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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Memory waits in ambush

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It takes me a good hour to walk around ‘The Head’. That is if I walk briskly. If I walk properly, it takes two or three hours, possibly four. There is always something to look at or somebody to talk to. I don’t burn off any calories. It took me long enough to put on a little bit of weight. It keeps me warm– as do the memories. Many years ago, about 1977 (open to correction) I saw the martello tower, standing isolated. The holiday camp was gone. It was as if it had folded up and vanished. The martello tower looked as it should, a sentinel, solid as the rocks around it— back to normal. It is a failing of age that you expect things to get back to normal. I am still waiting for the traffic to get back to normal, two dogs, Miss Hurley’s cart, in which she transported buttermilk, a group of sepia-coloured cyclists leaning on their bikes and a bus. ‘Is the bus in?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Who was on it?’

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Now, that’s normal; the Tower Tea Rooms, the Tower Theatre and Percy Clifton’s field, where you can still pick mushrooms, if you get there early enough. You might be allowed go up from the strand, with two pennies in your fist, to get an ice cream at the shop. There were slot machines up there too, but these were off limits. There was a juke box, where older boys and girls gathered, looking nonchalant and unimpressed, sometimes smoking and taking in the scene; off limits too. Jazz! I read recently that the Irish Farmers’ Association staged a mass protest march, as they have often done, to protest against —Jazz! That was in 1947 or 48, when the Shannon was spreading all over the midlands and crops were rotting in the fields. Britain and Europe were starving under a rationing regime, but first things first. Get rid of that oul’ jazz. What Ireland needed was a Marshall Plan to stamp out jazz, get the country back on its feet, get the farmers out on the roads, protesting against jazz. Daft. The boys and girls in the juke box arcade were not protesting.

Neither did I, but first I needed an ice cream. Two pennies bought a respectable wafer, cut from the block, or pressed into a hand-held mould with two flaps, that sprang open at the touch. It looked like a gigantic safety razor, with a wafer inserted instead of a blade. Fourpence bought as much as any child could ever desire. Choc ices in foil, with no sticks–too cold to handle.  Eightpence bought Lucullan luxury, decadence, gluttony, depravity, everything we longed for. To hell with rationing. Give it a lash. Eightpence didn’t come around too often.

I went to the theatre once, that I can remember: The Miracle of Fatima. It was important to see it because the world was due to end in 1950, after the Pope revealed the Third Secret of Fatima. I can’t recall if I ever heard the first two. What’s the point of having a secret if you can’t tell everyone? It was important to go to the play in order to get my soul ready for Armageddon, the Second Coming, the General Judgement and the End of Days. There was a reasonable chance of ice cream or lemonade at the interval and moreover, you were allowed go out in the dark, after your tea. Most importantly, my older sister had a speaking part, a one-liner: ‘The sun is falling!’  She was very good. Thunder rumbled and  lights flashed. I repented of my sins on the spot. The boy, Francesco, lay slumbering on a bank of moss and flowers. A group of shepherds found him and regarded him in awe. In drama it is important to prrroject the voice. One of the shepherds told me in later years, about his moment of stardom. He was supposed to say: ‘Behold, he is asleep.’  Holy people always say Behold. Overcome by the solemnity of the occasion and the requirements of his trade, he spake unto the assembled multitude (Holy people always spake unto  the rest of us.) In ringing tones he declaimed, to the back of the hall: ‘Behold, he is a sheep.‘ Forty years on, he could laugh about it, but his stage career took a downward course. At least, the sky didn’t fall about our ears. If I heard him that night, it didn’t register with me. We were in a place of miracles anyway. Dan Brown would, no doubt, have a more sinister interpretation of his words.

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My sister took me for a walk around The Head. There were men digging in Clifton’s field. They were digging foundations. She told me that they were digging their graves and that the Germans were going to come and shoot them all so that they would fall into the graves. She must have been reading the papers, or perhaps she had seen newsreels in the cinema. I kept a wary eye on the men as we passed by. My brother climbed up The Girder, a diving structure at the Springboards. One of the men came down and told him to get down. He seemed a kindly man, despite the doom-laden circumstances of his employment.  A holiday camp rose from the foundations. There was a high fence around it. The mushrooms were off limits. Thousands of holiday-makers came every summer to enjoy the delights of Skerries. The menu boasted ‘real eggs.’ You could have two eggs and one sausage or two sausages and one egg. Coming from bleak, post war Britain, they loved Red Island. They were invariably cheerful and spent their money in Skerries. They ate the best of Irish food, as the farmers had got over their obsession with Louis Armstrong and Big Bill Broonzy. They played pitch and putt on the mushroom field. There were bright borders of nasturtiums, with hawk-moths hovering over the blossoms. I wanted them to be humming birds. There was music on loudspeakers, all day long: Hear My Song, Violetta (a gut-buster from Joseph Locke); She Wears Red Feathers and a Hooly Hooly Skirt (too hot to handle); There’s a Pawnshop on the Corner (a cautionary tale)… all evidence of depravity, but we enjoyed it from outside the fence. It seemed that the sun always shone on Red Island.

Then cheap package holidays made everyone a jet-setter. The holiday camp tottered and fell. It was cleared away. I walked over to have a look. There was something strange. I was five years old again. The tower was back to normal. I thought of tuppenny wafers and fourpenny ones. How did ‘fourpenny one’ become synonymous with a clout in the ear? I was mugged by memories. I stopped and had a good look around. There was a car park on the tennis court. The walk took me a couple of hours. Maybe I went to look for mushrooms. I still get them there, early in the morning, before gulls and crows have a go at them. They can make a tasty breakfast after a swim.

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A friend salvaged some planks from the demolition of the holiday camp. He gave me two, for old time’s sake. I made shelves. They looked hideous.  The planks warped and all the stuff fell off. Now I go to Ikea. Everything fits. It’s a miracle!  The third secret..? Read the bloody instructions.