Thursday, 16 June 2011

Bloomsday 2011

Today is Bloomsday. To celebrate the day on which James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ was set, 107 years ago, I have written a trilogy of new pieces. Happy Bloomsday! Enjoy (click on images to enlarge):

Ulysses Prime

Like most things in life, I came to ‘Ulysses’ late. I was twenty five, in the second year of an astrophysics degree (I’d also come to university late), but having serious doubts about what I was doing. Astronomy was something I’d had a passion for since I was young. I’d spectacularly failed to apply myself at school, but having done a foundation year in physics and maths at night school, working my backside off in the process, I talked my way onto my preferred course at Cardiff University. Once I got there, I didn’t really a have a clue about what to do next.

So, after an indifferent first semester, in which I just scraped through exams, I did even less work during the second and flunked almost every subject. Taking re-sits over the summer, I did a single night’s revision for most subjects, managing to pass everything but the Theoretical Physics module and had to wait a year before I could sit the exam for a third time. I shouldn’t have gone back, but once I did, you’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson and applied myself. But no. I was spectacularly failing all over again. And these were the conditions under which I first read ‘Ulysses’.

It took three weeks that first time. I should have been studying Schrodinger’s wave equations and logic circuits, but instead I was playing ‘Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time’ on the N64 and reading ‘Ulysses’. My reward for finishing a dungeon on Zelda was that I got to read a chapter of ‘Ulysses’. An odd way ‘round to do things, I know. I probably didn’t understand one fifth of what I was reading (I missed the Blazes Boylan subplot entirely), but I knew that what I was reading was a revelation. Countless times people had told me that such-and-such a novel or play was a masterpiece and I had read them and always felt let down. It wasn’t that they weren’t great works, but appreciation is a matter of expectation and if you expect genius and find merely brilliance, there’s an sense of underwhelming disappointment. ‘Ulysses’ was the first book I read that exceeded those expectations.

In many ways, it is an experience from which I have yet to truly recover. I dropped out of university soon after. Astronomy may have been my first love, but another obsession had been creeping up on me those last few years. What I really wanted was to be a writer. It was something for which I seemed to have a talent. I think I thought it would make a good career. I’d had no artistic pretentions, the life of a hack would suit me just fine.

Reading ‘Ulysses’, all I could think was, “You mean you’re allowed to do this? Why did no one tell me?” My literary third eye had, to paraphrase Bill Hicks, been squeegeed clean. A whole new world had opened as to what literature could achieve. You weren’t limited to telling a story at the surface level, the syntax and associations of the words you chose to employ could tell another story entirely.

I worked for a year, then went backpacking around Europe (another late first), taking ‘Ulysses’ with me and reading it again. I read Joyce’s other masterpieces. When Jim Norton’s unabridged reading of ‘Ulysses’ was released, I listened to that and got a handle on the few chapters that were still troubling me. And all the time I was teaching myself the skills that I thought would make me a better writer. I knew that I would never be as good as Joyce, but that was fine. Joyce was (and is) my high water mark. Joyce is an unscalable peak, always ahead of me, reminding me to never stop climbing.

It is therefore no coincidence that in making one of my first attempts to write a short story, I turned to both Joyce and Greek legend for inspiration. In ‘Eden Stir Her Laceless Veil’, I borrowed Joyce’s switching between the passive and active voice in ‘Eveline’ (from ‘Dubliners’) and appropriated the myths relating to Jason and Medea, performing the same Viconian transformation that Joyce had made on the legend of Odysseus when writing ‘Ulysses’.

Giambattista Vico was a 17th/18th century Italian political philosopher who theorised that all of human history moves through three cycles, The Age of Gods, The Age of Heroes and The Age of Man, before the Ricorso, the time of chaos before everything resets itself and begins the whole cycle again. In ‘Ulysses’, Joyce transforms Odysseus into Leopold Bloom. Whereas Homer’s hero is a brutal hothead, Joyce’s ‘Poldy’ is a thoughtful pacifist. God’s and nymphs are replaced by the ordinary men and women of Dublin and great signifiers of power and virility become objects of the commonplace.

