Dublin Triptych

1953 1975 2006

1953

“This’ll fix it” said the vicar, as he socked me on the jaw.

I had just been picked up out of the gutter and was more concerned about the state of my bike. This was Day One of my solo cycle journey from Dublin right up to Portstewart on the North Antrim coast. At the age of fourteen this was my first overseas adventure alone. A few moments before I had been happily cycling down the main street of Swords, just north of Dublin, when without warning a small van in front of me stopped suddenly, causing me to run into its back and injure my jaw. The driver must have heard the impact and accelerated away from the scene, leaving me and bike in the road. My face felt strange.

This was when the vicar came over and saw straightway what my problem was. He told me had been a medic in the British Army in the War and had fixed many dislocated jaws. Then without further warning he punched me hard on the side of my face. I was too surprised to be alarmed.

The story gets better from here. My face felt sore but back in shape. The twisted frame of my Raleigh All-Steel bike was repaired at a local garage and the vicar and his wife sent me on my way after an al fresco lunch under a huge fig tree in the vicarage garden.

Looking back, cycling round Ireland alone at fourteen sounds adventurous, but not in a world where teenagers nowadays sail single-handed around the world,

The Crusader

That day before in Dublin I had shaken hands with a dead man – quite an experience for a teenager, especially as the mummified corpse was claimed to be eight hundred years old. Dubbed “The Crusader” he resided in the crypt of St Michan’s Church. The guide said it brought good luck to shake his hand, which felt hard and leathery. Recently I read that twenty-six thousand people a year now visit The Crusader but the practice of hand shaking has long been abandoned. The corpse is now set back in his coffin with hands tucked in beside him. Not that that stopped a weird occurrence in February 2019 when , taking advantage of the non-existing security, someone stole The Crusader’s head. I don’t know how many people have enjoyed good luck from shaking his hand, but The Crusader clearly made his own luck when just a week later his head was recovered by the brilliant Garda and the culprit was arrested.

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“Don’t spit. Spitting spreads consumption”. I still remember my surprise at seeing this sign on a Dublin bus. I had lived in a poor neighbourhood in London’s East End, but had seen nothing like the poverty and decay of much of Dublin, away from the elegant Georgian squares. It seemed that little had changed since the 1920s when my father had done an obstetrics course at Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. He told me that when he was doing his midwifery practicals, he would take a new copy of a newspaper with him, as this was often the only clean material in the house in which to wrap the newborn.

Still, even Dublin’s poverty provided me an interesting experience: street urchins about five years old, pleading, “Give us a penny, misthur”. It was the first time anyone had called me “mister” and I recall giving away lots of pennies.

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Some years later I read somewhere that Dublin Zoo (which I had visited) was so successful at breeding lions that they had even exported some to Africa. When I checked with the Zoo recently I was told that while they had been breeding lions since 1855, and sent many to wild life parks and circuses, there was no evidence any had been sent to Africa. Disappointed at this myth-busting I did a Google check and found a whole page of references that Dublin had indeed sent Lions to Africa – British and Irish Lions (Rugby Union team) had been sent to South Africa, many times.

Still it’s odd to think that those fierce lions that thrilled me at our annual circus visit in London as a child were not wild beasts brought direct from the African savannah but were most likely Dubliners from several generations back.

MGM lion

Of the eleven MGM lions, two were born in Dublin Zoo: Slats born 1919 (pictured above in 1924) and Leo born 1957.

1975

In this year I made a business trip to Dublin, my first visit there for over twenty years, on behalf of the British multinational for which I then worked. I was not too keen to go. Ireland in the 1970s was wracked with sectarian violence and, while most of the bombing and killing were going on in Northern Ireland and back in England, Dublin was experiencing some of this terror as well.

Just before I set off I got a request from one of our subsidiaries, a firm making specialist commercial vehicles, to check out a proposal they had received from an Irish professor. Details were scanty but it appeared the prof had designed a special vehicle and wanted to know if we wanted to make it under licence.

So while in Dublin I visited University College, where Seamus Timoney was Professor of Mechanical Engineering.. We met in his workshop, where the professor pointed to a large vehicle painted in camouflage and proceeded to tell me about the unique, patented suspension system and showed me a piece of the unique plate steel with which the vehicle was clad. It was an armoured troop carrier! Timoney claimed it was superior to anything the British Army had.

