Cabbages and Kings. The Elixir of Life. Smoke and Mirrors.

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Experiment on a Bird in an Air-pump. Wright of Derby. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

A lad at the breakfast table posed a conundrum: : ‘What’s the difference between Prince Charles, a monkey’s father and a baldy man?’ He left the question hanging in the air and went off to work. I am grateful to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, for continuing to breathe for a further fifty five years, thereby keeping the conundrum alive and deeply relevant, not least to Prince Charles himself. Conundra at dawn. (I was a Latin teacher at the time,  a bit of a pedant or maybe a pendant, hanging around the school, drawing a vast salary for pondering weighty and abstruse  questions. We often aired our views on weighty and abstruse questions at the table, especially in the evening, until it was time for the television news, followed by The Three Stooges.

What ever happened to “digs”? At one time, most young people starting out in a new town or job, could get room and board for a modest fee. There were compromises to be made in digs, such as sharing a room and the table with relative strangers. There might be a common sitting room with a small black and white television and a paraffin heater adding to the fug of cigarette smoke. (plunk, plunk, plunk. Dum,dum,dum,dum. Hello. I’m the Esso blea duler.  If you don’t remember paraffin heaters you won’t remember the Esso blea duler. It was funny at the time. I can’t explain why.)  ‘ Open a window, would you? Let some air in.’  ‘Shut that bloody door. There’s a draught.’ One landlady had an arrangement of mirrors so that everyone could see the television. That was disconcerting, to say the least. Everyone on television was left-handed. Our Atlantic weather came from the South East. Britain was further West than Ireland. To make matters worse, there was a second screen placed over the first one to reduce the glare, but the new glamour of television made a flickering visit every evening.  Cassius Clay and some of the Rome Olympics.

There was a legendary landlady who boiled the week’s breakfast porridge on Sunday evening and poured it into a drawer lined with grease-proof paper from sliced pans, to be used throughout the week. Each morning she dug out a square of the stuff and rendered it down in hot water, like an Inuit woman rendering a lump of whale blubber. There were no ‘best before ‘ notices in those days. By Saturday it had acquired a distinct consistency and flavour, but there was always Monday (fry on Sunday) to look forward to. It would be unfair to the great majority of landladies to regard this practice as the norm.

You were expected to contribute to the conversation/slagging/gossip/scandal at the table. A great deal of hot air was expended on politics, women, about which most of us knew very little, drink of which we could afford very little, religion, like drink, to be taken in moderation, Vatican II  advocating moderation.  Archbishop McQuaid said: ‘it need not disturb the tranquility of your Christian lives’.  Phew! that was close. The Space Race..Sputnik, Telstar. Will Kennedy and Khrushchev start a nuclear war? Will we survive? What time are Confessions on  this evening? Better hurry. I didn’t fancy a couple of months under the stairs with those lads, surviving on tinned beans and the like. The atmosphere might have got a bit strained. Time for a pint…Beamish at 10d a pint, Guinness at 1s/1d. We had a poet philosopher in the digs. He addressed his pint: ‘Ah, the elixir of life.’ He would probably have said ‘apostrophised his pint.’ The pints were dispensed over trays with perforated boards on top. The spillage was gathered into jugs and used to top up the pints. It was insanitary and probably illegal but the pub had atmosphere. We argued about the elixir of life. I still maintain that it’s obvious. Air is the elixir of life. ‘The first time we smell the air, we waul and cry, that we are come to this great stage of fools.’ The poet was a Shakesperian. We take it for granted until the last rattle of air leaving the body. It’s just there. Fill your lungs with it. It’s free. There will never be a pub on the Moon….no atmosphere.(Sorry). No passing trade.

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Chairman Mao and his cronies sent a delegation to Silesia, the industrial heartland of Poland to see how heavy industry worked. They saw the smog and the grey rivers and concluded that industry was dangerous to human life. They went home, glorying in the clean air of Communist China. Along with ten million others, I read his little red book. ‘Freedom of speech must be afforded to all…except hostile elements. Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.’  He ran the country into famine and poverty. As soon as he died, his cronies dumped his philosophy. There is more money in heavy industry, low wages and grime. Look at the smog in their cities today.

