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On Pavlov, pavlova, Eric Cantona and drugs

by Paul Larkin

THERE IS a big difference between a pavlova and a Pavlov as we all should know. The need to explain this, however, became apparent to me when I told a mate the other day that he had just displayed a Pavlovian response. I had asked him whether he was addicted to cannabis and his response to this was to ask me whether I was addicted to alcohol. (I presume it is obvious that this conversation took place in a pub.)

Perhaps only Irish males could sit in a pub and have a conversation that took in the delights of pavlova meringues, Eric Cantona, the dangers or otherwise of drug taking, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard and the poet Czeslaw Milsosz.

I'll explain the Ivan Pavlov connection at the end of this article.

My pub interlocutor (whose name is Marcus), is an avid reader of my blog Cic Saor and he asked me what my next subject of discussion was going to be. When I told him that I was going to write about the French footballer Eric Cantona his ears went all bushy and his eyes sparked, but when I added that it was in the context of drug abuse his head dropped. It was almost imperceptible, but a drop it was.

This is a similar look to the one that RTÉ and Irish Times journalists give you when you start talking about collusion between the Brits and loyalist terror gangs. Please don't go there. Just when I was having a good day. Please don't make me think.

I had seen Ken Loach's film Looking For Eric the week before. The film's overall backdrop centres on the huge and probably irreparable damage that the illegal drugs trade has done to a place like Manchester - where I grew up. A place where very young boys on bicycles swoop down in packs and administer what now passes for a perverted Reservoir Dogs kind of justice in many estates. The drug culture equivalent of Africa's boy soldiers and yet we conspire to laugh at Africa. Its not just Manchester of course. It's Dublin, Philadelphia, Buncrana, LA, Tijuana, Ballygobackwards.

In fairness to Marcus, it is true that alcoholism and alcohol abuse are also huge problems. This is something I know from intimate and very painful experience, and drug abusers do have a point when referring to the devastating health problems caused by alcohol abuse. In fact in a straight comparison (without factoring in other related social issues), alcohol abuse seems to be more of a health issue than drug abuse. For an excellent discussion of this point, readers might want to surf to the Guardian's George Mobiot at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jun/29/drugs-cocaine-environment-fair-trade

This article has the catchy sub headline -

"I know people who drink fair-trade tea and coffee, shop locally and snort drugs at parties. They are disgusting hypocrites."

However, what a surprising number of journalists, as well as apologists for the happy go lucky, "chill out", "relax man will ya?" drugs culture like Marcus don't want to talk about is the corrosive social effect that a drugs culture has had on society. This is nothing more or less than a selfish and privatising cultural canker, an anti-community disease, which these (usually middle class) drugs apologists exacerbate with each shekel they hand over to their dealers and by extension the drug barons who ultimately control the trade.

Consider this. I once made a film for RTÉ called Scum which looked at one particular area of Dublin and the horrific social tsunami that was generated once drug abuse had imploded the area. Now if you factor in the negative social health equity, or what is increasingly called the "wellness" factor, that comes from perpetual overdoses, needle assaults, robberies, car thefts and break ins as well as the general malaise that Dostoevsky called 'Civic Grief" (another phrase for social stress), the drug problem and its health equation makes alcohol abuse look like kids fighting over lollipops.

I put my point to Marcus in this way -

"In the back to back, toilet in the yard, terraced streets where I grew up, alcohol abuse and its attendant social ills was rife but muggings were unheard of and most people in my area either left their doors 'on the latch' or simply left their doors open."

Marcus had no answer to this.

Eric Bishop sorts his life out

So now let us look very briefly at how we might start really dealing with the problems outlined above using Ken Loach's film as our investigative lens. Bear with me good readers, bits of what follows are very funny, so you will get relief.

The hero in Looking For Eric is not actually Eric Cantona but another Eric - Eric Bishop, a Manchester postman (played superbly by Steve Evets, a former bass player with "The Fall"). Eric Bishop's life has come to a juddering halt because of the breakup of his marriage (made worse by having to see his ex wife regularly due to childminding arrangements for his granddaughter).

Add the fact that Eric's eldest son is becoming embroiled in a drugs gang and that this despairing father has lost control of what goes on in his house and you have a tragedy in the making that is of Trojan proportions. Trojans, that is, besieged by drugged and banged up Greeks.

Of course, there is a pun on the fact that there are two Eric's; with one (Eric Le Roi Cantona) helping the other Eric to find himself; or to put it in Manchester mode - "sort his life out".

I should stress that the film is anything but dull and worthy (a charge often erroneously levelled at Loach and his regular writer Paul Laverty). Looking For Eric is actually hilarious in parts and, of course has the advantage, if you are a Manchester United fan, of containing lots of footage of Eric Cantona in full majestic flow.

The only danger with this is that when Eric's first goal is shown in the movie I presume that most Manchester United supporters have done what I did which is to stand up in the hushed cinema, arms aloft, shouting "Get In There You Fucking Beauty! It was only when I turned to gloat at the opposition fans that I remembered where I was. Take a partner who can hold you down at the footie bits if you are that way inclined.

By far the best moment (the most convincing and moving moment) in the film is when Eric Bishop reaches the nadir of his despair. His eldest son is keeping a gun for a drug dealer but there is nothing he can do about it. Worse, his eldest son batters him over the head with the gun.

