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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The Assyrian came down, like a wolf on the fold…

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I went to Mass yesterday to mark my parents’ anniversary. It was the feast of St. Dominic of the Order of Preachers, scourge of heretics everywhere. My father’s cousin, Fr.Vincent Ryan, was a Dominican, an affable man whose great delight was to go down to Yarra Bank, in Melbourne, near the cricket ground, on a Sunday morning, to engage the heretics in discussion. He enjoyed the Australian sense of humour, ‘but,’ he warned, ‘you have to give as good as you get.’  Theological discussion was lively. He often got a roasting, he said, but nobody was burnt at the stake. He went on to Rome, to teach at the Angelicum University. I thought fondly of him yesterday.

But I also thought about Saint Dominic, a man whose body-count would rival that of Pol Pot. The pun on the Dominicans in mediaeval times, was Domini Canes, The Hounds of The Lord. Their job was to seek out heretics, Albigensians, Cathars, Witches, The Poor Men, Manichaeans, and burn them. Sometimes, in surgery cautery is the only treatment. Dominic used it extensively. He preached a crusade against his fellow Christians. The towns of southern France were blackened with the soot of burning heretics. Did it work? Did it ensure  a single, unified church? Not quite.

One point of dispute was the nature of God. Some argued that there are two gods, a good one and an evil one, locked in a cosmic struggle. All the evil in the world is the work of the evil god. One clarification offered was that the good god created man down to the waist, (‘Man’ in this context embraces  ‘woman.’) while the evil god made all the bits below the waist…..Ah!….       Wise words on the subject from Saint Paul [women must cover their hair in church]: ‘It is better to marry than to burn…’ (Amen to that.) and from Ogden Nash, on the subject of women wearing trousers: ‘You may clothe your nether limbs in pants/Yours are the legs, my sweeting./ You look divine as you advance,/ but…. have you seen yourself retreating?’  Nash introduces a fore and aft element to the heresy. What would the Domini Canes say to that? The mind wanders in church. Stand up. Sit down. Kneel down. Stand up. Catholics get a good work-out at Mass.  Muscular Christianity, the Victorians called it.

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The Old Testament reading was from the Prophet Nahum. He frightened the life out of me:- wars, gleaming swords, shining spears, corpses everywhere, Nineveh in ruins, the anger and vengeance of God. Some say that Nahum prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in 615 B.C. before the event, while others claim that he foretold the destruction of Nineveh, in 612 B. C.  after the event. Prophecies after the event are more certain. ‘There! What did I tell you?’  If I were a prophet, I wouldn’t dwell with wild beasts in the desert, eating locusts (yecchh!) I would win untold wealth on the horses and go about the world doing good works, alleviating suffering  and bringing peace and love to all, (except the bookies.)

Peter O Toole, speaking of the relevance of Lawrence of Arabia, said: ‘Open your morning paper. Open the Bible. It’s still the same news.’ Sadly, Nahum was right on the money. He describes the Middle East as it is today. The swords still flash. The weapons gleam in the blistering sun. The smoke rises from burning towns. The followers of various gods and of the same god, inflict suffering on one another and on the innocent. Creeds and sects go to war with their own kind and with ‘unbelievers.’  Dissent, (heresy) results in hideous punishment.

Apologies for the quality of my scans.(Double-click for details.) They are copied from Nineveh  by Austen Layard, Murray’s Reading for the Rail, 1853, an abridged version of his eight volume edition,(Price 36 shillings) which you wouldn’t attempt to read on a commuter train. You could read one and sit on the other seven, as seats can be scarce. I bought it fifty years ago for half a crown, in Webbs at the Ha’penny Bridge. Layard excavated a city of vast winged statues, bas-reliefs and a clay library detailing the origins of law, writing, mathematics,accounting, science and the arts of war. They liked lions and fish. There are swimmers with aqualungs, in a depiction of naval warfare on the great rivers. Nahum saw a city filled with lies, robbers, unbelievers and prostitutes, ripe for destruction by a vengeful god.  He could say the same thing today. He is bound to be right somewhere, some time.

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Profoundly disturbed by the latest news from Nineveh and its environs, I went across to the fish shop and bought some prawns. They are the marine version of locusts, I imagine. Maybe I should try locusts in marie-rose sauce. Maybe I should go into the prophecy business. The first thing I will do is, respectfully, ask God to stop taking sides in disputes, pogroms, genocides, jihads, crusades, ethnic cleansings and massacres. Lay off the vengeance and wrath. Go easy on the plagues and locusts. Stop sending Medes and Babylonians and their modern equivalents, as scourges.  Calvin approved strongly of Nahum’s version of God. That’s not a good recommendation.

Layard described the Turkish Bey of Mosul, in Iraq, a man hated by his subjects for his cruelty and avarice. Every so often he would circulate the news that he was fatally ill. The subjects perked up. The news came that he was dead. The people broke out in celebration and feasting.  Laughter and song could be heard in the streets and in the market-place. At this point, the Bey and his cavalry galloped forth from his palace to punish his people for their disloyalty. After sufficient blood had been shed, they withdrew, until the next time. He’s dead now, thank God, not that Iraq is any better off.

The last words on good and evil, from Ogden Nash:

‘The rain it raineth every day/Upon the just and on the unjust fella/ But mainly on the just/ Because the unjust hath the just’s umbrella.’

That Assyrian in the chariot has a nice umbrella. I wonder whence he plundered it.

p.s. I want my big, white umbrella back or verily I shall wreak a terrible vengeance upon thee, as God is my judge.