Venice – five ways

Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone – but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear…

La Serenissima was already sinking when Byron wrote his famous verses about the city more than 200 years ago. Nowadays the city is subsiding into the surrounding lagoon at the rate of 2mm a year.

Not that it matters to most of us. The waves could be lapping at the altar of St Mark’s Basilica and it would still be crowded with visitors. I suspect that even in the depths of winter, amid fog, rain and blasts from the bora, the sidestreets around the Piazza San Marco and the market stalls of the Rialto are still full of sightseers.

But that’s no reason not to go, and so I found myself standing on the Viale Giardini Pubblici last week, as the April sun sank behind the Salute and the last light of day fell across the Grand Canal and onto the Riva degli Schiavoni.

The great landmarks of Venice – San Marco, the Canal, the Salute – are well known and well populated. But there’s another Venice to the one trodden by cruise-ship groups and tired families, of course. Here’s five ways to experience Venice that mix up the well-known with the less visited.

_____

IMG_6316

Early evening libations in Harry’s Bar

This simple decor of this small room, where Giuseppe Cipriani opened a bar in a former rope warehouse 85 years ago, belies its reputation as one of the world’s most famous watering holes. The home of the carpaccio, the bellini and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, it serves a fine Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail with a ‘doppio’ measure – Papa would hardly approve of anything less.

_____

IMG_6315

A stroll around Peggy Guggenheim’s pad

After stints in London and Paris the bohemian art collector Guggenheim settled in Venice in 1949, setting up residence in a 18th century palazzo on the Grand Canal, which housed her collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Futurist and Abstract Expressionist paintings. Her house now serves as a gallery for the paintings. The view above is from her living room, through a window nestled between a couple of Kandinskys.

_____

burano

Crossing the lagoon to lunch in Burano

“A wide brackish waste surrounds it, exuding dankness…it is a muted scene…but in the middle of it there bursts a sudden splurge of rather childish colour…this is Burano”. So wrote Jan Morris of this small island, home in its heyday to fishermen and lacemakers. Forty-five minutes across the lagoon from Venice, it’s a million miles away in spirit. Small, house-proud, well-swept and very well-painted, Burano is a reminder that the people of the Venetian lagoon were – before the yachts, celebs and royalty – ordinary seafarers and merchants.

_____

IMG_6330

Browsing the gondolas at Libreria Acqua Alta

This bookstore has a novel (sorry) way of keeping its stock dry from flooding – sticking the titles into gondolas. That’s not the only gimmick in this chaotically-shelved shop – a series of steps in the backyard are made of old encyclopedias, while canoes and other odd vessels can be found crammed with paperbacks.

_____

IMG_6331

On the waterfront at the Viale Giardini Pubblici

We rented an apartment for our stay in the quiet Castello district, near to the Giardini Pubblici, the gardens created by Napolean Bonaparte when he took control of the city in the early 19th century. The quayside fronting the Giardini is remarkably quiet, used mainly by local strollers and joggers, yet affords beautiful views west along the Grand Canal, taking in the Salute, the Campanile di San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. ‘States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die’…anyone for an aperitif at the Danieli?

_____

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Skipping the masterpieces in the Uffizi

In 20 or 30 years I might suddenly feel bad about it –
Stuck in traffic somewhere, or in a supermarket queue,
Assuming that cars and foodmarts haven’t gone the way of the Medicis by then.

But what person could stand in a gallery – even in the Uffizi – when they could sit
Above the Arno and the moving city on this April morning.

I can see it, stuck at the wrong party beside the wrong person,
Who’s just asked the wrong question.
“How could you visit the city and not see the Venus?”

And I’ll respond then – as I respond now –
“I saw Venus come out of the river, a badger with a fish in her mouth,
And Florence alive above her” .

—–

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Turning pages and cappuccino hiss

Books Upstairs

Books Upstairs

Given its reputation as a sociable city, a town of meetings and conversation and general human hubbub, it’s surprising that Dublin doesn’t have more good coffee shops.

