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as good will stalks the fairy-lit earth

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It would have been a miracle if all the slippers had gone when I returned from Ambleside. They hadn’t. Over the weekend one after another, like Magi logging on to LastMinuteMyrrh.com, Citizens came to collect their orders. Big Trevor had ordered no fewer than six pairs. For his mother he’d ordered some lambswool moccasins in dusky pink. For his mother-in-law the same, but in a more restrained natural light tan. His two sisters and sister-in-law all got shiny silk sequined mules with a low heel in silver, black and red. His daughter got a pair of Winnie the Poohs, which Margaret says have been one of the best sellers over Christmas. Interestingly Trevor didn’t order any slippers for himself and nor did anyone else order any for him. Perhaps Trevor’s a barefoot sort of man at home, I thought. Or perhaps he’s hoping to get a pair for himself in the Slipper Sisters eBay shop sale, which was starting on Christmas Day (because that’s when Marks and Sparks start theirs, Margaret explained).

While I was away the Widow Middlemiss returned home. Her brother and sister-in-law are staying with her until the New Year. It seems she had been quite anxious about returning and had feared that when she got back she would find her house overrun with a plague of frogs. Fortunately this was not the case, although it did occur to me that as was it was winter now and the heating in the house hadn’t been on for months there could be any number of them hibernating behind her settee or under her bed. She sent Margaret a glittery white Christmas card with a picture of an angel on it. Inside the card she thanked Margaret for all her help at the time of the flood. She also gave Margaret a similar card to pass on the Brenda. On Sunday morning Maureen and the Whelp turned up at the Widow’s door. How do they do that? How did they know she had returned? Do doorstep evangelists have some sort of special radar which enables them to detect the presence of people like the Widow? Are they for instance like sharks, which are said to be able detect a single drop of blood in the ocean from more than five miles away and without fail to always find their way to its source within a matter of seconds? How do they do that?

At work most of the toys from the Salvation Army and other charities were delivered and distributed in my absence. We don’t get as many as we used too, though, and there are always a number of parents who turn up at our door in the days before Christmas asking if we can help. For the most part the answer is no. Whatever other Christmas bonuses he gives out there is no allowance for toys for the children of the poor, perhaps because that whole process would look a bit Dickensian and evoke images of the Poor House. The Poor House is not the sort of image New Labour is really looking for.

Lily took Boz’s kids through to the hospital to see him. He’s no longer on a secure ward and expects to be discharged early in the new year. Lily said he was very calm and ‘absolutely lovely’ with the kids. He had bought them presents and had a little Christmas party with them on the ward. They all wore Christmas hats and played pass the parcel and musical chairs with some of the other patients. Angie asked if the Mad Hatter had been there. Lily said he hadn’t. Apparently he’s on Prozac now and not half as much fun as he used to be.  As I listened to this conversation I recalled that the Mad Hatter had been found guilty of murdering time and his stopped at teatime watch came to mind. I wondered if Margaret would be resetting the time on her twenty three clocks for 2009.

On Christmas Eve Angie visited Mandy, Apple and Sparky. Mr Zee was still there and the situation was calm and settled. Mr Zee’s job interview was cancelled because the company went into liquidation and so the possible crisis has been averted, as least for the time being. Angie asked Sparky what he was hoping to get from Santa, and he said a Zorro suit just like his ‘daddy’s’. Unfortunately Flinty has become aware of this development in the relationship between Mr Zee and the children. He rang Angie on Christmas Eve, ostensibly to ask again how he was supposed to get his presents to them. Angie reminded him that he’d already been told several times that if he got them delivered to the office they we would see to it they got to the children in time.

‘Aye, but how can I do that?’ Flinty said. ‘I’m not allowed to enter Ashington, am I? What are you saying, that I should break the conditions of my parole?!’

‘No, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie said. ‘I am not suggesting you do anything of the sort. I would suggest that it would be very irresponsible for you to ever do such a thing.’

‘Aye, exactly,’ Flinty replied. ‘So how are the kids going to get their presents?’

