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.

Music and Murder in the Cathedral and elsewhere. Young Dublin Symphonia.

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It was Churchill who said, wryly, that The Balkans produce more history than they can consume. One hundred years ago they exported some of their history  and ignited a world war. Similarly in Ireland, we produce a lot of history. It is all around us, in the shape of our towns and villages and in the stones of our streets, pavements and buildings. We walk on top of it every day. It can turn to quagmire and pull people down into futile blame and recrimination. It permeates our songs and stories. It can set brother against brother and parent against child. It requires careful handling.

Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin is a good place to ruminate on history…and myth…and gossip…and legend… and rats… and forgetfulness. We went there last Thursday to hear our grand- daughter’s orchestra, The Young Dublin Symphonia and their Italian friends, a youth orchestra from Viterbo. Here’s a good one: back in 1278, the College of Cardinals  withdrew from Rome to Viterbo to elect a new Pope. They dithered for a year or so, much to the frustration of the good people of Viterbo. No doubt the cardinals were on expenses. Eventually the authorities stopped all deliveries,  took the roof off the palazzo in which the eminent churchmen sat and locked the door with a clavis (Cum clave—a key or bar for a door.) They got a result in three days.  Hence the locking of the door on the Sistine Chapel, until the white smoke comes out of the spout. (You couldn’t call it a chimney.)

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Then I got distracted by  the meerkats. They are everywhere, in meerkat sunbursts in the floor tiling and incised into the backrests of the seats. The meerkat seemed to be the presiding spirit of the cathedral, the genius loci. He was looking over his shoulder There was something knocking at the back of my mind, from a visit long ago. It was something about a rat. I remember  seeing a rat in a glass case. He was tricked out in plus-fours and a tweed jacket. He carried a golf club, or was it a walking stick? This fellow seemed to be holding a pilgrim staff. That’s definitely a golf ball at his feet. I consulted the brochure. The rat and his associate, the cat, can be seen in the crypt. Was that the crafty cat that crept in the crypt? I would have to refresh my memory after the recital.

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This is Strongbow, leader of the invading Normans. The Dublin merchants paid over their rents and settled their debts on Strongbow’s tomb. He collaborated with Saint Laurence O Toole, on the rebuilding of the old Christchurch. Gossip says that the truncated figure to his left is the son whom he killed in a rage. The small figure is excluded by the shield. His son should have been to his right. It is no way to treat a child. The cathedral collapsed and destroyed his original tomb. This is, in fact a replacement, borrowed from some other noble knight. I wonder if he has a long lease on it. I hope that he is keeping up the rent and has made some restitution to his child in the Hereafter. Gossip also says that he is in fact buried in Ferns, in Wexford. Even historians come to blows over differences like that. Stalin removed Lenin’s widow from the Party and air-brushed her from photographs and from history, but he still needed her for appearances….so he appointed a new, “Official Lenin’s Widow.”  So where is the real Strongbow?

Saint Laurence prostrated himself before the high altar here, to pray against a ‘serjeant’ who had struck one of his servants. The ‘serjeant’ fell down some steps, shortly afterward and broke his thigh. The injury became gangrenous. The ‘serjeant’ died in agony, proof to all of the power of the church. Saint Laurence was subordinate to Beckett who was murdered in Canterbury. He himself was attacked in a cathedral on his way to Rome and died in agony, proof to all of the power of the iron bar, (clavis) that the madman had borrowed from the door.

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Fortunately, the recital began, driving away dark thoughts. The sun came out and shone down through a high window, illuminating my granddaughter and her fellow musicians. It was a joy to hear. No doubt the old knights underground, tapped their toes and jingled their spurs with pleasure.  Bach, Boccherini, Bizet, rinsed the shadows from the gloomy vaults and raised the spirits of proud parents and ambling tourists. The sun shone for  the rest of the day.

I still had to say ‘hello’ to the rat. I went down into the crypt. He is not an insouciant fellow with the jaunty air of a cartoon meerkat. He carries no staff or five-iron. He is not togged out in hideous tartan slacks. The tableau shows a poor divil fleeing for his life. It is difficult to feel sorry for a rat. He took refuge in an organ pipe and the cat followed him in. Think, for a moment, of their nightmare predicament.  A cat’s retractable claws are perfectly designed for climbing up or down, guaranteeing him nine lives. Unfortunately, they have no reverse setting. The creatures were irrevocably stuck, locked in life and death by mutual hatred. They were discovered, over a century and a half ago, in a mummified state , achieving  posthumous fame and prominence on a par with that of Strongbow. {“The moral of this story/Is a very simple one:/Them wot’s up the bleedin’ spout/Don’t ‘ave no bleedin’ fun.Wilfred Bramble} In terms of slaying human beings, the rat and his fleas, leave Strongbow and his Normans in the ha’penny place.

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‘On the Feast of Tiburtius and Valerian,’ wrote Friar John Clyn, in 1334, ‘the burgesses and true men of Kilkenny began to pave their streets. ‘  They took the stone from the collapsed belfry in the cathedral of Saint Canice, while the turbulent bishop was abroad. The townspeople freed themselves from the mire and walked dry-shod, but the bishop returned and there was Hell to pay. Friar John saw the advent of the Black Death to Kilkenny in 1348. The rats did for him too. Enough of this remembering. It was time to forget and follow the orchestra to Malahide Castle for an afternoon recital. The sun stayed out.

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Here she is again, caught in a sunbeam, taking her turn as First Violin. Well done to YDS and to Il Centro Sperimentale  Musicale per L’Infanzia, from Viterbo, for raising the roof, this time in a good way and of course, to their conductors and tutors. Now that’s a better way to encourage young people, than Strongbow’s iron hand. Malahide Castle was built by a Talbot, one of Strongbow’s companions. He got the lease from the king for a rent of one mounted archer per year. The family held it for 800 years That’s a lot of archers. Oh, never mind. Now it is a great public space. Well done to Fingal County Council, for ensuring that it will remain so, at least for another 800 years.