Now this was the 1970s and British troops were driving around in similar vehicles in Belfast, just 170 km to the north. There is perhaps a time and a place for all good ideas but this was not one of them: A British company making armoured troop carriers for the British Army using Irish technology was unthinkable. The politics would be explosive , both for the British and Irish Governments.

Interestingly, a quarter of a century later Timoney Engineering licensed an Australian firm to make 350 Bushmaster Troop Carriers for the Australian Army

The Bushmaster

2006

“All these Eastern Europeans working for lower wages and doing the Irish out of jobs,” said our taxi driver with venom as he drove us into Dublin from the airport. This was the response to my innocent enquiry as to what’s the latest news in Dublin. To me it was ironic as, growing up in London, I was old enough to remember that in my childhood “immigrants” were not black West Indians but white Irish.

Happily, Dublin was now booming with little trace of the poverty I had seen fifty years earlier. The streets were congested with new cars and tourists. Ireland was in the European Union and using the Euro. The country was European HQ to many multinational firms.

At our hotel we fronted the perennial problem facing overnight travellers (we had come in from Toronto). Our rooms were not yet available as it was only 9 a.m. The charming and sympathetic receptionist (Eastern European, I guessed) suggested we spend the morning on the Hop On, Hop Off bus. This we did but dozed through most of it, not getting off even at the Guinness Brewery. Twice round the circuit, once on the left of the bus and once on the right. We did alight at Merion Square with its elegant Georgian terraces surrounding a park.

……..and there in the park was Oscar Wilde reclining on a rock and wearing a vivid green jacket with pink lapels and stretching out his legs clad in blue-grey trousers. First impression was that Oscar was made of fibreglass but later we discovered he was made of various coloured rocks from Norway, Canada and Wicklow. Seeing a polychrome statue was a surprise. For thousands of years statues seem to have been uniformly grey granite or white marble. Back in Classical Grreek and Roman times statues were often painted, though those pigments have long since faded.

The Crusader was not the only Dublin resident who lost and found his head. In 2010 Oscar’s porcelain head had to be removed because cracks were forming. .It was replaced with a new one of jadeite.

Oscar Wilde

However, it was not Oscar Wilde or Eastern Europeans which left the most lasting impression of that Dublin visit. It was, late one afternoon, seeing two diminutive female Garda walking towards a couple of large, drunken louts who had just discarded their empty tinnies in the gutter. The policewomen sternly ordered them to pick up their litter and place it in a nearby bin. It was reassuring seeing these big lads meekly obey – a good tale of respect for the law and for the environment all rolled in one.

Dublin Garda

First female Garda 1959 – perhaps the grannies of the two we saw.

Robin Sen

Sydney 2021

A challenge: what is the most memorable city you’ve visited?

This could be the beginning of a series.

PN

Goldilocks – not recommended for children

It begins innocently enough with a small girl skipping merrily through the woods. Questions arise right from the start.. Did she go with parental approval or did she slip out without their consent? Either way this appears to be a case of parental neglect, bordering on child abuse. If she slipped out, why was the gate not locked.? How irresponsible of the parents to let a small child go off into the dangerous woods -and alone! Hopefully a nosey neighbour will dob them in to Child Welfare.

Did her parents never warn her about “stranger danger” and the risks inherent in going into other people’s houses? It is hard to restrain a horrified shudder as we learn of her barging into an unoccupied house.

Nor are the occupants of this house entirely blameless. Not only have they carelessly forgotten to lock the front door – and in an isolated location with no Neighbourhood Watch- but they have set off on an exhausting forest trek with a small infant before ensuring his nutritional needs have been met. So the porridge is too hot. Don’t they have any cold milk and Cocopops to sustain the little fellow? Child Welfare is going to have a busy time in this dysfunctional neck of the woods.

It gets worse. The story descends into a panegyric of theft ( she nicks the porridge) but also of vandalism ( she wrecks the joint). And where is the personal hygiene? Before tucking in she neither hand sanitises nor gives the utensils a wipe.

Finally this awful story degenerates into a celebration of failing to take responsibility for one’s behaviour, as Goldilocks does a bunk out of the window – silly girl was lucky not to break her neck – before facing up to merited punishment. The opportunity is missed to show the bears in a compassionate light. How morally uplifting to see Daddy Bear forgiving Goldilocks and escorting her home, chaperoned of course by Mummy Bear, safely to her parents.