In the years I’ve lived here only a handful stand out – the long-gone upstairs cafe at The Winding Stair (when it was a bookshop), an Italian place on Stephen Street where I had my first Turkish coffee, a brick-walled spot on Coppinger Row that’s now the site of an on-trend restaurant.

There’s been dozens of others, most of them forgettable –  though the subterranean cavern that was The Buttery, with its muddy brew served in polystyrene, will never leave my memory.

One reason for the lack of stand-out coffee shops may be the fact that, traditionally, the city’s social exchanges have taken place in pubs. A coffee shop was a sober, more prosaic, institution.

When I first arrived in Dublin in the mid-1990s a cup of coffee meant either freeze-dried instant grains or a watered-down offering, served in a dripping-wet cup and saucer at Bewley’s. You usually went to the latter to read or chat quietly under Harry Clarke’s chapel-like windows.

The early Noughties saw a change, albeit a slow one. During these years my friend W had a regular gripe that it was impossible – with the exception of Cornucopia on Wicklow Street  – to get a decent cup of coffee in the city after 6pm.

Then, with the Celtic Tiger crash, the dam broke. Lower rents in the city meant small business could gain a foothold, if they could scrape together the funds to launch. And so small coffee shops, serving quality joe, sprang up.

The result is that 2016 sipper is spoilt. Most parts of the city centre seem to have one good mainstay, accompanied by the inevitable Starbucks-Insomnia-Costa outlet.

Nowadays if I’m north of the river I hit Camerino on Capel Street (where the coffee’s only half the draw, as anyone who’s sampled the baked goods knows). On the southside it’s usually Kaph on Drury Street.

Camerino

Camerino

As of last weekend, there’s a new addition to the roster. The cafe at Books Upstairs on D’Olier Street is a dripping slow, calm space in the city. And the fact that it’s sited above one of Dublin’s best bookstores is a welcome bonus.

If caffeine and reading’s your thing you will lose a couple of hours in this place. Even better, they don’t offer Wi-Fi, meaning that the only sounds are pages turning, low conversation and cappuccino hiss.

Perhaps it’s not all that different to the afternoons I spent in Bewleys 20 years ago – except nowadays the coffee’s drinkable.

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I love that book – what’s it about?

What was that last book about?

‘What was that Camus novel about?’

Four months ago I read Haruki Murakami’s short novel South Of The Border, West Of The Sun.

Today I can barely remember a thing about the book. The characters (I’m sure there were male and female ones, maybe one of each), the plot (a quest of some sort, maybe involving travel across borders?), the ending (not happy, I’m fairly sure of that) – it’s all a blank page.

Now the book sits on a shelf, needling me from across the room. The problem is that it’s stacked alongside a Dave Eggers’ short story collection and a Jay McInerney wine book – and I can remember very little about those either.

What’s going on? Do I pick forgettable reads? Is my empathy through the floor? Or my concentration shredded? Am I reading on autopilot?

Part of this is age-related, of course. At 38 I’m likely experiencing the onset of age-related memory impairment. But I read Ask The Dust after Murakami’s novel and I recall every rooming house, bar and street corner.

About a boy. And a girl.

About a boy. And a girl.

Sitting on my shelf next to Murakami and Co is Patti Smith’s memoir M Train. In this account of her mid-life years, Smith is often preoccupied with the irritants of ageing. At one point the poet-singer (a Murakami devotee herself, incidentally), re-reading Albert Camus over her black coffee writes of “an intermittent, lifelong enigma”.

“I finished many books in such a manner…closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content…I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember”.

That’s the thing. If I forget writing that was forgettable to begin with, that might be understandable. But some of the great long and short works that I’ve loved – Goodbye, My Brother; Great Expectations; The End of the Affair – are lost to me, in details if not in spirit.

The downside of this is that I often have a vague notion that a book is great but can’t really recall why. The upside? I’ve an excuse to read it again.

But not South Of The Border, West Of The Sun. It turns out it’s about a boy and a girl. The boy travels on a navel-gazing quest into his own past and winds up at sorrowful, empty ending. Sometimes your memory – or the lack of one – is enough.

