Railway art, crocodile tears and Hamlet.

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You never regret a railway journey, no matter how crowded or hot the train may be or how glum your fellow passengers are. There is always that childish air of promise, some surprise to intrigue or divert  your mind. Your companions may be caught in a moment of suspended animation or indeed in animated conversation. The train presents opportunities for concentrated people-watching, probably the oldest entertainment in the world. You must keep an impassive poker face. Or you can look out the window. A vast cyclorama unfolds as you go along: sheep grazing, a man ploughing with a tractor, birds descending on the furrows, golfers deliberating, boats on the dry, back gardens with the bric a brac of family life strewn about the lawn, projected suburban developments long abandoned and overgrown with weeds. Three jet planes there, racing westwards. The passengers are too high to see the ducks in Rogerstown estuary or the reflections of the trees where once there were orchards and strawberry beds.

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The young lady beside me was applying her mascara, preparing a face to meet the faces that she meets. It’s a delicate process. It took her all the way to Malahide to get it to her satisfaction.  I thought she looked okay before she started. Strange stuff, mascara. I looked it up. It was used in ancient Egypt by priests and pharaohs and notably by Elizabeth Taylor. It was compounded from wax, kohl, soot, the juices of berries and crocodile stool. I looked that up too. You don’t want to know. Victorian ladies were very fond of mascara and spent hours every day, applying their cosmetics. There was no shortage of soot, what with children climbing up chimneys all the time. Gentlemen used mascara to darken their moustaches. The children in the chimneys had no need of makeup. It would have been wasted on them. Kohl to Newcastle. Just a thought.

Eye liner? Young girls emphasise their eyes with black stuff. It makes the eyes small and sneaky looking. A pity. The windows of the soul.  Eyebrow pencil is a hoot. The eyebrows are painfully plucked away and then replaced further up the forehead, with black paint. It makes for an expression of perpetual surprise. I bet the crocodiles would have been surprised too, if they had known what was being done with their stools. God has given you one face and you paint yourselves another. Hamlet. W Shakespeare. The illusion of beauty might be better if it were not accomplished in public, under the eyes of strangers. Magicians guard their secrets jealously.

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The Victorians had many other accomplishments worth noting. They made cast iron a thing of beauty and utility. They built railways to link countries in meshes of steel. They strung wires and cables to create a world-wide-web. Their municipal and railway building were works of elegance. They invented new colours that a pharaoh might envy. They developed industrial war. They developed photography to record their achievements for better or for worse.  They grew great beards and Dundreary whiskers—the men mostly. They did not invent that ugly perspex, or the aerosol spray can. No wonder Turner and The Impressionists loved the iron, the light and smoke of the railway age.

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That shed had an elegance of its own. It was built by craftsmen in time gone by and defaced by modern vandals. It is difficult to admire graffiti artists. Their slogans are illegible. They appear in the most unlikely places, no doubt at great danger to the artist in question. Perhaps it is akin to the Victorian desire to place a flag on inaccessible peaks. There is an air of revolt and anger about graffiti.  I saw one once, Sod the Ozone Layer. Enough said.  And yet, in certain circumstances, they might have a point. That oil tank is more interesting, even though I can’t read what the artists have written. A lot of work went into it. Maybe like WWI dazzle paint, you don’t see an ugly tank at all.  A spot of crocodile stool might complete the effect.

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The building behind is still ‘a blank canvas’. We shall see.

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Gandon and Identity

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A young fellow tried to rob the shop in our local garage. He wore the requisite garb for the occasion, including a balaclava. He carried a hammer. He spoke in a menacing manner. He demanded money. Unfortunately for him, the lad behind the counter recognised him as a former classmate and identified him by name. “No I won’t, XXXX”  (identity concealed to avoid litigation from would-be thieves). The robber was indignant. ” Eff off, YYYY” (crude attempt to protect the identity of the hero of the piece)..”It is not me.” It was and he was nabbed. In Gandon’s Four Courts, as in every court in the land, you will be required to identify yourself on oath.

