Couchsurfing in NYC

I’ve written and spoken about Couchsurfing before in the Irish media and now I’m having my tuppence worth on the other side of the pond. To be honest, I love the idea of meeting random strangers and exchanging cultural what-nots but it can be seriously hit and miss…in this feature in NYC’s hip L Magazine I reflect on a fairly hairy experience couchsurfing in Brooklyn last year. Still was an experience I guess…

A Traveler’s Nightmare: Couchsurfing in NYC
Tourists, like neo-liberals, are all for doing more with less. It’s a natural human impulse to want to see the world, and to do it as cheaply as possible. Parsimonious traveler that I am, New York’s vertiginous hotel prices long kept me away — that is until I heard about a new travel craze that puts would-be visitors in touch with like-minded people and their spare beds (or, more precisely, couches).

‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I wondered as I got online and found a couple in Brooklyn willing to house a struggling arts journalist and his girlfriend for a weekend. Random strangers, an air mattress in Williamsburg, no private space — in retrospect the danger signs should have been flashing bright amber, but I was too excited about CouchSurfing in New York to notice, or care.
L Magazine
Set up five years ago by Casey Fenton, a 27-year-old from Hawaii, CouchSurfing has a simple concept: instead of paying a packet for holiday lodgings, enjoy free hospitality from one of the 780,000 CouchSurfers registered in more than 180 countries.

Underpinning the system is a philosophy reaching well beyond free accommodation. ‘Surfers’ can bring their host gifts, cook dinner or offer to help around the house in return for a bed and expert local knowledge, but the most valuable reward most users seem to get from the site is the exchange of ideas and cultures, and the creation of international friendships.

Joining is straightforward. Sign up, create a profile, populate it with witty aphorisms and photographs of yourself looking friendly and you’re ready to begin contacting members in places you want to visit. (Although some hosts prefer that a friend who’s also a member vouches for you, so they know they’re not getting a psychopath.)

The basic house rules are easy, too. Be a respectful guest (a gift often goes down well but is not obligatory), clean up after yourself and, if other surfers are coming to your area, and it suits you, reciprocate.

It might all sound a bit too rough and ready, but if you don’t have a phobia about staying with strangers, then CouchSurfing can be a great way to travel – and to save money. In the past year I’ve slept on floors and couches and made friends in Germany, Spain and the UK.

I soon realize, however, that New York poses quite unique problems for would-be CouchSurfers. First off there are just so many couches to choose from. Iceland has less than 500 registered hosts, in New York there are well over 6,000 putatively willing to have a guest.

I say putatively as when I start searching for a suitable host for my girlfriend and I a different story emerges. As befits the city itself, New York hosts display plenty of quirks and peculiarities — not least typing ‘be clean’ in upper case and surrounded by exclamation marks. Others include strange requests about background and ethnic origin and levels of education in their profiles. I may be a graduate but I would never make a university education a sine qua non for sleeping on my couch — unlike some New York CouchSurfers.

Click here to read the rest of this feature

If You Can't Stand the Heat…

Picture the scene: You’re a comedian on your first run in Edinburgh. It’s not going so well. Most shows are made up of mates on comps and the odd, stray lunchtime punter. One day you have a solitary paying customer (and no mates). You have to cancel that show.

You are not getting reviewed – cause you’re a nobody in a town of 3,000 performers. Finally you get a review in a popular Edinburgh publication, it’s a not a good review but it’s not a bad one. A bog-standard, two-star review, because you’re a bog-standard, two-star comic.

mike bubbinsWhat do you do: (a) read the review, heed the advice (and the lack of customers) and decide to rethink your act (or maybe you career) or do you (b) scrawl a nonsensical, error-strewn rant at the journo who wrote the review telling all about your pitiful Fringe run…..well if your name is the unfortunate Mike Bubbins you choose the latter…

For anyone who wants to read Mike’s rant about my review of his show (from last week’s the List) in its foaming entirety check it out here

The condensed version goes something like this: ‘If the author, Peter Geogehan(sic), had said that to me during one of the hundred plus hours I have spent writing and re-writing my set since Christmas, he would find out fairly quickly that, compared to the bespectacled, emaciated, pasty Mr Geogehan (And he is. I Googled him. For ages) I am very much not lacking in the punch department. After wishing a fatal industrial accident on my old mate Pete, I consoled myself with the knowledge that all reviewers are sad wannabes, without the courage, or talent to actually do what it is they are giving their ‘expert’ opinions on.’

Poor Mike, if you can’t stand the heat mate I really would get out of the kitchen…googling your reviewers (would help if you got my name right) and then mocking them as ‘pasty’ and ‘bespectacled’ is not big, hard…or funny…as for the threat to punch me, well Mr B that’s just very juvenile, isn’t it?

And his barely legible ramblings don’t get much better: ‘There is a lot of competition in Edinburgh. A LOT of competition. Over 2000 shows this year. But that includes a LOT of rubbish, and my show isn’t.’ (All correct…and if he had read my review I didn’t say it was rubbish…’under-written’ and ‘lacking punch’ are not the same thing).

