Kings on the Roof

Kings 2020

You’ll know me, that I mostly write on travel, posting that topic with photographs and the odd painting. History, art appreciation, personal reflections and music are all part of the mix. But there’s another me that writes fiction. Again, personal reflection and travel are part of the mix, sound and vision too. It’s a different world, but which is real or ideal I can’t say. This is something that happens every seven years or so, and it’s happening again. My latest collection of short stories, Kings on the Roof, is about to go live. Published by Forty Foot Press, it has eleven stories drawn from all across my universe. The title story is set around Dublin’s Amiens Street, with Sheriff Street Sorting Office and Cleary’s Pub beneath the railway bridge featuring. An extract from this story appeared in the second part of my series, Dublin’s Circular Roads. 

… back then when everything seemed possible, even there in the Sorting Office, in the bowels of that clanking beast, amongst the trolls and elves of the workaday world. We’d climb onto the high gantry and up the fixed ladder to the roof, Alex, the Bishop and I. We were kings of the world up there, with Dublin spread out beneath us, above us only a rippling sky.

There’s an autobiographical element to this story, as I worked in Sheriff Street with the P7T in the late seventies. A more mythic Dublin features in The Secret Lover of Captain Raymondo D’Inzeo. Set in the sixties in the Liberties, the narrative includes fanciful versions of Marconi, the Easter Rising, the Theatre Royal and the magnificent Italian showjumping team winning the Aga Khan. There were extracts in part eight of Dublin’s Circular Roads. 

Just past Cassoni’s I see the car, a red Alfa Romeo with the roof rolled down. Graciano is at the wheel, la Contessa Rossi languishing in the passenger seat.

   “You,” she says, “you have set your sight on the Captain. You are good. A young girl with well turned calf. But would he set his cap for you, the Captain? In all probability. He can acquire what he likes.”

   I can’t think what to say. “Will Italy win the Aga Khan?” I stammer.

   La Contessa puts her head to one side, like a bird looking at a worm. When she speaks, it is not by way of a reply. “I see your man there. He is within your reach. Don’t take me wrong for, believe me, we both have love in our hearts. And yes, we will win.”

Meanwhile, a more recognisable Dublin appears in the stories A Man Walks into a Bar and the Black Moon. Both are contemporary but, suspended in their own gothic fog, drift to and fro in time. The cover illustration is realistic enough, based on a photographic time exposure of city traffic at College Green, Dublin’s dizzy fulcrum. Both the acrylics painting and prose featured on this blog about two years ago. 

… this is the beating heart of Dublin. Whenever you stand there, you will experience the rattle and hum of the city. The song it makes is of all the songs that have been sung here, all the words written and spoken, the history of centuries and recent seconds. At night I find it something special, intimate in its inkiness, dangerous and comforting in that non stop firefly display. Stand and watch the lights of passing traffic going everywhere, fast, at the same time. That’s city life.

Kings on the Roof is published by Forty Foot Press, and is available on Amazon.

Venice Remembered – 3

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Third time in Venice, we flew in to Marco Polo, arriving by train at the Stazione Santa Lucia late in the evening. We took the Vaporetto down the Grand Canal, sailing beneath Ponte Degli Scalzi to ride the few stops till our pontoon. Darkness fell and a nimbus rose from the water as we approached our rendezvous.

It was one of those meetings which should happen at least once in a person’s life, one which you have seen many times in the movies. Sometimes I dream of Veronica at the Vaporetta stop. As the cool cloak of the canal shaped itself, tangible and ostensible, the Vaporetto stuttered to a halt. there she was, alone amongst the crowd waiting on the pontoon. At last, I was in a movie, about to step into that scene, like Bogey and Bacall, when monochrome celluloid blossomed to a full spectrum. She was perfect; calf length Macintosh a quiet half white, dark felt fedora aslant. I just knew her eyes would glisten softly, the colour of deep water in moonlight.

Well, it was all of sixty five years ago

when the world was the street where she lived

and a young man sailed on a ship in the sea

with a picture of Veronica.

Veronica by Elvis Costello

Veronica is our host for the air b’n’b we have booked. She welcomes us warmly and guides us through the labyrinth to the house where we’ll be staying. Once we’re settled she gives us a brief tour of the quarter, recommending the right places for us to eat and drink. Then she smiles and glides off to her own home on some other island.

We are staying in the Sestiere Santa Croce San Polo, near the fishmarkets whose faint hum guides us home of a night. Nearby is Rialto Bridge. We had our two charges, and a list of things to do. Much of this involved pointing and staring, and Venice offers plenty opportunity for that. We had also earmarked a visit to the Biennale.

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The Venice Biennale was established in 1895 as a major exhibition of contemporary art. It is based in a park, the Giardini, established by Napoleon on drained land east of the Arsenale. The exhibition centre is augmented by thirty national pavilions operated by that country’s foreign ministry to showcase their art and culture. An exhibition focussing on architecture is held on alternate, even years. In 2006, the exhibition explored the theme of Cities, Architecture and Society. For myself and O this was right up our alley. We are both lost in our search for the ultimate city.

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Our brains were as full of cities as they were likely to be. One particular visual endures. Topping a rise in the motorway, the entire panorama of a teeming city and its towers shifts across the skyline. Whether Caraacas or Bogota I can’t be sure. I felt dizzy contemplating it. O was utterly absorbed. He would, a few years later visit that city himself. 

We stopped for lunch along the quayside in sunshine. Riva degli Schiavoni is a hectic waterfront promenade lined with market stalls. The Grand Canal merges with the lagoon, transitioning towards the open sea. There’s an overwhelming sense of movement, the centuries colliding to make a tableau of the city’s maritime history. On that day, the sky a duck egg blue and suspended in a chill miasma, everything was timeless and possible.

