There wasn't much doing in the afternoon at Dublin’s Four Courts. The major trials, which were always covered by Evening Herald staff men, continued in the afternoon, after the short-order justice served by the district courts was pretty much done. There would be torts in the afternoon, but even if they were interesting, they invariably led to continuances and involved a lot of sitting around just to understand the cases. Unfriendly clerks and litigants not wanting publicity and unwilling to explain anything combined to make these cases not worth bothering about.
Now mounted on my bicycle, I got around more easily. So while my mornings were warm and cosy, there was the rest of the day to contend with. To solve the problem, I discovered the National Library of Ireland, which not only kept me warm but was one of the most charming and magnificent places I have ever been. The hall was a symphony of browns and greens with ornate white trim on the ceiling. It was partially lit by high windows in the dome, with scores of wooden desks, each with its own individual reading lamp which one could turn on and off with a little chain. And there were helpful rumpled old men in jackets, shirts and ties fetching books. It was truly one of the loveliest places I have ever been.
The next problem was what I was going to do there. I decided to dredge up another idea my mother had but never brought to realisation. That is, to research the lives of men whose names became words, like boycott, gerrymander, mesmerise, etc. This kept me busy and warm for weeks, although I was never able to sell the results of my labours. It did from time to time make my conversation sparkle, when I could explain not only what gerrymander meant, but how Elbridge Gerry, US vice president under Madison, shaped a constituency’s boundaries to include all his friends and exclude all his enemies so it looked like a salamander—hence "gerrymander."
Another plus was that the National Library had one of the few un-vandalised payphones. This was Britain's 1978-79 "Winter of Discontent" of constant strikes, and the denizens of Liberty Hall, Ireland's trade union headquarters, were staging strikes themselves, not to be outdone by the British. There was a telephone strike, a postal strike, a bus strike and then, worst of all, a garbage strike, which had the city seething with rats. No one dared vandalise the payphones at the courthouse, and no one thought of doing so at the National Library. I could also use one in nearby Buswell's Hotel.
At 3 p.m., it was time for me to play daily charades with Ray and the Evening Herald. I had already scanned the What's On column in the Irish Times. This would allow me to offer stories to Ray, to which he would be noncommittal or say No. Sometimes he might say one item sounded interesting, which meant it was pretty much a de facto assignment. This might mean a meeting of the Ireland-Israel Friendship League or the Gifted Children's Association. That done, Ray would start whingeing about how short-staffed they were, that they really should get out to the Finglas Residents meeting at such and such address at 8pm, but alas and alack they were so shorthanded. This was the way I received assignments. There might be something else on southside at 8 p.m., which happened often enough. So I stayed long enough to get a story at one place, usually the one farthest away from home, and then race to the other on my bicycle, often without the aid of street lamps because of an electricity strike, which occasioned a couple of hard-landing spills.
Life became very busy. I would return home at night to find that Simon had gone out that day, but with his accent and bearing it was hopeless. One time he got some money, but mostly to taste-test a short-lived product called Guinness Light, which made it to launch but died instantly in the market. We went to the launch party, and I remember the product as pretty good—after the fourth glass.
Coming home at 10 or 11 p.m. after these "night markings," as evening jobs were called, I would settle into writing stories on my nifty Olivetti portable. The next morning, I would phone them in when the first of the Evening Herald copy takers arrived at 7 a.m. But from where? The payphones in the area had been vandalised, partly by gurriers or by the striking Posts & Telegraphs workers, who appeared powerless to stop people phoning each other but whose minions were suspected of crippling the pay phone system wherever they could. And since it could take three years to install a phone in Ireland at the time, and the price of a house would be considerably higher if a phone had already been installed, there was a huge reliance on pay phones to make and receive calls.
I managed to prevail on the mercy of the local Garda station at the moment the Evening Herald copy takers got in to work. The night sergeant pointed to a telephone on an empty desk. Every morning, I would shyly crave this boon. But one time I came late, which meant I would have to leave late. The day inspector came in and was not so obliging. "We're not running a public telephone service here!" he shouted as he shooed me away. After that I was careful to arrive at 7, get in, get on with it, get over with it and get out. I was lucky that the night sergeant never knew about my scrape with the day inspector. I even became a high point of the watch that ends the night as he could plainly hear me dictating my stories and learn the latest news.