In writing ‘Eden Stir Her Laceless Veil’, I studied the legends connected to Jason and Medea in great detail and sought mundane modern equivalents to their key events. Ultimately, I don’t want to write like Joyce. As brilliant as he is, his later works are so opaque and obscure that they put most people off. Few people read the classics as it is and I’d rather find a happy medium between art and popularism. I want to be read. That said, I wanted to write a short piece where virtually every word had meaning: where, like Joyce, no other word would do than the one I had chosen. For a first effort, it’s not bad, although I’ve written better since (you can read it here: along with some companion pieces).

‘Ulysses’ remains not only my favourite novel, but my favourite work of art, period. With each successive reading, I discover subplots that I hadn’t noticed before and new nuances to the text. It is the book that just keeps on giving. ‘Ulysses’ had a profound effect upon me on that first reading and I am still reeling from the effects over a decade later. I may spend the rest of my life as an enthusiastic amateur, eeking out a living from writing reports, but it’s a life affirming path with some breathtaking views. And there’s always the next reading of ‘Ulysses’ to look forward to. I envy anyone reading Joyce for the first time.

Ulysses “Seen”

As should be readily apparent by now, I love ‘Ulysses’ and all things Joyce. Since his works were first published, it’s from the United States that the most interesting and enlightening Joycean work has come (ironic, given America’s significance in ‘Finnegans Wake’, representing the afterlife to Dublin’s Egypt). From Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson’s book, ‘A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake’, written in the years immediately following the book’s release against noises of general derision, to ‘James Joyce Quarterly’, published since the 1960s by Tulsa University, Oklahoma, American scholarship has embraced Joyce like no other country outside of Ireland. Maybe even more so.

Today, the most interesting interpretation of Joyce’s novels is still coming from the other side of the Atlantic. In Philadelphia, a small group of artists and scholars have set themselves a task that has something of the Herculean rather than Odyssean about it. Robert Berry, Mike Barsanti, Josh Levitas, Janine Utell and Chad A Rutkowski of Throwaway Horse have set out on the epic quest to translate ‘Ulysses’ into comic book format. ‘Ulysses “Seen”’ is the result, published online and through its own iPad app. The project is still in its infancy, with only two chapters so far completed, but that’s one of the many exciting features of ‘Ulysses “Seen”’. There is so much more of it to look forward to.
Partly, one wonders why no-one has thought to draw ‘Ulysses’ before. It is after all a book of the senses, every page alive with sights and sounds and smells. ‘Ulysses’ is also a great sprawling novel. Despite being set on a single day, it veers wildly off course in time and space and reality, before returning to the streets of Dublin, 16 June 1904. You can therefore appreciate why no-one’s been brave enough to make the attempt. It would be all too easy to make a mess of the entire venture. Spend thirty minutes in the company of ‘Ulysses “Seen”’ and you realise that the book is in very capable hands.

Of course no comic book, no matter how beautifully rendered, can substitute an actual reading of the novel. Yet, for first timers, ‘Ulysses “Seen”’ is a splendid introduction to a challenging novel. For those of us who have long since put that first, difficult reading behind us, rereading and rereading until we know its passages so well, ‘Ulysses “Seen”’ brings a new twist to an old favourite. Reading any book is an act of symbiosis between writer and reader, the one sketching out an outline, the other filling in shadows and colours from their individual experience. Yet there is so much going on in virtually every word, clause and sentence of ‘Ulysses’, that a visual production is an ideal way to illuminate a number of key passages in the text. TV or film couldn’t quite manage it, too much would still get lost between the gaps. The comic book format, with its traditional mixture of images and thought bubbles, is a much better bet. 
We can get an idea of why this is so by considering a number of panels from ‘Calypso’ in ‘Ulysses “Seen”’. Leopold Bloom has popped out to the butchers. As he makes the first of many journeys across Dublin, he thinks about his wife still lying in bed, nymph like, behind him in Eccles Street. Molly was born in Gibraltar and as Bloom’s mind drifts, thinking about the track of the sun, Dublin is transformed into a Moorish scene of minaret and casaba. Bloom daydreams about faraway lands, his black suit and bowler hat transformed into bright yellow robes and green turban. Then we see him think, “Probably not a bit like it really.” and the rounded Arabian skyline returns to the flat tops of Dublin. 
The series of images here make me think of an episode of ‘Mr Benn’, although I appreciate this association is meaningless to anyone not brought up on 1970s British television. The scene is one of many visual jokes, one of many Ulyssean comments on the chasm between perception and reality that can get lost in a purely literary reading of the novel. ‘Ulysses “Seen”’ manages to tease out some of the detail and obscurities. It can’t catch them all and nor does it try. Yet there is more than enough here to entertain and enthral and send the viewer back to the text with a fresh appreciation of the genius of James Joyce.

