Category Archives: City Unseen

Paula Meehan, Prayer for the Children of Longing

I should be on break, should be done, but instead I am working and working to finish up this report for the Welsh Government on the progress of the new homelessness prevention agenda of the Housing Act 2014 and I just finished the section on vulnerable groups… fucking vulnerable groups. The young people I spoke to sit within this category as though trapped in amber, bureaucratically stripped of the fierce tragedies of their angry, lost, scared, funny, resigned presences vibrating with life sometimes falling in tears, sometimes erupting in a torrent of abuse on the phone. They survive streets and misery and old wounds and abuse with alcohol and drug medleys, and more and more with mamba, ‘legal highs’, spice. These kids are not easy, but they are ours and we are letting them die.

I read this poem this morning, and it felt like a Christmas gift. One among many, for Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain must be one of the best poetry collections I’ve ever read. A gift for me and for them. For all those who loved them, tried to save them. A prayer to whisper beside every Christmas tree.

Prayer for the Children of Longing

A poem commissioned by the community of Dublin’s north inner city for the lighting of the Christmas tree in Buckingham Street, to remember their children who died from drug use.

Great tree from the far northern forest
Still rich with the sap of the forest
Here at the heart of winter
Here at the heart of the city

Grant us the clarity of ice
The comfort of snow
The cool memory of trees
Grant us the forest’s silence
The snow’s breathless quiet

For one moment to freeze
The scream, the siren, the knock on the door
The needle in its track
The knife in the back

In that silence let us hear
The song of the children of longing
In that silence let us catch
The breath of the children of longing

The echo of their voices through the city streets
The streets that defeated them
That brought them to their knees
The streets that couldn’t shelter them
That spellbound them in alleyways
The streets that blew their minds
That led them astray, out of reach of our saving
The streets that gave them visions and dreams
That promised them everything
That delivered nothing
The streets that broke their backs
The streets we brought them home to

Let their names be the wind through the branches
Let their names be the song of the river
Let their names be the holiest prayers

Under the starlight, under the moonlight
In the light of this tree

Here at the heart of winter
Here at the heart of the city

Enda Walsh mostly, and Dublin

Enda Walsh… we didn’t know what to expect at the Smock Alley Theatre. We didn’t set our expectations high enough for Disco Pig and Sucking Dublin in this space that I loved quite uncritically, and M liked with rather more critique of highs and lows being lost to us as was a bit of the stage. Bright and violent and shining, seventeen and the world before them when, if, they were able to emerge from the world they had created with each other. Pig and Runt as an us versus all of them, a bit terrifying, a bit beautiful. The sea as a birthday gift. Blue the colour of love. Still babas awakening from a violent innocence. It is also all about how awakening means wanting more, knowing that the other will always hold you back even if you love them. It’s about getting out. Seems like one working class world is so very much like another, a bit glorious, a bit terrible, all we have to differentiate ourselves is our language and the nature of the music that calls us and the drugs that get us through, or our trajectories out and away from grinding work and reproduction. The language was fucking amazing. Of course anything about getting out always rips my heart out, and he threw heroin and some violence against women in there as well so Sucking Dublin finished the job.

Smock Alley Theatre

I know too there is more than this, that getting out isn’t required. Getting out scars you. A lucky one. An unlucky one. I don’t know.

A lovely, flying, terribly-timed weekend trip to Dublin on the grounds that M was examining a PhD on Friday, both of us studiously trying to ignore the crushing sleep-withdrawing pressure of deadlines and just enjoy, which wasn’t too hard although the weather was baltic and I earned myself the nickname of old face-ache.

So we didn’t walk around too much, just saw a few things. Ate Pho. Climbed down into the crypts to see the mummies in St Michan’s, which were quite amazing. I’m rather glad you can’t touch them anymore. I took this before seeing the no pictures sign. Waste not want not.

Dublin

The Sheare brothers are also here, hanged, drawn and quartered after the 1798 uprising, and maybe just maybe Robert Emmet. And above, a rather wondrous organ that Handel played the Messiah on.

Dublin

The Dublin of contrasts.

Dublin

Friezes of household items, notably fish and carrots on the old market building

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Posters of Irish women writers:

Dublin

We walked through Temple Bar, bookshops, the book market in the freezing wind.

