Monday, 28 April 2014

The Ghost With The Hammer In His Hand - And Other Great Sporting Nicknames

* The news that the Belgian manager, the compact but ever belligerent Marc Wilmots was affectionately known as "Das Kampfschwein" or "The War Pig" during his playing days in Germany cheered me up this weekend ahead of the big quarter final. It's also the title of my fave Black Sabbath song. 

The fact that in Belgium, Wilmots was known as The Bull of Dongelberg (after his home town) made it all the sweeter - a double whammy of great nicknames in a World Cup that is sadly bereft of them (if we don't count the Brazilian Hulk).

Sporting nicknames have gone out of fashion in recent years - it's as is the increasing sanitisation and commodification of sport has put more distance between fans and players, there is less of an impulse towards giving sportsmen affection nicknames.... 

Wilmots/WarPig - Back in the Day

* I've always loved nicknames, especially sporting ones. The best manage to convey the truth - kind or unkind - about a sportsman in the most pithy way imaginable. Some, such as those for boxer Juan "The Hispanic Causing Panic" Lazcano or footballer Kiki "Chris" Musampa will make you smile. 

Others, such as Sam "The Nigerian Nightmare" Peter, Luis "The Wild Bull of The Pampas" Firpo or Texan Lew "The Sweet Swatter From Sweetwater" Jenkins are a little over the top.

And then there are those that give you the idea of how important sportsmen are to the people they represent. Ali was The Greatest. Jack Nicklaus The Golden Bear. The brilliant boxer Manny Pacquiao is such a hero to the people of the Philippines, he is known as "Pambansang Kamao" - The National Fist! 

National Fist of Fury

However, boxing doesn't have the monopoly on funny, witty nicknames - the disastrous Italian goalkeeper Massimo Taibi - who came to Manchester United from Venice - quickly gained the nickname "The Blind Venetian". Everton legend Duncan Ferguson was known for getting into boozy fights - hence "Duncan Disorderly" while QPR defender Fitz Hall got the pretty imaginative (for footballers) "One Size" (say it before his name). And in a similar vein, Congolese defender Kiki Musampa got christened "Chris" by his Manchester City Team-mates (again, say it before his second name and think of wicker baskets full of puddings). 

The great, terrifying West Indian cricket bowler Michael Holding was known - for his quiet run up before the awesomely fast delivery - as "Whispering Death". 

And some sports nicknames are poignant - the pro cyclist Raymond Poulidor had the great misfortune to see his career coincide with those of two of the very best of all time - Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx - because of this accident of timing, his nickname was "The Eternal Second". History's runner-up.

The Hispanic Causing Panic - Juan Lazcano
One of my favourite boxers is the great French Algerian World Champ Marcel Cerdan, the tragic lover of singer Edith Piaf, who fought under the moniker of "The Casablanca Clouter" (at least in the US).

Edith & Marcel - She Never Got Over His Death

Cerdan fought Jake La Motta (of Raging Bull fame) for five rounds with a broken shoulder and died in a plane crash en route to a title fight.

In the golden era of sports in the '20s and '30s, the great Boxing writers in particular managed to come up with some right doozies (by the way, that word comes from the US car the Duesenberg, the most luxurious, opulent cars of the 1920s and '30s, the tip top, the very best - "it's a Doozy!").

Years ago, I heard of a boxer known as "The Ghost With The Hammer In His Hand" - the brilliant Welsh flyweight Jimmy Wilde. rated by American boxing writer Nat Fleischer, as well as many other professionals and fans including former boxer, trainer, manager and promoter, Charley 'Broadway' Rose, as "the greatest flyweight ever." 

Wilde earned various nicknames such as, "The Mighty Atom" and "The Tylorstown Terror." But the best for him conveyed in eight words his elusive menace, a boxer you couldn't hit, but who could hit you with the force of a hammer.

Jimmy Wilde - The Ghost With The Hammer in His Hand

The Ambling Alp

The era also gave us Primo Carnera - and this is another great nickname - a giant Italian with plenty of heart but all the menace of a marshmallow - Carnera was known as "The Ambling Alp". Brilliant. The most danger the hapless Carnera ever posed to opponents was the threat of accidentally falling over on them.

The Gentle Italian Giant was hyped by gangster bookies as the latest in a long line of Great White Hopes, they put him in against patsys - knowing that a Six-Foot-Six Italian would be huge box office in New York and milked him for everything he had. His story inspired the great boxing movie The Harder They Fall, a cynical, noirish 1958 tale of dirty deeds in the boxing business that was Humphrey Bogart's final screen outing.

Primo's story also inspired a great pop song - Yeasayer's Ambling Alp.

