Heads you win; tails I lose.

See the robbers passing by,

Passing by, passing by.

See the robbers passing by,

My fair lady.

(To the tune of London Bridge is falling down…) 

Fig-1

I made this drawing from Claes Visscher’s Panorama of London, published in Amsterdam in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death.  Old London Bridge was considered the most salubrious place to live, having endless supplies of relatively clean water and the perfect system for the disposal of waste. The road to Kent and the south, passed under an arch decorated with the heads of executed traitors, enemies of the Crown and thereby, of the people. You had to be ‘somebody’ to get your head over Traitors’ Gate.  You were put there as an example to others and as a warning not to do it again, which, of course, worked. Punishment was swift and hideous.  Tradition has it that Saint Thomas More’s head remained incorrupt for many months, probably giving the wrong message about King Henry and his many reforms. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since those days and a great many heads have rolled, on various pretexts. The practice of exhibiting severed heads has died out in what we are pleased to call ‘civilized countries.’  The childrens’ rhyme, however, persists, although the accompanying game has given place to video games and electronic entertainment.  The game, as I recall it, involved linking of arms and attempts to pass through a gate, in time to the chant. It ended with

Chop, chop, chop.

The Irish writer, Father Peadar O Leary, recalled seeing, in more recent times, three black balls on spikes over the police barracks in Macroom. They were the heads of three 1848 revolutionaries. He never forgot the sight. It was the time of the Great Famine, when one horror was piled on another, leaving an indelible mark on our collective memory.  As a country, we have come a long way since then. We enjoy a standard of living unimaginable to people who live in countries ravaged and plundered by their own rulers or devastated by natural disasters. We live in a democracy, however imperfect; a dreadful system, as Churchill pointed out, but better than all the others. There is a fairly general acceptance of decency and fair play and the concept of sharing. We are far from perfect, but the aspiration underpins our society. It is a less strident form of patriotism. It is the patriotism of those who consider the welfare of others. These patriots don’t wave flags or brandish weapons to demonstrate their love of their fellow human beings. They won’t get their heads on coins or stamps or banknotes. They get on with things.

It is difficult to feel any sympathy for a Russian oligarch, confined to an arctic gulag. These are the people who rifled the resources of their country after the collapse of Communism. They spend their obscene wealth on football clubs and what they call yachts, vast ocean-going liners that dwarf the harbours of the warmer countries to the south. It is equally difficult to feel any great warmth or enthusiasm for Putin. They were the Nomenklatura, the elite of the old system. From time to time, we have had our own shabby, cut-price version of the Nomenklatura, the names, the ‘sound men’.

.fox's carnival moon 011

I was approaching the East Link Bridge, with a car-load of children. I was fumbling for change. I should have planned ahead. Suddenly I was surrounded by the banshee wail of sirens and the thrummm of police motorbikes.  Nabbed, with only one hand on the wheel. Not quite. The policemen gestured the traffic into the side of the road.  A stream of Mercedes state cars flashed past, filled with important people. There was a national emergency. The government was taking to a nuclear bunker, to direct the affairs of the country through a time of crisis. I sat in awe of my betters, until the blue lights dwindled into the distance and the traffic began to move again. I told the children that they had been privileged to see the awesome power and majesty of government in action, at close quarters. They would recount this moment to their grandchildren. They might sit in the chimney corners of pubs in their old age and mooch free pints, in return for retelling the story to open-mouthed yokels.

Not entirely true. It was 1990 and Packie Bonner was about to win The World Cup for Ireland, in Italia . It became suddenly necessary for every patriotic Irishman and woman to rally to the flag and hasten to Genoa.  The cabinet ministers, fortunately, had state cars  and the forces of law and order to whisk them to the government jet at the airport. Had this not been possible, we would have been disgraced before the entire world and maybe, would not have won the World Cup, at all, at all. I remember the victory parade.

