Saturday, November 05, 2022

A night at The Rusty Mackerel, Teelin, Ireland

I wrote this piece in early 2020 on spec for the editor of the travel section of a nameless newspaper, having visited Ireland for the second time the previous year. Of course, shortly after I submitted it, COVID hit, and the editor said she could no longer publish it despite her liking for the piece. So, here it is on my blog - my first blog post since 2017!


Low clouds are rolling down the mountainside towards Teelin Harbour, where the River Glen meets the choppy waters of Donegal Bay. Outside, a chill wind is blowing but in the front bar of the Rusty Mackerel in County Donegal, the Guinness and the craic are flowing and it feels like the most welcoming pub in the world.

Located in remote north-west Ireland, Teelin scarcely seems to qualify as a village. There’s no church that I can see, not even a shop; just the pub, an Irish language college, and a cluster of houses scattered along the road leading to the harbour. Wild fuchsias bloom along the road’s edge; in the green fields beyond, black-faced sheep graze quietly. On a nearby hillside overlooking Teelin Pier, the tumbled ruins of a coast guard station, burned down by the anti-treaty IRA during the civil war of 1923, stand watch over the steel-blue sea.

I’ve come to Teelin on a whim. With just a few days left in Ireland I’ve decided that a visit to the Gaeltacht – one of the Irish-speaking regions of the country – is essential. There are just two small problems. Donegal’s Gaeltacht stretches along the rugged western coast, at least 50 kilometres from Donegal Town but I can’t drive – and I only have a 24-hour window in which the trip can happen.

Arriving in Donegal Town at 10am means I’ve already missed the Bus Éireann service to Glencolumbkille. I’m slowly realising I might have to skip the Gaeltacht altogether when – thanks to the local tourist bureau – I learn about a small community bus service running westwards three times a day. It doesn’t run as far as Glencolumbkille, but perhaps I’d like to visit Teelin instead?

Two hours later I’m on a minibus bound for Carrick, a village approximately an hour away. From there I hitchhike for the first time in decades, since taxis are temporarily unavailable (Carrick’s taxi drivers double as the local bus drivers and are tied up with the school run). A mother and her adult daughter pick me up and drive me down the road to Teelin. Ten minutes after that I’m sitting at the bar of the Rusty Mackerel with a pint of cider in hand.

Above a turf fire hangs a glass case containing a stuffed salmon while the stone walls are adorned with old photographs and even older Guinness ads in Irish and English. Here hangs a collection of mugs and jugs; there stands a model sailing ship. High wooden chairs line the timber bar, behind which sit bottles of Silkie Irish Whiskey and An Dúlamán Maritime Gin, both distilled less than a mile away. By the end of the night I’ll have sampled them both.

After checking into my room (a cabin recently constructed behind the pub) and strolling down to the harbour to take in the view across Donegal Bay – where the distant, glacier-sculpted slopes of County Sligo’s Dartry Mountains are faintly visible through the soft rain – I return to the Rusty Mackerel and fall into an easy conversation with a couple of locals.

John, a 30-something farmer and his sparkie mate Francis seem gobsmacked to learn that I’ve come all this way just to soak up the atmosphere of an Irish-speaking village for the night. “If you were looking for the authentic Ireland, you’ve found it,” John tells me, after shouting me a pint.

Soon, a guitarist and a fiddle player sit down at a nearby table. Quietly, without fuss, they begin to play. The Rusty Mackerel’s patrons are drawn towards them.

While some are content to sit and listen, others add their own voices to the chorus. Beside me, a lad in his early 20s takes advantage of a lull in the music to stand and recite a poem from memory. In another break in proceedings an older woman seated at the bar starts to sing – hesitantly at first – until the musicians pick up the tune and accompany her.

I’ve been travelling around Ireland for over three weeks now, taking in performances at the Dublin Fringe and live music in Cork and Galway, but for the first time I feel like I’ve gained a glimpse of the Ireland that existed before radio and television – when the pub was the heart of the community and communal singing was part of everyday life. There’s a palpable sense of camaraderie in the Rusty Mackerel this evening, a sense of timelessness, of magic even – though perhaps that’s the seaweed-infused gin talking.

By the end of the night, everyone is singing together – even me, on the rare occasion that I know the chorus of a traditional song like ‘Whiskey in the Jar’. The next morning’s hangover, as I hitchhike back to Carrick to catch the community bus to Donegal, lingers for hours, but my memories of the Rusty Mackerel will endure for years to come

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Being Human

I've just discovered that the pilot episode of UK series Being Human is online again, after having been taken down for a while. I first wrote about it back in the dim dark past of 2008, when I said it should appeal to 'anyone who's A) ever lived in a share household, B) wants to know what out gay actor Russell Tovey (Rudge in the film of The History Boys, and Midshipman Frame in Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned) is up to, career-wise, and C) like myself enjoys sinking their teeth into genre shows with a supernatural bent.'

