Cabbages and Kings. The Elixir of Life. Smoke and Mirrors.


Experiment on a Bird in an Air-pump. Wright of Derby. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

A lad at the breakfast table posed a conundrum: : ‘What’s the difference between Prince Charles, a monkey’s father and a baldy man?’ He left the question hanging in the air and went off to work. I am grateful to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, for continuing to breathe for a further fifty five years, thereby keeping the conundrum alive and deeply relevant, not least to Prince Charles himself. Conundra at dawn. (I was a Latin teacher at the time,  a bit of a pedant or maybe a pendant, hanging around the school, drawing a vast salary for pondering weighty and abstruse  questions. We often aired our views on weighty and abstruse questions at the table, especially in the evening, until it was time for the television news, followed by The Three Stooges.

What ever happened to “digs”? At one time, most young people starting out in a new town or job, could get room and board for a modest fee. There were compromises to be made in digs, such as sharing a room and the table with relative strangers. There might be a common sitting room with a small black and white television and a paraffin heater adding to the fug of cigarette smoke. (plunk, plunk, plunk. Dum,dum,dum,dum. Hello. I’m the Esso blea duler.  If you don’t remember paraffin heaters you won’t remember the Esso blea duler. It was funny at the time. I can’t explain why.)  ‘ Open a window, would you? Let some air in.’  ‘Shut that bloody door. There’s a draught.’ One landlady had an arrangement of mirrors so that everyone could see the television. That was disconcerting, to say the least. Everyone on television was left-handed. Our Atlantic weather came from the South East. Britain was further West than Ireland. To make matters worse, there was a second screen placed over the first one to reduce the glare, but the new glamour of television made a flickering visit every evening.  Cassius Clay and some of the Rome Olympics.

There was a legendary landlady who boiled the week’s breakfast porridge on Sunday evening and poured it into a drawer lined with grease-proof paper from sliced pans, to be used throughout the week. Each morning she dug out a square of the stuff and rendered it down in hot water, like an Inuit woman rendering a lump of whale blubber. There were no ‘best before ‘ notices in those days. By Saturday it had acquired a distinct consistency and flavour, but there was always Monday (fry on Sunday) to look forward to. It would be unfair to the great majority of landladies to regard this practice as the norm.

You were expected to contribute to the conversation/slagging/gossip/scandal at the table. A great deal of hot air was expended on politics, women, about which most of us knew very little, drink of which we could afford very little, religion, like drink, to be taken in moderation, Vatican II  advocating moderation.  Archbishop McQuaid said: ‘it need not disturb the tranquility of your Christian lives’.  Phew! that was close. The Space Race..Sputnik, Telstar. Will Kennedy and Khrushchev start a nuclear war? Will we survive? What time are Confessions on  this evening? Better hurry. I didn’t fancy a couple of months under the stairs with those lads, surviving on tinned beans and the like. The atmosphere might have got a bit strained. Time for a pint…Beamish at 10d a pint, Guinness at 1s/1d. We had a poet philosopher in the digs. He addressed his pint: ‘Ah, the elixir of life.’ He would probably have said ‘apostrophised his pint.’ The pints were dispensed over trays with perforated boards on top. The spillage was gathered into jugs and used to top up the pints. It was insanitary and probably illegal but the pub had atmosphere. We argued about the elixir of life. I still maintain that it’s obvious. Air is the elixir of life. ‘The first time we smell the air, we waul and cry, that we are come to this great stage of fools.’ The poet was a Shakesperian. We take it for granted until the last rattle of air leaving the body. It’s just there. Fill your lungs with it. It’s free. There will never be a pub on the Moon….no atmosphere.(Sorry). No passing trade.


Chairman Mao and his cronies sent a delegation to Silesia, the industrial heartland of Poland to see how heavy industry worked. They saw the smog and the grey rivers and concluded that industry was dangerous to human life. They went home, glorying in the clean air of Communist China. Along with ten million others, I read his little red book. ‘Freedom of speech must be afforded to all…except hostile elements. Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.’  He ran the country into famine and poverty. As soon as he died, his cronies dumped his philosophy. There is more money in heavy industry, low wages and grime. Look at the smog in their cities today.

red island cliff 004

Some builders from Poland built a room for us. They made a beautiful job of it. They used an eight-foot long magic wand to get level floors and vertical walls. The crucial part is the little bubble of air. Marvellous stuff. It’s a light airy room with windows and no television. No smoking either. No accelerated-freeze-dried cabbage by Erin Foods. The landlady bought it by the sackful. She had a contact. Pssst! Do you want any accelerated-freeze-dried cabbage, dessicated and vacuum packed? Just add hot water.  It had no taste but the colour was good. It had the consistency of matchsticks. I don’t imagine it’s available today…unless, of course, you have a contact.

Our poet of the dinner table, was expatiating on poetry and on how he could analyse the component parts of any poem. He conducted his anatomical examination with the panache of the scientist in Wright’s painting, reducing some gem of English literature to a a pile of accelerated-freeze-dried verbiage…just breathe upon it to give it life. The conundrum man arrived, sat down and looked around. “Well, lads, have ye got the answer?” We shook our heads. He drew his dinner closer. He paused. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” It wasn’t a bit obvious. It had distracted me all day. “Prince Charles is The Heir Apparent. A monkey’s father is a hairy parent and a baldy man has ne’er a hair apparent at all, at all. God I hate this  bloody cabbage.” He addressed himself to his food.

You may have heard that one before. As they used to say in the fit-ups, if you enjoyed it, tell your friends. If you didn’t, save your breath to cool your porridge.

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.