‘Ulysses “Seen”’ is a joy to behold and I look forward to the chapters that are to come. I can’t wait to see what they do with the newspaper headlines in ‘Aeolus’ and the gigantism of ‘Cyclops’. I can’t wait to see Bloom’s coronation, his trial, his transformation into a woman in the Mabbot Street brothel of ‘Circe’. And at the end of it all there will be Molly Bloom and her unpunctuated soliloquy. There are many years and adventures ahead of us. If you’re a fan of ‘Ulysses’ or the comic book genre, head for See now!

Ulysses Found

I was born on 2 February 1973, exactly 91 years to the day after James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. So, at the end of January 2004, I set off on a pilgrimage to find his grave.

It didn’t start well. I could have just flown straight to Switzerland, but that would have been too easy. Instead, I decided to fly from Liverpool to Paris first, spend a few days in the city where Joyce finished writing ‘Ulysses’, then catch a train to Zurich.

I spend the night before departure with my cousin and her boyfriend over the water in Birkenhead. In a rush to get out in the morning, I manage to leave a pair of jeans behind, with my bankcard in the back pocket, and have to use a credit card for the rest of the journey. Then I nearly miss the bus to John Lennon, a bus which seems to need to travel almost 360o around the perimeter fence before it can enter the airport. Still, I’m Henry Rollins like in the speed with which I fly through customs and in the end have thirty five minutes to spare.

Fuck me, I think, as we fly south, how can people do this day in, day out and not convert to Buddhism? Before today, I had been on a grand total of three flights. The first was an internal British flight when I was about eight months old. The second a 1950’s Cessna with no door. I jumped out of that with a bit of canvas strapped to my back. The third flew from Madrid to Liverpool, me with a girl terrified of flying who had to drink almost an entire bottle of vodka before she would even contemplate boarding. Luckily it was pitch black outside, but I still spent most of the three hour flight trying to keep her calm.

At 29,000 feet you finally realise why so many of those men who went to the Moon didn’t come back quite the same. The plane’s silhouette is cast upon a bank of cloud cover, backlit by the sun. Doughnut shaped rainbows are projected by the cabin windows onto the ruffled hills beneath, which are thrown like a duvet thrown across the world. And then a break in the cover and geodesic fields are revealed beneath, dusted with snow. Motorways cut into landscape. Man’s order imposed upon nature.

Over the channel, the merest flecks of clouds are all that stand between me and the deep, dark waters below. They’re so small that for a moment they look like wakes left by fish or other marine creatures. The French coastline already fills the view ahead. Ten minutes is all it takes to cross the channel and the clouds, now more like soiled nappies, return to engulf us. I hope this isn’t an indication of trouble ahead. We begin a slow decent.

An hour. That’s all it takes to reach Paris. It takes me longer to get to work in the morning. I need to fly more, I decide. By the end of this journey, I will have doubled the amount of planes I have been on in my life. It’s good for the soul to be this high up. Flight widens your horizons and expands the scope of what seems possible. Not good for the environment though. Maybe I should take up hand gliding. Or ballooning.

It takes an age to get from Charles de Gaulle to Paris, especially when your hostel lies in an arrondissement on the opposite side of town. It’s strange being back here in this city and this hostel. The last time I was here, four years ago, I got drunk with two English guys, had an in depth conversation about the Beatles and then the three of us spent hours trying to find somewhere that sold take away food. Not a Parisian speciality and we ended up buying crisps and other junk from one of those walled in, windowless mini-marts that are a feature of most French towns.

