St Patrick, Aesop, and the Donald

Yesterday was the big celebration all over the (western-influenced) world when millions of disparate people became “honorary Irish” in order to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, which really marks the Irish diaspora, especially the 5 million or so who emigrated to the United States. Although the migration started in the early 19th century it was during the Victorian era (from 1840) that it became almost a national  industry such that 40% of Irish-born people had emigrated from the Emerald Isle by 1890. Today around 36 million Americans – that’s more that 10% of the population – claim Irish as their primary ancestry* and hence we have the huge St Paddy’s Day parades in New York City, Philadelphia and many other towns and cities throughout the land. We even had a “St Patrick’s Day Potluck” at my place of work. All this largely to celebrate the huge benefits this massive influx of people from a single country have had on other nations (especially the USA), as well as a good excuse to gulp a few pints of Guinness.

So, it is with more than a touch of irony and bitterness that the day preceding this event I was sent a link to a Trump video where the polemic pouter, whose mother (née Mary Anne MacLeod) was a Scottish immigrant, reading  the Oscar Brown-penned song The Snake, that was made famous by Al Wilson in the late 60s, against a background of selective videos of violence.

This song is based on one of the famous fables of the Greek slave and storyteller, Aesop, specifically, The Farmer and the Viper, and is the source of the idiom “to nourish a viper in one’s bosom” (little used today).  It’s not difficult to see the claim he is making, albeit crudely.

The gist of the tale is that the farmer (or woman in the song) finds a viper that is injured and feeling compassion for the animal’s plight takes it home to heal it. Whilst ministering to its needs the snake bites him, delivering a fatal dose of venom. Dying, the farmer asks, “why did you kill me when I was helping you?” to which the viper replies dispassionately, “I’m a snake, what did you expect me to do?”


Now, I’d like to turn this around somewhat and say that given the Donald’s past history of narcissism, deceit, misogyny, racism, vitriolic ranting, violence inciting, and general disregard for humanity as a whole …

“Who’s the snake?”


* Although I am an immigrant, who enjoys a Guinness (or Murphy’s), I am not of Irish descent, as far as I know.

A Story – The Swaffham Pedlar

The old historic market town of Swaffham, in Norfolk, England was brought to fame a few years back as the fictional town of Market Shipborough in the British TV series Kingdom, starring Stephen Fry.

The locality has links back to Boudica, the queen of the Iceni, famed for leading the uprising against the Romans in AD 60-61 but the town celebrates a more recent (only 300 years old or so) and humble ancestor who has been depicted on the town sign for years.

The Pedlar of Swaffham makes an interesting tale and was first recounted in the Diary of Abraham de la Pryme in November, 1699:

Constant tradition says that there lived in former times, in Soffham,” alias Sopham, in Norfolk, a certain pedlar, who dreamed that if he went to London bridge, and stood there, he should hear very joyfull newse, which he at first sleighted, but afterwards, his dream being dubled and trebled upon him, he resolv’d to try the issue of it, and accordingly went to London, and stood on the ridge there two or three days, looking about him, but heard nothing that might yield him any comfort.

At last it happen’d that a shopkeeper there, hard by, haveing noted his fruitless standing, seeing that he neither sold any wares, nor asked any almes, went to him, and most earnestly begged to know what he wanted there, or what his business was; to which the pedlar honestly answer’d, that he had dream’d that if he came to London, and stood there upon the bridg, he should hear good newse; at which the shopkeeper laught heartily, asking him if he was such a fool to take a jorney on such a silly errand, adding, “I’ll tell thee, country fellow, last night I dream’d that I was at Sopham, in Norfolk, a place utterly unknown to me, where, methought behind a pedlar’s house, in a certain orchard, and under a great oak tree, if I digged, I should find a vast treasure! Now think you,” says he, “that I am such a fool to take such a long jorney upon me upon the instigation of a silly dream ? No, no, I’m wiser. Therefore, good fellow, learn witt of me, and get you home, and mind your business.”

The pedlar observeing his words, what he sayd he had dream’d, and knowing that they concenterd in him, glad of such joyfull newse, went speedily home, and digged, and found a prodigious great treasure, with which he grew exceeding rich; and Soffham church, being for the most part fal’n down, he set on workmen, and re-edifyd it most sumptuously, at his own charges ; and to this day there is his statue therein, cut in stone, with his pack at his back, and his dogg at his heels ; and his memory is also preserved by the same form or picture in most of the old glass windows, taverns, and alehouses of that town, unto this day.



It is an interesting tale and one perhaps that we should all take heed of as we rush about our days: sometimes it isn’t always obvious where we can learn something of benefit. Everything we do or see can be an unexpected learning experience and we have to be open to it like the simple Pedlar of Swaffham, who is still commemorated for his open mind over 300 years later.


Year of the Monkey

Today is the start of the Chinese New Year, the year of Monkey (or fire monkey to be slightly more precise). When I first thought of this the old maxim “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” immediately came to my head, with the well-worn image of the three wise monkeys, Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru:



Although this is better known from Japanese iconography, popularized in the 17th century, it supposedly has its roots in the teachings of the venerable Chinese philosopher, Confucius, who originally wrote, “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety” in the Analects of Confucius 1800 years before. This was later simplified to the nine words we know today.

In these recent days of political bombast, bully rhetoric, vitriolic speeches and  general mud-slinging by people who vie to be our would-be rulers it would be gratifying to see them heed this maxim, if only for a short while. Imagine how refreshing it would be for them to opine only positively; to layout their well-thought out plans for the country; to ignore sound bites and twitter hits, and actually attempt to act like the statesmen and stateswomen they purport to be.

But, that being said, why should we be so hard on our politicians? We should all consider this behavior and attempt to act this way in our own lives. I know that I am easily drawn into the trap of “water cooler moaning” during the day, and I too should know better.

One thing that I noticed a few years ago, when I took up photography seriously, was that my outlook on the world did actually change. it seems that somehow looking through a viewfinder, and searching for a well composed shot literally focused my mind on seeing things in a different way. I’m not saying that I do this all the time, but when I am in my “photographer mode” I certainly am a more positive person.

So, here’s a challenge for you: Try to be mindful of  the simple phrase “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” throughout the day and try to deliver on it.

Oh, and a Happy (Chinese) New Year!


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