- A mystery
- December 22nd, 2016
About this time of year I take down from my bookshelves a book I read a long time ago and re-read it, a different book each year. This year I have decided upon Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. It is the centenary of his birth in February.
I bought the Penguin paperback edition not long after it came out in the early eighties and I think I read it in 1985. As I started reading it last night, a piece of paper fell out. I'm often leaving till receipts in books. Waterstone's receipts fade to white very quickly, I've found. This however was an ATM receipt. And not from 1985 but from 2005. (I don't think I even had an ATM card in 1985.) Apparently, I used an ATM in High Holborn on 16th April, 2005, withdrawing £50.
I was so intrigued I went and checked my diary for that day. I was indeed London, it was the day of the Science Fiction Foundation AGM. Also that night I watched a documentary on television about the General Slocum disaster and that may have been the reason I looked at Earthly Powers that day.
The General Slocum was a steamship that was chartered for a church excursion along the East River in New York City on June 15th, 1904. It caught fire, the life belts and safety equipent didn't work and over a thousand people lost their lives, the worst loss of life in a single disaster in New York City in the whole of the twentieth century. I first heard about this event as the composer Charles Ives wrote a tone poem about it. I've never heard it as it's rarely performed and never been recorded but he re-worked the explosion into the 4th of July movement of his Holidays Symphony.
June 16th, 1904 was the date on which James Joyce's Ulysses was set and the news reached the Dublin newspapers that day. Characters refer to it.
Now, Kenneth Toomey, the narrator of Earth Powers, claims to have had a sexual encounter in a Dublin hotel room that day with the Irish poet George Russell, at exactly the time that Russell is supposedly discussing Shakespeare with Stephen Dedalus at the National Library in Ulysses. I'm fairly sure that when mentioning that he was in Dublin that day, Toomey goes on to mention other events from Ulysses, including the headlines about the General Slocum. So I suppose that is why I was looking at Earthly Powers that day in 2005. No idea why I left the ATM receipt in it, though.