15 November 2010

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge

When reading José Saramago's "The Notebook" earlier this year I was left with an overwhelming sense of belonging that he felt for specific places, his beloved Lisbon, Azinhaga (the home of his grandparents), Brazil in its entirety, and his adopted home of the Canary Islands. It comes through in every word written, every description of the air and the smells and the sounds of the life that surounds him in each of these locations, even when those words are rebuking or chiding friends and enemies alike for transgressions real and imagined.

Shortly afterwards I read China Miéville's latest book, "Kraken", an urban tale of cephalopodic eschatology set in and around a London that is every part a character in its own right, if not the central character. The city flows through Miéville's blood, as much a part of him as he is of it, and if he does not love it he at the very least respects and appreciates it, and understands its moods and tempers like a sibling or a cell-mate.

In fact my shelves are, if anything, over-stocked with paeans and poems of love and devotion from authors to their cities, but these words fill me with nothing but sadness and jealousy; the truth is Dublin is a difficult city to love.

I am an urbanist. I believe in The City, I believe in the idea of The City. The word "Civilization" derives from the Latin word for city, and "city" itself derives from the concept of "a group of citizens". Civilization is, by definition, based upon the notion of a group of people coming together in an urban setting. Everything we are as a species is derived from The City, our history, our evolution, our origins as anything more than flint-striking hairless hominids is formed by The City, and in truth The City is also our future. City dwellers produce less greenhouse emissions, less waste and less children than their rural equivalents (see Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth Discipline" or last week's New Scientist for more analysis), so humanity's best hope for a truly sustainable future lies within an urban environment.

So I love the idea of The City, just not this City.

That is not to say that there are not aspects of this city that I love, for there are many both new and old: The Luas, the Dublin Bikes scheme, The Nine Arches, standing on the platform in Pearse Station on Westland Row, the view from the Blue Light or Stella Maris Convent in Howth, the Santiago Calatrava designed Beckett and Joyce bridges, the Iveagh Gardens and many, many more. But these are but parts, and not the whole, indeed it seems that in spite of many things both great and good somehow Dublin conspires to be somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

And I am not alone in this difficult relationship. The greatest literary account of our fair city was written five hundred miles away in Paris, a decade and more after the author fled its environs. The adopted Dublin of Kavanagh is only deified because his native Monaghan is even more horrific in comparison. Even our ballads old and young can only muster a begrudging respect for this "dirty Old Town", with its Liffey that "stank like hell", and its city spirit anthropomorphised in the body of a pox-ridden prostitute dead from a fever.

I want to love this city. As I walked out across its streets this morning I wanted to take solace in the autumnal smell of malting hops and barley settling over the rooftops like a familiar downy blanket, but all I could taste was the acrid cigarette stench of a blazing street-side bin-top ashtray smoking away while passers-by shuffled aside to avoid the junkies fighting over the meter of concrete under the ATM, their adenoidal clarion calls mingling with distant sirens and the all-too-close phlegmy-throat-hawking of sharp-elbowed business-suited criminals adding their own contributions to pavements soiled with piss and vomit and other more sinister human excreta.

At least its not raining.

Love for the city is not impossible though. A month or so ago I went down to Smithfield to see 'They Are Us', a collaborative exhibition by Dublin street artist Maser and musician Damian Dempsey. In the accompanying introduction to the exhibit Maser described the project as "a tribute to Dublin, a tribute to the city: northside and southside, the visible and the secret, the good and the bad" and further elaborated that "Dublin is a central theme in my work. I spent some time travelling and painting when I was younger. The more I travelled, the more I realised how great this city is. I loved it more from being away." and as I walked through the assembled faux-shop fronts, stylised signage and photographed street-art that formed the bulk of the show it was obvious that he, like singer/songwriter Dempsey whose words inspired many of the pieces, feels a genuine emotional bond with the city that surrounds him, and by-and-large that bond is a positive one. Like Maser I too have regained, if not love, then respect for the city whenever I have returned after an extended absence or acted as tour-guide for visting friends.

But this never seems to last.

I am a product of this city. I could not see myself living anywhere else in Ireland but here, and, mostly, I could not see myself living anywhere else at all. I just wish that the city could inspire something else inside of me other than constant disappointment.

It always struck me that the Old Testament says nothing about loving your parents, commanding the faithful instead to honour their mother and father. Perhaps this then is the best that I can hope for with my city, if I cannot love it perhaps then I can aspire to honour it.

They Are Us exhibition
Lusciousblopster's photos of the exhibit and other works by Maser

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At 2:18 pm, Blogger Niall Murphy said...

I have complicated, mostly negative feelings about this city (although they are less negative than they were a decade ago), some of which I have attempted to express in various media. Sounds like the kind of thing that can really only be seriously tackled over pizza however ;)


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