This is a dreadful tale devoid of any morality. And what about the racial overtones? The flaxen-haired Teutonic girl and the ‘other’ whom we must assume are black or brown or a least tinted (there are no snowy polar bears in the woods, though global warming may change that).. All the bears seem able to do is ask stupid questions “Who’s been sitting in my chair?” and rolling their eyes.

Far safer to sing to your kids something like “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”, a song which eschews social distancing – the bears’ parents are not stupid enough to let them into the woods alone but are happy to see them trot off in a tight cohort of their chums (no hint of any inter-species conflict here). And what a helpful conclusion to the day as the teddies go off willingly to a six o’clock bedtime. What a useful model!

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, September 2021

Women and masks

I fell in love with a woman wearing a mask.

Not once, buy twice.

The first time was with English actress Margaret Lockwood starring in the film The Wicked Lady.(1945) as an aristocrat by day and a highwaywoman by night. She was the most gorgeous creature I had ever seen in all my seven years. The film also had a hanging scene in which hawkers were selling model scaffolds and victims to kids in the crowd. How I longed for one of those scaffolds but none were to be found in my searches through the town’s toyshops. I must have been a horrid little boy.

Which reminds me of another precocious little brat aged about ten who had a hit in the charts in the 1970s. He was even prepared to mask up to win the heart of his woman: “I’ll be your long-haired lover from Liverpool, I’ll do anything you ask. I’ll be your clown, your puppet, your April fool, I’ll even wear a mask”. Maybe the songwriter could not find anything to rhyme with ”ask’.

Long before the present pandemic, women in masks had become commonplace in Western cities. It wasn’t always so. Writing in The Times in 1869, William Russell on a visit to Egypt with the Prince of Wales, typified the idea of exotic, feminine Eastern promise when he wrote: ” If eyes can be an index to the character of the rest of the face, many of the ladies must have been very beautiful”. Then he went and spoiled it by adding ” but some showed the ravages of ophthalmia, which the artifice of blackened eyebrows only made more evident”..

It is ironic to reflect that in many Western countries masks have made the fastest trajectory in history from being illegal (for concealing identity for whatever reason) to becoming compulsory (to protect us and others from infection).

Best mask joke seen so far: “Puppy: ‘Mum,. why are humans wearing muzzles?’ Mother dog: ‘ Because they won’t learn to sit and stay.'”

Who, you may ask, was the second masked woman I fell in love with? She of course is my wife, Helen, though she was not wearing a mask when we first met. That has come much later in response to the current pandemic. Which brings us to Bondi Beach where the ABC TV News made us poster material (without the usual bikini and board shorts) while recently taking a Sunday afternoon stroll along the promenade enjoying the opportunity for permitted outdoor exercise.

In our masks at Bondi on a lockdown Sunday

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, June 2021

Crime and punishment, Oxford-style

OXFORD 1950s

Devotees of the British TV cop show, Inspector Morse and his younger self “Endeavour”, set in mid-last century Oxford, are probably unaware that there was a rival constabulary in that university city.

Oxford University had its own police force but like most things in Oxford in the 1950s, it was imbued with archaic eccentricity. The purpose of the police force was to discipline the student body, particularly the undergraduates.

The chief of police was called the Proctor. There were two of them – a Senior Proctor and a Junior Proctor. They were supported by forty constables of the Oxford University Police called Bulldogs. These were usually local men chosen for their bulky frame and their desire to restrain unruly undergraduates. The Bulldog uniform was a dark suit, complete with collar and tie, and topped off with a bowler hat. They looked less like cops – more like butlers on their day off. The Proctors were also dark-suited, topped with academic gowns and mortar boards.

The Bulldogs had full powers of arrest within the University and within 6 km of any University building. Formed in 1829, they were amongst the oldest police forces in the UK, having been set up in the same year as Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police. They predated Inspector Morse’s Oxford City Police by about thirty years.

Towards midnight (curfew time) the Bulldogs could be seen roaming the city streets on the lookout for curfew breakers. On Guy Fawkes Night ( 5 November) they could be seen helping the local constabulary keep undergrads from storming the Randolph Hotel – an annual tradition.

One morning I entered my college, Wadham, by the gatehouse and looked as usual in my pigeonhole for any mail. This is where post from the outside world was placed, together with invites to clubs, notes from tutors ,etc.

On this occasion I pulled out a plain envelope which, on opening, contained a sheet of paper headed: SUMMONS. It required my attendance to meet the Junior Proctor in his office at a specified time in the Sheldonian Theatre. This is a magnificent neoclassical building designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1669. It is used for graduation and other ceremonies.

