- Alice Munro and The Diamond Earrings
- Ireland Professor of Poetry
- An Italian Wedding… Bomboniere and God Particles
- Life Imitates Art
- Not Quite a Towering Inferno, Dublin in Horse Show Week
- First World Problems: 1
- Love Your Brain. Kevin Pearce and the Crash Reel
- Down the Mountain
- L’Étape Annecy-Semnoz
- Sex and the Country 2: The Tour de France
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Yesterday on the ‘phone a friend said they were into the tv series “The Americans.” When I said we’d been thinking of watching it, he added “there’s a lot of graphic sex” and I replied that really, I’d prefer lying on the couch of an evening watching Monty Don in torn leather and frayed jumpers doing dirty things in the Garden, to watching Cold War Russian spies panting and sweating with no clothes on at all at all.
It was way back in 1997 that the phrase “Gardening is the new sex” was coined by British trend-setting fashion and social magazines Tatler and Vogue. The phrase – like “Black is the new black” has gone into the lexicon, and still occasionally pops up to illustrate, say, how the sale of sex magazines is dwindling, whereas the BBC’s “Gardener’s World” remains a hot, top selling publication, or how it’s not just the ageing Flower Children who are digging it, digging it, but also the young Thirty Somethings, flocking to Chelsea for colourful consumerism.
As I was ironing this morning, making piles of clothing for hanging up, throwing out, giving away and keeping, it became abundantly clear to me that despite my necessity for a wardrobe that will bring me to a myriad of occasions in every climate in countries all over the world, (my justification for shopping) the clothes that I iron, fold and hang up to wear most often (yes, I iron paint-spattered leggings) are those I don for working in the house and garden. They are not necessarily the most flattering and as the house will be full of guests for the rest of the summer, I was considering their aesthetic sensibilities and trying to consign some of the most well-worn articles of apparel (i.e. molecularly challenged) to the garbage bin. As I ironed, I was thinking about Carrie Bradshaw, the star of the television series and spin-off films “Sex and the City.” When she falls for the artist Aleksandr Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov) in the last season of the series and agrees to move with him to Paris, leaving her New York apartment and life, Carrie calls in her group of friends to help her decide what clothes to jettison, what to keep.
The Carrie Bradshaw character and I do not have much in common except a known and self admitted obsession with shoes….oh, and she was also a writer, penning a regular piece and a book on her exploits with her friends of similar vain vein in New York entitled “Sex and the City” which involved a lot of clothes. Taking inspiration from Carrie, I think I’ll write a piece (and a book? oh la!) on my exploits with my bucolic friends entitled “Sex and the Country” (subtitle: “Forty Shades of Green.”) It will, of course, be about gardening.
To start, I should introduce you to my friends: Una. Una listens to podcasts of plays as she works in her garden, and I envy her as she can get truck loads of compost for free from her local Dechetterie on the Swiss/French border, with its view of Mont Blanc. I also envy her legs. Una wears shorts a lot.
Fiona: Fiona lives on a bluff over the sea on Prince Edward Island in Maritime Canada. The island is famous for being the home of Anne of Green Gables, potatoes and lupines. Lupines in PEI are so prolific that every year about this time, using a modified snowblower, the provincial government culls them by one third, considering lupines a weed, an invasive species, especially where they clog roadside ditches and thus drainage.
Though the same latitude as Ireland, without the benefit of the Gulf Stream (remember that, remember palm trees and all-year-round geraniums?) the growing season is short on Prince Edward Island and I giggle soundlessly down the line when Fiona tells me on the ‘phone she is planting her summer annuals in July. Fiona wears Canadian clothes (a lot of blouses, sweat shirts and trousers) with very comfortable shoes suitable for both snow and PEI’s red earth, which colours everything.
In the south west of France, Síle has a small, square, stone-walled garden in a former presbytery, where the Curé strolled while reading his office. While keeping the original quadrangle, Síle, with the help of her brother and husband, has transformed it from a heat-scorched over-grown plot into a cool, planting-softened oasis. A ‘Five Foot Lourdes’ – a statue of the Virgin Mary found on the premises when they moved in, stands in a corner bedecked with flowers of the fairest and blossoms the rarest, and the China Berry Tree which shades the space is her husband’s delight and home to many birds. Síle always wears interesting necklaces and favours linens in understated earthy colours, but has also been known to be seduced in a local market by the lure of those drippy Indian dresses beloved of French ladies. (I cannot criticize. Yesterday, probably thinking of Síle, her clothes and garden, I succumbed to the same sartorial seduction).
