Be prepared

  

It is worthwhile clicking twice to enlarge sections of the notice attached to the rocket rescue cart. You can appreciate the amount of forethought that went into the serious business of saving lives at sea. There is even a whip for the horse. Speed was essential. The apparatus shed stood in the yard beside the old Coast Guard station, where the RNLI lifeboat house now stands. The pole itself has decamped to the bandstand to become, appropriately, a memorial to all those lost at sea along this coast.

           

Colonel Congreve pioneered the use of rockets in the British army. Some useful lessons were learnt in the wars in India. Congreve saw the rich possibilities for using rockets to dismember  people at a distance, as at Waterloo in 1815. The science has progressed to multiple rocket launchers, to guided missiles, to intercontinental ballistic missiles and rockets to the Moon.

In 1807 Captain George Manby of the Royal Artillery at Great Yarmouth developed a system of firing a mortar carrying a line to a stricken ship, using a weapon of war to save lives. A Cornish Man, Trengrouse , adapted the process by using rockets. The rocket rescue became the more common method. It must have been like divine intervention to those in peril at sea, a veritable deus ex machina. Survivors were winched ashore by breeches or sling buoy. I saw a demonstration on a fine Sunday afternoon a long time ago. There was a band playing at the bandstand. I doubt if they played “He flies through the air with the greatest of ease.” The daring young man was Des McDonagh, a rather dashing character, game for a challenge. The breeches buoy dragged through the water, a minor inconvenience when set against the enormous benefit of a life saved. I tried to imagine how it would have been in a storm, in darkness, when the waves surge over The Grey Mare Rock. Even Des might have been daunted.

  

  

You may have noticed the stump of a similar pole at The Captains, with two eyelets set into the rock to anchor the line. This would have been all bloody fine, if the rocket team could have got anywhere near the pole to receive the survivors. An easterly gale would have made this problematic. It is to the enormous credit of the rocket volunteers, that the system persisted for almost two centuries until the advent of helicopters, the ultimate deus ex machina. But these people are not gods. The recent tragedy at Blacksod reminds us that they are exceptional people who go out in all conditions, to risk their lives, without hesitation, in the service of others. It’s a far cry from a sunny Sunday afternoon and a demonstration of a quaint and antiquated rescue apparatus, but it is nonetheless a part of the same long tradition of selfless service to those in need.

Click twice on image.

 

 

The music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more….

I rose on May Day to see the sunrise behind Rockabill. I miscalculated by an hour, like a bargain hunter arriving too soon for the irresistible bargains of “Our Greatest Ever Sale!!!” Fortunately nobody lives in the vicinity, to be alarmed by “a quiet sort of chap…keeps himself to himself” like any run-of-the mill serial killer. I don’t advertise my presence by smoking…”You’re never alone with a Strand” as the Frank Sinatra lookalike used to say in the ad. Maybe it was actually Old Blue Eyes. I couldn’t say. He probably died of lung cancer, like the poor old Marlboro Man, the epitome of masculinity. In fact there was a succession of Marlboro Men. They went down like flies. I don’t wear earphones to fill my head with music, like any normal person. I didn’t even have a paper cup of coffee. Fortunately I had a camera as my excuse for standing in a field in darkness. You must have an alibi. I waited for the show to begin.

It’s a much more mundane looking scene in broad daylight. Like so much of showbiz, a lot depends on the lighting. Your average vampire, conspirator, axe-murderer, ghoul or zombie, is cleverly illuminated from below, changing  the “ordinary sort of chap…kept himself etc. etc.” into a hideous monster. Those bushes are just bushes by day but for the hour or so before dawn they are the strings and woodwind sections of a wonderful orchestra. They are the choir stalls, filled with linnets, sparrows, thrushes and blackbirds. A lark might clear its throat and try a few scales. The broad tympanum of the beach might echo to an early curlew, or oyster-catcher. I made not a sound. There was a faint glow to the east. A silver wire began to form on the edge of the low cloud bank. A tinge of pink leached into the mist. The lighthouse tip glowed red for an instant and faded back into the darkness. You’re never alone with a strand, a lighthouse or a field full of birds at dawn.

Long, long ago we used to listen on BBC Home Service, to Birdsong of Britain, a contest between different counties and shires. Shire always sound more romantic. Technicians with headphones and tape recorders, ornithologists with awesome knowledge of birdsong and commentators whispering reverently into microphones, brought the dawn chorus to listeners all over the world. We listened to a recorded version in the evening. There may have been tampering with the tapes in the interim. There may have been crowd violence as Oxfordshire strove with Shropshire, but to us it was an interlude of rural tranquility, brought to us by the outside broadcasting department of the BBC. It is illegal nowadays to listen to the sounds of nature, the wind and the sea, a distant bell or the lowing of cattle, the cries of children in the school playground or conversation with friends. You must have earphones, an i-pad, i-pod, i-phone, whatever, to validate your existence, as you walk, jog or even sit anywhere alone or in company. Do you remember the Walkman, a device invented to cull unwary pedestrians? The i-phone does an even better job at sensory deprivation. Quiet contemplation is the preserve of wierdoes. Loiterers up to no good. Lock them all up, I say, before they become a danger to society. They will have computers and televisions enough to straighten them out in prison. (That was a godwit, a plover, a herring gull…The maritime counties always had an advantage. There was the occasional nightingale from the southern counties, a show-stopper to send the commentators into rhapsodies.)

Anyway, the sun came up. The colour faded. The birds folded their music and went about the mundane business of the day. Rabbits emerged and cocked their ears for danger. The day became ordinary. I momentarily regretted the lack of gadgetry on my camera. With a big zoooom, I might have caught a meadow pipit or a willow warbler. There are goldcrest in those bushes, little yellow chevrons darting about in a perpetual quest. It was of course the mating, nesting, territory claiming, uninhibited singing season. There was a heron on a lonely vigil on the strand. Quiet sort of cove…keeps himself to himself. Up to no good. Be wary of fellows like that.

