Belfast's Booming?

Feature on how small retailers in the North have been affected by shoppers (and their cash) coming over the border. First appeared in Sunday Business Post 03/01/2010.

On Chichester Street, in the centre of Belfast, the lines of southern registered coaches have become a familiar sight. Every day they arrive, at weekends as many as 15 or 20, disgorging day trippers from Dublin, Sligo and elsewhere into the nearby Victoria Square centre.

Cross-border shopping is certainly big news for Northern Ireland’s retailers but small businesses are finding it difficult to cash in on the influx of southern shoppers. ‘I’ve not seen any significant increase in my southern trade,’ said Alister Beverley, proprietor of Yoke, a small designer label clothing store on the opposite side of Donegall Square from Victoria Square. ‘Everyone thinks we’re doing great up here on the back of it but the truth is that most of the trade goes straight into the Victoria Square and Castlecourt.’

According to figures released recently by the Central Statistics Office, shoppers from the Republic spent about 435 million euro in Northern Ireland in the 12 months to July. Cross-border shopping is thought to have cost upwards on 11,000 jobs in the Irish Republic, but, according to Beverley, it is multinational chains that are really benefiting from the drift of shoppers northward.

‘It’s the High Street stores that are doing well. The irony is that the money (southern shoppers) are spending isn’t really staying in the north – it’s mostly going across the water (to Britain). Obviously it’s creating some jobs here but the money is leaving the country so it’s not really helping the economy in the long-term.’

The weak pound has been one of the main factors motivating Irish shoppers to cross the border, but Beverley believes that the conversion rate might be harming small retailers in the north more than it is helping them.

‘Most of the brands that I sell are bought in euros so I can’t really sell them any cheaper than I can in euros. Anything that is sourced within this country, retailers will be better off with but for anything that is paid for in euros or dollars or from the Far East you’re losing out. For me the whole thing has been a pain – I wish it had never happened. Due to the euro rate my prices have gone up 10%. The sooner it goes back to normal the better,’ Beverley said.

Around the corner in the Bureau, a trendy men’s clothing shop housed in a former Presbyterian Dining Hall on Howard Street, co-owners Paul Craig and Michael Hamilton agree that smaller retailers have not benefited from cross-border trade to the same extent as high street stores and shopping centres.

‘The number of southern customers coming through our doors has increased but not massively. I would have expected to have more, to be honest. As it is, the percentage of our custom that comes from the south is so small that it barely registers,’ commented Craig.

Throughout the 1980s Belfast was popular with Irish shoppers, mainly due to its wide selection of UK high street stores, but during the1990s significant amounts of local trade was lost to Dublin. Hamilton believes Belfast is only now making up for lost ground. ‘For 15 years there was no need for southern shoppers to come to Belfast. And during the boom times lots of northern trade went south too, mainly because sterling was so strong – 1.4, 1.5 to the euro. It’s only in the last two years that the situation has reversed and we’re seeing more shoppers come north,’ he explained.

Last week’s budget attempted to stem the exodus of Irish shoppers north, reducing Vat and slashing duty on alcohol, but David Fitzsimons, chief executive of Retail Excellence Ireland believes more needs to be done. ‘While the drivers for customers going north are primarily food and alcohol, a lot of supplementary items are being purchased,’ he remarked.

Fitzsimons calls for reductions in rent and wages, to allow retailers in Ireland to match their counterparts across the border. ‘There’s massive money going out of the economy to the north. Irish retailers have been priced out of the market by the government. We are uncompetitive and until something is done to tackle this the problems will remain,’ he said before adding that expected Vat increases and new minimum pricing on alcohol in the UK should see a contraction in cross-border shopping in 2010.

In Newry, closer to the Irish border, John Kehoe, Marketing Manager of Kehoe Kars, feels that perception that all of Northern Ireland is profiting from cross-border trade is misplaced. ‘There is a misconception that the private retailers are getting all this business but they are not. Customers from the south are driving in the Dublin Road and turning into the two shopping centres [Buttercrane and the Quay’s], they’re not coming up into the town,’ Kehoe said from his forecourt on the Old Warrenpoint Road. ’Twenty years ago when we had busloads of people coming up from the south it was the private retailers that benefited but now it is the multinationals.’

