Hazards of Life, Jethro Tull and Mangling the Language.

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George Bernard Shaw  remarked that when any Englishman opens his mouth to speak, he makes another Englishman despise him.  This is by no means confined to Englishmen, but Shaw found our neighbours to be a rewarding field of study. There is a gentleman in an advertisement on Sky television who recommends Sky+ or Netflix for their vast store of videos: ‘orl your fyvourites, Gyme of Frowns’ and so on. I am so tickled by his accent that I forget to note which service he is advertising. Michael Caine retained his Cockney accent for most of his career, but in Zulu he spoke, to perfection, the jaw-clenching dialect of the English ruling class. No doubt he pulled on his trysers, not trousers, in the morning; not britches or pants or breeks or trews.  Zulu was set in the days when the British Empire contained South Africer, Indier, Canader. That was before the intrusive R invaded the language, before architects produced drawrings and George Bernard Shawr was the arbiter of correct speech—-and spelling. The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet  is a Western story involving members of’ ‘the lower orders.’  Shewing-up? As John Wayne would say,: ‘Talk American, God dammit.’

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When Oi were a lad, Oi picked potatoes (spuds, taties, tatties,praties,) in those fields, for Bernie Healy. (Earth apples the French call them.  That’s stretching it a bit.)  Another Bernard, Sir Bernard Miles, son of a farm labourer, knighted for outstanding services to the theatre, did a regular turn on the wireless, (radio) as an old Varmer Goiles type, philosophising, while leaning over the gate. He traded on the accepted belief that a Dorset, Devon, Zumerzet accent be funny. The West Country accent was later usurped by the Liverpudlian accent. All Scousers are assumed to be comedians. They go fishing with wehms, not wurrums, as we might, but it is all the same for the poor worm. They eat bzead.

Bernie Healy’s spuds were picked into four-stone wire baskets and then poured into hessian, hundredweight bags. These bags had to be loaded onto the trailer in the evening. A hundredweight (1cwt) is 112 lbs (112 pounds).  American weigh their boxers in pounds, very confusing. I weighed about eight stone (112 pounds, 1cwt). It was an uneven contest between me and the sack.  My brother maintains that he could identify a tractor by its accent: pom pom pom or vrumm vrumm vrumm, Fordson Major, Massey Ferguson, John Deere. The sound we dreaded most was the drap drap….drap …..drarararar of the tractor coming to life in the morning or after the lunch break. The tractor drew the potato digger, a series of whirling, pronged rotors that threw the spuds, still on the stalks, to either side. We then had to follow, shakin’ out to separate the stalks from the spuds. Back-breaking work.

Bernie laughed at how spoiled we were by all the modern luxury of tractors and diggers. ‘When I was a young lad picking spuds, we had to get down and grovel for them.’  Bernie was something of a gentleman farmer. He pronounced his Gs.  ‘What about the small ones?’ I asked. ‘Never mind the hazards,’ he replied. ‘Do you know what a hazard is?’  I thought I knew.  ‘The teacher asked me one time, Miss…..’  (I forget her name)  ‘She asked me: What does hazard mean, Bernie? I said: ‘Tis a little pratie, Miss.’   Try them steamed with a little mint and some butter and salt. Food of the gods. I smile to see the modern vegetable harvesters at work. They have conveyor belts and shelters for the operatives. I imagine that the workers recline on mattresses as they condescend to pick the occasional spud. (I invented the spud-digger mattress. Bernie wasn’t interested.) Sometimes I see  Eastern Europeans moving over the fields like a conquering army. A couple of hundredweight in either hand is no trouble to them.

After a day of dust and toil, gadflies (gad=spear) and stinging nettles, we might be lucky enough to be in time to watch  Alan Freeman in Six Five Special or Top of the Pops. Alan spoke  somewhat out of the side of his mouth. He was, of course, Australian with the twang of the Antipodes. ‘ Hi there, pop pickers,’  he used to say. He also said ‘Not arf!’  We were pop pickers and we were teenagers, a newly coined word. My mother occasionally referred to potatoes as pops. There was a shop near Mountjoy Square, called Tops in Pops. For many years it bore the legend on the window: now is the hour to get those balls of flour. This is the highest compliment that can be paid to a spud. Anyway, on Alan’s panel for rating records (Discs, disks, brand-new waxings, platters,) there was a pretty teenager, called, I think, Sharon. She usually gave a disk, five stars. ‘Oi‘d give it foive.’  Part of her attraction was her wonderful Varmer Goiles accent. There was a record, The Story of Tina by Al Martino. She was sweet seventeen. They met in the springtime. And then came the wedding one morning in May..and still we are sweethearts, though years roll away…  Mawkish or wha’? May weddings were believed to be unlucky. A lady from The Big House in Rush, Colonel Palmer’s lady, gave a £5 bonus to any Rush girl who married in May, in order to discourage papist, peasant superstition. £5 quid? Nice.

