Sea shells, conscience, Freud and Wellington boots.

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This area of Portugal is characterized by Devonian (The Age of Fish) rocks from the Mesozoic and Cainozoic…. Have you switched off already? Sounds like a school textbook…where I first learned about this stuff…..the calcareous remains of marine organisms etc. Every marine organism that donated its calcareous remains to build these rocks, was a living individual, knocking out a life for itself in a warm, food-rich ocean, with the sun beaming overhead. I could do with some of that myself. In fact I did have some of that recently, in good company and have a souvenir to  prove it. (Cue holiday photographs of food and raised drinks– but no.) A true story instead and maybe an apocryphal one later.

A young farmer was brought into Casualty by his brother, suffering a broken arm. ‘What happened,’ asked the doctor.  ‘I whacked him with the handle of a pitchfork.’ Further explanation was called for. The brother had come out into the yard and had seen the victim holding onto an electricity pole or pylon. His right leg was shaking in convulsive spasms. Obviously catastrophic charges of electricity were passing through the unfortunate lad. The first thing to do in a situation like this, is to break the connection. The brother, with no thought for his own safety, grabbed a pitchfork and broke the connection and the arm, with a mighty blow. ‘Ahh!’ said the doctor, ‘I see.’ The victim intervened with a slightly aggrieved tone: ‘I was only trying to move bit of grit in my wellie. I was trying to get it down between my toes.’ (expletives deleted.) Freud would have divined a darker purpose in the sibling’s prompt action. We have all done similarly with a piece of irritating grit, There is a safe, though temporary, haven in the warm, adhesive zone between two toes, especially if you wear wellies. Wellies are supposed to be good insulation against electrical charges, especially lightning. Ben Franklin was lucky with his lightning experiments. The second man to try flying a kite with a key attached, was incinerated. Ben, a prolific inventor, never thought of wellies.

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Unless you extract that piece of grit, it will come back to bite you (re morse…bite back) There is a Mediaeval text called The Again Bite of In-wit.  You could never set up as a psychoanalyst with a cumbersome title like that to your credit. Forgetfulness is a blessing. We forget our peccadilloes, our embarrassing incidents, offence given, words said in anger or stupidity, misfiring jokes, clangers dropped. In the house of the hanged man….do not mention rope… The list is as endless as the strata upon strata of the little marine organisms. Imagine how intolerable it would be if memory didn’t fade, if the blush remained, drawing attention to your gaffe forever and forever. Freud was an enthusiastic miner in the strata of the subconscious. He could always find the offending piece of grit. Sometimes, I suspect, he salted the mine, planting guilty memories that the patient had never known about in the first place. The main thing is to find something to keep the customer happy or miserable or resentful. Give him or her a sore to pick at or a scar to flaunt. Most of the people of Martinique were turned into fossils by a volcanic eruption. One of the few survivors was lucky enough to be in prison at the time, in a Dutch Oven, a small cell built of corrugated iron. The volcano turned his prison into a gridiron. He suffered dreadful burns, which enabled him, after a life of crime, to earn an honest living, by exhibiting his scars in fairgrounds. He would have done well on modern television show-and-tell shows.

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A conchologist would love the cliffs of Carvoeira, as did I.  There are excellent fish restaurants all along the coast. I swam in that warm sea and was rolled in the surf like a hapless marine organism. It was difficult to emerge with dignity from the waves. The beach, I gather, is reconstructed every year from sand dredged offshore. The sand comes from the crumbling cliffs. It’s still full of the shells of creatures that lived countless millennia  ago. In the rough and tumble of the surf, I stood on one of them. It’s still in my foot, a souvenir of a time of fun and good fellowship. I am almost reluctant now to take it out. I have tried, with needle and tweezers, assuming the linctus position, but all to no avail. A callous has formed around it, so that I forget about it most of the time. It helps to be callous occasionally, when dealing with memory. I fear that I will have to consult a good conchologist. I learned some Latin inexpertly, at school many years ago, which led me to believe, for many more years, that paediatricians specialise in the treatment of feet. A poor paediatrician was assaulted in Southampton some years ago, during one  of the occasional outbreaks of righteous outrage against suspected perverts. He had even advertised his warped proclivities with a brass plate on his door. Accurate labelling is important.

