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.

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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.

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Comics; no laughing matter.

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Nicky Ellis ploughed the field beside our school. Up and down he went, with horse and plough, like an hypnotic shuttle in a loom. You could watch him all day if you had the time, or if you were tall enough to see out of the school windows, or if the Board of Works architects in bygone days,  had thought of making the windows low enough for small children to see some of the wonders of God’s creation. But the wonders of God’s creation were not factored into the education of small children. Only the teacher could watch Nicky Ellis, ploughing and sowing, harvesting and gathering in, during school hours. He was hypnotised by the repetitive process. He raised his hand in salute, every time Nicky came to the end of a furrow and turned the horse  near the classroom window. He drifted into a reverie, perhaps a reverie of the time he decided to devote himself to education, to cast forth the seed of learning upon fertile young minds. Perhaps he was half asleep. Early afternoon is the danger time for drowsiness. Arís, he would say to whoever was reading aloud. Arís. Again. 

You could stare at the back of his head, silhouetted against the bright window, until the image was burnt onto your retina. You could take that image, red and green, and blink, bouncing him all around the classroom. KAPOW, ZAP,WALLOP, TAKE THAT! all accompanied by flashing lights. Persistence of vision, primitive photography, moving, action-packed pictures . Arís. Arís. Sometimes the reader stumbled, because of the muffled sniggering around him. Arís. It could take twenty minutes or even longer, on a drowsy afternoon, until Nicky’s rhythm took him away to one side, out of line with the window. This was though, a time for comics. They slid out from under desks, to be read furtively until the teacher’s torpor receded and normal service resumed. Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Tim Holt and others, blazed away at outlaws and rustlers. Their guns said Blam! Blam! not Bang! Roy was definitely the best dressed of all the Western heroes. His horse, Trigger, can still be seen in the Roy Rogers museum, as sagacious an animal as could be imagined. I tried saying Blam! in games of cowboys and Indians in the Ballier, but it didn’t convince anyone. ‘I’m out of range.’  ‘You missed.’

I had a Batman comic annual, on shiny paper, with full colour. It came, of course, from America. I have no idea how I got it. The boy beside me wanted it. He hungered for it. It was beautiful. Batman wore a purple costume, with a hood and fake ears (?) He wore a cape, not really practical for climbing buildings and swinging on ropes. He wore swimming trunks and a mask, as all superheroes do. He had a partner called Robin, the Boy Wonder, similarly attired. What was going on there? My classmate offered me all sorts of inducements to give him the comic– even his glasses. He was very short sighted. I contemplated a supreme act of generosity and magnanimity… but I didn’t part with it. It was probably the outstanding bit of colour in the dark and dreary Forties. Now it’s too late and I regret not giving it to him. I would have got credit in Heaven, but I couldn’t have deprived him of his glasses. Batman made it to television and film. Television stations were inundated with complaints when they covered the return of Apollo 13. Batman was postponed. The Apollo 13 men didn’t wear masks, so they couldn’t possibly have been heroes.I’m a bit embarrassed that I admired Batman when I was eleven years old. Robin was an irritating twerp. I believe he has been terminated.

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I’m not embarrassed about The Wizard and Adventure. They gave exactly what the covers promised. There were footballers from humble backgrounds, who astonished the Snobs and the Toffs. Snobs and Toffs are the natural enemies of boys. I learned about John L. Sullivan, Alf Tupper, R.A.F. heroes of the Battle of Britain, Rockfist Rogan being the greatest of them all. A fist of rock is the best weapon for dealing with swarthy foreigners, even when flying fighter planes. Look at that brave chap on the cover of The Wizard, taking on a jihad-load of foreigners. Eh, quite topical actually. That must be a plucky British chap clinging onto the speeding super-car, driven, no doubt by a dastardly foreigner. I followed the career of the world’s greatest athlete, W.W. Wilson who lived in a cave on Ex or Dartmoor. He was 150 years old, miraculously preserved by an ascetic diet, supplemented by herbs and lichens. He was taught by an older hermit, who had witnessed the execution of Charles I. The hermit was about 250 years old. Wilson wore an old-fashioned, one-piece running costume, (back in fashion again.) He ran in his bare feet. He broke the four minute mile by about thirty seconds, before Roger Bannister had laced up his running shoes. Spoilsports would say that he was on drugs.

I Googled The Beano, by way of research. It appears that Denis the Menace has been civilised and rendered politically correct, since I followed his escapades, surreptitiously under the desk. He is friends with Walter the Softy. Walter has a girl-friend, so everything is okay there too. Nobody gets caned or walloped with a slipper. Those savages in the Bash Street school have adopted the highest standards of good manners and civility  towards their teacher. I had a jumper like Smiffy’s. I don’t know if the teacher carries a cane or wears a mortar-board anymore. I always thought the mortar-board looked daft. Desperate Dan of The Dandy, by the way, has gone vegetarian and carries a water-pistol. Standards have indeed fallen. I don’t know what kids are coming to at all at all. 

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That was Nicky Ellis’s field. There are two new schools there now, a community centre, a tennis court and various sports pitches. Nobody plants  spuds or leeks there. Cabbages and turnips no longer takes it by turns, to fill the furrows. You never see a horse at work there. If you need to mask the smell of a clandestine cigarette, you won’t be able to pluck a carrot or scallion on your way past. Nicky grew them all in the warm, fine soil of lower Skerries. He was deserving of a salute.

To be fair, I too fell asleep in class on a sultry May afternoon. I dozed off, while sitting at my table. I was actually talking at the time.  Eh…I was the teacher. A new standard in boringness. Arís agus arís eile.  What would the Bash Street Kids have done?