Show me the Money

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It was appropriate that Dermot should deliver the container of coins. He drove a van for Peter Lyons’s bakery in Drogheda, a van that advertised gold-medal-winning bread, gold medals from London in 1883 and 88. The medals were depicted on the van. I thought that Peter needed to lift his game, seventy years on. You’re only as good as your last loaf. It was nice bread all the same. Perhaps English tastes had changed, over the years. He made lovely buns too. Taste is a strange thing. I remember bread vans passing one another in opposite directions, to and fro. The goods from elsewhere are always more exotic, even if it’s only from Drogheda or Navan. When we got old enough to be cool, we referred to money as bread. Very cool.

Dermot conveyed the coins for a young Drogheda swain who fancied my sister. The swain ( a ludicrous word, inviting amused ridicule) wasted his time in being nice to the young brother. I got to ride on his racing bike—one leg under the crossbar, not quite Anquetil or Fausto Coppi. There were loads of gears and a derailleur to catch the unwary. (Derailleur—sounds like an accident.) I didn’t need bicycle clips, as I was still in short trousers. I still have most of the coins. The swain got nowhere. ‘On yer bike,’ the most peremptory of dismissals. I knew a student who brought his bicycle clips when he went out drinking, but we needn’t dwell on that.

Some of the coins disappeared into our childrens’ school projects. Our grandchildren use them to make roads for toy cars. They are no longer in mint condition, no longer ’eminently collectible,’ as they say on the antique shows, I like to think that I have lost hundreds of thousands of Euro in value, through my neglect. It’s only money. What is money? I never understood it. Somebody out there dials numbers into my account. I don’t see any cash. I stick a plastic card into a machine and (occasionally) cash comes out. I can offer this card in shops and dial in a secret code. Nobody gets any cash, but on a good day, I walk away with goods. (Economists use the singular form, a good.) ‘Can I help you, Sir?’ ‘Yes please. I wish to purchase a good.’ ‘Very good, Sir.’ Economists tell us that this carry-on saves the banks a great deal of money. I ask for nothing from the dismal scientists, nada, nowt, nichevo, zilch, zero,  maybe a few zeros on the end of the sum dialled into my account. It can’t hurt anyone to add a few nothings. It would stimulate trade. I would feel good.

I got an email inviting me to invest in Bitcoins. When I opened it, the screen was blank. The attraction of Bitcoins is that they don’t exist. A finite number of Bitcoins was “mined”. You can create a “virtual wallet” in which to store them. They increase in value because they are rare.They don’t rain from Heaven. You can’t spend an idle afternoon tossing them on a street corner. They don’t jingle in your pocket or drop, when you get the joke, or realise something that had eluded you for years. You can’t stick one in a machine and win a jackpot. I suspect that they exist only in an algorithm, a word beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. The modern alchemists transmute numbers into wealth, or so they assure us. Don’t forget the little spot, the decimal point. Things that are rare, have value, like the emperor’s new clothes.

By a circuitous route, this brings me to King George V, Rex Ind Imp Fid Def  and more. His butler brought the freshly ironed newspaper to him, one morning. ‘I see, Your Majesty, that someone has paid £40,000.00 for a stamp.’ Light early morning conversation with the King-Emperor. ‘What idiot would pay that amount of money for a stamp?’  The king was a keen stamp collector. ‘Actually,’ rumbled His Majesty, ‘I am that idiot.’ (Figures open to revision.) Philately will get you nowhere. I grouped the coins with his image, to represent some of the colonies collected by him and his forebears. He wears the imperial crown abroad, but rarely at home. Still, he looks the part. [click on the large group and then click on individual coins]  I loved the sense of elsewhere: British Borneo, Rhodesia, Suid Afrika, Canada, Hong Kong, East Caribbean States, Guernsey, Straits Settlements (Dire, or otherwise?) Hibernia and of course, the Jewel in the Crown, British India. I loved the artistry of the coin makers, the arms of the colonies, emu and kangaroo rampant, the echidna, the weapons and implements, the flowers and wildlife. It was a wide world. There are a few silver ones but no gold.

Why gold? There will be no more gold. It was formed at the heart of a supernova. It is finite, in this galaxy anyway. It drives people mad. They go out into lonely places and tear the earth apart in the quest for this precious metal. You can make teeth out of it. Ancient emperors made grave goods out of it, in an effort to take it with them. A former TB patient told me that he was just in time for the new drugs. Shortly before his time, patients got trial gold injections. They perked up immediately but after a week, they turned blue and died.  You can buy gold-plated bathroom taps and possibly a gold-plated car.  It doesn’t tarnish. Most of all, it backs currencies–or used to. Theoretically you can exchange a note for its equivalent in gold, but you can’t. The pound note guaranteed that you could exchange it for a pound in silver, not a pound of silver, but ten florins, made of nickle. They were called silver coins.