Then there is Kathryn. Kathryn is the blonde and favours clothes by designers such as Karen Millen and wears Versace jeans. She collects seaweed on the beach in front of her West Cork country home to spread on the raised beds planted by her husband. She made me very cross by not inviting me to come help her make dry stone walls around the garden from the ruins of a deserted cottage on the property (dry stone walling – along with shoes – is my passion.)
In “Sex and the Country” you can look forward to a huge cast of characters and sub-plots, some, I admit, somewhat violent, such as “Linda and her Red Hot Pokers.” As global warming adds another level of suspense, I think “Sex and the Country” will make riveting reading. My hostas are now indistinguishable from California Giant Redwoods. Yesterday the wrath of the gods wreaked havoc with my grapes when a thunderstorm came barreling in over the mountains and on the ‘phone last night Kathryn worried about my hostas suffering slug damage. I assured her that slugs are no match for Sequoias.
Today you started your important State exams, your Leaving Certificate and your Junior Certificate in different exam halls from Meath and Dublin to Cork and Limerick. Each of you got every opportunity; good schools, extra tuition if you wanted it, support, help at home from parents with different talents as well as pleas, goads, threats and carrots. Saorla alone coped with tragedy, working towards a future without her beloved mother Deirdre, our beloved sister-in-law.
All your dreams and your abilities are different, but every exam hall was the same. In Ireland – as you well know – it is cold and wet for three hundred and humpty hump days in the year, but miraculously, the day the exams start, the sun shines and the exam halls are hot and stuffy. You could hear a pen drop.
Today in the Haute Savoie it was 24C. I sloughed off as many clothes as was decent and worked in the garden. At 5 o’clock I made a cup of tea, cut a slice of cherry clafouitis and lay out on a lawn chair by the swimming pool. Your Uncle P made the clafoutis yesterday before he went away (he also cleaned the pool!) The fruit was imported from Italy as the spring weather has been so bad that the native cherries are not yet available in our part of France. We usually start picking our own cherries around May 28th – Uncle P’s birthday – and take out ladders to finish the harvest on your grandmother Duggan’s anniversary – June 11th – but this year the cherries are still only hard little yellow marbles.
I was superbly happy (“a garden is a lovesome thing, God wot”…[don’t know if it’s on the curriculum, but here’s a reminder just in case it comes up: “My Garden” by Thomas Edward Brown, 1830-1897: “Rose plot, fringed pool, fern’d grot – The veriest school of peace……”] )I thought of you and prayed a ragged little prayer for you all in all your hot, stuffy, slightly odiferous, chair-scraping exam halls across the Nation. I am not great at such lofty communication, though being a creator of gardens, I feel close to the Creator of gardens (“ …the fool contends that God is not – not God! In gardens! When the eve is cool? Nay, but I have a sign; ‘Tis very sure God walks in mine”) and I though of when I sat my own Leaving/Matric…..
These days, the entire island is gripped by a fever of worry and concern when the young people of Ireland begin their state exams. International journalists and commentators scratch their heads in disbelief – and not a little envy – at how everyone, from the butcher, the baker, the cooper and the candlestick-maker to the old codgers in the pub, talk of nothing else for a few weeks from the start of June but the childer and their exams; how prayers are raised and parents fret and the best steaks are slapped on pans and entire families rise to an early alarm call. When I was doing my Leaving nobody much cared; we were expected to just get on with it. If you had money, or more than 2 Honours in your results, you could go on to university, taking whichever subjects, in whichever department you so choose.
I had been given every chance, every opportunity; At home we had books and intellectual and academic family friends and talk a-plenty. I’d been sent to an all-Irish residential college long before Gealscoileanna were even heard of – not to mind being fashionable – and on to one of the best convent boarding schools in Ireland…..but did I appreciate, or did I care? Not a tosser.
I dreamed of being free, and dreaming, I didn’t have time to study. My family despaired but I carried blithely on, intensely interested in the Irish language and English literature and the patterns of Latin and the wonders of Geology and the creative fun of Domestic Science and Art and the romance of Spanish…. (Maths? Naw. French? Just couldn’t get a handle on it. History? all very well, but a bit depressing and how could one POSSIBLY remember all the dates?)…but hating the repetition, the drudgery of homework. I dreamed and wrote and read and sang, I debated and acted and danced and dodged sports. I knew that I would be going on to university because as my father had been a university professor, I would not only get in, but get my third level education for free. I got through. I went on to university. I dropped out. I tagged along with the poets, the musicians and the hippies…….
