Meet the Corvids and of course, The Fokkers.


As I was walking all alone

I heard twa corbies makin’ a moan

That ane unto that ither said

Where sall we gan tae dine the day?

With apologies to that prolific  author, Anon, my recollection is inaccurate as is my spelling. This is from a Border Ballad learnt in school. The Border Ballads tell of a time of constant and brutal warfare in the transitional territories between England and Scotland. The dilemma still perplexes fashionable diners. Where shall we go to dine today? The second crow had a good suggestion.

In behind yon oul fail dyke

I wot there lies a new-slain knight

And naebody kens that he lies there,

But his hawk and his hound

And his lady fair.

There follows a justification and an invoice, a bill of fare. The hound has gone to the hunting; the hawk to fetch the wildfowl home and the lady has taken another mate….’so we can mak our dinner swate.’  That’s life. We move on. Get over it. Adapt. Recycle. ‘You sit on his white breast bane and I’ll pick out his bonny blue e’en.’  The crows are the great recyclers; the raven, bird of ill omen; the rook, master of the gale, in his  swaying, tree-top dwelling; the jackdaw, that snapper-up of unconsidered trifles; the cliff-dwelling chough and the sinister scaul crow, connoisseur of carrion, who has lately begun to visit our garden. Easy pickings among sparrows and starlings. I remember how we believed that there was a bounty on scaul crows, five shillings. They had  a reputation for attacking lambs. They steal the wool and the eyes. They are probably a protected species nowadays. We make our dinner sweet from the poor lambs. Its a harsh world, as Anon would say.

Broken dish, blossom 005

‘All to one side,’ said Brother Arnold, ‘like the town of Fermoy.’  I worked there in later years. The town of Fermoy has a mighty bridge, spanning the spectacular River Blackwater.

Broken window waves etccastletownroche 012

Broken window waves etccastletownroche 014

Brother Arnold was talking about fractions, integers, decimal points, LCDs HCFs and always, mental arithmetic.  Coal cost £3-6s-8d per ton. How much for 1cwt?  A man runs 440 yards in 1 minute. How long would it take him to run 1 mile?  It should take him 4 minutes, but in reality, he will be knackered at that pace, by the time he reaches 1320 yards. I did that calculation in my head.  ‘You’d do it while you were puttin’ on your boots.’  No big deal.  He divided the sheep from the goats on the basis of mental arithmetic. He had a portable blackboard with numbered squares. Last thing in the afternoon, he gave each one of us a work-out, pointing rapidly to one square after another. You would be knackered too,  after four minutes.

I could never see anything one sided about the town of Fermoy, but in fairness, I was no mathematician. I swam in the Blackwater, opposite what is now Michael Flatley’s house. I swam underwater and heard the river rushing by and the millions upon millions of pebbles rolling in the shallows. I heard the constant thunder of the weir, by day and by night and marvelled at the countless salmon leaping up the weir. (Rainman was standing beside me. ‘47,362,’ he said, a true mathematician.) There is a documented account of the unique war between the crows in the trees on the Pyke Road and those downriver near Carrigabrick Viaduct.. The war went on for weeks, with spectacular aerial combat over the river. Perhaps they were auditioning for The Blue Max,  filmed in 1966 in the same skies. It was not a one sided war. The Blackwater looks beautiful in the film. The biplanes dived under the viaduct, again and again and even clipped the little castle on the cliff. It was magnificent, but it was not war. The combatants were rival German air aces—a bit one sided. They were vying for the favours of Ursula Andress, the general’s generous wife, she of the prehensile bath towel. (It was 1966 after all).  It’s an old story. Like the lady in the Border Ballad,  she found another mate. Get over it.


This is, apparently, Anton Fokker, builder of wonderful and beautiful flying machines. He is flying Santos Dumont’s monoplane, in 1909.  Would you fight a war in one of these? ‘That lonely impulse of delight…. drove to this tumult in the clouds?’  The crows would do better. They had the last word on war.

‘Wi’ a lock of his gowden hair

We”ll theek our nest, when it grows bare.’

Viaduct fermoy

A crow’s-eye view of the whole business.

Respecting The Haka, Charles, Nigella and Ratner.

Do you remember Ratner? Some years ago he was the Sultan of Bling, owner of a vast chain of High Street jewellers. It seems that romances were invariably sealed with a Ratner ring, guaranteeing a lifetime of wedded bliss. That was until he said, in a moment of unusual candour, that  ‘all his jewellery was actually crap.’  That was his ‘Darwin’ moment, the moment when he removed himself metaphorically and spectacularly, from the evolutionary chain. (Chains, weak links?  The whole business fell apart.) I suspect drink and a bit of flattery. The Chinese don’t take refuge in metaphors. Tomorrow’s World, or some similar  programme, once showed jewellery derived from a process that could transform sewage into gemstones almost as hard as diamonds. They could have fooled me, but the label gave the game away: Produced by Peking Municipal Sewage Works, or words to that effectIt sort of spoiled the magic. Too much candour there.