‘Settle down Geogehan, or I will smash your glasses.’ Well done Mike, another schoolyard threat and still making spelling mistakes (the piece is littered with them – learn to spell check B-man).

‘But nobody knows me up here….You have never seen a more pitiful sight that grown men and women poring through a paper, desperate to find out what some unknown person’s opinion of them is.’

Yes, Mike the problem is yours not mine. I’m doing my job – if you did yours better you wouldn’t be getting your knickers in such a twist. But just when it looks like Mike is smelling the coffee he loses the rag again:

‘The fact that no-one outside of Edinburgh has even heard of Three Weeks or downmarket, lying, hack-written rag The List, means nothin’….

It goes on in this style for a couple of hundred words (including a rather pathetic admission to getting tutorials from comic Rhod Gilbert during the middle of his run) before ending with this corker:

‘I can neither confirm nor deny that this is the same part-time, freelance, ‘writer’ and Milhouse lookalike Peter Geogehan who is notorious for being a persistent bed-wetter and who has an unhealthy interest in farmyard animals.’

ah Mike, Mike, you just can’t leave the schoolyard….lucky I have a full-time job to keep me busy…and by the way it’s GEOGHEGAN

Review of Hotel Missoni, Edinburgh

From Irish Times 15/08/09:

‘I’D WORK here just for that jacket,” my girlfriend declared after we finished checking in. As I’m a man who shops twice a year, and even then does it under duress, the receptionist’s sartorial style had passed me by. “Yes, it was very, eh, nice,” I lied, badly. “You didn’t notice it at all,” she said, guessing correctly. “It had some of most lovely, elegant patterns I’ve ever seen.”

This may be the Missoni fashion house’s debut foray into hotels, but it has not abandoned its trademark brightly coloured and patterned designs.

The first of a planned 30 luxury hotels across the globe, the striking Edinburgh Missoni opened in June, on the corner of George IV Bridge and the Royal Mile, in the heart of the city’s picturesque Old Town.

Fashioned out of curvaceous gold stone with wavy black-and-white patterns, the hotel’s exterior reflects the brand, but the full flamboyant effect has been saved for its customers. The entrance opens on to a coruscating cocktail bar that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Studio 54’s disco heyday, all glittery floors, revolving chairs and blues and purples so bright they should have come with a UV warning.

If the dark, functional foyer was somewhat understated, the long corridor that led to our room, on the fourth of the hotel’s six storeys, was anything but: a combination

of black-and-white striped carpet and alternating pink and red walls was so overpowering that I felt rather disorientated by time we reached the end.

There is certainly a love-it- or-hate-it quality to Hotel Missoni’s decor. So far I was ambivalent, but our wooden- floored and air-conditioned double room left me in no doubt.

Luscious floral motifs on the bed, cushions and chairs, and pleasingly muted green and blue walls, gave the room a clean, contemporary feel.

A heavy glass door slid across to reveal a spacious bathroom with a tiled sit-in shower and matching dressing gowns.

The Jacob Jensen telephone, Bang Olufsen TV – with free films on demand – and De’Longhi coffee machine cast aside any lingering question marks about the hotel’s five-star pretensions.

“You’re a man, so you won’t notice these things, but the fabric is immense,” my girlfriend purred, petting an upholstered chair as I attempted to connect to the free wireless.

Thankfully, no such gender bias prevented me from appreciating the room’s best feature: the view of the city’s cobbled streets and the majestic Arthur’s Seat from the full-length windows.

Despite its city-centre location, only the sound of a lone piper ever got past the room’s excellent insulation.

We skipped the hotel restaurant in favour of a pre-theatre menu around the corner on Victoria Street.

After a drink in the nearby Bowery Bar, an edgy homage to the Lower East Side complete with Brooklyn Lager and shelves stacked with biographies of Nixon, Reagan and Ford, we returned to our room, which had been freshly made up and its free minibar restocked with Peroni beer and Lurisia water. Delectable shortbread had also been left by our bedside.

Breakfast was first rate, cooked to order and served by a phalanx of brown-robed waiters among yet more amazing textiles and patterns in the bright, airy first-floor restaurant. The menu was pleasingly varied, and the eggs Benedict – perfectly poached yokes in the lightest of hollandaise sauces – were the finest I have eaten, though anyone looking for a full Scottish would not have been disappointed, either.

An elaborately laid-out buffet offered fresh fruit, cereal, nuts and, for those who like to kick-start their morning with a sugar rush, an assortment of pastries and cakes.

Staff were extremely friendly, obliging and pretty much ubiquitous, which was to be expected given how quiet the hotel was. These are difficult times for hotels, new and established, but I’m sure Hotel Missoni’s owners – the chain belongs to the Rezidor group, which has licensed the Missoni name, and also owns the Radisson and Regent brands – would have hoped to attract more than the solitary couple I spotted during our stay.