* The Bayonne Bleeder

Chuck Wepner was the tough journeyman who had a reputation for bleeding at the lightest touch of a glove - hence the rather cruel nickname the "Bayonne Bleeder". In 1975 he lucked into a fight with Muhammed Ali and went 15 rounds with The Greatest. That particular story inspired Sylvester Stallone to write "Rocky".
Quick Chuck! Bleed on 'im!
Away from boxing  - the story of the great Matthias Sindelar - the tragic hero of Austrian football has always intrigued me - he defied the Nazis after the Anschluss, embarrassed their great Nazi football team in front of a Viennese crowd and was then found dead - either murdered by the Gestapo or by his own hand - shortly afterwards.

You can read this excellent piece on Sindelar here - Guardian On Sindelar

But I love that his nickname - because of his slight build - was Der Papierene or "The Paper Man". How evocative.

Sindelar - The Paper Man 
These are just a few of my favourite sporting nicknames - it's a subject I may have to return to!


The Redlegs of Barbados - Cromwell's Irish "Slaves" & The Last Emperor of Byzantium.

* Note - there has been a lot of debate and controversy recently over what many call the "myth of Irish Slavery".

It's a complicated issue - personally, I don't go along with "the Irish were slaves too, you know!" argument - partly because you cannot compare what happened to the Irish under Cromwell or later with the centuries long and massive enslavement of Africans in the Americas. So this story of Irish Indentured Servants in the Caribbean is presented with this in mind,

Bajan Flag

* A few years ago, myself and a friend visited another old friend of mine in Barbados, the Caribbean Island that has a history of sugar-cane production, piracy, plantations and slavery going all the way back to the mid-1600s.

We toured some of the old plantations, saw the bells used to call the slaves to work in the sugar-cane fields, the crumbling old planters' mansions and the 18th Cent protestant churches that look as if they have been picked up from the outskirts of an English village and planted in the midst of palm trees and sugar cane fields on the wild Atlantic edge of this tiny Caribbean island.

Old Plantation House - Barbados

Barbados is tale of two coasts - on the calmer western, endless golden beaches, hotels and tourist development. Over on the Atlantic side, the rough seas, driving winds and wild shorelines common to the Windward Islands (it's also where popstar Rhianna is from and she has Irish ancestry through her father's side. He's a Fenty, one of the descendents of the Irish brought over after the Cromwellian conquest. Rhianna also really likes the chain of fast food joints selling Piri-Piri chicken - Chefette. This, and a fabulous singing voice, is all that Rhianna & myself have in common.

It was while we were exploring the wilder side of the island that we had a strange encounter with the descendents of the white Irish slaves brought to Barbados after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland and the ethnic cleansing that followed. For one version of the story - you can read "To Hell Or To Barbados - : The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland [Sean O'Callaghan]", a book you can get on Amazon etc. 

But fair warning - it makes an argument that some Irish historians are strongly opposed to - that you can equate or measure the transportation of Irish to the Caribbean with the brutal enslavement of millions of Africans. 

Here's my story of what we came across, strange echoes of a chapter of Irish, English and Caribbean history. And a chance discovery of the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire, on a cliff above the Caribbean shore.

* Redlegs & Ecky-Beckys - The Forgotten Irish Of Barbados 

In 1976, an Irish documentary team went to the Caribbean Island of Montserrat to film the people there, many of whom had descended from Irish families brought to the sugar plantations after the Cromwellian conquest, they had been robbed of their lands and transported as Indentured Servants (or "criminals", rebels and traitors - Catholic, basically). In 17th century, going from Cork or Tipperary to Barbados must have been like travelling to the Moon. The clip below gives you a flavour of the extraordinary echoes of those people and those times that were still heard on the island in the 1970s. Montserrat suffered a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in the '90s but people have returned to the island and it still has a very strong Irish legacy & tradition, they still celebrate St Patrick's Day there every year. 

And you can see the full doc here - it's half an hour long but well worth a look....

Full Doc - The Black Irish

I have been to Barbados several times myself, have a very good friend living there and it's a beautiful island. The Irish were back in the '90s and Noughties, this time buying up holiday homes and hotels as the Celtic Tiger gave us (well,  a few of us) economic power that the first Irish to land on those shores couldn't have dreamed about.

On a trip up to St John's Church - an extraordinary 17th Cent Church (although it has been rebuilt a couple of times) we came across the grave of one Ferdinando Paleologus, a descendent of the brother of the great Emperor Constantine XI. Ferdinando was the last of the Byzantine Imperial family from the 1400’s that produced the last Christian emperors of Greece.

He fled to Barbados after the 1645 Battle of Naseby in England. His family had been driven from the throne of Constantinople by the Turks.