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Do you remember alternative rock radio?

Rock on air

Do you remember?

Who listens to alternative rock radio anymore?

That’s what occurred to me as I read of the impending closure of TXFM, the radio station set to disappear off Dublin’s airwaves in the coming months.

The reason is, unsurprisingly, down to cash – the lack of it. And lack of cash is down to lack of listeners – TXFM’s 19,000 gave it a 0.7pc share of the Dublin radio market, nowhere near enough to survive.

News of TXFM’s imminent end brought me back almost 20 years, to a younger incarnation of both myself and the station.

Phantom FM, a pirate venture run from a shed, was staple listening in my shared student house in the 1990s. I’ve a distinct memory of burning myself attempting a pasta dish, my expletives drowning out the soothing strains of Neil Young’s Are You Ready For The Country? on the radio.

Phantom grew up to be a fully legal station, eventually morphing into TXFM. I grew up too, but still injure myself in the kitchen (albeit less often and not as loudly).

Meanwhile, the idea of listening to alternative music on the radio while doing any task – other than driving perhaps – doesn’t occur to me anymore.

Please, not again. Pic: Stig Nygaard

Please, not again. Pic: Stig Nygaard

That job’s been filled by Spotify. Research from the streaming service, published this week, shows how its main use is to “programme one’s own radio station of current hits”. If current hits aren’t your thing its radio feature – which allows you to create virtual radio stations on the basis of the music you already listen to – can be fearsomely well-curated.

And consider the sheer amount of music available on the service. Why would you sit through yet another Foo Fighters song on TXFM?

That said, there is one thing I will miss about the station. A fortnight ago my wife and I were headed to Wexford and stuck in morning traffic outside Dublin on the M50.

To amuse ourselves we texted a request to TXFM’s morning show. Minutes later the presenter read our message and played our song. We were stoked, we were excited, we were teenagers again. But teenagers have to grow up.
_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

The other fighters of Easter 1916

rebels gpo

Rebels in the GPO

FOR the past four months I’ve heard voices. Some scared, some hopeful, some excited and some disillusioned.

They’ve been the voices of, for the most part, young men. Or the echoes of young men in the accounts of their older selves.

I’ve encountered dozens of them in recent months as part of my work compiling The Herald’s 1916 ‘Rising Remembered’ coverage. Many of the voices are contained in the archives of Ireland’s Bureau of Military History (BMH) – fighters’ accounts of what they did and saw, who they shot and who died in front of them, in the Easter Rising. Other information came from family members.

The statements given by these rank-and-file Irish Volunteers provides a street-level account of the events of Easter Week that parallels the grand narrative, which usually focuses on actions of the leaders, their last stand and subsequent executions.

While some Volunteers – like Harry Walpole, who raised the ‘Irish Republic’ flag at the GPO – were present at key moments, others fought out their Rising on the sniper-ridden sidestreets of Dublin. Annie Grange, for one, performed first aid and came under fire at City Hall. Mamie Stephenson ferried concealed weapons between safehouses and rebel outposts.

Some survived despite being injured – like Leo Casey, who sustained eye damage in a firefight in the Grand Canal Street area.

Rebels at a barricade during Easter Week

Insurgents at a barricade during Easter Week

Others did not. John Dwan, whose brother was in the British Army, was shot by British troops on the last day of the Rising at North King Street – his friend pulled him from a barricade but he died of his injuries shortly afterwards. Richard O’Carroll was shot in the chest by a rogue British officer after being captured at Camden Street, and passed away nine days later. His death was recorded as murder.

Statements given to the BMH by those who survived give an indication of the confusion and violence that marked Dublin’s streets that week, 100 years ago.

Joseph Dolan, who took part in the occupation of the South Dublin Union hospital recalled: “The nuns enquired from me if we’d come to read the gas meters”.

Helena Molony, who fought at City Hall stated: “The women had no uniform…I had an Irish tweed costume, with a Sam Browne [belt]. I had my own revolver and ammunition”.

