Sunday, April 19, 2009

Them and Us.

If I could refer back to my January article I did mention that 2009 was to be a ‘cost cutting’ year mentioning in particular over staffing in the news department of RTE. Subsequently I see on TV the bold Charlie Bird on his way to discover the North Pole. Yes I know that Charlie is keeping us abreast of things at the White House so this junket must have taken place sometime earlier. Did his boss not know that the North Pole was discovered by Cook in 1908, Peary in 1909 and Amundsen in 1926, and when they arrived at great personal risk to themselves, (no TV back up crew) there was nothing spectacular to see except snow, and the odd polar bear. But hats off to Eamon Dunphy who set a headline and took a 10% wage cut. Pat Kenny, Marian Finucane, Miriam O’Callaghan, and Derek Mooney followed suit. It’s hard to beat a good example. Now there’s another thing that mystifies me; how does one justify a wage of €300,000 plus for just talking. Who sets the price, how is it evaluated. We are a nation of talkers; go down any street in village or town, or down a country boreen, and stick a mike in front of man or woman, and they’ll talk away till the cows come home and not a degree between them. Chat show hosts have a plethora of researchers beavering away behind the scenes for them, so all they have to do is blather away with mike in hand. But if you want to be a doctor or engineer one has to put in seven or more hard years of study before you earn a crust, and then you might get to that magical figure of €300,000 plus. One can only come to the conclusion that chat show hosts are overpaid!
And now down to the nitty gritty of Them and Us. It’s a phenomena that’s been there for ever and not going away in any hurry: rural v urban, government v people, farmers v the rest, private v public sector. It’s the last mentioned one that’s making headlines at the moment; the words benchmarking and social partners keep cropping up. Benchmarking when first introduced was the great panacea for all labour problems that might crop up, a socialistic approach to labour relations. It was the way to go! I said at the time that it was a good idea so long as the Celtic Tiger trough remained full. All feeding away with no thought for tomorrow. But now the trough is running low and the social partners are pushing and shoving to get at the last scraps. As I write, the government is in conclave about to produce a grand plan that will lead us out of the desert and on to the Promised Land. This grand plan should have been produced six months ago when there were signs that the trough was running low and not being topped up. This country has been run by compromise and fudge all through the reign of King Bertie, it’s time for change; scrap the social partnership charade, and do what governments are supposed to do, lead by example. They could start by levelling the wage gap, 20% we’re told, between the public sector and private sector. Why for example are ex-presidents, ex- taoisigh, and ex-judges provided with State cars? In the real world people who leave a job with car provided, leave the car behind when they move. These are small gestures I know and won’t solve the present financial crises, but it’s the example coming from the top that counts!
At present it looks like Jack O’ Conner and David Begg two renowned trade unionists are the government, but Biffo insists he’ll ‘do it my way’ and last night on TV came through with his ‘grand plan’. Full of statistics and percentages a dumb cluck like me didn’t quite grasp the content, but later on it was presented so that even I could understand. Everyone coughs up more tax, with graduated percentage increases as your earnings climb the financial ladder. On radio this morning howls of protest coming from all quarters; a typical Them and Us situation. Would it be outrageous to exempt the increase in taxation from those who earn say €50,000 or less, and up the tax on the higher earners?
There’s no shortage of experts with lots of suggestions and opinions as to how we have arrived at this financial crisis and what should be done to correct the situation. Living beyond our means for the past number of years has been some of the problem obvious to most people. We have acquired a ‘must have mentality’. Watch out for the number of Mums leaving kids to school in an SUV (rough terrain vehicle). Some of these vehicles will never see rough terrain territory. A lack of good leadership from our politicians is another. A lot of them seem to spend an inordinate amount of time building up a portfolio of goodwill for the next election be it near or far away, but there’s more to governing than back slapping, glad handing and opening pubs. Our present situation will surely separate the boys from the men!
A final Them and Us situation that must be addressed is the loss of our competitive edge with our nearest neighbours. Firms pulling out and moving to countries where they can get their product manufactured cheaper is sure proof that we have become an expensive little nation. Too expensive to be competitive. Until that situation is attended to all other suggestions are wasted effort. Yrs Jeffers.