While Kehoe accepts that the motor industry in the north has seen cross-border business grow he has little sympathy for traders on the opposite side of the border. ‘Southern retailers might complain about the loss of business but we have been in the same position ourselves for the last 10 years. All it takes is a fall in the euro rate for everything to flip around again,’ he commented.

Recently, many auto traders along the border have targeted their business model directly at customers in the neighbouring jurisdiction. With new cars registered in the Irish Republic and satellite dealers in the south buying and selling used vehicles it has never been as easy for customers in the south to buy cars in the north. Nevertheless, John Kehoe maintains that cross-border trade is ‘a bonus’ that cannot be relied upon as a long-term engine for business growth. ‘Our bread and butter is trying to retail here in Northern Ireland. That is what we are focused primarily on, and it is a difficult task because there’s a recession on here too and we have had large-scale redundancies too.’

Boucher Road, on the southern outskirts of Belfast, is home to many of Northern Ireland’s main car dealerships. Here, too, cross-border trade is up but retailers believe that it is currency considerations that will ultimately dictate whether southern customers decide to head north.

‘I suspect that while there is still value in the pocket there will be people coming north,’ said Peter Gordon, Sales Manager of Charles Hurst. ‘The strength of the euro has been the big draw in terms of bringing people across the border, and while that is still the case I would expect our cross-border trade to hold up. If that changes then we are likely to see a change.’

Southern Shoppers Making a Night of It
Last year record numbers of visitors stayed overnight in Belfast, among them many southern shoppers. The five-star Merchant Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the Victoria Square shopping centre in the heart of the bustling Cathedral Quarter, is proving particularly popular with Irish shoppers. ‘We have seen a huge increase in our southern customers, both during the week and at the weekend,’ said Lisa Scott, the Merchant’s Sales Manager. ‘Sometimes up to 50% of our business at the weekend is from the south, particularly from Dublin and from the west coast, Donegal and Sligo.’

Scott credits the marked improved the political situation in Northern Ireland over the last decade as one reason why shoppers from the Irish Republic are choosing to spend a night or two in the city. ‘Belfast is a much safer place to come to now. It’s an unexplored place that many people in the south have never been to and they want to come and see. It’s a new experience for them,’ she commented.

The Merchant has long been a popular corporate hotel, but Scott has noticed a change among business customers from the south. ‘A lot of people are looking to negotiate much harder with corporate rates. We get a lot of people from the Republic trying to bargain, saying “We can get this in Dublin for 80 euro a night, will you match that?”, but thankfully we are in a position where we don’t need to bargain.’

Friday Interview on W[r]ite Noise NI

I’m very flattered to be the subject of the Friday interview on Maeve O’Lynn’s excellent W[r]ite NI blog. If anyone wants to read it in full it’s here but here’s a few select questions:

You’ve variously written a thesis, an academic book, many travel articles and news reports. What’s your favourite style or mode of writing and why?
The more I write the more I think my favourite genre is the opposite of whatever genre I am writing in that day! But seriously, to borrow Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor about the fox and the hedgehog, I’m something of a fox in that I’m interested in knowing a little about a range of subjects rather than a lot about a few. (Not a good trait in an academic). For that reason I prefer journalism, particularly book reviewing and travel writing,
PGprimarily because both have the most scope for going off on wild tangents! News reporting is quite constrictive and requires rather more tenacity than I have, especially when subjects are unwilling to speak on the record.

Tell us about your involvement with Culture NI…

Well, I guess I should start by saying that, regrettably, my involvement with CultureNorthernIreland is coming to an end next week. I’ve recently been appointed editor of a new magazine called Political Insight, which is being published by the Political Studies Association of the UK and Wiley-Blackwell and will appear three times a year. It’s a full-colour magazine which aims to present research on politics in an entertaining way to a wide audience. First issue is April 2010 so it’s all systems go!! (ed: ok – I’ll allow the obvious plug since it does sound rather impressive!)