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Across the waters, a masterpiece of baroque extravagance, the Church of Santa Maria della Salute was built in thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague of 1630. Further on, Andrea Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore floats on its own island.The neo-Classical complex of church and monastery was completed at the end of the sixteenth century, with the soaring campanile added in the late eighteenth.

The view has inspired numerous artists, amongst them Giovanni Antonio Canal. The name is too appropriate to be true: Canaletto, the artist who does exactly what it says on the tin. Born in Venice in 1697, his father, also a painter, was indeed a Signor Canal. His son’s monicker denotes junior. In his early paintings he worked to a finish outdoors while his contemporaries retreated to the studio. Hence, he anticipates Impressionism, and the tendency of modern art to capture the moment in all its blurred intensity. This evolution fits with our technological advance. Camera, cinema and video are caught in the moment. Even modern writing mimics the automatic pulse. We see things differently now than before, but this has developed over time. In Canaletto’s day, the Camera Obscure was available for artists to copy the scene before them. Canaletto is reckoned to have used it. Scholars of his work disagree. His uncanny accuracy can be put down to the simple fact that he was just damned good!

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There are other islands too, and it was time to visit them. Whistling past the graveyard of San Michele, we take the Vaporetto from Fundamente Nove to Murano and Burano. Murano is a small clump of islands with its own canal system, a miniature of Venice itself. Renowned for its glassblowers, we took a factory tour and wondered at the ridiculous, seemingly casual skill of the glassblower within such an extreme environment. We still have our gorgeous glass horse, hot off the pipes. Outside, Murano is blissfully calm, a long way from the hubbub of Venice across the lagoon. Burano has Its own unique, crazy atmosphere. Life goes placidly on beneath fantastic leaning towers. We dallied and dined in the picturesque main square, eating Lasagne which was  memorably good. The houses are painted individually in bright colours, forming a patchwork canvas to seduce the artist within us all.

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Over a few days, myself and M became fond of Veronica’s coffee maker. The Moka Pot is an Italian style icon, new to us at the time, it was developed by Alonso Bialetti in 1933. A study in Futurismo elan, with facetted aluminium and bakelite handles, it made brewing coffee at home accessible to ordinary folk. During a moment when my concentration wandered, the bakelite began to melt picturesquely over the ring. Two remedies suggested themselves: to disguise ourselves with Venetian masks and escape, or to purchase a new one. The neighbourhood seemed full of souvenir shops, but but we quickly found a shop selling coffee makers, identical to the one I had just melted, if a tiny bit bigger.

There were shops with masks and full regalia too. So that option remained. I almost took it. Browsing in a particularly exquisite shop, I found myself draped in full regalia, though I hadn’t asked to be. Apparently they do that if you stay motionless too long; a dream come true for a lifelong poseur. Davin was pleased to follow suit, and made for a more dashing model.

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Such paraphernalia is handed down from the once notorious Venice Carnival. The Carnival is a thousand year old tradition. A pre-Lenten celebration, (the word Carnival derives from the Lenten fast, literally meaning ‘goodbye to meat’) it gave citizens licence to transgress the strictures of society for ten days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Elaborate disguises were worn so that men, and women, could behave outrageously while preserving anonymity. This spirit of subversion allowed the playing of practical jokes and endless possibilities for intrigue. 

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The Carnival came to represent the excesses of decadent Venetian society. From 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Turks, Venice continued to rule the Mediterranean waves but by the eighteenth century the city’s renown was less to do with mercantile power than gambling, partying and vice. Taken by Napoleon in 1795, Venice was annexed to Austria whose autocratic rule saw the Carnival outlawed. If meant to curb Venetian expression, it backfired. The more sober population were to the fore in the Risorgimento, the push for a united independent Italy, achieved in 1870. A century later, in 1979, the Carnival was revived and has become a hugely important event on the cultural calendar.

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My own personal pilgrimage was made on a grey, drizzly morning, taking the Vaporetto to Ponte dell’Accademia. Nearby the Galleria Dell’Accademia has a great collection of Art: Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Titian. But one morning of wonders at a time. I kept to the Dorsodura side to visit the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art, lodged in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, the Unfinished Palace

Peggy Guggenheim moved to Europe in the 1930s. In Paris she befriended Samuel Beckett who urged her to support Modern Art, as it was a living thing. She set out to buy a painting a day from such artists as Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Duchamp and others, outstanding works of surrealism, cubism, futurism and some abstract stuff. She fled France after the Nazi occupation, escaping with her future husband Max Ernst.

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Ernst is a particular favourite of mine. The Guggenheim has two of his masterpieces: the Robing of the Bride and the Antipope. Both are perplexing, employing the automatic technique of pressing paint onto the canvas, decalcomania, to evolve a scenario that’s apparently realistic but incongruously fantastical. Magritte’s Empire of Light also features. These are paintings I could stand in front of for days.

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Coming up for air, I pose by the waterside for a while, with blended injections of lagoon air and aromatic infusions from exotic places, Morocco or Virginia perhaps. Behind me on the patio the disconcerting statue by Marino, Angel of the Citadel, brings a whole new meaning to the term saddle pommel. Before me, a haunting tableau in the making emerges from the canal mists. I thought it was the smoke or the music going round in my head, but I took a photograph and it doesn’t lie.

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Here they come, and the fire on their wings doesn’t burn,

here they come and they know everything we must learn.

Here they come, and the stars in their eyes seem to glow,

here they come and the fear in our hearts starts to go.

Here They Come by Ten Years After.

