What Folly


The original definition of a Folly was “a costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder”.  In this regard the Marino Casino in Fairview, Dublin, Ireland is the perfect example of a folly.  Constructed by James Caulfeild, the 1st Earl of Charlemont on his grand estate, it was built as a residence for his daughter.  A diminutive and perfect example of neo-classical Italian style architecture constructed in the 1760’s and 1770’s.

Caulfeild and his architect, William Chambers, spent a fortune on the dwelling to construct an optical illusion. They toured Europe for inspiration, sourced materials from all over the world, such as the timber used to construct the parquet floors.

From a distance it looks like a single room pavillion decorated with columns, porticos, urns and classical friezes.  Within it is a perfectly proportioned and very human scale three bedroom house with kitchen and workrooms in the basement, reception rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms hidden on a second story that is invisible from outside.

The beauty of Marino Casino is that it is the only building remaining after the destruction of the Charlemont Estate.  Built to enhance the view from the main house, it now stands as a kind of symbol to the impermanence of power.  Like the head of Ozymandias.

The photo above shows the Indian Watchtower at Desert View on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  It is neither Indian nor a Watchtower.  It is another beautiful folly.

Designed by Mary Colter, the american architect born on this day in 1869.  She was one of very few females in architecture at the time and developed a reputation as a perfectionist.  The Desert View Watchtower is a classic steel and glass erection of the 1930’s which is then veneered to present itself as some ancient relic of an Indian Nation that never was.  Built to look like a renovated ruin, a common tradition in folly building.

In classical landscape gardening a folly served as a focal point for the gaze.  It helped to frame a view.  The follys themselves took inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman temples, Crusader commanderies, Norman keeps, Tudor mansions or even natural features like gorges or caves.  Wealthy young men and women might pick up some “souvenirs” of their grand tour of Europe and these could be cemented into a folly to give it more authenticity.  The follys of England and Ireland serve in this regard as a testament to the vandalism of the upper classes, the pinnacle of which is Lord Elgin’s Marbles in the British Museum.

There was a good side to the folly story.  During the Great Hunger in Ireland follys were constructed as a form of famine relief.  Pointless work to build useless buildings as an excuse to give money to starving families.  In those days it was unacceptable to Liberal Protestant Victorians to just hand out free food to Irish Catholics in distress.  There had to be a work ethic!

Ozymandias; by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
who said “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
tell that its sculptor well those passions read
which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
and on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.”


Quod sumus hoc eritis


Danse Macabre in St Nicholas Church, Talinn, Estonia

Danse Macabre, Gather Ye Rosebuds, Ozymandias, Death the Leveller.  For a time we live.  The fleeting glories of our short lives are nothing but the crowing of a cock on a dungheap.  Next time someone puts you under pressure telling you how important the deadline is and how it simply MUST be met just whisper to them “Vitae summa brevis” – brief the sum of life.

What do you choose to leave behind in 50 years time, if your choice is that you stayed in the office for 16 hours to deliver that crucial report, or you sat on your childs bed and read a story?  Who will remember that night in 50 years time, your needy boss, or your nostalgic, well adjusted child?


Vitae Summa Brevis; by Ernest Dowson

Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam; Horace

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
we pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
our path emerges for a while, then closes
within a dream.

Poetry Barn for sale

Billy Brennans Barn

Ask any Irish person over the age of 30 if they remember “Billy Brennan’s Barn” and they’ll start talking to you about bicycles going by in twos and threes and the half talk code and the wink-and-elbow language.

Well guess what guys, it’s for sale!  Yes, you could be the proud owner of a piece of poetry history.  I had a half thought of buying it myself.  It would be a good place to store my collection of the cloths of heaven, my Grecian urn, my two vast and trunkless legs of stone, my squat pen, the caged bird, a red red rose and a poison tree.  Where do I get all this stuff?

Anyway, for those who were not raised to the bard of the bog, here is the relevant poem.  A poet, like a philosopher, has no place in his own country.

