The surprising complications of tide-watching

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Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ “Tide: The Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth” has a title that sounds hyperbolic, but is endearing in its combination of a certain rhetorical restraint (noted by the Guardian reviewer linked to above), simple awe and a willingness to get into quotidian detail. I went into the book thinking that the tide basically boiled down to the influence of the moon – there is a lot more to it than that.

Early on, Aldersey-Williams decides he needs to observe an entire tidal cycle. This sounds something very straightforward – just sitting by the sea for a day! – but not so:

It is an odd idea, I admit, simply to sit and watch the water for twelve or thirteen unbroken hours. You might find similes coming to mind to do with watching paint dry or grass grow. But I will shut these unhelpful analogies out of my mind. I do not know what I might see, but I will at least try to note down anything I do. I do not know what I might see, and that will be the best of it. The first requirement was to select a site where I could do this. Every part of the British coast is subject to substantial tidal movement. I live in Norfolk, a county that bulges obscenely out into the North Sea (in old satirical cartoons that depict Britain as a person, Norfolk is always the rump). The coast is correspondingly distended, and so I was spoiled for choice. I considered Blakeney Quay. I’d seen the tide running in there so fast round the bend in the river – I reckoned its speed as about three metres per second, based on counting as pieces of seaweed hurried by – that it sent thick wooden mooring posts into frenzied vibrations. But the place was too overrun with tourists, and I could see that I would be constantly interrupted by curious busybodies. Instead, I selected a site a mile or two away where I knew I would be undisturbed

Aldersey-Williams has even more criteria:

The scene would be nothing like the domesticated sublime of the beach at Lyme Regis that Jane Austen describes in Persuasion, ‘where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the tide’. My prospect would be more like that in George Crabbe’s epic poem of East Anglian life, The Borough. I would ‘view the lazy tide / In its hot slimy channel slowly glide’. I would make myself into what Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend called one of ‘those amphibious human-creatures who appear to have some mysterious power of extracting a subsistence out of tidal water by looking at it’. Reading passages such as these, I saw that writers use the tide as a kind of hypnotist’s watch. It is something to induce a state of reverie or, more dangerously, a trance. I would have to be careful not to fall into daydreaming if I was going to make more incisive observations of the unceasing rise and fall of the seas. Next, I had to choose a suitable time of year and time of day to make my study. The tides are in constant action, washing the world’s shores, but they vary according to astronomical factors that are subject in turn to their own complex temporal rhythms. I did not want to freeze or fry out on the marshes, but more important than that, I would need my thirteen hours to fall during daylight in order to make my observations. Wherever you are, a full tidal cycle, from high water back to high water (or low to low), takes nearly this length of time. This constraint limited me to the months from March to September when the days were long enough. I also wanted to observe a fairly typical tide, not a huge one that would flush me out of my vantage point when high water approached, nor one so meagre that I would miss the things I should normally expect to see

….

Any thirteen-hour time slot guaranteed that I would see one high water, one low
water, one full flood tide and one ebb. But where in the cycle did I want to start my work? This was more a matter of aesthetic preference and narrative design. To begin with the tide in full spate, either flooding or ebbing, seemed to me melodramatic. An obscure logic told me that low water would be a natural beginning: a bath or a bucket starts empty, after all, and its story is to be filled. This version would give the greatest sense of a flooding. I could watch the flood tide fill the creeks, but I would then have to see them empty again as the cycle came around, and something about this displeased me. Or, I could start at high water. But this was not right either: even though I would then end on a high, it seemed wrong to begin by witnessing the departure of the substance of my tale. I feared that the immediate ebb might be the end of my own story. In the event, I found my choice still more restricted. The tide table showed few days when the tidal range would be sufficient for my needs, the day long enough, the weather likely to be bearable, and the place quiet enough – a weekday during school term rather than a weekend – that I would not be disturbed. In the end, I chose a day when the sun would be rising just as the ebb was gathering pace. I would begin my observations about an hour after high water. The mood should be one of calm and expectation. My morning would see the tide recede and the muddy shore revealed. High water would come late in the day, and provide a well-timed climax. By starting an hour or so after high water, I would then stay on through the subsequent high water long enough to see the ebb begin again. This, I felt, would show more truthfully that the tidal cycle does not in any way peak or culminate at high water, as we might be tempted to think, but that it goes on in an eternal cycle in which no momentary state has any more claim to special status than another

Aldersey-Williams prepares himself for longeurs:

Though I intended to be diligent in my observations, I imagined there might be long stretches when little was happening, and so I armed myself also with a copy of The Oxford Book of the Sea. It held excerpts of many works I would need to familiarize myself with, from Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us to Matthew Arnold’s allegorical poem ‘Dover Beach’. These poems and prose pieces would remind me of the main to which my insignificant creek, thanks to the tide, was eternally connected and intermingled.

