One year; 100 posts. Fox in the Morning.

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I saw an advertisement for classes in willow craft. It is tempting to learn a craft that has served mankind for millennia. I could make baskets and chairs that might take root in the garden, in wet weather. The Dutch wove many of their most serviceable dams from willow. Their Old Masters drew with willow charcoal . Cricketers and oarsmen ply their trade with willow. The phrase that caught my eye was: ‘Learn to make a dream-catcher.’ I don’t know what a dream-catcher is, but I already have one. It has a clunky name–‘a Blog,’ derived however, from ‘Web Log.’  A web is a dream-catcher. A log is a journal of a voyage. Fanciful, no doubt. It was suggested to me, some time ago, that I should write a memoir.  I demurred, on the grounds that I had nothing memorable to write about. I decided instead to begin a blog, gathering together memories of almost  three quarters of a century. One hundred posts and one year later I have a crazy-paving memoir, possibly even a mosaic.

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This is Hattons’ Wood, a long line of trees and undergrowth, with a right-angled bend to the left. I wanted to live in this wood, when I was a child. I wanted to dig a burrow under a great tree and live in comfort, like Ratty and Moley in Wind in the Willows. There would have been some practical difficulties. Planning permission would have been tricky. Planners have very little romance in their souls, if indeed they have souls, when it comes to underground dwellings in the woods. Damp-proofing and carbon monoxide poisoning would have presented problems. Owls and rustling in the undergrowth at night, would have frightened me to death. I stayed at home.

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The master-plan was to sneak into The Cane Wood on Milverton estate, steal some bamboos for spears, fishing rods, bows and arrows and steal away again, over the stile into Hattons’ Wood and along the beaten track through the forest, until we came to the corner. We could emerge with our spoils at that point and saunter across the fields to the railway station and home in triumph. There was a slight hitch. We heard a shot. The landowner and some of his murderous lackeys were out to kill us. It was just after the war, when such things were of trivial importance. Boys in school said that he drove around in a jeep, shooting at all intruders. A jeep? What’s a jeep? The Yanks had them in the war. We ran. My short legs could not keep pace with my two older brothers. ‘Come on! Come on!’ We came to the corner of the wood. They lifted me down a vertiginously high stone wall. I remember the neatness and precision of the blocks close to my face. My brothers held me by both hands.  We ran and we ran, through hedges, across streams and railway tracks, never stopping until we had gained the relative safety of our back garden. We hid in the shed, listening for the rattle of jeeps and and the barking of orders. It seems that they lost the trail. I still recall the terror and also the tenacity and courage of my brothers who dragged me to safety, when they also must have been afraid.

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You can still tell Milverton land by the cut stone gate pillars and the stylish cut stone stiles. I went back in later years to marvel at the high wall that I had overcome. It was no more than three feet high. I went back yesterday morning to catch the sunrise over Skerries. The wood is impenetrable. The wall is obscured by thirty feet of briars and thorn bushes.The wall and the memory of our amazing escape from death, lie secure forever, behind behind that barrier. The two windmills were directly in line. A sailor told me that if you keep the two windmills in line, you will avoid the reef at the southern end of Saint Patrick’s Island. That’s good to know, even when standing in the middle of a stubble field, just enjoying the view.

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A fox broke from the cover of the wood. He startled me.  He ran across the lower end of the stubble field. He flowed, with the grace of a jaguar and vanished into a hedge far below me. There was no need for him to run. I would never have chased him with spears and arrows or hounded him from his home. In another life we might have been neighbours in Hattons’ Wood. We might have sat together on the hill and talked of old times and woven our dreams and hopes and watched the daily miracle of the sun rising over Skerries islands. Good luck to you, fox, on life’s journey and may you sleep safely, wherever you lay your head at night.

Music and Murder in the Cathedral and elsewhere. Young Dublin Symphonia.