He was a church warden of St. John’s Parish having lived there for 20 years where he owned a 197-acre plantation, which he managed from 1649 to 1670 and later died there in 1678.

When Paleologus died, he was buried in the St John’s Parish Church, since he had been a prominent person in that community. 

The dignified memorial, wrought in Portland stone portrays a Greek temple with Doric columns surrounding the cross of Constantine carved in the centre. The following inscription may still be read:

Here lyeth ye body of
Ferdinando Paleologus
Descended from ye imperial lyne
Of ye last Christian
Emperors of Greece
Churchwarden of this Parish
Vestryman, Twentye years
Died Oct. 3 1678

What a strange story, the last remnant of an ancient empire, itself a remnant of Ancient Rome, washed up on an island on the other side of the Atlantic, not even known to Europeans when his ancestor became the last Empire of Byzantium.

The View From St John's Church - Barbados

Tomb of The Last Emperor of the Greeks
As if finding the grave of the last of the Byzantine Imperial Family in a deserted, cliff top graveyard in the Caribbean wasn't strange enough, we also came across a group of what my Bajan-resident friend told me were Ecky-Becky's or Redlegs - the descendents of the Irish transported to Barbados after Cromwell, people who had worked alongside the black slaves in the sugar fields (often as overseers or foremen) and had then stayed on their hillside farms in the more remote parts of Barbados after the end of slavery.

They are also called the "Poor Whites" and have often been seen or portrayed as something of an underclass, hillbillies, backward, insular people. They were called "Redlegs" because of the colour their pale Celtic skin went in the sun. They are in Barbados and on other islands such as St Vincent & Grenada (they are also not exclusively Irish, the Caribbean has always been a melting pot).

Bajan popstar Rhianna has Irish ancestry on her father's side. Born in the parish of Saint Michael, Barbados on February 20, 1988, her mother Monica Braithwaite, a retired accountant, is a mix of African and Guyanese. (Guyana is located off the northern coast of South America). Her father, Ronald Fenty, was a warehouse supervisor. He is of Barbadian and Irish ancestry. Or as they would say in Barbados, a "Redleg". 

Here's a brief video and some photos from Barbados - and it gives you some sense of what it's like to run into some Ecky-Beckys (nobody's quite sure where this slang term came from) - these are sunburnt Irish faces amongst the more familiar faces of the Caribbean. It's strange seeing faces of what look like West of Ireland or Munster men and then hearing the accents, strong West Indian. The names are Irish, Dixon, McCarthy, O'Brien, the voices are pure West Indian.

They ended up on the other side of the Atlantic because of conquest and clearance, their descendents became an isolated community of Irish people, marooned on a paradise island.

Barbados is changing, more tourism, more money, more development, greater links with the rest of the Caribbean and with the wider world. The Redlegs are a throwback. And there is a sense that they are now very much out of time and place. But it is a fascinating story, nonetheless.


Friday, 25 April 2014

The Strange History of The Eurovision - War, Revolution, Terrorism and Vladimir Putin

Dana - The Pride of Derry

* The Eurovision! The annual music competition where Europe gets to work out its ancient ethnic and political conflicts via the medium of terrifying pop songs - has always fallen on our around my birthday. And I love it, with a strange and occasionally horrified fascination.

Like a lot of Irish people, I have a complicated relationship with Europe (and Israel's) annual Festival Du Fromage. Ireland has a long a proud history of Eurovision wins. It has gotten us through some very tough times. We're all secretly kinda proud of Johnny Logan, Linda Martin and our other brave warriors in white, gold, silver and occasionally, what looks like tin-foil. 

It also gave us Riverdance. I was there in the Point Theatre in Dublin on the night that was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. 

And it was breath-taking (Irish dancing could be sexy? Who knew?) 

Sadly, one of the unforeseen consequences of the break-up of the Soviet Union was the ending of Ireland's Eurovision dominance - how could we hope to appeal to Eastern European Voters and compete against crack squads of ruthless Balkan Turbo-Folk Amazons? We couldn't. We will never win again.  

I play a game every year when I predict who will vote what for whom. It's not hard. Watch Greece, Cyprus & Turkey stick the boot into each other. Or Macedonia and Greece. The British (Gawd bless 'em!) always give Ireland a big vote, we always give them a derisory Une Point. 'Cos giving them nothing would look like we forgot to give them a dig. One point does the job better.

So as this year's Eurovision is about to delight, enthrall and baffle us once again (ice-dancing on stage? Giant Slavic warriors carrying around Moldovan songstresses? Has anybody checked the sell-by date on this Value-Brand Vodka?) I want to take a look at the long and bizarre history of politics and the Eurovision.... 

This man got us through TWO recessions - Beat That, Singing Nun!

