Inside Rome

Inside Rome

Photo: the only exterior photograph of the weekend

March 2008

On the airport concourse a man in his sixties was gathering passengers to fill his people-carrier and in the throng we shrugged and ran with that. The driver occasionally named something important we passed in the dark, such as “Terme di Caracalla”, but his speed didn’t slacken when he took to narrower streets. When he barely missed a second car I looked around to gauge if this really was normal Roman driving. Over my shoulder a dark young Italian man silently buried his shaved head in his hands.

The two girls had a few drinks while waiting for us and the blonde looked tipsy but with her rangy, athletic frame she wasn’t under any pressure. We had a meal first. I ate very little, needing to unwind after the delayed flight, in the presence of a girl just as attractive as she had seemed in Budapest.

Just a month earlier, on the cold, grey afternoon I got back to our base in Beckett’s, E. was talking to two chaps from Mayo who’d rashly taken over an apartment block development in the Bloc. Two retired sisters from Clare then materialized and bought a bottle of wine. They had acquired American accents on life’s journey. A vivacious Jewish girl, a lawyer working for the Mayo men, got into a conversation with the one living in Florida, who spoke Yiddish and used to sell wigs to the Hasidic Jews.

E. and I were seemingly on our own again by the time we noticed two girls had pulled up to the counter on the other side of us. He quickly discovered they were American. He was the kind of guy who would ram-raid us into situations I could later develop. The blonde (K.) was a Cameron Diaz type and the other (R.) had dark red hair. They had come from Rome, where the latter worked. It was their first day in Budapest. I gave them my Rough Guide and when the subject of going further came up they had a little confer before asking if they could come too.

In a heaving Jam in the Mammut malls in Buda I had to change some euro at the bar after (a) running out of forints and (b) having to get some from K. to make up the payment for the first round. She even gave me her last smoke later and wrote her e-mail address on the back of my hand. The bar taxed a tenner out of the first fifty note but a slight tear in the second meant they wouldn’t touch it. Then a big Hungarian chap standing beside me at the bar said he could do it. He had glasses and grey woolly hair and I asked him for “tízezer” (10,000) in exchange. I turned away with that much, only for him to tap me on the shoulder to say he owed me more. For that I was happy to tell him he was a jó ember (‘a good man’) and thus welcome to the same cut the house took. He said he didn’t want people to think the Hungarians were all crooks. He wasn’t the first or last to say that in my experience.

While the redhead was at the toilets, K. had to say something confidential (“It’s you that I like”) and my balanced attention shifted to extreme closeness to her on the dance floor. R.  got wrapped in a local in a black t-shirt but later, when the girls were ready to leave, together, at the end, he was cast aside. E. was going on to his own date with destiny at a famous club called Piaf but I got them a genuine taxi outside and gave K. my black cap in the cold. The redhead had to vacate the space between us by getting into the car first and it was then I got the smacker on the lips. She was my Valentine, in a city in which the last thing I expected was a kiss.

That’s how we ended up in a restaurant in Rome. Then there was a long taxi spin to somewhere with a bunch of clubs. In a place called Coyote, the redhead was true to form, messing with Italian gropers, while K. stuck very close to me. E. disappeared on more of his own adventures and, in the end, the blonde and I had to wait while R. was neither fish nor flesh to a couple of Italians outside. “They’ve asked her what I’m doing with an older guy but f*ck ’em, I don’t care about that,” my squeeze murmured. Finally I got both girls to agree to come back to the hotel, which had for some reason upgraded us to a suite with a terrace.

The taxi driver’s Italian I could grasp. He looked like a decrepit version of Benny in Crossroads. In the back seat, the redhead started on about her car, which she’d parked near Piazza Venezia and which she didn’t want towed away. Then, at the hotel, the night porter wouldn’t let the girls upstairs without passports. Even the theoretical mention of money wouldn’t make the issue go away. I should have simply put down Miss Smith and Miss Jones as an addition, when checking in. As this was going nowhere, K. sighed and said she’d do the driving and rescue the car. She kissed me goodnight in a way that doubled the issue. She asked me to call the next day. I was still only on the first few steps of the stairs when E. got back. When he heard what had just happened he gave the porter a long and very large piece of his mind.

