Television at its best
Yesterday evening (6 October), I watched a long documentary on TV – Troubles: The Life After. Ordinary people (mainly, women) recalled the murders of loved ones at the hands of armed men (on whatever side) over the course of the thirty-year Northern Ireland “Troubles” (1968-1998). This term is a euphemism for violation, death and destruction: three and a half thousand people lost their lives and over forty thousand were injured.
The grief over their losses remains raw, fresh, vivid. Those killed were innocent of any crime; their deaths were pointless, as peace and reconciliation were hindered, not helped, by the taking of life; none of those responsible, in these cases, was ever brought to justice. As was said, everyone on Northern Ireland was affected by the “Troubles” and knew of people who were bereaved.
I was forcibly reminded of my visits to Northern Ireland, in 1969 and this year. The people are friendly. The infrastructure has been modernised, in the interim. There is a fragile peace, of a sort, but the fundamental divisions remain.
I was also reminded of another TV programme, one of a series, shown on 3 October – Upstart Crow. This is a sort of 16th century situation comedy, with satirical references to 21st century issues. The protagonist, William Shakespeare himself, is portrayed (by David Mitchell) as a pompous plagiarist, who, nevertheless, succeeds in producing the plays that his company requires to stay in business.
In the final programme of the series (3 October), however, Williams’ confidence and complacency were shaken by the sudden death of his young son, Hamnet (an historical event – 1596). The final note was one of sorrow and regret in place of the usual sallies of wit.
The programme ended, with Mitchell’s voice-over, intoning the words:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
The passage is recognisably Shakespearean, but, to my disappointment, I could not remember where it comes from. It comes, indeed, from King John. These words are uttered by a mother (Constance) about the loss of Arthur, her son. In the course of the play he is first seized by his enemy and later dies (an historical event – circa 1203).
Here we have references to two real deaths and a moving fictional treatment of each of them. The fiction brings out the reality of grief.
No easy comfort is available to the bereaved of Northern Ireland; their grief still “fills their room”.