It’s Bob Dylan’s birthday, and I wanted to listen to some of his music but my music collection is a mess and I don’t even know where the external CD drive is, so I headed online and found Love and Theft and went straight to my favourite song from the album, Sugar Baby, which is a song of loss and lack of redemption and sorrow and sadness and just keeping going.
One day you'll open up your eyes and you'll see where we are
Some of those memories / you can learn to live with / and some of them you can't
It’s Idiot Wind, from an old man
I remember hearing it for the first time and feeling so strongly that it was a song from someone at or near the end. Every day for months after I expected to hear the news that Dylan had died.
He hasn’t (at the time of writing). I even saw him play Hyde Park in summer 2019, and today he is eighty and it feels like the whole internet and most of the BBC 6 Music is reflecting on his life in song.
My maternal grandfather Thomas Clubbs, known to me as Granda, died forty years ago today, at the age of 81. Born in July 1899 he was always just unimaginably old, though I’m now the age he was when I was born in 1960.
I saw him a few weeks before he died. I was in my second year at university and he was ill, so sometime in March or April I took the train from Cambridge to Newcastle, found my way to his nursing home and spent my last time with my last grandparent.
He was in a nursing home because, after the death of his second wife Beattie, he had been unable to look after himself properly, as a man of a generation that did not cook or do domestic things. When I visited him he had developed severe ulcers and gone blind – I didn’t know at the the time what had caused them, but I now suspect untreated cellulitis. I remember sitting with him in the day room, and being shocked that a man I’d always seen as vigorous and energetic was so ill and frail.
He had lived all his life in Hebburn, on the south bank of the Tyne, but the nursing home, if my memory is correct, was off Hadrian Road in Jarrow and is now demolished. Although that’s based on a forty year old memory of walking from either a bus or a very new Metro station up a side road, and knowing that it was near where my cousin Elsie lives, and visiting Elsie years later when my mum had moved to Calf Close Lane, south of the A194 that runs beside Hadrian Road… and all this is supposition prompted by clues from high-resolution satellite imagery and a desire for some other kind of resolution.
One Sunday at the end of April I was listening to Cerys Matthews’ show on BBC 6 Music, and there was a remarkable interview with the actor Lisa Dwan, who was talking about her role as Ismene in the recent BBC Four play Pale Sister. Written for her by Colm Toibin, the play tells the story of Antigone’s sister, the quiet one, the one who obeys Creon and would leave her brother unburied on the battle field.
As well as talking about the play and her performance – which is exceptional – she discusses the reasons for wanting to perform a character who is normally a cipher, a figure in the dark, and it was one of those moments when you go from half-listening to the bits between the music on the radio to full focus on something that you have realised is deeply important and addresses you directly.
Explaining how the play came about, Dwan started by talking about the need to revisit old stories and why, when Colm Toibin wrote to her and said ‘I’d like to write you a play’, she asked for a new version of Antigone, because she wanted to challenge the way the story had come to be understood. As she said:
“These archetypes are very much ingrained in us and passed on like trans-generational messaging, trans-generational trauma we know to be true, but maybe the biases that we harbour and tell each other and continue to help keep alive through narratives are very much in our minds… I realised in that moment that something had to be done about the narratives that we tell about women, that we have to go back and expand them, and keep challenging them and expanding them.”