War, revolution, terrorist threats, fascist dictatorships and transgender pop stars warbling about the Israeli-Palestine conflict....

Don't tell Johnny Logan, but when it comes to the annual cheese-fest that is the Eurovision, the real drama is often happening off-stage and occasionally involves scary men with guns.

The Eurovision has been used to signal the start of a revolution (in Portugal) and help academics gauge the effects of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia (seriously, a study in the early noughties used eurovision voting patterns - which had always divided along ethnic/political lines in the Balkans, to track population movement).

It has been targeted by terrorist groups including the Red Army Faction and Black September and boycotted by the Greeks, the Turks, Georgia, Italy, half of the Balkans and all of the Arab-speaking world. Except for the Moroccans, who took part in 1980 (possibly by mistake).

Billed as a festival of culture that brings Europe together - the Eurovision has in reality spent the past five decades highlighting ancient feuds and ongoing political tensions. Orwell said sport was "war minus the shooting". He could have been talking about Eurovision.

Orwell - Bucks Fizz Fan

The voting almost always mirrors ethnic, regional and ideological divides and alliances.

Four years ago, the contest in Moscow was marred after Vladimir Putin decided to send the tanks in against a small, troublesome neighbour (it's the same old song?) 

The Georgians, still angry after the previous year's conflict with Russia in South Ossetia, had planned to fight back via the medium of song in Vladimir Putin's own backyard.

They selected a catchy little number titled We Don't Wanna Put In (PUT IN - PUTIN! GEDDIT?) by Stephane and 3G and awaited their chance to strike back at their giant neighbour in front of the world.

However, song contest chiefs, nervous about yet another political row overshadowing their annual festival du kitsch, hastily ruled that the song had "a clear political meaning" and told the Georgians to go for a tune that would not enrage their hosts.

The Georgians withdrew altogether, claiming the Russians had pressured the European Broadcasting Union.

And they went back to their bunker to plan their next move, which could possibly involve entering a rude puppet show into Russia's Got Talent.

Boom Bang A Bang 

For seasoned observers of the Eurovision, the row was a return to the good old days when the annual contest was not so much about music as political conflict.

Just ask the grand old man of Eurovision himself, Terry Wogan.

The Limerick man, who several years ago wearily handed the BBC commentary mike to (the brilliant) Graham Norton, has less than fond memories of Luxembourg in 1973.

Tension was running high after a series of terrorist attacks by groups like Black September as Terry arrived into town. 

"I remember being in Luxembourg when Black September were at their worst," he later recalled.

"We made our entrance into the hall past armoured cars, machine gun nests and fellows holding Kalashnikovs.

"Then, just before the performance, the floor manager got up and said to the audience: 'When your national song is played, do not stand up to applaud, otherwise you may be shot.'

"That put a bit of a dampener on the atmosphere."

The ultimate nightmare for music fans like Terry, having to endure a Eurovision at gunpoint.

However, trigger-happy Luxembourgians apart, there have been other, no less dramatic Eurovision moments, including:

* Brighton 1974 - The Revolution Will Be Televised .

                                              This Song Brought Down a Fascist Dictatorship

Portugal's entry "E depois do adeus" was used as one of the two signals to launch the Carnation Revolution against the sixty-year fascist dictatorship established by Antonio  Salazar (Old Sally had died four years previously).

The very first performance of the song on national radio was the signal alerting the rebel captains and soldiers at home to begin the coup and the tanks of the left-wing military junta to move in.

Eurovision historian John Kennedy O'Connor describes it as "the only Eurovision entry to have actually started a revolution".

ABBA won with the appropriately militaristic Waterloo.

Meanwhile! Italy refused to broadcast the televised contest on state television channel RAI as their entry coincided with the intense political campaigning for the 1974 Italian referendum on divorce .

RAI censors felt the song which was titled "Sì", and which contained lyrics constantly repeating the word "SI" could be accused of being a subliminal message and a form of propaganda to influence the Italian voting public to vote "YES" in the referendum.

The song remained censored on most Italian state TV and radio stations for over a month and the move to allow legal separation was defeated . 

Those Are Some Seriously Tighty Whiteys 

* Madrid 1968 - Cliff Richard Vs Generalissimo Francisco Franco

In May 2008, a documentary by the Spanish film-maker Montse Fernandez Vila alleged  the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest was rigged by the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Franco was said to have contacted state television officials across Europe offering cash and promising to buy television series in return for votes for the Spanish entry.

The documentary claimed that the contest should in fact have been won by the United Kingdom's entry "Congratulations" performed by Cliff Richard, which came second by 1 vote.

Spain won with the seminal "La, La, La" but Cliff would have the last laugh, Franco died in 1975, some say broken by his failure to record a Christmas Number 1.

