Be prepared

  

It is worthwhile clicking twice to enlarge sections of the notice attached to the rocket rescue cart. You can appreciate the amount of forethought that went into the serious business of saving lives at sea. There is even a whip for the horse. Speed was essential. The apparatus shed stood in the yard beside the old Coast Guard station, where the RNLI lifeboat house now stands. The pole itself has decamped to the bandstand to become, appropriately, a memorial to all those lost at sea along this coast.

           

Colonel Congreve pioneered the use of rockets in the British army. Some useful lessons were learnt in the wars in India. Congreve saw the rich possibilities for using rockets to dismember  people at a distance, as at Waterloo in 1815. The science has progressed to multiple rocket launchers, to guided missiles, to intercontinental ballistic missiles and rockets to the Moon.

In 1807 Captain George Manby of the Royal Artillery at Great Yarmouth developed a system of firing a mortar carrying a line to a stricken ship, using a weapon of war to save lives. A Cornish Man, Trengrouse , adapted the process by using rockets. The rocket rescue became the more common method. It must have been like divine intervention to those in peril at sea, a veritable deus ex machina. Survivors were winched ashore by breeches or sling buoy. I saw a demonstration on a fine Sunday afternoon a long time ago. There was a band playing at the bandstand. I doubt if they played “He flies through the air with the greatest of ease.” The daring young man was Des McDonagh, a rather dashing character, game for a challenge. The breeches buoy dragged through the water, a minor inconvenience when set against the enormous benefit of a life saved. I tried to imagine how it would have been in a storm, in darkness, when the waves surge over The Grey Mare Rock. Even Des might have been daunted.

  

  

You may have noticed the stump of a similar pole at The Captains, with two eyelets set into the rock to anchor the line. This would have been all bloody fine, if the rocket team could have got anywhere near the pole to receive the survivors. An easterly gale would have made this problematic. It is to the enormous credit of the rocket volunteers, that the system persisted for almost two centuries until the advent of helicopters, the ultimate deus ex machina. But these people are not gods. The recent tragedy at Blacksod reminds us that they are exceptional people who go out in all conditions, to risk their lives, without hesitation, in the service of others. It’s a far cry from a sunny Sunday afternoon and a demonstration of a quaint and antiquated rescue apparatus, but it is nonetheless a part of the same long tradition of selfless service to those in need.

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In the Field of Human Endeavour

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Just beyond the art shop in Balbriggan, someone has painted the top of the hill with aureolin yellow. Faraway hills, in this instance, are not all green. Oilseed rape has the capacity to shine a shaft of sunlight into a dull, overcast day. It enlivens the patchwork quilt stitched together by centuries-old  hedgerows and the normally green and brown Irish landscape.The field of rape takes centre stage on a grey and sullen day. It is unlikely that the farmer thought of Gauguin and Van Gogh discovering the colours of Provence, when he planted his crop, but I thought of them. I went into the art shop and bought some tubes of sunshine.

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Jacob Bronowski graced our television screens forty years ago, with his series The Ascent of Man. He made sense of things ‘that tease us out of thought, as doth eternity.’  He held in his hand the Taung Skull, a fossil millions of years old. He explained the importance of the brain cavity as evidence of rational thought. In this child, probably killed by some predator, he saw the origins of how humanity set itself apart from other creatures. He spoke of humanity ascending from our ancient ancestors, not descending. The distinction is important. He showed what a privilege it is to be human, to have the capacity to think, to anticipate, to adapt and shape our world to our ends. We have the ability to intervene. We have language, memory, forethought, writing, mathematics, art, music and manual dexterity. Had Bronowski, a Polish Jew, not emigrated to Britain as a child, his vision would almost certainly have been obliterated on one of the many occasions when humankind slipped back into barbarism and mindless savagery. It is time that Bronowski’s series got another airing, to shine some shafts of sunlight into the dull and turgid schedules of modern broadcasting. Perhaps his views are too challenging or unfashionable. Perhaps the latest researches have proved him all wrong. He would have found that interesting, worth thinking about, evidence of the capacity of the human brain for rational deduction from the evidence. It would make a change from talent competitions, game shows, bang bang car chases and explosions.

