Tag Archives: James Joyce

Elton John, 29 Canadian sex workers, $75,000, a Toronto hotel, stag parties

Logs_FraserRiver_Vancouver

I have received another email from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent.

She lives in a boat near Vancouver.

She says:


We are in the middle of a series of three huge storms; the next one is the tail end of a typhoon. Last night a tugboat ran aground off a remote section of the coast and it is leaking fifty thousand of litres of diesel, threatening the clam beds at Bella Bella.

We were promised last year that there would be a moratorium on tanker traffic by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (known locally as Donny Osmond), but the local Bella Bella  M.P. says he is still waiting for some legislation that is not filled with loopholes..

I am limbering up to visit Toronto on Tuesday with a delegation of eight hookers from the west coast. We are flying them in from the east coast also. I like saying ‘hookers’ but properly we are called ‘sex worker organizations’. It looks better than Elton John pays out thousands of dollars to 29 Canadian hookers.

Anna Smith with Andrew Sorflee, president of the Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association of British Columbia (Photo by William Pritchard)

Anna Smith with Andrew Sorfleet, president of the Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association of British Columbia (Photograph by William Pritchard)

An HIV researcher has been given a $75,000 grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation in support of his work to prevent HIV infection among Canadian sex workers.

The money is going to facilitate the consultation (and possibly record a pop video of it). We are getting our airfare and hotel paid but not receiving a salary.

We are going to stay in a regular downtown hotel on Yonge Street and having the consultation at the University of Toronto but, when I was there in the 1980s, I lived in the Selby Hotel, so I am the missing link between Ernest Hemingway and Elton John because Hemingway also lived in the Selby 60 years earlier.

I don’t know which room he was in. Maybe I shared the same bathtub as him. I did drink a lot while living there and ate mostly salad as there was no stove. I also learned how to cure ham, as there was no refrigerator either. The bathtub was fantastic though: a huge clawed thing in its own room. It was a great place to sleep, drink and bathe in.

Plus, if I wanted drugs, all I had to do was go to the basement, because it was a gay bar and you could easily buy any drug there. The bar was called BOOTS.

Also it was handy when I danced at Italian stag parties. The Italian stags (they travelled in groups) would eagerly drive me home from the suburbs in their comfortable new Cadillacs. I would instruct them to drive into the parking lot and they would say in surprise: “You live here?”

Outside the bar would be guys in leather, groping each other or passionately kissing.

I would say: “Yup! Thanks for driving me all the way home.” Then I would jump out of the car and go into the bar, quickly buy some hash and go upstairs to my room and make another salad.

The Fillmores Club in Toronto

The Filmores Club in Toronto – stag parties, art and poetry

When I was living at the Selby, I mostly was dancing at a club called Filmores. When I walked home at 3.00am, I sometimes found interesting things on the street.

Once I found a huge painting that I liked – an abstract patterned with zigzag lines and bright geometric shapes. It reminded me of a Rousseau – it had the feeling of a jungle with layers of bright yellow and green painted in vivid 80’s style. So I dragged it home to my room and kept it for ages. It felt like a stage scrim and made every room it was in seem larger.

Another time, I spotted a poem glinting from a rainy dark puddle in the street. It was in the handwriting of a young child and was addressed: TO DAD.

I picked up the poem, which was written on a rectangular piece of coloured paper, and carried it home like a treasure.

It was a very beautiful and lonely poem which gave me a sad feeling. I thought it might be a Father’s Day present that the child had tragically dropped on the way home.

TO DAD

All day I hear the noise of waters
Making moan,
Sad as the sea-bird is when, going
Forth alone,
He hears the winds cry to the water’s
Monotone.

What a great poem, I thought. It showed how brilliant children are before they get boxed in and made to conform. I’ve always loved the art that children make.

After having that poignant fragment in my mind for many years I then discovered that the poem had actually been written by James Joyce.

I have been sleeping a bit fitfully. Ferries are being cancelled due to storm. I will now try to wake up, make a coffee and look out to see if the river is flowing onto the road yet.