* Stockholm 1975 - Portugal Goes Boom Bang a Bang 

The Portuguese entry "Madrugada" was an unabashed celebration of the Carnation Revolution - started the year before by their 1974 entry.

According to author and historian John Kennedy O'Connor in his seminal book The Eurovision Song Contest - The Official History, the Portuguese performer had to be dissuaded from wearing his Portuguese army uniform and brandishing a gun onto the stage.

You can't blame the organisers for being a little gun-shy - intelligence reports had warned of a possible terrorist attack by the Red Army Faction.

The RAF didn't hit the Eurovision, they instead targeted the West German embassy in Stockholm a month later.

In other Euovision/Armed Conflict developments, the Greeks withdrew from this contest in response to the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

The Greek Jury Prepare to Vote for Turkey

* Stockholm, 2000 - Syrians Give Nul Points to Gay Snog Of Peace

The Israel entry opened the contest with their dancers waving Syrian and Israeli flags advocating peace between the two nations.

It was going well until the two male singers in the group decided on a brief but passionate kiss, sending blood pressure levels through the roof in Syria.

Cue yet another Eurovision-related international incident and death threats issued against the Israeli band who had decided on snogging for peace.

Gay Snogging? NUL POINTS! 

* 2002 - Sweden and Belgian Commentators Stand Up for Palestine.

The Israeli entry was hit by blowback from that year's invasion of the West Bank by the Israeli Defence Forces.

Controversy erupted during the competition over remarks by commentators on Swedish and Belgian TV, both of whom told the audience not to vote for the Israeli singer Sarit Hadad.

Hadad received zero points from the Swedish audience but earned two from the Belgians, finishing 12th overall.

And peace in the middle East continues to elude us.

***** So there you have it. Hopefully this year will go off without too much politics -but with tensions running high in the Ukraine - you wouldn't bet against it. 


Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Hot Enough For Ya? Dr Barter, Mr Urquhart & Leopold Bloom, In The Turkish Baths of Victorian Ireland

* A blog on Turkish Baths in Victorian Ireland is a lot of things. "Click-bait" is not one of them.

But I do like the story of Cork's Dr Richard Barter and his belief that hydrotherapy could cure all (or most) ills, his crusade for hygiene and mutual admiration thing with the Scots diplomat David Urquhart, a Victorian toff who was, at one time or another, a freedom-fighter, secret agent, art-lover and life-long Turkish-Bath obsessive. Urquhart was also - bizarrely - a fervent campaigner against public hygiene for the poor. And to put the tin-hat on it, he gave Karl Marx his start in British journalism.

Barter & Urquhart, who, more than anybody else, fostered the Victorian craze for Turkish Baths - and almost every city district and fashionable resort town had one - personify that mad streak in the otherwise repressed Victorian mind, the impulse to break free from the strictures of society that sent Urquhart off into the wilds of Anatolia to fight for Circassian Independence and sent Barter into the mysterious East, or at least a version of it built from marble, tile and lead pipe on the banks of the River Lee, in Dublin and London.

David Urquhart - Steamy! 

Richard Barter (sometimes referred to as "Barton") was a Cork doctor, who believed fervently in the power of hydrotherapy, the power of water, hot, cold, steamy or bubbling, to cure the mind and the body.

In the Victorian age of science, many medical men, and enthusiastic amateurs, put their trust in new cures, either in chemistry, in electricity, exercise, scientific diets (the late Victorian Dr Kellog in America would build what amounted almost to a cult around the humble corn-flake). Some sought out Spa Cures amongst prussian officers and their wives in remote towns in the Carpathians, others sea air in the south of France or the English Riviera.

Cork's Dr Barter believed in hydrotherapy - the power of water. And he founded Ireland's first public hydrotherapy baths in Cork (St Ann's Hydro),  as early as 1838. In many respects, he was well ahead of the curve. Turkish style baths would become a craze in late Victorian London, partly because of Dr Barter and his partner in grime, David Urquhart. Both men believed that not only was cleanliness next to godliness, it also protected men and women from the worst afflictions of the human body. 

Together, they would publicise and evangelise for public (or in the case of Urquhart, public for Toffs at least) Turkish baths, invest in and popularize them to the point where cities such as Dublin, London, Edinburgh and Liverpool (and many more) would boast beautiful hydro palaces - ornately decorated, lavishly tiled and be-marbled places where men (and women) could divest themselves of their stiff layers of clothes and experience the soapy delights of the Turkish hamman. London had some of the best, most, sadly, now long gone. 

What a delight is must have been for a Victorian man to enter the majolica-tiled, early art-nouveau palaces, with their quasi-classical columns, intricate oriental arches, spouting steam pipes, hot and cold pools, steam-rooms and slipper-baths, and wash away the grime and emotional repression of the streets and society outside.    

