Tag Archives: Finnegan’s Wake

James Joyce and his decent silk hat

I’m currently deep into Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, an 800-page opus which is, in parts, almost as detailed as “Ulysses” itself.

As such, I’m well into the world of Joyce-words: ‘europicola’, ‘allalluvial’, ‘douncestears’, to pick three among thousands. At times it’s not easy going, and it got me thinking. Did the man himself ever read his work into a microphone? What did the colossus of Modernism actually sound like?

The answers are: yes, and like a slightly stiff Irish lawyer.

In November 1924 Joyce made a recording of a section of “Ulysses”. The audio, set down at the HMV studio in Paris, would be one of only two such artifacts he made (five years later he would make an eight-minute recording of an extract from Finnegans Wake).

The excerpt Joyce picked is from the ‘Aoelus’ episode of ‘Ulysses’, a section known as ‘The John F Taylor speech’. The passage is a metaphorical take on the relationship of Ireland and England. Joyce picked it, his friend and publisher Sylvia Beach later said, because he reckoned that it was the only part of his book fit to lifted out and ‘declaimed’.

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

Listened to the audio down the passage of 90 years it sounds strange – ethereal and formal in equal parts. It didn’t inject much color into my impression of Joyce – but it did lead me onward, to the footage above.

It is one of only two pieces of film I can find of the Irish writer, both shot in Paris in the 1920s (the other features the writer and his wife strolling down the street – here at 3:00 minutes). In the clip Joyce stands on the street, holding a conversation with someone off camera and looking like a skinny Irish version of Vito Corleone as he stares dismissively into the camera.

It’s spliced with a brief clip of the writer stepping out of a house, a child running before him. Again the vibe is one of a literary made man.

The footage casts little, if any light on the writer himself. That’s no unfortunate thing, given that Joyce’s life is woven so extensively into his work already. If anything the film represents a brief respite from the latter, writing that’s at times entertaining, eye-opening, and hugely frustrating (usually in the same paragraph).

At the risk of sounding simplistic this brief clip also shows that, despite the poverty, drinking and illness, the writer could certainly pull off some nice threads.

Or, as he wrote in the short story ‘Grace’: “He had never been seen in the city without a silk hat of some decency and a pair of gaiters. By grace of these two articles of clothing, he said, a man could always pass muster…”

_____

 

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You play it, I’ll hum it (and hum it, and hum it)

Not so fast Elvis... Dodging earworms.

Not so fast Mr Costello.

It struck at 3.40am last Wednesday. Waking briefly in the middle of the night I lay in bed as it looped around my head.

Twenty four hours later it hit again, this time in the middle of a morning run.

After I returned from my jog it pestered me in the shower.

Later that day, walking down a flight of stairs at work, it sprang up, maddeningly.

He’s a Battered Old Bird 
And he’s living up there 
There’s a place where time stands still 
If you keep taking those little pink pills…

The words are from a not-very-well-known Elvis Costello song, Battered Old Bird. The tune torments me.

I’m vigilant about it, though. On the occasions that I listen to Blood and Chocolate, the album on which Battered Old Bird features, I rush to hit the skip button as soon as the song preceding it begins to wind down.

Last week it popped up on shuffle and somehow caught me unawares. This led to 48 or more hours of the chorus erupting every time my brain dropped into ‘stall’ mode: while eating, washing the dishes, tying my shoelaces, putting out the bin.

After two days I managed to dislodge it.

'God, no...not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road!' 'The Scream'. Edvard Munch. Pic: The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

‘God, no…not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road!’
‘The Scream’. Edvard Munch.
Pic: The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

How? By listening to the only other melody which burrows even deeper into my short term auditory memory, an infuriating Richard Thompson tune.

And so the process began again.

So it is with earworms – otherwise know as stuck song syndrome (or, it you’re being clinical, ‘musical imagery repetition’).

Some 98pc of us encounter them (and three quarters of our earworms are songs with lyrics – perhaps I should listen to more classical and jazz).

Edgar Allan Poe was writing about them back in 1845, their length is usually between 15 and 30 seconds, and two proven methods of stopping them are reading a good novel and completing a moderately-difficult anagram.

So prevalent are they that two researchers (for whom I have a great deal of sympathy) endeavoured in 2012 to find the most common earworm in the UK. It turned out to be Queen’s We Will Rock You (go on, hum it, I dare you).

This led, in an act of research likely precipitate insanity in the coming 48 hours, to my considering my personal top five earworms.

Here they are, the songs I will never play, the tunes that drive me from stores or coffee shops within four bars, the numbers that could see the radio silenced, possibly permanently, against a wall.

Deep breath…

5. The Clancy Brothers, Finnegan’s Wake

4. Pete Seeger: Guantanamero (or anyone’s version, really)

3. Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

2. Richard Thompson: Let It Blow

1. And, finally, Battered Old Bird. Really, listen to this one at your peril

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