I love Paris. I love travelling on the Metro better than any other underground system in the world. It’s the aroma of engine oil that I find so romantic and a perfect metaphor for love: Overpowering and not exactly good for you. I love the handles you have turn to open the carriage doors. I love the pharmacies every three shop fronts and the newsagents that don’t sell tobacco. A concept alien to the British. News. Nicotine. Can they not see the obvious connection? No, they put their tobacconists inside cafes. The Gallic idiots.

I check in, dump my stuff in my room, take the Metro over to Montparnasse and just start walking. Anywhere, it doesn’t matter. I pass the Jardin du Luxembourg on my way, a place that almost every writer who came here to live in the 30s speaks about with such passion. I’ve never really understood the fascination. The Eiffel Tower calls to me in the distance. Draws me in like an old flame. It’s nearly closing time and I just pay to walk up to the first couple of levels. In the chill of the January gloom, it doesn’t seem quite the same. When you’ve been here in love, it’s hard to return to alone. Too many memories. C’est la vie. Abandon the old and stale. Let’s look ahead to the new.


Day two and another inauspicious start. At the Pompidou Centre for 9, only to discover it doesn’t open ‘till 11. So I wandered aimlessly back to Notre Dame to find Shakespeare and Company, but that’s shut too. A lot more aimless wandering and eventually I find the Picasso Museum and hey, third time lucky, it’s open.

I’m never quite sure what to make of Picasso. He used to do nothing for me. And then I went to the Reina Sofia in Madrid and saw ‘Guernica’. I was blown away. In the interceding years, I have grown to love much of Picasso’s earlier works, particularly from his pink and blue periods. Yet much of what’s on offer in the Picasso Museum in Paris is his later works and they’re all a little samey. It’s a museum that seems to pander to the stereotypical view of a Picasso work, too many cubist works, not enough variation. I prefer Dali. Lot’s going on. Subliminal and subconscious. Or Magritte. Simple, but grandiose. A true surrealist. Maybe Picasso’s not pretentious enough for me.

By the time I return, the Pompidou Centre has been open for an hour. Huge. Just about every modern artist you can think of is represented. Chagall, Miro, Dali, Magritte, Warhol, Matisse and, of course, Picasso. It’s not something to be absorbed in one visit. The Louvre in miniature. I’m there three hours and by the time I come out I felt like a futurist painting: shattered. Now Picasso’s futurist paintings I do like.

Late lunch and on the Metro to Montmartre. The Basilique de Sacre-Coeur is my favourite building in the whole of Paris. It has the best views, but they’re a hard won reward. The climb to the top leaves one exhausted. But it’s worth the aching lungs. Great Byzantine teats protrude from the smaller domes, framing the view from out of the main dome. The Eiffel Tower stands astride the narrow world in the distance. Worth climbing every worn step and squeezing past every person heading in the opposite direction.

I go back via the crypt. Weird. There’s a carved image of Christ lying in his tomb, which despite being in bronze and black, is so lifelike that you half expect him to resurrect himself at any moment. There’s also an huge statue of a former Bishop of Paris holding the whole of Sacre-Coeur on the tips of his fingers. The arrogance of religion!

When I was here first time, I sat on a stone bench at the base of Sacre-Coeur, by a water feature, and read from ‘Ulysses’, feeling very pleased with myself. However, it’s the nadir of the tourist season and the street artists and sellers of cheap tat here are desperate to reel in any chump. Not a time to be hanging about.

Saturday morning, La Défense McDonalds, listening to the first Elbow album. It’s my strongest abiding memory of this time in Paris, sat here eating rubberised meat for breakfast, listening to ‘Bitten by the Tailfly’. I only ever patronise the evil arches on holiday, it’s the only way to ensure that the meat is incinerated properly, especially in France. I came up here first thing, just to have a look at the arch, which is ok. There’s a lift to the top, but it doesn’t seem to be open. Still, you can see all the way back to the Arc de Triomphe from the front steps, which is good enough.

I seem to spend most of this last day in Paris reading ‘The Garden of Eden’ on the Metro. It’s one of Hemingway’s less well known novels and one of the few I hadn’t read. I read over a hundred pages just travelling under Paris. The plan is to have it finished and be rereading ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ by the time I enter Switzerland (“Ooh err” as it says in my journals from the time). Did I succeed? Stay tuned.