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He explained how agriculture evolved in the fertile river valleys of the Nile and Mesopotamia. It is still evolving. The river mud gave us bricks and tablets for writing. It gave us mathematics, history and law. Agriculture gave us surpluses and great cities supporting numerous trades. It created armies to guard that surplus and the cities sustained by it. It created war. Ancient wars were characterised by capture or destruction of the enemies’ resources. From such wars came heroes, kings, queens, legends and empires. The farmers persisted. Before one of the battles of the English Civil War, to decide weighty issues of state, a herald was sent out to remove a peasant who was ploughing the proposed battlefield. You can imagine the conversation: “Ho there, clown. Remove thy horse and plough and void this field. His Majesty intends to humble his enemies on this soil, in bloody battle, making them bow the knee to their annointed lord..blah de blah..etc…etc. “Battle! Battle?? Nobody told me about any effing battle.” (This is a speculative reconstruction of the conversation.) At Aughrim farmers still plough up cannon balls and weapons from a battle fought three hundred years ago. Unexploded munitions remain a hazard to farmers, from The Western Front to Laos, Cambodia and former Yugoslavia.. The bones of the fallen at Waterloo were dug up twenty years later and ground up for fertilizer.  The farmer ploughs on, digging for victory.  He has carrots to weed and hedges to trim. Drains must be kept clear or the whole thing reverts to chaos, to swamp and bramble. He has a landscape to mind. A farmer remarked recently that his greatest asset is a bad short-term memory. He plans ahead and hopes for better harvests.

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Seventy five years ago the people of South Eastern England looked up at a battle raging in the sky over their green and pleasant land. Their heroes fought off an attempt to grab their land, their way of life, their very existence. We are familiar with photographs of downed enemy pilots being captured by farmers wielding pitchforks. Resistance is futile when faced with an angry farmer with his pitchfork. When you were young, you assembled model aeroplanes and painted them in the colours of the landscape. You bought Humbrol paint in the art and hobby shop….Henry Power’s. You fought battles with your brothers over Spitfires, Wellingtons and Hurricanes. You hung your squadrons from the ceiling and watched them wheel in the draught. Bandits at ten o’clock. It was stirring to see them again on television a week ago, writing a story of heroism in the scribbled con trails of aerial conflict.

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According to Bronowski, every two years the Bakhtiari people encounter the Oxus River in their migration in search of grazing for their goats and sheep. They lose animals and family members in fording the river. They have no time to stop and build a bridge over the torrent, swollen with meltwater from the mountains. They must move every day to find fodder. They cannot grow crops. They migrate through the margins of Afghanistan, India, Iran, the former U.S.S.R. Turkey, Iraq, Syria, in a constant struggle for survival. They avoid other pastoralists and their competing herds. They avoid conflict. They have no eventful history and few chattels. Their flocks eat all available food every day. Only they can survive in the desert that they create. They must move on….and on….and on. At least they did.  How have they survived the savagery of war and religious fanaticism in those regions? Not much cranial activity going on there…except for the obscenity of decapitation.  Where are the Bakhtiari now? If he were around today, Bronowski would find out what has happened to a way of life that had/has persisted since human ingenuity first domesticated wild creatures and subordinated them to our needs.

He demonstrated the square on the hypotenuse equal to the sum of the squares etc.  by using fragments of roof tiles and some cherry twigs. He sat where Pythagoras must have sat on many an occasion, wondering about such matters. It was exhilarating to see. I can’t remember how he did it. My grand daughter, Alice, played with her youth orchestra in the street on Sunday. It was a delight on a sunny morning. I noticed that the bunting was composed of isosceles triangles and right angled triangles.

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Thank you to those clever and talented children for lightening the world and also to Pythagoras and Jacob Bronowski for explaining how it works. Think for a moment also, about the Taung child and the perilous world in which he or she lived and died.

D Day the 6th of June and a Whiff of Grapeshot.

