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…..

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Wintersong.

010

The gate lodge once housed a large family called Bingham. Presumably they opened and shut the gates as required. I thought of what fun they must have had, swinging on the gates. To me the children seemed remarkably tall. When I saw them walking to school, in various stages of tallness, they put me in mind of organ pipes. They all had fair hair. They walked in line astern.  I recalled them recently to a man whose wife is a priest in the Church of Ireland.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I remember the Binghams. They were unusual for the time. Poor Protestants.’

They were more unusual in being a large family. The gate lodge is bigger than the other Milverton gate lodges. It guards the main entrance to the demesne. There are imposing pillars and great iron gates. I sort of envied the Binghams, because they lived in a romantic place, The Shady Lane, with a wild wood at their back door. Their house was like something out of a Just William story. They had a vicar and Sunday School, just like William. (Not too keen on school on Sundays.) I imagined foxes and squirrels and maybe even fairies, in the woods. They might even have called them faeries. There was a big house and horses. There were those lovely wrought-iron railings and cut-stone walls and gate pillars, that always indicate the houses of the ‘gentry’. There were copses of magnificent trees. ‘For the house of the Planter, is known by the trees, as Austin Clarke said.  He said more, about the Planter’s daughter: ‘and oh, she was the Sunday in every week.’  The Binghams went away. I hope they prospered.

It was always a popular walk on Sundays, up Toker Hill, (I’m told that it should be ‘Tochar’, an old Irish word. Told by an old Irishman, actually,)  round by The Shady Lane and back by the Quarry Road. There is a lot more traffic nowadays and a lot more cyclists and joggers. There are power-walkers too. Watch out for those elbows.  At any time of year it is, nonetheless a pleasant walk. Long ago, boys went along those roads to look for birds’ nests in springtime and conkers  or crab-apples in the autumn. Young girls went there to gather primroses and wild woodbine for May altars. They picked blackberries in September.  Sometimes they encountered the young boys. Girls, if I recall correctly, had no interest in birds’ nests or conkers. They despised our juvenile pursuits and yet we were reluctant for them to go. At such times I was usually tongue-tied, although I longed to dazzle them with witty conversation. No such luck. There was one girl in particular. I prepared a menu of casual chat and scintillating remarks in my brain, in case I should meet her. She passed on her Raleigh. It was my opportunity to shine. I said nothing. ‘Snob’ she said, as she glided out of my life.  I wanted to go and throw myself in front of Healys’ bull, in defiance of the warning notice nailed to the gate post.  She would hear that I had been savagely gored and would regret her harsh word, but it would be too late. I wanted to hurl myself off the highest cliff in the quarry. She would be sorry then. But I didn’t. I knew that someday she would realise how unjust were her words and that she would fly back to me (on her Raleigh Gazelle. It had a basket on the handlebars, a carrier at the back and a three-speed gearbox. I just happened to notice that. There was gold writing on the black enamel. Elegant gold writing. Ah, well!)

007

Winter was the best time. The evenings were short. Darkness came early. The Moon appeared through the bare branches of the trees. You would always hear the cronk cronk of a pheasant in Hattons’  Wood, or the startled flapping of wood pigeons. A shot might echo in the gathering twilight, probably the landowner shooting some boys in the Cane Wood, as we were assured, was his practice. Everybody knew that. They were good canes though, and worth the risk.  There was a donkey up there somewhere. He could have been a few miles away,  but his roar carried in still, frosty air. An ass’s roar is a measure of distance in Ireland. The measurement varies according to atmospheric conditions. It’s a fair distance though, even a brave distance on a calm day. You might hear the rustling flight of lapwings and their shrill piping, as great flocks descended, to alight in a stubble field. Lapwings, a sign of cold weather.

We used to go up to the big house at Christmas, to buy holly. Perhaps Yuletide would be more appropriate. I thought of the holly and the ivy and the running of the deer. When blood is nipt and ways be foul, then nightly sings the staring owl. It was a setting for a mediaeval Yuletide, with wassailing in the hall and Tom bearing logs indoors. It was not a setting, in my imagination, for an Irish Christmas. The house was vast. We went  to the front door.  I saw animal heads on the wall inside, water buffalo, impala, wildebeest.  A tall man directed us around to the yard. We got a big bundle of holly,  for one shilling and sixpence. Nobody shot at us. That wonderful house was demolished to avoid crippling rates. Our one shilling and sixpence could not avert the evil day.