The Cumberland Baths in Carlisle in England - A Very Rare Survivor

One of the most beautiful, Nevills Turkish Baths of New Broad Street, not only survived the gradual going out of fashion of the facilities in the 1930s, but also an almost direct hit from the Luftwaffe in 1941. Today, much of its decor survives and it houses a restaurant. 

The Cooling Room in Nevill's Baths

The Bath House, behind Liverpool Street Station in London, was converted into a bar (which recently closed) 

The Bath House 

James Joyce was certainly a fan. Of all the fictional characters ever linked to a Turkish Bath (and we can count Sherlock Holmes amongst them) Leopold Bloom was the one who truly luxuriated in his hamman.

In Ulysses, we follow Bloom's meanderings around Dublin on the day of June 16th, 1904. And though he longs for one, he cannot take a Turkish Bath on that particular day. 

In the Lotus Eaters episode, Bloom calls in at the chemists for some lotion and a bar of soap. The scents of the of the various soaps provoke what we are legally obligated to call a Proustian response.

"Nice smell these soaps have. Time to get a bath round the corner. Hammam. Turkish. Massage. Dirt gets rolled up in your navel. Nicer if a girl did it. Also I think I. Yes I. Do it in the bath. Curious longing I. Water to water. Combine business with pleasure. Pity no time for massage. Feel fresh then all day."

Leaving the chemists, he briefly met Bantam Lyons, and then,
"He walked cheerfully towards the mosque of the baths. Remind you of a mosque, redbaked bricks, the minarets".

Later, in the Ithaca episode, Bloom is shown to have visited the Turkish and Warm Baths at 11 Leinster Street. 
...he had proceeded to the oriental edifice of the Turkish and Warm Baths, 11 Leinster street..."

This Mosque of baths, the Oriental ediface, refer to the Lincoln Place baths in Dublin, built and designed by Cork's Dr Richard Barter and opened in the mid-1860s. 

Joyce, by the time he wrote Ulysses, was already away from his native city for several years. But he had not forgotten the sensual delights of Dubin's Turkish Baths.   


Friday, 18 April 2014

Pity The Poor Semigrant - A Few Things Wot I Have Learned From Living In London. Gor Blimey, Jelly My Eel.

                                                 Would You Adam & Eve It?

London Has Not Changed Me - I Have Changed London

* A few weeks back, I was on the Matt Cooper show on TodayFM talking about the new wave of Irish in London, having myself moved over recently. The show was going out live in Ireland and as soon as I had walked out of the studio in Central London, I had loads of Twitter Messages & texts from my friends and admirers back in the old country, anxious no doubt, to send greetings to a poor emigrant across the Irish sea. I suddenly felt warm & fuzzy. Of course, being Irish, to a man (and woman) everybody who got in touch after hearing the bit said something along the lines of'; "O'Shea you big fecking SPOOFER - you've only been there a wet week and suddenly you're a FECKING EXPERT!?!" Ah Ireland, don't go changing! 

But it got me thinking about what I have learned from a relatively short time living amongst the Saxons. And I have decided the world must know my thoughts... 

Saw This In The Dentists & Decided To Move - Didn't Realise It Was From 1966

So.... we decided on a bit of a spur of the moment thing to relocate to London for a while. Lots of reasons. But I'm still working for newspapers and radio (and whatever) back home in Ireland and will be back & forth a bit depending on what work comes up in Dublin. A friend in London says I have become a "Semi-grant" - one foot in Ireland, one in London. There's a lot of it about.

Sent This Pic of Myself Home to The Mother - She Thinks I'm Flying, The Roller is Borrowed.

And what have I learned from living in London? (South East to be exact, basically surrounded by old Squeeze songs).

Well, the big lessons so far would include finding out that;

* There are LOTS of Irish here right now. For obvious reasons. The economy, the way our funny little Republic never changes, potato blight, the continued success of the Dublin footballers etc.

Loads of us. Was in a random pub near Clapham the other night and there was the unmistakable sound of South County Dublin from a few tables over; "So I said to him, roish, you can fire me if you want, but it's going to cost you 100k! Changed his tune pretty quickly, I can tell you!".

There are also lots of cool Irish people here.

* Londoners & English People Are Incredibly Polite.

And I don't mean this in a sneering, snarky way. Sure, Irish people are friendly and rambunctious. But there's a lot of rude, unmannerly behaviour as well. In London, people are polite, they wait their turn, they step out of the way or point the barman in your direction if you're next. They say hello and talk to you (not on the Tube, obviously) but in bars and cafes or down the launderette. I like it. It may be that in a city of 8 million or so people, society has realised that we're either polite to each other or it all goes a bit Lord of The Flies toute suite. But I think it's an innate thing in the English make-up. But obviously, don't stand on Oxford Street at rush-hour and expect people to make you tea & biscuits. And watch out on the escalators on the Tube.

