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.

Hooray for Hollywood. They don’t make movies or gags like those anymore


Just south of the town of Blessington, the sky grew dark. Gigantic cumulo-nimbus clouds loomed over the mountains. The wind was rising.
‘Don’t be afraid’ I said bravely. ‘There are no tornadoes in Wicklow.’
No sooner had I spoken than WHOOOSSSHH!!! We were tumbling over and over in the sky. The wind stopped suddenly. There was a cute little dog on the back seat of the car. There was a big sign on a hill.
‘Oh, look,’ cried Margaret. ‘We’re in Hollywood.

It was true. How exciting! There were helicopters in flames plummeting from the skies all around. There were police cars with sirens screaming, crashing into each other. There were bad-ass dudes with short sleeved tee-shirts and tattoos lounging menacingly at street corners. I noticed that they tied their headscarves at the back. Charladies tie them at the front, except for a few kick-ass charladies who are really tough. Demure Catholic girls tie them under the chin, like wimples. I’m not sure what wimples are but I understand that nuns wear them, so that’s okay. There were vampires everywhere, slinking through the shadows. I don’t like vampires.

A young nun and a reverend mother were driving one night, through Transylvania. The rain poured down. Thunder crashed. Jagged lightning illuminated the trees. The ululating howl of a wolf echoed in the forest. The windscreen wipers went Wup, Wup. The young nun clutched her rosary beads. her lips moved in silent prayer. Suddenly out of the night, a cloaked figure landed with a thud, on the bonnet of the car. In the intermittent flashes of the lightning, the women saw his ghastly, blood crazed leer and his slavering fangs. It was the Count himself. His eyes blazed with Satanic hatred. His talons clenched the windscreen wipers.
‘Quick, Reverend Mother,’ screamed the young nun, in terror. ‘Show him your cross.’
The reverend mother brought the car to a halt with a screech of brakes. Dracula hung on for dear life…or whatever. The reverend mother stepped out into the storm.
‘I’m raging with you for jumping on our car,’ she said sternly. ‘Report to my office,first thing in the morning.’

We drove on through some minor explosions. Godzilla took a swipe at us, but I cleverly evaded him by putting the car on two wheels and left him gnashing his teeth. He does that anyway. I inadvertently knocked over a stall of watermelons. (It’s a tradition.) Outside The Last Cliché saloon stood seven coffins, with seven corpses and a photographer with a camera and tripod.
‘ The Dalton boys,’ volunteered an old-timer, lounging by the hitching rail. ‘Wyatt Earp done gunned them all down. Oh, you sure should a’ bin there.’ He spat a livid stream of chawin’ tobaccy into the dust, narrowly missing a passing tumbleweed. ‘ Be careful around here, stranger,’he added. ”There are some mean hombres in town.’
‘I’m rightly obligated to you, neighbour,’ I replied, ‘but I reckon I’ll jest mosey inside and have a drink.’ It’s important to master the language and, as an aspiring writer, I had other motives. There’s an old gag in Hollywood about… Actually there are lots of old gags. They are mostly used by serial killers and psychopaths, for tying up their victims. Where would we be without serial killers and psychopaths for our entertainment? Gags can also serve to tie ranchers’ beautiful daughters to railway tracks. Anyway, the gag is that there are some actresses in Hollywood so desperate that they will sleep with the writer. I tilted my writerly hat and told Margaret and Toto, (for it was he) to stay in the car and keep a sharp lookout for Arapahoes. It seems they’ve busted out of the reservation again.

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I tripped over a drunken doctor as soon as I stepped inside. ‘Wup, Wup went the bat-wing doors behind me. The piano man stopped in mid bar. All eyes turned in my direction; hard-bitten frontiersmen, hell-raising cowboys Yul Brynner all in black, a couple of mafiosi with natty suits, although the lapels were a bit too wide. Flashy, not to my liking. There were GIs and sailors who gave me a passing glance and quickly went back to their recreational brawling. I bellied up to the bar.
‘A glass of milk, old boy,’ I said to the barman. He left off wiping the bar. He uses the same cloth for the glasses. I must report him to the health and safety people. ‘Shaken, not stirred.’
Two Nazi spies went into a pub in London, disguised as American officers. ‘Alvays order martinins’ they had been told. ‘Americans alvays drink martinis.’ Hey Bud, said one of the spies. Give us two martinis and make it snappy.’ ‘Certainly, sir’, said the affable barman. ‘Dry martinis?’ Whereupon the spy reached over the bar, seized the unfortunate barman by the collar and slapped him sharply across the face.’Nein, schweinhund!’ he shouted, ‘Zwei martinis.’

