‘If you’re quiet, there’s something wrong with you’

This is the biggest and most frustrating lie on which just about all social interaction is built. If you’re not the loud, assertive, life-of-the-party type then there’s something amiss with you. Obviously. ‘What’s wrong with you, don’t you like having FUN?!’ Now this may be shocking to some, but what constitutes ‘fun’ differs from person to person. I’m sorry you had to read that, come back to me after you’ve had a cup of tea and the shaking stops…

I will now borrow some warped wisdom from Coolio (because, you know, why not?): Been spending most my life living in an extrovert’s paradise. We are living under a paradigm that Susan Cain, in her magnificent book Quiet, calls the Extrovert Ideal. It is pretty self-explanatory – the ‘ideal person’ (in the Western world, at least) is an extrovert; he is outgoing, loud, assertive, ‘fun’ etc. (I put ‘fun’ in inverted commas because people say it like there is only one version of it, like it’s an absolute value that everyone shares.) The problem is, though, that I’m an introvert. About one third to one half of everyone on the planet is, in fact. The prevalence of the Extrovert Ideal puts us quiet ones in a very awkward position indeed.

We are often and summarily accused of being no fun, of being too quiet for our own good, of being socially awkward. In her eye-opening book, Cain extols the very qualities that are so often the reason for which introverts are on the periphery – or altogether outside – of social interaction. Deep thinking and a propensity for quiet and meaningful conversation do not a party animal make. They do have their own set of advantages, however, which often come to fruition later in life.

Being a teenager is hard enough, and being an introverted teenager is harder still. I know this because I was one. While everyone was going out and drinking and discovering the world through socialising, I was happier most of the time to stay in reading and – dare I say it – studying. Persistence is a hallmark of the introvert, and I realise now that it is mostly thanks to this temperament that I have learned French and Spanish.

But I did of course have to learn how to interact with people too; it just took me a little longer to get the hang of it. These days, though, I’m very happy to go to a house party full of friends and have a great time, as long as I have some quiet time beforehand or the day after to unwind. Unwinding for me constitutes silence and a good book, or playing a video game for a few hours, speaking of which…

A friend asked me recently if I played any videogames online. When I told him that online gaming didn’t interest me, he surmised that I’d had a bad experience by getting killed too many times in Call of Duty or one of the other shoot ‘em ups. He got a good laugh out of his hypothesis but the reason I play videogames alone is that I want to get away from people, not interact with them more. Escapism, in a word.

Similarly, not being able to get away from people for eight hours every day takes a huge toll on me. I’m talking of course about the particular hell that an introvert suffers in a noisy open plan office. Oh for the days of cubicles! I hate small talk, and I especially hate the open plan office variety. I have no doubt this makes me seem distant and aloof to my colleagues, but the very way our workspace is set up is geared towards their (mostly) extroverted personalities.

And so if you’re an introvert struggling to fit in, take comfort from the fact that the world just isn’t geared towards your temperament. If you’re a raging extrovert, enjoy being ideal but for the love of god cut the introverts around you some slack, and maybe, just maybe, learn to be quiet every now and again!

The Ernest Nature of Bell-tolling

Disclaimer: this post is my personal interpretation of a work of literature. I accept no responsibility for anyone’s hurt feelings or offended sensibilities, especially those of fans of the author.

I’ve just read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. If you haven’t at least heard of this book or its author then please stop reading this post and go read a book – any book – right now. I’ll wait…

This tome was sitting on my shelf for a full five years before I deigned to tackle it, and I’m so glad I finally did. The story is that of an American academic, Robert Jordan, who is fighting with Republican guerrillas during the Spanish Civil War. His objective is to blow a strategic bridge before a major offensive so as to hamstring the Nationalists’ (read: Fascists) ability to counter it. Despite being almost 500 pages long, the narrative deals with a time span of less than a week. This fact alone should tell you most of what you need to know about Hemingway’s writing style i.e. it’s incredibly dense.

I won’t go into the plot but rather I will talk about the style and message of the novel. Hemingway’s writing is usually described as hard and clean, lacking all superfluity; I would agree that perhaps 90% of the novel adheres to this. With under a hundred pages to go, however, I found myself crying out for the end. I’d had enough of thee, thou and thy to last me a lifetime. The setting was firmly established, the characters were fully developed, the plot was ripe and yet there was narrative inertia.

