Bossing the Nightshift

Cover versions get a bad press. They’re rarely as good as the originals, or the originals as you remember them. They often try too hard to be tricksyly different. But one exception to the rule for me has been Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Nightshift” from his latest album. Only the Strong Survive is Springsteen’s 21st studio album and is made up of fifteen “soul music greats’. It came out late last year and, though I’m not a die hard fan, I’ve been revisiting this track for old times’ sake.

The Boss’s take on “Nightshift”, which was the last gasp of funk/soul from 70/80s band The Commodores, doesn’t mess with a good thing, although his chastened 73-year-old voice gives what was a smooth R & B inspired track, a more brawny melancholy.

Or is that just me?

The lyrics of “Nightshift” (released in 1985) celebrate soul greats Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who had both died the previous year. The song imagines them reunited, gigging together on a celestial nightshift. 

Gonna be a long night
It’s gonna be alright, on the nightshift
You found another home
I know you’re not alone, on the nightshift

Back in the 80s, when The Commodores were charting with the track (straight after Lionel Ritchie had left them for a solo career), I was literally on the night shift, working as a sub-editor in Dublin newspapers. There was nothing even vaguely celestial about the 8pm–4am shift. 

Politically and historically, these were dark years. As journalists, we maintained ghoulish vigils for hunger-strikers, warned of hurricanes and snowfalls that came in the wee small hours, charted the late-night casualties of sectarianism, war, air travel, cars and drink. Our job was to sit in deserted newsrooms waiting for the bad news to come.

On our nightshift, you were alone.

There was plenty of time to consider your debt, your broken heart, your unfulfilled ambitions, as you sat awake in the graveyard hours keeping watch while the normal world slept. And to wonder what the hell you were doing with your life. A time designed for existential angst.

Coincidentally, in the past week, two former colleagues of mine from The Irish Times and this era – Noel McFarlane and Liam McAuley – who’d have done their fair share of these shifts in their time, have passed on to the great subs desk in the sky. It gives added poignancy to the Springsteen track, and the memories it evokes. At our age, nostalgia has a treacherous undertow – the loss of companions who shared those times with you.

Despite the fact that it’s an elegy, “Nightshift” is paradoxically, a bouncy number. It has a danceable rhythm and a breezy, feel-good, optimistic mood – essentially a kind of “we’ll meet again” vibe.  So, I’m hoping. . . the promise of an afterlife is one of the last vestiges of religious belief to die.

Over 35 years on, I’m living with the legacy of those long ago night shifts. I still keep ridiculous hours. Late to bed, late to rise.  

But as Elaine Stretch memorably sang in the gnarly Stephen Sondheim classic – ” I’m still here!” And in the words of another classic from the now forgotten 1960s musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd – “And I’m feeling good.” (Covered by Nina Simone, Michale Bublé, George Michael and a raft of others.)

Cooking the books

Even with the enormous growth of recipes online, there’s nothing quite like the heft of a cook book to anchor you in the kitchen. The stains of previous attempts – failed and successful – may shrivel and wrinkle the paper or stick the pages together – but they are testament to the fact that you have a culinary history. (That said, I, for one, am grateful for Yotam Ottolenghi’s cook books with their padded-cell covers and sheeny, stain-resistant pages, which acknowledge that preparation and cooking is a messy job. ) But cookbooks are not mere functional how-to guides; they’re emotional journeys.

When clearing my mother’s house after her death, the hardest items to jettison were her cookbooks. She was a great cook and baker, though I suspect her skills hadn’t come to her naturally. She went to classes in the School of Catering in Cathal Brugha Street as a young wife and her bible was All in the Cooking, a workaday volume of recipes for everyday life full of family stalwarts – lots of dripping, as I recall – on which a whole generation of 50s kids were raised. Her edition was falling apart – a sure sign that it had been pressed into service – and she had bound it in corrugated cardboard covers to keep it together. It was stuffed-full of transcribed rogue recipes, written in her own hand, as well as clippings from newspapers and magazines.

There was also a couple of big, bold, full-colour productions among her cook books, probably gifts. These were essentially coffee-table books from a time when cooking transitioned from being a practical virtue to a spectator sport, and colour printing came into its own. One I recall is The Hamlyn All Colour Cook Book, which, when I went searching for it online, I discovered was authored by Mary Berry. Interesting how the notion of the celebrity chef hadn’t quite happened in 1970 when this book was published. The Hamlyn volume is an illustrated social history of its time. It features a compendium of aspirant recipes for the upwardly mobile. Black Forest Gateau, Swiss Fondue, Chilli Con Carne, Prawns in Marie Rose sauce – dishes that are now being studiously deconstructed in an ironic way by the master chefs of today.

One book I came across in my mother’s things that I wasn’t familiar with was Full and Plenty by Maura Laverty. As I leafed through it I was amazed to discover that long before the Nigel Slaters and Nigella Lawsons of this world, Irish author Maura Laverty had written a cross-genre cookbook.

Hardly surprising since Laverty (1907-1966) was first and foremost a fiction writer, and creator of Ireland’s first TV soap – Tolka Row – in the 1960s. Born in Rathangan, Co Kildare, Laverty, one of nine children, led a colourful, if sometimes financially precarious life. Her father was a farmer on a two-hundred-acre holding, but his gambling ruined the family financially. He then set up a drapery business, but this enterprise also failed. Eventually, he died, and his widow turned to dressmaking to support herself and her children.

Maura moved to Spain as a teenager and acted as governess and later secretary to Princess Bibesco, a rich socialite and writer, who was born as Elizabeth Asquith, daughter of British prime minister Herbert Asquith. She subsequently became a foreign correspondent in Madrid, and wrote for one of the city’s newspapers, El Debate. She returned to Ireland in 1928 to marry James (Seamus) Laverty and in 1937 joined 2RN, the forerunner of RTE. She later became head of women’s and children’s programmes and substituted as the station’s “agony aunt”. When her husband ran into financial difficulties, she supported the family of three children, and became the breadwinner when the marriage broke down.

Writer Nuala O’Faolain recalls meeting her in the 50s. “Maura was in the world of Ireland and Dublin… she knew how to earn good money .She got me my first ever professional job, passing on a commission to research authentic recipes for the new Bunratty Banquet. . .but I used to feel loneliness coming from her. Three children were growing up on the proceeds of her hard work. Where was her husband ? A husband was never mentioned.”

Despite her acumen with money, Laverty never lost the feeling of financial hazard.  In 1946 she wrote:“Someone asked me the other day if I were getting a touch of arthritis in the first and second fingers of my right hand. I’m not, it’s just that my fingers are getting that way from having to keep them crossed all the time.” 