Dublin

Dublin

The Little Museum of Dublin, crowdsourced and one of the best little museums I’ve been to and couldn’t recommend more. If we could have had our guide Patrick escort us through the streets of Dublin the whole weekend we would have done. For his story of the duck keeper of St Stephen’s Green during the Easter rising alone I would have paid an entry fee. Ground floor was all George Bernard Shaw…I have my mixed feelings about him, usually want to punch the Fabians, but a GBS posing as the thinker in the buff was quite extraordinary. And I love these old Georgian houses, though I know they were the housing of colonial rule.

Little Museum of Dublin

Second best behind Patrick and the ducks, what they believe to be Flann O’Brien’s chair hanging from the ceiling.

Flann O'Brien's chair? Little Museum of Dublin

I pretended it was his policeman leaning there rusty against the wall in the next room.

Went to the Long Hall, once patronised by an excess of 150 Fenians. I don’t know if you can have an excess of Fenians, but perhaps. There were certainly an excess of loud shoppers on a horrible Saturday afternoon and our pints were cold. Jesus. It was beautiful but still we fled. Walked past the big pointy thing again.

Dublin pointy thing

Across from our hotel the blessing of the taxi cabs.

Shrine

And the An Bord Pleanála, which google tells me is an independent, statutory, quasi-judicial body that decides on appeals from planning decisions made by local authorities in Ireland. All I know is that it has a wonderful sculpture of cleaning women, and I love this building dearly.

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By night, seagulls on the Liffey.

the Liffey and a row of seagulls

Last day, Sunday, National Gallery day,  surprisingly enjoyable. Malta has made me enjoy those rooms of medieval and Italian Renaissance paintings so much more now that I’ve realised they have spurting liquids and batshit crazy demons and angry horses.

Dublin National Gallery

Dublin National Gallery

But Caravaggio is here! Not even pictured on the brochure, honestly, but here is The Taking of Christ. I first saw it at the National Gallery in London along with a number of the pictures in this room. I had forgotten — maybe never knew, who can tell as old as I’m getting these days — that the canvas was thought lost then found here in Dublin in the 1970s. There is a whole room dedicated to his influence, it is splendid. The Irish rooms are also splendid, including one of the most beautiful pieces of stained glass I have ever seen.

Dublin National Gallery

And there were fish men.

Dublin National Gallery

A final view.

Dublin

I was sad to leave.

I am now going to resume writing about homelessness in Wales. Because life is a bit shit and I have so much to do before Friday and mum arrives tomorrow and I have duvets airing and the rubbish needing to go out and clothes folding and I haven’t hoovered and I am still overdue with that film review and there is no way that article that has been almost done for months is getting out before Christmas. But Dublin will be remembered.

St Paul’s Catacombs, Rabat

More catacombs, the largest of them here in Rabat, constructed just outside the ditch surrounding the Roman city of Melita. They are believed to have begun as simple Punic hypogea, tombs dug straight down into the earth but later further dug out, added to, connected in the late Roman period to form catacombs, in medieval times to have become the site of a church.

First you enter the main section, then emerging you plunge back down into multiple small subsections to see a Menorah here, a ship there, endless stibadium that still fascinate, just as the darkness does and the vistas across tombs and through small arched windows carved into walls — Bonnano is right, there is so little obvious Christian iconography to be found anywhere.

Some myths on display — the pig that fell into a hole here, and emerged in a village 4 km away. The class of children that entered, never to be seen again. The giants who delved here.

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St Agatha’s Catacombs and Museum, Rabat

St Agatha’s Catacombs in Rabat are locked away behind a great iron door down the bottom of a flight of steps, available to see on a guided tour only. I was somehow first down the steps and first into a tall arching space with frescoes all around it. An extraordinary, evocative space that deserved more time, more darkness, no reminders of modern tours. We needed time to piece together ancient faces. We were not so lucky. This is the picture I might have taken had there been photography allowed, but it was darker.

There is a battle of interpretations being waged here, from the leaflet produced by the Missionary Society of St Paul:

Strong tradition holds that the young virgin, Agatha, sought refuge on the island of Malta, so as to escape the persecution of the Emperor Decius (249-251 AD) and the Governor of Sicily, Quintinius, who had fallen in love with her.

Agatha is said to have lived in the city [Melita], but used to come to pray at this place. A few months later, she returned to her native country, where she was tortured and killed because of her faith on 5th February 251 AD.

