REPORT A PROBLEM
My last full day on a long weekend in Rome. I stood in a chaotic line on blistered feet in a downpour in St Peters’ Square. When it reached the Basilica, it split into four distinct, but unlabelled lines. The usual line jumpers tried to muscle in, but a little old Japanese lady was having none of it.
I got the tombs of the Popes, a shuffle in a dripping poncho in a cavernous necropolis, including the tomb of St. Peter.
I went to see where Julius Caesar was cremated the previous day; there were bouquets of fresh flowers there.
It has been extraordinary to see delicate colours in the frescoes on the walls of the house of Augustus on the Palatine. It looked like they were painted perhaps two hundred years ago. The night he ordered a census be taken in Judea, he looked upon these frescoes before retiring to bed.
The sophistication of Roman society, their architecture, the durability of all they built. The original light green brass doors on the Temple of Romulus in the Forum, the original locks still functioning with keys today. The Parthenon, beautiful domed church now, but M. Agrippa fecit, in 27 BC.
What kind of society builds so beautifully, with such a premium value on bequest to generations over the horizon? No economics based on Net Present Value there, no Payback Period, no dismal dead hand of scribe or clack of abacus was permitted to intrude upon the symphony. They built to express all they held dear and precious.
There is a kind of fierce determination seeping from their stone blocks down the centuries. There’s an eloquence in their aqueducts. It is missing now from Italy today, from Ireland, and from Europe. I wonder is it present anywhere now,........... in modern China?
I sat for the afternoon in a public hearing on a major project being planned near here. The countryside and the sea in the bright, high, white light of June was spectacularly beautiful standing outside the building where it was held.
Inside, petulance reigned, attended by pedantic detail and abrasive egos. The travelling circus of mercenary objectors was present in all their noisy insistence.
I thought of a farmer who once asked if his cattle would still have water after my project was built, and who readily accepted my word that they would, and warmed me with his quiet dignity.
We had a strong northerly wind today in the west of Ireland. My sycamore tree, that so recently put out delicate green hanging flowers, has now exchanged them for little clusters of those double winged whirligig seeds, in a kind of leafy puberty.
The wind today flung the branches about, and tore some leaves loose. They had octobery expectations, an eternity away in the sunlight of May, and now, when all the world is drowsy in the heat of June, they are down in the lush grass, and their life is over. Not for them some shrivelled mottled desiccated end.
I was away for the Air France tragedy, so my weekend news review is news to me. We lost three young graduate doctors, and two Aer Lingus workers.
But it was news of a Brazilian couple, who married the day before, danced at their wedding until 3 am, and then rose for the early flight, that quietened me. There were people at their wedding who came to breakfast to hear the bride and groom were dead.
There is something malevolent in the unfolding of such a thing, an evil spirit that shows his hand in the destruction of a wedding.
The ruling Fianna Fáil party have been put through the meat grinder in our local and European elections. I met one of their successful local councillors this morning. He got the fright of his life, leading by as few as three votes at one point in the count.
They squandered a whole decade for a generation, in mismanagement of opportunity, from parish pump perspectives.
My eldest is one of two from his architecture class of 70 that have found work; he has a job in Hong Kong. His brother graduates in the autumn, and will have to work overseas too.
Emigration often looks temporary, until it has drifted into permanence. The country you leave changes, even while you carry it, unchanging, in your heart elsewhere. If children arrive while you live abroad, and grow and are schooled there, perhaps in a different language, returning home is no longer even well defined.
One of my closest friends emigrated to NZ as a child, but after some years, her family returned to Ireland. Her sister subsequently preferred to return to NZ, and so their family is divided by half a world.
And those who return after forty years, emigrate all over again.
In my little area, twenty five years ago, an irrepressible monsignor at our Marian shrine of Knock decided to build an airport to accommodate pilgrims from abroad. The project was derided by the kind of opinion makers that typically afflict the regional citizen from every capital city in the world. It could not be viable, this foggy, boggy airstrip.
In truth, its’ early years were remarkable mostly for scenes of joy and sadness, one week apart, at Christmas.
But we all missed it’s critical social function. Breadwinners could fly to the UK to work midweek, and come home at weekends.
This meant that it was not necessary to uproot the family in a short recession, and the low fares airlines did deals with workers who found themselves in this position.
Children could stay in school in their home place, families could wait out a short downturn, communities could survive, and the psychological disorientation of emigration was softened into a mere nuisance of a commute.
No one knew how to calculate the economic value of emigration prevented, or at least postponed for a generation. As a lifebelt, it was unplanned, and unforeseen, unless the Monsignor foresaw it in his twinkling eye.
I drove to the ferry to Scotland at Larne, and listened to a BBC radio documentary on Burl Ives.