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We still live in awe of the magnitude of the D Day undertaking; the logistics and organisation; the secrecy of the preparation; the firepower released and the courage and sacrifice of so many lives. A Frenchman observing the bombing of his home town of Caen, remarked that freedom was being bought at a terrible price. Strategists and historians can explain the methods and means by which war is waged. Ingenious inventors can provide more and more instruments to bring about the dismemberment and destruction of human beings. They will sell these instruments, if they are permitted, to the highest bidder. Terrible things happen in wars, people say in justification. The whole enterprise is usually swathed in patriotic rhetoric or the quest for “Glory”. Yet the images that persist from World War II are short on glory and long on horror and unimaginable cruelty. Remember though, that Hitler was elected. Is that you, 457th from the right in the 23rd row? I hope not.

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The glory lies in the courage and determination of those who went to war against a vile regime, conceived by a mind distorted by bitterness and hatred; a mind filled with lunatic notions of greatness, conquest and racial purity. The tragedy is that he could sway so many to his way of thinking. They call it ‘charisma’ when people surrender their freedom of thought and action to one all-knowing and all powerful leader. D Day dealt a body blow to the regime yet Hitler did not stop until he had brought his country and its people to devastation and misery. There are still some who revere his memory. On this day we revere the people who carried out the D Day invasion at a terrible cost to themselves.

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In two weeks’ time we mark the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Waterloo, a battle that saw the end of Bonaparte’s career as emperor of France. In that most republican of countries he is still admired and revered for his many achievements. Foremost among these was his ability to organise and use force to get his own way. His use of grapeshot against a Royalist mob attacking the government in October (Vendemiaire) 1795 marked him as the coming man in French political life. Approximately  300 citizens died in the street. On that day too died the French Revolution, with its ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Grapeshot is efficient against a mob in narrow city streets. This is not to suggest that the Royalists would have been preferable. They were not organised. Bonaparte’s particular genius lay in his decisiveness. Grape shot brings a quick and tidy solution to thorny political disputes. As a reward he was appointed commander of the Army of Italy, not an Italian army but a French army sent to invade and conquer Italy.  Shortly afterwards he received a positive reply to his application for a job as gunnery officer on a British East-Indiaman. He turned it down for better pickings. Behold a pale horse……

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The man could do no wrong. General Vendemiaire, as he was nicknamed after the grapeshot episode, “my first title of Glory,” looked to greater things. He declared himself Emperor. Look at the costume…Drag artists everywhere take note. The mentally unhinged frequently turn to Emperor Napoleon for inspiration.

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Like any good, ward-heeling politician, he began to get jobs for his family. He set the brother up as King of Spain. That didn’t work out too well. He decided to invade Russia, as you do, when you become all-powerful. It will cost the lifeblood of your country but sure, why not? Onward to Glory!  On the days before Waterloo he was conspicuous on his pale horse, often silhouetted against thunder clouds and lightning, as he marshalled his army. Dramatic stuff. His Guards fought to their deaths for him. He was captured and conveyed to England as a celebrity, on HMS Bellerophon. The crowds came out in their boats on Plymouth Sound, to see him. He doffed his hat to the ladies and to his new fans. Charlie Chaplain complained that only a quarter of a million people turned out to greet him when he arrived back in England. Disgraceful. Fair play to Charlie though, he did a great job in satirising The Great Dictator.

'Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815' oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

‘Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815’
oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

Strategists and historians explain the ‘How?’ of empires, dictators and war. Psychologists struggle with the ‘Why?’  There may be days when you would like to have some grapeshot to hand, to deal with people who irritate you but you keep the idea in check…because you are sane. Hang on to that and be grateful to the soldiers of D Day.

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By the way, Churchill was voted out of office in the first general election after the war. Democracy,  he remarked, is a terrible system but it’s the best we have.

Centenaries. Alexander’s War.

It appears that Donetsk Airport has been recaptured yet again. You have probably seen the pictures on the news, of men hosing the site with sub-machine guns. Unfortunately the airport is a ruin. It will be a long while before a traveller will be able to get a cup of coffee and a muffin, to while away the time until the next flight. In years to come, this event will be marked by some as a major defeat and by others as a great victory. It depends on your point of view. Whatever the cost in lives and suffering and the rancour that will live for generations, there will be a hell of a job in reconstructing the place to make it fit for Starbucks or Costa. All that jiggery-pokery with strainers and steam, just to get a cup of coffee. It would make you reach for your Kalashnikov.

