Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Steaming Home in Style

   by Victor Sullivan     © 2012
How Lateral Thinking got a  Steam Traction Engine home

Throughout the harvest season Christy had steered the clankling, hissing, fuel-hungry, steam traction engine along the quiet country roads of Ireland from one farm's haggard to the to the next. Nicknamed 'The Raspberry,' Christy's traction engine towed a Ransomes threshing machine which towed a straw elevator which towed a large tin shed on wheels that was inappropriately known as The Office. The Office contained planks, chains, ropes, saws, axes, drums of oil, drums of grease, a crowbar, hammers, wedges, belting, wheels, spare parts, bolts, nuts, washers, a couple of buckets and a shining milk churn for conveying feed-water to the engine's thirsty boiler. There were many other things that might be useful sometime but had never been called upon, yet. Emergency fuel included wood blocks, peat, two sacks of coal, branches of trees, scrap wood from a builder's yard and any potentially good flammable material found along the way. During the threshing season maintaining a fuel supply was seldom a problem as each farmer was traditionally obliged to provide enough fuel to thresh his own grain from the straw plus provide sufficient fuel to take The Raspberry and all its appendages and attachments as far as the next farm. 

Each harvest-time Christy's work pattern began with the assumption that anything that might go wrong would do so in the first week of the threshing operations. He therefore selected his earliest customers from those nearest his home, his workshop and his spare parts store. As the season progressed the distance from home increased and, rather than walk or cycle several miles each day, Christy opted to sleep in the primitive, grimy tranquility and oily atmosphere of The Office. 

It had been a difficult harvest in 1955. Rain had interrupted the work on many occasions. Eventually the final sheaf was threshed and the Ransomes threshing machine was cleaned down for the last time. It was then slowly hauled onto the roadway by The Raspberry. The straw elevator followed and finally The Office was hitched on behind, ready for the long, tedious, overnight journey homewards through the  network of narrow country lanes, avoiding the main roads. 
The final client had not been generous when it came to providing fuel for the long trip home. Christy had eyed the meager bag of coal with deep foreboding. While the farmer went indoors for money to pay the threshing fee, Christy discreetly hoisted a shabby stable door off its hinges and heaved it into The Office, following it with several heavy wood planks he found lying nearby. Then, having pocketed his fee, he mounted the engine and urged it forward, glad to be on the road home at last. 

After a couple of miles he stopped to introduce his saw and axe to the combustible newcomers in The Office, transferring the result to the engine's fuel bunker and ultimately its furnace.

A long, slow and challenging journey stretched before Christy but he was determined to get back to his home, his wife and the children.  All went crawlingly well for the first two hours that saw the sun set and a darkening sky turn to a display of stars and welcome moonlight.  The roadsides were seemingly endless banks of dark vegetation broken only by the regular bleached wooden gates that most farmers in that part of Ireland liked to display as symbols of affluence at entrances to roadside fields.   Occasionally Christy would dismount from his still moving engine to pick up a fallen tree-branch. When a dead tree in a field caught his eye it warranted a stop while he sawed and chopped several comforting bundles of wood from its decaying stump. As The Raspberry panted gradually homewards Christy began to calculate the fuel reserves relationship to the distance remaining to be covered and concluded that his casual foraging along the roadside would not suffice. The Raspberry's greedy furnace had already consumed almost all of the reserves in The Office, including the stable door and its accompanying planks. A large one-stop source of fuel seemed unlikely, especially in the small hours of the morning. A regularly spaced reliable fuel supply would be ideal if only such a thing existed...... 

Christy would not have been familiar with the term 'Lateral Thinking' nevertheless he was very good at it. Also, part of Christy's philosophy was that his personal necessity bestowed certain priority rights over the lesser rights of others, such as ownership of food, drink and fuel. Surely this was an occasion that warranted determined action. Once he had made the decision he began to act accordingly and within the transit of a couple of miles he had proved to his satisfaction that his strategy would work and he confidently looked forward to steaming proudly back to base at the end of another Harvest season. He mentally rehearsed his triumphant approach to his family home. A blast on The Raspberry's whistle while still a quarter of a mile away would ensure a noisy dawn welcome from his children. They would run down the avenue to meet him to climb on the straw elevator or join him on the engine for the final yards of his epic journey. His smiling wife would have the frying pan sizzling on the kitchen range by the time he turned the huge rattling rig into the yard. It would be a most enjoyable arrival.

And so it was.