Fifty years later I lie out in my garden, arms briar-whipped, scratched and scrabbed by rosebushes, nails broken and dirty, hands splinter-welted and sore; happy out. I think of exams and think of you, my nieces and nephews, your hopes and dreams, your parents’ pride and concerns. You are in the middle of a very important part of your young lives…..but you have been well prepared; just get on with it. Regurgitate what you’ve learned, what’s been drilled into you, what interests you, what you love as well as what you want to get rid of, say goodbye to, see no more…..and work for the music of what lies ahead when you rest your wrists, tired from writing.
Today I had sunshine and leisure and beauty, cherry clafoutis and hot Barry’s tea and good, honest, enjoyable, hard physical work. I could not ask for anything more, but I did have the niggling regret of not appreciating how privileged I had been……..I wish you luck and I wish that in a half a century you will be as happy as I am today, in a garden in sunshine, grateful for all that is and cognisant of all that was. Your ‘was’ of the future is your ‘is’ of today. ENJOY!
Lots of love and luck and all good wishes to you dear ones,
Auntie Belle xx
p.s. The pic is a sweetie from Eve’s Chocolate at Dennehy’s Cross in Cork
The Irish radio and television presenter Pat Kenny read my blog about househunting in Dublin a couple of weeks ago and invited me to talk to him about the search on his daily talk show on RTE Radio 1 (Radio Telefís Eireann, the national broadcaster.)
As we were en route to Dublin that weekend, I was able to go into the studio to do the interview live. I used to do an awful lot of radio as a journalist, presenter, newsreader and contributor, but I gave up that malarkey over a decade ago to fight dandelions and bindweed in France. (They don’t call me a guerilla gardener for nothing.)
Pat Kenny has been in the business a very long time, but he didn’t used to be one of my ‘regulars’; I worked with Gay Byrne and Mike Murphy, the other stars of the era. Live radio is always a challenge, but Pat Kenny was genuinely interested and we got on great…..and there was a bonus: the writer Colum McCann was interviewed before me. Based in New York, McCann, several times a major international literary award winner, was over to launch his new novel “TransAtlantic” as part of the Dublin Writers Festival. On the prompting of office staff, meeting, greeting and shepherding programme contributors, when Colum McCann came out of the studio his agent, who was sitting the control room, handed him a book. The writer asked my name, signed a copy of “TransAtlantic” and gave it to me. I am not usually impressed by fame and fortune, but I was so excited about meeting the man with whom I have gone to bed many, many a night, that I got fluttery and was positively lost for words.
Luckily, the fluttering fit didn’t last (fame is fickle) and here, by popular demand, is the slot from the RTE ‘Today with Pat Kenny” show from Monday May 19th 2013, brought to you by the technological prowess of Himself. We have been caught up in a whirlwind of travel, property views, negotiations and birthdays since, hence the delay in getting it up.
This is my Hadji Bey, this is the Bey I will remember the day I’m dying……
Hadji Bey is a sweet memory for Corkonians. Hadji Bey was a Christian Armenian named Harutun Batmazian who arrived in Cork from London at the turn of the twentieth century, having fled his homeland to set up a Turkish Delight stall at the Great Exhibition in 1902. His product was such a success that he went into business and his Lokum became a famous Cork delicacy and was exported to the grand emporia of London and New York and nibbled in Buckingham Palace.
Hadji Bey means “Prince of the East” and in Cork, not only did the name stand for a soft jelly-like confection, but it was also stood in quite handily as a moniker for anyone of Middle Eastern origin and because of its sweet connotation, it was used in the familiar affectionate rather than the foreign dismissive. Hadji Bey’s made chocolates as well as the rosewater pink and pistachio green Turkish Delight and all the confectionery was usually presented in pink or green boxes, with gold for gift ‘trays’ and chocolates.
The Batmazian family originally operated the business from their home on the Lower Glamire Road. Though Haratun’s fellow Christians and countrymen were in actually being slaughtered by the Turks at the time, local troops returning from the battlefield of the First World War set fire to the premises on the assumption that the owner was Turkish. Batmazian published an open letter called “Live and Let Live” explaining his origins and moved his business to MacCurtain Street, where it prospered for another half century. It was a beautiful shop on a street of remarkable buildings; close by was the fan porch of ‘Dan Lowery’s Palace of Varieties,’ now the Everyman Palace Theatre and the wonderful Art Nouveau tiling on the open front of Quain’s fishmongers…and Crowley’s Music store, where Blues Rocker Rory Gallagher bought his first guitar. The Batmazian family still live in Cork, but the firm was sold in 1971 and eventually went out of business the late l980s.
