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tallulah and the good catastrophe

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It looks like Debs will be off sick for a few months. Earlier this week I held an emergency meeting with the whole team to talk about redistributing her cases.

‘How do you want to do this?’ I said. ‘Do you want me to decide who gets what or should I just throw all the names into a hat and let you take turns picking one? Or do you want to discuss them one by one and see who’s interested?’

They decided that I should decide. I divided the couple of dozen most serious cases on Debs’ caseload between the five workers left standing. Angie copped for Mandy Potts, who as it happened turned up just as the meeting ended. She had Apple and Sparky with her. Mr Zee wasn’t with her. Mandy was upset.

‘Seems like a good time to introduce yourself,’ I said to Angie.

‘Oh, isn’t her weird boyfriend with her?’ Angie said. ‘I was looking forward to meeting him. I like young men in uniforms.’

‘A Zorro outfit’s hardly a uniform, Ange,’ Lily said.

‘Isn’t it?’ Angie pulled her pondering face, and wandered off to meet Mandy and the kids.

‘What’s up?’ Lily asked, when Angie came back along.

‘They’re going to make Mr Zee get a job. The dole’s on his back. Mandy doesn’t want him to because she’s scared that if she’s on her own Flinty will come to her door.’

‘She has a point,’ Lily said. ‘But it’s not a point the dole will take.’

‘No, they won’t,’ Angie said. ‘He’s down there now and he thinks they’re going to send him for an interview.’

‘He should go,’ Lily said. ‘No-one’s going to give a job to a man dressed as Zorro, are they?’

‘Well, that’s the other thing,’ Angie said. ‘Mr Zee isn’t prepared to not dress the way he does. He thinks he has a human right to do so, like Christians wearing crucifixes and Muslims wearing the veil.’

‘Another good point,’ Lily said. ‘But again, not one the dole will buy.’

‘No, they won’t,’ Angie said. ‘They’ve suggested he may need to take work at MacDonald’s.’

‘Oh my God,’ Michelle said. ‘Can you image that, Zorro appearing in the drive-thru window! Imagine asking Zorro for a couple of  Happy Meals and a regular Coke!’

‘It could bring them business!’ Lily said, chuckling to herself as she tried to get on with inputting stuff on to the computer. ‘It’s a shame MacDonald’s aren’t likely to think the same.’

‘Mandy thinks that Mr Zee will leave her and return to Newcastle if they force him to take a job where he can’t continue to dress the way he does.’

‘That surprises me,’ Lily said. ‘I always had the impression from Debs that he’s really committed to Mandy and the kids. Things will fall apart if he does leave, that’s a certainty. Mandy will never cope without him.’

‘Bloody men!’ Angie said. ‘Is there a single one out there that isn’t a complete waste of space?!’

It snowed on Thursday. I sat in the team room for a while first thing going through the post and listening to the team talking about the BBC documentary on the Shannon Matthews case which had been on the previous night. Fairy tale explanations are the bedrock of the world according to the popular media, and on this occasion the police seem especially ready to give the story the right slant by stating that this girl’s mother was ‘pure evil’. Here we have The Cruel Mother. ‘I thought that police officer was about the tell us the story of Hansel and Gretel or something,’ I heard Angie say. The police are hardly more self-aware or enlightening as social narrators than The Sun or The Daily Mail. It is within the terms of the crude and narrow narratives the popular media constructs that the identities and aspirations of their audience will to a significant extent arise. Karen Matthews, who no doubt is a person who came to see herself in the terms of those narratives, was and is stupid, dysfunctional, misguided, and inadequate. But this description could equally as well be applied to the police themselves who had four hundred officers in the area for almost a month and failed to find a child who all the time was under their very noses. The same could also be said for the troops of journalists who traipsed around the area 24 hours a day for the same period. And now they’re blaming social workers for not seeing this coming two years earlier. Lily wondered when we would get our crystal balls.

‘It’s a pity Shannon didn’t think of dropping pieces of bread as a trail to her wicked uncle’s house, isn’t it?’ Angie said. ‘That’s always the thing to look for in a case like this.’