The ‘Ratner moment’ must have an element of deceit revealed by the deceiver, or some action so seemingly out of character, that it destroys a carefully cultivated image, perhaps a lifetime in the making. Chaucer’s Pardoner entertained his fellow pilgrims, by exposing his own swindling techniques. Drink led him to drop his guard, if I remember rightly. He had some blood from The True Cross, and a shred of an old sack, part of the sail of Saint Peter’s boat. He had an animal bone, a relic, kissed by the sinners queuing to buy his indulgences to finance the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s. He shared the joke with his companions. They were not amused.  Luther definitely had a point. His ninety seven theses, nailed to the church door, are mainly pleas, for good housekeeping and decency. On the one occasion that I visited Saint Peter’s and the Vatican, I was amazed and awed by the magnificence and repelled by the extravagance. The Church has had enough Ratner moments to keep it going for a few thousand years. No need to dwell on them here.

We have all run off at the mouth on occasions, (Drink, anybody?) but we lowly mortals are not game-changers. The paparazzi don’t follow us around, hoping for that revealing photograph. We are not pestered by reporters for a quote. We don’t sit near live microphones, where unguarded comments can be relayed to the entire world. Even if you have never seen it,  you remember Gay Byrne’s interview with Padraig Flynn. (It’s on Youtube.) It is a masterclass in saying nothing. It is possibly the great Irish ‘Ratner moment’.  Have a look at it again and know that you will never in your whole life, achieve that level of importance or hubris. There are advantages in being insignificant. Emily O Reilly, a journalist at the time, was asked if Padraig would be reappointed as Ireland’s European Commissioner.’ ‘Three words come to mind,’ she said. ‘ Hell, chance and snowball.’  Padraig compounded his problem, by shutting a lift door on the throng of reporters who flocked after him. That finished him. He was beamed up into obscurity.

Mel Gibson let his affable mask slip after a car crash. (Not a metaphor.) The crowd began to whistle at Ceausescu and he was a goner.  Hilary Clinton ‘miss-spoke’.  I like that phrase. I wish I had invented it myself. Mitt Romney made unguarded comments near a microphone. He was relaxing among his own kind.   He’s a Mormon. He can’t even plead drink as an excuse. He lost 47% of the electorate in one phrase. Ratner would have been proud of him. Brian Cowan was congested, early in the morning. There is a grudging regard for the embattled mayor of Toronto. ‘If I smoked crack cocaine,’ he said,’it must have been in one of my drunken stupors.’ No tearful Tiger Woods apology to his wife, family and Uncle Tom Cobley there. No purpose of amendment, as we used to say. No mention of rehab. What you see is what you get. Take it or leave it.

You would expect an advertising man to be subtle. You would expect him to use words to effect. If he wishes to take his wife by the throat, ‘to help her to focus’, you would imagine that he would do so in the privacy of his own home, not outside a fashionable restaurant, the natural haunt of paparazzi. Not good for the image. Advertising is all about image. Would you buy a used car etc. etc? We can all understand how easy it is to mislay the odd thousand or two in our monthly expenses. It can be regarded as a misfortune. To mislay seventy five thousand, however, can only be regarded as carelessness. Whatever the rights and the wrongs of it all, I wish she didn’t lick her fingers when handling food. I also detest those chefs who taste the food and put the spoon back into the sauce. Hey! They poke at food, putting scallops on top of black puddings, ‘plating up,’ rearranging, scattering veg everywhere. Finger food? Use a tongs. Use a spoon, for God’s sake. It would put you off your grub. Bottom line: strangle your wife in private and remember to pull the curtains, not like the eejit in Rear Window. There are eyes and cameras everywhere nowadays.

Game-changers in sport also come out of the blue, for better or for worse.  Dick Spring dropped the ball in Cardiff.  He dropped it again when he led his party into coalition and near annihilation. You just knew it at the time. Eamonn Coughlan looked at the Russian on the final bend in the World Championships in Helsinki. He smiled and you knew that he was unbeatable. Stephen Roche threw caution to the wind in a dizzying downhill chase on the Alp de  Huez and the Tour was his. Game over. I’ve watched old film of Ronnie Delaney in Melbourne, a hundred times. I still don’t think he’s going to make it.  Then, unbelievably, he accelerates. They’re going to catch him. They don’t.  He raises his arms in triumph and lifts a whole nation. We could do with a few more moments like that.

We nearly had one last week when, as Cian Healy would say, we almost beat the New Zealand team. Ah, well!  We’ll get them in the next hundred years or so. Image is half the battle with the New Zealand team. They dress in black. They perform a war dance. They chant and and stick out their tongues. It is a chant about a chief who hid from his enemies in a pit of sweet potatoes. There is mention of a hairy man. They wear tattoos in the Maori warrior tradition.  They come, they see, they conquer…except for Munster many years ago. There is a way. All distinguished visitors who come to our shores are compelled to drink a pint of ‘the black stuff’ in an Irish pub. Even Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were skull-hauled up to Guinness’s to marvel at how a pint is pulled. Barack Obama bought pints in Moneygall. I don’t know if the Pope nipped into The Royal Oak when he was up in the Phoenix Park. It would have been discreet anyway.

Why do we not accord the same courtesy to The All Blacks?  Other teams have official water and official beer. Ply them with unlimited ‘black stuff’ on the days leading up to the match. They could hardly refuse. Their tongues are hanging out already. It would be in the best tradition of Irish hospitality. Plan B.  Appoint Michael Flatley as kicking coach. It is time to unleash The Rinka.