Her best known novels are closely autobiographical. Her debut, Never No More (1942) is based on her childhood recollections of life with her grandmother. It was well received by critics and came with an enthusiastic preface from Sean OFaolain. She followed it with Alone We Embark (1943), a novel about marital infidelity, which, although temporarily banned by the Irish censor (not apparently on moral grounds but for its depiction of harsh living conditions) won the Irish Women’s Writer’s Award. Her third novel, No More than Human, another semi-autobiographical work set in Spain, was published in 1944.

According to the Dictionary of Irish Biography, she may have drawn on her impressions of Dublin’s poor during a period living in the Fitzwilliam Lane area for her final novel, Lift Up Your Gates (1946), the story of Chrissie, a young girl growing up in the slums. However, her biographer Seamus Kelly, suggests that she might have also relied on personal experience. It’s believed that she was sent, aged 9, to live with a childless couple for two years, in Hardwicke Street in Dublin’s north inner city, which would have placed her there in the middle of the Easter Rising.

Laverty also wrote numerous children’s stories and a collection of her fairy tales was published posthumously in 1995. On top of that, she wrote three other cookbooks – Flour Economy (1941), commissioned by the government to teach housewives how to cope with wartime rationing. Kind Cooking (1946) – illustrated by artist Louis le Brocquy – and Feasting Galore (1952).

But the authorial voice in Full and Plenty (1960) is not of a woman of letters leaning on her prodigious reputation. In the introduction she writes – “The preparation of food has always been to me what literature or music or painting is to others” – as if she’d never written herself.

As food and design historian Rhona Richman Keneally remarks, the book was “part home economics manual, part fiction, part creative memoir, part assortment of historical and folk tales”.

“Unlike Laverty’s novels, which were banned or decried because they approached controversial subjects in a graphic way, her cookbooks could be successfully subversive in part because of their genre: they could fly under the radar, seemingly innocuous as mere accumulations of cooking instructions,” Kenneally adds.

The book showcases Laverty’s accomplishments as an author and playwright, but it never talks down to its audience. “Cooking,” she tells her readers, ” is the poetry of housework.”

Full and Plenty is set in the fictional Ballyderrig where the “author” of the cookbook, or the persona she adopts, lives, so that we see the recipes as belonging to characters she writes about. Each section is introduced with a short story in a playful mood, in which the featured food plays a part, sometimes fleetingly, sometimes centrally. In the “Bread” section, Mrs Feeney is in a tizzy because her 35-year-old son has got engaged and is inviting the fiancee to tea. Mrs Feeney can’t bake a cake to save her life, though she’s a champion bread-maker. However, the prospective daughter-in-law Anna is a “college-trained cook with classy notions about dressed-up dishes.” Mrs Feeney drafts in her controlling neighbour Mrs Donnelly to make the fancies, but when the “scornful college-trained cook” arrives, it’s Mrs Feeney’s soda bread she admires, while passing over Mrs Donnelly’s iced sponge and marble cake.

“I always think it’s in the cooking of plain food that a real cook proves herself,” Anna says to the assembled company, which includes Mrs Donnelly. “Any child could make a sweet cake that will pass. . . But there’s no way of disguising badly-made soda bread.”

The match with the mother-in-law is assured and Mrs Donnelly slinks away unnoticed.

“Fish” features a conscientious fishery board official who’s seduced into eating a poached salmon (poached in both sense of the word) in the home of his arch-enemy, Barney Malone, the local who’s been thieving fish from the local river. “Vegetables and Salads” tells the story of a middle-aged landlady Lottie Fenton, who won’t serve onions to her new lodger, Hugh Doherty, because they have painful associations; her first love dumped her because of her oniony breath. (As an “uninstructed orphan”, Lottie didn’t know “that a glass of milk sipped slowly or a mouthful parsley chewed leisurely” will destroy all evidence of onion-eating.) But one day, while Lottie is at the dentist, Hugh breaks the taboo by cooking stuffed onions the way his mother did and is caught in the act. As with most of these tales, all ends well when Doherty, a 50-year-old man holding a torch for his landlady, overcomes the horrified reaction to the transgression. With an apron still tied around his ample middle, he strides masterfully across the kitchen, takes Lottie in his arms and declares his passion.

Statia Dunne nabs the local doctor with her famous stew in “Meats, Poultry and Game”.

“Canapés, Sandwiches and Toast” features Nan Clery, housekeeper to widowed seamstress Rose Brennan, who has to support a family of four on the proceeds of her dressmaking business. (A familiar figure for Laverty after her mother’s experience – and then her own.) Tied together by circumstances, the two women form a partnership that lasts 30 years and is closer to a happy marriage than a mistress/servant relationship. It was a configuration not uncommon in the Ireland of the time, an extended and well-functioning female household. “She (Nan)helped to lay out Tessie, the youngest, when she died of meningitis. She packed Lena’s trunk for her when she went off to be a nun. She knitted six pairs of socks for Paddy to take to Africa when he got his job in the gold fields. And she helped to dress Clare the morning she married the Dublin insurance man.”

This piece, written in the first person recounting the story of these two women, assures the reader that most of the recipes that follow are from Nan Clery’s repertoire. As in her other writing, Maura Laverty drew very closely from life, while at the same time maintaining the “fictional” world she’d created in Full and Plenty.

“A close reading of the language and storylines in these works highlights the remarkable abilities and positive impact that Irish women could and did have in the domestic sphere and beyond,” Rhona Richman Keneally observes. “Evident also is the resourcefulness with which women could and did adapt to evolving economic circumstances and incursions of modernity, and the sense of accomplishment that could come with housework – and especially cooking – if contemplated as a means of empowerment not oppression, and as a vocation unequivocally warranting deep appreciation and respect.”

Interestingly, my mother’s copy of Full and Plenty is absolutely pristine. It doesn’t look like she ever used it. Maybe she just read the fictional and memoir bits? Maybe it was another unwanted gift?

I have yet to try any of the recipes. ( Statia Dunne’s doctor-winning stew would be good place to start, I think. ) But it has made me curious about this gifted, versatile Irish writer, who subverted form to become an early pioneer of food fiction.

Above: Maura Laverty in 1963. Photograph: Courtesy of RTE Archive.

Sheares Street, here I come!

