From Witches and Warlocks and Corporate Lawyers and Things that go Bump in the Night

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You must remember The Saint, the incredibly suave Simon Templar, a gentleman thief. Women found him irresistible. His agility was remarkable. He could climb a drainpipe in the dead of night and gain access to a lady’s boudoir, in search of diamonds or pearls. Occasionally he dallied with the lady, as a by-product of his trade. His suits were impeccable, in the latest fashion. He gambled in all the fashionable casinos of Europe. He drove the best and fastest cars. He drank the most refined drinks. His was a life to be envied. His activities were of course illegal and to be deplored but he carried about him the rakish charm of the old style highwaymen of romantic fiction. There was some synergy between The Saint and his successor, James Bond, a suave and murderous thug with a comparable sophistication, athleticism and sexual magnetism. You wouldn’t want to tangle with either of them. You might be able for Bond now, as he is in his nineties and a bit shaken and stirred. Not so fast, Meester Bond. Here they all are: counter-spies, Nero Wolfe and Simon, the Gentleman Thief himself.

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What really registered with me about the Clerys sale was that it was done in the middle of the night, ‘when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to the world. Now could I drink hot blood and do such deeds the day would quake to look upon.’ Footpads, cutpurses, murderers, cat and other types of burglar all prefer the dark. The Gestapo worked in Night and Fog. People disappeared…gone…kaput…imithe…vanished….not a trace….no fingerprints. Illegal property demolitions take place at night. With a few rare exceptions, there is nothing as secure as a fait accompli. (Archers’ garage was rebuilt exactly as it had been.) Clerys was bought and sold, wrapped up and delivered in the customary manner, done and dusted by morning. Nothing to see here. Move along please. It’s all perfectly legal. We know this because the fingerprints of prominent lawyers are all over the deal.

I’m sure Clerys had some form of counter spies. They certainly had drainpipes to carry the money by vacuum, to the office overhead and return the change at warp speed to the shop assistant below. They had gentlemens’ outfitters and haberdashers, everything a gentleman thief could require. They had sporting goods. My lads got their first football boots there and I think, some golf clubs. They stocked furniture and floor coverings. All was dusted and shining by opening time every morning. They had anything a lady could wish for, although I don’t remember the modern prairies of cosmetic counters where young women prowl, seeking to waylay the unwary, the wizened and the aged. Don’t get me started. The store was noted for its vast array of ladies’ underwear and various forms of female upholstery. A story, perhaps apocryphal, as all the best ones are, tells how Archbishop McQuaid rang Denis Guiney, the then proprietor, to point out that the newspaper advertisements for underwear were a little too revealing. Occasions of sin in fact. Fair play to the Archbishop for persisting long past the age of puberty, in his inspection of such matters, in the interests of purity. The man was a saint. Clerys however, lacked chairs for weary husbands, a major flaw in their marketing strategy. They had genuine saints too.

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Did you queue, footsore and weary to visit Saint Nicholas? Did you shuffle along to the sound of Jingle Bells and whinge until you reached the Winter Wonderland with its snow and elves and a genial old man in a red suit? Most importantly, did you promise to be good? Did you repeat the process years later with your own children? ‘It won’t be long now.’ ‘What’s outside that window?’ ‘Nothing. Just a brick wall.’  ‘I want to see it. Lift me up.’ Okay.’ Ah, it’s only a brick wall.’ ‘Never mind. We will be seeing Santa soon.’  Shuffle, shuffle. He told me that he was passing that way not long ago and he saw the same brick wall. I hope he remembers Santa and the Winter Wonderland. I certainly couldn’t lift him up now in any case or threaten that we wouldn’t go to the cafe afterwards if he wasn’t good. Shuffle, shuffle.

