Young men about town. La dolce vita. Time warp, Leo and Skerries News

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Imagine my surprise on opening the September issue of Skerries News, to find a photograph (not the one above,) taken on my camera, probably sixty years ago. It shows a group of laid-back young lads sitting on a rock at The Captains bathing place in Skerries. I can almost recall the day. I can certainly recall the Kodak box camera, with sticky-plaster on the corners to keep out the light. (Free professional tip, there.) The shutter made a satisfying ker..pling to let you know that the scene had been successfully immortalised. I could almost name them all, fellows I spent a lot of time with in those far-off days, when the sun always shone and we ‘made one long bathing of a summer’s day.’ There were some with sun-tans and some with limbs as white and skinny as sticks of celery. There were one or two showing off their muscles. They were all smiling. How did Skerries News get hold of a picture that exists only in my memory? My picture was in sepia. Very strange.

For a brief time, my brothers and I were avid photographers. We learned how to develop photographs in a tray of ‘developer’ and fix them in a similar tray of ‘fixer.’ We had a red bulb under the stairs and an ordinary bulb in the hall for exposing the negative in a frame with the light-sensitive paper. It was all very scientific, provided you remembered which tray was which. The chemicals were kept in bottles on which we drew skulls and cross-bones and wrote in large letters DEADLY POSION or PSION or POISSON. The last one looked more likely. The others we crossed out.

It was intensely exciting to see the picture emerging in the developer. Writing with light, the literal translation of ‘photography.’ Sometimes it was so exciting that we ran out to show the result to the rest of the family, only to see the image fade in the harsh light of day or the harsher light of an ordinary bulb. Blast it! Forgot the fixer. We might as well have been photographing the Cheshire Cat.

We sort of gave up photography when the Guards began to enquire about the increasing numbers of dead Frenchmen being found in the area. They knew they were French because they wore berets and striped jerseys and carried bunches of onions around their necks. Some were still clutching bottles of a deadly poison which, the Guards surmised, they had mistaken for some kind of Irish chowder. One or two were able to mumble something about a red light district before expiring in agony. The Guards shook their heads sadly. Ah, these French! (That last paragraph is a complete lie, Your Honour.)

The notice at the Captains advises ‘competent swimmers only.’ It used to say:’ Beware of rocks and bootlace weed.’ It also stated the hours set aside for Ladies’ Bathing. It was during the grey and dismal Fifties, after all. We were all depressed, although we didn’t know it. Times change and practices change also, but some things remain. Youngsters still spend their summer days at the Captains. They have had a great season. Good sense keeps them out of the water on days such as the one depicted, no matter how competent they may be.

Wait a minute. Have another look at that picture in Skerries News. That’s not me. That young fellow on the left is my grandson, Leo. You can see that he inherited the family good looks. How did he get into a sixty-year-old photograph? I get it. Terns still roost on Rockabill. Cormorants and gulls still inhabit the islands and young lads still perch on the rocks of the Captains, all summer long. The article refers to exchanging swimming togs for school uniforms. Life isn’t all fun and games, Leo. Lounging around, shooting the breeze and laughing all year round, is a job best left to grandparents.

Heh! Heh!


Serengeti, David Attenborough,pecking order and a Jurassic smirk

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I admire David Attenborough without reservation. He is the ultimate communicator. He enables us to look at the world and all the infinite variety of life in it and feel something of the privilege that he speaks of so eloquently. We think big when we watch his wildlife programmes. We hear the sounds of Africa. We fear for the polar bear cubs. We marvel at the bewildering variety of all living things both animal and vegetable. We dive into the depths of the ocean. We wonder.

Yet I wonder about other aspects of the whole business. Why, for instance, do lions not winkle the tourists out of those high, open-top, vehicles? They have claws big enough. They can jump high enough. Do bacteria ever think:’There must be more to live than wriggling around some creature’s intestine.’ Why don’t they evolve and become stock-brokers with fine houses in the country? Why does nobody ever tell the bower-bird to take it easy occasionally? He really is a bit of an eejit. Give it a rest. Stop trying to impress the birds. I tried that lark for years. It’s a futile task. You get tired.

