2 am, 2nd night in Dublin: I’ve got a 17-euro bed in a 4-bed room at Oliver St. John Gogarty’s hostel in Temple Bar, renowned for its nocturnal musicality. No sign of roommates. I’ve momentarily abandoned the search for sleep. There’s a happy fiddler running through the scales right out my window, preferable to whoever’s been banging on a guitar for the last half hour. Uh-oh, the guitarist is back with an awful, repetitive, wordless refrain, “oh-oh-oh-oh,” underscoring the fiddle. Inadvertantly avant garde. Dare I close the window? It’s so hot and I’m in an upper bunk, where it’s even hotter.
The money I saved on a hotel I splurged on a theater ticket, counting myself lucky to get a seat at the sold-out Woman of No Importance by Mr. Oscar Wilde at the Gate Theatre, but the best part of the show was tea at the interval, served in china cups with saucers. Bewley’s, the same served at last night’s lodging, the Charles Stewart. Nice and strong.
I adore Oscar Wilde, for his writing, for his life. But I didn’t adore what they did with his play. It was rarefied agony sitting there watching them declaim their way through what is, yes, a melodrama, and yes, too close to Shaw, but still, there are known ways to deflect rhetoric, thanks to Stanislavski, thanks to Chekhov. It’s called, using your imagination, rather than your ego. Two actors affected spontaneous speech but ten others were gratingly didactic. Offensively arch. Why does this always happen with Wilde?
The real problem was, I should’ve been watching another play entirely: Sean O’Casey’s Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre. I’d seen the inpiring W.B.Yeats exhibit at the National Library, thanks to a tip from the soft-spoken, blue-eyed leprechaun at Books Upstairs on College Green. Yeats’s integration of spirituality with art with national pride led him to co-found the Abbey, which played a significant role in protesting the English occupation. Riots broke out in the theater in response to O’Casey’s perceived attack on “blood sacrifice” in his portrayal of the 1916 Easter Uprising. I wasn’t in the mood to watch suffering peasants bicker onstage. I wanted to watch trivial rich people bicker.
This whole trip to Oxford via Dublin and back is a tribute to the Irish side of the story. Wilde is Irish, of course, and a critic of the upper classes, but, but, he never stooped to writing about peasants. The Wilde Paradox is to be wildly produced and almost as widely misinterpreted. Watching his beautiful people behaving unbeautifully, you can have your high tea and eat it too, because his attacks are more elegant than most hommages. His witless inferiors accuse themselves when they dismiss him as superficial. And I paid the price of an uninspired production at the Gate Theatre, when I could’ve been a few blocks over, at the Abbey.
12 Hours Later, Training to Oxford via Holyhead, Chester, Crewe, Birmingham: Biggest blunder so far: hoping to be allowed to pee while the train was stationary in Crewe, until I realized the automated door wouldn’t close while we were in the station. Ten minutes after our scheduled departure, as I opened my laptop, Virgin, which now apparently runs England’s trains, announced I was wanted on Platform One for a replacement train to Birmingham. Where was Platform One? Follow the others. No stairs involved. Lovely.
Next-biggest blunder: spilling tea from the personal cup of the small Welsh coffee-cart-conductor, who addressed me as his “young lovely” when I ordered tea and tried to get an extra cup of hot water out of him, which request he granted. I tipped him 10p, which he didn’t take as an insult. I haven’t managed to insult anyone on this trip so far. Everyon else is too well-behaved.
Beautiful day out walking around Dublin yesterday. Rain today. A burst of it last night actually silenced the indefatigable musicians beneath my window, letting me get a few hours sleep. Now, drops are coursing down the plate glass, against a backdrop of greenery and dull milk sky. I remember this sky from a stint in London in the 70s. After a while it gets to you. But it’s perfect for an all-day train ride through the famously rainy landscapes of Wales and Northern England.
Not raining when I left Gogarty’s for my 7 o’clock taxi to Dublin Port to catch Irish Ferries’ Ulysses, the largest car ferry in Europe. Rain didn’t really start until we landed, 3.5 hours later.
If you add 3.5 hours sea voyage to 5 train travel, you get a full day travelling from Dublin to Oxford, which is how I spent Wednesday, and don’t forget .5 for the taxi + .5 for getting onto the ship. I managed to read my Dublin travel guidecover-to-cover, and a chapter of The Field Guide to Melancholy, a lovely meditation which could be subtitled, The Lost Art. I also made some notes on how I spent my money.
Isn’t it interesting, a night at the Charles Stewart is worth a sail-rail ticket, Dublin to Oxford, or a tritely played Wilde melodrama plus a tritely made pub fish’n’chips a well-poured Guinness. Apparently I prefer liquids to solids. Irish Ferries, hands down, best value.
Child crying now. Lots of noisy kids around, this trip. Charming Irish family with a young Mum who kept up a constant lilting sparring with her three young sons and youngest daughter. The daughter, with a head of strawberry curls, had a terrible habit of loudly growling. It’s not the only thing she did, but she will ruin her vocal cords. I wish I’d told Mum to get her to a voice teacher. She had a lovely moment of intense frustration, wanting to be on a ship, being told she was, then wanting to be in the water, and being told the ship was in the water and she was in the ship, and anything else would be a disaster. She didn’t know who to trust.
We were sitting in facing booths on the ferry named Ulysses, after James Joyce’s famous text. We alternated watching each other’s things. Which reminds me, I had an unreal bowl of porridge, which I almost wasn’t served since I kept asking for “oatmeal” and the Slav counterman’d never heard of such a thing. There were no Irish visibly working the ship. The porridge was like custard, like rice pudding, a creamy, goopy mass with a few bits sticking out. I improved things by applying butter and honey. Mmm. Best value so far, at 1 pound 85.
Cozily Ensconced at Magdalen College, Oxford: A lovely surprise awaited me as I boarded the bus from the station at Oxford: a young man asked me, “Did you say Magdalen? Is that where you’re going?” I said it was, and he said he studies there, and scooted over in his seat that I might sit beside him. I told him about my astrology studies and it didn’t put him off, even though he’s been studying biological chemistry or chemical biology. He actually said he’s had enough of it, and is interviewing for jobs as a consulting engineer on anything from pork pies to nuclear submarines. He’s never heard of Yeats. Oxford, you’re letting him down.
We chatted gaily along until the bus driver called out my stop, as requested, and then my young friend hopped up and rejoined me, offering to give me a tour. First stop: the Porters’ Lodge, where his old pal Rob initially announced I wasn’t booked in. But I found my own name on the hand-written schedule, so that was all right. Most importantly, I was handed the all-important breakfast tickets for the ten days of my stay. I don’t eat breakfast at home but at Oxford, it’ll be my main meal.
It was a bit much, sort of too perfect, having the president of the swim team, bursting with that quiet energy swimmers cultivate, showing me around the medievalesque buildings and manicured lawns, as if I were a favorite aunt. How young he is. How different the young are, particularly the successful young. This one, called Tom, is dangerously unspoiled by his success. Who will teach him to read poetry?