Sunday, January 16, 2011

Remembering Dublin's Trocadero

"You lucky, lucky thing!  But you absolute fiend!  And how we envy you.  The frocks are terrific; so classic my dear, black, with that lovely rich purple trim. Those gold crosses and rings. And, when you reach the top, as you most certainly will, you get to wear that fabulous Big Red Hat!" 

One of Dublin’s most beautiful men had announced his intention to join the priesthood.  His ‘goodbye social life’ party was held in the Trocadero restaurant. How we roared when one of his friends, dressed for the occasion as Oscar, complete with green carnation, began his speech with the above.  In my celebration of daft nights in this legendary restaurant, that evening was in a class of it‘s own.

Since the picture of Alan Rickman appeared, I haven’t minded if people were late meeting me in the Trocadero. They could be as late as they liked. That black coat and those eyes. 

But all the pictures are special, as I was reminded the night I was obliged to hastily leave down my knife and fork, when a walking stick was thrust in across my plate. A voice said, "Ah look, I knew it was around here somewhere.  There you are!" 

I looked up to see Ulick O’Connor grinning apologetically as his friend - Ben Kiely - tapped the photo with his stick, said "good evening" to me, and left the restaurant.

The Trocadero decor has been described as being a bit like a theatre. It certainly produces theatrical behaviour.  There was the woman who, fully intending to take a taxi home, parked her car in a tiny lane around the corner. After much dissecting, re-living and hooting at the carry-on at the hunt ball, our fearless heroine decided, at two in the morning, to drive herself home.  She got into her sports car, and hey presto, found herself flying through the back door of one of the little shops which front on to Wicklow Street.

There was the night that somebody knocked over a cup of coffee and the ensuing row ended up downstairs in the gents with one person yelling at the other: "you hate me because I'm gay! You've never liked me".  Then the other person shouting back so loudly, that the women in the ladies next door could clearly hear: "I don’t hate you because you're gay. This is a very expensive suit!”  A pause, and then “Jesus, I never even knew you were gay." 

The mid-week night, and a wedding anniversary when my husband had forgotten to book a table and the staff squeezed us in, making things incredibly awkward for themselves really.  They didn't seem to mind in the least.  The atmosphere was just the same, magic.  It certainly wasn't the fault of the Trocadero that we, sadly, divorced years later. 

One evening, a worthy discussion was going on about whether a trek over India would be a valuable, life enhancing experience.  One of the women, running her hand through her magnificent blonde hair said, "Well, yes. I've always wanted to do that, and I would love to go of course.  But then I think, well, what about my roots?”

I once woke up to find myself in the back of a taxi, the driver asking "which road is it now, love? The chap at the restaurant said to drive to the sea and take one of the first turns.”  Large ‘thank you’ card dropped in to Robert and staff next morning by mortified woman with big red face... 

Lord Henry Mountcharles and some friends dropped in one packed night and there were no tables available.  They waited with the rest of the queue. The people at my table were English and absolutely amazed.  They weirdly thought that perhaps someone would be moved around to accommodate the party.  We explained about Henry, his restaurant at that time, the castle, the concerts, and above all, about him being human.  Gasps from the English assembly.

A marriage loomed.  Hearing the words ‘two conventional mothers’, feeling the young bride and groom were perhaps under enough stress, and most importantly, not interested in the slightest in the whole affair, I went to the Trocadero with Bill, old friend through thick and thin. As the first bottle of wine was opened Bill remarked ”you were right; who would want to go to a wedding and miss all this?”  Lutz kept the bottles coming. We ended up in the Coach and Horses - closed now - watching an Italian movie. Enough said. Excellent evening.

There was the night I met a charming individual known as Miss Candy; the two of us got tipsy together and I discovered that the only lipstick to use for staying power was Princess Marcella Borghese.  My partner, when he came in to collect me described the two of us as "looking like something out of AB FAB". He went away again and the rest of the evening remains a haze.

Trocadero stories would not be complete without Frank.  Whether it was a casual meal for two women friends, a romantic celebration, a business meeting or a noisy crowded table, Frank added to the evening, giving it exactly the right note. There he was, dressed in those impeccable black tails, the white starched dinner shirt and bow tie, his splendid white hair perfectly groomed. You knew you were in for a very special night if you were lucky enough to get a booth in Frank's section of the Troc. 