“I have never been so insulted in my life!”

“But, Jesus Christ, I keep telling you, it was obvious they weren’t prostitutes. Couldn’t you see that?”

“Why you keep talking about prostitutes?”

It was then that E. picked up a pen from the counter and threw it at him. I told my barrister to take it easy and apologized for the flying biro (“Sorry about that”) but added that I had informed the porter’s colleague when checking in that we would have company later but all he had done was nod and smile without mentioning any Italian law or cops or passports.

Then we went out again and found a couple of bars on a street within sight of the nearby Santa Maria Maggiore, which was lit-up, all alone across the square. Though I’ve technically been to Rome, the Mezquita in Córdoba remains the most impressive building Ive ever actually been inside.

Spain may never be one of my favourite countries but there is something awe-inspiring about the key sights down there. I didnt get into the Alcázar – the queue was long – and so missed the gardens but the triangle the fortress forms with the Mezquita and then the Calahorra tower across the Roman bridge over the Guadalquivír is sensational. The Romans took the city from the Carthaginians in 206 BC. The Moors took it from the Goths in 711 AD. The Christians took it back from the Moors in 1236. The great mosque, youd almost get religion in there, in the sense of understanding it.

The next Roman afternoon we went to Piazza Navona and he found a place called the Abbey Theatre bar where he’d been at the time of his sister’s second wedding. Watching sports and getting hammered was the order of the day. It was the last year I made any kind of habit of that. Two years later I quit smoking for good.

The girls didn’t show up until the early evening and before long E. took it upon himself to take K. outside for a nominal cigarette, to explore her intentions. He came back in and said “No” (“He’s too old for me”). It was a bit like a nut in the face. I investigated further.

“Why did you say what you said to him instead of me?”

“Because he asked.”


“If I were even five years older, there’d be no problem.”

“Why, how old are you?”


“Oh. Oh God. Now I understand. I thought you were, maybe, twenty-seven, and I was willing to chance it.”

I was forty-three. One can’t always be sure about the age of Americans. When I told her I wouldn’t have asked her to marry me she looked at me sceptically and smilingly (“Come on, John”). I changed my story to say I wouldn’t have asked for a while and the look that passed between us then said it all. We kept in contact for some time afterwards and then she got married in a land far away and more power to her for that.

In the morning E. introduced a new comrade with whom he’d stayed up all night. This was Jim, a wired American tour guide, and a passport carrier. We went to a place called Finnegan’s after checking out of the hotel. There was no mention of any nocturnal pen-throwing and I even got my phone handed back. I’d left it in the taxi that had brought me home but I remembered tipping the driver well, from relief at getting out of a long night, and praising his good job, his buon lavoro.

There were always tour guides in and out of Finnegan’s. Shooting the breeze of trivia for the afternoon, I showed off by naming every emperor up until 235 AD. There followed thirty-five years of havoc until Aurelian knocked some sense into that world again from 270. Jim said I could be a guide too, no problem. He added the codicil that he tended to tone down the anecdotal content of his tours if there were children present.


A Thunderstorm in Florence

A Thunderstorm in Florence

Dr. John Flynn

Florence is an anthill. Swarming with tourists, especially Americans, it can be difficult to get out of but the last time I was there, I wasn’t the only person showing some exasperation. A tall American father was pulling his little son along past the Duomo and the kid was singing or chanting something – something very repetitive, I guess – and the American dad looked down at him and pleaded, “For Christ’s sake, will you knock it off!”

