Thatcherism, Shrdlu and the Seat of Power.


Many years ago, in Skerries News, I was referred to as ‘a well-known local thatched cottage.’ How my children cackled.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m local all right but the resemblance ends at that. Thatch implies a generous and cosy covering overhead. No chance. I put this down to the machinations of Mr. Shrdlu. Somebody explained to me that Mr. Shrdlu was a gremlin who lurked in a linotype machine, between matrices and boiling metal, coming out in the dead of night to insert misprints and solecisms into the work of hard working journalists. More cynical readers suggested that the journalists had been working hard in the bar next door. A vile calumny on a dedicated profession. The first letters on the linotype machine spell ETAOIN SHRDLU. He sounds like an ancient Celtic warrior, of the spear, shield and mini-skirt variety.  They always had great heads of hair and bulging muscles. Think of Conan the Barbarian. For a Barbarian though, Conan was strangely beardless. Never mind.  Shrdlu is a relative of Qwerty. I found that he gave his name to a very primitive (1968!) computer programming language and an early example of artificial intelligence. He could distinguish between blocks of different shapes. So can you.


(Irish Times)

I heard an old thatcher, Charlie Fanning, describing his work. He worked with straw, not reed. The best straw for thatching was hand cut, before combines arrived on the scene, to bunch up and crack the straw. He explained how he made a ‘wangle’ of straw, a twist that he worked into the roof and secured with a sharpened loop of sally rod, a scolb in Irish. ‘The day of the wind is not the day for scolbs.’ Sound common sense, but do we heed it? ‘Wangle’ also describes the technique, the twist and thrust of the wrist, the manipulation of the straw. It is a metaphor too, a way of getting what you want. It is a function of real, not artificial, intelligence, to learn how to wangle, to negotiate, to persist and adapt, in order to achieve your desired result.

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These little warriors, Luke and Emily, were intrigued by the thatch but a bit wary of the darkness inside. It was draughty in the Iron Age.  A mini-skirt would be no protection from the wind whistling under the thatch. Conan the Rheumatic.  Charlie, the thatcher, said that you could get fifty years from a reed roof, while a good straw one would survive maybe twenty. He thatched most of the cottages in Skerries in times gone by. We still have some.

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Henry Power lived in the inner cottage, the one with the green door. He had a newsagent-grocer -barber shop, which employed several brothers. There were always jokes and banter in Powers. “Will the papers be long, Seán?” (The papers arrived on the bus.) “Ah, about that length, Alec.”  The  father? brother? was a barber. It’s a long time ago. My brothers scared me with the news that the barber had got an electric hair-clipper. ‘It sounds like an aeroplane landing on your head.’   It did too but I survived. There were no nicks.  A haircut cost something like ninepence or a shilling.  Even at that rate, I have saved several hundred pounds over the last four decades—-because I’m worth it. The barber put a plank across the arms of the chair for the smaller customers. I felt like a king up there, a giant, looking down from my throne, on my brothers as they thumbed through Readers’ Digest and Wide World Magazine. That was a magazine about adventures in far-flung parts of the Empire, where people lived in grass huts and chaps went out to shoot tigers. Bracing stuff.

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Frank Muir on the radio, made us smile in those pre-television days. He could weave a fanciful story to tickle even the most staid sense of humour. No computer can do that. Artificial intelligence doesn’t stretch to a good joke.  Like Mr. Spock, it doesn’t tolerate the absurd. A computer might relay a joke but it doesn’t get it. Freud analysed jokes and killed them stone dead.  Muir exploited his lisp for all it was worth and enjoyed the occasional Spoonerism…….  The king of a little island in the Pacific, part of that far-flung Empire, came to London for the Coronation in 1953. Hilary and Tenzing had just presented Everest to Her new Majesty as a coronation gift. (See Wide World Magazine.) The king became fascinated by the throne of Edward I, on which the new monarch sat. It is seven centuries old. The gilt has become a little time-worn. The good English oak is covered in nicks. The Stone of Scone lay on a bar underneath the throne. That was nicked by Edward I from the Scots who had previously nicked it from Ireland. The Scots have nicked it back.  Anyway, went on Muir, the king commissioned an exact replica of the throne and had it shipped back to his island and installed in his counsel house. His subjects were suitably impressed by his Seat of Power, but it took up too much room. When he was not sitting in counsel with his Elders, he had them hoist the throne into the rafters on ropes fashioned from palm fibres. (See Wide World Magazine.) You can probably guess what happened. The roof collapsed under the weight of the throne and the exact replica of the Stone of Scone, with disastrous results.  “The mowal of this stowy,” concluded Muir , “is that people who live in gwass houses, shouldn’t stow thwones.”