* The World Is Here.

The other day, I worked out that I had dealt/interacted with about 15 different nationalities. There are four barber shops catering for different ethnicities on our street alone. Including the weirdly specific Ugandan Good Faith Barbershop (also Money Transfer & Mobile Phones). "Howya, any chance of a short back and sides?" "Are you from fecking RWANDA!? Feck off out of it, we only do Ugandans".

* Everybody Dresses Really Casually

THIS I found surprising. Sure, they dress for work, but at the weekend, Londoners love shorts & flip-flops (even in Spring) or the ubiquitous H&M hoodie (guys) or Vintage Coat (girls). Sure, there is a fair amount of bling. But the standard dress code appears to be "Summer B-B-Q". Or Festival Chic. And the more money you have, the more thrown-together and careless your wardrobe. You'll see media moguls and advertising execs in outfits that would shame a bachelor farmer from Ballinamore. It's a weird status symbol thing.

The Neighbours - He Likes Suits - She's A Tracksuit Girl

 * It's Expensive.

Do you know when you can actually watch the battery power drain from the little symbol thingy at the top of your iPhone screen? That's what London does to your bank account. It's the wonky-batteried iPhone of cities. Oyster Cards (which are implanted into Londoners in the same way those little diamonds where to the citizens in Logan's Run) have to be constantly offered up for recharging. Or you don't get to use the transport. Which is amazing and horrible and brilliant and useless and the main topic of conversation for all Londoners all the time.

* The Pubs & Restaurants are Great

Even in our small corner of SE London we have great pubs & restaurants - to the point where you have to up your running regimen to ward off what the Irish over here call the "Heathrow Half-Stone" (you land in London and suddenly you're heavier).

Brixton Market was a revelation - packed with great pop-up style restaurants, vintage furniture and fashion shops and super-shishi deli counters and fish, cheese and veg stalls. Imagine the English Market in Cork if it hung out with Kate Moss & Heston Blumenthal for a couple of weeks.

I love the old social clubs that have been turned into excellent gastropubs and music venues - particular fave of the moment is the lovely Effra Social Club in Brixton (clicky for look). Yes. It's looks like a Hipster's Nirvana but feck it, I'm not over here worrying if people think I'm a fashion victim. Life's too fecking short for that bollix.

It's Like This All The Time. Really.

* The History and The Sights

There's a house in London, 23 Brook Street, where GF Handel and Jimi Hendrix both lived (not at the same time obviously, although that would be a brilliant sit-com). You walk down a street or past a venue, pub or road and realise it was in one of your favourite pop songs (this happened to me on Electric Avenue in Brixton last Sunday - memories of Eddie Grant and again when I went past The Clash immortalised WestWay ). The British Museum & the Imperial War Museum alone make it a city worth living in.

These people ruled half of the world for 300 years. And they got LOTS of souvenirs.

My fave place to sit is outside the Festival Hall on the South Bank, the Thames, Houses of Parliament, St Pauls all in front of you (I think, my geography has never been great). You think; "The Romans were here....and I think they actually made this ciabatta sandwich. Which just cost me 200 dinarii".

* We Probably Won't Be Staying.

Ultimately the plan is to move back to Cork (or West Cork, depending on how fast this climate change lark kicks in). But we'll enjoy London for a while. Of course, if anybody has any work going back in Dublin, week-on, week-off, whatever, City Airport is only down the road.

But for now, here's a word from my agent, Mr Eddie Grant. Take it away, there, Edward...


Thursday, 17 April 2014

James Tassie & Dr Henry Quin - Georgian Dublin's Cameo Masters

* This is a shortish blog about what sounds like (at least) a pretty esoteric subject - 18th Cent. Cameo making. But it is about an adopted son of Dublin, the great Scottish Cameo maker James Tassie, a self-made genius of the miniature portrait. It's about a time before cameras, smart-phones and selfies. If you wanted an intimate portrait of a lover, a friend, a hero or yourself, you went to a cameo maker and asked him to carve (or paint) you one that could be carried and cherished. 

