Eminent Professors, Old News and A Wizard Wheeze.


The Robinsons lived in a pink cottage at Milverton. There were trellised roses wreathed around the cottage door. The garden was filled with herbs and flowers.  They had an orchard behind the house. It was a picture from Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain. I remember a pretty girl in a check summer dress, standing amid the flowers and herbs. They abandoned their home shortly after the war and emigrated to England. The cottage fell into dereliction.

‘Near yonder copse where once the garden smiled/ and still where many a garden flower grows wild…’ She still stands there in my memory. As boys, we went in to investigate the orchard. The cottage door was hanging off. We found that the clay walls had been covered with newspapers, overpainted with distemper. The damp had loosened them. We could read the ancient news still preserved on the back of the paper. There is still no news of the girl in the check summer dress.

Oliver Goldsmith, possibly Ireland’s best loved writer, stated that he loved old things,old books, old friends, old houses, old wine. I don’t think he mentioned old newspapers. Do you recall how you would set out to light a fire with twists of newspaper? You were possibly kneeling down beside the hearth, beginning to bunch up an old paper. Your eye caught a news item that you had missed at the first, hurried reading. Maybe a cartoon. Emil Zatopec got into trouble for supporting The Prague Spring– one little stick man remarking to another: “I never thought that Emil Zatopec would move too fast for the Czechs.” A classic Tom Matthews cartoon—Two men sitting at a table, observing a bearded man in a pointy hat and a cloak decorated with stars and planets. The strange man is bent double, in a paroxysm of coughing. ‘Kaf, kaf!!’ One man says to the other: “Just listen to this wizard wheeze.” If you read Biggles or indeed The Wizard, you will understand the joke. features-goldsmith-full

Goldsmith died at the age of forty six. He is still remembered for the lost world of his deserted village. “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey; where wealth accumulates and men decay.” Bang up to date. I read that the NAMA boys are back in town, scattering their millions around like confetti. Goldsmith should have taken some Phyllosan tablets..’to protect the family after forty. Formulated by an eminent professor of medicine…’  No name or qualifications given. He is eminent. No list of ingredients. How dare you ask? Don’t you see that he is an eminent professor? Professors are always eminent. Judges are always learned. Doctors are always good. Explorers are intrepid. This advertisement is from the Irish Times of  November 2nd 1942.

Under the linoleum in Leo Flanagan’s former house, I found a treasure trove of newspapers from 1942. The Germans are doing well at Stalingrad. The Allied forces are massing at el Alamein. The newly reconstituted Medical Registration Council  held its first meeting, A recommendation for the reduced use of alcohol in drugs was adopted, as a wartime economy measure. Remember Gripe Water for babies. It was mostly alcohol with a subtle after-taste of elderflower. I doubt if Leo ever needed Gripe water or Phyllosan. He coped well with the wartime economy measures by owning a pub. The Council declined to strike off the name of Dr. Patrick Joseph Conlin for convictions ‘outside Eire’ on charges of being drunk and disorderly—fined 20/s and 10/s on two occasions. Presumably the good doctor was warned to observe the wartime economy measures while in Eire. I bought a bottle of green tonic from a friendly pharmacist—overwork and stress. (I was twenty one.) Two spoonfuls in the morning. Great stuff. The size of the spoons wasn’t specified. I took a few more during the day. It tasted great. My stress evaporated. Then I read the label. It had more alcohol than even Gripe Water. Shurely shome mishundershtanding.

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Goldsmith is deservedly commemorated by a Summer School in his native Pallas in County Longford. We probably know him better from the statue outside Trinity College, where he stands beside the great orator Edmund Burke. Summer schools have proliferated throughout the land. They fill the news pages, during the silly season. They come up with wizard wheezes. Here’s one from an eminent professor at the McGill summer school last week: Old people living in houses adjudged to be too big for them, should be punished by higher property taxes and made to move to smaller units of accommodation. This would ‘free up’ more units at a time of shortage. I hesitate to demur, because of the eminence of the professor. I might end up in front of a learned judge. So this is how it works: You struggle to buy, maintain and hold onto a house in which to raise your family. (‘You’ is usually plural, as in ‘the masculine embraces the feminine’.) You cope with fluctuating interest rates of up to twenty two and a half percent. (Thank you, Bertie.) You may welcome old friends or new grandchildren to your house. You may cultivate and enjoy a garden. You may sit in the sun or read a book. You count your blessings……… You are selfish bastards. That house should be confiscated.

One set of experts speaks of keeping old people in their homes, rather than in expensive nursing homes, where they are obliged to watch Scooby Doo all afternoon. I hate Scooby Doo. I hate not having any say over the use of the remote control. (Do you remember the bad old days, when you had to get up out of your chair to change the channel?) I would vote for euthanasia rather than have to spend my declining years watching Scooby Doo. Let me live in my garden shed. Put me out in the snow for the wolves, but please, no Scooby Doo. It’s the same story every time…some villainous entrepreneur, disguised as a ghost, trying to scare people out of their property.  Wait a minute…

Those greedy villains in the above photograph have been in the news lately. They are driving people mad early in the mornings by dancing on the roofs and smashing crabs on the tiles, for breakfast.  They never shut up. Eminent experts have advocated a cull. Other learned experts have called for greater protection of the gulls. What about a cull of the disgruntled householders? Cheaper.  Especially the elderly. They can’t even run.


