The smart thing to do

Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!
Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!

Is it generally the same type of person who thrives in society, regardless of the social or economic climate? Or are different qualities useful in different systems? I suspect you need to sell a little of your soul to get by anywhere.

I was listening to an ABC documentary recently about the history of adoption in Australia and it made me think (with a shudder) about the winners and the losers in a conservative society with zero tolerance of pregnancy outside marriage.

It was a time of limited opportunities for women when being a married at least guaranteed respect and opened the door to a celebrated occupation – married motherhood. So if you were smart you conformed.

A bit like joining the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

John McGahern’s memoir of growing up in mid-twentieth century Ireland, apart from being a wonderful book, is an excellent piece of social history. In it he illustrates some of the routes to respectability and a decent living, which required people to cling like limpets to the apparatus of the Church and State.

“The year was 1953. In the 1950s a half-a-million people emigrated from this small country, nearly all of them to Britain, far more than in any other decade in the entire century. These emigrants were young and poorly educated, for the most part, and ill prepared. … The men sold their physical strength, the women their willingness to work long hours.”

And the winners? As McGahern puts it, the State had become a theocracy in all but name.
“The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand.”

McGahern was offered a place at St Patrick’s teacher training college, full board and tuition paid with guaranteed employment at the end. Needless to say, he accepted it at once. His books were later banned in Ireland and he was dismissed from his teaching job but at this early stage in his life, McGahern had to conform and take what was available.

During the economic boom, those hard old days seemed as real and relevant as a dated movie. Post 2008, the Celtic Tiger is looking pretty dated and unreal too. What was normal then seems unbelievable now.

But even the boom had its losers at the time, lest we forget. There were many who just plodded along looking bewildered during those years. Priced out of the areas they grew up in, paying exorbitant rents to live in flatland, they were there. And something was holding them back.

They were unwilling or unable to follow the new rules. Rule 1: Get on the property ladder. Rule 2: Enjoy your disposable income. If you were smart, you conformed.

How people interact with the rules that surround them is great fodder for fiction. When I sat down to write my novel, it was set at just this time in Ireland’s recent past. And the people I feature and favour in the novel are mainly those who did not naturally flourish in the new climate of prosperity.

Do you ever think about what rules operate in society? And if so, have you played by them to get to where you are today?

7 thoughts on “The smart thing to do

  1. What an interesting post! Do we need “to sell a little of (our) soul to get by anywhere?” I like to think we don’t need to go quite that far, but one does need to give in and go along a bit no matter where or when one lives. Some environments definitely require more conformity than others.

    When I graduated from high school in 1961, women were expected to become teachers, nurses or secretaries and then get married. To lead a happy successful life, it was best to conform. Since then, things have changed. The United States is a big diverse country. In recent years people often choose their own life style and then move to the part of the country where that style is popular. The problem: a divided country.

    Have you finished your novel? I look forward to hearing more about it.

    1. Hi Nicki,
      Interesting that the US is so big there is room for different lifestyles and even cultures to co-exist, peacefully if not amicably. As long as people don’t get trapped in the wrong place! So much has changed for the better for women, at least for entering professions. But problems still remain in that the working world does not accommodate the peak parenting years very well, usually at the expense of women. I’d love to see the next generation of parents free to share the work and child-rearing burdens more fairly.
      My novel is at the stage where I am preparing to print out the latest draft to send to my core readers (don’t like the word beta, it sounds made up!). Based on that input I will make the final (for now) adjustments and start sending to agents. I don’t know if this novel is ‘the one’ so don’t want to spend too long trying to get it perfect, an impossible task anyway.

  2. In boom times it is easier for the soulless to thrive as people will more readily part with their cash. When times are tough, survival is necessity and not a given, it is all about the quality of what you can offer.

  3. John McGahern’s books depress me no end. I think Irish society is getting a little more self-critical and the stranglehold of the Church at least is weakening. It wouldn’t hurt to chuck out the Church of Rome and bring back the early church (for those who hanker after such things) where priests and monks married and behaved like normal people.

    1. Thanks for the comment Jane. I’d love to know who your favourite Irish author is, if you have one. Come to think of it, a lot of them are depressing.

      1. You’re right! There are so many “great” Irish writers, but I can only take them in small doses. I’m a great fan of Molly Keane but maybe my favourite novel is JG Farrell’s ‘Troubles’. Thanks to the English, there was such a lot in the pre Civil War era that was completely batty. Makes great fun reading.

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