Some things haven't changed. One is the city's gift for the natty line. I've never bought the cliche that every Dublin flaneur, every racetrack- haunting gobshite and Moore Street costermonger is a natural Wildean raconteur beneath the surface. But this weekend, everyone I met seemed to be going for it. Watching Top of the Pops in a studio, I remarked to the guy beside me that girl singers (the one on TV was wearing a Blue Peter silver mini- dress with fringes) seemed to be getting weirdly young. "Oh yeh," he said, "A foetus in a Wonderbra, wha'?" Later, contemplating a late-night snack, I asked a young one (as unmarried women are known) if she was hungry. "Jesus, I'm starvin'," she said. "I'd eat a Reverend Mother's arse through a cane chair...."
What has changed is the bit of Europe that Dublin resembles. Much has been made over the years about how "European" the place is, to emphasise its independence from the looming shadow of London. But 20 years ago, when I was at university there, it most resembled the Eastern end: with its bleak stations and breeze-block architecture and mile-wide streets and grey veils of rain, it was Katowice to the life. As things got jollier around the Grafton Street shopping centre, it began to look north-European (Helsinki, to be precise). These days, it's gone all southern. Cruise down Fleet Street, past a thousand little bars and arty shops and groovy al fresco scenes and people hanging out in the chilly evening and suddenly (chill apart) you'd swear you were in Italy: somewhere like Assisi.
Unfortunately, instead of the dolce far niente, New Dublin is full of menace. Walking along the Liffey's banks at midnight, among crowds celebrating the launch of the Millennium Clock (it lies underwater at O'Connell Bridge, glowing a feeble green and ticking off the seconds to the year 2000), the place was full of police in four-square overcoats. Every few yards, someone was being nabbed ("Ye're under arrest, the two o'yis") and bundled away. In the Palace Bar, my friend Lisa had her wallet pinched by two plausible charmers who, instead of running away, hung around to see if they could take some jewellery off her as well. As she was getting over the shock, a 40-something tragedian in a nasty jacket approached her. "I'm a suicidal man," he confided. "Do you really care if I live or die?" With great tact she said, Well, I'm sure somebody does. Emboldened, the man thrust an envelope into her hand, told her he was being followed and asked her to keep it safe for him. "Don't bother," said Lisa, "With my luck it'll get nicked in the next two minutes."
That's Dublin these days: Palermo, inhabited by Scandinavian neurotics.
The ineptness of the Garda Siochna is an endlessly popular topic in the pubs of Temple Bar. Corpses of murder victims routinely disappear from police custody. Armed robberies take place under the nose of major surveillance operations. The confiscation of gallons of Galway moonshine in a "daring swoop" by the rural police is reported one day; next day you read about a break-in at the confiscation centre....
Last week the humorists and blaggards had a wonderful time as details leaked out about the Urlingford Drug Bust. Did you miss it? It's a peach. In a huge operation last November, Irish police claimed to have "seized" a consignment of 13.5 tonnes of cannabis in a parked lorry at Urlingford, Co Kilkenny. The sad truth was, they'd shipped in the pounds 150m consignment themselves, as a huge bait to trap international drug dealers. When no barons or villains had appeared, or betrayed the slightest interest in the mountainous stash (must have been all those uniforms and peaked caps), the cops had no option but to seize their own drugs. Let that be a lesson to all who dabble in illicit narcotics.
Every columnist in the nation (there are about 43 columnists per newspaper) wrote about the idiocy of it all. How marvellous, they said, that the spirit of Flann O'Brien was alive and well. The Irish Times ran stories about it every day for a week. And the police patience finally snapped. In a move I've never encountered before, they issued a statement calling for "an end to public discussion" about the bust because "non-constructive irresponsible reporting by some sections of the media and political points- scoring" was damaging investigations. In translation: "Stop taking the mick, you bastards."
Eric Jacobs's diary of Kingsley Amis's last days is a sorry piece of work, is it not? I emerged from reading the first extract in the Sunday Times feeling drenched in beaujolais and malt whisky and stunned by Mr Jacobs's sneaking ("I kept a count of Kingsley's intake") treachery. Did he really think he was a friend of the great man's? What kind of friendship is it that leads you to pass on details of every binge, every fall, every confidence about sex, every moment of confusion or impulse of feeling to the greedy ears of posterity?
But there is a curious echo about all this. Jacobs's row with Martin Amis, over the diary and his father's letters, rests on the issue of "what Kingsley would have wanted". Jacobs seems to think he'd have wanted the unvarnished truth; Amis fils thinks his father's wishes would have been quite different had he seen Jacobs's diary. It reminds me of the time I interviewed Sir K and asked him, inter alia, about his best friend, Philip Larkin. Amis had included in his memoirs a grotesque story about a drunk Larkin attending a poetry reading at a school where, unable to get to the gents, he had peed copiously in his trousers, hoping (some hope) to soak it up in his voluminous gaberdine coat. Larkin had begged him not to tell anybody. So why had he?
"Oh I don't think anyone who knew Philip would have thought less of him for that," said Kingsley. Yes, I persisted, but he wasn't talking about friends. He was saying he didn't want the world to know, and now they did. "That's a very sanctimonious point of view."
Written off as a prig, I gave up. But the question remained and still does: is that what friends do, once they've reached a certain age?Reuse content