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There was a religious goods department in the basement. I was fascinated to see Saint Francis of Assisi, reproduced in all sizes from six inches tall to lifesize. There was a sale on: Large Statues Greatly Reduced. I wondered what the process might be. Saint Francis, by all accounts was a decent man who gave all his money away to the poor. People prayed to Saint Francis. I presume that the little saints were just as influential as the big ones. The window displays were at times, quirky. I recall a tap, apparently suspended in mid air, from which the water poured without benefit of plumbing or any obvious source…perhaps a metaphor for our ‘tiger economy.’

Speaking of little people and tiger economies. I must confess that I was repelled by the film The Wolf of Wall Street. I was bored by the relentless ‘one note’ of the film that Greed Is Indeed Good. No doubt it was a moral tale with a cautionary lesson for all of us. Mostly though,  I was repelled by the fact that actors and actresses, (can you say ‘actress’ nowadays?) were degraded in the parts they had to play. What the Hell! They were paid, weren’t they? It was particularly degrading to dwarfs. What the Hell!  They’re only little people, aren’t they?  As are the former Clerys employees. They have been thrown to the wolves.

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It must be very satisfying for the corporate hunters to stalk their prey, moving stealthily through the long grass, wriggling on their bellies like the serpent in Eden, until they get the perfect shot….from afar. A trophy kill. Sometimes they hunt with night-sights and hired trackers sniffing the wind for spoor. The rule is that you must finish off your prey. What you do with it afterwards is your business. Save us from the arrow that flies by night.

Judas, you will recall, concluded his deal in the dead of night. Nothing personal, just business. Jingle all the way to the bank.

Prepositions and Preposterous Rules. Churchill and Carparks.

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The sound of the bell was probably the first sound  I was aware of. Sorry, ‘of which I was aware.’ I was born in the square house immediately across the street from Saint Patrick’s Church in Skerries. The house is marked for demolition at some point in the near future, as is the rusty-roofed one to the left and Mrs Behan’s tall house to the right. Mrs Behan was in attendance on the night I was born on. There I go again. ‘the night on which I was born.’ My mother, a linguist and teacher of languages for many years, forgot herself. “It’s a terrible world to bring a child into.” ‘Into which to bring a child.’ Write it out fifty times. I said nothing at the time. I had to take this story on trust, at a later date. I later heard that Mr. Churchill stated: “That is a construction up with which we will not put.” There were many things up with which he did not put at the time. I consulted the Irish Times, some seventy years later. I nearly said ‘later on.’ My mother was right. A bloody, awful world then and for many people, still a bloody and awful world, especially for children.

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Mr Churchill told the House that there was ‘no point in calling for explanations at every turn in this dangerous struggle.’  Air attacks on shipping; The Duce is confident; The French (Vichy) are defending their political interests in Syria; Aftermath of the bombing of the North Strand in Dublin; British and French (Free French/De Gaulle’s forces) now only sixteen miles from Damascus; A gift of half a million dollars of Red Cross funds and two freighters of food to Éire from the United States. 15,000 British killed in Crete. And so it goes on. Damascus, for God’s sake! Two rival French armies fighting to retain Syria? A terrible world and a mad and bloody world. I wonder if those freighters made it across the Atlantic. I wonder if I got any of that food. Food was a constant preoccupation in those days. Irish children are much taller nowadays. You don’t hear of rickets, chilblains or infantile paralysis any more.There were great advances in medicine during that war. Doctors got plenty of practice.

There was a right-wing Catholic organisation called Maria Duce. An inspired choice of names. Their newspaper was called FIAT. Nothing to do with Mussolini or Italian motor cars. Fiat: Let It Be Done.  Mary as Leader. Their particular line was that Article 41 of the new Irish constitution, guaranteeing the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church, should be ‘enforced.’ All non-Catholics should be expelled from Ireland. There are people in Syria today with similar ideas and worse. Rudolf Hess in England. Mr. Churchill was asked if Herr Hess had brought any proposals with him ‘to solve the problems of Europe.‘  ‘Are not the people of Britain entitled to know what these proposals might be?’  ‘I have no statement to make to the House on this matter.’ (Cheers). Refreshingly direct. I didn’t read all this on the night I was born on…or whatever. After a  lifetime of reading The Irish Times, I have almost given up on it because it is always so glum, censorious and downright negative. Maybe the fault is mine. Maybe the news is on a loop and it is still a terrible world. However, the luxury of Viyella weekend shirts, for men’s lighter moments, golfing, cycling, gardening or just plain lazing; 16/6; with their brighter colours and attractive patterns, provided some relief to the general gloom. I have a couple of just plain lazing shirts to laze around in ..eh…in which to laze around.

