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Bob Hoskins’ 1988 film The Raggedy Rawney on-the-face-of-it appears to be about why some humans must die so others may survive. But the film also deals with themes of social destruction and the futility of war. Focusing on a Romani group, its underlying messages are of love, family and community. As we battle the Coronavirus the same topics are with us today.
Hoskins’ directorial debut centres on the character of Tom (Dexter Fletcher). He’s a young army recruit in a deliberately unnamed time and country. He is a deserter pursued by a semi-blind, sadistic army-officer for his crime. Shell-shocked, Tom retreats into muteness. He takes refuge with a travelling gypsy caravan whose leader, played by Hoskins, is Darky.
Darky’s only daughter, Jessie (Zoe Nathenson), forms a romantic bond with Tom, and becomes pregnant by him. In order to avoid arrest and execution, Tom disguises himself as a ‘rawney’, described in the film as a ‘magic’ madwoman, who (in the gypsy culture) can see the future and control animals. Frightened at first, Darky befriends the ‘rawney’, thinking it will bring good luck. But soon Tom’s presence exacerbates him.
To make things worse, Darky is revealed to be a flawed leader. He’s poorly equipped, and unable to protect his clan from war. Throughout the film, the army Tom has fled from threatens the gypsies’ way-of-life. In a moving finale, the soldiers finally corner the clan who manage to hold them off with meagre rifles and pistols long enough to enable the young members of the caravan, including Tom and Jessie, to escape. This is at the cost of their own lives.
Watching The Raggedy Rawney now encourages us to consider the potential catastrophe the Coronavirus represents. In many ways though the film is hopeful too if we appreciate Tom’s capacity to survive, and thus humanity’s. When threatened, Tom instinctually retreats inward to the nurturing protective bosom of the Romany group. Here he seeks the safety of his adopted fellows and receives it.
Darky, meanwhile, does what countless leaders have also done when threatened. He protects the core of society by relying on those at the periphery to go on the offensive. Societies when threatened always defend from the outside in and nurture from the inside out. The scouts who go forward are the first line of defence for Darky’s people. They are specifically selected because they are the best, the fittest and most mature. They are the people able to process information, communicate their findings and follow orders. They take the full force of the enemy’s inevitable assault. The next line of defence is the older people who, weaker and less capable of defence, sacrifice themselves.
Observing the destruction of the latter, Tom with Jessie begs Darky’s permission to flee. Darky, first reluctant to grant Tom his freedom, does what countless other leaders in his predicament also have done throughout history. He makes a quick mental calculation as to the best chance the society, not the individual, has for its survival. Both Tom and Jessie are of child producing age and know the history and traditions of the Roma. They win their freedom because they are most suited to ensure the society can continue.
When we compare the message of Hoskins’ film to the current dilemma threatening us, we realise humans are a tough lot. We are very capable survivors and we have strategies we adopt when threatened.
Consider the fact that about 70,000 years ago, after the super-volcanic eruption of Toba in Indonesia, the human species literally teetered on the brink of its extinction. According to estimates, only about 500 reproducing females remained worldwide. In Ireland, we had the Famine of 1847 which halved our population, and later Tuberculosis, from which thousands more – mostly children – died. Even though COVID-19 is attacking the opposite end of our society’s age profile and working back, the decisions our forebears made then are very similar to those being made now in Ireland. Our citizens are collectively doing everything humanly possible, some at great risk to themselves, to save as many lives as possible.
This selflessness, combined with harnessing the best of centuries of socio-economic and scientific progress internationally, means the Irish are largely responding with the essential empathy and compassion typical of our nation. In Italy, however, a society with a long history of development and care for its elderly, those over 65 years have unfortunately been categorised as less in order of priority than younger members of Italian society. This is not because Italy is less humane than us, or because its people have suddenly chosen to sacrifice their elderly to this pandemic, but because the situation requires it.. The pressure this has put Italian health staff under is unimaginable, a situation that cannot be comprehended fully unless one has experienced it first-hand.
As one WHO health professional identified, the decisions being taken by Italian medics are comparable only to battlefield/triage conditions. This is whereby the evaluation to save life or let life ebb away has become the everyday norm. These decisions are not ones our health professionals trained for or want to make. In Ireland they will not have to if we continue to apply common sense and everyone does their part.
One potential reason humans underestimated the risk of COVID-19 may be drawn from Nick Bostrom at Oxford University. Ironically it is strikingly like Darky’s mistake. Bostrom identifies that our evolved minds do not appear naturally predisposed to think long-term about risks on a global scale. We, despite globalisation, appear to be much more inward-looking. From what we know about our evolutionary history and its mechanisms, he suggests, this is completely understandable. In the early Cenozoic years, those better able to ‘dodge-the-lion’ were more likely to pass on their genes, while those focused on contemplating probabilities and defence against gamma-ray bursts from outer space might have represented good news for the continuation of the lion’s genetic line, but not their own.
If anything, the lessons of Hoskins’ film should give us hope by revealing to us our mistakes as observed by Bostrom. Through Darky, we are shown that if we are reckless and do not extrapolate from our very narrow time-frame perspective, our way of life and very existence cannot be assured. We may mitigate risks as Darky sought to by not overly relying on the lessons of the past, but this is always dangerous. The basis of our survival has and always will rest upon us taking responsibility, applying the lessons from the past.
This is not a time for reproach, but a time for action and hope. Yet, we must also consider one final aspect Darky chose to ignore, the ample warnings of the army’s final attack. We ignored the SARS threat and we escaped Bird Flu only by inoculation. Many years ago, writer Eliezer Yudkowsky identified that the challenge an existential risk poses is to our ‘rationality’. A catastrophe can be so huge that people may snap into a different mode of thinking.
We seem to have become complacent, even appallingly arrogant. We ignored our evolutionary history, became contented of our power and assumed the very people we denied a decent wage, equipment and humane working conditions – our nurses and our health care professionals – were enough to save us. Like Darky, we largely failed to learn from the lessons of our collective histories.
What’s important though is that we have the solution in our hands now. Unlike Darky, we can learn from our mistakes. It is not too late. We can act in time. This requires us to become less selfish, reassess our values, better respect nature and be cognisant that we do not have the right to ask others to sacrifice themselves for our sake as Tom did. We need to do the things and develop the behaviours we have not hitherto been prepared to undertake. It is necessary to apply the lessons from the past. We must in the future commit to work collectively to the benefit of us all. Our future survival depends on it.