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It’s a nice chair, but it could do with some cushions. The arm rests are too thin. They would cut off the circulation if you tried to read the paper.

During World War II, South Africa provided Britain with its gold. There are ships at the bottom of the sea, packed to the gunwales with South African gold ingots. There are even sunken submarines full of gold. The South Africans resorted to smelting the gold for Britain and storing it in vaults, pending the end of the war. They issued certificates for the equivalent amount of gold. Then they hit upon a wheeze. Why not leave the gold underground in the mines, where it was safe, instead of mining, smelting and guarding it in vaults —under the ground? Brilliant! They issued certificates for the value of the gold that they didn’t mine. The certificates were made of paper. They worked just as well as the metal. Nowadays they would be electronic transactions. Like the alchemists of old, the important thing is to believe.

The Irish coins, above, show sturdy farm animals, fish,  a hound, poultry. I’m missing a few, a hare, a woodcock, a pig.  I put a Spanish horse beside the Irish hunter. The Spanish horse is rearing up in flamboyant fashion. The first designs for our currency were made by an Italian, altogether too extravagant for us. Percy Metcalfe took things in hand. He gave us our own animals, not a lot of Renaissance, over-endowed bulls and stallions scandalising the spending public. You may see the rejected designs in the National Museum.  The Portuguese like ships, expressive of their great seafarers and their colonial empire. Empires like eagles, spreadeagles and two-headed eagles. My all time favourite is the American buffalo five cent piece. There is a Native American on the other side, a story of a vanishing history. ‘In God We Trust’—all others pay cash.

A bruised and aggrieved gentleman took a young lady to court for assault and battery. ‘Why did you strike the gentleman?’ asked the judge. ‘ ‘Because he called me a two-bit hooker, your honour,’ she replied. ‘And what did you strike him with?’  ‘I hit him with a bag of nickles, your honour.’ It might have been safer to tender her a cheque.

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Our Minister for Justice rented a house in Skerries for a month in the summer. Dermot knew nothing about this change of occupancy. He arrived with his usual delivery. It was raining. He sprinted for the door, with an armload of bread. Suddenly he was pinned to the ground by two armed Special Branch men. On another occasion he sprinted to my neighbour’s house with a similar armful. It was also raining. The neighbour’s wife opened the door. Dermot’s momentum carried him into the parquet floored hallway. They both slipped. The bread went everywhere. They couldn’t get up. My neighbour, hearing the commotion, ran out to find his wife on the flat of her back and Dermot spreadeagled on top of her. Did he notice that Dermot had lovely buns? He never mentioned that.

Our sturdy coins have dwindled, just as King George’s Empire has dwindled. The shilling bull has shrunken to a 5c calf. The salmon has become a sardine. It costs more than 1c to mint a 1c coin. The gold is in the stories, not in the sovereigns, guineas or medals. If you find that your faith in money has been shaken by any of the foregoing, you may send your cash to me. I will put it under my mattress and keep it safe, like the French peasants were always reputed to do when war was threatening. No Bitcoins please. Coin of the realm only. I will give you a receipt.

The sere, the yellow leaf. That time of year thou may’st in me behold…..Will Skakespeare again.

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I sometimes wonder, in an idle moment, what might have happened if Hannibal had won. ‘All roads lead to ‘Carthage’. Nah! ”When in Carthage, do as the Carthaginians do.’ Doesn’t have the same ring to it. ‘The Pope of Carthage. Carthaginian Catholics.’ Ian Paisley would have had to re-jig his rhetoric.  ‘The Decline and Fall of the Carthaginian Empire. ?? Never heard of it. There would be no Romance languages, except for a dialect or two, spoken by rude shepherds on a few hills beside the Tiber. Why are shepherds always so rude?  Shakespeare would have been badly stuck for material. In fact he would have been badly stuck for words, considering that the English language is partly composed of Latin derivatives. Hollywood would have had to look elsewhere for some of its greatest epics. It is a pointless speculation, too vast for my brain at this hour of the morning, or indeed at any hour. Empires rise and dominate the world and then they fall. There is nothing permanent about an empire.

Two images on the television news caught my eye. One was the towering skyscrapers of Shanghai, blazing with electric lights. The lights of this futuristic city gleamed in the water. The other dealt with ‘Obamacare.’ It showed the poor and destitute of a formerly prosperous city, possibly Detroit, shuffling along run-down streets, with plastic bags and shopping trolleys containing their few possessions. An image is a powerful thing. The Chinese authorities would never have allowed images of such poverty in their cities, to appear in the world media.  All is success, great leaps forward, progress. I have no idea if they have a welfare service for the poor and elderly. I would welcome enlightenment.  A persistent picture of rural China is one of old people carrying  burdens, frequently bundles of  sticks. Fair play to the Americans. They admit to their failures. The Russians never televised exploding space launches.

