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?

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.