You’d Think ‘Twas a Crime to be Human

The following lyrics are from a song in Brendan Behan’s play Richard’s Cork Leg:

You’d think ’twas a crime to be human
To sometimes get scared in the park,
When a copper sneaks up there behind you,
And flashes his light in the dark.

To regard savage dogs with suspicion,
In case that the bastards would bite,
To be hauled off to jail on suspicion,
And scared of a scream in the night.

You’d think ’twas a crime to be human,
With sex education in bed,
And postpone your thoughts of hereafter,
‘Till after you are twenty years dead.

To work overtime with young Nancy,
And give her a coffee and roll,
And likewise whatever she’d fancy
By weight or the lump or the whole.

You’d think ’twas come to be human,
And go for a swim in the sea,
And dance with no clothes in the sunshine,
And drink foreign lager for tea.

To regard co-existence with favor,
And nuclear weapons with fear,
To want more return for less labour,
Fatter fish, cheaper chips, better beer.

Let the heroes all die for the people,
If that is what they want to do,
And we’ll struggle on here without them,
I’ve concluded, now, frolics to you.  

Laughter On High

Reading the Brendan Behan play Richard Cork’s Leg in the van today.  If I were to tell you a play featuring two prostitutes and two beggers pretending to be blind, among others, all taking place in a graveyard, was funny, you might not believe me, but it is.  One of my favorite George Carlin specials is Life is Worth Losing, where his stage set is a graveyard as well. 

There is that old saying that tragedy plus time equals comedy.  I think it is perspective too.  A war viewed from on high, where two armies butcher each other over nothing more than a disagreement in religious beliefs, is so absurd I can’t help but imagine some supernatural beings having a laugh in the clouds.  What would one think if they watched the battle of Gettysburg from far away, watching an army walk directly into cannon fire, largely over some misinformed ideas concerning the inferiority of certain people because they looked slightly different?  We do strange and horrible things down here.   If someone is watching from above, we surely have provided them with a lot of folly over the years. 

The Immorality of the Death Penalty

California Executions Death Chamber

Many executed here / by the awful lawfully good – Morrissey in his song Mountjoy

I was astounded the other day when I was looking up Governor Perry’s death stats.  If you read my recent blog on him you would know that last year, I’m not even sure what he is up to now, he hit the 500 mark.  Some of those people were mentally retarded.  

Right now I am reading Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt.  She talks about how the gas chambers began with the extermination of the mentally retarded and the terminally ill first.  It was talked about in terms of mercy killings and medical procedures.  

I also just finished reading Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow.  This is a play that takes place in the 24 hours before someone is hanged in Mountjoy prison.  The person that is to be hung apparently killed his brother and chopped him up.  It’s never clear if he is guilty or not.  In fact the person to be hung is never actually seen onstage.  What the hanging seems to do is demoralize everyone else in the prison, from the lowest prisoner to warders and prison officials, whether they believe the quare fellow is getting his just deserts or not.  The play may sound like a downer, but it is actually quite full of absurd comedy.  

I believe the death penalty is immoral.  In saying so you must face the fact that often the people that receive it, though not always as our justice system is full of flaws, have done absolutely horrible things.  Some of these people have killed children in the most horrible ways imaginable.  One shouldn’t think about these things in terms of abstract principles.  

But I can’t help but feel that after reading Arendt and Behan, that what the death penalty does is make our society more barbarous.  When you institutionalize extermination in some way you are saying that it is OK to kill people depending on circumstances.  

In you believe in the death penalty, but in no way participate in the actual process, you are also forcing other human beings, who may be altogether decent, to perform horrible tasks.  My Dad knew former Governor Casey of Pennsylvania.  He was telling me last night that one time he went into his office and the only book on the Governor’s desk was one about the pros and cons of the death penalty.  Clearly he was wrestling with that subject in some kind of existential matter.  As Governor it was his duty to uphold the law and sign off on the death penalty when the law recommended it.  What about the prison guards that must take those on death row to their deaths, or those in the medical field that must administer lethal injection?  If you support the death penalty, do you really want those people to have to carry out that act?  Do you think about how those acts might weigh upon their conscious?  These people are technically carrying out a legal act under the law.  However, the law is making these individuals carry out an act that is one of the worst things a human can do to another, which is to take someone’s life.  

