Do you remember The Future?

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What a pretty picture they make; the elegant lady, the top-hatted gentlemen, the fine buildings and of course the deferential, bare-footed boy with his broom. He knows his place. He is, of course, a crossing sweeper. His job was to keep the roads level, especially at junctions where the dust and gravel was rutted and scattered by iron-shod hooves and iron-rimmed wheels. Like the labour of Sisyphus, his work never ended. Like the stone-breaker, the porter, the child chimney-sweep, the agricultural labourer, (women and children on lower rates of pay), factory hands, all those who labour and are oppressed, their work was hard, monotonous and repetitive. Their task was to make the world a better and more comfortable place for their betters. Humanitarians were moved to charitable efforts. Reformers looked for legislative change, new labour laws, better pay, better living conditions, education. Revolutionaries sought to change the system by force, promising a glittering future.. Anarchists sought to blow the whole bloody lot up. Idealists envisaged brave new worlds, tending to be less than tolerant of those who didn’t share their ideals. In many cases, change came about with a great deal of bloodshed—-for the Greater Good, of course. The artist possibly, kept an eye on next year’s fashions, with a view to another edition of his painting. I note that the child has changed his tie. The lady is going for a more autumnal  palette, this season.

I had a (borrowed)book, The Boy’s Book of Aviation, published sometime in the 1920s, that caught the romance of flight for youngsters. There was a chapter on trans-Atlantic passenger flights of the future. Nobody wants to land, like Alcock and Brown, arse over tip, in a bog outside Clifden, County Galway. It would be difficult to maintain a regular schedule on that basis. The book predicted that trans-Atlantic  aeroplanes would hop from one floating runway to another, all the way across, to refuel and let the passengers get out to stretch their legs. It just might work, but not on windy days, or in the dark, or in heavy fog, or in the hurricane season. What happened was that aircraft got bigger, carried more fuel and hopped from London to Paris, Lisbon, The Azores, Bermuda and New York or other destinations westwards. In summer they hopped from London to Shannon, Reykjavik, Gander and New York. As planes got even bigger, all those intermediate airports became obsolete and had to develop other reasons for their existence. Those who plumped for floating runways, had to wait for World War II to get any customers at all. As for Zeppelins, well, you know that story. By the way, I identified the owner of the book some fifty years after I read it. I brought it back. I apologised for the delay.  “Ah!” he said,”I remember that book. I borrowed that from Des McDonough, away back in the Thirties.” That was a roundabout trip for any book. I’m glad that nowadays, we don’t have to land with the aid of trip-wires, on a heaving deck in mid-ocean and take off again by catapult. Even the pilot would need a few gins and tonics in the VIP lounges along the way. (That’s my father-in-law below, by the way.)

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In The Soul of Man under Socialism,   Oscar Wilde paints a romantic picture of how ‘the masses’, released from grinding toil by science and technology, would devote themselves to the arts, to music and poetry. He particularly picked out the crossing-sweeper as an example. Machines would be installed at every crossing to sweep the gravel level. Meanwhile, the liberated crossing-sweeper would be at home composing concerti or polishing up a collection of sonnets. It didn’t quite work out like that. Firstly, tarmacadam eliminated the trade altogether. Lenin and Stalin carried their socialism to extremes. The poor became cannon fodder or merely hands for industry. Intellectuals were seen as a threat. People of Oscar’s proclivities were liquidated or sent to Siberia. Mao carried his version of communism to its logical conclusion– a never ending revolution…thesis/antithesis/synthesis. A grinding equality forced surgeons out of operating theatres, even in mid-surgery, to make steel. Biological science had to bend to conform to Marxist theory. Everyone had to accept a never-ending revolution …but not yet. Jung Chang tells how her pregnant mother walked on The Long March while her father rode a horse, consistent with his dignity as a Party member. James Connolly, a bigger name internationally than Lenin, inexplicably abandoned his socialist ambitions and threw in his lot with militant nationalism. Mr. DeValera, alarmed by the Bolsheviks, was at pains to assure the Irish voters in 1918 that he was not a ‘revolutionary’. Everything would remain the same in a new Ireland, but on his terms. Cue athletic youths and comely maidens….

We particularly looked forward to robots to do all the work, especially in the house. There is already a domestic robot that can stir soup. You prepare and put the ingredients in a pot and a robot arm will stir it. Then you take it out and eat it with a spoon. All this research was misguided as scientists were about to develop pills to take the place of meals. There are some dietary substitute tablets already, but I would miss the accompanying spuds and gravy. Not the washing-up though. There is also a robot/computer lawn-mower that mutters about the garden all night, like a hedgehog, while you get to work on that concerto. Teachers will become redundant too, as children will be placed in classes of hundreds and taught by computers. Mars will be a staging post to other galaxies. Everyone will wear the hideous get-up of Mr. Spock. Politicians will no longer be abused about potholes in the perfect world of the future. I remember Dan Dare, pilot of The Future,putting on a helmet that translated Venusian speech into English….just like Google.

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I loved the occasional visit from the steam-roller and the tar boiler. The road was painted with shining asphalt. It reflected the sky The men shoveled crushed stone onto the gleaming surface. The steam-roller followed, ironing everything flat. The rollers boomed and chimed as they trundled along. The smell was heavenly. On hot days you could assist by bursting the tar bubbles with your fingers. (Butter will remove tar from hands but not, alas, from clothes. Try to remove the tar and gravel from the soles of your shoes before entering your house or the consequences will be dire.) The steam-roller made smoke. It even had a whistle and a bell.  What more could a child ask for? The modern process is impressive and entirely mechanised but not as exciting. No need for crossing sweepers on our long straight motorways.