Venice Remembered – 2

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Our second trip to Venice was the summer after myself and M tied the knot, and the trip to Italy was something of an official honeymoon. We had married in the bleak midwinter, escaping to the picturesque thatched roof frostbite of Adare, County Limerick. Like stepping into a Christmas card. Less starred was a trip to the ever-flooding city of Cork, where, and not for the first time, we drove through city streets with water up to the runner boards of our Renault. Perhaps that’s where we got the idea for our return to Venice.

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Our itinerary was something of an infinity loop. From Rome, we leapt across the Pyrenees to Pescara, scurried up the coast for Venice, then on to Florence and on down to Naples, Sorrento and Pompei. After that, we took a few days on the island of Ischia and then back to Rome and the flight home. Trains and boats and planes; but mostly trains. 

The train into Venice was an overnighter and packed to the gills. We were not alone in the notion that taking a kip on an overnight train would save on hotel bills. Mind you, everyone was doing it, tourist and local alike. It was hard to sleep in a corridor, with each stop introducing a new batch of salesmen to parade the corridor roaring: birra! gelati! Sounded good to me, but my companion is asleep, and I must elbow my way to the exit window for a smoke. 

Well I’ve been waiting I was sure

we’d meet between the trains we’re waiting for

I think it’s time to board another.

Please understand I never had a secret chart 

to get me to the heart of this or any other matter. 

Arriving across the isthmus from Mestre by train, we sought accommodation from the Tourist Police at the Station Santa Lucia. Amazing now how we winged it on both honeymoons. After Adare we had launched into that pointless meander across the sodden south before cutting our losses and heading home. Italy in summer held more romantic promise. If we were stuck at least it was Italy; Al Fresco and all that. 

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The Tourist Police were helpful, targeting accommodation and setting us the task of getting there in time. This involved a cross city dash reminiscent of those TV travel competitions. We had thirty minutes to get to the pensione, and we decided, wisely, that the Vaporetto was best. It brought us clockwise from the station, through working waterways. On first crossing the lagoon, what struck me most was seeing a working city. The non pretty parts of Venice are amongst its most exciting. We crossed wash with garbage collection boats, rough heavy goods barges, a speeding police boat. There were rich looking launches too, a taxi with a couple of most elegant poseurs astern. I’ll be there, someday, I wish. An English woman sitting beside me on the Vaporetto, turned to her companion and opined: It’s so Dirty! But that is the beauty of it. Every mosquito and screaming gull, every fat man with cigarette, every building site and bargee. This ain’t no theme park.

Our stop was the Fondamente Nuove. This ‘new quayside’ is in fact four centuries old, along the northern edge of the city with views of the lagoon. Out there are such exotic smaller islands as Murano and Burano, but most noticeable, just offshore is the cemetery of San Michele, the floating city of the dead. 

 It was a short, if complex, walk to the pensione. We were within time and the host gave us a tour of what was a beautiful premises, distinguished by its large courtyard with trees tapering to the sky. The room was olde worlde, plain and clean, with an ingenious device for quelling mosquitos. To awake in Venice is to own it. A whole day to embrace her and fall to bed with her again. And another morning to start over once more. Days to be spent in random exploration, browsing at markets, grazing at stalls, lingering at sidewalk cafes. 

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We returned again to wine and dine at St. Marks while pestered by string quartets in the shadow of the Campanile. The Campanile, or bell tower, is almost a hundred metres tall and was built as a lighthouse in 1173. The current structure dates from 1500, and from its giddy heights Galileo demonstrated his telescope to the Doge in 1609. The tower dramatically collapsed in 1902, but was rebuilt ten years after.

Evenings were quiet after the bustle of the day and spent in the darkening labyrinth of streets which seemed to have neither name nor destination. As happens, certain hostelries became haunts. We learned from the guy serving us, an English lad working at his mother’s trattoria, that accommodation was prohibitive so most visiting was confined to daytrips, cruises and the like.

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Since M is a Liberties girl, and I’m not far off, we were drawn naturally towards the Rialto. There is an area in Dublin called Rialto. It once boasted two canals, or two branches of the Grand Canal. With regular barge traffic to Guinness’s brewery and other businesses there may have been cause for poetic license in its naming. You might have trouble renewing it. When, after a century of inactivity, someone fell in and drowned, on the principal of ‘if it saves one life’ the whole section  including the Basin was filled in making a spectacularly unsuccessful linear park. These days it provides a thruway for the Luas light rail. Incidentally, the same city fathers also had plans to convert the surviving Grand and Royal canals into a ring road. Just think what such an enlightened mentality could do for Venice!

Rialto means the high bank (of river). Venice’s Rialto Bridge was the first to span the Grand Canal. The present structure was built in 1590 and designed by the appropriately named Antonio De Ponte. Until the building of the Accademia Bridge in 1854 it was Venice’s only pedestrian crossing point. It is a signature landmark. The steep single arch span supports a central thoroughfare with shops on each side. The symmetrical colonnades are joined by an imposing portico on the apex of the bridge. Views of the swirling life of the Grand Canal can be had from the ballustraded walkways to each side. The Rialto Markets are long established on the San Polo side. The Erberia is the fruit and vegetable market while the Pescheria is the fish market. Downriver, the Riva del Vin is the best place to get a quayside table and raise a glass to the wonders of La Serenissima.

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In Venice you discover that Gondolas are not simply window decorations in West Dublin. This is the romantic way to tour Venice. For Venetians the Gondola is a form of wedding limo, but tourists book the watery equivalent of the Killarney trap. It is the idea of the thing, I suppose. This is a world of water. A more straightforward Gondola trip, unmediated by an Italian roaring O Sole Mio, is to take a Traghetto, gondola ferries that cross the Grand Canal at seven points. It’s communal and much more fun, practicable and traditional. The protocol is for men to stand while the woman sits. 

