Wish I Was There: Gavin Corbett on Nighttown

This month’s blog theme is ‘Wish You Were Here’ – we’re jetting around the literary world to explore the concept of travel in fiction. We’ve asked some of our authors to tell us about their ideal literary holidays: here’s Gavin Corbett on his yearning for a fictional place twinned with a real-world location very close to home.

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‘My literary holiday destination is a place close to where I live, fabulously reimagined by James Joyce. It’s the lost inner-city Dublin district of Monto – or Nighttown as it’s known in the Circe episode of Ulysses. The real Monto must have been hell – it was Dublin’s red-light district until the sex workers were moved on by evangelists from the Legion of Mary organisation in the 1920s. In Chapter 15 of Ulysses, however, Monto becomes the fantastically rackety, shadowy, shapeshifting setting for the late-night high-jinx of Stephen, Leopold et al, and for the phantasmagorical visions that swirl around their brains as if the mists outside have passed through their porous skulls.

Monto was a wormcast of streets in the north east of the city, a few blocks back from the Liffey. How about this for scene-setting from Joyce: “Snakes of river fog creep slowly. From drains, clefts, cesspools, middens arise on all sides… A glow leaps in the south beyond the seaward reaches of the river.” Perhaps my favourite depiction of the area is not even in Ulysses, but in a 1948 Dublin-set Ealing comedy called Another Shore, based on the novel of the same name by Kenneth Reddin. In it there’s a scene in which Robert Beatty takes his girl on a night-time walk through the riddle of tightly packed alleys, where they encounter carousels and freak shows, and the underclasses of Dublin in joyful spree. Monto by now – transformed from playground of sin to merely a slum – was already a place of myth and legend. In the 1950s, a songwriter called George Hodnett further immortalised the district with a music-hall pastiche that quickly entered the Irish folk canon. Interspersed with the refrain “take her up to Monto, Monto, Monto…” are hallucinatory verses, surely inspired by the Circe episode. This one, for example, alludes to the military men who gave the prostitutes their most regular custom:

“You’ve heard of the Dublin Fusiliers,

The dirty old bamboozeleers,

They went and got the childer, one, two, three.

Marching from the Linen Hall,

There’s one for every cannonball,

And Vicky’s going to send them all o’er the sea.”

The area once known as Monto is still, today, a maze of streets and lanes vacuum-sealed from the rest of the city by busy thoroughfares. I sometimes cut through it on my way home – it’s packed with atmosphere, full of crumbling Georgian and Victorian buildings, including the abandoned hulks of Aldborough House, the Pro-Cathedral School building and the Magdalene Laundry of Sean McDermott Street. It’s a haunting place, and I find it impossible to cross it without imagining “figures wander[ing], lurk[ing], peer[ing] from warrens”. The living presence of Nighttown, rather than the ghosts of Monto, in other words. And that is the version of this part of town I’d like to visit: the delirious dream zone invented by Joyce.’

Gavin Corbett’s novel ‘Green Glowing Skull‘ is out now.

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