Banville’s evocative letter to the fair city

by John Boland

Memoir: Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, John Banville, Photos: Paul Joyce, Hachette, hdbk, 224 pages €28.99

Don’t let the word “memoir” in the subtitle fool you. There’s no mention here of the author’s two decades in the Irish Press, first as sub-editor and then as chief sub-editor, or of the years he subsequently spent as literary editor of the Irish Times.

Nor, beyond fleeting references to a wife and children, is there any account of domestic life. And although the book’s most extended passage concerns an unrequited first love, the author revealed in a recent interview that the rapturously described Stephanie was “an amalgam of many people”.

So what is this memoir – or “quasi-memoir”, as Banville himself more accurately puts it – actually about? Essentially, it’s the author’s love letter to a city he first encountered on annual excursions with his mother from the Wexford of his birth and upbringing. And, as such, it’s extraordinarily evocative of a not-quite-vanished metropolis.

It’s other things, too, including an eccentrically partial contemporary guidebook undertaken in the company of developer Harry Crosbie, named here as Cicero and of whom Banville declares “how fortunate I am to have him for a friend and, now, as my guide to the hidden city”. In fact, much of the book’s topographical and other local information comes either from this source or from the scholarly research of Maurice Craig and Christine Casey, both of whom are graciously acknowledged.

But it’s the personal touch that yields the most pleasure, some of it offered in endearingly quaint language. We learn, for instance, that the prostitutes in the vicinity of a maiden aunt’s Upper Mount Street lodgings, where the author stayed when he first came to Dublin, were “sad creatures of the night” who “plied their trade” along the street – while their nightly working location merits the exclamation “Oh, well-named Mount Street!”

Connoisseurs of this playfully arch style will also relish “what a source of wit the gays were in those less than gay times, and how they did make us laugh”, while of his own youthful hairstyle he remarks “what long locks we cultivated in those hirsute times!”

Banville is clearly not averse to a bit of old-fogeyish fun (“Do people use electric fires nowadays? Are they even manufactured any more?”), but it’s in his vivid reminiscences of Dublin in the 1950s and early 1960s that the book finds its true heart.

Lamenting that “growing up is, sadly, a process of turning the mysterious into the mundane” and that, instead of maturing, “all we do is grow dull”, he conjures up memories of childhood wonderment so vividly rendered that the reader is transported into the Clerys and the Broadway ice-cream parlour of six decades ago and also into Mrs Gaj’s restaurant, beloved by lefties and UCD students of the era, at the corner of Pembroke Street.

There are glimpses of “crusty old codger” Patrick Kavanagh and of Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir, the latter always wearing “a black wig that glistened like wet coal”, and there’s a real sense of “what I suppose I must regard as my ‘formative years'” in the southside enclave bordered by Baggot Street and Lower Mount Street.

In the book’s last quarter, though, the memories are mostly abandoned and instead we’re in contemporary Dublin, the author and Cicero whizzing around in the latter’s vintage sporty MG as they visit Blessington Street Basin, the Botanic Gardens, Henrietta Street, the Rotunda and other landmarks.

This is all very interesting, with much intriguing information conveyed by Cicero as well as by Craig and Casey, but it belongs in a different and less personal book. And it’s the personal that makes the first three-quarters so arresting, with Paul Joyce’s photographs, most of them in monochrome, providing a telling complement to the author’s reveries.

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