‘Last time we spoke you said you could get your sister to drop them off. I thought that’s what we agreed would happen.’

‘But what if she doesn’t want to do that?’

‘You said she wouldn’t have any problem doing that. Did you ask her?’

‘That’s not the point, though, is it? What if she’d said no?’

‘So she said yes? So she can drop them off and we’ll make sure they’re delivered.’

‘Any way there’s another thing I’m not happy about. Someone tells me that that freak is making my kids call him dad. Is that true?’ It better bloody well not be.’

‘So far as I am aware Mandy’s current partner is not making the children call him anything,’ Angie said.

‘Hey, listen, pet. Them’s my bairns and I’m telling you now that neither you nor anybody else in this world has the right to let them think some weirdo from a fancy dress parlour is their dad. Got it, pet? I’m their dad, not that freak.’

‘Mandy’s partner has a very good relationship with the children, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie said. ‘It would be quite wrong to judge anyone merely by the way they dress. But for your information I can assure you he does not dress the way he does as a form of fancy dress. He’s actually a very serious person.’

‘Serious person, my arse! What sort of serious person needs to dress up as some sort of fictional Mexican bandito?! Eh?! If it isn’t just fancy dress, what is it, eh? Is he in disguise or something? Is he being hunted down by the Federales or something?!’

Flinty had a point, of course. There is a big difference between dressing up and being in disguise. A man dressed as an Arab to evade the attention of the police is a good example of the latter, and his behaviour is obviously open to explanation by reference to his predicament (although the reasons for his choice of disguise might be less clear). The reason why someone would simply want to spend all his or her waking hours dressed as Count Dracula, Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Godzilla or Zorro is rather less obvious, and in any case if someone did the term ‘wearing fancy dress’ would probably not be an adequate account of their behaviour. But Angie wasn’t wanting to debate the complexities of this issue with him or to provoke him further by raising The Arab question with him, an identity which in any case he’d simply categorically deny he’d ever assumed.

‘I think you’ll find, Mr Flintoff, that we all have a right under Human Rights legislation to dress as we choose, just so long as it doesn’t offend public decency or break some other law.’

‘And you don’t think that a geezer dressed up in cowboy boots and a cape living in the same house as my kids offends me?! What planet are ye from, pet?’

‘Obviously not the same one as you, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie replied. ‘Can I suggest that this conversation is getting us nowhere. If you get your sister to bring the presents in I’ll make sure they are delivered in time for Christmas.’

‘Hey, don’t bother, pet. I’ll tell you what, I’ll deliver them myself!’ he said, and hung up. Flinty’s sister brought the presents in to the office an hour or so later.

Every morning on the days before Christmas I noticed there was a lot of sand around the photocopier, especially on Christmas Eve morning. ‘Morning, Frodo,’ I said as I passed him. ‘How’s tricks?’

‘Is Tom having any holiday this Christmas?’ I asked Jesse from admin when she came up with a letter for me to sign.

‘No, I think he’s in every day,’ she said. ‘I don’t think he’s very big on Christmas.’

‘Has he got any family?’

‘Actually, I’m not sure. Tom’s a very, very private person. He never talks about his home life at all. He’s a sort of international man of mystery.’

‘So he doesn’t have a partner?’

Jesse shrugged. ‘If he does it’s not one he’s ever told anybody about,’ she said.

‘Kids?’

Jesse shrugged again.

‘Parents? Grandparents?’

She shook her head.

‘A girlfriend, a boyfriend, a best friend, a confidante?’

Another shrug.

‘A cat? A budgie? A goldfish?’

Late that afternoon there was only a skeleton staff left in the building. Tom had let all the other admin workers finish early and was in the main office, manning the telephones. I wandered through and sat down at one of the desks.

‘You all ready for Christmas, Tom?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I am. I’m looking forward to a few days off.’

‘So do you do anything special at Christmas? Are you a party animal or a stay at home kind of guy?’

‘Oh, I’m not one for parties.’ he said, and smiled.

