A Tide in the Affairs of Men, Latvians and Winkles.

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Teacher:”What happened after Caesar mustered his army?”

Pupil: “He peppered the enemy and took the city by assault, Sir.”

Teacher: “Sit down, boy. I’ll have none of your sauce.”

Boom. Boom.

Okay, it’s an old one. At this time of year, I always recall Julius Caesar and his account of his first invasion of Britain, D Day in reverse. Being from the Mediterranean, he had no understanding of tides, a vital component of a naval invasion. Fair enough. He was caught out once in the Rhine estuary amid straggling streams and endless mud flats. The locals helped him to refloat his ships, whereupon he conquered them and took hostages. Since then the Dutch have become the world’s acknowledged masters of tidal defences and marine salvage. It’s a matter of survival. When Julius came ashore in Kent, to go marauding inland, his ships were stranded by a great spring tide. It could happen to anyone. They were then battered by an equinoctial gale, causing extensive damage. He learned, quickly, how to ‘cannibalise’ his wrecks and build an emergency fleet.  He returned to France. Better luck next time.  If you paid attention in school,(sit up straight there and take your hands out of your pockets) you know that he did have better luck the following year, slaughtering great numbers of the enemy. The enemies could argue that they weren’t enemies until he invaded them. Nit picking. ‘Great’ men don’t concern themselves with minor details.

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A party of jovial Skerries yachtsmen set off some years ago, for a picnic on Lambay Island. They took the short route inside Shennick Island. Their boat, a twin keeled craft, sat down on the Dorn. They were stuck. The spring tide ebbed away, stranding them for hours, under the gaze of their amused fellow yachtsman. Fortunately there were no hostile native javelin throwers or careering charioteers to attack them and plunder their supplies. Julius could have explained it all to them: mountains, especially those near the edge of the world,  generate winds which in turn cause tides. The Ocean spills over the edge, maximising the pull and tug of the tides.  The waxing and waning moon sends omens to warn unwary sea voyagers. The jovial yachtsmen made the best of their predicament. They broke out their emergency supplies of wine and fine food, to fortify themselves against the gale of mockery and laughter they knew was waiting for them. Only Leo Flanagan, a Latinist himself, was angry. It was a slight on his seamanship.  The others enjoyed a Lucullan feast on the Dorn, for  a long summer’s afternoon, lampreys stuffed with larks’ tongues and good Falernian wine.

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The people to consult about tides are the Latvian winkle-pickers. They arrived about ten years ago, with changes to the E.U. rules about free movement of workers. They came. They saw. They conquered. They caused dismay to the local lads who had picked winkles on a small scale for generations. They are phenomenal workers, moving with military precision along the coast and appearing at Shennick, when the spring tides allow them to wade across. They appear to be impervious to the weather. I asked some of them about this. “We are Latvian,” they replied. “We do not feel the cold.”  They often work by lamplight, in the bleakest weather, even on Christmas Day. They gauge to the minute, when it is time to leave. It’s not easy money.

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Surprisingly, for people from a Baltic country, where tides are modest, they have adapted to the phenomenon of the tide, as surely as the creatures they collect. I have met Swiss who were caught out by the onrushing tide. It comes in like a river. We had little boys from Belfast staying with us years ago. They panicked when they woke up in the morning. “It’s gone!” they shouted. “It’s all gone.”  It came back, much to their relief. A good friend goes to the pub at the harbour to ‘conduct tidal studies.’ It can take some time. There was probably no need for the helicopter the other evening, but it was dramatic. Apologies for the shaky focus. This was not the result of tidal studies, but rather, the lack of a tripod and a photograph taken in haste. Full marks to the vigilant Coast Guard. Think what Julius would have done with a few of these machines at his disposal.

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I no longer worry about the Latvians. I shiver and go back to bed. Like the Romans, I have grown soft. I have even bought mussels from the fish shop. They don’t stock lampreys.

Ebenezer thought he was Julius Caesar

So they put him in a ho-o-ome

Where they gave him medicinal compound

Now he’s Emperor of Rome.

This is where Julius met his end. Romantics, or maybe Ebenezer and his ilk, still place flowers on the spot, at the time of the Spring spring tides, the Ides of March. Whatever floats your boat.

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What’s all the noise about?

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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.

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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.