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Brought to tears

28 August 2015


ALMOST as good as the programme itself was the image used to promote Lacrimosa (Radio 4, Monday of last week): a close-up of an eyeball, in which the stain of a tear refracts into a religious image in stained glass. Image and content were for once in perfect accord; for this was the account of a man so oppressed by his religious upbringing that he was unable to cry.

Well, almost. He cried at bereavement; and he almost cried at the sad part in the third X-Men film. But Proinsias O’Coinn, by his own admission, is unable to cry at any of the works of art, music, or film which tend to leave the rest of us blubbing uncontrollably. It’s a Wonderful Life? Not a drop. Schubert’s most tender Impromptu? Like the drought in summer. As a child, he cried freely: “A bit of a yap,” in the coinage of his native South Armagh. But the heavy religion of his youth has knocked all that out of him. That, and the fact he is homosexual.

Mr O’Coinn was a little coy about telling us this important fact at the start, but once he let it out, then a kind of rudimentary psycho-geography started to emerge. Put it this way: South Armagh Roman Catholics are not known for their public displays of emotion at the films of Barbra Streisand, and Mr O’Coinn reckoned that his inability to cry was the result of anxiety about displaying vulnerability, and thus giving himself away. Coming out to his friends has thus been the first step in breaching his self-imposed emotional regulation.

I don’t think I am spoiling anything by revealing that, by the end of the show, he did not quite achieve the big, Kleenex-drenching shot we were all hoping for. In fact, the closest he and we came to having our tears jerked was when he met a priest and asked him, with a naïvety that was either touchingly sincere or shamefully manipulative, whether he, as a gay man, would be admitted into heaven’s pearly gates. Frank Capra, eat your heart out.

So we know now the sorts of things that Mr O’Coinn is going to have on his playlist. But what if you are an unreconstructed fundamentalist, waging war on the decadence and heresy of the world? What music do you kick back to? In the case of Osama Bin Laden, it appears that the Algerian light-entertainment star Enrico Macias fits the bill. Some gentle crooning is just the thing when planning the scourging of the infidel.

Sadly, the 1500 or so cassettes reviewed in The Bin Laden Tapes (Radio 4, Monday of last week) contained few such insights into the man’s musical tastes, but more about the way his strategic focus shifted over the 20 years represented here. The tapes, recovered from Kandahar after the fall of the Taliban, include sermons, and even audio from battleground exchanges, and have been researched by Professor Flagg Miller for a new book on the Taliban.

In among the brutal rhetoric are moments of touching humanity, including a recording from the Afghan/Russian conflict in which soldiers eat breakfast and recount with nostalgia the sweetmeats of their homelands. The scene might have come from any number of sentimental war films; could it have been the closest Bin Laden came to a tear-jerker?

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