I am not squeamish by nature but Roald Dahl’s book, The Twits, defeated me. Small children love it. There is a passage in which Dahl describes in detail, the various foodstuffs lodged in the beards of the book’s eponymous heroes. (That’s one of those words you use and then pause, wondering if it means what you thought it meant, like ‘esoteric, eclectic, ergonomic, existential’.) I had to stop reading it to them. Roald Dahl understood children too well. I have spoon-fed children, with no problem, as long as the food is fresh….’neeaaaarrr…open the mouth…aeroplane coming…look up…no, leave that alone…don’t drop it on the floor… take you fingers out of that…. wiggly worm spaghetti….there now, isn’t that nice?….etc. It can be a game. It can be a contest. You will lose. But The Twits, with its vivid descriptions of last week’s food still clinging to beards, was too much for me.
Scipio Africanus is reputed to have been the first Roman to shave every day. He was criticised for introducing the effeminate Greek fashion of removing the manly facial hair. They used copper razors..ouch. They had the hairs plucked out by slaves. No doubt the slaves took some pleasure in that. They used depilatory sulphur pastes to burn off the hair. They invented match-makers’ jaw, long before matches. King C. Gillette introduced the notion of convenient disposability, to the world. Do you remember Mac’s Smile safety razor blades? The trade mark was a bald, angry man with a scruffy, stubbly chin. Turn him the other way and he was clean shaven and smiling, ready to greet the day and charm the ladies. Blades cost money. Travellers from Northern Ireland were questioned closely at Amiens Street Station to see if they had hopped off the train at Newry to stock up on razor blades or any other illegal ‘toilet requisites’. Fellows had numerous ways of re-sharpening blades, such as rubbing them on the inside of a glass, at severe risk to fingers. You might meet a man stepping out for the evening with little toilet-paper Japanese flags covering his wounds. While the Japanese are not great men for beards, they know a thing or two about blades. I went to Reads’ cutlery shop in Parliament Street, Dublin’s oldest shop. They were cutlers and sword makers to the Lord Mayor. I consulted Mr. Keegan. He didn’t ask which razor gang I was affiliated to or whether I was inclined to waylay unwary pedestrians in dark alleys. He understood that as a student I couldn’t afford to fritter my money on fresh razor blades. A good cut-throat razor, (with an ergonomic handle) would pay for itself many times over. It was worth the capital outlay. The clue is in the name. I got a good look a the scoundrel who cut slices out of me every morning. I never got the hang of sharpening it. My brother pared pencils with it and took a chunk out of the blade. I went back to Mac’s Smile.
‘And great ebbtides lift to the light of day , the seabed’s briny chambers of decay’. Thomas Kinsella’s evocative line always comes to mind at the time of the Equinox. The tide goes out and out and out, the Moon and the Sun pulling together. The ‘razor rocks’ sound sinister and they would indeed, slice the bottom out of your boat, but their main function is as a marker. When the ‘razor rocks’ are stripped it’s time to go catching razor clams. Two other texts come to mind…Spike Milligan’s ‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas, across the Irish Sea….’ and Leviticus 10 :’Whatsoever hath no fins or scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you…’ Some interpretations expand this prohibition to all shellfish. That creates a problem for lovers of crabs, lobsters, prawns, shrimps, oysters and mussels and for seafood restaurants in general.
For razor clams you need a barbed spear, a bit of bull wire. You walk backwards along the low tide line and into the shallows. When you see the squirt of water, it means that the creature has felt the pressure of your weight and has emitted a strong jet of water to siphon itself deep into the sand. A quick thrust of the spear should pass between its shells, (it’s a bivalve). Twist the barb and you have him. A spear, skill and food… real primitive hunter-gatherer stuff. Generally it’s men who go for razors. A beard might keep you warm in a brisk March wind. It is useless to try to dig them out. My brother, the pencil parer, tried ploughing them out with a tractor but inevitably, by the time the ploughshare reached the point where the squirt had appeared, the razor had already gone down, because of the weight of the tractor. He contemplated mounting the plough on the front of the tractor. No go. Digging a watery grave for himself. There is a technique where, using your superior intelligence, you pour salt on the spot and fool the razor into thinking that the tide has come in again. That’s as effective as pouring salt on a bird’s tail when you want to catch it. Try it. I did. Not a chance. Back to the primitive method.
The skies have been busy this last week. We have had the aurora borealis, unusual in these latitudes. We have seen the Moon eclipse the Sun, a cause for great excitement. I have a little memento of an eclipse in 1952 or 53. It is a small writhing jellyfish on the retina of my right eye. My older brother said that you can look at the Sun through a button and watch the eclipse. Indeed you can but my bad eye, the left one, has been my good eye ever since. When my mother left college she worked for a time, as a tutor to the daughter of a fiercely nationalist eccentric in Galway. He rejected all things English, especially the language. He was a Theosophist or some such. I don’t really know what a Theosophist believes, but in that house the Sun was Lúgh and the Moon was Balor of the Evil Eye. You can imagine my mother’s surprise when the child saw a dim Moon appearing during daylight hours, as it occasionally does and pointed at the sky. ‘Buail Balor bob ar Lúgh’ she laughed; ‘Balor has played a trick on Lúgh.’ She meant it literally. Signs in the heavens etc. Balor had a right go at Lúgh last Friday. He took a chunk out of the Sun, (rather like the chunk out of my cut-throat razor in fact,) but we survived. Beware when religion gets involved in matters of dress, shaving/not shaving, haircutting/not cutting hair, dietary matters and bodily mutilation. Leviticus has been interpreted to mean that we should slay eaters of shellfish as well as a wide selection of other offenders.
Most of all, Balor gives us the low Equinoctial tides, Saint Patrick’s Springs, in March. My brother David, called me one day about twenty five years ago. ‘Do you want to be a legend in your own lifetime?’ ‘Certainly,’ I replied. He was going to walk to Colt Island at low tide with his pal, Dara. He had checked the tidal tables for Dublin Port. The Moon and stars were propitious, a very rare situation. Moreover, he had taken the handle off the yard brush as a safety device. This made him the expedition leader. We walked across with ease. We had about ten minutes on the island. A sharp south-east wind sprang up. On the way back the tide was running like a mill-race, covering the dorn and lifting the seaweed into a swaying forest. When we got to land there were two policemen waiting for us. Someone had called the lifeboat. There wasn’t enough water to float it. The policemen, nevertheless, had to make a report. If this got out, the two lads would have been slagged by their yachting pals. Anyway, didn’t we have a brush handle for emergencies? We then had to go to the pub to find someone to argue with, never a great problem in Skerries. ‘Hey, Beggs, did you ever walk out to Colt Island?’ ‘I did. I drove cattle onto that island and me cap floated off on the way back.’ Game, set and match to Willie Beggs. Legend.
Joe Grimes had a recipe for razors; ‘Boil half the quantity in milk and f*** them out. Then just drop the rest in for a second and then…….f*** the whole bloody lot out.’ He laughed. Another legend. The pleasure is in the quest and a contemplative walk by the edge of the tide. Now the fishermen catch them with dredges and high-pressure hoses. I ate some cooked by a ‘celebrity chef.’ He insisted that we use the shell as a spoon. Primitive but trendy. I cut my bloody tongue.
The tides are still low but fortunately Lúgh is back in business.