I was almost honoured to be approached by Skellig Historical Society after reading the first chapter of great grandfather’s once notorious, now sadly novel. As you are perhaps aware, great grandfather was one of Skellig’s most generous benefactors, having been fascinated all his life by the history and unique culture of islands.
Leman Bodley, former chair of the society, told me a great anecdote about great granddads’s lewd performance at the bicentennial of the sinking of Hollands Melvaart, which of course I can’t share for legal reasons. Buy me a dozen quarts of the black stuff and perhaps you’ll wet it out of me.
In any case, the surviving members of the society are all interred together in a retirement community near Clara Lara, and seemed to greatly enjoy the last excerpt, as far as their carers could discern. It seemed only right to give them another slice of history, as they have room enough remaining for only one or two before joining it themselves.
Music Concerto in E flat major Op.30; G minor Op.12, by Antonio Vivaldi, recorded from Grandfather’s phonograph.
Image: Photograph of great grandfather having a grand old time, from the family archives. Courtesy Skellig Historical Society, circa 1911
My great grandfather’s book ‘An examination of the effect on character of greatly altered circumstances, as epitomised by the divergent conditions into which two young unfortunates are thrust by the wretched cynicism of their betters,’ or ‘The Wager’ caused an enormous stir upon its initial release in 1919. The book so shocked and dismayed its late Edwardian audience, that it was prohibited both in Ireland, and across the Commonwealth. The book’s content invited comparisons in The Times to ‘the depravities of Wilde, absent his wit’. Today long forgotten, I thought I’d wile away a Summer evening with what seemed likely a dry exercise, but became an entertaining one. This reading is from the second edition, released abroad in 1920.
Music Concerto in E flat major Op.30; G minor Op.12, by Antonio Vivaldi, recorded from Grandfather’s phonograph.
Image: Scan of great-grandfather’s portrait, from the dust jacket.
Quite a while back I wrote a post about places to write in Dublin. More specifically I was whinging about the poverty of writing spots. Sure, Dublin is home to hundreds of cafes, and if you’re willing to spend twenty or more euro a day, and able to write in frequently noisy, hectic environments, they’ll do in a pinch. But, more than a year after I asked the question, during the (pretty ironically titled for a variety of reasons) Dublin Writers Festival, the city still lacks a cheap place to write. There isn’t a single venue thats a) open in the evenings (when most people in full time employment are free), and b) actively tolerates (let alone supports) writers.
I’m in an incredibly fortunate position. I’ve made a modest living from my radio work for the past couple of years, and it’s meant that I’ve been able to afford to dedicate a room in my apartment to recording and editing radio programmes. Still, I find it almost impossible to get real creative work done at home. Editing, sure, blogging, certainly, but writing? Not a chance. Instead I’ve found that I write best in my old college library. This is an incredible facility, and one only available to those fortunate enough to have graduated from Trinity or be a post graduate student of another Irish college. Alas, like most Irish college’s, TCD’s library is closed in the evenings all Summer long.
That’s why I’m chomping at the bit at the news that the A4 art collective are offering cheap work spaces in Dublin. Starting from €50 a month for access to a shared workspace, A4 will let writers, musicians, performers and visual artists work cheaply in Dublin city centre. The importance of this cannot be overstated for the cultural life of the city.
Two things give a city a real creative life – a population with spare time, and low rents. For a few years, when the current Irish recession was at it’s worst, falling property prices and high unemployment satisfied both criteria. This led directly to the birth of a plethora of non-profit creative spaces in the city. Mabos, Exchange Dublin, Space 54, Subground 43, Supafast, the Complex, the Factory, Blue Bottle Collective and more, all grew out of the inability of rentiers to make money from commercial uses of their buildings. All allowed artists to create new work and the public to enjoy the fruits of that work, most often for free. They helped rebuild something Dublin had lacked for a generation, an artistic culture. They allowed thousands of young artists and performers to develop their talents, without the necessity for them to be immediately profitable.
