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Archive for November 2008

a queer sort of petrified sphinx

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I finally watched I’m Not There. Todd Haynes’ method was immediately clear to me.  I was quite amused when the Richard Gere Dylan – a man who seemed to be looking for the part of an ordinary man in an extraordinary world – wandered into the town of Riddle on Halloween. Here we have the familiar conceit of the world as a riddle, perhaps in a modernist incarnation. Riddles have an answer, have a sense and a meaning even if they are elusive. Nietzsche’s ‘World Riddle’ came to mind, the Welträtsel, and Pope’s poem ‘The Riddle of the World’. The riddle is second cousin to the jigsaw and the scheme in cosmological terms. Dylan Gere is a clear contrast to Dylan Blanchett , the one who just a year or two earlier had looked out on the world as an apocalyptic junkyard.

While Dylan Gere is wandering pensively around this place of Riddle, the narrator says something like ‘nobody’s who they seem to be’. Ha ha, I thought. He should have been in Glasgow on that night! 

I suppose that the question watching the film threw up for me was whether Dylan was just an ordinary man in an extraordinary world or whether he was an extraordinary man in an ordinary world. (For the sake of completeness the other possibilities are an ordinary man in an ordinary world or an extraordinary man in an extraordinary world). The modern world itself of course never settles long enough to be called ordinary, so we might say that extraordinariness is the normal condition of existence in a society like ours. Extraordinary is the ordinary condition of late modernity. And the sixties were an extraordinary time. America at war with itself, a tortured nation, a nation disintegrating. Assassinations, napalm, the space race, the arms race, the cold war, television, rock and roll, paranoia. These were apocalyptic times. But isn’t modernity in any case pretty much the normalisation of apocalypse?

The film presents the self as a fragmented, vulnerable and contested reality. If we accept this premise then perhaps we should recognise that as a person Dylan was both ordinary and extraordinary, and that this was perhaps key to his difficulties. And yet it is the idea that Dylan was arguably Everyman in the film that interests me most, the notion that in reality Dylan is much the same as you or I and that (increasingly?) our situations are becoming like his. Nowadays we all have to deal with shifting personae and shifting expectations. And with the lure of celebrity. We can no longer be satisfied with ordinary lives and in our world of greedy media an extraordinary life will make you famous; we are somehow fooled into thinking the corollary of this is that to be famous will make your life extraordinary and transform you into an extraordinary person. It won’t. But to be a celebrity is an almost normal goal now. The opportunities are many, from Big Brother to The Weakest Link. And yet how will being a celebrity even for a day change us?  We will expect a transformation, a sudden coming into real being. And yet the opposite is likely to happen. The half-hearted realities of ordinariness will vanish from out hand; we will suddenly become no-one at all.

Of course Dylan’s burden as a celebrity was exceptional. But perhaps only different in scale, not in nature. We all want to ‘live the dream’. Haynes’ tale from this perspective is a cautionary one: the dream is only a dream and once you see that you will collapse into yourself.  Anomie and dissociation will follow. You may want to refuse them. You will not be able to.

Haynes has his Dylans speak lines from various Dylan sources – sleeve notes, poems, Tarantula, interviews and so on. At one point one of them says a poem is a naked person. It’s interesting Dylan didn’t say self: a self and a person are not the same thing. A person is an outward reality, a social and political entity. The self is a supposed inner entity, a psychological item. People will say Dylan is a complex person. Did anyone ever suggest he had a complex self? The self is something we imagine we see when gaze into ourselves (ha ha – did you notice the tautology here?!) The self is like a soul. Like an essence. We imagine each self as having a unique simplicity. Can we imagine a person without a self? This seems almost like asking if we can imagine a person without a body.

Bob Dylan is a complex person and it is this complexity that Haynes film seems to want to unravel. And yet ironically I think the film falls into the trap of trying to show us Dylan’s soul, even though it takes its primary text from the song which says ‘I’m not there’. Maybe it needs to do this for dramatic reasons, since where would a western narrative be with a protagonist too elusive or transient for the audience to identify with?  There is no narrative to chaos, and without a narrative there may be no space for a me. Maybe there is something to be said for the idea of the self as a centre of gravity for the narrative of a life. Maybe the self is a necessary fiction, the unavoidable consequence of giving chaos an order. I accept chaos, Dylan Blanchett says, but I don’t know if chaos accepts me.

In Haynes’ narrative we are presented with a succession of selves we are to suppose Dylan to have had. We like to imagine the self as an onion, and think perhaps some people have more layers than others. Dylan’s layers are peeled away, one after another. I think the film is structured so that the reflective persona of Dylan Gere perhaps represents Dylan’s curious soul, the simplicity that he finally is. Dylan Gere appears almost as if he’s the father of the others, the one from whom the seed of all the others came.

Maybe this is a stretch, but does it make sense?  Was Dylan more than one person – one self – at any one time? Dylan’s selves were successive rather than simultaneous. One didn’t lie beneath the other; one lay next to the other, succeeded it. Each self was performed and the performances were repeated until they were succeeded by a different performance – a different self. Haynes is right to give these selves different names; the extent to which they can be said to be the same self is problematic. Dylan’s life is a succession of selves, none of which has any privileged or higher reality. His life, like all our lives, is a life caught between becoming and having been. The self is not there, only the performance that is what we are. Dylan Gere appears to perhaps be the real Dylan, the inner man, a meta-self, a self beyond performance. But even this is an illusion.