I had time to kill, metaphorically, in a department store. Look about you. There are always husbands loitering in department stores. They hold bags. Some become zombies. Some become potential murderers. It’s the quiet ones you have to watch. I went down to the  electronics section to get a cable to rejuvenate my steam-powered computer. The old cable has corroded, possibly from the sea air. There were televisions with frighteningly high definition, lining the walls. There were computers and gadgets of every description which I hope I will never possess. There were packets of stylish earphones for every shape of ear. There was music, the sort of amorphous background sound that you don’t recognise or remember, carefully devised to lull you into a compliant state of mind.. A tall young man looked down on me both physically and metaphorically. “No we don’t stock that kind of thing. Try Maplins.” Maplins sounded like one of those post-war holiday camps where music blared from tannoy systems all day long, the height of human felicity..Rosemary Clooney, Joseph Locke, Guy Mitchell..Poor little robin, walkin’, walkin,’ walkin’ to Missouri, a sad and moving lay; Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy…They don’t write stuff of that quality nowadays. All surly young men scowling at the audience. Bah, Humbug!  “Do you know where Maplins is?”  I nodded and turned away, feeling rejected. I contemplated loitering near the coffee machine counter, perhaps passing myself off as Rosemary’s nephew, George. Not a runner. I could have used a cup of coffee but I didn’t want to subject myself to the racket of the cafeteria… the hissing and clattering of the espresso machine, all that hammering of spent grounds. You could imagine that the gadget had been salvaged from a nuclear submarine. All that steam. Clear the forward tubes! Stand by for a cup of coffee.

I steadied myself and opted to lurk near the bargain basement. I was too late for all the bargains but it was quieter down there. A few forlorn gleaners were disarranging the displays. Still good value in tea towels. The music changed and I heard her, pure and clear, a gentle but compelling accompaniment, a sad story, as is the case with much Country and Western music..Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. I’m beggin’ of you not to take my man. In the quiet of the bargain basement, I could hear the words. Her voice went from pathetic plea to rising panic tinged with despair. She was no match for Jolene with her green eyes and flaming auburn hair. I listened, motionless and still, like Wordsworth listening to the highland lass reaping in her field. A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard/ in springtime from the cuckoo bird/ breaking the silence of the seas/ among the farthest Hebrides. My heart went out to Dolly Parton. A song should move the listener. I could lie and say that I saw a woman stopping in her search, her eyes glistening with tears and pressing an as yet unbought tea towel to her face, but that would be corny. The music faded. I wondered how things turned out..old unhappy far off things/and battles long ago. (Quiet sort of chap,Wordsworth.)

It was time to go. Dolly once came second to a drag queen in a Dolly Parton lookalike competition. I’ll bet she got a great laugh out of that. A drag queen? Some imposter who dominates the world of speed trials in high-powered, improbable looking cars, no less! A woman who gallops across country with foxhounds, pursuing a trail left by a rider dragging an aniseed scented kipper? Mistress of Foxhounds, no less! Whatever turns you on. Far be it from me to decree how people spend their time. I wouldn’t want to be trying to hold a blonde wig in place, going from nought to a hundred miles and hour in three seconds, or when setting my hunter at a stiff Irish fence on a brisk October morning. There is a story about such a lady, one of the breed that Brendan Behan described as a Horse-Protestant, who got her groom to give her a leg-up onto her sidesaddle. “Patrick” she said, in high good humour, “Did you see my agility?” Patrick, in some confusion, removed his cap. He scratched his head. “Yerra, I did, Ma’am, but sure I won’t tell a soule” Definitely time to go.

Dolly, let me say that one who can sing as pure  and true as the blackbird before dawn on a luminous May morning, has nothing to fear from Jolene or anyone else.  Come with me to Holmpatrick as the darkness is lifting, to listen to the birds in the summer bushes and watch the sun come up over the islands. It is guaranteed to raise your spirits. You will be safe. I’m relatively harmless…quiet sort of chap. Forget Jolene and the drag racer and the woman chasing a kipper across the fields.  They’re not worth bothering about.  

 

Skerries Community Games and The Six-Million-Dollar Man.

It said in National Geographic, so it must be true, even compulsory, that the next stage of human evolution is in our own hands. ‘We have the technology.’ Out with the old and in with the bionics. I’m not so sure. I still prefer humans to machines. Steve Austin would hold all the Olympic records because his technicians were better than yours or mine. By running in slow-motion he passed out planes, trains and automobiles. How did that work? There was a Steve Austin Action Man with a hole in the back of his head so that you could look through his bionic eye. As an Action Man he really didn’t do much. That was left to the imagination.He was actually a doll.  A doll! Keep that to yourself.  Steve lived in our house for  many years until his arms lost their tension and his eye became dim. We didn’t rebuild him because his fans had grown up. We hadn’t got the technology or the super glue.

  

What do you do when your kids come home from school and announce that they are going to take part in the Macunity Games, the new childrens’ event that was popping up all over the country? You take them out to get new runners. They opted of course, for Steve Austin runners, blue and red with go-fast stripes. The race was in the bag. There was a parade, marshalled by Paddy McNally, from The Monument all the way to the Rugby Club.  There was a banner on poles. It’s still in use. Mick Carron was on the public address. Boys under eight, sixty yards dash. Boys under eight to the starting line, please. It’s wonderful what a whistle and a high-vis jacket can achieve with a crowd of small boys. They ran in groups of ten. Our lads ran like Steve Austin, in slow-motion, looking down at their new blue and red runners with the go-fast stripes, waiting for that miracle to happen– when the other competitors begin to slow down and go backwards, when the music begins to build to a crescendo, when Steve surges forward through the miracle of bionics, past trains, automobiles etc. driven by bad guys, to claim the glittering prize. There was no miracle. I thought of taking the runners back to the shop and demanding a refund under the Trades Description  or Sale of Goods Acts. Nowadays a concerned parent would sue for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and claim for at least six million dollars for emotional suffering. However, the lads were still pleased with their runners and they got Tayto crisps and lemonade, so all was not lost.

  

So recently, on a beautiful summer day, we went to the Community Centre  park to watch our grandson take part in his first Macunity Games. The public address system played Chariots of Fire. Who would not want to run to the music of Chariots of Fire? The sun shone all day, one of those special days that makes you grateful to be there, to witness a community at play and at ease together in a great public space.  The organisation was, as always, impressive. The children were a delight. They run in metres nowadays, of course. Boys under eight, sixty metres dash. Boys under eight go to the starting line, please.

I leaned on the barrier and looked around. This was Nicky Ellis’s field. He grew cabbages, sprouts and spuds, leeks and cauliflowers, carrots, turnips and parsnips, in the light, sandy soil. As we trudged every day to and from school, we watched him with horse and plough, weaving the pattern of the seasons. The field flooded in wintertime. I saw rowing boats there. The windmill was a ruin with two bedraggled sails. John Boland, Michael Lynch, Jim Quigley and Johnny Murray envisaged what it could become. I thought of a few old friends who had started these games when our children dreamed of Olympic fame and Tayto crisps: Tom Derham, Vincent Woodlock, Jack Murphy, Maurice Mullins, Kevin Carmichael, David Moloney and of course Leonard McGloughlin who launched the aquatic version of the same games. There were hundreds too numerous to mention by name, who gave their time and energy and still do, to encourage children to realise their potential and give us all a day out in the sunshine. There were no video games in evidence anywhere. Yes, I still prefer humans.

      

Did we win? We have a few Macunity Games medals in dusty drawers. Who won them? I don’t remember. I wouldn’t want to start an argument or a law suit. Steve is no longer with us. He just went to pieces from the stress about forty years ago. Evil Knievel is still around somewhere, speaking of go-fast stripes. Did we win on that fine summer day?  Yes we did. There were lollipops and ice cream. Everyone in Nicky Ellis’s field, was a winner.

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Ease with Dignity…The Rich (are different) List.

My Sunday paper is a mine of abstruse information. Two things struck me. One was an article on Aldborough House, a semi derelict ruin in Dublin’s north inner city. The other was a weighty supplement entitled The Rich List. It fell out of the bale of newsprint and struck me on the foot. I could sue on foot of serious injury or back strain from lifting the entire newspaper from the mailbox. I might be in line for millions, ensuring my place on next year’s edition. There might be millions of people in line to take similar actions as The Sunday Times is famously bulky.  A cursory flick through revealed the dismal news that I was not included in the 2017 rich list, just like previous years. Further dismal news revealed that the subjects of the interviews, in most cases became rich through hard work, ingenuity, entrepreneurial skill and unflagging determination. Very few it appeared became rich through inherited wealth. Some who had reached a great age, ploughed their money into philanthropic causes, helping others less fortunate than themselves. They bore out the theory that success brought on by hard work, is good for the health. Damn!

As for Aldborough House, I remember looking at it every morning from the train, as I made my way to UCD to study, among other things, Latin. I was convinced that there would be untold wealth to be gained from studying and teaching Latin. There it was on the portico in bold Roman letters OTIUM CUM DIGNITATE. I was onto a winner. Edward Augustus Stratford, (I knew a fellow from Stratford) the 2nd Duke of Aldborough, in the 1790s correctly envisaged the aspirations of a gentleman, a life of ease and dignity in a decent house, supported by privilege and inherited wealth. His timing was a bit askew. Within ten years The Act of Union deflected fashionable society away from Dublin to the centre of power in London. The grand town houses of the gentry fell into decay to the point that many became slums, while others became the business premises of professionals engaged in trade…(see above, hard work, ingenuity, entrepreneurial skill and unflagging determination.) No sign of ease and dignity there. How is a gentleman supposed to live? Aldborough House is a sorry remnant of its former self. Perhaps the new owners will redeem it. One of its lowest and ominously symbolic moments came with the discovery of a human skull when the leaking roof was being repaired in the 1950s. The theory was that this macabre occurrence dated to the North Strand bombing in World War II. An inauspicious discovery. The house looks rundown and possibly haunted. I imagine, never having been in it and never having tapped at the plaster work or probed the woodwork for wet and dry rot, that unmentionable horrors await any attempt to restore it.

As for the lucrative business of teaching Latin, the Second Vatican Council, knocked the arse out of that. Latin teachers were summarily turned out of schools and colleges to beg for their bread in the common street. For years I eked out a meagre  living in draughty hedge schools or as the despised tutor to the sons and daughters of decayed and debauched gentry in crumbling mansions. I lived below stairs and sat at table with the under footmen, scullery maids and grooms. The dry rot entered into my soul. My only comfort was a well-thumbed copy of S.P.Q.R. by Mary Beard, an illuminating tome about Roman civilisation. I mined the book, as she appeared to have mined the records and monuments of that faded empire. There were flashes of recognition from my student days, those bright days when I learned that all of Gallia is divisa in partes tres.; that it is dulce et decorum to die for the fatherland; that the chief priest of Rome was the Pontifex Maximus or bridge builder and stuff like that. I didn’t mention any of that to the footmen, the skittish young scullery maids or the grooms. What would they care? I recalled the words of that other great classicist, Frankie Howard, “titter ye not” but I knew that they would.  In S.P.Q.R. I found a harsh truth–the opposite of OTIUM (Ease) is NEGOTIUM (Business). It dawned on me that prosperity and wealth might be derived from business or even busyness. I had been on the wrong track all along. I devised a plan of action, (opposite of ease.)