‘No, me neither,’ I said. ‘And doesn’t all this present buying business drive you loopy?! There’s supposed to be a recession going on. I don’t know about you, but to me it still seemed like Bedlam again out there this year! Still, what’s the point of having money if you’re not going to spend it on anyone, eh?’

Tom smiled, meekly. I noticed a parcel lying on his bag. It was wrapped in fine silver paper with gold spots on it and tied up with a blue satin ribbon. From its size and shape I would have said it looked very much like a new toner cartridge for a Xerox M35. There was also a ream of Premium Ivory Bond and a brand new green extendable leash on the floor near him, as well as another big gift wrapped bundle which looked to me as if it probably contained a quilted stable rug coat for a small horse.

‘Do you want to get away?’ Tom said. ‘I’m happy to hang on here. We can always get you on your mobile, can’t we?’

‘Thanks, Tom. That’s very kind of you. Yeah, I might do that.’

I suspected Tom wanted everyone to go so he could take Frodo home for Christmas. I sat for a minute or so. I got up, leant over towards Tom and shook his hand.

‘All the best to you and yours, Tom,’ I said. ‘Have a really good Christmas.’ What I was wanting to do of course was to remind him that a Xerox is for life, not just for Christmas.

‘Yes,’ Tom said. ‘All the best to you too. Merry Christmas.’

When I got home the house was full of the smell of the sweet onions Margaret was cooking for Christmas Day. I fed De Kooning a plate of prawns and sat for a while flicking through Bill Smith’s book on D Y Cameron. Then I went out for a walk. I crossed Broadway Circle and went along to the top of Waterloo Road to look at the house with the Christmas lights and the inflatable Homer Simpson dressed as Santa. I walked down past the still unfinished market place refurbishment and the bus station and on down to the quayside. It’s easy to convince yourself on a night like this that all is well with the world and that good will really does stalk the earth.

When I got back home Margaret was wrapping up the last of her presents.

‘Did you get Brenda something?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I got her a pair of winter gloves and a matching muff in leopard skin faux fur and a sweet little Radley purse with a lime green dog. I also got her a Chanel Coco Mademoiselle Gift Set – perfume, body cream, body wash, everything. Cocos her favourite. She’ll really love it. Oh, and I got her some silver earrings from The Biscuit Factory, handmade ones with little birds dangling down.’

‘Did you get anything for Tristan?’

‘Of course. I wouldn’t leave him out, would I? I got him a three-pack of striped socks from Topman.’

‘Hmmm, good choice,’ I said. ‘Troskyists are really big on stripes this year.’

‘Oh, by the way, that’s your present from Brenda over there,’ Margaret said. ‘The one beneath the tree in the holly and mistletoe paper.’

I picked it up. It was a cube, each side being perhaps twelve inches in length. I shook it. It rattled a little and I fancied it might have slurped or gurgled too. I very much wanted it to be an electric screwdriver set, but its weight and sound told me it wasn’t.  I wondered if I stared at it long enough and wished hard enough I could change the contents of my unopened gift into what I wanted it to be. I wondered if it was a Plaster of Paris Paint It Yourself horse’s head or an illuminated world globe showing the map of the British Empire at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It was probably not a good idea to entertain such thoughts though, just in case. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

‘Do you know what it is?’ I asked Margaret.

‘No, of course not,’ she replied.

I decided to open it. It was a battery powered Zen-style Feng Shui Windchime Table Fountain. That’s what it said on the box. I took it out. It somehow reminded me of the whale’s jawbone arch at Whitby, although of course that isn’t made of silver plastic. The Table Fountain is obviously meant to be a therapeutic ornament, something to soothe me.

‘Oh, isn’t that lovely!’ Margaret said. ‘It’s so unusual, isn’t it? You must remember to thank her for it.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I will. By the way, you did put my name on her present, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, of course. Why? You haven’t bought her something on your own, have you?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I haven’t. Not this year. I only wish I had.’

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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.’

‘Aviators?’

‘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.

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