Nothing Ever Burns Down By Itself by Aisling Walsh

The narrow passage of cinder block painted matte white, with its grey industrial carpet and fluorescent lighting was my eventual weekend and summer playground from eleven years of age until my late teens. Left alone to wander the corridor I would do rounds reading over each framed poster documenting theatre performances from the early 80s, before I was even born, to the present.

It was the only exhibition at the public theatre-gallery where my father worked that was not open to the general public. The stale air of the windowless corridor was heavy with the odours of grease-paint, plywood sets and musty costumes. My laps took me past the offices, rehearsal rooms, round the back of the stage, the Green room, where once or twice you might actually spy someone semi-famous, then out to the foyer and back again. I could wander there for an hour or more, as I waited for my father to finish his day of curating, not meeting anyone.

Most of the posters were unremarkable, though I knew their order off by heart. But there was one, just opposite the steps to my father’s attic office, that always kept me lingering and drew my eye whenever I passed. The poster, a mostly black and red print, showed a man lying, presumably dead, on the ground outside a non-descript house. It was promoting a late-1980s production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist. It filled me, not quite with dread, but with a distinct discomfort. My father was an anarchist. He had the leather jacket and punk t-shirts to prove it. He was, at that point, the only real live anarchist I knew and the only person against whom I could measure my vague understanding of the anti-authoritarian ideology. I was aware anarchists were considered renegades by some, criminals by others, and that my father’s political inclinations provoked many an eye-roll in my wider family circle. I would stare at the poster and wonder was this how anarchists would come to an end, falling out of a building? Was it really an accidental death or actually a murder? Would such a thing happen to my father?

My father’s death, accidental or otherwise, was something that preoccupied me greatly. He was a smoker and I was one of those children on whom the 1980’s public health ads, with emphysema patients talking into a microphone through a hole in their throats, worked all too well. I would lie awake at night actively worried about the tar clinging to my father’s bronchiole and the possibilities of premature death through lung cancer or a heart attack. He tried his best to hide the habit, smoking out the back of his office or his house. But my nose was highly attuned to the scent of fresh tobacco and, in any case, I often caught him in the act. His attempts to hide the cigarette behind his back and fan the smoke with his free hand did not fool me. My childish tears and supplications did not work, he was addicted and it was years before he would give up smoking.

Was smoking part of the anarchist life style, I wondered? Would they let you into the club if you didn’t smoke? His favourite band at the time was the British anarcho-pop ensemble Chumbawamba. Their albums Shhh and Anarchy had provided the mid-nineties soundtrack to life with my father. They recorded a song dedicated to smoking, chiming in their flat British accents: "Nothing ever burns down by itself, every fire needs a little bit of help… give the Anarchist a cigarette." To my mind it condoned his habit as an act of political defiance, rather than a health hazard, and made me question whether my objections to his smoking fell into the category of "middle class square" worries.

I loved their other songs. The harmonic political satire and shameless defiance of authority was a comfort blanket in 1990s Ireland in the firm grip of Catholic dogma. We were the only openly atheist family I knew and, with the constitutional ban on divorce still in force, my parents were one of only two separated couples in our whole primary school. My mother was a "women’s libber" who refused to act like the other Mammies and my father railed against all supposed authority. Chumbawamba’s lyrics condemning racism, homophobia and domestic violence, or satirising organised religions of all stripes, helped me feel less alone, less like a freak, knowing that beyond the borders of our too-small island there were other people like us.

Inching towards adolescence I decided the best defence was to embrace my freakishness. I adopted the literal armour of two Chumbawamba t-shirts my father had bought at one of their recent gigs, which had been notable enough to attract a fascist protest outside the venue. He recounted this detail with a swell of pride. The t-shirts, bearing the titles of the aforementioned albums, nearly reached my twelve year old knees and their sleeves billowed at my elbows. My father relinquished them with some reluctance but I have no doubt he was thrilled to see his protegĂ©, his little mini-me, running around in shirts printed with the words "Look both ways when crossing roads, don’t wear slippers ‘til your old, never do what you are told," and "Go on. You’ve got five seconds. Say something outrageous." I combined these with a white long-sleeved shirt, alternating pairs of hand-me down dungarees which I ripped at the knee and Doc Martens. Grunge was giving way to Emo, but there were a few of us who, unable afford the investment in the emo aesthetic or who could not be bothered with the effort, still clung to a grunge as our mark of identity. When I was not obliged to wear my school uniform, this was the uniform I had chosen for myself; rejecting the world before it had a chance to reject me. The fact the t-shirts actually belonged to my father was not something I hid, but boasted about whenever I had the chance, proud to let people know I had a cool dad, an anarchist dad.

