“’Tis a soft day,” shouted my father to the Dutchman across the narrow space that separated our pitch from his. The rain was coming down in pillows, thumping against the taut canvas of the awning and the aluminium of the caravan.
I’d never heard this phrase before. Later my father told me what it meant and I realised it was typical of him to say such a thing. Other times he’d say to some foreigner, “In Ireland, we say…” and as he was saying whatever it was that people in Ireland are meant to say I’d look up from his gesticulating hands and his face would be contracted in an impression of native Irish passion.
I couldn’t understand why my father put on this quintessential-Irishman show. He was never like this at home; he used to moan about the rain all the time. Why did he feel he had to act as if we were the spirit incarnate of his country? Maybe he sensed that these Dutch and French people wouldn’t meet many Irish people in their lifetimes, and so he felt a responsibility to give them a presentation of essential character and wisdom from which they could extrapolate that all Irish people are full of character and wisdom. Maybe my father was just attuned to that tendency to generalise. I know that I’ve made judgements about whole peoples based on the one or two of their compatriots I’ve met. I’ve only ever met one Finn, and since I met that person I have this idea that all Finnish people are a great laugh.
Or maybe my father was just perverse. Maybe he just darkly enjoyed being a national stereotype. Maybe these Dutch and French people found the ‘top of the morning’ shtick as embarrassing as I did, and my father knew and sensed this too, and yet on he went with his masque, watching them, out of the corner of his eye, squirm from his cultural concentrate. I say this because a couple of years ago I discovered a set of photos of my father in Bavaria in the 1950s. In them he poses at a range of fountains, hillsides and entrances to American military bases in knee-length khaki shorts and short-sleeved khaki shirts. What the flip? This was the bloody 1950s – you couldn’t and shouldn’t have dressed like that in Bavaria back then, surely?
I wonder, despite myself, or rather, because of my genes, if I can’t help being perverse about representing my countryfolk. I remember some years ago visiting the Sears (now Willis) Tower in Chicago and, from the top floor, a guide pointed out to our group all the things of note in the city that were visible. “Why is the river green?” I asked her, suspecting that I knew the answer, but asking her anyway, the devil having got in me. “Because,” she said, “every Saint Patrick’s Day we throw green dye in the river, but the colour never quite leaves the water.” (It was July, and Saint Patrick’s Day is in March.) Now the devil took full possession: “Typical Irish,” I said. “Wantonly, drunkenly vandalising.” A Chewbacca-haired woman stepped forward from the group. “Excuse me,” she said in a rumbling southern US accent, “but I’m Irish, and I find what you say grossly offensive.”
My eyes dropped. I turned back to the window, thinking of my father, thinking of Ireland, and thinking of the ordinary housing estate in which I was raised. I felt bland, characterless, supra-national. If I’d spoken with a hammy Long John Silver accent, the woman wouldn’t have been offended at all.
Green Glowing Skull is out now
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