Thursday, September 29, 2011

Trashing a Hotel – Praising a Hotel

Perhaps the worst trashing of a hotel room was by F. Scott Fitzgerald & his flapper wife, Zelda. They torched the whole place. It beat having to face the unpaid bills they had run up while living the life of jazz age icons.

Decades later, in 1972, Keith Richards tossed his hotel TV out the window. That one was filmed and became iconic. Then there was Keith Moon of The Who. He nailed and strapped all the hotel furniture to the ceiling, and claimed: It requires physics and a sense of art. Before her untimely death, the much troubled Amy Winehouse had an evening in a hotel room involving blood and platefuls of spaghetti Bolognese. Don’t ask. The cost of the clean-up totalled $18,000, including a new paint job.

I am in quite a different class, in more ways than one, but let me explain. A couple of nights ago, jet lagged and after a long day of work, I decided to enjoy a glass of Chapelle de la Trinité, 2009. Unfortunately, the cork broke, leaving the bottom half of it stuck in the neck of the bottle. It was now The Moi versus The Cork. I attacked it with my Swiss army knife and managed to carve out a few more crumbles, but it became clear that my only option was to drive the remainder deep into the bottle. I wedged it between my knees, and pushed downwards with all my might.

My reward was not what I had hoped for. Counter pressure ensued and my face was instantly splattered by a fountain of red wine. My white top absorbed a good half glass of it and a six foot swath of the walls behind me were totally Jackson Pollocked.

I ran to the bathroom and sloshed water over my face, threw my white top into the sink to soak, and returned to the bedroom to start attacking the walls. Unfortunately, bathroom soap and towels are no match for the tenacity of Chapelle de la Trinité, 2009. Later as I enjoyed – so to speak - a glass of my cork-flecked wine, I had some sympathy for why Amy Whitehouse hadn’t even bothered with clean up.

The next morning, I got dressed and crawled down to reception to confess my sins. The ever-stellar Caroline was on duty, and heard my sad tale. Listen, she said, don't worry about it, these things happen and it was a genuine mistake. Later she said, I've spoken with the builders and they said it would be best to paint over it. They are due tomorrow …

It is time to correct a myth. In Canada, we keep hearing about the poor toes-up condition of The Celtic Tiger. We keep hearing that restaurants in Dublin are closing left, right, and centre. Everyone is boarding up their windows, and no one is spending any money. Well, going from what I can see, it isn’t true, not a bit. In fact, the Fleet Street Hotel is a good example of how Dublin is readying for a brighter future.

About a year ago, this hotel had already begun a massive refurbishing. Since I was here last, there is new carpet in the rooms, a new paint job, and updated linens. My room was significantly upgraded, even though the way that it was had been fine by me. It is, after all, an affordable hotel. Also since last year, an outdoor terrace has been added on the fourth floor. Every day, when I return after a day doing my research, there is always someone out there. Some are enjoying a glass of wine with friends; others are pecking away at laptops; some are having a solitary contemplative smoke.  
James - Manager of The Fleet Street Hotel & Caroline - also a manager, on the new Outdoor Terrace.
 Plans are afoot for even more improvements. In about three weeks’ time, breakfast will be available, as it used to be years ago. Until then, the hotel offers a coupon for a reduced price for an excellent breakfast served just across the street at the Ruby Duck Cafe. Within a year, they also plan to serve dinners. Very soon, a bar facility will be added on the terrace so that guests can host a private event, weather permitting. It is quiet out there, so unlike many other places in Temple Bar, it will be the kind of space where one can actually hear oneself speak. There is also O’Sullivans, a pub connected to the hotel but entered off Westmorland Street. The plans are that it too will be upgraded and expanded. Finally, although security has never been an issue, at least in my experience, the hotel will be introducing card locks rather than the current key system.

Much of this is pleasant, and much appreciated, but the main reason I keep returning here is that I am always made to feel at home – even when I blow it with a bottle of wine. Sure, the rugs used to be a little worn, but I never needed better. The fact that there were no phones in the rooms connected to the front desk in the rooms never bothered me. What has always mattered is that the staff were friendly, the place was clean, the beds were comfortable, the location couldn’t be beat, and the price was a fit with my wallet.