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It was Churchill who said, wryly, that The Balkans produce more history than they can consume. One hundred years ago they exported some of their history  and ignited a world war. Similarly in Ireland, we produce a lot of history. It is all around us, in the shape of our towns and villages and in the stones of our streets, pavements and buildings. We walk on top of it every day. It can turn to quagmire and pull people down into futile blame and recrimination. It permeates our songs and stories. It can set brother against brother and parent against child. It requires careful handling.

Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin is a good place to ruminate on history…and myth…and gossip…and legend… and rats… and forgetfulness. We went there last Thursday to hear our grand- daughter’s orchestra, The Young Dublin Symphonia and their Italian friends, a youth orchestra from Viterbo. Here’s a good one: back in 1278, the College of Cardinals  withdrew from Rome to Viterbo to elect a new Pope. They dithered for a year or so, much to the frustration of the good people of Viterbo. No doubt the cardinals were on expenses. Eventually the authorities stopped all deliveries,  took the roof off the palazzo in which the eminent churchmen sat and locked the door with a clavis (Cum clave—a key or bar for a door.) They got a result in three days.  Hence the locking of the door on the Sistine Chapel, until the white smoke comes out of the spout. (You couldn’t call it a chimney.)

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Then I got distracted by  the meerkats. They are everywhere, in meerkat sunbursts in the floor tiling and incised into the backrests of the seats. The meerkat seemed to be the presiding spirit of the cathedral, the genius loci. He was looking over his shoulder There was something knocking at the back of my mind, from a visit long ago. It was something about a rat. I remember  seeing a rat in a glass case. He was tricked out in plus-fours and a tweed jacket. He carried a golf club, or was it a walking stick? This fellow seemed to be holding a pilgrim staff. That’s definitely a golf ball at his feet. I consulted the brochure. The rat and his associate, the cat, can be seen in the crypt. Was that the crafty cat that crept in the crypt? I would have to refresh my memory after the recital.

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This is Strongbow, leader of the invading Normans. The Dublin merchants paid over their rents and settled their debts on Strongbow’s tomb. He collaborated with Saint Laurence O Toole, on the rebuilding of the old Christchurch. Gossip says that the truncated figure to his left is the son whom he killed in a rage. The small figure is excluded by the shield. His son should have been to his right. It is no way to treat a child. The cathedral collapsed and destroyed his original tomb. This is, in fact a replacement, borrowed from some other noble knight. I wonder if he has a long lease on it. I hope that he is keeping up the rent and has made some restitution to his child in the Hereafter. Gossip also says that he is in fact buried in Ferns, in Wexford. Even historians come to blows over differences like that. Stalin removed Lenin’s widow from the Party and air-brushed her from photographs and from history, but he still needed her for appearances….so he appointed a new, “Official Lenin’s Widow.”  So where is the real Strongbow?

Saint Laurence prostrated himself before the high altar here, to pray against a ‘serjeant’ who had struck one of his servants. The ‘serjeant’ fell down some steps, shortly afterward and broke his thigh. The injury became gangrenous. The ‘serjeant’ died in agony, proof to all of the power of the church. Saint Laurence was subordinate to Beckett who was murdered in Canterbury. He himself was attacked in a cathedral on his way to Rome and died in agony, proof to all of the power of the iron bar, (clavis) that the madman had borrowed from the door.

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Fortunately, the recital began, driving away dark thoughts. The sun came out and shone down through a high window, illuminating my granddaughter and her fellow musicians. It was a joy to hear. No doubt the old knights underground, tapped their toes and jingled their spurs with pleasure.  Bach, Boccherini, Bizet, rinsed the shadows from the gloomy vaults and raised the spirits of proud parents and ambling tourists. The sun shone for  the rest of the day.

