Mayday, or Mayday!

Hayman, Francis, 1708-1776; Mayday (The Milkmaids' Garland)

Mayday (‘The Milkmaids’ Garland’): Studio of Francis Hayman. English Heritage: Marble Hill House, Twickenham.

‘To Westminster, in the way meeting many milkmaids with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them, and saw pretty Nelly standing at her lodgings door in Drury lane in her smock-sleeves and bodice, looking upon one – she seemed a mighty pretty creature.’ Samuel Pepys makes a Mayday note, 1667.


(Nell Gwynn by Sir Peter Lely)

May Day! Or, given the state we’re in: Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Although—newsflash—the cavalry will not be coming. It’s up to us, which may be good news or bad, depending on your perspective.

The cavalry often didn’t arrive in the past, or almost not. ‘And suppose the cavalry had not been able to ford that river? They almost did not, almost, almost. It is in the region of Almost that the blood sings.’[1] So Anthony Burgess, alluding, surely, to the conversation between his most admired author, James Joyce, and one of the best writers on that author, Frank Budgen, to whom Joyce is reading:

“After he woke me up last night same dream or was it? Wait. Open hallway. Street of harlots. Remember. Haroun al Raschid. I am almosting it. That man led me, spoke . . .”
“Almosting!” I said.
“Yes,” said Joyce. “That’s all in the Protean character of the thing. Everything changes: land, water, dog, time of day. Parts of speech change, too. Adverb becomes verb.”[2]


The settled conviction that the cavalry were, and would continue to be, the trump card in the British land army was slow to recede; and sceptics were regarded with wariness or hostility. Barbara Tuchman recorded that, ‘In the Russo-Japanese War an English observer, the future General Sir Ian Hamilton, reported that the only thing the cavalry could do in the face of entrenched machine guns was to cook rice for the infantry, causing the War Office to wonder if his months in the Orient had not affected his mind.’[3] In the event, of course, ‘The first and last British cavalry charge on the western front took place at Audreques on 24 August 1914.’[4]

By the Second World War, the cavalry had fled the scene but heroes were still in evidence, riding—or sailing—to the rescue: ‘There was high drama in May 1941 when a parachute mine went through the roof of the London Palladium, and hung entangled and unexploded in the flies. The Naval officer who successfully defused the mine (since these were sea-mines they were the responsibility of the Navy) was given free tickets to the Palladium for life.’

The envy of his colleagues, no doubt. Elsewhere on the cultural spectrum, ‘The Tate Gallery was hit in September, October and December, and again once a month from January to May 1941, but the only painting damaged was Richard Wilson’s Destruction of the Children of Niobe, which had been brought to London to be cleaned. The British Museum suffered damage to the Pediment Hall in November, and much more serious damage in May 1941, when 150,000 books in the Library were destroyed.’[5]

In fact, the cavalry occasionally call here, to take away a few boxes of books, sift them for items of personal interest, then pass the rest on to Good Causes. Against such occasional and partial thinning, logic demands that we set occasions like this last weekend, when the Librarian, glimpsing a few days off on the horizon, made a compelling argument for the whole of the 2018 Women’s Prize shortlist.


A few rogue titles have evidently slipped in here: there’s probably a reasonable explanation for that but I’m unable to access it just at the moment.


[1] Anthony Burgess, Napoleon Symphony (London, Jonathan Cape, 1974), 24.

[2] Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ and other writings, enlarged edition (1934; London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 55. Joyce is reading from the third chapter of Ulysses, ‘Proteus’.

[3] Barbara Tuchman, in The Guns of August (1962; edited by Margaret MacMillan, New York: Library of America, 2012), 214.

[4] Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House (London: Penguin Books, 1980), 289.

[5] Robert Hewison, Under Siege: Literary Life in London, 1939-45 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 29.


Mr Joyce, that dull book, nymphs


On my way to the cemetery—just walking, not for any graver purpose—I pass a van (a bit grimy) parked almost opposite the school. When the recent news is of academy schools in dire financial trouble and declining resources allocated to the arts and creative subjects in English schools, how can this not be cheering? Clearly, the writer already possesses the tools necessary to engage in political comment and discussion as it’s generally practised in this country lately, certainly online. More, it’s even spelled correctly.

Perhaps not quite cheering enough to offset all the other stuff. Still, let’s raise a glass for James Joyce’s birthday: ninety-six years today since the guard on the 7 a.m. express train from Dijon handed over two copies of Ulysses, one for the author on his fortieth birthday and one for Sylvia Beach to display in the window of her bookshop, Shakespeare & Company. ‘That dull book,’ he said, when Sylvia told him she was printing a thousand copies, ‘you won’t sell a copy of it.’

Waterhouse, John William, 1849-1917; Hylas and the Nymphs

(Why yes, it’s Hylas and the Nymphs by J. W. Waterhouse:
photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery)

Joyce had troubles enough in his time, with self-appointed judges and moral guardians, but would probably have been surprised to find a censorious glare turned upon John William Waterhouse. It’s a worrying sign, this lamentable decision of the Manchester Art Gallery to remove Hylas and the Nymphs from public view. Whatever one’s feelings about that specific painting, this policing of the past, the kind of censorship that announces, in the first instance, that it’s not censorship, is unambiguously bad. To claim that such actions are taken to ‘prompt a conversation’ when erasing history only closes down conversations, is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. And, alas, it’s given even more ammunition—as is evident from the yards of comments already posted about this news item—to the online (and offline) tribes who moan endlessly that their lives have been irretrievably ruined by those censorious and puritanical feminists who are plotting the ruin of western civilisation.


