Thatcherism, Shrdlu and the Seat of Power.

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Many years ago, in Skerries News, I was referred to as ‘a well-known local thatched cottage.’ How my children cackled.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m local all right but the resemblance ends at that. Thatch implies a generous and cosy covering overhead. No chance. I put this down to the machinations of Mr. Shrdlu. Somebody explained to me that Mr. Shrdlu was a gremlin who lurked in a linotype machine, between matrices and boiling metal, coming out in the dead of night to insert misprints and solecisms into the work of hard working journalists. More cynical readers suggested that the journalists had been working hard in the bar next door. A vile calumny on a dedicated profession. The first letters on the linotype machine spell ETAOIN SHRDLU. He sounds like an ancient Celtic warrior, of the spear, shield and mini-skirt variety.  They always had great heads of hair and bulging muscles. Think of Conan the Barbarian. For a Barbarian though, Conan was strangely beardless. Never mind.  Shrdlu is a relative of Qwerty. I found that he gave his name to a very primitive (1968!) computer programming language and an early example of artificial intelligence. He could distinguish between blocks of different shapes. So can you.

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(Irish Times)

I heard an old thatcher, Charlie Fanning, describing his work. He worked with straw, not reed. The best straw for thatching was hand cut, before combines arrived on the scene, to bunch up and crack the straw. He explained how he made a ‘wangle’ of straw, a twist that he worked into the roof and secured with a sharpened loop of sally rod, a scolb in Irish. ‘The day of the wind is not the day for scolbs.’ Sound common sense, but do we heed it? ‘Wangle’ also describes the technique, the twist and thrust of the wrist, the manipulation of the straw. It is a metaphor too, a way of getting what you want. It is a function of real, not artificial, intelligence, to learn how to wangle, to negotiate, to persist and adapt, in order to achieve your desired result.

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These little warriors, Luke and Emily, were intrigued by the thatch but a bit wary of the darkness inside. It was draughty in the Iron Age.  A mini-skirt would be no protection from the wind whistling under the thatch. Conan the Rheumatic.  Charlie, the thatcher, said that you could get fifty years from a reed roof, while a good straw one would survive maybe twenty. He thatched most of the cottages in Skerries in times gone by. We still have some.

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Henry Power lived in the inner cottage, the one with the green door. He had a newsagent-grocer -barber shop, which employed several brothers. There were always jokes and banter in Powers. “Will the papers be long, Seán?” (The papers arrived on the bus.) “Ah, about that length, Alec.”  The  father? brother? was a barber. It’s a long time ago. My brothers scared me with the news that the barber had got an electric hair-clipper. ‘It sounds like an aeroplane landing on your head.’   It did too but I survived. There were no nicks.  A haircut cost something like ninepence or a shilling.  Even at that rate, I have saved several hundred pounds over the last four decades—-because I’m worth it. The barber put a plank across the arms of the chair for the smaller customers. I felt like a king up there, a giant, looking down from my throne, on my brothers as they thumbed through Readers’ Digest and Wide World Magazine. That was a magazine about adventures in far-flung parts of the Empire, where people lived in grass huts and chaps went out to shoot tigers. Bracing stuff.

