GERARD HOWLIN: Looking to the light, I am sure everything will be fine, eventually

Everything is judged here in relation to the Catholic Church. If it annoys them it must be good, writes Gerard Howlin.

TODAY is the shortest day of the year, so the days lengthen from tomorrow. By New Year we will notice. Since last Saturday, for the seven days to Christmas Eve, the great O Antiphons are sung at Vespers across Christendom. This evening, on the darkest day turning to the light is the theme, with O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae which in English means ‘O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness’. And the traditions of the winter solstice are much older. Lucky people have been chosen by lottery to be in Newgrange, to witness the rising sun. The turning to the light is age old. Nothing is forever. Seasons change. Or at least they used to. An outcrop of global warming is a bullishly blooming geranium in my back garden. There is something louchely inappropriate about it. But I like it because it is gaudy.

Central heating, electric light, air conditioning and global warming, which of course is propelled by the aforementioned, has blunted our sense of season, even of rhythm within the day, or week. One of the memorable pieces I read this year was by Adam Thomson the Paris correspondent of the Financial Times. He liked Paris, but the observation which struck, is how closed and quiet he found it on Sundays. A friend was lucky to spend August in Paris. It was a city on vacation. Small businesses, even the municipal swimming pool around the corner, closed. Some cities do sleep, or at least snooze.

I can remember Udine in Northern Italy and Noto in Sicily, shut in the afternoon. I think they still do. Ireland had quiet spaces once. Sundays were largely shut. Sport was an exception. It changed in the early 1990s with Sunday shopping. The deeper change, has come not from the always-on, but the monotonous rhythm of globalised street life. It is that now we are permanently connected to gizmos with glassy screens. They are like too much cheap coffee, we are permanently half asleep, never fully alive. Everything is mediated through the medium. You are not living unless you upload your latest inanity. Your geo co-ordinates are your new pulse. At Thanksgiving, an American friend told me he leaves the gizmos downstairs now. An alarm clock in the bedroom has replaced the alarm function on the smart phone. Scrolling social media or news sites in the middle of the night isn’t smarter. It’s a coping mechanism to leave them out of reach. Alarm clocks could be the electronic equivalent of hot milk at bed time. Looking into your smart phone in bed is trying to sleep on Red Bull.

Looking to the light, I am sure everything will be fine, eventually

It seems strange now that Sunday shopping was embraced as a form of liberation. Everything is judged here in relation to the Catholic Church. If it annoys them it must be good. Of course, they contributed to the homogenisation of time into a continuum of pointless business by starting Saturday evening masses at the moment attendance collapsed from indifference. The Tesco-like approach to late night shopping didn’t work for them. But if that realisation ever arrived, it has come too late. The irony of frantic busy-ness is that few of us fail to find time to do what we really want. There are still outbursts of indignation about having pubs compulsorily close on Christmas Day, and Good Friday. They are the last isolated stretches of desert left in the endless oasis of modern monoculture. Long may they remain.

And what a nine months it has been since pubs were last compulsorily closed. Good Friday this year fell on March 25. I have to say I’m not nearly as appalled by unfolding events as I should be. The croaking, and that’s just the frog song at the shallow end of the pond, about Brexit, Trump and our own New Politics is a bit overdone. Never have so many unimaginative ways been found to prophesise the end of the world as we know it; it’s mildew on the public wallpaper. I have no doubt Brexit will unleash slow economic asphyxiation on the left-behind who voted for it. Oddly, the lasting legacy of industrial scale council estates and the National Health Service is to re-inculcate by different means, dependency originally descended from the class system. Over a hundred years, through two world wars, the archetype of an underling born to be led, lives on. But these things go in cycles, and we simply happen to be living at the end of one.

That’s the thing about time, we have lost nearly all sense of it. Because every convenience can be summoned immediately — the light switch is an example — there is a sense of stressful panic about every problem. There is no differentiation between a glitch and a global change. Automation is increasing a sense of helplessness. It doubles down on the “left-behind” syndrome. The big picture is so pixelated, it is just millions of dots.

It is not that things may get worse before they get better, it is that fundamentally they must get worse before essential improvement can be hoped for. Lessons must be learnt. There is a disjoint between those who say they want respect but won’t accept responsibility. Regrettably, like good sauce, this mess needs to reduce before it’s edible.

Looking to the light, if global warming is arrested, unsustainably low Western rates of fertility are increased, and a younger generation recoil from the self-pitying, whining of their elders, I am sure everything will be fine, eventually. These things just take time.

If desperate and appallingly-used people were not at the centre of it, the Home Sweet Home occupation of Dublin’s Apollo House would be a farce. It may well be led by sincere people who have the welfare of homeless people at heart. But the surrounding circus of politicians and activists, prominently associated with voting through reductions in local property charges — which fund homeless services — or successfully preventing the expansion of the tax base to include a water charge, posing as champions of the homeless is galling. Seeking the spotlight, they use the most vulnerable as props in a grotesquely cruel Christmas pantomime. Occupying unsuitable buildings does little, except give false hope. To make room at the inn, we must levy the taxes, which can make the investments, in housing and personal supports.

It’s not turning on Christmas lights with the flick of a switch. As the prophet Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness —on them light has shined”. The light in question is not the spotlight.


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