The professionalism and warmth of the staff has always been where the Fleet Street has really shone. Most importantly, Caroline, the reservations manager and front desk guru, has an Emotional IQ that can’t be beat. I learn just by watching her.

A few days ago, I stood behind a young man who was struggling with two things: his English, and the concept of a Visa imprint. As he was explaining his concerns to Caroline, he paused between each word as if he had to consult an inner dictionary before the next word was allowed to start. The hotel had taken an imprint of his credit card, yes, but he was paying in cash. His fear was that he was being doubly charged.

Obviously, a Visa imprint and a payment are two separate things – a complicated concept even when one speaks the language. Like a sustained, slow motion, tennis volley, he and Caroline went back and forth. She listened attentively as each carefully calibrated English word followed another. In the end, the young man was not only enlightened, but was also clearly comforted.

Over the years, I have found that Caroline is also superb when it comes to advice about where to find a place that can handle the vagaries of mobile phones, money changing, buses and the like. A high end concierge couldn’t do any better. All of which makes me feel beyond grateful. I do hope they’ll take me back next time. Especially since this is what I left behind:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Talk at Armagh & District History Group

September 23, 2011.
The Internet has totally transformed how local histories are now being written. Ireland stands to gain significantly because so many of its people in the last four centuries emigrated. It is now the Internet that connects us all up. Many of the descendants of these emigrants contribute their long lost stories to the pool of shared knowledge. On October 12th, the Armagh Local History Society will host a talk by Sharon Oddie Brown about the ongoing impact of these changes.

In 2003, Brown started sharing much of her own research online. The focus of her web site is the inter-connected history of hundreds of people, particularly those from Armagh, Louth, Down, and Monaghan. Currently, more than 6,000 people from around the world log on to her website every month. Less than a year ago, she also started writing pieces for a blog which has so far been visited by more than 24,000. Both the blog and the web site have also become indispensable as research tools.

Many of the descendants of the various waves of the Irish diaspora saved photos and scraps of paper that those who stayed home might have binned a long time ago. Total strangers are now sharing scanned copies of documents that had been carefully saved for generations. To be sure, archives and library holdings will always be essential, but this is a whole new layer of material.

Born in Canada, Brown’s father came from Killynure, a farm on the road to Monaghan. For the past decade, she has been researching the story of her great-grand-uncle Thomas Jackson. He was the son of a Co. Armagh tenant farmer and grew up during the mid-1800s famine. He left in 1863 to work in banking in the Far East. Thanks to a mix of his ethics, personality, and know-how, he turned HSBC from a small operation of less than a dozen young men into a major international bank. He was eventually knighted and then made a baronet in recognition of his achievements. Perhaps we’d all be better off if all banks were run by the sons of farmers.

Jackson’s mother, Eliza Oliver, was born at Killynure. She was one of the Huguenot Olivers who arrived in the region some time before the late 1600s. Thanks to the Internet, Brown met the owner of seventy seven letters that Eliza wrote to her son in Hong Kong and Yokohama in the mid to late 1800s. He shared them, and they are now on her website.

Brown will talk about how her quest has also introduced her to fellow researchers and relations in countries as far away as Zimbabwe. She will tell you how a great-grand-daughter of Rev. Daniel Gunn Brown was given up to an orphanage in Scotland, and was then connected to his story thanks to Brown’s web site. Also, thanks to this site, one of Sir Thomas’ signet rings was passed on to one of his descendants, a young man who is currently a gardener for the Prince of Wales. She will also touch on the stories of dozens of the Stitts, and Coulters, and Gilmores, and Jacksons, and others who made names for themselves in far off lands.

TIME: 7:30 October 12th
PLACE: Irish & Local Studies Library, Abbey St., Armagh - in the old City Hospital building.
CONTACT: Armagh & District History Group, Secretary Helen Grimes: 028 3752 7851.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pete of the Glorious Berkshires

Postcards in the 60s and 70s were the equivalent of Twitter. My husband had a stack of them that he would fire off when something short of a full letter would be enough to do the job. They usually just had a cartoon or a saying on one side. One of the sayings that seemed to be a particularly good fit with the two of us said: Life is not worth living without a good obsession. It had always been how we justified our pile-driving approach to life. 