For most of us, our introduction to history has been dominated by battles and wars, usually in bold type: The War of Jenkins’s Ear; The Grasshopper War etc. Causes of, Events of, Results of…Write them out neatly with numbers in the margin.  2015 is a good year for centenaries. The first poison gas attack of WWI took place near Ypres in April 1915. Observers saw a green cloud rolling from the German trenches. (The wind was from the east) The watchers took it to be a smoke-screen and hurried to their firing positions .

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The results were hideous in human terms…but there was no destruction of property. A triumph for science then? This is the great advantage of gas and biological warfare. With artillery and high explosive bombs, there are no spoils for the victors, just a god-awful mess to clear up. The disadvantage of course, is that the wind can change. Germs don’t discriminate between friend and foe. Nuclear weapons could settle all disputes for once and for all…everywhere. I recall a story that I read as a child, about two warring nations. They agreed to have the peace treaty before they started. They calculated the likely costs and numbers of casualties of the potential war and then handed over the appropriate number of citizens, mostly young men of military age, to the enemy to be sacrificed. This avoided the huge disruption caused by war and the devastating loss of property. Nearly everyone was a victor. There was no collateral damage.  And they all lived happily ever after. Incidentally, the Lilliputians went to war against Blefuscu over which is the correct end of an egg to crack open. It can be messy.

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In the excellent television series, The Sopranos, a gangster tells a story about a funeral, where the clergyman, new to the parish, was at a loss for words. He asked if any of the assembled mafiosi could think of something complimentary to say about the deceased. After a great deal of shuffling, one of them offered: “His brother was worse.” With regard to the Bruce brothers in Ireland, Robert and Edward, this eulogy would fit either of them. Seven hundred years ago, this coming April, a cold north-easterly wafted Edward Bruce and his army to Ireland. The island was in the grip of a particularly cold and wet climatic cycle. Successive harvests had failed. Dead sheep littered the hills. Cattle murrain was widespread. The rivers drowned the fields. What the island needed was a wise and benevolent ruler but we got King Edward Bruce, the last High King of Ireland, by his own say-so, crowned on Saint Brigid’s pleasant hill near Dundalk. He went out from there to ravage his new kingdom, bringing fire, murder and famine to his subjects for three disastrous years. He came to grief on this same hill, stunned by an ‘idiot juggler’ and decapitated by enemies lying in concealment.  The chronicler Friar John Clyn recorded: “There was not done in Erin a better deed…’ Ireland bore the scars of his expedition for many years but there was worse to come. Some few bits of this vile creature lie in Saint Brigid’s churchyard, lamented by nobody. I hope we don’t issue a stamp in his memory.

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Two hundred years ago, in March 1815, Paris newspapers announced over several days, Napoleon’s escape from Elba. ‘The Corsican monster has escaped from his lair. Bonaparte has landed in France. Napoleon has arrived in Fontainebleau. Tomorrow The Emperor enters Paris.’ This charismatic war-lord stated, after the loss of yet another army at Leipzig: “In a cause such as mine, the lives of a million men are of no account.” Was he counting the young boys conscripted to win glory for their emperor? He met his Waterloo at, well, Waterloo. What were the odds on that? It appears that he was suffering grievously from haemorrhoids. He spent many of the preceding days in the saddle.  A good vascular surgeon, travelling with the army, might have changed the course of history.

Applications are being accepted for the commemorative re-enactment of The Battle of Waterloo in June. You must supply your own uniform and weapons. If you can rustle up a horse, preferably a grey, you can join Ponsonby’s famous game-changing charge. Get a medical cert from your proctologist, in the interests of health and safety. If you are already dead, that’s not a problem as there were about 24,000 dead bodies on the field by evening time. If you are not going to Brussels, you can still play a part, as 15,000 troops were reported missing. Have a boiled egg before you set out for the battle, but be careful how you open it. Break a leg!

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Don’t forget Agincourt  (1415) just down the road. By the way, we missed Alexander’s centenary by four years…’he can play a bugle call/like you never heard before/so natural that you want to go to war./It am the bestest band that am’ (Irving Berlin 1911) Say no more.