My Brother, Old Movies and Dublin Zoo.

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If the designer’s name had been Duckworth, or Pigeon or perhaps, Fish, the fortunes of MGM could have been very different. For one thing, I would not have had to hide under the seat the first time I went to the cinema. It was supposed to be a treat. Son of Lassie. Lassie was a bitch, a beautiful white and tan collie. I had seen the posters. She was a beauty.  I gathered in later years, that there were several Lassies, stand-in Lassies and stunt Lassies. Some of the Lassies were in fact, rather effeminate dogs. But who cared?  Ars Gratia Artis and all that.  Obviously one of those dogs got through the security and past the many minders that protect Hollywood royalty, because Lassie had a son who followed her into the family business. It can be an advantage in Hollywood, to have a famous parent.

However, the designer for MGM was Lionel S. Reiss. The clue is in the name. I went with my parents and older siblings. It was night time. I got sweets. I was almost a grown-up. It was all very exciting. The lights went down. The curtains opened. A beam of light came from overhead. There were specks of dust in the beam, motes, as they are called in the Gospel. I looked around. The light came from a small, rectangular opening up near the roof. The light was almost blinding. I turned back towards the screen. I blinked to get the green and red spots out of my vision.  Suddenly there was a terrifying roar. There was an enormous lion glaring down at me. He roared again and looked around. I hit the floor in panic. Nobody else took any precautions. My brother, John, laughed.  ‘It’s not real’ he said. ‘You can come up. It’s only a picture.’  I got back on my seat, as the lion faded away but I kept a wary eye out for him. If 3D had existed at the time, I would still be under that seat.

The film was in Technicolour, the wonder of the day. Lassie’s son, if I recall, was involved in the Great War. He ran through No-Man’s-Land, between explosions and screaming shells. Machine guns went takka-takka-takka. All the humans shouted at one another but Lassie’s son stayed calm through it all. He carried messages and unwound phone wires. It looked dangerous but still, I watched out for that bloody lion. John explained aspects of the film—as was his wont—but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. We discussed many films late into the night, in the years that followed, discussions that flared into arguments, until the Old Man intervened and told us in no uncertain terms, to go to bloody sleep. We were severe critics. But did anyone listen? As Sam Goldwyn himself said: ‘Critics! I don’t even ignore them.’

Legend has it that one of the MGM lions was from Dublin Zoo. A Northsider. I met his grandson the other day. Was I scared? Not a bit of it. I had two sturdy lads to mind me. I have a tenuous faith in armoured glass. There used to be iron bars. Isn’t he the image of his grandfather?  Hollywood royalty, no less. He was taking it easy. He never even roared at me.

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He also looks like the lion on the Tate and Lyle golden syrup tins—without the bees or whatever they are. Maybe they were  bluebottles or blowflies. I don’t know the difference. It seems a strange logo for a tin of golden syrup, but it tastes like Heaven. It comes from the sugar cane, ‘the reed that yields honey without bees.’ When you think of it, wouldn’t you prefer honey that comes direct from the cane than second-hand honey that bees have carried around, stuck to the hairs on their legs. Bye and large, I don’t really want any food that was stuck to the hairs on anybody’s legs, not even those of Cyd Charisse, legendary Hollywood legs, insured for a million dollars, against all eventualities, presumably even theft.

It lashed rain in the Zoo. My minder had a map. He pointed out the hippos on the map…and the elephants. He pointed out the monkeys. Monkeys always give good value. ‘Look at his bum!’ It was bright red. As we say in show business, ‘If you’ve  got it, flaunt it.’  He had and he did. We moved on. The map deteriorated in the rain. We hacked our way through elephant grass and malarial swamps, pressing on gamely until we reached an outpost of civilization, an indoor playground. I was a bit nervous of the slide but our intrepid guides took to it immediately.

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The bearers took up their burdens and we struck out towards The Mountains of The Moon and the African Savanna. My geography and my glasses, get a bit hazy in the rain. We passed a lake full of flamingoes that had been left too long in the washing machine with somebody’s red socks. The Masai like red robes. I wonder. We took shelter in a settlement where we bartered some beads for Southern Fried Chicken and French Fries. SHE Who Must Be Obeyed, needed coffee and so did I. And icecream. I think there was honey in the chicken sauce, but what the hell! We were probably within a day’s march of King Solomon’s Mines and the hippos….and the elephants.