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A pair of peregrines nested on the high cliffs in Milverton quarry. I stopped there one still, cold evening, to try to catch a glimpse of them. I have never seen them, although I know people who know people who saw them, so it must be true. The blasting didn’t seem to worry them. I listened. The quarry dam made a soft rushing sound. From far away came the sound of singing, a group of girls on the Toker Hill. (Pace, old Irishman.)  They were singing in parts, as Sister Mel had taught them. Whispering Hope, whispering hope.  Sister Mel taught choir. She taught Maths too, and maintained and drove the tractor. She was a bookbinder and a cook. She could turn a hand to anything. She taught them well.

They laughed and started again.

Wait till the darkness is over,

Wait till the tempest is done,

I was transfixed. It was a perfect moment.

Will not the deepening darkness

Brighten the glimmering star?

It did. It did. I saw the star. I knew their voices. I saw them in my mind’s eye.  I stayed still, not wanting to meet them, or break the spell. I have never forgotten how beautiful they were, singing together on a  winter evening.

When the dark midnight is over

Watch for the breaking of day.

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On Friday I will go with my grand daughter, to the Concert Hall, to hear Margaret and her friends, singing Handel’s Messiah, the perfect Wintersong.

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Grand Hotel and ‘a man more sinned against than sinning.’

‘Is your Mammy in?’ asked the man at the door.

‘There’s nobody here but my Auntie Peg,’ replied my sister politely. (Politeness mandatory at the door.)

‘What?’ He tried again. ‘Is your Mammy at home?’

Somewhat testily my sister repeated, ‘There’s nobody here but my Auntie Peg.’

‘What?’ He frowned in puzzlement.

She snapped. ‘Ach, there’s nobody here but me Ant.’

‘Ah!’

My Auntie Peg taught English  and French to young ladies in a convent school in Ealing. She was most particular about language. She read The Times Literary Supplement. She knew Old Vic personally and had seen Olivier play Yorick in Hamlet.  She appreciated how he fleshed out the role. She had wit and very good table manners. In fact she often mentioned table manners to us. It was a recurring topic at dinner. She did not appreciate haste or loud noises in the consumption of food. In deference to her strange preoccupation with hygiene, we washed thoroughly behind our ears, before she came to stay, as she did several times a year. She travelled during her holidays and sent glossy colour postcards from exotic places. Louis XIV had a very nice house in Paris and a few others around the country. There was a Hall of Mirrors. It was probably easy for him to check behind his ears, before my Auntie Peg arrived, with her entourage of young ladies, although I don’t think he was too hot on hygiene. There was The Eiffel Tower, a radio mast built before radio. The French like to be prepared. Think Maginot Line. Think Cognac, bottled today, but not to be opened for half a century. If I had anticipated the modern television programmes about antiques and ’eminently collectible’ old photographs, my album of Auntie Peg’s postcards would make me a rich man. But, malheureusement, (Gallic shrug) what can I say?

I actually know very little about Peg. I remember her long conversations with my mother, but they segued into French if there was anything of interest coming up. I know that there was a young man in UCD, before the war, but he turned out to be a bit of a cad. There was talk of a Canadian paratrooper, killed in Crete. She told us about her new coat, obtained with precious ration coupons and ruined when she had to lie down in the  street, during an air raid. I imagined the sirens and the crump of bombs. I could see the burning buildings reflected in the wet tarmac. She told the story ruefully, but I imagined her crying. I think she had a lot to cry about, but politeness prevented her.  She loved Tom Jenkins with The Palm-Court Orchestra of the Grand Hotel. It was a Sunday evening ritual on the BBC Home Service. ‘We go over now, to Tom Jenkins and the  Palm-Court orchestra of the  Grand Hotel…..’ Everything stopped for Tom Jenkins. I tried to imagine what the place looked like and whether the musicians sat among the trees or behind them, but all I could see in my mind was the silver cake stand with the selection of iced cakes glazed in many colours. On the rare occasions that aunts of any kind brought us out to tea, this cake stand appeared, piled high with a bewildering variety of cakes. The other person always gets the nicest one.  I thought that…. but no. Table manners decree that you take one and one only. You can look but you may not touch. Was she remembering afternoon tea with her Canadian, in a shady palm-court long ago?

I came in one day in a foul mood. It was raining. There was nothing to do. ‘The weather is lousy,’ I said angrily. She fixed me with a Miss Jean Brodie stare. Silence. My well-washed ears began to burn. All my crimes were manifest. ‘I will not tolerate such language,’ she said, icily. ‘Kindly leave the room.’