Dylan breathed in the chaos that is America and breathed out shapes that made sense, the shapes of a new America, brave new versions of traditional identities, hanging in the air, fragile and flickering, as vulnerable as ghosts in a hurricane, like projections on the screen of the nation. Dylan performed a succession of American selves. Or perhaps a succession of American personae.  In the end Bob Dylan found he could not escape from Bob Dylan, because Bob Dylan was never really there at all. He sang America and America sang him. A song is anything that can walk alone, he said.  A song falls short of selfhood. A song is not even a person, it seems. A song might be no more than a ghost.

The thing that I wonder about is whether Dylan in this film is Everyman. But the thing I remember about the film is the music, the way the songs seep from the scenes and haunt the images. The songs ambush you, taunt you, lure you into places you had forgotten about. The songs unsettle you and reassure you, sooth you and pierce you, empower you and terrify you. They do all these things at once. This is a film for Dylan freaks by a Dylan freak. In the end this is what the choice of songs says to me. These are legendary, hallowed songs, the songs from which the myth of Bob Dylan is woven.

I’m a bit worried about Tom Ridley. Tom is the admin manager for the area and works between three sites. I met him at the photocopier today. It’s a Xerox Workstation M35 model, a freestanding square box that’s about the size of chest freezer, or in animal terms, a small horse. Tom was talking quietly to it, promising it a ‘special treat’ if it was a ‘good boy’ and behaved itself for him. 

‘Hi, Tom’ I said. ‘How you doing?’

‘Yes, fine,’ he replied. ‘Just trying to encourage Frodo to be a good boy for me.’

‘Frodo?’ I said. ‘The photocopier’s called Frodo?’

”Yes,’ Tom replied. ‘If he’s good all day I’ve promised him that I’ll take him out this afternoon.’

‘Out, eh? Anywhere special?’

‘The beach. He just loves the beach. Of course I’ve got to keep him on his lead in case he runs into the waves and gets washed out to sea. He’s still just a puppy really and very excitable.’

Tom leaned on Frodo’s stout ivory plastic frame as he spoke about him. I was wondering which end was which.

‘Of course the other thing about the beach,’ he went on, ‘ is that he gets to meet other photocopiers. That’s good for him because he needs to learn how to socialise with them and not to be aggressive or snappy.’

‘Yeah, that’s a good point,’ I said. I asked him if Frodo was almost finished his current job and could I perhaps copy a couple of reports.

‘Of course,’ Tom said. ‘You’re such a good boy, aren’t you? Now be nice for the man and copy his things carefully for him, do you hear?’

Tom patted his ivory friend affectionately on the shoulder, picked up his wad of documents and set off down the corridor towards his office.

About mid afternoon I went down to the photocopier to copy some documents. The photocopier was gone. I abandoned the idea and decided I’d go home early. I decided to drive down through Sleekburn and along through Cambois. I’d seen a television news item about E-on’s proposal to build a new coal fired power station there on the site of the old one and that local people were protesting about it. Quite understandably so too, because the government isn’t insisting that only so-called ‘clean’ coal fired power stations can be built. But did we really expect them to?  Next thing you know the local MP’s will be telling us how this will be good for jobs, our own brave Socialist warrior foremost among them, no doubt.

It was dusk on the beach. As I drove south listening to Dengue Fever I saw a figure close to the shoreline making his way north. It was Tom. He was pulling along the Xerox M35 by a leash, like a man dragging a mule. Frodo seemed to me to be a rather more reluctant walker than Tom made him out to be. I was somehow reminded of Pozzo and Lucky in Waiting for Godot.  For a moment I fancied I saw two small photocopiers run up to Frodo and sniff at him. Frodo set himself back on his haunches and his hackles went up. Tom is right, Frodo isn’t yet well socialised.  I drove over the crossing and up through East Sleekburn, past the site of the old power station and Wilson Avenue. It was dark and there wasn’t a soul around.  I wondered if I shouldn’t email Tom’s manager about his behaviour, but I decided it was really none of my business so long as he returned Frodo by morning and wiped the sand from his wheels before taking him back into the office.  It’s certainly odd for a grown man to adopt a Xerox M35 as a pet and take him for walks on the beach, but it isn’t something which is very likely to harm children, at least not as long as Frodo is properly muzzled when they are around him.

When I got home that night Brenda was there. She had come to collect some more slippers to send out. She was wearing a knitted garment of many colours, a long wrap-around cardigan of sorts. It had multi-coloured words of some sort embroidered all over it.

‘Hi, Brenda,’ I said. ‘Nice cardie.’

‘Thank you, kind sir,’ she said. ‘It’s handmade. We bought it from a textile artist in Hawick a couple of weeks ago. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’

‘It’s a doozy,’ I said. ‘What do the words say?’

‘You mean to say you don’t recognise them?!’ she said. She turned around to let me read her back. Entangled in meandering lines were phrases I struggled at first to recognise and disentangle. And then one of them became clear to me: a robin redbreast in a cage puts all heaven in a rage.

‘The Auguries of Innocence?’ I said. ‘Your cardie’s got lines from Blake embroidered all over it?’

‘Yes,’ Brenda said, swinging back around. ‘Isn’t it fab?! Tristan bought it for me on a day out. I just had to have it. I’m going to wear it when I go to my next poetry weekend. What do you think? I think they’ll just adore me in this!’

I tried to read Blake’s entangled utterances as they crept and crawled and snaked and snaggled over her shoulders and down her arms and across her torso and around her  hips. If the sun and moon should doubt in mustard yellow criss-crossed by the poison of the snake and newt in dull maroon. In emerald green, the beggar’s dog and widow’s cat giving birth to the long divergent slate blue arc of the wanton boy that kills the fly.