Given its splendid location, it is ideal for a luxurious break in this most charming of cities, and should prove particularly popular with this month’s festival-goers.

According to a brochure in our room, the entire hotel was scented with a unique Missoni fragrance. My less than sensitive nose failed to notice this nuance. I think I’ll have to go back next time I’m in Edinburgh, just to make sure.

Where Hotel Missoni, 1 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland, 00-44-131-2206666,

What Fashion-conscious five-star hotel in the centre of the city.

Rooms 136.

Best rates Rooms start at £135 (€160) per night, excluding breakfast. Bed and breakfast from £210 (€250). Dinner, bed and breakfast from £280 (€330).

Restaurants and bars La Cucina restaurant serves Italian-influenced dishes. Bar Missoni.

Access Two wheelchair- accessible rooms on each floor.

Amenities Car parking, gym, express check-out.

Edinburgh Jumps to the Beat

Top comics make a packet from the Fringe but for lesser lights it’s a real struggle. In this feature from last week’s Sunday Business Post I talked to artists in the black and the red after a month in Edinburgh.

Breaking Edinburgh Can Break the Bank
It is barely midday but already Edinburgh’s iconic Royal Mile is awash with people. A large crowd forms around a man with a bleached mohawk and tattered waistcoat juggling fire. Beneath their feet flyers for everything from one man Lord of the Rings to a stand-up show about Hitler’s moustache lie scattered like confetti on the cobbled stone. This is the fringe festival in full swing – and business has never been brisker.

Edinburgh’s fringe, already the world’s largest arts festival, has just announced a 20% increase on advance sales from 2007, previously considered the event’s most successful year. Some city centre venues have even reported sales up a staggering 38% on last August. And all this in the face of the biggest global recession in living memory.

Shane Langan 1Laughter is a popular escape from economic gloom, judging by the bright yellow ‘sold-out’ stickers emblazoned across promotional posters for established stand-ups such as Rhod Gilbert and David O’Doherty as well as young turks like Kevin Bridges.

Not all comics enjoy such success, however: the average fringe act loses around £6,000 at Edinburgh. Some, like Dubliner Shane Langan, take an even bigger hit in the pocket.

’This year the fringe is costing me something like £8,000, and that’s before living expenses,’ said the star of sketch group Diet of Worms, making his solo debut in Edinburgh this year. ‘That money is gone as far as I’m concerned. I’ll get some of it back through ticket sales but it’s best to just assume that it is all gone. Then anything you do get back is a bonus.’

Expenses and overheads for a standard month-long fringe run are vertiginous, especially for young comics without major backing. Renting a dank, dusty 80-seater room in an established fringe venue like the Gilded Balloon or the Pleasance for an hour a day comes in at upwards on £4,000. Add public relations fees, promotional material and living expenses and costs quickly spiral out of control.

An expensive city by European standards the other eleven months of the year, Edinburgh in August is definitely no place for the thrifty. Many students and residents vacate their tenement flats for the month, preferring to rent them out to fringe performers, often at exuberant rates – as Langan has discovered.

‘I’m paying £1,500 to share a two-bedroom flat with another comic and my girlfriend for the month. Which is obviously way over the odds but you need to have your own space,’ he explained.

So how can a struggling young Irish comic afford to put on a fringe show in the first place? ‘I’ve learned to live on very little at home,’ Langan remarked, slowly sipping a glass of tap water in a city centre bar. ‘I scrimp and save throughout the year. I also set up a separate Edinburgh account and put any extra money and savings into that.’

Eleanor Tiernan, another up and coming Irish act at this year’s fringe, has similar experiences. ‘I wouldn’t have a lot of money but I put as much as I can aside during the year to fund Edinburgh,’ she said.

Eleanor-012 copyBoth Langan and Tiernan are full-time comics, the latter quitting a steady job as a civil service engineer to follow her cousin Tommy into stand-up five years ago. ‘To be honest the thoughts then of how I live now would have frightened the life out of me. Now I don’t know on a Friday how I’ll pay the rent on a Monday morning.’

With cash in short supply the temptation to avoid excess expenses, like professional public relations, is strong, but Tiernan counsels against cutting corners. ‘Last year was my first year on the fringe and I did it all myself to try and save money. I had a double act with an American comic but he didn’t show up. So in the end I had to do the whole show myself, and I was doing my own PR. All told I lost about £9,000 – this year I’m paying for someone to do the promotion for me.’

As well as booking venues and co-ordinating crucial festival press, a dedicated PR assists with another integral part of any profitable Edinburgh run: flyers. With so much choice punters often buy tickets for shows they know next to nothing about – so encticing, preferably laugh-out-loud funny, flyers are vital promotional tools. Well-established fringe turns would not be seen dead flyering, but for emerging acts it remains one of most effective ways to get noticed.

