'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Month: October, 2013

The art of staying put

Photo: David du Plessis

The hot air filling the balloon of common consensus that travelling to far-flung places somehow aids the human condition is an idea worth deflating.

There is a mild degree of fascism from ‘fellow travellers’ with well-thumbed round-the-world tickets towards those who have not to taken the same journey. ‘How could you possibly not want to?’ is the inference; the tone is one of condescension, as though the person who stays at home is wrong – and condemned to suffering a massive void in their lives. By all accounts heroin is a sublime experience too, yet one doesn’t have emaciated partakers ramming the message down one’s throat: you haven’t lived until you’ve tried junk, baby!

The myth perpetuated by anyone who has lugged a backpack almost the same size as themselves around some god forsaken outback is one of transcendence; as though strapping 20kgs to one’s shoulders will allow shed your inner, psychological baggage and strip one’s mind of social inhibitions.  But let’s weigh up the average backpacker’s journey: fly to some location on the other side of the world, hang around hostels and befriend fellow westerners, take in some sights and sample exotic cuisine, while scurrying around for power points and wi-fi to send photographs or email missives to everyone back home, to remind them of the fun time being had. Bravo. Irish writer George Moore said: ‘A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it’. In a modern context, the item discovered by the traveller is ego, and then he or she comes home in the certain knowledge that we all wish to stroke it.

Of course the idea of the loveliness of the long distance backpacker was aided by the revolution of low-cost airfares in the nineties and noughties (the latter such a fitting epithet, now that we can look back on a decade filled with decadence, financial meltdown and moral panic). One positive change of cheap aeroplane tickets is that it democratised travel, making it accessible to most, whereas fifty years ago only the rich were privy to the jet streams. However when the votes are tallied as to whether this has enabled a more civilised age, the nays surely have it. Consider some of the major social concerns since the Ryanair revolution: an upsurge in racism and isolationism; terrorism and holy wars (which we are keeping at bay by putting our toiletries in a plastic bag); an increasingly selfish, consumer-centric western society; social uprisings driven by scarcity of resources; the rapid erosion of civil liberties by our governments.

If travel is meant to ‘open up the world’ and drag our minds along with it – the usual mantra of those whom have spent several thousand pounds on trekking the globe to find their new, better selves – and if record numbers of people are doing it, how come we live in society more distrustful, narcissistic and selfish than ever before? To give a smaller, but fitting, example: how is it that a backpacker will happily put their fate in the hands of some chancer in (say) Colombia or India, yet, absurdly, are unable to mutter hello or befriend a neighbour living in their own apartment complex?

* * * * *

The only thing worse than travel is listening to someone talk about his or her travels. I dread the moment when someone at dinner or a party gets on to the subject – their travels become my travails. For some reason, the inveterate trekkers always have the demeanour of a pent up tour guide, earnestly trying to impress. This person, call him Tim, will drone on about how they once drank coffee consisting of a mixture of beetle droppings and tree sap in some small Asian village, in the idea that he is impressing us, while we sit around nursing our freshly brewed Italian blend. Then they might follow this up with how they once excreted into a 20-foot-hole, while the fifty-degree sun scorched their back, and a pack of stray mongrels lolled around, growling with each intestinal strain.

In which case I always wonder about their faux chagrin and what they expected visiting an isolated village made up of bamboo housing, a dozen people and three asses (Tim not being counted).

When Tim has finally exhausted his stock of travel anecdote – and exhausted your patience – if you are really unlucky, and have inadvertently cursed the place seating gods somehow, the person next to you may feel suitably inspired to begin wittering on about their ski holiday to truly enervate one’s desire to live. In which case you can either feign illness and slope off home, but many a time I prefer to roll a conversational hand grenade into the middle of the table to blow the après ski bore back to his chalet: this is the precise moment to change the topic to global warming, terrorism or the consumer-centric western society we live in etc.

The problem is that these culprits talk about a holiday with the same air as someone who valiantly decided to leave their comfortable home in order to go to battle – and while away zapped a dozen Nazis, liberated the small town where they were based, and won the hearts of six women (all sisters) on the trip back– and all this with only one change of trouser.

They completely lose the run of themselves: instead of realising that all they have done is bought a lemming-spawning, passé guide book, booked a flight online, caught it, wandered around somewhere they had no logical reason to be for a while, had the good fortune not to be mugged, murdered or raped and returned home after indulging in some form of crass class tourism. Emerson wrote ‘travelling is a fool’s paradise’ for a reason and in the modern backpacker’s mind, he or she think they have achieved something truly unique or special; along with the thousands of others who have stomped the same path before or after them.

Worse still, they want to tell us all about it.

But let me put it on record: I don’t care about your trip. When someone talks to me about some thing or some place where I have no frame of reference, I simply detach my mind; a glazed look takes hold. You may as well be talking about the history of jazz-fusion, or nuclear fusion for that matter. Thankfully, age allows one the wisdom to switch off and in my mind’s eye, I’m drizzling liberally on their dusty flip-flops, while bursting their hostel ping-pong ball of conceit.

At this stage, you are probably wondering about my previous travel itinerary. I have travelled only as far as mainland Western Europe and am content to go no further. There is little desire for me to breach some remote frontier – give me a civilised vista to look upon. When travelling, I wish for art and architecture, good food and wine and comfortable beds, with the rudimentary joy of a flushing toilet.

For all their deluded poncing around the world for their own satisfaction, backpackers increase carbon emissions and global warming; cause hyper-inflation and fracture indigenous economies; add tourist footfall contributing to the destruction and gradual decay of previously unspoiled sites; (directly and indirectly) impose western culture and values on local communities and create a vicious cycle of tourist pimping that local people and their families can never break free from. Then add in the fact that the global backpacker sees these places through a sanitised, inauthentic looking glass and perpetuate the condition of post-colonial superiority.

