The A levels finished forty years ago today, on Friday, 15th June 1979. The passing of the days at Sixth Form College was marked by an evening playing skittles and drinking ale at a pub in the Somerset village of Catcott. The evening was rounded off with a supper of crusty bread, Stilton cheese and pickled onions.
The next day, Saturday, 16th June, entirely unaware of the existence of something called “Bloomsday,” I went to the library, with the intention of borrowing books that were considered to be “important.” James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses were among the pile brought home.
A friend’s father thought it distinctly odd. He thought it very strange that any red blooded male should be reading Joyce; forty years later, his logic still seems unfathomable. A Portrait was read with great effort, partly because I had begun my summer job, labouring at Kelway’s Nursery, on Monday, 18th June, and was exhausted at the end of each day. Ulysses was abandoned after forty pages and not picked up again until 2003.
What was it that forty years ago that prompted abandoning the book? Having borrowed it, completely inadvertently, on the 75th anniversary of the first Bloomsday, why did I stop at page 40?
It was some ten years ago that I discovered the probable reason. I had taken Ulysses from the shelf, and had turned to Page 40. On Page 41, there had been the likely answer to my question:
— Mark my words, Mr Dedalus, he said. England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it Coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying.
He stepped swiftly off, his eyes coming to blue life as they passed a broad sunbeam. He faced about and back again.
— Dying, he said, if not dead by now.
The harlot’s cry from street to street
Shall weave old England’s winding sheet.
His eyes open wide in vision stared sternly across the sunbeam in which he halted.
— A merchant, Stephen said, is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?
— They sinned against the light, Mr Deasy said gravely. And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day.
On the steps of the Paris Stock Exchange the goldskinned men quoting prices on their gemmed fingers. Gabbles of geese. They swarmed loud, uncouth about the temple, their heads thickplotting under maladroit silk hats. Not theirs: these clothes, this speech, these gestures. Their full slow eyes belied the words, the gestures eager and unoffending, but knew the rancours massed about them and knew their zeal was vain. Vain patience to heap and hoard. Time surely would scatter all. A hoard heaped by the roadside: plundered and passing on. Their eyes knew the years of wandering and, patient, knew the dishonours of their flesh.
— Who has not? Stephen said.
— What do you mean? Mr Deasy asked.
He came forward a pace and stood by the table. His underjaw fell sideways open uncertainly. Is this old wisdom? He waits to hear from me.
— History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
Having completed, the previous week, an A level in history that covered the rise of Adolf Hitler and the hideous crimes of the Nazis, the casual anti-Semitism of Mr Deasy had probably been too much to take. Perhaps Joyce was discarded because he had reflected the attitudes of the people of his time. His voice of protest being expressed through Stephen Dedalus. Were Joyce to be writing 115 years later, would he find a world more free from prejudice? Or are the old lies as strong as ever?