Heads you win; tails I lose.

See the robbers passing by,

Passing by, passing by.

See the robbers passing by,

My fair lady.

(To the tune of London Bridge is falling down…) 


I made this drawing from Claes Visscher’s Panorama of London, published in Amsterdam in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death.  Old London Bridge was considered the most salubrious place to live, having endless supplies of relatively clean water and the perfect system for the disposal of waste. The road to Kent and the south, passed under an arch decorated with the heads of executed traitors, enemies of the Crown and thereby, of the people. You had to be ‘somebody’ to get your head over Traitors’ Gate.  You were put there as an example to others and as a warning not to do it again, which, of course, worked. Punishment was swift and hideous.  Tradition has it that Saint Thomas More’s head remained incorrupt for many months, probably giving the wrong message about King Henry and his many reforms. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since those days and a great many heads have rolled, on various pretexts. The practice of exhibiting severed heads has died out in what we are pleased to call ‘civilized countries.’  The childrens’ rhyme, however, persists, although the accompanying game has given place to video games and electronic entertainment.  The game, as I recall it, involved linking of arms and attempts to pass through a gate, in time to the chant. It ended with

Chop, chop, chop.

The Irish writer, Father Peadar O Leary, recalled seeing, in more recent times, three black balls on spikes over the police barracks in Macroom. They were the heads of three 1848 revolutionaries. He never forgot the sight. It was the time of the Great Famine, when one horror was piled on another, leaving an indelible mark on our collective memory.  As a country, we have come a long way since then. We enjoy a standard of living unimaginable to people who live in countries ravaged and plundered by their own rulers or devastated by natural disasters. We live in a democracy, however imperfect; a dreadful system, as Churchill pointed out, but better than all the others. There is a fairly general acceptance of decency and fair play and the concept of sharing. We are far from perfect, but the aspiration underpins our society. It is a less strident form of patriotism. It is the patriotism of those who consider the welfare of others. These patriots don’t wave flags or brandish weapons to demonstrate their love of their fellow human beings. They won’t get their heads on coins or stamps or banknotes. They get on with things.

It is difficult to feel any sympathy for a Russian oligarch, confined to an arctic gulag. These are the people who rifled the resources of their country after the collapse of Communism. They spend their obscene wealth on football clubs and what they call yachts, vast ocean-going liners that dwarf the harbours of the warmer countries to the south. It is equally difficult to feel any great warmth or enthusiasm for Putin. They were the Nomenklatura, the elite of the old system. From time to time, we have had our own shabby, cut-price version of the Nomenklatura, the names, the ‘sound men’.

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I was approaching the East Link Bridge, with a car-load of children. I was fumbling for change. I should have planned ahead. Suddenly I was surrounded by the banshee wail of sirens and the thrummm of police motorbikes.  Nabbed, with only one hand on the wheel. Not quite. The policemen gestured the traffic into the side of the road.  A stream of Mercedes state cars flashed past, filled with important people. There was a national emergency. The government was taking to a nuclear bunker, to direct the affairs of the country through a time of crisis. I sat in awe of my betters, until the blue lights dwindled into the distance and the traffic began to move again. I told the children that they had been privileged to see the awesome power and majesty of government in action, at close quarters. They would recount this moment to their grandchildren. They might sit in the chimney corners of pubs in their old age and mooch free pints, in return for retelling the story to open-mouthed yokels.

Not entirely true. It was 1990 and Packie Bonner was about to win The World Cup for Ireland, in Italia . It became suddenly necessary for every patriotic Irishman and woman to rally to the flag and hasten to Genoa.  The cabinet ministers, fortunately, had state cars  and the forces of law and order to whisk them to the government jet at the airport. Had this not been possible, we would have been disgraced before the entire world and maybe, would not have won the World Cup, at all, at all. I remember the victory parade.

We have been going through difficult times. A great deal has been asked of the Irish people. It has borne down hard on many families.  Yet we have not rioted, burning buildings and cars or putting heads on pikes. A little light is being  shed on the incompetence and grubby peculation of some those chosen to run the country and its institutions. We have seen minor treasons exposed.  A few heads have metaphorically rolled. An apology would not be out of place. The Japanese do apology quite well. There is Hara Kiri. A bit flashy, requiring an expensive sword and also a bit messy.  There is the Yakuza chopping off of one’s own finger. As many of our Nomenklatura have been giving two fingers to the public for many years, one or two more wouldn’t be overdoing it. While waiting in traffic recently for the East Link Bridge to rise and fall again, dark, end of year thoughts assailed me. Put the heads under the bridge. Just show them when a boat passes through.  No. No. That would not be civilized, would it?

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Ali Baba and the Forty thieves

Went to school with dirty knees

But all that they could see,see, see,

Was the bottom of the deep, blue, sea, sea, sea. 

Stunning Views and Safety Railings. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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Despite the widespread view that we retired people are a shower of layabouts, bleeding the country dry with our pensions, it must be admitted that we perform a vital service by railing at the radio and television.  We check for grammar, pronunciation and general fatuity and make our opinions known by constructive muttering and grumbling. This is good for releasing tension and lowering blood pressure, although it can be a bit hard on those with whom we live. They can always phone Joe, if they have a difficulty. ‘It’s a disgrace, Joe.’ Joe is our national Hyde Park Corner. He even directs the traffic.  As with Hyde park Corner, you can be drawn in by the level of outrage, the oratory and the absolute certainty of the speaker, or you can wander away, muttering under your breath. Muttering and railing give you the feeling that you have made your contribution, that the matter is in hand, that you have done your best.  Bloody disgrace. I know a man whose son says to him: ‘Look. You can hit me if it makes you feel better. You can even smash the place up, but please… please don’t…don’t..rail at me.’  Bloody kids.