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Eternal vigilance. In The World According to Garp, the little boy worried about The Undertoad. It lurks invisible in the surf, among cephalopods, arthropods, pseudopods and octopodes. There are amphipods, copepods, and isopods on the shore, to make your life complicated or maybe interesting. They’ve been around since geological time began. Be careful where you step. Little boys however, with their endless curiosity about the world, love all these scurrying creatures and their fossilised remains. They love the challenge of the waves and don’t worry about their dignity.

So full of artless jealousy is guilt/ it spills itself, in fearing to be spilt.  

The parish priest, a man of great sanctity, beloved of his flock, esteemed for his charity and goodness, had an enormous nose. It was a quivering asteroid of bulbous excrescences and craters. It was lined with a roadmap of ruby veins. When he blew his nose at the podium, before beginning his sermon, parr–ap! parr–ap! the noise shook the building to the foundations. Woodworm in the rafters, shaken by the reverberations, fell unconscious onto the congregation below. It was a hooter, a klaxon, a conk. It was a wonder. The trouble was that he was coming to tea.

The mother warned the little boy: ‘If you say anything about his nose, I’ll kill you.’ (Mothers, under stress, often threaten infanticide.) ‘If you even look at it…’ The threat hung in the air. ‘Remember now.’ She wagged her finger. ‘Not one word or I’ll….’ Some terrible punishment was implied. (Very poor return for the little boy’s Oedipal devotion.) The bell rang. His Reverence came in and was invited to sit by the fire. The little boy’s eyes stood out, like those of creatures in the deep ocean abyss, eyes on stalks, questing for the faintest glimmer from the sun far above. He put his head to one side and then to the other. The nose glowed in the firelight. He imagined Neil Armstrong’s delicate moon craft touching down. The mother shook her head in silent warning. ‘I’ll get your tea, Father.’ Many hundreds of years of remission from the flames of Purgatory can be gained by serving tea to the parish priest.  She stared at the boy. She tapped her nose furtively and pointed at him. He was warned. She went out to the kitchen. Cups rattled. She returned as quickly as possible. The little boy was still sitting silently, transfixed. She sighed with relief. She put down the tray. ‘Now, Father,’ she began, ‘do you take any sugar in your nose?’

(Apocryphal story as told by the inimitable Dave Allen)

It seems that in Greek, ped means child, while in Latin it means a foot. Pod is a Greek foot. An octopus has eight of them. Oedipus had two, one of them being a bit dodgy. My confusion of many years is understandable. I was a pedagogue for many of those years.  If pediatricians can’t help me at my age, I shall have to go to a podiatrist or a conchologist. Get it out in the open. It will be good for the sole. I could try a bit of an old pray and cast it forth like an abomination.  I would go to a psychiatrist or a trichologist if I thought they could help. Or even a trick cyclist… They make a  living in fairgrounds, going around on birotes(Latin) or dicycles( Greek) I could be pedantic about prefixes but that would be too pedestrian.

Oh for a glass of vintage that hath been cooled a long time in the deep-delved earth,  He mentions Dance and Provencal song and sunburnt mirth. Maybe I should just keep my little souvenir of sunny days, laughter and clear blue water.

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King John, Oysters, Carlingford, The Wash and Sibling Rivalry

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There is an Irish belief, promulgated by the endlessly entertaining sports journalist, Con Houlihan, that no matter how good a sports star may be, he has a brother who would knock him into a cocked hat………….if he bothered. This brother  lives a quiet life, possibly on a small farm in the mountains, emerging only in times of grave emergency to dazzle the onlookers with natural brilliance. He doesn’t have to train, like lesser athletes, or eat high protein foods. He eats spuds and drinks buttermilk, with the occasional ‘feed’ of pints. Neither does he haunt gymnasiums, developing his abs, pecs, biceps and dorsal muscles. His ability is a gift from God. He could conquer the world…..if he bothered. The contrary theory, perpetrated, I think, by Freud, is sibling rivalry, where brothers and sisters are engaged in a lifelong struggle, even into dotage and old age. It comes from sharing the nest and squabbling over food. (Freud’s brother  was a much better psychoanalyst….. but he wasn’t bothered.)