* * * * *

Alongside the amorphous army of backpackers, a similar plague of delusion has infected those westerners who raise thousands of pounds through sponsorship – from the kindness of ordinary people – to travel to a part of the African continent on the premise of building houses, hospitals or schools. However, considering the majority of participants wouldn’t know one end of a trowel to another and that the perfunctory training will enable them to carry out only menial tasks, one has to question the value of this altruistic tilting at the white man’s windmills? An acquaintance of mine who has worked in construction all his life and went on one of these bricks and mortar missions, told me that the untrained do-gooders end up only getting in the way of the skilled workers. Instead, these good hearted but misguided innocents abroad, would be better sending the money directly to the charity and staying put.

Aside from the pain of the rest of us having to listen to them, what are the tangible benefits to these quixotic crusades by the ‘Y generation’ (or maybe that should be ‘why?’ generation)?  Secularisation of society has perhaps made us embody the spirit of the seeker more readily than we realise, and we imagine travelling to the other side of the world will give us some answers to our roles within it. However, as Horace once wrote, ‘they change their sky, not their mind’ and I don’t think a boarding pass is a journey towards one’s true self. That search always has to begin at home and for better or worse, that’s where you will find me.


Charlie Donnelly – Poet, Socialist, Revolutionary

‘Even the olives are bleeding’ – the vivid phrase that springs to mind as we see the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Middle East. Migrants flee the countryside, while bombs and blood scar its soil.

Charlie Donnelly

I recently looked at the words again in one of my notebooks; words both forceful and moving. The phrase is attributed to Charlie Donnelly from Killybrackey, near Dungannon in Co Tyrone. Donnelly was a young

poet and socialist who, like so many idealistic Irishmen, stood up to fight fascism and Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. He left behind a small body of work, although his most famous words were never written down: Donnelly supposedly said them to his International Brigade comrades as they came under heavy fire on the frontline.

I had read a snippet about Donnelly years ago, and a touching poem written in his honour by Michael Longley, but details of his life were scarce and sketchy – which is somewhat understandable, as he was killed in action at the tender age of 22, at the Jarama Front on February 27, 1937. Thankfully the Lagan Press published a book on the young poet called ‘Heroic Heart: a Charlie Donnelly reader’, edited by his sister-in-law Kay Donnelly and Gerald Dawe. The book documents a worthy figure in Irish history that (along with thousands of others) chose to fight in another land’s war for no other reason than their anti-fascist principles (Joseph O’Connor has written an earlier biography of Donnelly in 1993).

In 1917 the Donnellys sold the family farm in Tyrone and moved to Dundalk to open a greengrocers, which prospered, and ended up living at Mountjoy Square in Dublin by 1928. It was here that young Charlie developed his taste for radical politics, becoming involved with left-wing republican youth movements. He also found an apprenticeship as a carpenter, but soon packed the trade in to study English, History, Logic and Irish in UCD in 1931. But after failing his exams he dropped out three years later and continued his journey on the road of socialist politics: joining the Republican Congress, relocating to London and writing for its newspaper and other left-wing publications. There may have been good reason for Donnelly crossing the Irish Sea, for in Dublin he had developed a taste for civil disobedience: he was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks for picketing a Dublin bakery in 1934, while a year later he was arrested again for assaulting a guard at a Republican Congress demonstration and imprisoned for a month.

After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he joined the International Brigade following his arrival in Spain in January 1937 – meeting up with the Irish Connolly Column led by Frank Ryan. The Irishmen were attached to the American Abraham Lincoln battalion and it was not long before they reached the front line; as a talented military strategist, Donnelly was soon given the rank of field commander.

The action came quickly. On February 27 Donnelly’s unit launched a frontal assault on Nationalist positions on a hill named Pingarron, but were pinned down by machine gun fire for most of the day. While evening approached, Franco’s men counter-attacked and as Donnelly’s unit retreated, he was shot dead. His body was later buried at Jarama in an unmarked grave with his fallen comrades.

It is a gesture that is hard to fathom at times; how someone would readily walk towards destruction, deprivation and death in a strange land, for their belief in an ideal. But we also know it’s not such a far-fetched idea from events of the last two years in the Middle East. The Irish contingent that fought in the Spanish Civil War is an important part of our history and, like those Irishmen who fought in the Great War, deserves more recognition for their bravery and convictions; they thought they were fighting for a better future: for a fairer society and the right to self-determination. George Orwell’s account of his time fighting in Spain, ‘Homage to Catalonia’, is rightly lauded for its depiction of trench life and the revolutionary fervour that swept parts of the country, which ultimately descended into confusion, counter espionage and betrayal by the Russians and communists within the republican movement.

Orwell saw with his own eyes the socialist cause being sold out by the very people who should have been on its side. He wrote, ‘You had all the while a hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police’.

Aside from its historical importance, ‘Homage to Catalonia’ is a wonderful read, as a combination of diary and political journalism – Orwell’s lucid description of being shot will stay with anyone who has ever read his prose. In the midst of this fratricide, Charlie Donnelly, like Orwell, wanted to lend a hand in holding back the onset of totalitarianism; as socialists they obviously believed in a better future and a fairer world for everyone. Like many who joined the International Brigade, Donnelly probably hoped that a victory for republican forces in Spain might have sparked a socialist revolution across Europe. Instead, of course, we had a much different outcome; which is why we will always have a place for Charlie Donnelly’s phrase, ‘even the olives are bleeding’. They are words that echo down the ages: and in the face of totalitarianism and oppression, so too will the poet, and revolutionary.

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