CONTINUED HERE

A slightly out-of-focus map of Toronto which Anna painted in around 1978.

A slightly out-of-focus map of Toronto which Anna painted in around 1978.

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The final paragraph of the last story

James Joyce in Zurich, 1914

James Joyce photographed in Zurich, 1915

As this is the last of my daily blogs, I can indulge myself…

…and print what I think is the best-written paragraph I have ever read.

It is the final paragraph in the final story of James Joyce’s book of short stories: Dubliners.

It was published in 1914.

You have to read the whole story to get the full effect.

But here are the last four paragraphs of that final story: The Dead


The title page of the first edition in 1914 of Dubliners.

The title page of the first edition in 1914

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


So it goes…

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Comic Lewis Schaffer “has got that same metaphysical motive as Shakespeare’s characters” says British academic study

Academic researcher Liam - as he wishes to be seen

Academic researcher Liam – as he wishes to be seen

In the last few months, I have posted some extracts from chats Liam Lonergan had with me and various comedians, including Lewis Schaffer for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth. Yesterday, I got a message from Liam:

I got a 1st for my Media Writing Project / Dissertation. It consisted of a research bundle, a series of long-form articles and an essay about:

a) how stand-up starts as an egalitarian pursuit but is eventually absorbed into market capitalism,

b) How Lewis Schaffer relates to literary modes of humour and

c) the link between humour and hypomania.

(The latter was eventually abandoned but it was still part of my research).

“Can I print your academic piece about Lewis Schaffer?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“What should I say about you?” I asked.

“Maybe mention,” he said, “that I review restaurants for a website called Blue Tomato and that, one day, I hope to write ‘The Great Essex Novel’ in the same vein as that other quested-for chimera ‘The Great American Novel’.”

“Have you got a photo of yourself looking suitably academic?” I asked.

“I’ve attached a picture that you can use,” he told me. “I want a picture of me that is the antithesis of scholarly.”

That is the picture above, together with Liam’s thesis below.


Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless guru

All of us think in a series of banalities; useless thoughts and redundant ideas that fall away like discarded receipts. My housemate and I used to have an ongoing joke where we place bits of ephemera found in our pockets (a ticket; a tissue; a raisin) onto each other’s pillow. We put them there as if they were a present or a swimming certificate or anything other than a train ticket or a bit of old raisin.

We never spoke about it. The joke was that, by sneaking in and displaying these innocuous items prominently on the pillow, they were given some sort of “weight.” They were imbued with symbolic gesture. We also used to play a game where we left a mug out on the mantelpiece and waited four months until it was really dusty. We called it Dusty Cup.

This meant nothing.

In his book about comedy and literature, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, James Wood writes about the irrelevance of stream of consciousness and how we’re “continually remembering more, and most of it is useless information.” Our thought processes are pure raisin – they’re full of useless information – but we always infuse this uselessness with meaning.

Nearly all the dialogue in the HBO series True Detective was constructed by this instinct to make bollocks seem important. (Sidenote: The Ladybird Book of Gnosticism was a vital source for Nic Pizzolatto). Another example is Andy Kaufman’s “deadpan showbiz parody” and “dadaist performance art.” While commentators wrote about the postmodernist aspect of his act, he always insisted that it was devoid of any real substance. In 1979 he told Time magazine “The critics try to intellectualize my material. There’s no satire involved. Satire is a concept that can only be understood by adults. My stuff is straight, for people of all ages.” Wood goes on to write about the “status of irrelevant detail.”

For me, my favourite comedy is about these irrelevant details and our digressionary pursuit of gravitas (while, ultimately, settling on the pointless stuff). Again, as Wood says: “It is always funny when singular novelty is passed off as a general wisdom.”

Stream of consciousness on the page can never mimic actual thought processes as syntax is too calculated; it’s too exact. Russian novelist Vladimir Nabakov complained that the problem with James Joyce’s Ulysses is that we don’t think in words. Joyce – in-between writing letters to Nora Barnacle about her “gushing hole” or “arse full of farts” that he fucked out of her – attempted to capture the metamorphosis and constant displacement of mental activity.

