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.

Everything as something else


When I read John Banville’s novel, The Sea, some years ago, one statement stuck in my head, when the narrator observed: ‘Everything now reminds me of something else.’ It stayed with me because this seemed increasingly my own case. If you have an associative memory, in which details tend to cling to others like burrs, as the sheer quantity of matter in that memory becomes unmanageable, it’s increasingly difficult to dredge up a thing cleanly. ‘To see the object as it really is’—a central concern for Matthew Arnold, meaning rather to remove the incrustations of orthodoxy or class habit or cultural assumption: perfection ‘can never be reached without seeing things as they really are; and it is to this, therefore, and to no machinery in the world, that culture sticks fondly.’[1]

How much of a problem is it if something read or heard or, increasingly, seen recalls something else, quotations, images derived from similar-sounding words, parallels and echoes? And, problem or not, is it in any case avoidable—or even desirable that it should be?

‘Now, this power of suggestion is one of the most mysterious properties of words. Everyone who has ever written a sentence must be conscious or half-conscious of it. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations—naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today’. This is Virginia Woolf, who gives the example of ‘incarnadine’, adding: ‘who can use it without remembering also “multitudinous seas”?’[2]


‘Incarnadine’ isn’t a word I’d use that often anyway, to be honest, but the essential case is made and plenty of other examples confirm it. The word ‘swaddled’, for instance, is now, I think, inextricable from images of the Christ-child, even in the minds of those least-versed in Christian imagery and symbolism. Yet that’s immediately complicated by the example of the word’s use that first springs to mind, T. S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’, where, to borrow a phrase, ‘the quotabilities swarm’:[3]

Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign!’
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger


The poem is two and a half pages long; the commentary, twenty. ‘Swaddled with darkness’? ‘The Book of Job’ (38, 9) via a sermon of Lancelot Andrewes.[4]

But the Banville, yes. At some point, without foreboding or focused intention, but merely happenstance (how often and how genuinely are things ‘merely happenstance’?), I browsed my way back to it and noticed (of course) that what I recalled so vividly was not present at all. He had actually written: ‘…everything for me is something else, it is a thing I notice increasingly.’[5]

And (of course) this, or something like it, had cropped up before; many times, probably, but one occurs to me without searching or straining. Towards the end of To the Lighthouse, James, the Ramsay son to whom the first words of the novel are addressed, recalls what the lighthouse has meant to him in the past and compares it with the reality of the structure very close to him, as the boat journey to the rocks on which it stands is almost ended. And he understands that ‘the Lighthouse’ is neither one thing nor the other, not simply, not always. ‘For nothing was simply one thing.’[6] And in Orlando, a work notable above all, I suppose, for changeability, mutability and instability: ‘Everything, in fact, was something else.’[7]

Something else as well, I want to write. Everything turning out to be something completely different from what we believed it to be is too scary a thought; but multiplicity is fine, better than fine, desirable, no, indispensable.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[8]

We are deluged with information now, much of it crazy, much of it incorrigibly plural—and much of it by routes where nothing is filtered or ordered. The internet is a wonderfully accurate reflection of this: a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand links brought up by a typed keyword or phrase. We may recognize a few of the sources and already have them arranged in a loose hierarchy in our minds; but in most cases we can’t tell without clicking on them, assessing, questioning. Many people assume, based on other contexts, that the ‘best’ links are at the top of the page. Alas, it ain’t necessarily so. And the question we ask of them can often not be answered since the lack of the information required to answer it was what prompted the original inquiry. I recall this from the novelist Nicholas Mosley: ‘The experiment is to discover the mechanisms of the brain. But the instruments are constructed by these mechanisms, so the operation is impossible.’[9]


Information overload. Recreation overload. Writing a letter to Lord Byron (as you do), W. H. Auden remarked:

Indeed our ways to waste time are so many,
Thanks to technology, a list of these
Would make a longer book than Ulysses.[10]

I remind myself that we’ve had eighty years since Auden published his poem to develop ways of wasting our time – and that my favourite edition of Ulysses is 933 pages.


[1] Culture And Anarchy (1869; edited by J. Dover Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 35.

[2] Virginia Woolf, ‘Craftsmanship’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 88 (referring to Macbeth, II, ii, 59).

[3] Hugh Kenner on Part II of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 194.

[4] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 31, 474.

[5] John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2006), 138.

[6] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927; edited by David Bradshaw, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 165-166, 152.

[7] Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928; edited by Rachel Bowlby, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 138.

[8] Louis MacNeice, ‘Snow’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[9] Nicholas Mosley, Natalie Natalia (Dalkey Archive Press: Victoria, Texas: 2006), 130.

[10] Auden, Letter to Lord Byron, Part II (first published in Letters from Iceland, his 1937 collaboration with Louis MacNeice), in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 177.