Manning the pump, manning the ship

Collins, William, 1788-1847; The Caves of Ulysses at Sorrento, Naples

(William Collins, The Caves of Ulysses at Sorrento, Naples, 1843
Photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum)

There’s a moment in Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald when, discussing the long period of Fitzgerald’s teaching, she mentions that ‘Her copies of Joyce and Beckett are full of little jokes to herself, as when the citizen in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses goes out “to the back of the yard to pumpship”, and she notes: “Has to pee just like Bloom. We’re all human.”’[1] By ‘the citizen’ is meant—or should be meant—not ‘the Citizen’, that violent and foul-mouthed Polyphemus figure but the unidentified narrator of the ‘Cyclops’ episode. ‘So I just went round to the back of the yard to pumpship’.[2]

Pumpship – or pump ship. Yes, perhaps inevitably there comes a time in a man’s life when his thoughts alight and pause on slang terms for urination. Might women be content to be left out of this general discussion? On the basis of my (admittedly very limited) survey, it would seem so. . . .

Don Gifford’s authoritative Ulysses Annotated didn’t find the term worth elucidating, though R. W. Dent’s Colloquial Language in Ulysses has an entry (which basically reproduces Eric Partridge’s).[3] Joyce’s friend Frank Budgen doesn’t enlarge on it either, merely commenting that ‘I’, or ‘the Nameless One’, as he also refers to the narrator, ‘goes out into the yard to pumpship’. But then Budgen, in earlier life, had spent six years at sea.[4]


All this put me in mind of the account in Regina Marler’s Bloomsbury Pie of the discussions between Joanne Trautmann Banks and Nigel Nicolson, the editors of Virginia Woolf’s letters, on the level of annotation to be used there:

‘Having decided, too, that the annotation should insult neither English nor American readers, the editors sometimes battled over what should be explained. The Adirondacks, for instance, were judged too basic. But what about “pumping ship,” or as Virginia used the phrase, in reference to T. S. Eliot’s extreme reserve: “It’s on a par with not pump shipping in front of your wife.” “What’s that?” Trautmann asked, certain they would have to annotate it. “Pumping ship means urinating,” Nicolson told her. “Every Englishman knows that.” Trautmann decided to test his assumption:

So the typists, the cook, and the nanny were asked. Nigel’s children were asked, as was every guest at Nigel’s next dinner party….Only one man knew, a physician, as it happens. I say “as it happens,” because Nigel determined that it was not the doctor’s profession that led to this particular genito-urinary information, but his age and schooling. “Only Old Etonians over 50 know about pumping ship,” Nigel announced. We annotated it.[5]

They did. The note reads ‘Virginia misconstructed this now obsolescent term for urinating.’[6] With a markedly worse misconstruction, E. M. Forster, floundering badly and unappealingly, writes in letters of having ‘pump shitted’ and of ‘pump shitting’.[7]

‘P.S.’, Rupert Brooke wrote in a 1912 letter to James Strachey, ‘When I pump ship, it’s bright green. What does that portend?’[8]  A portentous question.


(Penelope Knox, ‘the blonde bombshell’, via Slate Magazine )

Penelope Fitzgerald, anyway, seems untroubled by the word ‘pumpship’. To be sure, she wasn’t an Old Etonian over fifty, but two of her uncles had been (though Dillwyn died in 1943, aged only fifty-eight). Back in mid-1930s Oxford, where men at the university outnumbered women by six to one, ‘the blonde bombshell’ then at Somerville College—‘No one was surprised when she got a First after a “congratulatory viva”, at which the candidate is praised rather than quizzed’—surely met a good many Old Etonians (and Harrovians and Rugbeians).[9]

But then a Dubliner, educated at O’Connell, Clongowes and Belvedere, also seems quite untroubled about it, as does ‘the Nameless One’, as fluent in speech as in relieving himself—and admiring too (if grudgingly) of Leopold Bloom’s own fluency:

And of course Bloom had to have his say too about if a fellow had a rower’s heart violent exercise was bad. I declare to my antimacassar if you took up a straw from the bloody floor and if you said to Bloom: Look at, Bloom. Do you see that straw? That’s a straw. Declare to my aunt he’d talk about it for an hour so he would and talk steady.[10]


[1] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 199.

[2] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 435.

[3] Don Gifford, with Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, revised and expanded edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); R. W. Dent, Colloquial Language in Ulysses: A Reference Guide (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), 145; Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Paul Beale, 8th edition (London: Routledge, 1991), 933: nautical slang, late 18th century to c.1870, given there as two words.

[4] Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ and other writings, enlarged edition (1934; London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 165.

[5] Regina Marler, Bloomsbury Pie: The Story of the Bloomsbury Revival (London: Virago, 1997), 158. She quotes from Trautmann’s piece in Charleston Magazine, 13 (1996), 12. See also Joanna Trautmann Banks, ‘The Editor as Ethicist’, in Virginia Woolf: Interpreting the Modernist Text, edited by James M. Haule and J. H. Stape (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 29.

[6] Virginia Woolf, The Question of Things Happening: Collected Letters II, 1912-1922 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980), 572, n1.

[7] Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, Volume One: 1879-1920, edited by Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank (London: Collins, 1983), 95, 238. His editors note, of the letter of 19 October 1908, ‘“Pump shitted”: EMF’s misspelling of “pumpshipped”’ (96, n.3).

[8] Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905-1914, edited by Keith Hale (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 253. A footnote mentions ‘semen’, so poet and editor appear to have something else in mind here.

[9] Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald, 57. In the 1970s, Fitzgerald became friends with Mary Lago, one of the editors of E. M. Forster’s letters (quoted above)—on which she was probably then working.

[10] Joyce, Ulysses, 410.