The Rialto traghetto crossing provides one of the most evocative moments. Here we were at the focus of a madding city, adrift in its mayhem, but briefly at one with it. Crossing the Grand Canal against the backdrop of Rialto Bridge we knew we had arrived on Earth. All the sense of history, of freedom and surprise, of surviving against the odds, the sheer beauty of it.

Let’s meet tomorrow if you choose upon the shore beneath the bridge

that they are building on some endless river.

Then he leaves the platform for the sleeping car that’s warm

you realise he’s only advertising one more shelter.

And you say okay the bridge or someplace later

 

The Stranger Song by Leonard Cohen

Venice Remembered – 1

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I can’t believe that I’ve never written about Venice. It is the most fascinating place I have ever visited. Writing about it is another matter; an intimidating prospect, I suppose. There it is, extraordinary to experience and behold, but how to capture it in type. Photos can get you part of the way, along with some dreaming about the effects of light on water. I don’t have many photos of Venice, precious few from my ancient visits in the last century. But I’ve plenty of dreams. 

This morning in our living room, upon the electric frame appears that photo I took on a misty morning, looking up the Grand Canal from the landing of the Guggenheim Museum. I was all alone, and there was something in that feeling of isolation that sympathised with the mist rising from the water. It wrapped around me; chilling, but exciting too. In that snapshot I felt I stood flush with the centuries, one card of a stack, and I could forever slip back and forth in time. Venice is like that.

I have been to Venice three times. The first time was in the early eighties, on a daytrip from Yugoslavia, arriving by sea at dawn. M was crashed out in the lounge, as was most everyone else. I stood on the prow, feeling suitably dramatic. Dribs and drabs of Japanese tourists were appearing on deck and soon the place would be ablaze with cameras. I had been enjoying the silent onset of dawn, the fading of the city lights and stars. I had hardly thought to unsheath the camera, it would have intruded on the perfect moment. There is no more perfect moment than approaching Venice by sea, at dawn. I managed to haul M on deck before the fireworks started. I think I got one shot away. One must. It’s long lost now. But the memory lives with me still.

In truth, the Yugoslav trip had been a bad idea. We were booked into a holiday camp in Porec. There’s a limited number of ways to do a holiday camp. The British or the German. This was German. Butlizt! We escaped over the perimeter fence one morning, and zig zagged along the Istrian coast. We hid out in Rovinj for a while and that was good. Our attic window looked across a red slate sea to a dreaming tower. Rovinj is a scenic town, but with much the same feeling of surveillance and imminent capture. We discovered there was a boat trip to Venice, leaving at zero hour and travelling overnight.

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The boat docked at the Riva degli Schiavoni, the bustling promenade downstream from St Mark’s Square. We took the guided city tour which proved useful as an introduction and included a visit to the Doge’s Palace. We then had an afternoon and early evening to ourselves. We visited a Salvador Dali exhibition, and sauntered about in the wonderful maelstrom of St Mark’s Square and the mazy streets leading off, swooned at the teetering towers and absorbed the endless painting in life that is the Grand Canal. I remember us sharing pizza with some Italian youths on a fountain by St Mark’s. We had large frothy beers al fresco with the Campanile as our sundial, reassuringly expensive, and laughed at the outrage of a tourist being gulled for a round of drinks and maybe learning the lesson: location, location, location! 

A day is too short in any city. It is enough for a sketch. In the case of Venice, time is never enough. We’ve since followed Francesco and his breathless histories, followed Donald Sutherland’s embodiment of Du Maurier’s doomed hero in Nicholas Roeg’s film, Don’t Look Now, pored over books and lingered on photographs, paintings and travellers tales. Inevitably, we vowed to return at the appropriate time to seed more dreams and memories.

Many feel this attraction, to such an extent that the object of this mad love suffers from all the attention. It is a problem with the ease of modern travel. What was once the preserve of the rich is now democratised. This is a good thing, but there are downsides too. Here and elsewhere, there has been something of a backlash against mass tourism. Rapprochement is required, most importantly for visitors to respect the people, the culture and the places they visit. Most do, I think, and many sins come from local sources. There is no silver bullet solution. Just the other day at the onset of the pandemic, a reporter on tv followed a swooning camera across a deserted Venice. And Venice had never looked so beautiful, he gushed. It has certainly never been so empty. Yet, it is partly that crowded sense of Venice which is part of the attraction.

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Venice is an unlikely location for an ancient city. Built on a group of low lying islands in a lagoon, it should, in the natural course of things, have been washed away long ago. The city was founded in the early fifth century when residents of the mainland sought to protect themselves from the invading Goths. Refuge in a swamp may be unpromising, but invasion was even more hazardous.

The first Doge was elected in 726 and by the end of the century Charlemagne was established as Holy Roman Emperor and the Barbarian disruptions were quelled. The Venetians established trade links with the Byzantine Empire and with that came notions of glory. Venice conquered Byzantium in 1204, becoming the centre of a new trade empire, a bridge between east and west. You can see it in the buildings, in its sheer, bloody audacity.

So, Venice has been welcoming travellers for centuries, and sending them forth as well. Marco Polo has acquired global mythic status as the original great traveller and man of trade. He was born in 1254 and insinuated himself at the court of Kublai Khan while still a teenager. Returning to Venice, his yarns established his reputation and further enhanced the Venetian story. Mind you he was locally known as Marco of the Million Lies, so perhaps a smidgin of salt is required.

