Swastikas and Acts of God

It looks a bit alarming at first glance, a Len Deighton, or Jack Higgins scenario, where the bad guys have won the war. No need for alarm. Those were not armoured personnel carriers trundling through College Green, or a Panzer division cunningly disguised as a fleet of laundry vans, taking part in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. The uniformed detachments marching with military precision were American high school marching bands,  shivering on O Connell Bridge as the rasping east wind came up the river. It looks like traditional Patrick’s Day weather. The Archbishop and members of the government attended Mass at the Pro-Cathedral. The train of the Archbishop’s cope was carried by a glum looking cleric, an uplifting sight to the glum onlookers

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The young ladies and gentlemen of the marching bands were not really dressed for the Irish weather, yet they remained cheerful and enthusiastic throughout.  Much of the display was a glum procession of industrial and trade vehicles, with a few balloons attached. Not too much frivolity. The pubs were shut. The only place to get a drink was at the dog show in the Royal Dublin Society, also, like the Swastika Laundry, based in Ballsbridge. …I wonder..The weather undoubtedly improved when the Powers-That-Be decided to inaugurate a Saint Patrick’s Festival. Colour and extravagant displays were permitted. The 1930’s and 1940’s glumness was no longer mandatory.

I came across an old laundry list, stuck between the pages of a book. It itemised prices, terms and conditions. There was a disclaimer at the bottom..the laundry shall not be responsible for any loss or damage occasioned by War, Revolution, Civil Strife or Act of God. Blimey! I had never realised what a perilous business it was, entrusting garments to a laundry. The Luftwaffe had a good go at Dublin once. No doubt they had The White Swan, The Court and Mirror and The Bell laundries and others marked on their maps. But not the Swastika….very strange. Anyway, the laundries’ dirty linen has been well and truly washed in public. It might be wise to review the terms and conditions under which you purchased your washing machine. In many neighbourhoods it is not permitted to hang out your washing, especially not on the Siegfried Line. You may take your pick from the recurring wars and revolutions throughout the world. It’s what we humans do, despite the unending suffering and cruelty.The armaments industries influence policy and determine the fate of nations. We as a species, have the capacity to blow the whole bloody world up. Mr Putin, standing for election– another cliffhanger—states that he would destroy the world if Russia were attacked. “What use would the world be without Russia?”

 

   

 

But what about Acts of God? If cleanliness be next to godliness, why would laundries feel at risk, more than say greengrocers or tailors. Have you ever heard a hairdresser excuse his or her incompetence as an act of God, even on a windy day? A dinner may turn out to be a ‘disaster’, but hardly God’s fault. The Puritans, a god-fearing people, on the other hand, denounced starch. I recall as a child, being puzzled by the Volunteer uniforms in our National Museum. The inscription on the belt buckles read ‘Gott Mit Uns.’ It seems that the Kaiser, out of the goodness of his heart, had supplied uniforms and belts to the Irish Volunteers. (Clean underwear is a wise precaution to minimise the risk of wound infection when going into battle. Don’t get caught with your pants down. Belt and braces. Remember what your mother always said about clean underpants.’Suppose you were knocked down and had to go to hospital.’) Not a chance when God is mit uns. At other times God gets a bit impatient with us. He sends his chosen messengers to vent his wrath on his children..Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Tamburlane the Great, plagues, locusts, hideous diseases and natural disasters. That puts manners on us. ‘No atheists in foxholes’ etc. It’s all part of a plan. We grow up in the fear and love of God. Explain that to me. No, don’t. The people I fear most are those who speak with total certitude about God’s plan. Actually they shout and rant most of the time. Saint Francis of Assisi went to Egypt to convert the Muslims. Fair play to him. They recorded that he shouted and ranted so much that they concluded that he was a madman. Under their law at that time, madmen were not held responsible for their behaviour and should not be put to death. Moreover they complained that he was smelly and unhygienic. With high explosives nowadays there is no need to discriminate between innocent and guilty; young or old; male or female; black or white; believer or infidel, sane or insane. The shouting, ranting evangelists on television look very prosperous and well dressed. They shout with absolute certainty. They maintain that we are all made in the image of God. Is it not more likely that we have made God in our image?

I hope He turns out to be a bit better than that.

(Rant over.)

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. It looks a bit nippy out there.

 

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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.