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I take on trust the fact that the garden gave onto the Tennis Court Lane. I have no recollection of the garden or the house. My brother broke his arm in a fall in the garden and spent some time in Jervis Street Hospital. He developed a life-long hatred of potatoes during his stay. Bloody lucky to get potatoes, I say. And medical treatment. He fell over a garden roller. Somebody had at some time, laid a lawn there. Not my Old Man. ‘Gave onto’..Give in…give up……give away…ah! give over. More prepositions. There is a new school there. I wonder if the teachers give out as much as they used to. That is something into which I must enquire.  My Old Man gave out to me and my brother for making noise in Mr. Van Aalst’s shop. We had two round biscuit tins that made a satisfying, plangent noise when we pressed down on the lids. We had gone to collect a sugar ration, that my mother wanted to make blackberry jam with. (Full of vitamins…and pips.) Mr.Van Aalst asked us to stop. We grinned, daring each other to continue. We played a little counterpoint. The consequences were grim. He told our parents. We got a hiding and were skull-hauled down to apologise to Mr. Van Aalst. I think Mr. Van Aalst was a Jewish refugee from Holland. In another place we might well have got a pat on the head from our parents. I am still quite proud of their instinctive reaction. They couldn’t do that nowadays. They had no time for Maria Duce either or their little Italian motor car. (The foregoing should of course, read ‘ with which my mother wanted to make jam.’) Her inadvertent misplaced preposition in June 1941, left me maimed for life by an anxiety about syntax, punctuation and grammar. Should the Viyella shirts refer to ‘men’s lighter moments’ or mens’ lighter moments’? Apostrophes are also things that people have difficulty with….

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That dark line marks the old boundary between the townlands of Skerries and Holmpatrick. I was born in Holmpatrick. That makes me a Southsider. In Dublin that would have a special cachet and a special accent. I know a man, of my own age, who was conceived in Clontarf, born dead on Butt Bridge and revived in Holles Street Hospital. This made him, uniquely, both a Southsider and a Northsider or neither. He has devoted his life to music and harmony. He has made the world a better place. His accent is pleasantly unaffected, due to his unusual coming into the world…twice.

My parents came to Skerries in 1939 because they feared that there was going to be a war. They feared that Dublin would be bombed. They were right. More correctly, they were correct. They wanted to ensure that they could get fresh milk for the children. It proved to be a good move. They settled here. We , by and large, have stayed here. It is a good town to put down roots in. It has been a good town for Margaret and me, in which to raise a family. (Not ‘Margaret and I’ by the way. You wouldn’t say ‘for I to raise a family’ etc. Oh, never mind.) I tend to look back on birthdays and reckon up the good things that have happened over the years. That garden is now a car park. The motor car is king. The house is derelict. I feel no sentimental pangs. I left that house at the age of one. My memories of it are second hand.

Our grandchildren are growing. Our eldest grandchild finished her secondary education yesterday. Now that’s a significant landmark. She magicked us into grandparents. We brought her to nursery school and collected her. We have seen her grow. Margaret made all the cakes for her significant occasions and for those of her siblings and little cousins. It has been a wonderful experience. She intends making a career in music. May she always spread harmony and make the world a better place..

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The sun did shine, even in the 1940s, despite what you may have heard.

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The house looks better from the front….but where did all those cars come from? Or, from whence came all those cars?

