Liam Farrell: Hunting the Snark during the Troubles

In the midst of the word he was trying to say In the midst of his laughter and glee He had softly and suddenly vanished away For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

Lewis Carroll's outre poem about an unlikely crew in search of an impossible creature has long mystified scholars. What was the intended allegory, what was a Snark, what was a Boojum? Well, my long and bitter life experience has suggested one plausible interpretation; the Snark, I conjecture, is a metaphor for unrealistic expectations and a Boojum is when those expectations get busted.

As a lad I had two elderly aunties, Josie and Ellie, spinsters who lived together. On one occasion Josie was admitted to hospital, and my brother Tommy, who was like Mother Teresa without the cool white gear and the expensive PR, undertook to drive Ellie to the hospital each night to visit Josie.

One night Tommy was busy and asked if I would help out. 'Like I don't have a life,' I grumbled but, because I am sometimes a good person, I agreed to substitute, strictly for one night only.

But the substitution was not acceptable to Ellie, and I was forced to endure a haemorrhage of moaning and whinging all the way to the hospital. 'Tommy Farrell let me down, I'll never depend on him again, who does he think he is, etc etc ...' Tommy had set up the expectation, and reaped the unrelenting ingratitude of a sad and bitter old woman.

During the Troubles there were frequent bomb attacks on the local army barracks, thoughtfully situated in the village square.

After one bomb, I called to see the Magees, an elderly couple living on the square. It was really just a social visit, as I was passing, but while there I made the mistake of checking their BP - usually a safe bet, the medical equivalent of kicking for touch, and it makes it look like we are actually doing something. It was nothing heroic, I know, just a small random act of kindness.

A few days later there was another bomb on the square. I'd been off, and when I arrived back I asked my partner about casualties. 'None,' he said, 'but the Magees called. Very upset they were, after waiting up all night to have their BP taken.'

The Snark had become a Boojum.

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