But I’ll definitely miss Culture NI. I actually started working for CNI years ago as a freelancer while I worked in the Art College in Belfast. I liked it so much I gave up the day job! Covering music, books and theatre in Northern Ireland has been great fun and, thankfully, the good shows far outweigh the bad. I’ve also had the chance to interview heroes like David Simon (creator of the Wire) and Animal Collective, though I think my most memorable interviewee was Josh Harris – he’s a self-promoting American artist/Internet mogul who told me variously that the mafia were after him, he was the most important living artist and he had 10 years left to live. If only all interviewees were such good copy!

You’ve taken a keen interest in local culture and you’ve written numerous book reviews as well. Have you ever thought about dabbling in writing your own novel/screenplay/poetry? If so, what would it be about? Or, if not, why not?

Hmmm, that’s a bit of a thorny question. I think that if you peel back the surface of most critics (and, indeed, most journalists) and you’ll find a frustrated wanna-be artist… and I guess I’m loathe to admit that I’m one too! I did write a lot of fiction when I was younger, though I fear it was juvenalia, and every so often I scribble the odd short story but at present I like both the time and inclination to write anything more serious. Perhaps this will change, I was heartened when Ian Sansom told me that he discovered how to write when he met a novelist who told him to write 500 words a day every day. At the time Ian was a painter and decorator, and look at him now.

You’ve stayed in some pretty top notch hotel establishments around the world (ah the life of a travel journalist!). But if you could take a fantasy trip somewhere and stay in a hotel (either real or imagined, past or present) with a fantasy group of travel companions, where would you go, where would you stay and who would go with you?

It would have to be the original Hotel Adlon on Unter Den Linden in Berlin during the roaring 20s. I’ve always found Weimar Germany, with its decadence and abandon, a fascinating historical period and, of course, Berlin was at the heart of it. You had Bauhaus (in Germany), directors like Fritz Lang, amazing writers like Thomas Mann and, of course, Marlene Deitrich. Back then the Adlon is visited by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Louise Brooks – I think I’d be happy to spend a few days with a random selection of its patrons, just soaking up the atmosphere. The hotel was badly bombed in the Second World War, it ended up on the East German side was eventually demolished, though it was rebuilt in 1997 I’ve not stayed in it… maybe some day!

The rest of the interview is available here.

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

Manhattan Transfer: the Jane

Last month I checked into the New York hotel that has gone from seamen’s flophouse to celebrity hangout for the List. Here’s my take on it:

‘Hey, can you get me in?’ a woman with a brash New England accent squawks at me as I approach the entrance to the Jane hotel in New York’s West Village. Friday night is turning into Saturday morning, and what was a quiet residential street hours earlier is choc-a-block with yellow cabs, burly bouncers in high-vis jackets, and what looks disarmingly like a trope of frustrated extras from MTV’s The Hills.

Rooms cost less than 100 bucks a night, but with recent celebrity guests such as Kirsten Dunst and the Untitled-1Olsen twins, the Jane hotel’s stylish bar is just about the hottest spot in NYC right now. To make it past the imposing doorman it helps to be famous or know somebody who is: I shrug half-heartedly and the imperious bottle blonde in the designer dress moves on to the next guy. ‘Hey, can you get me in?’

Residents at the Jane may not be given preferential access to the bar, but they do get to stay in one of the most unusual and best value for money hotels in Manhattan. The bulk of the hotel’s 200-plus rooms are wood-panelled single-berth cabins, festooned in pink and gold wallpaper. Despite measuring little over 50 square feet, a $99 standard room comes equipped with all mod cons: flat screen television, air conditioner, wireless internet access. There’s even storage space beneath the bed and on a brass rail running above a mirrored wall.

Modelled on ships’ cabins, the surprisingly comfortable sleeping quarters are a definite nod to the hotel’s maritime heritage. The neo-classical red brick Jane began life in 1908 as the Seaman’s Institute and, before
reopening last year, was best known for giving shelter to sailors who survived the Titanic in 1912.

As New York’s docks declined, so did the Institute’s trade. In 1944 the hotel was taken over by the YMCA, becoming a flophouse for the poor and homeless.

