The Black Tulip. Vlanderen/Flanders.

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Picture borrowed from Inge.

My school Geography book showed a similar picture…but it was in monochrome. They tell me that everything was in monochrome in those days. Not so. On certain occasions in the junior classes, a new consignment of plasticine arrived, bright strips of márla, not unlike the pattern of the tulip fields, bringing some glimmers of colour to our nineteen-forties classroom. “Do not mix the colours.” An impossible directive. To make anything at all interesting, you have to combine the colours. Márla sticks to márla.  Once combined, the colours cannot be uncombined. For a little while we got that interesting marbling effect but eventually the rainbow gave way to a dull brown. Red+Green =Brown. Blue+Yellow+ Red=Brown. Everything+Everything=Brown. You can’t make Black, Some fool said that in the science of light, all the colours combine to make White. Nonsense. In the márla world, even light is Brown. (See Stephen Foster for Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.  I rest my case.) For the rest of the year we worked the sullen márla into:- birds’ nests filled with brown eggs, brown ships with brown sails, brown flowers, brown people, cows, sheep, cars and simplest of all, brown snakes. There were magic painting books too, the paper impregnated with chemicals that reacted to water. The theory was that you could paint brilliant pictures by merely brushing water over the page. It was a lie. Everything emerged in bleary tones of Brown. These execrable books are still around, an affront to the eye and a severe disappointment to any budding Rembrandt. It is no exaggeration to say that we were often browned off by the sheer dullness of the nineteen forties.

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Eamon Kelly, the legendary Seanachaí, told a story of a farmer who was sitting in his kitchen eating his dinner, when his little boy ran in the door, in high excitement, clutching a bunch of flowers in his fist. (He actually said ‘fisht’). “Daddy! Daddy!” cried the little boy. “Look what I found in the field.” The farmer put down his knife and fork and regarded his beloved child with the posy of flowers. —And if he did, didn’t he draw out and give the child the greatest box in the ear the child ever got. “Didn’t I tell you before that there is no worth in flowers?” he bellowed. “You can’t get a grant for flowers.”—

Incidentally, that Geography book gave an account of ‘the increasingly popular tomato.’ The tomato was grey in colour. It could never be produced in Ireland because of our proximity to the North Pole. Spaniards grew them out of doors and clever Dutch people grew them in glasshouses/greenhouses, but in Ireland, I was informed, the glasshouses would collapse under the weight of snow. (Snow!) The tomato is a fruit, yet a close relative of the potato. They both came from South America in the days of the conquistadors, hardy men, very fond of their chips with tomato ketchup, inextricably mixed now into the cuisine of most European cultures.

I had to take a break from reading Catastrophe  by Max Hastings, his masterly account of how the world went blithely to war in 1914. I felt a profound melancholy settling over me in contemplating how quickly humankind can accept, justify and forget the obscenities considered necessary in the conduct of war. It didn’t just happen in monochrome a hundred years ago. It is happening right now in living, bleeding colour, with all the panoply, heraldry and weaponry of modern industrial warfare. Hastings, as a young man, worked as a researcher on the BBC series, The World at War. He interviewed many veterans, old men and women remembering how their world was destroyed by the savagery and stupidity of that ‘war to end all war.’ Empires fell apart and whole populations were uprooted. This is the decade of commemoration. Some talk of celebration. We are surrounded by monochrome pictures of people and battles long ago. Hastings brings it vividly into focus with startling relevance to the events of our own time. I had to put it aside and contemplate more cheerful things.

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Between the wars some of those clever Dutch people settled in Rush and Skerries, attracted by the light warm soil, or so we were told. They grew flowers! They built glasshouses, despite the danger from snowstorms! Their names, Amerlinck, Ruigrok, DeJong became by-words for hard work and innovation. On our way to and from school we wondered at the large green and red fruit/vegetables in Walter Ruigrok’s glasshouses. Definitely not the increasingly popular tomato. They turned out to be red and green peppers. which in their turn, have become increasingly popular. I gather that they also came from South America.

The Low Countries are synonymous with the cultivation of flowers. The mid-seventeenth century saw an outburst of ‘tulip mania.’ Tulip bulbs became more valuable than gold. You could compare it to the South Sea Bubble or the Dot Com Bubble or, God help us, the Sub-Prime Bubble, with its sub-optimal outcome. Alexandre Dumas wrote about the struggle to develop a black tulip, the Holy Grail of tulip growers. I don’t think it has happened or will happen, just as with márla. The best way to transform the tulip fields of Vlanderen/Flanders into fields of brown and black, is to send millions of young men there, with the best modern weaponry to fight a war, to disrupt the placid courses of the rivers and churn the landscape into liquid mud. It will be expensive but it will make great black and white or sepia, television for generations yet unborn. Perhaps they may learn from it.

