David Mitchell’s Diary: Ireland’s autism-friendly sport and after-after-parties in Dallas

I believe the GAA makes a major contribution to improving the mental health of teenagers, obesity rates and juvenile crime.

NS

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On Wednesday I flew to Dallas, Texas,  where Sunken Garden, an opera by Dutch composer Michel van der Aa that I was involved with, is being resurrected by the Dallas Opera House. When I check in to the hotel the receptionist says, “We’ll put you up on the 23rd floor.” The Republic of Ireland, my home for 14 years, doesn’t have a hotel with a 23rd floor. My room has a view of the flat roofs of nearby office blocks, freeways ten lanes wide, the Dallas sprawl and several cranes. I’m at eye-level with a crane operator’s cab. It’s the size of a small Portakabin. I catch myself playing a game of imaginary Spider-Man, jumping from crane boom to rooftop to the ledge outside my window.

The sunset is a pink nuclear tomato spattered against the vast flat west. The theme tune from the 1980s TV show Dallas is on auto-repeat inside my skull. Why can I remember this tune and not passwords for online banking? I text my brother to see if he knows. “Because we’re Bobby and JR, is why,” comes his reply.

Union don’ts

After the opera’s opening night on Friday there’s a reception for cast, crew, orchestra, donors and friends of the opera house in the rooftop bar of another hotel. My ears pop on the way up and pop on the way down. It’s a free bar, and the singers and musicians are thirsty. Today being Michel van der Aa’s birthday, he is treated to a Wagnerian rendition of “Happy Birthday” with the knob turned up to 11.

At the after-after party, conversation turns to tales of American union regulations. One of those present was nearly fined $1,300 for moving the musicians’ chairs in the orchestral pit (not in Dallas). His misdemeanour was to fail to instruct the chair mover to reposition the seats. A set designer had seen a director told not to address an actor with a minor role: by speaking to the actor directly, rather than via an intermediary, the director was elevating the actor’s status (and pay-scale) to that of a principal. I view unions as a historical force for good, and believe that in many British and Irish contexts, an emaciated union is the only bulwark against zero-hours servitude. The anecdotes I hear, however, remind me that reality is complex. No wonder so many American productions are filmed abroad. Art is difficult enough to make already.

Rock of ages

On my last morning in Dallas I have a few hours to kill, so I wander to the Nasher Sculpture Center, which is now one of my favourite acres in North America. It is currently hosting an exhibition entitled “First Sculpture” and it is five-star extraordinary. If you’re reading this within visiting distance, I urge you to go. Visitors learn about, and meditate upon, an array of hand-axes, spheroids and carved rocks whose resemblance to human heads is undeniable. Some are mere hundreds of thousands of years old, while the Makapansgat Pebble – an apparent head with hair, eyes, nose and mouth – is circa 2.5 million. I learn the word “pareidolia”: the psychological process whereby the mind perceives familiar patterns – like faces – where none exist.

The exhibition’s thesis, that the carved, chipped and “knapped” (more new vocabulary) artefacts on display are the first artworks our species created, is persuasive and mind-expanding. One bird-shaped carving with eyes and beak is attributed not to a Homo sapiens but to a Homo neanderthal. I hold a hand-axe made 700,000 years ago and wonder if I also hold any of its maker’s DNA in my genome. These artworks remind me that while verbal gloop, nerve agents, cliff-edges and the whims of dictators comprise our present political narrative, these are only a clutch of mumbled syllables in the greater narrative of our species. If that.

Child’s play

Coming home to Cork, I change planes at Heathrow and buy a copy of New Statesman at the still-shiny Terminal 2. I’ve never written a diary column before and I hope to pick up some pointers. My predecessor on this page, I find, is Jeffrey Archer. Fair play to the NS for its across-the-spectrum inclusivity. Readers may recall that Mr Archer complimented the Irish on having not only the best rugby team but also the best-mannered fans, who refuse to distract opponents’ penalty kickers by booing and whistling. Perhaps a little credit for this could go to the Gaelic Athletics Association, I wonder?

It would be ill-advised to attempt a potted history of the GAA here (or anywhere), and its critics’ accusations of historical sectarianism and a lack of transparency are not without foundation. In the credit column, however, the GAA organises national leagues for Gaelic football, the sport of hurling (high velocity aerial hockey) and camogie (hurling modified for women and girls); as well as sport camps for kids during the long Irish summer holiday. While the old “garrison sports” of rugby and football are officially eschewed, a pragmatic crossover exists at the grass-roots level.

By weaning kids off Clash of Clans (or their smartphone game of choice) and encouraging them to interact face-to-face rather than through social media, I believe the GAA makes a major contribution to improving the mental health of teenagers, obesity rates and juvenile crime, and promotes the kind of taken-for-granted sportsmanship that earned Mr Archer’s approval. The GAA club in my local town of Clonakilty recently held a well-attended public meeting about how to involve young people with autism. My son has autism, and while he needs to run around and burn off energy as much as any 12-year-old, he has zero interest in winning and requires a calm and experienced supervisory eye. Good on the GAA for wanting to build this bridge. On the far side is a more autism-friendly future. 

David Mitchell will appear at a “How to Understand Autism Better” event at Kings Place, London N1, on 22 March.

The paperback of “Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8” by Naoki Higashida, translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell, will be published on 22 March by Sceptre

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game