So it remained until hip New York’s hoteliers Sean McPherson and Eric Goode bought the establishment in 2007. After renaming it in honour of the street it sits on, they set about transforming it into one of the city’s funkiest hotels. Refurbishment work is still on-going – the entire second floor is closed during my visit – but thankfully the Jane has managed to retain some of its original character(s). Over 60 permanent residents remain from the flophouse days, and with most bathrooms communal and uni-sex, you’re bound to bump into at least one or two long-term guests.

With the bar effectively off limits to the hoi polloi after dark, I head along early to sample its high-art meets low-kitsch vibe. It’s 6pm and virtually deserted; though in the cavernous cocktail room reserved signs are laid out across the chintz sofas. In the gorgeous lounge, modernist sculpture, paintings of Kaiser Wilhelm and a stuffed monkey with a fez number among my drinking companions – it’s not hard to see why A-listers and their entourage flock to the Jane.

You might not get a night-cap but for regular Joes, like me, the Jane is everything you could want from a New York hotel – cheap, central and consistently charming.

The Jane, 113 Jane Street, New York, NY 10014, 001-212-924-6700.
www.thejanenyc.com

Marcus du Sautoy

Last week I spoke with Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford mathematician and author of numerous popular science books, for CultureNorthernIreland. As well as proselytizing about science as the new Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science (taking over from Richard Dawkins), he’s a keen footballer, musician and actor…but maths remains his one true love:

It was never cool in school, but maths is finally getting the cred it deserves. From A Beautiful Mind, which starred Russell Crowe as game theory specialist John Nash, to Michael Frayn’s story of the birth of quantum physics in Copenhagen, numbers are big bucks at the box office. Heck, even as I write this I’m listening to the maths driven glitches and loops of electronica stalwarts Autechre.

One man who understands numbers, and their potency, better than most is Marcus du Sautoy. The 44-year old is professor of mathematics at Oxford and one of the discipline’s most vocal and articulate proponents.

‘I think there is a fascination with the power of mathematics,’ the mathematician explains, speaking ahead of his appearance at this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

‘It is a powerful, almost mystical language, and people are in awe of it because of its power to make predictions. If you look at Google, for example, it works on very powerful mathematics to throw up searches so fast that it almost seems like magic.’

dusautoy320xGarrulous, friendly and deeply passionate about his profession it is a hard to imagine a better ambassador for maths than du Sautoy. Whether chatting to Richard Bacon on BBC Radio 5 Live or writing in The Guardian and The Independent he has consistently explained difficult, abstract concepts to the hoi polloi in a way few of his peers can.

Du Sautoy is also the author of numerous popular science books including The Music of the Primes and Finding Moonshine. His latest work, The Numb8r My5teries (yes, that is the correct spelling), was released earlier this year and deals with the thorny subject of symmetry – something I confess to know little about.

‘Symmetry expresses internal relations in an object,’ du Sautoy says, not exactly illuminating the concept. ‘Something has symmetry if there are more moves that you can make to it and it looks like the same.’

‘Like a Rubik’s cube?’ I volunteer.

‘Exactly.’

Finally I’m beginning to follow. Apparently there are 25 digits in the number of symmetries it is possible to make with one of professor Erno Rubik’s ingenious moulded plastic blocks. ‘The amazing thing is that it only takes 17 moves to get back to the original state from any one of these symmetries,’ he remarks.

All very interesting, but what does it mean for our daily lives? Are symmetries really important? ‘It’s part of evolution to recognise symmetries. When you think about being in the jungle trying to survive if you see something with symmetry then it was likely to be an animal that would either eat you or that you could eat. So it’s pretty vital.’

Symmetries may be du Sautoy’s current squeeze but prime numbers remain his one true love. ‘They are the most important numbers because they are the building blocks of our universe,’ he says.

One number that has long enthralled Du Sautoy – and aficionados of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – is 42. As he explains, 42 might just be the answer to ‘life, the universe and everything’ after all.

‘Forty-two is not a prime number but it has given us a hint that a clue to understanding prime numbers is something deep in physics.’ The venerable mathematician correctly interprets my silence on the line as lack of comprehension, turning to metaphor to clarify his point: ‘It’s a little like an archaeologist who sees patterns in Egypt and then goes off to South America and sees the same patterns there and begins to make links and connections.’