I recently bought the eBook of The Iliad of Homer on Amazon Kindle. Capital letters should occur at the start of a word God dammit!  I read it in Classic Comics many years ago, and reckoned that I should try the real thing. I remembered blood and guts, eyeballs impaled on spears and malicious gods. It hasn’t changed. It is an American translation. Achilles is now Achilleus. Ajax, who was not only an heroic warrior, but a very good lavatory-cleaning fluid, is now Aias. As Michael Caine allegedly said: ‘Not many people know that.’  I have learned that bronze armour is no bloody good, whereas bronze spears could do Trojan work; that Homer was good on anatomy, especially dismembered anatomy and that the gods were a miserable, depraved and contemptible shower of layabouts. Amazon asks me to rate Homer. I suppose I have to give ‘im foive stars. The lad shows promise. Would I like to read his next volume? they ask. Not arf!

‘When Adam delved and Eve span, 

Which was then the gentleman?’

Typical peasant grumbling. No wonder that well-bred people found them revolting. Mrs Corcoran, something of an Amazon herself, told us stories from the Bible. ‘When Eve brought the apple to Adam, he should have given her a good smack on the bottom with the spade and told her to put it back.’  ‘Bottom’ was almost a rude word, worth at least a snigger, but not in Mrs Corcoran’s class. Think of all the trouble and sweat of the brow, we would have been spared. Why though, did Adam need a spade in the Garden of Eden? I thought that digging only started after the expulsion from Eden. There was a lot about all the creatures that creep on the surface of the earth, wehms and serpents. I sympathised. Bernie Healy set us to work, creeping across that long field, thinning mangle,(mangolds, mangelwurzels.) Jethro Tull was responsible for the seed-drill. The snag is that too many plants sprout too close to one another. They have to be thinned out. Every handful is a judgement call. Many are called but few are chosen. Bernie said: ‘Don’t look ahead at all you have to weed. Look back at all that you have achieved.’ Good advice. We grovelled and weeded out the weak. Jethro later went into pop music. I heard him on the wireless.

‘The sewer went out to sew his seed and as he sewed, some fell by the wayside. Other some fell among thorns…other some fell on good ground.’ That doesn’t look right. Okay. ”The sower went out  to sow his seed…’ Never mind Shawr.  Jethro regarded the old method of sowing, the broadcast method, as wasteful. He developed the seed-drill. Oi’d give ‘im foive.

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Short Shrift. Compression is good for the soul. Midwinter Day

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Father Sherwin prepared us for First Confession and Holy Communion. ‘Stick out your tongues,’ he said, ‘and let me see if you have any sins on them. No, everybody seems to be all right.’ We put them back in. It became a game. A bad sin, a mortaler, appeared as a black spot on the tongue. We vied with one another. We used pencil, because we had not yet advanced to ink and dipper pens. We had no biros in those times. Anyway, as I discovered, biros taste horrible. (High-altitude writing-sticks, they were called originally, replacing fountain pens, which tended to burst in aeroplanes. A burst fountain pen is no joke at the best of times, but potentially disastrous, when engaging the Luftwaffe. Well done, Lazlo Biro.)   Haughtons Blue-black ink  is not a great vintage either, but safe enough with a Waverley nib, at ground level.

At seven years of age you have to work hard at finding some decent sins. It transpired that we were all recidivists. We had to keep going back. ‘Ye know not the hour nor the day.’  The sins weren’t anything to write home about. In fact, home would be the last place to write to. The retribution would come more swiftly. No need to wait for the General Judgement and The Last Trump. ‘He that contemneth in small things, shall fall by little and little.’  ‘Contemneth’?  There were two brothers called Little, in the school, Gerry and Kevin, decent lads. I couldn’t understand why the catechism picked on them. I resolved, (it’s an essential part of the process,) to give up contemning. There was a big investigation once, into the burning down of a shed behind the railway station. The culprit was discovered and made to admit his guilt. The Guards were involved. This was serious.  ‘Why did you do it?’ they asked. ‘The Devil tempted me,’ he replied. What do you expect? Isn’t that what they taught us? Case dismissed.

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This is the drill. You go into the confession box. It’s dark in there. You get down on your benders. You wait until the priest is finished with the sinner on the other side. You hear the murmuring. It’s a sin to listen to the other sinner’s confession, although it would be interesting. Maybe he would have the same sins as you have. You cough to muffle the sound. You sway gently back and forth, listening to the sound of your knees. Groan, creak.  Maybe it was only the floorboards. You could play a little tune on your knees. Baa,baa, black sheep is a good one to start with.  ‘‘Rattle’. The shutter slides back. You say the prayer and tell your sins, maybe holding one or two back for next week. You get your penance and absolution and you’re out. Made it!