Americans have wrangled for years about healthcare and creeping communism, as if they are synonymous. One argument seems to be that if the poor, the sick and the old are cared for, they will become strong enough to wrest the hard-earned wealth from the rich. Maybe that’s how a free market works. When Robin Hood robbed the rich to give to the poor, the poor became the rich and he then had to reverse the whole process. I spoke to a number of elderly Americans. They were preoccupied with the cost of healthcare.  They were all working, even into their mid seventies. The taxi driver was a retired college professor. I didn’t ask them about creeping communism. They had burdens enough. They didn’t look robust enough to carry bundles of sticks. It was pointed out to David Cameron in China recently, that Britain is now a small country. In my lifetime it was a vast empire. It did ‘bestride this narrow world like a colossus.’  It was a mighty edifice, but then the roof leaked. Damp rose through the walls. Slates blew away. The occupants became rowdy and kicked down the doors. They even set fire to parts of it.

Contemplation of the rise and fall of empires is too onerous a task. That old olive tree in the picture, stands beside the Via Sacra in Rome. It was there on the day that Julius Caesar walked to his death at the hands of assassins. It is a witness tree. The film Cleopatra shows Caesar, (Rex Harrison) walking towards his fate over a carpet of fallen leaves. The leaves crunch under his feet. They Floodlights and rugby, Hockey,Railway Bridge, bird notice, Shady 019

scurry away in the rising wind.  It is a powerful and evocative image but…..it was the Ides of March. March? Leaves?  Poetic licence, no doubt but a powerful picture, a portent of the tempest to come. Tradition had it that Hannibal fled to Pontus, where he was terminated with extreme prejudice by agents of Rome. Two cypress trees planted over his grave, turned aside, rather than shade the treacherous Carthaginian. History of course, is written by the winners. In Roman tradition Hannibal is the epitome of evil, the Bogeyman. Maybe the trees turned aside in order to let the sun shine on the grave of a hero.

A teacher told me about bringing a group of schoolboys to Rome. They were given a measure of freedom, with the usual caveats. One of them experimented with the local brew, with unhappy results. A frantic phone call: ‘ Sir, you better get down here quick.’

‘What’s happened?’ Where are you?’

‘I dunno, Sir. X has collapsed.’

‘Good God!’ A teacher’s worst nightmare. ‘Where are you?’

‘I dunno, Sir. Some bloke got stabbed here. That’s all I know.’

‘Stabbed! Oh God!’

They were in the Forum. The bloke in question was Caesar. Italians still lay flowers on the spot, on the Ides of March.

‘Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a crack to keep the wind away.’

The Japanese,(former imperial power)  refer to retired people as fallen leaves. What do you do with fallen leaves? They did shelter the Babes in the Wood. Yesterday I got my renewal notice for our health insurance. There was good news and bad news. The bad news was that the price has gone up. I would nearly say that it has been topped up, but that is an emotive term around here. Where Shylock sought only a pound of flesh, my insurer is looking for an arm and a leg. The good news is that I am fully insured for the amputations, semi private and private in public hospitals, even though there are few private rooms in the public hospitals. There are virtual private rooms, where you pay the private rate but you are in a public or semi-private ward. Don’t ask. There is provision also for prosthetic devices, with an excess of three hundred euro per member. I am a bit worried about the term ‘member’. There is further good news. It was so good that I went out immediately, to the wind-swept forest, where Margaret was gathering twigs for the fire. She was tottering under a great burden of sticks. The snowflakes and withered leaves whirled about her. She has been a good wife and provider for many a long year.

‘Be of good cheer,’ I called. ‘I bring tidings of great joy. VHI Healthcare has covered us for maternity benefit, normal confinement. We may be blessed with even more issue.’ (Will Shakespeare used to talk like that. How did he get away with it?)

She bent again to her task, with some muttered words of thanksgiving, that I could not make out in the howling wind. I mentioned that the fire was getting a bit low and hoped that she would not delay too long. Hanging around in the open air in winter can be bad for the health. I hurried indoors to count my blessings. It was nearly time for the evening gruel. I prayed that she would not tarry unduly long in the forest.  Romance was in the air again.

Mau Mau, A sense of place. Winds of change. Justice delayed.

There was a map of Europe on the wall of my classroom in National School. I emphasise that it was on the wall. There were several other maps rolled up and kept on top of a cupboard. One of them, Mercator’s world map, made an occasional appearance, but it was a puzzle. It looked top heavy. Greenland and Canada dominated the world. Africa was a bit sketchy. There was no North or South Pole. There was a lot of red. I never got to see the other maps.

