Hotel Chelsea, New York

This review of the (in)famous Hotel Chelsea appeared inThe Irish Times on November 21.

Few hotels have influenced popular culture like the Chelsea. Jack Kerouac stayed here when he wrote On the Road ; Brendan Behan, Jean-Paul Sartre and Frida Kahlo are among the countless artists and bon viveurs who, at one time or another, called the Chelsea home; its faded glamour inspired Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Even punk rock has a claim on it: Sid Vicious was arrested for the suspected murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in room 100.

The hotel’s bohemian heyday is now firmly in the past: rock stars and artists are less-frequent visitors, and, with maximum stays recently reduced to 21 days, many of its long-term residents have moved on. Today the Chelsea – 12 storeys of red brick and wrought-iron balustrades in the heart of Manhattan – appeals primarily to out-of-towners, like me, who want to experience a New York institution without decimating their holiday budget.

CHELSEAThe Chelsea may have been taken over by ambitious new management in 2007, but it has not yet morphed into the well-oiled boutique hotel many patrons feared it would become. Rooms with shared bathrooms are available from €89 (€60) a night, and, as my yellow cab rounded the corner on to West 23rd Street, I was relieved to see the neon lights still flickering intermittently on the iconic Hotel Chelsea sign pinned to its front.

Inside, happy anarchy was the order of the day. The narrow marble-floored lobby was decorated with an eclectic collection of quirky art and even quirkier individuals, at least two of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to Bob Dylan circa 1975. “Bear with me,” implored the overworked receptionist as he fielded phone calls, signed for deliveries and placated a pair of irate guests before eventually finding my booking.

“It’s crazy, man. I’m the only one here,” Pete the portly porter said with a laugh, sweat dripping off his forehead as he carried my bag from the old-fashioned elevator to a third-floor double room at the back of the hotel. “But it ain’t always like this.” If he was trying to sound convincing he was failing.

The room was an interior designer’s worst nightmare. Nothing matched, from the rendition of Malcolm X in red and black paint beside the door to the garish green walls and mauve flower-patterned drapes. Worse, it had the distinct air of an undergraduate’s unloved bedsit: an empty fridge in the middle of the room; an out-of-date copy of L, the listings magazine, on the scuffed dressing table; only two working lights.

The en-suite bathroom looked passable if cramped. Closer inspection proved less forgiving. The pastel ceiling was decorated in bluish mould, the combined bath and shower unit did not drain and, most egregiously, the toilet overflowed after just one use.

Judging by the phlegmatic reaction on the other end of the phone, blocked pipes are par for the course at the Chelsea. Within five minutes a gruff workman appeared with what might have been the world’s largest plunger. It did the trick – the toilet flushed without fail for the next two days – although he made no attempt to mop up the dirty water that sloshed around the bathroom’s tiled floor.

Of course, you come to the Chelsea for the ambience, not the opulence. And in that regard it did not chelsea2disappoint. The hotel is an art lover’s paradise, with murals, abstract paintings, modernist sculpture and photographs lined along the majestic brass-railed staircase that dominates the centre of the building.

My fellow guests were equally colourful: birds chirped excitedly from the room across the hall, while the smoke that crept underneath my neighbour’s door was unlike that from any tobacco I’ve ever smelt.

Location is the Chelsea’s other great selling point. Best known for its art galleries, the area is one of Manhattan’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, and the theatres of midtown and the Meatpacking District’s trendy bars are all within easy walking distance.

The Chelsea does not serve breakfast, but the Empire Diner – once popular with Bette Davis – is just one of a number of great places to eat within a few blocks of the hotel.

Unfortunately, owing to a paucity of sleep, I found myself in constant need of a cup of strong coffee during my short stay. The bed was of reasonable quality, but its starchy sheets were as uncomfortable as they were ancient.

I left the Chelsea longing for a night in a conventional, well-run hotel. They say you should never meet your idols. Perhaps the adage holds true for hotels, too.

Klas Ostergren – Swede Success

This interview with the wonderful writer Klas Ostergren appeared in The Irish Examiner back in October.

‘In Sweden, a writer needs to have a sense of humour,’ Klas Östergren smiles, pausing for effect before taking a sip from a pint of continental lager. Now in his mid-50s, the avuncular novelist has been a household name in his homeland since the 1970s but still he cannot compete with Sweden’s most famous export – ABBA. ‘After one reading a girl asked me to sign her book Benny Andersson,’ he laughs. ‘I explained that I’m not Ben Andersson but it didn’t matter – “It’s him I like,” she said. That’s what it’s like there.’

stergrenklas-47bf6ce23f772Thankfully Östergren is one writer who refuses to take himself too seriously. It could be the brown linen suit and overcoat that make him look like a pre-digital incarnation of Doctor Who or the bright eyes that coruscate behind his coke bottle glasses, but the amiable Swede carries a definite air of insouciant mischief. As we wait to be served in an upmarket bar in Edinburgh’s West End he recalls downing 38 beers to win a drinking contest in Amsterdam. ‘They were only little beers, and I was a much younger man,’ he remarks, running his hands through his corkscrew hair.

Ever since the publication of his debut novel, Attila, at the tender age of 20, Östergren has been something of a Swedish literary phenomenon. Five years later, in 1980, came Gentlemen, a stylish celebration of post-World War II-era Stockholm that cemented his reputation as a comic and insightful social critic. Since then he has written countless novels and screenplays and translated everything from Catcher in the Rye to Baudelaire into Swedish. In spite of his popularity at home, Östergren’s work was unavailable in English until recent translations of first Gentlemen and now The Hurricane Party finally brought him to the attention of the Anglophone literati.