We have been going through difficult times. A great deal has been asked of the Irish people. It has borne down hard on many families.  Yet we have not rioted, burning buildings and cars or putting heads on pikes. A little light is being  shed on the incompetence and grubby peculation of some those chosen to run the country and its institutions. We have seen minor treasons exposed.  A few heads have metaphorically rolled. An apology would not be out of place. The Japanese do apology quite well. There is Hara Kiri. A bit flashy, requiring an expensive sword and also a bit messy.  There is the Yakuza chopping off of one’s own finger. As many of our Nomenklatura have been giving two fingers to the public for many years, one or two more wouldn’t be overdoing it. While waiting in traffic recently for the East Link Bridge to rise and fall again, dark, end of year thoughts assailed me. Put the heads under the bridge. Just show them when a boat passes through.  No. No. That would not be civilized, would it?

.fox's carnival moon 009

Ali Baba and the Forty thieves

Went to school with dirty knees

But all that they could see,see, see,

Was the bottom of the deep, blue, sea, sea, sea. 

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George Best’s Map. Global Strategy. Ask your Mammy.

Untitled-28There is no denying that George was a genius in his own way. This map might suggest that he had leanings towards rugby rather than soccer. The map makes a lot of sense. There is a good solid weight at the bottom to keep the world upright. ‘Incognita’ is Latin for ‘Dunno’. Think of how much simpler life would be if we could admit to not knowing. Exploded gear-box diagrams or instructions for self assembly furniture, could label components ‘no idea’, and ‘haven’t a clue’; ‘try a six-inch nail’; ‘lash in some glue.’  That’s how it works out in the end anyway. I went past  a hospital once, in the company of a farmer. He remarked: ‘My brother is in there right now, operatin’. He might as well be lookin’ into a bush’. It’s a learning curve.

George’s world is elliptical. There is a good reason for that. Otherwise half the world would be round the other side. Have you noticed that Leonardo’s Last Supper shows everybody on one side of the table. They call it ‘dough-nutting’. It is very important to get into the photograph with the leader. I recall an old geography teacher who told me how to get rid of an inspector. Inspectors used to visit schools to get invited to lunch. ‘Did you ever see an inspector producing the cigarettes?’ He didn’t care for inspectors. ‘Tell him that you’re having a bit of difficulty explaining Mollweide’s elliptical equal-area net.  Ask him to run through it with the class. That’ll get rid of him. Heh, heh.’ Mollweide dealt in sine curves  and stuff. Only Mollweide understood it and George Best, on one of his better days.

Bear in mind that George drew this map less than a century after Columbus. He had no satellites to photograph the world. He had never been to any of the new continents or islands. He gave the public what they wanted, a sea route to the Indies. This map is a call to adventure. Frobisher’s Strait is the most direct route. There would be no Spaniards to interrupt the voyage.  It is there because Frobisher thought that he had found it. Frobisher needed it. He wished. He prayed. He dreamed and George drew the map. It was  a bit like Dumbo. ‘You gotta have faith, Dumbo.’ It took another five hundred years for anyone to sail through the waters of the North -West passage. George might have done better to stick to the footeballe but it was illegal in Queen Elizabeth’s time. People were neglecting their archery. England and Spain were engaged in a global struggle. There are always at least two super-powers engaged in a global struggle, allied to an arms race.

I could never resist a map. I saw an advertisement in the paper.  ‘Get your free global strategy maps.’ Just what I needed. I was an eager student at the time. Students will go for anything free. I wrote away. You write in to complain. You write away for freebies. I forgot about it. The Chinese were shelling Quemoy and Matsu.  They did it every day at twelve o’clock so that the other Chines could go down into their bunkers. They were just making a point. The Pakistanis were shelling the Indians in the high Himalayas. Their people were starving and wracked by earthquakes and floods, but first things first. The Indians are sending a probe to Mars. Should we be worried? Eden was making a bags of things in Suez. Russian tanks were grinding and clanking towards Budapest.  A man called to the door. He wore an impeccable suit. His shoes were polished. He had a dazzling white shirt and cufflinks, all things alien to a student. He carried a brief case. He smiled. He had called, it transpired, to deliver my free global strategy maps. Just in time, to judge by the dismal news on the wireless. Imré Nagy was even then, making his plaintive broadcasts from Budapest. There was no time to lose. I brought him into the sitting room.

