At Home with the Gaskells

If you've any interest in the past, then you'll know what I mean when I talk about that feeling of excitement that comes from finding yourself in history's long shadow. For me, it was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the exact spot where Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech. Or taking my old-school Marxist dad to Chetham's Library and sitting in the very alcove where Marx and Engels studied the books that would eventually give shape to the Communist Manifesto. 

I get that buzz from more mundane moments too. In Paris, I've eaten in the grossly over-priced and underwhelming tourist trap that is Fouquet's on the Champs-Elysées, just because it was James Joyce's favourite, eating and drinking into the long night....and paying for it with hangovers and other people's money. 

History's footsteps are a big selling point of a visit to the Elizabeth Gaskell House, in the Longsight suburb of south Manchester. Before I've even stepped inside, an enthusiastic guide urges me to ring the still-working original doorbell, and do what Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Ruskin all did before me.

My guide is a fellow history wonk, a traveller of ancient shadows. 

Although closely associated with the Cheshire town of Knutsford (immortalised as Cranford), Elizabeth moved into the house at 84 Plymouth Grove in 1850, two years after the publication of her debut novel, Mary Barton. She fretted about the exorbitant rent of £150 a year (roughly £18,000 in today's money, which would be a steal in this housing market). In a letter to a friend she expressed her concerns about the morality of spending so much money "while so many are wanting," but was determined to mollify her guilt by "[trying] to make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can."

It's a commitment the Elizabeth Gaskell Society are keen to maintain. Every visitor is greeted like an old friend and encouraged to make themselves at home. I'm told to sit at the desk Elizabeth's husband William used, and to rifle through the period books that line the shelves in the study (not Gaskell originals, but copies of books they would have had in their collection). 

The dining table, laid out in Victorian elegance

The dining table, laid out in Victorian elegance

In the parlour on the far side of the entrance hall there are copies of letters written by Elizabeth as well as her wedding dress, carefully displayed in a glass case. At the far end of the dining room, laid out as the Gaskells would have known, is her writing desk, flooded with light from the alcove windows. On it are facsimiles of letters, including one from her friend Charlotte Brontë (Elizabeth wrote her biography in 1857), who also hid behind the curtains in the large drawing room. 

There are no ropes or labels, and as much as the house and its contents offer an intimate portrait of how the Gaskells lived, they really come to life through the anecdotes related with great relish and affection by the friendly room-stewards. 

Elizabeth's writing desk, with copies of letters to Charlotte Bronte

Elizabeth's writing desk, with copies of letters to Charlotte Bronte

How, during the bread riots of 1863, when the well-to-do citizens of Manchester were instructed to board up their windows to deter looters, William - a Unitarian minister at nearby Cross Street - and Elizabeth ordered that the windows be opened so that they could distribute what food they had to workers clamouring for sustenance.

The stories paint a picture of two social justice warriors, committed to ideals of fairness and decency for all, especially the teeming poor that kept industrial Manchester in gear. Their own relationship was one of equals, a far cry from the patriarchal mores of the time.  

I also liked the stories about Elizabeth's relationship with Dickens. He called her Scheherazade, because her powers of narrative were good "for at least a thousand nights and one," but he had less tolerance for her habit of submitting work at the very last minute and way over-length (like most writers, including this one): as editor of her 1855 novel North and South, Dickens had gone to great lengths to suggest cuts, which Gaskell completely ignored, commenting with a dismissive "I've not a notion what he means."

Elizabeth was, by the standards of the time, ferociously independent - in 1865 she bought a house in Hampshire without telling William. It would be their retirement home, away from the soot and dirt of Manchester's dark, satanic mills. When the house was bought and decorated, she cajoled William into making the trip south to visit the house, but no sooner did she reveal the big surprise she suffered a heart attack and died, aged 55. William returned to 84 Plymouth Grove and lived there with his two daughters until his death in 1884; it was eventually sold in 1913, when the Gaskells' daughter Meta died. 