When you transcribe interviews (or watch politicians go off-piste during a photo op in Iceland) you notice this kind of transient, shifting language. People speaking in half aborted statements that they pick up an hour later; malopropistic mangling that, somehow, has its own internal logic; explanations that peter out and…

The prototype for stream of consciousness in fiction was Shakespeare’s soliloquies. These are meant to provide an insight into the brain of Lady Macbeth or Edmund via. a recital to the omnipotent audience, but they, too, can’t accurately capture consciousness. They’re “thought” after thought. Carefully composed language acts as an agent for the knotted-pubic-thatch of brain function.

After five years of studying Shakespeare in senior school we know that these speeches are attached to a half-a-ton of subtext; a Kerouac scroll of margin notes about “out damn spot!” and “unsex me here”. (Sidenote (2): In the latter speech, Mrs. Macbeth wanted her feminine nature to be taken away. She should have just called Joyce and asked him to come over to suck the “little naughty farties” out of her arse. Job done).

Shakespeare’s universe is populated by people with intent. Everything that comes into their head is multi-sided and full of meaning. They never ruminate on why James Locke from The Only Way Is Essex looks like he has no eyelids or if Kim Kardashian uses a lot of Sudocrem. The heroes and heroines / villains and villainesses vocalise their interior monologues because they have a metaphysical motive: they want to show the audience and themselves that they exist. They can’t exist in a cocoon of private mood.

In life, people don’t usually narrate their feelings and intentions out loud. They keep them contained on a human Cloud Drive or put them on their Twitter feed. One notable exception is the comedian.

The best comedians transmit their agonies or intentions – minus an author’s literary-technical need – directly to the other people in the room. The more ill prepared the material, the better. They usually position themselves in contrast to what, in the words of American academic and Presbyterian minister, Conrad Hyers, is considered “authentically human”. Hyers writes that heroic traits such as “courage, loyalty, duty, honor, pride, indomitable will, stubborn determination, passionate involvement, absolute devotion, uncompromising dedication” have become, in our common understanding of what makes someone a correct human, a list of sought after characteristics.

For comedians, it’s part of the criteria that they’re none of these things. (Sidenote (3): Although, Tim Heidecker, of the comedy duo Tim & Eric, was stabbed twice in 2006 while attempting to protect his elderly neighbour from her son. Some are brave but only behind closed doors).

Hyers goes on to say that “the comic vision possesses a greater appreciation for the muddiness of human nature.” This includes the raisin and the Dusty Cup of nothing. The insubstantial stuff.

Dusty Cup is the “midst of nothingness” that Vladimir, in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, talks about towards the end of the play. It’s the elliptical nature of existence. It’s the explanations that…

In November 2013, I went to Soho to meet Lewis Schaffer. Lewis is a 56 year old stand-up who moved from New York to Nunhead approximately 12 years ago and performs two weekly shows at The Source Below. He also has a residency at the Leicester Square Theatre where he features most Sunday evenings with his other show, American In London. Martin Witts, the Artistic Director of the LST, said that Lewis is a “long term project” and he hopes that, one day, “he’ll be consistently funny”. When he emailed me this, I replied with: “the inconsistency is part of his charm!” Lewis keeps the discarded receipts.

Lewis has an off-white complexion that is somewhere between “Dunmore Cream” and “Monroe Bisque” – with a slightly swampy tinge – and a face with the same solid architecture as the Boxer of Quirinal (minus the beard). He’s stocky with hunched shoulders and wears a suit that has some strain on the middle button a la Oliver Hardy or Jackie Gleason. His hair is peppery. This is a different colour to the ink-cartridge-black that appears in most of his promotional photos.

He is scattergun in speech and disposition and sounds a bit like Martin Scorsese or Greg Proops or one of those manicured Jewish mothers. During conversation, he often veers off course (“A limey! A limey. From Limehouse. Limey from Limehouse. Hey! So. So what was the question you had?”) and chases another fleeting thought or a snippet of conversation with the Lewis Schaffer regulars. He was on first name terms with nearly all of the people who filtered into his show. It was like a tree-house gang.

