Wednesday, January 27, 2010

For Pity's Sake: Time for Assisted Thinking on Assisted Suicide

The current public trend of broad acceptance of euthanasia, as exemplified by the generally favourable reaction to Kay Gilderdale’s acquittal over the death of her daughter, Lynn, is deeply disturbing. And disturbing on a number of levels.

Euthanasia represents a fundamental change in the way we value life. Prior to this, for over a thousand years of western civilisation, we have placed huge value on life. On the very fact of being alive. As the years have gone by, we’ve protected it more and more.

But euthanasia, and the philosophical basis behind it, qualifies life. Some lives become more valuable than others. And An Spailpín Fánach would be deeply interested in finding out how decisions about which lives are no longer valuable are made, and who makes those decisions. Very interested indeed.

We do joined up thinking badly. The general reaction to Mrs Gilderdale’s decision to end her daughter’s life was that if one were in the same boat, one would do the same. And there are very few who wouldn’t. An Spailpín has not made a study of the case but, from what I do know, I believe I would have done the same myself as Mrs Gilderdale. But that doesn’t mean I would have done right.

Extreme cases make bad law, and Lynn Gilderdale’s was an extreme case. What is worrying your correspondent is that there is no bigger debate about euthanasia, and so called mercy killing or assisted suicide.

There are huge philosophical questions to be decided. None bigger. At stage do we decide, as a society, that someone’s life has peaked, and that it’s all downhill from here? At what do we decide that it’s alright for others to intervene in that downhill trip, and give someone a whoosh to journey’s end? And how do we deal with a conflict where society has decided that someone is over the hill, but the someone themselves reckons he or she is just fine, thanks, and has no interest in hearing the choir invisible for a few years’ yet?

One of the reasons why Kay Gilderdale was acquitted was the belief that Lynn Gilderdale wanted to die. Was it Lynn Gilderdale's right to make that decision? Was Lynn Gilderdale capable of making that decision? Must you be in your full mental faculties to make that decision? If you’ve been bed-ridden for seventeen years, can you have you full mental faculties?

This is not a debate that’s taking place, but an acceptance of euthanasia seems to be growing, and this is very worrying. We don’t want to make hard decisions. We want hard decisions to go away, because we want the world to be a happy place. Even though it’s often the exact opposite.

One of the great lies of our age (currently exposed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s recently published Smile or Die) is that the world is a happy place. This makes people who are miserable feel even more so, because their misery is exaggerated. And if they are that vulnerable, what will public acceptance of euthanasia do to the suicide rates?

It’s a little know fact, but you cannot commit suicide by holding your breath. Even though you think you want to die, you cannot shut the system down by force of will. You have to double cross yourself, and do yourself in by violence, by rope, river or bullet. But you cannot die without help. It’s clutching at straws, certainly, but that’s what you do when you’re on the edge. Society should provide straws for the vulnerable, not help to push them over the edge.

The leading philosophical proponent of euthanasia is Peter Singer of Princeton. Singer is also a leading advocate of animal rights. So, if I have him right, he thinks eating a burger makes you a monster but gassing Granny because she no longer knows or cares who’s President is fair enough. I guess they’re not making philosophers like they used to.

Let’s hope Peter himself always knows who’s President – he mightn’t like it some day when he doesn’t know any more, and the nurse says there, there, Peter, there, there, don’t worry, and nods at the doctor, who draws the curtains and starts patting his pockets, wondering where he left his sodium pentobarbital...

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Monday, January 25, 2010

So. Farewell Then, Jean Simmons

Jean Simmons, who died last Friday at the grand old age of eighty, was an actress from the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood (which we may date as from Gone With the Wind until Bonnie and Clyde – it’s as handy a metric as any).

Simmons wasn’t Grace Kelly or either Hepburn but she was in three of An Spailpín’s favourite movies – two cast iron classics, in one of which she has little to do inand one of which in which she was quite central, and the third one of the great guilty pleasures from the Hollywood biblical epics of the 1950s.

After making a name in English cinema, Jean Simmons crossed the Atlantic to play Richard Burton’s secondary love interest – after the LORD, of course – in The Robe, the first movie made in Cinemascope. If that means little now, image how little people will give a rooty-toot-toot about Avatar in fifty years’ time.

