Friday, 17 June 2016

Gatecrashing the James Joyce Symposium

This year I celebrated Bloomsday by gatecrashing the 25th James Joyce Symposium. It was held in London University's Senate House – a towering Stalinist building used in WW2 as the Ministry of Information - inspiring both George Orwell's Ministry of Truth and Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear.

The Joyce symposium has been going ever since 1967, and there's a very entertaining account of the 1969 Dublin one in Roland McHugh's Finnegans Wake Experience. At the time he went, McHugh was starting a Phd on grasshopper acoustics:

'Grasshopper sexuality is primarily acoustic: a female will walk away from a silent male towards a loudspeaker emitting male song. So each male surrounds itself with a fluid territory which it keeps saturated with its own song. I eventually discovered that professors at James Joyce symposia behaved similarly....  
  The Symposium itself was safely ensconced behind the walls of Trinity College. In its distance from reality it resembled the district attorneys' conference in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As I sat listening to American professors reading papers in which they paraphrased the plots of stories in Dubliners or compared Ulysses with the novels of Faulkner I sensed a kind of gap....As far as the (FW) Newslitter went, most of them had barely heard of it. They read something called James Joyce Quarterly, a glossy production, largely devoted to the early Joyce industry....
   It was impossible to get down to intelligent conversation about FW at any point during the week. People shied off, as though talking shop was bad form. Much of the conversation I heard was of the order, 'Say! How much dough do you make?''

McHugh attended a second symposium, at Trieste in 1971, where he gave a lecture dissecting pages 338-341 of the Wake:

'The audience had copies of the FW passage to follow it with, and the whole thing went on for an hour. There were no questions from the floor.  The quality of scholarship was noticeably down on last time....It was the end of my involvement with Joyce Symposia and I have never been to another.'

The symposium is very different today,  where several papers were being given about the Wake, one of them about Roland McHugh himself.  The one I'd love to have gone to was by Derek Pyle, the man behind the wonderful Waywords and Meansigns musical setting of Finnegans Wake (motto 'a manyfeast munificent more mob than man nourish your inner world and follow your weird'). Derek, who lives in Boston, was visiting Dublin and the UK for the first time, and was presenting live performances, including this event at Usurp Art in Harrow.

Although I wasn't planning to go to the symposium (it costs £180), I arranged to meet Derek for an afternoon drink in my favourite Soho pub, the Coach and Horses.  I told Derek I'd be wearing my Finnegans Wake 100 Letter thunderword t-shirt. 

When Derek arrived, I discovered that he had the same word tattooed on his forearm! It was like a meeting between freemasons, sharing secret signs.

Over Guinnesses, he told me all about the symposium, saying that a high point was 'First We Feel, Then We Fall', Jakub Wroblewski's amazing new multimedia adaptation of Finnegans Wake, launched on Bloomsday. Jakub also has Wake tattoos on his forearm – the Euclid diagram from page 293, the symbol of FWFTWF and the combined sigla for Shem and Shaun. Jakub posted this picture on facebook of their tattooed forearms.

Derek and Jakub's Wake tattoos
There'd also been a talk by the great genetic Wakeans, Erik Bindervoet and Robbert-Jan Henkes, on the problem of editing Finnegans Wake. Terence Killeen, from the Dublin Joyce Centre, spoke about 'The Heroic Age of Wake Studies: The Roland McHugh Archive'. 

Derek wanted to get back to the symposium at 6, for a plenary talk by Iain Sinclair. He suggested I tag along and sneak in, which is just what I did.  

We sat in the front row, beside Debbie Weiss, who'd presented 'A Conversation Between James Joyce and Marcel Proust'. She's also from Boston, where she belongs to the Thirsty Scholars Wake reading group.

When Iain Sinclair was introduced, it was announced that his talk was being put on as The John Coffin Memorial Lecture, which means that it was a free public event – so it was ok for me to have sneaked in! 

Sinclair's talk was titled 'James Joyce, Our Dad, Alas: a late modernist autobiography of Bloom fugues in simultaneous cities, London and Dublin.'

The theme, like a lot of Sinclair's writing, was walking – walking in Ulysses, and walks Sinclair took as a young student in Dublin - along the Liffey to the Phoenix Park. He had some interesting stories about being at Trinity in the early 1960s, when Ulysses was still seen as a dirty book. Though you could get copies, they were kept under the counter. 

He lived near the Martello Tower, then a private home, where one of his neighbours was a lady who drank vodka continuously – he later decovered that she was Eleanor Philby, wife of the spy Kim, who'd just fled to the Soviet Union.  I googled Eleanor Philby and Dublin, and this story came up, from the Milwaukie Journal.
The whole talk was an entertaining ramble, bringing in Ezra Pound's Cantos, David Jones's Anathemata, drinking in McDaid's, where you could see Brian O'Nolan (Flann O'Brien) and the grumpy Patrick Kavanagh. At Trinity, Sinclair edited the student magazine, and managed to get William Burroughs to submit a piece – his first publication in Ireland.

Sinclair's talk was followed by a wine reception (where I was technically more of a gatecrasher!). Here I met the Genetic Wakean, Erik Bindervoet and Ollie Evans, who've both done readings for Derek's Waywords and Meansigns project. Ollie told me about his Birkbeck Phd project, 'The Performance of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake'. As part of it, he does his own performances, including one on Madame Raphael, the French secretary who transcribed Joyce's illegible notebooks.

Wake Performer Ollie Evans
Many thanks to Derek Pyle for suggesting that I gatecrash the James Joyce Symposium the first one I've visited since the wonderful Dublin Joyce centenary in 1982.


  1. The Joycean Judith Harrington has a tattoo of the Sigla of Finnegans Wake, somewhere about her person - not sure exactly where...

    1. If I was having a tattoo, I'd go for the nose-thumbing child's drawing on page 308