Saturday 18 November 2017

Breakfast Roll Man goes to Trackerville – Mac is back!

It is easy to poke fun at David McWilliams from time to time. The ginger hair, revelations about chewing garlic with the late Brian Lenihan and the ads for Bulmer's Cider can present tempting targets to his detractors but all this teasing misses the point; McWilliams is a gifted and often courageous polemicist who has done more to popularise the debate about economics in Ireland than anybody else.

Who but McWilliams would attempt to create a comedy festival centred on economics – and succeed?

He may get things wrong from time to time but it is a testimony to his memorable style that his ideas stay in the mind long after we have forgotten the arguments of other economists.

Besides, McWilliams has also often been right as he fills his very unusual role in Irish life: the man of ideas who is not beholden to public sector institutions such as the universities, or to private sector institutions such as the banks.

The Good Room, his latest book, will be familiar territory for many of his readers. It comes with all the smart monikers we have come to expect; within pages we are told that Generation Hype has become Generation Skype and we are reintroduced to old friends such as Breakfast Roll Man as well as new places such as Trackerville – the new suburbia created by cheap credit during the previous decade.

The Good Room can be read by itself but it is really the fourth instalment in a McWilliams series that began with The Pope's Children. Taken together, the series is the most ambitious attempt by any commentator to chart and explain what has happened to modern Ireland.

The book's central thesis is that Irish politicians are so busy trying to look good that they are squandering opportunities to solve the crisis.

He blames this on group-think and the strong grip of the professions on Irish life. The book argues that playing hard ball with Europe is the only way out of this. His other solution is an old favourite of the author's: leaving the euro.

Reading The Good Room, the first of McWilliams's books to be published since the present Coalition came to power, it is possible to detect a note of despair not present in his previous books.

The inventiveness is still there but also perhaps the knowledge that the Coalition is wedded to the same policies as the last government. It is clear that McWilliams's solutions will not shape policy although they should help inform any decent reform programme.

Modern Ireland cries out for its own Dickens or Balzac to chronicle the greed, bravado and stupidity of the last few years. By using alternating chapters of economic argument and a sort of chick-lit narrative about a teacher called Olive caught up in the bust, McWilliams has set himself the impossible task of writing both a polemical tract and a novel worthy of Tom Wolfe.

He may not quite have reached these heights but he has produced a thought-provoking and entertaining book that is always readable and wears its learning lightly.

David McWilliams will appear as part of the Four Angry Men book tour at the Radisson Hotel in Galway tomorrow at 7.30pm.

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