I don’t want to spoil the account of his actual tide watch, which is well worth reading, but can reveal he does find not much time for reading:

I had thought that there would be longueurs in my day. But it is clear now that I will be kept very busy. I find it necessary to carefully plan my activity between each hourly tide reading, because I know I’ll only have the chance to do certain things – like delving in the mud for worms, or observing how the wind whips up waves – at certain states of the tide. Suddenly, my schedule starts to look like a school timetable. I have the whole curriculum covered: plotting water level graphs (mathematics); observing mud life and marsh plants (biology); recording water flow (physics); canoeing (PE); contemplating the cosmic order of things (religious studies?). I will be so busy for the day that English will have to be cancelled; The Oxford Book of the Sea lies unregarded, its pages turning crisp in the dry breeze.

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“The whirligig of time” : A note on Fr Pat Noise

“The whirligig of time” : A note on Fr Pat Noise

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Seeing that this documentary is to be broadcast next Saturday I thought it an apt time, though any time would be an apt time, to post about my own research into the obscure career of Fr Pat Noise…

Some years ago, when lecturing in UCD, I was working on a presentation on conditions in some ways connected with the passage of time. The best known being deja vu, the perception when in a new place or situation that one has been here before, or the same thing has happened before. Of course, there is a whole psychological science of time.

In those days I had the chance to read more deeply and broadly for this kind of thing than since. I used what was then the UCD School of Medicine in Earlsfort Terrace. It was the last few months of it being part of UCD. The librarians were working on transferring stock of the main UCD Library and many older and more obscure volumes were out and about on various trestle tables. Among these was one which I had dimly heard of but had also come up in some of my reading, Vico’s The New Science. Vico believed that history went in a curve or spiral, and that events recurred.

In the middle of the book, presumably used as a book mark at some stage, I found a faded, worn prayer card. I could barely make out the text on it except for a request to say an Our Father and a Hail Mary for the soul of Fr Pat Noise, and below this the following words:

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?
Look at the moon
Do you want to hear what ears have never heard?
Listen to the birds cry
Do you want to touch what hands have never touched?
Touch the earth
Truly I say that God is about to create the world.

This struck me as somewhat unusual content for a prayer card. Again, having more time than now, I was able to follow up with some research on Fr Noise in the Dublin Diocescan archives in All Hallows. I think I had a vague idea about writing some kind of paper. I am not a historian and was seeking not truth nor likelihood but astonishment. So I found out somewhat more about Fr Pat Noise.

Noise, like Fergus Kilpatrick and Dungarvan native John Vincent Moon is a figure who has somehow been forgotten, by and large, in the so called Decade of Centenaries. Unfortunately, at the time , I made my notes in a file on a laptop which is long defunct.

In the archives what we read about Fr Noise is entirely through the words of others, him being a curate in Berkeley Road who dressed in an extremely flamboyant manner, who was unambigious in his support of the workers in the 1913 Lockout, and also as proposing theological views not entirely Orthodox. However one letter describes him as travelling to the furthest reaches of orthodoxy, but not going over the precipice.

This was contained in another letter from a priest that was otherwise quite hostile to Fr. Noise. According to this priest, Fr Noise stated that there are no two moments alike and every moment is a new moment and that history is in a cycle and life is in a cycle because every moment is new again. The poem that was on the prayer card was reproduced in this letter; apparently Fr Noise read it at a ceremony. It is unrecorded what the congregation in Berkeley Road made of this.

Fr Noise’s sympathy for the 1913 Lockout and for the poor of Dublin seems to have, in a similar way, gone right to but not past the limit of what the Church hierarchy could tolerate. There are hints in another letter, by an anonymous outraged parishioner, of accusations of Socialism and Communism, but in this area Fr Noise crafted his sermons in the words of Christ Himself, and remained at the dangerous edge of orthodoxy.

