Back to the beach

I’ve been writing and editing for World Cup 2014 blog Straight off the Beach. So far I’ve written about banter, Steven Gerrard and Ross Barkley.

Today we’ve begun to put up team previews in alphabetical order, and will do so at a rate of three a day until we’ve previewed the bejeezus out of the tournament. Joe Kennedy’s introduction to the previews is here.

The run of the streets

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My essay on running and Raymond Queneau is in the first issue of Gorse:

Paris is a city upon which so many layers of history can be read that sometimes it can seem not a living and breathing city at all, but rather an archive of past events and people and ideas that have been lived out on such a grand scale that, for those who live there, it can surely appear difficult to do anything new or worthwhile.

It didn’t seem that way to me, though — although the place I had just come from, Dublin, had begun to wrap itself around me like a shroud. For me, Paris was an escape — another way of seeing.

I needed to leave Dublin. But I knew I’d have to go back. In the time between leaving Dublin and returning to it I began, seriously, to work on a book about the Irish capital. Most of this work was done in Paris, and when I wasn’t writing, or thinking about writing, I ran.

Read more here.

Gorse

I’m eagerly anticipating the publication of the first issue of Gorse, a new twice-yearly print journal that will publish longform literary essays, original fiction and interviews. It’s out in January, which is now only a day away.

The editors of Gorse, Susan Tomaselli and David Gavan, have recently revealed the cover design of the first issue, by artist Niall McCormack.

I have an essay in the issue: while running around Paris, I consider the place of the city in the work of Raymond Queneau. I also think about history, cities, and how my home city of Dublin always drags me back. Running around Paris also allows you to consider the literary place of walking, and how running is different (well, it’s faster innit?).

Queneau was born in Le Havre in 1903. He arrived in Paris as a student and remained there for the rest of his life. When I picture Queneau, I see the multiple passport-sized prints of the young writer, hair long on top and short on the sides, caught in a variety of comic poses: one where his head is bent forward while he ruffles his hair, another where his round glasses that sit askew are about to fall from the bridge of his nose. In others he adopts monstrous faces that barely mask his laughter.

[...]

Sometimes walking isn’t enough. When I’ve walked around a city for some time, and I seem to have exhausted the possibilities of that place, I look for other approaches. I want to find an angle that will break open the city and reveal something else, something I haven’t seen before.

Queneau

I’m looking forward to reading the pieces by the other contributors – an array of excellent, exciting writers such as Kevin Breathnach, Rob Doyle, Joanna Walsh and John Holten. Darran Anderson, who has recently written a book about Serge Gainsbourg’s Melody Nelson album, contributes an intriguing essay on ‘how modernism is ancient’. Darran has written his own post about the journal and his contribution to it.

(The contents for issue one are available here.)

Based on the contents of the new issue, it looks like Gorse is a publication that’s very much worth supporting – it’s going to go to some interesting places. Donate to Gorse here. Buy the forthcoming issue here.

The shit I’ve seen

A while ago I set myself the task of finding out what happens to our sewage once we flush the toilet. As a result, I spent much of the last 14 months thinking about sewage. I waded through the research and went to sewage plants and outfall pipes to have a nose around. The results of my investigations are in the Autumn issue of the Dublin Review:

When we think of sewage, we tend to think of human excrement. Drainage professionals use the term ‘wastewater’, and this is not a euphemism; it reflects the fact that most of what enters the sewer system is water: from showers, sinks, washing machines, dishwashers, toilets, industrial processes, and rain, which enters the drainage network via outdoor drains. But most of what makes wastewater offensive and dangerous, if it is not efficiently drained and treated, arises from the presence of human shit.

Alan Partridge hides in a septic tank during Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.
Alan Partridge hides in a septic tank during the movie Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.

I outline the debate about the planned construction of a sewage plant in north Dublin and talk to some of those campaigning against the siting of the plant in their local area, including Loughshinny farmer Barry Rice:

One of the maps showed two green lines – the path of the proposed pipeline – leading towards an area of land north of the harbour. Here the lines joined a wide rectangular box whose borders were green and which was scored with diagonal lines, also green. The rectangular box stretched a couple of centimetres into the sea, while a small amount  of land along the coast was also covered. This was the proposed area for the outfall sewer. Barry Rice looked at the map to see where his farm was located – ‘It’d be just kind of roughly … it’d be roughly along here, now. It’s obviously only a small bit of the coastline’ – and pointed to the land covered by the green box.

I wander around Ringsend sewage plant, the largest one in Ireland, with Michael Kenny, Acting Civil Engineer at the plant:

I was wearing a pair of safety glasses, a hard hat and a high-visibility jacket; although the possibility wasn’t discussed, I assumed the latter would be handy for locating me if I  fell into a tank of sewage. I looked across the site of the plant, back towards the city. To my left, I could see Sandymount Strand curving southwards. Behind me, the open tanks of sewage bubbled through their treatment cycles. Beyond them, the imposing chimneys of the old Poolbeg power station reminded me that heights were relative. I took notes, juggling a pen and notebook and digital camera. Having my hands full in this way made me worry about dropping my pen into the sewage below.