Also, if we say that killing is OK under certain extreme circumstances, does it not make it morally easier to perpetrate acts of death around the world.  Are we not normalizing killing to some degree?  

Again, I want to go back to Behan, whose The Quare Fellow I believe is a read that you should check out if you want to think about this subject.  It is entertainment because it truly does entertain.  I can’t say enough how funny it is.  But it also makes you think, without any of the soapbox moralizing that so many works that deal with this issue would normally do.  It is both seriously funny and dead serious.  In the play one section talks about how horrible death by hanging actually is, as many that hang do not die instantly.  Think of the botched executions that have taken place in Oklahoma and Arizona recently.  No human should die in such a way even if they are guilty.  But what about the smallest sliver of a chance, if one knows how flawed our justice system is, that they might not be guilty?  I think it was Andrew Sullivan the other day, that called it death by torture.  I am reminded of the torture museum I was in in Sienna Italy and all of the horrible ways they killed people in the middle ages.  

But why I want to bring The Quare Fellow back up most of all, remember the person that is executed in the play never actually is seen on stage, is that I think you can make an argument against the death penalty by removing the person at the very center of the argument, the condemned.  I believe this act of killing slowly degrades our society from top to bottom.  It again makes those that are forced to uphold our laws perform horrible acts.  It also gives the message to our entire society that revenge killings are OK.  It puts something immoral at the heart of our “justice” system.  We should be better than an eye for an eye, even if the animal inside all of us occasionally tells us something different. 

Listen, Read, and Watch this Weekend

'Sunday Brunch' TV Programme, London, Britain - 06 Jan 2013

I thought about writing something about ten times today.  But nothing came.  Could it have been the fact that it was as hot as Africa out?  Could it have been the drinks I had last night?  A few recommendations for the weekend is all I have today:

Listen to:  If you love great singing over pop music, and are looking for an album this weekend, check out Frank Sinatra’s Watertown.  It was recorded in 1969 and it is Frank’s one attempt to play the 60’s pop game.  It’s a concept album and a masterpiece and I hope to write more about it at some point. The song I Would Be in Love (Anyway) alone is worth the price.

Listen to:  With Weird Al at number one in the Billboard album charts, and the soundtrack to Frozen still selling units, I think we can safely proclaim that mainstream America has lost their minds.  If you want to support music that is actually intelligent, melodic, extremely musical, and sad and funny as hell in equal measures, check out Morrissey’s new album, World Peace is None of Your Business.  It’s the best thing I’ve heard in years.  Yes, I’m going to keep pushing this album on you.  It’s that good.

Read:  I finished the Brendan Behan play The Quare Fellow.  It takes place in Mountjoy prison.  It’s the first dramatic piece of Behan’s that I’ve read.  It’s subversively hilarious, poetic, and rings true in every word.  I’ve been thinking about the death penalty in Texas lately, and this play will make you dead set against it.  It does so without ever becoming some kind of self righteous morality tale.  In fact it is the fallen nature of everyone involved that makes it’s final sequence seem like some kind of sad cosmic joke.

Watch:  If you want to see things in the world you have never seen before and laugh your arse off while doing so, check out the Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant produced An Idiot Abroad.  The show stars Karl Pilkington, as the little Englander and title idiot.  This is someone that doesn’t like to travel hosting a travel show.  The show could easily descend into reality show brainlessness, but the footage is excellent.  In often trying to torture Karl they send him to places that most travel shows would never go to.  Also, although most of Karl’s commentary duly earns him the title phrase, he occasionally stumbles his way into truth as when he compares Jerusalem to Pac-Man.  There is also something strangely lovable about Karl.  His words and deeds are often at opposites.  He will say something completely offensive and then show kindness towards someone that most people never would.  The full series is available on Netflix.

That’s all for today kids.  I am throwing a party for my brother tonight, so the bottle calls again.  To quote Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, “I’m too old for this shit!”  (P.S.  Another hilarious watch is the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia espisode Dee Reynolds: Shaping America’s Youth.  In this episode they spoof the Lethal Weapon series.  You haven’t lived until you have seen Danny DeVito having sex to the cheesy 80’s saxophone music that they play in those movies.)