A common greeting in Ireland is:  ‘Is it yourself?  If you have been away, you may be asked: ‘Are you back?’ In both cases, the answer is usually: ‘Yes.’  I study the fellow in the mirror in the morning. He has been known to wound me with a blunt razor, on occasions. I could identify him on an identity parade, if required, but occasionally I don’t recognise him in old photographs. If I am not myself on any given day, I go back to bed until I am myself again. I used to look like the man on the Identikit pictures and expected to be arrested for a myriad of heinous crimes. On passport photographs (Do not smile!! Take off your glasses!!) I looked like your average neighbourhood axe murderer. I have been finger-printed in the U.S.A. Immigration Service, in case I should come back in twenty years time and do all the stuff I said I had never done, on the immigration forms. On the dust jacket of my first novel, I am an amiable young lad with flowing locks. On my latest, computerised driving licence, I have pixels and lines all over my face. There is a hologram of a harp and what I would swear is Gandon’s Custom House, obscuring half of my features. There is a regal touch…Rameses II, after the embalmers had done their best. I don’t look myself.

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That’s Gandon’s Custom House to the left. I liked the ship. It suggests the age of sail,  trade and commerce in a simpler time, when ships came all the way up the Liffey, at least as far as Carlisle Bridge (built by Gandon).  Casks were piled on the quayside and vessels from all over the world, disgorged their cargoes onto horse-drawn drays, under the watchful eyes of the riverine heads and H.M. Customs. There were tallies, ledgers and stamps. Documents were authenticated with wax seals. All was made manifest. There were no bar-codes, pixels or computers. The computers are housed in the building to the right, the IFSC, a temple to lucre and the ephemeral business of financial trading. The instigator of the IFSC, Charles Haughey, lived in a Gandon mansion. Perhaps he had lost the run of himself.

I was excited to be summoned to Gandon House to authenticate myself with a new identity card. I shaved carefully, avoiding wounds. Nothing betrays a miscreant as readily as scars on the face. I mean…Scarface! A friend was surprised to see me at the railway station early in the morning. ‘I didn’t recognise you.’ He meant clean and tidy and wearing shoes. I lacked the hunted demeanour of the commuter. I looked out of the train window. I had no electronic device to insulate me from the world. I speculated on what Gandon would have built in the great age of steam.  He died about six years before the first railway locomotives tooted their whistles and sent up smoke signals of what was to come. I looked forward to being greeted by a bewigged flunkey and ushered into an echoing marble hall. I expected ceilings of astonishing Italian plaster-work and oil paintings of grave and dignified statesmen, Lords Lieutenant and Generals festooned with medals and sashes. I checked my evidence of identity, a birth certificate, passport, driver’s licence, utility bill and the letter summoning me to be there. I thought I had everything. Cogito, ergo sum.  I definitely was me.

Gandon was having an off day. This is Gandon House, in Amiens Street, near the city morgue.

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There were no flunkeys. The staff members were courteous and helpful. It was a painless experience, except that my feet were protesting about the shoes. Me dogs were barkin’, as they say in Dublin. I answered a few questions about things I hadn’t thought about in years. I was photographed and no doubt, pixillated again. I must await the outcome. I came home on the next train. The countryside sparkled in the heatwave. The sea glistened invitingly.

I took off my shoes. I was myself again.

The Captains. After Midsummer’s Day. John the Baptist

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The artist, Fred McElwee, must have swum here, like thousands of others.He captured the pull and the surge of water at mid tide. No doubt he experienced it at extreme low tide, when you can stand comfortably on the bottom and at high tide when the waves wash over the platform and the current flows through like a river. Sometimes it is enough just to walk down to The Captains and gaze into the water at flickering herring fry, heralds of warm weather and mackerel. They flee in perpetual fear from the terrible jaws of the  mackerel. Their eyes are round and staring, searching, looking this way and that for safety. There is none. I rescued a stranded fry and held it in the water. I resuscitated it by gently squeezing it until a bubble of air emerged from its mouth. Now it could submerge. It wriggled away into the depths. Some day, when I am shipwrecked and clinging to a spar in the swirling waves, a giant herring will find me and say: ‘I remember you. Be not afraid’.   It worked for Androcles and to some extent, for Jonah, so why not for me.