I am in the midst of a fresh round of sending out a newly-minted manuscript to the few publishers who will accept unsolicited work. This is the most joyless part of the writing process, particularly if, like me, you don’t have literary representation i.e. an agent. In these beleaguered times, it’s as hard – if not harder – to get an agent than it is to find a publisher. And you discover there’s a reason why being a literary agent is a full-time job. It is a full-time job.

The agent-less writer loses a great deal of writing time juggling with the bureaucratic demands of the literary world, trying to decipher and comply with all the different requirements of publishing houses running open submissions. Full manuscript or excerpt? Long extract, short extract? Tell-all synopsis with blow-by-blow account of the action, or bare bones of the plot? Reveal spoilers? Or not? Full pitch document, or one-line elevator pitch?

It’s a whole new language to learn.

And if you’re applying to agents, it seems that often they’re asking you to do their job for them. Who is your reader, how would you market your book, what other books is it like? (None, you hope.) Didn’t I write the bloody thing, you want to shout, isn’t that enough? But the answer is no.

And this is just the sending-out stage. At the other end of the process is rejection. And so dire is the state of affairs that you get to value a rejection because it means someone has actually read the MS. In the main, the more frequent response is zilch, nada, a deafening silence. (There are honourable exceptions to this trend, but they are few and far between.)

Is there any other business that treats its clients, its “producers”, so very badly? I doubt it.

But I didn’t mean to launch into such a full-throated howl about the woes of the literary world. Because in the midst of this dismal process, I got some good news. Unsolicited good news of an artistic nature.

How rare is that?

The only surprise is that it had nothing to do with writing.

Early in summer 2021, Cork City Council ran a community-based art competition encouraging people to explore the South Parish and Marsh areas of the city. The idea was to invite the public to submit drawings that captured the area’s unique architectural features. Eight winning drawings were selected to be used as permanent markers for a guided route and these were printed on handmade tiles made  by ceramicist Bernadette Tuite. –

The council arranged walking tours of the area in advance of the competition and I went on one of these and decided to throw my hat into the ring. I chose to draw a decorative finial on the front gable roof of the Mardyke Bar on Sheares Street – a small winged feature that most casual visitors might miss. You have to look up to see it!

In my youth I did some drawing and painting, but in the intervening years I’ve spent more time looking at art rather than doing it. My design was chosen as one of the winners, and now it sits – at knee height – on the corner of Anne Street, with a bar code you can use to find out more information about the building and the area. The chosen route has eight stops and celebrates the smaller details of historic urban architecture including wrought iron railings, sash windows, intricate stone carvings and fanlights. (Other tile markers are placed at Nano Nagle Place, James Street, the Red Abbey, Wandersford Quay, the Mercy Hospital among other locations.) For further information go to Marsh and South Parish Orienteering Project on

Although I’ve always enjoyed the process of writing, I realise, as I get older, how exhausting the associated activities around it are. I’ve been writing for 48 years, and published for 36 albeit with some long gaps between books, so this is not a hobby, not a career (if you’re to measure a career by the level of monetary award), it’s really closer to a life investment. And like any investment, you’re eternally vigilant about it. There is a constant pacing of yourself and your creative energy against the march of time and the march of fashion in the book business. And business it is.

Doing my little pen and ink sketch was so simple, so uncomplicated in comparison, divorced as it was from all the sensations of extreme application, striving and anxiety I’m so used to in writing. There was no sense of pressure. I did it with no expectation at all.

And the upshot of it is that I now find myself immortalised on a ceramic tile on the corner of Sheares Street and Anne Street in Cork – not bad for a blow-in, and a blow-in from Dublin at that!

My place is assured, in case I never get a blue plaque for the old writing.

Janis Ian and the Rose of Tralee

It was the summer 1977. I had just moved into my first flat – a tiny bed-sit, which took up the back reception room of a small terraced house in Tralee. Two elderly sisters lived there (when I say elderly, that’s the perception of my 20-year-old self – they were probably the age I am now!) Their hair was set in iron perms and they wore blue nylon housecoats to spare their clothes. We shared an entrance hallway and a bathroom; they shared an overweening interest in my social life. Under the house rules, gentleman visitors were expressly forbidden. And if you managed to smuggle one in, there wasn’t much hope of anything happening given the monastic single bed, the scanty availability of contraceptives, and, I was sure, the presence of one of the sisters with an ear trumpet to the wall.

I don’t know if the sisters ever got to grips with my erratic schedule – I was a cub reporter with the local newspaper so I kept uneven hours – but since they were creatures of habit, I soon learned their patterns and knew the evenings when the coast was clear. I made the most of it.

Not that the most was very much – it mainly consisted of playing records at young men. My sound bible of that year was Janis Ian’s “Between the Lines”. Everything about this album spoke to me, the complicated, clever lyrics, its poignant mood, Ian’s soulful, melancholy voice and, it has to be said, its air of romantically grandiose self-pity. That was absolutely fine by me; that was where I was at.

I remember playing the signature track from that album, the Grammy-winning “At Seventeen” to one suitor I was particularly keen on, who blithely dismissed it as juvenile and glib. I was quietly outraged. Little did he know – this was a test and he had failed gloriously. If you didn’t like Janis Ian, I didn’t like you.

What made his verdict more shocking was that very few people of my acquaintance (particularly of the female variety) actively disliked “At Seventeen”. If anything, it attracted too much identification.

It’s a song that voices the feelings of teenage wallflowers, ugly ducklings with acne who are oppressed by popularity politics at school, whose names are “never called when choosing sides at basketball”, who have to invent lovers on the phone to make up for the lack of action in the romance department. Trouble was even tall, thin, blonde, sporty girls who had oodles of boyfriends and no shortage of invitations thought of “At Seventeen” as their song and they would sing mournfully along when it came on the radio.

It was a case of “At Seventeen” – c’est moi .

They seemed to miss the irony that girls like them – the “rich-relationed home town queens who marry into what they need” – were Janis Ian’s target, not her audience.

Over the years, I’ve been a devoted follower of Ian’s – though, I must admit, that for the suitable suitor test, I moved on to “Rumours” by Fleetwood Mac and “Blue” by Joni Mitchell.

Throughout the 70s and into the 80s, however, I bought and savoured and sang along with all of Ian’s oeuvre – “Stars”, “Aftertones”, “Night Rains”, “Restless Eyes” and my own favourite, the concept album “Miracle Row”. Concept album – doesn’t that date both Janis and me! I saw her live twice – once in Vicar Street, Dublin, in the 90s and again in the early Noughties in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I happened to find myself teaching.

