’s the spirit, Noel!” Marie said, holding her arm out to him and giving him a squeeze. “But what do we do now? We can’t just go back to bed like nothing happened.”

Joe looked towards the window. He limped over and pulled back the curtains. There wasn’t a full moon, but a half-moon had just emerged from behind a bank of cloud. The snow that had melted and refrozen gleamed and glinted in the moonlight. “Mar, do we have some candles?”

Marie looked up at him, confused. “Yeah, we’ve loads. Every time somebody needs to give you an inexpensive present and doesn’t know what to get you, you get a candle.”

“Brilliant,” said Joe. “Get them. Get all of them. We’re going to light them all.”

A bit dubious, Marie left the sitting room to rummage for the candles. Joe hobbled back to the centre of the room. With some difficulty, he shifted a coffee table and an armchair over the stains on the carpet and kicked the bigger shards of glass into the corners of the room.

Granny got up from the couch. “Here, I’ll do that,” she said, and went into the kitchen, returning with a broom.

“I’ve got the candles,” Marie said, re-entering with her arms full of them.

“Great! Put them down here on the table and we’ll light them.”

Granny brushed the glass towards the walls; Joe, Marie, Holly and Noel each lit candles until the coffee table was aglow. The flickering flames danced off the tree ornaments and lent the room a warm glow.

“I’ll switch on the fairy lights,” Noel offered.

“NO!” the other four shouted.

“Right, OK,” Noel backed off.

“Turn off the light there, Noel,” Joe asked. “Now … ” Seated on the couch, he held one arm out to his son and put the other one around Granny. Marie sat next to her and put Holly on her knee.

“Now … here we are.” Joe’s voice softened to a whisper. “We’re all here together. It’s quiet and peaceful and beautiful. And in the end, that’s what’s important.”

The Carrolls cuddled into one another. And for the first time since he was a boy, Joe sensed that the promise of that former Christmas-night tranquillity had never really gone away.


Merry Christmas, everyone, and thanks for reading!

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