In this latest in a series which chronicles both his journalism and his thoughts as he shifts into retirement, those turning to John Waters may find themselves seeking out his backlist, to track his journey again.
When a maverick journalist opposes popular opinion, at least as promoted by mainstream media, what happens next? For rock critic turned cultural commentator John Waters, it’s condemnation followed by self-imposed exile from Dublin’s left-liberal, bien pensant paper-of-record, The Irish Times.
This unrepentant dissident, not to be confused by Americans with Baltimore’s cult icon and iconoclastic filmmaker, defends his patch of emerald turf against our new world order. Not (only) that of the Bushes, but of those who banish any trace of transcendence. As a longtime correspondent, Waters speaks for a “Peter Pan generation” who entered a dreamscape never glimpsed by their progenitors. Born in 1955, he and his peers from the 1960s through ‘80s found themselves, boosted by a Celtic Tiger economic engine, “as foreigners working from home and emigrants in our own land.” They ushered in an “unassailable” secular agenda, rejecting Catholic, communal, rural-dominant mores once and for all.
Waters alternates two modes in Give Us Back the Bad Roads, his ninth book. His first, a surprise bestseller Jiving at the Crossroads (1990) roughly coincided with his father’s death. The period since both events unfolds in fits and starts, as the son addresses that humble mail-coach driver in a small town in Co. Roscommon, who taught him the value of manual labor and the trust in tradition.
These reflective chapters alternate, more or less, with a meticulous defense of Waters’ case in what the Irish press labeled “Pantigate” after charges by Rory O’Neill, who takes the stage as Panti Bliss, after he accused the reporter of “homophobia” during an on-air exchange on the national television network.
Sure, these portions fill more of his semi-memoir than readers outside the committed who’ve monitored Waters’ alleged “rhetorical distortions” may expect. So, the lasting value of this document may lie in its testimony for historians of the fourth estate in an Ireland battered by Twitter and Facebook. Yet, even if Waters may protest too much, it’s forgiven. Anyone unlucky enough to have borne the brunt of attack by a glib lawyer or a conniving cabal of gaslighting co-workers will recognize why his trial matters so.
For this cause sustains Waters’ longstanding determination in print and by his own interventions with similarly suffering fellow Irish families to defend the “blood link” of relationships, against referenda on “divorce-by-demand,” government intervention in the cause of “children’s rights,” same-sex marriage and legal abortion. Quixotic as this principled opposition remains in Ireland’s Anglo-Americanized monoculture demolishing its customary “moral paradigm” that a younger, brash, “up from the country” Waters had volunteered to undermine, his mature self favors “common sense.” Although caricatured as a Catholic bigot by his former colleagues—”hired guns”—and their “progressive” political-clerical cronies, Waters grounds his critique against imposition of consumerism and corporate “rewards.” These have obliterated his father’s craft and his native town’s legacy of community, sly solidarity and respect for humble dignity. Waters witnesses the transition from his job as a railway clerk to those he and his eager counterparts sought as if liberation at last, but winding up a “screen slave” or a “cubicle hostage.”
The pace quickens a little over halfway through. Waters’ focus sharpens. Disciplined by his trade, for all the lengthy recollection of legal threats and trolling tweets (the latter emanating from a surprising source), he prefers in Give Us Back the Bad Roads a steady, if sometimes stolid, style. So the rare phrasings that enliven these pages help ease the determined pace. Returning to his paternal townland in a “strange collision of farmland and wilderness” overlooking Ben Bulben on the Atlantic shore (and Yeats’ grave), John Waters watches turf “smoulder like Gabriel Byrne.” Bent on avoiding school on Monday, he had tried to “concentrate like Uri Geller until I conjured up a pain in my stomach.” Tellingly, Waters warns of what will transpire if the embattled “capacity to be human” gets trodden down by an Irish mob sworn to steamroller over the valuable contributions of a tradition rooted in centuries of Irish verities rather than clogged with the media’s “effluent and lies.” Waters imagines a lawn laid atop a yard of concrete: “it may briefly give the impression of health, but eventually, for obvious reason, it withers away.” Without a “consciousness of the absolute,” people will fail to nourish a mentality devoid of religion and dismissive of this venerable “public expression of the total dimension of human nature.”
As this is a brief review, suffice to say that the final third of Give Us Back the Bad Roads circles back (in the cyclical direction of Celtic art) to these themes already summarized. These sections feature Waters’ incorporation of the Frankfurt School, cultural Marxism, propaganda and the harm as a neo-liberal “imported model” of standards supplants those which, despite mixed success, had inspired the native Irish to resist the colonial forces of submission, conspiracy, betrayal and rejection of heritage. He contrasts the “bad roads” of a pre-EU-funded motorway system, where Ireland emerged as a rougher place, if arguably with a more compassionate approach where neighbors knew and cared for each other.
Finally, themes address illness, such as cancer, suicidal thoughts and depression. Waters feels like he’s attacked by a “swarm of wasps” and under a “tsunami of hatred” given the venomous reactions by not only thugs who log in to slag him, but who threaten his person in a nation too small for safety. These weighty concerns share space with evocations of his family’s recent past, when those around one’s often stoic self might leaven the serious with yet again a knowing nod to the mystery beyond this little life. In this latest in a series which chronicles both his journalism and his thoughts as he shifts into retirement, those turning to John Waters may find themselves seeking out his backlist, to track his journey again.