‘I’m out on the street literally everyday for two or three hours,’ said Colm O’Regan, a fresh stand-up talent from Dripsey, Co. Cork (‘Famous for having the world’s shortest St Patrick’s day parade.’).

‘I literally approach every stationary human being within walking distance of the box office and try and convince them to come see me. It’s not easy, having to go on about how great you are and why they must come to the show, but you have to do it.’

Unknown fringe acts fact myriad difficulties – from competing with major international names to not getting those all-important early reviews – but the thoughtful O’Regan, bicycle helmet in hand, reckons the biggest challenge is upstairs. ‘It is very easy to get here physically but in your mind it is a much, much bigger leap. You are never really ready, I guess, but in your mind you have to believe you are, that you are someone that people will pay to see,’ he remarked.

Many debutants are disappointed when a show is poorly attended or they lose more money than intended but O’Regan is refreshingly phlegmatic about the whole enterprise. ‘This is basically an investment in a small business. And like any small business in your first year you hope to break even or not to take too big a hosing and then to build on that the next year and the year after.

‘’It is a bit like doing a masters – the benefits aren’t up front and immediate, you just hope that they’ll accrue over time.’

Panel: Jason Byrne’s Tips from the Top

Jason Byrne is the undisputed king of the fringe. Irish audiences might recognise the affable ginger-haired southsider from Anonymous or The Jason Byrne Show but in Edinburgh he is a bona fide stand-up phenomeon. The most successful solo act in festival history – last year he sold in excess of 25,000 tickets and grossed well over £250,000 – he has some sage advice for new Irish comics trying to succeed in the cut-throat fringe world.

‘I’ve worked really hard here and the thing these guys need to understand is that it doesn’t happen overnight,’ explained Byrne, back for his thirteenth consecutive fringe. ‘Over the years I’ve climbed steadily from doing 100 seater venues to 150 to 180 to 360 and now I’m doing 800 seater venues,’ he said after another sold-out night in Edinburgh’s Assembly Hall.

Today’s newcomers might accept losing money at Edinburgh as a fact of life but Byrne has never seen it that way. ‘I’ve never paid to be here. I’ve always had a promoter to cover the costs. I remember getting £500 the first time I played and thinking ‘Oh boy, that’s something’. Though obviously things have moved on a bit since then.’

Along with compatriot Tommy Tiernan, Byrne made his fringe name as a finalist in the 1996 edition of ‘So You Think You’re Funny?’ (he finished runner-up behind the Navan man). He returned the following year as one half of a stand-up double bill – again sharing a stage with Tiernan – waiting until 1998 to make his solo fringe debut.

Byrne believes emerging Irish talents would be wise to follow this gradual route to the top. ‘A lot of people come here and go straight into the one-hour show. They’re not ready, get ripped to shreds in the press and never really recover. Edinburgh is vicious.

‘Also, they are playing a festival with too many acts already,’ he cautioned. ‘The only way to stand out is to do the competitions. That way you’ll build up a following and a name over the years and you’ll be able to get a good agent as well.’

With their onus on quick wit and confident delivery, competitions are an excellent barometer of whether a comic is ready for the fringe: ‘If you’re not getting into the final of one of these things then you shouldn’t be doing the one hour show. It’s a simple as that. You wouldn’t give someone in their first year in college a column in a national newspaper, would you?’

Byrne also suggests that new comics consider looking beyond the fringe proper. With over 460 shows in 33 venues across Edinburgh, the so-called ‘free fringe’ is bigger than ever this year. Here acts pay nothing for the performance space: apart from living expenses, the only cost incurred is a £370 charge for inclusion in the official fringe.

A plastic collection bucket lets audiences reward the comics they find funny – and punish those they don’t. A handful of rusty coppers might be a harsh reality check but it is a lot less painful than a massive fringe debt.

Some more Edinburgh reviews

I’m still in Edinburgh reviewing away, here’s a couple of other pieces from The List

Phil Nichol

‘Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Bobby Spade.’ Phil Nichol’s transformation into a white-suited lounge lizard with a sideline in psychopathy, is so complete that all that’s missing is the trademark Stars in Their Eyes dry-ice intro. Accompanied by jazz piano and double-bass, the Canadian comic unfurls his man’s tragic back-story – an abusive mother, a series of ‘uncles’, a string of failed marriages – in hilarious verse, riotous song and priceless one-liners.

philnichol--TLST034895Early offering ‘My Show’ – a paean with enough egomania to fill a clutch of gangsta rap records – is pure Spade: misogynistic, lecherous, unnerving, and deeply, consistently funny. From then on in it’s a rollercoaster ride of black comedy gold with beat poetry about adultery and incest, rockabilly ditties redolent of an incurably demented Johnny Cash and a witty meditation on Helen Keller’s husband. Nichol’s stand-up is certainly an acquired taste but in Spade he has found the perfect vehicle for his substantial lyrical gifts. There is physicality to his humour too. While reciting a punk poem entitled ‘Do Everything You’re Not Supposed To’, he grits his teeth and butts the air like an angsty teenager at a My Chemical Romance gig.