I went upstairs. About mid morning I was sitting up in my office looking out over the car park watching the white stuff falling hypnotically, like a weird quiet currency being repaid to the world. Nature has a fascinating economy. A pale blue Favorit slithered into the car park. It was Jack Verdi. He got out and pulled the collar of his black reefer jacket up around his face. He was wearing his Ray-Bans. His long grey hair was tied back in a pony tail by what looked like a red elastic band. In his pale desert boots he gingerly made his way across the snow into the office. He brought to mind something vaguely Russian, maybe someone from a Gogol story. He’d come for a meeting with Debs and forgotten she was off. He asked if I was free and came upstairs for a chat.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said when he came into my room. ‘How’s tricks?’  He shook my hand. As he leant forward to do so I briefly caught sight of his pale blue eyes peering out over his sunglasses.

‘Hey, I’m not so bad, mate. Bloody awful weather though.’

I looked out of the window and nodded.

‘Actually I like the snow,’ I said.

‘Aye,’ Jack said, ‘to look at, but not to drive in!’

I made him a cup of tea and for a while we talked about music, as we always do. He always asks me who I’m listening to as a preamble to him telling me what I might want to try instead. On this occasion I swapped him Teddy Thompson and Josh Ritter for a classic album from Jefferson Airplane and Neil Young’s Live at Canterbury House 1968,  Sugar Mountain album.

‘Hey, that was quite a performance you gave at Rosie’s leaving do,’ I said, finally mentioning the elephant in the room. ‘Man, you certainly blew them away that night!’

Jack shook his head and looked down into his lap. ‘Yeah, well, maybe. I just wish I’d stuck to bloody well playing the piano, as I was supposed to do.’

‘Yeah, me too,’ I said. ‘Banging out Chas and Dave numbers in a room so thick with the reek of HRT isn’t exactly my bag either.’

He laughed. But he had something more on his mind, and I thought I knew what it was.

‘Hey, Jack,’ I said, ‘I’d just let it go if I were you. Most people will already have forgotten about it, you know how they are. You’re the only person who’s thinking about now.’

‘Oh yeah, yeah, I know that,’ he said. ‘No, it’s not that, it’s what it’s telling me about me that bothers me. I’m becoming desperate. I can’t seem to let myself ever be anything but young. You know why I did that? Because I’m scared to death of getting old. I’ve seen this happen to other guys, guys who I was once in bands with. I’m starting to do what they’ve done and make a bloody fool of myself.’

‘Well, as they say, if you recognise a problem you’re half way there to solving it.’

‘Yeah, but how do you solve the problems of decrepitude and death?’

I laughed. I wanted this conversation to remain light. ‘Euthanasia’s good,’ I said. ‘I’ve already booked myself a one-way ticket to Switzerland.’

‘I don’t want to go,’ Jack said, shaking his head.

‘You don’t want to go to Switzerland, Jack? Compact land-locked mid European country? Bankers, watchmakers, Toblerone, Heidi, St Moritz, lots of big snowy mountains? It’s the sort of place where there’s never any litter and they don’t ever have to think about Asbo’s. Switzerland’s not such a bad place, Jack.’

‘I don’t mean I don’t want to go to Switzerland, man.  No, I mean I don’t want a die. At least not yet. I’ve still got some good times left in me. The problem really is that the rest of the world is starting to disregard me. It’s as if as you get older there’s a quiet conspiracy to exclude you from things. It starts when you’re about thirty. The world begins to tell you that you can’t do that. And do you know why it says that? It says it because it embarrasses them if you do. They just don’t want you around. They discard you, like you’re an old-fashioned appliance of some sort. I don’t buy it, mate. There’s some stuff I’m just not ready to say goodbye to.’

‘Like good old rock and roll, eh?’

‘Well, yeah, but not just that.’ His Aviators looked straight at me and for a moment or two he paused. ‘You read poetry, right?’ he said.

I said I did sometimes, yes.

‘You know I’m into Keats, don’t you? Yeah? Okay, can I show you something? It’s like a modern take on something he wrote. I’d be interested to know what your response to it is.’

