MY favourite moments in the fine documentary about Irish writer James Joyce broadcast on BBC Four at the start of the week were David Simon, writer/producer of The Wire and Treme, admitting that he had failed to finish the great novel Ulysses, and actor Dominic West confessing that the fact that he had read the whole book was one of the things anyone learns about him on even short acquaintance.

Before I watched it, I might have thought the programme likely to be just another celebrity-fronted surface-skimming exercise, even when the star presenting has the pedigree and intellect of Angelica Houston. But A Shout in the Street neither hid the difficulty inherent in reading Joyce nor hid behind it, and turned out to be as good a summation of his life and work as an hour’s worth of television can probably provide. Prefaced by the now-obligatory warning about its language content, it also did not shy away from the importance of sex to the man and his writing, which made for an interesting comparison with the latest stooshie about Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, in that day’s Herald.

To recap: my colleague Phil Miller reported that an upcoming Burns Night address by former Makar Liz Lochhead would compare the poet with disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein on account of his alleged attitude to women. She described him, somewhat inadequately really, as a “sex pest” on the basis of the actual words she quoted, but it is perhaps more to the point – as a contributor to The Herald letters pages quickly pointed out – that it hardly follows to describe Burns as “the Harvey Weinstein of his day” on the basis of this single shared and shocking deficiency of character and behaviour, even if it is accepted as valid.

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Colonel Pickering asks Professor Henry Higgins: “Are you a man of good character where women are concerned?” and receives the reply: “Have you ever met a man of good character where women are concerned?” It is a line I have heard get a big laugh in the theatre, and I hope to do so again, but I fancy it is trickier than usual to deliver at the present time.

Joyce is given the attribute of being as modern in his frank and explicit attitude to sex as in his approach to language. The narrative embraces, often in precise biological detail, “the love of his life” Nora Barnacle (cf Jean Armour, in The Herald story about Burns and Lochhead), whose enthusiasm for their varied love-making is said to have been as enthusiastic as his own. It bears pointing out, however, that the bulk of the testimony about this is in Joyce’s own hand, as our knowledge of Burns’s love life is drawn from his writings.

In 1930, Herald journalist Catherine Carswell found herself pilloried by the Ayrshire and Glasgow old Burns boys' network for her biography of the Bard, which dared to tell the truth about aspects of his life. The criticism of Lochhead as being everything from “over the top” and “banal” cannot help but echo the response to Carswell’s Life of Robert Burns the better part of a century ago.

A living poet, the frontman of folk-punk band The Pogues, Shane McGowan, was also being remembered this week, on the occasion of a celebration of his 60th birthday, 30 years on from the first success of his best-loved work, Fairytale of New York, that great misanthropic Yuletide hit. I have met Shane McGowan twice (once introduced to him by Sinead O’Connor, no less) and on both occasions I swiftly abandoned the painful business of extracting a coherent word from him. I admire the talent he had, but I find the business of him being patted on the head simply for surviving over 30 years of conspicuous substance abuse a tad distasteful.

And there’s another thing Burns, Joyce, and McGowan are all allowed. In each case their responsibilities for family, and even their personal well-being, have often been “out-sourced” – to use this week’s word – to a devoted, and faithful, woman. How sex is experienced by the participants only they are ever in a position to say, but the life support system that sustained those writers is there for all to see.