Field of (abandoned) Dreams. Re-cycling Bicycles.

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The late Paddy O Furniture

The late Frank Muir, a broadcaster and humorist who didn’t rely on profanity or queasy unease for laughs, voiced a truth. The three happiest days of his life were… “the day I got married, the day I bought my boat and the day I got rid of my boat.”  An old friend of mine always celebrated the onset of autumn and the dark nights after Samhain, by enrolling in an evening class. The first time he did so, his father rejoiced. The lad had been a slow starter. The father renewed his hope that this son of his loins would take over the family accountancy business. He did not. At the end of the first year, as the brighter evenings began to creep in and birds began to build in the hedgerows, he proudly produced the fruits of his evening classes–a coffee table. He learned to tie fishing flies, basic motor car maintenance, conversational Spanish, the rudiments of archery and boat building but he never became an accountant. One day he announced that he had made a big decision–no more *!!!**&%$+^**ing evening classes. No more self-improvement. Free at last! Great God in Heaven, free at last! Catharsis. He’s still a very interesting and well-adjusted fellow…no need for improvement.

We went yesterday to the re-cycling centre. We lead a whirlwind social life. All of human life is there. Long ago I towed a trailer loaded with all the things we had once coveted, treasured and admired for years. I got into terrible trouble trying to reverse the damn thing. I have huge admiration for articulated-lorry drivers and of course, articulate lorry drivers. Fascinating chaps, the first genuine Europeans, men of the world. I took another run at it, hoping to come up alongside. The supervisor stopped me. “You’d better wait here a minute. That other oul fella is gettin’ into terrible trouble with his trailer.” Other oul fella? Other oul fella?? Had we reached a point where oul fellas are discarded, reviled, despised, because they jack-knife trailers in re-cycling centres? Does the pit yawn for oul fellas. I’m still useful you know.. Not ready for the dump…Bit o’ spirit left in me yet. I waited my turn, reversed smoothly into place with a graceful flourish and dismounted to unload with a swagger.  (That last sentence is largely untrue.)

People throw away exactly what other people want but are not limber enough to retrieve from the pit or the skip. There is an element of shame involved in coveting thy neighbour’s cast-offs. That garden table, discarded yesterday, could have been painted. It could have lasted another winter or two. I even have the paint in my shed, where incidentally, I have other stuff that may come in handy. Or I might dump it. It’s been there for years, untouched by human hand. Anyway, the solar display in the centre of the table, died on its first outing. The ads always depict languid and glamorous couples having a glass of wine in the gloaming (I have never used that word before) or in the dusk, (an even more atmospheric word) sitting on their elegant garden chairs, perhaps enjoying the solar light display that adds a touch of the exotic to the evening. Somewhere far away, a mandolin player is giving it his best. No he isn’t. The solar display from Homecare and More doesn’t work. I can see rust under the glass where it can’ be reached. The sellotape didn’t repel the rain. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Get rid of it. Ronald Reagan joked about the Irishman, Paddy O’ Furniture, patiently standing outside the back door, all winter.. There comes a day when even Paddy has to face the inevitable.

There was a time when we could count thirteen bikes in our house. If you went into the shed in the gloaming, you would bark your shin against a bike or two. It would have been wonderful to have donated them to the building of Spitfires to defeat Naziism, but that day had passed. “Anyway, they’re good bikes. You can’t throw away good things. Those bikes cost money.” One of those bikes was a Carl Lewis exercise bike. You need to be on serious drugs to carry a Carl Lewis bike upstairs. I set it up in front of a television. I attached the heart/blood-pressure monitor. I had still a discernible pulse. I switched on the television. I began to pedal. I clocked up a few kilometres. They’re easier than miles. The television was boring. I free-wheeled for a minute. Usually in cycling, free-wheeling is a joy. You glide down a hill with the wind in your hair.(Hairs, if you’re an oul fella). You experience effortless speed. The tarmac sizzles under you tyres. Fausto Coppi re-born. Carl may have been a considerable athlete, with a weight of gold medals around his neck, but his bike was rubbish. Nothing happens when you free-wheel on a Carl Lewis exercise bike. I got rid of it. I felt better.

Yesterday I saw elegant light-fittings, chandeliers, toys, golf clubs, furniture including coffee tables for barking your shins, paint cans full of hard paint, any number of spavined bikes, cookers and microwaves, dead television sets, fridges standing solemnly like Easter Island statues, batteries that had given up the ghost, good timber planks that could come in handy. There were good things in there too, things that could have a few more years in them, with a lick of paint. Down below, in the bottom of the bottomless pit, I saw a weights bench, a treadmill, some strange static trainer for a bike, the very antithesis of cycling, and a Carl Lewis exercise bike. This prompted several questions. Had the owner of all this equipment reached such a pitch of physical excellence that he could cast all this stuff away as mere dross? Did his biceps ripple as he raised his weights bench aloft to hurl it into the void, or did he creep ignominiously, like some oul fella, and have to get help to lift his dreams over the parapet  and let go of them forever? He will never stroll along the beach with a girl on his arm, kicking sand into the faces of bullies, as the chap in the Charles Atlas advertisement did many years ago. That bull-worker didn’t work either. I tried it once. Absolute rubbish.

The man at the entrance has decorated his office with some beautiful dinky toys and model trains. He was most affable. We paid him four Euro for a car-full of freedom. I would have fancied some of his toys but they’re not for sale. We came home with lighter hearts. Frank, by the way, was married to his wife for almost fifty years. Just goes to show….something.


