A lost city and one that’s never gone away

Fiftysomething

 

I was nuking the porridge and trying to fob the cat off with half a pork chop that had seen better days (not least when it was an integral part of an intelligent little beast with four busy trotters), and the radio was on, as always.

An erudite gentleman, who had been invited into studio to talk about banks and accountability, began to speak. I prepared to disengage. As soon as someone says “fiscal rectitude”, my brain finds a futon and lies down in the sun to think about wildebeests and bearded ladies.

I just can’t harness my concentration; I’ve tried, but as soon as markets are being analysed or our future gnawed over by men with bullion-bar teeth, my thought processes spring a leak. Within minutes, my brain is like a water barrel shot up by a passing gunslinger in a dusty Stetson.

Don’t get me wrong: it matters, I know it matters. I’m not living in some glittering cave staffed by sea gods with golden tridents and a bunch of waterproof credit cards. I’ve known what it is to be skint. I know what it is not to be skint. I am grateful for my work, grateful to be surviving on this tilting ship.

Anyway, just before I hopped into the oblivion elevator, the erudite man said something unusual (given that I expected him to speak in hieroglyphics). Quoting Kierkegaard, he said: “Life is lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.”

In 1989, I was in the cast of The Lament for Arthur Cleary , by Dermot Bolger. The play, described as a homage to a new Ireland, told the story of the returned emigrant Arthur Cleary, an idealist and a romantic, who finds the Dublin he carried around in his head while working in canning factories across Europe utterly changed. He returns to a city controlled by loan sharks and drug pushers and cowering under the scourge of heroin. When we first meet Arthur, he is at a border crossing between life and death.

The production was a big success. After its initial run in Dublin we toured community venues all around the city; we went to Edinburgh (where they love a bit of angst and gave us a Fringe First award); we went to London (where sage audiences nodded slowly and shook their clever heads); we went to the US and performed for dewy-eyed émigrés whose vision of Ireland was probably not too different from the country that Arthur dreamt of before his ill-fated return.

Last weekend, to coincide with Rough Magic theatre company’s revival of Declan Hughes’s Digging for Fire , another play from that era that attempted to examine the state of our Dayglo nation, the company presented a reading of Lament (as we called it), and I washed my crumpled face and went along.

“Life is lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.” Auld Kierkegaard knew which side was up, eh?

In 1989 I was living and breathing Bolger’s play, night after night, venue after venue, gig after gig, but, to be honest, I don’t think the story ever permeated my cheap white-musk oil, let alone my imagination. I was having a ball, getting paid, hanging out with my mates in sticky-carpeted B&Bs in foreign cities, smoking roll-ups out of dirty windows, and imagining a poetic future, an edgy, bristling life where nothing would fade except my eyeliner.

The play is about idealism and hope, and love and innocence, and how those fragile states can be mown down like daisies. The play is about poverty and loss, and I was in my 20s, and the future was a languid cat stretching out on some sooty windowsill, and loss was a country I had yet to visit.

At the reading, the actress who played the role I once inhabited was lovely: pure and fresh and composed. She was one year old when we first went on the road with that play. She was eating pureed carrots while we were barging our way up to the bar in some festival club or other, and later discovering the curious joys of the doner kebab.

It is a very good play, beautifully written, haunting. It is a lament for a lost city, and, despite my intimate knowledge of the piece, I never actually understood that before. Twenty-five years later, the play still resonates. Twenty-five years later, this city still spawns poverty and addiction and despair.

Afterwards, standing outside the theatre in the pale afternoon sunlight, I spoke with a young woman for whom Bolger’s territory was familiar. “I know it was about the 1980s,‘” she said, “but it could be now. What’s changed?” In the cold light of day of an April afternoon, I struggled to answer her question.

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