To my regret I am not a great reader of literary fiction but in recent times I have enjoyed reading John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. Maybe it’s not literary to the snobs I would aspire to be like but close enough. What I love most about Black’s writing is the rich and often painterly description of Dublin in the 1950’s:The smoky pubs that Quirke, Black’s main protagonist frequents, the slow-paced streets, the high trousered and trilby-ed men about town, the creamy light of late summer lying in grids on the sloping floors of shabby but elegant Georgian windowed flats, the glowing red bricks of the terraces, the high skies and scudding buttermilk clouds of golden city summers yearning toward Killiney.
I lived in Dublin in the 1980’s. I had landed a terrifying job in a video and television production company in a basement near Stephens Green. I lived in a tiny bed sit in Donnybrook. I was in a constant state of terror. I tried to convince myself I was sophisticated-I paid to do a modelling course with a dodgy agency up a narrow flight of stairs in the city, a milieu that could have been at the centre of one of Quirke’s mysteries. But my culchie status would prove hard to shake. Once on Grafton street a group of laughing city boys asked me where Grafton Street was.
Dublin had changed little since the 1950’s. I drank in some of the same pubs that Quirke did-Dohenys & Nesbitts on Baggot Street and The Palace Bar and it’s ticking clock and the muted sound of traffic outside. I went to McGonagles to see bands. I fretted through the ‘Holy Hour’ when all the pubs closed. I had tea in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe on Grafton Street and Westmoreland Street. I watched the ducks in Stephens Green and walked up Harcourt Street where Quirke had his flat. I browsed on O’Connell street, the air bruised by the traders calls on Moore Street, met fellow ‘culchies’ under Clery’s clock and watched sunsets from the Ha’penny Bridge arching over the Liffey. I walked Quirke’s Sunday streets as the light faded and another week of angst beckoned.
But there were promises of a more exciting future. U2 were becoming huge around the world and they were ours and people queued then for their albums. Other bands were on the up too and venues were opening. Even the tragic loss of our Phil Lynott in those times was a mark of a coming of age. We had drugs now(boy did we) and women’s rights, and church’s grip was loosening. We were modern. The future was bright and the Dublin Area Rapid Transport (DART), so different from the gloomy, lumbering, judgemental carriages of Iarnrod Eireann, promised to carry us there as efficiently as it rattled busily along the bay, avoiding, of course, the less glamorous neighbourhoods.
Thirty years on and Dublin, has changed for better and worse. The Celtic Tiger stormed through leaving it more cosmopolitan, for real this time, and truly world-weary. I won’t go in to detail here. For the rest Bewley’s is still on Grafton Street though the one on Westmoreland street is long gone. Starbucks will sell you a coffee on the same site. The Palace and Dohenys & Nesbitts are the same. U2 can’t give their albums away.
I have crossed deserts and scrambled from penury in the streets of Amsterdam. I have been circled by a jeering crowd at dusk at an African border post and tramped through snow in Scottish hills. Somewhere along the way, without my noticing, my Dublin memories were categorized as ancient history, transformed from living organic things to fading snapshots, slid into a dusty folder and ratcheted into a battered filing cabinet in a basement lit by dusty sun beams from a high window across which the shadows pass and pass.
Back in Dublin with some colleagues this week the widening of the gap between then and now left me a little dizzy. It was like walking through the pages of an old photo album which at the same time was somehow richer and more cacophonous with the light, smells and sound of lives lived up and down and sideways than one moment in the ‘real’ world could be. It was not unpleasant.
Curiously I even caught a glimpse of John Banville himself on Grafton Street with a jolt like the jolt I would get back in the day when I would see some aspiring rocker or newsreader (she’s so small!) trotting up to Stephen’s Green.
Some of the culchie girl must remain so, the ignorance and innocence of her shining like an old penny at the bottom of a muddy pond for as we boarded the Luas, the shiny new trams that would ( this time for sure!) carry us to a shiny new future unshackled as they were from the dreary loop the middle-aged DART still rattles her shabby way around, trapped as if in a bad dream, my colleagues made sure to advise me to watch my bag. Sure didn’t I know, they said, that there are pick pockets in the big city?