Europe, however, was always in front of my eyes. There was not so much red, just the two western islands,Ireland and Britain. France was pale green, square and solid at the left hand edge, but a bit skinny, lacking Alsace and Lorraine. I learned the reason for that later. The German Empire, a purply blue, sprawled across the top. It wasn’t exactly Prussian blue, a colour I found later to be overwhelming, with a tendency to dominate all other colours. I draw no conclusions there. Russia was pale yellow. St. Petersburg stood out in large black print. It later became Leningrad, but Peter is back again. There were several little countries in that area, that later disappeared but have also come back. Scandinavia always looked like a monster preparing to devour Denmark. Nederland was hollowed out by the Zuyder Zee. That’s ‘sea’ zpelt wrong. There was a song about it: ‘Zing, zing, zing a little zong with me….’ The zee is all filled in now. Where was Poland?

What can you say about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Which was it, Austria or Hungary? Apparently the last Habsburg, doddering about in retirement, was told that Austria and Hungary were playing that night in a World Cup qualifier. It was to be on television. ‘Ah, good,’ he replied. ‘Who are we playing?’ That was a man who knew which side he was on. It seemed to be made of millions of little pieces. We had a big carving dish at home. It was glazed with fine cracks. There was always the fear that it would fall apart and ruin the Sunday dinner. President Wilson tried to dismantle Austria-Hungary. The dust hasn’t settled yet. I have the bits of that dish in a box under my desk. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will have their work cut out.

The Ottoman Empire hung onto a sizeable chunk of the bottom right hand corner. A strange name for an empire. A white strip of Africa ran along the bottom. Africa wasn’t invited. But where the hell was Poland?

There was a song about Africa: ‘Take a trip to Africa. Happy, happy Africa. Come on along and learn the lingo, In a jungle bungalow.’ There was another one: ‘Bongo, bongo bongo, I’m so happy in the Congo, I don’t want to go. Ingle angle bungle, I’m so happy in the jungle….’ and ‘Zambezi, Zambezi, Zambezi Zam!’ Father O Sullivan particularly railed against these songs in his sermons. We nudged one another, thinking of the Sunday roast. Gravy. Crackling. ‘Put another nickle in, in the nickelodeon.’ He hated that one too. Decadence everywhere.

My brother had a taste for the macabre. He told us about the Mau Mau. He told us in great detail. We younger siblings were scared. They went out at night to attack white people and Her Majesty’s forces of law and order. They used voodoo and juju. Nobody was safe from the Mau Mau. The Mau Mau decreed a night of the long knives, when every European would die in his(or her) bed. My brother was quite tickled by the idea. I was puzzled by that. He’s European. I’m European.

I checked in school. Kenya wasn’t even on the map. They would have to come across the narrow bit at Constantinople. They couldn’t possibly, even by juju and voodoo, cut every European throat in one night. They couldn’t reach Ireland in one night. Someone would spot them before they got to Skerries. It was slightly reassuring.

My big sister brought me to a lecture in Floraville. Billy Blood Smyth showed lantern slides of Skerries, which his father had made in the 1880’s and 90’s. They were magic lantern slides. I would love to see them again. Leo Flanagan quoted Longfellow on memories and sea faring and growing up by the sea and… ‘Spanish sailors with bearded lips…..for the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.’ All very appropriate to a lecture on old Skerries. There was an accompanying exhibition of curiosities and bric a brac. There was a bicycle pump bought on the very day that World War II broke out. There was a flower pot cast by James Duff on the day the Germans entered Paris. It impressed me because I was born exactly a year and a day afterwards. (No significance at all in reality). There was a panga—-‘as used by the Mau Mau’. A sea-faring Skerries man contributed the panga. A panga is a rough version of the machete. You could easily make one yourself. Ideal for chopping vegetation or Europeans. My fears returned. Fortunately, the Mau Mau never made it to Skerries.

Father O Sullivan also inveighed against women wearing shorts. The chief offender was Fanny Blankers-Koen, an athlete from bezide the Zuyder Zee. She distinguished herself in the 1948 Olympics. She was called ‘Flying Fanny’ in the tabloids. Father O Sullivan asked if we would be surrounded by flying fannies. My parents cracked up at the dinner table. I couldn’t see what was so funny.Nederland was inundated by a great storm a few years later. Had they not heard the story of Noah and a vengeful God? The Zuyder Zee is all polder land now. The Dutch built the Delta dams, but women are still wearing shorts. I fear for the future. ‘It won’t be rain but fire next time…’ Frankie Laine had a hit with that song.

There is a case going through the House of Lords. A group of poor old Kikuyu men are seeking justice for torture and mutilations inflicted on them by the forces of law and order in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurgency. There was another side to that story. Truth is indeed the daughter of time. Kenya is on the map. The empires are gone. What a bloody awful century!

However, we have two little Irish/Polish grandsons to delight us. I am glad that Poland came back.