Gwyneth Paltrow: Bread & Circuses

Yesterday was a great news day for the subset of the population that likes to comment “HOW IS THIS NEWS?” underneath lifestyle articles on everything from endometriosis to what Mariah Carey wore to the toilet on a cold night. (There’s definitely a gendered slant to their sneers. I never see them doing complaining about the new-worthiness of whatever it is MMA fighters do to justify their existence).

I can’t be sure how this social grouping of discerning, angry news junkies came into being, but I think it might have been around the time The Guardian joined Facebook. They are happiest, after all, in the Guardian’s Facebook comments section playing games of whataboutery and excoriating the news media in the vain hope that someday they’ll be listened to.

Yesterday was not that day, however. The Guardian gamely posted a puff piece about celebrities documenting their personal pandemic rockbottoms, and, it’s safe to say the HOW IS THIS NEWS? people’s generally fairly prominent forehead veins were busting out of their brows by noon.

Spare a thought for Gwyneth Paltrow, though. The offending article’s lede told of Gwyneth’s terrible admission she ate bread during lockdown, which, she said was her personal low-point. Understandable. I eat two pieces of bread for breakfast every day and look how deviantly disgusting I am. (In an interview, Margaret Thatcher famously admitted to denying herself her favourite ‘guilty’ pleasure: marmalade, toast and butter; and look how wonderful she was.)

Like most of the HOW IS THIS NEWS? people, I didn’t read the article and I’m not letting that stop me from commenting. I might also point out (like my HOW IS THIS NEWS? friends would do) that the violence taking place in Palestine should take precedence over literally anything former actress and current businesswoman Paltrow says, but I’d be missing the point. It might be possible that Gwyneth was joking or being ironic; people do that, still. And it might be possible that The Guardian, knowing what sells, and wanting people to pay for journalism, simply report what they think we want to read. Poorly informed outrage is the best kind of outrage – and that ain’t news, baby.

What happened to ‘we are all in this together?’

It must be wonderful to be perfect.

It must be wonderful to be so sanctimonious in your selfless, yet somehow simultaneously self-satisfied state of self-isolation. Well done, you. I refer, of course, to all the finger-pointers, curtain-twitchers, and craic-less covidiots out there who are making this prolonged pandemic period so fucking unbearable. To paraphrase Joe Biden: Just shut up! Take a day off, please.

For the past few weeks now, I’ve been despairing of the public mood around the virus, which is here to stay whether we like it or not. (I fucking hate it; I do not doubt that you do too). But do you know what makes the whole sorry situation worse? It’s having to listen to people who think they are better than the rest of us droning on and on about how ‘selfish’ and ‘reckless’ we are being.

Since when did living become a crime? That is, after all, what those young people were doing congregated on Spanish Arch in Galway the last night. I live in Galway, and I was a student in NUI Galway, and nights out drinking have always been par for the course in most young Irish people’s experience.

Yes, some of them were pissing in people’s gardens – and that is disgustingly inconsiderate – but a minority of students have always been liberal with the contents of their bladders. This dates back to the ’70s and ’80s too. I know because there’s usually an article on it in the local paper. Oh, I shouldn’t say it, but perhaps the annual sprinkling of university urine is a sort of leveller for those lucky enough to own their own property in prime locations like the Claddagh and Newcastle?

If the pen is mightier than the sword, god love the young wans at Spanish Arch the other day. This is a compliment to the poet.

The Students’ Unions are generally fairly quick to call fellow students out on bad behaviour, and this year’s NUIG Student Union did so very nicely, while also pointing out the fact that NUIG officials were partly to blame for this in the first place, seeing as they told students to move down to Galway to pay for campus accommodation. It doesn’t take a cynic to wonder if this wasn’t all just a plan that badly backfired on the college, and now they have the audacity to think about giving these kids’ addresses to the gardaí. UCC has been talking about expulsion, like a child throwing its toys out of the pram. I thought people who run colleges were supposed to be clever? Teenagers are too young and powerless to be the scapegoats of an anxious nation; surely the presidents of our colleges realise that.

Did they think that students tentatively starting in-person (now online, now in-person) lectures in September would just move to campus en masse and stay there self-isolating like little monks and nuns? That was never going to happen. I am 26, and I find it hard enough when I can’t socialise properly. The temptation is there to say ‘fuck the lot of them’ and get plastered – especially when you’re young n’ sweet and, er, legal to drink at eighteen.

But here’s the thing; by ‘them,’ I realise I am referring to the frontline workers – the nurses, doctors, shopkeepers, emergency services, journalists, etc. I am also referring to people who have lost loved ones through coronavirus, or who are worried about losing them. That is not my intention, nor is it the intention of the youths drinking down at Spanish Arch the other night.

I think that it can be easy for people who are at a ‘fixed’ point in their lives – maybe they have children, or they have a partner and a good job they can still do in semi-lockdown – to point the finger of blame at “young people”. It’s easy to blame us for the virus spreading. It’s easy to see us as heartless hedonists who only think of quenching our vodka-thirst and having the craic, but that is not the case.

