In the Field of Human Endeavour

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Just beyond the art shop in Balbriggan, someone has painted the top of the hill with aureolin yellow. Faraway hills, in this instance, are not all green. Oilseed rape has the capacity to shine a shaft of sunlight into a dull, overcast day. It enlivens the patchwork quilt stitched together by centuries-old  hedgerows and the normally green and brown Irish landscape.The field of rape takes centre stage on a grey and sullen day. It is unlikely that the farmer thought of Gauguin and Van Gogh discovering the colours of Provence, when he planted his crop, but I thought of them. I went into the art shop and bought some tubes of sunshine.

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Jacob Bronowski graced our television screens forty years ago, with his series The Ascent of Man. He made sense of things ‘that tease us out of thought, as doth eternity.’  He held in his hand the Taung Skull, a fossil millions of years old. He explained the importance of the brain cavity as evidence of rational thought. In this child, probably killed by some predator, he saw the origins of how humanity set itself apart from other creatures. He spoke of humanity ascending from our ancient ancestors, not descending. The distinction is important. He showed what a privilege it is to be human, to have the capacity to think, to anticipate, to adapt and shape our world to our ends. We have the ability to intervene. We have language, memory, forethought, writing, mathematics, art, music and manual dexterity. Had Bronowski, a Polish Jew, not emigrated to Britain as a child, his vision would almost certainly have been obliterated on one of the many occasions when humankind slipped back into barbarism and mindless savagery. It is time that Bronowski’s series got another airing, to shine some shafts of sunlight into the dull and turgid schedules of modern broadcasting. Perhaps his views are too challenging or unfashionable. Perhaps the latest researches have proved him all wrong. He would have found that interesting, worth thinking about, evidence of the capacity of the human brain for rational deduction from the evidence. It would make a change from talent competitions, game shows, bang bang car chases and explosions.

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He explained how agriculture evolved in the fertile river valleys of the Nile and Mesopotamia. It is still evolving. The river mud gave us bricks and tablets for writing. It gave us mathematics, history and law. Agriculture gave us surpluses and great cities supporting numerous trades. It created armies to guard that surplus and the cities sustained by it. It created war. Ancient wars were characterised by capture or destruction of the enemies’ resources. From such wars came heroes, kings, queens, legends and empires. The farmers persisted. Before one of the battles of the English Civil War, to decide weighty issues of state, a herald was sent out to remove a peasant who was ploughing the proposed battlefield. You can imagine the conversation: “Ho there, clown. Remove thy horse and plough and void this field. His Majesty intends to humble his enemies on this soil, in bloody battle, making them bow the knee to their annointed lord..blah de blah..etc…etc. “Battle! Battle?? Nobody told me about any effing battle.” (This is a speculative reconstruction of the conversation.) At Aughrim farmers still plough up cannon balls and weapons from a battle fought three hundred years ago. Unexploded munitions remain a hazard to farmers, from The Western Front to Laos, Cambodia and former Yugoslavia.. The bones of the fallen at Waterloo were dug up twenty years later and ground up for fertilizer.  The farmer ploughs on, digging for victory.  He has carrots to weed and hedges to trim. Drains must be kept clear or the whole thing reverts to chaos, to swamp and bramble. He has a landscape to mind. A farmer remarked recently that his greatest asset is a bad short-term memory. He plans ahead and hopes for better harvests.


Seventy five years ago the people of South Eastern England looked up at a battle raging in the sky over their green and pleasant land. Their heroes fought off an attempt to grab their land, their way of life, their very existence. We are familiar with photographs of downed enemy pilots being captured by farmers wielding pitchforks. Resistance is futile when faced with an angry farmer with his pitchfork. When you were young, you assembled model aeroplanes and painted them in the colours of the landscape. You bought Humbrol paint in the art and hobby shop….Henry Power’s. You fought battles with your brothers over Spitfires, Wellingtons and Hurricanes. You hung your squadrons from the ceiling and watched them wheel in the draught. Bandits at ten o’clock. It was stirring to see them again on television a week ago, writing a story of heroism in the scribbled con trails of aerial conflict.

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According to Bronowski, every two years the Bakhtiari people encounter the Oxus River in their migration in search of grazing for their goats and sheep. They lose animals and family members in fording the river. They have no time to stop and build a bridge over the torrent, swollen with meltwater from the mountains. They must move every day to find fodder. They cannot grow crops. They migrate through the margins of Afghanistan, India, Iran, the former U.S.S.R. Turkey, Iraq, Syria, in a constant struggle for survival. They avoid other pastoralists and their competing herds. They avoid conflict. They have no eventful history and few chattels. Their flocks eat all available food every day. Only they can survive in the desert that they create. They must move on….and on….and on. At least they did.  How have they survived the savagery of war and religious fanaticism in those regions? Not much cranial activity going on there…except for the obscenity of decapitation.  Where are the Bakhtiari now? If he were around today, Bronowski would find out what has happened to a way of life that had/has persisted since human ingenuity first domesticated wild creatures and subordinated them to our needs.

He demonstrated the square on the hypotenuse equal to the sum of the squares etc.  by using fragments of roof tiles and some cherry twigs. He sat where Pythagoras must have sat on many an occasion, wondering about such matters. It was exhilarating to see. I can’t remember how he did it. My grand daughter, Alice, played with her youth orchestra in the street on Sunday. It was a delight on a sunny morning. I noticed that the bunting was composed of isosceles triangles and right angled triangles.

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Thank you to those clever and talented children for lightening the world and also to Pythagoras and Jacob Bronowski for explaining how it works. Think for a moment also, about the Taung child and the perilous world in which he or she lived and died.

Watchmen and Snorting Coke. Balbriggan Street Corner.


Photo courtesy of the Ulster American Folk Park 

This photograph is one hundred years old and yet it is as clear as the day it was taken. Only the horse has ignored the instruction to stand perfectly still.  As children, we looked up to men like these, men at ease in the world of hard work, farm animals and machinery powered by muscle power alone. They laboured in harmony with the swing of the farming year. They always seemed to be at ease with their place in the world and with one another. Nevertheless, the work was relentlessly hard. They grumbled and swore when things went wrong. They complained about the weather and at the prices their produce fetched, as farmers still do. They rose at ungodly hours and worked until dark. They tended the land and passed it on to the next generation, when the labour bent and warped them and the rain, seeping through damp clothing, stiffened their joints with arthritis. Yet they were winners in the old sense, struggling with the land and winning a living, when times were good. ‘Strong farmers.’ There is a danger of romanticising that farming life. The title tells another story. How many thousands and thousands of labouring people emigrated to find new and better lives in America and elsewhere. Faraway hills are green. How many disappeared into the great void of emigration. Ireland looks back at centuries of parting. We are good at looking back. We have the sad songs and poetry to prove it. Yet the working year went around. The sun shone and the rain fell. The ground was tilled and the harvest drawn in. Horses plodded down furrows and hooves clip-clopped in the streets. Men in their Sunday suits, stood at Balbriggan Street corner, after half-eleven Mass and discussed the weighty matters of the world.


The little garden is in itself, a triumph over tarmacadam and concrete but it took away a comfortable nook sheltered by two whitewashed gable ends. A select group of men congregated at this vantage point to talk and smoke and observe the infrequent traffic. I was told by a local historian, i.e. a very old man, that this was the relic of a hiring fair from years long past, a fossil from a distant era, when a day’s labour could be the difference between survival and starvation. They wore their Sunday clothes and invariably their watch chains. They often took out their watches, as if some more pressing business were calling them away. I always wanted a watch and chain and a waistcoat to dangle it from. I wanted to stand in their company, but I was too young and would have had nothing to contribute to the conversation. Like with any good club, non members were rigorously excluded, not by any written constitution or a bag of black balls, but by heredity, seniority and convention. They were generally quiet civil men who would greet even a passing urchin like myself, with a wink or a sideways flick of the head. Like Mass itself, the meeting at Balbriggan Street corner was an integral part of the Sabbath day when labour was temporarily set aside and people greeted their neighbours. By half past one the meeting had thinned out and business was adjourned.

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Around the corner to the left,stood Miss Collins’s shop, flanked by two enamel signs for Players and Goldflake. If you hunkered down you could pretend to be smoking a giant cigarette. This was hilarious. No it wasn’t. Yes it was. Our father would sometimes interrupt the argument by taking us inside for a fizzy drink, ginger beer or American cream soda, while he bought his cigarettes. He was never without his Players medium, except for one winter’s night when supplies ran out and it was too cold and too late to go down the road for more. He was unbearable. ‘Why not ask **** for a couple to tide you over?’  ‘That’s a good idea.’ He mused for a minute. ‘I don’t like that bloody fellow. I wouldn’t want to be beholden to him.’  ‘ You can give them back to him in the morning.’ He poked the fire vigorously. ‘Bloody so and so. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. He’s probably in bed anyway. Bloody layabout. Should get a proper job.’ Everyone was to blame for the shortage of tobacco. We stayed out of his way.

