Book Review by Frank O’Shea
John Waters: GIVE US BACK THE BAD ROADS. Currach Press 2019. 428 pp.
ISBN: 978 1 78218 901 5
RRP: €15.89 Kennys, $67.25 A & R
John Waters is not well known outside of Ireland. He is a former journalist whose career started with music magazine Hot Press, and progressed to more than 22 years as an opinion writer with The Irish Times; he was also for a time the editor of the wonderful Magill magazine. His columns have given him a dedicated group of followers, many of them wielding tweeter-bats liberally seeded with abuse and f-words. An equivalent in this country would be to imagine some combination of Greg Sheridan and Alan Jones, except that neither of those have to put up with the kind of ill-treatment that Waters routinely endures.
This is his tenth book which is not bad for a man who sat his Leaving Cert twice and still couldn’t get in to Trinity. In one of the essays he tells how he was interviewed for a place as a mature student of English; he had an interview with someone in the philosophy department but that was inconclusive. A brief bio at the front of the book says that, notwithstanding this rebuff by Irish academia, he is a Permanent Research Fellow at Notre Dame University in Indiana.
Back Roads is a series of essays, alternating autobiography with opinions on modern Ireland and particularly the Irish media. In many of the pieces, he is addressing his late father whom he personifies as the most stark reminder of the changes that have come in the country as it turned into a new century. “I don’t recognise my country any more,” he writes early on. “I know what’s happened – approximately – we’ve been taken over from without by ideological forces … A stupefied populace manipulated by amoral cynics and self-serving ideologues.”
His opening essay is on abortion, a topic on which he doesn’t spare the reader.
To say that abortion is the slavery of the present is more than rhetoric, because each of the two in its way involves the purchasing of the convenience of one with the life of another … the annihilation of these children was part of some agenda of coolness to which I was expected to subscribe … Strange fruit of the warped thinking of our times.
The reader needs to be prepared for this forthrightness. At times, you feel that you are being battered over the head by someone from a different century: Dickens ranting about poverty rather than describing it in his novels; Blake’s satanic mills in prose only slightly less magical than that master’s poetry. And let it be said that while we do not know whether either of those geniuses would agree with the basic theses Waters proposes, they would be in rightful admiration of his prose. You are being battered yes, but you cannot but admit that you are being hit with a baton of the brightest hue, jabbed by cattle-prods set with literary diamonds.
Waters first came to prominence for his writings about the rights of fathers. That arose after he had a daughter with the singer Sinead O’Connor. He explains this in one of his dialogues with his father. “Suffice to say that we met, had a baby, split up – no: we met, split up, had a baby and eventually got to the point where we were able to get on with life and rearing our daughter without knocking spots off one another.” That child, Roisin, is now in her early twenties and is a kind of hero to her father. They meet regularly and he recalls how as a child she solemnly explained to her schoolteacher that “Daddy argues for a living.”
He tells in some detail about his dispute with RTE and Rory O’Neill, aka PantiBliss, after he said they called him a homophobe, a dispute that spilled into The Irish Times. Both the television channel and the newspaper refused to apologise in the way that he wanted and it appears that this resulted in a payout to him. He is particularly scathing of The Irish Times.
While masquerading as a ‘liberal’ newspaper dedicated to the promotion of equality and rights, The Irish Times is in truth nowadays a highly ideological protagonist in Irish life, dominated by left-liberal ideas in general and feminism in particular.
He dedicates one chapter to one of his most strident critics who operated under the Twitter pseudonym Thomas59 and who was in real life the Religious Affairs Correspondent of that newspaper, Patsy McGarry.
The dispute spilled over into Independent newspapers after he went to work for them. In 2015, he was interviewed by Niamh Horan, a fellow-journalist in that group. The subject was a 7000-word article he had written for another publication about what had by now acquired the name Pantigate. As the interview came to an end, she asked Waters, “Are you depressed? Are you suicidal?” Annoyed by the question, he replied, “It’s bullshit. There’s no such thing, it’s a cop-out.” In the Indo the next morning, Ireland was told that John Waters believed depression to be a cop-out; there was no reference to what had happened in the earlier three hours of interview. More than once in this book, you are reminded that speaking to a journalist is a situation well avoided.
I realise that in modern times the word ‘incredible’ is overused, the favoured adjective for a mark in football or a performance on stage. So, I hesitate to use it to describe Waters’ account of today’s Irish newspapers lest it downgrade the seriousness of what he writes. It is astonishing, mind-boggling, the kind of thing that would persuade anyone with delusions about the objectivity of news media, that they should look elsewhere. Australian citizens know what opinions on social or political issues to expect from our major city newspapers and from some of our television channels. The Irish believed that The Irish Times at least was above such shenanigans. What you read here will leave you with little alternative but to dismiss that opinion.
His chapter headed ‘Omnipotent victim’ – a phrase he coined himself back in the day – seems to incorporate the core of his arguments. We are, he suggests, in an environment in which victimhood – past or present, real or imagined – is the main item to be considered in any public discourse. So, emotional pressure becomes more significant than objective argument; differences between people that may be due to talent or hard work or good fortune are treated as gross insults to be rectified by legislation or, failing that, by a social media campaign.
In this climate, nobody wants to say anything for fear of touching off one of the multiplicity of tripwires now booby-trapping public reality … It’s as if everyone is terrified of being reported for holding unorthodox opinions.
John Waters admits that he has a good understanding of what it means to be a pariah, a favoured target of the opinion leaders in society. They have the easy one-liners, the kinds that are particularly suited to modern media. His views are from an older time and unpalatable to a modern audience, but are made more understandable by being presented so fearlessly. He seems careful to describe the accounts of his various disputes in an objective way, always stating the positions taken by his opponents. All that being said, a reader must understand that the philosophy underpinning his views is out of sync with today’s world.
He is fearless, almost aggressive in presenting his views. And however you may feel that you don’t deserve such lashing, his arguments draw you in, and you realise that, however uncomfortable you may feel, there is a deal of truth in what he says. You can learn as much about 21st century Ireland from this book as from half a dozen treatises.
Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective