Was I the only person on the planet who hadn’t heard of Elizabeth Gilbert?

As I was finishing Ulysses I though that I must read a “light” book next. I have to have my next book lined up to avoid the nightmare of not having a book to read: it’s hard for me to think of much that could be worse. I looked down my list of “Want to reads” on Goodreads and hit on City of Girls. Somebody whose taste I respect must have recommended it, and it seemed just right, although I knew nothing about either the book or the author.

I was “just right.” It’s a romp of a book—a joyous celebration of women, New York City, theatre, relationships, sewing, and sex. (I’ve read plenty of books where food and cooking are a central feature, but this is the first where sewing and dressmaking are celebrated.) But it’s also a moral book, full of insights about life and particularly about men, women, and the relationships between them.

This is an odd thing to praise about a book, but one of the best bits is the acknowledgements. I feel duty bound to at least scan acknowledgements when I finish a book, but usually they re mostly empty gush. Gilbert’s acknowledgements are different: they give you a well-written insight into the enormous amount of research, much of it interviewing people, she did to write the book. Many writers, I fear, would have been crushed by the research, producing a ponderous, heavy-footed book, but I never noticed the research as I skipped through the book. It was the acknowledgments that showed me how much heavy research had been needed to write a light book.

Once I’d finished the book I looked up Elizabeth Gilbert and realised how much of herself and her life is in the book. I learnt too that she is the author of Eat, Pray, Love and has been voted one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time and named on Oprah’s SuperSoul 100 list of visionaries and influential leaders. I knew the words eat, pray, love, and I knew that it had been a film, but I knew nothing else about it. Now I wonder if I should read it. I learnt too that she believes, like Hemingway, “that writers find stories not in a seminar room but by investigating the world.” That’s how she wrote this book, and she clearly had lots of fun doing so. We feel the fun when we read the book.

Here are the quotes I took from the book, which illustrate its depth.


“There are subtleties, my dear. You will discover as you get older that there’s practically nothing but subtleties.

It took me many years to become an honest person, and I know why: because the truth is often terrifying. Once you introduce truth into a room, the room may never be the same again.

You must learn in life to take things more lightly, my dear. The world is always changing. Learn how to allow for it. Someone makes a promise, and then they break it. A play gets good notices, and then it folds. A marriage looks strong, and then they divorce. For a while there’s no war, and then there’s another war. If you get too upset about it all, you become a stupid, unhappy person—and where’s the good in that?

When we are young, Angela, we may fall victim to the misconception that time will heal all wounds and that eventually everything will shake itself out. But as we get older, we learn this sad truth: some things can never be fixed. Some mistakes can never be put right—not by the passage of time, and not by our most fervent wishes, either. In my experience, this is the hardest lesson of them all. After a certain age, we are all walking around this world in bodies made of secrets and shame and sorrow and old, unhealed injuries. Our hearts grow sore and misshapen around all this pain—yet somehow, still, we carry on.

Nothing will uproot your life more violently than true love—at least as far as I’ve always witnessed.

After a certain age, Angela, time just drizzles down upon your head like rain in the month of March: you’re always surprised at how much of it can accumulate, and how fast.

Eventually, all of us will be called upon to do the thing that cannot be done. That is the painful field,

I’m aware that I’m relaying your own history to you at this point, and it makes me self-conscious. You surely know what happened better than anyone—or maybe you don’t.

Once I got the hang of it, I found that eating alone by the window in a quiet restaurant is one of life’s greatest secret pleasures.

During the war, the British army engineers always used to say: ‘We can do it, whether it can be done or not.’ That’s how the theater works, too, Vivian. Just like a war!


It was on the rooftop of our little bridal boutique that I learned this truth: when women are gathered together with no men around, they don’t have to be anything in particular; they can just be.

Is that the dirty trick? Is this how they get mothers to ruin their lives for their children? By tricking them into loving them so much.

She shuddered in dramatic horror, as though learning how to type were something akin to busting up rocks in a prisoner-of-war camp.


Billy Buell is that rare man who claims to love women and actually does.”

“He’s a newspaperman. He’s got no money. He’s got nothing but power.”

Dr. Kellogg was a member of the Metropolitan Club. In his free time, he enjoyed bird-watching, collecting stamps, and having sex with showgirls.

He and I had been talking about jazz (which is to say that he had been talking about jazz, and I had been listening to him talk about jazz, because that is how you talk to a man about jazz)

Men and women

Flirtation is a series of silent questions that one person asks another person with their eyes. And the answer to those questions is always the same word: Maybe.

When had I ever tried to be in charge of Anthony? (Aside from constantly urging him to move to a new apartment, that is. And wanting him to dress and speak differently. And encouraging him to stop using so much slang. And asking him to style his hair in a more conservative manner. And trying to convince him to stop chewing gum all the time. And arguing with him whenever I saw him flirting with a dancer. But apart from that? Why, I gave the boy nothing but freedom.)

Arthur Watson had completely gotten away with his misdeeds and lies. Celia had been banished by Peg, and I had been banished by Edna—but Arthur had been allowed to carry on with his lovely life and his lovely wife, as though nothing had ever happened.

When men became too dewy-eyed with me, I merely explained to them that they were not in love with me, but with the sexual act itself, and they would usually calm down.

I can’t be certain that Frank and I would have shared the same depth of love and tenderness for each other, had sex ever been part of our story. Sex is so often a cheat—a shortcut of intimacy. A way to skip over knowing somebody’s heart by knowing, instead, their mere body.

that bottomless well of a man—that walking confessional booth who could absorb whatever you told him without judgment or alarm. Nobody else could be that beautiful dark soul, who always seemed to straddle the worlds of life and death.

And I hate to disappoint you, but it’s best you learn now: most marriages are neither heavenly nor hellish, but vaguely purgatorial.

New York City

He was New York City’s very distillation—a glittering composite of sophistication and mystery.


“The trick of comedy,” said Billy, “is not to perform it in a comic manner. Don’t try to be funny, and you’ll be funny. Just do that effortless thing you Brits do, of throwing away half the lines as though you can scarcely be bothered to care, and it’ll be brilliant. Comedy is always best when it’s thrown away.”

Dying from emphysema

My Aunt Peg died in 1969, from emphysema. She smoked cigarettes right up until the end. It was a hard death. Emphysema is a brutal way to die. Nobody can fully remain themselves when they are in such pain and discomfort, but Peg tried her best to stay Peg—optimistic, uncomplaining, enthusiastic. But slowly, she lost the ability to breathe. It’s a horrible thing to watch someone struggling for air. It’s like witnessing a slow drowning. By the end, sorrowful though it was, we were glad that she could go in peace. We couldn’t bear to see her suffer any longer.


The contents of Leopold Bloom’s drawer (and his mind?)

A Vere Foster’s handwriting copybook, property of Milly (Millicent) Bloom, certain pages of which bore diagram drawings marked Papli, which showed a large globular head with 5 hairs erect, 2 eyes in profile, the trunk full front with 3 large buttons, 1 triangular foot:

2 fading photographs of queen Alexandra of England and of MaudBranscombe, actress and professional beauty:

a Yuletide card, bearing on it a pictorial representation of a parasitic plant, the legend Mizpah, the date Xmas 1892, the name of the senders, from Mr and Mrs M. Comerford, the versicle:

May this Yuletide bring to thee, Joy and peace and welcome glee:

A butt of red partly liquefied sealing wax, obtained from the stores department of Messrs Hely’s, Ltd., 89,90 and 91 Dame street: a

A box containing the remainder of a gross of gilt’ J’ pennibs, obtained from same department of same firm:

An old sandglass which rolled containing sand which rolled:

A sealed prophecy (never unsealed) written by Leopold Bloom in 1886 concerning the consequences of the passing into law of William Ewart Gladstone’s Home Rule bill of 1886 (never passed into law): a

A bazaar ticket N° 2004, of S. Kevin’s Charity Fair, price 6d. 100 prizes:

An infantile epistle, dated, small em monday, reading: capital pee Papli comma capital aitch How are you note of interrogation capital eye I am very well full stop new paragraph signature with flourishes capital em Milly no stop: a

A cameo brooch, property of Ellen Bloom (born Higgins), deceased:

3 typewritten letters, addressee, Henry Flower, c/o P. O. Westland Row, addresser, Martha Clifford, c/o P. O. Dolphin’s Barn: t

The transliterated name and address of the addresser of the 3 letters in reserved alphabetic boustrophedontic punctated quadrilinear cryptogram (vowels suppressed) N. IGS./WI.UU. OX/W. OKS. MH/Y. IM: a

A press cutting from an English weekly periodical Modern Society, subject corporal chastisement in girls’ schools:

A pink ribbon which had festooned an Easter egg in the year 1899:

Two partly uncoiled rubber preservatives with reserve pockets, purchased by post from Box 32, P. O., Charing Cross, London, W.C.:

1 pack of 1 dozen creamlaid envelopes and faintruled notepaper, watermarked, now reduced by 3:

Some assorted Austrian-Hungarian coins:

2 coupons of the Royal and Privileged Hungarian Lottery: a

A low-power magnifying glass:

2 erotic photocards showing: a) buccal coition between nude senorita (rere presentation, superior position) and nude torero (fore presentation, inferior position): b) anal violation by male religious (fully clothed, eyes abject) of female religious (partly clothed, eyes direct), purchased by post from Box 32, P. O., Charing Cross, London, W. C.,: a

A press cutting of recipe for renovation of old tan boots:

An id. adhesive stamp, lavender, of the reign of Queen Victoria: a

A chart of measurements of Leopold Bloom compiled before, during and after 2 months of consecutive use of Sandow-Whiteley’s pulley exerciser (men’s 15/-, athlete’s 20/-) viz., chest 28 in. and 29 1/2 in., biceps 9 in. and 10 in., forearm 8 1/2 and 9 in., thigh 10 in. and 12 in., calf 11 in. and 12 in.:

I prospectus of the Wonderworker, the world’s greatest remedy for rectal complaints direct from Wonderworker, Coventry House, South Place, London E. C., addressed to Mrs L. Bloom with brief accompanying note commencing: Dear Madam.


A visit to the Mummy Museum

Reading in John Troyer’s book “Corpse” about how Gunther von Hagens has had more than 40 million people visit his exhibitions of plastinated corpses, some of them “having sex,” I was reminded of our visit to El Museo De Las Momias (The Mummy Museum).

Around 4000 people a day visit El Museo De Las Momias (The Mummy Museum) in Guanjuato, making it one of the most popular tourist sites in Mexico. Some queue for an hour or more. Why do they go? Why did I go with my family?

The museum contains about 100 mummies. These are not mummies wrapped in bandages but desiccated corpses with skin, hair, teeth, wounds, and the remnants of clothes. Most look as if they are in agony with their mouths screaming. Their look is probably caused by the processes of death rather than agony, but the museum speculates proudly about one woman being buried alive because her catalepsy was misdiagnosed as death. Several of the corpses have been identified, including the French doctor Remigio Leroy, who was the first exhibit in the museum in 1865 and is still the first mummy you see.


The mummies are mostly upright in rows in glass cases. They look like a ragged army. They are beautifully and chillingly lit, and the whole display could be transferred straight to Tate Modern.

I must confess that I wondered if the mummies were fake: they looked as if they could be made from papier mâché—and around the town you can see copies of the mummies that are not that different from the ones in the museum. But they are undoubtedly real. Mummification of some bodies happens naturally when they are kept above ground in the dry air of Guanajuato, although there is evidence that some of the bodies were embalmed.

The museum came about because the town introduced a tax that relatives had to pay to keep the bodies in the cemetery. Some relatives declined to pay (or were too poor), and the bodies were disinterred. Those that were mummies were stored, and cemetery workers discovered that people would pay to see the mummies. The town soon realised the business possibilities and created the museum. Adults pay 67 pesos (about £2.50) to enter the museum, and the annual income must be over 50m pesos (around £2m). In addition, many people travel to Guanajuato to see the museum, and the museum is ringed by shops selling souvenirs, including mummy sweets.

I was not surprised to find that the Daily Mail with its talent for macabre stories that titillate its readers has discovered the museum. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2931680/Mexico-mummy-museum-Guanajuanto-one-world-s.html  With its usual bent towards self-righteous moralising the Daily Mail asks “Is this the world’s most shocking museum?” and suggests (as I have too) that the town is more motivated by money than culture; but, surprise, surprise, the story includes many pictures and is delighted that in the film El Santo vs The Mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico’s leading wrestler takes on the mummies as they come to life. A town spokesperson told the Mail: ‘”We have a different cultural approach to death in Mexico, here we celebrate the cycle of life and accept death as inevitable. 99% of the visitors leave the experience pleased with what they saw.”

One famous visitor who was not pleased, although he was rewarded, was the writer Ray Bradbury. He wrote: “The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote The Next in Line. One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.”

It didn’t seem to me, however, that that was the experience of many of the visitors. As the town spokesman said, most seem pleased, and most of the visitors had their children with them. We too were pleased with what we saw. It was an interesting and unusual experience. We were also pleased with our visit to the town’s impressive museum and to house where Diego Rivera was born, but those museums had nowhere near as many visitors as El Museo De Las Momias.

Although it’s true that death is central to Mexican culture, I find it hard to believe that many of the visitors were there to contemplate the role of death in their culture and their own mortality. Rather they went with the same motives that take people to horror movies or cause people to slow down when driving past an accident.

Perhaps every town might throw open its mortuary and let people gawp at the recently dead. And I wondered how many people would turn up to watch public executions. Certainly, they were popular in medieval Britain.

Does it matter that these corpses are displayed for all to see without the people they once were ever giving their consent? I can’t think it does, but people are there for a thrill rather than deepened understanding of death; and I was too.


An evening in accident and emergency

The call comes just before 3 pm. “Your mother’s had a fall, her tooth has gone through her cheek, the ambulance is here.”

I’ve tried again and again to get the nurses in the care home to call me before they call an ambulance, but again I’ve failed. I’ve managed to divert two ambulances, but this time I fail. I understand why the nurses call an ambulance, but I don’t understand why the care home can’t manage to get the message through about ringing me first. When I raise the question with the nurses they become defensive, think me uncaring, and probably think “Bloody man. He’s not looking after his mother. He’s leaving us to do it and then getting annoyed when we are doing our best for her.”

The nurses have much more confidence in the benefits of the hospital than I do. Hospitals, I know, are dangerous and miserable places for everybody but particularly for the demented; and the danger is increased in the pandemic. There has to be considerable benefit to outweigh the inbuilt risk

After canceling my outing with a friend, I cycle through the rain to St George’s. There’s a socially-distanced queue outside the entrance to accident and emergency. I learn as I stand in the queue that patients are not allowed anybody to accompany them. Disgruntled relatives are told to get out of the way of ambulances. I wonder if they will let me in to be with Hazel.

When I get to the front of the queue, I tell the security man, who has not very clear English, that I want to see my mother, Hazel Smith. He tells me to write her name on a scrap of paper he has. I have to add her date of birth. He goes inside, reappears after about five minutes, and tells me “She’s not on the system.” (I think “Computer says no.”) But he tells me to wait rather than go. I try ringing my mother’s care home, wondering if she’s been taken somewhere else. There’s no answer.

At this point two ambulance people tell me that they have my mother. The security man is unsure about me being allowed through, but the ambulance people wave me through. I enter, and there’s Hazel on a trolley with a hole in her left cheek that’s surrounded by clotted blood and is less then a centimetre across. She’s her usual self, chatting, and singing tunelessly. She is wheeled through into the urgent (but non-life-threatening) care unit, which is filled with people in blue and green scrubs going to and fro and sitting at computers.

Hazel is moved onto a trolley, and the ambulance people leave. I stand beside trolley and chat to Hazel. She’s keen to go, can’t understand why she is here. “Let’s go upstairs,” she says. I’m wearing a mask, and she’s not sure who I am. We watch the play in front of us, and after about 20-30 minutes Dave (he tells us his name but not what he is) comes an inserts a cannula into a vein in Hazel’s forearm. She’s not keen on having the cannula but eventually agrees. She yelps when he puts in the needle, but generally it goes well.

After another 10-15 minutes a student nurse comes to measure Hazel’s blood pressure. Hazel shouts in pain and protests strongly when the cuff inflates. “Get off of me, you buggers. Get away. I’m going. I hate you. Leave me alone. I want to die.” The nurse doesn’t get a reliable measure. She’s supposed to do a sitting and standing blood pressure—to check for “postural hypotension” (the blood pressure dropping badly when a person stands, a common cause of falls)—but fails. She then has to do an ECG, so glues stickers onto Hazel’s chest. Hazel doesn’t object strongly to this. She keeps reading and reciting the name on the student nurse’s badge, and the nurse (an Algerian, I learn later) tells us proudly that in two weeks she will become a registered nurse. We congratulate her.

Some 20 minutes later a doctor comes. He doesn’t tell us what level he is, but I guess he’s at the bottom. He’s tall and handsome. He starts with asking questions of Hazel but realizes he won’t get far—so asks me. I can answer some of his questions, but I have no clear account of how Hazel came to fall. I say I’ll ring the home. (I do so about five times in the next two hours, but I never get an answer: sometimes the phone rings out, at other times it’s simply cut off.)

The doctor says that normally with a 90-year-old with a fall the patient is admitted for 24 hours for observation and has various tests, including an echo and possibly a CT scan. I say that I’m a doctor, and I think that that’s excessive for Hazel. He asks what kind of doctor I am, and I say that I was the editor of the BMJ. He examines Hazel in what I recognise to be a cursory (and mostly uninformative) way and then looks at her wound, establishing that it goes right through from mouth to cheek. He goes away, saying that he’ll look at her bloods and ECG.

Hazel continues to be restless, singing tunelessly much of the time, sometimes chatting with me, and sometimes getting angry, telling me that she hates me, wants to go, and wants to die. The student nurse brings black coffee, biscuits, and water. Hazel yelps when she drinks the water but drinks it and the coffee and eats the biscuits.

The doctor comes back with a slightly older doctor, a fattish, blonde woman, with a cheerful and forceful manner. They seemed to have dropped the idea of the 24-hour admission, but the debate now is between options of do nothing, put in stitches, or refer Hazel to maxillofacial surgeons. The younger doctor says the maxillofacial surgeons are doing an operation and won’t be able to see her for a while. I’m keen to get Hazel out, and so are they. We opt for stitches.

There’s then a long gap before the younger doctor comes to insert the stitches with support from the student nurse. He needs to wash the wound first and has a large bag of saline. After a half-hearted attempt at sterilisation, he tries to get at the saline but doesn’t know how. Nor does the student nurse, but they both (him supposedly sterile, her not) handle the bag. Eventually they manage to get at the saline and start trying to wash Hazel’s wound. She objects strongly, pushes away the tray to catch the saline, and tell us that she hates us and wants to die. Next the doctor tries to inject local anaesthetic, but Hazel screams and pulls away. I try to calm her, but with no success. After a few tries the doctor gives up. We discuss sedating Hazel but agree that’s a bad idea.  So the doctor sticks on some steristrips. Hazel doesn’t protest strongly, and he has some success. (During all this I tell him that I had to do similar things 40 years ago in casualty in New Zealand. I’m trying to say “I know what it’s like not being very competent,” but I’m not sure that I get that message across.)

The doctor goes away. Somehow time stops in accident and emergency. How long have we been here? I’m unsure. Hazel wants to go, I want to go, probably the staff want us to go. But who will let us go, and how will we get out?

Hazel sings tunelessly and loudly. As Lin later says, she probably doesn’t know she’s doing it. While I sit there, I have a vision of my smart, controlled, highly-organised mother in her 50s looking at the 90-year-old version of herself and being appalled. Luckily, the women in her 50s is no more.

The younger doctor comes back with the older doctor. The older doctor looks at the wound and wonders about “gluing it” with “special glue that is basically superglue for flesh.” She consults a much older nurse-practitioner who has just started a shift. They agree that glue plus steristrips would be best.

There’s then another long pause. The younger doctor comes and says he’s leaving, his shift has ended. Eventually the older doctor comes with the glue. This goes well, although at one point she’s worried that she has glued Hazel’s lips together at one side but luckily hasn’t. She manages to put on two steristrips. (The ones the younger doctor had put on were already coming off.)

We can now go. A staff nurse comes with antibiotics for Hazel. She’ll help us get Hazel out. Luckily, Lin has rung and offered to come in the car—otherwise, we’d have to wait hours for an ambulance or try going in a taxi. With difficulty Lin has managed to park about 150 yards away, on a main road. After having wanted to go for hours, Hazel now says that she isn’t going. She’s going to stay here. The staff nurse and I manage to persuade her to leave. We get her off the trolley, and one each side manage to get to the exit of the department. As we go outside Lin appears.

With Lin and I on either side of Hazel we begin to walk towards the car. It’s now dark and cold, and Hazel doesn’t have adequate clothing. The car is on the other side of a busy road. I can’t see how we can get Hazel across, so when we come to some benches Hazel and I sit down while Lin goes to get the car. Because of the hospital’s one-way system she can’t bring the car to where we are sitting, but she can get drive it to the near-side of the road. She comes back and we walk Hazel to the car and get her in without much difficulty.

We drive to the care home, and I go to get somebody to open up. I know that it’s going to take many minutes, and it does. I go back to the car, and we move Hazel into the home, into her wing, and into a chair in the lounge. I give the antibiotics to the chief nurse, and Lin brings a cup of coffee and a sandwich. We leave.

As we drive home, I reflect both how wrong everything feels and begin to think of a system that would be better—with much less discomfort for everybody and much cheaper. I have a vague vision of such a system.



Love, Desire, Death via the tube

Chicken and I went on the tube to see one of the great achievements of European culture, Titian’s series of paintings called the 2poesie.” We hadn’t been on the tube since March. It was largely empty. The “plague” has emptied London. Titian knew the plague well—indeed, it killed him aged 86.

The six (or possible seven) poesie were painted when Titian was at the height of his powers, and unusually for the era when painters were artisans who painted to order he was given free freedom to paint whatever he wanted. He opted, as did so many (and as he had done before), for inspiration from Ovid’s marvellous Metamorphoses. (I have read Ted Hughes’s wonderful version, and I have beside me the English translation that inspired Shakespeare—but I haven’t read it.)

Although he was given freedom, Titian, like a good businessman, paid attention to the likes of his commissioner, Philip of Hapsburg later Philip II, King of Spain. Philip liked woman and hunting, hence every picture has at least one naked woman and there are plenty of hunting dogs and bows and arrows.

All of the pictures are familiar, either because we have seen them before or because we have seen them in books. But it was a great joy to see them together in one room, and because the National Gallery is limiting the number of visitors we could see them easily, not having to peer over the heads of others. Everybody had to wear masks.

All the pictures are filled with colour and action and tell stories. Titian had great gifts of colour, composition, and storytelling. He was less interested in accuracy, being happy to have a body part too large or too small to enhance the flow; and he painted with every greater freedom as he got older.

In the first picture Jupiter, shown as a shower of gold, impregnates Danaë, who is imprisoned by her father. An old servant looks on, and you are struck by the contrast between youth and age.


Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto are a pair and hang side by side in the exhibition. Actaeon surprised Diana and her nymphs bathing and as a punishment was transformed into a stag and killed by his own hunting dogs. Callisto is yet another woman impregnated by Jupiter, and is heartlessly condemned by Diana, her mistress, for having let such a thing happen.

Venus and Adonis captures the moment after dawn when after a night of love making Adonis leaves for the hunt. Venus knows he will be killed and tries to prevent him. Chicken couldn’t stand this painting, hating Adonis’s poorly painted and overdominant right breast.


Andromeda is the tallest and thinnest of the naked women. She is strapped to a rock and about to be devoured by a monster when Perseus arrives hot from another adventure and is about to help her. Perseus is the only strong man in these pictures that are dominated by women. Actaeon and Adonis are saps, and Jupiter is not seen.


The final picture is yet another of Jupiter’s victims, Europa, being carried off and raped by Jupiter, this time in the form of a bull. I loved the landscape in this picture, which seems to be presage the painting of Turner, a Cockney who painted the light and water in Venice better than any of the many Venetian masters (who were, of course, otherwise preoccupied.)



As commanded probably by the marketing department, the exhibition is called “Love, Desire, and Death.” I’m going to play the game of deciding which paintings exhibit each of these three.


I suppose Jupiter in some distorted sense loved Danaë, Callisto, and Europa. Diana loves Actaeon, and Venus loves Adonis. Perseus has fallen in love with Andromeda at first sight and so is willing to take on the monster. So all the pictures contain love.


As love and desire go together they are all filled with desire. Indeed, Jupiter’s “love” might be better described as desire or even simply lust.


Death is less apparent. Perhaps the old woman in Danaë is close to death. Actaeon will be killed by his dogs. Callisto was about to be killed by her son many years later but instead was transformed into a group of stars. Adonis is headed for death. Andromeda was close to death before being rescued. There is no death in the Europa picture, although she hardly looks safe.

As usual, we discussed which picture we would take home. Chicken would take Diana and Actaeon, I’d take Andromeda and Perseus.














Reasons for equanimity in the face of adultery, according to James Joyce (not approved by the Catholic Church)

As natural as any and every natural act of a nature expressed or understood executed in natured nature by natural creatures in accordance with his, her and their natured natures, of dissimilar similarity.

As not as calamitous as a cataclysmic annihilation of the planet in consequence of collision with a dark sun.

As less reprehensible than theft, highway robbery, cruelty to children and animals, obtaining money under false pretences, forgery, embezzlement, misappropriation of public money, betrayal of public trust, malingering, mayhem, corruption of minors, criminal libel, blackmail, contempt of court, arson, treason, felony, mutiny on the high seas, trespass, burglary, jailbreaking, practice of unnatural vice, desertion from armed forces in the field, perjury, poaching, usury, intelligence with the king’s enemies, impersonation, criminal assault, manslaughter, wilful and premeditated murder.

As not more abnormal than all other altered processes of adaptation to altered conditions of existence, resulting in a reciprocal equilibrium between the bodily organism and its attendant circumstances, foods, beverages, acquired habits, indulged inclinations, significant disease.

As more than inevitable, irreparable.



Ulysses: a towering achievement and a towering joy

When I finished Ulysses this morning I felt as I felt when I’d finished the Coast to Coast walk. I’d done something moderately difficult. I’d seen great beauty and had many laughs. I was tempted to turn round and walk all the way back again, although I should make clear that I can’t imagine reading Ulysses backwards; but I can imagine reading the sections in backwards order, starting with Molly Bloom’s marvelous soliloquy. Arnold Bennett had a different analogy, saying he finished the book “with the sensation of a general who has just put down an insurrection.”

I read Ulysses once before, perhaps 40 years ago. The book may well have defeated me that time, although I must have got something out of it as it’s so full of delicious fruits. I don’t think that I understood the structure that first time, and I grasped the complexity only later when I had the pleasure of speaking to an audience of perhaps a thousand in Dublin on Bloom’s Day. It wasn’t a literary or even an Irish audience but rather a meeting of general practitioners from around the world. I doubt that many of them had read Ulysses, and if there is an untranslatable novel this is surely it. Most probably had no idea that it was Bloom’s Day or what Bloom’s Day was, although the Irish have been milking Joyce for every drop they can get, although the book wasn’t openly available in Ireland until 40 years after it was published in 1922. I felt that I had to mention the book at the meeting, and so at the beginning of my talk I projected a picture of the book’s structure (below), said that “structure is the most important part of writing, and that if you want to write the greatest novel of the century then you need an equally complicated structure.”


I understand now the structure of the book, and by coincidence rather than design I recently read The Odyssey. The parallel is simple: Odysseus, a military hero, spent 10 years encountering adventures while returning from the Trojan Wars to expel the suitors of his wife Penelope from his palace. Penelope had managed to resist the advances of all the suitors. Leopold Bloom (Odysseus), an Irish Jew, spends 24 hours roaming Dublin having adventures before returning to his wife Molly Bloom (Penelope) who has had Blazes Boylan, the latest in a long adulterous chain, in her bed.

As the introduction says: “In this book, the very ordinariness of the modern Ulysses, Mr Leopold Bloom, becomes a standing reproach to the myth of ancient military heroism. Man’s littleness is seen, finally, to be the inevitable condition of his greatness. What one man does in a single day is infinitesimal, but it is nonetheless infinitely important that he do it.” It’s an antimilitary book: “to Joyce, violence is just another form of odious pretentiousness, because nothing is really worth a bloody fight, neither land nor sea nor woman.” And I particularly like the idea that heroism is “the capacity to endure rather than inflict suffering.”

But there is perhaps even more delight in the language than in the structure. You feel as if Joyce put 10 hours’ work, imagination, and revision into every sentence. He aimed to put enough puzzles into the book to keep a whole menagerie of professors busy for centuries. In that he succeeded for every hour he spent writing Ulysses there must be a thousand hours spent writing about his writing—let alone the millions spent reading the book.

