Friday, April 30, 2010

The Cheese

Sean O'Casey Community Centre, East Wall, Dublin

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I Scream, You Scream

Rome, Italy

There's a very good running joke in my life, and it goes by the name "final draft". Countless times I have wrongfully accused one of my projects of this verdict only to find later on that what I thought was final was really just a warm-up lap. Or that final just meant final-ish.

How do you know when a book is done? When it came to painting, Picasso said he knew that a painting of his was done "when the gentleman from the gallery comes to hang it." Dermot Bolger, an Irish writer with a slew of wonderful novels, poems, and plays under his belt, has in turn said he knows a play is done "when the gentlemen and ladies of the press come to hang the playwright." But what about novels?

Unless your measure of success involves joining forces with a bar code -- and more power to you if it does -- the finish line can be much fuzzier. Characters you've lived with for years can be hard to let go, and so you may find yourself having imaginary conversations with them or still thinking up clever plot twists. Or, in an extreme example, you might find yourself -- this is all hypothetical, of course -- typing sections of your floundering first novel into Babel Fish, translating a paragraph into Italian, then from Italian into French, then French back into English. Maybe it was a distancing device designed to suck some of the pain out of my pet project's slow demise. But then maybe it brought me back to one of the pleasures that drew me to writing in the first place: the simple, sometimes useless joy of putting certain words next to certain other words.

(If you have even a sliver of doubt that odd pairings of words can be both silly and sublime, you need look no further than Stephen Fry. In an episode of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Fry willfully unleashes on us the following sentence: "Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers." And if you think that's not astonishing and beautiful, you should probably stop reading this post now, for I am about to lead you down the road to utter codswallop.)

My novel-in-the-drawer -- that first heroic stab at writing a novel, started over ten years ago in earnest and abandoned five years later in dejection -- was great for this exercise. In fact, I liked some of the warped, over-translated phrases from my book so much that over time I grew convinced they were better than the original. "Please please it's very emergency" conveyed an urgency the original draft didn't have.

Imagine if, instead of beginning A Tale of Two Cities with the famous lines "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Charles Dickens had written this: "Era improves of the periods, was he most imperfect of periods"? Ah, fair enough. It would've been complete gibberish. Still, if anyone else is feeling adventurous and wants to take the first line or favorite passage of a story and give it the Babel Fish treatment, let me know what you come up with. Or if you've any stories of your own about things you've done out of boredom or sheer desperation in trying to get over a book, project, or holiday, share away. Suddenly an Edvard Munch "Scream" punching bag may not sound like such a bad idea.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hell's Kitchen

Wexford Street, Dublin

Yes, there is a restaurant in Dublin by the name of Hell, and you'll be pleased to know you can either go to Hell or, if you ask nicely, they will deliver Hell to your doorstep. (Take-away Hell is there for all you multi-taskers, if you don't mind the purgatorial wait.)

What's one to do after such a sinful meal? I have a dim memory from many years ago of a neon sign on Harcourt Street for a nightclub called The Vatican. One wonders if it's still there for late night repenters or if the Roman Catholic church has really lost its grip on the country.

Killer logo, by the way. I'd love to know who's responsible.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Smile, You're on CCTV

Iveagh Markets, Francis Street, Dublin

If I'm ever to find my fifteen minutes of fame, it will be on CCTV. Those cameras strategically planted in places most likely to attract criminal activity are there for a practical purpose. But they also happen to hone in on the grim alleys and lonesome laneways, the boarded-up houses and abandoned factories that attract a lover of urban dereliction such as myself. If a coil of barbed wire catches my eye, I will stop, take out my camera, and snap a picture. A security camera, detecting the flash, snaps right back at me. From time to time I do wonder about the sad warehouse where all this dull footage is stored, the security equivalent of those pictures you might have of an uncle or a relative that's him taking a picture of you taking a picture of him. Nevertheless, when they do unearth these wasted rolls of film, I'm sure to be a speck in more than one.

Dublin is a city of beautiful ruins. Now that the docklands, once my favorite place for that ends-of-the-earth post-industrial lonesomeness, have gotten the full Celtic Tiger makeover -- that is to say they have been overdeveloped, overdesigned, and made so very, very shiny -- I have had to go in search of other places to walk, wander, and wonder.

Empty lots, sparsely populated lanes, coil after coil of please-feck-off barbed wire -- don't even get me started on the charms of Dublin 8. I can wander for hours on foot through its maze of decidedly un-scenic streets, or swirl figure-8s on a borrowed bicycle. The only thing I can't stomach about the place is the smell of the nearby brewery. Taking in the rank stink of roasting hops from the Guinness Storehouse has as much in common with the smooth satisfaction of drinking a pint of the same stuff as Gary, Indiana has in common with, say, Gary Cooper. There's no comparison, really. But fortunately, there is no nostalgic Smell-O-Vision iPhone app, at least not yet, and daylight in a forgotten corner of town like this provides all sorts of delicious photo ops.

The Iveagh Markets were once fully operational and have since have been left to languish in a corner of The Liberties. It's a beautiful early Edwardian structure, all brick and stone on the outside and a cathedral of cast-iron inside, that once was a bustling center of industry and now is a haven for crushed Bulmer's cans and wayward Tayto crisps bags. While I won't hail this as progress, there is a certain pleasure to be had in pondering the what-was and the what-may-be of a place like this. Possibility is all the more exciting because you seem to be the only one on earth who notices this thing behind a heap of rubble on the outskirts of town. To use one of my favorite bits of non-native phraseology, people simply can't be arsed.

Plans to convert the Iveagh Markets into a hotel were bandied about in the early nineties. The plan was approved by the City Council, then abandoned, for reasons that remain unclear. But I wouldn't mind seeing the markets brought back to their original function, especially when I think of the success of the St. George's Market in Belfast, which is my go-to place for sinfully good crepes and the best place to see a band of merry white-haired Ulstermen playing rambunctious Dixieland jazz on a Saturday afternoon. Very well, I might add.

But until the Iveagh Markets get their much-deserved makeover, I'm happy to go on admiring its grim coils of barbed wire, grinning as I snap away, securing my place in the annals of CCTV history.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010