Mrs Corcoran warned us to go down to the back of the church to say the penance. ‘Don’t go into the seat immediately outside the box.’ I reasoned that there was some sort of a beam that came straight out from the confession box. It would cancel out your penance. (Thinking outside the box? I get it now.) You would be damned, without even knowing why. I realised, years later, that it had more to do with traffic management than theology.

There was one boy who was terrified of First Confession. He knew that it was dark inside. That wasn’t the problem. He saw people going into the box and closing the door. It closes almost flush with the wall. He reasoned that there was some sort of force that flattened the sinner, in order to make him or her, fit into the space. It must be painful.  He watched and waited. They emerged after a few minutes, miraculously restored to normal girth. Like many things to do with religion, it’s a mystery. No, it isn’t. There is a sinner-sized adjunct to the main building, outside each confession box. There is a little window, to allow a kindly beam of light to penetrate the darkness. Nothing to worry about, at all, except for the beam that undoes all your good work.

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Confession for the First Friday of every month, was mandatory. We went at twelve o’clock, a stampeding horde of sinners, anxious to be the first to unburden themselves, charging down New Street and Church Street, in a mad rush to get it over with and enjoy the longer lunch break to the full.  There was one teacher, however, who did a softening up process first. He described the sufferings of Christ in graphic and gory detail, until you felt faint, imagining the agony and secure in the knowledge that it was all your fault. I remembered him when I saw Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ.  Did nobody ever tell tell these people that less is more?

We thundered down New Street, knocking music out of the manhole covers with our rubber boots and hobnailers.  Tonge (Flange?) and Taggart, Hammond Lane Foundries, Cavanaghs of Birr, (the coldest place in Ireland) and of course, James Duff and Sons, Skerries. Each manhole had its own note. Some of them still have. There is one in Convent Lane, that has gone plownkkk  for almost a century. They still do a great job, carrying away our nameless abominations to a dark and noisome place. We read The Vision of Mirzah in school. Mirzah saw a bridge with one hundred arches. A great multitude made its way across the bridge. The furthest arches were in ruins. The roadway was decayed and crumbling over these arches. At random points there were trapdoors that opened without warning, hurling the unwary to their doom below. There were demons clutching at the travellers and throwing them over the parapet of the bridge. It’s an allegory of life. ‘Ye know not the hour etc….’  Thanks a lot, Mirzah. That’s all I need at my stage in life. The manholes stood up to our onslaught. The demons were driven away.

‘And these impure thoughts. Did you entertain them?’ ‘Ah, no, Father, but they sure entertained me.’  I didn’t hear that either.

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People will go to Newgrange today, Midwinter Day, hoping to see that kindly beam of light. I don’t fancy their chances. I took these photographs yesterday. After that we ‘tackled’ the utility room, while Paul finished painting the kitchen. He did a great job, covering up forty years’ sins against decor. I made a firm purpose of amendment. Never again will I offend with a can of paint. I asked him to help me remove a dead clothes dryer. ‘No problem,’ he said, picking it up and carrying it away. This revealed a patch of yellow wall that had escaped my attempts with Icelandic Blue, many years ago. In a dim light it looks like a beam of sunshine. I am reluctant to cover it over.

A long time ago I was in the company of a number of politicians. They were enthusing about the introduction of wheelie bins. They were people who held the fate of millions in their hands, arbiters of life and death, and there they were, talking about how to compress your rubbish. I ask you. Well maybe not millions, but a sizeable number of the good people of Fingal. They were  right.  The wheelie bin changed my life for the better. No more cardboard boxes coming apart in the wet. No more plastic bins melting out of shape from hot ashes. No more bandy-legged walks with overloaded and rusty,  metal bins, trailing garbage all along the garden path. The wheelie bin has set me free.

Yesterday I compressed the contents of cupboards and drawers. I dumped old paint tins, half full of fossilised paint; glue tubes with no lids; five thousand curtain hooks; several metres of the wrong strimmer cord, that had escaped from the package, cards from forgotten acquaintances, wishing us a prosperous new millennium; mummified carrots and a sprung mouse-trap with some late Palaeozoic cheese still in it. I applied my ten year rule: if I haven’t seen it for ten years, I don’t want it. There was other stuff that all went into the bin. I was cleansed, nay, cleans-ed. We now have loads of room for stuff that will come in handy at some time in the future, but we must fight against that temptation.

I did hear part of a confession: ‘ I went upstairs, Father. It was down in in Birr. She had only a class of an oul’ chemise on her…’ My old knee trouble kicked in at that point. I didn’t get the end of the story. ‘Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any sins?  Maybe Birr isn’t the coldest place in Ireland after all.

Hey! The sun has come out, after all. Newgrange is looking good.