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04 Dec 2012 - 05:06:32 pm

DOING PORRIDGE ISN'T ALL IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE

I am embarrassed to write this. It may do me no good. But I feel I have to write it. We in Ireland sit on the edge of a Budget which promises only more hardship for those for whom hardship is a way of life. In some perverse way, because I am a 'writer,' I am supposed to be outside of all of this, using it as fodder for my work. Ireland, after all, is famous for its writers. 

I have been writing and publishing for forty-two years. I am sixty-one years old. This week, at least once, I have had porridge for dinner. Some evenings, porridge comes in handy before going to bed. It kills the hunger. I am one of the lucky ones, as I don't have a mortgage. But I have bills. Were I a qualified electrician or a plumber I would be much, much better off. 

In a truly civilised country, that is, one that cared about its people, prominent artists would be to the forefront of any anti-austerity demonstration, banners high, protesting voices loud. Some would risk arrest. Instead, for even suggesting this, one can find oneself banned from this and excluded from that. Certainly one's chance to make a living, even of a paltry sort, will be diminished. Neither our politicians nor our renowned artists show us any direction.

The notion of an artist being hungry, cold, or unable to pay his or her rent speaks like an insult to the accepted cultural status quo. No Irish artist will ever be given radio airtime to discuss any of it. For the Irish artist, everything must be kept at concept status, theoretical, out there. Morover, there is a peculiarly Irish reluctance among her artists to mention nasty concepts like eating porridge for dinner. Any kind of poverty must be viewed through romantic eyes, a sort of Chatterton complex which spices up the history of our literature without dousing cold water on the blazing thing it now is. We are starting to toss aside the Angela's Ashes history as being too uncool for our modernism. The plays of Sean O'Casey are seen as good drama rather than as records of the way in which Irish people lived. So bad times are not to be written about; we will not, I should guess, see the first modern Irish novel about the porridge eaters for a very long time. In spite of what we read every day, hear on the radio, watch on TV (if we have one still) we are unable to render it into art and, perhaps, unwilling to. There is no modern Irish Dickens. And no Irish artist is willing, yet, to stand up and say 'I am as impoverished as the rest of you.' It's just, well, not done. Even though we know that most art and literature, the greater bulk of it, is created on the dole. 

Dole-art is unspeakable, the mad aunt in the attic, and no one raises a glass to the dole-office at the launch of a new novel or opening of an exhibition. How disgraceful it would be to do so! Speakers will utter many things, rousing things, but of the dole there will be no mention. People expect art to be spat out by beings who live separate lives from the rest, the ordinary mob, those ordained by God to be susceptible to the ills and agues of human life as it is lived. Artists are expected to suffer glamorously and in silence, obeying the social omerta. This silence transmutes itself into a voicelessness. Only in private, and like members of a banned organisation, do artists and writers moan about their lack of money or their hunger. 

And so many of the poems that trickle out into anthologies and small magazines, and even those not-so-small, along with the time-consuming short stories, may be written by people who have not enough money for a healthy intake of nourishment; but we must not talk about this. Much more respectable to be a screaming alcoholic writer than a hungry one. The lucky ones, we know, have to reside where the media can access them, where persons of influence can boost them, and they, in truth, have a chance. But this is a complex and more dangerous topic, and upon it we must also be silent. Yes, you will counter; but it has always been in the nature of the artist's game to know poverty or fame. But should we then be content to remain silent on the former and raise our voices only to toast the latter?

It is untrue to suggest that great art is produced from hunger or poverty of any kind. It is an interesting and comforting myth, and history has had its champions and its martyrs. But a full stomach feeds the imagination more assiduously than an empty one. And some may indeed be able to shoulder deprivation more creatively than others. In an Ireland that boasts of its writers and artists, no writer or artist should starve to prove his or her validity. If you knew that, say, the driver of your 'bus hadn't eaten properly in a week, would you feel safer? Yet still we expect good art and literature without a thought as to how its driver ate. 

I plead, let me be clear, no special case. I ask merely that we think and that we acknowledge that all in Ireland's cultural world is not as it seems. And that when, warm in the studios of our talk-shows, we discuss Ireland's 'place in the world,' we throw in the odd word on the subject of just how many of our contributors to this world exist, day to day. We should say 'There are many artists and writers out there who are on the bread-line,' and we should not feel uncomfortable about doing so. There are many for whom a cut in the dole or an increase in 'bus-fares will spell the end of their creative capacity. An artist does not have an inbuilt resistance to austerity. He, or she, is one of us. 

Interesting articles:

http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/mar2000/bff6-m13.shtml

http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/dickens/poverty/wealth.html
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