Just be a little afraid in The Captains. The notice used to say: ‘Beware of Rocks and Bootlace Weed.’ It played to our fear of The Deep and the creatures that may lurk there. Bootlace weed won’t hold you if you swim gently through it. It slides off your body like a caress. Very little grows there anyway. Similarly with the big, leathery laminaria. It forms waving, sunlit forests where small fish hover and jellyfish occasionally drift speculatively, seeking whom they may afflict. The notice now says :’Competent Swimmers Only’. No eejits. Beware of diving onto rocks. On your own head be it. Beware of diving onto swimmers too. A friend landed on my head once. It was a pain in the neck. Still is, in damp weather. Right now we are enjoying a heatwave. I must break off here (8 30) and go for my early morning swim in The Captains. The tide is full. I should have it more or less to myself. There will be no hurtling young lads to fall on my head. Nobody will blow a whistle and dragoon me into a sea race.

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(11 30) Yes. It was better than I had hoped for. A week ago the water was mind-numbingly cold. The swim made me sad and resentful. Today was perfect; warm, clear water; sunlight glittering on sea, rocks and islands, as far as Lambay;  a haze over the Mournes; a few bright  cumulus, begging to be painted. Go for it, Fred. Moreover, it was all mine. Maybe I am becoming a curmudgeon.   Although melancholy poets write about the Earth tilting like a compass in a binnacle, as it leans away from the Sun and goofy Druids try to prevent it, the summer generally picks up after Midsummer’s Day. There are no thoughts of careering pell-mell into winter. In mediaeval times, young maidens in search of a life partner, danced in the churchyards, among the tombstones, on Saint John’s Eve, June the 23rd. That would be regarded as ‘anti-social activity’ nowadays. That’s John the Baptist, a man not normally associated with levity. In fact a dance cost him his head, poor fellow.

Stevenson said that a young fellow should be a great deal idle in his youth. I did my best. The Captains is a place of fun and sociability for succeeding generations. We argued and laughed and listened to our elders. We learned to dive and swim and practise water-safety. I have my badge from 1955. I am qualified to rescue others besides herring fry. I learned the Halger-Nielson method of resuscitation, where air was pumped back into the lungs by raising and lowering the elbows. Utterly useless for herring fry. There is a manoeuvre whereby you place your foot on the victim’s shoulder and push him/her down into the water while turning him/her around  in order to execute the ‘cross-chest-carry.’ There were no /hers in my class. Drat!  It was the Fifties, after all.  My partner was stout and heavy.(Most kids were skinny). His legs were too short to reach my shoulder. He kicked me severely in the face, (nothing personal) until the instructor gave up on him. He settled for a long cross-chest carry, before awarding the badges.  Fortunately neither of us has been called upon in the intervening years to use our skills.

The late and lugubrious Les Dawson complained about his expensive new shoes. He bought them a size too small. ‘The only pleasure I got out of them was taking them off.’  This very fine ladies’ changing shelter, built in 1956, after desegregation, was a bit like the shoes. It was built of fine Howth Stone, a striking piece of Modernism (?) It immediately became a public latrine. Outside, it was a sun-trap, a windbreak, a vantage point and a forum but you couldn’t go inside because of the stench. Moreover, it was too cold and draughty to serve as a changing room. You could climb onto the roof and sunbathe, if you weren’t afraid of heights. You could carve your initials in the soft stone but you couldn’t shelter in it. It was demolished after about fifty years when it became the focus of ‘anti-social activity’. Maybe the activity was a bit too social. There may have been some dancing. I hope nobody lost his/her head.

At night seaweed stranded by the tide, can glow with phosphorescence. It seems to crackle with other-worldly light. Away from the lights of the town, the stars shine down with startling brightness. It is not advisable however, to swim there in the dark, no matter how romantic it might seem. I have become a curmudgeon. A stranger asked my friend, who was treading water: ‘Eh mister, can you stand there?’  ‘Yes,’ said he,’ but you can’t breathe.’ Bear that in mind.