I still had to say ‘hello’ to the rat. I went down into the crypt. He is not an insouciant fellow with the jaunty air of a cartoon meerkat. He carries no staff or five-iron. He is not togged out in hideous tartan slacks. The tableau shows a poor divil fleeing for his life. It is difficult to feel sorry for a rat. He took refuge in an organ pipe and the cat followed him in. Think, for a moment, of their nightmare predicament.  A cat’s retractable claws are perfectly designed for climbing up or down, guaranteeing him nine lives. Unfortunately, they have no reverse setting. The creatures were irrevocably stuck, locked in life and death by mutual hatred. They were discovered, over a century and a half ago, in a mummified state , achieving  posthumous fame and prominence on a par with that of Strongbow. {“The moral of this story/Is a very simple one:/Them wot’s up the bleedin’ spout/Don’t ‘ave no bleedin’ fun.Wilfred Bramble} In terms of slaying human beings, the rat and his fleas, leave Strongbow and his Normans in the ha’penny place.

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‘On the Feast of Tiburtius and Valerian,’ wrote Friar John Clyn, in 1334, ‘the burgesses and true men of Kilkenny began to pave their streets. ‘  They took the stone from the collapsed belfry in the cathedral of Saint Canice, while the turbulent bishop was abroad. The townspeople freed themselves from the mire and walked dry-shod, but the bishop returned and there was Hell to pay. Friar John saw the advent of the Black Death to Kilkenny in 1348. The rats did for him too. Enough of this remembering. It was time to forget and follow the orchestra to Malahide Castle for an afternoon recital. The sun stayed out.

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Here she is again, caught in a sunbeam, taking her turn as First Violin. Well done to YDS and to Il Centro Sperimentale  Musicale per L’Infanzia, from Viterbo, for raising the roof, this time in a good way and of course, to their conductors and tutors. Now that’s a better way to encourage young people, than Strongbow’s iron hand. Malahide Castle was built by a Talbot, one of Strongbow’s companions. He got the lease from the king for a rent of one mounted archer per year. The family held it for 800 years That’s a lot of archers. Oh, never mind. Now it is a great public space. Well done to Fingal County Council, for ensuring that it will remain so, at least for another 800 years.


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Last year our tree produced one plum. It was our first-born from this tree, a cause for muted celebration. During the winter and spring, some surrounding trees were removed and suddenly, the plum tree stood in a sunny space. It responded, as we all do, when the light breaks through the gloom. It put out blossoms, but we had fallen for that before. It seemed to be a good year for bees. The blossoms struck. Suddenly, we realised that we had plums.  The branches drooped under the weight of fruit. We were not used to this. A fly appeared and some mould. We investigated remedies. Let us spray.  We covered the fish-pond. The labels carried dire warnings about the effects on aquatic organisms and on those who drink or inhale the insecticide/fungicide or neglect to wash their hands afterwards. There are no flies on us.  It worked,  although it entailed some nifty funambulism and aerial work on a wobbly step-ladder. Next year, if all goes well, I will invest in a knapsack-sprayer with a long spout or an agile youth who won’t shatter on impact with the ground.

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There is a catch. You have to repeat the process every two weeks, but not within fourteen days of consuming the fruit. I recall a fisherman suggesting that the (annual) blessing of the fishing fleet should only have to be done once. It’s not like scraping the hairy woar of the bottom of the boat and putting on anti-fouling– a messy job that has to be repeated every year. We took a chance. The plums began to ripen. We noticed little gashes appearing on some of them and wasps beginning to pay attention. We blamed the birds, unfairly, as it turned out. There is a belief that birds are deterred from fruit trees by the flashing of compact discs hanging on strings.The old method of placing a small child with a clapper, under the tree, probably works better, but this is no doubt, illegal nowadays. Anyway, they would eat all the fruit.

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Windows 95,–,– Esat-B.T.– H.P. Photosmart Printer Set-Up, now defunct. (It was only a little plastic lug, but it snapped off and the paper shot out at the back.) A few CDs palmed off by Sunday newspapers. In bright sunshine the discs laser around the garden like demented lecturers emphasising important points. In a stiff breeze they chime like a herd of Alpine goats. Now, goats would make short work of the plums —and the tree. I have reservations about philanthropists sending goats to Africa, on the grounds that goats can survive in desert conditions. They make the desert conditions. The notorious Lord Leitrim, not the vanishing one of later years, would not tolerate a goat on any of his tenant farms, on pain of eviction. “Kill that gourmandiser,” he would say. We would need The 1812 Overture , with full artillery, to scare off a herd of goats.  Lord Leitrim himself, met with some artillery from disgruntled tenants, on a cold winter morning.