Map and townland searches are essential to successful research in Irish history, but it isn’t for the faint-hearted. Computers are not well suited to track spellings as they shift from Tullyvallen to Tullynial to Tullyneal, to Tullyneval – and that’s just a simple example of come about. It gets worse when trying to run down a townland name such as  SherranmcAghully which morphed at some point into Farmacaffley. Who could ever have guessed? Computers wouldn’t.

Pete would. Most of us start and stop our townland research with when it comes to townland searches, but because of name changes, this excellent site is only a start, albeit a darned good one. For example, it didn't include a townland named Tullynahinnera in Aghnamullen Parish which Pete ferretted out for me. If you do a site-specific search on my web site of Schermerhorn, you will see how often Pete has pulled the fat from the fire with respect to my research.
The curious thing is that Pete could care less about what most of us on such web sites care about. His interest in townland names is archaeological. That’s not his only obsession, although he pursues that one with all the rigour that you would expect from the retired chemical engineer that he is. He has literally hundreds of maps, thousands of books, and dozens of file cabinets full of material that is all cross referenced for ready access.

Not only that, but he has a full-fledged darkroom where he makes 20 X 24 prints of the photos of the archaeological sites that he visits. His prints are crisp and each picture shows that he has an eye for framing the shot. They are cross referenced with maps, showing not only where they were taken, but also when they were visited. Truly, this gift should be cloned and bottled, but unfortunately, there is only one Pete.

This dovecote photo is from Ballybeg priory, a priory of the Augustinian Canons Regular, 
early 13th century.  It is just a mile south of Buttevant town, in N. Cork.
If archaeology and photography were not enough in the obsession department, Pete has at least two other obsessions: music and book collecting. In his four story 

The approach to his A-frame house is along a tree lined drive. The big tree on the right hand side are black walnuts which he planted as 2-foot tall whips in 1971. On the left are two huge wild apple trees, laden with fruit. Inside the house, he has an entire pipe organ, partially assembled. And then there are the stacks of books – on every floor. In shelves, stacked in nooks, piled on the floor – everywhere books. A book-lover’s dream come true.
Organ pipes - eight feet tall!

Pete explained that if stops were put in these eight foot pipes then the air would travel both directions inside the pipe and would result in a sound an octave lower - becoming 16-foot diapasons.  Many of the 400 pipes he has are wooden . The very smallest ranks are metal, and there are overlaps of wood and metal pipes in the broad middle range, depending on the sound that is being imitated. For example, the vox humana flutes are wooden, and piccolo are metal.

He is also an inventor of solutions to all sorts of small, every day dilemmas. For example, he loves listening to BBC, but they stopped broadcasting on shortwave to North America - just on line and via satellite. This doesn't stop him. He receives the shortwave signals that are aimed at English-speaking West and South Africa. Unfortunately, the best reception is at the room at the top of his A-frame, but he spends most of his time at his desk four stories down in the basement. No problem. He found himself a second hand baby-minder walkie-talkie, and with the receiver beside the radio on the fourth floor, the signal comes through clear as a bell in the basement.

With so many obsessions, it is clear that Pete will have to live to be at least a hundred and twenty to follow them all through. He still wants to print up the hundreds more photos that he has paper for; assemble the pipe organ; visit the rest of the archaeological sites that he has already fully researched. He already has route plans plotted out to visit them so he can make best use of his time when he is next in Ireland.

Fortunately, Pete’s  parents – who live nearby at his daughter's and play cards with him pretty much every day – are both alive and well at age a hundred and one – so there is hope. He should still have a fistful of decades ahead of him. Here’s hoping.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pat Tutton

Pat Tutton
December 13, 1921 - August 24th, 2011

World War II was kind to my Aunt Pat, as it was to many women of her generation. This not to minimize the grief they felt for their friends and family killed in the conflict, but for her and for my mother it was like a get out of jail card. It was the key that freed them from the cage of a very small life, living with a long-widowed mother, with diminishing family resources, and the expectation that they were only to do what ladies do - which was not very much.

