Ne Plus Ultra. ‘To boldly go..’

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Cape Canaveral.

To infinity and beyond!

“Yet all experience is an arch, wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades forever and forever as we move.” That was a line we learned in school; Ulysses explaining his compulsion to voyage further and ever further.”Rolled to larboard. Rolled to starboard, when the surge was seething free, where the wallowing monster spouted his foam fountains in the sea.” One of Tennyson’s better efforts. It took the mind out of a dusty classroom on a hot afternoon, to feel the rise and fall of a deck, the crystalline blue water inviting the swimmer, the lotos land where the livin’ is easy.

Norman Mailer interviewed Neil Armstrong. He asked how Armstrong would have coped with a failure of the Moon lander. The replies were terse and practical. “I would work on the availability of the ascent engine.” Mailer probed further, exploring the astronaut’s response to the unthinkable, to being marooned on the Moon, within sight of home, with absolutely no hope of rescue and depleting supplies of oxygen. Armstrong’s responses were unfailingly technical and factual. In some frustration, Mailer looked for the emotional dimension, the reaction of a fallible human being. “Why go there at all? What is the point?” Suddenly Armstrong became lyrical. He departed from the technical manual. “Why does the salmon swim upstream?” He spoke of the human instinct to explore, to find out, to strive for new worlds and new knowledge. Mailer sat back, enthralled, like any schoolboy in the presence of his hero.

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Cape Saint Vincent.

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I was intrigued, as a child, by the inscriptions on Nelson’s Pillar in OConnell Street: THE NILE, COPENHAGEN, SAINT VINCENT and TRAFALGAR. I could locate three of them but who or what was Saint Vincent? At one time Nelson was everybody’s hero. Before the dynamiters decided to censor history with the zeal of the Taliban, Nelson stood up there, leaning on his sword, turning a blind eye to the traffic, the smog, the trams and cyclists, the scurrying commuters, the flower sellers, the religious fanatics ranting and chanting, the clip-clopping draught horses, the courting couples hurrying to a tryst at The Pillar. While Napoleon hoped for lucky generals, he had less success with his admirals. Nelson saw them all off. What was left of this remarkable little man, was brought home to The Royal Naval College at Greenwich in a barrel of brandy, to lie in state before his funeral in Saint Paul’s. I last saw the stones commemorating his victories, scattered in a yard in Kilkenny, like a giant game of Scrabble.

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When the world was smaller, Cape Saint Vincent was ‘The End of the World’, the extreme SW point of Europe. There was nothing beyond except the surging ocean, sea monsters and the fatal void at the edge of a flat world. It was here that Henry the Navigator gathered his cartographers and astronomers to ask the big questions, Where? Why? How? and What’s in it for Portugal?  Half of a New World, as it turned out and untold wealth from spices, gold, ivory, sugar and slaves. The scars from that lash have not yet healed. The caravels of his disciples, Da Gama, Diaz, Cabral, Vespucci and Magellan sailed into the Unknown.  The focus of trade shifted to the Atlantic and to a New World on the far side.

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Henry’s statue sits in a square flanked by churches and Europe’s first slave market. The Pope’s recent apology to the indigenous people of Bolivia and elsewhere, was apposite but five centuries too late.

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My brother spoke of sailing those glistening waters in Sceoling. He became lyrical, remembering days of  ‘pure sailing’. 

Last week ‘our’ vessel passed close enough to Pluto to take photographs of that mysterious world. It will sail on, exploring and documenting, until it falls off the edge or is devoured by dragons and sea monsters. Look up and wonder.

