Radio Days. Imagination and The Force.

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Flanagan’s Force

To peer at the glowing valves in the back of an old-style wireless was like looking at a futuristic city, the sort of place the Treens lived in on Venus. You could imagine them flying from skyscraper to skyscraper in their machines and The Mekon of Mekonta hovering around on his brain-powered tea tray. The Treens were almost human, although green but The Mekon, also green, was practically all head. The Treens obeyed his every command because he was so, well, brainy. I really wanted one of those hover trays but I wouldn’t have had the brain power to drive it.  After a certain age the ability to fly through deepest space in a cardboard box or on a bin lid, powered by imagination alone, sort of deserts you. You may of course, sit in the box and make appropriate noises but long before you reach Alpha Centauri, your family will have sent for the good people in the white coats. When adults are described as ‘well grounded’ it is considered a compliment, not a disability. We Earthlings are unavoidably ‘earthbound.’

You might see the Manhattan skyline, all lit up and buzzing with energy. That was where so much music and talk came from. By reaching around to the knob at the front, you could cut off the energy. Wheeeoooo chunkk! Manhattan died. Turn again and the city came back to glowing life.This was a guilty pleasure as we were expressly forbidden to interfere with the wireless. Even the smallest valve is vital to the life of the whole apparatus. The Old Man might have to go down, in high dudgeon, to Oisín Thornton’s shop for a new valve, or to Bernie Clancy to have the whole blasted thing repaired. High Dudgeon may sound like a charming little village in the Cotswolds but it isn’t. My Old Man was there on many occasions. It was not a tranquil place at all. Certainly not in 1940 when his wireless exploded with the surge of the new electricity. The Force was not with him on that occasion. Blasted E.S.B. At least I wasn’t responsible that time.

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Grid Force

Static was the curse of radio, as it came to be called. I believe that the fizzing and flickering on old televisions after ‘shut down’ is the echo of The Big Bang, the reverberation of the creation of the ever expanding Universe. If so, the Big Bang must have occurred somewhere near Skerries, because we got it all the time on radio and later, on television. Amateur wiring and dodgy DIY fuses probably didn’t help. Multiple adapters from a single plug created the perfect electrical storm. Nevertheless the static emphasised the wonder of the whole business. Practically every programme sounded like a dispatch from Nazi occupied Europe,where some brave resistance fighter pedalled  furiously on a bicycle-powered generator to send vital information over the airwaves. Fine tuning was required to locate your favourite programme through the blizzard of static. The needle jerked along the dial from Athlone to Hilversum to Frankfort in search of a clear signal. The needle was powered by strings winding around little wheels. There was a green tuning ‘eye’ that promised clarity. We lived in hope. Sometimes it paid off.

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Force filched from the wind

Always at breakfast time, we got Dvorak and his Slavonic dances from the Home Service, courtesy of the BBC Northern Ireland Light Orchestra. There was Lift Up Your Hearts, a short inspirational talk just before the eight o’ clock news. One of the themes remained with me:……..a clergyman in some far-flung outpost of Empire saw a young shipping clerk supervising coolies as they carried bags of rice up gangplanks and into the hold of a freighter. The sun was hot, even in the early morning. The young man, clad in white, with his sola topee and clip board, was tallying the bags as the coolies struggled up the plank and ran back down.  “Juldi! Juldi!” said the young clerk by way of encouragement. The clergyman saw him in the late afternoon, still tallying and encouraging the sweating coolies. The young man looked exhausted. Even the mad dogs and all the other Englishmen had taken refuge from the heat. ‘”You’ve had a long day,” I said. “Keep your chin up”. The young man smiled in response. He straightened up and carried on with renewed vigour. It is amazing how even the simplest kind word can make such a difference.”‘ He never thought to lift up the hearts of the coolies. Blasted natives. “Juldi! Juldi

The Old Man always encouraged us in the morning: “Get a move on. There’s Lift up Your Effing Hearts. Get out of bed and get off to school.” He improved after a cigarette and a cup of tea. Piiip! Piiip! Piiip. Eight o’clock. Boots on the floor. “Here is the News.(in no particular order)…..Korea, Mau Mau, Cyprus, death of Stalin, The Middle East, (always The Middle East,)King Farouk, Nasser, Suez, Hillary and Tensing, Glubb Pasha,Makarios,Kenyatta, inflation, Budapest, Cold War, Kashmir, Bikini atoll and the hydrogen bomb…” That was before ‘bikini’ took on a new resonance to disturb the tranquility of growing boys. They were only talking about nuclear devastation  and the end of life on Earth.

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Sometimes there was good news; news to make young lads, leave their breakfast,  jump up and down and yell in sheer delight. Sixty years ago, almost to the day, through the firestorm of static, all the way from Melbourne, came the commentary on the Olympic 1500 metres final. The ‘man from Eire’, Ronnie Delaney came through the field, the greatest milers of the day, Landy, Hewson, Lincoln, Tabori and a handful of luminaries, to carry off the gold medal for Ireland. In the apparently relentless and grim Fifties, his achievement stills shines out. The Force was with him that day. I still cheer when I see it on video.

I think it was even better though, on the wireless.

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Mau Mau, A sense of place. Winds of change. Justice delayed.

