Eminent Professors, Old News and A Wizard Wheeze.

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The Robinsons lived in a pink cottage at Milverton. There were trellised roses wreathed around the cottage door. The garden was filled with herbs and flowers.  They had an orchard behind the house. It was a picture from Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain. I remember a pretty girl in a check summer dress, standing amid the flowers and herbs. They abandoned their home shortly after the war and emigrated to England. The cottage fell into dereliction.

‘Near yonder copse where once the garden smiled/ and still where many a garden flower grows wild…’ She still stands there in my memory. As boys, we went in to investigate the orchard. The cottage door was hanging off. We found that the clay walls had been covered with newspapers, overpainted with distemper. The damp had loosened them. We could read the ancient news still preserved on the back of the paper. There is still no news of the girl in the check summer dress.

Oliver Goldsmith, possibly Ireland’s best loved writer, stated that he loved old things,old books, old friends, old houses, old wine. I don’t think he mentioned old newspapers. Do you recall how you would set out to light a fire with twists of newspaper? You were possibly kneeling down beside the hearth, beginning to bunch up an old paper. Your eye caught a news item that you had missed at the first, hurried reading. Maybe a cartoon. Emil Zatopec got into trouble for supporting The Prague Spring– one little stick man remarking to another: “I never thought that Emil Zatopec would move too fast for the Czechs.” A classic Tom Matthews cartoon—Two men sitting at a table, observing a bearded man in a pointy hat and a cloak decorated with stars and planets. The strange man is bent double, in a paroxysm of coughing. ‘Kaf, kaf!!’ One man says to the other: “Just listen to this wizard wheeze.” If you read Biggles or indeed The Wizard, you will understand the joke. features-goldsmith-full

Goldsmith died at the age of forty six. He is still remembered for the lost world of his deserted village. “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey; where wealth accumulates and men decay.” Bang up to date. I read that the NAMA boys are back in town, scattering their millions around like confetti. Goldsmith should have taken some Phyllosan tablets..’to protect the family after forty. Formulated by an eminent professor of medicine…’  No name or qualifications given. He is eminent. No list of ingredients. How dare you ask? Don’t you see that he is an eminent professor? Professors are always eminent. Judges are always learned. Doctors are always good. Explorers are intrepid. This advertisement is from the Irish Times of  November 2nd 1942.

Under the linoleum in Leo Flanagan’s former house, I found a treasure trove of newspapers from 1942. The Germans are doing well at Stalingrad. The Allied forces are massing at el Alamein. The newly reconstituted Medical Registration Council  held its first meeting, A recommendation for the reduced use of alcohol in drugs was adopted, as a wartime economy measure. Remember Gripe Water for babies. It was mostly alcohol with a subtle after-taste of elderflower. I doubt if Leo ever needed Gripe water or Phyllosan. He coped well with the wartime economy measures by owning a pub. The Council declined to strike off the name of Dr. Patrick Joseph Conlin for convictions ‘outside Eire’ on charges of being drunk and disorderly—fined 20/s and 10/s on two occasions. Presumably the good doctor was warned to observe the wartime economy measures while in Eire. I bought a bottle of green tonic from a friendly pharmacist—overwork and stress. (I was twenty one.) Two spoonfuls in the morning. Great stuff. The size of the spoons wasn’t specified. I took a few more during the day. It tasted great. My stress evaporated. Then I read the label. It had more alcohol than even Gripe Water. Shurely shome mishundershtanding.

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Goldsmith is deservedly commemorated by a Summer School in his native Pallas in County Longford. We probably know him better from the statue outside Trinity College, where he stands beside the great orator Edmund Burke. Summer schools have proliferated throughout the land. They fill the news pages, during the silly season. They come up with wizard wheezes. Here’s one from an eminent professor at the McGill summer school last week: Old people living in houses adjudged to be too big for them, should be punished by higher property taxes and made to move to smaller units of accommodation. This would ‘free up’ more units at a time of shortage. I hesitate to demur, because of the eminence of the professor. I might end up in front of a learned judge. So this is how it works: You struggle to buy, maintain and hold onto a house in which to raise your family. (‘You’ is usually plural, as in ‘the masculine embraces the feminine’.) You cope with fluctuating interest rates of up to twenty two and a half percent. (Thank you, Bertie.) You may welcome old friends or new grandchildren to your house. You may cultivate and enjoy a garden. You may sit in the sun or read a book. You count your blessings……… You are selfish bastards. That house should be confiscated.