The laughs come thick and fast throughout, aided and abetted by a string of one-liners so depraved Jerry Sadowitz would think twice before using them – but so good he’d never pass them up. Nichol even creates a new literary form in the ‘pong’ (a poem/song hybrid) during which he admits: ‘This show won’t make you think/It’s just something I wrote when I’d too much to drink’. Bobby Spade may not be the most cerebral character on this year’s Fringe, but he could well be the funniest. (Peter Geoghegan)

The Stand II, 558 7272, until 30 Aug, 9pm, £10.

David Longley
Acid-tongued and sharp as a barrelful of tacks, Englishman Longley is a comedian with an axe to grind. His rants on everything from politics to pregnancy don’t always hit the bullseye, but his witty one-liners keep the laughs ticking over.

The Stand III & IV, 558 7272, until 30 Aug (not 17), 8.35pm, £7 (£6).

Mike Bubbins
Stocky Welshman Bubbins is the spit of The King of Queens’ Kevin James and, unfortunately, his Fringe debut is about as adventurous as the tepid US sitcom. The former PE teacher’s tales of daytime TV, smalltown life and material strife are often underwritten and lack punch, but a natural charm and confident delivery just about sees him through.

The GRV, 226 0000, until 30 Aug, 1.40pm, £5.

Janey Godley
godleys-janeygodleyphoto1-cTThis straight-talking Glaswegian is not one to mince her words: so when she tells you about unwittingly smoking crack or catching Mexican swine flu you’re inclined to believe her. Immensely likeable, Godley’s well-crafted anecdotes are sharp and engaging enough to cover an occasional lack of originality.

Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, until 31 Aug, 7pm, £11–£12 (£9.50–£10.50).

Edinburgh Fringe Reviews

At the moment I’m over in Edinburgh covering the fringe. Biggest doesn’t always mean best – I’ve seen plenty of dross already – but it’s still a great festival. Here’s a couple of reviews I’ve done for the popular Scottish arts guide The List

Hannah Gadsby Does Mother Really Know Best?
Hannah Gadsby’s domineering, Catholic mammy has plenty to answer for. She dressed her youngest daughter in beige tracksuits and pleated purple golf shorts, treated serious injuries with Tupperware and spoke in an hannah-gadsby1_thumbunintelligible personal code: you’ll never guess what the show’s rather odd title, Kiss Me Quick I’m Full of Jubes, means in Mrs Gadsby’s world. Those parenting skills may have bordered on negligence but they did gift this amiable Antipodean a rich seam of comic gold, which she mines with aplomb.

With a self-deprecation that borders on flagellation, the chunky, bespectacled Gadsby goes from childhood in Tasmania (‘famous for its frighteningly small gene pool’) to eventually coming out to her stiflingly conventional family. Along the way we hear about a traumatic recent encounter with a personal trainer and the BMI (‘I’m 56% fat-free’ she announces with a mix of pride and weary resignation) and an alarmingly lengthy history of accidents and ailments. A lesser talent might have turned mother into a one-dimensional monster: instead Gatsby, with deadpan delivery and razor-sharp wit, makes her the basis of a minor comic masterpiece.

Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, until 30 Aug (not 17), 7.20pm, £10–£11 (£9–£10).

Socially Retarded
You’d expect plenty of cringing in a sketch show about awkward situations, but too often this fresh-faced, well-spoken duo are the ones left shifting uncomfortably. Even their enthusiastic delivery and game attempts at audience participation can’t lift weak riffs on predictable material: the holy trinity of sex, death and Facebook.
Royal College of Surgeons, 0845 508 8515, until 22 Aug (not 16), 6.10pm, £7 (£5).

40 years of the British Army in Northern Ireland

Feature from latest Sunday Business Post

August 15, 1969. Even those with the most cursory of interests in Northern Irish history will recognise the date of the British Army’s first deployment in Belfast. But for almost 40 years no photographic record of the soldiers’ arrival on the city’s streets existed, until an octogenarian with a photo box wandered into a gallery in the northern capital recently.

bombayoneGerry Collins, now 86, was the first photographer on the scene after a weekend of sustained and orchestrated attacks by loyalist mobs left most of Bombay Street, off the Falls road in west Belfast, ablaze. A keen lens man, he had brought his camera with him as he went to check on his elderly aunt in the area that fateful Sunday morning.

The pictures he took of wide-eyed, young soldiers cautiously walking down burned-out, rubble-strewn streets could have made Collins famous, but instead they lay filed away in his attic as the Troubles raged. Only a chance encounter with the social documentary-style photographs of Frankie Quinn, proprietor of the Red Barn Galley in Belfast city centre, persuaded the long-retired photographer to dust off his old Ilford prints.

