Some people think of Armitage when they see a poster advertising a musical for children. Some are reminded of Armitage thanks to coincidental acronyms incorporating the letters RA. Others attend hoity-toity cultural events, only to find their thoughts meander back to their mood-booster of choice. Guess which group I belong to? Right, the latter. Pretentiously patronizing a cultural event celebrating the work of a literary great – and coming away with a number of thoughts relating to Mr A.
I am not sure whether *he* would find that flattering.
And neither would Stephen Fry, who was the guest of honour at last night’s conversation event on the occasion of Bloomsday. Bloomsday – for those not au fait with English-language literature from Ireland – is an annual commemorative event, celebrating the writer James Joyce. The name refers to the main character of his novel Ulysses, which chronicles one day in the life of the main character, a Dublin jew named Leopold Bloom. The day described in the novel is June 16th, 1904. (Joyce, btw, picked this date because it was the day that he met his later wife Nora Barnacle for a first date. What a declaration of love!!!) Organized by the Dublin James Joyce Centre, this year’s Bloomsday featured Stephen Fry in conversation with Senator David Norris, a well-known Joyce expert, ex-professor of literature (Trinity College), outspoken gay activist, former presidential candidate and Anglo-Irish eccentric.
I made my way to the venue on a balmy summer evening, accompanied by my young daughter, who is a huge fan of Fry’s TV panel show QI. We passed through North Great George’s Street, a beautiful Georgian street which also houses the James Joyce Center, and which leads to James Joyce’s alma mater, Belvedere College, a prestigious Jesuit secondary school, where the event was taking place. We were very early and had to wait to be admitted to the auditorium – but being early meant we snagged fabulous seats in the sixth row from the front, on the aisle, and with a direct view of Stephen Fry. After a rather long delay,
even for Irish standards, Fry entered the stage among much applause – and some hilarity on my part when I spotted him carrying a bulging briefcase onto the stage. Once seated in two big comfy chairs, they jumped straight into the conversation.
And what an opener. Prompted by Norris, Fry repeated his quip on when he knew that he was gay: “At birth, I looked back at the womb and decided I am not going back up there in a hurry.” With two gay activists in conversation, it was clear that a lot of time would be spent discussing Fry’s homosexuality. But perfect raconteur that Fry is, he managed to weave his own life story with the topic of the evening, James Joyce. A detour took the audience to Fry’s discovery of ” language” via The Importance of Being Earnest and the memorable line “I hope, Cecily, I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection.” This sparked an obsessive desire in Fry to read more by Oscar Wilde and to find out about the playwright. What he found was the certainty that he had found a kindred spirit – and the fear that his own life would mirror that of Wilde because of his sexual preference.
Undoubtedly sensitized by recent discussions in our fandom, I listened with fascination when Fry admitted he had been the subject of much bullying in school. Language had up to then been a toy to play with – to express himself in the most beautiful way – but now turned into a tool against bullying, directed at his tormentors. If they were threatening to manhandle him, he would say “Oh, don’t touch me, you’ll give me an erection” – and the perpetrators would recoil, just as Fry wanted. An inventive, proactive approach to defend oneself against bullies, beating them with their own weapon, rather than passive enduring?
The conversation skipped to Fry’s view of the recent marriage equality referendum in Ireland. What was Fry’s view on that, Norris wanted to know. Fry said he had been doubtful about the outcome, especially after the disappointing results of the British general election shortly before the Irish vote. When the Irish overwhelmingly voted for gay marriage, Fry was overjoyed. He interprets the “yes” vote as a sign of the “new Ireland”, a country that has stepped out of the shadow of the dark, sinister, Church-dominated past. Not the Celtic Tiger-Ireland either – not a country “that’s in it for a quick buck” as he termed it, but a new country.
Fry quoted beautifully from Ulysses – and interestingly a long passage from the “Ithaca” chapter of the novel, which lists the affinities of woman and moon:
What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?
Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its umplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8,000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides: its subsidence after devastation: its sterility in the circumpolar icecaps, arctic and antarctic: its climatic and commercial significance: its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe: its indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the region below the subequatorial tropic of Capricorn: the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed: Its capacity to dissolve and hold in solution all soluble substances including billions of tons of the most precious metals: its slow erosions of peninsulas and downwardtending promontories: its alluvial deposits: its weight and volume and density: its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers with their tributaries and transoceanic currents: gulfstream, north and south equatorial courses: its violence in seaquakes, waterspouts, artesian wells, eruptions, torrents, eddies, freshets, spates, groundswells, watersheds, waterpartings, geysers, cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms, inundations, deluges, cloudbursts: its vast circumterrestrial ahorizontal curve: its secrecy in springs, and latent humidity, revealed by rhabdomantic or hygrometric instruments and exemplified by the hole in the wall at Ashtown gate, saturation of air, distillation of dew: the simplicity of its composition, two constituent parts of hydrogen with one constituent part of oxygen: its healing virtues: its buoyancy in the waters of the Dead Sea: its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail: its strength in rigid hydrants: its variety of forms in loughs and bays and gulfs and bights and guts and lagoons and atolls and archipelagos and sounds and fjords and minches and tidal estuaries and arms of sea: its solidity in glaciers, icebergs, icefloes: its docility in working hydraulic millwheels, turbines, dynamos, electric power stations, bleachworks, tanneries, scutchmills: its utility in canals, rivers, if navigable, floating and graving docks: its potentiality derivable from harnessed tides or watercourses falling from level to level: its submarine fauna and flora (anacoustic, photophobe) numerically, if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe: its ubiquity as constituting 90% of the human body: the noxiousness of its effluvia in lacustrine marshes, pestilential fens, faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon.
This is typical Joyce – there is more beauty in *hearing* these words spoken, than trying to understand them. Try it out yourself, read them to yourself, aloud.
Wait until the husband/children/house-mates have left the room. The combination of sounds flows like a bubbling stream – beautiful. And Fry’s wonderful enunciation and stage-trained articulation made it a feast for the ears. This alone was worth attending the event for. And here is something that I would *much* rather like to hear RA read than some limpid, soppy love pomes [sic].
Of course there were many more things said, but my memory eludes me. Maybe my brain was already busy making a few comparisons and drawing some conclusions. One thing I love about Fry (and his dialogue partner David Norris) is that he is so outspoken. He is not afraid of voicing an opinion, or of potentially provoking disagreement. Fry, of course, has the advantage of having the image as an intellectual, a well-informed polymath. He exudes authority (on the matters he talks about) because he has shown himself knowledgable and articulate through his books, his documentaries and his TV-show appearances. That can’t necessarily be said about “other people” who until now have mostly spoken about their work. It is slightly unfair comparing Fry and RA, anyway, as I am certainly not as “invested” (personally interested) in Fry as I am in RA, so I do not “place his (Fry’s) words on the gold scales” as we say in German. Therefore I am much more inclined to give Fry the benefit of the doubt than RA. BUT – I simply found it refreshing that Fry speaks his mind freely. He is not afraid to declare his opinion. For instance, he pronounced Dylan Thomas “putrid” – surely a rather controversial statement about a well-known, celebrated poet. And at a literary event where there are bound to be knowledgable people in the audience.
But this little piece of snark reminded me how much I enjoy hearing *definite* statements, provided they are backed up with a logical argument. A clear “yes” or “no”. Something that enables me to classify the speaker’s opinion, and to give me insight in his/her tastes, opinions, preferences, values. Sure, outspokenness runs the risk of angering and alienating an audience. I’ll be honest and admit that I was ever so slightly put out by the aforementioned obvious rejection, if not disgust, that Fry directs at the female anatomy. But there was a lesson for me in that, too: There is nothing personal in that. Not everything is said in order for it to be taken personally. As much as Fry could be scolded for not having properly judged the “destination of his words” (particularly in a room full of women), I think there is also a responsibility of the audience for the “reception of the words”: to filter them, to assess the intent, and to avoid the temptation of feeling personally affronted by anything that goes against our own convictions/preferences. Communication is always two-way. Words are spoken with intent. But they are also received with intent. Negotiating both is the challenge.
In all, a thoroughly enjoyable evening that ended with standing ovations for Stephen Fry who once again proved his worth by being entertaining, insightful, reflected, intelligent and full of knowledge. I appreciate how he “puts himself out there”, exposes his life, his views and his faults to the public eye. That is not something that everyone can and should do, and maybe the “blank slate” that others create is more perfect for projecting our own desires and interpretations on them. But a bit of controversy is like a breath of fresh air – stimulating the synapses and tickling the brain. Mine was certainly “Fry’d”. In a good way.