I shrugged. I didn’t care. ‘Huh!’ That’s not bad language. Do you really want to hear bad language?  Anyway the weather was lousy.  However, I left the room, just to keep her quiet; just because I am a reasonable man who can bear the injustices of life with philosophic resignation.  C’est la vie, (Another Gallic shrug). Peg was a good friend. Margaret and I met her in London on our honeymoon. She brought us to afternoon tea in Piccadilly. There were cakes. My ears were impeccable. She produced theatre tickets and then got up to leave. We protested.  ‘You’re on your honeymoon. You don’t want an old aunt around.’ I suppose that was tact and politeness.

Long afterwards, Margaret bought a climbing rose, Grand Hotel. I thought of Peg.  It climbed and produced flowers in great profusion. You don’t prune a climbing rose. You steer it. It climbed along the party wall. It approached the house. It became necessary to put up supports over the window. Does anything suggest domestic harmony as well as a climbing rose over the window? A cascade of red roses flowing around our blissful home. Poets write about that sort of thing. Tom Jenkins probably had an orchestral piece on the subject. I went to John Kingston’s hardware shop. John had the answer to every problem. He would even throw in instructions and advice. It was probably the only shop in the world where you could buy a single screw… and take it back if it was the wrong length. Lesser men use drills and rawl-plugs with screws made to the correct thickness and length. They are the kind of poor devils who have to measure before they cut a piece of wood or drill a hole. I use masonry nails. Masonry nails are for wild free-booting, buccaneering types like myself; men who know how to use language when the nail hits a flint or an impenetrable stone in pebble-dash. There are few things more satisfying than the feeling of the masonry nail going firmly home. You could climb the Eiger, north face of course, with masonry nails. Lesser men climb the south face.

I got the step ladder. There are dangers in working at altitude. My grandfather died in a fall from a ladder. Admittedly it was Christmas. He owned a pub. He was hanging Christmas decorations. There might be other contributory factors  there.  I ascended warily, with a pocket full of masonry nails. I began to work. I got one nail in at the first go. I reached for another. I became aware that I was higher than the party wall. I was higher than the Grand Hotel . I became aware that my neighbour’s beautiful daughters were practising their gymnastics in the back garden. They had a full sized wooden beam, on which they were balancing and executing dismounts with double forward, backward somersaults with pike. It looked very dangerous. I addressed myself to my task. I just checked again, that they were all right, precisely as I struck the nail. I hit my thumb. The masonry nail shot out, with a pling and struck me on the cheek, drawing blood. Masonry nails are unforgiving. I lost my footing and fell astride the rung of the ladder, barking a shin and causing extreme pain elsewhere, at the same time. With admirable presence of mind, I grabbed a handful of rose bush to steady myself. I grabbed the thorns, not the beautiful, red petals. I suffered five different wounds in the space of a second. Ollie and Stan would have had to rehearse it . The only recourse was profanity.

‘There’s no need for that kind of language,’  said Margaret, reprovingly.  There was. There was. The injustice of it all struck me. ‘A man more sinned against than sinning.’ I thought of Peg and her Shakespeare and her  ‘Kindly leave the room.’ I retired to nurse my grievances. The rose would have to wait, at least until gymnastics practice was over and my thumb regained some mobility. On a more optimistic note, on another occasion, after the young ladies had practised in the front garden, two lads working on the telephone connections across the road, left a hammer, a vice-grips and a big lump of lead behind, when they left. That would have cost me a few bob in John Kingston’s.

Our Grand Hotel in Skerries was a pretty shabby place. The lead must have been stolen from the roof. It leaked. It became part of the school where I taught for some years. I met a pupil whose father had stayed there on the night that Harry Boland was shot. Harry was shot in the room at the end of the corridor. The boy’s father and uncle hid under the bed. There was a chamber pot under the bed.  The chamber pot was full. If they used language, it was surely under their breath. There was no Palm-Court or orchestra in that Grand Hotel. It wasn’t even ‘grand’ in the Irish sense. It was pretty awful. Peg would have been amused. Although I saw her become an old woman in poor health,she retained her droll wit. At her funeral, a tenor made a dog’s dinner of Panis Angelicus and Ave Maria. He was brutal. My cousin leaned across to me.Peg would have enjoyed that,’  she whispered. 

She  left us that evening in London. I have a memory of her walking away, against the crowd in Piccadilly, a small, rather stooped, lonely figure. She danced there with a sailor on VE Night.