The Assyrian came down, like a wolf on the fold…

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I went to Mass yesterday to mark my parents’ anniversary. It was the feast of St. Dominic of the Order of Preachers, scourge of heretics everywhere. My father’s cousin, Fr.Vincent Ryan, was a Dominican, an affable man whose great delight was to go down to Yarra Bank, in Melbourne, near the cricket ground, on a Sunday morning, to engage the heretics in discussion. He enjoyed the Australian sense of humour, ‘but,’ he warned, ‘you have to give as good as you get.’  Theological discussion was lively. He often got a roasting, he said, but nobody was burnt at the stake. He went on to Rome, to teach at the Angelicum University. I thought fondly of him yesterday.

But I also thought about Saint Dominic, a man whose body-count would rival that of Pol Pot. The pun on the Dominicans in mediaeval times, was Domini Canes, The Hounds of The Lord. Their job was to seek out heretics, Albigensians, Cathars, Witches, The Poor Men, Manichaeans, and burn them. Sometimes, in surgery cautery is the only treatment. Dominic used it extensively. He preached a crusade against his fellow Christians. The towns of southern France were blackened with the soot of burning heretics. Did it work? Did it ensure  a single, unified church? Not quite.

One point of dispute was the nature of God. Some argued that there are two gods, a good one and an evil one, locked in a cosmic struggle. All the evil in the world is the work of the evil god. One clarification offered was that the good god created man down to the waist, (‘Man’ in this context embraces  ‘woman.’) while the evil god made all the bits below the waist…..Ah!….       Wise words on the subject from Saint Paul [women must cover their hair in church]: ‘It is better to marry than to burn…’ (Amen to that.) and from Ogden Nash, on the subject of women wearing trousers: ‘You may clothe your nether limbs in pants/Yours are the legs, my sweeting./ You look divine as you advance,/ but…. have you seen yourself retreating?’  Nash introduces a fore and aft element to the heresy. What would the Domini Canes say to that? The mind wanders in church. Stand up. Sit down. Kneel down. Stand up. Catholics get a good work-out at Mass.  Muscular Christianity, the Victorians called it.

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The Old Testament reading was from the Prophet Nahum. He frightened the life out of me:- wars, gleaming swords, shining spears, corpses everywhere, Nineveh in ruins, the anger and vengeance of God. Some say that Nahum prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in 615 B.C. before the event, while others claim that he foretold the destruction of Nineveh, in 612 B. C.  after the event. Prophecies after the event are more certain. ‘There! What did I tell you?’  If I were a prophet, I wouldn’t dwell with wild beasts in the desert, eating locusts (yecchh!) I would win untold wealth on the horses and go about the world doing good works, alleviating suffering  and bringing peace and love to all, (except the bookies.)

Peter O Toole, speaking of the relevance of Lawrence of Arabia, said: ‘Open your morning paper. Open the Bible. It’s still the same news.’ Sadly, Nahum was right on the money. He describes the Middle East as it is today. The swords still flash. The weapons gleam in the blistering sun. The smoke rises from burning towns. The followers of various gods and of the same god, inflict suffering on one another and on the innocent. Creeds and sects go to war with their own kind and with ‘unbelievers.’  Dissent, (heresy) results in hideous punishment.

Apologies for the quality of my scans.(Double-click for details.) They are copied from Nineveh  by Austen Layard, Murray’s Reading for the Rail, 1853, an abridged version of his eight volume edition,(Price 36 shillings) which you wouldn’t attempt to read on a commuter train. You could read one and sit on the other seven, as seats can be scarce. I bought it fifty years ago for half a crown, in Webbs at the Ha’penny Bridge. Layard excavated a city of vast winged statues, bas-reliefs and a clay library detailing the origins of law, writing, mathematics,accounting, science and the arts of war. They liked lions and fish. There are swimmers with aqualungs, in a depiction of naval warfare on the great rivers. Nahum saw a city filled with lies, robbers, unbelievers and prostitutes, ripe for destruction by a vengeful god.  He could say the same thing today. He is bound to be right somewhere, some time.

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Profoundly disturbed by the latest news from Nineveh and its environs, I went across to the fish shop and bought some prawns. They are the marine version of locusts, I imagine. Maybe I should try locusts in marie-rose sauce. Maybe I should go into the prophecy business. The first thing I will do is, respectfully, ask God to stop taking sides in disputes, pogroms, genocides, jihads, crusades, ethnic cleansings and massacres. Lay off the vengeance and wrath. Go easy on the plagues and locusts. Stop sending Medes and Babylonians and their modern equivalents, as scourges.  Calvin approved strongly of Nahum’s version of God. That’s not a good recommendation.

Layard described the Turkish Bey of Mosul, in Iraq, a man hated by his subjects for his cruelty and avarice. Every so often he would circulate the news that he was fatally ill. The subjects perked up. The news came that he was dead. The people broke out in celebration and feasting.  Laughter and song could be heard in the streets and in the market-place. At this point, the Bey and his cavalry galloped forth from his palace to punish his people for their disloyalty. After sufficient blood had been shed, they withdrew, until the next time. He’s dead now, thank God, not that Iraq is any better off.

The last words on good and evil, from Ogden Nash:

‘The rain it raineth every day/Upon the just and on the unjust fella/ But mainly on the just/ Because the unjust hath the just’s umbrella.’

That Assyrian in the chariot has a nice umbrella. I wonder whence he plundered it.

p.s. I want my big, white umbrella back or verily I shall wreak a terrible vengeance upon thee, as God is my judge.

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Carnival time. Bene merenti.

