This is the time of year when we are invited to look back at the past and look forward with anticipation, to the coming year. Perhaps this is because the newspapers need material to fill their pages. The ancient Romans appointed the god Janus, a celestial janitor, to keep guard over the door of the dwelling. Janus had the advantage of having two faces, one to look inwards and one to keep a sharp lookout on the world outside. Would you trust anyone with two faces? Would you trust someone whose life is spent, standing in a draught, beside a whistling keyhole or a rattling letterbox? I have more confidence in the lads with the black leather jackets and shaven heads. They rock back and forth on their heels. They shrug, ready for every emergency, particularly at festive times, like New Year’s Eve. They look down impassively and size up the prospective customers.
I am concerned for the ushers in the Dáil. They sit all day, with their backs to a set of double doors, listening to our legislators teasing out the finer points of law and framing new ones to make our lives even better than they were last year or even thirty years ago. They listen to the flow of lofty rhetoric that characterises the daily exchanges in our parliament. Cicero himself, would sit entranced in such company. Edmund Burke would be stricken silent by such mellifluous oratory, but for the poor ushers at the door, it must be a pain in the neck.
I am alarmed by the cabinet papers of three decades ago, which are released around the turn of the year. The assumption is that passions will have died down over the years. The ministers and public figures shown in the photographs will have shuffled, or will have been ushered, off the stage. Old animosities will have been forgotten and all will unite in a spirit of good will and optimism for the future. What alarms me is the fact that they are all so familiar. I didn’t realise that that was THE PAST. Some of these people are still around in public life. Some are still performing well and some are fossilised and petrified by the passage of time. Hair styles have changed since those wise heads nodded over the affairs of state. At New Year celebrations, you may see pictures of yourself from such occasions thirty or even forty years ago. You may not even recognise yourself, or you may see evidence of an incipient bald patch. Nothing to worry about there. Everything is getting better, not like the bad old days. I don’t need or want, reminders that I am thirty years older, or that my flowing locks have gone with the wind. Even less do I want journalists and commentators raking over the coals of old rancour. Good Janus! This is Ireland, for God’s sake. I wish a happy and peaceful 2014 to Richard Haass and fair play to him for trying. THE PAST hasn’t gone away, you know, Richard, but thank you anyway.
Around the time that the Pope came to Ireland, my little daughters learned a new hymn. Bind us together Lord…. There were lots of new hymns, with lots of guitars and hand-clapping. They argued about the words. One of them sang:
Bang us together, Lord. Bang us together…
‘Don’t be stupid’, insisted the other. ‘It’s’…
Bang doors together, Lord.
Bang doors together,
With love that cannot be bro-wo-ken.
Now that made more sense. There are ways of banging doors. There are ‘tones of voice’ to the shutting of doors. ‘No need to slam the door.’ ‘I didn’t slam the door. It was the east wind, emanating from the ‘cold pole’ of Asia that slammed it, the wind that blows across the frozen tundra, freezing the Kulaks on the blasted Steppes and whipping through our house in January, that slammed it. ‘ ‘Well anyway, don’t slam it again.’ ‘Good Janus! I told you I didn’t slam it. Is it my fault that the vast Eurasian landmass, loses heat in winter and exhales cold air over half the globe, for Janus’s sake?’ ‘Just try to be more careful in future.’
My friend converted his attic into an office, where he worked in peace and quiet. He stuck a notice on the lock on his front door. I noticed it: Please close this door QUIETLY. I made one like it. It must have been against the spirit of the hymn. It made no difference. People remarked on my penmanship and my optimism, but the sellotape shrivelled in the draught from the keyhole. The little notice blew away in the wind that shakes the Poles and the poles, freezes the Lithuanians and Geordies and stirs up the Irish Sea.
Until I discovered the beauty of PVC, I relied heavily on the power of the press at this time of year. Strips of Irish Times, inserted into warped window frames, did wonders to frustrate the gods of the wind, especially Boreas, a right pain in the neck. (No disrespect to gods in general, of course. Zephyrus is welcome in our house at any time, provided he doesn’t slam the door.) It is no coincidence that long balbriggans were invented in Balbriggan, four miles further north along the east coast, than Skerries. I associate balbriggans, (terminal underwear for keeping your end warm) with the glamour of Hollywood, especially when worn by (wanderin’) stars like Lee Marvin.
I had an up-and-over garage door, operated by a complex system of springs and pulleys. It yawed in the wind and sometimes came off the rails. Unhinged we might say, if it had had hinges. But who doesn’t become a bit unhinged in the time of east wind? There was a law in certain eastern countries that excused murder of one’s wife at the time of the east wind. A bit extreme. I set to fixing it. I removed the outer cover with a few skillful twists of a spanner. Suddenly, CRASH,WHANG, WALLOP, the garage was filled with uncoiled springs, flying plastic ‘bushes’ and rollers ricocheting from walls, roof and floor. It was like the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. It seems that the springs are at maximum tension when the door is down. Janus should have warned me. To refit the whole thing, I would have had to dismantle the whole shebang. A stoa is a portico, in Greek. That’s where the Stoics used to sit. They would have taken the disaster with a shrug of resignation. ‘What can you do? Turn your collar up. Get on with the job.’ I’m no Stoic. I sold the door to a travelling man who happened to be passing with a horse and cart. I got fifteen quid for it.
I read an obituary for Kalashnikov, in the New Year newspapers. He has shuffled off this mortal coil, having armed armies, psychopaths and child soldiers all over the world. It seems that his assault rifle worked on a similar principle to my garage door, a simple spring-loaded device. He made 90,000,000 of them. No home need be without one.
My three-year-old grandson, a Jungle Book fan, said to me: ‘The animals live in harmony.’ ‘What does that mean?’ I asked him. ‘It means that they live in harmony.’
We should try it sometime.
- Janus, god of the New Year (jonnykendall.wordpress.com)