When I was growing up, in the West of Ireland of the 1960s, almost everyone was what would nowadays be called ‘conservative’. To be truthful, conservatism was not so much an ideological disposition as an existential demeanour. People were restrained and cautious, you might say docile. Reality, like television, was in black and white, with multiple shades of murky grey. The Sixties crossed the River Shannon into my home county, Roscommon, just as they were ending everywhere else. We started listening to Radio Luxembourg, and John Peel on the BBC, and reading the New Musical Express (NME) and waiting with bated breath all day Thursday for Top of the Pops.
I was saved by rock ‘n’ roll, or so I thought. It seemed to come in full Technicolor: Beatles, Stones, Dylan — later the Velvets and David Bowie, who provided a one man education service in his regular interviews with the NME, talking about everything from black holes to the William Burroughs cut-up method. There was nothing overtly or even especially left-wing about any of this, but it certainly was not ‘conservative’. It helped to light up the path of life in ways that answered some deep craving within me.
I came into journalism through music, writing for the leading Irish rock magazine, Hot Press, which like its British equivalents seemed, as though axiomatically, to translate the rebellious spirit of the music into an ideological platform, a total distortion perpetrated for reasons more connected with British politics than with rock ‘n’ roll .
Billing itself as ‘The World’s Most Fortnightly Rock Paper’, Hot Press at the time amounted to pretty much two-thirds of the Irish counterculture. Looking east to Britain, it was left-inclined when almost nothing else was, and at the time that seemed right, seeing as rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to be about rebellion and challenging mainstream thinking. Nowadays, everything and everyone seems to be left-leaning, so I find myself counter-countercultural once again.
The Hot Press agenda embraced socialism, cannabis campaigns, feminism, and — even then, the mid-1980s — gay rights. I wasn’t especially ideologically-minded, but I subscribed to most conventional left-wing ideas about equality, redistribution and so forth, and, though I never supported abortion, held typical views on women’s rights and all that malarkey.
The pattern continued when I moved on to edit In Dublin, the capital’s main What’s On guide, which had a scatter of radical feminist writers as well as lots of gay stuff and a generally left-liberal outlook. I didn’t demur from any of this but neither did I throw myself enthusiastically into it. The redeeming feature of such journalism, from my perspective, was that the tedium was redeemed by splashes of decent writing about political and cultural matters. Magill, a monthly current affairs magazine I edited through 1988, was a kind of Irish Newsweek, again left-leaning, especially on the ‘soft stuff’ like feminism and related issues. The documentary evidence of my soft leftie phase is mercifully scant: a few stupid comments in the depths of unreadable articles about long forgotten bands.
I was never to any serious degree an ideologically leftist, more someone who regarded a leftist tilt as the most sensible disposition in a world that was casting off the ways of an older world as I grew into early adulthood. Mine was the soft leftism that comes from reading too many Billy Bragg interviews in the NME. I had also read my Orwell cover to cover, and was in no sense at a loss as to the facts. But being a leftie was de rigueur for a rock journalist seeking street cred, so I paid my dues and saluted in all the right places.
You might say that, given a choice between ‘left’ and ‘right’, I decided I was ‘not right’. But truly I have never liked any of these labels, and reject them all. The word ‘conservative’ has become contaminated by malodorous propaganda, even though, as Roger Scruton has observed, everyone is conservative in the everyday things: if you are looking for a midwife at four in the morning, a belief in the value of crystals asserted on a website or Golden Pages entry is unlikely to clinch it.
Four events happening within the space of about six years in my 30s consolidated my shift of consciousness.
First, I came across a book of essays by the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel sometime shortly before the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and a number of things immediately struck me. One was that Havel was the embodiment of everything rock ‘n’ roll in its essence was about, and here he was, helping to take down Communism after a lifetime pitted against a left-wing government. Wow: it was actually possible to love rock ‘n’ roll and not be a leftie!
The second event was acceptance of my alcoholism in 1990, which woke (hah!) me to the precise dynamic of my human mechanism, reminding me that I was a creature making his way through a given world, driven by a desire for something far greater than anything in a bottle or even a party dress. This is a long story, which I elaborate upon in my 2007 book Lapsed Agnostic.
The third significant event was an encounter with Actually Existing Socialism in immediately post-Communist Czechoslovakia — again, and not coincidentally, in 1990. After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, I visited Prague to cover the first post-Communist elections as a reporter for The Irish Times. A man called Ivan became my guide and we talked a great deal about politics and life. I was still in conventional Paddy Radical mode, but Ivan was having none of it. Remorselessly, he outlined what leftism had done to his people and country, how socialists had terrorized and slaughtered, demonized and imprisoned, how they had stultified the life of Czechoslovakia and imposed upon it what Havel had called ‘a Biafra of the spirit’. Our arguments continued for the several weeks I was there. I think, looking back, that I saw it as a game; Ivan did not. He remained good-humored but flintily clear.
