Yearnalism: making a story out of nothingness
The type of celebrity we attach ourselves to actually says an awful lot about the prevailing culture of the time
Heathers: Came up through the DIY punk scene of teenagers so disaffected they actually did something useful with their timeis. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
At the time of writing, #neverdidcokewithnigella was trending on Twitter in Ireland. If you don’t read the Sunday Independent, you won’t know what that means. Yesterday, celebrity interviewer Barry Egan wrote an article about, well, how do I put this: how he never took cocaine with Nigella Lawson.
Nigella Lawson is a celebrity chef embroiled in a rather messy legal scenario during which her former husband Charles Saatchi made allegations of drug use. Writing about the absence of doing something is an interesting approach. I’m sure John Cage would approve.
Barry Egan has nothing to say and he is saying it. But talking about the absence of something demonstrates a desire for what is missing. This is yearnalism.
When the absence of economic prosperity is written about, it is framed within “once upon a time”. The fairy tale is past, and the past becomes legend, and legends become myths, and when myths are propagated sufficiently, they become given truths. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re seeing a lot of yearnalism right now. The don’t-jinx-it articles about rising property prices in tiny niches of housing in small acres of Dublin.
The splurge of restaurant writing thanks to all the new eateries opening up, gagging for the disposable income of 30- and 40-somethings. The reported statements from the Labour Party conference, with Eamon Gilmore saying we should “dare to hope.” People want the good times back so badly they’ll do anything to kid themselves they’re on the way. As Christmas approaches, you can feel the yearning in the air, stitched into every LED light on a 12 Pubs of Christmas jumper.
Back to not taking drugs with chefs. In Ireland we talk about how we don’t “do” celebrity. And we don’t. You can’t conceivably have a celebrity culture in a country where people roll their eyes when Bono, arguably the biggest rock star on the planet, nudges himself towards the bar. But the lifestyle press insists there is such a thing, and trades off it.
Celebrity is of course a construct, so the type of celebrity we attach ourselves to actually says an awful lot about the prevailing culture of the time. The Sunday Independent is perhaps the greatest barometer of societal frivolity, a furiously campaigning newspaper that crucifies its colours to the mast rather than hammering them, before extracting the nails and moving on to the next mount in search of whoever is not the messiah but perhaps a very naughty boy.
There is probably no better newspaper with which to track the outrageousness of projected public sentiment, the yearnalism that believes if you repeat it often enough – we are rich, we are fabulous, we are screwed, we are back – eventually comes true, like summoning Beetlejuice. Its focus on celebrities, invented or adopted, has been a lynchpin in its yearnalism.
And now, writing about the absence of an action with a celebrity, deploys a yearning that ultimately makes nothingness a “story”. How’s that for a summary of Ireland at the tail end of 2013?
Celebrity suffers when people despair to the point of even discarding with escapism. We haven’t had too many celebrities in the past few years. Socialites cower in the shadows, darting towards their ’05 Range Rovers, Barbour jacket collars pulled skyward lest anyone notice the scars of a Tiger’s claw scraped Harry Potter-like across their foreheads, their hunchbacked shame contorting under the weight of negative equity, dog-walkers and decommissioned Gaggia machines.
Artists are back
Instead, we have artists back again. Remember those? They’re all right, aren’t they? Last week I went to see the band Heathers play in the Academy in Dublin. Heathers are two sisters, twins from Dublin, who came up through the DIY punk scene of teenagers so disaffected they actually did something useful with their time instead of absentmindedly disseminating ambient SnapChat messages.
They hit the big time with a song recorded in a friend’s studio, Remember When, a beautiful tune about running away, which Discover Ireland latched on to as a perfect soundtrack for remarketing an authentic Ireland.
They toured America the minute they finished their Leaving Cert. They came back, knuckled down, and emerged with a remarkable second album, Kingdom, of which the lead song, Forget Me Knots, was recorded in memory of a friend who took their own life. “It’s all right not to feel okay” became a refrain of resilience, comfort and solidarity, re-released on Simple Things, a recent fundraising album for Cycle Against Suicide.
Heathers, like the musician Bressie, are a new generation of honest and humble “celebrities” who express a genuine desire to change society beyond making it better just for them. As their gig drew to a close last Thursday night, they made a point of thanking their family. There are no airs, graces, PR bumf or fawning Sunday Independent profiles. Raw talent prevails when you decide not to care about the constructs.
And so celebrity – if we really do want it to re-emerge as a social barometer – is probably best placed within the framework of art. The absence of anecdote, such as in Mr Egan’s non-article, is also an absence of story, an absence of substance, an absence of truth. Let’s not go back to that.