Trophy, triumph, memorial.

India Gate

India Gate is a memorial arch in New Delhi, designed by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, the premier British Architect of his day.  Today is the birthday of Lutyens who was born in 1869.  The Arch was ostensibly a memorial to the Indian soldiers who gave their lives for the British Empire in World War 1 and in the Third Ango-Afghan War in 1919.

It was the Ancient Greeks who gave us the tradition of the battlefield trophy.  At the end of a battle the victorious soldiers would erect a tropaion.  The earliest were simply votive offerings to thank the Gods for victory and to honour the dead.  Armour and arms were stacked or hung from a nearby tree.

Later the practice became more formalised.  A “tree” was erected on the battlefield at the point where the phalanx was turned, where the battle was won.  It was decorated with armaments and a dedication plaque was carved in stone.

Later again the temporary trophies on the sites of significant victories were marked permanently with a stone carved trophy.

It was the Romans who brought the Tropaeum home.  It was also the Romans who invented the arch.  Victorious generals were more interested in impressing the voters than in leaving a mark on some distant battlefield.  So they erected their trophy in the city where everyone could see it.  Over the years various different memorials were used but the most famous are the triumphal arches in the Roman forum the Arch of Titus, the arch of Semptimius Severus and the Arch of Constantine.

The Romans also introduced the practice of building triumphal arches in their colony cities, as a raw display of the power of Rome.  On the one hand it is a display of the wealth and stability of Empire, but on the other it is a dire warning of what happens to those who rebel.

Napoleon famously copied the Roman practice with his Arc de Triomph de l’Étoile.  Laid down at the height of his power in 1810 it was not completed until after his death.  His ashes passed under it in 1840 on the way to their final resting place.

The foundation stone for the India Gate arch was laid down in 1921 by a Britain which was fighting a war in Ireland to hold the Empire together.  They were trying to sell the continuation of Empire to an Indian Population who were actively campaigning for independence.  By the time the India Gate was completed in 1931 India was demanding Dominion status.

Today the arch is one of the great tourist attractions of New Delhi.  It serves as an interesting hybrid of the original concept of the battlefield trophy.  Built by the British as an imperial memorial but now symbolising the triumph of the freedom and independence of the Indian nation.

On the Acropolis at Athens was erected a Bronze Chariot and steeds.
The inscription read (Herodotus 5.77):

The sons of Athens
having subdued in the work of war
the peoples of Boeotia and Chalcis,
quenched their arrogance
in sorrowful iron bondage.

These statues of the horses of their foes,
they dedicated to Pallas as a tithe of the ransom.

 

Le Martyr Irlandais

Cork Mayor

Born on this day in 1879 Terence MacSwiney was one of two Cork Lord Mayors who had a significant impact on the struggle for Irish Independence.  His death was a triumph for the Irish Cause and a complete Political and Propaganda failure by the British Government.

McSwiney was an IRA volunteer, a soldier prepared to die for the cause.  But he was presented to the world by Sinn Féin as a “sensitive poet intellectual”.  That is a brilliant piece of spin.  In Catholic communites he was presented as a modern day martyr.

MacSwiney was an early adopter of hunger strike, following the lead of Thomas Ashe in November 1917 going on hunger strike 3 days prior to his release after his arrest for wearing an IRA uniform.

In the 1918 General Election he won the Mid Cork seat.  In 1920 the Lord Mayor of Cork, Tomás Mac Curtain, was assassinated by a Royal Irish Constabulary murder squad.  This was a symptom of the collapse of the British civil administration in Ireland.  When the police become murderers you know things have gone wrong.

MacSwiney was elected Lord Mayor of Cork.  Five months later he was arrested and imprisoned in Brixton Prison in England, after a trial in a military, not a civil court.  In protest MacSwiney immediatly went on hunger strike.  In response the Sinn Féin publicity machinery went into overdrive and made MacSwiney a cause célèbre on the international stage.