Janet Hawkins in the Blessington Bookstore recommended my favourite book for this month: “A Gathering Light” by Jennifer Donnelly (Paperback: Bloomsbury: 9.20) It actually proved to be a very seasonal read as there are numerous of references to snow in this beautifully written and engaging story. The novel is set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Adirondacks, a popular holiday location for well to do city dwellers, even at the turn of the 20th century, which is when the book is staged. A little like an “upstairs /downstairs” tale the book depicts both the wealthy occupants of the lakeside hotel, and the poorer lives of the local people who work there and have to survive in the bleakly stunning landscape during the harsh winters as well as the lush summers.

The central character is Mathilda Gokey, a young waitress who unwittingly becomes involved in the aftermath of the drowning of one of the hotel’s guests – also a young girl on the edge of womanhood. Apparently the book is based on the true story of a notorious incident which occurred in the Adirondacks, and the author carefully weaves fact and fiction into this charming and convincing narrative. This is very much a coming of age novel as Mathilda struggles with the competing demands of her needy family, discovering love and above all her latent gift as a writer, spotted by an enigmatic and feisty teacher. Indeed the whole story is as much about writing itself and what it is to become a novelist. It is light and easy to read, but also has a fine balance to it which makes it a delight to become absorbed in.

In contrast I found the next book harder work. “The Portrait” by Iain Pears (Paperback: Harper Perennial: 10.50) has lovely artwork on the cover and end papers, which reflect the subject and the story- painting, artists, critics and their motivations. I thought it would be an interesting psychological study, along the lines of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, but although it was very similar in style in many ways, it was nowhere near as captivating as Wilde’s novel.

The story is narrated by a British painter, who is living in isolation in rural Brittany and has invited his erstwhile friend, a prominent art critic to come and visit him and sit for a portrait. The book starts in a promising way and is atmospheric, describing both the wilds of France and Victorian London very convincingly. The painter’s voice becomes quite wearing however and I found it slowed the pace of the plot, moving as it does between past and present. He is a character who has tired of life and this world-weariness comes out in the book. I found it hard to feel empathy for either of the main (male) characters in the story and the female characters who feature seemed somewhat two dimensional to me- even the intriguing female painter that the narrator has know all his adult life and whose fate reflects one of the most dramatic twists in the plot.

Anyone interested in art may enjoy this novel from a purely intellectual perspective, as it has a lot of insightful comments on what it is to be a painter. From that detached point of view I also found it a worthwhile read and persevered to the end of the book. On an emotional level however I did not engage with the characters and so felt it was somewhat lacking at a human level.



February witnessed a new departure for music at Russborough, with the first performance there of the “Tradition Club”, who formed in the spring of last year. The group are Kevin Conneff on bòdhran, Paul Grattan on flute, Gerry O’Connor on fiddle and Gilles le Bigot on guitar and the intriguing “tambura”, which sounded lovely. The guys are a great combination playing together and they delighted the audience with a great round of jigs and reels. Kevin was in super vocal form, as usual and even gave a rendition of a lilting Breton song , which I was impressed to find he had learnt phonetically!

As always the acoustic in the saloon in Russborough was excellent and the band clearly enjoyed playing there. I guess that because I associate hearing live trad music with the more informal setting of the pub, I wasn’t sure that the more formal backdrop really suited it. Perhaps if we had been seated in a semi-circle, around a blazing log I fire it would have had more of the feel of the country house setting of “Transatlantic Sessions”? As we were leaving I heard several people say they would have liked a couple more sets, as the concert was quite short, and I have to say I agreed with them- the quality of the music was so wonderful we all wanted more…

I hope the “Tradition Club” will play again in Russborough- a Saturday evening concert would guarantee a full house. The house itself as a venue is constantly adding to its eclecticism – we are so lucky to have it on our doorsteps!


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