What’s all the noise about?

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This is the time of year when we are invited to look back at the past and look forward with anticipation, to the coming year. Perhaps this is because the newspapers need material to fill their pages. The ancient Romans appointed the god Janus, a celestial janitor, to keep guard over the door of the dwelling. Janus had the advantage of having two faces, one to look inwards and one to keep a sharp lookout on the world outside. Would you trust anyone with two faces?  Would you trust someone whose life is spent, standing in a draught, beside a whistling keyhole or a rattling  letterbox? I have more confidence in the lads with the black leather jackets and shaven heads. They rock back and forth on their heels. They shrug, ready for every emergency, particularly at festive times, like New Year’s Eve. They look down impassively and size up the prospective customers.

I am concerned for the ushers in the Dáil. They sit all day, with their backs to a set of double doors, listening to our legislators teasing out the finer points of law and framing new ones to make our lives even better than they were last year or even thirty years ago. They listen to the flow of lofty rhetoric that characterises the daily exchanges in our parliament. Cicero himself, would sit entranced in such company. Edmund Burke would be stricken silent by such mellifluous oratory, but for the poor ushers at the door, it must be a pain in the neck.

I am alarmed by the cabinet papers of three decades ago, which are released around the turn of the year. The assumption is that passions will have died down over the years. The ministers and public figures shown in the photographs will have shuffled, or will have been ushered, off the stage. Old animosities will have been forgotten and all will unite in a spirit of good will and optimism for the future.  What alarms me is the fact that they are all so familiar. I didn’t realise that that was THE PAST. Some of these people are still around in public life. Some are still performing well and some are fossilised and petrified by the passage of time. Hair styles have changed since those wise heads nodded over the affairs of state. At New Year celebrations,  you may see pictures of yourself from such occasions thirty or even forty years ago. You may not even recognise yourself, or you may see evidence of an incipient bald patch. Nothing to worry about there. Everything is getting better, not like the bad old days. I don’t need or want, reminders that I am thirty years older, or that my flowing locks have gone with the wind. Even less do I want journalists and commentators raking over the coals of  old rancour. Good Janus! This is Ireland, for God’s sake. I wish a happy and peaceful 2014 to Richard Haass and fair play to him for trying. THE PAST hasn’t gone away, you know, Richard, but thank you anyway.

Around the time that the Pope came to Ireland, my little daughters learned a new hymn. Bind us together Lord…. There were lots of new hymns, with lots of guitars and hand-clapping. They argued about the words. One of them sang:

 Bang us together, Lord. Bang us together… 

‘Don’t be stupid’,  insisted the other. ‘It’s’…

Bang doors together, Lord.

Bang doors together,

With love that cannot be bro-wo-ken.

Now that made more sense. There are ways of banging doors. There are ‘tones of voice’ to the shutting of doors. ‘No need to slam the door.’ ‘I didn’t slam the door. It was the east wind, emanating from the ‘cold pole’ of Asia that slammed it, the wind that blows across the frozen tundra, freezing the Kulaks on the blasted Steppes and whipping through our house in January, that slammed it. ‘ ‘Well anyway, don’t slam it again.’  ‘Good Janus! I told you I didn’t slam it. Is it my fault that the vast Eurasian landmass, loses heat in winter and exhales cold air over half the globe, for Janus’s sake?’   ‘Just try to be more careful in future.’

My friend converted his attic into an office, where he worked in peace and quiet. He stuck a notice on the lock on his front door. I noticed it: Please close this door QUIETLY. I made one like it. It must have been against the spirit of the hymn. It made no difference. People remarked on my penmanship and my optimism, but the sellotape shrivelled in the draught from the keyhole. The little notice blew away in the wind that shakes the Poles and the poles,  freezes the Lithuanians and Geordies and stirs up the Irish Sea.

