Railway art, crocodile tears and Hamlet.

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You never regret a railway journey, no matter how crowded or hot the train may be or how glum your fellow passengers are. There is always that childish air of promise, some surprise to intrigue or divert  your mind. Your companions may be caught in a moment of suspended animation or indeed in animated conversation. The train presents opportunities for concentrated people-watching, probably the oldest entertainment in the world. You must keep an impassive poker face. Or you can look out the window. A vast cyclorama unfolds as you go along: sheep grazing, a man ploughing with a tractor, birds descending on the furrows, golfers deliberating, boats on the dry, back gardens with the bric a brac of family life strewn about the lawn, projected suburban developments long abandoned and overgrown with weeds. Three jet planes there, racing westwards. The passengers are too high to see the ducks in Rogerstown estuary or the reflections of the trees where once there were orchards and strawberry beds.

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The young lady beside me was applying her mascara, preparing a face to meet the faces that she meets. It’s a delicate process. It took her all the way to Malahide to get it to her satisfaction.  I thought she looked okay before she started. Strange stuff, mascara. I looked it up. It was used in ancient Egypt by priests and pharaohs and notably by Elizabeth Taylor. It was compounded from wax, kohl, soot, the juices of berries and crocodile stool. I looked that up too. You don’t want to know. Victorian ladies were very fond of mascara and spent hours every day, applying their cosmetics. There was no shortage of soot, what with children climbing up chimneys all the time. Gentlemen used mascara to darken their moustaches. The children in the chimneys had no need of makeup. It would have been wasted on them. Kohl to Newcastle. Just a thought.

Eye liner? Young girls emphasise their eyes with black stuff. It makes the eyes small and sneaky looking. A pity. The windows of the soul.  Eyebrow pencil is a hoot. The eyebrows are painfully plucked away and then replaced further up the forehead, with black paint. It makes for an expression of perpetual surprise. I bet the crocodiles would have been surprised too, if they had known what was being done with their stools. God has given you one face and you paint yourselves another. Hamlet. W Shakespeare. The illusion of beauty might be better if it were not accomplished in public, under the eyes of strangers. Magicians guard their secrets jealously.

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The Victorians had many other accomplishments worth noting. They made cast iron a thing of beauty and utility. They built railways to link countries in meshes of steel. They strung wires and cables to create a world-wide-web. Their municipal and railway building were works of elegance. They invented new colours that a pharaoh might envy. They developed industrial war. They developed photography to record their achievements for better or for worse.  They grew great beards and Dundreary whiskers—the men mostly. They did not invent that ugly perspex, or the aerosol spray can. No wonder Turner and The Impressionists loved the iron, the light and smoke of the railway age.

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That shed had an elegance of its own. It was built by craftsmen in time gone by and defaced by modern vandals. It is difficult to admire graffiti artists. Their slogans are illegible. They appear in the most unlikely places, no doubt at great danger to the artist in question. Perhaps it is akin to the Victorian desire to place a flag on inaccessible peaks. There is an air of revolt and anger about graffiti.  I saw one once, Sod the Ozone Layer. Enough said.  And yet, in certain circumstances, they might have a point. That oil tank is more interesting, even though I can’t read what the artists have written. A lot of work went into it. Maybe like WWI dazzle paint, you don’t see an ugly tank at all.  A spot of crocodile stool might complete the effect.

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The building behind is still ‘a blank canvas’. We shall see.

United Colours of Drogheda.


I had to go into the Black Bull Inn, purely in the interests of research. As long as I could remember, the bull was black, as the sign might suggest. Then one day he was white. That was all right in a way. On an old negative, he would be black. Another time he was gold. There was a sign for a Chinese restaurant in the vicinity and I was in busy traffic. Black and gold is a popular combination in Chinese restaurants, a touch of oriental splendour. So all right again.  But pink? A pink elephant might convey the wrong message. Not far up the road, in Cooley, there was a famous brown bull. He gave rise to an epic poem, The Táin, with Queen Maeve and Cúchulainn and poor old Ferdia, who was killed by his friend at Ardee. Cúchulainn had a tendency to kill anyone who passed his way. This made him a hero and inspired poets. His wife, Emer, came from Lusk, some say, Loughshinny. They’re all very civil men up there. You would wonder why she ran away with a killer.

I thought of going to Specsavers but everything seemed to be all right. Anyway, I made a point of going back to photograph the paradox, the anomaly. The bull, as you can see, was pink. This called for investigation. It is a very pleasant place, with a convenient car park.  It would have been nice to lose an afternoon there, as my Uncle Jack often did, sixty years ago. Jack was no stranger to epics, but only in the sense of drinking bouts. A man could become a hero through drink, at least in the eyes of his comrades. However, the days when the drunken driver was a bit of a character, a rapscallion, a wag, are long gone and I had miles to go. The Drogheda road is a busy one, attracting the attention of the forces of law and order. I had a tonic water, with ice and lemon. It tastes all right and the quinine keeps the malaria at bay. Margaret had a Merlot and I reminisced.  The quinine stimulated my memory.

