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Everywhere I look these days, companies are trying to get me to sign up to paid subscriptions for their content. While I understand why subscriptions are needed, and I accept fully that companies need to make money from their content, I think the subscription model is oversold. I’m unlikely to pay for a subscription to the Japan Times just to read one article, no matter how good that article might be.

I have a number of subscriptions ongoing. I’m subscribed to The New York Times, The Irish Times, the Guardian and The Irish Examiner. I will readily pay for high quality, relevant content that I’m likely to dip into frequently. But I can’t, and won’t, subscribe to everything. There is a limit to what I can afford and ultimately it would feel like paying for services I am under-using.

Which is why I’m very happy I’ve discovered Readly. This is a content aggregator site that gives me access to hundreds of magazines and periodicals without me having to take out any more than a single subscription. I’m still paying for quality content, but I don’t have to subscribe separately. It’s exactly what a voracious reader like me needs.

Readly has a ton of good content available: from history to science to politics and sport. It also seems somewhat alone in its field: many comparable content aggregators are geographically limited or only cater for free RSS based content. I’m interested if there are other services like this.

One of my big interests is the story of late medieval Ireland. This is a period largely bracketed by the entry of the Anglo-Normans into Ireland around 1170, to the rise of the Tudor dynasty from the 1540s, give or take a few decades.

It fascinates me because we learned so little about this period in school. While other nations were crusading and renaissancing, discovering China, trading spices and being murdered by Mongol hordes, Irish history seemed rather muted, to say the least. The account usually goes as follows: the Normans arrived and conquered Ireland, they built lots of castles, and they eventually became as Irish as the Irish themselves. By the 1500’s English influence was reduced to a small area (The Pale) around Dublin and would have remained this way if it wasn’t for Henry VIII and his daughters and cousins casting their greedy imperial eyes on our green island.

As Irish as the Irish themselves. That single statement seems to cover an an enormous amount of time. Imagine all history since Oliver Cromwell’s arrival in Ireland being reduced to a 6 word sentence, because that’s pretty much the same length of time: 370 years.

I had questions. Precisely how did “Norman” influence get whittled back to a such small narrow area around Dublin? How exactly did the nasty English make friends with their Irish neighbours? What was with all the castles? What else happened in that time period? How can 370 years be passed by so effortlessly?

Even though I still have a lot to discover, what I have learned so far has been engrossing.

First of all, there were a number of hugely disastrous events that get less attention than they deserve in our history books. The Bruce invasion of Ireland in 1315 – an invasion by the Scots affecting great swathes of the country – was utterly devastating. To make matters worse, it coincided with by far the worst famine of the Middle Ages. Then the Black Death came along in 1349, spiriting away a huge proportion of the Irish population. Bubonic Plague was to return every 20 years or so, killing thousands of people each time.

It also appears that climate change had a big effect. The late Middle Ages marks the beginning of the period known as the Little Ice Age. Frequent bad harvests from the later 13th Century through to the 15th Century often resulted in generalised and localised famines. Ireland suffered a significant population loss, resulting in the re-growth of woodland and oak forest across many areas of the country.

The colonisation of Ireland by the Normans was complex, to say the least. The Norman Irish and the Gaelic Irish had a far more bellicose relationship with each other than it might appear. It was often a real clash of cultures, full of hatred and enmity. The Anglo-Irish divided Ireland into ‘lands of peace’, where their influence held sway, and ‘lands of war’: the marshes or borderlands where conflict with Gaelic warlords was frequent and bloody.

This picture is muddied further by the existence of clans and groupings within the Anglo community that went rogue, building fiefdoms and landholdings outside of English control and forming alliances of convenience with Gaelic lords as suited their needs. These “rebel English” were often a bigger nuisance to the English administration in Dublin than the natives themselves.

In these border areas, little progress could be made against what could often be formidable enemies. The rebel clans made copious use of Gallowglasses – foreign mercenary soldiers that neutralised the advantage that Norman armies once had over their Gaelic foes.

The Anglo-Irish also suffered from a wholesale lack of investment from the English crown, who increasingly came to see Ireland as an irritating financial burden. They had wars to fight elsewhere, particularly France; thus Ireland was an unwanted draw on the exchequer. What attempts were made to retake Irish land (and there were quite a few) were often short-lived and limited in scope.

What emerged was a war of attrition, with Crown forces pitted against Irish and rebel clans, and Anglo-Norman landowners vacating their lands due to war, famine and disease.

Despite this, many towns and coastal cities remained in English control. They were frequently harried and attacked by native and rebel forces, but still retained their colonial character, and indeed, survived well. Many of Ireland’s market towns date from this period.

The Gaelicisation of Ireland emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a result of extensive inter-marriage between Irish and Anglo-Irish families, general depopulation and abandonment of lands, and increasing neglect by the English. Events such as the Wars of the Roses in England afforded little time for Irish affairs, though interestingly, some of the great families supported both Lancaster and York, and even fought a battle in Piltown, Kilkenny under these opposing banners. Powerful dynasties emerged from this that were largely unimpeded by the increasingly powerless English administrators. These families developed their own sensibilities, borrowing from both Irish and British culture as they saw fit.

The most significant of these dynasties were the Kildare FitzGeralds, with the greatest of them all – Garret Mor FitzGerald – becoming a de-facto ruler of Ireland well into of the sixteenth century.

The “Norman” castles is an interesting one. The many tower houses that pepper the Irish landscape are often not Norman at all, but very late Medieval and Early Modern. They were often built by Gaelic chiefs, copying from more international trends. This indicates that the traffic towards Gaelicisation was not a simple one-way affair. Well-to-do Gaelic families coveted what Britain and wider Europe had to offer and in doing so became cosmopolitan and less insular.

So, it turns out that Late Medieval times were very complicated. Ireland was a broken patchwork of polities, communities, alliances and enmities, difficult to control and impossible to tame. The period was dominated by great disease and famine, which in turn broke the colonial classes. The grim choice was to retreat to the urban walled towns or to find ways to interact with the Irish enemy through marriages and alliances. Eventually, even the English themselves began to disown the colonial families, referring to them as aliens. Yet, the Anglo Irish community made a huge mark in the country, with laws, boundaries, towns and villages that persist to this day. Ultimately, it was an Anglo-Irish chieftain, Garret Mor Fitzgerald, who united the country, bequeathing to the Irish a sense of nationhood that would persist over the subsequent centuries.

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.

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.

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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