Thursday, 25 August 2011

We don't need this fascist groove thang

I'm white. No, I don't mean Caucasian (although that's true). What I mean is that my skin is really white. That's what comes of being descended from Celts and growing up on an island off the north west coast of Europe. So, during the last three weeks of a holiday in central Europe, my family and I did our best to make adjustments to our skin tone. We wanted to look more 'normal'.

It wasn't a great idea. We just don't have the required melanin. The open-air swimming pool was bathed in a brilliant white light as the sun bounced off our lustrous skin. Glowing aliens from another firmament. When not trying to dodge between sunbeams, whilst applying sun protection factor 50, we played the game look! he's whiter than you are. None of the females were as white as us. Some of the more time-served ones were positively mahogany.

This holiday destination, like so many others in Europe, considers a chocolate tan to be the ultimate fashion accessory. Then it proceeds to hold people with a naturally dark colour in disdain.

We didn't spend the entire vacation at the town pool. Much of our time was out and about, during which we couldn't help but notice the prominent posters of ongoing political election campaigns. Smiling, serious, smart, the candidates presented their cardboard selves for selection. Harmless, bland, unobtrusive. Except for a number of cartoon-like posters in red, black and white. I'd seen similar posters before, in a previous life.

The political party in question had a long and proud history of being criticised by the UN during every election and referendum campaign. I recalled the last poster of theirs that I'd seen several years previously. The national flag and, in the centre, a Sadam Hussein type fella ripping through the fabric. The motto beneath translated as 'Keep the Fatherland for our children'.

At that time a colleague, an indigenous member of society, had explained his favourite joke - Question: what do a cherry and a [insert choice of foreigner here] have in common? Answer: they're both best seen hanging from a tree. This attitude goes some way towards explaining why one third of the country's population support the red, black and white poster party. Needless to say, the joke didn't hit my funny-bone.

However, the message of the current posters was clear enough. Mass immigration by shadowy people of a dark hue. There was clearly a problem of an increasingly global society and the political party was taking a stance against this. A trip up a mountain seemed to confirm the attitude when, on a funicular railway, the only free seats were around three African travellers.
'There are three seats available here' the ticket collector called out to the crowded, standing white passengers, but none took up the kind offer.

That evening we met with some friends from the country just to the north. Same language, same look. They explained to me that I had it wrong, the mass immigration wasn't a racial issue. It had to do with the country's agreement with the European Union that had opened the labour market. Anyone from without the borders was, to some extent, persona non-gratis. As a foreigner, my former work colleague had been appointed factory director in a rural location of the country but found that several local landlords were unwilling to rent accommodation to him as a non-national.

Bearing this in mind, the political advertising imagery confused me. Xenophobia or racism? I decided to do a little spot of internet research.

Most infamously, the party in question had used a black sheep image to show loyal white sheep kicking the black out of the territory. The party policy being promoted was to deport foreigners that committed certain crimes, together with their families. (By the way, children born within the state to foreign parents have no rights of citizenship.) I began to get a feeling for what was going on. Foreigners are black in character, regardless of skin tone.

Another amazing poster was widely seen during a referendum to ban planning permission for mosque minarets (yes, strange but true). The image suggested that minarets were equivalent to terrorist missiles on state soil.

There was more to be discovered. A series of posters presented a swarthy, bearded man named Ivan S. variously as a burglar, paedophile and rapist, asking if the populace welcomed him as a newly naturalised citizen. All foreigners are heinous fiends, presumably.

So, you've guessed where we've been visiting? A country in the heart of Europe, where around one quarter of the population are foreigners, where one third of the population (mostly rural voters) solidly back the SVP / UDC that is behind the poster campaigns. The Schweizerische Volkspartei (Swiss People's party).

Yes, the land of chocolate and yodelling. Military neutrality, great riches, private banking (what were they thinking, offending the Arabs with the minaret carry-on?) and nifty watches. Mandatory bomb shelters for every house and apartment block, compulsory miltary service, each Swiss male trained in how to use a semi-automatic rifle. No exertions for the ladies, but they are a dab hand at flower arranging.

What do my Swiss friends think of the SVP? In the main, they're nauseated by them. Societal issues that are of concern to everyone are simplified into xenophobia. This presses buttons that make people feel uncomfortable.