No reason for the Summons was given. I was left to speculate on the nature of my crime. I think the Summons was written in mediaeval Latin but maybe my memory is playing tricks.

On the appointed day I turned up at the Sheldonian Theatre (just a stone’s throw from my college), wearing the required sub-fusc ( Lat. Sub Fuscus = Dark Brown).. This involved putting on a dark suit, white shirt, white bow tie and an academic gown. Mine was an anaemic half gown with black ribbons hanging off the side. This told everyone that I was only a Commoner and had not been smart enough to qualify for a college scholarship and proper Scholar’s full gown.

The Junior Proctor was sitting behind a large desk, wearing his Junior Proctor’s rig. He looked very young and I later found out that that Junior Proctors were chosen from amongst the youngest college fellows and accepted the post out of a sense of duty or to help with promotion prospects. The position was for twelve months and involved admin. tasks as well as policing. It was a job, in other words, that nobody willingly wanted. This probably explained why this Junior Proctor looked rather bored as he read out the charge sheet.

I should explain that all undergraduates owning a motor vehicle had to register it with the Proctors and then had to ensure that said vehicle was carrying a green lamp. I had such a green lamp fixed on my Lambretta motor scooter.

My offence was that the Bulldogs had seen my scooter leaving my college at ten minutes after the midnight curfew. Most evenings would pass very quickly talking with a group of friends in the room of someone fortunate enough still to be living in college.. I confessed to having been the driver and said I was on my way to my digs in Cowley, a few km away.

The Proctor then adopted a curious, pained expression and sat looking at me for some time, presumably mulling over an appropriate punishment to fit the crime. Or maybe he was registering his disdain for the whole process. I recall that at my matriculation ceremony a year or so earlier, when I stood in the same Sheldonian Theatre with several hundred other undergrads all clad in sub fusc, a Junior Proctor had initiated the proceedings by declaring: “This farce will be over in a few minutes”.

I nervously stood awaiting my sentence.

Suddenly the Junior Proctor looked up , summoned up his most serious face and said: “I m going to have to admonish you”..

This made me rather nervous as, widely-read as I was, I had never heard the word “admonish”. An embarrassed silence ensued for several minutes. I imagined all sorts of dire punishments from being held in a downstairs dungeon to incurring an unaffordable fine or, worse still, having to memorize a lengthy apologia in Latin, ancient or mediaeval. Or perhaps he was just going to tweak my ears.

Eventually the Junior Proctor said: “I admonish you”.

A further silence ensued while I took in the enormity of my punishment.

I stood there stupidly until eventually the Junior Proctor, with a dismissive wave of his arm, made it clear my punishment was over. I had done my time – it must have lasted all of two minutes.

I walked out a free man.

Postscript: The Bulldogs were disbanded in 2003 after public criticism they were exercising unauthorized authority over the citizenry of Oxford. Apparently they had gone around arresting too many people who were not members of the University. This had also upset the local constabulary, The Thames Valley Police, who had succeeded the upstart Oxford City Police in 1968.

Inspector Morse would surely have been pleased to see the back of the Bulldogs whom he would undoubtedly have written off as a comic but irritating rival force.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, June 2021.

Bad cop, bad cop

Venezuela 1979

The cop jumped out from behind some bushes and frantically waved us down.

We had just rounded a bend on the Maracaibo-Caracas Highway and the cop was signalling for us to pull over on the soft shoulder which was marked by a white line. It was Good Friday and the highway was very busy. First reaction was to wonder why we had been singled out.

The cop claimed that my colleague, Wilton, a New Zealander, had driven across the white line marking the edge of the highway. We did not think this was correct but our denial made the cop aggressive.

The conversation in Spanish, mine transactional and rudimentary, went something like this:

Cop 1: Crossing the white line is a serious offence

Me; I’m sorry. We are business visitors to your country and we do not know all your traffic regulations. We won’t do it again. Tomorrow we are leaving your country.

Cop 1: (Unimpressed) Crossing the white line is a VERY serious offence

Cop 1 then signalled for us to follow him into a clearing behind some bushes. This made us feel very uncomfortable but, as he had his hand on his pistol holder, we decided to follow. Here we found Cop 2 seated at a picnic table.

Cop 2: You have got two options, either pay an instant fine of $US 50 or go before a judge in the nearby town.

