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.

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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.

Trousers, Lobsters and a Giant Leap Sideways.


 How would this sound as a slogan? Lobsters will fight and Lobsters will be right.  It looks good in red, although lobsters might think otherwise. It needs a great leader and a loud voice, to attract followers,  perhaps other crustaceans, tired of seeing their kinfolk boiled alive to grace the tables of gourmets, gourmands and the running-dogs of capitalist imperialism. No, that isn’t a boiled lobster. It’s a hermit crab without a shell. He has that ammonite spiral perfected by his remote ancestors, countless millions of years ago in the primaeval seas. Our remote ancestors had it too. Even the embryo in the womb retains a touch of the ammonite spiral, in the early days. A Red Spiral would make a potent symbol to rival red crosses, red sunbursts and red stars….The Lobster Liberation Front…..The Ammonite Army….The No-Crab Clause written into the menu of every restaurant.

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Waiters would compile lists of those who ordered the prawn, the shrimp, the crab. We could all end up in re-education camps, re-educating our palates to enjoy only vegetarian food culled from sustainable sources. Is that so far-fetched? It appears that the lobsters liberated last week from a tank in a Chinese restaurant in Dublin, were fetched from as far away as Canada. They were obviously Canadian as they did not fight or make any trouble. They looked a bit glum when they were restored to the sea at Dollymount. It can be very chilly out there. Normally, when alarmed, a lobster performs a Giant Leap backwards. These lads just lay there.The young woman from the Animal Rights group made an impassioned and cogent speech about the cruel fate of the Crustacean race. I can’t argue. I am a life-long offender. I am probably already on that sinister list. Is it an omen that Henry VIII’s ship The Marie Rose, sank with all hands, on her maiden voyage? Only a jar of the delicious sauce survived.


The 1970s gave us plenty of news, reported nightly on television. A lot of it was about war and oil. South East Asia was crucified daily in an attempt to preserve our freedom. Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m sorry. I’ll read that again. Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. He did, but then, Time Magazine once named Adolf Hitler their Man of the Year. There was also Richard Millhouse Nixon and Watergate. There were too, hideous crimes against fashion, perpetrated during that decade. Trousers became tighter and tighter at the top and wider and wider at the bottom, to the point that they bestrode this narrow world like a Colossus. (J. Caesar….Great Leader.) There was a world shortage of denim. The spread of trousers had to be curtailed. Severe cutbacks resulted. Fortunately, we had the shaggy dog, Roobarb, to bring a little sanity to the chaos and dismal news. He had five minutes before six o’clock to lift the gloom. If you don’t remember Roobarb, you should look him up on Google. Denim was originally intended for making tents etc. When Levi met Strauss in a gold-mining camp, they decided to make indestructible trousers out of it. It’s a great story. In fact it’s a riveting story.


Roobarb peered through the neck of a bottle wedged in a rock pool. He saw crabs, magnified by the curved glass in the base of the bottle. The crabs went about their business of fighting and tearing one another’s legs off, until they spotted the Giant Eye in the Sky. Some panicked. Others fell down on their numerous knees (I make it 24, not counting the claws, which are I suppose, are arms ) and worshipped the apparition. Others consulted The Wise Old Crab. (Crabwise?) He divined that a Great Leader, a Messiah, had come to save them: “This could be a giant leap sideways for crabkind”, he declared, to universal applause. They waved their arms and legs in excitement. They are very good at that. The tide came in and flooded the rock pool. Roobarb lolloped away. The Six o’Clock News came on The children groaned. So did I.

John D. Sheridan wrote about the simple truths of life. He wrote that no man can sleep easily in his bed, unless he knows that his trousers are nearby, hanging on the bedpost or draped on a chair within reach, in case of an emergency. Trousers are the first life-support system. They have pockets for keys and a few bob. O Casey said: “Money isn’t everything but a few pound in the pocket is good for the nerves.” Trousers keep us warm. They protect our vital assets and our dignity. Dictators and Great Leaders specialise in special police who make dawn raids on suspects, catching them at their most vulnerable, without their trousers. No man can command respect or awe, dressed only his underwear. At the subsequent show trials the defendants’ belts and braces are removed, making them subjects of derision, conclusive proof of guilt. In your liberation revolution, let your motto be…’Keep the faith; keep your powder dry and keep your trousers nearby at all times… preferably on your person.’ That’s far too long for a pithy motto or a rousing speech. An acquaintance of mine many years ago, was surprised in the middle of an amorous dalliance, by the unexpected arrival of the young lady’s father. He managed to salvage his trousers and one shoe, from the debacle, escaping through the window in panic. The romance fizzled out. He lamented the loss of that shoe more than the loss of the love of his life. His story provoked derision and laughter rather than pity or tears. There is a fine line between tragedy and farce.  Kissinger? Did Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, have a black sense of humour?