‘Gerry came into the gallery,’ recalled Quinn, whose own work on the peace walls that divide Belfast won many plaudits. ‘He said he knew about my work, and that he had photographs that had never been seen before. I thought nothing of it until he came back a few days later, and brought with him these amazing photographs.’

Families loading belongings onto milk trucks, a priest from nearby Clonard Monastery addressing an anxious crowd, a man and boy surveying the rubble of what was once their house – the photos, collected in an exhibition entitled ‘Taken From The Ashes’, reveal the painful, intimate stories behind the Bombay Street riots.

bombaytwo‘This is the only record of that morning.’ Quinn explained, standing beside the old street sign for Bombay Street mounted alongside Collins’ stunning black and white images on the gallery’s whitewashed walls. ‘When he arrived on the street there were no other photographers there. He says he remembered one other guy coming in on the back of a British Army Landrover, jumping off, taking a picture and the jumping back into the jeep and away,’

Speaking about the images 40 years on, Collins said: ‘The firemen are still there dousing the fires, there are people moving their furniture, there are nuns giving people tea. The images were alive. You didn’t have to look for the pictures, they were just there in front of you, asking to be taken.’

And that’s exactly what Collins did. While countless colour shots of the area were taken in the days and weeks following the riots, his pictures shed a new, more humane light on the events of that traumatic weekend. Between the men skilfully manoeuvring a bed frame out of a second storey window and the harsh-faced women in beehive haircuts sitting intransigent in front of the makeshift barricades, a quiet, stoical suffering can be observed in almost every shot.

In one particularly memorable image tin-hatted members of the Queen’s Own Regiment, rifles half-cocked, wander the narrow red-brick terraces of Bombay Street, Clonard Gardens and Kashmir Street, quizzical looks etched on their faces. Elsewhere, photographs of soldiers sleeping on the ground and sipping tea with locals serve as poignant reminders of the warm welcome the army initially received in Republican areas across the north.

‘Originally the arrival of the troops was very well received by the Catholic population on the grounds that it was a sign that Westminster was willing to intervene,’ said Adrian Guelke, professor of comparative politics at Queen’s University Belfast. ‘The reception they got on the streets was very favourable.’

Such was their popularity that the inchoate Provisional IRA explicitly did not target soldiers in the early years of the Troubles. But this was soon to change. ‘The initial honeymoon period was followed by a rough period in which the army killed a lot of civilians and that turned opinion against them,’ remarked prof Guelke.

In February 1971, the first British Army lost its first soldier in what became known as Operation Banner. The following year it suffered over 100 fatalities. ‘Army casualties in this period were very high. From 1976 on the army took a back seat in Northern Ireland,’ continued prof Guelke.

All told the army lost 765 servicemen in Northern Ireland since 1969, including two Sappers killed by the Real IRA in Antrim in February.

While the legacy of the British Army in the north streets still contentious, were it not for the soldiers’ arrival the loss of life on Bombay Street, August 15, 1969 would certainly have been much greater.

Frankie Quinn agreed. ‘If it hadn’t been for the intervention of the British Army there’s no doubt it would have been a massacre. There would have been a lot more destruction and a lot more death, no doubt about it.’ As it was on Saturday August 14 there were 65 occupied houses on Bombay Street, by Sunday night that figure was down to 20.

In the immediate aftermath most residents left the area, many never to return. Within weeks the impromptu barricades dividing the protestant Shankill from the catholic Falls had been replaced by corrugated iron peace walls. At the time Sir Ian Freeland, the British Army General in charge of operations, remarked that these barriers would be ‘a temporary affair’. 40 years on they have proved far more durable than that – in fact, the number of peace walls in Greater Belfast have increased from 26 to 80 since 1994.

For more info on the Red Barn Gallery, Bombay Street from the Ashes and Frankie Quinn’s amazing photography check out

Review: Fiachra Sheridan – The Runners

Review of Fiachra Sheridan‘s debut novel The Runners from yesterday’s Sunday Business Post:

Dublin’s north inner city has never had it easy, but the 1980s were particularly deleterious.Unchecked urban decay, vertiginous unemployment figures and a deadly influx of cheap heroin made it a decade to forget for many of the capital’s poorest and most vulnerable.

But for Bobby Ryan and Jay McCann, the vivacious, impetuous 13-year-olds at the heart of Fiachra Sheridan’s debut novel, The Runners, the inner city in 1985 offers everything a boy could want – and more. Growing up in Ballybough, under the shadow of Croke Park, they fish in the Tolka river, swim at the pool on Sean McDermott Street and race each other past the Sunset House in Summerhill.

the runnersThis is primarily a novel about adolescent friendship. Written from the perspective of Bobby, it maintains a laudably naive tone as it follows the boys’ youthful japes, from robbing the local store to jumping the fence at a packed Dalymount to watch a Paolo Rossi-inspired Italy defeat Liam Brady’s Ireland.