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Over yonder glinted the snows of Kilimanjaro. We were approaching elephant country. We saw giraffe, gazelle, rhino, zebra and ostrich. (It is compulsory to use the singular—-great white hunter speak.) and maybe some good gnus. Zebra, ‘Donkey ‘ngo Football Jersey’ in Fanakalo, the pidgin English of South Africa.  I like that. The gorillas were taking it easy and keeping dry. There was no Attenborough around to talk to them. In fact they haven’t spoken to anyone since Hanno, the Carthaginian, met them two and a half millennia ago. The only word he could make out from their strange speech was Gorilla.  There’s a coincidence.  They looked a bit bored. They were not interested in how we had evolved over the years. We have lost the prehensile toes…which would have come in handy. (There is no other way of saying that.) We still prefer to sleep upstairs, as they do, but we can’t digest sticks. Maybe we have devolved, but we have developed better umbrellas.

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No hippos opened their ponderous jaws to destroy our flimsy craft. We must have taken a wrong turn or perhaps, being south of the Equator, we just miscalculated. Next year’s expedition will take place in the dry season, when the wasps migrate to the bins to gorge on the honeyed scraps and the icecream wrappers. At last, just as supplies were running out, we came to the elephants. Tembo, the greatest of all mammals, placid and wise in manner, with the solemn eyes of General de Gaulle. Thank you, Tembo, for allowing us to pass through your territory. We intend no harm.

John explained many things of a scientific and astronomical nature.  He was at times, a cantankerous old bachelor. He was not blessed with luck. We often argued.  He loved maps and charts. He read the night sky. He left us last week, taking with him a book, The Stars in Their Courses by Sir James Jeans, his lifelong guide to the Universe. He will no longer ring me to give notice of The Sky at Night on television. He missed a good one last night about the Moon and its influence on the Earth. Apparently it acts like the governor on Paddy Noonan’s steam traction engine, keeping the Earth’s rotation on an even keel. It is moving imperceptibly away from us. In a billion years we will be in trouble. He can explain it to me when I meet him again. I will listen, this time. I confess that I often saw the mote in my brother’s eye, rather than the beam in my own.

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Looking around me in the rain, at my bedraggled companions, I realised that I had indeed found the incalculable riches of King Solomon’s mines.

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The high cost of living.

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Do you remember ‘your man’, Wordsworth? ‘I wandered, lonely as a cloud.’ ‘Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.’  His life overlapped with that of Charles Darwin. Two ways of looking at things. Natural Selection versus Mother Nature. What mother would subject her offspring to a ruthless contest for survival?  Springtime is the time for weeding out the weak. It is the time when the non-viable fall to the ground, seeds, insects, animals in countless millions. They fall victim to the strong. It is a random world; survival of the lucky. Wordsworth had his head in the clouds. Where is his poem about the plague bacillus or the anopheles mosquito? They are part of nature too. Darwin came closer to the truth. Yet ‘The Nature Poets’ dominate school curricula all over the English-speaking world. Darwin struggles to get a hearing.

In  Disney’s world, the lion lay down with the lamb. Bambi had no genitalia. In his splendid nature documentaries of the Fifties and Sixties, no kills took place on the African plains. By the way, Dumbo did learn to fly. The dancing black grouse were not angling for a mate and procreation. They were auditioning for a part in a movie. Nowadays, nature documentaries are all about killing and rutting…Nature red in tooth and claw. We thrill to the sight of the osprey taking the fish ‘by sovereignty of nature.’  So that’s all right then. Did anyone bother to ask the fish’s opinion? What do the krill tell their children about the vast, cruising, whale, with his constantly open mouth, devouring millions for dinner? Ironically, the biggest trawler on the west coast of Africa in recent years, was an Irish vessel. It hoovered up the shoals of fish in the ocean currents and devastated the fishing economies of the coastal communities. Ironically, because the Irish are the Most Oppressed People…Ever, the MOPES. It’s nature’s way, apparently. Darwin could explain it.

