Does any other adult feel

Like they are a wall?

Stopping waves of pain crossing

From one side to the other?

Sometimes that wall

breaks

Or is insufficiency high,

Then the pain washes

Into unprepared garden spaces

Where inky torrents

Do their worst damage.

No more bright flowers

In once pleasant beds

Only sticky detritus:

Dark mud

A lasting stain

That cannot be

Washed away.

A stone hit me

Square in the head.

It hurt me quite badly.

Dazed and in great pain

I sought it out.

I said “Hey stone,

Why did you hurt me so badly?”

The stone remained silent,

Impassive, uncaring,

Unresponsive to my predicament.

It was, after all,

A stone.

Years ago, I listened to a great story in a public speaking club I attended. The storyteller, who I will call Steve, was very talented.

The story went like this: He had a best friend Tom; they went way back to when they were school kids. Unfortunately, Tom was dying of cancer. Tom’s great wish was to climb Carrauntoohil: Ireland’s highest mountain. So, they made a plan, and a couple of weeks later, without telling anybody, they both set out on a mountain trek, walking the long road, negotiating the rivers and high rock faces. It wasn’t easy for Tom, but he was determined to see it all the way through. Eventually, they reached the top and they both looked out over Ireland one last time. Tom died three months later, but it was a moment that, literally and metaphorically, marked a high point in Steve’s life.

In the pub that night, Steve made a confession. He had invented the story out of whole cloth. Tom, this best friend from school, never existed. The story was a complete and utter fabrication.

I felt cheated, but Steve’s story taught me something valuable: that storytelling is like a superpower – the superpower of persuasion. But, like any superpower, we can use it for good, or for evil.

The ability to tell good stories is the mark of a great communicator. From our earliest days, we are told to grab the audience, to have a beginning, a middle and an end; to build up the tension and the drama, to conclude with aplomb and to finish the story with no unanswered questions. Our goal is to place our listeners in the palm of our hands, so that not only will they believe what we tell them, they might act on it also.

And therein lies the problem. To persuade, our stories don’t have to be true.

One of the problems is that we can choose our stories to frame things in very self-serving ways. Take smoking for instance. Reams of scientific evidence tell us that smoking is very dangerous to us, and if you were a health professional or literate in statistics you might be shocked by what these studies tell you. But all this evidence has been undermined by simple stories, such as great aunt Mary that lived to 104 on 3 packs a day. Stories like this have persuaded millions of people that cigarettes were not as harmful as doctors made out. And millions of people tragically suffered the consequences.

To tell a good story, you need to edit. You can’t say everything, so you bring it down to a few salient points. But editing, by definition, leaves out lots of stuff, and what gets cut might be really important. If I told you the story of a self-made man who rose to the very top of his profession through grit and hard work, you might be impressed, but if the story omits the fact that he originally came from great wealth and used threats and shady dealing to get to where he was, it changes the narrative quite a bit. What do storytellers cut out in the telling of their tale? That’s always a good question to ask.

And don’t forget the power of exaggeration – the adjectives we use – the choice of words. All these things matter. The evil villain is truly awful and the worthy hero can do no wrong. Really? Would the presumptive villain agree to that portrayal? Maybe not, and maybe they have a perspective that’s worth listening to.

And then, the story might just be a bunch of lies – half-truths and conspiracies designed to appeal to fear or self-interest. You are the good person. All these people around you are criminals who want all your stuff for themselves. Only I can protect you. These are the narratives of fraudsters and cult-leaders, and the problem is, they work. We only have to look around us today to find examples of people persuaded into believing great untruths that could damage their health and destroy their lives.

To persuade, stores don’t have to be true. They just have to be convincing.

So where does that leave us?

As members of an audience, as people receptive a good story, we must be aware of the power and misuses of storytelling. We’ve got to look critically on what we are told. Where is the evidence? What is being left out? Is the narrator using excessively emotive language to manipulate us? When hearing stories that might affect what we are to believe, we can’t be passive – we must engage, we must question.

As story creators, we have an obligation not to deliberately deceive. We might have strong opinions on a subject but we owe it to our audience to ensure we are providing factual information, basing our views on proper evidence, and acting with humility if there are things we don’t know. This is not easy, but it is something that we must do as best we can.

