Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Worldwide Discount Airfares, Arbour Hill

Ghost signs are a recurring motif in Ghost Flight, such as this one - an abandoned shopfront at 58A Arbour Hill in Stoneybatter. The book only mentioned it in passing, but it deserves far better, because since the start of the recession the building has become, well, a sort of lovable local landmark.

Although 58A has been described over the years - particularly in planning applications that you can inspect online - as "derelict" or "an eyesore", it has a certain allure for keen photographers and casual snappers.

OK, nowhere near as picturesque as, say, Sandymount Strand with the towers of Poolbeg, yet the little shop still has its own fascinating qualities. So why is it so eye-catching? What exactly makes it so "Instagrammable"?

Take its remaining bit of signage. The lettering is handpainted, in light yellow or faded gold, with a black shadow, on a rusty background that's the same colour as the warm red brick. The slogan, "WORLDWIDE DISCOUNT AIRFARES" - followed by an almost Pan Am-style squashed pumpkin globe and the acronym "WDA" for good measure - immediately conjures up ghosts of a bygone age (one that's warm and rusty).

A couple of decades ago, passers-by probably wouldn't have thought twice about that slogan. Two decades ago the Internet had hardly begun to spell the end of the traditional travel agent and the "middle men" or "intermediaries" in many service industries.

Back then you still had to go into a physical shop to order a flight to London or Paris or wherever. You'd have to physically collect the airline ticket, which came with triplicate or quadruplicate carbon paper, and would cost a large fortune.

Nowadays we don't think twice about making a direct booking on a hotel's or budget airline's website. It's all at the click of a mouse or the tap on a tablet, then printing out the boarding pass or reservation or downloading an app to flash at the boarding gate, once again all done on a mobile device.

Yet it was far from mobile devices we were reared. Perhaps that's what the old slogan and the abandoned old shop in Stoneybatter encapsulate: the enormous gulf between those pre-Internet days and our increasingly online and mobile modern world.

It's the gap between:

  • A Past when international travel was still exotic, expensive and futuristic, in fact so glamorously "jet-setty" that even CIE's shiny trains looked space agey in the posters; and
  • A Present in which air travel has become far more everyday, routine, a chore even ("Any laptops, liquids...?").

Like many a ghost sign, the signage of the Stoneybatter travel agency has a certain sadness about it, a whiff of mystery, a sense of déjà vu. With the hindsight of today, its slogan conjures up words such as "quaint", "charming", "archaic" or - yes - "bombastic". WE CAN FLY YOU ANYWHERE ON THE PLANET, WITH 10% OFF. Or as one tweet put it...

Like many a traditional business, The Travel Agent - once a completely taken-for-granted part of the streetscape - disappeared almost overnight, vanished without warning, or in this case it held on for several decades as a ghost sign, an unwanted building with an unforgettable facade.

I confess that I can't remember when the shop was last open; for some long-forgotten reason our family always used the Twohigs travel agency on Burgh Quay in town for such purposes. I think Twohigs is gone too.

At least the façade of the shop on Arbour Hill has a couple of telltale signs about its age:
  • The fax number. When did the fax machine become essential office equipment for Dublin businesses such as travel agents? Not before the late 1970s or early 1980s, surely?
  • The six-digit telephone number, "776644". Dublin's fixed-line phone numbers (the "01" area of the phonebook, back when we still had phonebooks and fixed lines and area codes) only expanded from six to seven digits in 1994.
So the shop probably closed sometime when the fax machine was ubiquitous, the mid- or late-1980s perhaps. If anybody knows the exact date (the year would do) please contact me via Twitter or my writing blog. You'll get a full credit in my next book if you want.

And while the top photo has a "For Sale" sign, I took it shortly before the property was sold in early 2012 (for €38,751). Note too how its neighbour on the left had a cat in the window, and how its neighbour on the rigth at 57A has since been redecorated and was put on sale earlier this month. You may have also spotted that this part of the street didn't have double-yellow lines back in the Noughties.

I'll do a quick update here if and when Worldwide Discount Airfares is finally turned into a new home.

Postscript, 19 August 2016: after I tweeted about this post I got a bit more of its history from Andy Sheridan (and a much better night-time photo of the building). You couldn't make it up.