The honeyed voice of American folk music that my father loved. They played Little Bitty Tear, and the nostalgia of it took my breath away. Saturday evenings filled with diffuse sunshine through a frosted glass window…….
”spoiled my act as a clown, I had it made up not to make a frown….but a little bitty tear let me down”
Burl had his own difficulties in McCarthy America, and paid the price of letting down his friends in a moment of great consequence.
Having remembered it all week, I forgot to wish Ciaran happy 25th birthday until the buzz of many text messages while walking the beach at Stonehaven near Aberdeen dropped the penny for his old man in an embarrassing clang.
He was born two days after I finished some exams. I had felt him kick at 16 weeks, even though his mother felt him earlier. Time has ploughed the furrows in my brow and leached the colour from my hair.
In six weeks I’ll have to say goodbye to him leaving for China, and a little bitty tear’ll let me down.
Aberdeen, a city with some grace in cut granite. It seems to me to have a high proportion of homeless young men, sitting in the streets, ignored and written off by the world.
I sense a lot of hard drinking there, and I wonder if it is related to the homelessness. Something is void at the centre of the soul of the city.
I spent the day doing chores, painting, vacuuming, tidying, packing, loading up the car, meeting lawyers.
An easy, relaxed dinner in the evening, he explains his frustration with uncommitted people. The world is an imperfect, distracted place.
While waiting for a delayed car ferry at Troon, I read my book on a seaside bench in warm sunshine, while Ciaran took a walk.
It was a distracted read, because there were mallard ducks on the sea near the shore, which I had never seen before. They included very young ducklings, and these were just as expert at diving for sea grasses as their mothers, disappearing for perhaps 15 seconds at a time.
Occasionally seagulls swooped upon them threateningly, raising a collective agitated quacking. One juvenile starling, poked around near my feet, assuming the still are also safely inanimate.
I am condemned to eternal exile in the land of unclosed italics. Here all is indirect quotation, or whisper sotto voce. No bean rows shall I have here, no hive for the honey bee, just slopey writing all the live long day.
I shall stroke my italicised Lares tonight, and pray that, by an uneven number of invocations, I may cancel the italics troll. Either that, or I shall threaten it with square brackets, a formatical Tony Parenthano.
I should have listened when they warned me, but, like assembling a Bar B Que, I never do.
It’s Bloomsday, stately plump Buck Mulligan emerges yet again to gravely intone
Introibo ad altare Dei
and ridiculous folks in boater hats will wander Dublin sucking lamb kidneys and hoping for an Irish Times photographer.
Ulysses is a mighty tome, but I read the first page many more times than I read the last. It reeks of earnest endeavour from some attic in Trieste, a desperate work of validation.
I read it on a beach a little village, Apollon, on the island of Naxos in Greece, when I had nothing else to read.
What does it mean to be in someones’ presence? In the past, you opened the door, entered the room, and smiles and hugs anchored people into easy presence to one another. Back then, you were there, or not. Absence was absolute, bar a letter or a phone call.
But then came the internet, Skype, Blackberries, and Twitter
The Blackberry promises ubiquitous presence, like a three card trick. In being eternally present to those who are absent, you are’nt really present to those who are present. It actually announces the lesser priority of those currently present.
The web brings opportunity for sharing the detail of lived life, often with great and thoughtful openness, but the clink of coffee cups is missing.
No raise of eyebrow, no half smile, no teasing joking tone, or silence of worry can be communicated with the quarks of the written electronic word.
It is presence of a sort, but the absence of the kind of communication we inherited from our primate ancestors, eye, frown, sound, and gesture, of the kind that grooming head and back reinforces, makes it an anaemic, lesser presence.
Skype helps with that, with sight, smile and sound.
And yet, were we always present to those physically in the room with us?
A story relayed from a newspaper, down the length of the table, while I’m reading my book, goes over my head. I’m here in the kitchen, but I’m not present; I’m in the imagined place the author created.
Times of real presence, of focus on what is being said, and on what is not being said, with complete mental engagement, are rare in the Land of Fifteen Minutes. It is a talent that came easy with seasonal communal work, now nearly lost, that must be rediscovered.
On this day, in 56 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero opened his defence of Caelius Rufus, an aristocratic protégé accused of theft by Clodia, a bitter enemy of Cicero.
She had brought charges, with a touch of arrogance, under state security law, which demanded an immediate hearing, even on a Festive Day.
It was the opening day of the games, the Ludi Magalenses.
Cicero expertly wound the frustrated judges, listening to the proceedings, over the noise of the Games, which they were prevented from seeing, because of the inflexibility of the Plaintiff.
They acquitted Rufus. He later admitted he was guilty.
