A Comforting Old Wooden Chair (Foreword to a Bob Dylan book)

(Sometime over the last few years I was approached to write a “blurb” for the cover of a book of thoughts about Bob Dylan by an Australian author, Phil Mason. I’ve never met Phil but I’ve been privileged to help him with his research. By the time the book was approaching readiness, the idea had expanded and I wrote a foreword for the book which eventually appeared under the title of “A Voice From on High”. As well as reproducing that foreword here, I take the opportunity to recommend Mr Mason’s book which can be obtained through Amazon in softcover and for your kindle.)


“Well I’m sitting in church
In an old wooden chair
I knew nobody
Would look for me there”

Bob Dylan – Marchin’ to the City (Disc 3 of Tell Tale Signs 1989-2006)

In 1707, Isaac Watts, the Christian hymnwriter, wrote a lyric called “Marching to Zion” in which he referred to Zion as the beautiful city of God. Now, this was long before Zion had become a short-hand for some Western European political scheme to establish a physical homeland for disenfranchised Jewish people in the middle East (a scheme commonly referred to as Zionism). It is Watts looking forward to the end of an earthly journey where all the faithful people of God, Jew and Gentile, would be gathered in to an eternal home.

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Dylan in the 80s – worth more than a second glimpse… and his thoughts on music and film.

A little over a year ago I wrote an article about Bob Dylan’s “Saved” album which received a wide readership and was generally positively received:


My intention had been to write a similar article about the 1981 album “Shot of Love” and then to go on and write a series of articles or a book about the albums and tours since then looking particularly at Mr Dylan’s use of Old Testament and New Testament imagery but also other imagery he used commonly across many years which helps us to understand and appreciate his work.

Unfortunately, I got bogged down in the article on “Shot of Love” which is still not finished although I keep returning to it and tinkering with it. I hope it will be completed as I think I might have some important things to say but who knows when.

This week, as has become his habit when a new album is due. Dylan’s staff published on his website a new interview he has given to Bill Flanagan:


Mr Flanagan seems to be a writer that Bob particularly trusts and he has given him several important interviews over the past decade. This new one is intended to herald his latest album of standards, the 3-disc set “Triplicate”.

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It’s a sign of the times when the passing of one of the true literary greats has been accorded so little attention in the media in the UK. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn passed away, aged 89 years. His writings had gone from very high profile (“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, “Cancer Ward”) to no profile (the volumes in his “The Red Wheel” series). The quality of his work never faltered but the press only paid attention whilst he was politically significant and criticising the Soviet bloc. When he turned his insights on the state of the West, he was quietly pushed to one side. I’m glad he was able to return to his beloved Russia in his last years although there is more than a little irony in the way that his body is going to be laid in State – after all the country did its best to act as though he did not exist for a large part of his life. For my money, the extended revised version of “August 1914” (not the shorter version published in the early 70s which is in reality almost a different book) is his masterpiece but I love all his writings and long for the day he will be recognised in the West as a writer beyond his political significance.

The Mystery We Are

Modern understanding of human nature tells us of the value of mourning and expressing our grief. Counsellors, pastors and priests encourage us to off load our troubles. The psychologist and the psychotherapist help us to order our sorrows. Or at least that’s the way the modern theory goes……

Understanding human nature though is not just a modern preoccupation. It goes back a long, long time. I don’t know if anybody actually reads this but if you do then you’ll know that this month I’m exploring Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare and Shakespeare had more than a little common ground with modern wisdom. He saw a lot of things very differently but some things the same and I could suggest that we ought to hang onto those things that are time-honoured and doubt the purely modern but I won’t. At least not at this point. But onto the wisdom of the ages……..

In Macbeth, Shakespeare points us to something that I think is central to balanced human living. 

    Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
    Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
    Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
    The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
    Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
    Chief nourisher in life’s feast,– 

(Macbeth Act 2 Scene 2)

The chief notion here is that when our life is disordered, a regular sleep pattern is one of the first things to go. From old Elizabethan times to today, it holds true. When someone comes to me for advice (as they sometimes do, it’s part of what I do), amongst my first questions are “how are you sleeping?”, “how’s your appetite?”. In the play, Macbeth thought that he could handle his deed of murdering Duncan but no matter what he does, his internal nature rebels against his stern exterior. When he killed the King, he killed his own peace of mind. He murdered his own ability to sleep.

This other Shakespearean tragedy has another bolt of wisdom for us. Titus Andronicus might not be as highly rated (or as often performed) as Macbeth but you can’t keep a good writer and wise man down.

“Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopped
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.”

(Titus Andronicus Act 2 Scene 3)

The basic notion here is, as I hinted earlier, that with sorrow or grief we have two options either to let it out or to let it eat us up inside. Sorrow is characterised by Marcus Andronicus (for it is he that Will gives these words to) as a great heat that builds up like it would in a oven where there is no outlet or regulator. It turns that which is developing in the oven into ashes and cinders. Score one for our society not losing sight of this with its counsellors et al. The downside I think for modern society is that in the fracturing of community it is robbing us of the most natural way of off-loading our troubles – for free with friends over a drink. We live in a society where it is possible to live in a street without knowing any of our neighbours, never mind understand them. The number of people who live alone is on the increase which is not a problem but when those people do not choose to live in isolation and have no-one to talk to then we have created a huge problem. A huge chasm that we are struggling to bridge.

In Titus Andronicus, the person with the greatest grief is not Titus himself but the woman who he grieves over – his daughter, Lavinia. She has been raped and assaulted. In order to ensure that she cannot identify those who have raped her attackers have cut out her tongue. In Ovid’s “Metamoprheses”, a thousand years earlier, a woman, Philomela is similarly assaulted and also has her tongue cut out. She is able to identify her assaulters by sewing on a sampler and identifying them. Aware of this, Shakespeare makes his villains also cut off Lavinia’s hand. The implication is that she cannot communicate in anyway. This is particularly true in a theatrical work where speech and the hand movements of rhetoric are so central to all communication.

We live in a society where we understand the benefits of talking about  our sorrow but we have created a lack of community which destroys the way that we would best share. It’s an interesting dilemma and we have no Shakespeare to guide us.

Words, words, words

Hamlet, I think, Act 2 Scene 2.

Amongst my many other failings, I read too much. Way too much.

To indulge myself and for anyone who might actually read this, I thought I’d make a list of some of my favourite authors (in no particular order):

GK Chesterton…. Love his philosophical and thoughtful stuff. I recently read “The Man who was Thursday” which is kind of a supernatural adventure story or something indefinable. His 1911 book the Napoleon of Notting Hill makes much mention of Ravenscourt Park. I look out on Ravenscourt Park every morning.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn….. Someone who rose in prominence primarly because of his opposition to Soviet Russia and who has faded just as dramatically since that is no longer a issue. I began reading him back in the day with A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. His later work is largely ignored since he is no longer politically significant. The later version of August 1914, The Red Wheel Knot 1 (published in the 1980s, not the earlier incomplete version from the 1970s) may just be his masterpiece.

William Shakespeare….  Not well known but a good playwright with potential. He just needs the right breaks. Joking aside I love to go and see his plays performed in Stratford-Upon-Avon which is one of my favourite places on the whole planet right now and chock full of good memories. King Lear, MacBeth, Merchant of Venice, The Winters Tale are my favourites probably in that order

Arthur Miller…… I love All My Sons, View From a Bridge, Death of a Salesman but also his later stuff which curiously is not often performed. At one point a few years ago, he decided to open many of his new dramas in London’s West End which suited me down to the ground. Great debuts ensued for plays like the Ride Down Mount Morgan and Broken Glass (which I think he revised before his death). I also enjoyed his short story, Plain Girl

Malcolm Muggeridge…… The most important journalist of the 20th century. I own all of his books bar one. If anyone has a spare copy of “Next Years News” (written with Hugh Kingsmill in 1937, I think) please send it to me. I will pay you generously. Great books, very important and woefully neglected. Three Flats, Picture Palace, Winter in Moscow, Conversion, In a Valley of this Restless Mind, Affairs of the Heart, London a la Mode, I could go on and on and probably will at some juncture.

Charles Williams… A cohort of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien but less well known. And a better writer for my money. Particularly like his novels which include Descent into Hell and Place of the Lion.

Philip K. Dick…..  A believable futuristic science fiction from a man who lost his mind. Claustrophobic stories from a future world which are so intoxicating.

Shusaku Endo….  Japanese author. I’ve read most everything of his that has been translated into English. Amongst his best are The Girl I Left Behind, Wonderful Fool and Silence
Charles Dickens….  when he’s good, he is very good. Could go far with the right backing. Joking aside, I enjoy Great Expectations, The Christmas Carol and a number of his others (but not all)
Current reading – Peter Cook “Tragically, I was an only twin”, Geza Vermes “The Nativity”, Philip K. Dick “Flow my tears, the Policeman said”.