The daughter of radicals – her parents were on a FBI watchlist – Janis Ian was a precocious talent. She wrote her first song at 12 and signed her first recording contract at 13. As a teenager, she partied with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin – and survived! Both of them, heavily addicted, warned her off drugs and steered her away from dealers. She was friends with Nina Simone and James Baldwin, she did backing vocals for Leonard Cohen and James Brown.

Most people don’t class Ian as a protest singer, but her first album in 1965 (recorded when she was 14) featured “Society’s Child” about an inter-racial teen romance, which was considered so controversial that 22 record companies rejected it, and radio stations in the south of the US banned it from the airwaves. One radio station in Atlanta which included it on its playlist was burned to the ground and Ian was spat at on the street and heckled during performances. But it was championed by composer Leonard Bernstein and became a hit. Ella Fitzgerald dubbed her the “best young singer songwriter in America”.

She’s had two long breaks from recording, one after the breakdown of a violent first marriage, and again in the mid-90s, when she was defrauded by a business manager which meant there was no money for studio time and the proceeds of her live work were going to the IRS. But as she sings in the title track of her latest album, she’s still here.

It’s her first CD in 15 years, and she says it will be her last. Aged 71, she’s on a major tour of the US, after which she’ll devote herself to writing, but there will no more studio albums. For old times’ sake, I bought “The Light at the End of the Line” and although I’d lost track of her after “Breaking the Silence”, her “coming out” album, of 1992, I was delighted to find that although this is is a sparer, harsher sound than those lush, lyrical early albums, she still speaks to me.

This is a voice that has earned its melancholy, its bitter-sweetness and its anger. She hasn’t lost her edge. One of the tracks on the farewell album, “Resist”, a no-holds barred anthemic howl against misogyny, has been roundly boycotted by radio stations across the US for being too “sexual” and she’s been trolled and harangued on social media about it. Plus ca change.

Meanwhile, back in late summer of 1977, while I was quoting lines of hers at the suitors – “love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear-skinned smiles who marry young and then retire,” my permed landladies were hosting a real-live beauty queen. It was the annual Rose of Tralee festival and one of the Rose contestants was staying in the house, chaperoned by one of the sisters. Chaperoning was a hands-on job, requiring strict supervision of the contestant and management of her social and moral diary, assisted by upright young men from good homes who acted as their escorts. (The language of “chaperones” and “escorts” makes it seem more like a Jane Austen novel than a 20th century beauty pageant.)

But the Rose of Tralee organisers were insistent the contest was not just a flesh parade, but a more wholesome enterprise. Inspired by a 19th century parlour song, contestants were required to embody the purity and innocence of the original Rose.

She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer
Yet, ’twas not her beauty alone that won me
Oh no! ‘Twas the the truth in her eye ever beaming
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

Imagine my surprise then when one night coming back to my bed-sit in the early hours, I came upon “our” Rose in the darkened hallway, in full ball gown regalia, creeping up the stairs, stilettos in one hand, leading her escort with the other. I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to be playing records for him.

The landladies were fast asleep; content that their chaperoning duties could be put to bed. I couldn’t believe my luck. Here was a juicy news story right on my doorstep; both the escort and the Rose would be drummed out of the competition for such licentious behaviour. But I suspected, given the importance of the festival to the local economy, that this was a story that might get buried. And I’d certainly get evicted if I spilled the beans about the transgression. So I opted for judicious silence.

There were tactical advantages to keeping it to myself. The secret could be used as ammunition in the future, I thought, if I was ever to be challenged on one of my gentleman callers.

Top: Janis Ian performing at the RDS , Dublin, in 1983 – Photograph: Kevin McMahon/Irish Times.
Above: Janis Ian today – Photograph: Peter Cunningham..

She came so far for beauty!

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As followers of this blog will know, I’ve been involved in mounting a retrospective exhibition of the works of Dublin painter and designer Una Watters (1918-65) – see, a site about Una that I curate. One of the first followers of that blog was my Australian friend, Helen Ferry, a painter herself, who became a fierce fan of Una’s work, as we searched for her “lost” paintings through the site with a view to setting up the retrospective exhibition – Una’s first in over 50 years.

That show – Una Watters: Into the Light – has attracted a wide variety of visitors, from Dublin – Finglas, in particular which features in many of the works – and Ballinasloe, Co Galway, where Una spent summers with her husband, the writer Eugene Watters (Eoghan O Tuairisc). But none of them are quite as far-flung as Helen, who decided she couldn’t miss the opportunity to see the exhibition “live”. She arrived in Ireland from Oz on St Patricks Day – right into the middle of the parade in Dublin, as it happens.

Although she missed the opening of the exhibition (March 10) she will be here for a reception to mark the final week of the show tonight – Wednesday, March 30 @ 7pm at the United Arts Club – where art historian Dr Roisin Kennedy (UCD) will give a short talk about Una’s work. All welcome!

Meanwhile, here is Helen with her favourite painting from Una’s retrospective, Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain ( 1959). Why does she like it? “It’s the driving rain,” she says. ” I can feel the texture and temperature of it and I feel I’m right under that umbrella.” And Helen, as an Australian, LOVES the rain. Even though she has just come from a deluge in Sydney!

You can see this and all the other works at Una Watters:Into the Light at the United Arts Club, 3 Upr Fitzwilliam St, Dublin 2. The exhibition continues until April 2.

Weighty matters

Female friendship gone sour is rarely centre stage in political dramas on TV. Particularly when the drama concerned features President Bill Clinton. “Impeachment: American Crime Story” breaks that mould. It’s the third outing for this FX series which creates drama from recent political history and true crime cases – OJ Simpson and the killing of Gianni Versace featured in the first and second seasons.

“Impeachment” concentrates on the affair between President Bill Clinton and a 22-year-old unpaid White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. This relationship – along with a sexual harassment claim made by secretary Paula Jones against Clinton when he was the state governor of Arkansas – ignited the impeachment process against him in 1998/99.

What’s interesting about this series, however, is that it views much of the action from the perspective of Lewinsky and her “friend” and colleague, Linda Tripp (46). It’s this relationship – rather than the one between Lewinsky and Clinton, or even the Clinton marriage – that makes the show so compelling.

The early episodes are like the Slimfast Chronicles. There is a steady diet of conversation between the two about weight, how many pounds each has lost, how long Monica has laboured at the gym. Linda Tripp’s meals are often product-placement Weight Watchers fare or Slimfast drinks, followed by surreptitious fast food at her desk or micro-waved dinners on a tray in front of the TV at home. Food and its consequences weigh heavily on both women. This seemed to me utterly and depressingly true to life; the lives of Western women are constantly circumscribed by their relationship to the scales. And in this case, it’s also the scales of justice.