One set of experts speaks of keeping old people in their homes, rather than in expensive nursing homes, where they are obliged to watch Scooby Doo all afternoon. I hate Scooby Doo. I hate not having any say over the use of the remote control. (Do you remember the bad old days, when you had to get up out of your chair to change the channel?) I would vote for euthanasia rather than have to spend my declining years watching Scooby Doo. Let me live in my garden shed. Put me out in the snow for the wolves, but please, no Scooby Doo. It’s the same story every time…some villainous entrepreneur, disguised as a ghost, trying to scare people out of their property.  Wait a minute…

Those greedy villains in the above photograph have been in the news lately. They are driving people mad early in the mornings by dancing on the roofs and smashing crabs on the tiles, for breakfast.  They never shut up. Eminent experts have advocated a cull. Other learned experts have called for greater protection of the gulls. What about a cull of the disgruntled householders? Cheaper.  Especially the elderly. They can’t even run.

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When Doctor Zhivago arrived home one evening, he found that his house had been confiscated  by the Communists to accommodate several families. This was the new order, explained the commissar. There was no argument. Zhivago shrugged. “Okay,” he said, or words to that effect. “That seems fair enough.” You don’t argue with commissars. He was in the paper a few weeks ago. He died at the age of eighty two. He must have been on the Phyllosan. Julie Christie is still looking all right. Would you turf her out of her home or leave her in the snow for the wolves? Nah!

Resist! Zimmer frames at the ready!

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The Lane Pictures

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I can still remember, some sixty five years ago or more, the shock of surprise on looking down the various lanes leading to the South Strand and seeing Rockabill lighthouse at the end of each one. It confirmed in me the childhood suspicion that Rockabill is really a ship. No matter where I go, it slides along the horizon, keeping pace with me. I knew nothing of perspective or triangulation…still don’t know much…but it keeps pace with me when I go for a walk, sometimes hiding behind an island and then darting out like a sheepdog, running away to north or south to herd the boats towards the harbour in safety…mixed metaphors there.  I regard these lanes as being parallel. Parallel lines meet in infinity, so Rockabill, being their focal point, must be quite close to infinity.

It is impossible to walk down any of these lanes without encountering memories. Halfway down Fairs’ Lane, we queued for the cheap seats in Flanagans’ picture house, usually in the rain, but who worried about rain? Sophisticates, with a few more bob, queued under an awning around the corner. They sat in the raised seats and looked down on the plebs. A plaque commemorates old Flanagan who introduced electricity to Skerries. Had he not done so, we would have spent our evenings in darkness and gloom, instead of joining in the excitement  and glamour of Hollywood. But it is fitting that the lane is Fairs’ Lane, not Flanagans’. Johnny Fair,with his grocer’s shop on the corner, lived up to his name. A decent, universally respected, Northern Protestant, in the days when such things were automatically registered in the mind, he was a fair man to talk. If you were waiting to collect stuff for your Mammy, you knew that you were doomed when he leaned his left elbow on the counter and put his chin on the palm of his hand, in conversation with some adult. This could cost you half an hour of your life. I should remember the content, the fascinating details of village life, the gossip, the news, the scandal, but the time passed in a sort of catatonic trance as I read the labels on the storage boxes behind the counter and shifted from one foot to the other, rehearsing my list of ‘messages.’ Bizarrely, the Volunteers, during the War of Independence, got buckets of paraffin ‘on tick’, from Johnny Fair and headed off across the strand to burn down the Coast-Guard station. I wonder if the bill was ever paid.

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The perks of the job. Mr. Weldon was a major shareholder and manager in the quarry. Did he bring work home to make a very fine kerb for his railings? Did he perhaps, secrete these blocks about his person, when going home in the evening?  There is an urban legend about a worker in General Motors who pilfered a complete car, in installments over a period of years. By the time the vehicle was assembled, it had gone out of fashion and spare parts were hard to come by. Mr. Weldon’s railings and kerbstones still retain an old-fashioned elegance.

