Michael Harding: The champions of Brexit are like distressed orangutans

Michael Gove sounded like a cross between a schoolmaster in a Harry Potter story and a ferocious Christian Brother recently escaped from a wardrobe

Newly appointed British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson addresses a joint news conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Video: Reuters

 

I was woken in Cavan by the crows. They have been hanging around the chimney pots since before I was born and they seem to be able to endure the fires I light below and the smoke that rises up under their bums. Maybe it works like central heating for them. Or maybe they like to scorch their bottoms, as I used to do long ago when I was a little boy, perched on school radiators.

When the house was empty after my mother went to the nursing home, the crows built nests in the chimneys so that when I lit a fire the smoke eddied instantly into the room and I had to quench it with a saucepan of water.

The chimneys are clear now but the crows are still up there. I suppose we have developed the kind of uneasy relationship that animals enjoy with one another in the wild. We leave each other alone.

I lay in bed one morning listening to the noise in the chimney, as I drew comparisons between the crows on the roof and the Brexiteers in England.

It’s not that the champions of Brexit are as elegant as wild birds. On the contrary, they are more like caged beasts; like distressed orangutans in a zoo, perhaps. If they share anything with birds it is the madness of coots when their space on the ditch is threatened.

And as my mother might have put it, “Mr Gove is some coot”.

He was profiled on a news programme one evening and he sounded like a cross between a schoolmaster in a Harry Potter story and a ferocious Christian Brother recently escaped from a wardrobe.

I’ve lived in south Ulster most of my life, and sometimes I travel around Lough Erne, thinking how blessed I am in this time of peace, as the Troubles gradually fade into history. The gunmen and soldiers have gone away, and south Ulster is now home to a multitude of artists and musicians on both sides of the Border, who make music and create beautiful objects to surprise and enrich the world. Art is like prayer; it is a response to that cloud of unknowing that the human mind can never domesticate.

But then I saw Michael Gove on the television. The programme profiled his political views over the years, and as my mother would have said, “he didn’t mince his words”. Apparently the inclusion of republicans in the peace process was akin to appeasing Nazis. And the English should have kept the SAS in the fields of Fermanagh, killing more people for longer, rather than signing up to an agreement that, according to Gove’s logic, hollowed out the Britishness of Fermanagh’s rivers and lakes.

It’s no wonder I wasn’t able to get out of bed the following day. I was paralysed with such negative emotions I could hardly brush my teeth.

Giving my face the cat’s lick

So once I had given my face the cat’s lick, as my mother used to say, I went downstairs and squatted in front of a picture of the Buddha.

For me prayer is a nonviolent response to the universe and whatever orangutans it throws up. Prayer is a stillness wherein I accept with equanimity both the crows on the roof and the goons on the television. Passive prayer prevents me from storming into the Gala shops of the nation at 7am looking for war because I got out the wrong side of the bed.

When I misuse religion it becomes a kind of nostalgia for the past, full of rituals that chain me to ancient gods or demons, or some guilty thing I did long ago. And sometimes it’s like doing the Lotto: an act of desperate hope in an unlikely future.

But occasionally I rise above neurosis and become playful with my religious practice; prayer becomes a dance, like tai chi; a game of virtual love-making with the invisible, which dissolves the demons in my psyche. Only then do I find it possible to give my enemies the benefit of the doubt. Even Gove becomes an unfinished Buddha who, despite the karmic obstacles in his path, is trying to be compassionate in his doings. Much like a coot on Lough Erne or an orangutan in a tropical forest, or the crow on my chimney, Gove, as my mother would have said, “is doing his best”.

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