Bloomsday celebrations: outside Sweny’s, where you can still buy Leopold Bloom’s lemon-scented soap. Photo: JULIEN BEHAL/PA ARCHIVE/PRESS ASSOCIATION IMAGES
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Following in James Joyce's footsteps: meet the ordinary people keeping Ulysses alive

A visit to Sweny's chemist in Dublin, which still sells the soap Leopold Bloom buys in Ulysses, reveals those who are keeping the book alive.

In the “Lotus Eaters” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, en route to Glasnevin Cemetery, calls in at a pharmacy in Lincoln Place to pick up a face cream for his wife, Molly. Resolving to return for the prescription, which he then forgets to do, Bloom takes a cake of “sweet lemony wax” to use at the bathhouse around the corner. He is hot and bothered in the warm weather, and in gloomy spirits in the lead-up to the funeral in Glasnevin.

Still, Bloom finds some solace in the thought of “the gentle tepid steam” of the baths – not least, also, in the prospect of masturbating in the warm water, to which he alludes (“Also I think I. Yes I. Do it in the bath . . . Combine business with pleasure”). The episode takes up less than two pages but Poldy’s thoughts and interaction with the chemist make for yet another of Ulysses’s memorable depictions of everyday life in the Irish capital. Dublin may have changed considerably since 1904, but readers everywhere can relate to humdrum details such as Bloom browsing through the chemist’s selection of “coolwrappered soap”.

Indeed, one day last December, I found myself following a similar course to Poldy’s peregrinations as I searched for a quiet pub with a friend. Dublin at Christmastime is hectic, which doesn’t suit it: the usually friendly streets are stressful, and, worst of all, you’d be lucky to find two empty bar stools. However, passing Sweny’s – the same pharmacy portrayed in Ulysses; for, in Bloom’s words, “Chemists rarely move” – made me curious. I saw some old-school lemon soap in the window and decided to get some as a present for my sister.

I opened the door and saw about ten people huddled together, noses buried in books. The man behind the counter looked up and asked politely in French if we had come for the reading. Confused, I replied in my university French that I was looking for soap. After selling me the sweet-smelling bar, he asked my friend and me to sit in on the weekly reading of Ulysses in French. Given that we both study the language and are passionate about books, we agreed.

By the time we had finished struggling through the “Proteus” episode, the pub across the road was slightly less busy. We all went for a drink, and I got to know a little about the man behind the desk: P J Murphy, the intriguing curator of Sweny’s. Rather than being a fully equipped chemist’s, his shop is a Joycean curio and time machine to Edwardian Dublin. Little has changed inside from when it was built in 1847. Six years ago, some friends of Murphy’s told him that “their chemist’s” had fallen on hard times. Being a Joyce enthusiast, he offered to take over its management.

Murphy, originally a shoe salesman by day and language teacher in the evening, reopened Sweny’s in October 2009. He relies on donations to keep the pharmacy afloat and staffs it with volunteers: a set-up that is popular with foreign students who come to Dublin to learn English. Murphy is an avid linguist, claiming to have studied 25 languages to some degree and to speak nine fluently – an impressive number that still pales in comparison with his estimate that Finnegans Wake contains references to 57. Sweny’s holds several Joyce readings a week, in French and Italian, among other tongues, and there are plans to begin sessions in still more languages – book donations permitting.

The chemist’s receives many visitors who actively seek it out but Murphy believes that a large part of Sweny’s charm is the surprise passers-by get on wandering in by chance. It was heartening to see such a love of Dublin in the staff of this appealing time capsule. Stumbling across hidden gems such as the French reading group makes you realise that you don’t know your home town as well as you think.

Naturally, 16 June (the day on which Ulysses is set) is the busiest day of the year for Sweny’s; Murphy says that up to €5,000-worth of lemon soap is sold on this date alone. Many Joyce fans celebrate “Bloomsday” by wearing period clothes, retracing the footsteps of Poldy and Stephen Dedalus, and quoting their favourite passages from the book.

Joyce is one of few authors who inspire such devotion, but Murphy argues that the writer’s deep affection for Dubliners comes across in his work. Murphy has read Ulysses 19 times and bemoans its reputation as a weighty, intimidating book; he prefers to think of it instead as an honest, amusing portrayal of ordinary people.

“It’s great fun. Joyce was a great listener: he talked to everyone and wrote it all down. Irish people are very good at that,” he says over a pint, smiling. “Read it, let it come to you, enjoy it and read it again. Each time something new pops out.” I first read Ulysses a year ago. This Bloomsday, I might well take Murphy’s advice. 

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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