A lissom lady in lamé, slid onto the stool beside mine. ‘Cigarette me,’ she purred. This was it. In like Flynn. She wielded a long cigarette holder. She could take someone’s eye out with that thing.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t smoke’, I said with what suavity I could muster. ‘Actually I don’t approve of smoking. It’s bad for your chest.’ To be fair there wasn’t much wrong with her chest. She gave me a look of withering contempt.
‘Call yourself a writer,’ she sneered, her lovely features contorted by chagrin and loathing. She turned away. I finished my milk, vegetarian soy milk.

Ernest Borgnine waddled over to me. He was looking for trouble. He stood close. There was a smell of whiskey off his breath.
‘We don’t like your kind in these here parts,’ he snarled.
I faced up to him. Spencer Tracy, at a nearby table, gave me a wink. He made a chopping, kung fu, judo gesture. He smiled his avuncular smile. Borgnine was in for a hiding.
He moved closer. ‘I’m givin’ you till sundown to….get off my foot,’ he growled.
The hell I will, I thought, but I was a bit worried about them pesky Arapahoes. Moreover, the horses was actin’ up. A bad sign.
I vamoosed.

It began to rain. I opened my umbrella. I inadvertently stepped on Gene Kelly’s footprints and felt the urge to sing. Gotta dance. Gotta dance.
I recognised Robert Newton, coming off set, still in his Long John Silver costume. (Lee Marvin almost made long-johns sexy. No he didn’t.) Newton was accosting poor Charles Laughton, still in his Quasimodo gear.
‘Ahar!’ says Newton, ‘where be that fiver I lent ee last month, Charlie lad? Ahar! ahar!’ He ran his hand along the blade of his cutlass.
Laughton made an effort to stand up. His hump wobbled obscenely. He slobbered and wheezed. His good eye rolled in his head.’I will give it to you…’He gasped for breath. ‘I will give it to you…as soon as I get myself straight.’

There was Newton, one eye, one leg, a hook for a hand and there was poor Quasimodo. They should take more care of their health. It was time to get out of town. We’ll never eat lunch in Hollywood again.

We stopped at a bridge over The King’s River. There is a rock in mid-stream, almost cleft in twain by some mysterious force. As we arrived, a handsome young swain was pulling a sword from the cleft. The brand caught the beams of the low October sun. He brandished it aloft. He had a regal bearing.
‘Be careful young sir, with that brandishing, I prithee,’ quoth I. ‘Thou could’st put someone’s eye out.’
He smiled a cheerful smile.
I tried to photograph some sheep nearby. They were uncooperative and camera-shy.
‘Would yonder sheep bite thee? I asked him.’
‘No,’ quoth he, smiling again. ‘But they would give thee a nasty graze.’

There was a wild looking man coming down from the mountain. He wore a beard and long robes. He stood in the way and verily, he smote upon the car window. He bore two tablets of stone with letters graven thereon. He looked familiar. I wound down the window and asked if he needed a lift.
‘I spake with The Lord God on the mountain.’ His eyes were wild. ‘I have good news and …’ He spread his hands in a gesture of regret. ‘And I have bad news. The good news is that I managed to beat Him down to ten. The bad news is…’ Again he shook his head sadly. ‘The bad news is… adultery is still in.’
There is a low and vulgar gag about Moses when, woe is me, he suffered from constipation. He took the two tablets and went out into the desert. No point in telling it now, as you have just heard the punch-line.

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There were some mutants and zombies dug in at the old lead mines. A platoon of reverend mothers gave us covering fire over the rise of the Wicklow Gap. We were halted by a war party of braves. Fortunately they were friendly Kiowas. I was raised by Kiowas and hunted with them, when Wicklow was covered with buffalo, before the paleface came with firewater and thunder sticks.

The wind whipped us up again. Over and over we turned. When we came to land the dog was gone. There was no yellow brick road, only the long slope down to Glendalough. Darkness was coming on, coming on apace, actually.
‘We should find somewhere to stay for the night,’ said Margaret.
‘No problem,’ I replied with a certain amount of relief. In the distance I could see a flashing sign: MOTE…L..flicker, flicker, wup…MOTEL..flicker, wup.. flicker… PROP NORMAN BATES..flicker, flicker. ‘Have you noticed all the crows?’

The End.

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(Wicklow Gap photo taken with hand-held camera during the tornado.)