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There are days when swimming is simply out of the question, (as were most things in the Fifties). The Captains is in there somewhere. Even competent swimmers would be foolish to attempt it. Nevertheless, it always repays a visit, in memories and invigorating fresh air. I wonder if Fred ever painted what he saw under the water.

Triumphal Arches, Haircuts and Birdsong.

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An Eskimo dad sat in an igloo, reading nursery rhymes to his little son. Little Jack Horner/sat in a corner/ eating his pudding and pie. He put in his thumb/ and pulled out a plum/ and said what a good boy am I!  It’s a good rhyme. To which the puzzled little boy replied: Hey, dad, what’s a corner?

The Greeks built magnificent temples but there were so many pillars holding up the roof,  there was not much room inside.  So they transacted their business outside. They sat in doorways and porches, out of the glare of the sun. They knew about corners and all the other great questions of life. I have no doubt that on many occasions, the friends of Socrates hid around corners when they saw him approaching, with all his questions. Socrates had no small talk, an essential qualification for corner-boys. The image left to us of Greek architecture is rows of beautifully proportioned pillars on dusty hillsides, where the gods once sat and laughed at mankind.  Sometimes the pillars and columns lie in their component parts, shattered and scattered by earthquakes or the relentless force of gravity. Tennyson’s Ulysses says: Yet all experience is an arch, wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades forever and forever, when we move. To which his companions may well have asked, ‘What the hell is an arch?

The Romans take the credit for discovering The Arch. The principal is that of two drunks staggering home from the alehouse. They are locked together in mutual amity and esteem, at the shoulders. The weight is thrust downwards and sideways. The footing may not be too secure. Take one away and the other inevitably falls down.  The arch is a balance of all these factors. It enabled the Romans to span valleys with aqueducts and viaducts and send armies to dominate the known world.Through this arch, in the Colosseum, you can see some of the remains of Nero’s house. After the expenditure of staggering amounts of treasure and the lives of countless slaves, he was able to say that at last he could live as befitted a human being, in a decent house. The dome is simply a development of the arch.  Framed in the arch you can see tourists, who have come to gawk at the place where the Romans enjoyed recreational slaughter and execution. Rome 2012 021

What tributaries follow him to  to Rome, to grace in captive bonds, his chariot wheels?  Caesar drew bigger crowds than this. They came to cheer and to marvel at the plunder. The victors processed through triumphal arches, along the Sacred Way. The prisoners were sold into slavery or set to die in the arena on festive days. Admission free. This is the arch of Constantine, not the worst of the emperors. He went for three arches together. He used spolia, salvage, bits of older arches and sculptures, a man after  me own heart. You must put a road through it and then walk under it, pointless but no doubt symbolic of something, perhaps birth or rebirth. Everyone likes an arch. We got one by accident.

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It began as a bird house on a pole, not Doric or Corinthian, just a wooden pole from John Kingston’s hardware. I’m sure if we had requested an Ionic column, he would have had a couple out in the yard, but we are humble folk, unlike the Caesars. We have never conquered anyone and put them to the sword. We planted a clematis to take the bare look off the pole. The clematis throve and spread. It became necessary to get an arch to support the sudden growth. You can see how conquests can grow into empires, bringing further responsibilities. The arch was a spindly metal thing but it served for a few years.

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We had to put a road through it. The clematis was in sore need of a haircut. (Ronald Reagan’s hilarious Irish joke: What Irishman stands outside your back door all winter?  Paddy O’ Furniture. Boom, boom!) The arch turned deciduous. We tried spolia , a bit of wavin pipe, a strut from a lobster pot, cable ties. I couldn’t reach the top to give it a good cut. In the triumphal arch building trade, it is necessary to have a good head for heights. A philadelphus shrub grew up to take the weight on one side. The arch existed only in theory. The philadelphus, groaning under the weight, refused to flower. A plan was required. We went to Woodies to buy a barbecue and came home with a sturdy, build it yourself, wooden arch. Construction time 30 mins. The diagram showed two stylised  human figures. Their heads, appropriately, were not attached to their shoulders. The plan: construct the arch (30mins) and slip it under the clematis (5 mins).