‘I think it’s fantastic, Brenda,’ I said. ‘Does she also do the Proverbs of Hell?’

‘Yes, she does. Oh, that one’s really beautiful too. Oh, did Margaret tell you about her horoscope, by the way?’

‘Not really,’ I said, remembering how last night I’d noticed Orion again for the first time this winter. ‘What star sign are you again, Brenda?’ I asked.

‘Taurus, of course,’ she replied. ‘Loving, loyal, prosperous and patient, the creative type. Doesn’t it show?’

‘It shows in your cardie,’ I said.

‘What sign are you, again?’

‘I believe I was born under the sign of hammer and sickle,’ I said.

De Kooning wandered in. I picked him up.

‘Have you got your stock of sunglasses in yet?’ I asked.

‘No, not yet. Why? Are you after a pair.’

‘Yeah, I was thinking about getting a friend a pair of Ray-Bans for Christmas.’


‘No, Wayfarers.’

‘I’ll see if I can get you some, if you like.’

‘Thanks, Brenda. Yes, that would be great.’

Margaret came through from the kitchen. She’d put on a big pan of onions to boil. I went through and put a pizza in the oven for tea. I gave De Kooning some prawns and sat in front of the television to watch the news.  Later I went upstairs and rummaged among my books to find something William James wrote about the notion that the world might be a riddle to which there is a single answer.

All the great single-word answers to the world’s riddle, such as God, the One, Reason, Law, Spirit, Matter, Nature, Polarity, the Dialectic Process, the Idea, the Self, the Oversoul, draw the admiration that men have lavished on them from this oracular role. By amateurs in philosophy and professionals alike, the universe is represented as a queer sort of petrified sphinx whose appeal to man consists in a monotonous challenge to his divining powers. THE Truth: what a perfect idol of the rationalistic mind!

After I’d eaten I went out in the dark and walked through the town. Christmas is coming. The streets were remarkably quiet. I caught sight of my reflection in Woolworth’s window and for a moment thought it was a stranger. I was thinking about Nietzsche and Descartes and the Wizard of Oz.


exodus and a last hand of whist

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They’ve been demolishing Newsham Library this week. I noticed as I drove through Newsham on Friday that it is now almost all down. A gaping space has opened up between the shops and the flats, a sort of scandalous vacuum. I caught glimpses of it down Elliot Street and the back lane between the Black Diamond and Tanz-N-Ere. I could see the giant crooked metal arm of a demolition machine poised above the rubble. It reminded me that things are disappearing so quickly. I really must hurry and photograph all those buildings and places that will be gone any day now. This is a matter of urgency to me. Time moves on inexorably, flattening the old world to make a place for the new. It worries me that some places might be destroyed before I’ve made a record of them. I want my inventory to be as complete as it can be. I know of course that the photograph will never really bring them back.  But it may bring back memories. Things do need to be remembered. My granddad spent the last years of his life in sheltered housing in Newsham. He probably toddled down Winship Street to this building every week a few years ago to find himself a book to read, probably a political biography, or maybe a travel book or a whodunit, or maybe The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The truth is I don’t really know what my granddad’s taste in books was.

In 1984 I was a student. During the miners’ strike I was a member of the Labour Party.  My monthly ward branch meetings took place in a room in Newsham Library, which at that time may have been a community centre of sorts, I think, or maybe it was still a working men’s club. Bundles of canny old ladies from another age would faithfully attend to make tea and provide a sort of amiable Socialist ballast. They had votes they gave away in the same good-hearted spirit that they gave away the cakes and biscuits they brought along. The rest of the branch comprised a bunch of men of various ages, dispositions and motivations – Arthur Hancock, Ronnie Milburn, Bill Brookes were among them, as I recall – who would debate or mull over or grumble or chunter on about the heroic tragedy or stupidity of the strike, flying pickets, the difficult or duplicitous position of the railwaymen, Kinnock’s devious cowardice, Scargill’s reckless leadership, or whatever. The branch chairman was Peter Mortakis, an insignificant Machiavellian sort of man with the political and moral integrity of a blowfly. He was in cahoots with the MP at the time, a useless, self-serving, Rumpolian, persistently absent carpetbagger. A lawyer. The sort of man who could have been Tony Blair’s favourite uncle. 

The room where the meetings took place was dark, maroon and brown, full of deep shadows and dim yellow lights that glinted on the glasses and bottles behind the bar. A sense of history seemed to stain the place, like blood on an old carpet. I never felt comfortable there, but it was a place where I somehow had to think I belonged.  It was like needing to stand for a while in a painting by Norman Cornish or Tom McGuinness.  Here was a world of ordinary people bound together by adversity. Here was the security of a mythical universe. Of course I can see now that the writing was already on the wall. Thatcher had already lined up the machines that would one day come and demolish this place. This week that day arrived. You can be pretty sure that a block of affordable first-time buyer apartments is already on its way.

Things have been hectic at work in the last two weeks. A tsunami of referrals has hit us after a period of inexplicable calm. This is always the way in social work. It’s unlikely that some mysterious force is at work in society that from time to time casts a curse over a particular place and makes a lot of children there suddenly begin to suffer harm at the same time, a sort of evil spirit that randomly visits a part of the population.  It’s more likely that these waves are to some degree chance occurrences and a consequence of fluctuations in levels of responsiveness and concern among professionals. But maybe it is all down to chance. And a sighting of Snow White’s stepmother in Ashington would hardly come as much of a surprise these days.

Thursday was a particularly bad day. Kids scared to go home from school, kids with bruises, kids with fractures, kids with burns, kids home alone, babies losing weight, babies in cold houses, tiny babies that no-one could find. Drunken mothers, drunken dads, dads throwing plates at walls, mothers throwing shoes, depressed mothers, dads doing drugs.

Late that afternoon everyone in the team was out on something or other. Michelle had spent half an hour with the police trying to get into the house of a twenty five year old mother called Tania who seemed to have lost all interest in her three week old baby. The flat was in darkness but the key was visible on the inside of the door, so there was obviously someone in the house. Eventually Tania came downstairs and answered the door. She was with her new sixteen year old boyfriend, Joe, the same boy who a few days earlier had bitten her on the face during an argument. She’d dumped him, she said. Joe and Tania had been in bed when Michelle and the police disturbed them. But where was baby Davina? Tania wasn’t telling. Tania wouldn’t take Michelle and the police to see her, not even under the threat of arrest. Michelle rang me up: what should we do? Baby P was on all our minds; the moorings of rationality were coming loose. All we could hear was the footfall of the beast slouching towards Bethlehem.

‘Have you tried torture?’ I said. ‘Pull her fingernails out. Offer her money. Tania needs to be persuaded to tell us where her baby is. If she doesn’t do so she’s got no chance of keeping it when we find it. But for God’s sake don’t make her any promises. We’re not going to be able to leave the baby there tonight now in any case, are we?’

Fifteen minutes later Tania told them where the baby was and they all set off in the police car to find her. She turned out to be with Tania’s sister. She’d been there all day. She was fit and well. On another day we might have decided to just leave her there and look at it again in the morning. But Baby P was on the minds of the police officers too. Baby Davina was made subject to Police Protection. Michelle arrived back at the office with the baby in her arms at about half past five. I told her who the foster carer was going to be.

‘Oh, is Debs around?’ she said. ‘I’ve just seen a police car chasing a white Mercedes down Milburn Road. I’m sure it was being driven by an Arab.’

‘Debs is at the hospital,’ I said. ‘Kid with a broken arm.’

On my way home that night I went to Tesco’s at North Shields. I was looking for a DVD of The Wizard of Oz. They didn’t have one, but I did pick up a copy of Todd Haynes film about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There. I didn’t see it when it came out, although I’d wanted to. At about seven o’clock I was driving back through Whitley Bay. My mobile rang. It was Debs.

‘The paediatrician says the injury could have been accidental. She’s not prepared to say it wasn’t.’

‘And the kid and mother are sticking to their story that he fell off a wall?’


‘And there have been no previous concerns about this kid?’


‘Then the kid goes home and we do an assessment, I guess.’

‘Should we have a strategy meeting?’

‘Oh, I don’t know, Debs. Maybe. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.’

I turned on the car radio and listened to Bob Harris’s country show on Radio 2. He played a song by George Strait called ‘I Saw God Today’. 

On Friday morning Debs’ husband phoned in to say she was sick. She’d been taken ill during the night. It sounded serious and she was probably going to have to go into hospital.

‘Tell her to take it easy and that we hope she gets well soon,’ I said, and began to wonder what I could do with her caseload.

‘Anyone fancy doing an assessment on a kid with a broken arm?’ I said to the rest of the team. Daft question. They all looked at me as if I needed treatment. At that point reception rang to say that Jack Verdi had arrived for a meeting with Debs. I went along to see him.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said. ‘Hey, hey, rock and roll! What’s with the shades, dude?’ He was wearing a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators.

Jack laughed, but he didn’t explain. I told him Debs was poorly and that the meeting couldn’t go ahead. He was fine about that and immediately went on to talk to me about the genius of Keats. Jack sees himself as in some way Keats last real disciple, which is odd for a man who’s prepared to prance around in little more than his boots to impress a few dozen middle aged women. There’s only so much mellow fruitfulness such women can take. But autumn is always a peak activity time for the disciples of Keats, of course, so Jack’s digression wasn’t really that unexpected.

Today it was breezy but bright and fairly mild for November. In the morning I walked down Plessey Road and bought The Guardian at the newsagents. I then continued on down to Park Road corner and along Beaconsfield Street towards the town centre, before turning  to cross Croft Road and go up Marine Terrace and back across Broadway Circle. A few leaves still cling to the trees but most are assigned to the gutters in drifts of yellow and brown or stuck on the roads like squashed butterflies.

This afternoon I rode along to my dad’s on my bike. The refurbishment of his house is still not complete. It’s becoming pretty obvious that a lot of the tradesmen recruited by the private contractor doing the refurbishments – Frank Haslam – don’t know what they’re doing. Some of them have admitted this to my dad. Some of them also seem to be canvassing for the redecoration work off their own backs. My dad’s cheesed off, but there’s not much he can do to get the work finished any quicker.

My dad was born and brought up in Newsham.  I told him about the library building now being knocked down. I asked him what he could remember about this building.

‘We called it the Big Club,’ he said. ‘Your grandfather used to often go down there at one time to play cards. He was very friendly with Bob Oxley, who was the steward at the time.’

He went on to tell me that what is now the Victory Club used to be the Wooden Club, because it was a wood building. There were also a couple of other pubs in Newsham in those days, neither of them more than a stone’s throw away from the three that still survive. They were the Miner’s Arms and the Turk’s Head. Newsham Coop used to be close to the Miner’s Arms and close to the Big Club, During the 1926 General Strike the Sunshine Fund or some such charity used to provide meals for the kids upstairs in the Coop building. The thing my granddad always remembered was the smell of the gingerbread pudding drifting down the stairs and into the street.