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Frank Muir on the radio, made us smile in those pre-television days. He could weave a fanciful story to tickle even the most staid sense of humour. No computer can do that. Artificial intelligence doesn’t stretch to a good joke.  Like Mr. Spock, it doesn’t tolerate the absurd. A computer might relay a joke but it doesn’t get it. Freud analysed jokes and killed them stone dead.  Muir exploited his lisp for all it was worth and enjoyed the occasional Spoonerism…….  The king of a little island in the Pacific, part of that far-flung Empire, came to London for the Coronation in 1953. Hilary and Tenzing had just presented Everest to Her new Majesty as a coronation gift. (See Wide World Magazine.) The king became fascinated by the throne of Edward I, on which the new monarch sat. It is seven centuries old. The gilt has become a little time-worn. The good English oak is covered in nicks. The Stone of Scone lay on a bar underneath the throne. That was nicked by Edward I from the Scots who had previously nicked it from Ireland. The Scots have nicked it back.  Anyway, went on Muir, the king commissioned an exact replica of the throne and had it shipped back to his island and installed in his counsel house. His subjects were suitably impressed by his Seat of Power, but it took up too much room. When he was not sitting in counsel with his Elders, he had them hoist the throne into the rafters on ropes fashioned from palm fibres. (See Wide World Magazine.) You can probably guess what happened. The roof collapsed under the weight of the throne and the exact replica of the Stone of Scone, with disastrous results.  “The mowal of this stowy,” concluded Muir , “is that people who live in gwass houses, shouldn’t stow thwones.”

Charlie was thatching a cottage in Rush, combing and tapping, trimming the generous eaves, so that a passer-by might shelter from the rain. He strewed the pavement with shreds of golden straw. The sunlight gleamed on the new roof. Ah! the good old days.  An old man pushing a broom stopped to chat. He leaned on his broom. He regarded the work. “Not many thatchers left nowadays,” he remarked. “No,” agreed Charlie. Snip Snip. “Nearly all gone now,” continued the old man in a quavering voice.  “That’s right.” Snip Snip.  “And the sooner you’re effin’ well gone out of it, the better. Less effin work for me to do.”

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Charlie is gone now. So is the boy with the bike, Bernie Healy, who lived into his nineties, a man who enjoyed a story. I think of Charlie every time I walk down Convent Lane. His cottage eaves brush my hairs (plural). I must have become a giant.

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A crash course in parenting and the Curse o’ Crummel.

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The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Our early morning alarm call is  chuck chuck chuck chuck. That means there’s a cat on the prowl, or worse still,  a magpie. Cats I understand. They are hunters, just like lions and tigers. They do an essential job in keeping down vermin. But magpies! diddly-ah dum dum diddly-ah-dum dum  With all due respects to Signor Rossini, they are conniving, thieving bastards. They spread alarm and despondency. They hunt in pairs. They wield old-style football rattles ratchet ratchet ratchet.  Even football hooligans are forbidden to carry those old wooden rattles. It was said of the Stuka dive-bomber that the worst thing about it was the sound. Similarly, bank robbers use swearing and shouting to un-nerve their victims. Swathes of parks and gardens in suburban areas and cities are devoid of songbirds. I have seen magpies take ducklings in the zoo. They soar. They spy. They strike.

Magpies arrived in Ireland in 1650, the year after Cromwell, as if the poor, heart-scalded country hadn’t had enough trouble. They were carried by an easterly gale, to Carnsore Point, in Wexford, Hieron Akron, as Ptolemy called it…the Headland of the Priests. An ill wind. It’s Wind Turbine Akron now.  My Auntie Peg, a Wexford woman, took my brother to see Cromwell’s grave—–and walk on it. I don’t imagine that she spat on it. She was not the spitting type. He told me that they tramped across it with pleasure. De mortuis nil nisi bonum Nah!  Cromwell too,  had the knack of bringing the silence of devastation to whole swathes of the country. I doubt if that bleak man took much pleasure in songbirds warbling in the branches overhead. Trees were for hanging men. Strangely, he is a hero to some people. I have never trodden on his grave but I have to admit to a certain satisfaction when I see a flattened magpie on the road, a rare occurrence. The bird was so engrossed in attending to a squished hedgehog or rat, that he failed to see his nemesis approaching. The black and white smudge can sometimes raise a wing to flap in the wind, a forlorn farewell or possibly, a final two fingers to the world.  The curse o’ Crummel on them anyway. You might suspect that I am not fond of magpies.