Here it is again for your viewing pleasure:

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The streets of old Fitzroy

I've lived in Fitzroy for 14 years, and long before I moved here spent some formative moment in its pubs and terrace houses. I have an unpublished novel that set's in Fitzroy in the 1940s (originally it was set in the 1950s but I've realised it was the wrong period). I love this suburb, even as it changes before my eyes, which is why I love articles and photographs and stories of its past.

 This kind of housing once dominated inner-city suburbs like Fitzroy, Collingwood and Rich

From the Herald-Sun, here's a series of images of the old inner city slums that once characterised much of Fitzroy.

And from The Age just yesterday, here's an article about a photographer who was documenting the vanishing post-war Fitzroy culture in 1973-74.

Happy reading. And maybe allow Dan Sultan to provide you with a soundtrack?

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2014

Poor, much ignored blog: the least I could do is update you with a list of all my Age reviews from this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival, so that they're all easily accessible in the one place. Here you go:

The Tim Vine Chat Show
A dad joke generator turned up to 11, the prop-swinging, pun-slinging UK comedian Tim Vine takes the Parkinson route in this entertaining but unchallenging show, in which interviews with audience members become the inspiration for more quick-witted quips drawn from his encyclopaedic memory.

Adrienne Truscott's Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!
Fallacies about consent and startling lessons concerning the birds and the bees – or more specifically, ducks and gerbils – are provocatively and intelligently explored in this debut stand-up show from US cabaret artist and acrobat Adrienne Truscott.

Geraldine Quinn's MDMA: Modern Day Maiden Aunt
Comedian and cabaret artist Geraldine Quinn is unmarried, approaching 40, and fond of a drink. Instead of children she has 19 nieces and nephews, whom she adores, despite their tendency to over-share on social media. In the beautifully pitched Modern Day Maiden Aunt, a bittersweet blend of self-deprecation, family dysfunction and sardonic wit set to music, Quinn does some over-sharing of her own, to hilarious effect.
Read full review here.

Laura Davis - Pillow of Strength
A significant gulf sometimes separates ‘love’ from ‘like’, a distance which Laura Davis attempts to bridge in her latest stand-up show. Originally from Perth, where she won the Best WA Comedy award at Fringeworld last year, Davis is now based in Melbourne; thankfully her material steers clear of banal comparisons between the two cities in favour of exploring wounds both physical and psychological.

Damien Power - Keit
From a gun-happy father-in-law and his own dad's peculiar anger management issues, to a relationship with a "crazy" Estonian woman which culminates in his son's birth, Queenslander Damien Power's new show has a distinctly domestic focus.
Read full review here.

Stella Young - Tales from the Crip
Journalist and disability activist Stella Young opens her show with a clever inversion of existing power structures in order to give ‘normal’ audience members a taste of what it’s like to be constantly belittled.
Read full review here.

Felicity Ward - The Iceberg
As well as being one of our best comedians, Ward is also a proficient actor, a skill she makes memorable use of in The Iceberg. This tightly written show is aptly named: what we see is an engaging performance; the hard work beneath the surface, the carefully connected structure of routines and callbacks, is cleverly concealed.
Ben Pobjie - Trigger Warning
Few comedy shows begin with a recorded voiceover warning about being ''gently stroked by the fingers of a fat man'', but Ben Pobjie isn't your typical comedian.
Suns of Fred - Excited!
Clive Palmer’s weight; Ian Thorpe’s sexuality – the targets of Suns of Fred’s jokes are neither original nor inspired. This slick but soulless musical act have well synchronised moves, melodious voices, confidence and chemistry; all that’s lacking is material to match the quality of their performance skills.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Doing the Beats: Kerouac, sexuality and On the Road

The long-awaited film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s ground-breaking novel presents the perfect opportunity to re-examine the lives of the Beat Generation, writes Richard Watts.

It’s not hyperbole to say that the Beat Generation – a small coterie of writers who met up in New York City in the spring of 1944 – changed the world.

Without their individual quests for personal freedoms – a quest for sex and drugs before there was rock and roll; a quest which spawned the western world’s first counter-culture, the beatniks – the hippy movement of the Sixties would never have happened, and punk would have been a quiet snarl rather than a global reaction.

Of all the Beat Generation writers, Jack Kerouac, author of the autobiographical beatnik bible, On the Road, is unequivocally the most famous. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922, to working class French-Canadian parents, Kerouac aspired to be a writer from a young age, though he was also a keen football player. Indeed, it was a football scholarship to Columbia University which initially drew him to New York, where he first met the young poet and visionary Allen Ginsberg, heroin addict and aspiring author William S. Burroughs, and most importantly, the charismatic, sexually rapacious car thief Neal Cassady, who would become his muse.

Inspired by Cassady’s companionship, Kerouac hammered out the first draft of his most famous book on a single, long scroll of paper between April 2 – 22, 1951; a novel he’d been working on in one form or another since at least 1948.