The local doctor had a room in the house opposite the Big Club. I think my dad said he was called Dr Gordon, although this could be a Freudian slip: it might have been Gardener. Either way, he was known as ‘The Butcher’. He was the doctor employed by Cowpen Coal Company for their compensation scheme. He had a reputation for sending men back to work at the pit when they were still unfit to be there.

It was getting dark as I rode back. The light was enchanting. The sky had those hard clear gradations from black-blues into orangey-greens and tobacco that you only get in winter. The sea was a pale and steely blue. There were quite a few people on the beach with dogs.

I got back before dark. The washed-up computer desk has disappeared from Hugo’s front garden and the gates to his drive are open. It looks like the Alligator is at long last ready for the road. I went inside and negotiated my way through to the kitchen over the assorted assemblies of slippers.  I gave De Kooning a sachet of Felix and made myself a cappuccino. I sat in the conservatory reading The Guardian for a while. The headline said that eight out of ten children who are seriously harmed are ‘missed’ by agencies, whatever ‘missed’ means. This sort of stuff scares senior managers to death, of course. ‘Whither goes Sharon Shoesmith, there go I,’ they think. It’s a situation you can be sure will soon mean a lot of work for the rest of us.

I picked up De Kooning and we peered together out into the darkness beyond the garden fence. The glimmer of strange lights was appearing again in the Citadel. Margaret was on the phone talking to Geraldine.

‘Have you seen any sign of rats out there?’ I whispered to De Kooning. ‘No? No, I thought not.’

Margaret came through and said that she and Geraldine were going to ring Griff on Monday and give him an ultimatum: get rid of the rats or they call in Environmental Health and go to the press.

‘What if there aren’t any rats there?’ I said. ‘How can anyone prove they’ve got rid of something which isn’t really there to begin with?’

‘How could they not be there?!’ Margaret said. ‘Trevor’s seen them again twice this week!’

I began to think that the mythical rats of the Citadel might be refugees from the Big Club building at Newsham. Maybe they are an exiled tribe of working class rodents displaced by modernity, looking for a new set of premises under which to continue their way of life. On their exodus they probably crossed Winship Street and made their way through the allotments and across the old railway line and then followed a route through the back gardens down Twentieth Avenue. I can see them now, scurrying bravely along carrying everything they own, all with their little knapsacks on their backs. Suddenly after forty days of dodging cats and kids with airguns their long walk brought them to the Citadel. The bare girders loomed above them.

‘This must be our new home!’ their weary little hearts exclaimed.

Which seems fair enough to me, but it isn’t exactly the future Margaret and Geraldine have in mind for them.

I was going to watch my new DVD tonight, but Margaret cancelled her plans to go out. I sat in the conservatory reading for a while and then logged on to Amazon. I ordered The Wizard of Oz. I went out and walked up to Newsham. It’s a cool, clear sort of night. The wind has dropped. I walked up Elliot Street. The lights from the pizza and chip shop, the Chinese and the Indian take-away flooded out across the dry pavement. The smell of curry and onions floated in the air. The rubble of the Big Club is fenced off. The big Cat machine stands among it, it’s demolition arm resting its heavy nose on the ground. I stood on the other side of the road.

‘Okay, granddad,’ I said. ‘German whist. Your deal.’


if rats are made out of nothingness

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New Labour won the Glenrothes by-election. Gordon will be gloating. He sits at night in his new primrose yellow room full of broken cogs and scattered springs and cannot believe his luck. He sniggers. He chortles. He laughs like a Kirkcaldy drain. How many dark nights did he sit over-winding his beloved timebomb, praying to the mythical deity that the bloody thing wouldn’t blow up in his face? But blow up it does and guess what: he’s off the hook! You’d almost think Gordon had done this deliberately, wouldn’t you? I gather he’s now asked Sarah to get him a wrecking ball for Christmas. He’s told her he’s come up with an ingenious solution to the recession in the construction industry.

I spoke to Talullah Hudspith a few days ago. I hadn’t seen her since Rosie’s leaving do. She asked me what I thought of Jack’s performance.

‘Quite remarkable,’ I said. ‘And brave. The man rocks, doesn’t he?’

Talullah and Jack have an odd relationship. Some say she has a thing about him; others say the exact opposite is true. I personally remain agnostic on the Talullah and Jack issue.

‘Do you think so?’ Talullah said, with more than a hint of a sneer. ‘I thought he was bloody ridiculous, actually. I mean, what on earth would possess a man of his age to prance around like that in front of all those poor women? He’s got no shame.’

In the light of this response you too will now no doubt be hypothesising about Talullah and Jack. I certainly was. But a tactical evasion seemed the order of the day.

‘So is he back at work?’ I asked.     

Talullah chuckled, or perhaps snortled. ‘Oh ho, he’s back all right!’ she said. ‘The dirty hound’s always skulking around in the shadows somewhere. He’s never yet spoken to me about his antics, of course. He’s quite ridiculous, really. Do you know he’s now wearing dark glasses for work?  He never takes them off. Who the hell does he think he is, Elvis Presley?!’

‘Yeah, I would be too if I’d done what he did!’ I said. ‘The guy’s probably just a bit embarrassed.’