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Until I discovered the beauty of PVC, I relied heavily on the power of the press at this time of year. Strips of Irish Times, inserted into warped window frames, did wonders to frustrate the gods of the wind, especially Boreas, a right pain in the neck. (No disrespect to gods in general, of course. Zephyrus is welcome in our house at any time, provided he doesn’t slam the door.) It is no coincidence that long balbriggans were invented in Balbriggan, four miles further north along the east coast, than Skerries. I associate balbriggans, (terminal underwear for keeping your end warm) with the glamour of Hollywood, especially when worn by (wanderin’) stars like Lee Marvin.

I had an up-and-over garage door, operated by a complex system of springs and pulleys. It yawed in the wind and sometimes came off the rails. Unhinged we might say, if it had had hinges. But who doesn’t become a bit unhinged in the time of east wind?  There was a law in certain eastern countries that excused murder of one’s wife at the time of the east wind. A bit extreme.  I set to fixing it. I removed the outer cover with a few skillful twists of a spanner. Suddenly, CRASH,WHANG, WALLOP, the garage was filled with uncoiled springs, flying plastic ‘bushes’ and rollers ricocheting from walls, roof and floor. It was like the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. It seems that the springs are at maximum tension when the door is down. Janus should have warned me. To refit the whole thing, I would have had to dismantle the whole shebang.  A stoa is a portico, in Greek. That’s where the Stoics used to sit. They would have taken the disaster with a shrug of resignation. ‘What can you do? Turn your collar up. Get on with the job.’  I’m no Stoic. I sold the door to a travelling man who happened to be passing with a horse and cart. I got fifteen quid for it.

I read an obituary for Kalashnikov, in the New Year newspapers. He has shuffled off this mortal coil, having armed armies, psychopaths and child soldiers all over the world. It seems that his assault rifle worked on a similar principle to my garage door, a simple spring-loaded device. He made 90,000,000 of them. No home need be without one.

My three-year-old grandson, a Jungle Book fan, said to me: ‘The animals live in harmony.’  ‘What does that mean?’ I asked him. ‘It means that they live in harmony.’

We should try it sometime.

Carnival time. Bene merenti.

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Let me assure you that there are pink elephants under those tarpaulins. I have seen them. I have ridden upon them. They fly through the sky. They are not creatures of a heightened imagination or seasonal beverages. At some point in their orbit a gear slips and they go kerrrchunnkk  and all the elephants shudder. So do the passengers. My little grandson was alarmed. So was I. I hung onto him until the slipped gear became a familiar feature of the ride. ‘Do you want another go?’ I asked him. He shook his head.

We once sat in an aeroplane in Buenos Aires, waiting for departure. We waited and waited. There were noises off. Kerrrchunnkk. There followed some hammering and then some bashing. A slight technical problem was mentioned. ‘We will be departing very soon.’  That much was true. We departed back through immigration and on to a hotel. We watched some dismal Spanish language game shows and tried some restorative alcohol. We found Vatican Television. Big in Argentina at the time, probably mega-big nowadays. It explained the symbolic significance of the jewels in the various papal crowns and the different shapes of the papal hats. A papal beretta can signify a major shift in the Church’s attitude to social issues. You didn’t know that. Neither did I. Neither did the founder, a barefoot carpenter from Gallilee, Who never saw a Gucci shoe in all His life. A papal biretta is a different matter altogether. Think of the Vatican bank and poor Calvi dangling under Blackfriars bridge.

More refreshments were required to fend off dark thoughts. Pink elephants began to circle on the ceiling. Blackfriars! They have a higher body count than any other organisation in the mediaeval church, what with crusades and heretic burnings. It’s all a conspiracy. Send for Dan Brown. There was some bashing at the door. The Inquisitors? A voice cried out in the darkness: ‘Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus under-carriage,’ or words to that effect. We were consigned, not to the dungeons of the Inquisition, but worse, we were condemned to check-in and security for a second time. There was weeping and a lot of teeth gnashing but the under-carriage stayed on. Ah, the glamour of jet-setting.

