Sunday, November 25, 2012

Our Avenue

For the first twenty-three years of my life, my home was an apartment on the seventh (and top) floor of the Ballymun Flats. The concrete stairwells, whose walls were covered with graffiti and from which any other trace of ornamentation had long been ripped, seemed to me as mysterious and full of possibility as the caverns of some fantasy world. (In fact, when I saw the Mines of Moriah in Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring film, my sense of awe was moved in the same way.)

They were both scary and strangely exciting. You never knew who you would meet; it felt a little like a dungeon or stone castle corridor in a computer game. I vividly remember the time a boy blocked my passage up the stairs with his bicycle and told me I couldn't pass unless I gave him ten pence. (Ten pence was the price of most chocolate bars and packets of crisps in the local van-shops.)

I remember, as a child, falling down the concrete stairs on many occasions. Even at such a young age, I found myself analysing the calm thought process that runs through your mind as you are falling: "I've done it now and I'm going to hit the landing in a moment." I also remember the time I dropped a Jelly Tot (a child's sweet) down the slit at the edge of the stairwell. Apparently I went into convulsions and even my mother's promise (we were coming home from the shops) that she would buy me a new packet couldn't console me. I wanted that Jelly Tot and no other. (I can well believe this story. The loss of the particular and irreplaceable still fills me with grief.)

There was a lift (an elevator, for my American readers) but it was very often broken. I lived in terror of the cable snapping and sending me plunging to the bottom. My brothers and sisters, and other kids, discussed this possibility avidly. There were two schools of thought on what to do if this happened. One recommended jumping in the air at the moment of impact. The other advocated hoisting yourself off the floor by pressing your arms and legs against the walls. I think I dimly understood that neither of these actions would be of much help. Thankfully, the cable remained miraculously unsnapped.

But the lift had other horrors to it. There were two metal doors, a silver-coloured inner door and a red-coloured outer door. Sometimes only the inner door would open and you would find yourself staring at the red door. For me and my little brother, the Red Door came to be as archetypal and haunting as Edgar Allen Poe's Red Death, or the Thirteenth Floor of so many horror stories. I can't remember how we got out when the dread Red Door did reveal itself.

Other times the lift would open between floors. I can't remember how this was resolved, either.

The lift, along with everything else in Ballymun, was regularly vandalised. Sometimes people would urinate on the floor. At one point, one public-spirited fellow decided to scrawl on the lift wall "SECUTIRY CAMERAS INSTALLED (sic)". It was anti-vandalistic vandalism, like the Dadaist's anti-artistic art.

I still dream of the flats constantly. I have dreams that I am trying to get home, trying to get back to number 62 at the very top, trying to get back to my mother and father and the snack that will be waiting for me after school. But in these dreams, the stairs are often missing, whole chunks of them having fallen away. When I take the lift (in these dreams) it often keeps rising into the air after we have passed the top floor, like the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

When people visited us on the top floor, they said two things. "It's so hot!". (And it was; the central heating was out of our control. My father worried that me and my brother, who were not the most outdoorsy types, would end up having thinned blood "like the African soccer players who have to wear leggings when they play in England".) They also said: "What a wonderful view!". It was a pretty good view. You could see the mountains, the two huge chimneys of the Poolbeg generating station, and a little bit of the sea in the distance. At night, it was a forest of lights, which was even more magical.

But you can only look at a view for so long. (Incidentally, I remember, as a child, resolving to look out the window and catch the exact moment when day became night.) And it is probably a result of my childhood and teens, when the only thing that passed outside the window were seagulls, that hearing voices just outside the walls of my house seems unspeakably magical.

I live in a house now. There are eight houses in this row; four on each side of the avenue outside the sitting room window.

Right now, as I type these very words, little girls are running up and down the path between the houses, playing some game. I do not think there is any sound more beautiful than the excited voices of children playing. It seems strangely ancient and immortal to me, as though I am hearing, not just these children, but the eternal and deathless spirit of childhood.

But whatever sound it is that drifts from outside my sitting room window-- the hobbling of an old lady's walking-frame, the lifting of the latch of a gate, the furtive voices of teenagers-- it is more evocative to me than the tinkling of wind-chimes or the whistling of the wind through branches in the dead of night. Somehow it seems inexhaustably fascinating to me that they are out there while I am in here, even though we are within a whisker of each other.

The world begins in the avenue outside my garden. When I am presented with the vastness of the world in terms of statistics-- billions of people, hundreds of thousands of cities, hundreds of millions of Snickers bars sold per day, and so forth-- it repulses me. But somehow, when I see the vastness of the world through the lens of something small-- like the avenue outside my garden-- the greatness of the world seems sublime rather than repugnant. Because it is a greatness made up, not of units, but of every sort of contrast-- sleepy back streets and bustling boulevardes, half-empty pub lounges, crowded public squares.

My daily commute is an extensive one, and it often takes me an hour to two hours to get home. I take two buses. I don't mind so much. I get to read on the bus (unless it's standing room only). I walk down Grafton Street every day, which I like, especially when the Christmas lights are up.

There are moments when I always try to stop and look and savour-- like when I cross over the Liffey, or when I come to a crossroards (which seems to me like a place of deep symbolic significance), or when I pass the rowan tree that was planted in memory of my mother, outside my old school.

But I always feel a special tingle when I make the final turn, onto the path that runs outside my garden, on our own little avenue. This is the smallest part of the public world that I can call home. It is even more home than my country, or my city, or my neighbourhood. It is where my ship pulls into harbour. In terms of the J.R.R. Tolkien song-- "The road goes on and ever on, far from the path where it began"-- this is the path where all roads begin, the roads that lead to the ends of the Earth.

I wish people were more patriotic about the rows and avenues and crescents that they live on. I do think a man should be a citizen of the world. I do think he should be a patriot. I do think he should be a proud son of his city, and feel a sense of belonging towards his neigbourhood.

But why stop there? What is wrong with being a patriot of places so small, they don't even have names on the map? In my ideal world, every little avenue would have a flag and an assembly and a festival of its own.


  1. This is actually quite relevant to THE NAPOLEON OF NOTTING HILL. The London boroughs named in the novel had been created less than 20 years before in a cynical move by the Tory government to prevent (or at least dilute) the possibility of a powerful all-London authority which might serve as a focus of opposition to the national government, yet Chesterton imagines a future in which their citizens will be as fiercely attached to them as Renaissance Italians to their city-states

  2. Yes! It is a theme he returned to quite often. I have only read the Napoleon of Notting Hill once, though-- I'm afraid I can't really get into Chesterton's fiction.

  3. I'd give NoNH another go at some point. It has longeurs (without being long), and there are passages of autopilot Chesterton, but there is some fine stuff in there too. If he had written less in general, he would have written better in some particulars, especially the novel form. But then he wouldn't have been Chesterton.