Waters is the man of the hour (well, two)

THE first move of a totalitarian regime is to lock up the writers and intellectuals. They came for John Waters in the dead of night. Well, they didn’t, but they might as well have.

Waters is the man of the hour (well, two)

It was noon, high noon, when he surrendered to the police, after months on the run. A warrant had been issued for his detention, earlier in the year, but, in the grand tradition of a police state, it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Waters’ writer’s eye had spotted that the warrant was out of date and defective. Clinging to this legal nicety, as the jackboot drew back for another kick, he went on the run.

Thereafter, the State relentlessly gave chase. Like Michael Collins before him, Waters didn’t allow this pursuit to interfere with his speechifying. He was seen in public, and heard on the airwaves in the weeks and months that followed, but after every event, adoring crowds swallowed him up, determined to protect him from parking attendants and other nefarious agents of the State.

Then, last Tuesday, exhausted and resigned to donning the martyr’s clothes, he gave himself up. A small band of brave supporters came out from their safe houses, and bore witness to the surrender. Fittingly, one of their number, poet Liam Muirthile, stepped forward and handed Waters a book, presumably of verse, as if that alone might fortify him against the hell that awaited.

He stoically accepted his fate as they took him into custody. He was dispatched, under guard, to his very own ‘Robben Island’, a ‘Mandela’ wearing a suit that could have been a hand-me-up from Bono beag.

Waters was processed at Wheatfield prison, like a common criminal. He emptied his pockets, handing over the three cents that was all he had to his name. Then, he was thrown into a cell with two other inmates.

There was no special treatment for this enemy of the state. Across the world, in Brazil, his fellow detainee, Michael Lynn, managed, last week, to wrangle a prison upgrade, as a result of his university degree. Waters had no such parchment to present. Instead, he was flung into the cauldron of the general prison population.

Later, much later, when it was all over, Waters revealed that he had “bonded” with his two fellow inmates. One of them recognised him from the telly. This inmate told Waters that he was a bit “overdressed” for prison.

Once the door slammed shut, he was left to adapt to the mind-numbing tedium of life behind bars. Seconds passed slowly, but mounted into minutes like the turning of seasons.

What demons danced around his consciousness in the depths of incarceration?

Did he rewind to the fateful day when he had found a parking ticket affixed to his vehicle in downtown Dun Laoghaire?

Did he, in his darkest hour, regret not just coughing up and paying the damn fine?

Did he despair that he might never again write a song for the Eurovision?

How close did he come to breaking?

Johnny held tough. He did his time with little fuss, but he wouldn’t yield to their entreaties, refusing to accept the prison dosh that was pushed his way.

Eventually, with the eyes of the world on Wheatfield, the authorities blinked first.

In just under two hours — that’s 7,200 seconds — they threw open the gates. Before he stepped into freedom, they tried, once more, to quench the spirit of resistance. As a peace token, they offered him a bus ticket to anywhere in the country, but he refused, determined to travel by shank’s mare, in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, free at last.

So ended his long minutes of incarceration. Afterwards, he hot-footed to the studio of Newstalk FM, to relate his prison diaries. If he had, like so many others, been brutalised by prison, he hid it well, as George Hook put him through his paces.

“It’s a small cell,” he told Hookie. “A very dirty cell. It’s about six foot by 12 foot. There’s a bench at the back of it. It’s like a bus shelter with bars on the front of it. To be in that room, and know that your ability to move outside of a short space is in the hands of another human being, that’s frightening.”

Then, before Waters could get into his stride, Hook dropped a bombshell. He also had done time. About 40 years ago, when the State was shrouded in darkness, he had been banged up.

“What were you in for, George?” Waters asked, and suddenly the drivetime show transmogrified into a pow-wow between aging lags about how they’d fought the law, and the law had won.

So, what civil disobedience had Hookie engaged in? Or was he once on the fringes of gangland, en route to a life of crime, before incarceration saved him from himself?

“I found it terrifying,” Hook recalled.

“I was in for urinating in the street, near Fitzwilliam Square, and I got caught short. I was in my 30s. They left me there for about three hours.”

This was riveting radio, a glimpse at the dark side of humanity, where media types usually fear to tread. This was the real deal, Love/Hate without the pretty boys.

Beyond Waters’ immediate orbit, his sacrifice was acknowledged.

In the letters pages of newspapers and on radio phone-in shows, it became apparent that he had lit a fuse.

One caller to RTÉ’s Liveline laid out for Philip Boucher Hayes how serious the situation over parking had become in Dun Laoghaire.

“It’s like a war zone down there,” she said. (The statement immediately gave rise to an image of two hardened fighters in war-torn Syria, looking down from a hilltop at havoc being wreaked in an urban centre, one turning to the other and declaring: “It’s like Dun Laoghaire down there.”) And so ended a week when the spirit of resistance against oppression was given new life. As the loan sharks in suits appeared before an Oireachtas committee, taunting the elected tribunes with their power, out in the battlefield of the Republic a fresh avenue of hope was opening up.

Throughout history, Ireland, in its darkest hours, has looked for a leg-up from selfless patriots. Robert Emmet, in 1798, Pearse, in 1916, Dana, in 1970, Ray Houghton, in 1988, and now John Waters. The ideal of sacrifice endures when all else is lost.

In a country that’s gone to pot, we must reserve a pantheon for the freedom fighters who can transcend the mundane obsessions of Joe and Josephine Public. For what use is life, at all, if you’re not free to park where you want of a lazy afternoon, in a town of your choice? An Ireland shackled to parking restrictions will never be free.

So, arise now and join the battle. We must forcefully impress on these parking attendants, with their peaked caps and watery smiles, that they will never grind the Irish people into submission. Otherwise, freedom’s just another word for nowhere left to park.

Take note clampers, or you’ll be next.

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