He bent over and unbuckled his brown leather satchel bag. He took out a couple of sheets of A4 and handed them to me

‘You’ll know the original,’ he said. ‘It’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’


O what’s bothering you now, my bonny lad,
Alone and palely loitering?    
Has thy assessment slithered into the sink?            
Are you waiting for the telephone to ring?
O what can ail thee, fostering man!            
So flushed and so woe-begone?          
The question from the Chair was crass,         
The Police Checks were never done.
I see a cloud across thy face          
Your reviews are all long over due,            
And in thy diary a fading date         
When your anxious manager last hounded you.
I met a damsel in the tearoom,         
Full beautiful-an Ashington child,             
Her hair was red, her foot was light,          
And her laughter was quite wild.
I bought a cosy for her napper         
And sent her a text from my mobile phone;              
She texted me back and asked me to sing        
‘Will you give this little dog a bone.’    
I sat her in my Skoda’s front seat             
And put Crosby, Stills and Nash on,            
I whizzed her around the slippery bends        
Till all her lingering doubts were gone.
She bought me bags of morish sweets,           
And Honey Tunes and herbal tea,        
And then in an accent strange she said-        
“Bonny lad, aa’ve got the hots for ye.”  
She took me to her terraced grotto,            
And swept the sawdust from her floor,          
And I gazed into her wild wild eyes            
Until my heart could take no more.


And with a tambourine she lulled me asleep,            
And I dreamt I heard a terrible din            
‘Twas the scariest dream I ever did dream,             
I dreamt I was trapped inside her bin.


I saw pale ploughmen, businessmen too,
Old heartthrobs, death-pale as if without feelings;
They cried-“The Bonny Lass Without Pity
Has dumped us amang her peelings!”


I saw their starved lips in the garbage
With horrid warnings gaping wide,
And I awoke and found me dumped,
With another old scratter at my side.


And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
My assessments all soggy in the sink,
And my mobile phone not ringing.


After I’d finished reading it I said nothing for maybe a minute or so. Nor did Jack.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘This is, er, interesting.’

Jack looked at me. He wanted more than just, er, interesting.

‘Hey, Jack,’ I said. ‘What do you want me to say here? How I’d feel if I was the woman you wrote this for?’

‘It shows, then?’

‘Yeah, Jack, it shows. It’s about Tallulah, right?’

He nodded slowly.

‘So,’ I said, tentatively, ‘have you and her got a thing going on, or what?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s just tittle tattle. Emma Pope started that rumour as a put down to me.’

‘But you would like to have something going on with her, yeah?’

He nodded, safe behind his sunglasses. ‘Yeah.’

‘And? . . .And? . . . And what? You think she’s too young for you?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Not at all. What bothers me is that she’ll think I’m too old for her.’

‘She’s not a kid, Jack. She must be well into her thirties now. What are you saying, that she’s shallow?’

‘No, she’s definitely not shallow,’ Jack said, almost indignantly. ‘She’s a woman with deceptive subtlety and depth. She’s like a great river and her complexion is forever changing as she makes her course through her days. Sometimes she’s wild and tempestuous, sometimes she trickles and gurgles, but sometimes she’s quiet and still and just so damned profound. No, she’s not shallow, man, but I’ve got twenty years on her, and she knows it.’

I nodded. I almost smiled. I looked at the poem again.

‘This dustbin metaphor,’ I said. ‘That’s serious, right, a deep concern hidden behind a daft joke?’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Exactly. What bothers me is that even if I got something off the ground with Tallulah she’d pretty soon dump me for a younger model.  She has a bit of a reputation for chewing guys up and spitting them out.’

‘And the bin, that’s the bin of decrepitude, yeah?  It’s a bin you fear that once she dumps you in you’ll be in for the rest of your days?’

‘It’s more than that,’ Jack said. ‘It’s a bin I fear I’m already in. Not because I want to be there or because I’m really need to be. It’s just the bin the rest of the world has put me in. It ‘s like that Yeats line, isn’t it,  the one about old age being tied to you like a tin can to a dog’s tail. It stinks, man!’

‘And the bonny lass without pity, that’s not just Tallulah, is it? She’s society too, isn’t she, and young mistress Time herself. This bonny lass is The Reaper.’ A picture of Tallulah Hudspith wielding a giant scythe crossed my mind. It was an image from a Tarot card.

‘Yeah, something like that, I guess,’ Jack said.