For the 73 days to his death his case played out in the USA, on the continent and in the British Colonies.  A small determined man in India in particular was paying close attention.  In London a Vietnamese independence campaigner named Ho Chi Minh said “A nation that has such citizens will never surrender.”

The greatest empire in the history of the world was unable to retain control of it’s closest possession in such circumstances.  Within a year the British agreed to Irish Independence.

Dig No Grave Deep; by Terence MacSwiney

Lay not the axe to earth;
love does not sleep.
If yet thy thought esteemeth mine of worth,
for it dig no grave deep.

Let it put forth its power,
aside the surface sweep;
then will leap forth the long-desired flower
which thou mayst reap.

 

 

The Death of Rail

Rail

Sally Thomsett, Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins on set in 1970.

When the Railway children was filmed in 1970 the death knell had already sounded for fully integrated local rail system in both Britain and Ireland.  The nostalgic romance of the rails of Victorian Britain was already a distant fantasy of a time that never was.  The axeman was Richard Beeching who published his first Report on Rail Cuts in Britain on this day in 1963.

Over 2,000 stations and 8,000 km of rail were designated for the chop.  Where the British led the Irish followed and the Irish Civil Service lobbed off most of the branch lines in the 1960s.

Looking  back today we can see how foolish these moves were.  If I have learned one thing in my life it is not to let go of public infrastructure.  Canals, Railways, Fixed line telephony, Roads, Bridges, Gas Networks and Public Water.  The bones of a nation take centuries to build and can be squandered in a decade by vested business interests.

Oil was calling the shots in the 1960s.  The chequebooks flowed, roads were built and the car was king.  Rail was sacrificed on the altar of the oil industry.

Rail may have been seen as outdated in the 1960s but today it is a gift to commuters.  Rail is vastly more efficient in moving large numbers of people in and out of cities to work.  It is also far more environmentally efficient than cars.

The Beeching report was a stich up.  The decisions had been made long before the report was written.  His cutting of local branch lines was supposed to improve the efficiency of the core, and profitable mainline rail.

Often it is a cartoonist who can best expose the lie and I wish I could find you an image of the cartoon I like best.  It shows Beeching himself lobbing off his own arms and legs to improve the core.

The truth is that if you don’t have the branch lines feeding the main line what you are hoping for is that commuters will get into a car and drive to the nearest railway station on the main line.  But they don’t.  Mostly once they get into a car they no longer use public transport.

Today if you travel Ireland and wonder why so many areas have abandoned railways and stations you can blame Beeching.  Blame the British Government.  Blame the Oil industry.  Blame an Irish Government that had no imagination to take a different direction and no confidence in their own decisions.

Milltown

 

Gary Whitehead, a mouse and Covid19

Glendalough

Carpark in Glendalough during Lockdown

Monday morning Week 2 of Coronavirus lockdown.

Spring is upon us and the weekend discarded its shroud of rain and wind and blessed us with some sun for a change.  Here in rural Tipperary we were released to walk the quiet country roads.  Dublin was somewhat different.  Given a sniff of good weather Dubliners all collectively head for the same spots:  Glendalough, the Sally Gap, Howth Head, Dollymount Strand, Bettystown, the Phoenix Park etc.  As a result you get crowding, traffic jams, queues for the coffee truck or the chip van.  The opposite of social distancing.

As a result the council steps in and shuts down car parks, exacerbating the problem in the ones that remain open.

Huge cities are not human places.  Now that many of us can work remotely what is the point of crowding millions of people into boxes of glass and steel? So much valuable time is lost commuting too and from the workplace.  Today that time is being used for exercise.  A fit workforce is a productive workforce.

If Covid-19 teaches us one thing it is that we can reverse the flow of people from country to city.  In the modern world it is not necessary to cram your employees into a factory where you can supervise them.  Technology can do that for you.  I predict that many of those working from home today will continue to work from home long after the crisis is past.