Then, to my delight, it was the last forty or so pages that packed the real emotional punch; when the shit hits the fan you can feel it and smell it spattering all over you. Your heart sinks and, through the sadness, you’re just very happy you’ve kept on reading.

I’d already read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (a must for any Paris-lovers) before this. Yet if you’d asked me, half way through For Whom the Bell Tolls, would I read another of his books, it would have been a resounding ‘No’. Now with my next paycheque I’m going straight to the bookstore to pick up some more of his work.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a striking novel, as potent now as when it was first published in 1940. It casts a cold eye on the embellished horrors peculiar to civil wars, when small villages turn on themselves and vendetta-settling often takes precedence over politics. Nothing scars a country greater than civil war. With so many similar conflicts around the globe today, this novel is very necessary, as is its message.

I look forward to seeing, in the fullness of time, what rough-hewn literary gems such tragic conflicts as the ongoing Syrian Civil War might produce. I hope not to appear callous in thinking (for the purposes of this post) only of the literary output of such conflicts, but even the darkest clouds of war must have silver linings. War is, after all, the mother of invention, and this includes literary invention. Switzerland, for example, has been neutral for centuries now, and the most interesting things it has produced are a stable banking system and good chocolate. Perhaps these facts speak for themselves.

Back to Hemingway. Rarely has a novel’s title been better chosen: it is from a John Donne poem which stresses that one man killing another affects all of mankind for the worse. There is a fair amount of Albert Camus-like philosophy surrounding this novel in that it extols fighting for what one believes in, for the betterment of humanity. This is hardly surprising given that they were contemporaries and were essentially seeing the world burn around them.

Hemingway once said: ‘Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.’ Camus too abhorred violence, and would have believed that a bell tolling for the death of one man might as well be doing so for the death of all men, and that you should ‘therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’

The Mid-Knight Cowboy

This post is going to be about a piece of theatre. And BAM, I’ve already lost half my audience! For those of you still reading, I thank you and I’ll try to make it worth your while.

This week I went to a one man play written and performed by one of my closest friends, Pius McGrath (stop laughing; we can take the piss out of his name later). It’s called The Mid-Knight Cowboy, runs just under an hour long, and was performed at the Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick city. He has also played ten nights at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and one night on Broadway so it’s doing incredibly well for a small piece of independent theatre. Its success is a testament to the quality of the writing and acting and to the effort put in behind the scenes; to know and to witness Mr. McGrath in action is to be reminded of the word ‘workhorse’.

The play opens in 1980s Ireland with Billy ‘the Kid’, eight years old, playing Cowboys and Indians. Frantic doesn’t even come close to describing it; his energy is explosive in a happy time full of childish shenanigans. All of a sudden, Billy is 21 years old. Having dropped out of college to get a job, he is now climbing the ladder with a multinational finance firm as we follow him into his thirties.

Thus are we drawn into a world of jet-setting, substance abuse and meaningless sex: welcome to Ireland in the 21st century. Money-hunger and instant gratification are the norm and the entire play can be read as the Celtic Tiger writ small. The crux of the piece is the comparison (and split-second switching) between Billy ‘the Kid’ – the carefree boy reared on his solid grandfather’s knee – and the man Billy becomes: William the conqueror of women.

Interestingly, the roots of William’s vicarious lifestyle are those same things which afflict every Irish generation to varying degrees: sexism and alcohol abuse. The individual character and his personal arc are quite well developed for a one hour, one man play; there is a great amount of historical and emotional depth woven in.

The Wild West cowboy theme is exceptionally poignant and brought a smile to the collective face of the audience. While it is an innocent playtime script for young Billy, it points to the cowboy developers, shady bankers and corrupt politicians that would eventually bring Ireland to ruin, with people like William along for the ride. The old stories simply don’t fit anymore; these days the banks (and the state, lest we forget) rob us to give to the cowboys. The eventual emptiness and cynicism of William’s adult years are portrayed as morosely as his youth is energetically.

