Introducing John Waters

Crossing the Ideological Road

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

August 2020

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’.

The Thomist Page

October 2020

I feel like I felt on May 20th 1974 when I got a lift from my father’s friend Hubert and travelled 23 miles west from my hometown to start my first job as a railway clerk in the Goods Office of Claremorris station in the westernmost county of Ireland. Standing in that tiny office, the Chief Clerk told me that part of my job would be to keep the pot-bellied stove stoked in cold weather, which turned out not to be a joke. There is no stove where I write now, but I have the same nervousness, fear of the new.

Image of John explaining the exhibits at Love & Beauty exhibition, Meeting of Rimini, 2015

It feels like a different way of communicating, of writing, maybe of thinking, and that’s something I shall strive to avoid. I wish to write here as though on paper. I once foolishly described myself as a Luddite, because I have a policy of only learning about technology to the precise extent I need to know about it to do something particular that cannot be done otherwise. This led to me being described, online and in the real world, as a ‘self-confessed Luddite’, as though Luddism were like strangling or highway robbery.

Actually, I am not quite a Luddite. I do email, have dabbled on YouTube, wear an Apple watch (for step-counting) and even briefly had a Twitter account when I ran earlier this year for election to the Dáil, the lower house of the Irish parliament. I ran as an independent in the constituency of Dun Laoghaire, where I have lived for 30 years, and got about 800 votes, which I prefer to think of as a beautiful village in the West of Ireland and which I shall spend the rest of my life trying to locate. I didn’t post anything for months afterwards but Twitter still appears to have banned me for life in abstentia, because that’s what they do. I’m very happy about this, by the way: I have a theory that, in half a century or so, if the world is still in a fit state to examine anything, a team of anthropologists, archaeologists and such may be charged with finding the cause of the collapse of Western civilisation in the opening years of the third millennium and, after poking around in the residual entrails of said civilisation, will emerge holding up a piece of dog-eared papyrus, bearing a single word of explanation: ‘Twitter’.

So, though Substack is self-evidently an online phenomenon, I don’t propose to approach it like that. I am determined that everything I shall publish here will be rooted not just in the real world but in the old real world, the one we are currently in the process of destroying. I would therefore like readers to think of themselves as reading not from a screen, but from a page, or even better, a pristine sheet of papyrus. Let me try to explain.

I have a theory that most writers don’t write for people at all, but for something inanimate, inert and apolitical: precisely, the Page. 

 The Page has been the larynx, talisman of collective human seeking for liberty for thousands of years, and the very cornerstone of democracy for a much shorter time. To the extent that we have already lost these hard-won things, it is because of our abandonment of the page as emblem and instrument of the relationship between thought and freedom. The Page is where that connection has been forged — and renewed on a daily basis for at least two millennia.

It has long been my belief that there’s a profound difference between writing for a Page and writing on a screen for an audience that reads this as though on the other side, a bit like a two way mirror.

A writer — for all that he or she may write for a ‘market’ or an ‘audience’ — is really writing for him or herself, to learn through objectification what he or she believes and to project this on to a blank surface where it may become improved before being preserved and promulgated. This process has led to the creation of the freest and most advanced civilisation the world has ever seen. There are other elements also, of course, not least the Christian one, but I will return to that at another time.

The Page is the Platonic wall on to which the shadows of reality are projected by the flames of the fire that rages behind them, the fire of desire and hoping, the fire of fear and loathing. The writer is the servant of this alchemy, no more.
The relationship between Page and author is open, intimate, curious, listening, tolerant but also, paradoxically, judgmental. Paper never refuses ink, but it is a harsh but silent critic of what is scratched upon it. Writing is thinking written down, but it is also something else — the silent Page answering back by holding up the half-crystallised thought in all its inadequacy and demanding that it be revised, improved. The Page is a kind of mirror of the writer’s thoughts, enabling them to be examined and improved, like make-up, I suppose. It encourages introspection, extends a sense of intimacy that lends to the optimisation of truthfulness. 