The house was acquired by the Manchester Buildings Historic Trust in 2004, who then set about a laborious restoration (aided by £2.5m of Heritage Lottery funds). It was meant to finish in 2011, but the roof was damaged by vandals delaying the reopening until 2014.  

And while they've done a wonderful job of restoring this gorgeous Regency style villa, the real accomplishment is in recreating - as best as they can under the circumstances - the joyful ambience of the house. Elizabeth was courageous, charming, generous and, by all accounts, very funny: time in her house would have been a lot of fun. The house is now a museum, but it's a fun place to visit - the very kind of historical footstep I most enjoy walking in. 84 Plymouth Grove, M13 9LW; elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Splash Out at Manchester's Victoria Baths

The main gala pool, once the first-class men's pool

The main gala pool, once the first-class men's pool

Terracotta brickwork facade of the Victoria Baths

Terracotta brickwork facade of the Victoria Baths

In a city full of gorgeous buildings, the Victoria Baths in south Manchester takes some beating. It's a Grade II listed Edwardian classic, built to impress: when it opened in 1906 the Lord Mayor John Harrop declared it a 'water palace of which the people of Manchester will be proud'; the Manchester Guardian called it 'the most splendid bathing institution in the country.'

The Angel of Purity

The Angel of Purity

It cost twice as much as most public baths to build, and you can still see where most of the £59,000 was spent - on the elaborate terracotta brickwork of the facade; on the floor-to-ceiling glazed green-and-cream tiles with which most of the public spaces are clad; in the stunning art nouveau stained glass in the windows, the best example of which is the Angel of Purity in the Turkish sauna (yes, the baths had three separate pools and a Turkish sauna). 

The stairs up to the main viewing area of the gala pool

The stairs up to the main viewing area of the gala pool

The baths had three entrances, depending on which pool you were using.

The baths had three entrances, depending on which pool you were using.

The baths were open to all Mancunians, but the pools were strictly segregated. 1930s Commonwealth and European champion John Besford, for instance, trained in the men's first-class gala pool (so-called because in winter time it would be boarded over and used for dances and talks) because he studied medicine at the University of Manchester and so could enjoy the cleanest water and superior facilities. 

Industrial workers and other non-professional types who couldn't afford the 6d to have a splashabout had to make do with the second-class pool, which didn't even have doors or curtains on the changing rooms. 

Women of all means were restricted to the women-only pool, which had its own entrance so that the lads couldn't gawp at the girls showing off even an inch of flesh. It also meant that they couldn't watch local swimmer Ethel 'Sunny' Lowry doing laps in preparation for her 1933 English Channel swim, the first English woman to complete the feat. (Her training regimen included eating 45 eggs a week!)

Typical Manc that she was, Lowry stubbornly opted against using the restrictive and heavy woollen one-piece suit deemed suitable for women in favour of a lighter two-piece that (gasp! horror!) exposed her knees: her brazen contempt for the mores of the day earned her the epithet 'harlot' when she returned triumphant from France.  

Sunny Lowry, swimming the Channel in 1933

Sunny Lowry, swimming the Channel in 1933

Sunny Lowry at Victoria Baths

Sunny Lowry at Victoria Baths

The Aerotone - the prototype of the whirlpool bath - was installed in 1952

The Aerotone - the prototype of the whirlpool bath - was installed in 1952

Upgrades over the years included the addition in 1952 of Britain's first Aerotone, the precursor to the Jacuzzi; it was used up to the 1980s, including by members of both Manchester football teams. 

But not even whirlpool baths that look like instruments of torture can halt the progress of time, and in 1993 the baths closed as they had become too expensive to run. 

Essential maintenance was entrusted to the Friends and Trust of Victoria Baths, which was supported by Sunny Lowry and Olympian James Hickman, a five-time short course Butterfly champion who regularly swam galas at the baths in the 1980s.