However, after an hour or so constructing the arch, it became necessary to shorten it, dig some trenches and remove the supporting spolia. The mass of clematis began slowly to sag towards the ground.We became aware of a blackbird sitting on her nest in the depths of the vegetation. She was no more than two feet from the ground. She fled with loud protests to a nearby fence. We couldn’t leave the nest—and the eggs within reach of cats. We set about lifting the entire mass and inserting the arch with the minimum of disturbance (3hours).  A sturdy spouse, as indicated on the diagram, is essential, in the absence of slaves. We secured it and waited in some apprehension. She came suddenly, back to her nest. We waited some more. She didn’t forsake it. She is still there, in the thicket, sitting patiently.

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She came out this morning for her breakfast. Now, that was a triumph worthy of an arch. The haircut will have to wait.

Diving at The Springboards. Shelley and Eddie Heron.

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I noticed a young copper beech in full leaf, beside the road at Balcunnin, yesterday evening. There was a wild, west wind blowing. The tree swayed and tossed. It seemed to flare as the wind caught the bronze leaves. It put me in mind of seaweed in a swirling current. I thought of Van Gogh, who painted the wind and poor Shelley, who looked down through the crystalline waters at Naples and saw…. ‘the oozy woods, that wear the sapless foliage of the ocean, know thy voice and suddenly grow grey with fear…and tremble and despoil themselves…Oh hear!’  He was talking to the west wind. He was a poet of course, so that’s all right. I learned that poem in school, like most people and often thought of it when approaching The Springboards bathing place. …’and saw in sleep, old palaces and towers…quivering within the wave’s intenser day…all overgrown with azure moss and flowers…’ It is a pity for Shelley that he lived before photography and scuba diving. I don’t think he was a swimmer, but he caught something of the fascination of the underwater world. At low tide you saw pillars and steps, all overgrown with weed. On a hot day, the weed sizzled in the sunlight. It was no doubt, fanciful to think of a sunken Roman villa or the remnants of a Greek temple, mourned by a melancholy poet, but we had to make the most of what we had.

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When you reached a certain level of proficiency, you were allowed go to The Springboards. When you got really good, you were allowed swim to The Girder, a metal structure, not unlike an oil rig, fifty yards out from the steps. When you got brave, you could dive off the high boards. There were boards at ground level and, for some years, three springboards on pillars. The height was scary enough, without springing even higher. My brother spoke severely to me. ‘You’re bending your knees before hitting the water. It looks bad. Do something about it.’ I was bringing shame on the family. Worse than consorting with loose women, frequenting dens of iniquity and smoking cheap, Spanish cigars, I was bending my knees, before hitting the water. I worked on it. Unfortunately, between the high board and the water, there was plenty of time to forget all good advice and revert to a tangle of limbs and an unseemly splash, or worse still, a belly flopper. Painful and moreover, embarrassing if there were any spectators. There were always spectators. They were more likely to applaud a belly flopper than a perfectly executed swallow dive. If there were girls around, their laughter was shot through with scorn. In the endless, subliminal quest for strong genes for their future offspring, a belly flopper, in their eyes, definitely scored nul points. Unless, of course, you had done it on purpose. ‘Did you see my bomb dive? I did that on purpose. Ha ha ha!’  Indeed.

I saw Eddie Heron diving off the high board at Blackrock baths. He towered above the gazing onlookers.  His speciality was the swan-dive. He flew, like a winged Victory. He entered the water like an arrow, with hardly a ripple. He moved like an otter under the surface, only to emerge again and climb to his lofty eyrie .’And with what motion moved the clouds!‘ The tower seemed to sway. Leni Riefenstahl caught such images, but the images in my memory need no editing.  We waited. He did a little experimental spring. Be careful up there!  He flew again and again, a jacknife, a pyke, a somersault, a swallow dive and never a belly flopper.  It looked easy. Just hold your nerve and don’t bend the knees. I read in the paper not so long ago, that Eddie’s house had been burgled and all his trophies and medals stolen. What sub-human degenerates would maim an old man in such a way, a man who raised the spirits of all who ever saw him fly?

