In the run-up to Bloomsday, gay rights activist Senator David Norris explains why he hates iPods and he wouldn’t have wanted James Joyce as a neighbour.
South African-born Senator David Norris lives in a house he’s owned for 30 years in North Great George’s Street in Dublin city centre. He rents the basement of this listed building to a couple who look after his garden, “and the window boxes” he adds proudly. “Every year we win the window-box competition in the street. Gerry does all the work and I get the certificate. A perfect arrangement!”
The first time he saw this street he was captivated. “It was the 1970s and nobody lived in the inner city at that time unless they absolutely had to,” he says. “Yet here were these stunning 18th century houses, a lot of them in terrible disrepair, but one or two beautifully restored. So I bought one.”
Up to then he’d been living in Greystones, but his political activism had him travelling “up and down to Dublin on that dreadful road,” as he puts it, so a move here had many attractions, especially being bang in the middle of everything. The Senator also owns a remote house in the mountains in Cyprus, but Dublin is very much his home, not least because of his well-publicised literary interest in Joyce. Not surprisingly, his house is full of books, with a library upstairs and bookcases all over the house. “Yes, that’s a problem,” he admits. “I have a room that was once full of all sorts of things connected with the one-man show I do, theatre posters from all over the world, documents about Georgian preservation, the gay movement, my political career, Joyce and all that. So when the National Library said wanted to buy my papers, I told them they could have them on condition that they took the whole bloody lot. Giving them all the junk cleared an entire room, so I then put an Adams-style bookcase along one wall. But now the room’s completely full again!”
Joyce is one of his favourite authors. “I had a huge collection of Joyce books at one time, but I gave them all to the Joyce Museum to help them start their library. He was a most fascinating man, a man I very much relate to, and the subject of one of the world’s greatest biographies, by Richard Ellmann, which I put on a par with Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson. Joyce was the kind of man you could identify with, because although he had this extraordinary intellect he saw himself in one sense as a completely ordinary man. He liked dealing with chambermaids and waiters and this sort of business. He didn’t put on affectations.”
But would he have liked Joyce as a neighbour here in North Great Georges Street? “No, I don’t think so. It’s not that I find anything unpleasant about him, but I think he might have been a quite awkward person to deal with and I doubt if he would have killed himself maintaining the house.”
Other writers to figure in Norris’ collection include the late Anthony Powell, author of the twelve book novel sequence A Dance To the Music of Time. “It’s one of the great masterpieces of English literature,” he says, but when I mention that’s it was recently serialised on BBC radio he erupts with disappointment, “Was it? How did I miss that? Oh, bollocksology to that! It’s such a rich work with memorable characters like Widmerpool.”
Another favourite is the Irish writer Mary Lavin, of whom, he reckons not enough fuss is made. “She’s one of the great short story writers. Then there’s Sean O Faolain, Frank O’Connor, John McGahern. I have everything they wrote. Regarding McGahern, my roots are in the bog, as my mother was from Laois. In That They May Face the Rising Sun McGahern absolutely captures the Irish Midlands that I know.”
Although he doesn’t encourage the uninvited to call around to his house in connection with his Seanad work, David admits to the impossibility of keeping his work and private life totally separate. “I had a relationship with an Israeli plumber when I was working here round the clock and with no private life at all hardly, and when I got to Jerusalem it was all privacy! It was great, because if some oul biddy crashed into me with her shopping trolley I could take the head off her with fluent curses and there was no one to say (adopts accent), ‘My six sons all have degrees from Trinity College and they used to vote for you, you big ignorant shite-bag. I’ll never vote for you agin!’ The anonymity was wonderful compared to what it’s like here. The man I’m in a relationship with told me the other day that he was going to call my office and ask Miriam to make an appointment to see me!”
David’s a keen music fan with a record collection that includes many 78s. He listens to Lyric FM, and can even claim a four degrees of separation link to the great Frederick Chopin. As he elaborates, “I was taught piano by Lily Huban who was Alfred Cortot’s demonstration pupil in the Paris Conservatoire in the 1920s. Cortot was a pupil of a teacher who studied under Chopin! I adore Chopin. My first record was the complete Chopin waltzes played by Rubinstein.”
The recordings of Original Dixieland Jazz Band also take pride of place in his collection. “They were the first band to use the word jazz and made the first jazz record, but they’ve been punished ever since for being white. It’s a kind of guilt syndrome among critics who are attempting to redress the civil rights grievances of black people in America,” he fumes, and admits he’s no fan of iPods. “I don’t understand the point of having an iPod that can hold 14,000 pieces of music. What the hell’s the point? It’s just sheer bloody gluttony! I’m bad enough with the feckin’ books without getting into that.”
His art collection includes Cezanne’s Viaduct at Arles and works by other impressionists. “A journalist once snottily described me as pontificating about all kinds of selfless activities while sitting in my mansion surrounded by masterpieces, but these are very good reproductions my aunt bought in Combridges in the 1920s for about 19 shillings and sixpence,” he explains.
Apart from Lyric, he makes a point of listening to Karen Coleman’s Sunday programme The Wide Angle on Newstalk which immediately follows his own programme Sunday With Norris on the same station. “She irritates me slightly because she always grabs the plums from the newspapers and then hands them over to these drones who are left to pick over the corpse, but she really gets right into the issues I’m interested in myself, especially the international issues. She’s far better than RTÉ, although I also listen to RTÉ’s morning news.”
The total body count of pets on the Norris premises amounts to seven goldfish purchased from Paddy’s Pet Shop in Parnell Street. “In Cyprus I’m regarded as the reincarnation of St Francis of Assisi because posses of wild cats that follow me around. One of them fell in love with me, a big butch cat, very muscular, who I call Buster. His family, who are partly incestuous, because he’s a bit of an old ram, seem to have adopted me.”
Senator Norris has no intention of moving on from his current abode, although he admits that the area has one or two drawbacks. “They sadly abandoned the proposal to erect wrought-iron ornamental railings from Santry Court which would have made the street much safer for pedestrians, and formed a barrier from the rat-run of stolen cars, buses and other inappropriate traffic uses of the street. Nor do I approve of the habits of those who leave bags of rubbish on our doorsteps. Nor the boozing habits of the Irish and Polish who congregate round the booze-to-go shop and leave naggins of vodka and beer tins all over. They have this awful habit of stuffing these things into the railings in front of the houses and then pissing on them or having a crap on the steps. I think that’s revolting.”
But he’s still not leaving.
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