Bib on (tucked inside the collar of course) and gently tapping the keyboard at a pace that keeps time with the steady sucking of Quality Street sweets. Excess is sadly unfashionable now. It is condemned as the preserve of the unfeeling and the uncaring. But it’s a change of fashion that has never been sincerely adapted and cannot last.
Quality Street — despite repeated purchases, I have no interest in Nestlé, which makes the sweets — is, in terms of pleasures, at the petite end of petit bourgeois.
But indulging in too much of anything — even cheap chocolate — is to share vicariously in the sloth of the rich. With vice, it is the principle and never the proportion that counts. At Christmas, we tune in with the inner greed and smugness of ourselves.
There is a palpable relief in having a licence not to be miserable. We have a holiday from the snarling that passes for politics. For these few holy days we regain again the material satiation that commonly substitutes for spirituality.
If this is the “us” who either can do or just manage to make do, what about those who simply can’t do?
However modest their situation, the haves — who eat too much, exercise too little and inure themselves from caring — are up on Quality Street and not stuck on Queer Street.
Surely we do genuinely care, or at least we are outraged. Outrage of course is far less taxing than caring; it’s usually free and is universally available. All year long we have sustained a migraine-inducing screech about the injustice of it all. Barrels of printer ink smudged acres of pristine page. The airwaves could hardly contain the righteous anger of it all. It is hardly possible that so much high moral ground could become a moral mudslide of Christmas cheer. I fear we may have slipped, come a cropper, and let ourselves down again. Oh the pleasure of it.
Christmas is a wonderful morality dissolver. It offers charity as an entree to guilt-free excess. If charity didn’t exist we would have to invent it. Martin Luther, who began his busybody work of reformation 495 years ago and rightly took a dim view of human nature, firmly fastened on this. He was adamant that good works would not attain salvation for the sinner.
It is telling in a formerly Catholic country, where “cultural” Protestantism conquers all, the one piece of popery clung to is charity as a substitute for morality. The World Giving Index for 2012 found Ireland to be the most charitable country in Europe, and the second most charitable country in the world, just behind Australia. Oz is probably only ranked because so many Irish have emigrated there.
The Government can close the embassy to the Vatican but it can’t plug the hole to hell in every chugger’s bucket. It is not the giving that is bad; it is the self-satisfying smugness secretly enjoyed that is damning. If we really cared, we would crusade for higher taxes to fund programmes from better childcare to universal health care. There are two fat chances of that.
Even above the noise of coins being thrown at charities this Christmas, there is, faintly, being heard again the great prayer and anthem of the Irish people. The jingle of the cash register, supplemented by the smooth whoosh of plastic to its barely discernible but climactic ping ping of successful transactions, is like music on an ancient harp in a distant forest.
Ireland “a small nation that stood alone not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression; that endured spoliation, famines, massacres in endless succession; that was clubbed many times into insensibility”, as de Valera described it, has struggled if not yet to its feet, at least to its knees and on its knees is crawling bloodied but unbowed to the nearest cash register again.
Whether the explanation is the wisdom of our economic policy, the greatness of our political leaders or our nation’s indomitable spirit, our instinct to self-indulge is undimmed. From boom to bust we have demonstrated remarkable agility in keeping our snout firmly in the trough. Admittedly, there wasn’t much in it lately. But with an end to our great economic crisis in sight at last, perhaps there is reason to think we have emerged intact, inviolate and unreformed.
Admittedly we have lost what we gained during the last years of the boom. We are back to about where we were in 2004. But that leaves a lot intact.
True, some are now on Queer Street and not on Quality Street. Repossession is their only likely exit. But this recession is only a depression if somebody else is losing their house or Skyping their grandchild in Sydney. Most of us are not.
The daub of modernity overlaying our society is about as deep as the feelings for religion that previously devoured it. When briefly we did have a revolution, it only lasted a week and one of the great battles of Easter 1916 in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars was between Mrs Gogan and Bessie Burgess for the pram in the hallway of the tenement. It was needed to go and carry loot from the shops.
There was something about the full throttle of Celtic Tiger excess that was simultaneously intoxicating and asphyxiating. The gargantuan vulgarity of the newly rich provoked equal measures of outage and awe. The faux disapproval of old money that had itself barely lost the smell of ink was both high comedy and vicious snobbery.
The shamelessness then is matched now only by the outrage about it all. And our outrage now is unmatched either by reformation or revolution.
We are too busy shopping. And nearly always, it was thus.