Mamie Stephenson

Mamie Stephenson

Robert Holland, an insurgent in the Marrowbone Lane area, told how: “She was only about 35 or 40 yards away from me and I fired on her. She sagged halfway out of the window. The hat and the small little shawl fell off her and I saw what I took to be a woman was a man in his shirtsleeves”.

The accounts of desperate, dangerous and often grubby streetfighting – punctuated by constant sniper fire, prayer sessions and boredom – are some way from the story of noble sacrifice that was taught to generations of Irish schoolchildren, or the Government’s politically correct, watered-down Rising.

They are worth reading though – if only to remind us of the full story behind the birth of a nation.

The Herald’s ‘Rising Remembered’ coverage can be found here

_____

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

My grandfather the teenage rebel

John Cardiff, 1948

On the morning of April 27, 1916 John Cardiff – my grandfather – was one of a group of Irish rebels who mobilised in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. A member of nationalist youth organisation Na Fianna Eireann, he was 13 years of age.

In the hours that followed the group took control of their hometown – which they held for four days – as part of an uprising against British rule.

“The town hall was seized and used as headquarters, outposts were placed throughout the town and sporadic firing occurred. A detachment of Volunteers kept the RIC [police] barracks in Abbey Square under fire from the turret rocks across the [river] Slaney,” Volunteer Thomas Dwyer recalled.

Enniscorthy was the only urban area outside of Dublin to be seized during the Rising. From the Thursday of Easter week to the following Monday it remained under the control of rebels (commanded by Capt Robert Brennan), until the surrender order given by Rising’s commander-in-chief Padraig Pearse was confirmed.

John Cardiff didn’t leave a public record of his activity during the Rising, having died a decade before the Bureau of Military History took statements from its ageing participants, in the late 1950s.

It is known that he was one of 35 teenagers who drilled at the Irish Volunteers headquarters at Mary Street in the town in the year preceding the Rising, as a member of Na Fianna. At this time he, along with others, covertly monitored Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) movements in the town.

During the four-day Rising it’s likely he carried dispatches between units of the older Volunteers, as a number of Na Fianna members did. After the Rising he was not arrested – probably on account of his young age – and likely worked with others to collect and conceal weapons that were abandoned by the Volunteers after the surrender.

Cardiff remained active in Na Fianna in the years from 1917 onwards, as a section commander, maintaining firearms and ammunition and drilling.

Enniscorthy in the years before The Rising

Enniscorthy in the years before The Rising. Pic: NLI

It’s recorded that in 1920 he was Intelligence Officer for Na Fianna in the town, during the War of Independence. His comrade Thomas Dwyer recalls that Cardiff was the co-leader of a group of 25 who raided on a merchant’s store in Enniscorthy that year to search for arms. This was one of a number of raids for arms spearheaded by Cardiff in his role as Intelligence Officer.

But no full account of his revolutionary activities exists, to my knowledge. Like many of his generation all that exists – on the public record at least – is a number of mentions of his name in the statement of  a fellow (in this case Volunteer Thomas Dwyer’s) , and a brief account in his 1950 obituary (below).

The latter, published in the Wexford Echo, states: “As a mere boy Sean Cardiff joined the ranks of Fianna Eireann…He was a keen student of Ireland’s history and language. He rose to the rank of Adjutant of the Wexford Brigade, and only his associates fully understand how much his enthusiasm and painstaking work meant in building up the organisation”.

John Cardiff’s rebel story didn’t end in 1920. In 1921 he was arrested by the Devonshire Regiment of the British Army and was imprisoned for a period in Enniscorthy Courthouse. He joined the IRA in 1922 at the rank of assistant adjutant.

Opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty, he took part on attacks on Free State posts in Enniscorthy during the Civil War. After a period ‘on the run’, he was arrested and imprisoned in Newbridge, Co Kildare and The Curragh. In 1923 he spent a period on hunger strike in prison.