A sequencing batch reactor tank at Ringsend sewage plant
A sequencing batch reactor tank at Ringsend sewage plant

I find a fairly disgusting pile of grit next to one of the tanks, and notice something disturbingly familiar there:

Whatever sinks to the base of the tank is spat out by two large plastic tubes into a long grey skip. Without getting any closer than was necessary, I had a look at the black-brown heaps of grit that had built up in the skip. There were stones there, as I’d expected, but the grit heaps were also dotted with a startling number of bright yellow specks that stood out against the dull background. It took me a second to realize what I was looking at.

 

‘You do get some organic stuff like sweetcorn,’ Kenny said.

I find out about the strange afterlife of sewage: how it’s converted to fertiliser and spread on fields, and give a brief history of Dublin’s subterranean sewage infrastructure. I also drag my girlfriend along to look at the largest sewage plant in Europe, near a small village to the west of Paris.

Another earthquake

Early this morning there was an earthquake off the coast of Wales that was reported in the Irish and UK media.

Back in 1984, a significantly larger earthquake off the coast of Wales affected Ireland, making the front page of the Irish Times.

Earthquake

Back in 2009 I wrote about the 1984 earthquake for the Irish Times‘s Irishman’s Diary:

The possibility that an earthquake would affect Ireland had previously seemed remote; an earthquake, or temblor, was something exotic – something that happened on the other side of the world – rather than something that shook you out of bed and made your house creak and sway on a Thursday morning. It was either that or you knew it as a metaphor: dramatic, seemingly life-changing news events were routinely referred to as being like an “earthquake”.

But when the earth moved, the earth really did move.

Read my article here.

(PDF here.)

Running the streets

This morning I turned out of my house, crossed the green nearby, ran downhill and under the motorway to the park.

I’ve been running for years – but on and off, always for fitness, never as a way of life. I can always quit – and do – but always come back to it.

I’ve run nearly everywhere I’ve lived: during the few weeks I spent in Edinburgh, as a postgraduate student in Norwich, a few times in America, in Paris, and now, once again, back in Dublin.

They say you never know a place unless you actually live there, but it’s also possible to live somewhere and not know it in the way that you do when you run it. Inclines that seem slight when you drive, cycle or walk are revealed to you when you’re dragging your legs up them, having already run several kilometres of hills.

This was especially clear to me in Paris: for months on end I had a fairly standard circuit that looped around from the rue Trousseau, up avenue Ledru-Rollin to place Léon Blum, then down the boulevard Voltaire. I thought of several things as I ran along that stretch: the fact that a young Picasso stayed in the hotel just before the turn to the gymnase Japy, a gym hall where the Parti Socialiste was formed in 1899 and where Parisian Jews were interned during the Second World War. As I passed the Charonne metro station I thought of the eight protestors who died there on 8th February 1962. These three locations were within a hundred metres of one another: all cities are palimpsests of historical memories, Paris more so.

In Edinburgh I ran, thinking of Thomas de Quincey dying in that city in a dusty room, in debt. The muscle-stretching hills of that city lend themselves to transcendental thoughts when running, as does the mountainous east of Paris: when I’m climbing a hill, I’ll think of anything to distract myself from the difficulty of my task. Sometimes I’ll fix on a phrase and repeat it to myself internally until the rhythm becomes a mantra, like Bloom picking apart advertising slogans. Often I’ll just count to a hundred repeatedly, matching the rhythm of my pace. But most frequently I’ll look around, taking in buildings and streets and hills and reminding myself what I know about them, and promising myself I’ll find out more.

On the last night before I left Paris to move back to Dublin, I went for a run up the Canal St Martin, past the site of the Gibet de Montfaucon – once an elaborate and horrific cubic construction from which men were hanged. I thought about how blood would run down the hill from the gibbet, and then wondered if I had confused it with the Mur des Fédéres, the wall in Pérè Lachaise cemetery at which the Communards were shot.

I ran past the space-age Communist headquarters, up the hill and cut to the right, up some steps and around a curving cobbled street which a Situationist dérive had once reached. I later learned that this hill, the butte Bergeyre, once had a stadium sited on top – the stade Bergeyre, which in 1920 hosted the French Cup final, in which CA Paris beat Le Havre 2-1. It also hosted some of the football games in the 1924 Olympics. The stadium had been knocked down in 1926; one day it was there, then it was gone.

olympique stade bergeyre

When I ran down that cobbled street on the butte Bergeyre, I didn’t know about the old sports stadium that was long demolished – I was there because it had become a place I was drawn to because the Situationists had been drawn there long before me.

Cities exist whether we want them to or not, whether we’re there or not. Yet Paris is still with me, even when I’m running along the pavements and through the parks of a south Dublin suburb. We come and go.

Will Self’s radiator: how do writers keep warm?