To resort to business speak: As a creative professional starting a career without experience in a ‘sector’ with very low margins, there is literally no chance I’d be able to do the work I do today, without those spaces having existed, and without inspiration, camaraderie and support of the volunteers who gave life to them. They are all now gone. Not one failed to pay their rents, find an audience, or ran out of steam. Each was wholesale slaughtered by a Dublin City Council that has shown active distain for public arts; and developers eager to cash in on the faint flickerings of growth in the property market. In their place we have high priced private arts businesses, like Block T and the Centre For Creative Practices that have their place, but through their financial burden serve to cut the arts off from the life of the city.
One new arts space isn’t going to solve all that. But it does at least sort out the thorny issue of where to write in Dublin. Writers are poor. For many even 50 euro a month will be too much. The the rest of us, lucky enough to be able to live off our work or skating by on day job wages, finally have somewhere we can create!
A poem of mine written many years ago, has been published. Diaspora is if anything more pertinent today than when I wrote it – in that horrendous exile between school and college, when progress seemed impossible. The piece has been published in the latest issue of This Is Not Where I Belong zine. All my life I’ve felt both trapped by and alienated from the strictures of Irish national identity; whether it be the craven catechisms of the perpetually overcast Ireland of the 1980’s, the imperious neoliberal building site Ireland of the 2000s, or the smarmtopia of todays startup driven smirkonomy. I grew up in the suburban wasteland, in the tiny satellite down of a backwater almost city. A place with no visible history save the grassy humps of half excavated neolithic burial grounds. A place that was not a place. A remainder, buildings like jettisoned luggage after an evacuation, falling into silence.
A burnt and crooked Beachwood cross
that stands, Prometheus restrained
beneath a lead grey peasant sky
its arms outstretched
to lecherous sea
with witty movement, bleak and sly
has hung me here, this past ten years
will hang me yet,
till leathered dry
This east end gathered pale
this pinioned land
has angle softened wombs
which dulled the grope
of Dutchmen’s boots,
and trapped the slip
of every boat awry
Out from her lips men poured,
like varnished words,
in rivulets of ache for work
Our woodwind whispered
Asleep on her shifting
even the lush have grown cold
But always sweeter than this land
of coarse embittered pilgrims
fools called home
I am the son, in name alone
of tarmacadamed soil
Of Pict clean, kitsch hewn
mounts of clay,
Of heavy craven
I am the son who stayed
and worked your orphaned avenues
and bent the buttresses
till they resembled home,
I am the son who waits,
and envy still
your prodigal diaspora
This story was first published in ‘From Whatnot To Where I Belong’ in 2013. Image used, creative commons attribution non-commercial share-alike.
The bus hinged around arching corners of endless overpasses. This unkempt net of highway had been cast over the country to catch shoals of fat bright motorcars. It seemed here knotted and there unbound, and never finished. On verges, and across still un-tarmacadamed lanes, drove yellow pillaging machines with bright sharp teeth. Leaning and craning and biting they hewed at the earth, at its rich jewellery of stones.
Cliff’s hand, sensitive in the extreme to Audrey’s touch, raised fine hairs as her arm approached. There was a rhythm to their touching, a blind dance. One would pull away, and the other cross the gap between them. A hand would find itself inside a hand, or a cheek against a shoulder, or an arm loosely wound around a waist.
On Audrey’s phone shone the woven façade of fitted Victoriana. Tween girls and androgynous boys flitting by with each soft finger flick. They posed awkwardly in perfect outfits in orchards, on cobbles, in torn abandoned rail yards. As the bus leapt and landed Cliff reached reflexively for his calf leather camera case, patting it down, confirming its weight and spayed boot shape.
“Amélie, dark dreamer under pearlescent seas.” Audrey read. “Sandals, Ralph Lauren. Stripped stockings, Gucci. Gothic Summer-dress, custom.”