While their friendship crosses class divisions – Jay comes from the flats while Bobby’s parents, despite surviving on welfare, own their home – social distinctions are never fully transcended. Bobby, we are told in typically simple prose, ‘‘was envious of Jay living in the flats. He had a real claim on being a Ballybough boy. Bobby pretended he was from the flats.”

The most important adult in the boys’ world is not a parent or a teacher, but Anto Burke, their Stardust fire scarred boxing trainer. A decidedly ambivalent character, Anto both instils discipline and determination in the headstrong youths and uses them to ferry drugs around the inner city, with predictably disastrous consequences for all.

Sheridan is a writer with an impressive family pedigree – his father is playwright and director Peter, uncle Jim is a serial Academy Award nominee – and The Runners is not without literary merit. The boys’ boxing and football-filled milieu is believably rendered, and the novel is studded with memorable scenes from their young lives, most poignantly when Bobby’s alcoholic father buys him a bargain bin England jersey instead of a Liverpool shirt for his birthday. (‘‘A fiver was all he was worth.”)

Sheridan employs a deliberately pared-back style but, at crucial points, particularly in the opening 50 pages, the story feels underwritten and slightly one-paced. The author seems to know the narrative he wants to tell so well that he neglects to put the hard graft into setting it up properly.

The demotic opening paragraph, with its description of ‘‘Dublin’s north inner city, one of the poorest parts of Dublin’’, reads more like the intro to a lazy news feature than the opening gambit of what is essentially a well realised, well crafted novel.

Sheridan’s narrative improves as Bobby and Jay’s childish innocence and their hopes and dreams are destroyed by the nefarious world of drugs and addiction that lives on their doorsteps. But the author’s determination to write in single-clause sentences and unembellished, flattened prose does leave some genuinely dramatic moments feeling strangely empty and stilted.

The engrossing, rather chilling denouement suggests that, with a little more verve, ambition and editorial work throughout, Sheridan might have had a real gem of a debut on his hands. Nevertheless, this intimate account of inner-city life is a respectable introduction for a writer with a bright future ahead of him.

David Simon: Journalism's Loss, Television's Gain

Interview with the multi-talented Wire writer from this month’s issue of the Scottish mag The Skinny.

America does not have, and never has had, a fair system – or so says David Simon, daylight illuminating his swanky hotel room: “So much of what ails the US is systemic. It has been engrained from the very beginning, from the constitution.”

david simonLike many of The Wire’s central characters, Simon never shies away from life’s less palatable side. It was this commitment to veracity that made his critically acclaimed series a dazzling, almost Dostoyevskian tale of law and disorder on the streets of his native Baltimore, one of the most compelling dramas in television history. That a show about police and thieves in a relatively peripheral American city has garnered a significant cult following on this side of the Atlantic is testament to the realism of Simon’s writing, much of it based on personal experience.

On graduating from the University of Maryland, where he edited the college’s daily paper, Simon became a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, covering the crime beat with almost religious zeal for over a decade. While still a reporter, he spent an entire year with the police department’s murders unit. The result was Simon’s first book, Homicide, published in 1991. Two years later he took a second sabbatical to research The Corner, a forensic dissection of one year in the inner city, written in collaboration with former Baltimore police detective Ed Burns and told through the prism of a single street corner, and the addicts and dealers struggling to survive on it.

Simon is currently promoting The Corner’s release in the UK and Ireland – some twelve years after it first appeared in the States. “Homicide didn’t sell well at all over here. Then when it came to The Corner I just couldn’t get it published.” It is hard to understand why it wanted for a backer. The book is a remarkably in-depth account of the lives of rich, complex characters such as Gary McCullough, a once prosperous businessman lost to heroin addiction, and his son DeAndre, a dealer who starts taking drugs himself. It’s almost academic in its rigour and attention to detail but written with a novelist’s eye for scene and characterisation. “I was interested in telling a story, in narrative as a journalistic tool,” Simon explains.

Irnoically, Homicide and The Corner spelled the end of his career as a reporter. “I imagined that I would write books and work for the paper. I imagined one thing informing the other, not writing myself off the paper. But by the time I came back from doing The Corner bad things were happening. The paper had been taken over and the things I valued as a newspaper man the newspaper stopped valuing. So I knew my time there was over.” What he calls the ‘prize culture’, clearly still aggrieves him. Discussing The Baltimore Sun’s decline Simon sits bolt upright, looking less than relaxed for the first time: “These guys came in from another city. They were going to be in Baltimore for three, four, maybe five years. They were going to try and win a couple of prizes and then get to a better newspaper. It was all a pyramid of ambition but it totally lost the community. If you really love journalism that’s pretty disappointing.” he says.

But journalism’s loss was television’s gain, as Simon could draw on his extensive research to create The Wire’s intricate, absorbing world. “The power of The Wire is that you get to tell a story with a proper beginning, middle and end. But while The Wire is drama it is also rooted in a journalist’s impulse,” he says of the relationship between the two. “The writers working on [The Wire] were more interested in issues than in sustaining a television drama.” Certainly Simon has never shied away from the day’s big political issues. His last HBO series Generation Kill was based on a Rolling Stone journalist’s account of being embedded with the US marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq; currently he is working on a television show about a group of musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans entitled Treme.