Cardiff’s 1921 arrest effectively ended his career as a schoolteacher. On release from prison in 1923 he became a journalist, eventually basing himself in Wexford town and working for the Echo newspaper. He married and had two children. John Cardiff died in November 1950, at the age of 47.

He will be remembered, along with other participants of the Rising in Enniscorthy, at a State commemoration in the town on Easter Monday next.

doc03274720160313145624-page-001

Obituary of John Cardiff, Wexford Echo, November 25, 1950 (Click for larger version)

______

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

My old self came knocking at 4am

Notes taken

Notebook keeper

I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

In an era of relentless self-improvement, of life-affirming social media shares and leaning in, we can be quick to forget our former selves.

If only they felt the same. Or kept sociable hours. Instead they return, as Joan Didion points out, unannounced and in the small hours, demanding our attention.

Sometimes this means attractive company. Who wouldn’t want to meet the courageous, if shaken, mountaineer who stumbled off Mont Blanc after a successful ascent? Can I hear his story? Again?

But for every Jekyll in crampons there’s his alter ego, the past self we’d prefer didn’t exist – or stayed incarcerated in whatever mental chamber we imprison our inner Hydes, our Walter Mittys or Ignatius J Reillys.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner realised. The same sentiment runs through Didion’s essay ‘On Keeping A Notebook’ (anthologised in her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and quoted above). She suggests writing down ideas and observations; the information, reviewed years later, will provide us with clues and details about who once were, and who were are now.

Past self

Past self

It’s 50 years since Didion’s essay was published. For most, notetaking in 2016 takes the form of social media posts, and reviewing idle scrolling, or clicking Facebook’s ‘On This Day’ button. The difference now is that our notes are public and, usually, sanitised. The 4am callers tend not to appear.

Cast away, the People We Used To Be are surely unhappy to be erased from our histories. “It all comes back,” Didion repeatedly warns, hinting that, even if we live peacefully with ourselves, we can continue to expect those early morning visitors.

And so I’m on nodding, if not conversational, terms with a young man sick and very tired in an Amtrak waiting room in San Francisco, or the same person, a year or two older, who tore off his time, unused, around Dublin in the early Noughties. And with my other, older, Hydes and Mittys and Reillys, all of whom linger at times in the morning gloom.

It’s just as well that they do. “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget,” Didion cautions. And if I won’t remember my past selves, who will?

 _____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I Left My Heart In An Irish Chip Shop

Haddock and chips at The Saltee Chipper

Haddock and chips at The Saltee Chipper

It was the dish that won the First World War. George Orwell argued that it staved off revolution in Britain the 1930s. It was one of the few offerings that escaped rationing in London’s Blitz.

Yet fish and chips arrived in Ireland by accident – it’s reputed – when Italian immigrant Giuseppe Cervi stepped off a boat in Cork around 1880, mistaking Cobh for New York. Undeterred, Cervi walked to Dublin and wound up selling fish and chips from a handcart near Trinity College – the first person in Ireland to do so.

He may have got the idea from fellow emigrants who’d passed through London, where the first fish and chip shop opened in 1860.

Despite Cervi’s ingenuity it took 70 years for the dish to become a staple in Ireland. When it did, in the early 1950s, the advent of trawler fishing had reduced the cost of fresh fresh (finding potatoes was rarely a problem). The food carts of the nineteenth century were long gone at this point, replaced by the ‘chipper’ – the canteen-like aesthetic of which has remained standard to this day.

Like most Irish people I grew up with the dish. The first time I had fish and chips they were likely bought from the long-departed Grace’s on Bride Street in Wexford (a place also renowned for that local staple, the rissole).

In the intervening years I’ve had fish and chips on the terraces at the old St Mel’s Park soccer ground in Athlone, at MacCurtain Street in Cork after a long reporter shift, on ferries to Britain for summer holidays, and after nights out in my college days in Dublin. The offering remained unremarkably unchanged. Over the years the wrapping moved from yesterday’s newspaper to a generic paper sheet – but it was still handed over, soggy with vinegar and covered in salt, in a steaming brown paper bag.