When Doctor Zhivago arrived home one evening, he found that his house had been confiscated  by the Communists to accommodate several families. This was the new order, explained the commissar. There was no argument. Zhivago shrugged. “Okay,” he said, or words to that effect. “That seems fair enough.” You don’t argue with commissars. He was in the paper a few weeks ago. He died at the age of eighty two. He must have been on the Phyllosan. Julie Christie is still looking all right. Would you turf her out of her home or leave her in the snow for the wolves? Nah!

Resist! Zimmer frames at the ready!

One year; 100 posts. Fox in the Morning.

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I saw an advertisement for classes in willow craft. It is tempting to learn a craft that has served mankind for millennia. I could make baskets and chairs that might take root in the garden, in wet weather. The Dutch wove many of their most serviceable dams from willow. Their Old Masters drew with willow charcoal . Cricketers and oarsmen ply their trade with willow. The phrase that caught my eye was: ‘Learn to make a dream-catcher.’ I don’t know what a dream-catcher is, but I already have one. It has a clunky name–‘a Blog,’ derived however, from ‘Web Log.’  A web is a dream-catcher. A log is a journal of a voyage. Fanciful, no doubt. It was suggested to me, some time ago, that I should write a memoir.  I demurred, on the grounds that I had nothing memorable to write about. I decided instead to begin a blog, gathering together memories of almost  three quarters of a century. One hundred posts and one year later I have a crazy-paving memoir, possibly even a mosaic.

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This is Hattons’ Wood, a long line of trees and undergrowth, with a right-angled bend to the left. I wanted to live in this wood, when I was a child. I wanted to dig a burrow under a great tree and live in comfort, like Ratty and Moley in Wind in the Willows. There would have been some practical difficulties. Planning permission would have been tricky. Planners have very little romance in their souls, if indeed they have souls, when it comes to underground dwellings in the woods. Damp-proofing and carbon monoxide poisoning would have presented problems. Owls and rustling in the undergrowth at night, would have frightened me to death. I stayed at home.

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The master-plan was to sneak into The Cane Wood on Milverton estate, steal some bamboos for spears, fishing rods, bows and arrows and steal away again, over the stile into Hattons’ Wood and along the beaten track through the forest, until we came to the corner. We could emerge with our spoils at that point and saunter across the fields to the railway station and home in triumph. There was a slight hitch. We heard a shot. The landowner and some of his murderous lackeys were out to kill us. It was just after the war, when such things were of trivial importance. Boys in school said that he drove around in a jeep, shooting at all intruders. A jeep? What’s a jeep? The Yanks had them in the war. We ran. My short legs could not keep pace with my two older brothers. ‘Come on! Come on!’ We came to the corner of the wood. They lifted me down a vertiginously high stone wall. I remember the neatness and precision of the blocks close to my face. My brothers held me by both hands.  We ran and we ran, through hedges, across streams and railway tracks, never stopping until we had gained the relative safety of our back garden. We hid in the shed, listening for the rattle of jeeps and and the barking of orders. It seems that they lost the trail. I still recall the terror and also the tenacity and courage of my brothers who dragged me to safety, when they also must have been afraid.

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You can still tell Milverton land by the cut stone gate pillars and the stylish cut stone stiles. I went back in later years to marvel at the high wall that I had overcome. It was no more than three feet high. I went back yesterday morning to catch the sunrise over Skerries. The wood is impenetrable. The wall is obscured by thirty feet of briars and thorn bushes.The wall and the memory of our amazing escape from death, lie secure forever, behind behind that barrier. The two windmills were directly in line. A sailor told me that if you keep the two windmills in line, you will avoid the reef at the southern end of Saint Patrick’s Island. That’s good to know, even when standing in the middle of a stubble field, just enjoying the view.

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A fox broke from the cover of the wood. He startled me.  He ran across the lower end of the stubble field. He flowed, with the grace of a jaguar and vanished into a hedge far below me. There was no need for him to run. I would never have chased him with spears and arrows or hounded him from his home. In another life we might have been neighbours in Hattons’ Wood. We might have sat together on the hill and talked of old times and woven our dreams and hopes and watched the daily miracle of the sun rising over Skerries islands. Good luck to you, fox, on life’s journey and may you sleep safely, wherever you lay your head at night.



The gate lodge once housed a large family called Bingham. Presumably they opened and shut the gates as required. I thought of what fun they must have had, swinging on the gates. To me the children seemed remarkably tall. When I saw them walking to school, in various stages of tallness, they put me in mind of organ pipes. They all had fair hair. They walked in line astern.  I recalled them recently to a man whose wife is a priest in the Church of Ireland.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I remember the Binghams. They were unusual for the time. Poor Protestants.’