King John was the runt of the litter, in a very dysfunctional family, the Plantagenets. He was his father’s favourite, largely because his brothers revolted against their father and eventually disposed of themselves in different ways. He had the misfortune to succeed a superstar, Richard the Lionheart, a man who bankrupted his kingdom and territories. He is probably England’s favourite king, although he spent less than six months in the country during his ten year reign. His activities on crusade left a lasting legacy in the Middle East, that stirs hatred of Westerners to this day. He never bothered coming to Ireland, for which we can be grateful. His ransom of 150,000 marks to the Emperor, impoverished his people. John offered 80,00 marks to the Emperor if he would hang onto him. Now that’s sibling rivalry.

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The Normans came to Ireland in 1169. They proceeded to subdue the eastern half of the country by force, instituting new laws and stone castles. They were great castle builders but time has reduced most of them to picturesque ruins. I love this one at Carlingford, still standing defiantly on its rock, commanding the entrance to the fiord. It’s a pity about the Civil Defence building in the foreground. Would you put a helipad on top of Mont San Michel or a fire station in front of  Notre Dame?  Rule nothing out. The evening light softens everything to a romantic silhouette.

Sixteen years after the first invasion, John came to Ireland as a nineteen year old youth, to serve a brief apprenticeship as Lord of Ireland.  He brought with him a retinue of arrogant young noblemen.  He was five feet and five inches tall and enjoyed throwing his weight around. He insulted and antagonised the native Irish, setting the pattern for rock stars and celebrities down the ages. It was not a good start. He was back again, as king, in 1210, having spent the intervening years in warfare, losing most of his French possessions and in wrangling with his turbulent barons.

Richard was a great castle builder. John liked to claim castles as he went on his never-ending progress around his kingdom. Richard’s castles were better.  John has left us a legacy of old Norman buildings that house jackdaws and legends, going back eight hundred years.

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This place is no stranger to war. It was burnt down by forces sent by Archibald the Grim of Galloway, in 1388. ( Archibald’s brothers, Angus the Vaguely Amused  and Duncan the Reasonably Okay, did not take part in that expedition… as they weren’t bothered.) The earliest war recorded here was the great cattle raid of Cooley when Queen Maeve of Connacht came into conflict with Cú Chulainn, sometimes referred to as the Irish Achilles. Tradition has it that Cú Chulainn was a small man but that his hair stood upright in a crest, when the rage of battle was upon him. Rustling is not unknown in that part of the country in modern times. In 1979 the IRA killed 18 British soldiers in two massive explosions just across the lough. Retaliatory fire across the narrow water killed a Buckingham Palace coachman who was on a bird-watching holiday.  It will take some time before all the brutalities and sad ironies of the recent conflict will be shrouded in a romantic haze.

We peered over the harbour wall. The mud looked soft and treacherous, with no firm footing. There were jellyfish stranded at the tideline. I felt no pity for them. There were adventurous children in kayaks, braving the deep waters of the lough. An army of paintballers in combat gear was heading for the mountain. Let battle commence. We strolled about. We went for oysters.

Firmer than any castle is John’s legacy Magna Carta, seen as the foundation stone of English law and constitutional monarchy. It was extracted from him by force. His barons did not keep to its terms and neither did he. War continued. Shortly before he died (from dysentery or cholera) he sent his baggage train across the quaking sands and mud flats of The Wash. All was lost, his horses and wagons,his stores and equipment, his treasure, his travelling chapel and relics  and famously, his collection of jewels.

I don’t know how long he lingered in Carlingford. I wonder if he tried the oysters.

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They are very good, although they can’t manage a decent pearl, unlike their siblings, the pearl oysters. Maybe they just couldn’t be bothered.