These dates ever so exact. The story from the guide and from elsewhere was that she had hidden in the crypt itself. One place describes how she taught children here. The leaflet says the crypt was maintained thereafter as sacred to her honour. One set of frescoes was painted in 1200, and the second set in 1480, attributed to Salvatore D’Antonio from Messina. Anthony Bonanno dates the catacombs to late 3rd and 4th Centuries, gives a wider range of dates for the frescoes and names no names. And across the road, a set of boards in the St Paul catacombs ‘debunking’ some quite fabulous myths (more on them later) has the following entry:

Christians did not hide in catacombs not least because they were terrible hiding places, and there is no evidence for Christianity until the 4th Century AD.

I gather up all interpretations of the past to enjoy the catacombs, they are beautiful, if slightly back-breaking. Many of the tombs are decorated, many of them carved so people could lie side by side, some of them still contain bones. You come at the end to the ‘Holy of Holies’, ‘believed to be the earliest rock-cut church in Malta.’ The leaflet states there was once an agape table set here, which was later destroyed when the church outlawed their use — of all the interpretations swirling about this place, this is the one I buy the least:

Distinctions between the rich and the poorer members of the congregation during these banquets became customary, and so they were stopped.

The whole catacomb distinguishes between rich and poor — those with central tombs custom-cut into rock, surrounded by four pillars and passageways to be freestanding. The poor left to shelves in passageways, pits in floors, graves used over and over.

But the fresco here is lovely, one of the best preserved.

Definitely Christian with the Chi Rho and the vases and the doves — unlike the mutilated stibadium (Bonanno’s preferred term, he mentions mensae and triclinia), which have been found more widely in Libya and Petra and probably tie back to a longer lineage of pagan worship. Many of those here in Malta are not associated with Christian iconography at all (though that doesn’t mean necessarily that they weren’t Christian), and several come with with carved menorahs making them fairly necessarily Jewish. Bonanno does not mention this as an early rock-cut church, nor this as the niche above an altar, either. But these spaces are still very full of an awe closely related to religious feeling, even in modern-day electric lighting rather than flickering oil lamps. How to differentiate between church and religious space holding believers? A map here, from Bonanno.

cof

There is a museum here also, which reminds me of Victorian days of glory, full of finds from the catacombs but also multiple donations, unprovenanced, uncertain.

Rabat - St Agatha's

They range from pottery to fragments of scupture, Egyptian shabtis, bits of glass and beads. The connection to a Hellenized Egypt feels quite strong here.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

My favourite things were the votive slabs taken from the old church built here in 1504, some of them found in the walls of the church rebuilt in 1670. I love these scenes of everyday life:

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Animals — including the legend of the pelican who causes her own breast to bleed to feed her young. This is everywhere in Medieval English carvings as well as in one of the frescoes decorating a grave in the catacombs below.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Two architectural/ city scenes, at the very end of the row:

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Though of course, the most amazing thing had to be the 4000 year-old mummified crocodile identified with Sobek, Lord of the Nile.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

A graffitied cherub

Rabat -- St Agatha's

There was also some truly extraordinary Catholic kitsch, which I also loved. I think I am going to collect all of that together for one glorious post of sacred hearts and severed heads…

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St Paul’s Grotto — WWII Shelters — Catacombs, Rabat

St Paul is my least favourite apostle. Not exactly an apostle, I know, but something like that. Persecuting Christians one minute, persecuting those who aren’t Christian enough the next, and it always seemed to me he quite hated women, made we want to throw my bible during Sunday School despite some lovely passages about love in those letters he wrote the Corinthians. Still, interesting to think of him here, in Malta, where we are too! Our first two nights in Mdina/Rabat, known as Melite to the Romans. This is from Acts 28: 1-10.

1. And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.
2 And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.
3 And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
4 And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
5 And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
6 Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
7 In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously.
8 And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him.
9 So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed:
10 Who also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.

Pretty exciting times. Legend placed St Paul in this grotto/ cave/ prison preaching the gospel. If true (and it makes some geographic sense and the place name is right), he would have arrived here in 60 AD, shipwrecked while traveling from Crete to Rome for trial in front of Julius Ceasar.