I am sure part of my father’s delight was knowing just how much my mother hated those t-shirts. I knew it too, only I thought it was because she was a square who could not abide the crass lyrics. But I suspect now it was her dismay at seeing me increasingly come under father’s thrall, and ever more distant and defiant of her attempts at maternal affection or authority. The more I challenged her and the more our arguments escalated, the more I was pushed towards my father as sole refuge against a world I was convinced neither understood nor wanted me. He accepted me for who I was, encouraged and respected me. Or so I thought; I was too young to know any different.

The last time I was allowed to go on my family's annual camping holiday to France I refused to remove my black t-shirts and wear something more summery, despite the thirty-degree heat. For reasons I no longer remember, I spent three days crying in our rented caravan, not speaking to anyone. No one knew what to do with me, least of all my mother. My grandfather, who had been paying for these holidays ever since my parents separated, gave me the present of a watch on the ferry home and in exchange asked me to try and be good. It did not work. The following year I was banned and sent to stay with my father for two weeks. "I don’t care, in fact I would prefer to spend the summer with him rather than suffer another bourgeois holiday in France,'' I shouted at my mother before slamming the bedroom door in her face.

As I did laps through the deserted corridors staring at faded theatre posters, or spent hours swinging my legs on the spare office chair, devouring one book after another, playing games on my father’s computer, washing his accumulated stacks of mouldy coffee cups or wandering around the shops in town looking at things I had no money to buy, I tried not to think about what my mother, brothers, cousins and neighbours might be up to Languedoc-Roussillon. Sometimes my father would let me help and I would paint over marks on the gallery wall with white, measure the heights for the exhibition labels, fold invitations and stick stamps and address labels on envelopes. I was a great little assistant he told me and I agreed. Who really wanted to spend a fortnight splashing around water parks or eating pizza and gelato every evening? I was too old for that kind of thing, and anyway I was having fun.

I did not always go into the office, opting to spend some days at his rented cottage so I could sleep late. I might make a sandwich for lunch or just eat half a packet of biscuits, there was no one around to tell me not to. Sometimes I made the half-hour walk to the village for a stroll along the beach. A seaside resort with one shop-cum-post office and three pubs, it was dead for all but a few weeks in the summer. Weaving my way through the clusters of families and wind-breakers, I was convinced the mothers stared in pity or disgust at this lone girl in her oversized, offensive t-shirts. If I felt out of place in suburbia where I lived with my mother, only one county over where my father had decided to settle, I felt like an alien. So mostly I preferred to stay at home and read or watch movies.

On other occasions, if my father had to pick up or drop off an exhibition he would take me with him in the theatre’s battered Ford Transit. We traversed the country eating chocolate, crisps and ice-creams, listening to Chumbawamba and chatting about art, the affairs of the day or whatever book I was reading. I felt special, favoured, The Favourite. He talked to me the way my mother never had, like a person, not a child, and I believed my opinions counted, which they did, as long as they aligned with his. And they did, of course, at least back then.

Waiting for the family holiday to end so I could return to my mother’s house and resume my normal teenage idling with my friends for what was left of the summer, those moments allowed me to ignore the aching loneliness and pretend I was not missing anyone or anything. This was all I needed. I had no friends where my father lived so his company, and the occasional company of his friends or latest girlfriend, were all I had. If I ever said anything to my friends it was only about how much fun we had together, me and my anarchist dad. There was no point asking my mother to reconsider, she was apparently glad to not have me around, nor did anyone else seem to miss my presence. I could not complain to my father for he was doing my mother, and me, a favour by having me. If I would only learn to behave myself, watch my temper, he warned as we chugged across the country, these "time out" moments would not be necessary.

In the meantime, Chumbawamba had their one hit wonder with "Tubthumping'' and I was disgusted. It was more than just the idea they had sold out that bothered me, it was the fact that they were now mainstream even though we, my dad and I—by then almost a single entity as far as I was concerned—had liked them first, before they got popular. With a chart-topping hit they no longer served as my ticket to uniqueness through niche and obscure cultural references. I retired the t-shirts, torn and over-washed, using them as nightdresses and reserving my daytime wear for t-shirts promoting my other teenage angst idols like Radiohead and the Pixies. I was growing up and growing into the white-boy music of my own generation, not only the hand-me-down t-shirts and CDs from my father’s collection.

