Once upon a time there were few things that I enjoyed more than a lazy afternoon of browsing around the curious little shops and unusual, hidden-away nooks and crannies of the enchanting Temple Bar area of Dublin. And when you see me refer to Temple Bar as ‘enchanting’, then you’ll guess that it’s not today or yesterday that I’m talking about.
No, this was so long ago that the Boomtown Rats had a couple of albums out that I played constantly – A Tonic for the Troops and The Fine Art of Surfacing. Yes, it was that sepia-toned yesteryear when Bob Geldof wrote great music and hadn’t yet turned into a colossal windbag.
It was a time when we thought that the height of sophistication was to have a large slice of Black Forest Gateaux, washed down with some Le Piat D’Or, a red wine so versatile that it could also be used for removing oil stains from pavements. There was an advertisement of the day that had the slogan: ‘The French adore Le Piat D’Or’; but little did we know that the French were in fact laughing their heads off at the British and the Irish who were knocking back the stuff by the bucketful. In fact, only about 3% of their sales were in France and those were in Calais where – yes, you got it – they were flogging the stuff to the Brits and the Irish.
I refer to the early-to-mid ’eighties, before the Powers That Be set off to supposedly gentrify Temple Bar and instead turned it into a Screaming Hell that only the deranged could enjoy visiting --- the deranged or Stag and Hen Parties. Same difference, really.
Just a personal opinion, Officer. No disrespect.
I had just moved from Limerick to Dublin and immediately fell in love with the area; with its small coffee shops and street people who were often a living theatre all of their own.
Just before you came to the Ha’penny Bridge (where you crossed the Liffey and left the district) there was a fabulous blink-and-you-miss-it place that sold film stills both old and new, as well as film posters and lobby cards. Lobby cards! Now there’s a thing of the past.
For anyone under the age of… oh, sixty or so these were sets of postcard-sized images that were displayed at the opening or in the lobby of those wonderful old cinemas that we called Picture Palaces. Talking of which, the last of them was then still at the end of O’Connell Street. This was The Ambassador and it was marvelous. It stood in faded, slightly-past-it glory; but it was great, all the same.
It had a balcony and a separate staircase for the females which carried the legend ‘Ladies’ Powder Room’. It was a nice little touch of soon-to-be vanished glamour in a world that was becoming increasingly vulgar. Stick up a sign like ‘Ladies’ Powder Room’ today and dozens would be killed in the rush to get free cocaine. And then of course the sign would be removed altogether when it was decided that it was offensive to and discriminatory against those who wanted to be identified as dolphins, floppy-eared Golden Spaniards, or whatever the current fashion in stupidity is.
Anyway, I haunted this memorabilia shop for a while, the more so because the young assistant was gorgeous, personable, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable about what she was selling.
Look at that list. She wouldn’t have a hope of being employed today. Her CV today would have to say: rude; don’t give a toss about the job; disinterested; don’t like to be bothered when I’m on the phone and can you wait a bloody minute, I’m touching up my lipstick, are you blind?!
But that girl of yesteryear… I remember her greeting me with a huge smile because some Hammer Horror Film lobby cards I’d been waiting for had arrived. (Taste the Blood of Dracula? I’m not sure.) I also remember picking up a job lot of silent movie stills featuring the legend that was Lon Chaney, including some from Wallace Worsley’s 1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tod Browning’s heartbreakingly lost film from 1927, London After Midnight.
There was another shop that I recall with affection called The Alchemist’s Head, which was diagonally across from the Marxist-Leninist Bookshop. And that of course is kind of charming in its own weird way as it gives you an idea of how diverse the place was back then; when just using a word like ‘diverse’ didn’t mean the beginning of a lecture on how horrible and to-blame-for-everything my generation is.
Tiny though it was, I could have spent hours in The Alchemist’s Head. It was run by two ladies who were at their table counter most days. One was an American who for some reason I recall as living out in the country and owning a couple of wolves. Bloody Hell, could that be right? And yet I think she did.
