Best of all possible worlds


AMATEUR video footage released this week showed a seal swimming upstream in a flooded field in Cambridgeshire, some 50 miles from the coast, and looking very determined about it too. This would have to be described, on the part of the seal, as a triumph of hope over common sense.

And the seal wasn’t the only one showing signs of Panglossian optimism in recent days: Eamon Gilmore was also seen furiously waggling his little flippers through a quagmire. The Tánaiste was heard to predict that we’d start seeing our way out of recession by the end of this year, and that it would be all over – possibly even including the shouting – by 2014.

“We believe that we are now at a stage where we can start looking forward. We have been mired in economic recession. As we move into 2013, we will be able to look beyond that crisis,” said Gilmore, beaming. OK, he wasn’t actually beaming. In truth, his face wore a hollow-eyed, frightened look, and his fingers were crossed behind his back. That’s what optimists look like when discussing the Irish economy.

Yippee, said three or four civil servants and back-benchers, on cue. But the New York Times gave the lie to Gilmore’s assurance. The paper’s European correspondent, Suzanne Daley, made a mockery of the idea that Ireland has anything good to show for the government’s austerity programme.

“Austerity measures have pummelled the fragile economy with cuts in service and higher taxes… Everywhere, it seems abandoned housing projects rot, waist-high weeds sprouting from the cracks on the sidewalks. The proportion of households without a working adult is among the highest in the European Union and thousands of Irish continue to leave the country in search of work. Yet, the government, under pressure from its creditors, undertook another round of cuts last year, including its programmes for children. At the same time it increased [sic] property taxes.”

The New York Times also published a series of black-and-white photographs from Ireland that made it look as if the past 30 years were nothing but a dream – as if we’ve woken up suddenly to find the recession has been there in the shower all along, and everybody is chronically depressed and beating each other upside the head on the subject of abortion – still.

The photos show open-mouthed children, their orthodontic needs probably already in the early stages of neglect; long dole queues in the rain; broken windows; grim-chinned pensioners; working men wasting what little money they have on – gasp – cigarettes… One photo even has a couple of donkeys in it, like a John Hinde postcard seen through a glass darkly.

Then, as if to bring the more recent past vividly to life, there were optimistic reports this week from websites and that house prices in Dublin are stabilising. This prompted one Daft (the adjective cannot be helped) economist to advise the government to plan now for a new era of housing demand.

Yippee, said a sizeable corps of heartbroken property-lovers, who’ve never got over being cruelly jilted by market conditions. At once, they began to fantasise about a return to those gloriously light-headed afternoons spent browsing property sections and sipping whatever fashionable beverage was passing itself off as coffee then. “Period features! Light-filled kitchen! No better time to buy! It’ll do me for a pension!”

Meanwhile, another prediction with a better chance of coming true came from New Zealand long-range weather forecaster Ken Ring, who prophesied a hot summer for Ireland this year. He said temperatures would stay above 20 degrees in June, July and August, and would reach as high as 30°C.

Yippee, said everyone, gazing into the middle distance for a moment, like actors in an Angelus montage, and giving way to happy imaginings. Everyone pictured tranquil, sandy days at the beach, dodging jellyfish, overhearing the matches on other people’s radios, and stopping for chips on the way home, with the bag falling asunder for the sheer weight of vinegar. Everyone recalled the pain of sunburn with unalloyed pleasure.

But Met Éireann soon poured 25 millimetres of precipitate scorn over the whole idea. “It is ridiculous,” thundered a pitiless Met Éireann meteorologist by the name of Harm (yes, Harm) Luijks. “Science does not allow us to forecast more than two weeks in advance,” he said, adding, by way of emphasis, that this week would probably continue quite mild.

No one had really believed Ken Ring’s prediction, anyway – especially not those who remembered Mr Ring making a similar exhilarating promise last year and bitterly disappointing us all. But there is surely no harm in a little misplaced optimism (even if, as we’ve seen, there appears to be very little misplaced optimism in Harm).

Everyone’s inner seal needs a little encouragement now and then.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 6 January 2013

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