We lived near each other and I often shared a taxi home with him. Frank was inclined to issue warnings to taxi drivers not to dare to drive away until ‘the Lady has gone in her front door, and closed it behind her!’

According to the staff at the Trocadero, his spirit lives on in the restaurant. I agree. When I was leaving Ireland to come and live in France I had one of my farewell dinners in the Trocadero, at a table in Frank’s old spot. It was the best of evenings and in the early hours I tottered happily out, as I had been doing for years. This time, the friends in the taxi waited to see me safely in my front door.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

My meeting with a Legend...

I am so pleased that this piece was broadcast on RTE 1 (Ireland’s National Broadcasting Station) August 16th 2009, when the subject was 100 years old.

My hero died almost a year later, having reached 101. He did not get to this age by sitting around minding himself... here's the story of my meeting with one of the most fascinating men I have ever had the good fortune to encounter. 

On a January morning in 1941, at dawn in the African desert, a dashing Italian officer led a successful cavalry charge, almost the last one in history, against the might of the British Army in Eritrea, interrupting their early morning tea. 

Over fifty years later, on another January morning, this time in County Meath, the same heroic figure interrupted his morning to help me overcome every riders nightmare, a total loss of confidence following a fall.  The hero on both occasions was Amedeo Guillet, the subject of Sebastian O’Kelly’s book.

Amedeo, A True Story of Love and War in Abyssinia, recounts his astonishing, long, thrilling life, his endless dangerous and dazzling adventures, his fearlessness, courage and sheer daring. Said to be the most decorated person in Italian history, Amedeo’s life has been described as The English Patient meets Captain Correlli.

A truly noble man, Amedeo has lived now for almost 100 years, and what a life it has been. His horsemanship is without question - he was selected to ride in the Olympics of 1936. His bravery in combat has earned him more honours than we can count, both in Italy and elsewhere. In the Spanish Civil war, he received the Silver Medal for Gallantry.
During the following years, including the famous Eritrea cavalry charge, and his subsequent adventures in the horn of Africa, cheating death on many occasions, depending on who was speaking, he was known as either The Devil Commander or The Italian Lawrence of Arabia.

At the end of the war, Amedeo Guillet joined the diplomatic services and represented Italy in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco and India. He was to cheat death in Morocco once again, when over ninety people, including the Belgian Ambassador were killed as rebels stormed a lunch to celebrate King Hassan’s birthday in 1971.

His Excellency spends part of the year in County Meath and so it was there that I met this living legend, this hero. I walked into his yard and standing beside the Ambassador was another man, who looked, I have to admit, equally heroic. I was introduced to Fergus O’Connor, a friend and long time pupil of Amedeo’s. They had worked together for many, many, years. Without delay, which was just as well in my case, I was given a leg up and we began.

The first thing Amedeo impressed on me was that “all will be well” and straight away he put me through a few initial moves, using the Caprilli method of riding, new to me, and offering words of encouragement and support, all the while keeping me moving, concentrating, with no time for any negative thoughts to arise.

We quickly moved on to some advanced paces, and all I could hear was the voice of one of the greatest horsemen that ever lived, keeping me, surely one of the least talented riders ever born, moving on, and on and on.

After about twenty minutes, I wondered aloud why I had ever stopped riding. His Excellency gave a little smile and said this was a good sign. He was right. That magical morning, I got something huge back in my life.

Thanks to the Italian Lawrence of Arabia, I had found again, in a beautiful yard in County Meath, that ‘top of the world’ feeling.

And it did not end there. I went back to Fergus O’Connor’s superb equestrian school on the
Slane Road
at Dunmoe that very same day and continued with him until all my problems were sorted out. He, like his teacher, is a genius in the world of the horse, and the only instructor using the Caprilli method in Ireland. An internationally recognised talent, Fergus also possesses that curious gift, the ability to inspire confidence in both horse and rider. And just like Amedeo, he has the same passion for working with people and horses.

All these years later, Fergus’s explanation of why he was there that morning still makes me smile.

“Amedeo said someone was coming for help on Saturday morning at ten, could I be there? The last time he said that, the person who came into the yard was a European Princess. For all I knew, you were another one.”