The link with Peadar Clancy came through being one of the genuine customers of Republican Outfitters. This was a well known meeting place for the IRA in Dublin. Dan Breen said that really if you were an IRA man you shouldn’t stay there too long. In the letters about Noise it is mentioned that he wore quite elaborate capes and top hats which were sourced from Republican Outfitters.

He also apparently translated Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into Irish, but there is no trace I could find of this. There is also a clipped article by Fr Noise, but from an unidentifiable periodical, on Festspiele – festivals in Switzerland in which thousands of people , possible the whole population of a town or area will renact historical events in the place where they happened. In this piece he suggests that this is something that Ireland and Dublin should emulate and and there were all these hints that the 1916 Rising was a reenactment of a previous event that had happened before in history.

Fr Noise pops up in letters beween Peadar Clancy and Sean Treacy and also seems to have been an intermediary for Clancy. Surprisingly these activities do not make it into the accusations of his various foes, and in the letters what Clancy describes are purely philosophical and theological discussions.

Fr Noise is now commemorated with a plaque on O’Connell Street, but otherwise his life is nearly totally forgotten by both the worlds of the Church and of Official Ireland. Perhaps in the narrative of commemorations and the rather self-congratulatory rhetoric about How Far We Have Come, a priest with cosmopolitan intellectual influences does not fit neatly into our perceptions of a cleric or a revolutionary. His plaque is, by coincidence, on the spot on O’Connell Bridge beside which the Millenium Clock, a digital clock inserted into the Liffey in 1994 but which was beset by all sort of problems, including time running backwards.

Elizabeth Taylor’s Gloomy Sundays

Elizabeth Taylor’s Gloomy Sundays

From Elizabeth Taylor’s “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont”:

On Sundays – especially p.m. – Ludo was always depressed. Something lowering was in the air : at least three times during the day, for instance, the dreadful clanging doom of neighbourhood bells, the sauntering, church-people’s legs beyond the area railings. He squatted and squinted up at them, at the boring hats of the women going by – they were mostly women – and he was enraged with them for lowering his spirits. They did so to the extent that he could not workL and he could not go to work.

From somewhere – most certainly not from his mother – he had inherited a feeling that Sunday was a day of rest, and so he fretted through it, and always came to the end of it with a sense of wide ennui and wasted time.

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From The Soul of Kindness:

It was a Sunday afternoon and she was lonely. He knew well that she reached her lowest level on Sundays, or did, rather, as soon as lunch was eaten and she had washed up, Then the day heeled over into a frightening sea of boredom. She floundered in it, letting herself, as the hours went by, sink dully under, with the sound of church bells in her ears.

Religious people were a vexation with their selfishness. They took one whole day out of seven – out of every seven – and put a curse on it for other people. Even abroad, even in non-Christian countries, Elinor had always known when that day came round. It carried its staleness with her wherever she went.

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“For my sins”

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In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor expertly sketches the lives of the elderly long-term residents of the Claremont Hotel, a somwhat shabby-genteel premises on the Cromwell Road which acts as a (bare) alternative to the nursing home.

Mrs Palfrey, widow of a colonial administrator, takes up residence in the Claremont. Unvisited by her grandson Desmond “who works in the British Musuem”, and ignored by her daughter in Scotland, Mrs Palfrey ends up engaging in one of the first deceptions of her life – pretending that Ludo, a writer who she meets through a fall on the street, is her grandson.

Ludo himself lives a hand-to-mouth existence, “working at Harrod’s” – meaning he writes his novels in a café there – and making occasional resentful visits to his narcissistic mother and her new lover, “the Major.”

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Anyway, all this is as prelude to this wonderful passage with its play on the trite phrase “for my sins.” A final background – here we meet Lady Swayne, who uses the Claremont yearly as a base for a London fortnight, and condescends spectacularly to all present:

At that moment, out of the life stepped brocaded Lady Swayne. Mrs Palfrey, who had sometimes in her life been majestic, but never graceful, thrust out the violets as Lady Swayne paused beside her.