St Paul’s Grotto

You follow down steps:

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

To find the requisite marbled bit:

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

And a quite lovely fresco

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

The grotto itself is rather more humble, rather more grim.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

There was a huge fight over the legacy of St Paul between the Knights of St John and the Church. In 1607, Spanish hermit Juan Benegas de Cordova was given permission by Pope Paul V to look after the grotto. A small sheet of typewritten paper in the Wignacourt Museum above relates that it seems only then did the Knights realise the potential of the spot. Benegas ‘ceded’ the Grotto to them on 24th April 1617. Above it, Alof de Wignacourt built the Collegio that now forms the museum for the College of Chaplains, their mission to promote the cult of St Paul as well as to protect the Grotto. The church realised it had missed a trick, and immediately built their own — bigger, more eye-catching — church of St Paul immediately next door, financed by Cosmana Navarra (who has a street named after her, also a very nice restaurant now inhabiting her townhouse though we ourselves went to the Grotto Tavern, where I had ravioli in a kind of broth that started out on first taste as disappointingly bland until a crazy crescendo of flavour was reached at some point thereafter transforming my ideas of the heights pasta can attain). The grotto remained contested until the Knights lost everything (damn Napoleon) and now is with the Church. But this painting by the Knight’s own painter Antoine Favray (1706-1787), shows St John the Baptist and St Paul together, which only makes sense in the light of this story…hence, I suppose, the typewritten sheet beneath him.

Rabat -- Wignacourt Museum

Here also are perhaps my favourite catacombs — we have visited many. It also has a brilliant series of WWII shelters.

Down into the WWII Shelters

At the war’s outbreak (says the display), 8,000 workers began to dig shelters with pick axes. 841 shelters were dug to serve the population.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Some families asked for permission to dig individual shelters as seen in these caves, about 50 such rooms — all are a standard size and shape, but some have been painted and tiled. I loved these touches to create a kind of home here.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

The view from inside

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Beyond the shelters are the catacombs, and they were my favourites because you can just wander around. There were very few others here, and to have this place to ourselves — so very cool.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Here we found first mention of the Agape Table, which we would find everywhere, yet this is a name fairly sneered at by Anthony Bonanno in Malta: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman. He might also have sneered at this drawing, of a family communing over a meal in the catacombs, a reconstruction of how it is believed they are used.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

But they are quite incredible

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

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Alinsky on Existing Community Organization

I’ve been thinking so much lately about community and connection and reading so much about poverty and place and feeling so strongly about how wrong most of these authors get things looking into neighbourhoods from the outside and seeing only the absences of things, so I found this little snippet particularly interesting in Saul Alinsky. It’s a lot about seeing what is actually in front you, understanding that you are not operating in some kind of vacuum or emptiness, that organisation exists even if not in the form you expect or recognise.

The ghetto or slum in which he is organizing is not a disorganzied community. There is no such animal as a disorganized community. It is a contradiction in terms to use the two words “disorganization” and “community” together: the word community itself implies an organized, communal life; people living in an organized fashion. These people in the community which concern us may have experienced successive frustrations to the point that their will to participate has seemingly atrophied. They may be living in anonymity and starved for personal recognition. They may be suffering from various forms of deprivation and discrimination. They may have accepted anonymity and resigned in apathy. They may despair and feel hopeless about their children inheriting a little better world. From your point of view they may be representing a very negative form of existence, but the fact is that they are organized in that way of life. Call it organized apathy or organized non-participation, but that is their community pattern. They are living under a certain set of arrangements, standards, accepted modus operandis and a way of life. They may in short have surrendered – but life goes on in an organized form; even if it is as Thoreau described about most lives as being one of “quiet desperation.”

Therefore, if your function is to attack apathy and create citizen participation it is in actual fact an attack upon the prevailing patterns of organized living in the community. Here I would like to state my first proposition; the first function of community organization is community disorganization. Disorganization of the accepted circumstances and the status quo of the arrangements under which they live. These circumstances and arrangements must be disorganized if they are to be displaced with changed patterns providing the opportunities and means for citizen participation. All change means disorganization of the old and organization of the new.

This is why the organizer is immediately confronted with conflict. (115-116)

I am rather fascinated by this. I think he is missing here all the ways the women at least are more positively organized amongst themselves to work and keep the home together and keep an eye on the kids and find out about sources of support and all those things they have traditionally had to do and that often require help, particularly at the time Alinsky was working. And again, he overplays the conflict, always, there are other ways to go about this. But this is still worth thinking about, making sure you understand the patterns that exist, how people are surviving, seeing the strengths there and seeing what might hold folks back. Particularly important, it seems to me, is understanding that in how disrupting old patterns you better be damn sure you are building stronger, more supportive patterns in their place.

Shirley Baker: a splendour of community amidst the slum clearances

I loved the Shirley Baker exhibition, found it moving and inspiring both. ‘Women and Children; and Loitering Men’ at the Manchester Art Gallery. Her photographs are vibrant, beautifully composed, full of life, provocative–everything photographs should be–and at the same time her subject is the one closest to my heart: everyday life and working-class community.