Building links between seemingly disparate lands is integral to du Sautoy’s other job, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Since becoming only the second holder of this prestigious post, succeeding the colourful Richard Dawkins in October 2008, du Sautoy has worked tirelessly to ensure that ‘science and society talk to one another’.

‘To have a mathematically literate society is integral to our future – I think even Gordon Brown is starting to realise that a scientifically literate society is the key to a robust economy,’ he says.

Marcus du Sautoy is a man with a mission, to show the world the blinding light of science, whether they like it or not.

‘Sometimes we forgot that people like being exposed to difficult ideas. We molly-coddle them too much.

‘In my talks and my books I basically say “I’m going to push you. You’re not going to understand it all but you will get something out of it.” That’s the secret.’

David Peace

I’d a really engaging half-hour chat with Yorkshire’s finest this morning. He talked plenty about Walter Benjamin, Johnny Giles and old Big Head but for legal reasons left most of it off the record. But here’s a few of the things we did talk about for a feature on CultureNorthernIreland ahead of his appearance at this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

davidpeaceWill this be your first time in Belfast?

Yes. Obviously when you grow up in the UK in the 1970s Belfast has a kind of presence in your life as a place that is always there but that you have never been to… or ever dared go. But I will be back here again. The book after next is about (Harold) Wilson and (Margaret) Thatcher in the 1970s, so there is a strong Irish dimension. I’ll need to go to Belfast and Dublin to do more research for that.

When did you start writing?

I started when I was about eight years old. I think it was because my dad was a teacher but he wanted to be a writer. Every night after tea he would go upstairs and write.

Was your father ever published?

No, but from the age of eight I was writing pretty much continuously. When I was 11 or 12 I did more comic book stuff and then when I was a teenager in bands I was writing lyrics. But I’ve always had notebooks on the go, dating back to about 1974.

Your books all deal with historical events. Why?
I’ve always used writing as a way to understand living. If not I don’t really see the point of it. The Red Riding Trilogy and GB84 was a way to understand the place I grew up. The Tokyo books were a way to understand the place I was living in. It really is quite straightforward.

Do you think there has been a turn to historical fiction in recent years?
Story-telling has always been historical. To me the weird thing has been these novels about nothing that we have been inundated with for the past 10-15 years. If you go back to Beowulf or the Icelandic sagas or even Finnegan’s Wake, they are all ways of telling the story of a people. I think history and stories are almost the same thing. Story-telling can be escapist but I think that is really quite a recent development.

Do you find it difficult to write about the past?

The problem is always perspective. I remember after the twin towers were attacked Martin Amis, Zadie Smith and all these people were writing about it and I was just thinking ‘What can you possibly write about this? What do you know about this?’ and the answer is ‘nothing’, it was all ego.

People often say to me ‘why don’t you write about now?’ But what is ‘now’? How can you write about now? People writing about Blair and the Iraq War, that is just journalism. I’m deeply suspicious of fiction about the recent past. You need distance and time to be able to contemplate an event fully.

As a writer, is it difficult to deal with criticism?
I suppose it comes down to some innate arrogance or contrariness, but I don’t mind criticism. I have a very low of opinion of The Guardian and what I call ‘literary London’. With the last book, Occupied City, some people were saying ‘he murdered a good story’. But I set out to make an anti-crime novel – a novel against what the crime novel has become in our society – so while these reviewers were trying to be negative they were actually proving that I succeeded in what I set out to do in the book.

The Damned United was also heavily criticised, but by people within the football world. How did you react to that?
The important thing to remember is that The Damned United is a novel. I did research it as much as I could, there is even a bibliography at the back, but the characters are all my own. That people would read the book as truth means that they are stupid enough to mistake my name for Brian Clough. The irony is that while I dramatised scenes and characters I didn’t stray that far from the public record.

In a way a controversy was started out of the nothing. When I was writing the book it never crossed my mind that it would upset anybody. I didn’t think there was anything in it that didn’t reflect the public record. It was well known that Brian Clough liked a drink and used profane language in the company of others.