‘Embarrassed?! Him?!  That’s a laugh. You couldn’t knock him back with a shitty stick, man. No, he’s a star reborn, that’s what our Jack is. I wish he’d do us all a favour and just retire.’

‘So,’ I said. ‘How’s the delightful Mrs Gormley? Did she enjoy the night?’

‘Oh, Betty loved it! She’d do it again tomorrow if she could.’

‘Maybe Jack’ll play for her if she asks him nicely,’ I said. ‘If he really is a star reborn, he’ll have no problem with that. Nor will she, I suspect. Just as long as he keeps his pants on next time.’

Talullah’s from a theatrical blackground. She’s naturally dramatic. She’s the kind of woman who likes to start a riot. Maybe it just gets up her nose that Jack upstaged her.

Mandy has been into the office a couple of times this week. There have been almost daily sightings of the Arab in the white Mercedes and she’s getting very stressed. On Friday she and Mr Zee were waiting to see Debs when I arrived at the office. Mr Zee looked very smart, as always. His rich brown cape was almost shimmering in the morning sun.

‘How you doing?’ I said to him.

‘I’m okay,’ he replied. ‘You know.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I know. So are you still reading Bukowski?’

‘No,’ he replied. ‘I decided he wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m reading Neruda at the minute. They’ve got lots of his stuff at ZorrStore.com. I’m trying to get into Rumi too.’

Mandy then told me that the phone had rung seven times during the night for each of the last three nights, and each and every time it was the same old tune.

‘Is Flinty still with Molly?’ I asked.

Mandy shrugged and looked at Mr Zee.

‘We don’t know,’ he said.

‘Have you told the police?’

‘Yeah. Nothing they can do. The caller’s using a stolen mobile.’

When I got home that night there were three more big boxes of slippers in the hall. De Kooning was sitting on top of them playing king of the castle. Geraldine was talking to Margaret about the latest curse of the Citadel: rats. They were first spotted by Big Trevor while I was in Glasgow it seems, scuttling around beneath his railings.

‘They weren’t there until the builders came,’ Geraldine said.

I wondered if she thought the builders had imported them as a sort of alien species, or simply because no building site is complete without a good infestation of rodents.

‘So how did they get there?’ I asked, already allowing my mind to toy with the notion of their ex nihilo creation.

‘Well, it can only be the building site, can’t it?’ Margaret said. ‘They weren’t there until they started building that monstrosity.’

Okay, I thought, but how did they get here? Did Griff dress himself as the Pied Piper and lead them here from their old haunts along the quayside?  Did they hear along the grapevine about the Citadel site and make their way here, like the Israelites to the Promised Land, like Americans to California? My guess was that they’ve always been here or that perhaps the sightings are apocryphal, a plague of the Citizens’ collective imagination.

‘We need to visit the site en masse and register our protest,’ Geraldine said. ‘Rats are dangerous. Did you know that they sometimes curl up on your pillow beside your face as you sleep!  Imagine that. It’s horrific!’

‘Will we be safe?’ Margaret asked.

‘As long as we wear sensible footwear we will be!’ Geraldine said, obviously recalling the mass trespass during the summer when she fell off her high heeled boots. It’s not often Geraldine makes a joke about herself.

‘I’ll wear my Timberlands,’ Margaret said. ‘They’ll never get me in them.’

I went through to the conservatory to drink a cappuccino. There were a dozen or so pairs of slippers lined up across the floor. They were obviously part of the Christmas stock. Slippers with owls and guitars and ducks on them. Camper van slippers, cows and gingerbread men slippers. There were also a couple of pairs of fake fur leopard skin bootie slippers.  I stepped over them and stood at the window. The sky was almost dark. There were vague lights flickering somewhere deep in the carcase of the Citadel. It looms over us like Kafka’s Castle. I began again to wonder where Hugo had put his little giraffe.

‘Edna will never come home now,’ Margaret said, after Geraldine had left. ‘She’ll never cope with the idea that she might wake up and find a rat sleeping next to her face. It’s an absolute crying shame.’

I stared out at the Castle. I wondered about the rats that are made out of nothingness.

‘I’m going to Brenda’s tonight,’ Margaret said. ‘Her friend who’s an astrologer is coming to her house. She’s going to do my horoscope.’

I nodded. I said nothing for a minute or so.

‘Are you taking some of these slippers with you?’ I eventually asked.

‘No,’ Margaret said. ‘But I am taking the boxes in the hall.’

When she left I had another cappuccino and sat for a while reading my book on Scottish art. Some of W G Gillies’ paintings are stunning. I love his border landscapes and they sort of feel like home to me too. It takes a lot of confidence to paint as freely as he does in those paintings. But I was particularly taken on Friday night by his 1973 painting The Garden in Winter. We sometimes fail to see the beauty that lies in the ordinary things, the things we can see from our windows. We sometimes fail to see how much those things really matter. I gave De Kooning his prawns and painted a new square canvas over with a Prussian blue ground.

I watched it dry and listened to Meg Baird’s album. I decided I would have to go up to Temple soon to see the house where Gillies lived and where he did all those late paintings.

I watched Newsnight. I went to bed.


at the mansion of the halloween lolitas

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This photograph shows Adam Smith’s bust in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. I took it on Friday. It shows Smith and his ghost looking at one another. I wondered if perhaps it could stand as a metaphorical comment on our current economic woes.