In “Impeachment” Lewinsky is played as both steely and wide-eyed by Beanie Feldstein. She is annoyingly self-absorbed, touchingly romantic as well as sexually frank. Linda Tripp (an almost unrecognisable prosthetically enhanced Sarah Paulson) is sourly strident, combative and self-aggrandising.

The pair met in the Pentagon having both worked in the White House. Tripp was a career civil servant who’d worked in the Bush administration before the Clintons took over. According to author Jeffrey Toobin whose non-fiction book, A Vast Conspiracy , inspired the “Impeachment” script, Tripp “represented one of the archetypes that the right wing most despised. She was a civil service lifer whose mastery of the arcana of job rights, seniority, pay levels and retirement bred in her a sense of entitlement that scarcely existed anyone in the private sector”.

A Republican by instinct, Tripp was appalled by the laxness of the Clinton administration and believed she could write a book exposing its shortcomings. But, in reality, she was fixated on Clinton’s sexual misadventures which she felt were damaging the reputation of the Oval Office. “She believed that history would remember her as a truth-teller and a whistleblower,” Roxanne Roberts wrote in The Washington Post.

Linda Tripp does not fit into our rather vaunted notion of a whistleblower. She was not a likeable personality, though Paulson in the series, manages to arouse sympathy for her because of her social awkwardness and her belligerent righteousness. Though driven by ideology, Tripp was not an altruistic actor. She had already engaged a literary agent and planned to write a tell-all book about her experiences as a White House aide, before she befriended Lewinsky. After Lewinsky confided that she was having an ongoing sexual relationship with the president, Tripp turned into an opportunist . (This book was never completed or sold.)

To that end she began secretly taping Lewinsky’s private phone calls to have documentary evidence of her claims that the president was engaged in an affair. “Tripp posed in these conversations as a sort of wise aunt – commiserating, consoling, concentrating, as she often said on ‘what’s best for you’,” Toobin wrote in A Vast Conspiracy. But she was also genuinely offended by the way Lewinsky was being treated – she had a daughter a few years younger than Monica – and saw how the White House, engaging in damage limitation about the affair, was treating Lewinsky as if she was a deranged stalker. While busily entrapping her vulnerable friend, Tripp also managed to impart some sage advice – it was she who persuaded Lewinsky to keep the famous blue dress for evidentiary purposes. However, in the end, to save her own skin, Tripp shopped Lewinsky to Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor steering the impeachment process.

Of course, the #MeToo movement has had an influence on how “Impeachment” has been framed. What is highlighted with hindsight is the imbalance of power in a relationship between the president of the US and a much younger subordinate. When she was brought in for questioning Lewinsky was intimidated and bullied by FBI officials. The prurience of the questioning into Lewinsky’s sexual history and the unseemly interest of lawyers and politicians (predominantly men) in the mechanics of the sex between her and Clinton was nothing short of salacious .

(The whiff – literally – of sex is hard to escape in this story. Jeffrey Toobin, author of A Vast Conspiracy, who was originally an adviser on the show – and was replaced, ironically, by Monica Lewinsky – was forced to step down when he became involved in his own sex scandal in October 2020. He engaged in masturbation in the middle of a Zoom session for The New Yorker.)

But where Lewinsky’s position departs from the #MeToo script is that she has always insisted that her relationship with Clinton was consensual. The late writer and essayist Joan Didion commentating on the impeachment noted that Lewinsky was “far from passive”.

Columnist Anne Harris writing recently in The Irish Times applauds Lewinsky’s stance: “Despite years of slut-shaming and fat-shaming, she chose what Didion once called, ‘that most uncomfortable of beds – the one she made herself’. She was an active participant in the affair and she took responsibility.”

If their weight obsessed both Lewinsky and Tripp during the impeachment crisis, the body image wars continued to affect them afterwards. Linda Tripp’s appearance was a constant target of media comment. After the publicity died down, Tripp confessed that she realised from her TV appearances how ugly she was . She finally lost that weight she’d always struggled with and had cosmetic facial surgery. Paula Jones, whose original harassment case, had kicked off the whole judicial process against Clinton, had her teeth fixed, her hair straightened and had a nose job – sponsored by right-wing supporters of her case – to make her more presentable on TV. Lewinsky, who was virtually unemployable, became the commercial face of a dieting company for a short period. Plus ca change.

Lewinsky worked as a co-producer on the “Impeachment” series. Reviewers have commented that the show predominantly reflects her point-of-view, but others more intimately associated with the action, disagree. Tripp’s daughter, Alison, in an interview with Vanity Fair, said it showed her mother in a more sympathetic light than the media of the late 1990s had.

Over 20 years on, Lewinsky has created a hard-won place for herself in the contemporary discourse speaking out about bullying and pubic shaming, a role for which she’s uniquely qualified. Tripp left her government job and retired to a life out of the spotlight She died in April 2020, before “Impeachment” went to air. The two of them hadn’t spoken since 1998.

Above: Sarah Paulson, left, as Linda Tripp and Beanie Feldstein playing Monica Lewinsky in ‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’  Photograph: Tina Thorpe/ FX

“Owning” public art

What makes a public monument? And what if the public doesn’t like it? We’ve seen recently many assaults on statues in the UK erected in another time to honour men – and it is, mostly, men – implicated in and often profiting by the practice of slavery. In other jurisdictions, we’ve seen the toppling of the graven images of dictators. Remember the excited crowds in Firdos Square, Baghdad, downing the statue of Sadaam Hussein in 2003? Or to go further back, the purging of public statuary that went with the glasnost era in the Soviet Union?

I remember being in Moscow in the early 90s and visiting a “fallen monument” site featuring the newly dethroned heroes of the revolution, at what is now the Muzeon Park of Arts. The decapitated heads and mutilated busts of figures such as Stalin, Lenin, Sverdlovsk and Zherzinsky, had been unceremoniously dumped in the open air. It was an eerie sensation to see these monumental stone figures physically broken and lying dismembered in the trampled grass of a public park. (The Muzeon Park of Arts now boasts a museum of over 700 such pieces which have been restored to their plinths. It is no longer a graveyard but a tourist attraction.)

But apart from that experience, my closest encounters with public art are the sculptures on the by-roads and motorways of Ireland . I love that large black golf ball at the Naas by-pass (“Perpetual Motion” by Remco de Fouw and Rachael Joynt), the encrusted bronze bull by sculptor Don Cremin outside Macroom, or the mock “ruin” of a Famine house on the M8 near Cahir (“Settlement” by Cornelia Konrad). Of course, these pieces of public art aren’t memorialising individuals. They are large public sculptures designed to be seen in passing so they must make bold statements. De Fouw and Joynt, for example, saw their giant golf ball as being “a light-hearted and distinctive landmark” for travellers.