It is said that the great Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas, believing that the path to truth was best walked in dialogue, would treat the ideas of his challengers and adversaries as though they were the most shimmering things he had ever heard, then politely refine them into pure truth, without giving offence. As Josef Pieper observed, he challenged opponents not at the weakest points in their positions but in the area of their strongest arguments, frequently presenting their views much better than they had themselves. The Page does this, too, subjecting the limitations of your own thought-processes to a scrutiny that could occur within the skulls of only the best-trained thinkers. With a few deft tweaks, what started as arrant nonsense becomes something slightly better. The Page is Thomist in its rigour and in its ultimate judgements.

The Screen is alienating, as between audience and ‘performer’. One of the synonyms of screen is ‘display’, but others are ‘partition’, ‘divider’, ‘separator’. Another still is ‘blind’. To screen something is to conceal, hide, mask, shield, shelter, shade, protect, veil, cloak, camouflage, disguise, all qualities antithetical to the ethics of literature. The Page allows you to whisper or scream, but you can only yell or shoot towards a Screen. Everything is directed as though to a participating audience, seen through crosshairs. The Screen is for posing, shape-throwing, drawing from the user mostly venom and sarcasm. 

Writing for the Page supports freedom; writing for Screens takes it away. Just as a calculator steals your ability to calculate, so writing on a Screen steals your literacy and your courage. Such writing, if such it be, exists to be scanned, not read. 
It is possible to write on a Screen and avoid these traps only by regarding your Screen as if it were a Page, eliminating the idea of an anonymous but like-minded audience and instead imagining that everything you write is addressed to Thomas Aquinas. That is how I try to write, especially on to a Screen. It is not an easy trick. It is not a trick.

In my missives here, I shall try to forge a path into the future around the impediments put in front of us to force us forward in a singular direction. This is to say that I shall be showing a clean pair of heels to the totalitarian idea, and also, in the other direction, rebuilding the bridge of memory so that we may measure our progress, and our ethic of progressiveness, more accurately by reference to the past.

What am I going to be writing about? Anything, though not everything. Life, death, ideology, Godstuff, relationships of almost every kind, history, politics, work, heroes, villains, education, what we call culture — and Covid, which increasingly reveals itself as a kind of shorthand in the foreseeable future for all of the above. Probably I won’t be writing much about sport, fashion or lifestyles, but I never say never.

I’ll be posting stuff irregularly for a start but am hoping in short order to be publishing two or three essays, articles or bulletins per week. There’s a difference between an essay and an article, though I’m not certain what it is. I added ‘bulletin’ there just to make up a troika of nouns, don’t ask me why. The word ‘piece’ has in recent times, journalistically speaking, supplanted both ‘essay’ and ‘article’, but I loathe that word used in that context almost as much as I have come to loathe the word ‘journalism’ in almost any context, for ‘piece’ suggests a brief, partial, thrown-together screed, missing either a beginning or an end or both.

I’ll be putting up some stuff from various past writings of my own that may become relevant as we go along, as well as some sense of my books, past and future, as soon as I get a chance to put some shelves around here.

I’ll also be posting the odd link to things of mine published elsewhere, things by other writers that catch my fancy or leave me speechless with envy, and maybe the odd song or poem that cuts to the chase in a way that leaves prose gasping for breath. I may also — very occasionally, I promise — post one of my own songs, but solely for the purpose of making a point I cannot make otherwise. For this and other reasons, I shall not be affording readers the opportunity to respond to my content in a public forum managed by me. What people do elsewhere is their own business. Do your worst.

The style won’t generally be like this present offering, whatever we may characterise that. The style of the essay naturally tends towards portentousness, and who am I to start a new trend? Articles tend to be short, informal but informative. I shall try my hand at both.

There is another category, to which this present composition may well belong: the ‘burst of whimsy’ which is easy to write if you’re in the mood, and even easier to read, though not invariably. I tend to switch between all three, sometimes within the same sentence.

For the reader, there’s a concomitant process. Most readers of books, and anything but the most perfunctory of news reports, do not read purely for information, but to be transported to the places to which you can only be brought by words.

Words, if used properly, aspire to the condition of magic. I don’t always meet that standard, but that is part of my ambition every time I sit down in front of the blank Page to conjure up new sentences and, hopefully, sense. Let’s see.