There was a wooden bench against the wall in Miss Collins’s shop, under a picture of a red-faced boy in a state of ecstasy, chewing a Rowntrees fruit gum. We competed in imitating the boy. Hilarious again, until the ginger beer fizzed up the nose. ‘Stop that bloody caffling.’ He was only in the process of replenishing his supplies. Even more hilarious. Splutters all round. Pepsi was even more hazardous and then there was Coke. The whole world drank Coke and sang about it. It was/maybe still is, sophisticated to drink Coke. When we first encountered it, the original cocaine additive had long been removed, but it could still cause havoc if it got up your nose on a Sunday morning in Miss Collins’s shop.

Some of the men from around the corner, came in for tobacco or matches. Our father chatted with them. We kicked our heels and tried to make the drink last. One of the men had a big pocket watch. When he sprang the lid open it chimed or played a tune, like a music box. The notes sprinkled out of the silver case and hung magically in the air. We stopped caffling. He was proud of his watch, knowing the spell it cast. Sometimes at a threshing or in the street, we would stop him and ask the time. He would produce the watch with a smile and play the little tune. The time didn’t matter. He had a moustache and a waistcoat with a chain across the front. Men wore retired Sunday suits to work. They rolled up their shirt sleeves and got on with the job. Strong farmers. Every boy, at some stage in life, wants to be a farmer.


How could I remember the man on top of the hay cart a century ago? The war was a time warp. Watches were synchronised to the nineteen twenties or thirties. For two decades, farm work reverted to the age of the horse and cart. Traffic disappeared. There was dung in the streets and farmyards in the middle of the town. There was much to talk about at Balbriggan Street corner. The meeting has been adjourned now for many years…..sine die. The garden is looking well.


At the other end of the row was Annie Murray’s sweet shop. She couldn’t stock ice cream because she had no electricity She had an oil lamp on the counter to keep her warm on a winter’s night. It cast a welcoming glow. I went in for a fizzy drink. That was before children were obliged to become obese and  hyper from fizzy drinks. I asked for a straw. ‘May I have a straw please, Miss Murray?’  ‘What do you want a straw for?’  ‘To drink through.’  ‘Oh, I couldn’t let you do that. Sure there’d be beetles and insects of all kinds in straws.’   Not very sophisticated at all, was she?.

Sea shells, conscience, Freud and Wellington boots.

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This area of Portugal is characterized by Devonian (The Age of Fish) rocks from the Mesozoic and Cainozoic…. Have you switched off already? Sounds like a school textbook…where I first learned about this stuff…..the calcareous remains of marine organisms etc. Every marine organism that donated its calcareous remains to build these rocks, was a living individual, knocking out a life for itself in a warm, food-rich ocean, with the sun beaming overhead. I could do with some of that myself. In fact I did have some of that recently, in good company and have a souvenir to  prove it. (Cue holiday photographs of food and raised drinks– but no.) A true story instead and maybe an apocryphal one later.

A young farmer was brought into Casualty by his brother, suffering a broken arm. ‘What happened,’ asked the doctor.  ‘I whacked him with the handle of a pitchfork.’ Further explanation was called for. The brother had come out into the yard and had seen the victim holding onto an electricity pole or pylon. His right leg was shaking in convulsive spasms. Obviously catastrophic charges of electricity were passing through the unfortunate lad. The first thing to do in a situation like this, is to break the connection. The brother, with no thought for his own safety, grabbed a pitchfork and broke the connection and the arm, with a mighty blow. ‘Ahh!’ said the doctor, ‘I see.’ The victim intervened with a slightly aggrieved tone: ‘I was only trying to move bit of grit in my wellie. I was trying to get it down between my toes.’ (expletives deleted.) Freud would have divined a darker purpose in the sibling’s prompt action. We have all done similarly with a piece of irritating grit, There is a safe, though temporary, haven in the warm, adhesive zone between two toes, especially if you wear wellies. Wellies are supposed to be good insulation against electrical charges, especially lightning. Ben Franklin was lucky with his lightning experiments. The second man to try flying a kite with a key attached, was incinerated. Ben, a prolific inventor, never thought of wellies.

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Unless you extract that piece of grit, it will come back to bite you (re morse…bite back) There is a Mediaeval text called The Again Bite of In-wit.  You could never set up as a psychoanalyst with a cumbersome title like that to your credit. Forgetfulness is a blessing. We forget our peccadilloes, our embarrassing incidents, offence given, words said in anger or stupidity, misfiring jokes, clangers dropped. In the house of the hanged man….do not mention rope… The list is as endless as the strata upon strata of the little marine organisms. Imagine how intolerable it would be if memory didn’t fade, if the blush remained, drawing attention to your gaffe forever and forever. Freud was an enthusiastic miner in the strata of the subconscious. He could always find the offending piece of grit. Sometimes, I suspect, he salted the mine, planting guilty memories that the patient had never known about in the first place. The main thing is to find something to keep the customer happy or miserable or resentful. Give him or her a sore to pick at or a scar to flaunt. Most of the people of Martinique were turned into fossils by a volcanic eruption. One of the few survivors was lucky enough to be in prison at the time, in a Dutch Oven, a small cell built of corrugated iron. The volcano turned his prison into a gridiron. He suffered dreadful burns, which enabled him, after a life of crime, to earn an honest living, by exhibiting his scars in fairgrounds. He would have done well on modern television show-and-tell shows.