There was a map of Europe on the wall of my classroom in National School. I emphasise that it was on the wall. There were several other maps rolled up and kept on top of a cupboard. One of them, Mercator’s world map, made an occasional appearance, but it was a puzzle. It looked top heavy. Greenland and Canada dominated the world. Africa was a bit sketchy. There was no North or South Pole. There was a lot of red. I never got to see the other maps.

Europe, however, was always in front of my eyes. There was not so much red, just the two western islands,Ireland and Britain. France was pale green, square and solid at the left hand edge, but a bit skinny, lacking Alsace and Lorraine. I learned the reason for that later. The German Empire, a purply blue, sprawled across the top. It wasn’t exactly Prussian blue, a colour I found later to be overwhelming, with a tendency to dominate all other colours. I draw no conclusions there. Russia was pale yellow. St. Petersburg stood out in large black print. It later became Leningrad, but Peter is back again. There were several little countries in that area, that later disappeared but have also come back. Scandinavia always looked like a monster preparing to devour Denmark. Nederland was hollowed out by the Zuyder Zee. That’s ‘sea’ zpelt wrong. There was a song about it: ‘Zing, zing, zing a little zong with me….’ The zee is all filled in now. Where was Poland?

What can you say about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Which was it, Austria or Hungary? Apparently the last Habsburg, doddering about in retirement, was told that Austria and Hungary were playing that night in a World Cup qualifier. It was to be on television. ‘Ah, good,’ he replied. ‘Who are we playing?’ That was a man who knew which side he was on. It seemed to be made of millions of little pieces. We had a big carving dish at home. It was glazed with fine cracks. There was always the fear that it would fall apart and ruin the Sunday dinner. President Wilson tried to dismantle Austria-Hungary. The dust hasn’t settled yet. I have the bits of that dish in a box under my desk. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will have their work cut out.

The Ottoman Empire hung onto a sizeable chunk of the bottom right hand corner. A strange name for an empire. A white strip of Africa ran along the bottom. Africa wasn’t invited. But where the hell was Poland?

There was a song about Africa: ‘Take a trip to Africa. Happy, happy Africa. Come on along and learn the lingo, In a jungle bungalow.’ There was another one: ‘Bongo, bongo bongo, I’m so happy in the Congo, I don’t want to go. Ingle angle bungle, I’m so happy in the jungle….’ and ‘Zambezi, Zambezi, Zambezi Zam!’ Father O Sullivan particularly railed against these songs in his sermons. We nudged one another, thinking of the Sunday roast. Gravy. Crackling. ‘Put another nickle in, in the nickelodeon.’ He hated that one too. Decadence everywhere.

My brother had a taste for the macabre. He told us about the Mau Mau. He told us in great detail. We younger siblings were scared. They went out at night to attack white people and Her Majesty’s forces of law and order. They used voodoo and juju. Nobody was safe from the Mau Mau. The Mau Mau decreed a night of the long knives, when every European would die in his(or her) bed. My brother was quite tickled by the idea. I was puzzled by that. He’s European. I’m European.

I checked in school. Kenya wasn’t even on the map. They would have to come across the narrow bit at Constantinople. They couldn’t possibly, even by juju and voodoo, cut every European throat in one night. They couldn’t reach Ireland in one night. Someone would spot them before they got to Skerries. It was slightly reassuring.

My big sister brought me to a lecture in Floraville. Billy Blood Smyth showed lantern slides of Skerries, which his father had made in the 1880’s and 90’s. They were magic lantern slides. I would love to see them again. Leo Flanagan quoted Longfellow on memories and sea faring and growing up by the sea and… ‘Spanish sailors with bearded lips…..for the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.’ All very appropriate to a lecture on old Skerries. There was an accompanying exhibition of curiosities and bric a brac. There was a bicycle pump bought on the very day that World War II broke out. There was a flower pot cast by James Duff on the day the Germans entered Paris. It impressed me because I was born exactly a year and a day afterwards. (No significance at all in reality). There was a panga—-‘as used by the Mau Mau’. A sea-faring Skerries man contributed the panga. A panga is a rough version of the machete. You could easily make one yourself. Ideal for chopping vegetation or Europeans. My fears returned. Fortunately, the Mau Mau never made it to Skerries.

Father O Sullivan also inveighed against women wearing shorts. The chief offender was Fanny Blankers-Koen, an athlete from bezide the Zuyder Zee. She distinguished herself in the 1948 Olympics. She was called ‘Flying Fanny’ in the tabloids. Father O Sullivan asked if we would be surrounded by flying fannies. My parents cracked up at the dinner table. I couldn’t see what was so funny.Nederland was inundated by a great storm a few years later. Had they not heard the story of Noah and a vengeful God? The Zuyder Zee is all polder land now. The Dutch built the Delta dams, but women are still wearing shorts. I fear for the future. ‘It won’t be rain but fire next time…’ Frankie Laine had a hit with that song.

There is a case going through the House of Lords. A group of poor old Kikuyu men are seeking justice for torture and mutilations inflicted on them by the forces of law and order in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurgency. There was another side to that story. Truth is indeed the daughter of time. Kenya is on the map. The empires are gone. What a bloody awful century!

However, we have two little Irish/Polish grandsons to delight us. I am glad that Poland came back.