I went to Glasgow a couple of days ago, mixing business and pleasure. I went via the A69 to Carlisle and then up the M74 to Glasgow. The soft slow blaze of autumn smouldered up the Tyne Valley and over into Cumbria and all the way over the Galloway hills. It is Samhain, the time of the end and beginning of the Celtic year, the time of the festival of the dead and bone-fires, the time of apples, nuts, egg-whites and crows. The time of the final harvest and the beginning of the dark half of the year.

Kelvingrove is a beautiful place, the most impressive and enthralling gallery and museum I have ever been in. It contains and somehow or in some way integrates many diverse aspects of the cultural and natural worlds (although I might want to argue that once something enters a museum it can only be culture, and not nature, and not only for the obvious reason that there are no stuffed animals in nature!). Because of the design of this huge old mansion – all stone staircases and long balconies which look over its large lower spaces – it is a place which throws at the visitor an astonishing succession of quite unforeseen and often surely quite accidental combinations of items. These idiosyncratic juxtapositions, depending as they do very much on the eye and interest of the individual observer, make the experience open-ended and potentially unique for each visitor. Kelvingrove offers the imagination an endless feast, a chance to make chaos out of order and a new order out of chaos. It’s a magnificent junkyard rather than a marvellous jigsaw. Hugo would love it. Go there. You won’t see what I’ve seen, but what you do see might amuse you.

Kelvingrove is a metaphor for the city itself in the way it brings together disparate objects and experiences. Kelvingrove is also a metaphor for the attractive but ultimately misleading façade offered to us in the self-(mis)representation of modern cities by their marketing and PR people.  Don’t get me wrong, Kelvingrove is a fantastic, enchanting place and I’d happily spend a whole week there; but it doesn’t show the whole of life and it doesn’t show the whole of Glasgow life. Glasgow has higher child poverty levels than anywhere else in Britain. In some parts of the city forty-nine out of every fifty children are living on or below the poverty line. In Kelvingrove poverty simply vanishes up the sleeve of social history. Kelvingrove does its job incredibly well, but it’s just not its job to tell the whole truth.

I went to Kelvingrove on Friday to look again at the paintings of the Glasgow Boys, which I’d previously looked at while they were temporarily housed in the McLellan Gallery on Sauchiehall Street while Kelvingrove was being restored. In Kelvingrove the paintings are exhibited in the ‘Scottish Art’ room, along with paintings by the Scottish Colourists, whose work I also like a great deal. I used to like Fergusson the most, but looking on Friday on Friday at the Kelvingrove selection – which I think is relatively weak in terms of Fergusson stuff – I began the think that in some ways Peploe and Cadell were at least his equal and in some ways his superior. On the strength of the Kelvingrove, Fergusson’s work looks less original than theirs and his handling of paint far less subtle and skillful.  I’ve never yet been much impressed by Leslie Hunter’s stuff and Friday didn’t change my mind much on that question.

The Glasgow Boys’ paintings astonished me, as they always do, in their perception of light and their rendering of this in paint. On Friday I especially noticed George Henry’s paintings. His A Galloway Landscape is in the far corner of the Scottish Art room. I had mistakenly thought it was in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh when I last saw it, but clearly it must have been in the McLellan gallery at the time. I love this painting, but always wonder how it looked when it was first painted. I wonder if the obscurity of the cattle isn’t the result of the whites becoming dirty and dull – although this hasn’t happened to the clouds – and whether Henry really wanted them to be so murky, although of course the murkiness may well be one of the reasons for the painting’s success now in engaging some viewers. Things sometimes mean more to us when we’ve got to decide for ourselves what they are.

I had intended to go and see the ‘Impressionism and Scotland’ exhibition, which had just opened that day. But I spent too long in the other parts of the gallery it was late afternoon before I got there. I decided to leave it till another day. I bought three postcards instead – one of Henry’s Galloway Landscape, and another of Cadell’s Interior – the orange blind. The third is James Guthrie’s strangely haunting portrait Old Willie – the village worthy.

It was already dusk as I walked back up to Kelvinhall subway station and caught the underground back into the city centre. I wandered through the crowds of shoppers on Buchanan Street and back down to my hotel. Later I came back out and went looking for an Italian restaurant that might serve a good vegetarian meal.

Glasgow is a big city and seems to throng at all times of the day and night. By comparison, Newcastle looks hardly more than a small town. On Halloween Glasgow was full of weird and wonderful characters of all kinds. Of course, we all know that until recently Halloween was a humble folky sort of date on the calendar, but that like many other minor annual occasions it has been hijacked by business looking to make money wherever it can. The colours of this enterprise are orange and black, its sacred vegetable is the pumpkin.

On Friday night in Glasgow there was many a ghoul and ghoostie, some fine Draculas and Frankensteins, many a witch and crone. There were zombies and the undead, droves of unquiet corpses wandering the city with blackened eyes and theatrical blood on their anaemic chops. This is no more than you might expect.

But was there something else going on that night?

Maybe it was just me, but on Halloween in Glasgow it began to seem that nobody was who they seemed to be. The city seemed to be virtually inhabited by people in fancy dress, and I really don’t know yet if this was to do with Halloween or about something else entirely. What I do know, of course, is that on this occasion it was nothing to do with Flinty.

As I was crossing the huge space of the Central Station I noticed there were lots of young girls dressed as bumblebees and angels and fairies. Batman then passed me, arm in arm with Catwoman. When I got outside there was a whole queue of strange characters at the bus stop opposite. Interspersed with the usual vampires and ghouls I spotted Minnie Mouse and Scooby Doo, nurses, French maids, police women, Eskimos, Red Indian braves, Superman, The Grim Reaper, and, to my amusement, an Arab. It was beginning to feel like home.

