Smiling through the Recession
Deaglán de Bréadún
With a few hours to kill in Paris on my way home from covering the Taoiseach’s visit to Beijing, I did one of those “Things To Do Before You Die”*. I had an audience with one of the most beautiful women in the world.
She’s 500 years old but hasn’t aged a day since she first entered the public spotlight. I refer, of course, to Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous portrait of the Mona Lisa, available for viewing at the Louvre, along with many other masterpieces, for a mere €9.
The Louvre itself is quite a work of art and you don’t mind queuing in the late-autumn sunshine to get into the place. The Mona Lisa is well-signposted but there is a fair bit of walking through the vast complex before you get to the exact location.
It’s a wonderful moment when you finally make it. This is a picture you have been looking at in reproduction for decades, so there is a familiarity and a newness about seing the genuine article at last.
I found myself smiling because her eyes seemed to say: “Thought you’d never get here.” In Shakespeare’s words, “age cannot wither, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”
Of course I wanted to ascertain the correct answer to that timeless question, “Is her smile to tempt a lover, or is it just to hide a broken heart?” My opinion, for what it’s worth is - neither. It’s a polite, perhaps somewhat mirthless smile, as though she is partly flattered by having her portrait painted while at the same time a little nervous in the presence of the great artist.
There were lots of people milling around but the experience made my day. It’s good to see a timeless classic in a time of turmoil. She’s seen it all: wars, empires rising and falling, Nazi occupation and, now, the world recession.
She is, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, “at the still point of the turning world”. The consolation of seeing an eternal work of genius is the realisation that, whatever else may happen, the worst of times passes and the cycle of life continues.
Goodness knows what the Mona Lisa is worth on the art market; it is probably beyond price. At this time, those with money to spare are no doubt investing in art as well as gold and diamonds to see them through the crisis.
Back in Leinster House, such philosophical speculations were the last thing on anyone’s mind. Fine Gael are excited and energised by the weekend poll in the Sunday Business Post. Fianna Fáil have decided to hang tough and, so far, that’s what they are doing.
One of the puzzles is how the proposal on the over-70s medical card made it into the Budget. As the late great John Healy would say, “No one shouted stop.” This plan was a sentence of death for many elderly people – at least that was how they interpreted it.
The education cuts are serious and controversial but, so far, do not have the same purchase. But over time, as the hard-luck stories start coming in, this may grow as an issue.
Current speculation is that there could be another Budget in the Spring, if the international situation continues to deteriorate. Iceland has been shattered, Hungary is in dire straits, could Ireland follow, somewhere down the line?
The bringing-forward of the Budget to October from its usual December slot means the Government has cut a rod for its own back. Whereas before, there would be ten days or so of pain and protest, now there more than seven weeks still to go to the Christmas break. Seven weeks of demonstrations, lobbying and non-stop badmouthing of the Coalition.
From their own point of view, the Greens had no option but to go along with the Budget, however critically. The alternative was a general election and, in the current climate, the party would be decimated. The most sensible course was to stay in office and hope the weather turns.
This kind of political realism is a long way from the brown rice and sandals days when the Greens were essentially a protest movement. Fianna Fáil and – if the pendulum swings the other way – now know that the Greens are a reliable coalition partner who won’t lose their nerve at the first sign of trouble. But it was startling all the same to see Trevor Sargent being shouted at as he made his way into the party meeting at the Central Hotel. My classic image of Trevor is that he was giving out leaflets against the Nice Treaty at Balbriggan during the first referendum, while the Yes side were turning over in bed. When you go from protest to power you have to take the flak that goes with it. But that’s politics.
Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times
*Also known as the Bucket-List for “Things to Do Before You Kick the Bucket” (see rubbish Jack Nicholson movie of that title). Incidentally I have no plans to kick the aforementioned bucket in the foreseeable future.