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This was O Neills’ Lane to us and more puzzlingly, Bombush Lane. I enquired. It was Bonne Bouche, pleasant bite. John O Neill sold sweets in his Aladdin’s cave of a shop. Another Northerner with a facility for chat. Another half hour of your life gone but worth it. I heard about the White-Russian lady gymnast who married a farmer back where John came from. “She wore a leotard, Master.” He always called me ‘Master’, as is the custom back where John came from. “I tell you, Master, we never saw anything like it in those days, back where I came from. They came from all over to see her. She set up these bars in the yard and used to swing on them, over and back. Over and back. Oh Mother o’ God! Heh,heh.”  What would John think of the modern garb? Oh Mother o’ God!

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You can say anything to anyone in a pub, as long as it’s only  ‘slagging.’ You must say it to his face. If you say it behind his back, it’s slander.   Slagging is not as brutal as the American custom of ‘The Roast.’ There is a strong element of affection and respect in slagging. There is the assumption that your interlocutor can give as good as he gets. Alcohol helps.  “Hey Flanagan”challenged Mike Manning, a big and jovial man. “Your family made quite a contribution to Skerries over the years.”  “Indeed we did,” replied Leo. He was justly proud of his family’s contribution. “So how come there isn’t a road or even a lane named after you?” Fair question. “I’d rather have that than have a Flanagan’s Opening with a public convenience at the bottom of it.”  Fair answer too. Mike laughed.

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McLoughlins’ Lane is Monument Lane or Carnival Lane, depending on your frame of mind. Be careful of your footing. In wet weather it can be mucky. A man came out of the back entrance of The Dublin Bar one night and went to take a short cut home. He was noted for his stammer. He missed the entrance to McLoughlin’s lane and bounced off the wall. He had another go. He hit the wall on the other side and fell backwards. He got up and tried again. He missed again. He got up and dusted himself down. He regarded the entrance indignantly. “B-b-b-bred, b-b-born and r-rared in the e-e-effin town an’ I can’t even get out of it.” He should have a lane named after him.

June 7th of this year marks the centenary of the torpedoing of The Lusitania, off the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse. This obscenity gave us the concept of ‘a crime against humanity.’ You would think that humanity would stop and think and even pull back from the horrors of war. Not a chance. It set the fashion for total war and innumerable crimes against humanity in the bloodiest century to date. Among the 1198 people destroyed on that date, (It took 15 minutes) was Sir Hugh Lane, benefactor and connoisseur of art.  You can go and see some of his paintings in the Municipal Gallery in Dublin and remember him, perhaps as an antidote to the the commemoration of a decade of violence and mayhem. In the meantime, my ocean liner goes full steam ahead in every weather, with a cargo of memories.(I hate that cliché Memory Lane but it’s almost unavoidable.) Remember the good things and the good people and commemorate them in your mind. Fair play to them.

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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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Disembodied voices. The joy of shopping.

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We went shopping on Friday. At least, Margaret went shopping. I went to read the paper, sort out the world and drink coffee. I also had a nice bowl of soup and some more coffee. I like shopping because I rarely take the time to read the paper thoroughly. I offered her sound advice: ‘never listen to anything I say about clothes or style.’ It works. I read The Irish Times business section. Happily, I am unemployable. Have you noticed that, for all the top jobs, there is no pay? There is compensation. 150K, 250K. Kilometers? Nobody ever compensated me for getting out of bed on cold , wet mornings and going to work. I could have been at home reading the paper. What about some retrospective compensation?

The day started out of kilter. I went to the bank machine to get a few bob. ‘Are You Ready For SEPA?’ asked the machine. There was a cube shaped graphic, no doubt done by a computer. When Brother Francis taught us perspective drawing, he showed how to drop the far corner of a cube, or a box.  Otherwise it looks as if somebody gave it a whack or used unequal sides in the assembly. Ikea would never allow that. I’m not ready for SEPA. There was an article about SEPA in the Business Section, with another nifty graphic. I took the trouble to measure the letters. I knew it looked wonky. The letters looked bigger as they receded. Remember the poster for Ben Hur. You probably don’t. The letters looked as if they were graven from towering rocks, a masterpiece of perspective, an epic. Brother Francis would have approved. It was going to be a long day’s shopping.