So, what is the SVP's intention? To leverage the country's right-wing stance, exploit xenophobic aspects of the human condition for votes and maintain political power? These poster campaigns are simplistic, effective, clever. Around a third of Switzerland's 7.8 million citizens support the SVP, which has the largest share of the vote for any single party ever in Switzerland. Is the SVP a transitory, maverick entity or is this a crucible in central Europe?


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Thursday, 4 August 2011

Heirloom - an extract from The Baptist

Wind whipped the rain against the window like someone throwing gravel.
He picked up a chair from the kitchen table, removed the cushion and squeezed the loose crossbars of the legs together. Then he placed the chair before the high press. The wood creaked under his weight. He brought down an ancient biscuit tin and took it to the table.

The tightness of the tin lid held in an aroma that hadn’t changed over the years. Sweet shortbread and something else sour. Inside was a cloth that further protected the contents.

All the way from America. You can see it’s genuine. Not like those new-fangled ones made of plastic and whatnot.

His father’s words, God rest his soul.

Elegant simplicity, classic. None of the modern fussiness. It deserved to be on display, not tucked away. That wasn’t an option, though. Word would get out and some reprobate would steal the thing. More importantly, Brid wouldn’t tolerate it. She hated it. They’d argued about it over the years. She wanted him to sell it to a collector but respected it as a last remnant of his father, so they maintained a position of detente on the matter.

Ugly thing, she’d say, Put it away, Séan.

The front doorbell rang. He wrapped the cloth carefully around his heirloom, closed the lid and then walked heavily to the door.

‘Mr McCarthy, how are you?’

‘Come in, come in.’ He took her dripping raincoat, gave it a shake and hung it on a hook behind the door. She smoothed down the skirt of her nurse’s uniform.

‘Well, Jean. Tea?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. I’ll only be a few minutes. Okay, if you’re forcing me.’

Having completed their habitual exchange, she went through to Brid in the front room and McCarthy returned to the kitchen. He moved the old biscuit tin to a corner and covered it with a tea towel, then went about his splashings and clatterings. He could hear them talking.

‘How are we today, Brid?’

There was a beep from the morphine drip.

‘Not long now, Jean. I won’t be needing you much longer.’ Brid’s voice was clipped.

‘Nonsense! Tough old bird like you, you’ll probably outlive us all! Now, that looks sore. Let’s get a new vein for you.’

‘I don’t feel a thing, dear.’

‘Well, that’s what we want, isn’t it?’

McCarthy brought the tray in and placed it on a table next to the door. Nurse Jean removed the empty bag of morphine and attached a new one to the stand. The dispenser emitted a number of tones as she pressed the control buttons.

‘Here you go. Have a seat.’

McCarthy handed the nurse a teacup and saucer. His hand trembled and the spoon rattled. She took it and sat on the sofa.

‘Thanks, Mr McCarthy.’

They sipped tea and McCarthy offered Nurse Jean a plate of biscuits.

‘Oh, jammy dodgers, my favourite. You’re too good to me, Mr McCarthy.’

‘Séan, call me Séan.’

They looked each other in the eye for a few seconds. McCarthy could hear his own heavy breath.

‘Oh!’ Brid said. She was looking at the television. A picture of Joe flashed up on the screen.

McCarthy reached for the remote control and turned up the sound.

‘The State Pathologist conducted a post mortem on the remains found buried in marshland near Bagenalstown, County Carlow. It has been confirmed that they are those of Joe McCarthy who disappeared from the area eight years ago. Cause of death is as yet unknown but it’s believed that the remains have been there for several years.’

McCarthy pressed the mute on the remote and pursed his lips. The teeth felt slack in his gums.

Brid shrank slowly into her chair and gave a low groan.

‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ Nurse Jean said.

The drip dispenser beeped.

‘I’m so very tired,’ Brid said and gave a painful whimper.

When her tea was finished, Nurse Jean kissed Brid on the forehead.

Brid clutched the nurse’s hand with her own claw and they parted without words.

‘There’s no numbing grief,’ Séan said as he helped the nurse put on her raincoat. ‘Eight years of hope. Eight years.’

‘Mr McCarthy.’