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The nest is at the top of that clematis. It took us by surprise. It imposed a duty of care on us. Meals have been interrupted by visits from the magpies and occasionally, the cats. Profanity helps, as any bank robber will tell you. Wildlife documentary makers assert that you do not intervene. We learned that lesson fifty years ago, when we rescued an abandoned blackbird chick. We fed and sheltered it until it fledged and flew around our sitting room spattering the furniture with Stuka precision. It came to our whistle and perched on a shoulder. We released it into the garden but, sadly, there were feathers on the lawn in the morning. It hadn’t learned the fear necessary for survival.

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This little fellow was the first to venture from the nest. He crash-landed. I put him back again, against all the rules. ‘Feck that,’ he said and dived out again. He took refuge in shrubbery , where his parents found him. They have fed him constantly for days but now they have become somewhat impatient. It’s a steep learning curve for a chick. He has made it to the top of a fuschia bush. He flies like Buzz Lightyear… falling with style, but he is getting the hang of it.

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Wildlife photographers wouldn’t approve of my photography either. The lighting and focus are all wrong. He looks decidedly disgruntled but he has achieved something great. We think that we hear his sibling in a neighbouring garden. A third chick became a dusting of feathers on the lawn on a dewy morning. It’s a harsh world out there. We thought that our parenting years were behind us, that our chicks had all flown the nest, but this little fellow brought some of that parental anxiety back again. Good luck to him and to his brave and exemplary parents.

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Who is this however? Where did he come from? A baby sparrow, apparently abandoned. There are no parents in evidence. Here we go again.

The elephant in the room.

The piano arrived from Wexford, after my grandfather died. Mr. Carr brought it from the railway station on his lorry. Pianos tend to be large, with few places to grip them. (WANTED: A piano for a lady with rosewood legs. It’s an old joke but it still stands up.) It stood like a cliff, in the sitting room. It had movable brackets for candles and a red velvet panel on the front, but my parents never risked candles, in a house full of children. Very wise. It was my mother’s piano when she was a child  in Wexford. She was delighted to have it again. She had a pile of music books, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, all the up-and-coming names. (The books were very old.) She was musical. The piano became her retreat into sanity in a noisy house. Saucepans might boil over. Coals might fall from the fire, but she was away with Chopin and noticed nothing amiss.

I should tell you that I took to the piano immediately—a natural; that I toured all the great concert-halls of the world; that I had a coat with tails, a high-collared white shirt and waistcoat. You know that little ‘flip’ when the pianist flicks the tails of his coat over the piano stool. He means business.  I should tell you this… but it would not be true. Neither did I play the speakeasies of Chicago or the honky-tonk saloons with Joplin. I never even owned a pair of spats. The cat could play better than I could. She would walk daintily from right to left, on her way to the window, from the tinkling high notes to the rumbling left hand keys. You could catch her and get her to do it again. Practice pays off. She subsequently toured the great….That would not be true either. The problem is that pianists play different stuff with each hand. They even play the black notes. I could not divide my attention in two directions. ‘Let not the left hand know what the right hand is doing.’ The left hand became paralysed with indecision. I pumped the pedals, making a great sonorous ‘boom’ inside. The sound lingered. The room reverberated. Put your ear to the wood and you heard thunder and cannon fire on distant hills, receding, dwindling,  until the storm abated and the armies marched away.

‘Don’t do that. You’ll damage the piano.’  That was always a danger. You could get a ruler and tickle the strings, through the open lid. It sounded more like a harp. Some of the modern composers seem to have discovered my technique. Maybe their genius wasn’t strangled at birth. Maybe they didn’t drop the ruler into the belly of the beast and have to dismantle the whole thing to retrieve it and get a clip in the ear for vandalism. It is astonishingly easy to take a piano apart, down to the iron frame. Even the keys and the hammers lift out. Not a good idea, as I discovered. There was an inscription on the frame, the names of an entire family, dated 1888. This set the imagination working. Who were they? Was I related to them?  What music had they played? Where have they gone? We added our own names, in glee, to the list.