This gold foil and cardboard tray box has probably been in our family for well over forty years. We probably scoffed the chocs together in Orchard Corner some Christmas long ago when everyone we loved was still alive and I wish I knew who gave us the present. Once holding old photographs in my mother’s bureau, the box has been shunted around and is a bit battle weary.
Recently we were offered some Turkish Delight in the house of Irish friends. The round, simpering pink box bore the trade mark “Hadji Bey”. The delicacy – to the original recipe, the makers swear, passed on from the Batmazian family, who still live in Cork – is now being produced by Urneys in County Kildare and sold in boxes of the period. I ran all the way home (botchawaddy waddy) and rescued my souvenir of old Cork from the attic.
I tried to mount and frame it in a sympathetic way, in the traditional rose water pink but I’m not happy with the outcome and may have to go back to the easel. Another disappointment of this ouvre is its contents; What I really wanted to have inside was an article on a yellowed cutting I know I have kept from the Spectator magazine circa 1964, written by Stan Gebler Davis, entitled “Hadji Bey’s of Cork.” I have searched high up and low down but I cannot find it and no record exists on the Spectator site (…..or could it possibly have been Punch?) In lieu of that special piece, I have included a black and white photograph of the exterior of the Hadji Bey shop on MacCurtain Street and a picture from/by the Spencer Tunic Experience during the Cork Midsummer Festival of 1,000 people naked in front of Blarney Castle. (http://www.thespencertunickexperience.org/2008-06_Blarney_Castle/Blarney%20Castle_Ireland.htm)
In January TG4 (Irish language Television) screened a documentary by the independent company Forefront, called “Hadji Bey: Milseáin na Tuirce I gCorcaigh” on the product and its history, with input from historians and academics as well as archive footage.
(An excellent article by Colette Sheridan “A Sweet Taste of the Past” from the Irish Examiner of 14th December 2011 was invaluable for historic background on this story…thanks cuz! x)
It was twenty years ago today…….. and my nephew Thomas’ First Communion day. It was also the day that Ireland hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in what one English journalist described as “a cowshed.”* It was actually the Green Glens Arena in Millstreet, an equestrian centre in a small town right of Macroom between Cork and Killarney and the smallest and most remote venue for the event ever.
The Green Glens usually hosted agriculture and horse shows and competitions, but due to the foresight and imagination and sheer doggedness of its founder, Noel C Duggan, who offered the use of the hall for the night for free to the national broadcaster, RTÉ, it became world famous. Millstreet is a small place – it had a population of 1,500 at the time – with a small train station and a windy windey road from Cork over the mountains. The Green Glens is an indoor arena, so, with very few uprights holding the roof, it was rather perfect for a big televisual event. For weeks before, huge crews of electricians and builders and technology and radio heads and cable layers and floor layers swarmed over the complex getting it wired up, accessible and welcoming for the big night. Noel C Duggan and Millstreet were having a ball.
A few days before the show, I went to Millstreet to do an article on the place and the preparations and brought my mother. The main artery north west was closed because they were widening it, or re-laying it, or carpeting it or something, so we were diverted through narrow country roads , fringed with lacey May blossoms. It was a bright sunny day and it was such a beautiful journey, I vowed to go back and have a picnic one day on the side of the gentle hills, but that was twenty years ago, and I haven’t done so yet.
In Millstreet we met with Noel C and his son Thomas and I immediately fell in love – though whether with Noel C, or Thomas, a young man with the same energy and charm as his father – I can’t rightly remember. We watched some rehearsals, I got my bumf and my info and my colour and Noel C gave us a voucher for high tea in the canteen. The long wooden tables were thronged with busy people, the noise level was high and the chips were divine. As we were eating, an RTÉ tech crew of seven or so finished their break and stood up as a man, formed a line, put their hands on the shoulders of the guy in front, and swaying and marching they sang “Hey Ho, Hey Ho, it’s off to work we go…….” And disappeared out the back.
On Eurovision day, we celebrated Thomas’ First Communion at a family luncheon party in his home and then headed out for Millstreet, bedecked in lanyards. (I wore a Laura Ashley dress which is now only a tiny bit too tight, but my hair is better.) We had good tickets for the broadcast and because the plastic seats were less than salubrious, every guest got a foam pad with the Eurovision logo on it. I still have mine and though it’s lost its shine, it still makes an excellent knee pad for gardening. I can only vaguely remember the event itself nor the reception afterwards, except that the hospitality tents were far too crowded and we kept losing our friends. But I will never forget the May day I spent with my mother in the Green Glens Arena, the sunshine, the greenness, the excitement, the huge warm welcome and hospitality, the fun. And I’m still in love with Noel C.