Which brings me in a sideways fashion, back to hermit crabs. I had no intention of walking sideways. There is a little cauldron worn into the rocks at low tide level near The Captain’s bathing place at Red Island. It has been scoured to a perfect circle by pebbles carried in and stirred for millennia by the churning waves. I have visited it many times over the years to observe the hermit crabs. There are always some of them in the pool. They go about their business like shoppers at the January sales, constantly searching for the perfect fit. In the endless bargain-basement of the sea they can renew their wardrobe of shells, upgrading from winkle to whelk and possibly to conch if an irresistible bargain drifts by. Sometimes they have to resort to violence to protect a find…just like the January sales. Have you ever noticed how the rejects are indiscriminately thrown on the floor? I mean in the January sales. They wriggle their wobbly tail-ends inside. They sigh with satisfaction. They smile in triumph. The hermit crabs, I mean. After a pleasant lunch with my family and a few glasses of wine, I decided to photograph the hermit crabs. I set off across the rocks, ill equipped for clambering or wading. I took a spectacular tumble on slippery seaweed and lay there with one foot in the water and my dignity severely damaged. I’d swear that I heard the little hermits sniggering. At least they didn’t swarm out of the pool to nab my trousers. I retraced my steps painfully, working my way sideways over the slippery rocks. I was bent over like an ammonite. My left hand began to swell like a lobster claw. That was a few days ago. I have evolved again into an upright, vertebrate, bipedal mammalian life form. That’s a relief. Until genetic engineering can provide me with six more legs, I might stay off the tidal rocks. Throw in a shelly exoskeleton and I will be ready for anything.

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Some Gaulish and German tribes insisted on fighting stark naked as a sign of manliness. Ok. Ok. We believe you. On one memorable occasion (I forget where and when. I must have been looking out the window when we were studying the Gallic Wars–) Julius Caesar manouvered the entire battle into a vast field of nettles and thistles. Surrender  was immediate. Had they never heard of combat trousers? Julius liked to end each chapter on a cheerful note..’making a great slaughter of the enemy’. Great Leaders do that sort of thing. Chairman Mao led his people on a Great Leap Forward into famine and further repression. His successors have sidled away from his doctrines and policies in recent years. My brother, a busy man, used to jog because he had little time to go for a walk. Many years ago, while in Peking, he left his hotel room early in the morning to go for a jog. His good wife was surprised to see him back in twenty minutes. ‘They were all laughing at me’ he complained. You know how that can feel…but 9,000,000 o0f them! He had not heard Katie Melua sing about about nine million bicycles in Beijing. He had not expected to meet nine million laughing and pointing, Chinese cyclists, in identical, grey Chairman Mao padded jackets and trousers. He is quite a large man. Let’s  just say that with his freckles, white skin and hairy legs (He was wearing shorts) he stood out from the crowd. I think they were very mean to my brother. He made a Giant Leap backwards to his hotel,to his trousers and his dignity.

The man who owned the Grosvenor House pub at the harbour, also owned a coal yard. He maintained a constant vigil against the Guards, especially during The Holy Hour. An upstairs window was always left slightly down. His head would emerge sideways through the gap,  leaving a semi circle of hair oil and coal dust on the reveal over the window. He emerged with the caution of a hermit crab and withdrew slowly to the protective shell of his pub when the coast was clear. Grosvenor House, renamed, is now a very fine seafood restaurant. There is another one where the coalyard used to be. We went there yesterday to celebrate the happy occasion of our first grand-daughter’s graduation. I had the prawns. From Thailand. Far fetched or what?