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Let me assure you that there are pink elephants under those tarpaulins. I have seen them. I have ridden upon them. They fly through the sky. They are not creatures of a heightened imagination or seasonal beverages. At some point in their orbit a gear slips and they go kerrrchunnkk  and all the elephants shudder. So do the passengers. My little grandson was alarmed. So was I. I hung onto him until the slipped gear became a familiar feature of the ride. ‘Do you want another go?’ I asked him. He shook his head.

We once sat in an aeroplane in Buenos Aires, waiting for departure. We waited and waited. There were noises off. Kerrrchunnkk. There followed some hammering and then some bashing. A slight technical problem was mentioned. ‘We will be departing very soon.’  That much was true. We departed back through immigration and on to a hotel. We watched some dismal Spanish language game shows and tried some restorative alcohol. We found Vatican Television. Big in Argentina at the time, probably mega-big nowadays. It explained the symbolic significance of the jewels in the various papal crowns and the different shapes of the papal hats. A papal beretta can signify a major shift in the Church’s attitude to social issues. You didn’t know that. Neither did I. Neither did the founder, a barefoot carpenter from Gallilee, Who never saw a Gucci shoe in all His life. A papal biretta is a different matter altogether. Think of the Vatican bank and poor Calvi dangling under Blackfriars bridge.

More refreshments were required to fend off dark thoughts. Pink elephants began to circle on the ceiling. Blackfriars! They have a higher body count than any other organisation in the mediaeval church, what with crusades and heretic burnings. It’s all a conspiracy. Send for Dan Brown. There was some bashing at the door. The Inquisitors? A voice cried out in the darkness: ‘Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus under-carriage,’ or words to that effect. We were consigned, not to the dungeons of the Inquisition, but worse, we were condemned to check-in and security for a second time. There was weeping and a lot of teeth gnashing but the under-carriage stayed on. Ah, the glamour of jet-setting.

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I knew glamour in my early days. I  knew Tofts’ carnival when it was big, Man. Bigger than the glum remnant that now occupies the site. Okay, it’s winter. Who doesn’t look a bit glum in winter? Everything was big, to a five year old. There were chair-o-planes as high as the clouds. There were swing boats, where both occupants pulled on a rope and screamed as the boat went higher and higher, threatening to catapult you up and away, out over the entire fairground. There was a carousel with horses that went around and around and up and down, in time to the music. There were dodgems, with sparks flashing from the pole overhead. There was a lot of screaming from the girls and a lot of hair oil on the nonchalant boys who drove like mad men, with one hand on the wheel and one arm protectively around the girlfriend’s shoulder. My sister minded me well. I was old enough for slides and the mini-roundabout with the cars, trains and motorbikes. No matter how much you turned the wheel or revved the throttles, it made no difference.  I vowed that as soon as I was old enough for hair oil and girls, I would be a daredevil on the dodgems. I look forward to that.

There were prizes for shooting at targets, but I was too low to take part. The big boys strutted and blazed away. I know that they were trying to impress my sister. Maybe they did. There was stuff going on there that was above my head…again. The centre of my desires was the Wheel of Fortune, with its bank of treasures. You could pick your own prize. There were dolls and crockery, teddy bears and sets of glasses, mirrors and knick-knacks, all the riches of the Orient.  One spin of the wheel could satisfy the dreams of avarice. I know that avarice is a sin, but I coveted the pair of china lions. I wanted them with a passion. Ming dynasty, Han dynasty, Hector Grey dynasty, It didn’t matter. I didn’t want them as an investment in Chinese artefacts. I didn’t know that the resurgent Chinese, along with buying the world, would probably have paid double figures for them in the twenty first century. I just wanted them because they were shiny. I wanted to bring them home as trophies, and look at them on the mantlepiece, testament to my incredible gambling skill.

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Una Fox won them. She bore them away in delight. Although my dream was shattered, I was quite pleased for her. I owed her. She put them in the fanlight over her door, flanking a stuffed pheasant. They crouched there for sixty five years, guarding that pheasant. I looked at them every time I passed. Sometimes the door got a new coat of paint. In summer it wore a striped canvas screen, like a vertical deckchair. But the lions never changed.

My landlord, many years ago, asked me if there was some major industry in Skerries that used large quantities of dark red and dark green paint. ‘Why?’ I queried. ‘Well,’ he replied,’every house in Skerries has either a dark red or a dark green door. I just wondered if people were stealing it.’ I was affronted at this slur on the good people of Skerries. ‘No offence,’ he went on,’ but I lived in South Shields, near a naval dockyard and every house in the town was painted battleship grey.’  Bloody cheek!

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There was another limestone slab parallel to the one in the photograph. There  were a couple of inches between them, forming a gully and a ramp. My sister wasn’t minding me very well on the day I stuck my foot in the gully. I was looking up at the, as yet unattended, pheasant. (I suspect those hair-oil boys again.) I screamed. I was trapped forever, outside Foxs’ butcher shop. She pulled and tugged, but it was no use. I heard the butcher sharpening his knife. Knives speak their name in Irish, scian, scian, scian.  I was terrified. So was she. How was she to explain that she had taken 100% of of me out for a walk and had come back with a mini Long John Silver? Scian, scian, scian. Una heard the commotion. She came out, uttering soothing words. She assessed the situation, then unbuckled my sandal and slipped my foot out, intact. Brilliant! Great God Almighty! Free at last! I owed her. I didn’t begrudge the lions. Her sister, Pat, received an honour from the Pope, for long years of service to church music. It was in a case, embossed with the keys of Saint Peter. Bene merenti. Fair play to both sisters.

The second slab has been removed by road menders, maybe in the interests of safety. I still retain a talent for putting my foot in it, nonetheless. Una’s heraldic fanlight is empty…. no lions couchant with pheasant rampant. The shopfront is listed. It stays as it always was. It has a nice coat of dark red paint. Hmmm! I wonder…..