Me: (trying the confused foreigner role) I am sorry. I don’t understand. I don’t speak much Spanish..

Cop 1 (to Cop 2). Esto tipo miente ( Trans: This guy is lying). Habla castellano muy bien como un madrileno (Trans: he speaks Spanish like a toff from Madrid).

Cop2: So (turning to us) $US 50 or the judge

Me: The second option sounds better

Cop2: Good. The judge is on his Easter holidays and will not be back till next Tuesday. Meanwhile we are going to have to lock you up. till then

Wilton (pulling a crisp greenback from his wallet): Here is your $US 50.

The two cops salute smartly, accompany us back to the car and even politely open the doors for us before saying they hope we enjoy the rest of our stay in Venezuela.

Postscript 1: Looking back on this incident after so many years I realise these cops were on the lookout for a hire car driven by a couple of Gringos. They must have had a tip off. That is the only explanation as to why they singled us out from all the heavy traffic.

Postscript 2: Later that evening at dinner with friends in Caracas, we tell them about our adventure.

Idiotas”, they said “The cops would have been satisfied with fifteen dollars!

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, April 2021

Discrimination – strange but true

As a slightly tinted chappie (I am partly Indian), it has been a source of amazement to me that in a long life (now 82) I must confess to never having been overtly discriminated against. Most of those years have been spent in largely white societies, now thankfully a thing of the past as we’ve all become much more multi-hued. Indeed, far from feeling left out, my working life has seen me floating nonchalantly through the upper reaches of the corporate world and the bureaucracy. I have even been given the keys to the executive washroom, not literally but that is code for a range of executive privileges.

Getting so far in a discrimination-free zone, and now finding myself in 2021 the victim of discrimination…..well, it all seems decidedly bizarre…. but more of that later.

Sure, I was once on the receiving end of a racial slur, when at the age of eight in south London I was on the way to school. I passed by a house where in the front garden stood an enormous boy, probably about twelve. As I walked past he called me a nasty word, usually reserved for people of Far-Eastern appearance. As he was much bigger than me, I quickly walked b y and next day chose a different route to school. Oh! I forgot to mention! He was an Afro-Caribbean boy, probably son of a couple who had come over to make sure the Brits were adequately provided with transport and health care. Looking back, I bear no ill will to that boy. Probably in that era on the receiving end of the N word, he had at last found someone he could racially abuse, even if he got the races slightly mixed up.

Apart from my encounter with my (probably) Jamaican friend, I had not really experienced racial insensitivity until I arrived in Australia over forty years ago. Soon after joining my company, I joined colleagues for after-work drinks in a local pub. It was a hot day and one of them said his throat was so parched “it was as dry as a Pommy’s bath towel”. As I was the new chum, recently arrived from the old dart, it was a mortifying experience and I felt I had to do something to restore English pride. So next April 23 I organised an office picnic to celebrate St George’s Day. The notice which went up on all office noticeboards invited all staff of English origin to celebrate our national day. This led to a visit from a very embarrassed guy from Personnel to inform me I was guilty of discrimination, probably illegally.. The happy outcome was that all were made welcome and St George’s Day went on to be an annual excuse for everyone to get out of the office for a long wet lunch lasting several hours.

…..and now to 2021. Recently my wife and I decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary with a week on a part of the NSW South Coast which we had not visited before. We duly booked an apartment with the international hotel booking agency we had used many times before. Twenty four hours before we were due to arrive we were asked to provide a photo ID, which I satisfied with my driving licence which of course contains my date of birth. Not long after I received an email from the booking agency saying the reservation had been cancelled on age grounds as this particular accommodation had an age limit of seventy five.

I immediately contacted the villas and spoke by phone to the owner who remained intransigent to all my pleas. I used all the arguments. “We were in Italy last year and stayed in a place in Sicily where we had to climb five flights of stairs to get to our room”. No effect. “We go to the gym three times a week”. No effect. ” I bushwalk up to ten km at a time”. No effect on the unmoved owner. Finally in desperation I pulled out the big gun. “We play croquet”. To my immense surprise this had no impact whatever on the obstinate owner who said the accommodation (ground floor and stair free) would not be suitable for someone my age. I retired to lick my wounds and find alternative accommodation.

A week later we returned to our croquet club where advance word had got around about our treatment. It must be something about the predominant demographic of our club, but several members were so incensed about our treatment that I thought they were in acute danger of spontaneous combustion.