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A conchologist would love the cliffs of Carvoeira, as did I.  There are excellent fish restaurants all along the coast. I swam in that warm sea and was rolled in the surf like a hapless marine organism. It was difficult to emerge with dignity from the waves. The beach, I gather, is reconstructed every year from sand dredged offshore. The sand comes from the crumbling cliffs. It’s still full of the shells of creatures that lived countless millennia  ago. In the rough and tumble of the surf, I stood on one of them. It’s still in my foot, a souvenir of a time of fun and good fellowship. I am almost reluctant now to take it out. I have tried, with needle and tweezers, assuming the linctus position, but all to no avail. A callous has formed around it, so that I forget about it most of the time. It helps to be callous occasionally, when dealing with memory. I fear that I will have to consult a good conchologist. I learned some Latin inexpertly, at school many years ago, which led me to believe, for many more years, that paediatricians specialise in the treatment of feet. A poor paediatrician was assaulted in Southampton some years ago, during one  of the occasional outbreaks of righteous outrage against suspected perverts. He had even advertised his warped proclivities with a brass plate on his door. Accurate labelling is important.

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Eternal vigilance. In The World According to Garp, the little boy worried about The Undertoad. It lurks invisible in the surf, among cephalopods, arthropods, pseudopods and octopodes. There are amphipods, copepods, and isopods on the shore, to make your life complicated or maybe interesting. They’ve been around since geological time began. Be careful where you step. Little boys however, with their endless curiosity about the world, love all these scurrying creatures and their fossilised remains. They love the challenge of the waves and don’t worry about their dignity.

So full of artless jealousy is guilt/ it spills itself, in fearing to be spilt.  

The parish priest, a man of great sanctity, beloved of his flock, esteemed for his charity and goodness, had an enormous nose. It was a quivering asteroid of bulbous excrescences and craters. It was lined with a roadmap of ruby veins. When he blew his nose at the podium, before beginning his sermon, parr–ap! parr–ap! the noise shook the building to the foundations. Woodworm in the rafters, shaken by the reverberations, fell unconscious onto the congregation below. It was a hooter, a klaxon, a conk. It was a wonder. The trouble was that he was coming to tea.

The mother warned the little boy: ‘If you say anything about his nose, I’ll kill you.’ (Mothers, under stress, often threaten infanticide.) ‘If you even look at it…’ The threat hung in the air. ‘Remember now.’ She wagged her finger. ‘Not one word or I’ll….’ Some terrible punishment was implied. (Very poor return for the little boy’s Oedipal devotion.) The bell rang. His Reverence came in and was invited to sit by the fire. The little boy’s eyes stood out, like those of creatures in the deep ocean abyss, eyes on stalks, questing for the faintest glimmer from the sun far above. He put his head to one side and then to the other. The nose glowed in the firelight. He imagined Neil Armstrong’s delicate moon craft touching down. The mother shook her head in silent warning. ‘I’ll get your tea, Father.’ Many hundreds of years of remission from the flames of Purgatory can be gained by serving tea to the parish priest.  She stared at the boy. She tapped her nose furtively and pointed at him. He was warned. She went out to the kitchen. Cups rattled. She returned as quickly as possible. The little boy was still sitting silently, transfixed. She sighed with relief. She put down the tray. ‘Now, Father,’ she began, ‘do you take any sugar in your nose?’

(Apocryphal story as told by the inimitable Dave Allen)

It seems that in Greek, ped means child, while in Latin it means a foot. Pod is a Greek foot. An octopus has eight of them. Oedipus had two, one of them being a bit dodgy. My confusion of many years is understandable. I was a pedagogue for many of those years.  If pediatricians can’t help me at my age, I shall have to go to a podiatrist or a conchologist. Get it out in the open. It will be good for the sole. I could try a bit of an old pray and cast it forth like an abomination.  I would go to a psychiatrist or a trichologist if I thought they could help. Or even a trick cyclist… They make a  living in fairgrounds, going around on birotes(Latin) or dicycles( Greek) I could be pedantic about prefixes but that would be too pedestrian.

Oh for a glass of vintage that hath been cooled a long time in the deep-delved earth,  He mentions Dance and Provencal song and sunburnt mirth. Maybe I should just keep my little souvenir of sunny days, laughter and clear blue water.

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