Wordsworthian profusion covered our pear tree. The insects turned up on cue. They queued up in fact, to do their business. ‘for summer hath o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.’ That comes a bit later.  When writing nature poetry, it ith obligathory to thay ‘hath‘.  It’s like prayer. You must use the language of the King James Bible. ‘And birds do sing, hey ding a ding a ding. Sweet lovers love the spring…’ ( King James’s contemporary, the other William).  We thrill  also to the song of the blackbirds, as they go about their murderous trade. ‘Forget the worm’s opinion too, of hooves and pointed harrow pins. For you are driving your horses through the mist where Genesis begins.’ It’s a jungle out there. The Monaghan poet accepts the cost of survival at the expense of others. He mentions dung in his poetry. Wordsworth would never sully his hands with dung.

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These are the losers and winners. Those not touched by the magic, fall to the ground, their potential cancelled out.  Countless others have ‘struck.’ (Verily, I should say ‘stricken’?) I look forward to devouring them.  It’s a parable. It was a Parable. Look around at the world and think of  the teeming millions whose potential never got off the ground; never even got to the starting line. You are the apex of an evolutionary process that has taken, so far, about four billion years. You have been selected. Now lace up your boots and get out there. Gird up thy loins and do your stuff. (Here endeth the lesson.)

Somewhat sombre thoughts on a morning when the birds are singing. There are ten new cygnets in the Kybe Pond. We must go and visit them today after The Rás. Hundreds of cyclists but only one winner.  He gets a kiss and a bunch of flowers. Well worth the effort. I hope he girds his loins, or they might catch in the derailleur and there would be weeping and gnashing etc. etc.

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These little people are intrigued by the spring fall of seeds. These helicopters won’t get off the ground. They will have to wait for autumn and the real Sikorskys, from the sycamores.

I have to admit that I like old Wordsworth.

Oh evil day, if I were sullen.

While the Earth herself is adorning

This sweet May morning

And the Children are pulling on every side

In a thousand valleys far and wide,

Fresh flowers while the Sun shines warm

And the babe leaps up in his mother’s arm………..

The Giro. Eyes on the Prize.

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The cycling aristocracy came through Skerries on Sunday last. I saw Oleg Tinkoff on his bike, my first ever Russian oligarch. I’m not sure what exactly an oligarch is. It appears to be any Russian who makes a few bob, whether by hard work and business acumen or by plundering the assets of a country left in chaos by Boris Yeltsin. ‘On your bike,’ was the advice given to the unemployed, by Margaret Thatcher’s minister, Norman Tebbit. Oleg seems to have taken his advice. He has done well. I expect oligarchs to arrive surrounded by black leather-jacketed  minders, but Oleg wore his team’s yellow lycra, as did his companion. Yes, he owns team Tinkoff Saxo Bank, with all its bikes and cars and lycra suits and socks and helmets etc. etc. He took a wrong turn at the railway bridge and went off along The Cabra, but oligarchs don’t go too far astray. He was back again in minutes and away under the bridge. Now, if Abramovich had arrived in his ‘yacht’, with all his minders….His ‘yacht’ is as big as an aircraft carrier. That would have caused a bit of a stir around the harbour on a Sunday afternoon. But…who owns all the pink balloons?

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Emily was three on Sunday. She wore her princess dress. She had her minder, Luke, with her. She likes pink, the colour of the day. People began to gather, like a benign version of Hitchcock’s birds, one or two at first and then a few more. Policemen put out barriers. They were cheerful and solicitous for the safety of the spectators. Something was afoot. Motor bikes, sirens, cars and lots of pink balloons. Everyone got a cheer or a wave. Passing trains sounded their horns. There was a helicopter puttering away in the distance. It rained but nobody cared.

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Blink, or fumble with a camera setting and you could miss it. There they are!  There they go!  A river of colours. Swisshhhh!  You are supposed to shout when you go under the bridge. There is a satisfying echo. There are stalactites from a century and a half of seepage, that you can knock down with a long elder stick and pretend that they are cigarettes. The elder sticks have a pungent smell that clings to your hands. There is a good elder tree about two hundred yards beyond the bridge, on your left…very convenient for knocking down stalactites.  I could have mentioned it to Oleg. He was in no great hurry. His team and all the others however, had the heads down. Their thoughts were on the prize. They had no time to notice that the furze was in blossom or that the white-thorn was beginning to burst out overhead, promising a good crop of haws for the winter. They say that’s a sign of a hard winter ahead. If I had the business nous of an oligarch, I would corner the market for haws and dominate the pea-shooter business.

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The cars appreciated the bridge. They blew their horns and hooters, as a king’s ransom in bikes went under the bridge.  A good bike used to cost £15  in Oisín Thornton’s shop. I should have bought them all when the price was right.  Oisín also sold spades, seeds, fescue, (fescue?) radios and television sets (black and white only). Team Sky. I kept an eye out for Rupert Murdoch, trying to picture him in lycra. Maybe the elder statesmen of the cycling world travel in the cars. Maybe I should have chosen a better vantage point, like the professional photographer on the traffic island. I have forty pictures of him. They could be worth something in fifty years time.

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An elder statesman of cycling, a Rás man himself, admitted to me that the best way to watch cycling is on television. The helicopter man had a spectacular view. Skerries looked so beautiful, even in the rain, that if I didn’t live there already, I would go and live there. He cruised around the harbour and the islands. No sign of Abramovich’s little dinghy. The town was decked in pink. There was a triumphal arch of pink balloons. Emily invited us to tea, the real business of the day. She had acquired some pink balloons. Now, I wonder where they came from. Showing some early entrepreneurial skills there, Emily. Balloons make a great noise. They used to make the dinosaur noise with them in the early films.

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In the days of black and white, we watched the motor bike races from the bridge. There were no gorse or white-thorn bushes. It was a brilliant vantage point, but we got no pink balloons. We certainly got no pink birthday cake or fizzy drinks to make us hyper. I did however taste my first post-war orange at the races. It was a blood orange, with streaks of red and pink. I can still taste it. I can recall the taste of stalactite cigarettes too, although I gave them up years ago. I say nothing about the elders.

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Some corner of a foreign field. Irony. Rapture of the Deep.

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For want of a nail…This is where Captain Cook came to grief. It seems that he refused to give any more nails to the native people. They took umbrage and killed him. There was a swordsman by his side, Molesworth Phillips, from Swords in County Dublin, a Royal Marine. Even Molesworth couldn’t save the great navigator. This small piece of Hawaii is British territory in perpetuity, in honour of the captain. Her Majesty could surely spare the man a flagpole and a flag. Maybe, of course,  the captain was trying to bring alien species into the island. They are very strict: ‘Are you carrying any snails or reptiles, Sir?’  Americans can use ‘Sir’ like a searchlight. ‘Step away from the car, Sir’ You know that you are nailed when you hear ‘Sir’. My brother in law was nabbed trying to bring Clonakilty black pudding to Florida. ‘Step away from the sausages, Sir.’  He’s not strictly my brother in law. There are no smugglers on my side of the family.

 Nails are precious things. I asked my neighbour, Milo if he had a couple of nails to spare. ‘Come into my nailery,’ he said expansively ‘and I’ll see what I can do.’ He had a drawer filled with dust and rusty nails. There were oval wire and round ones of many different sizes, straight and bent.  He had a little boat with a put-put outboard motor. It was held together by rusty nails. ‘Should you not use copper?’ I asked out of my ignorance. He looked at me pityingly, a landlubber, steeped in ignorance. ‘Nothing holds like a rusty nail.’  The nails made attractive, blue/grey patches on the wood. We went out to Saint Patrick’s Island , one summer evening. There was a big swell running. Put-put-put went the motor. Clang-clang-clang went my heartbeat. We lost sight of the horizon in every trough. We teetered on the crest of every wave. I looked longingly towards the distant land, the white flicker of surf and home, measuring the distance. I was the better swimmer.  Milo whistled, at ease in his natural element.

