AUGUSTUS YOUNG        light verse, poetry and prose

  a regular webzine of new and unpublished work


A Single Skuller

Living Skin

The Final Whistle


The Island

from Rosemaries



My Dominant Characteristic

Life as a Serious Person

The Little Talker

from The Hard and Soft Landings Chronicle

In London I had one defence against my sense of inopportuneness. I said anything at all that came into my head. It could not be any worse than what I might say or do consciously. The free association distracted me from my dominant characteristic, and because of that my sallies usually went well. Occasionally I could see from the raise of an eyebrow or the tilt of the head (the English are masters) that people were thinking to themselves ‘the Irish are funny’. But I have a lightness on my feet with words in English, and getting them wrong often inspires me to compensate with a kind of poetry, I suppose, one that ultimately does not cause embarrassment. I played that out on a homemade instrument like Ornette Coleman with his free jazz. I used up the embarrassment in the air to puzzle until a satisfactory conclusion was reached. The tilt turned a face and looked me in the eye. A victory for common sense.

The art of softening a hard word or sweetening a bitter one is easier than using superglue. It only takes a few seconds, not an eight hour soak. Lightening the heavy or giving the trivial gravitas is a gift common to good jazz musicians. Once the parameters have been defined, the variations come naturally. Such notes - or words - come fast but they have been coming a long way. A lifetime of study and practice is behind it. Thelonius Monk played an imaginary keyboard even when he was eating. And from an early age I have rehearsed conversations. Remarks I hear in passing are submitted to free association until I come up with a satisfactory response. It’s only in my head, but it gives me practice. In adult life this practice has served me well.

This self-conscious cultivation of verbal music entertained me in my boyhood. I think it is a characteristic of the leprechaun, whose cheerful self-assurance is premeditated. The manikin sits at his last, planning the next step. Meet a leprechaun in a wood clearing and he will not show surprise. But slows you down with a tut-tut look and a rather formal stutter to allow him pause to second-think you. Affability cloaks an implacable sense of himself, self-conscious but self-assured. After an encounter with a leprechaun you leave contented. You couldn’t meet with a nicer little fellow. Yet you soon realise you have been fooled somehow by his fairy logic. You don’t resent it. Fair enough, you think.

I had only one song in my childhood. It was called for at family gatherings, and broke my famous silence loud and clear. That caused amusement.

‘In a shady nook one moonlit night a leprechaun I spied
with scarlet cap and coat of green and a cruiskeen by his side.
He hammered and sang with tiny voice and drank his mountain dew.
O I laughed to think what a fool I’d been
and the fairy is laughing too…

'As quick as thought I seized the elf. Your fairy purse, I cried.
The purse, he said, is in the hand of the lady by your side.
I turned to look. The elf was gone and what was I to do?
O I laughed to think what a fool I’d been
and the fairy is laughing too.’

I once met a real leprechaun named Patrick Scanlon. He suffered from a rare congenital disease, peculiar to Celtic peoples. He was in his late teens and despite his miniature though perfectly proportioned stature, he spoke up for himself loud and clear. He had no regular schooling but he was clever and resourceful. Never short of a word or a wink. He paused before he spoke, but had no stutter.

The rarity of his condition meant London could not offer him any specialists. So Patrick was an experiment. His doctors broke the joints of his limbs and put him in a metal basket with bone seeds and growth hormones. His mother carried him around. ‘Patrick is wonderful’ was a popular refrain because of his affability. Sadly, the joints never set properly and he ended up a twisted knot of his former self. But his mind was as alert as a bird with a nestful of fledglings.

We chattered for an hour or so inconsequentially. I had seen a mobile cradle with wheels in the Victoria and Albert Museum and had in mind getting one specially designed to mount his basket. His mother had bad legs, I knew. People would have queued up to carry him because of his courtly disposition and conversation. But his mother was jealous of alien hands. Patrick teased her in a gallant sort of way. His mother, he said, liked carrying him around so she could complain about her legs. 

The experiment went wrong and he died in his early twenties, still speaking up for himself, I’m told. I remember his watchful eyes and his hands. Fingers disproportionably long, his only disproportion. Well-cared-for nails, cuticles as clear as his blue gray irises. He looked after them himself, always working with his file. They were hands made for declaiming and he made good use of them, and for making pumps for dancing dolls. His eyes also danced.