The Cullen brothers were effortlessly, the best divers. We always stopped to watch. They took the best suntans, in the days when it was still legal to get a tan. You could resent lads like that, if they hadn’t been so amiable.  It might be thought that we were lazy sods, lying about in the sun all summer long. Not so. It was necessary to turn over every twenty minutes to get an even colour. Most of the time there was a sharp sea breeze and the best spots were taken. Rheumatism was a constant danger. Even hypothermia, although I don’t think the word had been invented at that time. There was Maurice White, with his bloody dogs and his water-polo ball. It’s no joke to have a red setter drying himself nearby after an invigorating swim. It was no joke to get a whack in the face from a polo ball, when Maurice explained the finer points of the back-flip. It’s not funny to have a dog swim after you when you are doing a Johnny Weismuller out to the girder and scrape all down your back. It’s humiliating to find that the blasted dog is a better swimmer. ‘Don’t worry. He won’t touch you.’  All dog owners say that.

There was a drift net not far from the girder. Don Cullen saw something flashing in the water. Like an osprey he dived from the top and swam to the net. He found a fish struggling in the mesh. I think it was a mackerel or perhaps, a sea-trout. With no thought for his own safety or that of his future progeny, he stuffed the fish into his togs and swam ashore. ”That’s me lunch,’ he declared in triumph. I envied him the fish but most of all, I envied him his dive. Leni would have been proud of him. Mae West would have had a double-entendre about being glad to see her.

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Those are gentlemen swimmers of pre-war vintage, in the long bathing costumes of a more modest age. Strict segregation of the sexes was observed until the mid nineteen fifties.  Barry Mason, who photographed everyone and everything in Skerries for a generation, asked ‘Why?’  Because bathing was always segregated. There are notices. Can’t you read?  Three of the twenty four hours are reserved for ladies. Enter at your peril. You may sit outside on the rocks and observe from afar. You may worship from afar, if you wish. ‘But why?’ asked Barry. ‘Why can I not go for a swim with my wife or my daughters, in our favourite bathing place?’  Eh, I don’t know. The notices were taken away. Elvis and Bill Haley arrived at the same time to assist  in the destruction of civilization, as we knew it and swimming was desegregated. Harry Belafonte sang about the banana boat and The Springboards became an island in the sun for everybody. The sky has not yet fallen in.

Pride, however, goeth before a fall. I went down for a swim with the son of some visiting friends. He was brainy and well spoken but inept at diving. I went nonchalantly out onto the high board, just to put him in his place. There was a wild, west wind blowing and fairly high waves. I dived. (One of the cooler lads used to say ‘dove.’) All right then, I dove. A wave caught me in mid flight and tweaked my spine. I heard the click. My companion helped me out. He was most solicitous (well spoken) and sympathetic. I haven’t doven (?) from any height greater than a foot since then. I have however, a trophy, Skerries Swimming Club. Boys Under 14  Twenty Five Yards Championship. Regatta 1953. This makes me ‘an award-winning writer’  like all the best people.  Ta dah..!  I am inordinately proud of it, even though it isn’t big enough to act as an egg-cup. I will kill any sub-human degenerate that tries to take it away.

Following a tragic diving accident on The Bull Wall, Dublin County Council took down all diving boards in the county. Poor Shelley drowned and was cremated with the timbers of his boat. There is a certain poetic harmony to the idea but nowadays he would need planning permission and a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency  and The Fisheries Board etc. etc..I went down early one morning to find the place strewn with carnations. A former swimmer had asked that her ashes be sprinkled in the waters.  I waited out of decency,for the next high tide to carry everything away.

May she rest in peace among the azure moss and flowers.

117 year old man. Mexicans, Hungarians and plagiarism.

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I read recently, that the Mexicans have a belief: ‘You are not dead until the last person to speak your name, is dead.’  By that reckoning, Achilles is still going strong, three thousand years on. Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and Adolf Hitler will be around for a long time, plying their grisly trade. They are the connoisseurs of death. By comparison with us human beings,  scorpions, snakes, funnel-web spiders and sharks are mere amateurs when it comes to notching up the death toll. Only mosquitoes, viruses and bacteria  are more proficient than we are at causing death——up to now anyway. We grew up, during The Cold War, under the threat of total nuclear annihilation. That would make us the winners. As the most intelligent and advanced species on the planet, it is only fair that we should win. (George W. Bush, leader of the free world, called it ‘Nucular’ destruction. It probably doesn’t matter what you call it, in the long run. My father was very strict about correct pronunciation.)