                                                   James Tassie - Genius In Miniature 

James Tassie - With Eye Glass & Cameo
In the mid to late 18th century, a golden era for portraiture, with masters such as the peerless Joshua Reynolds creating images of the great and the good on canvass, there was also a huge craze for more intimate portraits, painted or carved on cameos. These were intimate, often personal and sometimes illicit images of those you admired, loved or lusted after. The best were carved on precious stones and worn as jewellry (rings, brooches and earrings) or carried in a pocket, perhaps taken out at a quiet moment or propped up beside your bed at night.
The origin of word itself is interesting, it strictly means "carved precious stone with two layers of colors,", from the Old French camaieu and directly from Medieval Latin cammaeus.
However, it may have ultimately come, via the Byzantines, from the Arabic qamaa'il "flower buds," or Persian chumahan "agate." Cameos had been very popular in ancient Rome when miniature portraits of the gods, gladiators, emperors and popular courtesans were carved on precious stone, in glass or on sea-shells and ivory.
And while the likes of Reynolds painted on broad canvasses, sometimes life size or even grander, masters of the Cameo such as the extraordinary James Tassie worked in miniature, striving to capture the essence of the subject in portraits often no bigger than a thumb-print.

The Young Joshua Reynolds - A Striking Selfie 

James Tassie was born in July, 1735 in the village of Pollokshaws in the Clyde Valley in Scotland and grew up at a time when the Clyde region and Glasgow in particular, was entering a period of unprecedented prosperity.
His family were said to be humble, but as a boy who showed promise with his hands, he was apprenticed to a stone-mason. And there he might have stayed, carving columns and window lintels, if it hadn't been for a rare outing to Glasgow and a chance viewing of the collection of paintings brought together by the printers Robert and Andrew Foulis.
Tassie moved to Glasgow and managed to get a place in the art academy which had been started by the brothers Foulis. The poor boy from Pollokshaws became one of the most distinguished pupils of the school, which was one of the very first in Britain and offered talented young men and education in the European tradition of art and design.
In 1763, Tassie, almost certainly on a scholarship from the Foulis brothers, moved to Dublin (then a very prosperous and fashionable city, the Second City of the British Empire) and a centre for the jewellery trade. 
There he worked as assistant to Dr Henry Quin, Professor of Physics in the city's School of Physics and learnt from him the art of manufacturing imitations of antique cameos and intaglios (recessed images carved into metal, glass or other media), an ancient Roman skill which Dr Quin had revived through his own experiments.
Together they devised a white enamel composition especially suited for gemstone replicas. Quin & Tassie found ways to rival the works of the great cameo makers of antiquity, reviving skills and arts that had been lost for centuries, since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Tassie Cameo

Tassie's portrait medallions, his best-known original works, would include many eminent contemporaries among their subjects. They were modelled from life in wax and cast in white paste. Fashionable Dubliners almost queued around the block to have their cameos made. Tassie lived in Nassau street, close to Grafton Street and overlooking Trinity College. Dr Quin, also sometimes president of the Irish College of Physicians, lived on St Stephen's Green.
Tassie only stayed in Dublin for three years. But it was in Ireland that he developed his own techniques, a fiendishly technical, painstaking and complex way of melting sheets of glass over tiny wax or plaster-cast molds, to create cameos of incredible detail and accomplishment.
James Tassie Cameo of the Architect Robert Adam

After three years in Dublin, Tassie moved on to London where he lived for the rest of his life.
He was hugely successful, but he kept the secret of the formula developed in Dublin with Dr Quin a closely guarded secret. The two men had found a way to use vitreous paste - glass fired in high-temperature kilns - to model their portraits.
Tassie would model his portrait from the life if possible, though he did work from other artist's portraits. He used red wax and two or three modelling tools. Sittings took only two-and-a-half hours. Tassie's earliest portraits were head and shoulders, which were then mounted on an oval glass, backed by coloured paper. As Tassie's skill increased, he learnt to cast the whole medallion in vitreous paste, so that the head and body were of the same material as the background.

James Tassie Antique Cameo Brooch with Gold Ormolu Setting 

Tassie did travel to Scotland on a regular basis to do cameos of the great and good of Glasgow & Edinburgh, a notice in the Glasgow Courier on September 20, 1791, announced: ''Mr Tassie of Leicesterfields, London, and Dr D Allan, of Edinburgh, have been for some days here, upon a visit to their friends. The excellence of these Artists in modelling from life, and in painting with truth and character, has been for many years known and acknowledged over Europe, and does honour to this part of the country where they received their birth and earliest education.''
He is estimated to have made some 500 portrait medallions during his lifetime - and perhaps his greatest coup was to make one for Catherine the Great of Russia, in 1781 (he was paid around £2,300 for an order of cameos, a significant sum at the time).
Tassie also copied some of the great medallions & cameos of antiquity. All of the great collections of Europe were open to him. And here we have some scandal, Tassies copies were so good, they were often sold as original Roman cameos by unscrupulous dealers.
Tassie died in 1799, a successful, much admired and rewarded artist. He had come a long way from his days as a young stonemasons apprentice in the Clyde Valley