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but when I read about a writer’s office, or see a picture of the room in which they undertake the majority of their work, I wonder how they heat it. Only occasionally in photos can you glimpse a white painted radiator attached to the wall (in Will Self’s study in his Brixton home, for example – or Beckett’s Parisian study). Sometimes it’s obvious that the room is designed to heat itself to some degree (George Bernard Shaw’s rotating writing hut, which allowed him to follow the sun). Otherwise you’re forced to assume that, somewhere in the writer’s room, the process of heating is taking place, but that the writer thinks it’s none of our business how it’s done.

radiator

You may think my obsession with writers’ heat sources a little peculiar, but to me it’s quite a practical preoccupation. For the last five months or so, I’ve been writing a non-fiction book about Dublin. Much of this time has been spent in a box room in the rented house I share with my girlfriend on a south Dublin housing estate. The room is smallish, but big enough to accommodate two desks (a large desk – mine; a smaller one – hers). As my girlfriend mostly works from an office in the city centre, I’m habitually the sole resident here, sitting in my cheap office chair, trying to hammer out a substantial word count on a daily basis. A lot of this writing has taken place during a quite icy winter.

On cold days, I had initially tried working without any heat source at all – but my hands would freeze up, mangling the words I typed on the keyboard. I had a choice: either find some heating or fall considerably behind with my writing. Because it seemed wasteful, not to mention costly, to heat the entire house, I thought I’d try and find a small plug-in heater.

When you’re interested in literature, you begin to wonder how certain writers would do certain things: you become obsessed with writers’ working methods and try to emulate their approaches in the hope that a little of what you irrationally assume is the magic of their compositional process will somehow elevate your own tawdry routines. Don DeLillo composes each new paragraph on a new page. Nabokov wrote on index cards. Hemingway wrote standing up. Perhaps I could do these things too? (Many of these examples are drawn from Brian Dillon’s excellent I Am Sitting in A Room, a wry commentary on the obsession with writers’ rooms.)

While in this frame of mind, I wondered what kind of heater a great contemporary novelist – like Philip Roth, say – would buy if he was in my position. And by ‘my position’, I mean: attempting to buy a reasonably priced plug-in heater that would keep a twelve foot-by-twelve foot room warm.

But I’m sad to say that the literature on this topic is sorely lacking. I combed the Paris Review – usually the go-to source for information about the minutiae of writers’ habits – and discovered nothing.

Eventually, though, I found the dearth of literary commentary on the question of office heating somehow liberating. With no anxiety of influence to overcome, I unselfconsciously chose a decent heater and have been writing fairly steadily ever since.

Ask an Archaeologist: Dublin’s Underground Rivers

Last year I wandered around Dublin’s Liberties area with Franc Myles, an archaeologist who has carried out numerous digs in the locality. My article based on our journey, which traced the manmade branches of the River Poddle, has just been published in the Dublin Review.

When Franc Myles wanted to trace the course of a river through Dublin’s Liberties, he had to go underground. He and a fellow archaeologist, Steve McGlade, had been excavating a site at the north-west corner of the junction of Ardee Street and Cork Street, below which the stream ran. “We said ‘fuck it’, you know? ‘We’re archaeologists, we can’t just let it run under the building and not investigate it’, so we did.” They climbed into the culvert that channelled the stream below Ardee Street and walked east, in the direction of St Patrick’s Cathedral.

It’s very difficult to refer to the Poddle as a single river. It feeds a knotty network of diversions below Dublin’s Liberties, and has gone by many different names over the years.

The Poddle has also been known as the Pottle, the Puddle, the Salach and, further upstream near Tallaght, the Tymon. The Commons Water, being a wholly separate river until it joins the Poddle at the end of the Coombe, is an innocent bystander in all of this. Yet its course, which crosses the artificial diversions of the Poddle, ensures it is often mistaken for the better-known river. When walking along the courses of the rivers, I frequently had to remind myself which one I was standing above, and which one I was about to intersect.

As well as telling me about his underground adventures, Franc showed me how to read the urban fabric of the city, so that you could look at a street, compare its form to a historical map, and tell what had once stood there.

Franc pointing out a street

Franc is an engaging guide to the Liberties area, and cuts a memorable figure:

Franc is six foot five in height and forty-seven years old, with greying hair gelled straight up in spikes. He was wearing a bright yellow high-visibility vest with the word ‘Archaeologist’ printed on it in black letters and a pair of streamlined Ray-Ban sunglasses; he wore both the vest and sunglasses throughout our walk, and pushed a bike alongside him.

At one point, Franc stopped to point out a wall:

See the wall in behind? That is a fucking amazing wall. It’s one of the few we’ve actually found a reference for – off the top of my head it’s either 1682 or 1692. We found a reference to its construction in one of the Brabazon leases. And it was basically constructed to separate land known as the Artillery Field – which was one of these places that during the disturbances in the 1640s they used as an artillery park – and the brewery of William Cheney. Now William Cheney, it turns out, is an ancestor of the former American Vice-President, Dick Cheney. So we wrote to him and said, “Any chance of getting a few quid for a publication?” We didn’t receive a response.

The Cheney wall, photographed through a building

Read more in the Autumn issue of the Dublin Review.