On another occasion we came around The Baily in a Fastnet 34. Fastnet! Get it? Hurricane? Major yachting disaster?  Simon le Bon’s keel snapping off?  The bolts sheered off under the force of the waves. Should have used rusty nails.  We were in a lumpy sea, with an easterly wind. I drew Milo’s attention to these coincidences, as the yacht dropped from a dizzying height, into a swirling abyss. ‘Huh,’ he muttered, intrigued and went below to put on the kettle. We were heading for a mark, with several other towering yachts converging on our course. I drew his attention to the situation. ‘Luffing rights,’ he remarked. Of course. Why didn’t I think of luffing rights?  ‘Luffing rights,’ he called to the rival skippers. They turned away.  It’s a phrase I keep in reserve for real emergencies.

Strangely for the Hawaiians, who had no concept of metallurgy, (hence the craving for nails) they host the Ironman World Championships every year.We went there to cheer on our son, Alan. He is a non-stop athlete. He did spectacularly well and continues to do so. No sign of rust there. We did the tourist things, like reef snorkeling at Captain Cook’s monument. When you put your head under the water, you could hear parrot fish, crunching at the coral. Apparently this is their sole source of food. Crrrunnnch-crrrunnnch  all day and all night, nibbling the island away. Fortunately the island is constantly re-built by the volcano. The Hawaiians were having a day off, when they named this island. It is the biggest of all the Hawaiian Islands. They called it Big Island. Our daughter once lived on Avenue Road in Acton.  Adam called flies flies because they…. Must try harder. 

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The parrot fish are down there somewhere, crunching away. The reef falls away into vertiginous depths. They talk of rapture of the deep, but that is brought on by gas. There is a rapture brought on by the strange colours, the sense of weightlessness, the myriads of fish, the story of the people and their relationship with the ocean. History. I decided to swim over and pay my respects to Captain Cook and the Swords man. I clambered out onto the reef. A voice, magnified by a loud-hailer called out:  ‘Sir. You are forbidden to stand on the reef.’  It was the skipper of our ‘rib’ an intimidating young  American woman. I slithered back into the water like a hunted cousteau and merged with the other flotsam. I imagined that I could hear the parrot fish tut-tutting, the hypocrites.

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I should have shouted ‘luffing rights.’  I could have pointed to the activities of the parrot fish. It was pointed out to me afterwards that, as a citizen of the European Union and pursuant to the Treaty of Rome, The Schengen Agreement, the Maastricht Treaty, the Single European Act, ratified by all the member nations, guaranteeing freedom of movement  et cetera and cetera, I am entitled, as an Irish and E.U. citizen, to enter Britain or any other E.U. country, without let or hindrance. I could have, but I wasn’t carrying any copies of the relevant treaties at the time. I was wearing Speedos, flippers and a face mask. If I had been carrying weighty copies of the treaties in my Speedos, I would have incurred even more suspicion from our imperious skipper.

In the Polynesian myths, the world stands on a pillar which stands on the back of a great turtle. It’s an analogy for islands that perch on top of pillars of volcanic rock. The coral grows only in the daylight near the top. The turtle moves from time to time. It’s a precarious world. I watched much of the race while perched on top of a plastic wheelie bin, with three or four other spectators. It was an excellent vantage point, until the lid began to soften in the heat and sag under our weight. I expected to be plunged ignominiously into the depths of the bin. I decided to get down. My right leg was dead from cramp. I fell to earth and hobbled around, trying to get back some circulation. It’s not funny but it makes you laugh all the same. Pins and needles. Like rapture of the deep only drier. Alan was doing fine. It was all bloody fine for him. He had trained for it; pumping iron, iron enriched food supplements or whatever.

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Captain  Cook was dispatched with a wooden club or spear, probably ironwood. Milo’s boat was shattered on the beach in a sudden storm. The nails gave up the ghost. My neighbour lost one of his good shoes in attempting to rescue it. It is probably still bobbing around the Hebrides or’ the still-vexed Bermoothes,’ the shoe, not the boat. John Kingston’s legendary hardware shop had the world’s greatest nailery. You could buy one or a bucket full.   The shop exploded one night, in a most astonishing conflagration of paint, timber, gas cylinders, bitumen, roofing felt, oil, insecticides, fertilisers, wall-paper, glue, (even one called No-More-Nails), tools, nuts, bolts and anything you could think of. John had it all. It laid a heavy swag of smoke across the strand and all the way across the sea to the horizon and Saint Patrick’s Island, where Milo sailed his little boat.  He was a great mariner who would never refuse a person a nail or a favour.

