To See a World in a Grain of Sand /and Eternity in an Hour

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Ailsa Craig Granite

When we were boys we collected birds’ eggs. It’s illegal now, as I understand. It’s even illegal to possess them, without some sort of permit. My criminal past is all behind me. The evidence has been destroyed by time, by swaps, malevolent rivals, faulty cardboard boxes crushed under junk and a gradual feeling that the eggs were probably better off if left in the nests to hatch. ‘Nest’ would be overstating things with regard to most sea birds. The birds rely on camouflage. The eggs may be in a depression scraped in the beach or under the lee of a rock. In some cases the eggs are laid on vertiginous rocky ledges and shaped in such a way as to prevent them rolling off. Like Mr. Wobbly Man, the weight is at one end.

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There are wonderful maps on Lambay Island showing the nesting grounds of the various birds and the times at which they laid. This was to facilitate commercial exploitation of a valuable source of protein, until the advent of large-scale poultry farming. How do you like your eggs in the morning? Preferably with no little feathery scaldy inside.

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The luminous midsummer night gave way to a bleak and blustery dawn. The wind picked up and Ailsa Craig peeped above the horizon. A pyramid rising from the sea; a hanging garden viewed from afar; ‘Paddy’s Milestone,’ a landmark for homesick labourers leaving Ireland to earn a few pounds in the potato fields of Scotland. It’s the plug of an ancient volcano from the time when Scotland’s Highlands tore away from the Appalachians and the Atlantic Ocean swelled up to fill the void. It took some time. It is still happening. ‘Preposterous time’ William Goldsmith calls it, a length of time too vast for our puny minds to comprehend. Time enough for living things to evolve, to swim in the oceans and rivers, to creep upon the Earth and take to the air on flimsy wings, colonising islands and cliffs and laying their eggs in relative safety.

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The sun emerged. The  rock took on some colour. It crept closer. We could see the white of gannet colonies on the slopes. The Solan Goose. A delicacy. Robby Burns’s father was said to be in the solan goose trade. I would never have dared, had it been possible, to try to collect a gannet’s egg. It has angry eyes. It is armed with a fearsome weapon. It takes no prisoners. Someone suggested a dip off the jetty. The early morning cold and a vast brown jellyfish, knocked that idea on the head. The chef prepared porridge with honey, to put some volcanic warmth into his torpid crew. It worked. We went ashore. That’s probably illegal, to judge by all the cautionary notices. The island is for sale for a paltry £1,500,000. Would the Marquess of Ailsa take a cheque? I doubt it. The birds live rent free on what is, and always has been, their territory. It is now officially a bird sanctuary. There goes the egg and solan goose trade. The smugglers gave up centuries ago and migrated to Rush, in County Dublin. The granite quarry is abandoned. The railway could still run if enough muscle power could be made available. (That was powerful porridge.)

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Modernity has rendered all the industry of Ailsa Craig obsolete. There are living quarters abandoned while still undergoing renovation. There is no need for coal or oil. Engine rooms are filled with rusty metal. The fog horns have fallen silent, their windpipes and lungs decayed and shattered. Modern navigational devices, guided from space, can see through fog and darkness. There is a Marie Celeste air about everything: old newspapers and books musty with damp; broken windows; lath-and -plaster hanging from walls and ceilings; tattered and battered furniture; roof-trees giving way under the weight of time and neglect. Only the lighthouse, automated, with  pristine solar panels, abides. There is no shortage of stones.

The Scots invented the sport of curling, just as they invented golf. Golf has taken over the world. It has become a vast industry, while curling remains a minority sport, an amalgam of bowls and housework. For golf you need an array of specialised equipment. For curling you need some ice, a polished stone and an accomplice with a sweeping brush. It has become an Olympic sport. It has a mesmeric, balletic quality about it. Even the sweeping becomes dramatic. The best stones come from Ailsa Craig. The granite, blue-hone granite, is fine-grained and takes a high polish. A curling stone is a piece of sculpture in its own right. Intriguingly, Ailsa Craig granite crops up on the North Strand in Skerries, several hundred miles to the south, carried by the gyre of the Irish Sea tides. The stones are polished almost as smooth as the curling stones by their long and grinding journey. They lie, speckled like birds’ eggs on the shelving strand, where Vikings once grounded their keels.

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When the keel begins to converse with the stones on the bottom, it is time to leave. Time to pack up memories and impressions of this melancholy but beautiful place and hand it back to the stewardship of rabbits and teeming flocks of seabirds. We headed northwards to Troon and the teeming hordes of golf pilgrims. I took a little pebble with me; probably illegal. It’s about three billion years old, give or take a few million. I like old things.

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I left plenty behind.

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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.