Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Maps and Mapmakers: A Pase Around Old Dublin

published in Dublin Review of Books

Why is a map of a city so evocative? It is, after all, in many ways a reductive representation, reducing the din, excitement and variety of the urban experience to a dry sketch, an outline plot, an aid to navigation or administration. It offers, maybe, an illusion of control: you gaze down at a city captured in its entirety, enjoying the bird’s eye view, as if you might swoop down into a park or street and bear off an exotic snack or trinket. For all its apparent dryness and strict functionality a map holds a pure appeal to the imagination. To look at a map of a city you don’t know is to inhabit it virtually, dreaming your way from Avenida 25 de Mayo to Avenida Scalabrini Ortiz, from Prinsengracht to Sarphatistraat or from the Riva degli Schiavoni to Piazza San Marco.
Technology has intensified this experience, so that we can test a city before we visit it, using Google’s street view to survey the restaurants near the hotel and scope out our evening stroll, swinging round through three hundred and sixty degrees like a prison governor at the centre of his panopticon to peer at windows, traffic lights and parked cars. It’s as if you could try on a segment of your life before submitting to the experience of it. In this sense technology robs cartography of some of its ancient magic, which for me also is a childhood magic. Maps are part of the unforgettable iconography of childhood, maps of imaginary lands, treasure islands, fabulous cities, maps of ancient Greece or Rome, maps of the underworld. Maps can be daunting or frightening. In a pub today a friend visiting from Japan pulled out a map of the Tokyo underground in Japanese, and we looked with a fascinated horror at the dense network of criss-crossing lines and the script of the station names.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

In the Double City

published in Dublin Review of Books

Thomas Street manages to be both within the city and outside it at the same time, as if the walls were still in place and this stretch of the highway outside the city still a distinct suburb. A stone’s throw from Christchurch, a brisk five-minute walk to the front gate of Trinity College, yet the air is different, the light is different, and the smell is different. On this cold February day I cross the wide trafficky expanse of High Street and Cornmarket towards Thomas Street. The traffic acts as a kind of wall, funnelling cars out to the south and into the centre and north of the city, increasing the sense of a passage from one district to another. As you pass St Audoen’s, the limit of the old city, and stare down the sharp incline of Bridge Street where the sun hits the pale brick of Cook Street flats, you realise that you are walking across a high ridge above the river, and this again reinforces the sense of exiting one kind of space and entering another.

There are other signs. In spite of the tiny distance, fashion has never made the crossing. The city has never bothered much with Thomas Street; it seems to exist in permanent neglect, many of its fine old buildings on the brink of collapse, torn down, altered, eternally endangered, at the mercy of the dreams of developers and the chaos of the markets. The street survives, tough, resolute, working class, with a bohemian sprinkle of cafés near the art college like a daub of icing on a crumbling cake. Here is the suit hire shop, the communion shop with the tailor overhead; here is Chadwick’s builders’ supplies with its arched gateway like the entrance to another domain; here are the discount shops, the pawnbrokers, the stalls with stacked toilet papers and chocolate bars; here is Manning’s bakery and what used to be Frawley’s department store, now an outsize clothes shop and soon to be a student accommodation block. For years it was the central shopping anchor of the street, drawing shoppers in from outlying areas, and spawning market stalls outside it to serve the crowds on their way in and out. It was, effectively, a department store for the poor. If you were the kind of person who shopped in Switzer’s or Brown Thomas you didn’t go to Frawley’s; you’d probably never even heard of the place. After a century of trading it ended up in the hands of a now broke developer who intended to demolish it and erect a retail and office complex on the site and has since been bought from the receiver by another developer. In the end, part of the physical structure of Frawley’s was saved by history; it turned out that its hardly imposing exterior hides a mansion in the form of twin “Dutch Billies” built in 1710 and once owned by Joseph Fade, a banker and one of Dublin’s first developers, who lived here with his twenty-one children. The site is also within the grounds of the medieval Augustinian friary that gave the street its name, and who knows what treasures lie underneath its foundations.


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Eastword Ho!

This is the latest from the Dublin essays I've been working on. This time I'm prowling the tangled history and contemporary rea...