The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
January 25, 2021

Originally Published in the Irish Examiner

Day 108 

It’s like the character in the cartoon, descending a rope and realising it’s fraying above them. Nowhere to go but down. Bone fragments everywhere. That’s me with the iPad. Isolation is tolerable with an iPad, although I could do without it prissily telling me that I spent all of the previous day glued to it. Of course I did. I was working. Also buying the boxed collection of Horrid Henry (don’t ask), checking out the life of the inventor of the Ferris wheel — George Washington Gale Ferris, who died at 37 of typhoid — and trying to get The Daily Telegraph, the right-wing shower, to leave me the hell alone and stop making special offers to me.

The problem is, I think, that the iPad is over-stuffed and is consequently dragging its ass and not keeping up with my touch typing. Learning to touch-type is up there with learning to read as a gift that keeps on giving, except when your iPad goes on strike. I live in dread of it rolling over completely.

Day 109 

Of course us decent folk feel superior when we learn that, before he disappeared into the obscurity we pray awaits him, Trump made a crack at Kamala Harris’s name. In October, at a rally, he garbled it twice, possibly deliberately, possibly because of a God-given garbling talent, and then mock-warned his audience. “You know,” he told them, “if you don’t pronounce her name exactly right, she gets very angry at you.” 

I am reading this, smirking, until I remember my Pakistani friend gently mentioning that his first name is pronounced with a soft “d” at the end, as if the “d” had an “h” attached. This was after I’d been sharp-d-ing him for, oh, three or four years. 

Smack upside the head. Of course Kamala would get angry. Our name is one of the first things we respond to in life, and — as ICU staff can confirm — one of the last. Names matter. They must be respected.

The day before Biden’s inauguration and media generally are collectively boiling about Trump not having the courtesy to turn up for his successor’s inauguration, which is seen as tradition-busting bad. What nonsense. Trump is doing Biden the biggest favour he could by not pitching up. No cameras glued to the orange menace, no hacks tracking his every gesture. Tomorrow will be Biden’s day and Trump has helped to guarantee that. Never mind the motivation, feel the end result.

Day 111

Twelve years ago, to report on Obama’s inauguration, I was standing in Washington amid the happiest of crowds where, today, no happy crowds jostle. Instead, serried ranks of flags flutter on the Mall for security reasons and radically-reduced numbers surround the podium for Covid-prevention reasons. 

An atmosphere of relief and of good humour rather than awe. And then the new president embarks on the impossible task of redefining truth, reunifying a fractured people, persuading a doubtful America that it had a future their children and their children’s children would be proud of — and that they would get through “this winter of peril and promise.” 

One of the simplest lines expressed the obstinacy of optimism we all need, right now: “Don’t tell me things can’t change.” 

 Day 112 

The picture accompanying this column makes me look good-humoured and professional. The truth, right now, is that I look like I’m auditioning for the role of one of the witches in an updated production of the Scottish play. First of all, I have big hair. Big, white hair. Plus, I’m wearing Wellingtons indoors because of the leaks.  You know the echoey chilling sound of water dropping from a great height in the dark in a horror movie? That’s to be heard in almost every room in my house today; buckets everywhere and towels, likewise. 

My friend Bryan says it’s because the 1950s extensions to the original Martello are concrete. The tower, made of great blue stones, can move a little. The extensions can’t. Rainstorms widen the divide. I have the feeling that one of these days, the add-ons are going to simply fall off, like badly-affixed prostheses.

Day 113 

Now, here’s a fascinating contrast. The Nphet guys are public servants, paid by the State to do a job. As are Government ministers. Public servants, paid by the State to do a different job. But the attitude of broadcast interviewers to each is profoundly different. 

The Nphet guys are self-evidently assumed to be truth-telling professional good guys working themselves to the point of collapse in the interests of us, the public. The politicians are assumed to be unprofessional liars skiving off, trying to fool us and probably too busy leaking to do any real work at all. Interviewers stand in front of the Nphet lads with their bowls out like Oliver: “Please, Sir, can I have some more?” Or, in the case of the bilingual Colm Henry, “Le do thoil a dhuine uasail, ba mhaith liom níos mó?“ 

In sharp contrast, interviewers crouch like pouncing tigers in front of the politicians, playing the But Shirley game: “But surely…” Nobody in media ever suggests that Nphet’s Tony Holohan face down one of the Zero Covid professors. It’s a given, in radio and TV, that politicians will receive, and frequently countenance, requests to go for a head-to-head on mass media. 

The big debates at election time are predicated on the ludicrous but much-believed idea that if two of them or more of them slug it out, one of them will emerge as the accepted truth-teller. 

This based on the loopy notion that a technologically-advanced medieval joust will reveal the worthiest knight. It is a theory advanced mainly by those who do not themselves believe it but know personal advancement may lie in getting to arbitrate a big debate. 

Nobody applies the same rule to, say, Philip Nolan and Jack Lambert, perhaps because neither man would be daft enough to believe it valid to debate the implications of data for the pleasure of a non-scientific audience.

It was, accordingly, unexpected, this weekend, to hear a politician (the Taoiseach) interviewed as respectfully as if he worked for Nphet by RTÉ’s Brendan O’Connor. No “But surely”. No apparent desire to catch Micheál Martin out. Just a bowl extended in the hope of being filled up with useful facts. Which it was, to such an extent that some of yesterday’s papers more or less reprinted the whole thing. It’s just amazing how productive civil curiosity can be.

Day 114 

Snow. Heavy snow. The pure wonder of it. It blankets the weeds and broken walls in the garden with quiet perfection and, like a child, I do the snow prayer: “Oh, please don’t stop. Please.” In the cove, a single swimmer emerges from the sea to stand, wonderingly, as the soft coldness falls on her, before running for cover and Thermos warmth.