If I was to write a novel about the last days of Edgar Allan Poe nobody would bat an eyelid – in fact, I’d probably win a prize for it. But to write a book about a football manager, that is something you shouldn’t do.

You are currently writing about Japan after the Second World War. Why does this interest you?
Everything that modern Japan (where I lived for 15 years) is was kind of formed in the American occupation. Every aspect of legal and political life in Japan in 2009 dates back to the seven years of the American occupation. With Occupied City and the new book I’m writing now I have tried to broaden it out because I think there is a relevance to the West now. In a way we all live in occupied cities. I hope the Tokyo trilogy works both on a historical level and in the western world in 2009.

What are your future plans?
I’m currently working on Resurrected, the last of the Tokyo trilogy. Then it’s a history of the UK from 1967 to 1984, which will be a very long book.

You’re written eight novels in ten years. How are you so prolific?
I often have books going on simultaneously. Also I only want to write 12 novels in total, and I’ve always known what these will be. That definitely helps.

Rachel Cusk – Domestic Disturbance

Interview with the prize-winning novelist from Sunday Business Post 20/09. Cusk’s new book, Bradshaw Variations is out now and well worth a read.

Carl Jung never defined an archetype of the domestic goddess, but then again the Swiss psychoanalyst never spent an afternoon in the company of Rachel Cusk. Still stunningly attractive at 42, the bronzed Canadian-born mother of two marries a catwalk model’s figure and poise with the sharp intellect and caustic wit of a prize-winning novelist. Nigella Lawson she most certainly is not.

rachelcusk1It is late afternoon when we meet in her small, stuffy hotel in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, not far from Charlotte Square, where, the following morning, Cusk will read at the city’s prestigious book festival. She has come north to publicise her latest novel, The Bradshaw Variations, a slight but engaging account of a year in the life of three brothers and their respective families.

If the train journey from Brighton has tired her out it doesn’t show. She is alert and loquacious, talking about everything from the rather hideous brown leather sofa she perches on – ‘It’s like someone’s sitting room, isn’t it?’ – to why, after seven novels, she is still writing about the minutiae of ostensibly humdrum everyday life.

‘It is seen as a political choice to write about domesticity but really it isn’t. I just refuse to make things up. I don’t write about drug addicts or people that are underprivileged because that is a kind of life I know nothing about. My material is what is around me at a given time, and that is what I have to use.’

Cusk’s prickly defensiveness is understandable. This is one domestic goddess unafraid to speak her mind about affairs of the heart, or the home. Until A Life’s Work – a dark, unsettling account of impending motherhood written around the time of the birth of her first child – was published she was a moderately successful, well-respected literary writer. After, she became the scourge of Middle England, particularly its female half.

‘I was completely harangued by these women journalists who were all trying to shut me up, suggesting that I was some sort of evil, child-hating mother,’ she says, nervously running spindly fingers through her long, dark, shiny hair.

Cusk is not alone in writing less than enthusiastically about motherhood and child-rearing – recently Ayelet Waldman, novelist and wife of Michael Chabon, stoked controversy in the US by expressing similar opinions – but why do these views provoke such opprobrium?

‘The very same people who got so angry at me for saying these apparently dreadful things about having babies and looking after babies, my guess is that they were really much angrier than me about it. That they hated it more than me. That this taboo emanated from their own worst fears about themselves: that they would not be able to conceal their profound ambivalence about the whole thing.

‘I think the fear is that if anybody started giving these women encouragement who knows what they might do? Chop off their children’s heads, murder their husbands, run away from it all,’ she smiles winsomely.

She is adamant that the reaction to A Life’s Work ‘didn’t change my writing’, but it is hard not to see 2006’s Orange-prize shortlisted Arlington Park as something of a rejoinder to her detractors. In a vision of suburbia that owes more to John Updike than JG Ballard, the novel follows the lives of five young women in a leafy ‘burb over the course of one rainy day: all are married, all are well off, and all are crushingly frustrated.