D Day the 6th of June and a Whiff of Grapeshot.

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We still live in awe of the magnitude of the D Day undertaking; the logistics and organisation; the secrecy of the preparation; the firepower released and the courage and sacrifice of so many lives. A Frenchman observing the bombing of his home town of Caen, remarked that freedom was being bought at a terrible price. Strategists and historians can explain the methods and means by which war is waged. Ingenious inventors can provide more and more instruments to bring about the dismemberment and destruction of human beings. They will sell these instruments, if they are permitted, to the highest bidder. Terrible things happen in wars, people say in justification. The whole enterprise is usually swathed in patriotic rhetoric or the quest for “Glory”. Yet the images that persist from World War II are short on glory and long on horror and unimaginable cruelty. Remember though, that Hitler was elected. Is that you, 457th from the right in the 23rd row? I hope not.

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The glory lies in the courage and determination of those who went to war against a vile regime, conceived by a mind distorted by bitterness and hatred; a mind filled with lunatic notions of greatness, conquest and racial purity. The tragedy is that he could sway so many to his way of thinking. They call it ‘charisma’ when people surrender their freedom of thought and action to one all-knowing and all powerful leader. D Day dealt a body blow to the regime yet Hitler did not stop until he had brought his country and its people to devastation and misery. There are still some who revere his memory. On this day we revere the people who carried out the D Day invasion at a terrible cost to themselves.

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In two weeks’ time we mark the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Waterloo, a battle that saw the end of Bonaparte’s career as emperor of France. In that most republican of countries he is still admired and revered for his many achievements. Foremost among these was his ability to organise and use force to get his own way. His use of grapeshot against a Royalist mob attacking the government in October (Vendemiaire) 1795 marked him as the coming man in French political life. Approximately  300 citizens died in the street. On that day too died the French Revolution, with its ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Grapeshot is efficient against a mob in narrow city streets. This is not to suggest that the Royalists would have been preferable. They were not organised. Bonaparte’s particular genius lay in his decisiveness. Grape shot brings a quick and tidy solution to thorny political disputes. As a reward he was appointed commander of the Army of Italy, not an Italian army but a French army sent to invade and conquer Italy.  Shortly afterwards he received a positive reply to his application for a job as gunnery officer on a British East-Indiaman. He turned it down for better pickings. Behold a pale horse……

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The man could do no wrong. General Vendemiaire, as he was nicknamed after the grapeshot episode, “my first title of Glory,” looked to greater things. He declared himself Emperor. Look at the costume…Drag artists everywhere take note. The mentally unhinged frequently turn to Emperor Napoleon for inspiration.

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Like any good, ward-heeling politician, he began to get jobs for his family. He set the brother up as King of Spain. That didn’t work out too well. He decided to invade Russia, as you do, when you become all-powerful. It will cost the lifeblood of your country but sure, why not? Onward to Glory!  On the days before Waterloo he was conspicuous on his pale horse, often silhouetted against thunder clouds and lightning, as he marshalled his army. Dramatic stuff. His Guards fought to their deaths for him. He was captured and conveyed to England as a celebrity, on HMS Bellerophon. The crowds came out in their boats on Plymouth Sound, to see him. He doffed his hat to the ladies and to his new fans. Charlie Chaplain complained that only a quarter of a million people turned out to greet him when he arrived back in England. Disgraceful. Fair play to Charlie though, he did a great job in satirising The Great Dictator.

'Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815' oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

‘Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815’
oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

Strategists and historians explain the ‘How?’ of empires, dictators and war. Psychologists struggle with the ‘Why?’  There may be days when you would like to have some grapeshot to hand, to deal with people who irritate you but you keep the idea in check…because you are sane. Hang on to that and be grateful to the soldiers of D Day.

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By the way, Churchill was voted out of office in the first general election after the war. Democracy,  he remarked, is a terrible system but it’s the best we have.