All aboard the hope and hen Popemobile
My father was a cartoonist. He drew a daily box cartoon for the Evening Herald and a weekly box cartoon for Business and Finance magazine, and in-between he drank miniature bottles of Merlot and ate beef-and-onion sandwiches in O’Donoghue’s on Baggot Street.
Bob went to work every day with a drawing pad and a pencil case: in the pencil case he had pencils, a scalpel to pare those pencils, and a selection of fine-nibbed felt pens – the instruments of his trade.
Cartooning may look like child’s play, but it is not an easy job. All right, it’s hardly going down the pit, it’s not exactly negotiating fiscal stability in an igloo, or whatever it is busy people do these days, but, you know, as gigs go, there is pressure. Always pressure.
My abiding memory of Bob is of early mornings in the strange panto-set kitchen of one of the last houses my parents lived in, and of him gently heating a small measure of Paddy in the bottom of a bumpy saucepan to pour on his porridge, while simultaneously berating the radio.
“Say something funny,” he would shout at the newscaster, “for Christ’s sake, say something funny.” He liked drawing cows, liked their eyelashes and their coy ankles. The beef tribunal made him happy. Mad- cow disease was a godsend, all those crazy cattle jumping over a crescent moon.
But, day in day out, the news can be a pokerfaced old bag in the corner who just won’t give a man a break.
Anyway, I bring this up because recently I’ve begun to empathise with his plight. It’s been a relentlessly grim time on our po-faced little island, and there just hasn’t been a whole heap to smile about. I sit down to write and I find the keyboard dressed in black.
And then I picked up the newspaper and there was a front-page story about the Popemobile, which has had a makeover courtesy of its entrepreneurial owner, and has now become available to hire for stag and hen nights and corporate events. God, Bob would have loved it: all those eyelash extensions and diamante tooth jewels, all that fake tan, all those blood-red acrylic fingernails and luminous thongs – and that’s just the groom’s party.
I was there in 1979 when pope John Paul II appeared in the Popemobile to the rapturous ecstasy of the youthful crowds. Well, I wasn’t there actually; me and a handful of the damned were working in a hamburger bar on Talbot Street, which, despite our special offer of sanctifying grace on the French fries, remained empty (all right, I’m making up the sanctifying grace bit, but it seemed that nobody in Dublin could stomach a milkshake that night).
It’s extraordinarily symbolic of how the times have changed: a hen party in the Popemobile. You could capitalise on this one, have a fleet of mobile-ettes in its wake offering a Brazilian and cocktail-shaking course, a shoulder wax and sushi bar.
I don’t mean to offend anyone for whom the symbolic value of the vehicle has been demeaned by its new commercial status. As someone who grew up in a time when the wallpaper of repression was slowly being stripped away, it kind of feels healthy to recycle our past, to re-imagine some of its more peculiar relics. Hell, it’s probably just a matter of time before some entrepreneurial type buys up the country’s cobwebbed confessionals and turns them into tanning booths.
There are other less hedonistic plans for the Popemobile. The vehicle’s owner has also spoken of his desire to get a sponsor on board, to take the van around the country as a “hopemobile”, gathering stories about local heroes.
A fine and worthy enterprise indeed. And once the plastic ball-and-chains, the giant condoms, the glittering little cats’ ears that hens wear on their heads to enhance their impersonations of scalded felines as they screech up and down the cobble-stones, once all this has been cleared out, along with the last banished strains of Boss and Polo, of eau-de-desiree and eau-de-credit-card-nuptials, people will flock to it.
It will be fantastic if the pope’s chariot becomes a receptacle for stories of how neighbours bailed out floodwaters and skint relatives, of how skills were bartered and resources shared, of how communities coped in the flickering light of this stormy recession. We may be rolling in debt, we may be courting despair like hungry lovers, but, hey, at least the country’s cartoonists have something to get their rubber fangs into. What is that old adage about an ill wind again?