Joyce has a passion for lists, and the book is full of exquisite funny lists. I’ve copied out and shared many of them, giving those who are too timid to try and put down an insurrection a chance to enjoy a taste of Ulysses.

Finishing a novel seems to be the hardest part of writing a novel, and Joyce finishes Ulysses magnificently. Molly Blooms soliloquy, the last section in the book, written without punctuation is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book and splendidly funny. But in the last 500 words she tells of when Bloom proposed to her in Gibraltar, and it’s one of the most lyrical parts of the book. The the ends with famous last lines:

“I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Joyce and Barnacle

The full stop has a new meaning: it’s passive-aggressive

Currently I’m reading my way through Molly Bloom’s marvellous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. In many thousands of words it has not one full stop, indeed, no punctuation whatsoever. (That’s not quite true: proper nouns are capitalised.) Oddly, it’s easy and powerful to read, suggesting that punctuation is perhaps unnecessary, although maybe you need the skill of Joyce to get away with it. Anyway, against this backcloth imagine my consternation when I discover from the Today programme that the full stop, the period, has a new significance: it’s become passive-aggressive.

Since the arrival of text messaging, full stops have begun to fade away, said the linguist David Crystal. He makes the same point in Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation, in which he makes the bold clam that “behind every punctuation mark lies a thousand stories.”

As the main function of a full stop is to show that message (a sentence) is finished and the next about to begin it’s usually unnecessary in text message, where there often is only one message and the technology indicates it is ended. That I could see, but the passive-aggressive function was new to me.

Crystal illustrated the function thus:

Are you coming to the party


Johnny will be there

Without the full stop this is exciting. Everybody loves Johny.

But with the full stop—Johnny will be there.—it means, “Oh no, beware. Johnny’s a bad boy.”

I’m too old for all this. Or am I? If I ignore this new significance of the full stop, does it indicate I’m ready to die?


Now try reading this blog without any punctuation


The full stop has a new meaning it’s passive aggressive currently im reading my way through Molly Blooms marvellous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses in many thousands of words it has not one full stop indeed no punctuation whatsoever thats not quite true proper nouns are capitalised oddly its easy and powerful to read suggesting that punctuation is perhaps unnecessary although maybe you need the skill of Joyce to get away with it anyway against this backcloth imagine my consternation when I discover from the Today programme that the full stop the period has a new significance its become passive aggressive since the arrival of text messaging full stops have begun to fade away said the linguist David Crystal he makes the same point in Making a Point The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation in which he makes the bold clam that behind every punctuation mark lies a thousand stories as the main function of a full stop is to show that message a sentence is finished and the next about to begin its usually unnecessary in text message where there often is only one message and the technology indicates it is ended that I could see but the passive aggressive function was new to me Crystal illustrated the function thus are you coming to the party yes Johnny will be there without the full stop this is exciting everybody loves Johnny but with the full stop Johnny will be there it means oh no beware Johnnys a bad boy im too old for all this or am i if i ignore this new significance of the full stop does it indicate im ready to die






What special affinities are between the moon and woman, according to James Joyce?

Her antiquity in preceding and surviving successive tellurian generations

Her nocturnal predominance

Her satellite dependence

Her luminary reflection

Her constancy under all her phases, rising, and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning

The forced invariability of her aspect

Her indeterminate response to inamrmative interrogation

Her potency over effluent and refluent waters

Her power to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency

The tranquil inscrutability of her visage

The terribih’ty of her isolated dominant implacable resplendent propinquity

Her omens of tempest and of calm

The stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence

The admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence

Her splendour, when visible

Her attraction, when invisible



James Joyce on the parts of human life that cannot be perfected

The necessity of destruction to procure alimentary sustenance

The painful character of the ultimate functions of separate existence, the agonies of birth and death

The monotonous menstruation of simian and (particularly) human females extending from the age of puberty to the menopause

Inevitable accidents at sea, in mines and factories

Certain very painful maladies and their resultant surgical operations, innate lunacy and congenital criminality, decimating epidemics

Catastrophic cataclysms which make terror the basis of human mentality

Seismic upheavals the epicentres of which are located in densely populated regions

The fact of vital growth, through convulsions of metamorphosis from infancy through maturity to decay.