He discerned at a glance that I was a man of extraordinary erudition. I understood how the world works. I was a man of vision, perhaps even a man of destiny. With the right knowledge I could lead my people out of darkness. I could show the world a better way. Oh, all right. What do I have to do? It was ludicrously simple. For a small monthly payment I could have, nay, would have, access to all the world’s knowledge. How much? Too much. Less than a daily packet of cigarettes. I don’t smoke. Or a daily pint of stout. I don’t drink. ( I wasn’t much of a student, was I?) Would I deny my children the chance of an education? I have no children. I was a celibate, tee-total, non smoking ascetic. I rarely indulged in food or the pleasures of this world. Mediaeval hermits were roistering layabouts by comparison. (It was the truth.) I began to worry about my children.   The cufflinks glittered. I stared at them. My eyes glazed over. I was falling into his spell. I will obey.

My mother put her head around the door. I know  she sensed that her cub was in trouble. You’ve seen it with lionesses and polar bears, even the wren. ‘Are you folk nearly finished?’ He invited her to join us. He was good. He invited her into her own sitting room. He gave her the spiel.  As an adult she would understand the necessity for Enclycopaedia Britannica. In fact if she had bought it years ago, there would have been no need to waste and hour and a half on this dunderhead of a son. He didn’t put it quite so starkly. She nodded. He elaborated. There was a special offer, a reduced rate for Ireland. ‘Oh, indeed, and why is that?’  I watched him commit hara-kiri in our sitting room. UNESCO has designated Ireland as one of the world’s educationally deprived areas. Encyclopaedia Britannica were prepared to do their bit. They were giving a special reduction, for one year only  to Irish buyers. After that year it was Devil take the hindmost. Not a moment to lose. Eejit!  He didn’t know my mother. She had dedicated her life to education. It was her guiding passion. She was proud of her country. She exploded. His smile faded. He fled, with his cufflinks and his briefcase. ‘The cheek of him!’  Sheepishly, I held onto my global strategy maps. I found that I could launch my missiles across the Arctic Ocean. I had never thought of that.  I had always thought the the US and Soviets would send  them over Europe, the Mercator way. I could control the world’s oil supplies  with fleets at Aden, Simonstown and Gibraltar.  On the other hand, I could send my Mammy in to sort them out.  Maybe I would have been better employed in trying to get George Best to play for the Republic of Ireland.  A cunning strategy.

They got me though. They caught me in a shopping mall years later. I was still a non-smoker. I had children with me. I was a goner. I love the look of my encylopaedia. I have only read as far as Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. What was the name of that eejit, the president of Georgia, who invaded Russia when Putin was at the Olympics in Beijing? He thought Putin wouldn’t notice. He thought that NATO would weigh in on his side. I could have set him straight. Note: do not invade Russia. It’s large and it’s cold. If you feel that you must, at least bring a note from  your Mammy.spider webs 007

Nowadays we get our information from The Web. We don’t know who writes it. It may be all wrong, but it’s free!! and readily available at the click of a mouse. I keep a wary eye on the Chinese. If they invade, I shall build a barricade from my volumes, the macropaedia and the micropaedia, plus the free three volume Webster’s dictionary and the annual update volumes that I have never opened . However, there is no cause for alarm. They will probably buy Ireland by regular instalments. They have great smiles too.

There was a Global Web conference in Dublin last week. All the Web strategists were there. I wasn’t invited to speak. I was too busy anyway, photographing spiders. They’re taking over the world, you know. Scientists tell us that spiders could even survive on Mars. Where did it all go wrong, George? I’m worried again.

spider webs 006