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Some builders from Poland built a room for us. They made a beautiful job of it. They used an eight-foot long magic wand to get level floors and vertical walls. The crucial part is the little bubble of air. Marvellous stuff. It’s a light airy room with windows and no television. No smoking either. No accelerated-freeze-dried cabbage by Erin Foods. The landlady bought it by the sackful. She had a contact. Pssst! Do you want any accelerated-freeze-dried cabbage, dessicated and vacuum packed? Just add hot water.  It had no taste but the colour was good. It had the consistency of matchsticks. I don’t imagine it’s available today…unless, of course, you have a contact.

Our poet of the dinner table, was expatiating on poetry and on how he could analyse the component parts of any poem. He conducted his anatomical examination with the panache of the scientist in Wright’s painting, reducing some gem of English literature to a a pile of accelerated-freeze-dried verbiage…just breathe upon it to give it life. The conundrum man arrived, sat down and looked around. “Well, lads, have ye got the answer?” We shook our heads. He drew his dinner closer. He paused. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” It wasn’t a bit obvious. It had distracted me all day. “Prince Charles is The Heir Apparent. A monkey’s father is a hairy parent and a baldy man has ne’er a hair apparent at all, at all. God I hate this  bloody cabbage.” He addressed himself to his food.

You may have heard that one before. As they used to say in the fit-ups, if you enjoyed it, tell your friends. If you didn’t, save your breath to cool your porridge.

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Sport, diplomacy and war…almost

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After Stalin died, everything was going to get better. When we heard the news, on the BBC Home Service, early in the morning, I asked my mother if Stalin was in Hell.  From what I had heard, he was a sure-fire candidate. I could already picture him down there, surrounded by demons with red- hot tridents. Serve him bloody well right. “Betwixt the saddle and the ground, he mercy sought and mercy found,’  says she.  A bit cryptic. What had that got to do with anything? It sounded like a cop-out to me. What was he doing on a horse anyway?  It seems that he did fall down. Beria, his sycophantic security chief, let a cheer out of him: ‘Hooray! The tyrant is dead.’ Stalin opened one eye and looked up at him. Beria fell to his knees and grovelled. Stalin took a while to die. Beria was a worried man. I’m sure they have sorted out whatever misunderstanding took place on the day, over a glass of brimstone. Anyway, the world was definitely going to be better.

1956 was a good year for diplomacy. Bulganin and Khrushchev  came to Britain in April,  in a Soviet warship on a mission of peace and goodwill. The naval frogman, Lionel, “Buster” Crabb, disappeared while diving under their ship. However, we will all understand what happened, when the British cabinet papers on the matter are released…..in 2057. Feelings may have died down a bit in the intervening 101 years.

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Buster was a hard drinking , chain smoker, overweight and unfit, the ideal chap to send diving under Russian warships. He was an example to athletes who wish to achieve fame. He is still in prison in Moscow. His headless body was discovered weeks later, near Portsmouth. He has been brainwashed and is training Russian divers, to this very day. He was shot dead by watchmen on the Russian ship. Take your pick. We will know soon enough. Diplomacy cranked up again. A major athletics meeting, arranged for The White City in London in August, was cancelled, following the arrest of Nina Ponomareva, for the theft of five hats in a London department store. Nina was a discus thrower of impressive proportions, a godsend to the tabloid newspapers. Her defence was that she had paid for the hats in the Russian way, where the shop assistant kept the receipt. In the pre-bling era of Russian consumerism, the state store, Gúm, supplied everything you might need, if it was in stock. You stated your requirement..e.g. a pair of shoes and you paid a clerk. He or she passed the receipt on to the shoe person who went away and brought back a pair of shoes.  If they were the right size, you then departed. If not you could probably exchange them for beetroot. Poor Nina was confused by the decadent, capitalist, imperialist system.  10742-P0000-000005-1640