The drama comes to a head when William’s grandfather falls ill. Faced with his idol’s and hence his own mortality, William is forced to some grave soul-searching. The line that sent tingles down my spine, after nearly an hour of lightning-quick dialogue, temporal leaps and narrative progression, was slow and sombre and delivered in Irish: ‘Ní sheasann sac folamh’.

It is William’s grandfather’s legacy: an empty sack cannot stand.

This is the beautiful underscore to the play and indeed to the entire Celtic Tiger ideal. The property bubble was indeed proven to be empty, and though it was warm and comfortable inside while it lasted, when it burst it left an entire nation out in the cold. William’s tragedy is to hitch a ride on the tiger’s back; the saving of him is to get out before he completely collapses.

Getting out in the nick of time – a certain smug and stocky former Taoiseach springs to mind. The lie that he and his revolting ilk fed us over glasses of champagne and (extra) helpings of caviar was this: the good times will last forever.

They didn’t, as this play ably and desolately attests. The Mid-Knight Cowboy is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre. Quite simply put, it has something to say, as should any and all art worthy of the name.

‘The French are assholes’

This is a lie. The French are not assholes, they’re just… coconuts.

Let me explain. While working in Paris a few years ago, teaching English to Air France employees, I attended a workshop for said employees. It was for their cabin crews, to help them better deal with foreign passengers, to understand foreign mores and sensibilities. A class on ‘cultural sensitivity’, if you will. I was there as an ambassador for Irish civilisation and susceptibilities.

During the workshop, we were treated to an exposition on a rough theory that proposes there are two types of people, usually based on their cultural background. People are either peaches or coconuts. Peaches have a soft exterior; they are friendly, outgoing and chatty. Coconuts, conversely, have a tough exterior; reserved, stoic and distant. Irish people, for example, are typically peaches. French people, on the other hand, tend to be coconuts.

Due to their hard exterior, French people (especially when in France, and even more particularly in Paris) are thus perceived to be arrogant assholes. This is simply not the case. They just have a different way of doing things; different rules for interacting with each other. It can thus be very difficult to fall in with a group of strangers on a night out in Paris, for instance, whereas in Ireland it is the norm to interact with as many people as you like.

The flipside is that Irish people, according to this admittedly loose theory, have a hard core, an inner sanctum to which they will grant very few people access. They will befriend 20 people for a night and then never see any of them again. The French, however, true to their coconuttiness, have a soft and sweet interior. Once their hard outer shell is cracked open (by having the craic, perhaps), they can be effusive in their warmth and friendship.

When one person is a coconut he or she is called quiet and introverted. When an entire nation acts like this, they are labelled arrogant assholes. This is actually quite unfair – think about how many of your close friends are through and through introverts. Maybe you yourself are one. I think you’ll agree that they are some of the most steadfast and reliable friends a person could wish for.

For a single person to be a coconut is acceptable, but not so for an entire nation. On the other side of the coin, peachiness is accepted both individually and nationally, and for obvious reasons. Who doesn’t like that guy or girl who is the life of the party? And then there’s the whole Irish nation! A good-sized island off the Northwest coast of Europe, full of people who are perceived as being warm, friendly, and ‘mad for the craic’.

The French have a reputation in the English-speaking (read: Anglo-Saxon) world for being arrogant and difficult. As well as the abovementioned reasons, there are also some salient historical factors to consider. The English and French struggled against each other for world dominance for centuries, and then along came the States – another English-speaking world power – to take the reins. The French have thus been on the back foot, culturally, for about two centuries now. Imagine that, several generations of playing second fiddle; perhaps they can be forgiven for being a little prickly.

In no domain is this better epitomised than that of language. For centuries, French filled the vacuum left by Latin as the language of international diplomacy. As such, the French take their language extremely seriously, to the point of refusing to speak anything else in certain situations. Just watch this short clip of Sébastien ‘the Caveman’ Chabal, a French rugby player, funnily refusing to answer a British journalist in English.

Such obstinacies do little for the public image of the French, but they are of course entitled to speak their own language when, where and how they please.

And there you have it. I hope to have done enough to plead the case of the French and their apparent asshole arrogance.

Just remember: back foot, two centuries. How do you think you’d feel?