Cabbages and Kings. The Elixir of Life. Smoke and Mirrors.


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.


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.

Peeling Back the Years. Murtaghs’ Hill and the Haunted House.

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Sketch c.1949 courtesy of Leonard McGloughlin. 

I discovered only recently that there is a facility on Google Earth , a clock icon, that can roll back time. I decided to look at Murtaghs’ Hill in or about 1955, but sadly Google didn’t exist then. What kept them? Arthur C. Clarke foretold geostatic communication satellites in 1946. He forgot to patent the idea. It took another 16 years for Telstar to glide across the night sky, the first of a myriad of satellites to bind the world in  a web of voices and pictures. Clarke envisaged a time when nation would speak unto nation . Peace and understanding would spread throughout the world and indeed, the Universe. He suggested that communications would be revolutionised by reducing all phone charges to the local rate, irrespective of distance. All you would have to do is crank the handle and ask the operator to connect you  to Proxima Centauri or the other side of the galaxy..and hang the expense…4d or so.  He never anticipated Skype. I can never think of Telstar without hearing the tune……Jackie Farne and his Cordovox, an alien tune from interstellar space, ‘Big, Wide Space’ as my little grandson calls it. He is familiar with Skype and wockets that fly up to Big Wide Space. The Cordovox was an electronic instrument played with a stylus. Similar results could be achieved by inserting the stylus into your inner ear and scraping vigorously. World peace will have to wait a while longer.

Ardla 2008    Ardla 2013

Google Earth  can go back as far as 2003, so this is what I got: 2003 and 2013. The hill is gone. Don’t look at me. It was definitely there the last time I walked that land. So was the ring fort. I’ll be honest. I was aware that it was gone. From the railway platform now you can see Ardgillan woods and white houses on The Black Hills. There was once a green hill, a graceful parabola, an esker that had strayed southwards as part of the freight of the last glacier. It was dappled with furze and fringed with a few gaunt scots pine. It had a haunted house. It had an ancient ring-fort to tease the imagination and a melancholy swamp to frighten the unwary. Who lived there down all the years, since the ice surrendered its plunder? Why was the house haunted?

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There was a comic strip in the evening paper: King, of the Mounties. The comma is important. He wasn’t the king of the Mounties. He was a sergeant. He wore the incredibly glamorous red coat, although we saw it only in black, grey and white. Our grandchildren think that we lived in black and white. In winter, King wore a fur hat with ear flaps. Try getting children to wear such a thing. Eminently practical. However, King always caught the bad guys, tracking them over the endless arctic wilderness, through impenetrable forests and down raging rivers interrupted by vertiginous cataracts. The bad guys were often renegade Indians or French-Canadian fur trappers  My older siblings had to read the speech bubbles for me. I used to wonder why anyone would steal another trapper’s furze. There was plenty of furze on Murtaghs’ Hill, enough for everyone. The bad guys had great terms of abuse. My French is limited but I remember ‘pig-dog’, a good one to be used in times of stress, when arguments about what King, of the Mounties shoulda’ done, got out of hand. That was every night. I never wanted to be a Mountie though. I think it was the hat. It’s not a proper cowboy hat at all… and he had a flap on his holster. More flaps. I still know where to find lots of furze. I have some old tennis racquets in the shed, in case a blizzard closes in. There is even a plastic snow-bullet toboggan in there too. Pig-dogs beware.

What has the British Empire ever done for us? Well, the Ordnance Survey was one thing. You can out-Google Google Earth by means of the Ordnance Survey maps. You can go to The Griffith Valuation of 1847-52 (Google it) and look at the first Ordnance Survey. You can read the names of the land-holders of every field. You can trace every stream and lane of your childhood and houses that are now mere ghostly shells, if any trace remains.  You can see the ghost of Murtaghs’ Hill and the ring-fort that once became a quarry, a foul smelling chemical dump, a rubbish tip and now an unprepossessing, swelling of the ground, ‘landscaped to ‘blend in with its surroundings.’

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Once upon a time we met an old woman wading in the swamp, collecting water cress. ‘Wather grass’, she called it. ‘Very good for you, but be sure to wash off the snails.’ God help her, she was a ruin in her own right, as if she had come out of the haunted house to find her dinner. She hadn’t a tooth in her head and always seemed to be astray in herself, but an amiable poor soul.  The wather grass hadn’t done her much good. Fashionable chefs will garnish your meal with wather grass but be sure to check for snails… unless of course, you have ordered snails. By the way, the swamp is now a corn field and perfectly dry underfoot… no geese or frogs or reed-warblers or snipe darting from the rushes and no wather grass.

There is definitely no gravelly hill. It was trucked away to build the Dublin suburb of Ballymun. I wonder where the ghosts live now.