When Pat flew the coop, she flew as a Wren, all the way to Australia. Her eyes always lit up when she talked of those days. Finally, she could live out from under the surveillance of her mother. Because my mother moved to Canada as a war bride, we saw little of Aunt Pat in our growing up years. She had married Ted, a vet and the love of her life, and together they built a life in rural England of children, horses, dogs, and much walking - disguised as a game of golf.

Pat was the youngest child in her family, and grew up with four older brothers and my mother, six years older than her.  I’ll never forget when Pat came to visit us when my mother was dying. She had arrived on the afternoon of January 2nd, 1985, after missing all kinds of plane connections and hiking through the snow up our mountain. My mother was staying with us then, living out the last of her days suffering from the ravages of cancer, but her eyes came alive when she saw her sister. At the same time, Pat’s eyes filled with tears, and at a loss for words, she finally said, Betty, your hair has gone all white. My mother, responded with knee-jerk, sibling rivalry, Well, at least I have hair, - a taunt aimed at Pat’s recently thinned scalp. This catapulted both of them into laughter, the best medicine ever.

During the two weeks that she stayed with us, Pat gave us back the air that we so much needed to breathe. She sat with my mother, so we could leave to do simple errands, a luxury at that time. Buy groceries. Buy morphine. She also gave me parts of myself that I had never seen. I used to worry about you, she said, When we visited in Canada, you were always busy taking care of your brothers, helping prepare meals. You didn’t have a childhood. It was true, but for me it had been like water is to a fish. I had never noticed.

She told countless stories to the children, and also read to them, repeatedly from a book that she had just brought from England, Moses the Kitten, by James Herriot. It is the story of a kitten joining a litter of piglets to suckle and be warm. Vanessa would nestle into her side as she did. Hour after hour, Pat sang rhymes to Sabrina and Vanessa, rhymes that she herself had likely learned from my Grannie Oddie, her mother:

Creep mouse, creep mouse
This is how it goes
Pitter pat, pitter pat,
Over baby’s toes.
Isn’t he a tiny one,
Creep, creep, creep.
Sandman’s coming, baby darling,
Sleep, sleep, sleep.

Her hands danced in the air, the hands of the dancer which she had been in her youth, and Vanessa’s eyes would say, Do it again. Which Pat did, again, and again.

Will you tell the bees? My cousin Rose included this request when she told me about her mother’s death a few weeks ago, as she had also done when she told me a year and a half earlier about the death of her father,

There's an old country custom over here and, maybe in Canada too, that when a person dies another member of the family has to go down the garden and tell the bees in the beehive that their master or mistress is gone. Once the bees have been told, all will be well.

Since bees can’t read, I have one request on behalf of my dear Aunt Pat: please tell the bees.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A really good friend
OCT. 10, 1998 - Sept 8, 2011

Vanessa’s much loved cat, Rimsky, who had been ill for months, passed away peacefully in his sleep at her home in Roberts Creek.

Vanessa felt sad that he passed away when she was away at work, but she is also glad that he looked so peaceful in death. He was stretched out on the sofa, on a soft towel, under the window where he always enjoyed lying in the sun. He seemed to have passed away in his sleep.

He would have been thirteen years old on October 10th, which is a good old age for this breed of cat. It is amazing that he has lived this long. He was born with a range of health issues at birth, but Vanessa's love for him kept him alive longer than anyone might have thought possible. He was a gift to her, and she was a gift to him.

In the evening, we placed his body on a bed of cedar boughs in a wee coffin that Andreas had made specially for him, and placed beside him a rose from a plant that had come from Tante Gertraut's garden. Because he always loved to play fetch with drinking straws - he was amazing that way - Vanessa placed two straws in the box with him.

Yesterday, we interred him in Vanessa’s back yard in a private ceremony.

They come into our lives for such a short time
A time we wouldn’t trade not even for a dime
Then before you know it the years have flown by
And then all of the sudden we’re saying good-bye
      From A Time to Remember by John Quealy

It will take Vanessa a while to get over this. As she said, and I am sure her fellow animal lovers will understand, "I have lost a friend".

Rimsky is survived by his brother, Kolya.