Around the next corner I encountered my second batman, this time accompanied by a very short and tubby female Robin. Next up was Wonderwoman, and then a male superhero who was clad completely in a banana yellow skinsuit except for black trunks. I lack the knowledge to identify him for you with certainty.  I called him Banana Man. He shook my hand firmly and reassured me that the city tonight was safe in his hands. He had a heavy Glaswegian accent. I then encountered Rob Roy, Snow White, a tramp, a Roman centurion, and two ghosts in kilts playing the bagpipes. It was as this point I realised I could now no longer differentiate with any confidence between the real and the make-believe.

On Nelson Mandela Place I came across the three wise men talking to a female Dominatrix and my third Batman of the night. Inexplicably, Mandela himself wasn’t around, but of course the night was still young.

At the restaurant I played safe. I had garlic bread followed by the special for that night, pumpkin ravioli in tomato sauce. I had vanilla ice cream for dessert. Later, when I stepped back outside, I encountered a character who I think was Tintin’s dog, Snowy, who appeared to have had a little too much to drink. He was trying to catch up with a rather lean but stylish scarecrow, inspired, I felt, by the one in Wizard of Oz. As I headed back towards the river I met Robocop, Cinderella, and a black cat, along with the regular tribe of ghosts and hags and girls in leopard skin boots and bikinis.

I made my way back down past the Station towards my hotel. Outside the Solid Rock Café at the bottom of Hope Street there were a lively crowd of truly strange characters, some of them in fancy dress and some of them characters I hadn’t yet seen that night. There was a cool-looking gunslinger dressed all in black and – a particularly rare find, I thought – a Super Mario! In my head I was already working on my “I-Spy Weird People in Glasgow at Halloween” book. Super Mario will score you 25 points. Snowy and Nelson Mandela will each score 15. A normal ghoul or hag will score 2 points, a man in a kilt 5 points, 6 if he’s playing bagpipes.

I crossed the road to the hotel and made for my room. The Scots will know better than I do what to expect of Samhain. But what I’d just experienced seemed to me to be taking guising to a whole other level. If Tristan had been there he’d no doubt have explained the whole things in terms of commodity fetishism, or some such aberration. I put the kettle on. I wondered if I should drink my instant cappuccino by candlelight.

The next day I had a look around the shops and listened to the street entertainers and buskers on Buchanan Street. The world had regained its previous shape. I went to the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art and looked at the show of Jo Spence’s photographs, some of which were those she took of herself while she was dying of breast cancer. It’s a harrowing and somewhat dark exhibition, although ultimately her bravery and creative courage can only be seen as uplifting.

After nightfall I was out again, and for while at about eight or so, stood near Pizza Hut on the corner of Jamaica Street and Argyle Street. I was exploring my thesis that at nights Glasgow is always full of weirdoes and that what I’d seen the previous night wasn’t really a grotesque late Capitalist version of an ancient Pagan festival at all. I quickly spotted Scooby Do and two guys who were dressed a bit like turkeys. Then Batman crossed the road at the traffic lights. This was reassuring.

And then I noticed a stream of young teenage girls trickling out of the Cathouse, which I took to be a nightclub and which is situated below the Station. There were dozens of them, all aged between about twelve – and in some cases less – up to about fifteen, dressed as what I took to be fairies or angels or characters from children’s stories. They teetered from the Cathouse in high heels and stumbled over the road to KFC, often taking their shoes off half way across and walking on in their stocking feet. They wore socks that were knee high or just above the knee, often striped, sometimes white, sometimes with bows at the top. They were all wearing very short skirts, which were often bright pink and full and frilly and looked like tutus. The girls all had bare thighs. Some of them wore tiaras or antennae or red devil’s horns. Quite a few wore white or pink angels wings. It was obvious that their dress encoded a blatant combination of childish innocence and precocious sexuality. They were Alice in Wonderland crossed with Fifi the French Maid. The street was awash with Glaswegian Lolitas of some kind.

Did there bloody mothers know they were all out like this, I wondered.  Where the hell were their dads? Was this a one-off dispensation for Halloween, which in Glasgow goes on for several days? As I waited I watched the gauche, self-conscious young girls stumbling in twos and threes across the road and along the path and on past Poundland and Subway towards the east end of the city. Occasionally a stretch Limo would pass and sometimes toot at them. The police passed in a Panda, but they didn’t give them a second look.

I later researched these Halloween Lolitas on Google. It seems that Gothic-Lolita is quite a hot style for young teenage girls at present, and that the style owes some of its popularity to the Japanese harajuka girls and a look promoted by Gwen Stefani. These Glasgow girls display many of the key features of the style. In fact all that was really missing were the parasols. So it isn’t just a Halloween thing. And nor is it just a Glasgow thing. It seems pretty clear that girls like this will be appearing on a street corner near you any day now. It struck me that some of the girls we deal with at the office probably dress this way when they go out. I wondered if this was something we should care about.

When I got back home this afternoon, the house was filled with the sweet smell of onions and pastry. In the hall there were several large boxes of slippers. Christmas is on its way. I went into the kitchen. There were five onion pies on the bench cooling. De Kooning came scampering in to see me. He rubbed his head against my shin.

‘Hey, I didn’t see you in Glasgow the other night, did I?’ I said.

I picked him up and ruffled his fur. He began to purr.

‘Come on, then,’ I said. ‘You can help me unpack. I’ve got some new postcards to show you. The Glasgow boys and girls are something else. You just won’t believe the wonders I’ve seen this time.’