Old school

Old school

Then, about five years ago, fish and chips changed. Blame the Celtic Tiger, or April Bloomfield, or whoever designed those ludicrous small steel buckets, but fish and chips slowly started to appear on plates in restaurants. I now found myself eating it sitting down, at a table, instead of standing at the back of a packed chipper, or while dodging drunks on a street at 1am.

Gone too was the stodgy yellow flour and water batter, replaced by a lighter beer variety. The chips were now cooked twice over, a time-consuming trick that no doubt had Guiseppe Cervi turning in his grave.

And it was great. As others argued over Beshoff’s or Burdock’s I sat in L Mulligan Grocer or the old WJ Kavanagh and hailed the revolution, one serving at a time.

Until a few weeks ago, when my father sent me a text message from Kilmore Quay, a small fishing village in the south east corner of Ireland, renowned for its seafood. ‘Come here for the fish and chips,’ he wrote, sending a picture of the meal as I remembered it – all angle-cut chips and heavy battered fish.

And so, last week, I travelled the 100 or so miles to the Saltee Chipper in Kilmore Quay. My concession to civilised dining was opting to eat at a table there, swapping the brown bag for a plate.

The haddock I had was caught and battered that morning. The steaming chips were just as fresh. Mushy peas – marrowfats ground into a thick green paste – were an added bonus. To top it off it there was a howling, rain-flinging gale outside – proper fish and chip-eating weather.

There isn’t a moral to this fishy tale. I’ll still order the gourmet fish chips when I’m in the mood, and I’ll try to convince myself it tastes better. But last week, for the umpteenth time, I left my heart in an Irish chip shop.

Kilmore Quay

Kilmore Quay

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What a two-decade old photo taught me

deathvalley

#1

Nevada was in the news this week.

And not the good Nevada – the 24 hour, ‘where’s my credit card, actually where’s my trousers?’ Vegas Strip Nevada. Or the eerie lunar landscape Nevada, beloved by hippies. Or even the escape-from-everything-and-start-anew Nevada.

Nope. Instead we had the Nevada of furious politicking, of promises and press conferences, of caucuses and crackpots. Of, worse still, Donald Trump.

But the headlines from the Silver State put me in a nostalgic mood, as did a picture I came across, taken by a friend en route from California to Nevada almost 20 years ago.

It shows a 21-year-old, tired and likely hungover, Irishman posing on a sandy hillside in bleaching sunshine, the desert floor in the distance. My recollection is that this was taken in August 1999, somewhere west of Death Valley on Route 190, shortly before a group of pals and I drove into the basin and on to Las Vegas.

The previous evening had been spent sleeping in the backseat of our rental van parked somewhere on the edge of Yosemite National Park. The following night was a sleepless one, which started with a spectacular thunderstorm on the Vegas city limits and ended at 6am the next morning, sipping refreshments in the dollar slots and wondering where the last 12 hours went.

Then, after a couple of hours’ sleep, we drove out of Vegas and across the United States.

As can probably be gathered from the picture above, my worries at the time barely extended beyond the ensuring 24 hours.

I recall that I had to get to New York City by a certain date to catch a flight back to San Francisco. I had nowhere to stay on the West Coast but I figured that would work itself out. In the end it did, via a payphone call from a Greenwich Village bar to pals in the Sunset who had a spare mattress on their floor.

 #2

#2

After that I had a flight booked out of SF to Dublin. Friends were returning to college or work but I didn’t have a job lined up, or a place to live. It didn’t bother me much. It worked itself out too. The rest, as always, is history. Here I am.

That brief, blazing roadside stop on 190 came to mind this week as I spent too much time testing my blood pressure limit, reading about megalomaniacal politicians, the cracks in the Chinese economy, the weakening of the euro  – all the good psychic dread stuff.

As I did it occurred to me that I need to balance this stuff up. I need to let go more often, to let the future happen.

Above all, I need that guy in the photo to swing by for an hour a week, to set me straight. And I need his hair.

_____

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 100 other followers