The Trust's efforts to raise funds for its complete restoration were given a boost when the baths won the first series of the BBC's Restoration programme in 2003, which came with a prize of £3.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The money helped, as did the awareness the victory brought, but the baths still need around £30m for a full restoration and it won't come courtesy of the cash-strapped council, which has had to prioritise essential services over heritage projects. 

So if the baths are to be restored to anything like their stunning best it'll come down to the efforts of the trust. In 2011 they were granted a venue license for arts events, so they host gigs and cinema nights - it's hard to imagine a more atmospheric venue to watch a film or see a band play live. They also host weddings and other functions, and every Wednesday they run guided tours of the building, delivered by enthusiastic volunteers hell-bent on making sure you see just how amazing the place is.

The council mightn't get just how important this building is to Manchester's cultural landscape is, but even a quick peek inside should convince you of its significance. I strongly recommend a tour, and take comfort in knowing that not only are you visiting an architectural stunner, but that your being there is helping to save it.  

Victoria Baths, Hathersage Road, Chorlton-on-Medlock, M13 0FE. 

Looking for Oscar

This piece appeared in the Irish Daily Mail on Saturday, February 25, 2017.

Looking for Oscar, or scouring West Hollywood for the most elusive ticket in town.

Sunday is Oscars night, and Los Angeles is getting ready to show its stars the love for the 89th time. I know I’ve virtually no chance of snaring an invite, so the next best thing is to show up a few days early and soak up some of the atmosphere.

My LA home is the Grafton, a boutique hotel on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. It has tidy rooms with plantation shutters and a rock ‘n’ roll motif. On the first morning, fighting jet lag with an early morning cup of coffee, I see rapper Ja Rule drinking champagne in the bar telling his companions about a possibly teaming up with Kris Jenner. You heard it here first, folks.* 

My bedroom at the Grafton

My bedroom at the Grafton

Welcome to West Hollywood, home to dark-edged tequila bars, raw food kitchens and a thick slice of Hollywood lore.

Across the street is the Comedy Store, which spawned generations of comic talent from Billy Crystal to Amy Schumer. Just down the street is the Chateau Marmont, where decadence and discretion made for some of Hollywood’s most lurid tales.

This is where Howard Hughes perved over sunbathing beauties with a pair of binoculars and, in Bungalow 2, John Belushi shot his last speedball in 1982. James Dean jumped through one of the windows because he thought it would impress director Nicholas Ray. He was right, because Ray cast the as-yet unknown actor in his upcoming teen melodrama, Rebel Without a Cause.

The 1929 Art Deco Sunset Tower, once home to John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra

The 1929 Art Deco Sunset Tower, once home to John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra

Howard Hughes didn’t have far to go to spy on girls in bikinis, as for a time he lived in the nearby Sunset Tower, an Art Deco classic from 1929 that at different times was also home to John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. It’s now a classy hotel with a restaurant dressed in panelled wood (for that perfect 1930s club vibe) and lined with autographed photos of a century’s worth of Hollywood stars.

The food is classic American (Cobb salads, New York striploin) served with efficient speed to a darkly lit room of chatty industry types: at the table next to me, three scriptwriters exchanged work tips and war stories. I’m sure I spot Mark Ruffalo in the shadows on the far side of the room.

The Red Carpet Facial at Kinara; I've never felt so pampered. 

The Red Carpet Facial at Kinara; I've never felt so pampered. 

I need to get ‘Oscars ready.’ In a town where botox is as commonplace as green juice, I pick a less extreme option and treat myself to the Red Carpet Facial ($180) at Kinara, whose cult-following clientele include Halle Berry and Jessica Biel. My therapist Mirjana tells me I have amazing skin and feigns huge surprise when I tell her how old I am. I’m thrilled at the compliment and leave a big tip: I know how things work in Tinseltown.

I’m just disappointed that neither Halle or Jessica aren’t sitting in the high-ceilinged, boho-chic waiting room.