Health s a big issue with radio programmes. If you haven’t heard of the disease or disorder at the start of the programme, you will definitely feel a few niggling symptoms before it is finished.  You will shut your windows for fear that a swallow with avian flu, might be passing.  A mention of ebola or lassa fever in deepest Africa, can cause disquiet. Those little microbes are out to get you. We are all doomed.  Go and get the flu jab. No, I must be fair. (The Sun was shining that morning.) The Director of Saint Patrick’s Hospital, a noted gerontologist, was interviewed recently by Seán O Rourke. Seán is good. He let him talk. The doctor spoke about all the positives of old age. I even agreed with him.  Nothing to rail about. He caught me on the hop.  Aha! but has he found the cure?  Answer me that.  Nonetheless, I felt twenty years younger.

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A long time ago, or so I was told, the Finns and the Magyars were one tribe. They spoke the same language. They moved westwards out of Asia, whereupon the tribe split in two. The Finns migrated north, taking all the vowels with them, while the Magyars kept all the consonants and settled in the Plain of Hungary. The Basques were involved somewhere as well, but they added whistling. Not so easy, without a full set of teeth. George Bernard Shaw remarked that no Englishman can open his mouth to speak, without making another Englishman despise him. Ample space for railing and grumbling there. In Ireland we merely swap the vowels around and distort them.

 The news isn’t always good. Or should I say, the knees? One lady always goes over to the knees room for the latest knees. The dismal scientists are out in force, spreading gloom. Where were they in the Forties and Fifties, eh?  I’ll tell you about gloom and depression. Recession? Bloody luxury. Anyway, a troika is a three-horse sleigh, God blast it!  The traffic reports always warn of congestion in Choom and in all the places where the blasted motorists want to drive. The weather man warns of frost by next Cheeseday. Too many eees.  I think that mine is a digital radio. The best treatment for blood pressure is the little button at the right. Depress this with a finger and you will feel better immediately.  Go for a walk. Climb a mountain. Look at the view.

Then there is afternoon television, a trap for the unwary. Please do not sit down with a cuppa and watch the telly, on a wet and windy day. By all means, have a cup of tea or coffee and watch television. I don’t mind the programmes so much. People enjoy auctions and antiques. I like a good western. I don’t mind if Fred and Gladys buy a hovel on Mildew Street and do it up for a mere £5,000. Good for them, although I’m not a great DIY man.  Trevor and Eunice are moving to  the Cotswolds. The views are stunning. It’s a stunning house, with stunning beams.  The kitchen will have to come out. They have found a wonderful little man in the village. He can do anything. All those people who lived there for the last five centuries, never understood the value of stunning granite worktops and a stunning signature tap. They have gone £200,000 over budget. Fair play to them if they have the money but I know that I would be stunned too, by the figures they throw around.

No. It’s the advertisements that get me. Michael Parkinson threatens to give me a fountain pen, if I sign up to his insurance plan and accept impending mortality. Frank Windsor used to promise a digital clock radio. I never liked the idea of watching my life’s seconds ticking away. Would that alarm wake me up, if I were to shuffle off…..etc. Bloody swindle.  Lawyers will rush to help me, if I trip in the street. I need never worry about incontinence. If I eat all the vitamins, I will be larking about in the waves with a sporty looking lady on a sunlight beach. I will even own a beach ball.  A man in a purple jetplane explains how cleaning fluids can be supersonic. He has a purple drag-racer too. Time to escape to the country.

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The upside of the recession is that the government has been advised to sell off the state’s assets. I have spotted a property, near Loughcrew, in need of some renovation. It doesn’t earn a penny for the state.  I know that we could pick it up for a few grand and whack it into shape, as long as there are not too many planning ‘issues’. We love a project. Don’t we, Darling?  (Terms of endearment are mandatory on afternoon television.) We could do a lot of the work ourselves. We met a wonderful little man in the village. We asked him if there is a B&Q in Drogheda. ‘No,’ says he, ‘but there’s two Ds in Dundalk.’  It’s a start. We can lift the roof and put in some stunning beams. Big triple-glazed windows will open onto stunning views. Lots of decking for entertaining, when friends drop round. They will have to drop up, actually. Maybe we could keep a troika for getting up the hill in wintry weather. That stone circle would make a stun…. a very nice water feature.  Solar panels to keep the environmentalists  happy.

We did a mini-mitch to London last week. It is obligatory to watch breakfast television when staying in a hotel. Now I understand ‘knees room’. Two people, a man and a woman in a short skirt, sit on a couch and sparkle at each other. She fidgets and makes futile efforts to preserve a modicum of modesty. They call in experts to read the headlines in the newspapers. The female experts tug at their hemlines and cross their legs. They go over to correspondents. They consult economists. They promised that the weatherman would explain about the Sun flipping its magnetic field, ‘in just a few minutes. Nothing to worry about.’  They went ‘back to a previous story.’ I got annoyed and flicked the remote control. Various tattooed young men were talking about their latest hit. I flicked again. A tattooed footballer was talking about football. Flick again. Environmentalists were railing against the suggestion by a politician, that local councils should maintain packs of wolves, for disposing of old people. It worked for the Plains Indians and the Inuit, in days gone by, he said.  The environmentalists objected to the introduction of non-indigenous species into Britain. (Actually, I made that last bit up.) I got worried about the Sun and impending doom, Twilight of the Gods, the End of Days and all that rot. I should have gone for that fountain pen. The weatherman was gone. I missed it. Maybe next week.

We heard no news. We went on the river and walked in Greenwich Park with Jenny and Ahmed, Justin and Vanessa. The weather was glorious. The colours were wonderful.We laughed and talked and dined well. We were minded and utterly spoilt. We were thirty years younger. Nothing to rail about at all.

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As for the Sun, so far, so good.