Cliff frowned, “Bulimia, catalogue.”
“Stop it,” she said, pinching the screen to zoom in on Amélie’s pale skin and hollowed cheeks. “So hot to flavour a look like that. Like, with a hint of something usually naff. Fail on the heels though.”
Cliff turned the phone over in her hand, the image flicking down to reveal Amélie’s, “Black platform heels, vintage.”
Audrey whistled, “Hope she kept the receipt.”
“I doubt Claire’s Accessories take vomit damaged returns.”
She looked out at the hazy buzzing knots of trees that verged the motorway. “I want to be a dreamer under pearlescent seas.”
Cliff released her phone and began studying their fellow travellers, commuters wedged into their faded turquoise seats.
“Wait long enough, I’ll drown you.”
At the town Cliff hefted Audrey’s bag and his own, bulky with the hard projections of tripod and lights. He wouldn’t let her help him carry their gear. As they left the bus she slipped about him, nuzzling his chest, although he was a head shorter.
The trail began almost immediately, through open cast iron gates at the head of the town’s one shopping street. They dodged the Autumn mud, cresting a verge that divided the narrow line of woods and counsel estates beyond from the loose stones and potholes of the great house’s drive. As they followed the road the woods thickened and thin dirt-brown streams sprang up like sewers between the sparse beach trees.
Nearing the great house they moved off into the thickest strip of woods. Cliff slipped two fingers into the back of Audrey’s jeans and kissed under her ear. She moved away, skipping a stream and stretching to pose against an old oak, its bare branches thick enough to block out the sky. He set to work extending the compact tripod; oozing its feet into the humus of the woodland floor. The camera came in parts that clicked together, satisfying a desire for clean contemporary joy. Raw snaps ricocheted under the canopy. Passages of shadows through the still damp woods. Passage of evening into night.
Audrey set small lamps burning amongst the trees. Beeswax cups that shone bright blue and green and purple inside their plastic sheaths. He followed her, camera in hand, pulling the focus from skin to fabric to surrounding woods as she wheeled amidst the trees and laughed at him. Cars groaned and crawled up towards the great house, ignored.
On the bus back to the city, Cliff opened a battered copy of ‘Wuthering Heights’ he’d picked up in a charity bookshop. He read out a description of the ‘villainous’ guns hung above Heathcliff’s fireplace, and mocked Emily Bronte’s use of adjectives. Audrey smiled but didn’t otherwise respond, her eyes on the camera’s LED screen, her fingers greedily commanding- next, back, next. Later Cliff would phone his brother, who worked in the new glass and steel courthouse by the park and wore a mask at night that pumped cold air like the whispers of nights on moors heady with the history of things written and unwritten, and tell him that when Audrey ignored him he sometimes imagined her dashed under the quirky whirl of wheel and undercarriage, and suffering, but not at his hands.
In the city the narrow streets of the artist’s quarter ran with tourists who caught on the chords of buskers, burrs in the eddies of a swift pedestrian stream. Audrey knew the hostess of a party that was happening that night. The girl had exchanged letters with a famous local film director for years, and met him finally at a screening of his newest, poorest work. They had gone together to a bar famous for its celebrity clientele and necked and he had finger banged her in the ladies washroom, and she had gone home alone.
Walking towards the party they passed couples headed back into the city centre. Cliff watched them, making eye contact with the girls, varying his facial expression and carefully noting their reactions. He had once read an article about an autistic woman who designed pressurised bellows to hug cattle and unreflective passages to ease them to their slaughter. Afterwards, he had searched online for autistic spectrum tests, and blogged about the empathy he felt for her perspective on the world.