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Some people are building a road near Baldungan Castle. They have started like MacAdam, with rough stone. When they get to the fine aggregate stage, I may be able to get work for my little grandchildren as gravel and dust sweepers. At four, five, six and seven years of age it’s time they started to earn their keep. On a sartorial note, I shall insist that they wear ties and are deferential to all. In a revolutionary departure from standard practice, I shall provide them with shoes. If a tar-boiler and steam-roller are to be employed, I may even look for a job myself. If it was good enough for Cool Hand Luke, it’s good enough for me.

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Sex, Lies and Gunpowder.

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In the run-up to the last Iraq war there was much talk of ‘sexing up’ a report on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Hans Blix, the U.N. investigator, said that there weren’t any. What kind of sex did these people engage in? Patient and rigorous investigation isn’t ‘sexy’, especially if it undermines the case for war. Did you find George Bush, Tony Blair or Alastair Campbell, ‘sexy’? By this reckoning, smart bombs, helicopters, plutonium-tipped projectiles and all the paraphernalia of war, impart a perverted sexual thrill, at the thought of all the people who can be killed. Power, it is said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. The reality takes place perhaps far away or far below. Arafat, (definitely not ‘sexy’,) spoke of his one hundred young girls selected to be suicide bombers, as his ‘army of roses.’ Maybe they had to hurry on ahead to Paradise to get ready for the martyrs. ‘Sexy’ or what?

There’s O Connell, the Liberator, still dominating the bridge. He relied on words and brains to achieve his ends. He lost his street cred in old age when he cancelled a ‘Monster meeting’ at Clontarf, largely because the guns of The Pigeon House fort across the water, had been trained on the crowd. Think of the martyrs he could have rallied to his cause with a good massacre. Hundreds slaughtered in famine-stricken Ireland!! If he had had a good press secretary, like Mr. Campbell, he would have been home and dried. The baton passed to the ‘physical force’ tradition. As that smiley man, Chairman Mao,asserted: ‘Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.’ Nelson, an ardent lover with what was left of him, would have agreed. He stood just around the corner from The Gunpowder Office on Bachelors’ Walk. Was that a phallic symbol he was standing on? Can’t have that in holy, Catholic Ireland. Draw your own conclusions and no sniggering, please.

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The Chinese, of course discovered gunpowder, a mixture of saltpetre, charcoal and brimstone in certain proportions, to bring about an explosion. They used it for fireworks and for war. The 13th century Franciscan, Berthold Schwarz gets the credit for introducing it to Europe and everything has been great ever since. You can use the stuff to move mountains, celebrate Hallowe’en or dominate your neighbours. You can become a hero, a great statesman, a rebel/anarchist/revolutionary, giving the two fingers to those you don’t agree with, if you have enough of it. You can become a bloody menace to society if you mishandle it, as the dreadful explosion in Tianjin shows. Pearse admitted that  some of the wrong people might be killed at first….Lenin went for mass slaughter. It takes practice to get the hang of it. Interestingly, Lenin listed the bourgeoisie, school teachers and other intellectuals as candidates for liquidation in this mass extermination. I don’t know, as a former school teacher, if I should feel flattered.

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It may well be apocryphal but the story is that, at Agincourt, the French High Command, directed that any English archers taken prisoner, should have the index and middle finger of the right hand chopped off. This was to avenge the scandal that a low-born man could strike a noble knight dead from afar. Comparable punishments were to be inflicted on gunners using the detestable material, gunpowder. The only respectable way to slay an enemy is in hand to hand combat, according to the customs of Chivalry. Ee I Addio….we won the war. It seems that these low-born varlets delighted in showing their two fingers to the defeated French. Considered to be very rude nowadays…rude peasants…rude forefathers. There are some families in Wales still drawing a pension for their forefathers’ service at Agincourt, but keep that under your hat… where the same ancestors kept their bowstrings in wet weather. Did Shakespeare ‘sex-up’ Agincourt 1415?  The Herald of France put it more succinctly…’, No, great king/ I come to thee for charitable licence/ That we may wander o’er this bloody field/ To book our dead and then to bury them/To sort our nobles from our common men…’ Agincourt 2015. Sounds like a festival, with gurning politicians speaking about heritage and tradition and soldiers rattling sabres and gesticulating with rifles. Guards of honour and artillery salutes….the works.

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God save the mark!

An interesting suggestion was made in America, where people love their guns. Arm the teachers. That would put a stop to the random massacres in schools and colleges, perpetrated by people unbalanced with a sense of power or grievance. Fortunately I never carried firearms to school. There were days….There were days….youghal doneraile spenser's castle 049

I think I would have fancied one of these.

When Gulliver boasted to the King of the Giants, that he could show him how to compound gunpowder and make cannon to blast down the walls of the mightiest cities and tear apart the bodies of the wretches hiding therein, the King was enraged. He warned the ‘insect’ Gulliver never to mention it again, on pain of death. Seemed like a sexy idea to Gulliver.

No need for it now anyway, since Tony Blair became Peace Envoy to The Middle East. How did that go, have you heard? Probably count his successes on the two missing fingers of some Welsh archer.