Recently, I was at the launch of a public sculpture at Kildonan Park, Finglas, by Belfast artist Sara Cunningham-Bell. It is one of five public sculptures that Dublin City Council and Sculpture Dublin have commissioned for public spaces around the city. My interest in “The Bridge – Fiacha Dhubha Fhionglaise” (Finglas Ravens in Flight) stemmed from the fact that Sara was drawing some of her inspiration from Una Watters (1918-1965), a painter whose work I’ve been championing, and who was born, lived and worked in Finglas. See

As a result, I sat in on a few of the over 40 public consultations that Sara conducted prior to making “The Bridge”. Over the course of nine months, Sara met and talked with local people to discover what they wanted to see going up in Kildonan and how they wanted their area to be represented in the sculpture. The wish-list was long and varied – a recognition of the vibrant GAA heritage in the area, a tribute to local uilleann piper master Seamus Ennis and the 1920s aviatrix Sophie Pierce-Healy, as well as an acknowledgement of the work of community activists, the artistic energy of young people in the area, a nod to the local dog walkers. I wondered how on earth Sara was going to incorporate all these features, and create a piece that was also true to her artistic vision.

So did she?

The answer is a resounding yes, in my opinion. “The Bridge” is a seven-metre-tall steel sculpture comprising two figures with arms raised holding high a mirrored steel “river rug” inspired by the clear streamlet that gives Finglas its name. 

As you mights guess, it’s a compendium piece, punched (literally) through with symbols and motifs reflecting the artistic and cultural life of the locality – including, I was delighted to see, the figures of running schoolboys from Una Watters’ seminal painting, Cappagh Road, and a representation of An Claidheamh Soluis (Sword of Light), the symbol she designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966.

On the day of the public launch it was clear, however, that the sculpture not only represented the Kildonan community, but it spoke to them. Carved out of the steel shanks were profiles of local people, hand-prints of children, cut-outs of sports players. Both adults and children were excitedly pointing out images of themselves or their friends, or artistic motifs that they had contributed to the sculpture. “The Bridge” had become sanctioned graffiti but with a view to permanence. Here was a piece that was being “closely read” by the community it was designed for, while still maintaining an aspirational quality in the two soaring figures holding aloft the river banner.

Sara even managed to include the dogs! The silhouette of a patient mutt stands guard at the foot of the sculpture.

Furthermore, the sculpture is interactive – a bar code at its base will lead the visitor to further online information on all the various influences Sara employed in making the piece.

Which brings me back to those contested statues. Rather than tearing them down, wouldn’t this interactive route be a better way to go? A bar code for every historical statue. That way the casual viewer could find out why these figures were honoured in the past as well as getting a retrospective insight into what makes them dishonourable in today’s context.

Their destruction erases visible signs of history, which is almost like saying the injustices of slavery, colonialism and political cruelty never happened at all.

The Bridge by Sara Cunnigham-Bell at Kildonan Park, Finglas – I am standing in, purely for scale!

Miss Carr’s, Mary Lou and me

The Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is not someone I have a lot in common with. I certainly don’t share her politics. But when I was approached recently by her biographer, Shane Ross, I realised I had shared a number of formative experiences with her. We both grew up in Rathgar – cue “leafy suburb” tag – we both went to secondary school at Notre Dame des Missions in Churchtown – append “fee-paying” to that – both details that have been used as a stick to beat her with. What I didn’t know was that we also attended the same kindergarten school, Miss Carr’s on Highfield Road, Rathgar.

Despite these proximities, we never crossed paths (which meant I wasn’t much help to Shane Ross). Being a good decade older than Mary Lou, I didn’t overlap with her at either of these institutions, now both shut down. But all the same, I felt the chiming of connection with someone with an identical educational trajectory, at least as far as Leaving Cert. She went on to Trinity; I went to Rathmines Tech.

The Miss Carr’s connection was particularly powerful, maybe because the school was such an important foundation in my own learning life. Not least because of its guiding light, Miss Carr herself.

The school, called after its schoolm’am, now sounds quaintly Victorian. As was its location – a rambling Victorian red-brick house, two storeys over a basement. (Earlier this year, the house, long in private ownership, was sold for over E2 million. ) Despite her “Miss”, Miss Carr was a married woman and lived in the upper portions of the house. Her husband played no active part in the running of the school, and was a distant figure, always referred to – even by Miss Carr – as Mr Lee. Perhaps the school pre-dated Mr Lee, or Miss Carr was a proto-feminist, but she was indubitably the mistress of all she surveyed at 22 Highfield Road.

She was a warm, slope-shouldered woman with a soft face and a firm, carrying voice that suggested safety but command. She taught the upper classes (the school catered for children aged 4 to 7) while the two infant classes were taken by Miss Murphy. The diminutive Miss Doherty took third class. She did not wear the regulation blue nylon, chalk-dusted housecoat, but specialised in pert suits, cherry lipstick, heart-shaped spectacles and exquisite red shoes with high heels bringing a little touch of glamour to proceedings.

Even though the rooms were large, each classroom seemed filled to the gills. The two infant classes (Low and High Babies) and third class were in the basement and fourth and fifth classes shared the two light-swollen reception rooms on the ground floor with the folding doors between them. There was a lot of wear and tear on the fabric of the house. There was a certain battered quality to below stairs – chafed floorboards, scuffed footleafs on the doors. When the bell sounded and school was out, the drumming sound of the exodus reverberated throughout the house. Poor Mr Lee upstairs!

The joy of Miss Carr’s was its proximity. (For us just a few minutes’ walk from home.) It never acquired the institutional oppression of “school”; it was an extension of our domestic world. The hierarchy at Miss Carr’s was very fluid; once you were judged ready you moved on to the next class. But that didn’t mean she didn’t run a tight ship. Spellings were recited daily, tables chanted.

Reading was of paramount importance at Miss Carr’s and we were taught phonetically, now almost standard, but in the early 1960s very much ahead of its time. She kept a careful eye on slow learners. She spotted dyslexia before it became recognised officially. She gave extra tuition to anyone with reading difficulties. She knew the name of every child in her care, and knew about them. Whereas we knew very little about Miss Carr, not even her first name.

Thousands of children passed through her hands and she schooled two and three generations of some families. She maintained a keen interest in her past pupils – children who had left her at the ripe old age of six or seven!