Even without Saint Patrick, there are no snakes in Hawaii. No Sir.  I drive to Swords nowadays to buy nails.

When I nibble shortbread biscuits, I hear the parrot fish.

Meet the Corvids and of course, The Fokkers.

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As I was walking all alone

I heard twa corbies makin’ a moan

That ane unto that ither said

Where sall we gan tae dine the day?

With apologies to that prolific  author, Anon, my recollection is inaccurate as is my spelling. This is from a Border Ballad learnt in school. The Border Ballads tell of a time of constant and brutal warfare in the transitional territories between England and Scotland. The dilemma still perplexes fashionable diners. Where shall we go to dine today? The second crow had a good suggestion.

In behind yon oul fail dyke

I wot there lies a new-slain knight

And naebody kens that he lies there,

But his hawk and his hound

And his lady fair.

There follows a justification and an invoice, a bill of fare. The hound has gone to the hunting; the hawk to fetch the wildfowl home and the lady has taken another mate….’so we can mak our dinner swate.’  That’s life. We move on. Get over it. Adapt. Recycle. ‘You sit on his white breast bane and I’ll pick out his bonny blue e’en.’  The crows are the great recyclers; the raven, bird of ill omen; the rook, master of the gale, in his  swaying, tree-top dwelling; the jackdaw, that snapper-up of unconsidered trifles; the cliff-dwelling chough and the sinister scaul crow, connoisseur of carrion, who has lately begun to visit our garden. Easy pickings among sparrows and starlings. I remember how we believed that there was a bounty on scaul crows, five shillings. They had  a reputation for attacking lambs. They steal the wool and the eyes. They are probably a protected species nowadays. We make our dinner sweet from the poor lambs. Its a harsh world, as Anon would say.

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‘All to one side,’ said Brother Arnold, ‘like the town of Fermoy.’  I worked there in later years. The town of Fermoy has a mighty bridge, spanning the spectacular River Blackwater.

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Brother Arnold was talking about fractions, integers, decimal points, LCDs HCFs and always, mental arithmetic.  Coal cost £3-6s-8d per ton. How much for 1cwt?  A man runs 440 yards in 1 minute. How long would it take him to run 1 mile?  It should take him 4 minutes, but in reality, he will be knackered at that pace, by the time he reaches 1320 yards. I did that calculation in my head.  ‘You’d do it while you were puttin’ on your boots.’  No big deal.  He divided the sheep from the goats on the basis of mental arithmetic. He had a portable blackboard with numbered squares. Last thing in the afternoon, he gave each one of us a work-out, pointing rapidly to one square after another. You would be knackered too,  after four minutes.

I could never see anything one sided about the town of Fermoy, but in fairness, I was no mathematician. I swam in the Blackwater, opposite what is now Michael Flatley’s house. I swam underwater and heard the river rushing by and the millions upon millions of pebbles rolling in the shallows. I heard the constant thunder of the weir, by day and by night and marvelled at the countless salmon leaping up the weir. (Rainman was standing beside me. ‘47,362,’ he said, a true mathematician.) There is a documented account of the unique war between the crows in the trees on the Pyke Road and those downriver near Carrigabrick Viaduct.. The war went on for weeks, with spectacular aerial combat over the river. Perhaps they were auditioning for The Blue Max,  filmed in 1966 in the same skies. It was not a one sided war. The Blackwater looks beautiful in the film. The biplanes dived under the viaduct, again and again and even clipped the little castle on the cliff. It was magnificent, but it was not war. The combatants were rival German air aces—a bit one sided. They were vying for the favours of Ursula Andress, the general’s generous wife, she of the prehensile bath towel. (It was 1966 after all).  It’s an old story. Like the lady in the Border Ballad,  she found another mate. Get over it.

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This is, apparently, Anton Fokker, builder of wonderful and beautiful flying machines. He is flying Santos Dumont’s monoplane, in 1909.  Would you fight a war in one of these? ‘That lonely impulse of delight…. drove to this tumult in the clouds?’  The crows would do better. They had the last word on war.

‘Wi’ a lock of his gowden hair

We”ll theek our nest, when it grows bare.’

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A crow’s-eye view of the whole business.