*The BBC newsreader Nicholas Witchell later apologized. Our own entry’s singer, Niamh Kavenagh, (who had the audacity to win the competition again for Ireland) has since commented “most television studios are like going into the back of a barn anyway.”
A while ago someone asked “If you were to live in a book, what would it be?” I immediately thought of the book in which I would most NOT want to live: “Room.”
Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room” is a work of fiction told from the perspective of a five year old boy, Jack, who lives with his mother locked in a room. He has never seen daylight. People on television are not real to him, they are just the same as in a story book, except that they move…. because Jack knows no world other than a single Room, he thinks no other people exist except his mother “Ma” and “Old Nick” the man who “cares” for them, bringing them food, treats on Sundays and “visiting” his Ma at night. As the story unfolds, we learn that Ma, then a young student, had been kidnapped by the man and that the man is Jack’s father.
From a Dublin academic family, Emma Donoghue is a literary historian, playwright and author, who became a Canadian citizen in 2004 and lives in Ontario with her partner and their two children. “Room” is a disturbing and haunting bestseller which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010 and received numerous awards and accolades. It is beautifully written, which makes it all the more devastating. “Room” is art imitating life; the inspiration for the story was the Fritzl case in Austria. Elisabeth Fritzl was held captive for 24 years by her father in the basement of the family’s large home. The abuse by her father resulted in the birth of seven children and one miscarriage. She was 42 years of age when she was freed in 2008, her father in his seventies.
This week, when three women and a six year old child were rescued from a house in Cleveland Ohio, where the women had been imprisoned, I noted the headlines, thought of “Room” and could not bring myself to read the press reports. Since then, the Cleveland case has become impossible to ignore, as the story is on every radio programme, every news bulletin. The women, now in the 20s and 30s were kidnapped separately between 2002 and 2004 and for a decade have been imprisoned within a small house, suffering physical and psychological abuse and deprivation, pregnancies and miscarriages. A 52 year old former school bus driver has been charged with their abduction.
Their release came when one of the women managed to break through a door and screamed for help. Psychologists claim that the probable impetus for the escape attempt came as her daughter got older, from an overwhelming urge to give a real life and future to her child.
Life imitating art.
Emma Donoghue will be taking part in Listowel Writer’s Week from May 29th to June 2nd 2013.
Back in Ireland this week looking for an interim property towards a home in which we might gracefully decline (when we get older losing our hair, many years from now Deo Vult.) we were considering the capital’s inner city. We live very happily in the city of Berlin with all its myriad amenities from opera to green spaces and uber efficient public transport. We step around the dog doodoo and hardly notice any more the artless graffiti – the urban scrawl.
Many of my kith and my kin reside in Dublin city. Before we looked to the old areas – excluding Portobello and Rathmines which have, even in a recession, gone beyond us – we decided with an eye to a good investment, to view some new apartments in the trendy blocks built on the river around the mega International Financial Services Centre.
The IFSC began to spring up in 1997 under the Custom House Docks Development Authority, which they themselves say is “working to develop Dublin Docklands into a World Class City Quarter [their caps] one in which the whole community enjoys the highest standards of access to education, employment, housing and social amenity and which delivers a major contribution to the social and economic prosperity of Dublin and the whole of Ireland.”
The Irish are great for naming civic sculpture, characters and events. (Anna Livia= “The Floozie in the Jacuzzi”, The Liffey Millenium Clock = “the Time in the Slime”, Molly Malone= “The Tart with the Cart”, Gerald Y Goldberg Bridge = “The Passover”, the Second World War = “The Emergency”, civil war in the Six Counties = “The Troubles” etc). The period between 1996 and 2008 in Ireland is known as “The Celtic Tiger”, “The Boom” or “The Madness.”
The main tranche of IFSC/Docklands building took place during The Madness. Still though like, allthesame, we thought we should not reject on spec the square blocks, for there is now a new bridge connecting its miles of piles, the rapid transport trams are running smoothly and Pilates classes are available.
Of a fine morning if you squint your eyes at the Samuel Beckett Bridge (“The Crank on the Bank”) the area can look like the Puente de la Mujer in the docklands development of Puerto Madero, Argentina. The Women’s Bridge was designed (as a “synthesis of the image of a couple dancing the tango”) by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and inaugurated in Buenos Aires in 2001 at a cost of $9m.