That last time, on a waiting train at Santa Maria Novella, my head and torso melting after a hot Florentine afternoon, I was giving out about a young prick from Portugal or Brazil taking up three seats with three cases. His two nearby buddies removed theirs but, just then, we got seats behind him, directed by a cooling suggestion from three Italian women seated together in the carriage. Later I enjoyed seeing him…

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Low Country … Brussels

Low Country … Brussels

Yesterday we went out to Tervuren. In the park the heat was scorching and fish were jumping in dirty green ponds linked like a canal. Under the trees was cool but the Africa Museum in the old palace was distinguished by the combination of hot weather and a myriad stuffed animals. It smelled rather like a crusty old cowshed, with a soupçon of the wild smell of fear and danger. The dubious merits of such a memorial to Belgium’s colonial past have to be balanced against the fact that they clearly had an awful lot of stuff and needed somewhere to put it.

6 July 2006

In the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels the two paintings I like the most are of contrasting seasons. One is a sunny, flax-harvesting scene by Emile Claus and the other a depiction of skaters on a frozen river, with a bird trap on the bank, by the elder Brueghel.

Ten years before the hot afternoon in Tervuren, a visit to Brussels had involved a different woman and a somewhat frostier atmosphere. TV shots of European Union landmarks had given no true advance impression of the Belgian capital. It was more like Auden’s poem, Brussels in Winter. Wandering through cold streets, the formula had escaped me alright.

“What’s wrong with you?” she snapped.
“I’m freezing.”
“Well, you should be wearing layers. That’s how to dress, over here, in winter. Don’t you know that?”

In the church of Saint Nicolas, near the Grand’ Place, I lit a candle as an offering to Job. She saw what I was doing and for a moment the old warmth and amusement seemed to return. Back in her place in the gentrifying eastern Schaerbeek, I fell asleep in my overcoat on her couch as she sat at her computer across the room. It was a strange kind of sickness, like a flu which never took hold but enveloped the gloom and left me in a daze. When I woke, she was actually smiling.

“What’s so funny?”
“You’re such a waster,” she kindly explained.

Brussels has a split personality, the French light and the Flemish shadow. By that I chiefly mean the cold reaction of the Flemish minority in the city if addressed in French. Then there are the many thousands of Eurocrats in their own bubble, from which, an ambassador once confided, shipping people home after psychotic episodes was by no means uncommon.

Belgian law enforcement can be merciless. Bernard Pivot was the literary face of French television for thirty years, chiefly on the long-running shows Apostrophes and Bouillon de culture. In his memoir Les Mots de ma vie (2011) he recalls an incident when, as a young journalist sent to a theatre, was nabbed trafficking spuds into Belgium. On his way to Brussels he stopped off to see his wife’s family in the Pas-de-Calais, where a thirty-kilo sack of potatoes was placed in his car boot by his father-in-law. A Belgian customs officer demanded that he open the same boot, whereupon a bunch of them converged to accuse him of smuggling potatoes. They asked if he didn’t know Belgium was already a great producer and consumer of chips and if the sack was a present for the director of the theatre he was about to visit. In the end he had to turn the car around and give the potatoes back to his beau-père.

In 1996 it was a city whose ghostly, dark, French facades on our walk home the night before, when not a harsh word was spoken, made me wish to return on stronger ground sometime. In 2006 I found Booze ’n’ Blues, near the Bourse. It was my kind of bar, narrow with high stools and old sounds that filled the silences from a different companion, hopelessly marooned in her own thoughts. There was a black and white photo behind the counter of Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré and Georges Brassens, all at a table covered in ashtrays, bottles, glasses and mikes. Apart from them I focused on the lethal, narrow, spiral staircase to the basement.

Booze n Blues

The next day the launderette was another quietly shared activity. I carried the black sack along Rue Dupont. “Welcome to Turkey town,” the sack’s owner said of western Schaerbeek. “And hookers,” I added, because she’d already shown me some of the nearby windows.

PS … Auden (1938) …


Auden winter

Journey to the End of the Bed

Journey to the End of the Bed

London, July 1989

The phone rang and it was Kim. He agreed to go and see her. He simply couldn’t refuse that beloved voice at the other end of the line. He hadn’t heard from her in a while but when he got there, her boyfriend was away. They had a good time in the pub on the corner that same evening before returning to the laboratory conditions of the flat, to flashbacks of the agony in the box garden.

