How did you spend those early, anxious weeks of lockdown back in March and April? I devoted most of my time to writing an epic poem, in limerick stanzas, about a talking walrus called Stew. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have anything else on my plate: I was, and still am, under contract to write a short book about Nelson’s Victory, to be followed by similar opuscules on the Endeavour, the Bounty and the Endurance. But the deadlines were not too urgent and life was suddenly more leisurely, so I decided to indulge myself.
It began – and this has only really happened to me once or twice – with a dream I had about a fortnight before I went into voluntary seclusion. In the dream, I had been invited to a slightly posh, slightly boho drinks party in a grand house near the Norfolk coast. One of the other guests was a walrus, who told me that he was a poet and asked if he might read me one of his verses. I nodded. He declaimed: ‘Bippetty Boppitty Boo/I like you.’ Being polite, I said that it was very good – which, for a walrus, it certainly was – and he went off delightedly to recite it to everyone else.
The creature amused me, and I grinned when I thought of him, so I wrote a few limericks about him, and then a few more. A story began to develop, but although this was meant as light-hearted escapism, my (our) anxieties began to seep into the narrative. Initially, Stew was foolishly complacent about coronavirus:
Stew refuses to self-isolate:
‘It’s all mass hysteria, mate!’
I fear that quite soon
He’ll be changing his tune,
But by then it will be far too late.
At other times, Stew’s studied insouciance about the global pandemic tempted even me, chronic worry-wart as I am, to make light of our collective woes:
Though I doubt anyone will admire us,
Stew and I are both sick of the virus.
So we slapped on some pop,
And enjoyed a good BOP!
To ‘Wrecking Ball’, by Miley Cyrus.
Daft stuff? Of course. But it was just what I needed to write in a time of crisis and worry.
* * *
Joyce seems also to have been quite keen on walruses. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus wanders along the beach and notes ‘herds of seamorse’ (morse is an old name for the walrus; a young academic has recently written a brief cultural history of the species and its interactions with humanity, entitled ‘Decoding the Morse’). The waters of Finnegans Wake are also full of walruses: ‘silkhouatted, a whallrhosmightiadd, aginsst the dusk of skumring’; ‘his morse mustaccents’; ‘My bellyswain’s a twalf whulerusspower’; ‘and wallruse, the merman, ye seal that lubs you lassers’.
The reason I know this is that, in the same weeks I was writing about Stew, I was rereading favourite books for pleasure, and I began with all of Joyce – not such a huge task if you don’t count the letters (I still haven’t finished them). I first read him, greedily, during the summer vacation between the lower and upper sixth, when I had an agonisingly dull holiday job and badly needed an escape. Like most adolescent boys who are bitten with the Joyce bug, I identified with Stephen, not quite twigging how much of the self-depiction is sardonic as well as tender. When I came to teach A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to freshman students in America ten years later, I probably went too far in the other direction. One reason for this undue distaste for Stephen’s immaturity was my own immaturity.
At that point I was halfway between the ages of Stephen and Leopold Bloom. But even then I had yet fully to understand the attractions of Bloom’s generous humanism. Bloom is, undeniably, an odd duck, with a head full of ill-ordered trivia, fragments of the arts and sciences only partly understood, hobbyhorses and crotchets (like most of us, then). But he is also one of the most benevolent characters in fiction. Part of Joyce’s achievement is to have created, without any sentimentality, a good man. Bloom may be a voyeur, an onanist, a masochistic cuckold and a bit of a crank; he is also a husband who loves his faithless wife, a father who dotes on his living daughter and his dead son, a good friend, a good citizen and a social idealist. Possibly Joyce’s greatest modification of the Homeric scheme is in making Bloom a hero who triumphs over his enemies not by slaughter but by understanding and forgiveness.
* * *
Summer came and then began to ebb, and I began work on the project I should have tackled and finished in the previous months: a short life of Nelson. Stew had alerted me to the fact that you can find walruses everywhere if you look, so it was no surprise to me when I read, in the early pages of Robert Southey’s Life of Horatio Lord Nelson, the story of how the teenage mariner, recruited to a scientific exploration of the Arctic, encountered an angry walrus and chased it away with an oar. (Southey is moved to remark that the face of the walrus is more expressive and human-seeming than that of any other mammal.)
Initially, I found it hard to make out the man behind the admiral: too many of the accounts are either hagiographies or so taken up with the minutiae of sea warfare as to offer little sense of character. Eventually, I turned to fiction for help: Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover and Barry Unsworth’s Losing Nelson. The latter is about a Nelson worshipper who starts to see dark spots in his hero’s conduct and slides into homicidal madness as a result. At its heart is an episode in Naples that is often glossed over in popular histories. Briefly, Nelson ignored the terms of an amnesty drawn up without his consent and had a group of republican rebels thrown into prison, after which they were executed. Anyone trying to write a balanced account of the admiral must decide how much weight to give this bloody event.
As I write this diary I am still wavering, about two-thirds of the way to the finish line. It should be done by the start of October, when I hope to move on to the next book – though I fear that my unconscious mind has presented me with the challenge of a long narrative poem based on the true story of the great Italian engineer Umberto Nobile and his Arctic mission of 1928, when he tried to reach the North Pole in an airship, in the company of his beloved fox terrier, Titina. If I manage to finish it, the story will be in ballad form.