With my bicycle, which was astonishingly expensive at nearly £200 for what I wanted (a three-speed Raleigh 26" girls' bike with a stout front basket and a sturdy back carrier), I reopened the hotel beat, which had been extant in Montreal in the 1950s. This involved going to the major hotels, first checking the notice board in the lobby for events that day, and getting to know the house detectives, who could tell me who of interest was staying there. This would happen before the courts opened at 10 a.m. Once courts were done, and stories filed, I would head back to the hotels, adding interviews to my file to the copy takers the next morning.
Rats, during the garbage strike, became a big problem at our basement flat, dubbed the "rat mine." It was all right for me. I left early and returned to bed after a few pints late at night—quite apart from being profoundly insensitive and indifferent to discomfort. Not so Simon, who was spending more time at home, his efforts at job hunting being crowned with repeated failure. As winter was now receding into a memory, if one was no longer searching for fuel to burn in the fireplace, our only source of heat, it was now reasonably comfortable to stay at home—except for the rats.
I came to fully appreciate the problem on Saturdays, when there were no courts and no work to do. On Sunday, I occupied my time with a beautiful girlfriend. But Saturday I was at home for laundry and cleanup day. By now, Simon had shipped in his vast collection of jazz records, about which he was a great expert and could expound on the subject with a true scholarly air.
But the rats! They fought the dogs and they killed cats, bit the babies in their cradles, ate the cheeses out of the vats, licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration, but they were everywhere, scurrying hither and thither when you turned on a light. Simon became most excitable on the topic, which is uncharacteristic for his usually unflappable self. The Irish Army would very occasionally take away the three- to four-foot mounds of garbage every 40 to 50 yards in the street, and not make a very good job of it, just as the army's bus replacement service required a soldierly fitness of its passengers to scramble on and off the deuce-and-a-half troop transports they fielded—which did double duty as garbage trucks.
Locally, we found rats in the closets, in the oven and boldly scrabbling under our beds at night. To be fair, Simon did what he could to deal with them. But for all the traps he put out, baited with enticing corned beef and a variety of tempting cheeses, all we found the next morning was the bait gone and nary a dead rat. These buggers were capable of learning from each other's experience. It got to the point we were becoming paranoid, thinking the rats were listening to our conversations, and tended to hold councils of war down at the pub called Slattery's near the laundromat. It happened to be an IRA pub at night but not during the day, and not on Saturday mornings and afternoons, when it was filled with soldiers from the nearby Cathal Brugha Barracks who were also doing their laundry in one of the rare laundromats in Dublin at the time.
One day Simon had a look of triumph his face. He was confident that he had found the answer to the rat problem. It was a rat poison “By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen." Simon, while brimming with confidence as a stout royalist, was appalled by the complex instructions accompanying HM's poison.
"What do I have to do with this? Set out the Chablis?! Or do you think they would prefer a less fruity Chardonnay?" he said sarcastically.
But surprise, surprise, it worked. Dead rats everywhere. We were grabbing them by the tails in twos and threes and flinging them in the gutter. If the rats had learned from each other on how to get the bait from traps without being trapped, they also appeared to have learned to avoid our flat because we were bothered by rats no longer, having set out poison pickets on the perimeter. Never a rat did we take away after that.
So life went on well enough for a while with my income becoming quite reasonable. Nothing like the riches of a full-time NUJ staff man, but good enough.
I tried, as instructed by brother David, to train Simon as a street-wise journalist, but it didn't take. The idea of pestering someone for an interview in a hotel lobby or on the street, trying to winkle out a quotable quote from the unwilling, was just too ungentlemanly for him. After the first approach, he faded and failed to get anything useful to craft a story.
Ditto when he managed to get a pleasant sit-down interview with a person of interest, like his interview with the Oblate order's headman. Simon came back happy for the experience having had an enjoyable conversation, but did not have the wherewithal to write a story. And when he started to write he was overwhelmed concern whether the Oblates would like it or not.
One cannot go into interviews to enjoy an interesting conversation any more than one can write a review of a movie or restaurant simply to enjoy oneself and rely on vague recollections of one's joys and disappointments with the experience. A journalist must go in realising from the outset that he is engaged in a job of work, that he is to produce a story and fuller information than the reader had or has, which means collecting providing a sense of the whole, not just one's favourite bits, and making sense of it, always in search of a lead paragraph or a headline. And having found one, then to be on the lookout for another.