So I decided to go to war, not just for me but for all those lovely angry people.

My battlefield turned out to be Anti-Discrimination NSW who were on to the case with amazing speed. As an ex-member of the NSW public service myself I must say I had never been aware that its bureaucracy could move so fast. I had to conclude that Anti-Discrimination NSW were either grossly overstaffed and were desperate to find something to do or had been trained in rapid-response by the Riot Squad or the NSW Fire Brigade. Within minutes I was told I had been age-discriminated, that this was illegal and that I should put in a formal complaint which they would deal with.

To cut to the quick. Within a week I had received a written apology from the property owner, an assurance that henceforth there would be no age restriction in the house rules, and a reimbursement of the extra cost of booking elsewhere.

You may like to see the letter I sent to the property owner:

” Dear Madam,

Thank you for your apology and for reimbursing the extra costs of alternative accommodation.

I am glad you are amending your house rules and will no longer be at risk of legal action against you.

Most of my friends , who are over the age of seventy five or soon to be so, were incensed when I told them of your last-minute rejection of my booking.

I too was disappointed not only at having to bear the stress of finding alternative accommodation at little notice, but because your villas looked so comfortable and eminently suitable for seniors.

So you will be pleased to know that at every opportunity I will be recommending your villas to my enormous circle of friends throughout Sydney, most of them well over seventy five and some of them a sprightly ninety.

Get ready to welcome them.”

ROBIN SEN

Sydney , March 2021

A very Australian plague

Most people have heard of locust plagues, cane toad plagues or rabbit plagues. Rural Australia is sometimes overwhelmed with another sort of plague, little known, and rarely experienced first-hand by city folk.

One Easter time a few years ago we arrived late in the evening at a sheep and wheat property in the Central West of NSW. We were tired after a six-hour drive from Sydney. As soon as we had consumed a welcoming nightcap with our hosts, we went to bed. We placed several chocolate Easter eggs on the shelf behind the bed, intending to distribute them to our cousins the next morning.

Almost as soon as we had turned off the bedside lamp we heard a rustling noise behind us and the sound of multiple egg wrappers being torn simultaneously. On turning on the light we caught sight of several disappearing tails and inspected the damaged, nibbled and now written-off chocolate eggs.

We didn’t get lot of sleep that night.

Our arrival had coincided with the advance guard of a great Australian mouse plague.

Over the next couple of days we came to experience the full dimensions of the plague.

Mouse plagues break out in some of the grain growing areas of Australia every few years, usually after a bumper harvest. At the age of two months, a female mouse can give birth typically to five to seven young and go on doing so every three weeks; so in ideal conditions (for mice) their population grows exponentially.

The next morning mice seemed to be everywhere. Open the door of a room and they would scatter in all directions. I recalled that the previous evening, during the last few kms driving towards the property in the rain, I had noticed in the headlights an unusual number of small frogs jumping around in the puddles. I now realized these “frogs” were mice.

During the daytime the family gathered in the large lounge room where our numbers discouraged all but a few mice from seeking our company. It was a different story in the adjacent kitchen. The teenage boys in the family had set a number of traps out there and raced out every time they heard a click. The unfortunate mice were taken outside and fed directly to the waiting farm dogs.

Eventually the dogs lost interest in eating more mice, generally after consuming thirty or forty.

Dog before and after consuming a banquet of mice. Illustration: Eleni Sen

As to our food, there were only two places safe from the mice – the oven and fridge, fortunately a very large country one.

A couple of older teenage girls in our group had decided to sit on the hearth (it was a warm day and the fire was unlit). Suddenly they leapt up with screams. The boys, no longer able to feed the mice to the dogs, had climbed on the roof with handfuls of mice and dropped them down the chimney. Of course, they had no idea the girls were sitting on the hearth!

Ilustration: Eleni Sen

During the evening I walked up to the machinery shed. This was a large steel building housing tractors, headers, trucks and other machinery. Usually the big concrete floor is pretty clean with just a few bits of grass and the odd pile of waste grain lying about. On turning on the light I was amazed to see that it was carpeted throughout in grey — and that the carpet was moving. There must have been thousands of mice jostling for position and a chance to nibble some wheat grains. Looking at the amazing moving mass, one could almost imagine looking at the surface of the ocean on a dull day.

Having spent my childhood in an old part of south London, I thought I was used to mice……………..but Aussie mice in their batallions were another story.