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And see if you can fit in some of the building …

In 1309 work began on the current Doge’s Palace. The three solid facades of pink marble are held aloft by two floors of exquisitely wrought arcades. St Mark’s Basilica sits into the open facade. Now the Cathedral of Venice, it was originally the Doge’s private chapel. The first church was built in the ninth century but it has been oft remodelled since. An elaborate, eastern tinged  masterpiece, its ornate Gothic facade and five enormous domes make for the most iconic sight in Venice.

We climbed to the parapet, a feat repeated last time we visited. Posing on the roof of an architectural treasure is always sublime. The Torre dell’Orologio can be viewed up close from the parapet of the Basilica. It is a seafarer’s clock, its face blue and displaying the phases of the moon and the signs of the zodiac. Topping all, two bronze Moors strike the bell on the hour.

There is no point ticking off the must sees here. It is a place to be experienced quietly by your senses, it will inspire and pervade your soul. There is a perfect buzz to be attained simply in hanging around Saint Mark’s Square. Cafe Florian where you can disport in the bumprints of such literary greats as Proust, Dickens and Byron. If you want to shadow the importance of being Ernest Hemingway, Harry’s Bar is nearby, at the end of an alley leading down to the Grand Canal.

As the sun sets again and the waters rise, perhaps we’ll drown at the end of our day of freedom. What better time to go, in that first flush of seeing Venice. The end wasn’t quite that dramatic, and we picked our way to higher ground on the duckboards laid across the shallow pond of San Marco Square, tossing in a coin to assure our return.

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Everything is wonderful

being here is heavenly

every single day, she says

everything is free

So if I say save me, save me

be the light in my eyes

and if I say ten Hail Marys

leave a light on in heaven for me

Mary’s Prayer by Danny Wilson

Bray – Overlooking the Swan River

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At the top of Bray Main Street there’s a fork in the road. Imagine this through time as being something of a village green, with timber frame tavern and monthly fair days. The Old Town Hall from 1881 originally included a covered market and is Elizabethan in style. Picture it in a Tudor setting, or perhaps Dickensian, surrounded by leaning buildings with gabled fronts and muntin windows.

The fork to the left is the coastal route, climbing up to the gap between Bray Head and Giltspur, (the Little Sugarloaf), and on to Greystones. To the right, Killarney Road is the principal route south towards Wicklow Town and Wexford, via the N11. Gothic redbrick houses of the Fin de Siecle line the road out of town, set in extensive gardens behind granite walls.

The road rises towards the massive spire of Christchurch, Bray’s towering landmark. The Gothic revival church, built of stern granite blocks, was completed in 1863 to serve the Church of Ireland community. The tower was added some decades later, the octagonal spire rising to 175 feet is garlanded by stone pinnacles. Christchurch’s imposing presence is further emphasised by its elevation, standing atop the Rock of Bray, the summit of the rising ground that defines the town.

Past Church Road, we crest the hill, and from here the route falls into the valley of the Swan River. This tributary of the Dargle rises in Kilruddery Estate on the slopes of Giltspur, flowing through Oldcourt and past its castle, under the bridge below our vantage point and on to the Dargle. The Swan trails a score of varied woodland along its deepening chasm. A rich mixture of oak, ash, birch, pine and poplar, with some exotics such as Eucalyptus, cloak the area with a sylvan beauty. With the town centre only a couple hundred metres behind us, and the suburban housing estates gathered on the next hill, this spot is like a blink in time, remote from surrounding urbanisation.

This view, rendered in acrylic, is taken from the junction with Beechhurst estate. Christchurch is out of sight to our left, Patchwork Cottage, to the right, and the bridge await below. After a long uphill climb from the seafront or Dart station, it’s a welcome downhill stretch. Past the bridge, the road will rise continually to Fairyhill, surmounted by the ancient, weathered cross of St Sarain, the area’s patron saint. (Killarney is an Anglicisation of the Gaelic ‘Church of Sarain’.)

On this day, a shower has just cleared, veils of cloud are pulling off to the West. Ahead the sun has broken through, turning all it touches to silver.

Bray Seafront – Looking North

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Up until the mid nineteenth century, Bray seafront was a stony beach stretching between Bray Head and a craggy outcrop a mile to the north on which sat a Martello Tower. The crag overlooked a small dock and the Dargle River opening into the sea. In the 1850s the Dublin to Wexford railway line passed along the shoreline and this ultra modern mode of transport enabled many more people to live here by the seaside. Strand Road was developed with fine Victorian houses, the sea was pushed back and the Esplanade established as a long linear parkland. The Promenade, atop the sea wall, completed the picture in the 1890s. Not all that much has changed over the intervening century.

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The seafront is Bray’s principal attraction for visitor and resident. Throughout the year, but especially in summer, people come for all the fun of seaside entertainment. They throng to the summer carnival, the various outdoor gigs and events, the amusements, the bars, cafes, icecream parlours and restaurants. Or they take a walk along the Promenade or up Bray Head, or just sit on the beach or the Esplanade. This is what people do, crowds of them, together and all alone.

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Our present phase of isolation has robbed us of this fun, but our time will come round again. This is what people do. I’m fortunate in that I’m a Bray resident, and live within the distance parameters of the seafront, and indeed the Cross at the top of Bray Head. I’ve been familiar with this joint since coming here for holidays in 1963. As Gerry and the Pacemakers said at the time: I Like It!

I like it, I like it,

I like the way you run your fingers through my hair

And I love the way you tickle my chin

And I like the way you let me come in

when your Momma’s not there.

