Monday 22 January 2018

Lessons in respect -- from the people who bought and sold us

He's doing us a favour: 'Who's Buying Ireland' Presenter Ian Kehoe with American investor Bill McMorrow
He's doing us a favour: 'Who's Buying Ireland' Presenter Ian Kehoe with American investor Bill McMorrow

The foreigners who are currently acquiring our hotels, bars, offices, apartments and banks at rock-bottom prices are all philanthropists -- just as concerned about this country's general welfare as about the financial killings they hope to make from these acquisitions.

That, at any rate, is how they chose to see themselves in Ian Kehoe's documentary, Who's Buying Ireland? (RTÉ One), which focused on a few of these noble-minded entrepreneurs from abroad.

Take, for instance, Belfast-born Tim Martin, who's CEO of JD Wetherspoons, which already owns 900 pubs in Britain and which now hopes to add about 30 Irish bars to its impressive portfolio.

Tim doesn't see this as any threat to ailing Irish pubs -- indeed, Wetherspoons' brightly lit, music-free drinking emporiums should "attract a broader range of people" to any of the towns in which they'll set up shop.

Or take Bill McMorrow, CEO of a Los Angeles-based multi-billion-dollar investment company, who has such a "deep respect" for his Irish ancestors that he only wants to do the right thing for this green and pleasant land of ours -- even though this will entail getting Irish people to relinquish their "hang-up" about owning property and to "embrace renting" instead. And, as it happens, Bill's company is now Ireland's biggest landlord, with hundreds of "high-quality" apartments available for renting and lots of commercial properties, too.

Or, indeed, take Wilbur Ross of Wall Street, who put together a consortium that bought a third of the Bank of Ireland and who argued not only that "you can make good gains and yet do good" but also that "we're helping a whole country of very deserving people to do better". In fact, what Wilbur was doing was "like in the cowboy movies -- the troopers are coming".

That was reassuring to learn and I was also cheered by Wilbur's insistence that he was not a vulture investor, given that vultures "eat dead flesh off a carcass", whereas Wilbur preferred to see the actions of his consortium as being like that of "a phoenix, the bird that rises from its own ashes and recreates itself".

I didn't quite get that last analogy (has Wilbur risen from his own ashes?), but it was comforting to discover that Wilbur, Bill and the rest of the boys have this country's interests at heart and that we needn't worry about losing our identity as a nation.

Or, as Bill reassured Ian when asked about the dangers of an American company exerting undue dominance over the Irish property market: "I wouldn't worry about that at all." Well, that's a relief to know.

Not having the foggiest about big bang theories, black holes or the cosmological meaning of time, I've always had to take Stephen Hawking's genius on trust, but I still found Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Mine (Channel 4) fascinating.

Seesawing back and forth from the present to the past, this superbly filmed and engrossing profile was the physicist's own version of his life and career, with contributions from colleagues and admirers and also from his posh sister Mary and his first wife Jane. By his own account, he grew up in a dauntingly intellectual household, his parents encouraging dinner-table debates about everything from science and theology to homosexuality and abortion. And the footage of him as a still healthy young man at Oxford, where he confessed himself an academic slacker who preferred partying to studying, was poignant when set beside his wheelchair-bound incarceration today.

He recalled Jane as "beautiful and gentle" but the marriage didn't last, partly because of his scientific preoccupations. "He used to drive me spare", she recalled, while for him there was nothing to beat "that Eureka moment of discovering something nobody knew before. I won't compare it to sex, but it lasts longer".

With Jane it lasted long enough to result in two children, though they weren't interviewed for the film and indeed went unmentioned by their father. Perhaps this was because, as Jane recalled, such were his teeming thoughts that "he could be surrounded by children and not notice what was going on"

As for his illness, he reflected: "I sometimes wonder if I'm as famous for my wheelchair and disabilities as for my discoveries". There's little doubt of that, though he can console himself with the thought that without these discoveries no one would even know about his disabilities.

In this week's What in the World? (RTÉ One), reporter Peadar King was in the Mexican city Ciudad Juarez, home to vicious drug cartels and routinely regarded as the murder capital of the world -- between 2008 and 2011 an estimated 10,000 people were killed there, while 12 more were slaughtered in the two days before King arrived there.

His report was arrestingly stark, especially about the girls and young women regularly abducted, raped, butchered and then left in the desert. "It's all the same," one teenage girl forlornly noted, "they take you if you are beautiful or not."

King saw the roots of these vile killings as essentially cultural, "the macho male constantly asserting its power ", but that didn't explain them.

His film, though, was disturbing in its details.

Irish Independent

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