During a dozen years in Belfast I collected a number of political coffee mugs, hailing from both sides of the divide. Unionist designs including the heartbreakingly punctuated ‘Ulster Say’s No’ (not merely to the Anglo-Irish Agreement; no to everything) and the impressively witty ‘Reservoir Prods’: four toughs in shades identified as ‘Mr Orange’ and ‘Mr Boyne’, etc. The republican mugs exhibit no such sense of humour, which won’t surprise you. Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams stare sternly from their porcelain. Worse, the mugs from the Sinn Fein bookshop are cheaply decorated with decals, which are less robust than the inked unionist ones, and tend to melt in the dishwasher.
I was among several journalists I knew who picked up these kooky keepsakes — which, along with a trove of other ‘Troubles ephemera’ like bumper stickers and tea towels, were also archived in the attic of the Linen Hall Library, faithfully curated by the memorable Robert Bell, who eventually fled to Denmark. After years of gathering key chains that memorialised murderous cretins, you couldn’t blame him.
I, for one, haven’t accorded these mugs the respect of museum pieces, and for years routinely used them for afternoon tea. If an interviewer dropped by to do a profile, I’d make sure to balance idiocies: one of us would get a William of Orange mug with its awkwardly drawn white horse, the other the tribute to the Easter Rising. But once I moved to London and abandoned the whole Ulster fracas, I started finding the mugs mouldy-feeling and gloomy. To be sure, the notion of scary, hugger-mugger paramilitaries flogging coffee mugs in tourist shops to commemorate their derring-do is intrinsically comical. But the joke had worn thin. For several years, I’ve reached for the John Harvard Library cups, their handles charmingly perforated for matching ceramic spoons.
Thus the editors of an obscure Irish website would have had to pore through photos going back to 2010 to find a stray picture of me at home with a UFF coffee mug, ‘artfully turned towards the camera’ (alas, professional photographers are tyrants, and the poor subject never arranges anything, artfully or otherwise). Perhaps it’s good news for the interminable ‘peace process’ that Irish pot stirrers have so much time on their hands. Riddled with errors of fact (not that we care about that any more), the accompanying screed lambasts the ‘morally flexible’ Guardian for publishing the ‘wayward politics’ of Lionel Shriver. (When running my opinion pieces, the Guardian exhibits admirable — if rare — small-C catholicism in a paper prone to one-note commentary.)
Because I appear in an Irish festival next month, my publicist alerted me to this post, to which a mischievous Irish Times editor had also tweeted a link. Behold, a tempest about a teacup. In thrall to an anachronism, Shriver obviously backs the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a vigilante wing of the UDA that’s now defunct (typically, the replacement that calls itself ‘Real’ is counterfeit). Refusal to recognise a cheesy knickknack as tongue in cheek reveals what would seem an awfully un-Irish po-facedness. It’s not the Americans who have no sense of irony.
As for advocating violent loyalism? Hey, I was decrying the appeasement of people who use assassination to get their way throughout the extensive period during which the US and British left gave ideological quarter to homicidal ‘freedom fighters’; only post-9/11 has the left decided that maybe terrorism is not very nice. My 1998 novel The New Republic addresses the dangers of politically rewarding thugs for thuggery, and my opinion journalism disparaging Northern Irish terrorism goes back to the early 1990s. So I shouldn’t have to write this.
Yet this silly story is as good a peg as any for explaining why I don’t have a Google alert on my name, never read the comments running after my journalism, and boycott social media. I’m not proud of this, but I’m naturally combative, and therefore all too readily drawn into petty, stupid arguments when I’ve been insulted. Clashes with the great unwashed could easily slurp up all my time, the way a laundry drain cycle gurgles off dirty water.
The larger explanation is more considerable. These days, overexposure to your audience is one of the great perils for any writer. After slogging through a digital sewer of ignorance, outrage, incivility and mindless partisanship, you’re bound to decide cynically that writing itself is a waste of time. Even if you do manage to author pearls, they will be cast before swine — the vile, the recriminatory, the spiteful. Because five minutes online is all it takes to conclude that most people are eaten up with resentment and consumed by the kind of misery that inflicts itself on everyone else. So no matter how much attention you pay to craft, nuance, balance and accuracy, no one will understand a word you say. Whatever you write will get twisted into whatever the reader wants it to mean, so the whole exercise is pointless. And that’s assuming anyone does read your work, since reams of commentary and whole books of fiction can be instantly subverted in emoji-land by a piece of crockery and a camera.
I prefer to live in a fantasy world. The better to carry on typing anything beyond my profitably tweaked recipe for pork barbecue, I persuade myself that somewhere out there is a literate audience that is willing to read the words I actually wrote. My pipedream of a readership is of one that is reasonable, not always formally educated but smart, capable of entering into a difference of opinion without immediately making the conflict acridly personal, and — the cherry on top — possessed of a sense of humour.
Every once in a while at my events, pleasant, amiable, perceptive flesh-and-blood audience members introduce themselves and encourage my delusions — as happened just last weekend at the Bath Festival. Perhaps they were paid by my publisher, that I might continue to produce. Fine. Thank you. I adore being deluded.