Seasonal goodwill, my eye. The woman on the bus has placed, nay barricaded, her suitcase into the seat beside her and is looking ahead with a dead, glassy stare in the hope of putting off potential neighbours.
To be honest, part of me admires her. There’s only so much festive spirit to go around and much of it has been spent. We are already in the sixth day of Twixmas, that strange limbo between Christmas and New Year, and travelling has its challenges, chief among them the need for some quiet downtime versus the simple need to sit down.
If you’re early, you claim the double-seat; if not, you try to remain civil while addressing the suitcase and asking with strained politeness: “Is anybody sitting here?” What follows is an awkward two-minute shuffle as the barricade comes down and the intruder settles into the freed-up space.
Both travellers look straight ahead, ignoring the whiff of resentment that lingers in the air — the blockader at having been disturbed and the seat-claimer at having to ask to sit down.
Let’s be honest, we’ve all been on both sides of that scenario. Which one among you can honestly put hand on heart and say you never engaged in a harmless act of un-neighbourliness designed to put the hapless seat-seeker off the place beside you?
It’s not for nothing that Iarnród Éireann has come up with the term ‘frummaging’. If that’s new to you, there’s a helpful definition posted on some train compartments. It goes like this: “Frummaging: /verb/ the act of ‘faking a rummage’ in one’s bag for something that does not exist. Frummagers have also been known to place their bag on the seat beside them so as to deter any potential neighbours.”
They do many other surreptitious things, too, and perhaps this is the ideal time to look at all of them because frummaging — or more generally, the act of pretending not to see your neighbour’s need of what is rightfully theirs — is the perfect metaphor for 2016.
By any standards, it’s been an annus horribilis but let’s not spend the last day of the year detailing the terror attacks, the horror of the war in Syria, the worst migrant crisis the world has seen in recent times, the fallout from Brexit, and Donald Trump’s election to high office. We’ve heard the depressing details too many times before.
Let’s look instead at how we have responded. From this remove, it seems that we have behaved like frummagers on a train; we put on our earphones and looked the other way.
Of course, that’s what happens at times of increased uncertainty. People turn inward and seek the familiar. No real surprises there and the findings of last month’s annual Havas Prosumer Report show that people in 37 countries did just that.
In fact, the report conducted by the communications network said a new wave of ‘neopatriotism’ is sweeping across both emerging nations and traditional ones.
People are looking back to the security and the certainty of what is past, rather than to a more diverse, global, and uncertain future.
We’ve seen that in Brexit. What might have been just an ugly word in a footnote of history will now become a whole chapter, though, worst of all, nobody has a clue how it is going to end. We do, however, know that British Prime Minister Theresa May wants a red, white, and blue Brexit, which sounds patriotic and hopeful if totally opaque.
It also sounds dangerous. An increase in post-Brexit racist attacks in Britain shows just how easily national pride can turn to prejudice. You can’t sit here, mate. Keep moving on down the carriage.
The full implications of Trump’s patriot game, with its staggering mix of post-truth rhetoric and racism, will become clearer in the year ahead. We might also begin to understand why so many intelligent people bought into his populist ‘make America great again’ mantra.
It’s beyond patronising to say that all of those who voted for Trump bought the fake news stories or were not equipped with the critical faculties to assess what was going on. Rather than vote for politics as usual, they voted instead to embrace uncertainty and a man who would build a wall rather than have a Mexican take the seat next to him.
If 2016 was bad, there’s every chance that the year ahead will be even worse.
France, Germany, and the Netherlands all go to the polls and while few think that Frexit or Nexit will become a reality, who can really say?
Even if the far-right Eurosceptic parties fail to secure a majority in either country, it’s reasonable to fear that their campaigns will spark a fear-fuelled wave of racism.
At home, this year’s talk of patriotism had much to do with the commemoration of the centenary of 1916. And there was much to be proud of — for the most part, the violent events that led to Irish independence were remembered with dignity and inclusiveness. Let’s hope that continues when it comes to recalling the War of Independence and Civil War.
On the world stage, Ireland had much to be proud of too. We proved to be a magnificent country when it came to rescuing migrants from the sea. The Irish Naval Service saved thousands of people from the Mediterranean and were, rightly, widely praised for it.
The only difficulty, though, was that “our rich tradition of volunteering and charity”, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny put it, didn’t quite extend to letting them stay.
Having said that, ministers Fitzgerald and Zappone did travel to Greece this month to see how they might build on progress, but the 500-plus refugees we have committed to take in 2016 is a long way off the 11,000-plus we have rescued — and sent back.
Isn’t it much easier to look out the window and hope they keep moving past?
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