Thatcherism, Shrdlu and the Seat of Power.


Many years ago, in Skerries News, I was referred to as ‘a well-known local thatched cottage.’ How my children cackled.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m local all right but the resemblance ends at that. Thatch implies a generous and cosy covering overhead. No chance. I put this down to the machinations of Mr. Shrdlu. Somebody explained to me that Mr. Shrdlu was a gremlin who lurked in a linotype machine, between matrices and boiling metal, coming out in the dead of night to insert misprints and solecisms into the work of hard working journalists. More cynical readers suggested that the journalists had been working hard in the bar next door. A vile calumny on a dedicated profession. The first letters on the linotype machine spell ETAOIN SHRDLU. He sounds like an ancient Celtic warrior, of the spear, shield and mini-skirt variety.  They always had great heads of hair and bulging muscles. Think of Conan the Barbarian. For a Barbarian though, Conan was strangely beardless. Never mind.  Shrdlu is a relative of Qwerty. I found that he gave his name to a very primitive (1968!) computer programming language and an early example of artificial intelligence. He could distinguish between blocks of different shapes. So can you.


(Irish Times)

I heard an old thatcher, Charlie Fanning, describing his work. He worked with straw, not reed. The best straw for thatching was hand cut, before combines arrived on the scene, to bunch up and crack the straw. He explained how he made a ‘wangle’ of straw, a twist that he worked into the roof and secured with a sharpened loop of sally rod, a scolb in Irish. ‘The day of the wind is not the day for scolbs.’ Sound common sense, but do we heed it? ‘Wangle’ also describes the technique, the twist and thrust of the wrist, the manipulation of the straw. It is a metaphor too, a way of getting what you want. It is a function of real, not artificial, intelligence, to learn how to wangle, to negotiate, to persist and adapt, in order to achieve your desired result.

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These little warriors, Luke and Emily, were intrigued by the thatch but a bit wary of the darkness inside. It was draughty in the Iron Age.  A mini-skirt would be no protection from the wind whistling under the thatch. Conan the Rheumatic.  Charlie, the thatcher, said that you could get fifty years from a reed roof, while a good straw one would survive maybe twenty. He thatched most of the cottages in Skerries in times gone by. We still have some.

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Henry Power lived in the inner cottage, the one with the green door. He had a newsagent-grocer -barber shop, which employed several brothers. There were always jokes and banter in Powers. “Will the papers be long, Seán?” (The papers arrived on the bus.) “Ah, about that length, Alec.”  The  father? brother? was a barber. It’s a long time ago. My brothers scared me with the news that the barber had got an electric hair-clipper. ‘It sounds like an aeroplane landing on your head.’   It did too but I survived. There were no nicks.  A haircut cost something like ninepence or a shilling.  Even at that rate, I have saved several hundred pounds over the last four decades—-because I’m worth it. The barber put a plank across the arms of the chair for the smaller customers. I felt like a king up there, a giant, looking down from my throne, on my brothers as they thumbed through Readers’ Digest and Wide World Magazine. That was a magazine about adventures in far-flung parts of the Empire, where people lived in grass huts and chaps went out to shoot tigers. Bracing stuff.

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Frank Muir on the radio, made us smile in those pre-television days. He could weave a fanciful story to tickle even the most staid sense of humour. No computer can do that. Artificial intelligence doesn’t stretch to a good joke.  Like Mr. Spock, it doesn’t tolerate the absurd. A computer might relay a joke but it doesn’t get it. Freud analysed jokes and killed them stone dead.  Muir exploited his lisp for all it was worth and enjoyed the occasional Spoonerism…….  The king of a little island in the Pacific, part of that far-flung Empire, came to London for the Coronation in 1953. Hilary and Tenzing had just presented Everest to Her new Majesty as a coronation gift. (See Wide World Magazine.) The king became fascinated by the throne of Edward I, on which the new monarch sat. It is seven centuries old. The gilt has become a little time-worn. The good English oak is covered in nicks. The Stone of Scone lay on a bar underneath the throne. That was nicked by Edward I from the Scots who had previously nicked it from Ireland. The Scots have nicked it back.  Anyway, went on Muir, the king commissioned an exact replica of the throne and had it shipped back to his island and installed in his counsel house. His subjects were suitably impressed by his Seat of Power, but it took up too much room. When he was not sitting in counsel with his Elders, he had them hoist the throne into the rafters on ropes fashioned from palm fibres. (See Wide World Magazine.) You can probably guess what happened. The roof collapsed under the weight of the throne and the exact replica of the Stone of Scone, with disastrous results.  “The mowal of this stowy,” concluded Muir , “is that people who live in gwass houses, shouldn’t stow thwones.”

Charlie was thatching a cottage in Rush, combing and tapping, trimming the generous eaves, so that a passer-by might shelter from the rain. He strewed the pavement with shreds of golden straw. The sunlight gleamed on the new roof. Ah! the good old days.  An old man pushing a broom stopped to chat. He leaned on his broom. He regarded the work. “Not many thatchers left nowadays,” he remarked. “No,” agreed Charlie. Snip Snip. “Nearly all gone now,” continued the old man in a quavering voice.  “That’s right.” Snip Snip.  “And the sooner you’re effin’ well gone out of it, the better. Less effin work for me to do.”


Charlie is gone now. So is the boy with the bike, Bernie Healy, who lived into his nineties, a man who enjoyed a story. I think of Charlie every time I walk down Convent Lane. His cottage eaves brush my hairs (plural). I must have become a giant.

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