I'm in Baden-Baden, Germany, but my thoughts are over in Shinsaibashi, Osaka, Japan where my 'local', Murphy's, is apparently closing down (or 'moving') this weekend. As the death-knells for the old place ring out, I thought a few words were appropriate...I have adored Shinsaibashi with a passion - I have it expressly written in my will that a share of my ashes are to be scattered, at night, along its streets. Many of the happiest nights of my life have been spent there. From glitzy restuarants to roadside noodle stands, I love the smell of the streets, the loitering characters, the infinity of possibilties and encounters waiting for you as you turn into each alleyway or entertainment building replete with its tapestry of bars and clubs.
I've been a regular at Murphy's for 19 years, having discovered it along with the rest of Shinsaibashi after being marooned the wrong side of my home turf of Sannomiya in the general chaos following the Great Hanshin Earthquake. It was never remotely 'local', being about 10 miles from where I lived, but at the time I'm pretty sure it was the only Irish pub in Kansai (it branded itself indeed as the first Irish pub in Japan).
These days it seems like you can't walk 200 metres anywhere in the world without tripping over an 'authentic Irish pub', which makes it impossible to believe that when I first lived in Tokyo as an undergrad in 1988, residing under the pylons by a railway track, it seemed surreal that a country like Ireland actually existed at all. If you mentioned it to the Japanese, many would think you were talking about Iceland; if you pointed to it on a map, most would adamantly declare that it was 'Igirisu' (Britain).
And then suddenly, there in Shinsaibashi was a little hole in the wall, where you could drink draught Guiness (and good Guiness too, better than the flat dregs they sell in the UK) and where the people of the world came for the craic. From the first time I went, I loved it and spent hundreds of nights there and millions of yen. (Photo below, courtesy Murphy's)
For me, all those nights started in the same place - Murphy's - with a pint of the black stuff in my hand. It wasn't of course just the Irish thing. Subsequently a slew of Irish pubs opened, though none exerted quite the same appeal. It was something to do with the dynamics of the space. Fanning out around you in high rise after high rise are bars, nightclubs, restaurants, street stalls, massage parlours, within touching distance from this little room on the sixth floor. Shinsaibashi is one of the world's great pleasure grounds. But at Murphy's it was all about intimacy: it was completely normal to go up and talk to everyone in the bar. The seats along the bar positively demanded interaction to left and right.
On far, far too many occasions, I have celebrated in Shinsaibashi until the first train at some bleary-eyed hour after dawn and fallen asleep next to bright-eyed salarymen on their way to work. I've danced in bars in Shinsaibashi that indeed only open at dawn and don't get into their stride until 7am (once happening to be in Shinsai at bright-and-early 11am,
wondering if it could possibly still be open, I popped my head inside that bar and was greeted as if still on a roll from the night before).
Those nights in Shinsaibashi might lead you anywhere - a bottle of shochu and a deep debate about your favourite Japanese author somewhere; or into the dancing arms of a beautiful Canadian, Korean, American or Australian girl. On one magical evening in Shinsai, I was tottering along a quiet street with delicate snow flakes fluttering down when a lift door opened and a topless hostess in heels stepped out and formally bowed farewell to her businessman client as he clambered into a taxi.
And then the people who came into that small space were people from every part of the world: Kiwis, Aussies, South Africans, South Americans, Indians, Serbians, Turks, Finns...and quite a few Irish too. Oh, and a few Japanese. Though for me, as a Japanese Uni boy who was saturated in Japanese all week long, 'meeting the locals' was never the priority.
You had to pan your way of course through a fair share of dull just-off-the-plane English teachers and the I'm-here-to-practice-my-
English Japanese brigade, but the golden nuggets were worth the effort. Some of the greatest characters I ever encountered, I met at Murphy's. After nearly seven years spent as a graduate student in Japan, I tragically failed to produce a single friend at the uni. But Murphy's gave me some of my dearest, lifelong friends. (As a small aside, I should also note that it gave me my life partner - an erstwhile barmaid at Murphy's - and it has from there played a hand in producing three children. )
There were too the endless nights of torpor, of non-happening, of waiting-to-happen, of reading newspapers, novels and critical theory along the bar. But that was all OK too. Murphy's was one of the few bars where you could get away with that without anyone thinking it odd.
For me there will probably never be another Murphy's, a bar whose prime happily coincided with (and abetted) my own nocturnal glory years. Never again will the lift doors open and will I strut out feeling that tonight the world is my oyster, that anything, in the magical floating world, is possible...if only I can first have a pint of Guiness.
Hail, Murphy's, dear friend. You are gone (in present incarnation at least) but not forgotten. To a Murphy from a Flanagan I raise a glass and salute you!
While hesitating to invoke the spirit of Tony Wilson who at the closing of The Hacienda encouraged the clientele to 'loot the place', I would at least like to lay claim to some of the memorabilia: the long-lost framed article donated by Mr. Sven Serrano about how Samuel Beckett had said it impossible to get a decent pint of the black stuff in Japan. Either that, or the picture of the other half circa 1997, when she looked about twelve...