Lenny Bruce, in his autobiography How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, wrote “As a child I loved confusion: a freezing blizzard that would stop all traffic and mail; toilets that would get stopped up and overflow and run down the halls; electrical failures – anything that would stop the flow and make it back up and find new direction. Confusion was entertainment to me.” Schaffer’s whole act operates on this notion of chaos – “I believe in chaos. [The whole thing] is training for chaos” – but it all seems so brilliantly aimless.

When Lenny Bruce utilized stream of consciousness and exploratory improvisation – in the jazz-club-patois that he helped to popularise – he always had an ulterior motive. It was a device to dent taboos or rile up the audience with its incessantness; it was used to rouse a state of righteous indignation so he can could highlight the hypocrisy of the righteous. Bruce was the hero with a bundle full of soliloquies. Schaffer is pure comedy. There doesn’t appear to be any social or political incentive; it’s all about answering Schaffer’s often repeated mantra: “Is that funny?”

Richard Zoglin, an American journalist and author, said that the cardinal rule of comedy is “Don’t ever be standing on the same level as the tables.”

The Source Below is a tiny venue run by two Brazilians (one Brazilian/Italian; one Brazilian/German). The “stage” is just another section of floor in front of the 30/35 seats and lit up by a spotlight. Lewis stands there with his microphone and fluctuates between a strained holler forced through inflamed vocal chords (when he chides the audience or slips into mock-American jingoism – “It’s called the World Series! Because it’s our world!”) and a quiet, subdued voice when he’s trying to coax his tree-house gang into loving him.

Psychoanalyst and author, Darian Leader, writes this about hypomania: “[What] distinguished manic-depression from other forms of psychosis, where the person may construct a virtual, distant or internal addressee [is that the manic-depressive] has [to have] a real listener right there in front of them. And yet there is something tenuous, desperate even, about how the manic person maintains their interlocutor, as if they [have to keep] them there at all costs, like a nightclub entertainer who has to keep his audience focused on himself at all times.”

When Lewis climbs on a chair in the front row and begs for his audience’s attention like a dinner party host trying to initiate party games, Leader may well have seen a bit of Lewis is that “nightclub entertainer.”

Lewis has got that same metaphysical motive as Shakespeare’s characters – to make the audience know that he exists – but he does it with a couple of adlibs about the smell of corn and biofuel manufacturing. These go nowhere. They mean nothing. They are Dusty Cup.

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A laughing criticism of James Joyce’s story “The Dead” and my similarity to a character in “Winnie The Pooh” books

A jar of honey before being emptied

A jar of honey which has not been emptied

Last night, I woke up in the middle of a dream about a multi-storey tower block constructed from the horizontal pages of books, all flapping in the wind while Benito Mussolini handed out prizes for art.

Benito Mussolini was confused.

So was I.

It is not uncommon.

I was confused a couple of evenings ago, when my eternally-un-named friend laughed at my daily blogs over the Christmas period.

Towards the end of yesterday’s blog, I mentioned that my eternally-un-named friend had, the previous day, laughed out loud at some of my blogs.

“I was creasing up this morning,” said my eternally-un-named friend, “at John’s blog about how he likes to be depressed at Christmas and…”

“A mis-representation,” I interrupted.

What actually happened was this…

She had got behind in reading my blogs over Christmas and read three at once. Then she started laughing hysterically.

“I didn’t think they were funny,” I told her, surprised. “Why are you laughing?”

She was reading my Boxing Day blog.

“At the end of your blog,” she laughed, “after writing about two other people’s diaries, you’ve said Samuel Pepys & his wife and James Boswell & Louisa are long dead…”

Then she started laughing again.

“That’s your contribution,” she said. “Having plonked in all these diaries from long ago, that’s your contribution… And you say you had  done virtually nothing and your Christmas Day was a comparatively miserable time and people are now dead while you’re living and you’re having a boring time!”

