In yesterday’s Guardian Review, Kieran Cooke reflected on the demise of Bewley’s Oriental Café and the reaction of “Many Dubliners.. angry at the passing of what they see as a key part of their city’s literary heritage“.. He’s not so sure. Running the risk of being compared to, in terms of his criticism, Roddy Doyle, he argues that “The rot set in at Bewley’s when it opened its James Joyce room” and, mischievously, suggests “There’s talk of Bewley’s being replaced by a cappuccino palace or an expensive knicker emporium“And Roddy Doyle would not disagree with these lines, either –
“Dublin’s highly energetic tourism officials have milked the city’s rich literary heritage for all it’s worth – and good luck to them. The literary tour guides who take the crowds in the steps of Behan (“I’m a drinker with a writing problem”) and Sean O’Casey (“I was born at a very young age”) do a fine job filling their charges with amusing anecdotes and pints of porter.
But there’s a price to pay: as the tourist numbers grow, standards decline. If the likes of Behan, O’Casey and Patrick Kavanagh were alive today they’d be hard put to find any bar fit for their alcoholic and literary indulgences amid the “super pubs” and wine bars of modern Dublin– and they’d be appalled at how their names are used and abused around the city.”[my emphasis]
It should be a familar theme by now, but that shouldn’t breed contempt for the argument. Celebrating great literary figures is the correct thing to do, but don’t forget to celebrate the literature too. And if that celebration becomes veneration, it’s time to ask ourselves what the purpose of the effort actually is.
One thing is almost certain, though, James Joyce wouldn’t have sat down to lick his sticky bun fingers in a ‘James Joyce’ room.