The Wire and The Corner both make compelling cases for drug legalisation, a cause Simon firmly supports. “The war on drugs has been a total failure,” he replies without hesitation when asked about US narcotics policy. “But there are some positive changes happening now. The new drugs czar appointed by Obama [Gil Kerlikowske] has just come out and said we need to lose the title war – well that’s the first intelligent thing that’s been said about drugs in more than 30 years.”

Praise for politicians coming from David Simon is rare. So is the 44th President of America just another deceitful public representative? “No, Obama is a great man who I’ve a lot of respect for. But all he will do is slow down things getting worse,” he laughs. And although he admits to volunteering for the Democrats in Pennsylvania during the presidential campaign, knocking on doors for Barack has not made him an optimist: “The great man theory of history says you elect the right guy and all the systemic forces arrayed against progress somehow fold their cards. Well, that doesn’t happen.”

Nothing, it seems, surprises Simon – except, perhaps, the sudden interest in his books and their rather stark message. “It’s really funny. When I was an expert and I did all the reporting no-one took any notice. But when I’m not an expert and the books’ material is over 15 years old, people are sitting up and paying attention.” The world is certainly listening to David Simon now – when it comes to laying bare the uncomfortable reality of modern America, he remains the authority.

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Review: Ghosts and Lightening

Review of Trevor Bryne’s debut from The Sunday Business Post:

Ghosts and Lightning, the debut novel by Dublin-born writer Trevor Byrne, is set in a Clondalkin housing estate, to which Denny Cullen – an out of work 20-something with a passion for wrestling and Liverpool FC – reluctantly returns following the unexpected death of his mother.

The protagonist is more profligate than prodigal son; he left for Wales with dreams of university and a new life but, less than a year later, is broke, unhappy and back living in the family home, though without his mother’s stabilising influence.

The story follows Denny and his friends as they divide their time between drinking, taking drugs and signing on. Funny and entertaining, yet tinged with sadness and desperation, Ghosts and Lightning is full of colourful scenes. Convinced the house is haunt ed by her late mother’s ghost, his sister Paula harangues a sceptical Denny into organising a seance with the help of Pajo, a former heroin addict with a penchant for herbal medicine, eastern mysticism and the paranormal.

What Pajo believes to be a voice from the spirit world – ‘‘Did yeh hear that?” – turns out to be the low hum of Simon Cowell passing judgment on an X-Factor contestant from an upstairs television.

Surprisingly thoughtful and considerate, Denny is often held back by his comrades and a life that brings little happiness, but from which he seems incapable of escaping. When he buys a decrepit old car for ‘‘the bit o’ freedom’’, it is destroyed by local Travellers in revenge for the transgressions of Maggit, an absent father, petty crook and childhood friend.

Ghosts and Lightning also transposes a favourite trope of 1990s male literary fiction – drug-taking – to contemporary Dublin. From the pills he pops himself to the bag of stolen cocaine that provides the impetus for the rather unexpected denouement in Donegal, drugs are a quotidian feature of Denny’s world.

Given such subject matter and the novel’s vernacular style, comparisons with Irvine Welsh seem inevitable, but this is no Irish Trainspotting.

Byrne’s fragile, dysfunctional characters are more likely to elicit sympathy than repugnance, and his attentive, lyrical prose owes a greater debt to Alan Warner, James Kelman and Cormac McCarthy than to Welsh.

Ghosts-and-Lightning-by-T-002Written and set just before the recent economic crash, Ghosts and Lightning is a remarkably prescient reflection on the lives left behind during the boom.

‘‘I’m not unaware of Ireland’s wealth, I’m just not party to it,” Denny remarks early in the book after an attractive Swedish ‘chugger’, a charity collector, approaches him outside Trinity College.

The question of how to counter such alienation and disenfranchisement is a central dilemma that, in truth, is never fully resolved. The novel is suffused with an underlying nostalgia for a return to ‘‘an older Ireland’’, a phrase Denny uses throughout, but this is not developed much beyond the city-dweller’s nascent yearning for the countryside of his childhood memory.

Nevertheless, there is much to applaud in Byrne’s powerful debut. His writing is concise and unfussy, yet not without literary flourishes: on numerous occasions he appears to abandon the narrative completely only to return a few pages later via an insightful or comic digression; and his use of flashbacks to reveal the character of Denny’s mother is particularly effective.

There are echoes of Roddy Doyle and Sean O’Casey in his use of language, and it makes a refreshing change to discover a new Irish writer using Hiberno-English outside quotation marks.

Judging by this poignant, compelling and often deeply comic tale of life on the margins of Irish society, Byrne seems certain to enjoy greater longevity than the Celtic tiger which abandoned Denny Cullen and his friends so comprehensively.