Eminent Professors, Old News and A Wizard Wheeze.


The Robinsons lived in a pink cottage at Milverton. There were trellised roses wreathed around the cottage door. The garden was filled with herbs and flowers.  They had an orchard behind the house. It was a picture from Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain. I remember a pretty girl in a check summer dress, standing amid the flowers and herbs. They abandoned their home shortly after the war and emigrated to England. The cottage fell into dereliction.

‘Near yonder copse where once the garden smiled/ and still where many a garden flower grows wild…’ She still stands there in my memory. As boys, we went in to investigate the orchard. The cottage door was hanging off. We found that the clay walls had been covered with newspapers, overpainted with distemper. The damp had loosened them. We could read the ancient news still preserved on the back of the paper. There is still no news of the girl in the check summer dress.

Oliver Goldsmith, possibly Ireland’s best loved writer, stated that he loved old things,old books, old friends, old houses, old wine. I don’t think he mentioned old newspapers. Do you recall how you would set out to light a fire with twists of newspaper? You were possibly kneeling down beside the hearth, beginning to bunch up an old paper. Your eye caught a news item that you had missed at the first, hurried reading. Maybe a cartoon. Emil Zatopec got into trouble for supporting The Prague Spring– one little stick man remarking to another: “I never thought that Emil Zatopec would move too fast for the Czechs.” A classic Tom Matthews cartoon—Two men sitting at a table, observing a bearded man in a pointy hat and a cloak decorated with stars and planets. The strange man is bent double, in a paroxysm of coughing. ‘Kaf, kaf!!’ One man says to the other: “Just listen to this wizard wheeze.” If you read Biggles or indeed The Wizard, you will understand the joke. features-goldsmith-full

Goldsmith died at the age of forty six. He is still remembered for the lost world of his deserted village. “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey; where wealth accumulates and men decay.” Bang up to date. I read that the NAMA boys are back in town, scattering their millions around like confetti. Goldsmith should have taken some Phyllosan tablets..’to protect the family after forty. Formulated by an eminent professor of medicine…’  No name or qualifications given. He is eminent. No list of ingredients. How dare you ask? Don’t you see that he is an eminent professor? Professors are always eminent. Judges are always learned. Doctors are always good. Explorers are intrepid. This advertisement is from the Irish Times of  November 2nd 1942.

Under the linoleum in Leo Flanagan’s former house, I found a treasure trove of newspapers from 1942. The Germans are doing well at Stalingrad. The Allied forces are massing at el Alamein. The newly reconstituted Medical Registration Council  held its first meeting, A recommendation for the reduced use of alcohol in drugs was adopted, as a wartime economy measure. Remember Gripe Water for babies. It was mostly alcohol with a subtle after-taste of elderflower. I doubt if Leo ever needed Gripe water or Phyllosan. He coped well with the wartime economy measures by owning a pub. The Council declined to strike off the name of Dr. Patrick Joseph Conlin for convictions ‘outside Eire’ on charges of being drunk and disorderly—fined 20/s and 10/s on two occasions. Presumably the good doctor was warned to observe the wartime economy measures while in Eire. I bought a bottle of green tonic from a friendly pharmacist—overwork and stress. (I was twenty one.) Two spoonfuls in the morning. Great stuff. The size of the spoons wasn’t specified. I took a few more during the day. It tasted great. My stress evaporated. Then I read the label. It had more alcohol than even Gripe Water. Shurely shome mishundershtanding.