In fact these plague mice were British immigrants just like bunnies, foxes, cats and people. Native marsupial mice look similar but don’t go rogue.

The first mice would have arrived in 1788 with the First Fleet and then continued to stream in with every ship. Plagues break out somewhere in the grain growing areas on average every four years or so. With up to three thousand mice plaguing a single hectare, they do colossal damage to crops, chew electric cables, wreck farm vehicles, cars and buildings.

While such plagues usually occur in the country, Melbourne is known to have had a mouse plague a few years back.

Eventually mouse plagues seem to work themselves out. Country people claim that the mice quite suddenly disappear. Most plagues end in winter when the weather turns cold with food increasingly scarce. Apparently as food runs short the mice start trying to eat one another, often successfully. This leads to lots of bites and infections, which spread rapidly through the massive populations. I like to imagine that the more successful predator mice grow fatter and fatter on a yummy diet of their fellows, until they die of obesity. More likely the mice die of disease and starvation in their nests under the ground.

Sometimes farmers plough the soil, just to destroy the nests. At other times, normal tilling has the same effect. Now for sound environmental and economic reasons, some farmers are switching to ‘no-till cropping’ , retaining the stubble from a previous crop and planting seeds in the untilled soil. This captures carbon, improves the soil and helps prevent soil loss through wind erosion. Perversely this allows the mice to remain undisturbed in their burrows. Grain growing areas of NSW are once again suffering from a mouse plague brought on by mild weather and an increase in no-till cropping.

According to Wikipedia- so it must be right- Australia and China are the only two places where mouse plagues are known. Maybe by stressing our common mousy heritage we could go some way to repairing the current frosty relations between our two countries. Just so long as we avoid limp jokes about Mao’s plagues.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, February 2021

A MAGIC CARPET FOR RAVI SHANKAR

“We can’t sit on that” said Ravi Shankar as we looked down on the unvarnished and splintery floor boards on the stage

Alla Rakha on tabla, Prodyut Sen on tamboura and Ravi Shankar on sitar.

My elation at having secured a visit from Ravi Shankar and his group was rapidly evaporating. We were in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. It was 1958 and Ravi Shankar was already an international star and the leading player of Indian classical music throughout the world. He had composed the music for Satjit Ray’s internationally acclaimed film “Pather Panchali” and was well known for his performances throughout the USA, Europe and India. He was well on the way to super stardom, with performances to come in the 1960s with George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin and at Woodstock.

I was president of the Oxford Majlis, a University club specialising in Asian politics and culture. I had been somewhat surprised when Ravi Shankar had accepted my invitation and considered it very gracious of him. And now, having dined him and his group at the Oxford Union, we had taken a taxi the short distance to the Holywell Music Room, the oldest custom-built concert hall in Europe, opening in1748.

The show was going to be a sell-out with all two hundred or so of the tickets already sold. Fortunately we had half an hour to go before the performance was due to start.

I assured Ravi that I would sort something out but I was not sure that he looked all that convinced. I sent one of my committee members to search through the props boxes of the stage and after a few moments he came back triumphantly with an armful of blankets. Blessed relief. The show would go on. However euphoria rapidly turned to despair as we shook out the blankets in a cloud of choking dust and discovered they had been eaten to shreds by rats.

Ravi did not look happy.

I had to do something and assured him I would find a solution and that he and his group would be comfortably seated. I explained that this would take about five minutes.

Ravi looked sceptical.

Fortunately my college, Wadham, was a two minute dash round the corner. I raced in through the gatehouse and entered the first room in the corner of the quadrangle. All doors in those days were unlocked and luckily there was no sign of the undergraduate who resided there. I grabbed all the blankets off the bed plus a small rug off the floor and raced past the porter in the gatehouse, round the corner and into the Music Room, pushing past the audience who were beginning to turn up.

Ravi asked no questions, happily settled down on the pirated blankets and rug and went on to delight the audience with a magnificent sitar recital.

Close to a quarter of a century later I took my son Rodney and his friend Sean to a Ravi Shankar performance in the Sydney Opera House. As I looked at Ravi on the stage and around at the sell-out audience of two thousand or so, I had a moment of quiet satisfaction at knowing I had played a small and totally irrelevant role in his career.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, January 2021

Santa’s cover blown

A cold Sussex evening in December 1977. A group of us were doing a door knock collecting gifts of food for the poor of the town. We belonged to the East Grinstead Round Table (akin to Australian Apex). We found the most generous people (rushing indoors to contribute Christmas puddings, cakes, tins of fruit, chocolate and lollies, etc) were usually the poor and elderly themselves. The young, I suppose, were going flat strap trying to pay their mortgages in this attractive, highly desirable town about fifty km south of London….. and had little charity to spare.

