Precision Drill. Gold in the Straw. November Thoughts.


On November 1st, we are entitled, even expected, to think sombre thoughts, but all I could think of was William Morris wallpaper. He created patterns from nature— flowers, birds and leaves to delight the Victorians and later generations, until minimalism took hold and emulsion paint, usually magnolia, covered the world. Everywhere I look, on damp streets, polished by the low winter sun, I see William Morris at work. The Japanese, I gather , refer to retired people as fallen leaves, with nothing better to do than mooch around, looking at things, instead of contributing to the world by working and earning money. I tried that. It didn’t work. I like the leaves when they pile up in the streets or blow around in a gale. I should collect them all and make compost for gardeners. There’s probably a fortune to be made there. The Japanese love gardens. I could probably get an incentive grant to export ……… Some other time.

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The low sun dramatises everything. It picks out the precise lines of the winter cornfields. The parallel lines converge on infinity. Thanks to Jethro Tull and his seed drill, we can appreciate the weave of next year’s crop, only weeks after the harvest and ploughing. That’s not a sombre thought at all. It is a wonder. It is a gamble also, permitted by our relative benign climate.

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There was a Mr Belyaev responsible for corn production in Ukraine and the Russian steppes in the early sixties. The land was ploughed and the seed sown in autumn. It was essential that the seed should sprout before the snow came, so that it would be protected from subsequent frost. Unfortunately the frost came before the snow. They had to wait for spring and the thaw to see what damage had been done. The crop was destroyed. This was not in the script. Mr Belyaev was dismissed in disgrace. Winter in that part of the world, has a way of upsetting the most careful calculations. Cold War warriors rubbed their hands. The Soviets would be starved into submission. They would come to the negotiating table, or whatever. It didn’t happen. They bought great quantities of wheat from America. The price of flour went up sharply on world markets. Our sliced pan became dearer. Not in the script at all.


Duffs’ haggart was here. Memories sprout like the green corduroy rows. There were stacks of bales and ricks of hay, where we played and learned to smoke. Probably not the best place to make a hut and smoke Woodbine. Fortunately I never liked cigarettes. Fortunately we weren’t incinerated. I remember a Traveller from a caravan in the lane, taking hay for his horse. He had permission. He smiled and tugged at the stack. “Tis good hee, isn’t it?”  I’m sure it was and gratefully received. We smiled at his accent from far away. There was a great decency in the Duffs.

In the lean-to cowshed against the wall, lived Neddy, a man who had dropped out of the mainstream of life, after some family tragedy. He slept in the straw, undisturbed by the cattle, like an old Viking warrior in his long-house. I wondered why he lived as a derelict. I wondered what had tipped him over the edge. I wondered whether there might be a sense of relief in throwing in the towel and giving up work, ambition, sartorial and hygienic considerations, family concerns, providing for the future, contributing to society and all that rot. He lived as free as the lillies of the field, but not attired like Solomon in all his glory. I felt guilty because we dropped stones on the corrugated roof, when we were going up Toker Hill. Clatter, clank, clank!! It made him shout and swear. It made us run faster.

In the interests of public decency and out of simple goodness, Mrs. Duff gave him a pair of her husband’s corduroy trousers, mole-skins as they were known at the time. She met him on his daily trudge down the Dublin Road. He bestrode the narrow pavement, not like a colossus, but because his legs were splayed wide apart, (an aspect of the original problem of public decency etc.) “Well, Neddy,” she asked, “how do you like the trousers?”  “Ah, missus,” he replied, “me arse thinks it’s in heaven.”  On another occasion, my mother heard screaming on the road outside. She ran out in alarm. My older brother was trying to drag my younger brother back to the safety of the garden. The three-year-old was protesting violently and resisting all attempts to lift him. As small children can, he had become boneless, a dead weight, a marine ribbon-worm, an amorphous lump of jelly….no disrespect to his current self. Neddy had happened upon the scene. He interpreted it as a severe case of bullying. His sense of justice kicked in. My mother restored order. Neddy pointed an accusing finger at my older brother. “That’s a right cur, whoever owns him.” Seventy something years on, my brother is generally regarded as a decent, upstanding citizen. I sometimes wonder though, if Neddy saw something deeper in him, or had he just got the wrong end of the stick.


