Monday, August 01, 2011

Joyce as Travel writer - Magan's World, June 2011

The Irish Times - Saturday, June 11, 2011

Joyce - frustrated travel writer

MAGAN'S WORLD: MANCHÁN MAGAN’S tales of a travel addict

I HAVE SPENT the first half of this year crisscrossing our underused motorways listening to James Joyce riffing on the washing practices of prostitutes, the cannibalism of Holy Communion, Plumtree’s potted meat and the shame of shoneens who can’t speak their own language. I got Ulysses on tape from the library and as my only cassette player is in the car, I’ve found myself looking for excuses to make road trips. Invitations to give readings, attend events and talk to groups were accepted based on how far away they were.

Buck Mulligan’s bluster in the Martello tower lulled me along the N3 to a writers’ evening at the Droichead Arts Centre in Drogheda. Stephen Dedalus’ self-absorbed wanderings on Sandymount strand brought me to the gorgeous Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar. Leopold Bloom’s trip to a funeral shortened my drive to the Dingle Film Festival in March and Gerty MacDowell exposing her nether regions to an indecently aroused Bloom had me racing to Belfast in April.

It feels as though Bloom and Dedalus have taken up residence in my head. On a foggy February afternoon at Lough Boora Parklands in Offaly, their interior monologues whispered out at me from the bulrushes, birch and the bog-oak stumps. In fact, Lough Boora, with its charcoal swathes of bogland, smudged pigments, and wan washes of oily-toned water chimed perfectly with Joyce’s turgid brilliance.

It was while driving to the Delvin Book Fair at Easter that I suddenly came upon the realisation that Joyce was a frustrated travel writer at heart.

Had Go existed a century ago, he may well have found constructive use for his abilities, writing travel pieces rather than frittering away his talents on senseless shaggy-dog stories and smutty innuendo.

Ulysses comes alive once it turns to travel in chapter 16 with able-bodied seaman WB Murphy describing: “I was in the Red Sea. I was in China and North America and South America. I seen icebergs plenty, growlers. I was in Stockholm and the Black Sea, the Dardanelles . . . I seen a crocodile bite the fluke of an anchor same as I chew that quid.”

Finally, something other than prostitutes, pubs and scented soap. Murphy reveals a postcard of Peruvian man-eaters who eat corpses and horse livers, “a group of savage women in striped loincloths, squatted, blinking, suckling, frowning, sleeping, amid a swarm of infants outside some primitive shanties of osier”.

Now, there’s reportage as gritty as any written by Theroux, Thesiger or Thubron. The stories spark Bloom’s thoughts on tourism and, in his moseying diarrhoeic way, he muses on “opening up new routes to keep pace with the times apropos of the Fishguard-Rosslare route . . . A great opportunity there certainly was for push and enterprise to meet the travelling needs of the public at large.”

His eye for opportunities in the travel industry, chimes with another Mullingar-associated figure, Michael O’Leary. Both share a keen interest in the power of advertising, as well as strong feelings on the advisability of constructing certain tram routes.

Mullingar, after a period of being embarrassed by its smutty-tongued vacationer, has now officially embraced Joyce and on Bloomsday will hold a series of events focusing on the many references to the town and its “beef to the heels” in Ulysses. Watch out for pop-up readings in Mullingar cafes by playwright and “displaced” columnist, Michael Harding.

It’s worth following Joyce on a mini-holiday to Mullingar, although, Ulysses is like a holiday in itself, exhausting and stressful at times, with long tedious journeys through grim landscape rewarded by the occasional glimpse of (scrotumtightening) sea views, interesting local bars and memorable encounters with unusual characters. One returns home yearning to revisit.