Nurse Jean O’Dwyer couldn’t bring herself to call him Séan. She shook his hand and left.

He watched her run from the doorway in the swirling rain and until her car had rounded the corner and left Cypress Grove. The wind eased and a gap opened in the clouds, letting the sun brighten the drenched garden. Raindrops shimmered like diamonds on the leaves of clover that had started to grow on the lawn.

Somewhere there’s a rainbow thought McCarthy as he pushed the door shut.

In the sitting room Brid was motionless, eyes closed, as UK Gold played an ancient sitcom on the TV. McCarthy ran the fingers of his hand down Brid’s cheek and kissed her forehead.

‘I’m ready,’ she said and opened her eyes to look at her husband.

‘Yes, love.’

He looked at her eyes, so small, the lashless lids covering all except the pupil. Then he turned his attention to the motorised pump of the drip and adjusted the controls. The dispenser gave a beep and then another, a succession that took up the pace of a metronome.

‘I’ll see you on the other side, dear,’ Brid said sleepily.

McCarthy kissed his wife on the lips for the first time in many years. Her small mouth puckered with a firm desperation and then slackened as the morphine coursed through her veins. He took her hand and sat on the arm of the chair.

‘Joe,’ Brid muttered as her breathing began to slow.

This was the painless, quick end that she had wanted. When he was sure that she had passed, he adjusted the controls of the drip back to how the nurse had left them. Then he collected the tea things on the tray, took them out to the kitchen and washed them up.

The water was hot on his hands and the sun that had broken the storm shone through the window. He held his hands up to the light and they were trembling. A moment of nausea caught him unawares and he grasped the stainless steel of the sink. Then he reached for a tea towel, revealing the old biscuit tin, and dried the crockery.

Each cup and saucer had a rightful place in the press. Brid was very particular about that. He had maintained her ways long after she had given up the mundane household chores and taken up residence in her armchair. It pleased him to have everything in its place. That was the way that he kept his tools in the shed.

The air was crisp and fresh in the garden. McCarthy walked along the concrete path and turned an old key in the padlock on the shed door. Inside the familiar odours put him at ease. Cut wood, plant food, old paint and thinners, creosote. He saw his reflection in the little mirrored door of the old bathroom cabinet fixed to the shed wall and allowed himself a smile. In that smile he saw Joe. And Eugene. Never forget Eugene.

The key to the cabinet was on a hook behind a shelf of plant pots. He unlocked the cabinet, opened it and pocketed a battered cardboard box.

Back in the kitchen, his father’s voice came to him as he handled the contents of the biscuit tin.

This is more than what it seems. This is a symbol of our struggle and the birth of the Republic. It’s a weapon for good and evil. Depends on whose hand it’s in.

McCarthy had never fired the thing and wondered if his father had either. It looked new, unused, just dulled by age. He had loaded it once, in the shed soon after Eugene’s scant remains had been interred, ashamed afterwards of his own melodrama.

The old cardboard box was tattered but the bullets looked in good condition. He pushed them into the revolver, chamber upon chamber, and clicked the mechanism back together. The thing felt heavy, violent. Morphine would be a better way, but he didn’t know how to do that for himself. Count down slowly from ten and the morphine would carry you away.

McCarthy held the barrel to the side of his head and began to count.

Ten, nine. Perhaps the bullet would glance off his skull and not penetrate. He’d heard of such things. Divine intervention, it would be a sign.

Eight, seven. He couldn’t stop now. A vein in the side of his temple throbbed painfully, the cold of the gun’s muzzle pushing into his scalp through thin, white hair.

Six, five. Heaven or hell, he had no patience for this.

McCarthy pulled the trigger hard. A double click and then nothing.

He pulled again more gently and there was a another click as the mechanism moved to the next chamber. McCarthy let out a little laugh. He should have got hold of some new bullets. Fifty years in a damp shed must have spoilt them. And he should have learned how to use the gun properly. Here he was, playing Russian Roulette with himself.

What if, like the bullets, Messrs Smith and Wesson’s engineering also hadn’t withstood half a century of inaction? It could explode and blow his hand off. He put the barrel in his mouth and coughed. Séan McCarthy’s finger jumped on the trigger and the gun fired.


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