The Samuel Beckett Bridge is also by Santiago Calatrava. For the Dublin structure – which was inauagurated in 2007 and cost €60m – the architect said he envisioned the form as a harp, which is handy as he only had to tweek the Dublin bridge design to allow for traffic (the Women’s Bridge is pedestrian only) but it is also true. In Buenos Aires a few years back, I posed on the bridge, singing “Mellow the Moonlight” “plucking” the inclined suspension cables supporting the central span, because it looked to me just like the strings of a harp. The harp is a prominent symbol of Ireland (because the country is run by pulling strings.)
Over the past week as I slouched around the Dublin Docklands, the wind was whistling and howling through its urban canyons through the blocks of glass steel and concrete. It is so vast and the blind slab buildings are all so featureless, soulless and samey behind their locked metal gates and high fencing that I needed directions to get to Apt W Block X, Y House on Z Quay. I approached a young man wearing a blue hoodie (which, along with pyjamas, is the national costume of Ireland) standing on the pavement of one of the older streets hijacked for development. “Do you know where I’d find Y House?” ses I. “How’r’ye doin’?” ses he. “Grand” ses I, as I speak the lingo. During that preliminary necessary exchange, another young man approached from across the street and I expected that as he had seen me waving a map and looking around he had come to assist in the investigation. He walked over and Blue Hoodie held out his right hand, in which was folded a bunch of ten and twenty and euro notes. Other Guy held out his right hand, in which was a foil pack of pills. They did not miss a beat: “over there, that’s all Z Quay there, just turn left and you should find it” they told me.
Ah it really is worth spending upwards of a quarter of a million euro to live in the Dublin Docklands, because it really does seem to be a community enjoying the highest standards of access to education, employment, housing, social amenity and drugs, delivering a major contribution to the social and economic prosperity and mental welfare of Dublin and the whole of Ireland. I mean, where else would you find such helpful, friendly and well mannered dealers?
I viewed the apartment. It was doonshie small and it was dull, like a hotel space skimmed in synthetics. Out on the tiny balcony space there was an audible hum. Neither the agent nor the nice German man also viewing noticed the audible hum, which resembled being beside the funnel of a Brittany Ferries ship as she steams past Penzance, or rush hour in the London Tube. I reckon it was from the air conditioning vents of the underground car park below, the agent thought it might be the cooling system of the Marks and Spencer’s store across the way.
Goodbye now so ses I and made a run for it, out through the metal gates, back into the world, the whipping wind and the wheeling gulls. I felt that like Dorothy, I would be caught up in a whirlwind, along with the cloud of plastic bags rising, dipping and river dancing through the blind streets and grey alleyways….I kinda wished I were, for Oz or Kansas’ plains would be more colourful, have more life.
The next property I viewed was a ‘show apartment’ which meant that along with the black leather sofas de-rigeur in every living space in the Dublin housing market, meant it had Bad Art, a glass table and metal curlicues. I didn’t even look at the bedrooms because I hated it on sight. The windows were dirty – as are those of all the buildings around (no money for cleaning hoists) – and made the dark grey day darker and greyer. Buenos Aires it was not. When I asked about the fate of a huge building site across the road, which would eventually further shadow the apartment, the agent proudly told me it was to be the headquarters of NAMA, the National Asset Management Agency, the Deep Doodoo Agency, which elicits the same cuddly fuzzy feeling in the Irish as, did, say, the Stasi in East Berlin. I made a cross sign with my fingers as one does to ward off vampires, the nice young estate agents in their winkle-picker-toed shoes were not just confused, but wished a gust of wind would pluck this mad woman from their ken.
Next day I viewed another modern apartment in a new block next door to the Google headquarters at the other side of the river, the south side, where I feel much more at home. Two guys were living there, but they were not around and had it very tidy, each had 8-10 pairs of sneakers/trainers neatly stacked and there were two Stand-Up Paddle boards standing against the wall. Men after my own heart but nonetheless, it was definitely not for me. Luckily, I was wearing red shoes, so I clicked my heels and we drove down to Killiney and back up along the coast through Dalkey, Dun Laoghaire, Monkstown and Blackrock to Sandymount. The roads are wide, the sun shone on the water, there were open green spaces (the sea oh the sea, grá geal mo chroí.) We immediately made a decision from the heart, for it is the heart that makes a good investment a good investment:
Despite the beautiful bridges and the impressive politesse of the local people on the Northside Docklands, we have decided we are not inner-city bods ourselves. We cannot escape that we are inexorably drawn to the burbs’ and the thought of living along the Dart line south towards the Sugar Loaf…..
