Tuesday 25 October 2016

Under siege in my Republic of Liberty, a Stalinist purge is all that's required

Seeking a sense of freedom after the bustle of London life, the renowned foreign correspondent returns to Ardmore to prepare for a visit to Myanmar

Fergal Keane

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

ON THE HORIZON: The sight of the round tower in Ardmore still elates
ON THE HORIZON: The sight of the round tower in Ardmore still elates
Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi

To Ardmore with the sun shining and the wind fair at my back. I have four days off in the place I love best. As children we always played a game on our way to the village from the city: who would be first to spot the Round Tower, the eternal symbol of Ardmore? There was no prize, save the elation of arrival which was all the prize we needed.

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I played the game with myself this week and seeing the stone edifice nestling in the heights I felt the old thrill rise from memory. I felt, as I had felt back then, a sense of being free. I was back in my Republic of Liberty.

The transition from London life to the sudden stillness of the cottage takes getting used to, especially in late autumn when the summer visitors have left.

I am most conscious of sound: the engine noise of an occasional passing car, the wind rattling our tin roof, the cattle waiting to be milked next to Power's caravan park, a wood pigeon in the tree which is now swiftly shedding the last of its leaves into the garden, the bell ringing for Mass and, soon after, footsteps moving towards the church along Coffee Lane.

And always the sea. Now that I am in my fifties I find that I wake more frequently at night. It is the time of anxiety. I can drive myself mad in these pre-dawn hours. But the immense energy of the sea points me to a better purpose. I open the bedroom window and let the sound wash over me. I think to myself: there are trawlers out there now facing into the swell, ships ploughing up to Cork or into St George's Channel heading for England or the continent. After that the bed always feel warmer. I drift back to sleep.

In the morning I do some clearing out. I find children's toys from years ago. A lump comes to my throat. Then I remember that my kids are as enthusiastic for Ardmore now as they ever were. To them it also represents liberty. They will be back with their children when I am long gone. Of this I am sure.

Later I drive to Goat Island, park the car and walk the beach. The sun is shining and the air is warm. There isn't another soul to be seen. If I wanted to I could scream. I could shout. I could run naked into the waves. Nobody would hear or see. I don't feel lonely with this knowledge. On the contrary. For the first time in many months I feel a sense of lightness. Everything will be alright.

I return to a painful task. For years I've avoided facing the fact that the house is under siege from books. They are packed and stacked everywhere. Every week there is a new arrival. I am ruefully forced to admit I have too many for our city space.

Readers will recall my recent epistle on mice. They have taken to chomping on the books, presumably for want of better nourishment as we have sealed away all foodstuffs. I can only report that they lack discrimination and are as likely to chew the poems of Rilke as they are the autobiography of Justin Bieber.

I embark on a purge of Stalinist proportions. In the middle of my bibliophilic butchery I come across a box filled with old papers. There is a 25-year-old letter from my agent telling me my first book has been accepted for publication (it was about South Africa and is long out of print.) I have changed agent and publisher since but that memory of 'officially' becoming a writer thrills to this day.

I find also a falling-apart copy of Alan Paton's Cry The Beloved Country, the book that first inspired me to go to South Africa and which gave me the title for my own book on the country, The Bondage of Fear. Paton had asked "when is it that we shall be free from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear?"

It is an appropriate time to remember that question as protests grow over student fees, corruption and the failure to deliver economic progress for the black majority.

This Sunday morning I am heading for Burma, or Myanmar as the military authorities re-named it, and most of the world now calls it. I suspect the name will revert if Aung San Suu Kyi eventually becomes President.

There are elections coming up, the first national poll that has the chance of being remotely free since the military overturned the last one nearly three decades ago.

All the signs look good for Suu Kyi's party. She is immensely popular and the National League for Democracy swept the boards in by-elections three years ago. The political environment has changed. The military know that if they interfere this time international isolation will follow. That would mean an end to western investment and American protection from an expanding Chinese superpower to the north.

But there is a uniquely Burmese hurdle to overcome. To prevent Suu Kyi from becoming President the army had parliament pass a law banning the spouses of foreigners from the job. She was married to a British academic who died in 1999.

The military also granted itself a 25pc guaranteed bloc of seats in parliament.

But with a big enough vote Suu Kyi's party will be able to outvote the army and change the Constitution to allow her become President. This makes for a very tense election. I will keep you posted.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent.

Sunday Independent

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