It came to me on Quasimodo Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter. My paper had not arrived. I read in S.P.Q.R. that Rome is a mess. Most of the great buildings are falling down. The Vatican Museum is crammed with old stuff,  statues without limbs or noses, heads without bodies, torsos without heads, old pottery, out of date books, paintings and tapestries so out of fashion that nobody would want them in their own living room. Look at that building, Nero’s Golden House. “At last” says he,after bankrupting the empire and expending the lives of thousands of slaves, “I have a house where I can begin to live like a human being.”  What Rome needs is a Quasimodo, someone to scamper about ringing bells and tidying up. The place has enormous possibilities, tourism, Air b and b. Clear out all the old stuff. Put a lick of paint on all those ruins. Put Mary Beard on a modest retainer. She could do all the hard work. I wrote to the Pontiff, in my best school Latin, outlining my plan. Revive the Latin Mass. Establish a Vatican Latin academy, endorsed by the Latin-American Pope, with low-cost accommodation in the Vatican itself. We could both make a tidy sum out of it. It can’t go wrong. He’s a Latin-American, for God’ sake!. He doesn’t even use the papal apartments. The hallmark of the entrepreneur is to see an opportunity and go for it. Give it a year or two and we could both ascend in glory, with trumpet blasts and angelic choruses, into the glory of The Sunday Times Rich List.

Isn’t that a disgrace?

{My other field of study was Eng. Literature. Brush up your Shakespeare/And the women you will wow/Brush up your Shakespeare/And they’ll all kow- tow. Do you think it would be worth having another crack at impressing those giggling scullery maids?  I might hold on a while until I’m wealthy.}

Observe, Grasshopper, and Learn.

Archbishop Martin spoke recently about the changed nature of violence among young men. He looked back to a more innocent time, when young lads fought, as they always will and one, or perhaps both of them, emerged with a bloody nose. There were boundaries to what was allowed. To cross those boundaries brought shame and contempt. To kick an opponent was the hallmark of a coward. ‘When did this change?’ he asked plaintively, appalled as he is, like any reasonable person, by the prevalence of extreme violence  on our streets.

The late Sam McAutrey remarked wryly, that the recruitment of young men into the army in World War Two, kept them off the streets and out of trouble. No doubt they learned transferable skills in the war, which they could apply in later life. We all learned from post war comics, how to deal with sentries like the Commandos did, silently and efficiently. The Germans seemed to recruit blind and deaf soldiers, specifically as sentries. The enemies went down in flames or up in explosions, in the graphic art of The Wizard, The Hotspur and The Adventure. That was o.k. though. They had asked for it. ‘Our chaps’ fought fair and square, by the rules of war. In the final analysis, a punch to the jaw was usually enough to sort out any foreigner. Or was that all in fairy tales?

Enter the Dragon!. We were in Drogheda one Saturday afternoon, minding our own business, when the cinema disgorged a crowd of young lads into the street, from the matinee show, the first ever Bruce Lee, Kung Fu epic. It was as if buckets of yelling spiders had been emptied out all around us. Satisfied customers. They kicked and jabbed with the appropriate blood-chilling yells. A good time was had by all. There was something different here. Bruce Lee was undoubtedly a foreigner. That made his kicking and hitting below the belt, understandable. He could levitate, unlike the kids in the street. He represented the forces of good, just like the knights of chivalric legend. He always won, just like the good guys in the Wild West films. Since then we have been overwhelmed by  practitioners of the martial arts, judo, ju-jitsu, kendo, karate, tae-kwando, origami, sushi. You are nobody if you can’t kick your opponent on the head or levitate onto roof tops. No holds are barred.

Gus Mulligan a Commandant in the army and a good neighbour, occasionally gave us boxing gloves to work off some steam. We strictly observed the Queensberry rules. Ollie Coulter, a bit of a wag, put his snake belt around the top of his head. Every boy had a snake belt, the coolest fashion accessory at the time. ‘No hitting below the belt,’  he insisted, as he weaved and jabbed, feinting with his left and following up with a devastating right…At least that was what he said in his running commentary. We fell about, laughing. Yet there was some moral force in the belt. I found out later what the belt was. A medical student, twice  my size, was throwing his weight around at the bathing place. ‘Did you ever hear of the solar plexus belt?’ ‘No.’  ‘Come here and I’ll show you.’ Knowledge is power. He showed me all right. I wish that I was a black belt fukushima expert at the time, but Bruce had not yet burst upon the scene. I wish I could have levitated and landed a few devastating blows on top of Ollie Coulter’s head, come to think of it. No, I’m glad I couldn’t do that. Ollie made us laugh. It was all in sport.

Do you remember when the notion of a professional foul came into the language of sport? Is that an oxymoron or what? Is it a defence in law?  I remember. I saw J.P.R. Williams, a god of Welsh rugby,  fell Mike Gibson with a punch, thereby averting a certain try. He justified it as a professional foul. A what? A case has been made that athletes should be allowed to use whatever drugs they want… and the Devil take the hindmost. Fortius, citius, altius.  Stronger, Faster and as High as a kite. The hindmost is most likely the clean competitor. The damned fool. What about a professional lie, as distinct from perjury? Lord Denning cast doubt on the capacity of black people and immigrants to serve on juries or practice law. In the case of The Birmingham Six, he ruled that their action against the police, would, if it succeeded, ‘open an appalling vista…’  No ‘reasonable person’ would want to open that can of worms. Even a Law Lord can stoop to a professional foul. We call it ‘Post truth’ nowadays.