Leaving La Défense, I head for the Museum of Science and Industry on the opposite end of Paris, spending most of the rest of the day there. I pay extra for the Planetarium, but the soft voice of the French woman doing the voiceover is so relaxing that she nearly puts me to sleep.

Then I finally get to visit Shakespeare and Company. The original Shakespeare and Co was run by Silvia Beach, the woman who first published ‘Ulysses’. The shop that now bears that name is in a different location and, to my surprise, mainly sells new books. It runs some services for writers, but in the winter of 2003/2004 I was no more than a dreamer and to me it is nothing but a shop selling books for inflated Parisian prices (at the original Shakespeare and Co, Henry Miller was apparently notorious for returning borrowed books late). I buy a copy of Kerouac’s ‘Dharma Bums’, complete with Shakespeare and Company stamp, and a postcard, now framed and propped up against one of the many piles of books I have stacked up, very much in the tradition of Shakespeare and Company.

I want to visit one of the Parks of Paris. I pick Viciennes, but when I get to where the Metro map says it is, it isn’t immediately evident where I should go. I wander around lost for quarter of an hour, give up and leave. Someone has a heart attack in one of the other carriages coming back, delaying us for half an hour until the Paramedics arrive. I change some money for Swiss Francs on my way back, pass Invalides without going in, and go back to the hostel.

I’ve enjoyed being back in Paris. It’s a good city in which to acclimatise to the continent before moving on. The hostel is virtually deserted that last night, but apart from a few gaggles of children on school trips, it had been throughout my stay. This is not the time of year to expect to make new friends. January is as off season as it’s possible to be. In Zurich I am to be staying in a hotel, so there I can expect even worse. I have a CD player, a long wave radio and James Joyce with me. I’ll be fine.


The French countryside rolls past the window. Paris lies two hours behind. Very tired. I lost count of the amount of times I woke in the night, panicking I’d overslept. I had to be up for 6.30 and my phone kept slipping out of reach. So the routine would go: Arrggh, what time is it? Shit, where’s my phone. Can’t find my phone, can’t find my phone. Oh thank fuck, there it is. 3.38. Shit!

When I did have to get up, everyone else was still asleep in the dorm and it was pitch black. I spent 15 minutes just trying to get my sleeping bag back in its bag. I got a new one especially for this trip, but seem to have bought a child’s size. I’m quite short and yet I can just about fit the hood over my head. When I did eventually get the bloody thing in the bag, I remembered my money belt was still in it and I had to start the whole frustrating process from scratch.

The train left Gare du Lyon at 8.10 and I finished reading ‘The Garden of Eden’ by 9. Not Hemingway’s best book, not his worst. Graphic in places. Ménage a troi between the two girls and the Hemingway character. Yet what I love about Hemingway is that what he doesn’t say is as important as what he does. He is as a writer should be, recognising the symbiotic relationship between writer and reader. He assumes a level of intelligence in his reader and leaves them to fill in the gaps. Which is the antithesis of modern culture, where everything must be explained and re-explained ad nauseum, to the point where it ends up saying nothing. God forbid that anyone should think or exercise their own imagination.

Despite sitting in a reserved seat, a seat I reserved before I left Britain, the guard informs me that the back few carriages don’t go as far as Basel (where I have to go through customs and change trains), so I have to move to the front of the train. Glad to see that it’s not just British train companies that operate without rhyme or reason. Joyce and Ani DiFranco’s ‘Educated Guess’ accompany me past Alpine chalets and snow draped hills into Switzerland.

Ah Zurich. I only quite like it. My first impression is the same as of all cities: a harsh industrial and commercial town, peppered with the classical beauty of previous ages. It’s not Paris, but it has its own charm. There are two things people tell you when you mention Switzerland; that it’s ridiculously expensive and ridiculously clean. Guilty on both counts.

