NOBODY ever wrote better about the situation we now face than a man who died over half a century ago.
Albert Camus told us that there have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet both always take people by surprise.
Those comments came in La Peste, one of his novels which is not as well known as L’Etranger, or The Outsider — or the song it inspired from The Cure, ‘Killing An Arab’. The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’ great philosophical essay, also probably outranks La Peste in the popular perception of Camus’s achievements.
But La Peste is still a great book. It is better known in English as The Plague and describes the struggles of the city of Oran with the bubonic plague.
It has never been out of print since publication in 1947.
The reason I mention Camus here is not to deploy the fall-back quote of his beloved of hipster soccer fans everywhere (“After many years in which the world has afforded me many experiences, what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football”).
Nor is it to admit him to the long list of fabled goalkeepers like Vladimir Nabokov, Pope John Paul II, etc, though Camus was good enough to play for his college. Jonathan Wilson’s history of the goalkeeper details all of this; it’s no surprise that Wilson used The Outsider as a title.
No, Camus is apposite because of the situation we find ourselves in now, the unique challenge presented by the virus which is sweeping the nation and the world. The Frenchman was as eloquent as one would expect a Nobel Prize-winner to be about how to fortify oneself mentally in the face of a mysterious, unseen enemy: how easy it is to acquiesce, how a conscious effort is needed to take a stand.
The Plague is often taken as analogous to the creep of fascism, but Camus describes attitudes to the plague we can recognise immediately: “Many fledgling moralists in those days were going about our town proclaiming there was nothing to be done about it and we should bow to the inevitable.
“And Tarrou, Rieux, and their friends might give one answer or another, but its conclusion was always the same, their certitude that a fight must be put up, in this way or that, and there must be no bowing down.”
IT’S striking, of course, to see descriptions here which are reminiscent of a thousand match reports and a million post-game interviews. The battle and the combat, the fight and the conflict, the refusal to take a backward step, the need to fight, the team’s refusal to die.
One unintended consequence of the coronavirus has been to decommission some of those metaphors from sports discourse, possibly for good. How can we accept the description of a team refusing to die when the entire country is living on its nerves ahead of that reality visiting its own front rooms?
You’ve probably seen plenty that’s been written and said in the last few days about the importance of sport as a distraction, its power to console and entertain at a time of high stress.
This is all true. But the wholesale postponement and cancellation of sports events throws us all back on our most basic resources.
Now is hardly the time or place to relitigate the failings and miscalculations which shed some unforgiving light on some sports organisations and supporters (that comes later), but it is the time to understand the struggle is not a metaphorical one that ends on 70 minutes, or 80, or 90.
The final whistle in this challenge is quite a way off.
The company is good when it comes to throwing out the sports metaphor.
Even Camus himself couldn’t quite resist that option when it mattered: “So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match.”
Anguished calls flooded in late last week from colleagues everywhere, but it was my own fault.
I merely mentioned to someone casually that I had been at a match, and . . .
“Did you get quotes? Any talking points? Three key factors? What did the manager say? What did the other manager say? What would you give the referee out of 10? What about things we learned? Three? More than three? Come on, I’m DESPERATE.”
My mistake was in not specifying the game I was at, which was a primary schools camogie encounter on a windswept pitch far from the bright lights, a close encounter marred somewhat by the elements.
Apologies. The urge to filter everything through the big sportswriting funnel-matrix is hard to overcome, particularly as the game in question took place a couple of hours before the shutdown of sports events announced by the taoiseach last week.
That general lack of games — the lack of activity, full stop — is clearly a bit of an issue for sports hacks everywhere. If you have not been inundated with best-ofs and I-remembers, with top-fives and the-strange-tale-ofs then you are clearly not casting your net wide enough when it comes to premium sports content.
Fear not, however, the inundation is certainly on the way, if it has not actually occurred yet.
This is why I am keeping all elements of that camogie game to myself. I reckon there’s a week’s worth of features in it, if I husband my resources carefully.
A communication from the department of life goes on.
Did you check out The Boys In Green documentary last week? Outstanding stuff, even if Gary Lineker’s candour was a rough accompaniment to the evening cocoa.
A question or two, though — a couple of faces you might have expected were missing, the likes of Ray Houghton and Paul McGrath. This is not a criticism of the programme-makers. Having dipped his toes in these waters himself, your columnist is well aware of the vagaries involved in arranging the geometry: getting person A to point B by time C to discuss matter D can often be difficult enough to bring on a dose of Gary Lineker’s candour, put it that way.
If anything, the rumour that another documentary on similar lines is in the pipeline makes the achievement of The Boys In Green all the better.
Do yourself a favour with your reading for the next while, and pick out something that’ll cheer you up, or at least put a smile on your face.
The go-to for me is either Lucky Jim or A Confederacy Of Dunces. The former is jammed with lines once heard, never forgotten (“No other professor in Great Britain, he thought, set such store by being called professor”), and will likely send you looking for the memoirs of its author, Kingsley Amis, which benefit greatly from retrospective arrangement (“Of course I have invented dialogue”, he admits breezily at one stage).
A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is guaranteed to put you in good humour, being the adventures in New Orleans of Ignatius J Reilly, a challenging individual (“Employers sense in me a denial of their values.”).
For something plottier try Elmore Leonard’s Freaky Deaky. The opening chapter - my all-time favourite - starts with a criminal on a booby-trapped toilet and ends with a woman’s confrontational approach to waiting staff. Enjoy.