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In certain lights, this is our black tulip. It may appear to be a deep red but it is black. It is. It is. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. This is an illusion created by colour photography. In a proper photograph it would of course, be black.  I invite you to invest your guilders, kroner, florins or whatever you have, in our tulip, but keep your hands off it as you walk by, or it will mean war. We cultivate them in marl covered with compost, for peat’s sake. I may or may not go back to Max Hastings, some other time when the weather is brighter and the clouds have lifted. I did enjoy the yellow daffodils. I notice that  Fingal Council is now mixing them with red tulips at roundabouts. Watch these spaces for interesting developments.

Incidentally, greenhouses are colourless. They are made of glass to let the light in.

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Donald Trump and Small Potatoes.

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Donald Trump in his characteristically dismissive way, described his Irish golf club venture as ‘small potatoes.’ While I have no knowledge of golf, I happen to love small potatoes. ‘Hazards’ was the name for them in days gone by. I wonder if Donald is suggesting that greens will be dug up, water hazards drained for cultivation, bunkers filled with compost and crops of spuds planted on the Doonbeg fairways. Chipping would take on a new significance. A mashie-niblick could be used to produce the creamy mash so beloved of the Irish diner. Wedge potatoes, perhaps? ‘Potatoes Augusta’, in (green) jackets. Never underestimate Donald. There is big money in spuds.

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A noisy blighter.

This unprepossessing Andean tuber is inextricably linked with Irish history. The survival of eight million Irish came to depend on the potato crop. Potato blight impelled the first great wave of Irish emigration to the United States, a tradition that has continued into modern times. Almost everyone in Ireland has a relative in America. The Irish contributed to their new home and benefited from it. Our stories and songs are shot through with the adventure and heartbreak of emigration. There was no wall. It is sad to hear presidential candidates speaking of the Secret Service raiding homes to round up undocumented Irish and other immigrants with a view to deporting them. “You better believe it.” The language is that of aggression….’Them and Us’. I noticed in one of Michael Moore’s films, that the Secret Service wear jackets with Secret Service written on them. You will know who they are if they knock on your door early in the morning. At what point will french fries turn again to the absurdity of freedom fries?  The Statue of Liberty must blush metaphorically, to hear such un-American ranting.

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A quiet and unassuming Skerries man and former school companion of ours, Bernie Rice, was instrumental in developing the blight-resistant rooster  potato, named for its red skin, not for any strutting flamboyance or arrogance. Subconsciously, it laid the ghost of the Great Famine and that atavistic fear of blight. I can see Bernie’s family farm from my window. The walls  and gate pillars of The Lane Farm are invariably white-washed. They catch the morning sunrise. Bernie’s achievement did not make him a millionaire. He didn’t rant or threaten from behind his white walls. He was a benefactor, an exemplary public servant, using his talents for the benefit of others.  Besides its other attributes and advantages, the rooster tastes good too.

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Anyway, we went here to see how the other half lives. We cleared immigration. ‘No, we were never members of the Nazi party; never charged with or convicted of terrorist crimes; had no intention of committing any acts of terrorism; were not carrying any foodstuffs or snails, etc. etc.’ Fair enough. A strong man armed, keepeth his house. We were free to roam. When I grow up I want to drive at speed up and down Rodeo Drive in a red convertible, with a sun tan, an open-top shirt and a medallion on my chest. I want to mingle with the beautiful people and have doormen tip their top hats to me. I want to browse in the jewellery shops and pick up some bargains. 2007_0708daffs0518

We dined with friends in a steak-house on Beverley Drive/Street/Boulevarde.  Can’t remember. The wine was excellent. The steaks were great. The company was superb. The atmosphere… well the joint was jumpin,’ as we say in Hollywood. The exchange rate was kind to us at the time. I noticed that my baked potato cost $8. 50c, but what the hell! That was three week’s wages when I picked spuds for Bernie Healy a century ago. We strolled back to our hotel in the balmy night air. There was a young Latina mother shining the towering glass doors of a locked office building. Her baby slept in a buggy in the lobby. It was nearly midnight.

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I always enjoyed Anthony Quinn’s work. He was the ultimate Greek, Mexican bandido, wild desert tribesman or whatever you needed. I gather that he was half Mexican and half Irish. His inscription reads: ‘Dreams do come true.’ How many millions have followed their dreams to America. What did that young mother dream of as she cleaned those glass doors in the dead of night?

Every twenty years or so, I watch The Magnificent Seven. It never palls. The Mexican farmers work and fight to survive. The bandidos are magnificently evil. It is an idealised fable. The good guys defeat the bad guys to defend freedom. My young grandson was engrossed. “Are they the people Donald Trump hates?” he asked. “Are they the reason he wants to build a wall?”  Out of the mouths of babes and innocents etc.

The aran banner is a huge blond potato. It impresses with its, bulk, but there is a void at its heart. It is unpleasant to the taste. It rots from the inside.