Charlie was thatching a cottage in Rush, combing and tapping, trimming the generous eaves, so that a passer-by might shelter from the rain. He strewed the pavement with shreds of golden straw. The sunlight gleamed on the new roof. Ah! the good old days.  An old man pushing a broom stopped to chat. He leaned on his broom. He regarded the work. “Not many thatchers left nowadays,” he remarked. “No,” agreed Charlie. Snip Snip. “Nearly all gone now,” continued the old man in a quavering voice.  “That’s right.” Snip Snip.  “And the sooner you’re effin’ well gone out of it, the better. Less effin work for me to do.”


Charlie is gone now. So is the boy with the bike, Bernie Healy, who lived into his nineties, a man who enjoyed a story. I think of Charlie every time I walk down Convent Lane. His cottage eaves brush my hairs (plural). I must have become a giant.

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Hazards of Life, Jethro Tull and Mangling the Language.

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George Bernard Shaw  remarked that when any Englishman opens his mouth to speak, he makes another Englishman despise him.  This is by no means confined to Englishmen, but Shaw found our neighbours to be a rewarding field of study. There is a gentleman in an advertisement on Sky television who recommends Sky+ or Netflix for their vast store of videos: ‘orl your fyvourites, Gyme of Frowns’ and so on. I am so tickled by his accent that I forget to note which service he is advertising. Michael Caine retained his Cockney accent for most of his career, but in Zulu he spoke, to perfection, the jaw-clenching dialect of the English ruling class. No doubt he pulled on his trysers, not trousers, in the morning; not britches or pants or breeks or trews.  Zulu was set in the days when the British Empire contained South Africer, Indier, Canader. That was before the intrusive R invaded the language, before architects produced drawrings and George Bernard Shawr was the arbiter of correct speech—-and spelling. The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet  is a Western story involving members of’ ‘the lower orders.’  Shewing-up? As John Wayne would say,: ‘Talk American, God dammit.’

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When Oi were a lad, Oi picked potatoes (spuds, taties, tatties,praties,) in those fields, for Bernie Healy. (Earth apples the French call them.  That’s stretching it a bit.)  Another Bernard, Sir Bernard Miles, son of a farm labourer, knighted for outstanding services to the theatre, did a regular turn on the wireless, (radio) as an old Varmer Goiles type, philosophising, while leaning over the gate. He traded on the accepted belief that a Dorset, Devon, Zumerzet accent be funny. The West Country accent was later usurped by the Liverpudlian accent. All Scousers are assumed to be comedians. They go fishing with wehms, not wurrums, as we might, but it is all the same for the poor worm. They eat bzead.

Bernie Healy’s spuds were picked into four-stone wire baskets and then poured into hessian, hundredweight bags. These bags had to be loaded onto the trailer in the evening. A hundredweight (1cwt) is 112 lbs (112 pounds).  American weigh their boxers in pounds, very confusing. I weighed about eight stone (112 pounds, 1cwt). It was an uneven contest between me and the sack.  My brother maintains that he could identify a tractor by its accent: pom pom pom or vrumm vrumm vrumm, Fordson Major, Massey Ferguson, John Deere. The sound we dreaded most was the drap drap….drap …..drarararar of the tractor coming to life in the morning or after the lunch break. The tractor drew the potato digger, a series of whirling, pronged rotors that threw the spuds, still on the stalks, to either side. We then had to follow, shakin’ out to separate the stalks from the spuds. Back-breaking work.

