The music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more….

I rose on May Day to see the sunrise behind Rockabill. I miscalculated by an hour, like a bargain hunter arriving too soon for the irresistible bargains of “Our Greatest Ever Sale!!!” Fortunately nobody lives in the vicinity, to be alarmed by “a quiet sort of chap…keeps himself to himself” like any run-of-the mill serial killer. I don’t advertise my presence by smoking…”You’re never alone with a Strand” as the Frank Sinatra lookalike used to say in the ad. Maybe it was actually Old Blue Eyes. I couldn’t say. He probably died of lung cancer, like the poor old Marlboro Man, the epitome of masculinity. In fact there was a succession of Marlboro Men. They went down like flies. I don’t wear earphones to fill my head with music, like any normal person. I didn’t even have a paper cup of coffee. Fortunately I had a camera as my excuse for standing in a field in darkness. You must have an alibi. I waited for the show to begin.

It’s a much more mundane looking scene in broad daylight. Like so much of showbiz, a lot depends on the lighting. Your average vampire, conspirator, axe-murderer, ghoul or zombie, is cleverly illuminated from below, changing  the “ordinary sort of chap…kept himself etc. etc.” into a hideous monster. Those bushes are just bushes by day but for the hour or so before dawn they are the strings and woodwind sections of a wonderful orchestra. They are the choir stalls, filled with linnets, sparrows, thrushes and blackbirds. A lark might clear its throat and try a few scales. The broad tympanum of the beach might echo to an early curlew, or oyster-catcher. I made not a sound. There was a faint glow to the east. A silver wire began to form on the edge of the low cloud bank. A tinge of pink leached into the mist. The lighthouse tip glowed red for an instant and faded back into the darkness. You’re never alone with a strand, a lighthouse or a field full of birds at dawn.

Long, long ago we used to listen on BBC Home Service, to Birdsong of Britain, a contest between different counties and shires. Shire always sound more romantic. Technicians with headphones and tape recorders, ornithologists with awesome knowledge of birdsong and commentators whispering reverently into microphones, brought the dawn chorus to listeners all over the world. We listened to a recorded version in the evening. There may have been tampering with the tapes in the interim. There may have been crowd violence as Oxfordshire strove with Shropshire, but to us it was an interlude of rural tranquility, brought to us by the outside broadcasting department of the BBC. It is illegal nowadays to listen to the sounds of nature, the wind and the sea, a distant bell or the lowing of cattle, the cries of children in the school playground or conversation with friends. You must have earphones, an i-pad, i-pod, i-phone, whatever, to validate your existence, as you walk, jog or even sit anywhere alone or in company. Do you remember the Walkman, a device invented to cull unwary pedestrians? The i-phone does an even better job at sensory deprivation. Quiet contemplation is the preserve of wierdoes. Loiterers up to no good. Lock them all up, I say, before they become a danger to society. They will have computers and televisions enough to straighten them out in prison. (That was a godwit, a plover, a herring gull…The maritime counties always had an advantage. There was the occasional nightingale from the southern counties, a show-stopper to send the commentators into rhapsodies.)

Anyway, the sun came up. The colour faded. The birds folded their music and went about the mundane business of the day. Rabbits emerged and cocked their ears for danger. The day became ordinary. I momentarily regretted the lack of gadgetry on my camera. With a big zoooom, I might have caught a meadow pipit or a willow warbler. There are goldcrest in those bushes, little yellow chevrons darting about in a perpetual quest. It was of course the mating, nesting, territory claiming, uninhibited singing season. There was a heron on a lonely vigil on the strand. Quiet sort of cove…keeps himself to himself. Up to no good. Be wary of fellows like that.