November is the month of sombre remembrance. Who sowed this crop? These lads are planted in rows as neat as the rows in which they drilled and exercised and stood to attention. Their fates were not as tidy or orderly. They too were mown down, row upon row. It’s recurrence is almost as predictable as the harvest. Statesmen and military men are great planners. ‘ The sower went out to sow his seed and as he sowed, some fell by the wayside…’ Poor old Neddy was one who fell by the wayside. The cares, riches and pleasures of this world passed him by. When Duffs cleared out the shed after his death, the story was that they filled an enamel basin with small change lost and scattered in the straw, evidence of his disregard for worldly goods. The shed is gone now anyway. That retirement home is no longer available. I must mooch on.

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November the First. Winter is upon us. It is an absolutely beautiful day. Next year’s leaf buds are on the trees and ready to go. That’s not so bad, is it?

Iluntasuna. 9/11. The Twin Towers.

Sometimes things happen that burn themselves indelibly onto the memory.  We remember clearly where we were at the time and what exactly we were doing. We put down whatever we have in our hands. We stop in our tracks. We are struck dumb. Words are inadequate. We are sharply reminded of our own insignificance and vulnerability. Our perception of the world is changed forever. Most of these events are small, private happenings, bringing personal grief or happiness. The great public events affect thousands or even millions of people, shifting the ground under our feet, in either a real or a metaphorical way. We all remember what we were doing when we heard that President Kennedy had been shot.

We can vividly imagine the terror of the people of Pompeii, from the pathetic plaster casts of those suffocated by the eruption of the volcano. They were going about their daily business, conversing, laughing or grumbling, sitting at their work or drawing together to share a meal. They were taken in an instant.  The seismic waves from Krakatoa were felt in The Pool of London.  The sun was darkened. The explosion of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still haunt our consciousness. “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” (Oppenheimer.) Is it any wonder that catastrophists and doomsayers dominate popular culture?  There is a market for dystopia. Special effects create endless versions of Armageddon to frighten the lives out of us and make us apprehensive for the future and for our childrens’ and grandchildrens’ futures. Apprehension breeds extremism and thereby violence.

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The first time I saw a jet plane, I felt fear. I was wheeling my baby brother in a pram, at the top of Toker Hill. (He maintains that it is Tochar Hill. He has grown up. He corrects me.) Nobody uses a pram nowadays, except vegetable vendors in street markets. A pram could contain several siblings and all the family groceries. The handle was very cold, for children old enough to walk, but compelled to hold on. I let go of my hold once and promptly got lost. That’s another primal fear.

On top of the hill I heard a terrible noise. Was it a bull, roaring as he charged towards us? Was it blasting in the quarry? It was definitely not a train or a lorry. It wasn’t a steam threshing machine, rumbling along a country road. The noise seemed to crack the sky. I saw a gleaming triangle, a delta wing, as I learned later. It was silver. I had no idea what it was. I feared for my little brother. There was nowhere to hide. It turned away from us and then banked, a graceful isosceles, darting away over the town and away,away, beyond Rockabill lighthouse. The noise crackled and reverberated behind it, long after it disappeared from sight. We are familiar with the old black and white films of refugees fleeing from strafing aircraft, along unprotected dykes and straggling roads. They push their children and their hopes of safety and a better life, in prams and handcarts. They walk in fear, looking up at the sky. Everyone is a legitimate target for blitzkrieg.

I saw two F.16 fighter jets last week, in almost the same place, a most unusual sight in Skerries. My son and I got out of the car to watch them. They circled a couple of times, displaying their weaponry. If they saw us at all, we were two insignificant specks far below, devoid of humanity or individual importance. We were conscious of the fact that a finger on a button could have evaporated us in an instant. They had come to perform a fly-past for a college football game in Croke Park. When we got home, the news on the radio reported Ukrainian jets hitting rebel positions around Mariupol. Fire from the sky was a reality for some people on that sunny Saturday afternoon.

On April 27th 1937, aircraft of Hitler’s Condor Legion, bombed the Basque town of Guernica. There was a horse fair taking place on that day. Picasso’s painting captures the terror, for those of us who were not there, or were not even born at the time. Today Americans remember all those who died in the Twin Towers and elsewhere on September the 11th 2001. You too remember where you were at that time and when you first saw those indelible images of twisted steel, amid towering clouds of smoke and dust. Our perception of the world changed on that day.

My daughter, Sarah, made this video. Take a few minutes to listen to it and to look at Picasso’s images as they change.

 ILUNTASUNA, in Euskara, the language of the Basque people, means DARKNESS.

The Guernica Oak Tree, in the middle of the town, is perpetuated from its own acorns. The current replacement sapling is being held elsewhere, until the soil is able to heal.