The hanging discs put me in mind of Billie Holiday’s chilling song Strange Fruit. Nina Simone sings it: ‘the ugliest song I ever heard.’ It’s about lynching. A delegation of black leaders from the Deep South, went to see President Truman in 1949 to ask for a law outlawing lynching. He explained that ‘the country was not ready for such a law just yet.’  A century ago, a Dublin cinema advertised a lynching film as entertainment. I will take down the discs. The birds are not impressed by technology anyway.

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We are getting a lot of fruit. Even the fallen ones and the mouldy ones, make a pretty picture. The worms are quite pleased. The wasps are buzzing with excitement. It doesn’t do to think too much, early in the morning. Put aside the sadness of the world for a little while. Carpe diem, as poor Robin Williams repeatedly quoted.  We will enjoy the plums and maybe make some jam. Maybe even play a little music to some Skerry goats.


Like Virgil, we will have to talk about the pruning knife and next year.

The Assyrian came down, like a wolf on the fold…


I went to Mass yesterday to mark my parents’ anniversary. It was the feast of St. Dominic of the Order of Preachers, scourge of heretics everywhere. My father’s cousin, Fr.Vincent Ryan, was a Dominican, an affable man whose great delight was to go down to Yarra Bank, in Melbourne, near the cricket ground, on a Sunday morning, to engage the heretics in discussion. He enjoyed the Australian sense of humour, ‘but,’ he warned, ‘you have to give as good as you get.’  Theological discussion was lively. He often got a roasting, he said, but nobody was burnt at the stake. He went on to Rome, to teach at the Angelicum University. I thought fondly of him yesterday.

But I also thought about Saint Dominic, a man whose body-count would rival that of Pol Pot. The pun on the Dominicans in mediaeval times, was Domini Canes, The Hounds of The Lord. Their job was to seek out heretics, Albigensians, Cathars, Witches, The Poor Men, Manichaeans, and burn them. Sometimes, in surgery cautery is the only treatment. Dominic used it extensively. He preached a crusade against his fellow Christians. The towns of southern France were blackened with the soot of burning heretics. Did it work? Did it ensure  a single, unified church? Not quite.

One point of dispute was the nature of God. Some argued that there are two gods, a good one and an evil one, locked in a cosmic struggle. All the evil in the world is the work of the evil god. One clarification offered was that the good god created man down to the waist, (‘Man’ in this context embraces  ‘woman.’) while the evil god made all the bits below the waist…..Ah!….       Wise words on the subject from Saint Paul [women must cover their hair in church]: ‘It is better to marry than to burn…’ (Amen to that.) and from Ogden Nash, on the subject of women wearing trousers: ‘You may clothe your nether limbs in pants/Yours are the legs, my sweeting./ You look divine as you advance,/ but…. have you seen yourself retreating?’  Nash introduces a fore and aft element to the heresy. What would the Domini Canes say to that? The mind wanders in church. Stand up. Sit down. Kneel down. Stand up. Catholics get a good work-out at Mass.  Muscular Christianity, the Victorians called it.


The Old Testament reading was from the Prophet Nahum. He frightened the life out of me:- wars, gleaming swords, shining spears, corpses everywhere, Nineveh in ruins, the anger and vengeance of God. Some say that Nahum prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in 615 B.C. before the event, while others claim that he foretold the destruction of Nineveh, in 612 B. C.  after the event. Prophecies after the event are more certain. ‘There! What did I tell you?’  If I were a prophet, I wouldn’t dwell with wild beasts in the desert, eating locusts (yecchh!) I would win untold wealth on the horses and go about the world doing good works, alleviating suffering  and bringing peace and love to all, (except the bookies.)

