Sunday 17 February 2019

Declan Lynch: Marty Whelan Index shoots up to record high

Declan Lynch cartoon.
Declan Lynch cartoon.
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Many of the "key indicators" are telling us that Ireland is doing well, or at least that it is doing well within the terms laid down by the key indicators. Which is nice to know.

Even if you're not doing well yourself, you can take some vicarious pleasure from the well-being in general of Ireland, whatever that is. But some of us are not looking at those key indicators, and we haven't been looking at them since they proved that there were certain key things which they were unable to indicate - the complete and utter collapse of the Irish economy about 10 years ago springs to mind, but we will not dwell on that.

Rather, we will look to another indicator which for some of us has always been key. We will look to the Marty Whelan Index. And we will smile.

Because we have come to believe that the well-being of Marty Whelan and his various manifestations is inextricably linked to that of Ireland, that in some essentially Irish way he is a bellwether.

We can identify with Marty at some profound level because we realise it has never been too easy for him, that he has never been an Insider, and thus his abilities have not been rightly recognised - even now, with Morning Ireland on Radio One while Marty is on Lyric, the official position is that the minor Fine Gael figure taking up about 17 minutes of the nation's time with their uninteresting opinions is of greater societal value than Marty on the other side playing some Aretha Franklin, some Carole King, some John Martyn. He does not even have the unfair advantage which an ostentatious knowledge of the Irish language can confer on an RTE personality.

And therefore we side with him in ways that are unknown to the Insiders. We believe that in a culture in which many are over-praised, Marty has always been under-praised.

So we need to put that right.

Last Wednesday for example, on his Lyric fm morning show, he did an interview with Michael Harding, who writes very good books which sell in large quantities, a combination which is not entirely unknown, but still rare.

Harding's beat is the human condition, his patch is the pursuit of things of the spirit, he clocks in every day at the place where the secrets of our souls are to be found. Now he was talking to Marty.

It was delightful. You got the sense that here was a man with a deep empathy for all human beings, yet who was also wise to the essentially solitary nature of his quest. A man who could express himself with the clarity needed for a general audience, yet who was able to communicate many subtleties, to suggest the shape of deeper mysteries.

And Harding was excellent too.

So yes, we need to start appreciating these things properly, to stop the over-praising and the under-praising and to get the praising just right. It is a phenomenon which can be observed not just in relation to much-loved radio presenters, I see it all the time in the writing game too. I see brilliant books ignored or dismissed or misunderstood, while lesser work is getting only love letters.

I believe it springs from some terrible insecurity among those who are supposed to have taste in these matters, but who lack a true sense of discernment. So they see Marty presenting Winning Streak, and they automatically disqualify him from their little world. All they can see in that audience, are the sort of people who don't listen to Sunday Miscellany.

They do not trust anything with a hint of showbusiness, they see it as somehow foreign to the authentic Irish experience. And this failure of theirs to recognise talent, this weakness in our culture can be particularly damaging for a man in the peculiar position occupied by Marty Whelan, who presents a radio show which is obliged virtually by law to feature a certain amount of music in what is usually described as the "light classical" vein.

Due to the fact that he has the most impeccable taste, you sense that if Marty could cordon off that entire light classical section and fill it only with the music of his beloved Ennio Morricone he would probably do it, Morricone, who might technically squeeze into that department, but who transcends its limitations by being so very good.

And yet in his very management of the light classical - or if you like, the "bad" music - we see the true merit of Marty.

Let's face it, anyone can play great records all the time, and sound like a great fellow. But it is those who are made to play not-so-great records from time to time, and who still sound like a great fellow, who are entitled to the highest honours that we can bestow.

Terry Wogan during the glory years could do it, Marty is doing it now. He handles that side of his obligations in the manner of a Harley Street physician making you feel relaxed about a procedure which some may find unpleasant, getting everyone through the Andre Rieu moments without pain, just a vague feeling of minor unpleasantness on your way to a much better place.

And in that place he displays the full range of his passion for the great music of the 20th Century, much of which can be found under the broad black brimmer of rock 'n' roll, much of which happens to be American or British music, of course. Which again explains his connection with the hearts of the majority of the Irish people, who are pleased not only that Marty is playing a Paul Simon record, because it is good, but that he knows all the ways in which it is good.

He doesn't even have to tell you that he knows, you just know, that he knows…he also knows that not all bad records are completely bad, that there is such a thing as a good bad record, and indeed a bad good record.

He shares that enthusiasm, and yet he is also somehow discreet about it, knowing as he does that some of his listeners would much prefer to be listening to completely bad music all the time, but that they're prepared to put up with the quality because it's him dealing it.

Every morning in his Lyric fm studio, Marty takes this walk out on the wire, and he is alone, except for the guests like Michael Harding who come in and talk to him and who find that he understands everything about them, including a few things they didn't understand themselves.

He walks that wire as he gives and goes with members of the AA Roadwatch team, somehow never descending into mere crudity, always there for them if they miss their turn off the proverbial roundabout.

The energy that he is putting out there can best be appreciated on days when a substitute sits in for him - on such days you get this strange feeling that all is not right with Ireland, that the Marty Index is down. But soon it will be up again.

The only one that matters.

Sunday Independent

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