 

Mouse In The House; by Gary Whitehead

For two nights now it’s wakened me from dreams
with a sound like paper being torn, reams

of it, a scratching that’s gone on for hours.
Blind in the dark, I think of my father’s

letters, the ones composed but never sent.
They were addressed to his sister, my aunt,

a woman I never met but whose voice,
slurry and calling from some noisy place,

introduced itself one New Year’s eve, late,
before my mother came and silenced it

with a click. She was one of many things
we never spoke of. But when the phone rang

at odd hours, I’d wonder if it was her.
That voice had resurrected the picture

in the silver frame, my parents’ wedding
day: on the church steps the woman throwing

rice, blond and beautiful, showing no trace
at all of malice in her youthful face.

Now the awful sound, waking me again
like a secret, calls to mind the poison

I left out, and my mother on their bed
tearing a box of letters into shreds.

Missing hens

ChinaCock

“The China Cock” 1929 Georgia O’Keeffe

We let the hens go when we put the house up for sale.  I’m regretting that decision now.  In a time of #Lockdown I quite like the idea that you can have a constant supply of fresh eggs for very little work.

The Irish Green Party leader Eamon Ryan is encouraging everyone to try their hand at planting salads to supplement the food supply.  That might not be such a bad idea if supply chains from Spain become disrupted.

The last time we faced a situation like this was during “The Emergency”.  This is the name that was given by the Neutral Irish Government to the events that most people refer to as World War 2.  Food supply was a key issue for the young Irish Nation.  Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Éamon de Valera lamented in 1940: “No country had ever been more effectively blockaded because of the activities of belligerents and our lack of ships…”

Ireland was a net food exporter and it was vital for our economy that food exports reach our largest market in Britain.  But we relied heavily on imports for Coal, Fuel Oil, Bread Wheat, Citric Fruits, Tea, Coffee and luxuries such as chocolate.

Irish sailors of the mercantile marine referred to those years as “The long watch”.  Twenty percent of our merchant mariners perished in those years.  Initially the Irish ships joined in with the convoys organised by the British to protect their fleets.  But Irish losses led to a change in strategy.  The Irish vessels were painted large and gaudy with neutral markings and  sailed alone.  The strategy had mixed results.  Many German Captians respected the Neutral position of Ireland, but a few took a different view.  As Britain was the major beneficiary of Irish food exports many Germans viewed Irish shipping as a valid target.

My father was born in 1927.  He had vivid memories of working alongside his father in a rented allotment to supply the family with fresh vegetables during the war years.  He paid for his school books by bundling and selling onion thinnings (scallions) door to door.  Mature onions were dried on a flat roof, accessed by climbing out the window of their quarters in McKee Barracks.

To put in perspective how valuable food was they used to have a dish for breakfast called “Mock Tripe”.  Basically this is a dish of onions boiled in milk with salt and pepper.  What I find funny about this is that when you make “mock” dishes it is usually replacing a luxury dish with a cheap one.  The classic “Mock Turtle Soup” is a dish which replaces expensive turtle with the meat from the head of a calf.  But tripe is not and has never been luxury food.  It was not even on the ration book during the Emergency.  Why call a dish “mock tripe”?

Every time we visited my Grandmother we were treated to her speciality:  bread pudding.  A habit begun of necessity in the war years that she maintained all her life.  Stale bread was stored in a special enamel pail, soaked in water until she had enough for a pudding.  It was mixed with dried fruit, sugar and spices and baked in the oven.  Served with hot custard.

Mock Turtle, Gryphon, and Alice, Sir John Tenniel 1, colourised, public domain

The Mock Turtle from “Alice in Wonderland” with a distinctively calf looking head and hooves.

Lockdown Week 1

Image result for phyllis mcginley

It has been nothing short of bizarre this week and reminds me a lot of the Phyllis McGinley poem below.  We now have the subject matter for a hundred such poems.  Phyllis was born on this day in 1905 in Ontario, but was not a Canadian.  There is a town called Ontario in Oregon, USA.  There’s a trick question in there for a table quiz!

I worked from home all this week, with a break on Tuesday which was St. Patrick’s Day.  The Irish national holiday passed free of parades, with pubs and restaurants closed.  Tourists stranded in Dublin by the rapid pace of events wandered empty streets like lost souls.