Peter O Toole, speaking of the relevance of Lawrence of Arabia, said: ‘Open your morning paper. Open the Bible. It’s still the same news.’ Sadly, Nahum was right on the money. He describes the Middle East as it is today. The swords still flash. The weapons gleam in the blistering sun. The smoke rises from burning towns. The followers of various gods and of the same god, inflict suffering on one another and on the innocent. Creeds and sects go to war with their own kind and with ‘unbelievers.’  Dissent, (heresy) results in hideous punishment.

Apologies for the quality of my scans.(Double-click for details.) They are copied from Nineveh  by Austen Layard, Murray’s Reading for the Rail, 1853, an abridged version of his eight volume edition,(Price 36 shillings) which you wouldn’t attempt to read on a commuter train. You could read one and sit on the other seven, as seats can be scarce. I bought it fifty years ago for half a crown, in Webbs at the Ha’penny Bridge. Layard excavated a city of vast winged statues, bas-reliefs and a clay library detailing the origins of law, writing, mathematics,accounting, science and the arts of war. They liked lions and fish. There are swimmers with aqualungs, in a depiction of naval warfare on the great rivers. Nahum saw a city filled with lies, robbers, unbelievers and prostitutes, ripe for destruction by a vengeful god.  He could say the same thing today. He is bound to be right somewhere, some time.


Profoundly disturbed by the latest news from Nineveh and its environs, I went across to the fish shop and bought some prawns. They are the marine version of locusts, I imagine. Maybe I should try locusts in marie-rose sauce. Maybe I should go into the prophecy business. The first thing I will do is, respectfully, ask God to stop taking sides in disputes, pogroms, genocides, jihads, crusades, ethnic cleansings and massacres. Lay off the vengeance and wrath. Go easy on the plagues and locusts. Stop sending Medes and Babylonians and their modern equivalents, as scourges.  Calvin approved strongly of Nahum’s version of God. That’s not a good recommendation.

Layard described the Turkish Bey of Mosul, in Iraq, a man hated by his subjects for his cruelty and avarice. Every so often he would circulate the news that he was fatally ill. The subjects perked up. The news came that he was dead. The people broke out in celebration and feasting.  Laughter and song could be heard in the streets and in the market-place. At this point, the Bey and his cavalry galloped forth from his palace to punish his people for their disloyalty. After sufficient blood had been shed, they withdrew, until the next time. He’s dead now, thank God, not that Iraq is any better off.

The last words on good and evil, from Ogden Nash:

‘The rain it raineth every day/Upon the just and on the unjust fella/ But mainly on the just/ Because the unjust hath the just’s umbrella.’

That Assyrian in the chariot has a nice umbrella. I wonder whence he plundered it.

p.s. I want my big, white umbrella back or verily I shall wreak a terrible vengeance upon thee, as God is my judge.

Big Boys’ Toys. 4th of August 1914-2014.

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This fellow had a wretched childhood. He was subjected to hideous treatment as an infant to try to correct a withered arm. Perhaps he compensated for all this by amassing a vast store of toys, ships and armies, aircraft and guns. He had a great collection of soldiers, more than any of his cousins. I had one, a Highlander in a kilt. I was convinced that he was alive. I could walk him with my fingers. I recall the excitement of running home from school to play with him. I waited for him to speak. I was in infants’ class at the time,so my misapprehension could be excused. He was actually made of lead. The flesh-coloured paint on his face and knees, was chipped. His wonderful Highland tartan became ragged. Macgregor? McDonald? I never knew his name. He encapsulated in his tiny frame, all the romance of the clans and the awesome Highland regiments. He won many battles for me against Redcoats, armoured knights and Red Indians with feathered war bonnets. (You may not say Red Indians any more. I was always a bit embarrassed by warriors who wore bonnets anyway. The Highlander wore a floppy beret, also tartan. It wasn’t a bonnet. Don’t be stupid….. That’s another argument.)

There was a young fellow at Wipers

Got shot in the arse by some snipers.

The music, they say,

When the wind blew his way,

Beat the Argyll and Sutherland pipers.

My Old Man had the definitive answer to the recurring argument as to whether there is anything worn under the kilt. ‘No, there isn’t. I saw them upside-down on the wire.’