The heavily scented bathroom had a noisy ventilator. Windowless, the enclosed space intensified the claustrophobia. There had been candles for the sacred rites after someone dried his hair too vigorously with a towel and smashed the light fitting in the ceiling. While the sturdy ventilator was booming, no one inside could hear a thing from the rest of the flat, no matter what was being said about him or her.

There was even less illumination after someone stayed in the bath so long that the hot candle wax that filled a glass ashtray on the upper of two glass shelves by the wall inside the bath caused a cracking, crashing, flaming cascade into the water and she screamed through her Psycho moment.

Two of her man’s brothers were now crashing there, in the main man’s absence, so she brought him into her room to continue the chat. She sat up on the bed, leaning on the pillows. She was in one of those moods again. He took the other end but her boyfriend was in real trouble.

“Right now I feel like crawling over there and nibbling your ear,” she offered.

It was a journey to the end of the bed. Was there something the world knew that he did not? At his age, twenty-five, he wondered sometimes about that.

“But you can’t, you know that.”

He felt a little unwell but he had to tell her now.

“Have you any idea at all how much I wanted you, from the beginning?”

In the beginning, when it had been just about the two of them, there might have been a double date with Adam and Eve.

“But darling, you never gave the slightest sign of that.”

“I thought you were… you know… you hadn’t.”

“I had.”

To him she’d seemed a childlike angel with a body to confuse all the tadpoles down below, with all the false alarms, but it hadn’t been as it seemed. It never was. There had been a blessed spell in the petting zoo that lasted a month, before travels on her part intervened for the first time.

When she came back the first time, she soon said the thrill was gone. She told him he was up in the air, like a man tied to balloons in an art shop print, on one of those Dublin afternoons where there was always a bus or a train to get, but he didn’t understand what she meant.

Now, in the room, she was quiet for a moment. Then she spoke up again. Though she would end up comfortable with one of her own kind, it seemed he wasn’t quite that much of a dreamer after all.

“But wouldn’t it be a mistake for us to make love now?”

He thought of three things at that instant: the knot of bitterness and the pair of righteous brothers outside the door. The bitterness could have been overcome but, like Wilhelm Reich, he at least understood the crippling effect of a lack of privacy on human relationships. He muttered an answer instead of breaking something. He mumbled that it would.

One of the righteous brothers even entered the bedroom to give her a quick little lecture while he was in the bathroom, having flashbacks. Thereafter their conversation died away, drained unnaturally after that talking cure. He left the room for good soon after she said she was tired. He retired once more to the living room.

In the course of falling asleep again on the extendable chair, it seemed to him the emotional coast might be clear. No noise came from the flat upstairs. Presumably they still blared Doris Day, occasionally. Our lips shouldn’t touch, I like it too much. He thought again of a night in February.

As he’d reclined in his sleeping bag on the dental chair, the only light came from a far streetlight through the window. All it really needed was the faint sound of jazz but beside him Donegal Dec was lying on the floor, reciting one of his poems. He was proud of the line “Vivaldi plays on hired contraption” and why not.

The room was hot because the tenants were in the habit of leaving the radiators on all night. This only added to the claustrophobia. The window was open almost a foot. Instead of Vivaldi, the music they had to listen to consisted of Doris Day records. They were having a party upstairs and shouting voices could be heard erupting intermittently, over Doris. If it meant he really had to listen, then he waited for Move Over Darling.

Waking up in July was like the relief after an operation. Then the patient leaves the hospital, thinks he’s healed, but the scars are tender for a long time and finally leave their mark. A girl friend of hers called to the flat and the three of them went down to the park, Wormwood Scrubs. The way Kim was dressed, in light pink shorts and matching tight top, with sandals with heels, helped explain the looks she got from the chaps sitting drinking outside the couple of bars on the road. Jaws were dropping away from the pints, at the tables, across the lively traffic. He saw them. He understood them. As for the feeling in the park, he felt like tearing up tufts of burnt grass instead of contributing to the conversation. By then the summer felt like a Mediterranean climate. Another feeling was one of wondering if the emotional coast really was clear. The prison stood in the distance. What prisoner, had he known, would have swapped places with him at that moment? The common or garden psycho would have had no problem with that.

