Berkeley: where the rot begins

17th June 2015

The news from Berkeley, California, is so upsetting that I cannot sit still. Five Irish J-1 students and an Irish-American have lost their lives when a fourth floor apartment balcony collapsed. Seven others are severely injured. The loss of these beautiful young women and men – the precious cargo of our nation – hurts in a visceral way. The mind reels, wishes that circumstances had been other, implores that the disaster might be avoided. It is a hopeless thing, because the event is already in our past. It has happened.

A one-line piece of reporting sent a chill to my core. It suggested that the wooden joists of that fourth floor balcony had been subject to dry rot. That the balcony’s integrity had been compromised through poor construction. Rain had done its worst to the wood holding the whole thing up. The Berkeley calamity took place yesterday. Its roots, it would seem, were lain down way before. Ye gods.

I have been spending time in the company of screenwriters – those insufficiently recognised women and men who lay down their words in a screenplay, only for a movie director to promptly steal most of the given glory.

I refer to my loyal listenership of a podcast called Scriptnotes – one in which the challenges of screenwriting are treated in great detail. Today, the issue was plot.

A screenwriter lives and dies by the tightness of plot. However, there are constant demands – because of budget, ego, time constraints, et cetera ad nauseum – to change the script.

Altering plot is a dangerous thing indeed. Each beat of a story may look simple, even innocuous, but in fact it is granularly connected to every other beat. Change one early on in the movie, and it’s like playing with one’s forebears. In screenwriting, the biggest problems are sown when lines are changed willynilly. The consequences of ill-considered alterations may not be seen for some time. Beware, the long fuse of disaster.

Today’s reports from the sacked and misused staff of Clerys Department Store, in Dublin’s city centre, has a familiar strain: the actions of investor sharks who do not care one jot for human suffering.

This is absolutely true, but is only the proximate cause of the Clerys liquidation fiasco. The seeds of its demise were sown decades previously: in a management team which failed to exert influence in order to reverse the decline of O’Connell Street; in a management team which lacked the courage to reinvent its brand for the digital age; and in a more recent and cynical management team which kept up appearances to the bitter end, despite knowing its staff and concessionaires were in deep peril.

When things catastrophically collapse, we tend to blame the nearest culprit. Lash out. Judge rashly. Or wring our hands at fate’s cruelty.

But what of the dripping water, which, over time, turns perfectly good wood to rot?


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