From the Manchester Art Gallery Website:

Pioneering British photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career. This exhibition includes previously unseen colour photographs by Baker alongside black and white images and ephemera such as magazine spreads, contact sheets and various sketches. It specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford. This intense period of study, spanning from 1961 – 1981, documents what Baker saw as the needless destruction of working class communities.

This is an exhibition put together by Anna Douglas, first shown in London (of course, already I am feeling this North-South injustice)

For an amateur photographer and an urbanist and with a lifetime devoted to building power and community, these photographs sing. They document this structural period of demolition, the hope of better lives and council housing, the children my god the children everywhere and you love every one of them. Mothers everywhere too (and all my fears of being like that, like them, that joy vanished from them though I know often it is still there and it is my own fear speaking still, it seems visible only in the children and some of the old men).

The old men, the unemployed, the laundry, the cats and the dogs, the hope and despair, beauty and laughter and oppression and a hard working life all painted in black and white and glorious colour.

Maybe I loved most sharing this space with others, it felt like these rooms were filled with unusual suspects for a gallery, and a couple of older men were reminiscing behind me for a while about these days I was staring at captured with such compassion and immediacy it was altogether beautiful.

Some pictures from the website dedicated to her. There was another picture with a cat that was my favourite. I cannot find it. The unexpected heartbreak of denial in an internet age. Reminds me of my own poverty-stricken youth. Nothing like this though.    The kids above — I imagine this was a day that all of them have remembered all their lives. The kids below — those faces too old and wary. I knew so many kids like that, love this country because seems like they are rare now. Nothing sad about this kid though.  There is so little about Shirley Baker and I want to know all of it, devour all of her photographs. The book cost £30 — impossible at the end of the month. The other books from the handful of times her work has been shown all over £100. Luckily there is a website dedicated to her, it states:

Shirley Baker (1932 – 2014) was one of Britain’s most compelling yet underexposed social documentary photographers. Her street photography of the working-class inner-city areas, taken from 1960 until 1981, would come to define her humanist vision.

“It has always astonished me how quickly things can disappear without a trace.”

Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian…. it is her empathetic but unsentimental photographs of inner-city working-class communities in Salford and Manchester as they experienced years of ‘slum’ clearance that has come to define her distinct vision.

“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.” (Shirley Baker, on the slum clearances of inner Manchester and Salford)

Portrait of the photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014), kneeling down to take a picture with her Rolleiflex camera. circa 1980s

Look at these incredible visions of the city and the life that filled it and spilled over it as the face of it was being transformed.

They are incredible, I wanted to see all of them. I wanted to know more of how she thought about them. I loved too, the exhibition’s integration of oral histories from people in these neighbourhoods, though I kind of hate the technology so I didn’t listen to all of them.

I will be patient, I suppose, and wait for more.

In looking for some of my favourite photographs I found this one online, an older Shirley Baker in front of this building I love and have long wondered about as I walk past it all the time on my way home, now a Chinese Restaurant on Plymouth Grove. It’s somehow so warming to think of her here, in my own place.

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The Urban and non-Urban Delights of Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth is quite wonderful in terms of the interesting, the beautiful, the strange. Its cult 60s upper floor brutalist diner.

Aberystwyth

Its interior decoration.

Aberystwyth

Its basement of books.

Aberystwyth

Its splendour of shop windows.

Aberystwyth

Its rumble of bikers on sunny days.

Aberystwyth

Its gangsters or the sweeney or the owners of the funicular railway?

Aberystwyth

The view over Aberystwyth in the UKs largest camera obscura

Aberystwyth

The view heading back down on the funicular railway:

Aberystwyth

A genuine welsh choir

Aberystwyth

A site of the first protest for the survival and revival  of the Welsh language.

Aberystwyth

The city itself charms, it is amazing the difference paint makes to pebbledash, which I can never find other than utterly grim when left unpainted. I care not how it weathers rain. The streets wind, open up on new vistas. There are a scattering of large stone buildings, some old beamed things. This old pub still has this small area in front of it expanding the public space of the street — once common here, or so the plaque says. Such a brilliant space.

Aberystwyth

And again I am reminded the importance of paint, but also the bow windows and the variegated surface, the light and shadow and interest this creates.

Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth

Beyond the castle rises Pen Dinas Hill Fort, built around 400 BC. Every town should have one of these. As we climbed, we were also able to look down on preparations for a day of horse racing. And we met the loveliest dog.

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