At home however, things only got worse. The arguments became ever more explosive, the situation more polarised and my father, while posturing as mediator, only added to the antagonism. "You just have to learn to accept that your mother doesn’t love you," he said to me at sixteen. This advice followed a particularly strained interaction in one of our roadside exchanges where I went from her car to his, dragging my bags for the coming fortnight. Whether this was supposed to make me feel better, or cement my rage towards my mother, I am not sure.

Two weeks after finishing my final exams for secondary school, my mother gave me notice that I had a week to leave her house. I called my father straight away expecting him to say "don’t worry, come stay with me." I am convinced this is what my mother had expected as well, or she might have taken another, less drastic, approach to resolving the seven or more years of warfare that had raged between us. In fact, my father spent the summer inventing every possible excuse to convince me I was better off, at 18 and with no qualifications, not moving in with him. Instead, I dragged my bags between friends’ houses while looking for my first real job so I might have money to rent a room for myself. I carried only essentials, but this included his t-shirts.

Dazed as I was, I had still not woken to the reality that was staring me in the face. I was not my father’s special girl after all, I was just another familial responsibility he was determined to avoid. During a two week summer holiday I could not do much to encroach on his freedom, but if I moved in permanently I might ruin the lifestyle he had maintained since leaving my mother eleven years previously. I had one failed waitressing job after another until I was finally hired as a sales assistant at a city-centre department store. My father arranged for me to stay with a friend of his who had an empty house in a paused state of renovation. It was practically rent-free, so I could save all my wages for the trip to South America I had been planning for two years. But it came with other costs, principally the increasingly unstable mental health of my father’s friend. I stuck it out for a year, saved everything I could and the following September I was flying to Chile for an adventure that would ultimately determine the trajectory of the rest of my life.

I might not have guessed it then but this was the beginning of the end for my father and me. It took another four years and multiple ruptures, followed by increasingly forced reconciliation attempts, for the snap to finally come, three days after my mother’s funeral. Despite my childhood anxieties about his smoking, it was my mother whom I would lose all too soon to cervical cancer, and just as we were beginning to rebuild our relationship.

The t-shirts lingered even after the devastation of this final refusal of paternal care. They had been so much a part of my identity at such a formative point in my life that I could not bring myself to part with them even then. What would it mean to throw them out? Would I be consigning everything from my adolescence to the trash? I knew by heart then, and still do now, the lyrics to many Chumbawamba songs. Sometimes a random line or verse will worm its way into my head and linger for hours or days. But radical as they appeared when I was eleven, and desperate for any sign of belonging to a world that would not treat me like a freak, now the wry observations and political satire seem full of hollow rage and cynicism. There is no love, no hope, no care, nothing on offer except a cigarette.

And why are anarchists so proud of smoking, anyway? Do they not realise that all but perhaps the most artisanal, locally sourced tobacco, is a product of one of the most destructive and toxic industries on the planet? Have they not figured out that capitalism is driven by our addictions, whether it is sugar, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, or consumption itself? Or maybe lyrics are meant to be ironic and I’m totally missing the point. #NotAllAnarchists?

At university I studied anarchism, read Gramsci and learned about autonomous collective action for social change. I have followed and admired the trajectory of radical anarchist aligned or adjacent social movements such as the Zapatistas. I eventually came round to the conclusion that anarchism is one of the political tendencies where I found most room for hope. Despite all this, and having worn an A for Anarchy (A for Aisling) print on a t-shirt for much of my adolescence, I am loath to apply this label to myself. I remain suspicious of those who declare themselves anarchists, especially when this comes from a place which centres a white, male, urban, eurocentric understanding of political action. I can de-post-reconstruct my resistance to this, but there remains a lingering doubt, an imprint of that poster in that lonely hallway, the implicit threat of violence, a darkness and hypocrisy I had come to know intimately.

Aisling Walsh (She/Her) is a freelance writer and translator based between Ireland and Guatemala, with stories, essays and features published or forthcoming in Litro, Barren, Rejection Letters, Cordella Mag, Pank, Entropy Mag, Refinery29, The Irish Times, and The Establishment. Her personal essay 'The Center of the Universe' was selected as runner up in the So To Speak CNF Prize for 2021. She is currently working towards a PhD in sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway, where she is researching decolonial and feminist practices of healing justice in Guatemala.

Twitter: @AxliWrites
Instagram: Aisling_Writes