Recently I have been interested in the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler and as so often happens – it’s called ‘happenstance’ – yesterday at a Marché aux Puces I happened upon a print of his “Genfersee von Chexbres” (Lake Geneva from Chexbres.) Known as a ‘symbolist’ a ‘stylist’ and a ‘parallelist, ’ between 1895 and 1911 Hodler painted two landscapes from this vantage point. The first, on the market for the first time since 1963, sold at Sotheby’s in Zurich in November 2011 for €5,784,660. ”My” Hodler has less human interest and more high, sheepish clouds and is in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva.
Large, mounted and framed – and a bit green around the bottom foreground – I bought the print, by Lopfe-Benz, Rorschach and possibly dating from the 1960s-ish, for €16. Putting it into the back of the car, I was so engrossed in the picture that I distractedly reached up, and slammed the boot door on my head. I saw stars and emitted a pathetic ‘Ouch.’
By the time he was 8 years old, Hodler had lost his father (a carpenter in Berne) and two younger brothers to tuberculosis. Within a number of years, his mother and 3 remaining brothers had all died of TB. He had several wives and mistresses and his most famous work is that executed at the bedside of his lover Valentine Godé-Darel. They met in 1908 and in 1913 she was diagnosed with cancer. Over the next two years until her death in 1915, Ferdinand documented Valentine’s disintegration. Death had ruled his life and influenced his art. He used a lot of the colour blue, symbolizing his loneliness, melancholy and the transience of life.
As nobody in the crowded car park deigned to ask if I was alright, or had just split my skull, I just got into the car and drove away. Anyway, it wouldn’t have made any difference if someone had enquired as to whether I had concussion, because I would only have done the Irish thing and answered “Ah no, no, it’s OK, you’re grand.” By the time I got home, a fine elevated bruise had appeared above my temple, the shape, size and colour of a duck egg ….nay, bigger than a thrush’s egg “like little blue heaven”…. The blue of a Hodler lake, a Hodler sky.
“But are you alright Belle?” No no, it’s OK… you’re grand.
“Upscaling” is the next step up from recycling. It means taking something old or broken or molecularly challenged or unfashionable and re-inventing it as something new. ‘Upscalers’ would qualify as ‘guerillas’, ‘hackers’ or even ‘bombers’.
‘Hacking’ originally meant to extend or modifiy the capabilities of a device for a purpose for which it wasn’t originally intended. There is good hacking and there is bad hacking. Bad hacking is the violation of internet security codes (which computer programmers think should be called ‘cracking’) by what the technology community defines as ‘Hats’, their motivation denoted by colour; black (criminal, espionage or world domination as in the Chinese military) white (computer security experts) and even grey (a mix of black and white) and blue (an individual used by legit firms hired to bug-test a system looking for exploits which can then be closed.) I knew a ‘blue hat’ in Cork, a guy more interested in music than book learning who was so brilliant a hacker that a major systems operator gave up trying to close him down or prosecute him and contracted him instead. ’Good’ hacking is now so popular it is known as a job creator, a movement of those with good ideas and creative skills. ‘Good’ hackers – or ‘guerillas’ take ordinary mass-produced stuff such as Ikea furniture and make it their own.
I haven’t a clue about technology, so couldn’t be a ‘hat’ but I am a hacker, an upscaler, a guerilla and a bomber. I have even been known to add some extra pleats to an Issey Miyake coat, cut-outs and patches to Desigual skirts and tops and have risked the Conformity Police – and the real police – by yarn bombing a piece of public sculpture outside the Esplanade ‘Theatres on the Bay’ arts and entertainment centre in Singapore. (“Yarn bombing is defined as ‘Graffiti for Grannies’.)
For many years, my sisters and I – and then our daughters – have been big fans of Longchamp’s ‘Le Pliage’ and are rarely without one of the French label’s nylon- canvas tote bags slung on its long leather handles over our shoulders. Inspired, the company says, by the Japanese art of Origami, “the simple yet absolutely ingenious Le Pliage bag has become a must-have accessory all over the world.”
What was great about the Lonchamp, beside the huge range of colours, roominess and its light, foldable convenience, was that it was a minority niche favourite and not widely enough known outside of Europe to warrant the mass-production of cheapo versions. In the past couple of years however, the Longchamp ‘Pliage’ or ‘Shopping’ bag has become ubiquitous, is highly desirable and highly prized as “the must-have accessory all over the world” and is everywhere…. “walking” as we say in Cork, or, as one adoring blog of dubious linguistic and literary abilities says “Carrying this sort of a handbag will unquestionably make your lifestyle filled with envying eyes”.