As a somewhat tattered Christian, I do not care for lions. They have ‘previous’ with Christians. I don’t like the unbreakable glass in the lion enclosure in the zoo. Unbreakable so far. ‘Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.’ Did the poet write that one in a zoo? Three orcas swam past my house one still summer’s evening. Their fins were like the sails of sinister yachts. They cruised languidly in the shallows, turning this way and that. I have seen the film. They are not averse to sliding up the beach in pursuit of seals. They drifted on in their interminable quest for food. I think of them occasionally when I dip myself in the water. Would I be a tasty mortal to an orca? I don’t like the way they hurl their prey high into the air. I have a touch of vertigo to add to my fear of being swallowed by sea monsters.

Attenborough, if I remember rightly, made ‘Backyard Safari’, a wildlife programme about what goes on in your garden. If it wasn’t Attenborough, it only goes to show that we imagine wildlife and wildlife photographers going about their business by kind permission of David Attenborough. He is the gold standard. It was as fascinating and grisly as anything that goes on on a larger scale in the Serengeti. You don’t need aliens from another planet when you look at earwigs, spiders, wasps. It’s a jungle out there.

I like to allocate roles to the creatures in my backyard Serengeti. The starlings graze like the herds of wildebeest. It has been pointed out to me that they strut just like Tina Turner. They do. However, the image of herds of Tina Turners covering the endless savannah, is a bit too much to take, especially early in the morning. The crows are buffalo, armed and dangerous. The seagull is a white rhino. With his perpetual frown he always looks angry. He eats too much too quickly and sometimes has to cough it back again. We were always told not to bolt our food, but growing up in a large family, you had to be quick. The blackbirds and thrushes are timid gazelles. Timid? Tell that to the worms. The sparrows fear nobody. They are surely, the baboons and monkeys.

Size is relative. Did you see Attenborough’s film of a plover chasing an elephant away from its nest? The wren is fearless. You will always catch him in the corner of your eye. Look directly at him and he is almost invisible. He is not afraid to speak his mind. Troglodytes Troglodytes We use the word disparagingly-a caveman. But this little caveman is, to borrow a phrase, simply the best. The wran, the wran, the king of all birds.

The wildlife film-maker never intervenes. He never jumps up from the breakfast table to chase a chattering magpie from a blackbird’s nest. He would never try to nurse a lost nestling. I found a sparrow hawk with a broken leg. He had knocked himself unconscious on a glass door. It was an old break. The vet said that it could never heal. He said that the bird would die in captivity. It died overnight,of sadness.

Accipiter, the sparrow hawk. His name sounds like speed. He is the leopard, the cheetah. A silence descends on the garden when he is about. He took a wagtail. He shrouded it in his wings and tore it to pieces. We found only a head and some feathers. Birdsong resumed, tentatively at first. You have seen how the zebra graze placidly beside the lion who is devouring their brother. Safe for the moment. My sister asked me to paint two lion that she photographed many years ago on a memorable trip the length of Africa. You don’t say ‘lions’. You say ‘lion’, just as you say ‘fish’ or ‘sheep’ but it’s different when you say ‘lion’. They say ‘fishes’ in the BibleI did a fine job but she laughed when she saw the result. ‘They’re just like Robin Hall and Jimmy MacGregor!’ Robin and Jimmy were two bearded folk-singer(s?) in the days of black and white television. You couldn’t put the heads of two folk-singer on your wall, I suppose.

The heron, by size, should be the elephant but his temperament is all wrong. He is closer to the cobra in terms of speed. He comes like a wraith in the pale light of dawn, to filch our goldfish. He has all the stillness and menace of a wild-west gunfighter. He has the elusiveness of a moth. I have stalked him with a high-powered water pistol but he gets the drop on me every time. He perches on a neighbouring roof with a pterodactyl smirk when he has done the deed.

Now here’s an idea I might pitch to Lord Attenborough (the brother.) Take the DNA of an elephant; implant it into a heron’s egg and recreate the long extinct elephant bird. It’s an old trick but…it …just … might… work.

