The main character in Mike McCormack’s impressive new novel, Solar Bones, remembers his father buying a grey Massey Ferguson 35 tractor at an agricultural show in Westport in the late sixties. It became the soul of the farm, a constant and reliable presence. He remembered his father forever tinkering with the engine, adjusting its workings and standing back from it, cleaning his hands on an old rag.
One day when he came home from school and walked into the hay-shed he found his father standing over the engine completely disassembled with its constituent elements laid out on the concrete floor, its components – cylinder head, pistons, crankshaft, etc – ordered across the floor in the exact sequence of its dismantlement, with the body of the 35 gutted and lying forlorn in a corner.
The young boy surveyed the terrible sight. His father, standing over the wreckage, with a single open-ended spanner in his hand, said simply, ‘It was burning oil’. While to his father, the Massey Ferguson 35, in bits on the hay-shed floor, represented something graceful and beautifully conceived, to the child’s imagination, it represented chaos.
The world, Mike McCormack writes, the world is forever going about its relentless business of rising up in splendour and falling down in ruins. A rough translation is that we never know whether everything is coming apart or if we’re on the brink of a huge breakthrough into a promised land.
Like now in Ireland. Another Celtic Tiger around the corner? Or another period of austerity because we keep making the same mistakes again, and again.
Either way even the most optimistic amongst us could be forgiven for believing that Yeats’ famous lines from The Second Coming have finally found a sure resonance:
Things fall apart;
the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
As in the hay-shed with the Massey Ferguson 35.
As we surf the last days of 2016 and wonder what the new year will bring, the balance sheet seems tilted in the wrong direction with optimism making way for hope.
Has there ever been a time when the world and so much in it seem to have lost direction and focus? The list seems endless:
America in the grip of a very strange man who’s surrounding himself every day that passes with other very strange people;
the United Kingdom unnecessarily placed on the horns of the Brexit dilemma by an over-weening pride in the glories of a forgotten age;
Europe fracturing and helpless as right-wing nationalism raises its ugly head across the continent;
the Middle East incubating what might turn out to be a great war;
a Russia intoxicated with its place in the world searching for opportunities to flex its muscles;
an Africa with children dying in thousands every week because no one has successfully mastered the art of providing clean water and an adequate supply of mosquito nets;
a planet – with melting polar ice, changing climate and spoiled oceans – sinking into an irreversible mire;
a society struggling to deal with what the novelist, Ian McEwen, in Nutshell, describes as a ‘tsunami of the burgeoning old, cancerous and demented, demanding care’;
a super-rich master race creating an uninhabitable gated existence for themselves while, at the other end of the economic scale, wily politicians harvest the indignation and anger of disenfranchised citizens through populist slogans;
a religious puritanism, even fanaticism sweeping the Muslim world; a desperate fingering of the worry beads as we enter what some have described as the last twenty minutes of existence.
A jolly entree to the new year.
Pessimism is, of course, too sweet a sweet to suck on for long. The dirges of commentators lack a due balance and disguise the promise that communal depression seeks to edit out.
There’s another side.
This is a quite remarkable time to be alive:
we were never so healthy, so comfortable;
diseases that ravaged previous generations – polio, TB, measles and so many more – have been seen off by modern medicine;
infant mortality rate in the developed part of the world is virtually disappearing;
children being born now will live to hitherto unimaginable ages;
illiteracy, except in pockets here and there, has ceased to exist;
wind farms, solar panels, electric cars and nuclear energy are dispelling the waves of pessimism about the decline in fossil fuels;
inside plumbing is now standard;
instant communications with Skype, Facebook, satellite television, etc are uniting and contracting our world.
We never had it so good.
Part of dealing with life is accepting the cyclical nature of reality. Fools have always fascinated a gullible public – the downside of democracy – and sometimes intelligent fools have wrought havoc on limb and life. But the pendulum swings and we learn from our mistakes – the upside of democracy. We get on with it. It’s what we’ve always done and what we need to do now.
In our uncertain world, we look hopefully, though not optimistically to the future. Full of pot-holes and sometimes chasms but full too of promise and possibility. In our fragile world, we don’t know what the future will bring, but as we enter another year we place it in God’s hands.
We’re a bit like the young boy in Mike McCormack’s novel, with the entrails of a Massey Ferguson 35 lying around us but with a father with a single open-ended spanner in his hand, reassuring us that he can put it all back together again.
In difficult times, we place our confidence in such figures, not least in leaders like Pope Francis who turned 80 just before Christmas, but who stands in the midst of seeming chaos with the equivalent of a spanner in his hand pointing the direction forward. As a man who favours a modest Fiat 500L, but might not understand the intricacies of a Massey Ferguson he will help to guide us through another year.
May I wish all readers health and happiness in 2017.