Love of the Eighties

Love of the Eighties

Back in 1980, my favourite records of the time were My Girl, Up the Junction and The River. These were about love life beyond the disco, which I’d have liked to start. A couple of years later the sound of Foreigner’s Waiting for a Girl like You was torture to anyone ritually circling the dance floor. It was as bad as at fifteen in the Town Hall, with Bobby Goldsboro in the slow set, looking at the same old projections floating across the far wall. The choice of records was limited. I’d be ritually awaiting the fate of Honey.

Anyway, 1984 was one of those rare years, a personal epoch changer. First time in France, first time on TV, some wonderful experiences with the other half – of humanity – and the first passages I liked to read over. A dawn in May was a good trip.

Last night we went to a party and I kissed her goodbye at five o’clock in the morning when it was bright and misty with the sky blood-orange in the east. She had to climb through a window and had never come home in brightness before, or so she said. She’d had to come out the same window hours earlier while I waited across the road in the shadows with the bottles and the cigarettes.

That town then had a curious mixture of farmland and housing estates surrounding the village and the college and the single great spire of the college chapel.


It was the highest point in Kildare. The sun was too young to lift the mist from red beasts in a roadside field. The fields are long gone. I’d landed on a world asleep except for a bunch of reclining cattle, breathing in the distance, over a long stone wall.

Before the sun rose we had passed the gloomy terrace that was Parsons Street. The people along here are so common, the schoolgirl whispered. That was a portent. In a June crowd I spotted her grappling with an unfamiliar chap on a stained patch of tile-carpeted floor between low, green bar seats. It was in the same shack we’d met, the night her collision was an invitation to a fight, had it come from a boy.

That place had a smell of its own on dark winter afternoons devoted to the watching of grainy videos. It smelled of cheapness. Slumped on any low, green seat in the bar, while looking up at the high TV, one knew it was only a different form of siesta.

October was the best time to wander among the tall trees and the millions of rusty leaves falling and fallen, when the playing fields turned to muck in another season of mists and mellow foolishness. Out there was a place where one would always be twenty.

It was an October night when I left the Mongoose Inn at half past eleven. It was spitting rain. On the opposite corner two attractive girls shared an umbrella. The two boys crossed over to talk to them. The four headed off. The lads remained exposed on either side of the umbrella. I was beside the one who drew me across the street. We crossed the little river, passed the smelly mill and turned left at the church.

The road bent sharply outside the church wall and sometimes an incoming car wouldn’t make it. The wall had been rebuilt many times. You could see the signs. The parish priest would first make sure the wreck got removed and then ring his man to tell him he had a job for him, again.

The four walked inside a grass margin where the council used a JCB to dump muck in heaps to prevent Travellers returning to camp there. Once past the footbridge that arched over the road to the west, we followed the lane that led away from the road. Eventually the lit-up shack came into view across open grass spaces. It was booming Relax and nobody minded the rain anymore.

The next day, wondering what next, I tidied bits of orange peel and blew ash away from my side of one of the black tables aligned in rows under fluorescent light. The canteen was largely empty as the dinner ladies cleared up. The clatter of plates alternated crisply with the scraping of beans and chips into the orange slop buckets on the trolleys. The only visible opening to the kitchen was through two black shutters behind the main counter. Behind those worked the galley slaves. I’d seen those sweating, fat women with their hair cropped short just once, when the shutters had been thrown open for a moment. Maybe there had been a fire. That was a gateway into another universe.