Ivan had been given the job of cleaning up an impromptu alter constructed at the spot where the Velvet Revolution had kicked off on Narodni Street the previous November, and had found a rather quintessentially Czech way of disposing of the wax that flowed onto the sidewalk from the thousands of candles placed there by passers-by. Utilizing the wax, Ivan made dozens of busts of the most infamous socialist top brass: Stalin, Lenin and one of the most notorious of the local Czech breed, Klement Gottwald. In mock tribute, Ivan gave the candles the generic name ‘Gottwalds’.
On the day of my departure, he came with me to the airport. On his knees in the taxi he nursed a cardboard box, refusing to tell me what it contained. At the departure gates, he solemnly shook hands, handed me the box and waited while I opened it. Inside were a dozen of his busts of the socialist top brass — Stalin, Lenin and Gottwald.
As we said goodbye, he looked me in the eye. ‘You must take to Ireland’, he said, ‘the heads of the socialist murderers’.
It was akin to being stuck with a dead shark. For some reason, this sentence transcended all our previous conversations, speaking for all of them and at the same time speaking clearly to something deep within me. Finally, the penny dropped. This was not a game. These guys were not cuddly icons, but tyrants whose hands were stained with the blood of millions. It was time to stop posturing and face facts, time to rejoin the human race. That was the day I began leaving the Left.
The fourth Damascene moment was becoming a father in strained circumstance in 1996 and discovering that a single father had virtually no legal rights to a relationship with his own child — and that most leftists were okay with this.
In 1993, I had written a play, Long Black Coat, an exploration of the apocalypse of fatherlessness I was encountering all around me. At the time, I was myself childless, but over the recent years had been encountering or receiving fragmentary signals concerning a syndrome almost nobody was publicly talking about: the brutalization of fathers in family law courts by judges implementing either an outmoded concept of childrearing, or feminist prejudice, or both. The core of the play was symbolically apocalyptic. I based the central metaphor on a childhood memory of a pamphlet to be found in every Irish house when I was growing up: a Civil Defense instruction manual describing the correct response to a nuclear attack. To minimize the risk of damage from nuclear fall-out, householders were to fill their wardrobes with earth from the garden and place them in the windows. They were also to stack all their books on the kitchen table and take their families into the igloo thus constructed.
My play was essentially a two-hander: two men — a young man and a much older one, his father — as they constructed their bunker, engaged in a running argument, about the reasons why the young man’s son was not with them at this possibly terminal moment. The young man blamed his father’s generation of men for having soured the groundwater with patriarchal misbehaviour; the old man blamed his son for being weak. Armageddon loomed over a space dominated by a ‘futuristic’ 3-D headset, a kind of skeletal dinosaur-head through which the viewer could enter the ‘news’ as though himself a participant.
Little more than a year later, I found myself at the center of a drama that resembled my own play to an alarming extent — aside from the headset, the nuclear scenario and the fact that the child of the center of my personal drama was a girl, now my daughter Róisín. Like many men who have come through such situations, I am circumscribed in what I can write about these experiences because our case came before family courts in two jurisdictions: firstly Ireland, later England and Wales, both of which conduct such matters in secret, in camera courts.
Within a year I tentatively began writing critically about the family law system in my weekly newspaper column, and instantly discovered that, far from joining my posse as I’d expected, the social-justice warrior types with whom I’d been consorting over the previous decade or so sought to bury me under tirades of abuse every time I brought the subject up. Nor did it escape my notice that the most splenetic attacks on me come from men claiming to be leftists and feminists.
These three events caused me to rethink everything – or, rather, to start thinking, in the words of Hannah Arendt, ‘without a banister’.
Today, I regard myself as a progressive in the C.S. Lewis sense.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote:
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. . . . Going back is the quickest way on.
So, maybe I was never a ‘real leftie’ in the first place. Yet, the more I see of such creatures, the more I think that people who are not real lefties may be among the most dangerous of all. Certainly they appear to be among the most visible of those making noise on what is nowadays called the left — the moronic cacophony of Woke and PC. The term ‘soft leftie’ pretty much describes 90% of the Irish population right now, so once again I find myself in the minority, perhaps a kind of ‘soft conservative’, though not really.
I feel just the same at the core of myself as I felt as a young man, still the one saying the emperor is stark naked. As far as I can see, I’m neither left nor right — just someone who clings to common sense in a time when common sense is not very common. I sometimes describe myself as ‘alt-middle’, which at least has the virtue of giving me a category all of my own in an era, in Romano Guardini’s phrase, ‘clotted with catchwords’.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.