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I knew glamour in my early days. I  knew Tofts’ carnival when it was big, Man. Bigger than the glum remnant that now occupies the site. Okay, it’s winter. Who doesn’t look a bit glum in winter? Everything was big, to a five year old. There were chair-o-planes as high as the clouds. There were swing boats, where both occupants pulled on a rope and screamed as the boat went higher and higher, threatening to catapult you up and away, out over the entire fairground. There was a carousel with horses that went around and around and up and down, in time to the music. There were dodgems, with sparks flashing from the pole overhead. There was a lot of screaming from the girls and a lot of hair oil on the nonchalant boys who drove like mad men, with one hand on the wheel and one arm protectively around the girlfriend’s shoulder. My sister minded me well. I was old enough for slides and the mini-roundabout with the cars, trains and motorbikes. No matter how much you turned the wheel or revved the throttles, it made no difference.  I vowed that as soon as I was old enough for hair oil and girls, I would be a daredevil on the dodgems. I look forward to that.

There were prizes for shooting at targets, but I was too low to take part. The big boys strutted and blazed away. I know that they were trying to impress my sister. Maybe they did. There was stuff going on there that was above my head…again. The centre of my desires was the Wheel of Fortune, with its bank of treasures. You could pick your own prize. There were dolls and crockery, teddy bears and sets of glasses, mirrors and knick-knacks, all the riches of the Orient.  One spin of the wheel could satisfy the dreams of avarice. I know that avarice is a sin, but I coveted the pair of china lions. I wanted them with a passion. Ming dynasty, Han dynasty, Hector Grey dynasty, It didn’t matter. I didn’t want them as an investment in Chinese artefacts. I didn’t know that the resurgent Chinese, along with buying the world, would probably have paid double figures for them in the twenty first century. I just wanted them because they were shiny. I wanted to bring them home as trophies, and look at them on the mantlepiece, testament to my incredible gambling skill.

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Una Fox won them. She bore them away in delight. Although my dream was shattered, I was quite pleased for her. I owed her. She put them in the fanlight over her door, flanking a stuffed pheasant. They crouched there for sixty five years, guarding that pheasant. I looked at them every time I passed. Sometimes the door got a new coat of paint. In summer it wore a striped canvas screen, like a vertical deckchair. But the lions never changed.

My landlord, many years ago, asked me if there was some major industry in Skerries that used large quantities of dark red and dark green paint. ‘Why?’ I queried. ‘Well,’ he replied,’every house in Skerries has either a dark red or a dark green door. I just wondered if people were stealing it.’ I was affronted at this slur on the good people of Skerries. ‘No offence,’ he went on,’ but I lived in South Shields, near a naval dockyard and every house in the town was painted battleship grey.’  Bloody cheek!

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There was another limestone slab parallel to the one in the photograph. There  were a couple of inches between them, forming a gully and a ramp. My sister wasn’t minding me very well on the day I stuck my foot in the gully. I was looking up at the, as yet unattended, pheasant. (I suspect those hair-oil boys again.) I screamed. I was trapped forever, outside Foxs’ butcher shop. She pulled and tugged, but it was no use. I heard the butcher sharpening his knife. Knives speak their name in Irish, scian, scian, scian.  I was terrified. So was she. How was she to explain that she had taken 100% of of me out for a walk and had come back with a mini Long John Silver? Scian, scian, scian. Una heard the commotion. She came out, uttering soothing words. She assessed the situation, then unbuckled my sandal and slipped my foot out, intact. Brilliant! Great God Almighty! Free at last! I owed her. I didn’t begrudge the lions. Her sister, Pat, received an honour from the Pope, for long years of service to church music. It was in a case, embossed with the keys of Saint Peter. Bene merenti. Fair play to both sisters.

The second slab has been removed by road menders, maybe in the interests of safety. I still retain a talent for putting my foot in it, nonetheless. Una’s heraldic fanlight is empty…. no lions couchant with pheasant rampant. The shopfront is listed. It stays as it always was. It has a nice coat of dark red paint. Hmmm! I wonder…..