In the last light of a late August evening, a full moon hung low in the sky and the presenter on RTE Radio 1 played a selection of mellow music. Announcing that he was going to play some ‘smooth soul’, he introduced two songs from The Chi Lites, the Chicago band he suggested had more in common with their Detroit and Philadelphia counterparts than with the other soul bands from that city, which he felt were much more ‘edgy’. ‘It’s sweet; it’s innocent – and it’s good for you’ was the cue for ‘Too good to be forgotten’ and ‘Have you seen her?’ The former was sing-along stuff; happy, cheerful, party mood. The latter was to be pondered, reflected upon, evocative of angst memories from teenage years.
Sweet? Innocent? Probably not. 1975 was not a time of innocence; it was a time of bombs and bullets, but maybe there remained an innocence, a tolerance.
Most communities would have had their ‘Michaels’; their characters equivalent to the character played by John Mills in Ryan’s Daughter. The terms for such people were cruel, inhuman sometimes. The Wikipedia entry for Ryan’s Daughter describes John Mills’ part as that of the ‘village idiot’, a term I have not once heard in 27 years living in Ireland; however, the local terminology would not be much more charitable.
Yet, whatever the terminology, there was a gentle attitude towards those who did not conform to the notional norm. There would have been knowing nods, euphemisms, a generosity of spirit. It may not have been sweet innocence, but nor was it vicious malevolence.
Driving a road far from home one day, I gave a lift to a ‘Michael’, who had been standing at the roadside in the rain, dressed in a shirt and trousers. For some reason I decided to Google his name a couple of days later. I was astonished when I found it appeared on a string of web pages. Unsecured social network pages had comments about him from a circle of young people; one had taken his photograph with a mobile phone. The comments were on a spectrum from mocking to vicious; there was a nastiness in someone making up a page purporting to be from the man himself, with the sort of comments he might make and a deriding of his mannerisms.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies would quickly move from fiction to fact if such young people were ever isolated anywhere; when a harmless ‘Michael’ is considered fair sport when there are 101 other attractions, he would be an easy victim in more severe times.
Maybe the RTE man was right, perhaps The Chi Lites sang of sweetness and innocence, perhaps the times were different. Maybe our terms for our ‘Michaels’ lacked the correctness of contemporary phraseology, but it would not have occurred to us to have considered them a target. To have mocked a ‘Michael’ amongst a circle of friends would brought criticisms upon one’s own head – particularly from the girls. Perhaps that is why Goldingesque sentiments can now be expressed; perhaps girls have lost their civilising influence, perhaps that is what has been lost.