The Quare Fellow

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I am reading Brendan Behan’s play The Quare Fellow.  It takes place in the Irish Prison Mountjoy.  This play is where one of my favorite songs of all time originated, The Auld Triangle.  In the following excerpt a young prisoner makes a disparaging remark about the Bible and the older prisoners comment upon it:

Other Fellow:  And talking so disrespectfully about the Bible.

Neighbour:  Belied and they needn’t; many’s the time the Bible was a consolation to a fellow all alone in the old cell.  The lovely thin paper with a bit of mattress coir in it, if you could get a match or a bit of tinder or any class of light, was as good a smoke as ever I tasted.  Am I right, Dunlavin?

Dunlavin:  Damn the lie, Neighbour.  The first twelve months I done, I smoked my way half-way through the book of Genesis and three inches of my mattress.  When the Free State came in we were afraid of our life they were going to change the mattresses for feather beds.  And you couldn’t smoke feathers, no, be God, if they were rolled in the Song of Solomon itself.  But sure, thanks to God, the Free State didn’t change anything more than the badge of the warders’ cap.  

Pity Our Enemies

I finally finished reading Borstal Boy.   In the afterward Benedict Kiely writes about what made Behan so special.   Kiely knew Behan and at the time was teaching Borstal Boy  to female students at a college in Virginia.  If only we could all be more like this:

They were, not surprisingly, impressed by words not customarily in use in respectable American homes: but much more they were impressed by the author’s vast and obvious humanity, by his humorous acceptance,  his abounding life and love of life.  His people, from the roughest screw (prison officer) in Walton to the gentlest boy in the open prison camp by the North Sea (and with the possible exception of the R.C. Chaplain who, quite without authority, cut him off from the sacraments), are almost all looked upon with sympathy, or, at any rate, with a sort of pity (“for very oft we pity our enemies”), or with defensive enmity that becomes perverted brotherhood.  You feel that if the worst of them had met him elsewhere,  and under less claustrophobic circumstances,  the unpleasant things might not have happened.  

Borstal Boy  is an account of Behan’s time in prison and reform school as a young prisoner.

Brendan Behan on Religion

This passage was written by Irish writer Brendan Behan and it is from the book Borstal Boy.   A borstal is a reform school for underage prisoners as an alternative to prison.  Walton is a jail in Liverpool that Behan was in before being moved to his reform school.  He was imprisoned for being caught in Liverpool with bombs as an I.R.A. member.  Because he would not renounce the I.R.A. he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.  However, while at reform school he was allowed to serve Mass because he could read Latin, despite not being able to receive the Sacraments.   This passage is his reflection on religion right before he is about to serve Mass:

But I wasn’t bitter.  When I am in good humor, I could not be bitter about anything.  It was different in Liverpool, where the priest was an active enemy.  Here the priest had nothing to do with me, and I nearly lost interest in Sacraments,  and whether I was deprived of them or not.  Walton scalded my heart with regard to my religion, but it also lightened it.  My sins had fallen from me, because I had almost forgotten that there were such things and, when I got over it, my expulsion from religion, it was like being pushed outside a prison and told not to come back.  If I was willing to serve Mass, it was in memory of my ancestors standing around a rock, in a lonely glen, for fear of the landlords and their yeomen, or sneaking through a back – lane in Dublin, and giving the password,  to hear Mass in a slum public house, when a priest’s head was worth five pounds and an Irish Catholic had no existence in law. 

There were few Catholics in this part of the world and the priest had a forlorn sort of a job but Walton had cured me of any idea that religion of any description had anything to do with mercy or pity or love. 

English Catholics had no time for the Irish, except when they were begging from them.  They had no use for Paddy the navvy and Biddy the scivvy,  beyond taking their money when a new church was being built.  The aristocratic old English Catholics had some kind of double dealt immunity from the penal laws, and the conversions only started when the Irish got the Emancipation and it became legal and safe to be a Catholic,  and a lot of English shopkeepers’ sons gave up Methodist and became Catholics because the more romantic minded of them thought it brought them into contact with the great world of Italy and France, which was atheist or Catholic, but always lively. 

One of the fascinating things about Behan, from reading this book, is how open minded he is.  Even at a young age he is able to see the difference between the British Empire as a system and the English people, as many of his friends in prison and reform school are English.  He was able to have a disdain for religion but feel for a priest with a forlorn job.  He could be against a system, but treat people within that system as individuals.  He had a great mind.  I now understand why so many writers and songwriters remember him fondly.