I’ve been seven hours travelling and with a long day planned tomorrow, I need to chill and get an early night. However, I head out and wander in my same aimless style for a couple of hours. Mountains hang on the horizon, snow capped and imposing. Lake Zurich fills my vista as I stroll over to the waterfront, snaking away into the distance to meet the mountains at their foothills. I try to comprehend it all. That Joyce walked these same streets eighty years before, that great swathes of ‘Ulysses’ were composed on these same avenues. Of course the same is also true of Paris, but here it is even more so. I am following the ‘Ulysses’ trail in reverse. If I had the time and expense, I would head for Trieste, where it all began. Ah well, I’ll have to content myself with being in the place where most of the book was written, and, of course, where Joyce died and is buried.


Bourseday. There’s some texts waiting for me when I wake and a couple of cards to open in my bag, but it feels weird being hundreds of miles from anybody I know today. With a little investigation, I find the Joyce Foundation. It only opens Tuesday to Thursday. The museum beneath it doesn’t open ‘til 12, so I head for the Modern Art Museum. That’s shut on a Monday as well.

By now I am totally fed up, but find an internet cafe, discover that Joyce is buried in Fluntern Cemetery and head for Tourist Information. I’m told to take the no 5 tram to Fluntern. The tram leaves from the other end of town. The trams in Zurich are odd. You pay not for a journey, but for a period of time. It’s the supermarket sweep of public transport: get as far as you can get in an hour, go! The tram goes up a steep hill, where I jump off and ask a woman in a kiosk for Fluntern. “Joyce?” she asks. I nod. Get another tram up to the zoo, she tells me, but looking on the map I can see a huge park marked, Fluntern. The cemetery is on the edge, easily within walking distance.

Just before 1pm on the 2 February 2004, exactly halfway through my trip, I stand before the object of and the impetus for this journey. A dark grey slab of marble lying in a sunken pit, cut away in the turf. The grave has been cleared of snow, but still covers the ground around it. A statue of Joyce sits off to the right behind the gravestone, right ankle resting on his left knee, cigarette in his hand, walking stick resting against hip, gaze off in the distance to his right.

Not only James, but wife Nora, their son George and his wife Asta are buried here. ‘James Joyce, Dublin 2 11 1882’. Hang on, what? November. Joyce was born in November? No, that can’t be right.

The whole plot is given over to the Joyce family grave and there’s bench at the opposite end. I sit down and dig out my copy of ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ and check the notes. 2nd February 1882. Oh thank fuck. What an anticlimax that would be to travel all this distance only to discover that I’d gotten it wrong.

Then it clicks. For reasons best know to themselves, the Swiss have put the month in Roman numerals. Not 2 11 1882, but 2 II 1882. I feel an enormous sense of relief. I send some texts, take some photos, then read from Portrait and feel immensely pleased with myself. It may not be the source of the Nile, but it is the source of much that is important to me (see Ulysses Prime).

I don’t know what I hoped to find when I got here. I think in my head I half expected to find the girl of my dreams laying flowers at Jim’s grave. I am nothing if not a hopeless fantasist. I stay an hour, but no one else shows up. I guess Bloomsday is the major event in the Joyce calendar. At least it happens in summer rather than the dead of winter. Helen, who I stayed with before flying out, was born on Bloomsday. My brother was born on St Patrick’s Day. A proper Irish family. Well actually, no, asides from having Irish ancestry and a few accidents of birth, that’s about it.

For the rest of the day, I revert to my default state and wander aimlessly around town, listening to ‘Blood on the Tracks’. Down to Lake Zurich to take some photos of the Alps, then up to the Botanical Gardens, which are more like an allotment. Then back up the hill to find the FIFA building: A complex as soulless as the organisation it houses. I manage to get lost on the way back down and walk for hours before finding the right road. Yet before long I am sat in a cafe, back by the shores of Lake Zurich, eating sausage and half a chicken.

Our birthday ends back in my hotel room, having my first alcoholic drink in six months (vodka and coke) and watching the UK Snooker Championship on Eurosport. The holiday would end, after a day in Geneva and a 6.30 flight the following morning, with me watching the final of the snooker in a coffee shop in Amsterdam. But as Amsterdam has nothing to do with James Joyce or ‘Ulysses’, that’s a story that can wait for another time.

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