The party was in the basement apartment of a building otherwise dedicated to offices. As they entered, Cliff told the guests about a party nearby years before, whose revellers had clambered up to a roof garden. They’d jaunted about on garrets and slanted slates and out further along the roofs of other buildings. He told the guests how ironic it was that the host had broken his back, not there but soon after, falling from the roof of an ordinary detached house. It was a true story, but he told it badly, interesting only a drunk and overly friendly guest named Tibor. Tibor shared his own fables- stories of young men damaged doing things that should certainly have been safe, and watched Audrey explore the party, speaking to the hostess and to other girls, and playing with her dark pageboy haircut and the trim of her American Apparel dress, and quickly drinking several glasses of a punch heavy with crushed frozen fruit and Jameson.
Audrey pissed in the apartment’s overly large bathroom, kicking off her shoes and running bare toes through a thick furred bath mat. She read a decorative china plate on the bathroom door, ignoring its painted stitch-work advice to wash her hands, and delayed returning to the party. Instead she sat on the lip of the bath and studied the spines of a stack of books piled by the sink. The whiskey and lateness made the titles hard to read, but she refused to tilt her head, gradually deciphering them, and running her hands unseen down the inside of the porcelain bath and leaning back and breathing heavily.
In the kitchen Audrey poured herself a glass of water, and allowed a stranger to kiss her and take her hand and put his on the inside of her leg, outside her dress. Over his shoulder she smiled at the hostess who stood automatically on guard between the kitchen and the living room, and smoked and moved her feet in a way that drew attention to her dark blue stockings.
The stranger’s pupils were dilated, and Audrey asked if he had any MDMA.
“Yeah, you know, pills,” she told him, smiling a little and playing with the fingers of his hand in hers, fingers that had stilled but woke again at this encouragement.
“Pills?” he said, and shook his head and laughed. “Naa man, might have a wee bit of coke.”
Audrey started at the closing of the door. She let go of the stranger and left the room, and found Cliff sitting on a chaise longue with Tibor and laughing and eating a bowl of Neapolitan ice cream. Cliff touched her ass and made to kiss her, but she moved away and he returned to talking. Audrey took another glass of punch and left the room and found the kitchen and corridor empty, and walked about softly attempting doors.
The stranger, whose name was Pieter, and who had grown up in East Germany after the wall but still poor, and emigrated late enough to have an accent and a strange hardness and distance and certainty, was standing in the bedroom of the hostess Claire. He walked about and lifted things, touching them ostentatiously, and turned as Audrey entered, closing the door behind her. Claire sat by the foot of the bed, drinking white wine, her knees folded under her chin, her legs crossed, feet slipping in and out of ballet pumps.
Audrey joined her, letting her head rest on Claire’s shoulder. They were not old friends, but whispered to one other and giggled and played footsie. Pieter sat down on the bed, hanging one leg off, and pulled out a small baggie of legal cocaine substitute and a little mirror. He made a great show of chopping the powder and cutting it into lines with a shopping centre loyalty card.
“Do we need to use, like… a bill?”
Pieter shook his head as Audrey approached, hair down before her eyes, her shoes off and hands turning up the hem of her dress.
“Just hit it girl.”
Claire watched Audrey dip her head to the mirror down between Pieter’s legs, holding one finger to a nostril and snorting and rising and tilting her head back and passing the glass with one line gone, and one scatted a little. Audrey sat on be bed and Pieter lifted her up and set her down in his lap. He wrapped an arm about her, fingers on her belly through the thin dress, and watched Claire while she snorted and coughed once and stood and dropped the mirror on her bedside dresser and left the room.
Outside, the snow had turned to rain. More revellers had arrived, duffel coats and capes and pea coats soaked with melt-water. A group of Romanian poets had begun reciting Brion Gysin permutations: repetitive verses that Cliff listened to and Tibor faded in an out of, once in a while laughing and shaking his head and looking around for someone to share the joke. Claire seated herself next to Cliff, and he said something appreciative she didn’t catch, and she returned his smile, and the poetry continued while the rain fell down outside.
A taxi driver caught their eyes, drove a little too fast, added spurious items to the tally. A road slick but pockmarked, trundling beneath the cab.