Lord Queensberry curbed the excesses of The London Prize-Ring rules (anything goes except biting and gouging) with his generally accepted rules of boxing. These could not be applied to dog fighting, cock fighting, bull and bear baiting, so these sports remain illegal.  Significantly, the champions win enormous belts, big enough to cover the solar plexus. They do not, of course, wear these belts during the contests, especially not on the head, despite Ollie Coulter’s best efforts. Even amateur Olympic boxers are not allowed to wear protective headgear, despite the current concern about concussion in sport.

I admire some things about Conor McGregor. He dresses impeccably. He is clever and highly articulate. He turned the disadvantage of unemployment into an opportunity. He is a shrewd businessman. He is dedicated to his calling. He has a charismatic influence, especially over young men. He makes a lot of money. He tells the truth. ‘I’m involved in a violent and dirty business…’ He said this on being presented with his award for R.T.E. Sports Personality of the Year, as decided by a public vote. Personality, yes, but Mixed Martial Arts/ Ultimate Fighting/ Cage Fighting is not sport. People die.

Is it any wonder, Grasshopper and Your Grace, that young men bring what they observe and learn, onto the streets, particularly late at night and after a few drinks? They are all Bruce Lee in their own minds. The man who made the most money out of this phenomenon was a Hong Kong film maker, Run Run Shaw. Possibly the best advice when confronted by ninjas, dragons or tattooed Viking berserkers in a late night food outlet. Run! Run like hell!

 

Blowin’ in the Wind

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The drama tends to be on the seaward side of our road. It is a favourite spot for photographers, walkers, joggers, bird watchers and idlers. We get both sunrise and moonrise. Mountainous seas may hurl themselves at the White Wall. Low spring tides may retreat almost to the horizon and a walk to the island becomes irresistible.

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It is altogether safer to walk on the landward side in the shelter of the high Rugby club wall, especially when the wind and rain come from the west. The slip-stream of the C.I.E. bus is less alarming. Outbound traffic on the seaward side, impelled by the camber and centrifugal force, threatens to hop onto the pavement or shed its load on the hapless pedestrian. A sly wave may take the opportunity to give you a refreshing shower. You may be obliged to break into a trot if the old bones permit.

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When we were kids the wall at the Rugby pitch was a low, crumbling, stone wall, overgrown with red and green succulent weeds. There was no pavement on the west side. There was no refuge from the east wind for either players or spectators. We were fascinated by and wary of, Bang and Wallop, an eccentric old couple who lived on the other side of Curkeen Hill. They did their shopping on Saturday afternoons and cycled home along this road. Bang, (not her real name but an appropriate one by all accounts,) had brakes on her bike. It was her task to cycle ahead and give the all-clear to her husband who had no brakes, by means of a football whistle. This gave him, as we say in management-speak, a window of opportunity to get farther around the bend in safety. The rules of Rugby Football are complicated enough as they stand. They made no provision whatsoever for Bang’s whistle.  As I get further and further around the bend myself, I appreciate their caution.Traffic was sparse in those days. I presume they pushed their shopping-laden bikes up Curkeen Hill. I never saw their white-knuckle ride down the hill. I rode up that hill once, in later years, on a twelve gear mountain bike in a vain effort to get fit. I made it. I saw silver-fish in my vision and heard whistling noises all around me. My heart was going ‘bang and wallop’. I turned around and freewheeled homewards, with cautious touches on the breaks. Enough of that carry-on.

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My little son said to me once: ‘I heard on the radio that C.I.E. lost ninety million pounds. I’m keeping an eye out for it, in case it fell off the bus.’ Buses had open platforms at the back in those days. ‘What would you do if you found it?’ ‘I would give most of it back….but I would keep enough for a Rally Chopper.’  That sounded reasonable to me. I decided to keep an eye out for it myself. I noticed that there is always an accumulation of dust, sand, sweet papers and in season, crackling withered leaves, at one point on the bend, as if there is a demarcation dispute between winds coming up the road and winds coming down. I found also that at the same point, the car radio cut out, just for two or three seconds. The Twilight Zone. It was in the days of ‘Medium and Long wave transmission.

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He came back to me. ‘You know how I thought that rubbish liked me, because it always followed me up the road?’ ‘Hmm? Well you are a likeable sort of fellow.’  ‘Well it does. I found a twenty pound note in the leaves.’  It’s a start. Only£89,999,980 to go. He has gone from Raleigh Choppers to B.M.X, to multigear, carbon frame racing bikes with wireless gears. He likes cycling up hills. These are expensive items. If I find that he hasn’t come clean on the rest of the money, I may have to blow the whistle on him…unless of course we can reach some eh, understanding. I made a tentative enquiry concerning same. The reply was a not very encouraging ‘On yer bike.’

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There appear to be rich pickings on the other side of the wall.

Cryonics, Disney in Ice. Sir Ranulf and Black and Decker.

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The ice was here, the ice was there. The ice was all around/ It cracked and growled and roared and howled/ like noises in a swound. Ancient Mariner

There is frost outside as I write. Not as bad as the poor old mariner experienced. (Why would the ancient mariner make an indifferent goalkeeper? “He stoppeth one of three.) Never mind. Look at Sir Ranulf. In all his pictures he looks cold. He should wear a hat more often. His wife used to organise his expeditions…to this pole and that pole…on foot…in the cold…on his own… Did he not begin to get suspicious? (A diminutive knight arrived at an Alpine inn in a blizzard and riding a Saint Bernard dog. “Come in, come in, ” said mein host,”I wouldn’t turn a knight away on a dog like this.”)  Someone should do something to help these poor frosty knights. After one of Sir Ranulf’s expeditions he amputated some frostbitten toes with a Black and Decker. Toes are not renewable. Which reminds me. I had a neat little Black and Decker angle grinder. I wonder what happened to it.