Sea gulls 010

Goldsmith is deservedly commemorated by a Summer School in his native Pallas in County Longford. We probably know him better from the statue outside Trinity College, where he stands beside the great orator Edmund Burke. Summer schools have proliferated throughout the land. They fill the news pages, during the silly season. They come up with wizard wheezes. Here’s one from an eminent professor at the McGill summer school last week: Old people living in houses adjudged to be too big for them, should be punished by higher property taxes and made to move to smaller units of accommodation. This would ‘free up’ more units at a time of shortage. I hesitate to demur, because of the eminence of the professor. I might end up in front of a learned judge. So this is how it works: You struggle to buy, maintain and hold onto a house in which to raise your family. (‘You’ is usually plural, as in ‘the masculine embraces the feminine’.) You cope with fluctuating interest rates of up to twenty two and a half percent. (Thank you, Bertie.) You may welcome old friends or new grandchildren to your house. You may cultivate and enjoy a garden. You may sit in the sun or read a book. You count your blessings……… You are selfish bastards. That house should be confiscated.

One set of experts speaks of keeping old people in their homes, rather than in expensive nursing homes, where they are obliged to watch Scooby Doo all afternoon. I hate Scooby Doo. I hate not having any say over the use of the remote control. (Do you remember the bad old days, when you had to get up out of your chair to change the channel?) I would vote for euthanasia rather than have to spend my declining years watching Scooby Doo. Let me live in my garden shed. Put me out in the snow for the wolves, but please, no Scooby Doo. It’s the same story every time…some villainous entrepreneur, disguised as a ghost, trying to scare people out of their property.  Wait a minute…

Those greedy villains in the above photograph have been in the news lately. They are driving people mad early in the mornings by dancing on the roofs and smashing crabs on the tiles, for breakfast.  They never shut up. Eminent experts have advocated a cull. Other learned experts have called for greater protection of the gulls. What about a cull of the disgruntled householders? Cheaper.  Especially the elderly. They can’t even run.


When Doctor Zhivago arrived home one evening, he found that his house had been confiscated  by the Communists to accommodate several families. This was the new order, explained the commissar. There was no argument. Zhivago shrugged. “Okay,” he said, or words to that effect. “That seems fair enough.” You don’t argue with commissars. He was in the paper a few weeks ago. He died at the age of eighty two. He must have been on the Phyllosan. Julie Christie is still looking all right. Would you turf her out of her home or leave her in the snow for the wolves? Nah!

Resist! Zimmer frames at the ready!

Dressed to kill. Karl Lagerfeld, Russell Brand and the Nazis. Sir Hartley.

I love an apocryphal story. You don’t have to be sure of any facts. ‘It’s apocryphal’, you say. Your listener says ‘Ah,’ and nods wisely. I have to rely on the apocryphal because I know nothing about either of the two gentlemen except what I saw in a newspaper recently. I see that Karl is a natty dresser, while Russell is not. It seems that Russell said that Karl designed uniforms for the Nazis. He then went on to say that they were brilliant uniforms, using some colourful language in saying so. This gave great offence to his audience. The report piqued my interest. I did some in-depth research. Okay, I Googled Karl. His date of birth is sort of apocryphal but if he did as Russell claimed, he must have gone out of business by the age of nine–or ten –or twelve, depending on which version you chose. Yet, today he an arbiter of fashion, another subject, about which I also know nothing.

There is no doubt that Hitler was a master showman. His Nuremberg rallies still give a chill of fear. Humanity looked into the abyss. A beast arose in Europe, out of the mud and carnage of the First World War. It was dressed in grey, black and red. Flags and uniforms compelled obedience without question. They still exercise a fascination. Somewhere on your television right now, men in field-grey are pointing at maps, diving in Stukas, tearing across country in Panzer tanks. The SS made black the new black. The generals wore sinister black leather coats. They look like winners. But don’t blame Karl.

I had some fashion dilemmas in the years immediately following the war. My older brother was brought to Mr. Boylan, the tailor in Quay Street to get a new jacket. Mr. Boylan was a real tailor, a man’s tailor. He actually sat cross-legged on a table as he worked. My brother got a jacket with flaps on the pockets to retain valuables, odd keys, sweets, chestnuts, a penknife, bits of string and the rubber out of old golf balls, maybe tuppence or thrippence, if he was lucky. I must mention pockets to Karl if I ever meet him. Fashionistas are not too good on functioning pockets. The schweinhund even got an inside pocket!