 

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The particular stretch of the seafront which I’ve painted has proven a happy hunting ground for me too. The block of buildings to the left featured in one of my first short stories, called Coda. It won the Bray People short story competition and was the opener for my first collection Blues Before Dawn. It’s a macabre story featuring a couple of musicians, one an Italian running a seafront chipper, the other, the narrator, a bit of a psychopath. In the eighties, the Fun Palace stood where the Silver Strand is, and I borrowed that name for the regular spot where our heroes played. There was also a small Italian chipper, extreme left, which featured too. As for the Fun Palace, the old facade, like the Silver Strand but with timber cladding, was immortalised in an illustration I did. It featured in my first art exhibition in the Bank of Ireland on Main Street. It was the only artwork that sold. I wonder where it resides now.

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Further on, perspective lines converge on what we call The Dug Inn. Mick Duggan’s pub has been through a few name changes since, most notably Katie Gallagher’s. Still in the family, who run a couple more Bray licensed premises, it now has three names: The Box Burger, Platform Pizza and the Ocean. Just beyond, the Hibernia was once a gig hotspot known as The Mississippi Rooms. It still runs folk music gigs midweek.

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Looking to the right hand side, you’ll see the shape of Killiney Head beyond the lights of the Promenade. Nearby, to the right, the modern complex that holds the Bray Sealife Centre. Established in the eighties, it was originally a rather lumpy granite clad modernist structure. It was later recast as a sleek postmodern pavilion. The gastrobar visible here, was originally known as the Barricuda, and now houses Butler and Barry’s. The upstairs area features a glass wall along the eastern side giving fabulous sea views.

Behind me is the central Esplanade and there are many more fine bars facing onto that. Where to go, where to go? I’m gumming for a pint. Only 91 days, 21 hours and eighteen minutes remaining as of Sunday at two o’clock.

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Swords Drawn

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Swords lies a couple of miles north of Dublin Airport and about ten miles from Dublin city centre. In one sense, it is an outlying suburb, but remote enough from the metropolitan area to be its own unique place.The population of Swords has mushroomed since the turn of the century, just passing the forty thousand mark. So, it is Dublin’s largest town outside the Metropolitan area.

Such vague childhood memories I have of the town are culled from the odd drivethrough on the Belfast Road. Swords always sounded exotic. I imagined a town beneath a towering castle, its denizens rakishly outfitted in chain mail and shields. Black nights, a long way from home.

It sort of is.

The town’s origins date back to 560 AD when, legend has it, Saint Colmcille (521–567) blessed a local well, giving the settlement its name: Sord, meaning “the water source”. St. Colmcille’s Well is located across the Ward River, by way of Church Road, off Main Street. The saint established a monastic settlement here. Its round tower remains. Nearby is the Belfry, a surviving remnant of the medieval church of the thirteenth century. The modern St Columba’s Church is in an appropriate Old Gothic style. It was built in 1811 on the foundations of the old, and serves the Church of Ireland community.

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Swords Castle at the north end of Main Street, was built as the manorial residence of the first Norman Archbishop of Dublin, John Comyn, around the year 1200. It was never strong in the military sense, but covers a large pentagonal walled area of one and a half acres with a tower on the north, and an impressive gateway complex facing down Main Street. The warder occupied quarters to the left of the gate, while to the right was the janitor’s room with the priest’s room overhead. The adjoining chapel, built in the late thirteenth century, was probably used as the Archbishop’s private oratory.

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Other buildings subsequently vanished, including the great hall on the east side of the enclosure. The Archbishop abandoned Swords once a new palace was built at Tallaght in 1324 – a move no doubt encouraged by damage sustained during Edward Bruce’s campaign the previous decade. Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce, was proposed as High King of Ireland and made significant territorial gains in an attempt to establish the Scottish dynasty at the head of Ireland. The prospect of a Pan Gaelic alliance of Ireland and Scotland, and even Celtic soul brothers, the Welsh, in opposition to English expansion, flickered briefly, and died. Having breathed fire at Dublin, the Scots and their allies were forced to retreat to Ulster. Famine, fuelled by near Ice Age conditions prevailing at the time, further diminished Bruce’s campaign. Edward was killed in battle at Dundalk in 1318, and the Normans re-established their primacy in Ireland and attachment to the English Crown. 

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The stepped battlements suggest some form of occupancy during the fifteenth century, but by 1583, when briefly occupied by Dutch Protestants, it was described as “the quite spoiled old castle”. It was used as a garden in the nineteenth century and sold after the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871. Now the castle was so vacant as to be fully occupied by ghosts. On nights of freezing fog, or when full moons prevailed, between the blare of passing jets, phantom guardians looked out from the battlements. And all history was replayed.

All along the watchtower

Princes kept the view

While all the women came and went 

Barefoot servants too

Following a century of neglect, a campaign of redevelopment has rescued Swords Castle from ruin and turned it into a visitor attraction. The newly renovated castle was used as a film location for the TV seriesThe Tudors making a convincing Medieval backdrop. But I doubt the ghosts have departed.

Outside in the cold distance

A wildcat did growl

Two riders were approaching 

And the wind began to howl.

(Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, most brilliantly covered by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.)

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The town remained something of a backwater late into the twentieth century. However much aircraft flew overhead, the town grew quiet, with the main road to Belfast at last upgraded and bypassing the old main street route. From the seventies on, suburbs grew, although Swords is protected by its green belt and remains distinct from Dublin city. In 1994 Swords became capital of the new county of Fingal, named for its Danish inhabitants of yore, comprising the lowlands of North County Dublin. 

I’m here on a daytime jaunt after a drop off at Dublin Airport, so while Swords pub culture appeals, I don’t have opportunity to imbibe on this visit. Appropriately in a town formed on a. sacred well, beckoning watering holes are many. The Old Schoolhouse Bar, is billed as and looks like, an Olde World style traditional pub. There’s the Forty Four on Main Street, The Cock Tavern across the road, and Taylor’s near the Castle. Taylor’s stern but stylish stone facade has the appearance of an urban pub. The Cock Tavern sets out a more boisterously traditional stall. Such reports I have suggest the village core has a lively and musical night life. I’d drink to that!