I found it hard to believe that the keys were real ivory. Elephant tusks are curved. Where would you get all those straight bits? Did some  great white hunter shoot an elephant, just to make our piano? I saw the mighty beast crumpling into the high grass of the savanna. Who ventured into the forest to get the ebony for the black notes?  The ivories had half-moon grooves at the edge, where innumerable fingers had stroked music from them, over the years. Some had fallen away, but the notes still worked. Mr. Fitzgerald came every now and again, to tune the piano. He had tuning forks and little pitch pipes and keys for tightening the strings. He talked a lot, gossip from all over the country. He smoked incessantly, leaving a semi-circle of ash on the carpet around his workplace. He hummed. He appeared to have a very harmonious existence.

My mother’s cousin in New York, her contemporary and life-long correspondent, sent her The American Home Songbook.  It had everything in it. It came from a Norman Rockwell world, where farmers in dungarees, drove jalopies and kids wore PFs and ‘sloppy joes.’ I loved the songs of Stephen Foster. Although he had only once been in The South, he seemed to express the essence of Southern living and the easy, harmonious life of the cotton plantations. He expressed a longing  for hazy summer days and the Old Folks  at Home. I can still sing(?) O Susanna, the song  of the Gold Rush. Listen to that banjo. I know De Camptown Races, although I have never met those ladies. I sang it in harmony(?) with my brother, David, a rare cessation of hostilities, in those days. I’m sure he knows it still . Gwine to run all night. Gwine to run all day… Foster originally wrote in ‘dialect’  as required by the minstrel shows, but he abandoned this in his later work. He  lived to see the Civil War and the proclamation of emancipation for the black slaves in The South.

The old piano went to the elephants’ graveyard of pianos. A new one arrived to take its place. Mahogany, this time. Somebody had ventured into the rainforest again. Some elephant had sunk to his knees and subsided into the dust to provide the ivory. It’s illegal now. Was my mother dealing in contraband? Contraband..the word used to describe runaway slaves. De Massa run ha ha. The Darkies stay ho ho. It must be now dat De Kingdom’s comin’ and the Day ob Jubilo Did Foster write that? Did the Day of Jubilo ever really come? It sounds like something from another world. I guess he’s tryin’  to fool dem Yankees for to think he’s contraband.  It sounded like a great joke.

My sister, Mary, plays that piano still. She has a remarkably musical family. I am glad that it found a good home.

We went to see Twelve Years a Slave.  The cinema was crowded. I have never sat in so silent a cinema. Go and see it for yourself. In the meantime, listen to Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More. Listen to Thomas Hampson on Youtube. (I would upload it for you, but I suffer the same ineptitude with computers as I suffered with the piano.) Avoid all others. He sings for all people, everywhere, in every age. He is the genuine article. Foster wrote out of his own personal suffering, a song for all those who are bear pain and sadness. Look at the accompanying photographs….

…and never complain again.

What goes around comes around. Winds of Change.

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Don Quijote saw windmills as giants, with disastrous results. For most of my life, the windmill wore only one or two feathers, hanging down, in a louche, kind of Kiowa style. Not for him the full war- bonnet of eagle feathers, tacking in the wind. He was a battered old warrior, veteran of many battles, but still, he stood defiantly on his hill, waiting for his time to come again. Saint Colmcille, our Irish Nostradamus, predicted that the end of the world would come when there is a windmill in the middle of Skerries. Who in their right mind, would build a windmill down in the middle of the town? Isn’t there a grand big hill up there with plenty of wind? It’s even called Mill Hill, for God’s sake.  But..

Prophets delight in leading us astray. Oracles and Sybils talk in riddles. ‘But I thought you meant….’ Macbeth’s witches gave him copper-fastened guarantees. They all came true, but not as he expected. ‘Security is mankind’s chiefest enemy.’ It’s a bit like the law of unintended consequences. The North Slobs in Wexford (no relation) were reclaimed for farmland. All very good. But…Wexford harbour was deprived of the twice daily tidal rush of water from this great penstock. The harbour silted up. Post-war Britain built high-rise housing and dismembered old urban communities in the process. Many of these developments stand empty, awaiting the wrecker’s ball. I saw somewhere a suggestion for colonies, built exclusively for I.T. people, rookeries of genius, on artificial islands. It will end in tiers, mark ‘ee my words.