I thought of Sir Ranulf and the mariner the other night as I listened to the orchestra tooling up to play the Prelude to Wagner’s Parcifal. That’s Sir Percival. Percy to his friends. Seven double basses, six celloes, tympani, strings and sounding brass. What a racket! I almost swounded(?) with the noise. They settled down when the conductor arrived to restore order. (Did you hear about the bus-conductor who murdered his passengers by pushing them off the bus? After three attempts to execute him in the electric chair, they had to let him go. Three strikes and you’re out. At his news conference where he announced his book deal and film option, he admitted to being a bad conductor.)

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This brings me, of course, to cryonics, back in the news again. It will be big news in years to come, perhaps centuries, when all the frosted cryogenically preserved people wake up and are cured of whatever killed them, ailments like old age. Maybe they will come back in miraculously rejuvenated bodies instead of the ones they left in. I know that athletes swear by cryotherapy…aaagh!… but they’re held together anyway by sticky plasters. Can it reverse fifty years of wear and tear and overindulgence? That electricity sub-station went on the blink last Christmas, for four and a half days. It was hell. No TV or hot meals. Even the phones died. We were forced to fall back on conversation and sociability. Even jokes. And wine. (Herve, the Belgian, the butt of French and Dutch jokes, had an infallible method of identifying wine that had been adulterated with anti-freeze. It was a big scandal a few years ago.  “I put ze bottles in ze freezaire. (He spoke Belgian.) Ze bottles zat do not burst, are ze good ones.”)

I heard a man on the radio explaining how it is done. Your blood and bodily fluids are replaced with anti-freeze, presumably before you die. Then you are encased in a capsule surrounded by liquid nitrogen, which is kept at a low temperature for many years or centuries. This is done using electricity. You pay your bill in advance….See sub-station outage above.

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This arrived the other day. Fair warning. We once lost a freezer full of food because some idiot unplugged it to make use of a Black and Decker and forgot to plug it back in again. Rigorous investigation suggested that I might have had some part in the disaster. We were unaware of the danger until my great-great-grandfather clambered out in a wraith of liquid nitrogen, roaring for shpuds and butthermilk.  He asked for a lend of a loan of my Black and Decker. The food was ruined too. I had to speak sternly to him about scattering toes all over the place. That’s the last time I’ll lend him any power tools. We had the divil of a job to get him back inside. “And don’t touch any of that wine!”

I don’t like the cold. I don’t want to join Walt Disney and other immortalsin Martian-style capsules high in the mountains. I don’t want to come back and have to turn my great-great-grandchildren out of my house. I can’t even remember where I left that angle grinder. National Geographic informs me that there are frozen sub-terranean glaciers on Mars. Freezing is mooted as an option for intergalactic travel. I’m not going there. Walt should have gone to Mars or even Pluto (family discount.) Pluto is a dwarf planet now. Why is there no Planet Happy or Goofy or Sneezy? I would definitely avoid Sneezy.  No, I think I’ll go for the full Mahatma Gandhi on the Dorn of Shennick so that the tide will clean the place up afterwards. Probably need planning permission.

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Apologies in advance to our intrepid Winter swimmers, The Frosties, for any adulteration of the sea water after the tide comes back.

Dead Men Rising. Walt and Mickey Mouse. Old Leighlin.

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I met a man the other day, who wished me dead. “I have a painting of yours on my wall in Australia. It’s of Lambay Island. If you were to die, the value might go up.” It might even reach treble figures. The frame alone…..eminently collectible… We hatched a not very good plan, where I would leave my clothes on the bench, swim home and hide in the attic for a century or two. Then I would emerge, like Rip Van Winkle, when the market had picked up, to divide the profits. It’s an old trick: John Stonehouse who swam to Florida; some idiot called Darwin who faked a canoeing accident (nearly became extinct) and arranged for his wife to collect the insurance and rendezvous with him in Brazil. He’s in gaol now; Prime Minister Holt , snaffled by a Russian submarine, or so they said. Be careful out there.

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It’s too far for me. I’m not fit. I might die of the cold. We parked the plan and enjoyed our swim. I felt like a million dollars after it. Anyway, I knew that my lunch would be ready in half an hour, paella, ‘to die for’, as they puzzlingly say nowadays. Back to the drawing board.

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In the churchyard of Old Leighlin  stands the headstone of the Disney family. Age and lichen have made it illegible. Walt isn’t here. (Glaswegian joke: “What’s the difference between Walt Disney and Bing Crosby?” “I dinna ken. What’s the …etc.” “Bing Crosby sings songs and Walt does nae.”) Sorry about that. Walt has opted for the old cryogenics. A cunning plan. His business, a Mickey Mouse operation to begin with, has gone from strength to strength and he’s been dead for only fifty years. Think of the joy his great grand children will feel when he comes back to attend his first board meeting and move back into the family home. Think of the plans he will have hatched  in the interim. And yet there could be snags. His deep freeze container is somewhere in the California mountains, among other kindred spirits. The place is notorious for forest fires!!  Hot diggety dawg! The power and rent bills could eat up all the profits. There will be legal ‘issues’.