“Jandek’s playing in the gallery in college.”
“He’s this mad bastard who… Basically he’s this outsider artist. Plays atonal music, really out there. Like Tom Waits crossed with Ted Kaczynski.”
“I love that guy.”
“He played South by South West last year. We should go.”
“Who, the unabomber?” Audrey drew cartoon figures in the misted window.
“Jandek… We should go.”
“Exactly. Maybe I can get us tickets, do a review for the paper.”
“You should set fire the theatre.”
“It’s in a gallery.”
“Whatever, burn the place to the ground.”
He reached over and kissed her and she tasted ice-cream. A pop song came on the radio, and she leant forward, displacing him, and told the driver to turn it up. She began to toss her hair and dance with her hands and he sat back against his door and watched how the rain water stuck her dress to her skin, and toyed with a lighter in the pocket of his skinny black jeans.
In Audrey’s room they fooled around under a poster of ‘Le Chat Noir’, and a print of a famous painting of a frozen tsunami. Afterwards Cliff read aloud from Ariel as Audrey lay naked and smoking at the other end of the bed and checked messages on her phone. He ran his foot down the crack of her ass and down her calf and touched her ankle.
“I need to sleep.” She spoke quietly. Her parents shifted audibly in the next room.
Audrey looked at him over her shoulder. She stubbed out her cigarette and rose and padded across their clothes to the window. She lit a stick of caramel incense and stood looking out.
“Did you like the photos?”
She paused. “Not sure. You might have to mess with them.”
“We can try again tomorrow.” He moved about under her sheets. “It’s cold.”
“I’m not so warm.”
“Get over here then.”
He pulled back the duvet and held it open.
The window was a blue blurred view onto chalk painted houses and the hungry sea beyond, ships anchored far out but still visible, glowing through the approaching storm.
She looked back at him and in time came to him, leaving the sea to its devices.
This story first appeared in ‘This Is Still Not Where I Belong’ in 2013. Image used, creative commons attribution 2.0.
When Marley first ran away at twelve, she made it as far as the motorway protests. You know the ones. Splashed across John Major era British television, Swampy down a hole and hippies up the trees, chanting ‘Save our forests’ and shitting on policemens hats. The crusties took her in just long enough to feed the longing, then returned to sender, to “Cold but not cruel” parents who worked in the city, whose distant affection and immutable principles drove her to…
Fourteen, crossing Iceland and Northern Europe, hidden on ten tonne trucks with Bosnians and wide screen televisions.
Nineteen now in Dublin and penniless, food not bombs from a cart and sleeping rough and, “Aren’t you worried about getting…” I want to say raped but it comes out, “Exploited?”
She holds my eye, every inch the moon faced wander-lost child, not seen since the halicon days of deadheads and Zepplin groupies getting pierced with guppies.
“It happens,” she says,” shrugging that pure babydoll JT LeRoy shrug that says… It happens in a basement in Chinatown; balding Nicolson in a stained Fedora, nose in a cast, case of his life, slipping home in between takes to feed her Celine Dion pieces, ‘Mon petit fois gras’, candyfloss funfair hunger in his eyes. ‘It happens’, shot from phallic rockets under volcanic islands, stuck in a cupboard with Mr Bond who says, “Sooo Moneypenny,” and pulls her in as we fade to black.
It happens that she sleeps for a time in a tent I’ve given her in an urban graveyard she’s painted with white skulls. Then disappears, off again, “No I won’t call them, they wouldn’t care anyway.” “Thanks, yeah, thanks, it’s very comfortable,” warily. And I want to say I don’t expect anything. But I expect the worst. It happens.
Where to write in Dublin? It’s a surprisingly simple question, with an unnecessarily complicated answer. While its true that Dublin does have some excellent public libraries (Cabra springs to mind), their limited opening hours, open architecture, and attractiveness to folks who just need somewhere to hide out of the cold (especially true of the Illac center library), make them less than ideal writing spots.