A correspondent criticised the members of the ‘quasi-judicial Public Accounts Committee.’ He objected to the members coming out after every session to raise their profiles as ‘heavy hitters’. They speculated. They surmised. They anticipated what might emerge. I agreed with the correspondent. It remined me of the O.J. Simpson trial, where every juror and every lawyer, was interviewed on the courthouse steps. They were on television. They got book deals. There was further grim news in the paper, about wars and rumours of wars and talks about talks about peace talks. I looked for something light. I remembered why I have become a newspaper skimmer.

(Newspapers improve with age. I have a framed page from the Irish Times dated on my birthday. Mr Churchill was asked about  the case of Herr Hess.

Mr Churchill: ‘I have no statement to make.’ (Cheers.)  He added that if at any time, the Government thought a statement was necessary, or advantageous, it would be made.  None of that accountability and transparency there.

I have some old Irish Times, found under linoleum in Leo Flanagan’s house. The Japanese have landed in The Solomons. In the district court some traders have been fined for selling tea and cocoa to unauthorised persons. Phyllosan keeps you fit after forty. It stimulates all the physical and vital forces. I could do with some of that.)

There was an interview in my Friday paper,  between a journalist and a scientist, about a forthcoming film, Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix forms a relationship with his computer. The computer has developed a personality. Fortunately, the scientist was able to reassure me that computers are bits of plastic and wires and are incapable of developing independent intelligence or emotions. It relies entirely on human input. People develop a sort of attachment to old cars, or old boots, or boats, but there is no evidence that this feeling is reciprocated. That’s a relief. I wouldn’t like my computer’s feelings to be hurt when I swear at it. I did develop an attachment to a soft-spoken Chilean lady in an Hispano-American, Linguaphone cassette tape. ‘Her voice was ever gentle, low and soft, an excellent thing in woman.’ She spoke about trains and buses and restaurant menus. Unfortunately my cassette player is defunct and she has gone away to a sunnier clime. She was really only a series of magnetic impulses. I knew that all the time.

Good luck with Her, Joaquin. I saw him playing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, on a long-haul flight. He was brilliant, but my earphones didn’t work. I had to imagine the dialogue. For the music, I remembered Johnny Cash. I detest Mrs Garmin, the back-seat driver. I hate the voices that say enter.your.code.now. when I try to pay a bill over the phone. I prefer to ‘interface’ with humans. I am even wary of puppets. They tend to be unsettling,  malevolent, alter egos of the puppeteer. There was a long-standing joke about the Irish having Irish dancing on the radio. Why not? You could still hear the music. Was it any more ridiculous than Peter Brough, the ventriloquist and Archie Andrews, his puppet, on BBC radio, in the 1950s? Ventriloquy on radio?  How could you tell? Did his lips move?

The paper reported that Paramount will no longer distribute film on celluloid.  The future will be digital. I thought of Jemmy Devlin pushing his bike up the Dublin Road, on his way to the station, with tin drums of films, Pathé  News and cartoons. It was easier for him on the way back, freewheeling downhill with all the latest releases. Jemmy used to collect the tickets at the door of the cinema. One night he was indisposed and the owner, Leo, took his place. He held out his hand for the tickets.  Suddenly, in the gloom, he found someone thrusting a bag of eggs into his hand. ‘There you are, Jemmy. I’ll have a few more for you next week.’  Jemmy shone a torch into many dark corners, when the audience became boisterous. A bit like the Public Accounts Committee, I suppose.

The shopping went well. We also bought some saucepans. Mustn’t get too attached to the old ones. They have to go.  On the way out, I bought a very fine monkey puppet. I could be big on radio, like Marcel Marceau. I have already mastered ‘gottle of geer’ and ‘gread and gutter.’  He likes to slob around, like I do. We could go far together.

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He went far. My little grandsons loved him so much that they spirited him away. I had to go back for another one, first thing on Sunday morning. There are more grandchildren arriving on Friday. Maybe I can impress them with my amazing skill. On my way out of the shop I had to pass through the half-acre of cosmetics counters. The young ladies never even saw me. I noticed a Brow Bar: raising eyebrows since 1975. I contemplated, for a moment,  getting a consultation for my new friend, but thought it wiser to keep going.

Sunday was a busy day. I decided to relax and watch television. I hoped that there was something other than political wrangling going on. Attenborough, perhaps?

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