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Meanwhile, on a cool day in early spring, we take a leisurely stroll along Main Street, casing the joint for future trips and an overdue coffee. The village atmosphere persists at the centre of teeming suburbs. There’s good town centre shopping. Swords Town Centre is in an arcade off Main Street. The Pavilions, larger and modern, is packing the crowds in. Out on the street, Cafe society was not as good as it should be. We found a cafe on the north end of Main Street that was okay but lacking in people or atmosphere. Needed the coffee though. I’m keen to return at another time, and explore deeper. Both here and Malahide, with another castle, which is only five kilometres away. Everything now is a cold distance, but maybe we’ll find, down the line, we’ll be free.

This article contains two mentions of Deep Purple’s Black Night.

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The City at Night

 

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A blog I follow, Danventuretravels, posed the question of what characterises a visit to a city. Well, it goes without saying that you should at least leave the port area, whether ship or plane. And purchase something to consume at a public place, coffee, beer or snack. 

A young man I know, who shall be nameless, took a Mediterranean cruise with some stunning city visits: Rome, Barcelona, Athens etcetera. Asking for a report I got the view from the deck as the port hove into view, the weather and the distant skyline. It turned out that Mark (oops) hadn’t managed to get ashore so beguiling was life on board ship.

For most, though, the advantage and disadvantage of cruises are: you see the sights, but you don’t get the full deal. I have written pieces on cities from such daytrips. Talinn, Helsinki and Stockholm are a few. I saw enough to want to return and sample the nightlife of Talinn and Helsinki. I wouldn’t hurry back to surly Stockholm, though it is an impressive regal city. I would think that you need to see the city at night to get the full picture.

Most paintings I do of places I have been are night time scenes. I do daytime paintings too, and I do go out during the day; I am not a vampire. It does strike me though, that the city comes into its own at night.

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This scene suggested itself at the start of our great isolation. It called to mind many things urban and attractive, and even a little bit alienating. The umbrellas recalled Renoir’s Les Parapluies. Bunking off school, I’d take a 50something bus across Dublin’s slate sea to the city centre, hiding out at the movies or in Dublin’s Municipal Gallery, now the Hugh Lane. My favourites there were Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window and Renoir’s painting. The painting is specific to its time and place, it manages also to be universally evocative. Those shades of blue and grey, the dappling effect of rain and greenery, the pale complexioned lady and her russet hair, could be captured in a park in Dublin in the rain. The Window breathed with the life and fire of the city at night.

The focus of city centre, swirling lights and traffic, hurrying pedestrians, the language of traffic lights and zebra crossings are of modern times. They are everywhere. I posted a painting of Dublin’s equivalent nexus, College Green last year.

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I’m also reminded of a visit to Granada in the rain and snow. Although the Alhambra and Sacromonte are indelible memories, an abiding image of the city came from its streetscapes at night in the rain. I wandered amongst those endless reflections that plunge from the sky to pass through the pavements, no longer solid but a membrane between different worlds. 

IMG_3425What do they do down there? They do much the same as us. Travelling through the city at night. But with a different perspective. The lights have their language, the stained glass sings and silent movies play across gabled ends. 

 

Jim Morrison sang, more or less, on LA Woman:

Are you a lucky little lady 

in The City of Lights?

Or just another lost angel

in the city at night, City of Night.

Like many drivers, for me the city and the road are often refracted through the music of the Doors. I can think of myself as a fellow traveller. The first time I went overseas was with my parents to Paris in 1971. Going home from Le Bourget my eyes fell across a newspaper in the departure lounge. Front page news of the death of Jim Morrison in the city early that morning. He was twenty seven. I was fifteen. And I was getting out alive.

Whatever memories the photo provoked, however, this particular city was anonymous. Not just in the sense that the city offers perfect anonymity, all the more so at night. But this was a scene I did not know, could not place the photograph. I had never been. Neither I, nor anyone within my ken. All the more reason then, to plunge in and make this the model for my city at night.

As I painted, songs filtered in and out. I wanted to convey that sense of movement and impermanence. That everything is nothing but light. I could be driving through the city at night, or being driven; a passenger without a destination. Iggy Pop wrote the Passenger under the influence of a poem by Jim Morrison, amongst other things. 

Get into the car

we’ll be the passenger

we’ll ride through the city tonight

we’ll see the city’s ripped back sides

we’ll see the bright and hollow sky

we’ll see the stars that shine so bright

the stars made for us tonight

Okay, for peace of mind then, the city lies on the banks of the Danube but is downstream of Budapest. Its name translates as the White City. We call it Belgrade, once capital of Yugoslavia, now capital of Serbia. This is Republic Square, the National Theatre on the right, the National Museum facing us.Will I ever go there? Perhaps someday, when I visit Europe, after the rain.

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Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window never made it to Geneva, and is now in Miami, USA. 

 

 

Skerries in Time

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Heading north from Connolly, the city slips behind by way of Amiens Street and North Strand. On childhood excursions this would be the route to Howth, holidaying in that exotic locale sometime in the early sixties. The line splits at Howth Junction, heading for Malahide via Portmarnock. The Dartline’s full extent runs from Greystones in the south to Malahide. Beyond that you’re on the intercity rail connecting Dublin to Belfast, a route that was initiated in 1845. 