Bernie laughed at how spoiled we were by all the modern luxury of tractors and diggers. ‘When I was a young lad picking spuds, we had to get down and grovel for them.’  Bernie was something of a gentleman farmer. He pronounced his Gs.  ‘What about the small ones?’ I asked. ‘Never mind the hazards,’ he replied. ‘Do you know what a hazard is?’  I thought I knew.  ‘The teacher asked me one time, Miss…..’  (I forget her name)  ‘She asked me: What does hazard mean, Bernie? I said: ‘Tis a little pratie, Miss.’   Try them steamed with a little mint and some butter and salt. Food of the gods. I smile to see the modern vegetable harvesters at work. They have conveyor belts and shelters for the operatives. I imagine that the workers recline on mattresses as they condescend to pick the occasional spud. (I invented the spud-digger mattress. Bernie wasn’t interested.) Sometimes I see  Eastern Europeans moving over the fields like a conquering army. A couple of hundredweight in either hand is no trouble to them.

After a day of dust and toil, gadflies (gad=spear) and stinging nettles, we might be lucky enough to be in time to watch  Alan Freeman in Six Five Special or Top of the Pops. Alan spoke  somewhat out of the side of his mouth. He was, of course, Australian with the twang of the Antipodes. ‘ Hi there, pop pickers,’  he used to say. He also said ‘Not arf!’  We were pop pickers and we were teenagers, a newly coined word. My mother occasionally referred to potatoes as pops. There was a shop near Mountjoy Square, called Tops in Pops. For many years it bore the legend on the window: now is the hour to get those balls of flour. This is the highest compliment that can be paid to a spud. Anyway, on Alan’s panel for rating records (Discs, disks, brand-new waxings, platters,) there was a pretty teenager, called, I think, Sharon. She usually gave a disk, five stars. ‘Oi‘d give it foive.’  Part of her attraction was her wonderful Varmer Goiles accent. There was a record, The Story of Tina by Al Martino. She was sweet seventeen. They met in the springtime. And then came the wedding one morning in May..and still we are sweethearts, though years roll away…  Mawkish or wha’? May weddings were believed to be unlucky. A lady from The Big House in Rush, Colonel Palmer’s lady, gave a £5 bonus to any Rush girl who married in May, in order to discourage papist, peasant superstition. £5 quid? Nice.

I recently bought the eBook of The Iliad of Homer on Amazon Kindle. Capital letters should occur at the start of a word God dammit!  I read it in Classic Comics many years ago, and reckoned that I should try the real thing. I remembered blood and guts, eyeballs impaled on spears and malicious gods. It hasn’t changed. It is an American translation. Achilles is now Achilleus. Ajax, who was not only an heroic warrior, but a very good lavatory-cleaning fluid, is now Aias. As Michael Caine allegedly said: ‘Not many people know that.’  I have learned that bronze armour is no bloody good, whereas bronze spears could do Trojan work; that Homer was good on anatomy, especially dismembered anatomy and that the gods were a miserable, depraved and contemptible shower of layabouts. Amazon asks me to rate Homer. I suppose I have to give ‘im foive stars. The lad shows promise. Would I like to read his next volume? they ask. Not arf!

‘When Adam delved and Eve span, 

Which was then the gentleman?’

Typical peasant grumbling. No wonder that well-bred people found them revolting. Mrs Corcoran, something of an Amazon herself, told us stories from the Bible. ‘When Eve brought the apple to Adam, he should have given her a good smack on the bottom with the spade and told her to put it back.’  ‘Bottom’ was almost a rude word, worth at least a snigger, but not in Mrs Corcoran’s class. Think of all the trouble and sweat of the brow, we would have been spared. Why though, did Adam need a spade in the Garden of Eden? I thought that digging only started after the expulsion from Eden. There was a lot about all the creatures that creep on the surface of the earth, wehms and serpents. I sympathised. Bernie Healy set us to work, creeping across that long field, thinning mangle,(mangolds, mangelwurzels.) Jethro Tull was responsible for the seed-drill. The snag is that too many plants sprout too close to one another. They have to be thinned out. Every handful is a judgement call. Many are called but few are chosen. Bernie said: ‘Don’t look ahead at all you have to weed. Look back at all that you have achieved.’ Good advice. We grovelled and weeded out the weak. Jethro later went into pop music. I heard him on the wireless.

‘The sewer went out to sew his seed and as he sewed, some fell by the wayside. Other some fell among thorns…other some fell on good ground.’ That doesn’t look right. Okay. ”The sower went out  to sow his seed…’ Never mind Shawr.  Jethro regarded the old method of sowing, the broadcast method, as wasteful. He developed the seed-drill. Oi’d give ‘im foive.