What can I say? My mother brought me to Miss Murphy, the dress-maker in The Square to have a coat cut down for me. I still find it difficult to talk about it. I specified flaps and an inside pocket. I have no recollection of the colour or whether it was an overcoat or a jacket, but she put the flaps on the outside edges of the pockets, like a lady’s coat! Maybe it had been a lady’s coat. It was a time of rationing after all. I asked about my inside pocket. ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that,’ she replied. ‘They would put me in gaol if I gave you an inside pocket.’ Sadly, I knew none of Russell’s colourful language at the time. My mother was a collaborator in all this. She pinched my arm, feeling the quality of the material, not the matchstick, ration era, arm. I later learned what happened to collaborators after the war. I learned some colourful language. I also learned that pockets were indeed rationed at the time. Did they have fashion police in the Forties? It was a long time ago. I have learned to forgive.

I’m sure I inherited the jacket from my brother. By that time it probably had no elbows in the sleeves. There was a button missing. The inside pocket was irrevocably sealed by a melted Honey-bee bar. There was a blue-black stain of Haughton’s ink from a malfunctioning fountain pen. The early biros were worse. Deep down I blamed Hitler for all the trouble he caused.

How did they lose the war? Picture Montgomery in his baggy shorts (So last year!) and skinny legs. Put him beside Rommel in his leather overcoat and celluloid sand goggles. Picture Churchill in a boiler suit and Goering in a white field-marshall uniform with a prairie of medals on his chest. No contest. Those celluloid goggles became a fashion must-have with kids after the war. James Mason made Rommel glamorous, even one of the good guys. Clothes make a man. So how did they lose?

Which brings me to Sir Hartley Shawcross, a man of undeniable brilliance. Perhaps the story is apocryphal but it is a good insight into the legal mind and the importance of dress. A senior British general was disturbed by noise and laughter one night in his hotel in Cairo. (See above, war in the desert, Rommel, Monty, baggy shorts etc.) It was a time of the gravest danger, before Alamein and the end of the beginning of the end and Stalingrad. German armies were sweeping south towards the Caucasus, threatening the oilfields of the Middle east. Hitler’s forces were poised to sweep through India and link up with the Japanese. The Americans were preparing to make their last stand at the Mississippi. Everyone buckled down to the task of holding the enemy back. Everyone except a naked man pursuing a naked woman around the corridors of a hotel in Cairo. The general recognised him as one of his own staff. The general was outraged and immediately put the miscreant on a charge. The officer was court-martialled for conduct unbecoming, for being out of uniform, for failing to stand to attention or maybe for standing too obviously to attention in the presence of his commanding officer. Down with that sort of thing , we say. Shoot the blighter at dawn. Break him to the ranks. Drum him out of the service. Leave a pistol beside his cutlery in the mess.

The officer was fortunate to have Hartley Shawcross as his defence. It looked hopeless until Shawcross found a way out: King’s Regulations. Paragraph such and such, subsection so and so. (I said it was apocryphal) “An officer must be properly attired for the sport in which he is participating.” Laughter in court. Case dismissed. A close-run thing all the same. So, who won the war, then?

I knew a German lady whose grandfather had been a Nazi. In his heart he was still a Nazi. He hated to see young people with long hair and hippy clothes, (a bit like Russell actually). He used to mutter audibly at bus-stops and in other public places, as grandfathers do, about the shortcomings of the younger generation. ‘Look at them,’ he would say. ‘Look at them. No use for war.’

The smirking Nazis returned to Nuremberg after the war. Shawcross was there. His closing statement left those criminals in tatters.

I have a pair of Jack Murphy trousers with pockets inside pockets and secret zipped pockets. Maybe I shouldn’t divulge this information. There are spies everywhere. If I had tuppence or thrippence to hide in them I would be doing okay.