This world can be a cruel and lonesome place sometimes, writes Donal O’Keeffe. Maybe there are worse things we might try than kindness now and then.
I’ve been thinking a bit about Bob Dylan’s granny lately.
Florence Sara Stone (nee Edelstein) was born in 1892. She and her husband Ben were Lithuanian Jews who arrived in the United States in 1902. She died in Hibbing, Minnesota in 1961 and in her life she made such an impression on her grandson, Robert Zimmerman, that he spoke glowingly of her in his 2004 memoir “Chronicles, Volume One”. Dylan remembered an early 1961 conversation with Izzy Young, the proprietor of MacDougal Street’s Folklore Centre.
“He asked me about my family. I told him about my grandma on my mom’s side who lived with us. She was filled with nobility and goodness, told me once that happiness isn’t on the road to anything. That happiness is the road. Had also instructed me to be kind because everyone you’ll ever meet is fighting a hard battle.”
I thought that was – to steal a phrase from Bob’s old friend and rival Van Morrison – a wonderful remark. So I blogged it. I wasn’t long being put straight.
It turns out that I wasn’t the only person stealing phrases. Little Bobby Dylan, the man who had once sidled up to Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy on a Greenwich Village sidewalk and told them that the song they had played the other night in The White Horse, “Brennan On The Moor”, was now “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie”, had been up to his old tricks again.
It turns out that in Christmas 1897, the Scottish cleric Reverend John Watson had written under his pseudonym Ian Maclaren “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle”.
At an absolute stretch, it is – I suppose – at least slightly possible that Florence Edelstein read what Maclaren wrote and relayed it as her own wisdom to her preposterously well-read grandson who somehow managed never to hear of Maclaren.
(Of course, Dylan is well used to allegations of plagiarism and he gave a thoughtful and considered response to complaints of appropriation in a 2012 Rolling Stone interview. “All those motherf**kers can rot in hell,” he said. “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff…. It’s an old thing. It’s part of the tradition. It goes way back.”)
Regardless of its origins, though, Maclaren’s sentiment is powerful and relevant. I don’t think I know anyone who isn’t fighting a hard battle and I’ll bet you don’t either. We live in a world that seems to be spiralling out of control.
The Middle-East is aflame, torn asunder along sectarian lines, presided over by tyrants and destabilised by generations of western interference and drawing lines on maps. Vast swathes of Africa look like they may never recover from centuries of plunder and empire-building.
China, a sprawling empire itself, seems held together entirely by human rights abuse and Russia has a suspiciously-macho, aggressively-nationalist, expansionist president who would not look out of place wearing a cloak and a metal mask in early 1960s Marvel Comics.
Europe is in crisis, destabilised by a sleepwalking Brexit, a yawning democratic deficit and unending years of austerity, and under almost weekly attack from a new feral terrorism bred from decades of disenfranchisement and isolation and radicalised by the hate-speech of religious maniacs.
51 years after the Selma marches, America seems more riven by racism than ever and, at the end of the first African-American presidency, the racists blame Barack Obama for that. Then again, they blame Obama for the seemingly daily gun massacres too, despite the National Rifle Association and their paid lackeys on Capitol Hill doing everything in their considerable power to frustrate any attempt to make gun massacres less easy to organise.
And, as a visibly-aged Obama seems wearier by the day, the US is facing a presidential election where the choice is between Hillary Clinton, the living embodiment of the political establishment, and Donald Trump, a malign, demagogic, cartoon villain brilliantly summarised by the writer Damien Owens as looking like “the nasty businessman in a Disney movie who loses out to a six year-old and his dog”.
And on the island of Ireland, 18 years after the Good Friday Agreement, Loyalist children are burning the Tricolour because they believe “They burn our flags too”. Another generation lost to hatred.
Oh, there’s more. On average, one family in Ireland becomes homeless every day. This February, 912 families (including 1,820 children) were living in emergency accommodation. By far, Dublin has been worst-affected, with 790 families without homes.
We had a referendum on children’s rights not so long ago. Right now, Traveller children have a mortality rate four times that of their settled counterparts, which means that they wouldn’t be much worse-off in a 1940s Mother and Baby Home. Every year, over 3,000 Irish children report that they have suffered sexual abuse. Many will never access therapeutic care.
And then there’s Direct Provision. Over 4,700 asylum-seekers living in repurposed sheds. 1,791 of them are children. We have crammed families into single rooms, with adults subsisting on €19 a week. 60% of applicants have been in limbo for over three years, some more than seven years.
To quote Bob Dylan, “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry”.
In the wake of last week’s horrific terrorist attack in Nice, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, asked that people carry out an act of kindness “to counterbalance with love this awful crime”. To be fair, there have been far worse suggestions from Archbishop’s House in Drumcondra.
This world can be a cruel and lonesome place and – apart from hassling our TDs – you and I can change very little. We can’t change the plight of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean because Tony Blair backed Dubya Bush when he went on his 911 revenge trip against the wrong people. We can’t change Brexit, any more than we can undo the United States’ history of slavery and all that has grown from that, and indeed we cannot cure them of their insane love of guns either.
Perhaps Archbishop Martin is right. Perhaps we can only change the world one act of kindness at a time. Perhaps we can only be kind to people and hope that it makes a difference. Perhaps love is the only light we have in the darkness.
Mind you, that sort of crazy talk once got a man nailed to a tree. And then his followers started killing anyone who didn’t agree with them, including each other.
Maybe I should stick to trying to pin this on Bob Dylan’s granny.