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A three-hundred year old Devon man, Sir Peter Carew took possession, by legal chicanery, of  this castle at Leighlinbridge.. At least that was what they said of him in Queen Elizabeth’s time. He employed a learned lawyer, Dr. Hooker of Exeter to revive an ancient family claim.  He dispossessed the resident Kavanagh family and threatened to bring war and strife to several parts of Ireland, as if Ireland hadn’t got enough strife already. The castle was to secure his family’s claims to this strategic region. It doesn’t look too good today. I be nigh on ninety seven. Born and bred in dear old Devon. If you would live as old as I, drink Devonshire cream and cider. Maybe that was what made so many Devon men, Carew, Stukely, Walt Raleigh, so aggressive in Ireland. Peter died at the age of sixty one, leaving no ‘issue’ to carry on his claims. Raleigh’s wife carried his mummified head in a bag for twenty seven years after his execution. He didn’t look well at all, at all. Should have tried the old cryogenics.

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This was no Mickey Mouse foundation, an abbey since the seventh century, supporting 1500 monks. Then it became a cathedral, being rebuilt in the twelfth century. It houses the bones of long forgotten lords and ladies, in tombs with indecipherable inscriptions. This one shows a view of the vaulted ceiling overhead, a tomb with a view. Somebody remembers them enough to prompt a tribute of flowers.

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In the interests of immortality and relief from sundry aches and pains, we went around to Saint Lazerian’s holy well. “Whatever you do, don’t drink the water,” people said to us. I tried some on my head in the hope of finding a luxuriant head of hair in the morning. No luck so far.

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Drat! I forgot to leave an offering on the thorn bush. I shall go back next week and remedy the lapse.

Expect extraordinary tonsorial developments and a new bathing cap to keep my hair shiny. Because I’m worth it.

 

Field of (abandoned) Dreams. Re-cycling Bicycles.

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The late Paddy O Furniture

The late Frank Muir, a broadcaster and humorist who didn’t rely on profanity or queasy unease for laughs, voiced a truth. The three happiest days of his life were… “the day I got married, the day I bought my boat and the day I got rid of my boat.”  An old friend of mine always celebrated the onset of autumn and the dark nights after Samhain, by enrolling in an evening class. The first time he did so, his father rejoiced. The lad had been a slow starter. The father renewed his hope that this son of his loins would take over the family accountancy business. He did not. At the end of the first year, as the brighter evenings began to creep in and birds began to build in the hedgerows, he proudly produced the fruits of his evening classes–a coffee table. He learned to tie fishing flies, basic motor car maintenance, conversational Spanish, the rudiments of archery and boat building but he never became an accountant. One day he announced that he had made a big decision–no more *!!!**&%$+^**ing evening classes. No more self-improvement. Free at last! Great God in Heaven, free at last! Catharsis. He’s still a very interesting and well-adjusted fellow…no need for improvement.

We went yesterday to the re-cycling centre. We lead a whirlwind social life. All of human life is there. Long ago I towed a trailer loaded with all the things we had once coveted, treasured and admired for years. I got into terrible trouble trying to reverse the damn thing. I have huge admiration for articulated-lorry drivers and of course, articulate lorry drivers. Fascinating chaps, the first genuine Europeans, men of the world. I took another run at it, hoping to come up alongside. The supervisor stopped me. “You’d better wait here a minute. That other oul fella is gettin’ into terrible trouble with his trailer.” Other oul fella? Other oul fella?? Had we reached a point where oul fellas are discarded, reviled, despised, because they jack-knife trailers in re-cycling centres? Does the pit yawn for oul fellas. I’m still useful you know.. Not ready for the dump…Bit o’ spirit left in me yet. I waited my turn, reversed smoothly into place with a graceful flourish and dismounted to unload with a swagger.  (That last sentence is largely untrue.)

People throw away exactly what other people want but are not limber enough to retrieve from the pit or the skip. There is an element of shame involved in coveting thy neighbour’s cast-offs. That garden table, discarded yesterday, could have been painted. It could have lasted another winter or two. I even have the paint in my shed, where incidentally, I have other stuff that may come in handy. Or I might dump it. It’s been there for years, untouched by human hand. Anyway, the solar display in the centre of the table, died on its first outing. The ads always depict languid and glamorous couples having a glass of wine in the gloaming (I have never used that word before) or in the dusk, (an even more atmospheric word) sitting on their elegant garden chairs, perhaps enjoying the solar light display that adds a touch of the exotic to the evening. Somewhere far away, a mandolin player is giving it his best. No he isn’t. The solar display from Homecare and More doesn’t work. I can see rust under the glass where it can’ be reached. The sellotape didn’t repel the rain. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Get rid of it. Ronald Reagan joked about the Irishman, Paddy O’ Furniture, patiently standing outside the back door, all winter.. There comes a day when even Paddy has to face the inevitable.

There was a time when we could count thirteen bikes in our house. If you went into the shed in the gloaming, you would bark your shin against a bike or two. It would have been wonderful to have donated them to the building of Spitfires to defeat Naziism, but that day had passed. “Anyway, they’re good bikes. You can’t throw away good things. Those bikes cost money.” One of those bikes was a Carl Lewis exercise bike. You need to be on serious drugs to carry a Carl Lewis bike upstairs. I set it up in front of a television. I attached the heart/blood-pressure monitor. I had still a discernible pulse. I switched on the television. I began to pedal. I clocked up a few kilometres. They’re easier than miles. The television was boring. I free-wheeled for a minute. Usually in cycling, free-wheeling is a joy. You glide down a hill with the wind in your hair.(Hairs, if you’re an oul fella). You experience effortless speed. The tarmac sizzles under you tyres. Fausto Coppi re-born. Carl may have been a considerable athlete, with a weight of gold medals around his neck, but his bike was rubbish. Nothing happens when you free-wheel on a Carl Lewis exercise bike. I got rid of it. I felt better.