Mentally, I always register a solstice, and long before the change in length of day is tangible, I have ingested it within myself. Thus I see, a stretch of light imaginary, before the first of January.
But the seeds of summers’ betrayal are sown in my head by the feast of St.John the Baptist, and the St. Johns’ Eve bonfire, seems to me, slightly fraudulent for being two days past the pause.
All harmonic things are forward looking, from tides, or pendula, or the pause and whooooosh of swings. Where ere we are, we yearn for elsewhere in the thing.
There is something about the arrival of a circus, which depends little on what they might show. Small children stand and stare, at the transient and exotic.
Circus Gerbola set up their gear in the lot behind my office. They’re a sad little troupe, a few horses, and little else besides. Given that they take a day to erect the big top, and another to dismantle and pack it all away, they work hard for the three or so days of income.
When the weather is hot, they carry risks no less than those of the haymaker in a deluge.
I was away from home for our neighbourhood bonfire this St. Johns’ Eve, I spent a warm evening in Dublin, wishing I was under open skies and sunshine in the west.
I was staying near the Gate Theatre, and was tempted to see a play by Arthur Miller, but I felt the great golden sun would not easily forgive the insult, and instead I walked the pavements, feeling the radiated heat of sunsoaked stone.
I do not know the north inner city well, so I walked the route I would drive in the morning. Eldest sons leave nothing to chance.
I spent the day teaching a group of twelve. I was warned to expect that one would read the paper, or doze, or even snore, and I should not take it personally. The room was a high ceilinged Georgian Dublin house, with open sash windows to a sunny courtyard, and a barrel-vaulted basement, with wonderful coffee and buttery croissants.
It began well, warmed up, stayed interactive, and the dozer came alive, with the muscular questions of an experienced practitioner.
A whole travelling circus has developed around public procurement, something that honest people did, until recently, without a heavy Brussels hand.
Little details can tip something into being a crisis, from a triviality.
I once received a letter of complaint from a man, over damage to his barbershop, from deep trench works in the street outside. I knew that care had been taken with the work, I was surprised at the angry tone of the letter, and I mistakenly began to focus on structural damage to the building.
Only later, over a coffee in a site hut, did I learn that a young foreman, asked to investigate the damage, had commented to the owner, that his place was already poorly built.
The cracks in his dignity were less than any in his walls, and so I came to sit, in his barbershop, last in line, near the end of the working day.
I asked for a haircut with a No.3 razor, but explained I needed a few minutes with him afterwards. We discussed football, horses, people, and the state of the nation. In Ireland, sometimes, the matter of your meeting is navigated around.
Afterwards, I apologised for the discourtesy of the young man, and we jointly inspected the cracks in his walls.
I was unable to soften his hurt and annoyance.
I woke at 5 am, rose, and made coffee. It was perfectly still, and the fog shrouded the middle distance trees. Even as I brewed the coffee, the fog thinned, rose to become low cloud, and the morning promised eventual breakthrough of the sun.
I sat out the back, with my Grisham and coffee, and settled into the peace of the morning, damp grass, hopping blackbirds, chattering magpies, feathery agitation in the heart of the ash tree. The warmth and strength of the sun was like France at home.
I am 54 today. Thanks be to God for my life.
Back with my barber, my newly shaved head drew smiles from all, the young man included.
At our next meeting, matters finally turned to processing their next payment, which was due in a month.
“ There’ll be no problem with the payment, but over the next fortnight, everyone here is going to get a No 3 haircut, in that barbershop.
Unless I see shaved heads, when next we gather, I might forget to sign the Cert.”
Since then, they read the days disasters in the state of bristle on my greying head. My father kept a little shop, you see.
I have six books out from the library, and one language course pack for Ciaran. And so, when I tried to take out Ulick O’Connors’ anthology of poetry, I got a warm smile and a gentle refusal.
I was suitably aghast that I could have so many out, and she helpfully showed me the whole list on her screen. Some of them I even remember. I have found that the honourable trade of library book theft has become endangered with the relentless memory of magnetic stuff. Now I’ll have to go find those from which I’m slow to be separated.
Daughter hurt her finger playing tag rugby a week ago today. She would have slight hypocondriacal tendencies, to the detriment of her credibility in things medical, surgical, dental and pandemic.
To compound matters, mother bear is a nurse, and consequently, for example, a death certificate would be a minimum requirement for a day in the bed with man-flu, or dengue fever. But I digress.
After much moaning, wailing, gnashing of teeth, baby bear eventually got it x-rayed this evening. It’s fractured, not unlike mother bears’ professional dignity. In the eternal argument that is mother-daughter living, this one will run, profitably.
The Tip Jar