Stops in north County Dublin, or Fingal, are Lusk/Rush, Skerries and Balbriggan. I was familiar with this coastline up until my mid twenties, but other than a few DART trips to Howth and Malahide, and zipping through on a few excursions to Belfast, I haven’t given it much thought since. Recent outings in Drogheda and Swords have brought memories flooding back. Family picnics of old, by bus, train or Morris Minor, turned to teenage joyrides by whatever means possible. Bus train and whatever motorbike or banger we’d managed to hammer into a serviceable condition. Such bright ideas as we have in youth. Swimming with our clothes off. Swimming with our clothes on. There was, I suppose, an anonymity about the North County back then.

IMG_5165A little tweak of memory and these lines occur:

If you’re travelling in the North Country fair,

Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,

Remember me to one who lives there,

She once was a true love of mine.

Bob Dylan wrote Girl From the North Country in 1963 after hearing Martin Carthy sing Scarborough Fair. I am travelling inside, back to my own North Country. I am scribbling my list of places to revisit when all the hard times are past. Here’s hoping. But, I can haunt Skerries as much as it can haunt me on this retro trip. 

Skerries is every inch the old fishing village, it sits within a ragged coast of inlets and rocky islands. These islands gave the town its name which is of Viking origin. There’s Shenick Island with its Martello Tower, St Patrick’s, Colt, Red Island and another Martello, and most famously Rockabill, really two islands, the cow and the calf, with its lighthouse.

With a name like that, little wonder that Skerries has a musical twang for me. I might make up a past of ducktails and sideburns, hair-oil, drainpipes and blue suede shoes. There’s be mods and rockers in some terrible tableau along an endless boardwalk. And maybe it would all segue into Springsteen and some love wrought beat ballad with a backdrop of carnival lights reflecting in the chrome of a convertible. But, to be honest, I’m back in the seventies, and there wasn’t that much colour and light. But there was some.

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Red Island Holidays Camp was as wild as it got.  It was built in 1947 by Eamonn Quinn who later established the Superquinn chain. Quinn also built the Bray Head chair lift in 1950. Red Island mirrored Butlin’s at Mosney a few miles up the coast. The camp had two hundred and fifty bedrooms. Business faded in the late sixties and the holiday operation closed in the early seventies, though the ballroom continued as a venue into the eighties. 

By the time we hit Red Island, its lustre was fading. There was a New Year’s gig we somehow got to with Horslips playing and Larry Gogan as MC. Larry Gogan had been the Pop DJ fixture for our lives since the Beatles first LP. His patter that night included the phrase: “Hey, it’s great to be young,” which I suppose is relative. I reckon Larry would have been pushing forty just then, and maybe didn’t quite have complete identity with the teens and twentysomething hippies and freaks reeling and rocking to Horslips. But the vibe was good. Gogan, in a later interview, mentioned the night which was broadcast live on Radio na Gaeltachta, but omitted Larry’s patter for being in a foreign tongue. Quel Dommage. 

All the camp buildings were demolished in the 1980s, so only the Martello Tower remains in a parkland setting. Just a memory then. Another memory fades in: a carpark on a warm midsummers night. The Yacht Club was open for business but packed. However the music played full blast into the night to where the crowd had spilled outdoors. The song, Steely Dan, Haitian Divorce, soaked into the deep blue sky and over the sailboats bobbing in the harbour; as we danced till dawn in the seabreeze.

She takes the taxi to the good hotel,

Bon marche as far as she can tell

She drink the zombie from the cocoa shell

She feels alright, she get it on tonight,

Mister driver, take me where the music play.

Papa say: Oh -oh, no hesitation,

No tears and no hearts breaking no remorse.

Oh -oh, congratulations,

This is your Haitian Divorce.

The girl I danced with would be my wife. Still is. The number appeared on the Royal Scam, one of my favourites. Incidentally, Larry’s favourite album was the Dan’s Katy Lied.

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There were times when groups of us took holiday cottages in Skerries. Friends of ours took one for the summer, commuting to Dublin for work on weekdays. Weekends were party time. A favourite haunt was Joe May’s pub. Upstairs, we could lounge in the great bay window looking out at the harbour. Going through these old seventies photographs I’m struck by how empty the place seemed. I remember the pubs being packed at night, but during the day, here as elsewhere, we might have had the world to ourselves.

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Greystones Station

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South of Bray Head, Greystones village developed with the coming of the railway in the 1850s. The line opened in 1855, connecting the area, via the spectacular cliff route, to Bray. From there, two lines connected to Dublin: the coastal route to Westland Row, and the now defunct Harcourt Street Line.

The stop was originally named for Delgany, which was then the larger settlement further inland. The Station became Delgany and Greystones and by the turn of the century, finally, just Greystones. By this stage Church Road had developed as the growing town’s Main Street between St Patrick’s Church of Ireland at the North extreme and the Station, situated at the slight bend where the descending street almost meets the coast. From here on, the thoroughfare becomes Mill Road, with the Burnaby Park to one side, and the railway line and the beach to the other. Squeezed in between are the Carnegie Library from 1910 and two modern terraces with cafes and shops. 

The Station was designed by George Wilkinson, also responsible for Bray Station and the Harcourt Street Terminus. Completed in 1859, as a two storey building it is larger than most rural stations. The entrance porch with its three high glass fronted bays, is attractive and opens onto a small plaza. Connection to the DART service was completed in 2000.

In this acrylic, crowds mill about the entrance on a night in late Autumn. Church Road is behind us, and, beyond the station to the right, Mill Road heads south towards the beach and Delgany. It’s about 8.30, and I am in fact coming out of the station. I will turn and enter the Burnaby Pub, established in 1881, where I will have a few beers with my friend Bill, (Hi Bill!). This is a thing I am looking forward to doing again, a lot. Meanwhile the painting will be a compensation, of sorts.