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”.

Continue reading


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 poor remainder of the Andronici*

*quote from Act 5 Scene 3 Line 130

When I started reading and studying Titus Andronicus I thought I would spend about a month with it – in the end I’ve been working with it for more than double that time. When I started life seemed in a reasonable, steady place. At the moment life seems as bad as it can get. Time moves on but it is now time to put the book to bed.

In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare has produced a play in which the themes and ideas are timeless. This is remarkable given that at times it has all but lost its audience. Moreover, he seems to have conceived that the themes should have a timeless applicability. I have already talked much in previous journal entries about the fact that the play shows that empires and nations rise and fall with the quality and morality of its people. They are not eternal. Consequently, the pattern of the play casts clear links between ancient Greek myth and the events which it sets in ancient Rome. However, the speakers constantly remind us that they are actors in a later day by the allusions to more contemporary events. This is Shakespeare’s way of showing that any society can fall as its people lose their way. Therefore, the players speak in the manner of people living in Reformation times even though they are ostensibly Romans watching their empire fall to the enemy they have defeated and brought within their walls.
Aaron, the villain of the piece, accuses Lucius (the coming emperor) of having a conscience which carries with it “twenty popish tricks and ceremonies” (5.1.76), a clear allusion to the vanquished Catholicism of Shakespeare’s time. At another point, a Goth explains his late arrival by saying that he “stray’d to gaze upon a ruinous monastery” (5.1.21). The “Romans and Goths” are walking in 16th century England and their fall is one that Shakespeare’s generation is also in danger of.

But what is the nature of this fall? As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the Romans have defeated the Goths at the beginning of the play but only by becoming like them. When Tamora (the Queen of the Goths) begs Titus for the life of her sons, he is deaf to her pleas. They are taken away to be sacrificed to the gods. Rome has lost its humanity and its compassion. 

But life is not simple, the Goth leaders are as bad as they seem. Rome as indeed become like them. Rule cannot simply pass to them. Tamora and her remaining children and fellows are lost in a web of concealment. She loves the evil Aaron but has married Saturninus and proclaimed love for him in order to gain influence in Rome. When her offspring, Chiron and Demetrius are schooled by Aaron (and by extension by Tamora herself) in the idea of raping and molesting Lavinia, they are taught to cover their actions by the cutting out of Lavinia’s tongue and the cutting off of her hands.
But the plotters have overstepped themselves and Tamora gives birth to a baby who is clearly not Saturninus’ but rather Aaron’s. She describes it to her Nurse as a “dismal, black and sorrowful issue” (4.2.66) and the Nurse repeats her words to her lover, Aaron. She suggests that Aaron should “christen it with thy dagger’s point” (4.2.70). There is a lack of humanity in anyone who can speak like this of anyone especially their own child and even the vile Aaron cannot co-operate.

Consequently, the playwright must find a third party to pass the throne to at the play’s conclusion. After an orgy of death in Act 5 Scene 3 (the plays least convincing scene – all the remaining issues of the play are settled just a little too quickly by too many deaths), it passes to Lucius, the surviving son of Titus, who is watched from above by “the poor remainder of the Andronici” as he takes the crown. Ominously, he is watched also by the Goth army who remain silent – perhaps watching how things develop before deciding whether to support or overthrow him.

Ironically, whether the Empire of Rome will stand depends on whether the prominent leaders can regain their humanity and their compassion. Titus’ family departed from this when they sacrificed prisoners from among the Goths foolishly believing that the gods would be pleased with them (again, there are echoes of this in our own day). The new generation must now choose whether or not to hear the plea which Tamora gave at the outset of the tragedy: “Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? Draw near them in being merciful”. (1.1.120-121).

Hanging with the Andronici…

Still with Titus Andronicus. Whenever I’m trying to really study Shakespeare as opposed to reading for fun (is this boy sane?), I always find that I gravitate towards the Arden version. The individual volumes of the Arden Shakespeare are generally the best informed, best researched with the best grasp of the play’s background. This certainly works with Titus Andronicus, although you’ll need to avoid the 2nd edition which isn’t worth the admission price purely because the editor didn’t like the play. The third edition, however, has many reasons you should acquire it. Not least is the pithy, witty and enthusiastic style of its editor, Jonathan Bate. Another reason is the cover artwork which would be worth purchasing if you didn’t want the play. The artwork is by one Dennis Leigh who seems to have reached peaks in many disciplines. Even if you haven’t heard of him, and don’t know me personally enough to have had your ear bent by my enthusiasm for his work, you may have come across him in his alter-ego of John Foxx. Anyway, here’s a reproduction of the cover:

Close inspection of the image reveals a man’s image, on the forehead, holding a suffering child and a female figure whose image ends before the hand at the point it meets the mouth of the main image. With depictions of torture running up both cheeks, we have an extraordinary image which wordlessly (suitably) covers the main themes of the play. Excellent!