Both Eric's sons do absolutely nothing in the house, which teems with their mates in various states of "chill out" and sex/video game scenarios. Eric retreats to his bomb site of a kitchen and you feel that he is going to disembowel himself with the rusty bread knife but at that moment Eric Le Roi appears and says - "Just say 'Non'".

At first Eric Bishop emits a pathetically flat Manchester "no", but King Eric is having none of this and asks him to be a man. Stand up and say "Non" with balls! The end of this pivotal scene in the film has Eric Bishop roaring No! with such manic intensity as he bangs a saucepan on the kitchen table that it drives the dope befuddled teenagers who are holed up in the house out into the street. Class.

There then follows a truly uplifting section of the film where King Cantona gives Eric Bishop a crash course in existential philosophy. Decide what is important to you in your life, stand up for what you believe in, take control and (this being a Ken Loach and Eric Cantona film) reach out to your mates and your community for help.

It was in this context that myself and Marcus began talking about Karl Marx and Søren Kirekegaard. For both philosophers foresaw that true existential individuality would be crushed in a modern society that was devoid, or had been robbed, of spiritual or aesthetic values - the theory of alienation from society. A society where money is the only value. It should be added that Eric Bishop is also put through his physical paces in a fitness regime worked out by Eric Cantona. The body as the spiritual house of the soul.

It is not just the inspiring words and actions of Cantona (ghostly or otherwise - it's hard to decide) that helps Eric Bishop out of the mess he is in; his mates at the postal sorting office pull together to lift him out of his depression and provide another very good example of communal self help.

I have seen similar things in my own working career in the merchant navy and as a labourer on the railways. It is not just some starry-eyed invention by Loach to romanticise working-class people.

On one ship, whilst I was at sea, a deckhand had suffered a very bad car accident just before signing on board. He was "carried", as workers say, for his whole period of duty, with other deckhands doing his manual duties or doing things like rigging up and adjusting wooden platforms so that he could just sit and paint in the sun.

By all accounts, this man subsequently drank himself to death but my (and Ken Loach's) point about working people helping each other still stands. You have to keep trying.

In my view, the weakest part of the film is the ending, where a large gang, all wearing Eric Cantona masks, invades the gated and tree-lined mansion belonging to a major Manchester drug dealer.

In my own experience of making films about drug dealers, this just could not happen in this way. If the anti-drug gang had found a way of blocking the drug baron's ready access to firearms as well as the perimeter and personnel security, whilst at the same time deactivating the panic buttons in the mansion (an inside job in other words) then it would have been far more believable.

Every major drug dealer I have ever met has kept firearms, either in the house or very close by. Every major drug dealer is as well protected as any middle-class broker or banker with whom they are usually on first name terms. They are nearly out of sight.

They are not rebels as portrayed in recent films about the so called General, they our new ruling class. Read Cormac McCarthy's terrifying No Country For Old Men and understand the pitiless and inexorable world of our new rulers - the drugs barons and their financial backers.

Ken Loach has highlighted the only way we can deal with drugs and drug dealers. The problem is not going to be solved by a police culture of elite and armed response units, a culture that ironically mimics the culture and language of the gangs that they are supposed to be fighting. No, it boils down to what we as individuals in the community do.

This approach is far less glamorous and requires far more patience and social vision. The middle classes whose finances and know-how basically underpin the drugs barons must be persuaded, one way or another, to stop supporting them. At the same time we have to ensure that the "Make Poverty History" idea is far more than just an empty slogan. Poor people become addicts because they are seeking a vision; they want to touch the sublime. Yet they do not have the wherewithal, which requires high self esteem, social stability, financial resources and good learning.

I quoted lines from Czeslaw Milosz (one of the greatest poets of all time) to Marcus:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us

How difficult it is to remain one person

For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,

And invisible guests come in and out at will.

Ars Poetica - Czeslaw Milosz

There is the conundrum; how to become your true self, to "remain one true person", and yet still be able to leave your doors open for everybody else - to be truly human.

And so bizarrely, perhaps, but by way of a conclusion, this is how the difference between a pavlova meringue and Ivan Pavlov came up.

Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist, was famous for discovering what came to be known as the "Pavlovian response" where dogs immediately begin displaying a series of behavioural responses when stimulated in certain ways.

A dog might, for example, get to understand that if a bell was rung he was about to be fed and his tail would start wagging, he would begin to salivate, and then jump around the room. This is a conditional reflex or Pavlovian response - an immediate and unthinking response. Manchester United fans display a form of this syndrome when even the very name of Cantona is mentioned.

My friend Marcus displays another form of it when the drugs problem is raised - he immediately starts talking about alcohol and he is not on his own.

Congratulations, says I, you have just displayed a Pavlovian response

Is that something to do with meringues and sugar addiction or something because I do get the munchies when I'm on the Wacky Backy but its Twirl bars with me for some reason?

No Marcus. A Pavlovian response is when you do or say something instinctively, without thinking. Like kicking out in bed just as you are falling over for the night. It's an automatic response.

What are you going on about Paul?

You say alcohol the minute I say drugs.

Yeah but how can you drink alcohol if you are against drugs?

You've just done it again Pavlov.

My name's Marcus, Pablo…..

The above is a slightly edited version of an article which appears on the author' blog Cic Saor

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2009-09-08 16:02:42.
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