The past, present and future happily coexist on my workplace doorstep. I’d written about the past in four books, but it was the future that caught my eye one day in the form of a crane, standing stark against a grey Dublin sky.
I work in a newspaper in the city centre, on Talbot Street. During my lunch break, I would leave the office and walk past the drunks and drug addicts that tend to congregate there and head down the quays to take in the Liffey air and get a bit of wind and rain on my face. If it was a nice day, I’d sit on a bench to work on my latest novel.
That part of town is a borderland, between the past and the future. On one side, you have the fine facade of Connolly Station and Gandon’s grand Custom House. The area is heavy with history. I often look at the bullet holes in the wall of the Beresford Hotel, caused by the raid on the Custom House during the War of Independence, and wonder who put them there – could it have been my own grandfather, who participated in that attack.
Only a few steps from this history is the Financial Services Centre, a sleek modern temple to money. Just beyond it, the future really opens up as cranes and rising apartment blocks line the Liffey on both sides as it stretches towards Dublin Port.
During the boom, before our financial fall from grace, I once counted over a dozen cranes on the skyline. Dublin was changing and changing fast. Identikit office blocks were sprouting everywhere -- shoebox, one- and two-bedroom apartments were selling for crazy money.
This wasn’t the dear old dirty Dublin of my youth. I felt as though the past – my past of childhood street games and of days when I explored the aged city – were slipping from my fingers, only to be replaced by the modern, crisp, antiseptic lines of new construction.
That’s what got me interested in cranes and what prompted me to write "High Crimes," my first novel set in modern times, in a Dublin that was new, exciting, but slightly alien. It focuses on a crane operator and of the views he commands across Dublin -- the views he commands of people’s lives . . .
SPACE, that’s what it’s all about; the gulls know it; look at them hanging on the wind, jinking like puppets and then swooping at one another, vying for flying rights. The people in the shoebox apartments know it, too – they’ve paid top dollar for that little bit of space they call home... idiots. I’m sitting here staring out at more space than any yuppie will ever own. It takes them a lifetime to get where they want on the property ladder; the steel rungs of my Wilbert 420 take me just ten minutes to reach the top. Every day that I climb to my 10x6 ft. Perspex bubble is like that first time, when I saw the bright morning sun break through a blanket of cloud and fall in shafts of light on the city below. It was biblical – the only thing missing was the booming voice of God, like in that Charlton Heston movie, The Ten Commandments. I wanted to float off in my little bubble but the tower shaft held me firm, an umbilical cord staking me to terra firma.
There’s a sense of splendid isolation once you’re up here; only the low hum of traffic interferes with the serenity; that and a squawk from the walkie-talkie. There are no silly work colleagues, no nagging wife, or noisy kids... it’s just me – and that's the way I like it. Here, hanging over the city, I am the great overseer, the all-seeing eye. What was that Jimmy Cagney film, was it "White Heat," I can’t remember. “I’m on top a-the world, Ma!” That’s what he said; well, that’s how I feel in my eyrie. Sometimes in life you can’t see the wood for the trees, well, up here, I see the entire forest, it’s just that these arseholes around me are pressed so close to the tree trunk, they see nothing and know less.
Someone sometime said that Nature is the great leveler. I know what they mean. When you see the slow build-up of cloud on the horizon, watching it go slate grey in tiny increments and then move relentlessly across the sky, its unyielding bulk like an aircraft carrier, brutal and blank, ready to rain down its cargo on the ants below as they scurry for shelter from the looming onslaught; when you see all that happen then you know what power is. Power is having people buffeted by winds so strong the umbrellas are wrenched from their hands. Just around the corner from them, others stroll along, dry and oblivious, until the first drops fall and the first gust comes to them, too.
You can learn a lot about life up here, alone with your thoughts. You finally appreciate the pettiness of people. I sometimes feel like an alien on a secret mission, observing them all – hanging unseen over their heads, noting their foibles, their eccentricities, their vanity; their small acts of kindness and their broad strokes of selfishness. The apartments, the roof gardens, the tennis courts, small parks and gyms; offices closing and cleaners cleaning and flirtation by the coffee machine and tears and laughter and... everything – it’s all to see. I feel privileged to know how it really is, who these people really are. I am a hidden part of their lives, a secret eye into their little worlds and their place in this larger one around them.
God, I fucking love my job.