Andy Moles weaves a story of reading and climbing a classic book and line...
"Going to dark bed there was a square round Sinbad the Sailor roc's auk's egg in the night of the bed of all the auks of the rocs of Darkinbad the Brightdayler." Joyce, 'Ithaca'
"No one could be gladder than I to emerge from the dark 'n' bad lower walls, to a finish touched by the last rays of the sun." Pat Littlejohn, North Devon and Cornwall (1988)
Have you read Ulysses?
I studied Ulysses, by which I mean I sat in lectures and seminars and listened to academics telling me things about Ulysses, and I wrote them down. I went so far as to read some bits, the usual bits that people read, such as the beginning and the end. I was very interested conceptually in what Joyce was trying to achieve, but it was much easier to read about it than to read it. Other people had done the hard work.
Still, it always bugged me that I hadn't read it.
Perhaps because it stood as an obvious challenge. Ulysses is a north face of the Eiger or a K2, recognisable by all with even the dimmest awareness of the field as a mighty achievement. Perhaps because it would prove I was clever, which is after all mostly what the education system that dominates the formative years of our lives serves to offer.
Some years passed. I took confidence from my conquest of Gravity's Rainbow, arguably the nearest thing to Ulysses in scale, obscenity and literary esteem written in the second half of the century. I decided to have a proper crack at Ulysses.
I approached with speed. I knew that realistically, I was unwilling to commit the effort required to tease apart the puns and arcane allusions and thematic interplay contained in every page - you could spend a year doing that and nothing else, and still be confused. So I decided to blitz it, hoping to surf on the music of the language and to collect enough scraps of meaning that when I read about it again afterwards, I would have at least a grounding.
I got nearly half-way. That's not bad, is it?
Actually, it is. I don't understand the neuroscience of reading, but I do know that it is possible for my eyes to trace the lines of a page, such that some part of my brain must be scanning the words and convincing other parts of my brain that it is 'reading' them, but to process and retain virtually none of it.
What a waste of time.
Joyce once said of Finnegans Wake, a book that makes Ulysses look easy, that it had taken him fifteen years to write, so he saw no reason it shouldn't take someone else fifteen years to understand. This is ridiculous, on many levels, but there is also something wonderful about it. I love that these books exist, that someone had the vision and the persistence and bloodymindedness to write them. It doesn't matter that they are impenetrable to most readers (in the case of Finnegans Wake, to pretty much anyone); Joyce went there.
I look at the journeys of great explorers in a similar way. Outliers, probing the extremes. Human expansion around the globe is fascinating. How did it feel to set off across an ocean in a small boat, having absolutely no knowledge of what you would find, in a world of monsters and witches and all possibility, by far the most likely thing only death by drowning or thirst? It is hard for the modern mind to imagine, our wildest 'adventures' controlled and contrived by comparison. It is the perfect expression of the hero in facing adversity. Ulysses takes the structure of the Odyssey's hero narrative and is playful with it, but in its audacity of vision, it is every bit the odyssey. It is a trove, vast in depth, and no idea excites the adventuring soul more than that of buried treasure.
Has Pat Littlejohn read Ulysses?
There are lines of Ulysses often quoted, ones that I remember. History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. The snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea. Ineluctable modality of the visible. As I said, these often come near the beginning or the end, where you skip-a-few to Molly Bloom's monologue, which like the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, is a stand-out and quite juicy. Preceding that final chapter is 'Ithaca', the novel's archetypal nostos or homecoming. It is in the final lines of this that Darkinbad makes his appearance. If those lines don't seem to make much sense, they aren't supposed to - Leopold Bloom is falling asleep. That section is popular nonetheless.
Did Littlejohn go all the way from start to finish, or did he skip a few, when he found the inspiration for the name of his line up the middle of the Great Wall at Pentire? Was he playing loose with language like Joyce did, associating his voyage and escape from the sea up that 'dark'n'bad' wall as a kind of nostos; like Sinbad, like Ulysses? In Joycean spirit, we could trace a fanciful theme through the other names on this wall - Siren's Cry drawing explicitly from the Greek myth, Black Magic invoking Circe the witch, Eroica a reference to the hero figure itself. Probably nonsense, but good fun.
I could go on. There are Wandering Rocks down here, great cleaves of storm waves' collisions with the headland, now forming an uneasy buffer between the Charybdis of the sea and the many-headed Scylla of routes tracing this dark canvas, their paths hinted by sporadic rusted pegs. The wall appears to hang above the cave forming its undercut base, a choked entrance to Hades. It is not difficult to imagine the Lestrygonians approaching as the waves crash in with bloodthirsty fury behind.
Stood back, the wall has the shape of a megalithic cathedral, and in the apse dim corners split ghost-pale walls. It appears like a jigsaw puzzle laid on an uneven surface. Half-way up, on the line of Darkinbad the Brightdayler, a pale gap shows where one piece has fallen away. I search in vain for it among the debris. Up close, the rock is not beautiful, but darkly fascinating. The 'pillows' in the lava are curled like fossils of giant worms or bloated guts, and in places swarms of tapering micro-cracks burst from compact uniformity as though the pressure had nowhere to go. Odd lumps of quartz bare teeth. The cracks seethe bristletails, most primitive of insects.
I approached Ulysses with speed, and fell off half way through. Never mind. Here, an error in my pace or tactics could have serious consequence; the climb steps off a ridgebacked boulder and goes a long way before the wall hands over any trustworthy protection. The boulder squats, ready to turn your spine to a frond of bladderwrack.It will take time to read this thing, and commitment.
Islands drift on the horizon and shift shape as they near, concealing safety or danger. All must be passed.
Two hours, twenty years?
I emerge, eyes lit with the glint of treasure.