Written by Mark O’Connell, Slate magazine’s book columnist, this acerbic take on Gerry Adams’ latest publication, ‘My Little Book Of Tweets’, appeared in Friday’s edition of The New Yorker blog. Enjoy:
Gerry Adams, the president of the Irish republican party Sinn Féin, is set to release a collection of his bewildering tweets.
A man is sitting at a desk. He is gray-bearded and bespectacled, and his shirt sleeves are rolled smartly to the elbows. He is sucking on a lollipop, this man, and momentarily adrift in quiet reflection. He pulls the stick from his mouth and evaluates the diminished state of the confectionery, sucked down to a mere glistening fragment. There is a strange look now in his eyes, an expression of melancholy whimsy. Or is it something darker? We can never know the minds of others, but the mind of this particular man is especially unknowable. He sucks the last of his lollipop, places the stick gently on the desk before him. His current state of lollipop-induced wistfulness leads him to think of a song from long ago, a children’s song by the variety entertainer Max Bygraves. On a whim, he takes out his iPhone, and opens up Twitter, and types the lyrics of the song:
When u come 2 the end of a lollipop. 2 the end. 2 the end of a lollipop.
When u come 2 the end of a lollipop. Pop goes ur heart. Xo TGBE.
He presses send, and he leans back in his chair, taking his own advice (“TGBE” presumably stands for “Tóg go bog é,” a phrase which means “Take it easy” in his native Irish). He watches the likes and retweets roll in, and he is, for all we know, at peace.
The man we are talking about is the long-standing president of the Irish republican political party Sinn Féin, former M.P. for Belfast West, and currently sitting TD for the Irish electoral constituency of Louth. He has repeatedly been accused of membership in the I.R.A.’s Army Council, and of having ordered the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother the I.R.A. believed was passing sensitive information to the British Army. We are talking about Gerry Adams—although perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that we are talking about “@GerryAdamsSF,” the persona created by Adams through the medium of his consistently bewildering tweets, and whose relationship to the “real” Adams is a richly ambiguous one. Adams joined Twitter in 2011, and in 2013 his contributions to the social-media network began to be widely noted for their increasingly odd amalgamation of absurdity and banality. They have now been collected in a slim paperback volume, just published under the feyly utilitarian title “My Little Book of Tweets.”
Given his surface inscrutability, the cliché about not judging books by their covers might as well have been coined in reference to Adams himself. As it happens, though, a fairly accurate idea of this book’s over-all affect can be gleaned from the image on its cover: a selfie in which a goat rests its affable head on the author’s fleece-jacketed shoulder. The goat is beaming happily, but Adams’s expression is cryptic; his eyes stare blackly from behind dark-tinted spectacles, as though quietly notifying the potential novelty book-buyer that it would be in the best interest of the goat’s health if he or she approached the checkout and made the purchase without any further delay. The cover image captures an interplay between the preposterous and the unsettling—which is to say, the interplay between text and context—that characterizes the book as a whole.
Considered in isolation from the controversies and ambiguities that surround Adams like a mephitic haze, the text itself is undoubtedly weird, but hardly interesting on its own terms. The most interesting thing about it is that it was published at all, given that the target readership for Adams’s tweets will presumably have already read them in their natural habitat. (The tweets’ spelling and grammar have been cleaned up in the book, so there’s that.) I myself am not one of Adams’s ninety-nine thousand followers, but I’ve seen him retweeted and aggregated enough times over the last three years to have got a sense of his general approach to social media, and to be familiar with the most notable examples of his output. The man we encounter in these more widely shared and discussed tweets is a studiously whimsical figure, likelier to be found holding forth on his collection of rubber ducks and Teddy bears—or putting out a general inquiry as to the height of Elvis Presley, or sharing photos of some cupcakes he’s just whipped up, decorated with the faces of puppies—than blasting out hundred-and-forty-character polemics about the necessity and justice of a united Ireland.
Politics remains a mostly background presence in the tweets collected in the book, typically only raised as a subject of coy allusion. One page, for instance, features a diorama model of a prison, complete with tiny men playing football in a barbed-wire-fenced exercise yard. “I came upon this model of a H Block,” the tweet accompanying the photo reads. “Isn’t it a wonderment the things U come upon?” (No gloss is provided here, though a scholarly footnote might inform the reader that “H Block” refers to Long Kesh prison in County Down, where Adams was interned for three years in the mid-seventies, for membership in the I.R.A., an organization to which he has always unflinchingly denied ever having belonged.)