For those who are a little less inclined to the highbrow, it’s worth noting that John Foxx and Louis Gordon will only be playing one UK gig this year. It will be at the Cargo, in North London in October (16th). I’ll see you there. Those who want to aim for the middle ground might want to try Foxx’s solo concert in Leeds where he will accompany sections of his Quiet Man prose on acoustic piano (7th November). I’ll be there too – should be interesting. I’m intrigued.

Bang the drum…. slowly

Harold Pinter does strange things with words.
It’s not just the obligatory Pinteresque pause that everyone mentions. He takes them from their normal surroundings and imbues them with a sense of tension which, in his best work, is never resolved. It simply hangs.

A few days ago, I caught the production of his “The Birthday Party” at the Lyric theatre, Hammersmith, London (just down the road from the place I live, which is handy). 
I first read the The Birthday Party a long time ago. This was in the early 1980s. I’d started reading Beckett and Brecht and then I stumbled on Pinter. In the town I grew up in, you didn’t get productions of Pinter, Beckett or ANYTHING. It was like living in a cultural vacuum. So if you were young and precocious, you read play scripts and tried to visualise what it would be like. I visualise better than most. I learned earlier. It was about putting a little colour into life – you get so sick of black and white.

So I read everything that Pinter had written that I could lay my hands on. The Homecoming, The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Dumb Waiter, Betrayal, A Kind of Alaska (maybe that was later, it seems that way), Old Times, No Man’s Land were some of the plays I remember reading back then and always in his best plays it was the tension and the transitions that he captured that got me and kept me reading. There was also a screenplay for “A la recherche du temps perdu” by Proust which I loved and admired greatly.

There are many writers whose best work is in the past and, for myself, I regard Pinter in that way. I can’t admire his politics and his recent public pronouncements just simply needed a certain degree of proportion and that is what a writer should have. I think Pinter has lost some of that measure that he had when he was a younger man.

So it was good to see one of his old plays. “The Birthday Party” is, if anything, perhaps a little too early. He is still learning the craft that fired that tension that interested me, at this point. The third act largely exorcises that malevolence that he has spent two acts creating. It resolves some of the issues and if Pinter has a strength it is that he taught the theatre that things don’t have to be resolved.

In The Birthday Party, Meg and Petey, a married couple, live with their guest, Stanley Webber. Nothing much changes in their lives. Lulu, apparently a neighbour, flirts with Stanley but nothing much goes on beyond the routine of daily meals, newspapers, a time for bed and a time to rise. All this changes when Meg is told that two visitors are coming. It is then that all of life’s possibilities break out and things begin to fall apart.

The words are clever and even some times funny. It is the characters’ response to simple words and simple encounters that places them on the rack and stretches them and allows their potentialities to burst open. 

Stanley (advancing): They are coming today.
Meg: Who?
Stanley: They are coming in a van.
Meg: Who?
Stanley: And do you know what they’ve got in that van?
Meg: What?
Stanley: They’ve got a wheelbarrow in that van.
Meg (breathlessly): They haven’t.
Stanley: Oh yes, they have.
Meg: You’re a liar

“The Birthday Party” teaches us that those who are fully awake are changed by encounters. Those who prefer not to change (like Petey in the play) can remain that way but only by sleepwalking through life’s experiences.

The play is loaded with possibilities. The fact that McCann and Goldberg (two visitors at what is apparently <perhaps> a coastal boarding house are Irish and Jewish respectively loads their mission <should it exist> with all manner of possibilities –  religious, political, cultural. All we know is that this is the twentieth century and their purpose, should they have one, could be sinister. We’re not sure how much of what happens is real or if any of it is dream. The import is not in the action but in the words – what is said and what is not said and how the characters and the audience react to what they hear and what they are not told.

The current production is at a close now. For the record, Nicholas Woodeson and Lloyd Hutchinson as McCann and Goldberg were excellent with the right air of purpose but with so much hidden. Sian Brooke as Lulu had just a little too much class and was a little too pretty (if you’re going to come up short, it’s not a bad way to do it). Sheila Hancock as Meg was a little too aware of herself and the play and her costume in the first act was just a little too stereotyped. She played for laughs sometimes that the play did not need.

Meg’s character is potentially the most mysterious of all in a strange way, if handled well. On the face of it she is almost moronic and easily satisfied. Simple. But she has many layers. She wants to be sexually alluring to the guests (even Stanley). She wants social standing – her dwelling is “on the list” she insists, her guests found her to be the belle of the ball. She wants to mother Stanley. His birthday present from her is a child’s drum. She is made more distraught by its brokenness than by anything else. Petey assures it that it can be easily replaced but then he also assures her that Stanley is still upstairs at the conclusion of the play. Is he or is Stanley broken too? She wants the danger but not the threat of change but most of all she wants things just to stay the same.

It is a thought-provoking play. I’m glad to be still thinking about it.


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”.