They were more unusual in being a large family. The gate lodge is bigger than the other Milverton gate lodges. It guards the main entrance to the demesne. There are imposing pillars and great iron gates. I sort of envied the Binghams, because they lived in a romantic place, The Shady Lane, with a wild wood at their back door. Their house was like something out of a Just William story. They had a vicar and Sunday School, just like William. (Not too keen on school on Sundays.) I imagined foxes and squirrels and maybe even fairies, in the woods. They might even have called them faeries. There was a big house and horses. There were those lovely wrought-iron railings and cut-stone walls and gate pillars, that always indicate the houses of the ‘gentry’. There were copses of magnificent trees. ‘For the house of the Planter, is known by the trees, as Austin Clarke said.  He said more, about the Planter’s daughter: ‘and oh, she was the Sunday in every week.’  The Binghams went away. I hope they prospered.

It was always a popular walk on Sundays, up Toker Hill, (I’m told that it should be ‘Tochar’, an old Irish word. Told by an old Irishman, actually,)  round by The Shady Lane and back by the Quarry Road. There is a lot more traffic nowadays and a lot more cyclists and joggers. There are power-walkers too. Watch out for those elbows.  At any time of year it is, nonetheless a pleasant walk. Long ago, boys went along those roads to look for birds’ nests in springtime and conkers  or crab-apples in the autumn. Young girls went there to gather primroses and wild woodbine for May altars. They picked blackberries in September.  Sometimes they encountered the young boys. Girls, if I recall correctly, had no interest in birds’ nests or conkers. They despised our juvenile pursuits and yet we were reluctant for them to go. At such times I was usually tongue-tied, although I longed to dazzle them with witty conversation. No such luck. There was one girl in particular. I prepared a menu of casual chat and scintillating remarks in my brain, in case I should meet her. She passed on her Raleigh. It was my opportunity to shine. I said nothing. ‘Snob’ she said, as she glided out of my life.  I wanted to go and throw myself in front of Healys’ bull, in defiance of the warning notice nailed to the gate post.  She would hear that I had been savagely gored and would regret her harsh word, but it would be too late. I wanted to hurl myself off the highest cliff in the quarry. She would be sorry then. But I didn’t. I knew that someday she would realise how unjust were her words and that she would fly back to me (on her Raleigh Gazelle. It had a basket on the handlebars, a carrier at the back and a three-speed gearbox. I just happened to notice that. There was gold writing on the black enamel. Elegant gold writing. Ah, well!)


Winter was the best time. The evenings were short. Darkness came early. The Moon appeared through the bare branches of the trees. You would always hear the cronk cronk of a pheasant in Hattons’  Wood, or the startled flapping of wood pigeons. A shot might echo in the gathering twilight, probably the landowner shooting some boys in the Cane Wood, as we were assured, was his practice. Everybody knew that. They were good canes though, and worth the risk.  There was a donkey up there somewhere. He could have been a few miles away,  but his roar carried in still, frosty air. An ass’s roar is a measure of distance in Ireland. The measurement varies according to atmospheric conditions. It’s a fair distance though, even a brave distance on a calm day. You might hear the rustling flight of lapwings and their shrill piping, as great flocks descended, to alight in a stubble field. Lapwings, a sign of cold weather.

We used to go up to the big house at Christmas, to buy holly. Perhaps Yuletide would be more appropriate. I thought of the holly and the ivy and the running of the deer. When blood is nipt and ways be foul, then nightly sings the staring owl. It was a setting for a mediaeval Yuletide, with wassailing in the hall and Tom bearing logs indoors. It was not a setting, in my imagination, for an Irish Christmas. The house was vast. We went  to the front door.  I saw animal heads on the wall inside, water buffalo, impala, wildebeest.  A tall man directed us around to the yard. We got a big bundle of holly,  for one shilling and sixpence. Nobody shot at us. That wonderful house was demolished to avoid crippling rates. Our one shilling and sixpence could not avert the evil day.

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A pair of peregrines nested on the high cliffs in Milverton quarry. I stopped there one still, cold evening, to try to catch a glimpse of them. I have never seen them, although I know people who know people who saw them, so it must be true. The blasting didn’t seem to worry them. I listened. The quarry dam made a soft rushing sound. From far away came the sound of singing, a group of girls on the Toker Hill. (Pace, old Irishman.)  They were singing in parts, as Sister Mel had taught them. Whispering Hope, whispering hope.  Sister Mel taught choir. She taught Maths too, and maintained and drove the tractor. She was a bookbinder and a cook. She could turn a hand to anything. She taught them well.

They laughed and started again.

Wait till the darkness is over,

Wait till the tempest is done,

I was transfixed. It was a perfect moment.

Will not the deepening darkness

Brighten the glimmering star?

It did. It did. I saw the star. I knew their voices. I saw them in my mind’s eye.  I stayed still, not wanting to meet them, or break the spell. I have never forgotten how beautiful they were, singing together on a  winter evening.

When the dark midnight is over

Watch for the breaking of day.


On Friday I will go with my grand daughter, to the Concert Hall, to hear Margaret and her friends, singing Handel’s Messiah, the perfect Wintersong.