I’ve always found it difficult to write from home, where it’s much too easy to get distracted by the web, gaming, movies, or the myriad of other tinkering opportunities littering every surface. My solution has been to use a ‘visiting reader‘ card for Trinity College library (Trinity graduates, post graduates from other Irish colleges, and some other researchers can apply for one, though I believe they’ve introduced a 20 euro surcharge). When Trinity librars is closed (all too often) I duck into The Library Bar, in the Central Hotel (just off Georges St). A warm, cozy, relatively quiet city centre pub which never plays music.
The Library Bar is the king of Dublin pubs, but it’s not always empty, and there’s only so much peppermint tea a human can drink. OK, caveat, I personally know people who call this into question. For me however, it gets expensive and bloaty to continually knock back pots of aromatic hot water in order to keep working. So what are the alternatives? Hot desking is out of the question for most writers, as the economics are geared toward the tech industry (translation, writing, like all arts, pays most of those involved really poorly). Although there may be cheaper options outside the city centre.
I put out the question on Facebook and Twitter and got a variety of replies. None are perfect for me, but they might all be of use to someone. I’ve editorialised here by listing (my) negatives and positives about each venue below the recommendation.
Kévin Salandini (of Dublin Board Games) – Winding Stair Cafe, Ormond Quay
Positives – Lovely book filled cafe.
Negatives – Tiny place, snooty staff, not really tenable to sit there all day.
Myles Denyer (of Myles Manley and the little People) – Accents Cafe & Tea Lounge, Stephens St (off Georges St)
Positives – Really plush, quiet, cheap tea. Probably the best place to write in town after the Library Bar.
Negatives – Plays muzak.
Updated Negatives – This place has become untenable. Staff repeatedly approach with dire warnings that ‘it looks like we’ll fill up later’, no matter how much is spent on their expensive iced drinks and hot chocolate. A shame.
Luke Holohan (actor, journalist and musician) – Fixx Coffee, Dawson St
Positives – Great hot chocolate.
Negatives – Really noisy and always full.
Naomi Elster (scientist, playwright and runner of Exchange Words) – The Tea Garden
Positives – Really chilled, great tea, amazing atmosphere – this place is unique in Dublin.
Negatives – Probably the most expensive tea in the country, like 8 euro a pop, and up.
Keith Grehan –Bernard Shaw, No Name Bar, Dice Bar
Negatives – All noisy and full after about five, I hope you like hipsters (or yuppies in the case of the ‘bar with no name’).
Stephen McConnell – Twisted Pepper (3FE)
Positives – Comfy, coffee is supposed to be the best in town, as are the chocolate cake things.
Negative – Expensive coffee / hot chocolate.
Maria Collison – City Centre Churches
Negative – Eternal damnation, seriously though, I wish I had the cojones for this one.
So what would the perfect writing environment look like, for me? It would be quiet, as in no music. I personally don’t need food or drinks (well clearly, as a human I consume them, but I don’t need them floating inches from my face like delicious greasy demons). It would be warm and comfy, more academic than officious or decrepit (aside – is there a word for the design theme of an institution?). It doesn’t even need internet, although electricity would be a big plus.
It would need to be a) open 24/7, and b) a relatively disturbance free venue. If you have to continually order food, move around, or respond in some way it’s not suitable for the dense fixed bouts of focus needed for getting fiction done.
I think there’s a potential market here, as the space described doesn’t really match the cafe or pub spaces available in the city. A space purpose designed for writers, perhaps with an attached cafe, but charging primarily a flat fee, could easily get away with taking 5 euro a day for all you can sit and type service. This seems like something that would be eminently fundable though one of the Irish Kickstarter equivalents, if someone with a decent audience took up the baton. Or is this too specific to be popular? Do well off writers all have beautiful rented offices, while the majority potter happy at home. Your thoughts?