She started laughing again.

“You don’t even mention the Christmas pudding you cooked and these two guys hadn’t even cooked a carrot…”

She started laughing uncontrollably.

“On Christmas Day,” she laughed, “you’d had a phone call from the dead comedian… Okay… And Christmas Eve – Oh whoopee! – While the rest of us are thinking Oh! I wonder what we’ll get tomorrow. Oh! I wonder if he’s going to like that present and wrapping things and Oh! Something nice to eat! you’ve blogged The best-written paragraph in English was written by a short-sighted Irishman. And then there’s this miserable paragraph that’s unreadable and I dunno what’s going on. It sounds like someone’s lying next to someone who’s dead… And you say that reminds you of Christmas!”

She started laughing uncontrollably again.

“You’re just a miserable old wotsit!” she laughed. “You’re Eeyore!… Mind you, at least he was happy when he was given a balloon that had burst and someone else had given him an empty honey jar. Ooh! I can put the burst balloon into the honey jar!” And I suppose you would do the same. Do you know that story?”

“I don’t know Pooh,” I said.

“You don’t know Pooh at all?”

“I know shit about Pooh,” I replied.

“So,” explained my eternally-un-named friend, “it’s Eeyore’s birthday and he’s always so bloody miserable…” and she started laughing again. “Eating nettles!” she laughed. “Oh! My day! My life! Woe is me! And it’s his birthday and Piglet and Winnie-the-Pooh both think Oh, it’s Eeyore’s birthday. We’ll give him something! And Piglet thinks I’ve got a balloon! It’s a big red balloon. And he’s running along, excited to give it to him and he falls over and it bursts. And Winnie-the-Pooh thought I’ll give him one of my jars of honey. But he gets a bit peckish on the way and sits down and eats it.

“So, when they get to Eeyore’s field, they only have a burst balloon and an empty jar to give him. Oh, he says, well at least I can put my burst balloon into the empty jar – because it wouldn’t have fitted otherwise. So that was good all round. He saw the positive.

“There’s a book written – The Tao of Pooh – to follow the ways of Pooh with ‘attitude’ and the way to happiness is not to think beyond lunchtime. You miserable little sausage! People are going to be reading your blogs and thinking This guy is into emotional masturbation. The misery! It’s a slightly teenage kind of attitude. Oh, woe is me! I have nothing! which is easy to do.

“And this blog about your favourite passage in English! I’m not even sure if the woman he’s got in bed next to him is dead in whatever that book is.”

The Dead,” I said.

“He gets into bed next to her,” my eternally-un-named friend continued, “and she hasn’t responded. I’m thinking she’s dead. And there’s something about her eyes that last saw… and she’d had to lock away the love of her life and looking at his eyes because he’d said he’d kill himself. I’m not sure which one was going to kill themselves of these bloody guys. Whether it was him and she hadn’t got off with the love of her life or the love of her life said he’d kill herself. Or he’d killed herself and she was left with this one who was in bed beside her while she’s dead. I have no idea.

“Meanwhile, he’s then blah blah blah – I have no idea what that was about – and something about the snow falling on the…”

“The Bog of Allen,” I suggested.

“…on the graves and the fences,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “And we saw Doctor Who which had snow in it.”

My eternally-un-named friend stopped laughing and blew her nose.

“And you say that always reminds you of Christmas,” she told me. “Not one word about Christmas. The snow might be, slightly, but…”

There was a long pause.

We both started laughing.

“So I read that,” she said eventually, laughing, “and felt I’d failed you by not giving you the wretched bones of a Pope or a photograph of a dead archbishop in Milan or something… Oh! I’ll give him a shrunken head next year… I’ll give you that. This was once a person. They had a bad time, you can say, but not as bad as mine! At least they’ve thrown off this mortal coil and they’ve lost weight.

“There’s no point me trying to say something comforting to you, because you want to be miserable. So what can I do to make you miserable? I could trim your eyebrows.”

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