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The Week in Radio: A stench that's not so offal


Stephen Fry and David Norris

Stephen Fry and David Norris

Stephen Fry and David Norris

What are the three things you most remember (or remember most) about Ulysses?”

People are, as you might (and probably do) imagine, forever asking me that. Well, by “forever”, of course, I mean “sometimes”. And by “sometimes,” of course, I mean “never”. And by “never”, of course, I mean “never”. Not once. Ever. Which is kind of disappointing.

But if they were to ask me (and it would be nice if they did... just so I felt included in this hot water-cooler conversation), then here’s how I’d answer.

1) I remember that Buck Mulligan was/is “stately” and “plump”. I remember this because Joyce conveniently revealed said information on the first line of the novel’s first page. Like all good writers do. Dan Brown pulled a similar trick with staggering Louvre curator Jacques Saunière. Remember him? He was, Dan told us (without any preamble), “renowned”. Which was important to know.

2) I remember the words that opened Chapter/Episode 3. They were: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.” Words — you might be thinking, through your own eyes — that are a bit on the off-puttingly abstruse side. Particularly when unfavourably compared ‘n’ contrasted with the zippy and engaging words that open Chapter 3 of The Da Vinci Code. “The crisp April air whipped through the open window of the Citroën ZX as it skimmed south past the Opera House and crossed Place Vendôme.” Back of the net. 2-0 to Dan.

3) I remember (most of all) that he — Ulysses I mean — killed the giant cyclops in the 31st century, whereupon he and his crew (and the robot Nono) were sentenced “to travel among unknown stars”. Their bodies? “Lifeless as stone.” If you don’t get that reference then you’ve probably wasted your life swanning about in a straw boater wolfing down liver and kidneys.

Yes, today is, of course, June 16. Or, at least, it is for me. In the now I now inhabit. For you... it’s already then. Over. Gone. Which is, when you think about it, kind of “poignant and shit” (as Joyce once, probably, said).

Anyway, it’s Bloomsday. Today. A today that is/was, suggested a roving and reporting Fergal Keane on Drivetime, “the day that Dublin was at its very best”. Which is the kind of statement that sounds like it means something. I’m just not sure what.

It’s easy to scoff at Bloomsday. To snigger at it how it functions as goofy Edwardian cosplay for literary nerds. To roll the eyes at how a neutered and sanitised Joyce has been co-opted into the wider world of Irish cultural tourism.

But then Keane reminds you, after a performance by the Glasnevin cemetery re-enactors, of how “very very funny” a novel Ulysses is (which is largely true). And then Sinéad Murphy and Darina Gallagher, creators of the “musical extravaganza... Songs of Joyce”, remind you (on Tuesday’s John Murray Show) that “the only problem with the inner organs of fowl” (key components of a “Joycean breakfast”) is the “faint stench of urine” (massively untrue... there are, clearly, many other problems).

And, suddenly, you find yourself getting into the whole bloody thing. And suddenly there’s David Norris delivering a delightful radio essay, on Monday’s Arena, where he calls Bloomsday a “Mardi Gras” and makes “no apologies for its vagaries and vulgarities”.

 And suddenly you whisper “Yes”. And your resistance crumbles (a little).


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