A tale of urban dystopia set far in the future, The Hurricane Party is based on the Norse legend of the eagle that dared to defy Loki, the most sinister and menacing of the gods. The novel is the latest in the Canongate ‘Myths’ series, which has already seen authors including Margaret Atwood, Michael Faber and Alexander McCall Smith put a contemporary spin on age-old fables. Östergren was flattered to be considered among such exalted company but, he says, had reservations about his contribution: ‘I had to find my own heart and my own angle on the saga of Loki. It took me a year before I began writing the story.’

The protagonist of the Hurricane Party is Hanck Orn, a repairer and trader of ‘obsolete’ machines like typewriters and telescopes, whose world is turned upside when two members of mysterious ruling Clan call to tell him that his son, Toby, is dead. Hanck’s search for the truth, which puts him on a collision course with Loki, provides the novel’s narrative drive.

Despite its setting and subject matter, the book, Östergren explains carefully, is based directly on personal experience. ‘It is really a story about me and one of my sons who was born with very serious health problems. For the first three years of his life we thought was going to die. I barely slept, I didn’t eat, I lost weight.’ The novelist’s concern for his child, who is now fully recovered, was such that the panic attacks that plagued him since his own childhood abated. ‘It was as if I was cleaned by fire,’ he says. ‘This book is a way of approaching and understanding that whole experience.’

Having grown up and spent much of his adult life in Stockholm, Östergren now lives with his wife of 17 years and their three children on a farm near the seaside town of Kivik in southern Sweden ‘My wife is the green fingered one, the weeds are my business,’ he replies when I ask about his agrarian talents.

He spends his days writing, his evenings given over to the farm and the family home he is in the process of building: ‘I think TS Eliot’s life was quite bohemian compared to me’. It might be ‘a boring life to describe’ but after years immersed in the hothouse of Stockholm’s arts scene the writer seems genuinely happy to be out of the city, and its temptations. ‘I do not have a bad character, but I had friends who had bad characters,’ he says cryptically of the years during and after his first marriage, to well known Swedish actress Pernilla Walgren, which ended in divorce in 1989.

Writing always came naturally to Östergren, but he admits that the artistic process is not as smooth as it once was. ‘I find it harder to write because you become more of a critic. You become aware of the complexity of writing. When I started I probably understood only 10% of the complexity.’

Nowadays he thinks more about his readers, self-critically wondering ‘Am I the right guy to occupy you? Should you read something else?’ Such candour is typical Klas Östergren. ‘Perhaps it’s not fine art but I don’t give a shit for that,’ he says after listing Graham Greene, William Faulkner and John le Carré among his literary heroes. He does admit, however, that TS Eliot holds a special place in his affections: ‘He’s the only writer I read and reread’. Later he admits to being unable, or unwilling, to use a computer. The Swede has worked on the same typewriter since 1964, though even that is starting to grate. ‘Sometimes, when you’re on the final draft of something, you think the noise of the keys clicking is going to drive you mad.’

The life of a Swedish writer has its trials and tribulations but if anything Östergren is warming to the task: ‘I used to say give me any other job and I’ll take it but now I’m not so sure.’ While rustic living seems to suit his artistic temperament, it is difficult to imagine the author ever getting too comfortable. ‘I’m a little more anarchist that I appear if you scratch the surface,’ he smiles before polishing off his drink. If only the same could be said of Benny Andersson.

The Hurricane Party is out now, published by Canongate, priced £12.99

Peter Geoghegan

Seacht Shocks

Think Skins crossed with a particularly risqué episode of Hollyoaks. Think a campus novel penned by Alan Warner with a cast of characters that owe more to Trainspotting than Trading Places. Throw in a cúpla focail Gaeilge (for the non-Gaeligoirs out there, that’s a few words of Irish) and you’ve pretty much got Seacht, BBC NI’s Irish language soap.

Seacht (pronounced shocked) is set in and around Queen’s and follows a group of inordinately attractive university students as they while away their youth taking drugs, having copious amounts of sex and, eh, speaking lots of Irish.

It’s Irish, Jim, but as we know it.

I’d seen ads for Seacht (apparently now in its second season) but had to wait until Monday night for my first, eh, taste of the action when it appeared after the excellent Into the Storm. I was still digesting Brendan Gleeson’s excellent turn as Churchill when Seacht’s tumultuous opening salvo hit – a shot of a couple of scrawny teenagers popping pills cuts to a girlfriend stumbling on her SO in bed with her sister the morning after.

seacht320xI’ll confess I was rapt for the rest of the 25-minute long episode not so much by the quality of the drama but its sheer, undeniable WTF factor. Buckfast in the Botanics. Check. An Irish-language call girl agency. Check. A raunchy modelling shoot. Cheek. On top of that was enough sex scenes (nude free, of course) to satisfy any reader of Nuts and a fair whack of dope smoking and heavy drinking.

My extensive research (also known as a quick google search) suggests Seacht is a joint production between BBC NI and TG4, the Irish language station based in Galway. As a Mexican (proudly born and raised south of the border) I’m well used to TG4’s worthy but dull Irish language programs and dramas, but Seacht is as far removed from Ros na Rún – the station’s stalwart soap offering – as the Holylands is from Connemara.

Whether Seacht, which airs on both BBC NI and TG4, will succeed in making Irish cool in the north remains to be seen. Certainly the depiction of Queen’s as a red brick institution brimming with effusive – not to mention insatiable – Irish speakers is apocryphal. But perhaps that’s the point. No ordinary college milieu, for the characters of Seacht Irish is as ubiquitous as sex, drugs and hard liquor.

I’d hazard a guess that Seacht isn’t quite what De had in mind for the Irish language, but then again neither was the Good Friday Agreement. As for me, I’ll be watching again, if only to spot the Irish speaking PSNI officers and see how the, excuse the pun, shocking bizarre love triangle turns out.

Peter Geoghegan