I venture down onto Hollywood Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood, once ground zero for the global entertainment business. Time hasn’t been overly kind and today, despite an intense cleanup effort, the birthplace of modern entertainment is a commercial monstrosity of bad tour hawkers, bored wannabe actors in superhero costumes and, oddly, the occasional snake handler.

These days the only stars are embedded in the pavement, but Hollywood Boulevard still has the hand- and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s (now TCL) Chinese Theatre, a movie house that debuted in 1927 with Cecil B DeMille’s The King of Kings, and, next door, the Dolby Theatre – the home of the Oscars.

I watch a crew redirect the crowds of snap-happy tourists away from the temporary stands being erected outside. On Sunday night they’ll be full of VIPs, although they’re not VIP enough to get a seat inside, close to the action. I ask someone when the red carpet will be laid down, and he looks at me like I’m crazy. ‘Sunday afternoon, of course. When else?’

I’m standing in front of the theatre, but I’m a million miles away from getting anywhere near the ceremony.

Instead, I opt for a 90-minute history lesson, courtesy of the Felix in Hollywood Tour. My guide Philip weaves historical magic over an unassuming half-mile section of Sunset Boulevard, transporting me back and forth across time, to when it was the birthplace of the film industry and, later, a key player in the history of recorded music. Philip has a flair for the dramatic and is a terrific storyteller: I’ll never look at Hollywood the same way again.

Bedrooms at Laguna Beach are all decorated in an elegant California coastal rustic style

Bedrooms at Laguna Beach are all decorated in an elegant California coastal rustic style

The Oscars are still days away, so I head south about 50 miles to beautiful Laguna Beach. This is one of Southern California’s loveliest spots, a town packed with independent shops, art galleries, surfable waves, great hiking and an easy-going atmosphere. My retreat is the exquisite Ranch at Laguna Beach, a laid-back luxury resort tucked up against a couple of canyons just south of town. The rooms are elegant, the pool heated to a constant 26 degrees and the nine-hole golf course as scenic a track as I’ve seen. I may not have an Oscars ticket but I’m living like an A-lister.

Laguna Beach, where the rich come to be idle in the lap of California coastal luxury. 

Laguna Beach, where the rich come to be idle in the lap of California coastal luxury. 

I head back to LA because I’m still hopeful and Hollywood is built on dreams. I’ll hang around West Hollywood and see what happens. Hey, Ja Rule was a guest in the same hotel as me and Mark Ruffalo and I ate in the same restaurant! Well, it was a guy that looked a lot like Mark Ruffalo. Actually, the room was pretty dark and maybe all I saw was an unshaven man with unruly curly hair.

I think I’ll just watch the Oscars on TV.

*I only found out later that the conversation I overheard Ja Rule having was about the ill-fated Fyre Festival, which ended in cancellation and the arrest of co-organiser Billy McFarland, who was then charged with wire fraud. 

Stay

Grafton On Sunset (8462 W Sunset Blvd; graftononsunset.com; rooms from $209/€198)

Ranch at Laguna Beach (S, 31106 Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach; theranchlb.com; rooms from $349/€330)

Eat

Tower Bar @ Sunset Tower Hotel (8358 W Sunset Blvd; sunsettowerhotel.com; mains $32-52)

Do

Kinara Skin Care Clinic and Spa (656 N Robertson Blvd; olgalorencinskincare.com; treatment $180)

Felix in Hollywood Tour (felixinhollywoodtours.com; $40)

Getting There

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct to Los Angeles from Dublin daily from €237 each way

For More Info

Check out visitcalifornia.co.uk and visitwesthollywood.com

 

Miami Nice

Miami Skyline - photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia

Miami Skyline - photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia

This piece appeared in the Feb/Mar issue of Cara Magazine

If Louis XIV were alive today, he’d holiday in Miami. The Magic City’s spell-binding mix of beauty and bacchanal is so intoxicating that it proved a ‘perilous attraction’ to Joan Didion and had Will Smith partying on the beach until the break of dawn. Miami’s multiple moods – supermodel glitz on Lincoln Road, defiant nostalgia in Little Havana, transgressive creativity in Wynwood – express themselves against one of America’s sexiest backdrops, a movie set of teal waters, white-sand beaches and blood-orange sunsets.

