Railway art, crocodile tears and Hamlet.

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You never regret a railway journey, no matter how crowded or hot the train may be or how glum your fellow passengers are. There is always that childish air of promise, some surprise to intrigue or divert  your mind. Your companions may be caught in a moment of suspended animation or indeed in animated conversation. The train presents opportunities for concentrated people-watching, probably the oldest entertainment in the world. You must keep an impassive poker face. Or you can look out the window. A vast cyclorama unfolds as you go along: sheep grazing, a man ploughing with a tractor, birds descending on the furrows, golfers deliberating, boats on the dry, back gardens with the bric a brac of family life strewn about the lawn, projected suburban developments long abandoned and overgrown with weeds. Three jet planes there, racing westwards. The passengers are too high to see the ducks in Rogerstown estuary or the reflections of the trees where once there were orchards and strawberry beds.

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The young lady beside me was applying her mascara, preparing a face to meet the faces that she meets. It’s a delicate process. It took her all the way to Malahide to get it to her satisfaction.  I thought she looked okay before she started. Strange stuff, mascara. I looked it up. It was used in ancient Egypt by priests and pharaohs and notably by Elizabeth Taylor. It was compounded from wax, kohl, soot, the juices of berries and crocodile stool. I looked that up too. You don’t want to know. Victorian ladies were very fond of mascara and spent hours every day, applying their cosmetics. There was no shortage of soot, what with children climbing up chimneys all the time. Gentlemen used mascara to darken their moustaches. The children in the chimneys had no need of makeup. It would have been wasted on them. Kohl to Newcastle. Just a thought.

Eye liner? Young girls emphasise their eyes with black stuff. It makes the eyes small and sneaky looking. A pity. The windows of the soul.  Eyebrow pencil is a hoot. The eyebrows are painfully plucked away and then replaced further up the forehead, with black paint. It makes for an expression of perpetual surprise. I bet the crocodiles would have been surprised too, if they had known what was being done with their stools. God has given you one face and you paint yourselves another. Hamlet. W Shakespeare. The illusion of beauty might be better if it were not accomplished in public, under the eyes of strangers. Magicians guard their secrets jealously.

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The Victorians had many other accomplishments worth noting. They made cast iron a thing of beauty and utility. They built railways to link countries in meshes of steel. They strung wires and cables to create a world-wide-web. Their municipal and railway building were works of elegance. They invented new colours that a pharaoh might envy. They developed industrial war. They developed photography to record their achievements for better or for worse.  They grew great beards and Dundreary whiskers—the men mostly. They did not invent that ugly perspex, or the aerosol spray can. No wonder Turner and The Impressionists loved the iron, the light and smoke of the railway age.

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That shed had an elegance of its own. It was built by craftsmen in time gone by and defaced by modern vandals. It is difficult to admire graffiti artists. Their slogans are illegible. They appear in the most unlikely places, no doubt at great danger to the artist in question. Perhaps it is akin to the Victorian desire to place a flag on inaccessible peaks. There is an air of revolt and anger about graffiti.  I saw one once, Sod the Ozone Layer. Enough said.  And yet, in certain circumstances, they might have a point. That oil tank is more interesting, even though I can’t read what the artists have written. A lot of work went into it. Maybe like WWI dazzle paint, you don’t see an ugly tank at all.  A spot of crocodile stool might complete the effect.

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The building behind is still ‘a blank canvas’. We shall see.

Gandon and Identity


A young fellow tried to rob the shop in our local garage. He wore the requisite garb for the occasion, including a balaclava. He carried a hammer. He spoke in a menacing manner. He demanded money. Unfortunately for him, the lad behind the counter recognised him as a former classmate and identified him by name. “No I won’t, XXXX”  (identity concealed to avoid litigation from would-be thieves). The robber was indignant. ” Eff off, YYYY” (crude attempt to protect the identity of the hero of the piece)..”It is not me.” It was and he was nabbed. In Gandon’s Four Courts, as in every court in the land, you will be required to identify yourself on oath.

A common greeting in Ireland is:  ‘Is it yourself?  If you have been away, you may be asked: ‘Are you back?’ In both cases, the answer is usually: ‘Yes.’  I study the fellow in the mirror in the morning. He has been known to wound me with a blunt razor, on occasions. I could identify him on an identity parade, if required, but occasionally I don’t recognise him in old photographs. If I am not myself on any given day, I go back to bed until I am myself again. I used to look like the man on the Identikit pictures and expected to be arrested for a myriad of heinous crimes. On passport photographs (Do not smile!! Take off your glasses!!) I looked like your average neighbourhood axe murderer. I have been finger-printed in the U.S.A. Immigration Service, in case I should come back in twenty years time and do all the stuff I said I had never done, on the immigration forms. On the dust jacket of my first novel, I am an amiable young lad with flowing locks. On my latest, computerised driving licence, I have pixels and lines all over my face. There is a hologram of a harp and what I would swear is Gandon’s Custom House, obscuring half of my features. There is a regal touch…Rameses II, after the embalmers had done their best. I don’t look myself.

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That’s Gandon’s Custom House to the left. I liked the ship. It suggests the age of sail,  trade and commerce in a simpler time, when ships came all the way up the Liffey, at least as far as Carlisle Bridge (built by Gandon).  Casks were piled on the quayside and vessels from all over the world, disgorged their cargoes onto horse-drawn drays, under the watchful eyes of the riverine heads and H.M. Customs. There were tallies, ledgers and stamps. Documents were authenticated with wax seals. All was made manifest. There were no bar-codes, pixels or computers. The computers are housed in the building to the right, the IFSC, a temple to lucre and the ephemeral business of financial trading. The instigator of the IFSC, Charles Haughey, lived in a Gandon mansion. Perhaps he had lost the run of himself.

I was excited to be summoned to Gandon House to authenticate myself with a new identity card. I shaved carefully, avoiding wounds. Nothing betrays a miscreant as readily as scars on the face. I mean…Scarface! A friend was surprised to see me at the railway station early in the morning. ‘I didn’t recognise you.’ He meant clean and tidy and wearing shoes. I lacked the hunted demeanour of the commuter. I looked out of the train window. I had no electronic device to insulate me from the world. I speculated on what Gandon would have built in the great age of steam.  He died about six years before the first railway locomotives tooted their whistles and sent up smoke signals of what was to come. I looked forward to being greeted by a bewigged flunkey and ushered into an echoing marble hall. I expected ceilings of astonishing Italian plaster-work and oil paintings of grave and dignified statesmen, Lords Lieutenant and Generals festooned with medals and sashes. I checked my evidence of identity, a birth certificate, passport, driver’s licence, utility bill and the letter summoning me to be there. I thought I had everything. Cogito, ergo sum.  I definitely was me.

Gandon was having an off day. This is Gandon House, in Amiens Street, near the city morgue.

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There were no flunkeys. The staff members were courteous and helpful. It was a painless experience, except that my feet were protesting about the shoes. Me dogs were barkin’, as they say in Dublin. I answered a few questions about things I hadn’t thought about in years. I was photographed and no doubt, pixillated again. I must await the outcome. I came home on the next train. The countryside sparkled in the heatwave. The sea glistened invitingly.

I took off my shoes. I was myself again.