Now I had better add here that I intend this walk down Memory Lane to be done without the help of Mr. Google – I’m trying to hold onto the few brain cells I still have in working order -- although I will happily take an email from anyone out there in the dark who recalls what I’m talking about.
There was another guy who was very good-natured and who worked there part-time, filling in for the American whenever she was in the Company of Wolves, I suppose. (Geddit? Boom-boom!) Des was his name and he played with a stone-cold brilliant post-punk band called The Golden Horde. Another member of that group was Simon Carmody who I think may still live in Dublin, I’m not sure.
God, I haven’t thought of the Horde in years. Like Paul Cleary and The Blades, they should have become huge but didn’t. Although I do recall many a happy Monday evening in The Baggot Inn listening to the band Paul formed later, The Partisans. And if you want to think wonderful things about my commendable taste in the classics, go online and dig up The Blades’ Dublin City Town. You’ll thank me.
Anyway, The Alchemist’s Head sold this crazy mish-mash of things and kind of epitomized Temple Bar for me. There was an emphasis on witchy stuff, naturally, with Tarot Cards and crystal balls for sale. Then there were some pretty expensive BIG important looking books by that old Black Magic charlatan Aleister Crowley, who somehow seems more harmless and loveable as time goes by; and paperbacks from more modern chancers like the exiled Tibetan lama, Dr. Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, who lived in County Wicklow for a while.
This guy was great: he told the most astonishing stories – beginning with The Third Eye and Doctor from Lhasa -- of his early life in the Himalayas during the 30s and 40s, learning the noble art of astral projection and visiting the UFOs which are hidden in underground caverns there. Presumably, the Chinese have them now.
Of course, in reality, he was a plumber from Devon called Cyril Hodgkin who figured he was never going to get rich by fixing burst pipes and instead started a nice little earner in writing books about Tibet (which he’d never been next nor near to) and providing a sideline where he sold monk’s robes, touchstones and you name it, Lobsang had it.
The funny thing about old Lobsang/Cyril was that his publishers never seemed to notice that the guy on the front cover of his books looked by no stretch of the imagination like a gentleman of Asian extraction. It took an actual expert on Tibet to raise his eyebrows and hire a private detective who turned up the truth. Lobsang admitted all but explained that his spirit had entered the body of Cyril after that worthy fell out of a tree and banged his head while owl-spotting. As you do.
People said: ‘That seems like a reasonable explanation as to why this Tibetan lama is the spitting image of an English bloke’; Lobsang went on to write over a dozen more books; and the loot continued to roll in. You have to love guys like that. And when he left Wicklow (where he seems to have been liked, the Irish having a well-known soft spot for chancers) he moved to Canada where he passed away and his spirit now presumably resides in his new body.
So how do I come to be rambling on with this wander around the Temple Bar area of forty years ago? Well, if we can’t have a lighthearted retro article posted on a website that deals with all things yesteryear, where can we have it? That, and I’m being horrendously self-indulgent.
Actually, I wanted to tell you of a shop here in modern-day Galway that manages to carry on a little of the spirit that I always felt in Temple Bar back in the day. It has that same eclectic, higgledy-piggledy feel that I recall from years ago: old books are stuffed in every which way, there are comics both usual and very unusual and it also does what seems to be a decent trade-in vinyl records – and I think that it’s also probably a bit of a hang-out for vinyl aficionados. It’s called Bell, Book, and Candle, is run by a very pleasant bloke called Paul, and is situated in Small Crane, Sea Road at the west end of Galway.
You never know what you’ll come across and I often go there if I’m looking for something a bit different. Last time out I picked up a book on Greta Garbo and a couple of issues of New Tales of Old Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez.
And I also bought David Thomson’s The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, which is what I originally set out to write about, but which will now have to wait until Your Humble Narrator has recovered his breath.
This was well worth buying, if for nothing else – and there is a lot else – than the 170 or so pages devoted to the silent film era. But Mr. Thompson can be quite refreshingly opinionated/contentious and he has gotten me thinking, for good or bad. So, I’ll be back to this book soon, if I don’t go off wandering the highways and byways of memory again.
Same bat-time! Same bat-channel!