Our heating broke down.  We spent the day shuffling a hot air blower and an oil filled radiator from room to room to alleviate the cold.

The plumber did come and spent the day with us on Thursday fixing the system.  He was pursued about the house by Louise wielding anti-bacterial sprays and sterile wipes in case he had been repairing a heating system in an infected house.

The three kids are working/studying from home also.  Esha sat her first exam of the semester, remotely from her bedroom on Friday.  It’s at times like this that you recognise wants from needs; electricity, wi-fi, heating.

Today Jerry and I did the weekly shop.  A bizarre experience.  Supermarkets filled with socially distanced shoppers.  None of the usual friendly chat and greetings.  No touching.  Everyone super polite, standing back to let others pass by.  No rushing at the checkouts.

You know instinctively that all this distant politeness will come to a violent end if the supply lines dry up.  The most important thing today for goverments the world over is to continue to provide confidence to citizens that the food, and drink, will continue to arrive on the shelves.  A hint of panic and there will be blood in the aisles.

 

Daniel At Breakfast; by Phyllis McGinley

his paper propped against the electric toaster
(nicely adjusted to his morning use),
Daniel at breakfast studies world disaster
and sips his orange juice.
the words dismay him. headlines shrilly chatter
of famine, storm, death, pestilence, decay.
Daniel is gloomy, reaching for the butter.
he shudders at the way
war stalks the planet still, and men know hunger,
go shelterless, betrayed, may perish soon.
the coffee’s weak again. in sudden anger
Daniel throws down his spoon
and broods a moment on the kitchen faucet
the plumber mended, but has mended ill;
recalls tomorrow means a dental visit,
laments the grocery bill.
then having shifted from his human shoulder
the universal woe, he drains his cup
rebukes the weather (surely turning colder),
crumples his napkin up
and, kissing his wife abruptly at the door,
stamps fiercely off to catch the 8:04

Empire of Plague

On this day, March 20th in 235 AD the Barracks Emperor Maximinus Thrax was acclaimed emperor of Rome by the Praetorian Guard.  His three year reign began in the year of the 6 emperors and is considered to herald in the “Crisis of the 3rd Century”.

Traditionally historians have viewed the crisis as a failure of leadership combined with a degrading of moral fibre as the goodly yeomen farmer soldiers gave way to effete and debauched libertines who would not bare a sword to defend the borders.

This is quasi-religious moralistic pontification as far as I am concerned.  As I sit in lockdown in a self-imposed isolation to limit the spread of the Coronavirus Covid-19 let me tell you how the Roman Empire declined.

In the years 165 to 180 AD the Antonine plague ravaged the Roman Empire.  Maximinus Thrax was born in the early 170’s right in the period when the plague was raging.  The disease wiped out a third of the population of the empire and in particular devastated the Roman Legions, where it spread first.

Legions needed to recruit warriors from the outside of the borders to make up the numbers.  “Barbarians” were settled on depopulated farms in border regions.  The family of Maximinus Thrax were of Dacian origin, replanted into the Empire.

The senate reacted against the elevation of a soldier who had no family from either the Senatorial or Equestrian classes.  The senate worked actively against Thrax by recognising other candidates.

Ten years after the reign of Thrax the Plague of Cyprian struck the Roman Empire from 249AD to around 262AD.  To have a single plague that kills one third of the population is an event that can destroy a regime, a nation or an empire.  To have two such events within the span of a single lifetime must have been devastating in the extreme.  In this context I don’t find the decline of the Roman Empire surprising, the thing that astounds me is that the Roman Empire survived.

 

A Litany in Time of Plague; by Thomas Nashe

Adieu, farewell, Earth’s bliss;
this world uncertain is;
fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
none from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
gold cannot buy you health;
physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
the plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
which wrinkles will devour;
brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
worms feed on Hector brave;
swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds open her gate.
“Come, come!” the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
hath no ears for to hear
what vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree,
to welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!