Another photo depicts a rubber duck recently added to what seems a truly prodigious collection of same; this particular bath toy is a London tourist souvenir, wearing a headdress in the style of Big Ben’s iconic roof. The text of the tweet—“Tick Tocky ár lá”—might need some unpacking for international readers, to whom it wouldn’t be apparent that “Tiocfaidh ár lá” is an Irish phrase, meaning “Our day will come,” and which is understood as a battle cry of militant republicanism. In the absence of any kind of elaboration, you can’t help wondering whether this might not be a joke, transmitted on dog-whistle frequency, about the I.R.A.’s numerous London bombings throughout the years, about the violence Adams himself was so instrumental in bringing to an end. This sort of clumsy jest wouldn’t be at all the sort of quip you’d expect from such a famously polished and canny political operator—but then again the whole strange enterprise is decidedly not the sort of thing you’d expect from him, which is possibly the whole point of it in the first place.
The book, with its routine dispatches from Adams’s extracurricular activities (“Pilates. Aaaaaahhhhh”; “1st Pilates of 2015 . . . ”; “Seriously overstretched myself @ pilates”) and its endless jokily plaintive references to overdue household chores, creates a vacuum of significance so total that you wonder whether you’re missing some deeper intent. There is, for instance, an overwhelming emphasis on bathing: aside from the frequent testimonials to his menagerie of rubber ducks, Adams insists again and again on his enjoyment of every aspect of the bathing process. “So the bath beckons!” we are told. “Plastic ducks. Soapy suds . . . .” Elsewhere, he tweets that his bath “Overflowth,” advising his followers that he has just taken delivery of his “1st Orange Duck,” and that “A Good Suddy Soak” awaits him. If you encounter the book, as I did, fresh from a re-reading of “Where The Bodies Are Buried”—Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2015 New Yorker piece about the murder of McConville, in which a number of former I.R.A. volunteers claim that Adams ordered her killing—you might be inclined to read his commitment to keeping the public briefed on his ablutions as a haphazardly staged psychodrama of guilt and purification.
In one of the transcripts of recorded phone conversations between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, recently released after a Freedom of Information request by the BBC, Clinton casually mentions to Blair that his daughter Chelsea happens to be writing a college paper on Adams, and that he himself has been reading up on his history as a result. “I don’t know what the real deal is between him and the IRA,” he tells Blair. “It’s hard to put pressure on him when you don’t know what’s going on. It’s bizarre.”
This sense of an absolute occlusion of the “real” Adams has always been a factor in his political presence—which is not to say that he is necessarily any more inauthentic than your average successful politician, just that the concealment of the “real deal” is, as Clinton remarks, so bizarre. It is as though Adams were his own doppelgänger. The most absurd expression of this arose not out of any duplicity on his own part, but from a legal move made by the Thatcher government, which banned the broadcasting of his voice in the United Kingdom. Between 1988 and 1994, whenever Adams appeared on British radio or television, his speech was dubbed by an actor. Watching clips of those appearances now, they seem a kind of avant-garde video art, effecting an uncanny critique of political discourse. The thought presents itself that perhaps all politicians should be dubbed by actors—to emphasize the slippage between speaker and speech, to enact an estrangement of the performance we know is being staged. In any case, it’s difficult to reconcile this version of Adams—a man who so frightened his political enemies that they felt the need to exert control over the vibrations of his very larynx—with the harmlessly eccentric gentleman we find in this book, reaching into his pocket for a pen and taking out his toothbrush, and, elsewhere, reaching into his bag for clean Y-fronts and taking out a grandchild’s bib. (“Silly Billy. Need 2 pack better in future.”)
This cognitive dissonance is the appeal of his Twitter persona, of course, but it’s hard to believe that an operator as artful as Adams is approaching the project as anything other than a means to a political end. Writing in the Belfast Telegraph last year, the journalist Henry McDonald pointed out that the effect of Adams’s tweeting about bouncing naked on a trampoline with his dog was to distract a media that should have been focussed on other matters—for instance, why Sinn Féin were imposing public-spending cuts in Northern Ireland, where they are in power, while opposing them in the Republic of Ireland, where they are not. To imagine that such a move would be far too cynically manipulative, he wrote, would be a misunderstanding of “the ultimate Machiavelli of modern times.”
This suspicion, that Adams is displaying his whimsical side for un-whimsical reasons, is reinforced by the timing of the book’s publication: “My Little Book of Tweets” arrives just three weeks before Ireland’s general election, on February 26th. The country is badly in need of a strong left-wing opposition to the presiding neoliberal consensus, and Sinn Féin’s popularity has grown in this vacuum. But Adams has always been a highly controversial figure south of the border, and there is a sense that his past, whatever version of it you happen to believe, is a deal-breaker for many Irish voters who might otherwise be aligned with his party’s policies. The self-confessed “Silly Billy” that the book presents may or may not be a useful fiction, but as a character he is a dramatic departure from the figure with whom the Irish electorate was previously familiar. How deep, really, is his affection for bath toys, his childlike sadness at the dwindling of lollipops? These questions must now be added to the many whose answers we may never know.