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Italian Diary IX

May 2nd

— Could you make a hole in another pint?
— Could a swim duck? says I.
James Joyce, Ulysses

John McCourt writes: What we are all missing at this time is not so much the extraordinary ‑ those necessary occasional escapes from the rhythms, habits and challenges of our daily lives ‑ as the ordinary and the everyday that we were so used to complaining about, what Seamus Heaney calls “the unregarded data of the usual life” (in an account of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry). AE Housman is one of many poets who described the weariness of routine:

Yonder See the Morning

Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.

Oh often have I washed and dressed
And what’s to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I’ve done my best
And all’s to do again.

One of the ordinary day-to-day things that is out of reach now is the trip to the barber or the hairdresser and this is a challenge for many people. Call me old-fashioned but I disapprove of small children with long hair and favour a well-kempt head even during lockdown. So yesterday I decided it was time to take action and give Enrico a necessary haircut. Alice, somewhat reluctantly, agreed and Enrico, having no choice in the matter, and not quite knowing whether to laugh or cry, went along with it.

To be fair to me, I do have some haircutting history. Back in 1984, during my brief foray into the Jesuit novitiate, all haircutting was in-house. I immediately volunteered and learned my trade on the six sitting victims who had nowhere to hide. I was not much of a believer in the scissors but preferred the electric clipper or trimmer. You set the length you want and off you go cutting all before you. On one occasion, having completed a successful and rather neat haircut, the suddenly emboldened client asked if I might also trim his beard, a beard that had been grown and nurtured with great care and attention over many months. That, as Brendan Behan wrote, was where Aughrim was lost. As I soon found out, it takes but the slightest slip of the hand to put a gaping hole in a beard. The poor man was close to tears as I tried to repair the damage by evening things up. He was left with little more than stubble.

Then, ten years later, I lost my hair. It all happened quickly enough but I do remember being out for dinner with the Da in Dublin. My father had had a stroke many years earlier and this had removed whatever inhibitions he had ever had (not many), even though ,or perhaps because ,ordinary speech was such a huge effort for him after that. He had the words but could not get them out. Although sometimes he did.

As I lowered my head to begin to eat my soup, I heard from across the table, loudly: “Jaysus! You’re losing your effing hair.” It sounded like an accusation. Everyone in the restaurant heard it with me and I wanted the ground to swallow me up. “It’s not exactly my fault,” I objected, admitting that I was getting thin on top. But he had already started chuckling (along with several of the other customers).

Shortly afterwards I took the plunge and bought the trimmer and become a full-time skinner. I never looked back and when Liam and Eoin were small, I was their barber. They got the zero haircut in summer and as close as during the rest of the year. To call it a sensible haircut would be an understatement. And it saved a fortune.

Enrico had the good sense to insist that he did not want to be left bald at eight. So I managed to achieve what might be called a tidy haircut. All was going well until his mother suggested it could be a bit shorter. Maybe I could do a kind of a gentle fade along the back and sides. Something approaching the Ronaldo look. Needless to say, between Enrico twitching and my being less than convinced by this attempt to fade and shade, the slight shortening at the back became quite radical. This morning Enrico, who, like the rest of us, luckily cannot see the back of his own head, is exhibiting the perfect bowl haircut, even if the bowl is slightly chipped here and there. Sure it will grow back.

Another of the ordinary things we are all missing are bars, coffee shops, ice cream parlours, pubs, restaurants, all staple parts of our social diet, wherever we are. And we are wondering when and how ‑ and if ‑ they will reopen. With social distancing and a third of the usual clientele what is a pizza or a pint likely to cost?

Ulysses, written during the dark years of World War One when all normality was suspended, is the book that more than any other proclaims the importance of the quotidian and celebrates the extraordinary in flawed ordinary lives. While well aware of the dangers of drink, Joyce captured quotidian pub life in Dublin like no other (except perhaps Flann O’Brien). How many pub habitués or even occasional drinkers would not now concur with this affirmation?

“Ah! Ow! Don't be talking! I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint.” And, pint downed, conclude “Declare to God I could hear it hit the pit of my stomach with a click.”


Joyce had a brilliant capacity to describe pub life and pub “characters” like Bob Doran, who appeared in his story “The Boarding House”, where he is harried into marriage to Polly Mooney by her mother, who “dealt with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat”. Doran soon finds himself trapped in an unhappy marriage and appears, unhappily, snoring in the corner of Barney Kiernan’s pub many years later in Ulysses:

Little Alf Bergan popped in round the door and hid behind Barney’s snug, squeezed up with the laughing, and who was si,tting up there in the corner that I hadn’t seen snoring drunk, blind to the world only Bob Doran.

The men later discuss the recently defunct Paddy Dignam, whose funeral took place earlier in the day. But Alf Bergan is convinced he has just seen him on the street:

— How’s Willy Murray those times, Alf?
— I don’t know, says Alf. I saw him just now in Capel Street with Paddy Dignam. Only I was running after that ...
— You what? says Joe, throwing down the letters. With who?
— With Dignam, says Alf.
— Is it Paddy? says Joe.
— Yes, says Alf. Why?
— Don’t you know he’s dead? says Joe.
— Paddy Dignam dead? says Alf.
— Ay, says Joe.
— Sure I'm after seeing him not five minutes ago, says Alf, as plain as a pikestaff.
— Who’s dead? says Bob Doran.
— You saw his ghost then, says Joe, God between us and harm.
— What? says Alf. Good Christ, only five ... What? ... and Willy Murray with him, the two of them there near whatdoyoucallhim’s ... What? Dignam dead?
— What about Dignam? says Bob Doran. Who’s talking about ...?
— Dead! says Alf. He’s no more dead than you are.
— Maybe so, says Joe. They took the liberty of burying him this morning anyhow.
— Paddy? says Alf.
— Ay, says Joe. He paid the debt of nature, God be merciful to him.
— Good Christ! says Alf.
Begob he was what you might call flabbergasted.

Bob Doran does not take the news well:

— Who said Christ is good?
— I beg your parsnips, says Alf.
— Is that a good Christ, says Bob Doran, to take away poor little Willy Dignam?
— Ah, well, says Alf, trying to pass it off. He’s over all his troubles.
But Bob Doran shouts out of him.
— He’s a bloody ruffian, I say, to take away poor little Willy Dignam.
Terry came down and tipped him the wink to keep quiet, that they didn’t want that kind of talk in a respectable licensed premises. And Bob Doran starts doing the weeps about Paddy Dignam, true as you’re there.
— The finest man, says he, snivelling, the finest purest character.

Joyce celebrated everyday life (and death) in all its aspects with grace and great humour but also with cutting realism. The Cyclops episode owes much to his father and his friends and to the Dublin that he left behind. But there is no sign of sentimentality. Joyce achieved perspective from afar, from what he calls “the safe side of distance”.

Today most of us are living at a distance from our usual lives. There is not a thing wrong with allowing ourselves to wallow a little in our now suspended habitual, in celebrating the routine ordinariness of our usual lives and with wanting a little of them back.

At the same time, as we live through these difficult and challenging days and weeks, there is equally no harm in realising how lucky we have been in our now frozen “normality”, an everyday normality that we will, nonetheless, have to somewhat reinvent as we emerge from this crisis in the months and years ahead. This enforced distance can help us gain the necessary perspective to understand what is vital and what is not, what we took for ordinary but really will have to be extraordinary from now on.