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Chariot of Fire

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I went back to college the other night. There was a lot going on, a contest between a prophet of the Lord and the priests of Baal. Baal’s priests couldn’t get their fire to light to consume the sacrificial bull, whereas Elijah was so cool, he got his people to soak the pyre, dig a trench around it and fill it with water. Then he called on God to accept the sacrifice and Whumpff!  The bull was incinerated, to the dismay and confusion of the priests of Baal. We used to light fires on May Eve, the month of Baal tine. We consigned spuds to the embers. The Lord God of Israel would have refused the blackened offerings, but we munched them anyway. Baal might have been glad of them, as things didn’t work out too well for him. You have to marvel at Elijah’s confidence and certainty. People with such certainty are scary people. Take the prophets of Baal and let not one of them escape you. Bring them down to Kishon’s brook and there let them be slain.  There is a terrible modern ring to all that, especially in The Middle East. Israel is just as much in the news today as it was in Biblical times.

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Of course there were no pyrotechnics the other night. The Great Hall of what was once my college, is now The National Concert Hall. Margaret and her friends were singing Mendelssonh’s  Elijah. They filled the hall with mighty harmonies. It was, literally, a resounding triumph. The rafters trembled. A boy soprano stood up and faced the audience with extraordinary confidence, a precious commodity, invaluable in one so young. The mind wanders along by ways. Suppose Elijah’s fire had sputtered out. Did he ever suffer from doubt? General Gordon faced down the fanatical followers of The Mahdi with a swagger stick and force of personality. They killed him anyway.

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As my daughter was driving, we poured a libation or two at the interval, in honour of Elijah’s victory. This was a library in my student days. There was no great light shining above us then. There was definitely no bar.The Phantom of the Opera used to swing from chandeliers like this.  Why?  I always feel a small temptation to leap across the gap and shout defiance at the upturned faces below. But I suffer from slight vertigo and I have no cloak. You would be disgraced, in the chandelier swinging trade, if you had no cloak. I fear that I would come down in a shattering tintinnabulation of crystal into the room below. What an entrance! I like to think that I would be cool enough to sit up amid the wreckage and order a gin and tonic. I was never that cool. A fellow student once told me that he admired my quiet reserve and confidence. He misread the situation, mistaking inarticulacy for inner calm.

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The choirs returned, filing in, like the Bolivian soldiers in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. (Newman and Redford, personifications of ‘cool’.)  The choir meant business. The orchestra returned with their heavy artillery. We were transported again to an ancient conflict between gods and prophets. I looked around at all the changes that had taken place since the time when I sat in that hall, scribbling desperately at exam time. The college was always undergoing renovation. The hall, a remnant of a great Victorian industrial exhibition, was cold and shabby. His word is like a fire and like a hammer that breaketh the rock into pieces. There was always hammering. A century’s worth of dust and soot drifted down on the scribblers below. Fountain pens became chimney brushes. There was a rhythm to it all: blow; write; wipe the nib; mutter; try to blank out the noise; concentrate. There was one student endowed with the confidence to stand up and shout: “Eff that bangin’…” He spoke for all of us. I love the tympani, the sounding brass, the strings, the deep, brown notes of the cello, the soaring voices. My soul was uplifted, as was Elijah in a fiery chariot. He had earned it. The choir earned their ovation. No dust descended.

Eric von Daniken was a popular purveyor of pseudo science in those days. He ‘proved’ to his own satisfaction and to the satisfaction of many, that the ancient gods and heroes were intergalactic travellers. Chariots of the Gods. Elijah was taken away in a rocket ship. It’s obvious, isn’t it?  There were flames coming out of his chariot. History is Wrong. What did I tell you? One afternoon in what was once The History Library, where the Treaty Debates took place in 1921 and 22, a lecturer produced a transistor radio and put it up to the microphone. ‘This is more important than any lecture,’ he announced. It was a live broadcast from Cape Canaveral of John Glenn orbiting the world . He flew with the confidence born of training and meticulous preparation. He flew for four hours and fifty five minutes, lighting up the darkness as he crossed the sky. Our hearts were lifted with him. He was no god but he was every inch, a hero. He still is. I remembered him the other night and raised a glass in his honour.

lo, there came a fiery chariot with fiery horses and he went by a whirlwind to heaven.

All credit to those who played a part in his flight, to Felix Mendelssohn, a son of Israel, the conductor, the musicians and singers who brought wonder and harmony to that old, dusty hall.