Tuesday 6 November 2012

A Manifesto, Invisibles and Twenty Years-A-Growing

My politics? Not party political (of course). My manifesto would be a line from Robert Louis Stevenson: “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” That’s the ideal. My wrath is reserved for those who reduce them, or, worse, substitute with a number of horrific, horrible things, chief among them War, which fucks everything up in perpetuity. 

Eva has accused me of living in my own little world. “This is the difference in our worlds,” she said only this morning. “You live in an imaginary world. I live in the real world.” To which the only reply is, “But I’m very fond of it. Don’t knock my imaginary world.” 

So - here’s an illustration - we were each doing our own thing last night. She was watching Invisibles, a Spanish documentary, and I had my nose in Twenty Years-A-Growing, Maurice O’Sullivan’s autobiography about a childhood in Great Blasket, an island off the coast of Kerry, Ireland. 

Invisibles, produced by Javier Bardem, is a documentary in five parts by five different director. A synopsis of each section follows: 

1. A woman from Bolivia working in Spain receives a letter from her sister. As the film follows her in her daily round of low-paid work (nursery worker, cleaner), a voice-over reads the sister’s letter. The news is bad: her daughter has died from a virulent disease carried by bedbugs. The victims are so poor it’s not in the drug companies’ interest to develop a treatment. 

2. Women, travelling twenty or thirty kilometres in an isolated area of the Republic of Congo to feed and water their families, are systematically raped by police, army and rebels, sometimes by twenty-strong groups of men. The women organise together to combat the sexual aggression, but their vulnerability is highlighted by a cinematic device: they fade and become invisible before our eyes. 

3. In the north of Uganda, children sleep in communal centres organised by Médecins Sans Frontières to prevent them being kidnapped by rebel militia.  There is a civil war of some twenty years’ standing. Children kidnapped to become soldiers are commonly subjected to a trial of kill or be killed, and are forced to murder loved ones or siblings under pain of death. In this way, generations have been brutalised.

4. A sleeping disease transmitted by the tsetse fly is devastating areas of the Central African Republic, claiming up to a hundred victims a day. A side-effect of treatment seems to be hair loss on the upper lip: drugs are diverted to satisfy the demand of the female cosmetic market in the first world.   

5. The discovery of mineral wealth in an area of Colombia has led to ongoing conflict since 1948 and the displacement of the resident population. Now the community - led by strong women - are fighting to reclaim their homes, but the government offers no guarantee of security. This is the most hopeful of the episodes and it’s still as bleak as hell.

Twenty Years-A-Growing offers a contrasting side of human nature. An island childhood in the early decades of the twentieth century, it seems, offered unlimited freedom. Maurice and his best friend, Tomás, are as free as William Brown and his friends and the Swallows and Amazons children. So in Chapter V, ‘Ventry Races’, our hero rises early and slips away to the mainland on a curragh (a little boat) with Tomás on the occasion of the Ventry boat races. They encounter several adventures, including their first beer, a fight with a lanky fellow who tries to cheat them in a game of hoop-la, and the raid of a homestead for a loaf of bread. Then there is the triumph of the giant Tigue Dermod from the Cooas in the boat race, amongst cries of “My love to you forever, oh flower of men!” The grown-ups who come and go, ineffectual and benign, are all very demonstrative. “Musha, my heart,” and “God and Mary save ye, my treasures” are some of the milder endearments.  

Not that God and Mary were particularly effective either. Maurice O’Sullivan died in a swimming accident off the coast of Connemara in 1950, aged 46. Bill recorded his widow Cait, a fine Gaelic singer, but the tapes were lost. That’s a story I’m reserving for the book, which I hope will have some of the spirit of Twenty Years-A-Growing whilst giving the Invisibles their due. 


  1. A work colleague offered to introduce me to the Conservative Club on the basis that they "weren't really political";
    Years later attempts to join the Labour Party at the rival club was met by the question: was I interested in the Football or the darts teams? Maybe its that all too many people consider themselves apolitical, but in actuality prop up party political torpor by default.

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