Our goal should be to leave our audience educated, to open their minds and not close them. We should aspire to make them think and ask questions. We should make it our mission to leave our audience smarter and not dumber, because persuasion without support is insulting and potentially deceitful.

Storyteller Steve taught me a valuable lesson those many years ago – that good stories don’t have to be based on truth, and that a clever manipulator will use stories to deceive us and divide us. We don’t need to be like Steve. We can do better. We can still climb our mountains and reach for the lofty heights of great storytelling, but let’s not take shortcuts getting there.

In the early months of 1914, nobody thought war was on the horizon. Sure, there were dark clouds, but war? No.

All it took was the death of an arch-duke, of a declining power, in an obscure nation, to change everything. Within months, all the great powers of Europe were ranged against each other, fighting on multiple fronts, with armed technology they barely understood. Soon, whole armies were digging deep trenches, defending their supplies against legions of rats, while storms of explosive shells rained down from the skies.

And it didn’t even end 4 years later. There was a respite, resuming 21 years later with an even worse war, that turned whole cities into smoking husks and sent millions to the gas chambers.

I wonder how close we are today to 1914.

Everything is wrong. Fascism and hatred and conspiracy is on the march. Governments and bad actors have weaponised our mediums of communication to spread fear and hatred. The people who can decide things and solve things no longer bother to listen to each other. This can only result in pain and nightmares down the road.

I wonder how close we are to 1914.

When I was a young man, I was a very bad driver.

In my mind of course, I was a better driver than everyone else. 

I used to overtake 10 cars in a row regularly, because I was far more capable than all those other losers.

I used to overtake on bends, on blind intersections, you name it. According to me, I was shit hot at driving.

Until I nearly killed myself and my dad. I avoided hitting an oncoming car by mere inches.

Soon afterwards, I got stopped by the cops. They wanted to take the car from me.

Turns out, I wasn’t such a great driver after all.

It was then that I began to realise that all these ‘slow’ drivers (or so I thought) were actually quite good drivers. It was I, in my arrogance, who was the bad driver.

I thought I was better than everyone else. I wasn’t.

That, to me, is how I see Covid deniers today. They think they know more than everyone else. They think we are all stupid, that they are better informed; that they are asking all the right questions, and we are sheep, happy to go along with the consensus.

In reality, they know almost nothing.

They don’t have degrees in medicine, nor virology, nor epidemiology, nor public health. They have no particular knowledge or expertise on the virus. They have not held the hands of people as they slip away from this world. They have not had to survive on caffeine and adrenalin as a patient is sent to the ICU, while another is zipped up for the morgue. If they did, it might give them an opportunity to reconsider their beliefs. Even if they had an opportunity to show empathy with those on the front line, they might reconsider their beliefs.

Alas, they won’t. They are so full of the importance of their own ideas, and the stupidity of everyone else’s.

Arrogance like this does not serve these people well. A little bit of humility might be more appropriate.

When I see Covid deniers, I don’t see thoughtful intellectuals with whom I must have a considered debate about the facts.

No. Instead I see young men in cars, who have a lot to learn about the world and their fellow travellers, and who could yet do great damage before this pandemic is finished with us.

After the last book has been read

The last Netflix series watched

The last puzzle solved

The last tweet, the last Like,

The last Zoom meeting endured:

The virus persists

And we are left with

Nothing,

But our own empty thoughts

In this relentless merging

Of days into weeks into months.

Here are some photos I took this year. 2020 wasn’t a year for travel, so most of these shots were taken in or near the 5km zone around the house. Inevitably, I kept on returning to the same subjects: Ballycotton and Garryvoe in County Cork. This reduced range forced me to consider new ways of looking at the same things. It was also the year I got a 400 mm lens, giving me much more visibility of objects in the far distance.