Iniskeen Road – July Evening; by Patrick Kavanagh

The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn to-night,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

Oriental Democracy

Last year it all seemed so positive.  The people of Egypt rose up as one and demanded democratic rights.  The army found itself in an untenable position and ceded control.  Elections were held.  The right wing did not like the result.  They gave Morsi one year as president, and now he has been deposed and arrested.


Where have we seen this before?  Spain in the 1930’s is a good example.  A stagnant traditionalist and impoverished state.  The people demand democracy.  The vested interests must concede to elections.  They don’t like the result.  In steps the army.  Civil war.


Same thing in Chile with Allende.  It has happened in numerous African states.


So what is the problem?


Well, the problem is that democracy is a very imperfect solution.  Good solutions tend to be ambiguous, slow, evolutionary.  Democracy works well when you have already had democracy for a long time.  The problem with Egypt today and Spain and Chile in the past is that they tried to use democracy to solve a state of national crisis. 


When you have a national crisis what you need is simple, fast solutions delivered by strong, unified and aligned interests.  You want a demagogue, a benevolent dictator.  You want a Nasser  (before he lost the 6 day war).  You want Mussolini (before people learned he was stupid).  You want Hitler (up until 1940 when his success turned him into a megalomaniac).


Arabic nations in particular seem to venerate autocracy.  They seem to see the world the way Europe did back when Kings had the divine right to rule.  Power flows from Allah to the Prophet and down to the Leader.  In Europe we are astounded by the strength of trust and loyalty generated by people such as Gaddafi, Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Bashr Al Assad. 


I have come across a theory that the difference in nature between oriental and occidental rule is founded in the difference in the land between Persia and Greece.  In Persia the lands are broad and relatively easy to traverse.  Tribes can migrate with relative ease.  Peoples moved freely westwards from the Asian steppes, northwards from Arabia and southwards from the Russian steppes.  To defend your lands from intruders you needed a strong centralist authority which could depend upon the unity and support of the people.  As a result the first great bronze age civilizations rose in Mesopotamia.  Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, the Hittites etc.


By contrast Greece is a land of rocky valleys and islands.  Each valley and each island is a land onto itself, with its own lord, its own army, its own economy.  It is very difficult for invaders to move across Greece.  Passes are few and narrow, and the locals use them effectively for ambush.  As a result Greece developed into a plethora of fiercely independent states.  Different states experimented with different forms of government.  They had single kings as in Macedonia, dual kings as in Sparta.  There were tyrants, ruling councils, democracies, republics, oligarchies and theocracies.  Through trial and error some of these systems were found to be better than others, and they evolved into the modern federal style of republic that is most common today.  We incorrectly call it democracy.


When Europe and America went through the throes of religious wars, the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the rise of feudalism, the emergence of the nation state, the rise of free thinking, the age of revolution and the First World War, the Arabic world was blessed with the stable and benevolent rule of the Ottomans.  They had the only ruler in history to earn the epithet “Magnificent” and Suleiman truly was magnificent.  Under his rule the Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Balkan peoples and Persians had a legal system far surpassing anything in Europe for centuries.  They were clean, well fed and secure.


To a Turk in the 1550’s Europe seemed a dirty and dangerous place.  By the 1900’s it did not seem a whole lot better.  Loyalty to the Sublime Porte seemed far superior to the disunity of English and French parliaments.


It is really only since the end of the First World War that the West has prospered and the Middle East has reeled from crisis to crisis.  And why has the Middle East failed?  Well, because the Western Nations dismantled the central control of the Ottomans.  We broke up their Empire, divided out the lands and handed them out to western flunkeys.


Eventually the people of those lands tire of the western approved rulers and throw them out.  The people who lead the throwing out tend to be strong characters with good support either from the military or from tribal structures.  The nations of the Middle East have no history of success with democratic government.  When they look back into history they equate stability, peace and wealth with unity, loyalty and autocracy.  They do not have the western appetite for deontology and individualism at the expense of the state.  They value utilitarianism and teleological sacrifice of the individual’s desires to the common good.


Is it any wonder that the Arab spring has stalled?  It will take a number of evolutions and revolutions before these nations “get” democracy.  The West must be patient.


Ozymandias; by Percy Bysshe Shelley


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’