Burton was Oscar nominated for The Robe and is the best thing in it. Simmons just has to look around and match the young Burton for prettiness, but it’s chiefly the Burton’s incendiary performance that makes the movie worth watching. The role of Miriam the crippled girl is theologically fascinating for those who enjoy that sort of thing, but theology is pretty much a minority interest these days.

It’s possible that Simmons and Burton had an affair during the filming of The Robe. There are different stories about the details, the best of which is not suitable for the sort of family reading that is normally available in this space. But if you meet An Spailpín on the high stool some evening remind me and I’ll be more than happy to go raconteur about old Hollywood.

The biggest hit that featured Simmons was Spartacus, in which she played Mrs Spartacus. It’s a nothing part, and Simmons gets lost in the picture among such notorious scenery munchers as Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton and Laurence Oliver.

Jean Simmons’ greatest role is as schoolteacher Julie Maragon in The Big Country, one of the great Westerns of all time. The movie stars Gregory Peck as James McKay, a sea captain engaged to marry the heiress to a huge ranch in the west. But McKay discovers when he visits the ranch that his fiancée, Patricia Terrill, is something of a spoiled brat, her father is two bit dictator feuding with a neighbour the same way that Jock Ewing feuded with Digger Barnes in Dallas, and married life is not going to be simple.

Simmons’ character owns the farm that separates the feuding ranchers, and she has done her best to keep the peace over the years. McKay’s arrival is the spark that finally leads to the dispute’s final resolution.

The Big Country is a magnificent film, from its superb opening theme music on. Peck was the epitome of nobility, and the film is remarkable for Charlton Heston as Steve Leech, the only “baddie” Heston ever played. The real villain of the movie is played by Chuck Connors in a tour de force performance as a low down dirty rat of a man. Connors and Heston would share screen time again the Sci-Fi classic Soylent Green.

Great scenes abound in The Big Country. There’s a wonderfully filmed fight between Heston and Peck, where the camera pans back to put the fight in perspective against the huge sweeping plain of the surrounding land. Peck’s potential father-in-law, swine though he is in many ways, get one wonderful scene that shows how maybe he got to be in the position he is, and Peck and Simmons share a lovely scene where the perils of the sea and the perils of the big country are compared and contrasted.

Jean Simmons was also in such big movies of their day as Elmer Gantry and Guys and Dolls (opposite an hilariously miscast Marlon Brando) but it’s for The Robe, Spartacus and especially The Big Country that An Spailpín will remember her best. God have mercy on her.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

So. Farewell Then, Bill McLaren

Another voice of our childhoods has been silenced. Bill McLaren, voice of rugby on the BBC, has been called home at the age of eighty-six.

Bill McLaren was old school. He was from the village of Hawick, in Scotland’s rugby heartland. The name means nothing now in the professional age but back in the day the news that the Scots had found yet another raw-boned forward from Hawick was enough to cause the bruises to rise and the teeth to loosen on even the most hardened of men before a ball – or anything else – was kicked at all.

Scotland had a very particular way of playing rugby in the amateur era, a dour, grinding relentlessness that gave way to grudging admiration from vanquished opposition that they pulled it off so well. Sheep farmers’ rugby – a ten man game for strong, muscular men who needn’t have trained at all, having spent all their time on the mountain pulling sheep out of ditches in the freezing, sheeting rain of Scotland. No gym in the world hardens muscle on bone like that sort of work.

McLaren was a schoolteacher. You could tell, listening to him. He loved the great theatres of Twickers and the Parc des Princes of course, but you got the feeling, like a catch in his voice, that he’d be as happy on the back pitch of some school teaching a young lad the skills of the game, and being delighted when the young lad bound properly, or didn’t bash his head off the hooker in the scrums anymore. It was hard not to get the feeling that being true to the traditions and ethos of game meant as much to him as JPR crossing the line in the Arms Park, or Andy Irvine going over at Murrayfield.

McLaren’s great gift was his perspective. He knew that rugby wasn’t actually a matter of life and death, that it was just a game. The BBC did a documentary about him on his final season – his first assignment that year was Italy v Scotland in Rome. The last time McLaren has been in Italy was fifty years beforehand, when he was there as a Royal Artillery man during the Second World War.