A landscape, especially that surrounding a small town, is a palimpsest, a manuscript worked and scraped and re-worked. New boundaries and roads emerge. The fields gradually fill with buildings. New populations arrive. Children lay claim to ‘our street’ and ‘our road’. We keep a romantic attachment to the old image of rural and small town life. But… it was often cold and damp. Poverty may look romantic in old sepia photographs., but who would really want to go back?

There was a man in Skerries who applied for a new house, when the County Council built fine, solid houses along The Cabra, just beyond the Mill Pond. He was unsuccessful. He received the standard letter of regret, topped and tailed in Irish: A chara….. application unsuccessful at this time… when funds become available…. assure you etc… Mise le Meas…..name undecipherable.  He was not reassured or consoled. He took to showing the letter to anyone who would listen.  ‘Lemass,’ he snorted, ‘I caddied for that oul’ huer up in the Golf and he can’t even get me a council house.’  Maybe his indignation set some gears in motion, because he got his house in phase two.

The bad winter of 1947 awoke memories of Black Forty Seven, the worst year of the famine. I was too young to pick up on those nuances. 1947 was the year of tobogganing down   Derhams’ hill, where Hillside Estate now stands. It became Saint Moritz or Chamonix for weeks and weeks. The hill was steeper then. It seemed to a child’s eye, that the entire population of the town forgot their woes, in order to go sliding down the hill. Office workers, coming off the evening trains, threw caution to the wind, even in their business suits, to stop off for a few goes. I was struck by the spectacle at night when the few street lights illuminated the slopes.  I was also struck by a group of lads on a ladder, as they came hurtling downwards. I knew they would hit me. I was paralysed by indecision. I can recall the blow on the shins and flying through the air. I can recall my brothers’ solicitude; ‘You stupid eejit. Why didn’t you get out of the way?’ A good question. A young man picked me up and dusted the snow off me. There were no broken bones. There were bonfires on that hill when he became a priest. He then became a bishop in Africa, where he probably got no chance to go  tobogganing. By the time he retired to Skerries, the hill was covered in houses.

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There was a pit in the side of that hill, from which earth was taken, a century and a half ago, to build a mound for Holmpatrick Church to build  it above the flood plain. The pit filled with water. I learned to swim there in 1953, on another snowy day when our toboggan went further than expected. I was on the front. The first swimming lesson should not involve an overcoat and rubber boots, but I made it to the other side. I felt quite proud of myself, if a little chilly. I was in Holmpatrick Church last night and felt proud again, as my grandaughter and her youth orchestra filled the building with wonderful music

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It’s not a big mound, but it does the job, when the Mill Stream goes walkabout and escapes onto its flood plain. The old marshy Mill Pond is gone, (our pond, as it was,) but we have gained in the transaction, with two new ponds.

I once set a group of students to draw a map of the town on the school yard. The squares were already there. All we needed was the paint. Students from the various new estates corrected me. ‘No, Sir. You don’t know our estate. The road goes that way.’ Then they set to work, laughing about adventures in their secret places and who lives where, and where they played football and the boy from their road who spent Christmas in America and emerged onto their road a week later on his new bike and said: ‘Hey, Dudes, check the wheels,’ and ..and…. These were fields when I knew them. I watched and learned. I gradually began to realise that there is a windmill in the middle of Skerries. The gears are grinding again. Skerries has flowed out from its nucleus to fill the areas around the hill. Dum, dum, dum. Like a Kiowa in a John Wayne movie, that old Indian on the hill is looking down on all of us. He has his full war-bonnet on again. Head for the hills.