For Cusk, art alone offers a viable route out of this insidious, middle-class ennui. ‘I think of art as the home of certain things that are indispensible to life and if you never find them, if you never meet them, then that is a sad life to have lived,’ she says. The Bradshaw Variations is peppered with characters searching, but rarely finding, creativity in their lives. As such, the novel is less a story in the traditional sense and more a protracted, thought provoking, character-driven interrogation of what it means to live well.

The question of what constitutes a good life (or a bad one) has clearly vexed the writer throughout her adult life, so much so that at times our conversation feels a little like Greek Philosophy 101. She is most comfortable speaking in a veiled language of Platonic abstractions; nouns like ‘form’ and structure’ recur endlessly, especially when she talks about middle-age, a time of life she shares with her new novel’s central characters, Thomas Bradshaw and his wife Tonie.

‘The real difficulty and beauty of middle-age is that you are trapped in a form, and that form is your family. The parameters of that form are very fixed, and you can’t go outside them because it you do you have violated family life and you have ruined it. So you have to express yourself within this confined structure if you want your life to be beautiful.’

For a writer renowned for compassionate, often painstaking renderings of domestic life, when it comes to discussing her private affairs Cusk is remarkably reticent. I know from my research that she is married to photographer Adrian Clarke (her second husband), with whom she has two daughters, but my questions reveal almost nothing concrete about her family – except, that is, for her parents.

She grew up in LA, she tells me, where her father was an accountant – ‘Have you seen the Godfather? I reckon that is quite close to what it was like to be an accountant in LA in 1972.’ At the age of 8 her English parents, ‘Catholic, stuffily brought up people who went to California to let their hair down but found it frightening’, decided to move Cusk and her three siblings to rural Sussex. ‘They had this idea of England as an idyllic place,’ she says, staring off into the middle distance as if to emphasise an unbridgeable detachment from her past.

‘My childhood was so peripatetic. We were uprooted an awful lot and in mind I always had this idea that living in the same house for your whole life would be a wonderful thing to be able to offer your children,’ she says. Surprising sentiments given that in her adult life Cusk has lived in London, Brighton, Oxford, Bristol, and, last year, decided to move her entire family to Italy.

‘I was desperate to get away. I felt the walls were closing in on me and I wanted, needed, a good wander,’ she remarks of the three months in Tuscany that became The Last Supper, before adding, ‘but then I wanted to get back. Now I see the benefits of being a bit more stable.’

Domesticity, it seems, has not come as naturally to Rachel Cusk as initial impressions might suggest. She talks of ‘a very strong compulsion to know about ordinary life,’ but in the next breath reflects regretfully that she has not kept her life ‘as free’ as the artists she most admires; Virginia Wolff, WG Sebald, DH Lawrence.

Nevertheless, she maintains that great writing can, and does, emerge from the quotidian. ‘There are felicitous combinations of talent and available experiential material, like DH Lawrence, and that is amazing. But much more often the writer is a Henry James figure: a person that is socially ambitious living among and writing about other socially ambitious people,’ she says.

Socially ambitious she may be but after her Italian experience Rachel Cusk has no intentions of abandoning her style or subject matter anytime soon. ‘The idea of going and living in a place where I can’t understand the social structures from the very core of my being. I don’t think I could do that.

‘I think, if you are me, you are best off where you come from. That is my meat and drink, even if it is painful, even if it annoys other people, even if it annoys me. I don’t know what I would do otherwise. I might have to go and write brief, stylish novels about French people.’

Biography

Born: 1967

Background: Cusk studied at St Mary’s Convent in Cambridge before going on to read English at Oxford. She began writing Saving Agnes at 23, with her debut winning the Whitbread first novel award. She continued publishing throughout her 20s, winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 1997. ‘Back then I didn’t know where novels came from,’ she says. ‘The transformation was realising I had to bind together my own emotional experience with what I was going to write and that those two things had to be one and the same thing.’ Her personal exploration of motherhood, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, proved extremely controversial when published in 2001, and she has developed her interest in family dynamics and domestic life in her subsequent novels. Now living in Brighton she teaches creative writing at Kingston University, London.

