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.

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.’

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)

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 http://blogs.walesonline.co.uk/mikebubbins/2009/08/amixed-bag.html

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