That little fellow is my father. I see him in my grandchildren. I rarely mention the names of his parents. They are almost gone. He was an orphan at the age of five. He came to school in Skerries, to the nuns.  He often mentioned his two best friends there, Willie and Paddy Doyle, from South Africa.  We spoke about them the other day,  so they are still alive somewhere. What else would a fellow do, when he grew up, but get involved in the most exciting thing to happen in the whole world? In fact it was a world war. Everyone was getting involved in the great war for civilisation, the war to end all wars. It seemed like a good idea, a happy Odyssey. Poets enthused about it. Orators orated about it. Politicians advocated it. Crowds cheered and off marched the young men.

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He loved to wander over the fields in the morning, looking for mushrooms. I can still feel the thrill of finding little white buttons peeping through wet grass, early in the morning.  The French are great for foraging wild foods in fields and forests. For the last century they have also foraged for unexploded shells, mines, gas cannisters and previously un-located bodies. In death the soldiers are accorded a respect and consideration not given to them in life. Commemoration has become a duty, a vocation, an industry and a tourist attraction. This is the village of Beaumont Hamel. My father was there in autumn, a good time for mushrooms, although I doubt if he got much chance to look for them. He went with The Royal Dublin Fusiliers to capture the village. It was in the last days of the Battle of the Somme, a record breaking battle in terms of casualties. By the time the village was captured there was nothing left of it, except a  shard of glass from a window of the church. It was snowing. No sign of mushrooms.  He was in a field hospital and we were lucky. He lived to show us all the best places for foraging and to warn us against poisonous fungi. He lived to talk about the stupidity of it all. ‘On balance, it was an unsettling experience for a young chap.’ Understatement of the century, perhaps.

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This is the Slaughter Tree, no understatement there. It was a witness to the massacre of young Newfoundlanders. It was a world war, of course. Everybody had to be there. The witness tree is dead. It saw too much. It gave up the ghost. The workmen maintain the headstones meticulously, sharpening up the inscriptions with dental drills. Their names live forever. or so they say.

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The Hungarian writer, George Mikes, maintained that there is nothing wrong with plagiarism. It’s a compliment. The essential thing is to show good taste. I will plagiarise my grandson, Victor’s, prize-winning poem. He never met his great-grandfather. He is now a year older than the youngest soldier to die in the war, a fourteen year old child from Waterford, named John Condon. Thank you, Victor.

A river of blood

Fills the trenches,

An undying thirst only a bullet quenches,

Brother and brother,

Hand in hand,

Fighting together to save our land.

Men, old and young,

Grasping their guns,

As the toxic gas fills their lungs,

Death after death,

Young and old,

The only survivors are the brave and the bold,

War never changes. That is no lie.

War will be the same as long as people die.

In going through some of my father’s books the other day, I came across  A Happy Odyssey, by General Carton de Wiart, a British general of Belgian extraction. He had one eye and one arm. He was famous for the amount of shrapnel that rattled around  inside him. ‘I met him once,’ my father told me. ‘I was sent out, shortly after the Armistice, to get some mistletoe for the officers’ mess. I had a lively horse under me, so I took him into a field to run some of the steam out of him. The blasted horse bolted and ran out onto the road. I was spotted by this general in a staff car, Carton de Wiart. He gave me a bollocking for galloping a horse on the paved road. I felt a complete fool, saluting with a fistful of mistletoe.’  Afterwards he found two dishevelled German soldiers hiding in the woods.They surrendered to him. They didn’t know that the war was over. One of them was seriously wounded. His companion had gathered a helmet full of mushrooms. It was no happy Odyssey for them. I wonder if they ever made it home. Soldiers of The Great War, Known Unto God.

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The family of Arthur Conway Young didn’t buy that line either. His Name Liveth Forever.  Their anger blazes out from the inscription. I must ask my Dad if he ever met him.