Garryvoe hotel at sunrise. I took a few photos like this during the year, when the conditions were right. Morning fog has a profound effect on the local landscape.
The short summer hiatus afforded us an opportunity to go slightly further, and this one was taken by the cliff walk.
The ghost ship MV Alta washed up on the Ballycotton coast just a few weeks or so before lockdown. A harbinger of what was to come as we too became trapped by the forces of nature.
Ballycotton moonrise This one was very popular indeed. I love the colours and the shine off the waters. The evening wasn’t very clear, but the clouds added a mysterious quality to the moon.
It seems like ages since Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE lit up our night skies in the summer. The camera required some serious tweaking to get right. Taken in the back field around midnight back in mid-July.
A fortuitous one, this. The island swathed in fog, apart from its topmost parts. Like an otherworldly city in the air.
Birds departing in a line from the local wood. An almost oriental quality to this photo.
A boat in Ballycotton bay, awaiting the setting of the sun. This was taken while out with a few other photographers in Ballycotton.
Stormy waves in Garryvoe, looking east to the signal tower by Knockadoon.
A funny one this: a goose washing itself in The Lough in Cork.
Ok, last one: a tree illuminated by the sunrise, with fog in the near distance.

Wishing you all a better year ahead. Stay safe.

What is a story? A set of events in time, in sequence, possibly with a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

Yes, but what makes a good story?

Perhaps it’s when you move from not knowing to knowing- knowing it all. A good story begins with great ignorance, but ends with all the loose ends tied up. In essence, a good story preys on our natural sense of curiosity – wanting to know. It gives us a chance to second guess, and to be pleasantly surprised when our assumptions turn out to be wrong.

Perhaps it’s when you get a bunch of characters, each of them doing their own thing, and you bring them together in interesting and unexpected ways.

Perhaps is when you get to know the characters. You feel for them. You want to know what they are about, what drives them. You need to care about them.

Perhaps, good stories need conflict. They are driven by it. They need that sense of dissonance – the itch that needs to be scratched.

Perhaps, they need repetition and clarity. Do it wrong and the reader gets lost. Do it right, and you keep their interest. To tell a good story is to build on solid foundations.

I’m asking myself all this because I don’t know much about stories, or how they are constructed. I’m asking myself this because I believe storytelling – good storytelling – is one of the most powerful weapons in our intellectual arsenal. To be a great communicator is to be a great storyteller. I want to know more.

Why so many people voted for that charmless fraud is a question that will exercise historians for decades.

To so many of us, Trump was a nightmare president. Narcissistic to an extraordinary degree, petty, nasty, uninterested in the world or the wider concerns of humanity, uninterested in solving any problems other than his own, dangerously tempestuous, and a profound bully who valued abject obeisance over truth. What we saw was an authoritarian who explicitly wanted an end to American democracy, to be replaced by one-man rule: a fascist dictatorship in effect. Despite all this, nearly 70 million people preferred him to the alternative. Without a massive democratic counter-vote, he would have won a second presidency. That would have been disastrous.

70 million Americans. Is it that those people are avowed racists? Some, but surely not all of them. Is it that they are all deprived working class people? Almost certainly not. In fact, his vote seemed to transcend many of the traditional categories, with plenty of Latinos voting for him, women, urbanites, suburbanites, and younger people too. Almost everywhere in America – rich and poor, there was a substantial Trump vote. On many levels, this was a very scary and disturbing election.

The best and most common explanation I’ve seen is “He told them what they want to hear”. I believe a whole lot of people were convinced by a particular narrative: that their lives and livelihoods were under threat, and to stop it they needed a monster on their side. This way of thinking put them in the centre of this story, making them out to be the most put upon, most maligned people in America, with others out to take what they had away from them.

A whole media universe was in place – 24×7 – to tell them how great they were; particularly if they had earned a bit of money, owned their own house, educated their kids, and put away savings for their retirement. Now a nasty socialist government was coming to tax them hard, take away their prized possessions, and laugh at them in the process. Tax money would be given to the undeserving poor to fund their drugs habits and there were so many rich urban elitists who were there to ridicule them, dictate to them and possibly control them through undefined means. To survive, they needed to go to battle. The general they chose seemed like the right fit: exceptionally pugnacious and unwilling to leave anything on the floor, except blood.

This narrative, while compelling, is absent of one crucial ingredient: hope. Should the vision be realised, it would only lead to more division, more anger, more nihilism, and more hatred. It’s the vision of a grubby medieval state at best. At worst, it leads to concentration camps.

To fight the rot, the narrative will need to be fought, and fought hard. There are better narratives available- ones that ask people to work together to confront the considerable problems facing America and the wider world. Ones that don’t think zero sum and instead think about building a better world that raises all boats. Ones that help the younger generations to come together with new ideas for a world-leading society. Ones that engage with friends rather than seeing everyone as mortal enemies.

Combating the narrative will require lots of hard work at government and grassroots level, where local leaders, activists and workers can feel invested in the future. It’s not just ad campaigns and messaging. Big and bold new projects may be required – on the level of the 1960’s Space Programme or greater – to get Americans working together again. Whatever they are, they need to be inclusive and defined, and not grand outsourcing projects passed to crony monopolists and fulfilled in distant lands. It is time to be bold.

Trump’s presence on the world stage caused many to dive deeply into a very dark narrative. With new hope in the air and a new president, perhaps people can start to move away from such an entrenched, hopeless position. Bold, inclusive projects that create hope and dispel the cynicism seem to be an obvious way the narrative can be changed.

There are two ways the shitstorm that is the United States goes now.

In one scenario, it gets worse. America becomes a police state, run by rich white people for rich white people. The president gets to stay on, and on, and on, passing the reins onto Ivanka or Jared when his brains eventually turn to mush and he spends his days barking at the TV, his howls a meaningless sequence of animalistic drivel as he shits into his underpants. The country doubles down on foreigners, minorities, women and everyone else that gets in their way. America, the horror story: a republic in name only.

In another scenario, it gets better. America gets over this. China had bad emperors, but it kept going. Britain had some terrible kings. As did France and Spain in their heyday. An anomaly such as Trump has to happen sooner or later, if the history of any great nation is long enough. It doesn’t mean that the country falls just because it elected a Nero or a Caligula.

Despite everything, I still believe the second scenario will happen. America is better than this. It is bigger than all this.

I think we are seeing something like what happened in Russia, before the Soviet Union fell. It’s not an exact comparison of course and I expect some might be pissed off with the analogy, but bear with me.

America stopped working for most people a while ago, and that’s why there are riots and street protests, and they’re getting louder. Healthcare is a joke. College fees are unattainable. Infrastructure is crumbling. Drug abuse is sky high. The climate is changing and despite it all, fuck all is being done. The philosophies that lead to this are bankrupt. Only the super-rich have benefitted from the current state of affairs. It’s unsustainable.

Right now, those who profited the most are in a state of near constant panic. That’s why they chose a ghoul to lead them and they’ll stick with him through thick or thin. That’s why they need to pack the courts with their sympathisers. That’s why the police are so fucking aggressive and the prisons are full. Thats why their media is so toxic. That’s why gun sales are through the roof. It’s because they are losing, and deep down, they know it. They are doing everything they can to prop it up, through fair means or foul.

In the long run, it’s not going to work.

And just like the Soviet Union, in the end it could all come down very quickly, because more and more people are tired of the bullshit. It’s not the country of entitled Christian white people any more. Like it or not, they have to share it with black people and brown people and Asian people and gay people and women and Muslims and atheists and educated people and lots more folks. Those people are not going away. They are in America to stay and they want, and deserve, a slice of the pie.

And in its place, who knows? The older generation have fought so hard and with such bitterness that what happens now is going to be very painful indeed, even if, as I hope, things get better.

Right now, the talk is of civil war, but I don’t know.

Middle aged people do not great revolutionaries make. We can’t run far or fight for long. We have heart problems, weight problems and joint problems, cholesterol problems and bowel disorders. Something is always inflamed or in pain. All we have is our anger and disgust for everything and anything. Full of rage and fear and self-righteousness, we’re pathetic.

In a straightforward battle with the youth, the youth always win. Always. They will outsmart us, outthink us, outmanoeuvre us, outpace us. They have boundless energy and time on their side. You pick a fight with young people, you lose. Eventually, they will emerge victorious.

More likely, it will remain very, very chaotic for a while more. We will probably witness some terrible scenes yet, before the anger of the aged class subsides into inevitable depression and hopelessness, and the harder the fight, the deeper that depression is going to be, A hated generation: that’s us. We better get used to it.

But green shoots could arise yet. A fairer society. A more diverse, equal place. And from there, I think America rises again, albeit humbled and weaker compared to peer nations. Maybe eventually it becomes again a place where people want to travel to: that shining beacon on the hill. Maybe.

Or not. What do I know? Americans might yet be kneeling prostate in front of statues of Empress Ivanka as the Imperial Forces goose-step down Pennsylvania Avenue.

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