We had our own Santa – local veterinarian Euan, a quiet-spoken Scot and thoroughly decent fellow, well-known and respected in the town. A few months earlier we had watched his look of horror as a visiting group of French Round Tablers presented the president of our club with a large, white and very French cockerel. They had smuggled it through H.M. Customs at Newhaven after crossing on the ferry from Dieppe and, with Gallic insouciance and the characteristic French shoulder shrug, ignored British biosecurity rules. It is reliably known that later that evening Euan volunteered to take care of the cockerel, after wresting it from the club president who probably had had ideas for Sunday lunch. The bird was not seen again but it is pretty sure that our conscientious vet did the right thing.

Now in December, our evening of collecting had begun well. Santa’s sack was already brimming with reverse Christmas gifts. Local vet Euan, disguised as Santa, was clad in his red robe, with hood drawn close to his face and wearing a long white beard. So far nobody, adults or kids, had recognised him in about twenty or so door knocks.

We came to the door of a little cottage on the outskirts of the town. Santa knocked on the door and a small boy opened it.

“You’re not Santa”, said the boy. “You killed my cat!”

Illustration: Eleni Sen

SEASONS GREETINGS FROM ROBIN SEN, Sydney, December 2020.

PAVED WITH GOLD

Back in the 1940s in wartime London, all kids owned guns – not the fragile plastic things bought today by politically incorrect parents. Most of us owned sturdy, die cast metal Colt 45 Six Shooters. Ours were of course better than the real thing. We were not limited to six shots before re-loading. We could fire up to a hundred shots at a time with our rolls of caps.

Illustration: Eleni Sen

We sometimes played “Cops and Robbers” but mostly it was “Cowboys and Indians” because those were the films we were most likely to see on Saturday mornings at the local flea pit. I suppose we were also politically incorrect by today’s standards, especially when we corralled the imaginary wagons and ordered “Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes”.

Although there was a grassy park not a mile away, we preferred the car-free streets of our South London neighbourhood as our Wild West prairie.

Entertained on a diet of Western films, we were inclined to hero worship Americans, especially John Wayne and Randolph Scott, but we drew the line at the “Singing Cowboy- Roy Rogers” who we dismissed as “soppy”.

Round about that time, London filled up with American servicemen and, although not many ventured to our suburb of Brixton, we did occasionally see one or two striding around in their smart uniforms and chewing gum. How we longed to do the same! One or two lucky kids had even succeeded in approaching them and been rewarded when asking “Got any gum, chum?” Generally the Yanks welcomed these approaches by kids. Most I suppose were kids of eighteen or nineteen themselves and missing their younger siblings.

We didn’t need to travel far to come across bomb sites and these ruins became our adventure playground. Imagine our delight when one day we discovered among the ruins a number of batteries covered in black, sticky tar. We eagerly picked off blobs of said tar and spent the rest of the day swaggering around masticating our ersatz chewing gum.

Illustration: Eleni Sen

We kids were very superstitious. Whenever we saw an ambulance we had to hold our shirt collars until we saw a dog. If we did not do so, we believed our mothers would drop dead. Sometimes we spent hours wandering the streets looking for a dog – while no doubt our mothers would almost die of anxiety wondering where we were.

On one occasion we wandered into a bombed building and came across a dead cat with swarms of flies buzzing around. One of my friends told us to run off or “we would get THE FEVER”. I like to think that this was a direct link across the generations of kids for three hundred years back to the time of The Great Plague of London, when kids would no doubt have issued similar warnings. Indeed I recently discovered that during the Great Plague of 1665 many people thought that cats were carriers of that year’s pandemic and huge numbers of cats were killed. The true culprits, the rats, were ignored.

Eventually peace came to Europe and my parents celebrated VE Night by taking us up to London to the newly opened Waterloo Bridge. Everywhere huge crowds were out on the street celebrating victory in Europe. I had read in stories that the streets of London were paved with gold and to my delight I found this was true. There were pieces of gold everywhere and I eagerly stuffed them into my trouser pockets. It was only when I got home that I came face to face with the reality that they were crown corks off beer bottles.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, November 2020