Neither was her interest casual or disinterested.

The query about Mary Lou McDonald resurrected a childhood memory I’d almost completely forgotten that establishes Miss Carr in my personal pantheon not just as a committed educator, but as the ultimate Good Samaritan.

In the spring of 1970, nearly seven years after I left Miss Carr’s, my father died. Miss Carr appeared at the funeral, of course. Same bubble perm and kind eyes, and with the same pragmatic empathy she’d always shown in school.

Exactly a week afterwards my bicycle – a much prized hand-me-down from a cousin – was stolen from outside the same church in Rathgar. (Enough to put a child off religion for life!) Miss Carr, always with her finger on the pulse, heard about the theft. She approached my mother and said she’d like to buy me a replacement bike. She’d had a windfall, she said – probably a white lie – and wanted to share her good fortune. There was only one condition – I was never to know who was behind the gift.

A few days later a brand new Triumph 20 was delivered in all its glory. Powder blue with 20″ wheels and 3- speed Sturmey Archer gears, this was the coolest bike for girls on the market. I couldn’t believe my luck. For many years, my mother maintained the fiction of the mystery benefactor. I’m hoping that Miss Carr saw me flying around Rathgar on the new wheels and realised the delight I took in it. That bike saw me through into my 20s until, in the spirit of Miss Carr’s original gesture, I paid it forward and gave it away to someone who needed it more.

It wasn’t until Miss Carr herself died that my mother revealed the secret. I wasn’t surprised, but I was sorry I’d never got the chance to thank her – not just for the bike but for the security and homeliness of that early education.

Despite our political differences, I’m hoping Mary Lou McDonald has similarly fond memories of it.

Photographs: Irish Times

Travelling without footprint

This summer I’ve managed to travel to a far-flung island in Greece, spend a month in Siena and do a whistlestop tour of Rome, Florence, Naples and Bologna and all without producing my Covid clearance cert. How did I manage it? I travelled by armchair, returning to a genre I haven’t read since my late teens. Back then I developed a passion for travel writing, probably as a response to an adolescent restlessness and a sense of restriction – a desire to be off, to be anywhere but here. Much like now.

I marvel that only two years ago foreign travel was often a casual and spontaneous decision. I wonder if we will ever return to that spirit again. And perhaps it would be better if we didn’t, given the climate change catastrophe that’s looming.

On the plus side, the armchair traveller leaves virtually no carbon footprint.

Paul Theroux (father of the now more famous Louis) got me started with the travel bug. His marvellous train journeys were gathered under one roof in The Great Railway Bazaar which charted his sometimes bad-tempered travels by train across Europe and further afield. (Some years after reading this book, I experienced travelling on the Trans Siberian Express for myself and recognised much of its rough charm from Theroux’s accounts.)

There were other travel books I read hungrily. Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, Wilfrid Thesiger’s travels in the Empty Quarter in Arabian Sands, Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons , or Tracks by Robyn Davison who travelled by foot across Australia with a caravan of camels. Then there was Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines , also about Australia, and In Patagonia, about the region at the southernmost tip of South America. Not forgetting our own intrepid Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt, who took the world on by bike.

The attraction of these books was their narrators’ single-minded pursuit of exploration for its own sake. Shamelessly, I used that as justification for insisting on my honeymoon in 1981, that we follow the route Laurie Lee took in his seminal As I Walked Out One Mid-Summer’s Morning , a classic of the lone traveller genre. Lee was only 19 when he decided to walk through Spain in 1934. We went as far as Algeciras with him; then we parted company. He described it as a quaint fishing village with men mending their nets on the beach. But by then it was an industrial port, with chimneys belching out pollution into the clear blue sky.

As a travel writer, Lee was incomparable, but I realised I couldn’t use his book as a dependable contemporary guide. Too much had changed given the 40 odd years that had elapsed since he had taken his journey.

Lockdown has brought me back to the genre after a long absence. Lockdown number three ,in particular, with its desolate open-endedness and the prospect of stepping off the island retreating to a vanishing point. Exactly like being a bored and frustrated teenager with no means of escape.

Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift is an object lesson for the restless soul. Clift was an Australian journalist married to George Johnston, a fellow journalist and novelist ( famous in Australia for his autobiographical novel My Brother Jack, originally published with a cover painted by Sidney Nolan ). They were slaving away as hacks in 1950s London with two small children, and writing novels together in their spare time. (What spare time?) Then one wet rainy Monday they decided they couldn’t bear the post-war austerity any longer and decamped to the Greek island of Kalymnos (one of the Dodecanese between Kos and Leros) where they lived the simple, sun-soaked life they’d always dreamed of.

I was drawn to Clift initially because she was name-checked in Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, about Leonard Cohen and his Swedish lover who inspired the song, “So Long Marianne”. Clift became a godmother figure to the ex-pat crowd of assorted hippies and Bohemians, writers and artists (including Cohen and the aforementioned Sidney Nolan) who camped out on the island of Hydra in the 1960s.

Mermaid Singing predates Clift and Johnston’s time in Hydra and is a flinty-eyed but lyrical account of settling on the island where she and George and their two children, Martin and Shane ( a daughter) are the only outsiders. Kalymnos was a centre for sponge diving and every spring the boats would leave the island for six months at a time heading for the African coast and taking most of the men with them. Sponge diving is a dangerous occupation and many of the island men died or were permanently maimed as a result of dives that had gone wrong. Clift wrote about the sponge divers and it inspired a novel that she and Johnson co-authored (The Sea and the Stone, 1955).

The cliche of the past as another country has never been truer – even if one were free to travel, the Kalymnos that Clift describes has disappeared along with Laurie Lee’s Spain.

But in Mermaid Singing, the reader gets full immersion into more personal and fleeting moments of Clift’s island life. “The boat with the tan sail has come in close. Ropes are trailing from the side, and the children are dragging it in. They seem so small and bright and shining and far away, small singing scraps of flesh and colour in the great grave cadences of sunlight.”

Clift and Johnson followed their year on Kalymnos with a decade on Hydra, where they lived, worked and caroused and their children ran wild. (The postscript to their Greek idyll was tragic, however. On their return to Australia, Clift committed suicide in 1969 and Johnson died of tuberculosis a year later. Their children fared no better. Shane Johnston committed suicide in 1974. Martin Johnston, an acclaimed poet, died of alcoholism at 42 in 1990.)

Running wild has its downside.