‘You know what I’d do if I were you, Jack? I’d go for it. What’s the worst that can happen – you don’t get the gig. Or if you do you don’t get booked for a second night. But hey, Jack, for you this might just be the gig to end all gigs. One night with Tallulah might be your Madison Square Garden moment, the one gig you’ll never forget!’

Jack stood up. He very deliberately buttoned up his black reefer jacket. He smiled quietly and flicked his pony tail back over his collar. It was indeed a red elastic band holding it together.

‘Carpe diem, eh, man? I kinda knew that would be your take on it. Thanks, man. It helped.’

Jack picked up his brown satchel and slung it over his shoulder. ‘Hey, and one more thing, eh? This conversation we’ve had, strictly between me and you, right?’

‘Yeah, of course, Jack,’ I said. ‘Between me, you and the gatepost.’

He smiled and shook my hand again. I walked along the landing with him. As he was making his way down the stairs he turned and asked me if I knew Warren Zevon’s stuff.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He’s good.’

‘He wrote a song called I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,’ Jack said. ‘Give it a listen some time.’

‘I will’ I said. ‘But isn’t poor old Warren now fast asleep himself?’

‘He is, man. But what a way to hit the mattress, eh?!’

I laughed. Jack left. The snow had turned to rain.

When I got home I had a quick pizza and then put my boots on to go for a walk. It was turning cold and the slushy snow was beginning to freeze into crusty waves. I walked along Broadway and then on as far as the Thoroton Hotel. I went up Marlow Street and cut through past the sports centre and over on to Newsham Road. I walked up into Newsham and down Winship Street past the site of the Big Club, which is still fenced off but now completely razed. At the roundabout I stood for a moment or two and looked at the strings of Christmas lights slung above the road. I then made my way back down Plessey Road. In the last few days a lot more Christmas lights have appeared on houses and a lot more Christmas trees in their windows, but Christmas still seems slightly reluctant to appear this year, even though the Angel Alistair and the Good St Gordon from every television in the land sing, ‘Spend, Spend, Spend!’

‘Spend what?!’ the world sings back.

When I got back home Brenda was there again, gathering more slippers into boxes to take away for dispatch.

‘Hi, Brenda,’ I said. ‘How’s business?’

‘Brisk!’ she replied. ‘Surprisingly so. Things have really picked up in the past few days.’

‘Well, you can never go far wrong with slippers at Christmas, can you?’

‘Yes, I think you’re right. Folks may not have much money this year, but everyone can afford a good old fashioned pair of slippers, can’t they?’

Brenda didn’t have her Auguries of Innocence cardie on that day. She had a sort of long very expensive looking camel-coloured wrap around coat. She was also wearing green knee high leather boots with big shiny silver buckles on them, and out of the collar of her coat the leafy frills of a spring green blouse of some sort erupted. She also wore a coffee-coloured knitted hat of some kind, a one with a peak and a small chocolate brown button on the crown, the sort of hat that reminds me vaguely of Barbra Streisand. For a moment it crossed my mind that Brenda looked rather like a tortilla wrap.  

‘So what’s Tristan getting you for Christmas?’ I asked.

‘Oh I don’t know that!’ she replied. ‘That would take all the fun out of it. I like surprises.’

‘But there must be something you hope he gets you.’

‘Oh well, yes, of course. What I’m hoping for is a Matthew Williams Chapelle weave coat and some Jimmy Choo Erica ankle boots, as well as some lovely smellies and maybe some nice stocking fillers, such as earrings and brooches and choccies and things. Just lots of lovely lovely delicious surprises really. I’ve pointed Tristan in the direction of net-a-porter.com and I know for certain that he’s looked.  I’m quite excited really. But what about you? What do you want for Christmas?’

I paused for a moment, as if taking thought. ‘The emancipation of the working class, I think,’ I said, very calmly and seriously. ‘Yes, that definitely. That and world peace.’

Brenda nodded her head approvingly. ‘That’s just such a beautiful wish,’ she said. ‘Yes, of course, you’re absolutely right. It is the spiritual aspect of Christmas that really matters, not all the shopping and materialism. And in any case it really is better to give than to receive. You know, I don’t really care what anyone gets me actually. Christmas is just such a special time of year. Just be close to someone you care about and to know they’re there, that’s all any of us really needs.’