I had time to kill, metaphorically, in a department store. Look about you. There are always husbands loitering in department stores. They hold bags. Some become zombies. Some become potential murderers. It’s the quiet ones you have to watch. I went down to the  electronics section to get a cable to rejuvenate my steam-powered computer. The old cable has corroded, possibly from the sea air. There were televisions with frighteningly high definition, lining the walls. There were computers and gadgets of every description which I hope I will never possess. There were packets of stylish earphones for every shape of ear. There was music, the sort of amorphous background sound that you don’t recognise or remember, carefully devised to lull you into a compliant state of mind.. A tall young man looked down on me both physically and metaphorically. “No we don’t stock that kind of thing. Try Maplins.” Maplins sounded like one of those post-war holiday camps where music blared from tannoy systems all day long, the height of human felicity..Rosemary Clooney, Joseph Locke, Guy Mitchell..Poor little robin, walkin’, walkin,’ walkin’ to Missouri, a sad and moving lay; Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy…They don’t write stuff of that quality nowadays. All surly young men scowling at the audience. Bah, Humbug!  “Do you know where Maplins is?”  I nodded and turned away, feeling rejected. I contemplated loitering near the coffee machine counter, perhaps passing myself off as Rosemary’s nephew, George. Not a runner. I could have used a cup of coffee but I didn’t want to subject myself to the racket of the cafeteria… the hissing and clattering of the espresso machine, all that hammering of spent grounds. You could imagine that the gadget had been salvaged from a nuclear submarine. All that steam. Clear the forward tubes! Stand by for a cup of coffee.

I steadied myself and opted to lurk near the bargain basement. I was too late for all the bargains but it was quieter down there. A few forlorn gleaners were disarranging the displays. Still good value in tea towels. The music changed and I heard her, pure and clear, a gentle but compelling accompaniment, a sad story, as is the case with much Country and Western music..Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. I’m beggin’ of you not to take my man. In the quiet of the bargain basement, I could hear the words. Her voice went from pathetic plea to rising panic tinged with despair. She was no match for Jolene with her green eyes and flaming auburn hair. I listened, motionless and still, like Wordsworth listening to the highland lass reaping in her field. A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard/ in springtime from the cuckoo bird/ breaking the silence of the seas/ among the farthest Hebrides. My heart went out to Dolly Parton. A song should move the listener. I could lie and say that I saw a woman stopping in her search, her eyes glistening with tears and pressing an as yet unbought tea towel to her face, but that would be corny. The music faded. I wondered how things turned out..old unhappy far off things/and battles long ago. (Quiet sort of chap,Wordsworth.)

It was time to go. Dolly once came second to a drag queen in a Dolly Parton lookalike competition. I’ll bet she got a great laugh out of that. A drag queen? Some imposter who dominates the world of speed trials in high-powered, improbable looking cars, no less! A woman who gallops across country with foxhounds, pursuing a trail left by a rider dragging an aniseed scented kipper? Mistress of Foxhounds, no less! Whatever turns you on. Far be it from me to decree how people spend their time. I wouldn’t want to be trying to hold a blonde wig in place, going from nought to a hundred miles and hour in three seconds, or when setting my hunter at a stiff Irish fence on a brisk October morning. There is a story about such a lady, one of the breed that Brendan Behan described as a Horse-Protestant, who got her groom to give her a leg-up onto her sidesaddle. “Patrick” she said, in high good humour, “Did you see my agility?” Patrick, in some confusion, removed his cap. He scratched his head. “Yerra, I did, Ma’am, but sure I won’t tell a soule” Definitely time to go.

Dolly, let me say that one who can sing as pure  and true as the blackbird before dawn on a luminous May morning, has nothing to fear from Jolene or anyone else.  Come with me to Holmpatrick as the darkness is lifting, to listen to the birds in the summer bushes and watch the sun come up over the islands. It is guaranteed to raise your spirits. You will be safe. I’m relatively harmless…quiet sort of chap. Forget Jolene and the drag racer and the woman chasing a kipper across the fields.  They’re not worth bothering about.  

 

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Rockabill Lighthouse. Abel Rock.

