Eyeless in Gaza

Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 013

John Foster Dulles gave us the concept of brinkmanship: ‘The ability to get to the brink without getting into the war, is the necessary art.’ I recall a critical cartoon of Dulles as a blind man groping his way to the edge of an abyss. It was captioned Eyeless in Gaza. That was during the Suez invasion of 1956. It was Milton’s phrase for Samson…’eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.’ Samson brought the roof down on the Philistines and incidentally on himself. The devotees of God/Jehovah/Allah/Ra/Ammon/Baal/Moloch/and many more, have been particularly busy in the Middle East, for the last 5000 years or so. Milton singled out Moloch for special mention…’Moloch, horrid king, besmeared with blood of human sacrifice…’ The followers of Moloch gave their first-born children to the god, through fire. Has anything changed? Possibly, just for good measure, the children of others are offered also.

Moloch must be smiling. The shells rain down on the children of Gaza. The rockets of the weaker side, the Palestinians, (Philistines/Pelasgi, sea people) fuelled by hatred and despair, score infrequent hits on Israeli towns and psychological hits on Ben Gurion Airport. It is a recurring obscenity, without pity or magnanimity. Those who suffered the Holocaust, say ‘never again’. Their vision is one-sided. By ensuring their own security they store up years of future conflict for their children. Their great war hero, Dayan, wore a black eye patch. Arafat, it is said, kept one hundred young girls in readiness to act as suicide bombers…’my army of roses..’  This region is called The Holy Land, for God’s sake.

Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 014

On a beautiful sunny day I brought my four year old grandson to the playground. It was full of young parents and children, with a few grandparents, here and there. They have their uses. He lay on the wheel and travelled all around the world. The wheel is powered by parents and grandparents by turns. He went to The North Pole and America and Poland and Ireland and Australia, until, like Samson, I ran out of steam. There is a notion that playgrounds are places where children play and parents relax on the benches and smile benignly. It’s not so simple. The price of peace and harmony is eternal vigilance. The big children must not trample or push the smaller ones. The small ones must not climb beyond their ability or wander behind the swings. The adults are on their feet all the time. It is an exercise in tolerance and co-existence. You may not strike or abuse the parent or grandparent of some other child. There may be a need for negotiation and voluntary rules. The playground is no place for brinkmanship. {Dulles believed that as long as nuclear weapons remained in the hands of  ‘the good guys’, there would be world peace, under the threat of mutually assured annihilation.}

Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 004Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 003

We sat on the seat dedicated to Percy French, where he was inspired by the view, to write his famous song, The Mountains of Mourne. There was a fog so we had to be contented with singing a few  bars about the invisible mountains. It is a song of an exile longing for home. We went to watch the swimmers. We met a man whose four-year-old grandson is coming home from Australia. He is very happy about that. We had ice cream (obligatory) from the little shop on the harbour.

Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 009Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 018

We climbed the steps to the lighthouse and saw thirty seven jellyfish and a floating crab. We went to see the memorial pole, dedicated to those lost at sea. Tragic deaths but accidental. The names are inscribed all around the pole, stories of long ago and not so long ago. He had to climb the pole. It’s a tradition. When he is big, he told me, he will climb to the top. If you reach the top, you can make a wish. What else could you wish for your children and grandchildren, but peace and safety? What can you see from up there, Alex?

kids july 066

It was a perfect morning.

When we came home the news was that Moloch was still smiling; the bombs were still falling on schools and hospitals and on children playing on the beach. The rockets were still flying. There is no vision beyond the next salvo. An eye for an eye, as the old adage has it, leaves everybody blind. What did Ariel Sharon see, as he lay all those years in a coma? What did Moise Dayan see with his dark eye? Is Yasser Arafat enjoying the fruits of his labours in Paradise, with all those virgins? God help the poor virgins and God pity the children.

 

Advertisements

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.