When it finally saw publication in 1957, On the Road had undergone significant changes from Kerouac’s free-flowing initial manuscript: some passages were rewritten or entirely excised, and his characters were renamed (Kerouac himself became Sal Paradise, Cassady became Dean Moriarty, Ginsberg became Carlo Marx, and Burroughs become Old Bull Lee). Most significantly, descriptions of sexual acts deemed obscene by 1950s standards were watered down or deleted entirely, such as an early passage describing the fledgling relationship between Ginsberg and Cassady:

‘Allen was queer in those days, experimenting with himself to the hilt, and Neal saw that, and a former boyhood hustler himself in the Denver night, and wanting dearly to learn how to write poetry like Allen, the first thing you know he was attacking Allen with a great amorous soul such as only a conman can have. I was in the same room, I heard them across the darkness and I mused and said to myself “Hmm, now something’s started, but I don’t want anything to do with it.” So I didn’t see them for two weeks during which time they cemented their relationship to mad proportions.’

Brazilian director Walter Salles’ long-awaited screen adaptation of On the Road reinstates much that was later excised from the novel.

‘I was immediately struck by the urgency and immediacy of [the original scroll],’ Salles says in the film’s production notes:

‘The first sentence already heralded a different type of narrative. The version published in 1957 began: “I met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.” The scroll begins differently, “I first met Neal not long after my father died.” The hero of the scroll has just suffered a loss that compels him to go forward. The search for a father is a vital theme in the scroll, even more so than in the version published in 1957. This is a theme that has always interested me, and it became one of the motors driving the adaptation.’

The young Neal Cassady in his 1944 mug shot.
As well as returning to the novel’s original heartbreak, Salles’ film also reinstates much of the sex that was excised from the published version of On the Road. We never see Marx/Ginsberg and Moriarty/Cassady actually fucking, but the film leaves us in no doubt that the pair were definitely lovers for a time.  

The question of Kerouac’s own relationship with Cassady is much more ambiguous, and is alluded to beautifully in Salles’ film in a number of scenes, such as an early encounter between the two where Moriarty virtually seduces Paradise while begging him to teach him how to write.

As another early member of the Beat circle, Lucien Carr said, ‘Every person who came along was someone for Kerouac to love’. Clearly Kerouac was smitten by Cassady, making him the hero of another book, Visions of Cody, as well as On the Road. But were the two men ever lovers in real life, or was their relationship simply a particularly intense friendship – what today we might call a bromance?

Certainly Kerouac was no stranger to the occasional same-sex encounter, according to Allen Ginsberg in a 1972 interview in the magazine Gay Sunshine:

‘I came out of the closet in Columbia in 1946. The first person I told about it was Kerouac, cause I was in love with him … And actually we wound up sleeping together maybe within a year, a couple of times. I blew him, I guess. He once blew me, years later. It was sort of sweet, peaceful.’

Cassady himself was frank about his sexuality, as his letter to Ginsberg dated April 10, 1947, makes plain:

‘I’m on a spree tonight, I’ll tell you exactly what I want, giving no thought to you, or any respect or consideration to your feelings …I can’t promise a damn thing, I know I’m bisexual, but prefer women, there’s a slimmer line than you think between my attitude towards love and yours, don’t be so concerned, it’ll fall into line. Beyond that – who knows? Let’s try it and see, huh?’

But for Kerouac – poor, Catholic-guilt laden Kerouac – his same-sex attraction was a matter of personal shame.

‘As a homophobic homoerotic, he denied enjoying sex with men, but continued to have it,’ Kerouac’s editor turned biographer Ellis Amburn wrote in Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. ‘The cost of living so dishonestly was ever-increasing amounts of alcohol and drugs.’

In a short scene late in Salles’ film, Sal Paradise spies on Dean Moriarty screwing a businessman (played by Steve Buscemi) who they’ve just met on the road. It was a purely financial transaction, Moriarty explains afterwards to a sulking Paradise; a brief return to his hustling days driven entirely by economic need. Paradise doesn’t reply; clearly his sensibilities are offended by what he’s just witnessed – or is he, perhaps, jealous? 

Seen through modern eyes, Kerouac’s hero worship of Cassady seems suspiciously close to sublimated desire for the younger man; a desire that resulted in one of the most significant books of the 20th century.

We may never know if Kerouac and Cassady were ever lovers in the physical sense of the word, but the facts of their passionate friendship are undeniable.

Inspired by his love for Cassady, Kerouac created what US academic Joshua Kupetz calls ‘a new American prose form’; a literature that abandoned the traditional narrative structure of the European novel; a book which changed lives.

As a monument to Jack and Neal’s friendship, that’s one hell of a legacy.

Walter Salles’ On the Road opens nationally on Thursday 27 September. 
This article originally published on the Gay News Network on Tues 25 Sept 2012.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Hello blogger my old friend...

Nope, I'm not dead. It's just that between Facebook, Twitter and writing for artsHub, I don't have a lot to say here any more. Consider this blog on indefinite hiatus - though perhaps I'll return to it as a repository of all my reviews in time; or maybe even once again an online journal in which I write frankly and happily about everything and everyone I'm doing. Ah, those were the days...