“Only inside a book or in front of a painting can one truly be let into another’s perspective.” so claims British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar in his latest book, A Month in Siena, which does exactly what it says on the tin. In a quieter vein than Clift’s, it’s an account of his sojourn alone in the city. He’s drawn there by the paintings of Duccio, Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio, who created the Sienese school of paintings in the 13th and 14th centuries, with its echoes of Byzantine and gothic art.

Matar is great on the paintings – and the book has small but sumptuous colour plates. But he’s brilliant on the particular loneliness of travelling solo and the spontaneous and often intense relationships that can form when you step out of your comfort zone. This is contemplative autofiction, the self as city. It’s not about extravagant adventure, but philosophical reflection. Much like W G Sebald, Matar makes you feel less inadequate for having been melancholy in the midst of foreign splendours.

I’ve been accompanying my vicarious travel reading with American actor Stanley Tucci’s TV series Searching for Italy (CNN) which has satisfied my culinary wanderlust for the moment. Tucci, Italian on both sides, eats his way around the regions of Italy tasting the local produce and wangling a few recipes form the chefs he meets along the way. The food is good but the photography is even better. Made for an American audience – and built around numerous ad breaks – the programme tends towards the soundbite. Excuse the pun. But it excels in dunking you right into the heart of several Italian cities, wandering cobbled streets, sitting at outside tables with the ever present clink of conviviality.

Sometimes, though, you want even the lovely Stanley to step out of shot so that you can savour being in the fish market in Catania, or a bayside restaurant on the Amalfi coast during a lightning storm, without the chattering commentary.

Maybe I’ve been reading too much Hisham Matar?

A beach on the island of Kalymnos – Photograph: Reddit

Almost Bloomsday

In honour of Bloomsday, here’s an extract from Penelope Unbound, my speculative novel about Nora Barnacle that imagines a life for her without James Joyce. Here’s the assignation Nora and Jim fail to have before they reschedule for the iconic meeting on June 16.

They’d arranged to meet outside the Surgeon Wilde’s house, but she didn’t show. Told him a fib about having to work overtime, how Miss Fitzgerald came up to her on her way out the door, as she was trying to spear her hat with a pin in the hall mirror, and said that Molly Fowler was sick and couldn’t do her shift. 

Sure what could I do?  

It could have happened like that. Only it didn’t.  Instead she’d said – But Miss Fitzgerald, I have a date with my young man. 

As if they were an item but sure they’d only just met.  He’d picked her up on Nassau Street only a few days ago with a saucy smile and a sailor’s suit. A boy with jamjar specs, not her type at all.

I see that, Miss Barnacle, says Miss Fitzgerald, looking into the glass behind her with a kind of smirk, more music-hall than spinster. And before Miss Fitzgerald had time to cajole, for she had a way of getting on the sweet side of you when she wanted something, Nora had pulled open the heavy front door of Finn’s and gone tripping out into the dusty sunlit lozenge of the street. 

But as she hurried, hand on hat, towards Merrion Square, a strange desolate feeling overtook her, a pang of doubt. She slowed her tripping step to a heavy-footed stroll, and then to a halt.  What had possessed her, to say yes?  Yes to a college boy with a boater. Though he wasn’t the first college boy she’d had. Hadn’t Sonny Bodkin been at the university, even if he didn’t finish, too old for her, they said – no, she wouldn’t think of him now, not now.  She darted around by Sweny’s Chemists and scurried across to the pillars of the Gospel Hall.  She could hear singing from within. The Brethren must be at it, but I thought they didn’t hold with singing. But the place is thronged with them. Just as well, this way she can spy on yer man without him seeing her. 

She remembered the specs he wore. He won’t pick her out from the crowd at this distance even though the sun is glancing coppery off her hair. And, sure enough, there he was, a stick of worry, standing at the corner, hands on hips. Then pacing a little this way and that. He had on the same get-up as the day he chatted her up. Not bad-looking up close, a bit skinny, pull-through for a rifle, when did he last have a square meal, I wonder, and his clothes had seen better days. Then she remembered she’d told him where she worked.  He could duck down to Finn’s, if he had a titter of wit, and ask after her and then her fib would be exposed.  He’d know then she’d stood him up.  Deliberate like. And it wasn’t that she wanted to say no, she just wasn’t sure about saying yes.  Outright. 

And if he had come to Finn’s looking for her, would that have decided her about him? She just wasn’t sure, not like with Sonny Bodkin. Poor Sonny who had stood in the Pres garden and called out to her in the flogging rain.  And she half-delighted, half-mortified by him standing there, loyal as a beaten dog while she hid in the darkness of the auntie-room letting on she wasn’t there.  But this fella was no Sonny Bodkin, she could tell that even from afar. Sure, no one could be.  No one could be the first after the first. 

He was dithering now, she could tell.  But so was she and the longer she waited the stranger he became.  Was he a foreigner, was that what made her hesitate? A Swede maybe with those blond looks?

 Reasons not to approach. Now that she was here she could find a dozen. The minutes passed, five, ten, and her delaying was like a jelly left to set. If she had a penny for every time he changed his mind she’d have a fortune. There he’d go, gathering himself up then doubling back like a dog at a post sniffing, then trying and sniffing again. The hum and the haw of him. 

Hello, hello, she could have rushed up all breathless and false and full of sorrys and old excuses he wouldn’t even listen to because he’d be so relieved. Fellas forget themselves. She almost moved then but she didn’t.  She was stuck to the spot as if she was the one being stood up. And as she stood there debating, didn’t he make her mind up for her.  Fixed his cap on his crown and strode away up the west side of Merrion Square.  In a temper, she’d have said, by the look of him.

 And then she felt the let-down. 

What did she go and do that for? 

What was all the mirror-gazing in Finn’s for, and wondering will I do? 

She remembered the lightness of her step as she had set off and now she was morose and cursing herself for being so perverse. 

What ails you, girl? That’s what Mamo used to say. What ails you.

 No, she told herself shaking her head, I did the right thing, a fella who’d pick you up on the street like that, what kind of fella would he be? Not a patch on Sonny Bodkin, that’s what. 

 She turned to go, checking one last time to see had he changed his mind.  But he hadn’t – he was a cross white speck in the summer sunlight now. She trailed back the way she came, her hat in her hand, her hair dejected. She hadn’t the heart to do anything else with her precious night off. If she knew where Vinny Cosgrave was she might seek him out, but no, if he saw she was keen, he’d only get a swelled head. 

Miss Fitzgerald was at the desk when she came in and raised an eyebrow. 

Back so soon, Miss Barnacle? She was a prissy one. 

He stood me up, Nora, said as she donned her apron, lucky for you.