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A man at Speakers’ Corner told a sad story; “When I was a young lad goin’ to school in Dublin long ago.” he said, “I learned trigonometry. Do y’know what trigonometry is?”  I kept my head down. Of course I know what trigonometry is, but I have a mortal fear of street performers of any kind. Didn’t I give some of the best hours of my young life to Tan a over 2, Sines and Cosines, Logs and Antilogs? I even painted the Cosine page in my log tables red, to avoid a tendency to read the Cosine instead of the Sine. That could result in my space probe failing to rendezvous with the comet, Giotto, by several million miles and probing the Bog of Allen instead.  ‘It’s Tan a over 2. Stupid boy!’  I never quite cracked the language of mathematics. Napier filled a whole book with page after page of numbers and it became a best-seller. Pure genius.  ” It’s all about angles and triangles,” explained the man. “I learned how to measure the height of any tree or a lighthouse or a skyscraper. It was amazin’. I decided to get a job measurin’ lighthouses, but when I left school I found out that all the lighthouses in the world had already been measured. That cured me of ambition. I’ve never worked a day in me life since then”.

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As a child, I suspected that Rockabill was a ship. It has a chimney. It has a tender for the coal, just like a steam engine. It definitely moves, shunting up and down the horizon, depending on where you are standing. You need to keep your eye on it to see how it moves. Walk along the coastal path and it follows you, sometimes hiding behind the islands and then slipping out suddenly to surprise you with a new vista. I painted a picture of it and was roundly abused by a man who could see it when he was shaving every morning.  “Where’s the gap?” he challenged me. “There’s a gap between the two rocks.”  “Not where I was standing,” I replied lamely. “I was further to the south. Everything depends on your point of view.” He snorted derisively. “You’re wrong, you know,” he insisted. “There’s a gap.”  There is a gap.  A German U Boat sat up on that gap at low tide to effect repairs. It then went on to torpedo the mailboat Leinster  with great loss of life. My father missed that boat, because he went on the beer. Who says that beer is bad for your health?

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How could you do trigonometry anyway, with all those noisy neighbours? The rocks are covered by clouds of kittiwakes, terns and gulls, shags and cormorants. Look at your man showing off, the king of the castle. Little guillemots bobbed and dived on the calm surface of the water.  There is abundant guano, often deposited in elegant triangles, the apex pointing to the nest. The British War Office appointed the artillery branch of the army to begin the great Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Ordnance relies on mathematics for accuracy. They began at Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin Bay, fixing the Ordnance Datum (OD) at a low  spring tide and triangulated from that point, covering the whole island with a web of triangles. They then went on to anglicise all the place names, e.g.  Skeheenarinky. It sounds like gibberish. It was Sceachín an  Rinnce , the little thorn bush of the dancing—The Little People dancing  at midnight in the moonlight. Be wary of the Little People.  There are stories and myths in the old Irish place names, if you have the time and patience to tease them out. The Ordnance Survey nailed everything down. Now they use GPS and satellites to keep everyone in their sights. Even the OD has moved to Donegal. We have come up in the world.

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Alice took us around the rock in a gentle curve. The islands swam from one point to another. The birds screamed at our intrusion. Perhaps they knew that Mike was about to catch some of their fish. We spliced the main brace to christen Michael’s new boat. A porpoise rolled on the surface. He shrugged and went below. Porc pisces —sea pigs?  A gannet dived like white lightning. We noted a few brown jellyfish drifting languidly in the tide. Alison and Margaret took time out. Where else would you rather be?

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I looked out this morning to check on that gap. The Rockabill was gone. There was a sea mist. Maybe, of course, it had merely gone walkabout. There was a time when it warned us of fog. Waw wah, waw wah, like a sick cow. It was a comforting sound when you lay in bed at night. Someone was keeping watch. Then it changed to Woop woop, woop woop. It had become a destroyer, steaming out of harbour to hunt for U Boats. Now it is silent. There is no need for watchers on the tower or foghorns to talk to the ships. All is electronic and of course, infallible.Tara, Rockabill, Harbour  end 065

There is a groove on the garden wall where the lighthouse keepers rested their telescope.  They focussed on the white wall of Flower and MacDonald’s coal yard. I was talking to a lady about this one time, when suddenly, to my surprise, she went into a spasmodic dance, waving her arms about like a mantis. I thought it might be because of some hypnotic power that I might have over women—but no. “What was that all about?” I asked. “I was saying goodnight to my Daddy,” she said. “We used to talk by semaphore at the  the coal yard wall.”

How the image  in the lens, of his little girl with her flags, must have warmed his heart , during his lonely vigil on Rockabill.