The Black Tulip. Vlanderen/Flanders.

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Picture borrowed from Inge.

My school Geography book showed a similar picture…but it was in monochrome. They tell me that everything was in monochrome in those days. Not so. On certain occasions in the junior classes, a new consignment of plasticine arrived, bright strips of márla, not unlike the pattern of the tulip fields, bringing some glimmers of colour to our nineteen-forties classroom. “Do not mix the colours.” An impossible directive. To make anything at all interesting, you have to combine the colours. Márla sticks to márla.  Once combined, the colours cannot be uncombined. For a little while we got that interesting marbling effect but eventually the rainbow gave way to a dull brown. Red+Green =Brown. Blue+Yellow+ Red=Brown. Everything+Everything=Brown. You can’t make Black, Some fool said that in the science of light, all the colours combine to make White. Nonsense. In the márla world, even light is Brown. (See Stephen Foster for Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.  I rest my case.) For the rest of the year we worked the sullen márla into:- birds’ nests filled with brown eggs, brown ships with brown sails, brown flowers, brown people, cows, sheep, cars and simplest of all, brown snakes. There were magic painting books too, the paper impregnated with chemicals that reacted to water. The theory was that you could paint brilliant pictures by merely brushing water over the page. It was a lie. Everything emerged in bleary tones of Brown. These execrable books are still around, an affront to the eye and a severe disappointment to any budding Rembrandt. It is no exaggeration to say that we were often browned off by the sheer dullness of the nineteen forties.

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Eamon Kelly, the legendary Seanachaí, told a story of a farmer who was sitting in his kitchen eating his dinner, when his little boy ran in the door, in high excitement, clutching a bunch of flowers in his fist. (He actually said ‘fisht’). “Daddy! Daddy!” cried the little boy. “Look what I found in the field.” The farmer put down his knife and fork and regarded his beloved child with the posy of flowers. —And if he did, didn’t he draw out and give the child the greatest box in the ear the child ever got. “Didn’t I tell you before that there is no worth in flowers?” he bellowed. “You can’t get a grant for flowers.”—

Incidentally, that Geography book gave an account of ‘the increasingly popular tomato.’ The tomato was grey in colour. It could never be produced in Ireland because of our proximity to the North Pole. Spaniards grew them out of doors and clever Dutch people grew them in glasshouses/greenhouses, but in Ireland, I was informed, the glasshouses would collapse under the weight of snow. (Snow!) The tomato is a fruit, yet a close relative of the potato. They both came from South America in the days of the conquistadors, hardy men, very fond of their chips with tomato ketchup, inextricably mixed now into the cuisine of most European cultures.

I had to take a break from reading Catastrophe  by Max Hastings, his masterly account of how the world went blithely to war in 1914. I felt a profound melancholy settling over me in contemplating how quickly humankind can accept, justify and forget the obscenities considered necessary in the conduct of war. It didn’t just happen in monochrome a hundred years ago. It is happening right now in living, bleeding colour, with all the panoply, heraldry and weaponry of modern industrial warfare. Hastings, as a young man, worked as a researcher on the BBC series, The World at War. He interviewed many veterans, old men and women remembering how their world was destroyed by the savagery and stupidity of that ‘war to end all war.’ Empires fell apart and whole populations were uprooted. This is the decade of commemoration. Some talk of celebration. We are surrounded by monochrome pictures of people and battles long ago. Hastings brings it vividly into focus with startling relevance to the events of our own time. I had to put it aside and contemplate more cheerful things.

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Between the wars some of those clever Dutch people settled in Rush and Skerries, attracted by the light warm soil, or so we were told. They grew flowers! They built glasshouses, despite the danger from snowstorms! Their names, Amerlinck, Ruigrok, DeJong became by-words for hard work and innovation. On our way to and from school we wondered at the large green and red fruit/vegetables in Walter Ruigrok’s glasshouses. Definitely not the increasingly popular tomato. They turned out to be red and green peppers. which in their turn, have become increasingly popular. I gather that they also came from South America.

The Low Countries are synonymous with the cultivation of flowers. The mid-seventeenth century saw an outburst of ‘tulip mania.’ Tulip bulbs became more valuable than gold. You could compare it to the South Sea Bubble or the Dot Com Bubble or, God help us, the Sub-Prime Bubble, with its sub-optimal outcome. Alexandre Dumas wrote about the struggle to develop a black tulip, the Holy Grail of tulip growers. I don’t think it has happened or will happen, just as with márla. The best way to transform the tulip fields of Vlanderen/Flanders into fields of brown and black, is to send millions of young men there, with the best modern weaponry to fight a war, to disrupt the placid courses of the rivers and churn the landscape into liquid mud. It will be expensive but it will make great black and white or sepia, television for generations yet unborn. Perhaps they may learn from it.

