A statue of James Joyce in Dublin. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: navigating Dublin with a literary map in my head

I had gone to Dublin with the express intention of understanding a city that to me has always seemed incoherent – and even a little minatory.

Standing on a patch of induced greenery, I stared first at the vast and glassy curvilinear buttocks of Dublin Airport’s newish Terminal Two, then at the shiny cars being shat out from between them along the approach road. I turned and saw the entire sweep of Dublin Bay open out before me: I could see the Wicklow Mountains to the south; the city centre with its hugger-mugger of recent building; the Brobdingnagian bodkin spearing up from O’Connell Street and the triangular roofs of the assemblage of office blocks that Dubliners – with typically irritating self-deprecation – have named “Canary Dwarf”. To the north was the massy brow of Howth Head and before it the long promenade of Dollymount Strand. Out in the bay, the Bull breakwater lanced through the waves. All was in order, all was legible: I had achieved my objective . . . or had I? I stubbed out my cigarette, turned on my heel and headed for the terminal. In Ulysses Stephen Dedalus remarks, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”; and here was I, lapsing yet again into the troubling reverie of international air travel.

I had gone to Dublin with the express intention of understanding a city that to me has always seemed incoherent – and even a little minatory. As I wrote about Manchester a few weeks ago: I never feel I have the measure of a city until I’ve walked across it and felt its heft with my feet. I’ve travelled to Dublin enough over the years, beginning in the early 1980s, when, if my memory serves me, there was as much horse-drawn as motor-propelled traffic on the roads, and the alleyways off the main thoroughfares seemed preternaturally gloomy after dusk. The problem is if you ask Dubliners to take you for a walk around their manor, they invariably concentrate on the Georgian squares, St Stephen’s Green and the immediate purlieu of Trinity College, but pretty as all of this stuff is, it’s no more indicative of the city’s realities than a walking tour of Bloomsbury would be of London’s. To forestall such clichés I arranged for my friend the writer Carlo Gébler to meet me at the airport: we would walk from there out to the Bull and take up our stance where Dedalus, in his earlier Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man incarnation, sees the so-called “heron girl”, and so experiences the earthy epiphany that gives him the impetus to “fly by the nets” of Church, language and nationalism.

There was only one problem with this high-flown promenade: Carlo, not being the most experienced of urban promenaders, had brought a road map rather than a topographic one. Soon enough we were floundering around in a scrubby realm of playing fields, waste ground and cemeteries as we tried to follow the course of a brook across the M1 motorway and towards the coast. We ended up describing a wide and fruitless gyre, before finishing up on the arterial grimness of Swords Road. Neither of us minded – we hadn’t seen one another for nine months and there was plenty to discuss. Besides, this was natal territory for Carlo, whose Bohemian forefathers arrived in Dublin shortly after Dedalus flew the coop, and he was able to point out specific streets that figured in the family history.

All this personalisation helped, but what was more informative still were the feet-that-are-facts on the ground. When Nabokov gave his celebrated lectures at Cornell University in the 1950s he would draw a map on the board to begin with – the “two ways” of Marcel’s Combray, or the floor plan of Mansfield Park – as a prelude to discussing them. I tried the same thing for the students I taught Joyce’s Portrait to last year: sketching out the locations of Clontarf chapel, the wooden bridge, the Bull and the island of dunes that has formed in the past 200 years to its north, so that they can imaginatively place themselves in Stephen’s footsteps. It may not have worked for them but it has for me; in Portrait Stephen encounters a bevy of beefy seminarians as he crosses the wooden bridge, their muscular-Christian footfalls shaking the entire structure. Carlo and I were pushed to the parapet by tearaways automotively goosing one another. The Bull had become, he told me, a favoured spot for such antics.

We sat out at the end of the breakwater for a while, appreciating the salty zephyrs licking our cheeks. It’s said that another big bodkin, this one topped by a statue of Our Lady of the Sea, was deliberately implanted on the Bull as a faithful rejoinder to the paganism of the epiphany Joyce’s protagonist experiences here – but that seems a little far-fetched to me. True, as we made our way that evening into central Dublin there was plenty of evidence of the festivities to come: on Monday it would be Bloomsday, and folk were gearing up for all the mummery associated with this bewildering bouleversement, whereby one of Hibernia’s most recusant sons has been wilfully co-opted as a national bard.

But really, Joyce himself – in his life and his work – deployed the most effective possible tactic when it comes to comprehending Dublin: he left.

 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear