Friday 6 December 2019

Beers, tears and bad steers

Dion Fanning

As a friend of mine tweeted, it was getting very dusty in a lot of living rooms when Darren Clarke walked up the 18th fairway last Sunday.

Clarke's victory was a preposterous accomplishment and also a truly emotional one given that most people knew the tragic story of Clarke's wife Heather.

So the sentimentalists among us were already weeping long before Clarke sank his final putt. Most people knew what he and his family had endured but those who didn't wouldn't have been enlightened by the cloying way in which interviewers -- hoping to extract a few more barrels of sentimentality -- brought it up.

Only when Clarke gave his speech on the 18th green and mentioned his late wife did the true emotion of the occasion come through.

Clarke and his family have suffered but there was more to be explored than the simple if beloved tale of redemption.

The emotion of the occasion was there without the repeated questions about how emotional all this was. This was self-evident but when television encounters self-evident it likes to make it even more evident.

Clarke had lived much of this desperate story in public but it didn't mean he was going to weep almost on command last Sunday. When that line of enquiry failed, they fell in behind the story of the celebrations.

Clarke conducted a series of interviews on Monday while clearly very, very drunk. He gave his views on the Open taking place at Portrush and would have given his views on the restructuring of the Greek debt or the legitimacy of the moon landing, given his condition.

Few mentioned that we were listening to a man of temporarily impaired judgement due to extreme drunkenness.

Perhaps if he had looked at the interviewer, wrapped his arms around him and said, "I love you, man" would somebody have thought it necessary to point out that maybe what we were listening to shouldn't be considered particularly important. Instead Clarke's interviews took up airtime despite being truly meaningless, even by the standards set by meaningless sports interviews.

Clarke's interviews given while drunk demonstrated that the universal media obsession with quotes rarely takes any notice of content. They were as happy to give airtime to a man who had drank spectacularly and steadily through the night as they were to run with their usual inane reflections from sportsmen. In fact, few would probably have noticed the difference.

The obsession with quotes in newspapers and the soundbite in broadcast media also removes the need for any real interpretation. Clarke's story came already bundled so there was little desire to explore further.

Most people simply delighted in Darren "pulling an all-nighter". There was something of the ageing hipster about the way many of them uttered it. Clearly these were people who considered "tying one on" to be any night when they get home too late to watch Oireachtas Report.

By the end of the week, the only dissenting voices belonged to those who wondered what image Clarke's drinking gave of Ireland and the message it sent to young people. I would think that any image the wider world has of the Irish as a drunken people has been acquired mainly through exposure to actual Irish people. Judging by any Irish town on a Saturday night, the kids have got the message, without any help from Darren Clarke. Dean Martin, whose primary addiction was golf ("it's a disease," his manager said once) used to put apple juice in his whisky glass on stage.

Clarke could have done the same with the Claret Jug and the image of the Irish as a drunken people would have persisted. It would have persisted because it's true. This is the problem with trying to control things through image -- it will never survive contact with reality.

When England regained the Ashes in 2005, Andrew Flintoff's all-night celebrations became the stuff of lore. Hysterical reporters stood outside the bar in which Flintoff was drinking and reported that he had yet to go to bed. Flintoff then made his way to Downing Street and conducted a series of interviews along the way which made

Clarke's last week sound like Isaiah Berlin.

A year later, England defended the Ashes with Flintoff as captain and as folk hero. The reality was different: England were humiliated and one England training session had to be cancelled when Flintoff showed up drunk.

At the age of 33, Flintoff is now a former England cricketer, worn down by injuries. The story of his all-night drinking was not a problem of England's image or even Flintoff's image but one relating to him and his career.

Clarke, like Flintoff, appeals to the public because of his refusal to disguise his desires, which seem to be similar to the desires of so many of us, at least on a Friday night or, in Clarke's case, a Monday morning.

Nobody wanted to delve beyond that, to ask why a man of his immense talent had to wait 20 years for his first Major.

Instead, everything was fed into the simplified story of a fun-loving gentle giant when even Clarke was hinting that it was more complex than that. Surely, it is always more complex than that?

As he picked up the Claret Jug, Clarke, as well as giving indications he was going on a massive bender, thanked the people who had coached him and acknowledged it wasn't always the easiest of jobs. There are people on the golf circuit who will tell you that Clarke has never been the easiest of men: stupendously talented, wickedly charming but ferocious and tetchy too; certainly not the gentle giant that was being presented on Sunday evening and Monday morning.

The same golfing commentariat that have decreed that Tiger Woods' redemption requires not only a change in behaviour but more openness in his dealings with the media were unable to explore Clarke's complexities despite several invitations

Instead, they focused on his celebrations and what they called on RTE News, "the loot". The dreadful Shane O'Donoghue contributed to this piece and demonstrated his elevation into another category of journalism by talking about "revenue streams" and Clarke's need to play in "key markets".

O'Donoghue told us that he too had a sip from the Claret Jug during the night of celebrations, providing a portrait of his own access while adding little of substance to the portrait of Darren Clarke.

That didn't seem to matter. There seemed to be a fear that to explore the complexities of the man would be to spoil this most heartwarming of victories.

How had a man of his talent become, in the golf writer Lawrence Donegan's words, "a golfing irrelevance"? How had he become the most relevant man in the golfing world last Sunday?

These were interesting questions and you could ask them even as the tears streamed down your cheeks.

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