When the war was over, he was on the verge of an international cap when he contracted TB. TB would have done for him were it not for a miracle drug called Streptomycin. After all that, it was easy enough to keep the Calcutta Cup in perspective. Crucial certainly, but by no means serious.

Bill McLaren was old school. That BBC documentary ended with him waltzing around the sitting room with his wife, an old-school courtly pleasured beloved by that most courtly of sports commentators. Bill McLaren was of a generation where men danced with women, didn’t sneer for the sake of sneering and looked on triumph and disaster, treating both imposters just the same. He will be missed, and his like will not be seen again. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam Albanach uasal.

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Monday, January 18, 2010


Tá an Spailpín Fánach ag filleadh ar ais chun a laethanta scoile. Beag nó mór.

Bhíodh imní orm le fada maidir le mo lámhscríbhneoireacht. I rith laethanta scoile, bhí sí garbh go leor, ach d'éireoinn, ag deireadh lae. Ach fiche bliain níos déanaí, tá an bua beagnach caillte agam. Is féidir liom m'ainm a scríobh go réasúnta maith ach, nuair atá orm nótaí oibre a scríobh, caithim na nótaí a chur i gcló an lá céanna. Mar ní fhéidir liom na nótaí a léamh an lá ina dhiaidh. Nó más fhéidir, bheadh sé deacair go leor.

Agus táim tinn tuirseach leis an scéal. Bím in éad mo chairde le sár-lámhscríbhneoireacht. Bíonn sé thar barr dom nuair a ghlacaim litir scríofa go hálainn maidir leis an lámh, chomh maith leis an gceann agus gcroí.

Agus bíonn náire orm nuair a scríobhaim chuig mo chairde, agus fios maith agam chomh deacair a bheadh orthu na h-iairiglifí a dhéanamh amach. Mar sin, shocraigh mé go n-athróinn.

Rinne mé m'obair bhaile, agus d'fhoghlaim gurb é an rud is tábhachtaí maidir le lámhscríbhneoireachta ná an teicníc. An rud is mó a mbíonn taobh thiar droch-lámhscríbhneoireacht ná easpa teicníce. Mar galfaire ag tiomáint, caithfear an rud céanna a dhéanamh gach uile uair a thógtar club (nó peann, sa gcás seo) i lámh. Nuair atá an teicníc ar gach thaobh na sráide, leanfaidh an scríbhneoireacht ar gach thaobh na sráide ar a thóir.

Conas a n-athrófar an drochbhéas? Caithfear an lámhscríbhneoireacht a bhriseadh agus a dhéanamh suas arís. Mar sin, chuaigh mé chomh fada leis na siopaí agus cheannaigh roinnt cóipleabhar agus peann luaidhe istigh. Abhaile liom, agus déanaim iarracht cúig nóiméad déag sa tráthnóna a chaitheamh ag scríobh, gach tráthnóna. Tosaím ag scríobh ciorcal. Ansin, scríobhaim lúba, ansin an aibítir agus ansin, leanfaidh mé isteach ar dán éigin, idir Béarla agus Gaeilge, mar atá an fonn liom, agus déanaim mo dhícheall leis.

An bhfuilim ag feabhsú? Mo léan, ach cé gur mhaith liom na cúig nóiméad déag a chaitheamh, ní chaithim gach uile tráthnóna. Ach leanfaidh mé leis. Ba trua go mór dá gcaillfinn an lámhscríbhneoireacht go deo agus má tá sí caillte, conas a múinfidh mé an sean-Ghréigis dom féin, agus a h-aibítir féin aici? Caithfear súil a choinneáil ar an bpictiúr mór freisin, meas tú.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Frozen Dublin: Pratfalls and Snowballs

The Mountjoy Hotel, North Circular RoadThe city of Dublin is frozen tonight, like one great block of ice. An Spailpín had to walk home through it, the buds in Dublin Bus having taken one look out the canteen window, shivered, and returned to their cards. Allegedly.

There’s no way between Hell and Bethlehem they’re gritting that in time for the commute to work tomorrow. The RTÉ news site is reporting that the Corpo owes five gritting trucks. The greater Dublin area covers an area of three hundred and fifty square miles. How fast can a gritting truck go? Do the math and draw your own conclusions.