‘A breath of spring,’ she said. She seemed un-coordinated, Ludo thought, like a robot that gone wrong. Lady Swayne took full advantage of this state of mind, with a flowing, gracious gesture. ‘Exquisite,’ she breathed, in the softest of tones. ‘Alas though! They never last.”

‘My grandson,’ Mrs Palfrey continued wildly, nodding towards Ludo.

‘Ah, I’ve heard of you, heard of you.’

‘Desmond,’ Mrs Palfrey added firmly. ‘Lady Swayne.’

‘You are at the B.M., I believe’, said Lady Swayne.

Mrs Palfrey was alarmed, but Ludo’s pause was brief. ‘For my sins,’ he said, smiling. He had often thought of using this meaningless phrase, which was one of the Major’s favourites.

‘Do you know Carr Templeton?’

Mrs Palfrey was now mesmerised like a startled hare. ‘Only vaguely,’ said Ludo. He had quickly summed up Lady Swayne, and decided that Carr Templeton must be grand, or would not have been mentioned by her. ‘I am hardly on that plane as yet,’ he said, and almost added ‘for my sins’ again, but took a grip of himself. He might have extricated himself by talking of being in different departments, if he had known what Carr Templeton’s department was. He was not even sure of his own, and felt that the British Museum background should be gone into in greater detail.

‘You are young,’ Lady Swayne was saying graciously. ‘Your time will come.’

‘My Grandmamma is going to give me a glass of sherry.’ (‘For my sins’ would have gone beautifully with that, too.) He moved a little, and took Mrs Palfrey’s elbow.

‘That will be nice,’ said Lady Swayne. ‘ Your grandmother has such peaceful, quiet evenings that you will make a little change for her. Unlike poor little me.’ (She was at least give foot ten, and with shoulders like a bison’s.) ‘I am whirled round London in a way more fitting to a deb than an old, old lady. Yes, a taxi, please, Summers. This evening … ‘ – she sighed – ‘I’m off to the Savoy,’ and then, to Ludo’s immense delight, she added, ‘for my sins.’ It is infectious, he decided.

Caddisfly Larva video by Liam Marsh

Back in February I reblogged an interview with underwater photographer Liam Marsh.

I am pleased to report Liam has now won a British Wildlife Photography Award for a video of his – here is Liam’s wonderful video of a caddis fly larva ‘s life – with a rather dramatic twist. The sheer patience involved, apart from anything else, is staggering.

https://vimeo.com/233684119/recommended

The Droste Effect (nearly) in the Domhnach Airgid

The Droste Effect is the name given to an image containing a smaller version of that image which contains therefore a smaller version of that image and so on , to theoretically ad infinitum. The name comes from an early 20th Century Dutch brand of cacao:

The Domhnach Airgid is an early Irish book shrine on display in the National Museum of Ireland. It housed a gospel given, supposedly, by St Patrick to St Mac Cartan:

In the lower left panel we see this specific scene:

At first I was hopeful that this could be a Droste Effect, and a pretty early one – with a mini Domhnach Airgid being passed from Saint to Saint, itself incorporating a mini Domhnach Airgid. It may be in intention but is a blank rectangle… but perhaps the Droste Effect concept was at play. Wikipedia (yes I know) gives the earliest Droste image as 1320 : while this shrine dates from the 8th century the panels were remodelled in the 14th so this may not be a precursor.

but anyway , an interesting little aspect of a beautiful work

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?
Look at the moon
Do you want to hear what ears have never heard?
Listen to the birds cry
Do you want to touch what hands have never touched?
Touch the earth
Truly I say that God is about to create the world.

From The Theologians, Jorge Luis Borges

The opening lines of The Theologians:

After having razed the garden and profaned the chalices and altars, the Huns entered the monastery library on horseback and trampled the incomprehensible books and vituperated and burned them, perhaps fearful that the letters concealed blasphemies against their god, which was an iron scimitar. Palimpsests and codices were consumed, but in the heart of the fire, amid the ashes, there remained almost intact the twelfth book of the Civitas Dei, which relates how in Athens Plato taught that, at the centuries’ end, all things will recover their previous state and he in Athens, before the same audience, will teach this same doctrine anew. The text pardoned by the flames enjoyed special veneration and those who read and reread it in that remote province came to forget that the author had only stated this doctrine in order better to refute it.