Don’t tell anyone. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Shrimps might get to hear about it. Or the Gambas Gang. Not to mention The Spanish Squidinkquisition. Aha!!! Who dares to mention The Spanish Squidinkquisition?

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Walls, Warts and Reflecting on Nimrod.

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Did you ever darn a sock? It’s slow-motion weaving, now consigned to history by technology and indestructible artificial fibres. There was a big cowrie shell at home, that my mother used, to get around the corners of socks. There was history in that cowrie shell. Some seafaring ancestor brought it back from his travels. You could hear the South Seas and waves breaking over the reefs of distant coral islands when you put the cowrie to your ear. Inside the reef  in all the stories, lay a lagoon, a place of calm and safety. The sharks stayed outside, in the fathomless depths of the dark waters beyond the reef. I could still darn a sock should the need arise but modern fabrics have made my skill redundant. There was great comfort in a well darned sock. I knew a man who didn’t become a hero by diving into the harbour to rescue a dog, because, as he admitted shamefacedly, he had a hole in his sock. His friend did the noble deed while he stood by, encumbering the hero with unnecessary advice. On such small things fame can hang.

This piece of wall is known as The Bay Wall. Various explanations are offered for the name, but the most likely is that the bay encompassed the town when high tide flooded the low-lying fields on the periphery. There was comfort in a good wall.  On inspection you can see that the lower part is built from uncut stone and sea cobbles. It has been darned over the centuries but the cracks return, under the weight of the years. Most of the wall has disappeared but here and there, you can see short stretches that have survived development and modernisation. Alice |McGuinness lived in a little house set into The Bay Wall.

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At the base you can see where people gathered sea-rolled cobbles and broken rock from the foreshore. They worked together, building a sense of security, safeguarding their common future. The wall has been breached over time, to allow access to gardens won from the sand and  tidal marsh. (Click images to enlarge.)

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At Holmpatrick the shadow of the original wall is visible, the work of a generation long gone. The top half is much more respectable but the lower half holds the massive rocks that speak of struggle and the work of bare hands. It has withstood the tide and easterly gales for centuries. It wears its crown of ivy with a certain panache. We have an affinity with this wall through the calcium in the bones that hold us upright.

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Cromwell, the first republican in Ireland, specialised in knocking down walls. He made a right haimes of Baldungan Castle. The remains have been darned together with cement. His cavalrymen smashed the windows in Canice’s cathedral. They depicted it seems, idolatrous images. Gunpowder and high explosives are now the tools of those who see only a bright future of their own devising. A former Minister for Local Government applauded the decay of Georgian Dublin and the great houses of  Ireland….’everything I hate about our history.’ Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution directed its venom against anything old—including old people. The Taliban destroyed ancient statues. The new Puritans, the fundamentalists, are bulldozing the ancient palaces of Nimrod and smashing their own history with sledgehammers. They are smashing everyone’s history. They post images!! Will there be a bright new future when all the old stuff has been destroyed? Every aspiring politician parrots the mantra of Change. Progress.  ‘A time to break down and a time to build…a time to love and a time to hate…a time to throw stones and a time to gather them together.’ It’s the stone throwing that worries me….and the hate.

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A friend told me how her father used to remove warts with a compound that burned off cows’ horns. If you missed, it went some way to burning off the whole hand. I decided against it. I took two of our children to see Alice McGuinness. They had developed little warts beside their eyes, no place for cow-horn remover. Alice was old and gentle. She explained that she cured warts even by post. She had treated horses for a man in Australia. All she needed was a diagram: ” They have to know exactly where the warts are.”  I didn’t ask who They were. The children listened, wide-eyed. “Is Alice a witch?” they asked afterwards. The warts disappeared and never came back. Cromwell might have done better to consult Alice about his excrescence, instead of having it immortalised by the artist, Samuel Cooper. He didn’t like the portrait at first but it grew on him. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist it.) In reality he and his dismal Puritans would more likely have burned her for being old and for knowing something they didn’t understand.

There is a bit of new wall cobbled on, where Alice’s house once stood. It’s a bit of an excrescence. It will take a few centuries for it to mellow.

By that time maybe we will have a Walmart on the site. Wide selection of socks. The march of progress.