The best thing the citizens can do tonight is to visit their whiskey shelves and make a few hot ones, congratulating themselves on being at home in the first place. When An Spailpín heard a bud from Dublin Bus or the Corpo or some other class of stonecutter telling Matt Cooper on Today FM that Dublin Bus were going to “make a call” on whether they’d take gritters out tonight and get the public transport system back up, or snuggle up in bed and take a jolly good go at it first thing in the morning, your faithful quillsman realised that his boots were made for walkin’, and set off into the night.

And considered himself lucky to do so. The traffic was making no progress whatsoever. Crossing the streets it was clear that the roads were sheer ice, and haste would be made slowly. Very, very slowly.

the snowball thrower's pater, no doubtBut I made it home safely, with only one incident of note. As An Spailpín trudged up Poplar Road towards the crossroads at glamorous Summerhill Parade, I espied some youths of the locality preparing snowballs.

One of them, a rangy welterweight, stepped forward and let fly for a bus (an out of service bus, of course, but recognisably a bus nonetheless). An Spailpín noted that he aimed for the cabin, where the driver sits, and realised aha! These are the disaffected urban poor of whom Joe Higgins, Fintan O’Toole, Vincent Browne and others speak so eloquently.

As Fintan himself might say, the projecting of the snowball was in fact the projection of a greater truth; from this simple action we can draw a metric, if you will, that expresses this young man’s inarticulate yet wonderfully expressive rage at the bus, which he sees, not as nineteen tonnes of Volvo B9TL with Alexander Dennis Enviro500 bodywork, but an expression of the cruel and faceless power structures that imprison him in Summerhill, born to bloom unseen, forgotten about by the heartless metropolis. Take that, says the snowball thrower, as the missile smashes home against driver's window! I’m a man! I rage, I rage, against the driving in the night!

And then the second snowball hit your correspondent on the right cheek, just above the line of An Spailpín's current unusually elaborate whiskers. As I walked on, cheek stinging from the snow, ice and grit, it became clear that the bombardiers were perhaps not disenfranchised urban youth striking with poetic and symbolic beauty against the insignia of the cruel capitalist oppressor, but rather democrats like myself, who view all targets as equal sources of feckless amusement. Sigh.

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Friday, January 01, 2010

The Tenth Doctor Deserved a Hero's Death. He Didn't Get One.

David Tennant’s final voyage as Doctor Who was appalling.

Heroes deserve heroic deaths. David Tennant’s Doctor did not get a hero’s death. He got a coward’s death. He deserved better than that.

The mortal blow that finished the tenth Doctor was appalling. The director of The End of Time remarked on Doctor Who Confidential just now that they considered the twist – where the four knocks motif was not a death blow from a greatest enemy but something else – was a great twist. No it’s not. It was awful. Imagine James Bond taking on Ernest Blofeld in his lair, beating him, and then slipping on a bar of soap on his way home and breaking his bloody neck. It’s just stupid.

As for the rest of it, God forgive Russell T Davies for sending the tenth Doctor off snivelling into that good night. Shakespeare told us over four hundred years ago that cowards die many times before their death but the valiant never taste of death but once. This news has not reached Russell T Davies, who wrote the script. He takes every opportunity to say how frightened the Doctor is of dying. What’s so heroic about that?

There’s nothing wrong with being frightened of dying. But if you’re the lead heroic character in a sci-fi series it’s hardly appropriate. You can write a death scene where your hero is frightened without making your hero look like a chump. Butch and Sundance’s last stand springs to mind. Russell T Davis let his Doctor down. Making “I don’t want to go” his final line is worse than pathetic.

It’s obvious from Doctor Who Confidential that Tennant himself was deeply unhappy with that farewell line too. Doctor Who could never have realised the potential it has realised without Tennant, and he deserved better. All those final goodbyes were my hat as well. He had a longer send off than Frank Sinatra. The Doctor wasn't dying, he was regenerating. There's no need him to make that trip. No need. A terrible exercise in ego fulfillment. Shame shame shame.

But, as remarked here before, things can only improve when Stephen Moffatt takes over. It’s interesting to note that the official BBC Doctor Who site are already using the new logo for Matt Smith’s Doctor, and the trailer looks just wonderful. Onwards and upwards in the walk in eternity.

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