That June night the shack too was packed, hot, noisy, insane. I remembered the Gospel of St. Jim. This is the strangest life I’ve ever known. Nothing at the time impressed the insignificance of it all more on any participant than a familiar feeling of being too drunk and too full in a space that was too crowded but that night I calmly left them all to it. Outside it rained, rained all night on a perfect night. It was funny in some way, even then.

Yet I still wasnt quite finished with the love shack. In the morning I got drafted in to help someone break back in to look for a coat. We set off the alarms, so, rather than hang around and explain, it was time to forget the coat. We rushed out the back door and made our escape into a field over the thorny ditch. Putting a few more fields between us and there, we emerged a long way up the road the schoolgirl lived on and then doubled back into town.

As we reached the church, Ronald Reagans convoy of spooks and secret service agents passed on its way from the west. Men in dark suits and dark glasses in dark limos sped safely around the turn.

My little affairs with women are so remote from home. Sometimes I see the moonlight making the ground shine and I think of being with a girl. Then I realize I wouldn’t be looking at the ground and I wouldn’t be thinking about the beauty of the night but trying to keep my arm around her and talking rubbish to her.

  • 7-8 December 1984

High Country … Amsterdam

High Country … Amsterdam

January 1996

The Fall is the most famous book set in Amsterdam, “a capital of waters and fogs, girdled by canals, particularly crowded, and visited by men from all corners of the earth”. Albert Camus also wrote of it “asleep in the white night, the dark jade canals under the little snow-covered bridges” and when we landed, there were snow flurries rippling across the runways at Schipol.

Viewed from the tram on the way from the station to the hotel, the snow on the dark brown stone was like a Black Forest gâteau. The cold that white night reached down as far as sixteen below. I saw the red digits and the minus on the wall of the hotel room when I woke to see a window wide open. One of my two companions had ten-thumbed the window latch.

What really made the Saturday night there, nonetheless, in the Grasshopper hash bar on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, was the episode with the guy who came up the stone steps inside the front door and then collapsed across the table beside us, smashing cups and saucers before hitting the floor like a dead man. At least, I thought he might be dead. The most famous song about Amsterdam is also in French and Jacques Brel had put it well. Tout à coup l’accordéon expire.

The bunch of teenage American girls at the table of smashed crockery went, “Oh my gawd, is he OK?” “I hope so,” replied the cute little Dutch one who reluctantly came out from behind the counter. Sitting nearest the body, I helped her pick him up as a girl asked one of my companions a question.

“Is your friend a doctor?”
“No. But it’s OK, he’s got a Master’s in Sociology.”

The guy we hauled up and plonked on a seat rested for a minute or two before making his way unaided to the toilet. Later that same night, the Bamboo bar was where we met another young American, a chancer who came in with a Dutch mother and daughter. This chap discreetly explained the presence of his two companions.

“I picked up these two babes in a McDonalds.”

The daughter was in her early forties, a good-looking Germanic blonde, among many, among the menacing trams and bicycles. Her mother was maybe seventy. She looked like a grandmother. The American had gone up to them in the burger debris and given them a little-boy-lost story. The charm worked and later he bought them a drink or two before they all arrived at the Bamboo and squeezed in around the big, round table.

At this stage the daughter was clearly on a high, which was only added to by the fact of getting into the bar, away from the cold and the snow and the slush and the frozen canals. She was waving money and insisting on getting the drinks and laughing and seemingly telling her mother that she didn’t have to stay if she was fed up.

I didn’t think the mother looked too bothered, actually, with the lights reflecting on her round glasses. There was a crowd and a blues band down the back. The daughter just seemed thrilled to be having a bit of fun. I imagined a suburban home and a divorce. The young American looked to be on a definite promise that night.


In 1997, a BBC documentary on Camus ended with the camera on the warm, sunlit trees along the empty French road where he died in January 1960. His last four love letters, read in a solemn voice-over by the actor Brian Cox, were unintentionally funny. None winged its way to his wife. Each time, the only changes to the artist’s passion were the woman’s name and the day or time they were to meet, after he got back to Paris. How did he get time to write a line?