So I’ll tell Tristan to just send you a note and prod you from time to time then, I thought. I know what great joy and cheer that will bring.

‘So what are you getting Tristan?’ I asked.

‘An electric screwdriver set.’ Brenda replied. ‘I saw one at B & Q. It was such a good buy and it will be all he’ll ever need. He’s always saying how much he wished he had one.’

‘That’s nice, Brenda,’ I said. ‘If you’ve got to spend then a practical gift is always the way to go, I think.’

Lucky Tristan, I thought. But of course I’m sure Brenda will get a huge amount of pleasure from giving Tristan his electric screwdriver set.

‘Oh, but what do presents matter?’ Brenda said. ‘Christmas really is first and foremost a spiritual time, a time to think of others. As you said, a time for peace and love. Material things are such a terrible distraction sometimes, aren’t they?’

For a moment I wanted to ask her what the word ‘spiritual’ meant. But I thought better of it. In any case I think I already know how spiritual Brenda is: she’s about as spiritual as a checkout till. She has exactly the sort of spirituality the Angel Alistair wishes we all had this year.

‘Do you know anything about the Tarot, Brenda?’ I said, changing the subject. It was like asking a seagull if it knew about fish heads.

‘Yes, of course,’ she replied, becoming animated. ‘Do you want me to do a reading for you?’

‘No, not really,’ I said. ‘But thank you for the offer. No, I was wondering about one of the cards and what it means.’

‘Which one?’ Brenda said, always ready to share her esoteric knowledge with the curious.

‘The one with the reaper on’ I said. ‘Is it called the Tallulah?’

‘The Tallulah?’ Brenda said, screwing up her face. ‘The Tallulah? The Tallulah’s not a Tarot card. No, no. No, the card you’re describing is the Death card.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘The Death card. So there’s not an expression which is like “turning the Tallulah” or something like that?’

‘No,’ Brenda said, a little sharply. ‘No, there isn’t. The reaper is on the Death card.’

‘And if that card turned up for you it would be bad news, right?’

‘No, not necessarily,’ Brenda said. ‘That’s a common misconception. The Death card does not necessarily signify death. But it does signify that major change will occur in your life. Catastrophic change, in fact, but not necessarily for the worse.’

So, I thought to myself, turning the Tallulah foretells catastrophe. But not necessarily a bad catastrophe. The idea of a good catastrophe appealed to me. This was an idea it would be good for Jack to know about.

‘So have you ever done a reading for anyone when the Death card has turned up?’

‘Oh, yes, of course,’ Brenda replied. ‘Many times.’

‘And are any of those people still alive?’ I asked.

‘Yes, so far as I know, they all are.’

‘But they will have all encountered a catastrophe by now, yes?’

Brenda had rumbled my game a while ago of course. She was prepared to play along no longer.

‘You should stop taking the mick,’ she said. ‘You know, many people have been helped to make important decisions in their lives through the Tarot. Just because you think it’s nonsense, doesn’t mean it is nonsense, you know.’

I nodded. She was right of course. I began to wonder about making a catastrophic decision, or rather, making a decision to have a catastrophe in your life. It seemed to me that since the future can’t really be foretold, this must be the way the Tarot works. The cards suggest that decisions of a certain kind should be made. It sets an agenda in someone’s mind. Decisions are then made according to the cards’ suggestions and hey presto – the cards appear to have done what cards never can and to have foretold the future. The classic self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps most divination works in exactly the same way. The effect is that you take active responsibility for your own future but that by some sleight of hand you can always say that whatever happens was bound to be, that it was written in the cards.

I wandered through to the conservatory. De Kooning was sitting on the windowsill, looking out into the dark where the snow had fallen among the gaping spaces of the Citadel. Sometimes I think I’m too passive about the future. It’s not something I get a hold of and try to make for myself. Maybe it’s that working class thing. Maybe it’s something else. I just seem to be happy to sit and watch the river flow by. I could dip my foot in, I know that. Maybe I fear a catastrophe if I do. Maybe I think I might turn the Tallulah if I get my feet wet.

I wondered if I should get a Tarot pack and do a reading for De Kooning. I know of course that this sort of stuff doesn’t work for cats. Cats sit on life’s windowsill and sing Que Sera Sera. They sing it nine times over.


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.