Vulcan bombers were put on standby. Nuclear submarines took to the water. Missiles swivelled towards the target cities. Tanks and infantry massed on the borders, ready to plunge the world into Armageddon. However, Nina paid £3-15s-0 d and the matter was dismissed. War was averted. My mother said: “Ah, the poor thing. She had probably never seen a pretty hat in her life.”  Women have a natural instinct for hats. They’re not really very good at war. However, the troops were ready, so they had to be employed.  Britain invaded Suez, where Buster had done some underwater spying in his time, and Russia invaded Hungary.(Stalin was dead but he hadn’t gone away, you know.)  If it hadn’t been for the Melbourne Olympics and Ronnie Delaney’s gold medal in the mile, it would have been a gloomy year altogether. It might seem a long time ago now, but I still cheer when I see Delaney on old archive film. By the way, we had a state Irish language publisher, called An Gúm. ‘I want to buy a book.’ ‘Very good sir. I have one here. That will be five shillings, please.’

Rome in 1960, brought a bright new world of colour to the Olympics. It brought also, Cassius Clay, who lit up the world and still inspires. Tokyo in 1964 brought digital timing and digital display. Athletes broke records, or missed records by on thousandth of a second. It was a triumph for Japanese technology, although ironically, more young people nowadays,  play games on digital gadgets than engage in actual physical activity. I heard a youngster telling his brother :”Hey, I’ve just broken the world record. I’ve beaten Daley Thompson.”  His brother replied. “Huh.” They were both sprawled on a couch, twiddling their thumbs. No victory parade and cheering crowds for our new decathlete champion. Lazy little so and sos.  Good morning Tokyo indeed. Fortius Citius Altius and all that.

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In a funny way, Tokyo 1964 could have ignited a war between Ireland, Italy, Britain and the Soviet Union, if chance and a bit of diplomacy had not intervened. Where would we have put all the prisoners? Everyone who knew Leo Flanagan, has a story about him. He told quite a few, mostly against himself. He had plenty of material.  This one he told me while in philosophical and contemplative mood. “The last young woman I ever looked at with lust, was an Italian gymnast at the Tokyo Olympics. She wore a blue tracksuit. The Azurri.  Ah, yes.” He had blagged his way to becoming chef d’equipe with the Irish sailing team.  He had met a few of the officials in Hong Kong and tagged along. He organised the loan of a boat, a vital piece of equipment. He was kitted out in blazer and slacks and a sporty looking hat. He found himself in the assembly area for the opening parade. He looked around, wondering about his good fortune.There she was, a vision in blue, the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. “I must pinch that young woman’s bottom,” he said to himself. Being a cosmopolitan kind of fellow, he knew that this is a compliment of sorts, to Italian womanhood. I don’t think he had ever verified this with Italian womanhood. Staring straight ahead, he reached sideways and grabbed a good handful of bottom.  He looked furtively to gauge the effect, perhaps envisaging romantic trysts and candlelit dinners.  To his horror, he realised that he had miscalculated. He had pinched a towering Russian female shot putter, an unforgivable error of navigation. In blind terror, he stared straight ahead.  “She darkened the sun. She had thews, rather than arms. Beside her, Nina Ponomareva was the merest slip of a girl. She glared all about her. All my past life flashed before my eyes. She decided that the likeliest culprit was a British boxer, rather than the feeble old man in the Irish blazer.  I think his name was Henderson, a heavyweight and Britain’s best hope of gold. She drew out and punched down at him, splitting his eyebrow wide open.” He emphasised that she had to reach down to the heavyweight. Henderson or whatever his name was, had to withdraw from the games.

There were cries of outrage. The missiles swivelled again. The Vulcans revved up. Leo went to a reception in the Irish embassy.  He met an old friend, a photographer from The Irish Press. “You bastard, Flanagan,” his friend began. “I have the photograph of the entire games…and they won’t let me use it.”. A damn close call. If Leo had started a war, at least we would all have died laughing. Even Brezhnev might have cracked a bleak smile. As for the prisoners, we could have put them in Red Island Holiday camp. It had a wire mesh fence and a big, bearded security man on the gate. Conversely we could have interned them in Leo’s cinema. There was so much chewing gum on the floor and seats, nobody could have escaped.

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That one, by the way, is Berlin in 1936, the first televised Olympics. Nothing funny there.  My mother never mentioned ‘mercy sought and mercy found,’ about  Hitler.  Note: If you go to Tokyo in 2010, keep your hands to yourself, or you will be digitised and put on YouTube..