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This is my army now, a gentleman with a flag, making himself conspicuous; a guardsman in a busby who has soldiered for half a century in a toolbox and five armoured knights that my little boy brought back from Warwick. ‘Warwick, great setter up and puller down of kings.’   They are my crack troops. I will not expend them lightly in war. In the book Voices of War there is a story of an officer addressing his troops before the D Day landings. They were to be the first to land. ‘Gentlemen,’ said he, ‘we have the honour to be expendable.’  An answer came from the ranks: ‘F*** that for a game of soldiers.’  A disgrace to his regiment. My guardsman is a disgrace also, coming on parade in that state. Look at that rifle! Look at that uniform! ‘You ‘orrible little man!’ (Sergeants always say that.) My knights, however, stand tall in shining armour. I have never taken them out of the box. In years to come they will be worth a fortune, because they have never been played with. It’s an Antiques Roadshow paradox. And in the original box too!! Do you remember the lead soldiers in Woolworths? Rank upon rank of them, knights on horseback, guardsmen in red and black, horse artillery, armies enough to conquer the world. I couldn’t afford them. By the time I could afford them, Woolworths had left Ireland and anyway, I had not become a toy-soldier-war-games nerd, (as far as I know).

Frederick the Great loved to watch his guardsmen on parade. They were apparently gigantic men, with bearskins to enhance their height. He lavished money on their uniforms. Legend has it that he was horrified one day to see a sentry wiping his nose on his sleeve .’ After all the money I’ve spent….etc…etc…!’  Lateral thinking was called for. Some cunning strategy. He directed that rows of buttons should be sewn onto the cuffs of all uniforms. A signal victory! They are there on the sleeves of your sports jacket and business suit. In the army you are advised to keep your nose clean. The Royal Greenjackets do not derive their name from this incident.

The Kaiser (Caesar? Come on!), the uber nerd, put his faith in steel. He dumped his Iron Chancellor and made himself a man of steel. Bismarck knew how to win a war: pick on weaker, more feebly armed countries.  He reviewed his Grand Fleet. He reviewed his grand army, bigger than anything Woolworths ever stocked. He needed a war. He made the fortunes  of Krupps of Essen. Krupps, an old family firm, manufactured spoons. Now they make hair-dryers and weighing scales. Between the time they made spoons and the time they started making hair-dryers, they made everything else that could be made of steel… railway lines, railway guns, bridges, ammunition, rifles, tanks, artillery and all the nuts and bolts of warfare. They owned Essen. They even owned the Bible in the church, for God’s sake. Business was booming. The Kaiser was ready for the Off.  On the seventh day of the Great War, Britain opened hostilities against Germany. This was industrial war, a war of mass production and mass consumption. It was a war of assembly lines, fuelled by human lives. It made war the norm for the Twentieth Century. Wars were no longer to be won on the playing fields of Eton, but in the dark Satanic mills and factories and in the squalid trenches among rats and lice. Fire and steel rained from the sky. It still does.


Our grandchildren inspecting the frigate Heroina, Buenos Aires, armed by Krupps of Essen.

Little boys are drawn to ships and planes and weapons of war. They’re “deadly”. They incorporate them into their play. If they are lucky, they grow out of it. If not, like all the “Great Men”, they go on to bring untold suffering to the world, particularly to its children. One hundred years on, we have the weapons to end all war…and everything else with it. Bloody fools. Maybe the Kaiser just needed a hug from his mother. Today is my mother’s birthday. She talked a lot of sense. She was never a great fan of Woolworths. Her children tended to go astray there. It took her ages to round them up. It could have turned out worse.

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At the end of the war, Krupps of Essen sent a bill to the British government for shell fuses and detonators supplied to the British forces. The British had used these up to 1916 to fire upon the Kaiser’s troops. The bill was paid. Business is business.

I see that the Kaiser’s great-great grandson,Georg Friedrich, Prinz von Preussen, has not ruled out taking up the task of leadership, should his country need him.

For God’s sake, keep him out of Woolworths.