The wild-life on the quiet, empty miles of dark country lanes and traffic-free roads had been the only witnesses to  the overnight passing of The Raspberry and its threshing rig. By sunrise those lanes and roads were hosting numerous herds of pedigree Hereford cattle that mingled with black and white Fresians, Aberdeen Angus heifers and half a dozen delighted bulls of mixed status. Cart horses nuzzled thoroughbred mares from a racing stable and even a few donkeys took carnal advantage of their liberation. Flocks of sheep completely blocked the roads in numerous places. Dogs barked, men cursed and shook sticks while agricultural confusion and wrath stretched across the county.
Urgent Police action was demanded, extensive searches were undertaken. The usual suspects were rounded up, interrogated and released without charge due to lack of evidence.  Solicitors were appointed and compensation claims were proposed but no trace was ever found of the missing wooden field-gates. It was speculated that the gang responsible must have used a lorry to carry off so many gates in one night. Over sixty years later the event is still recalled in local folklore as 'The Time of the Gates.'

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Yoga for Softies

by Aidan O'Shea   © 2014

We are all creatures of habit, good habits and bad ones. In today's hectic world, most of us would admit to the cardinal sins of our time: too much sitting, too much fat, sugar and salt in our diet, too much needless anxiety, too much passive gazing at TV, iPads and laptops. Sit on the bus and look around at those surfing on the internet, ninety percent of which dulls our judgement or floods us with stimulation or stress.  How do I step off this whirling roller coaster? Last July, I stumbled on a clue, by accident.
While on holiday in Spain with my daughter and her family of three girls, I was getting used to the energy and clamour of the children. My daughter took time out each morning after breakfast to practise her yoga. She practised on the balcony while I entertained the girls. As we ran out of patience and ideas to share, the girls demanded that they join their mum at the end of her session. She agreed, and suggested that she show us some basic postures and yoga moves. We were two adults and three children flexing and stretching in a tiny space under the Mediterranean sun. I was sceptical, but gradually felt an improvement in my moves, a gentle calming of my mind.
Later that day, I noticed that my breathing, the weakest aspect of my swimming, had improved, allowing me to swim further without a breathless break. Next morning, I was first to join my daughter, even though I was least flexible and mobile. I also discovered how strong my right-handed bias is, leaving me much weaker and stiffer on my left side. Some of the balance postures caused great laughter, as I toppled after a few seconds, while the children stayed upright.

We returned to Cork and I quickly forgot about my holiday yoga trial. I simply enjoyed the best Irish summer for a decade. In September, my daughter spotted a yoga course for beginners at Ashton School. I registered on line, took my courage in my hands and joined trainer Helen O'Connell's class. First impressions count, and Helen had the places carefully laid with a non-slip mat, chair, strap and foam blocks for each of us.  Seventeen students in the class, and I was the only man. Helen's calm yet determined instructions brought us through a series of progressive steps using all the main features of yoga: deep breathing, relaxation, stretching and meditation. The session ended with a ten minute rest period ending in a salutation. I came into the room somewhat nervous and sceptical, and left after 80 minutes, feeling relaxed and refreshed. There were no machines, no treadmills, no weights and no extremes. We worked to our personal limit for each exercise. Ten weeks later, we had learned a variety of yoga stretches and poses and begun to practise them at home. Even on the wettest and windiest morning, and we have had plenty of those, I have enjoyed the yoga practice to start my day. 


Yoga can be traced back to India in the 6th century BC where it has formed part of the meditative practice of Hindu and Buddhist thought. Yoga means union or yoke, linking breath, body, mind and spirit. Yoga now enjoys great popularity all over the world. It may be practised at any age from seven years to old age. Practice is most important, and even half an hour daily can easily be accommodated in a busy lifestyle. The pupil is also the master, in that the practice is modified in time and intensity to suit the individual. One can explore more complex postures, deeper meditation and adapt the practice in line with any personal medical problems. Some pupils like to explore the faith aspects of yoga, but this is optional. 

There are many different styles and disciplines, and people practice yoga for a variety of reasons. One of the main goals of yoga is to improve overall well-being through teaching discipline and self-regulation. Recently, research has been conducted on the healing properties of yoga and how it relates to positive psychology. Researchers wonder what psychological advantages it can afford, in addition to the previously discovered physical benefits. Yoga has proven to offer different and multiple benefits for individuals ranging from consciousness of one's body and its capabilities, satisfaction from challenging oneself physically, and increased energy and mental clarity and concentration. While the topic is still somewhat new and some research is still preliminary, results have shown significant improvements in both physical and mental health among a variety of subjects in various circumstances. It has been proven to give relief for patients with asthma, high blood pressure, anxiety and lower back pain. In diseases such as cancer and AIDS where anxiety adds to the stress, yoga has provided relief to the psychological symptoms. 
Thanks to yoga, I have discovered an accessible means of combining relaxation, deep breathing and muscular exercise, a new habit with a lasting benefit.