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In certain lights, this is our black tulip. It may appear to be a deep red but it is black. It is. It is. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. This is an illusion created by colour photography. In a proper photograph it would of course, be black.  I invite you to invest your guilders, kroner, florins or whatever you have, in our tulip, but keep your hands off it as you walk by, or it will mean war. We cultivate them in marl covered with compost, for peat’s sake. I may or may not go back to Max Hastings, some other time when the weather is brighter and the clouds have lifted. I did enjoy the yellow daffodils. I notice that  Fingal Council is now mixing them with red tulips at roundabouts. Watch these spaces for interesting developments.

Incidentally, greenhouses are colourless. They are made of glass to let the light in.

Countdown to War, July 29th 1914-2014

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Yesterday, a hundred years ago, the Great War began. Austria and Serbia began the process that dragged the world into war. The metaphor of the Matterhorn tragedy of 1865 has often been used to express what happened. Four climbers were plucked off the mountain when a rope connecting them to three others, broke. They were on their way down. It is often more difficult to get out of a situation than to get into it. The weight of the uppermost climber pulled the second one loose. Their combined weight peeled the third and then the fourth from the face of the crag. The ties that bound them together, were their undoing. The watchers below were helpless to do anything.  The tragedy became the subject of paintings and engravings. After all, the leader of the expedition was Edward Whymper, an artist in love with the Alps.

Professional historians say that the situation was much more complex than this metaphor. Of course it was, but Austria pulled in Germany while Serbia plucked the Russian Empire to its destruction, then France, Belgium, the British Empire and any innocent bystanders who happened to be watching. Portugal was wary of Germany in Africa, so they sent troops to Belgium. The French brought Indo-Chinese  and Senegalese to Europe. Australians and Dubliners went to Turkey. Keep an eye on the Japanese, not that they could pose any serious threat to The Great Powers. The Arabs are getting restless. A glorious opportunity for world strategists to display their skills. Spread out those maps. Send in the cavalry. Send an expedition to Mesopotamia. That should keep those blighters quiet for a century or two.  King Hammurabi of Mesopotamia, in Biblical times, made laws for the protection of widows and orphans. No need to worry about them. It will all be over by Christmas.

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It’s a load of shit. Bird shit in fact. The first naval battle was off the South American coast, where Britain and Germany fought to secure the supplies of bird guano from Chile, to make high explosive, to fill the millions and millions of shells needed to dismember millions and millions of people and destroy the drainage of the rivers of Flanders. The shells are things of beauty, works of art. My father defused one of those small shells and brought it back from the war as a souvenir. He saw lads doing the same thing on ammunition dumps and blowing themselves up in the process. There is an art to removing the detonator and the high explosive. Handle with extreme care. It is safe now. In his old age he gave it to me. Their manufacture ensured full employment and liberated women to take paid labour. What could be wrong with that? Famine, Plague, War and Death kicked their horses into a canter. Welcome to the Apocalypse. The troops marched to the front. The khaki-clad British, sensibly, took taxis. The brightly coloured French despised camouflage. They relied on élan. The Russians promptly got lost.  The Kaiser turned to his chemists to fabricate guano. While you’re at it, make me some poison gas.

There were other allegorical figures linked together on that slippery slide into catastrophe: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth. They all brought their talents to the conflict. You could mention also, Irony, Stupidity, astonishing Charity, Mercy, Generosity, Patriotism and Honour, Humour, Endurance and heart-breaking Courage. Poets idealised the shedding of blood. Artists tried to depict the grim reality. Musicians lifted the spirits. In La Grande Illusion a disillusioned soldier remarks that there would be no wars if there were no brass bands. We all love a brass band.…and we won’t be back till it’s over over there…That film was made by Renoir, son of Renoir the artist. There are many things to love about old Renoir. I particularly admire his remarks about the necessity of keeping the house safe for children: removing razor blades and anything that might injure them, poisonous fluids and chemicals etc.

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However, it may be necessary in a war to kill children, along with their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents and neighbours, if strategy demands it. This is of course, regrettable and should be avoided if possible, by extensive leafleting in advance, as is done in the present conflict in Gaza. The fact that they have nowhere to run to is a sad irony of the situation. That gun is a thing of sinister beauty, a work of art and precision. It is sited at Sanctuary Wood. Who sought sanctuary there? Where do the children of Gaza seek sanctuary? In a playground? In a school? In a hospital? Not right now. Don’t you know there’s a war on? God fights on the side of the big battalions, with the big guns.

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My brother, who knows a bit about museums, accompanied me to Flanders. He took issue with the way artefacts (objects made by art?) were displayed at the Ulster Tower museum. ‘These items should be displayed in atmosphere controlled environments’ he pointed out. ‘They will deteriorate over time.’  ‘Don’t worry,’ replied the official.’We can always go outside and dig up some more.’  That is the truth.

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Plenty more where George Nugent came from. His name is attached to a cross.

When I was a child, my mother took me to the National Museum. I saw wonderful things. One thing that puzzled me was the inscription on the belt-buckle of an Irish Volunteer uniform: Gott Mit Uns. It wasn’t Irish. I asked her what it meant. ‘It’s German, ‘ she told me.‘God is with us. The Kaiser, out of the goodness of his heart, sent over some uniforms for the Irish Volunteers.’  What a kind man! I wonder how his chemists got on.