Novels: Saving Agnes (1993), The Temporary (1995), The Country Life (1997), The Lucky Ones (2003), In the Fold (2005), Arlington Park (2006), The Bradshaw Variations (2009)

Non-fiction: A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (2001), The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (2009)

Friel’s trilogy a triumph

Review of the Brian Friel trilogy from Sunday Business Post 07/09: Brian Friel turned 80 this year and, as part of its tribute to the playwright, the Gate Theatre has reprised three works from his back catalogue: Faith Healer, Afterplay and The Yalta Game. After opening at the Sydney Festival, the trilogy transferred to Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre for the International Festival, which ends today.

Afterplay

Directed by Garry Hynes

Selected dates from September 12-19

Rating: ****

Anton Chekhov has provided inspiration and source material for many of Friel’s greatest theatrical triumphs. In Afterplay, he performs an impressive feat of theatrical alchemy, recovering characters from his two most famous adaptations to create a work that is as novel and inventive as it is poignant and touching.

afterplay120A dilapidated Moscow cafe is the scene of a chance encounter between a strong willed, prickly middle-aged woman – lovesick Sonya Serebriakova from Uncle Vanya – and a bumbling fantasist, Andrey Prozorov, spendthrift brother of the infamous Three Sisters.

With subtlety and verve, Niall Buggy and Frances Barber bring to life two souls haunted by pasts they can neither reconcile with, nor move on from. The financial legacy of her uncle’s hubris weighs heavily on Sonya’s shoulders, while Andrey pines visibly for a wife who has long since abandoned him.

Over the course of an hour and several large vodkas, each character’s sad collection of ‘fables’, ‘fictions’, ‘untruths’ and ‘lies’ unravel slowly and painfully. Andrey, it turns out, is not starring in La Boheme – he busks on the street so he can visit his jailbird son. And Sonya is hopelessly in love with her uncle’s drunken, married doctor.

Friel shows us individuals lost in their own imaginary worlds, waiting expectantly for the realisation of a hope that will almost certainly go unfulfilled. This fact Sonya accepts readily, if melancholically: ‘‘It is not the most satisfactory way to get through a life, but it is away.”

Garry Hynes’s unfussy direction complements Friel’s exquisite writing by drawing out its emotional depth without suppressing its lighter moments. Such intricate intermingling of light and shade, fantasy and reality, marks Afterplay out as so much more than a clever theatrical conceit well executed.

The Russian master would surely have approved.

The Yalta Game

Directed by Patrick Mason Selected dates from September 13-19

Rating: ****

Based on Chekhov’s short story Lady with Lapdog, The Yalta Game debuted in Dublin in 2001. The play takes its name from a novel game of seduction pursued by charismatic Muscovite Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov along the Crimean resort’s bustling promenades .With a love interest in tow, Dmitri gazes at wandering holiday makers and invents spurious, often titillating back stories for them.

During one such ‘‘daylong diversion’’, Dmitri befriends Anna Sergeyevna, an innocent young woman from near St Petersburg on a sabbatical from her older, domineering husband. In the unreal world of Yalta’s casinos and ferries, their flirtation quickly develops into a full-blown holiday romance.

But when Anna’s ailing spouse calls her home, the relationship with Dmitri is over. Or is it?
The-Yalta-Game-200
Faced with the mundane reality of their married lives, both characters slip into a world of imagination, a world where they are together forever in a perfect (and impossible) union. Lost in his fantasies, the once cocksure Dmitri is driven by love – or more accurately longing – to doubt everything in his life: ‘‘things that once seemed real now become imagined things.”

Over 50 finely-crafted minutes, Friel reveals the depressing emptiness that leads Anna and Dmitri into a long-distance affair that both know is doomed but neither can end. It all flows elegantly, aided by Patrick Mason’s simple production and Liz Ascroft’s spartan set – a handful of bare wooden chairs sit scattered across the stage.

Both players are excellent: Ristéard Cooper’s Dmitri is animated, loquacious and confident, Rebecca O’Mara’s Anna the perfect mix of vulnerable beauty and coldhearted duplicity.

The Yalta Game is a short play, and the razor-sharp exchanges between the couple are delivered almost without skipping a breath. This reviewer would have preferred more time to savour the dialogue’s cut and thrust. But then time is the one thing star-crossed lovers never have to spare.