This upscaled bag is my latest bit of fun. The added covering qualifies it for inclusion in the ‘Year in Brocante’ category because it was bought – yards and yards of it – in a flea market here in France. It is cotton lace in creamy beige and white which may have been destined originally for making those short café style curtains beloved of the French. Because I added the lace to a lettin’on Longchamp bag (i.e. a fake) it also falls within several other categories!
The original Longchamp Pliage is less expensive in France than anywhere else in the world, but now that poor eejits believe that carrying this sort of a handbag will unquestionably make your lifestyle filled with envying eyes, it is being produced by the million in Asia for the Australian, North American and European markets. When one can get a decent enough fake, lettin’on version for a tenner, why pay around a hundred for the original? Well, the original lasts and lasts carrying heavy weights without complaining. Lettin’ons don’t last, the poor binding falls apart, the rubbery backing of the fabric sloughs off leaving a sad interior. As nobody wants a sad interior – but I certainly want a bit of fun – the lettin’on is brilliant as a canvas (gettit?) for creativity….well, if Tracey Emin can do it, so can I. (“Do you mean not make your bed Belle?”)
Just don’t give me the ‘Frenchjobsyaddayadda’ spiel; like everything else these days, not all of Longchamp’s merchandise is made in France but is produced mainly in Tunisia and China…as are the cheapo versions. The fakes are sometimes so good that there are countless websites devoted to the perils of buying a Longchamp Pliage from any outlet but a dedicated Longchamp shop or concession, with frantic consumers getting their handles in a twist worrying if their double square of stitched nylon is the real Allie Daley. One sleuth advises using a magnifying glass to spot fakes!
I’ll still travel with my beloved leather-bound heavy duty canvas Longchamp wheeled trolley, briefcase and overnight bags as they’re stylish, low-key, well designed, tough and dependable (Himself even steals them for short business trips) but not loud or expensive enough to warrant notice on the airport carousel. The Pliage is another thing entirely. Now that they’re commonout, farewell leather-handled nylon canvas Longhamp totes and goodbye, we’re off to create the New Next Thing! In the meantime however, I’m having a bit of fun, personalizing my oldies, the worn ones, the tired, the poor lettin’ons, the huddled masses at the bottom of my wardrobe yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of my teeming store.
Kevin Pearce is an internationally famous snowboarder who was critically injured when he struck his head above the eyes on the edge of the pipe during a halfpipe training run on New Year’s Eve 2009 in Park City, Utah. He remained critically ill for many moths,undergoing treatment in hospitals in Utah and in a rehabilitation center specialising in traumatic brain injuries in Colorado. The youngest of 4 sons of glass maker Simon Pearce and his wife Pia who are based in Vermont, Kevin is a nephew of the potter Stephen Pearce of Shanagarry County Cork, where his father grew up. His uncle on his mother’s side is Cyrus Vance, Jr., the District Attorney of New York County (Manhattan).
As the months went by and Kevin’s hold on life and recovery were first tenuous then his rehabilitation tortuous, tens of thousands of people joined in wishing him well. His snowboarding friends and fans, from the world champion snowboarder Sean White to children on toboggan runs wore signs reading “I Ride for Kevin” at events and family trips, and posted them on his Facebook page. I do not snowboard but as a very long-time friend of the Pearce family through 4 generations, from his grandparents, father, uncle and aunts, Cork cousins and now his cousin Lucy’s children, I wanted to offer solidarity also….so I in February 2010 I carried my (slightly amended!) sign at Checkpoint Charlie, crossing point between the old West and East Berlin.
Now, 3 years later, Kevin is well and though not snowboarding (his mother won’t let him) is playing sports such as golf and giving his time and energy to “Love Your Brain” an awareness project for those with severe brain injuries. It is not only sports people and road users who suffer traumatic brain injuries and their longterm, often personality changing repercussions, but soldiers. There are thousands of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq now trying to keep their lives together back in the US, who may not even be aware that they are different, more volatile, than before they went to war; through no fault of their own, but through brain injury, they need awareness of how their heads and their thinking is now unpredictable, even to themselves.
Last year, a film was made about Kevin’s accident and recuperation by the British, US- based documentary maker Lucy Walker. “Crash Reel” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival recently and is showing tomorrow in at the Berlinale Festival in Berlin. I am so glad, three years after I posed this pic in hope for his recovery, to be going to the film in celebration of just that; Kevin Pearce’s greatest achievement (to date!) and the biggest, steepest,highest, hardest mountain anyone could ever have climbed – and what is more, what is another of his strengths – Kevin is back at ground level smiling.