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Kipling was a strong advocate of the war until the day an irate father challenged him at a recruiting rally. ‘Why don’t you send your own bloody son?’ he shouted. Kipling had done everything he could think of to keep his boy safe but he could no longer shield him. The boy was killed. Kipling learned a hard lesson. When my father died, or as an old soldier, faded away, at the age of 82, my little son wrote in Our News in school: ‘My Grandad died and we have his shell on the mantlepiece.’ It made for a very puzzled teacher. I tried to write about his experience, in my novel, Reprisal. Maybe I should have mentioned his shell. My father would have smiled at the little boy’s version. He would smile too at the sudden enthusiasm for The Great War in Ireland after a century of shamefaced denial.

The Great War was the war to end all war. That’s day one over anyway.

The Boyne, a stream of consciousness. A Tomb with a view. High Rollers.

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The new bridge at Oldbridge looms out of the rain-soaked trees like a giant. No doubt the old bridge was once new, as were we all at one time. Not far from here the giant, Finn MacCool, tasted the Salmon of Knowledge, caught by the druid, Aenghus. Aenghus spent his life in a lonely vigil by the river, waiting for the wondrous fish. He caught it and set it to cook over the fire. He instructed the boy, Finn, to mind it, but on no account to taste it. Finn complied, but became fascinated by a heat bubble on the fish’s skin. He poked it with his thumb, as any boy would, and burned it. Instinctively, he put his thumb in his mouth to ease the pain and tasted -Knowledge. Forever afterwards he could put his thumb to his tooth and know the answer to any question. He used it sparingly. He had knowledge certainly, but no guarantee of wisdom.

A mile or two away stands Newgrange, half hidden on this particularly day, by drifting veils of rain. It dominates the bend of the Boyne where kings were buried. This part of the Boyne valley is a necropolis, with ancient tombs everywhere, where the living come in their tens of thousands to wonder at the mystery of it all. There is a melancholy glamour to the place. At mid-winter the rising sun sends a shaft of light through the ‘light box’ over the entrance, directly into the burial chamber. What does that signify? What do the carved stones signify? If, like Finn, we knew the answers, the mystery would evaporate. Newgrange would become an exercise in building techniques. It is remarkably dry inside, even after five thousand years or more. Let the experts dig and speculate. I preferred it with its weeds and thistles, as it was when I first saw it. I picked up one of the white quartz stones, strewn all over the mound and contemplated taking it as a souvenir. Then I thought of legends and superstitions and retribution reaching out from the grave. I put it back. Now the white quartz has been assembled into a facade around the entrance. It’s as good a guess as any, although there is a touch of Odeon Cinema about it.

Our young children loved Newgrange, ‘The Hairy House’ because of the grass on top. They rolled down the slope. Try it. It is exhilarating now that the weeds and thistles are gone. Be careful not to bang your head on an elaborately carved stone, or you may become part of the legend. Give your valuables into safe keeping or you may contribute unwittingly to the lost treasure of Newgrange. The tomb was plundered centuries ago, but the plunderers overlooked three quid.

Fergus found the loot behind one of the massive stones in the inner chamber. His attention strayed from the guide’s learned disquisition, as any small boy’s would. He investigated all crevices for treasure and pulled out three fresh green pound notes. He stared at them, his eyes round with wonder. He had a quick look around and stuffed them into his pocket, as any opportunist small boy would, but he could not contain the excitement of it all.
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He declared them to me. I explained that we would have to enquire as to ownership. I explained about honesty being the best policy- pompous old fart. I mentioned the matter at the ticket office. Fergus kept a tight grip on the notes. He looked up at me. I know what he was thinking. ‘You’re going to blow it, you idiot. You’re going to blow it.’ The lady in the office smiled. She told him to keep them as nobody had enquired about them. Now that was wisdom. His eyes grew even wider. He relaxed, thinking of Lion bars and ice cream..

That was a profitable day. We called in to Saint Peter’s church to light a candle for Blessed Oliver Plunkett, as you must when passing through Drogheda.. He didn’t look well. He looked like a painting by that merry, laughing fellow, Edvard Munch. The candles had been electrified. The children discovered that for one coin, you could press all the switches and light all the candles, one by one. ‘It’s very good value,’ they agreed. No wonder the Pope made him a saint shortly afterwards.

My little grand-daughter, more recently, told me the story of her pal, Oliver. The bad guys caught him and brought him down to McDonald’s, where they cut off his head. She was indignant. Some dastardly deeds have been done beside the gliding Boyne. She still enjoyed the burger and fries, though.

The Plunkett family knew the soldier poet, Ledwidge. They encouraged him to write and to enlist in the army. He wrote of home and the girl he loved and the blackbird that sang beside the mossy stone, where they met. His white memorial stone stands among thousands of others in Flanders, but his memory lives on.

There is a damson tree in the garden of his cottage near the Boyne. The damsons taste of memories. They taste sweet.