(More of a gin girl, me.)

Human beings are social animals, and we need to socialise to survive and thrive. During lockdown, nobody was thriving, and it’s a similar state of affairs at the moment as we find ourselves dealing with a limbo-like series of restrictions, many of which don’t make sense.

Let us live, Éamon. Also, congrats on missing the point.

Sometimes I look at the likes of the politicians and the NPHET members and the rest of the self-isolation preachers, and I think they have it easy with their big jobs and their marriages and their nice houses and their children. I feel as though my life has come to a standstill. My mother correctly pointed out to my brother, (20), and I that we are lucky we are not fighting a war. Lots of us are comfortable and safe, living off our parents while we wait for this spell to be over. We love our parents and grandparents and we want them to be safe.

I might add here that youth is a state of mind; I’ve seen plenty of people of “cocooning age” rail against their new-found victim status. I applaud them, and I hope they remain unscathed. The people just getting on with life are the reason I wash my hands and wear a mask when it comes down to it. I don’t have any more patience or sympathy for the finger-pointers – no matter what age they are. In fact, sometimes I think I could be tempted into giving some of them a good lick. Just to spite them. (I swear to god it has nothing to do with my not being able to date at the minute.)

There is a sadness about the whole thing as well as rage and frustration, for me. This pandemic is dividing all of us into self-interested (if not self-isolating) groups. The employed versus the unemployed, the protocol followers versus the anti-mask nutjobs, the young versus the elderly, the sick versus the rude of health, the publicans versus the schoolchildren, the meat-plant workers versus the tourists…

What happened to us? We are not all in this together anymore. That much is clear. Perhaps we never were. Not everyone’s interests can be accounted for, and some are bound to lose out. Society is cracking before our eyes.

In a sense, we are all victims of this virus. But we are fast becoming victims of lockdown, too.

As for the rowdy students? Galway being Galway, the rain is never far away. Sure, we don’t even have to pray for it!

Declan Varley has written many editorials on student life in Galway so he knows what he’s talking about


Going Viral: The difference a century makes

So far, 2020 is terrifying. 

Amid the near-constant talk of coronavirus since the year marking a new decade began, it is perhaps a small comfort to know that our ancestors endured another pandemic in 1918-1919 – and in much more difficult circumstances.  

In May 1918, shortly after the end of World War One, the ‘Spanish Flu’ hit Ireland and devastated us. By then it was already devastating other countries; to say nobody was prepared is an understatement – many of these countries were only beginning to recover from a major war.  

Ireland, while neutral during the war, was perhaps even less prepared for such a public emergency. We were a backward country still trying desperately to be fully rid of British rule – albeit with little success. Our location in the middle of the Atlantic – right beside the UK – left us vulnerable and isolated away from our European friends on the continent.  

Unsurprisingly, the 1918 pandemic killed over 20,000 people in Ireland alone. Worldwide, the figure was closer to 100 million.  

One of my grandfathers was born in 1919. He died just after the new millennium in 2000 aged 81, having lived through what was arguably Ireland’s greatest period of transformation.  

He was a toddler when the Irish Civil War began; a young man during World War Two; a middle-aged man with a large family to support when Ireland finally began to modernise during the 50s and 60s; and an old man by the time the tech boom arrived here in the 1990s.  

His wife – my grandmother – lives in a nursing home not far from the house they spent their lives in. She is in a high-risk category for coronavirus; residents of nursing homes and over-70s account for something like 90% of all coronavirus-related deaths in Ireland.  

‘Nanny’ – for that is her name to me and all her many other grandchildren – has had no visitors for weeks on end now.  

My aunties bought her a very basic mobile phone so they could call her and talk to her remotely. Nanny is almost 90, and while she is as smart and sharp as she was when she was younger, she will never be one of these ‘tech’ people.  

The internet came too late for my grandparents; they didn’t and they don’t understand it. Nor do they wish to. “Everyone has one of them phone-ens,” Nanny often says if she catches one of us furtively checking it in her company. Although she has been forced to admit our phones are useful when we Google the time her favourite programme is on TV.  

Her children all have smartphones; my Dad is in his early 60s and would not be without his. He uses it for work emails, Facebook, and WhatsApp. He’s a demon for funny videos, which he watches on full volume without earphones.  

I have had a smartphone since the age of about 15, but the age parents are willing to give children internet access is getting younger and younger.  

Most parents of small children will probably think nothing of their little ones playing on i-Pads or playing other console games to keep them quiet during the lockdown.  

It is remarkable the difference a generation makes. 

Compare the present lockdown to the response of Irish people over one-hundred years ago. Not many people knew about viruses in 1918; hygiene standards were poor and medics didn’t have any of the resources we have today.  

It is a testament to our ancestors and their strength and forbearance that they managed to survive the 1918 pandemic and have children that continue to live through this pandemic. Their children will survive it, too, if we treat our elderly with the respect they deserve.