In fairness to Jack, he didn’t drive a car when he lived with us. He came to stay, during a hiatus in his career. His older sister, my mother, spoke sternly to him, telling him to get his act together. Oddly enough, my father enjoyed having him around. Jack had wit and humour. He was always on the verge of a major reformation. He had plans. ‘That garden will be a show garden, by the time I’m finished with it.’ He cut some grass with a shears and then felt a pressing need to go down to the Post Office. It was too dark to go back to the grass cutting, by the time he got back. He was a chemist by profession, having slipped aside from his medical studies. He sent two of us up to the quarry to get a bucketful of burnt lime. He was going to whitewash that shed, inside and out, the coal shed, as it happened. Why would you whitewash the inside of a coal shed? We struggled home with the bucket of rocks. He explained about quicklime, and pouring water onto the rocks. We had to stand well back. ‘That stuff would burn all the flesh off your hand, right down to the bone.’ I imagined myself going into school the next day, with a skeletal hand up my sleeve. Aha! That would scare them. I stood well back. The lime seethed in the bucket and turned a brilliant white. I was impressed. The next day he whitewashed the shed, down as far as the pile of coal. It made a nice contrast.

He occasionally took us out for walks. Sometimes he bought ice cream at Stokes’s shop in the Caltex garage. ‘Stay there and eat that,’ he would say, ‘and use your loaf.’ Then he would disappear down to Val Hatton’s bar in New Street, for a quick one.

‘Well,’ my mother said, ‘did you have a nice walk with Uncle Jack?’

‘Oh yes. He bought us ice cream and told us to wait for him and use our loaf. What does that mean? Use your loaf?’

I know now and I know why there were sharp intakes of breath and daggers looks. Nabbed again.

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He took us to the cinema in Balbriggan. We went by train. It was quite an adventure to go over the big viaduct at the harbour. ‘It’s limestone, of course, he explained, adding something about the great Victorian engineers. ‘It’s the same limestone as we used to whitewash the shed.’ Amazing stuff. I have only the vaguest recollection of the film. Everyone had a tendency to burst into song. There were no cowboys, like you would have in a proper film.

‘How did you enjoy the film?’ my mother enquired. ‘Did you behave for Uncle Jack?’

‘ It was all right.’

‘All right? All right? Is that all you can say? All right?  That’s the last time I’ll take any of you to the cinema.’ He was very offended.

He did bring us to see Ivanhoe. Gallant knights clashed in the lists at Ashby de la Zouche. I loved the name. It was all colour and panoply. He was annoyed. ”That’s all poppycock. They didn’t have all those colours in the Middle Ages. They had only five pigments’. Maybe he said eleven or seven. I can state with great authority that they had only five, seven, or eleven pigments until the great Victorian chemists invented the myriad of chemical colours that we take for granted today. The Great Exhibition…imperial purple out of a test tube. That’s what my Uncle Jack said.

He almost married a girl from Drogheda when he went to work there. My mother approved of her. She would straighten him out. ‘You do right by that girl,’ she warned him. We wanted him to marry her too. Her family made the best sausages in Ireland and still do. Ah! what might have been. Too many epic sieges, possibly in the Black Bull. The name cropped up in conversations. Drogheda is a busy seaport . There was a woman with seven children all of varying colours, by seven sea-faring men. He asked her why she had never married. ‘Ah, Mr. Carty,’ she replied, ‘I’d rather have seven bastards than one bad husband.’ Not a great recommendation for marriage. He never got his act together in Drogheda.


He went across the water, possibly by train, over the viaduct. It’s Sheephouse limestone, by the way, 150 years old and still as good as ever.  He settled in Bradford, working for Imperial Chemical Industries. It sounds impressive. Perhaps he lived a colourful life there. He kept it private.He loved to walk on the moors and in the Pennines. ‘Like a dose of salts.’ Salts were the standard remedy for all ills in those days. He wrote at Christmas, enclosing money to be shared among us children,’so that they may purchase whatsoever noxious sweetmeats they desire.’ That was all right too. He had only one argument with my father… about the spelling of all right/alright. It seems that either one is …ok. He was a fairly regular correspondent.

Margaret had another Merlot to ward off ennui. I told her how, when he died, his widow wrote to sympathise with my mother. His what? She said that he had been a good husband and father to his twenty two year stepson old. All very strange. They had spent their honeymoon in Ireland and never thought to call in. My mother  drew her breath in sharply. Typical Jack, but I think she was pleased that he had got his act together at last.

I had to ask the young lady in the bar about the bull. ‘Do you not think he’s embarrassed about being painted pink? He’s a bull, after all.’

‘Oh,’ she explained, ‘we paint him different colours to publicise different campaigns. There’s a big fund-raiser for breast cancer research this month. He’s not a bit embarrassed.