A bad neighbour, work-in-progress and a brush with Skiffle

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My good neighbour acquired a leylandii tree when he bought the house. It was a small, unprepossessing bush at first. He was in two minds about it for a few years. It became a bird colony. It gave privacy to both of us. We quite liked it. However, in a few years the thing became bigger than both of us, as the saying goes. It cast his garden into perpetual gloom. The grass died. It banished us from our garden by half past three, in high summer. Neighbours further up the hill, lost their view of the sea. It laid its malign fingers on our apple tree and our two beloved cherry trees. The lawn turned to a mucky wasteland under its shadow. It had become a mal voisin (A BAD NEIGHBOUR) like the mediaeval siege tower of the same name.

It has been said that if you want to subvert society, cause domestic strife and civil broils, set brother against brother and neighbour against neighbour—plant leylandii everywhere and we will be at each other’s throats in no time. I have no such story. Our good neighbours came to us and discussed chopping the thing down. We agreed with alacrity. Our son, experienced in the business, undertook to do the job with a chainsaw. He disappeared up into the canopy. He was higher than the houses. He took a pruning saw and a bushman saw. A disembodied voice called instructions to those below. He humbled the enemy, laid it low and sliced and diced it into firewood. We counted the rings. The damn thing was only twenty four years old.

Suddenly there was light. Our gardens recovered but the fruit trees were a lost cause. Spectacular fungi clothed the apple tree. It had to go. The cherry trees lingered for a year but they were beyond retrieval. The blackbirds, the ‘little wobbers’ as my grand daughter used to call them, no longer came to steal–and discard–the unripe cherries. They never heard of deferred gratification. The number of ripe cherries we got from the two trees over twenty years, must have run into double figures. The immediate beneficiary was a clump of orange lillies. They became a jungle. Drastic action was called for.

“I say! I say! I say! My dustbin is absolutely full of lillies.”

Margaret and I cut the cherry trees down. A strong wife with a long rope is a great asset at such a time. The same chainsaw man diced them up. We now had a light-filled corner with nothing but lillies. It became a project. It required a lot of hard work, a lot of black sacks and a few dustbins. I whistled as I worked. Lonnie Donegan came to mind. My old man wasn’t a dustman, nor did he wear cor-blimey trousers etc.

“How do you know they’re lillies?”

In fact he was more than tolerant of our various ventures, probably knowing that we would grow out of whatever phase was in vogue at the time. I got a guitar the year Elvis burst upon the music scene. Sex, drugs and rock’n roll, were not the motivation in those days. I would have settled for the fanatical adulation of young women. I got a lot of requests, mainly from my siblings, such as “Stop that bloody noise!” I abandoned my musical ambitions. Whatever ever became of that other chap, Elvis?

My brother and his friends formed a skiffle group, or jug-band. They practised in our kitchen There was a kazoo, an instrument that replicates the sound of a hundred wasps trying to sing in harmony. It doesn’t work. There was a washboard–very hard to get nowadays. Automatic machines and modern detergents are so much easier on the hands and incidentally on the ears. Somebody played a jug! My brother provided the pulsating rhythms of the brush and tea-chest: dum dum dum dup dup dip dip dip dup dup dum dum dum dum. Somebody sang in the appropriate adenoidal tones for skiffle. ‘My Old man’s a dustman…He wears a dustman’s ‘at..’ Practice makes perfect. My Old Man never objected. He read his paper in the sitting room and smoked his cigarettes. He drank his coffee, Kenya Coarse-ground, from Bewleys. He never punched anyone ‘up the froat.’ Occasionally he raised a quizzical eyebrow at some extravagant piece of virtuosity. They never become perfect. They stopped practising. The brush returned to its more mundane function. Tea chest are unavailable nowadays, anyway.

All abstruse musings as we work in the sunshine. We are nearly there. We have a bright corner seat, where we can sit, drink coffee, talk and probably foment other plans. The original plan was just to sit and drink coffee. As to Lonnie’s question about identifying lillies—

“Lily’s wearin’ ’em!”

Tah! dah!