Most Miami Cubans may have outgrown Little Havana, but the sounds and scents of the barrio haven’t changed: the hum of salsa pouring out of the bodegas along Calle Ocho (8th St) and the sweet waft of cigar smoke around the old men playing dominos and cursing Castro’s memory in Máximo Gómez Park.

To the north, the Design District drips in art galleries and high end boutiques where even a memento of local chic can cost you thousands. But for real Miami opulence head down toward Coconut Grove and take a wander around the ornate Vizcaya Museum & Gardens (vizcaya.org), an Italianate villa built in 1916 by industrialist James Deering as a fitting residence for him and his extraordinary collection of art from the Renaissance onwards.

Super stylish, wonderfully offbeat and even sordid in parts, South Beach (SoBe) is the Miami stereotype come to life. Five-star hotels and designer boutiques sit side-by-side with grungy tattoo parlours and dingy dive bars. Along Ocean Drive bronzed beauties slip out of soft-top Ferraris to strut their stuff, barely noticing the beach bum rearranging his worldly possessions in a supermarket trolley. This is the Miami of the movies: of perfect skies and pastel-hued art deco palaces, of rollerblading families gliding through South Pointe Park, of pensioners in velvet leisurewear soaking up the sunshine of their retirements.

The Broken Shaker; photo by Jonathan Hall / Los Angeles Times

The Broken Shaker; photo by Jonathan Hall / Los Angeles Times

Start your night with a cocktail in one of America’s best bars, the Broken Shaker (freehandhotels.com/miami/broken-shaker/) in the backyard of the Freehand Hotel (see ‘Sleep At’) and end it the following morning with a French loaf stuffed with goodies from the walk-up counter of La Sandwicherie (lasandwicherie.com) brings me back to life. For something more substantial – and a finger-lickin’ reminder that Miami is still in the south – try the soul food in Yardbird Southern Table & Bar (runchickenrun.com), across the peninsula in a converted grocery store.

Should you need respite from the city’s multiple charms, the southern end of Biscayne Bay is where you’ll find Stiltsville (stiltsville.org), a cluster of wooden shacks on pilings that over the years has served as a gamblers’ den, a smugglers’ haven and a bikini club with low morals and a high-class clientele. The Sun King would surely have approved.

Stiltsville at Sunset - photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia

Stiltsville at Sunset - photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia

Sleep At

Hipster A minimalist makeover to an Art Deco classic has resulted in the Freehand Hotel, a favourite with budget travellers who have a choice between a bungalow, suite or quad dorm. And, for everyone, the city’s coolest backyard bar for killer cocktails. Beds from $120. (2727 Indian Creek Dr, +1 305 531 2727, freehandhotels.com)

Rat Pack The Redbury embraces the shiny chic of the 1950s and the psychedelic wow of the 1960s: through the Georgia-peach doors are the paisley wallpapered rooms, all of which have working record players – so you can play the collection of LPs by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Rooms from $200. (1776 Collins Ave, +1 305 604 1776, theredbury.com)

Fabulous Gold columns, huge allegorical murals and artwork by Koons and Hirst on permanent display, the minimalism-be-damned opulence of the Faena Hotel is the vision of Baz Luhrmann and his costume designer wife Catherine Martin. Together, they’ve given us the hotel version of Oz, complete with a swanky rooftop pool. Rooms from $420. (3201 Collins Ave, +1 305 534 8800, faena.com)

Smart Tips

Miami Moca Not coffee, but modern art: the Museum of Contemporary Art has avant garde exhibitions by big names, artist-led lectures and, on the last Friday of the month, jazz concerts for everyone. mocanomi.org