Yesterday I saw elegant light-fittings, chandeliers, toys, golf clubs, furniture including coffee tables for barking your shins, paint cans full of hard paint, any number of spavined bikes, cookers and microwaves, dead television sets, fridges standing solemnly like Easter Island statues, batteries that had given up the ghost, good timber planks that could come in handy. There were good things in there too, things that could have a few more years in them, with a lick of paint. Down below, in the bottom of the bottomless pit, I saw a weights bench, a treadmill, some strange static trainer for a bike, the very antithesis of cycling, and a Carl Lewis exercise bike. This prompted several questions. Had the owner of all this equipment reached such a pitch of physical excellence that he could cast all this stuff away as mere dross? Did his biceps ripple as he raised his weights bench aloft to hurl it into the void, or did he creep ignominiously, like some oul fella, and have to get help to lift his dreams over the parapet  and let go of them forever? He will never stroll along the beach with a girl on his arm, kicking sand into the faces of bullies, as the chap in the Charles Atlas advertisement did many years ago. That bull-worker didn’t work either. I tried it once. Absolute rubbish.

The man at the entrance has decorated his office with some beautiful dinky toys and model trains. He was most affable. We paid him four Euro for a car-full of freedom. I would have fancied some of his toys but they’re not for sale. We came home with lighter hearts. Frank, by the way, was married to his wife for almost fifty years. Just goes to show….something.

 

To See a World in a Grain of Sand /and Eternity in an Hour

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Ailsa Craig Granite

When we were boys we collected birds’ eggs. It’s illegal now, as I understand. It’s even illegal to possess them, without some sort of permit. My criminal past is all behind me. The evidence has been destroyed by time, by swaps, malevolent rivals, faulty cardboard boxes crushed under junk and a gradual feeling that the eggs were probably better off if left in the nests to hatch. ‘Nest’ would be overstating things with regard to most sea birds. The birds rely on camouflage. The eggs may be in a depression scraped in the beach or under the lee of a rock. In some cases the eggs are laid on vertiginous rocky ledges and shaped in such a way as to prevent them rolling off. Like Mr. Wobbly Man, the weight is at one end.

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There are wonderful maps on Lambay Island showing the nesting grounds of the various birds and the times at which they laid. This was to facilitate commercial exploitation of a valuable source of protein, until the advent of large-scale poultry farming. How do you like your eggs in the morning? Preferably with no little feathery scaldy inside.

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The luminous midsummer night gave way to a bleak and blustery dawn. The wind picked up and Ailsa Craig peeped above the horizon. A pyramid rising from the sea; a hanging garden viewed from afar; ‘Paddy’s Milestone,’ a landmark for homesick labourers leaving Ireland to earn a few pounds in the potato fields of Scotland. It’s the plug of an ancient volcano from the time when Scotland’s Highlands tore away from the Appalachians and the Atlantic Ocean swelled up to fill the void. It took some time. It is still happening. ‘Preposterous time’ William Goldsmith calls it, a length of time too vast for our puny minds to comprehend. Time enough for living things to evolve, to swim in the oceans and rivers, to creep upon the Earth and take to the air on flimsy wings, colonising islands and cliffs and laying their eggs in relative safety.

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The sun emerged. The  rock took on some colour. It crept closer. We could see the white of gannet colonies on the slopes. The Solan Goose. A delicacy. Robby Burns’s father was said to be in the solan goose trade. I would never have dared, had it been possible, to try to collect a gannet’s egg. It has angry eyes. It is armed with a fearsome weapon. It takes no prisoners. Someone suggested a dip off the jetty. The early morning cold and a vast brown jellyfish, knocked that idea on the head. The chef prepared porridge with honey, to put some volcanic warmth into his torpid crew. It worked. We went ashore. That’s probably illegal, to judge by all the cautionary notices. The island is for sale for a paltry £1,500,000. Would the Marquess of Ailsa take a cheque? I doubt it. The birds live rent free on what is, and always has been, their territory. It is now officially a bird sanctuary. There goes the egg and solan goose trade. The smugglers gave up centuries ago and migrated to Rush, in County Dublin. The granite quarry is abandoned. The railway could still run if enough muscle power could be made available. (That was powerful porridge.)

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Modernity has rendered all the industry of Ailsa Craig obsolete. There are living quarters abandoned while still undergoing renovation. There is no need for coal or oil. Engine rooms are filled with rusty metal. The fog horns have fallen silent, their windpipes and lungs decayed and shattered. Modern navigational devices, guided from space, can see through fog and darkness. There is a Marie Celeste air about everything: old newspapers and books musty with damp; broken windows; lath-and -plaster hanging from walls and ceilings; tattered and battered furniture; roof-trees giving way under the weight of time and neglect. Only the lighthouse, automated, with  pristine solar panels, abides. There is no shortage of stones.

The Scots invented the sport of curling, just as they invented golf. Golf has taken over the world. It has become a vast industry, while curling remains a minority sport, an amalgam of bowls and housework. For golf you need an array of specialised equipment. For curling you need some ice, a polished stone and an accomplice with a sweeping brush. It has become an Olympic sport. It has a mesmeric, balletic quality about it. Even the sweeping becomes dramatic. The best stones come from Ailsa Craig. The granite, blue-hone granite, is fine-grained and takes a high polish. A curling stone is a piece of sculpture in its own right. Intriguingly, Ailsa Craig granite crops up on the North Strand in Skerries, several hundred miles to the south, carried by the gyre of the Irish Sea tides. The stones are polished almost as smooth as the curling stones by their long and grinding journey. They lie, speckled like birds’ eggs on the shelving strand, where Vikings once grounded their keels.

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When the keel begins to converse with the stones on the bottom, it is time to leave. Time to pack up memories and impressions of this melancholy but beautiful place and hand it back to the stewardship of rabbits and teeming flocks of seabirds. We headed northwards to Troon and the teeming hordes of golf pilgrims. I took a little pebble with me; probably illegal. It’s about three billion years old, give or take a few million. I like old things.

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I left plenty behind.