Last Night, Two Journeys… (en route to Falkirk Folk Club, March 2013)


“So we’re all asleep in the same dream, in the snort fort, in the snort fort…”
Leo Kottke

Heading to Edinburgh, the overnight bus is full near to capacity. I find a seat next to a quiet-seeming man and watch London recede as we snake away from it. Once we’re on the motorway I manage a cramped, intermittent sort of sleep; something a bit like rest.

Within sleep, I dream, and even between half-waking moments my dream remains the same. I’m riding this same bus, making ostensibly this same journey at the same time of night. I’m pretty sure the same quiet-seeming man is next to me, but this might just be overlap from my waking mind, spilling in from one of those vague, roused moments. Maz O’Connor is just over the way, in the seats next to us. In reality by now she’ll be back in Tooting, probably asleep, possibly eating toast or coaxing plangent drones out of a shruti box. (Folk singers do that, ask one next time.) Now though, she’s riding this second bus with me.

Okay then, Maz is here, and in the dream I am also waking from sleep – a sleep within a sleep; somnambulists Mouse Trap or something – to look at various things the unseen driver announces along the road. I can’t recall many of them, except that all are too fantastical to ever have existed without my noticing before, along this reconnoitered, familiar route.

Or, again, in the way of all dreams, ostensibly familiar. My subconscious has a tendency towards games of this sort. It’ll set me up in some place known intimately, understood to be part of my memory’s museum. It could be my old bedroom or a corridor in some office I’ve worked in. The museum could move outdoors, making public art space of itself: a walk along the South Bank; my home town; or indeed, a road I’ve been up and down many times. The spaces are limitless, and once they’re set up, the curator who tends to each dark gallery starts grabbing random artifacts out of the vaults. Lost treasures. These might be half-remembered Scrabble matches or people glanced at in the park; a red shawl held by the wind, away from the woman who wore it; a peppering of new features and strange topographies. But none of it will affect my certainty that this is still, say, my home town. Afterwards I’ll wake to something like, “Odd – the old playground had a static whirlwind in it, the houses along the river were vast Swiss chalets, upside down. Seemed normal at the time. Was that my old college bursar? Has the river always been pink?”

This is what’s happening now, on the dream bus:

“You will notice, ladies and gentleman, to your left, the famous castle in which Hamlet was set!”

So says the driver. This bit I remember best. It’s almost pitch black outside, but from that materialises a castle bigger by far than any in Europe. We’re not in Denmark, this isn’t Hamlet’s castle. For now though, it is. Its design is pure fantasy in style, vast and white, with apparently hundreds of conical towers, jutting off at architecturally impossible intervals. Each tower leads to a ridinghood-red roof, pointing like a starched nightcap towards the sky. The whole thing is imposing, but not without a sort of mad elegance. My view from the bus can’t take it in all at once, so the castle reveals itself more and more as we move along.

Gradually, I see a meeting with a more modern part of the castle, done in marble, something added later. Look closer and it’s a shopping centre, or in fact a ‘retail complex’, with hotels and restaurants besides. Is this for the tourists, the ones who’ve seen this other Hamlet?

All the while, back in the real bus, I’m in a fit of sleep paralysis, which does happen to me sometimes. More than I’d care for, but then that’d only have to be once. I know I’m asleep, and dreaming, and that whatever’s happening in that dream has something about it which makes me want out. I can feel myself outside of it all, scrounging for wakefulness, trying to step over the museum’s velvet rope. Whatever else she’s up to in dream world just now, Maz is no help.

And that’s about all I remember. To paraphrase Richard Ford, trying to arrest a dream in its minutest detail after the fact is like trying to “bottle the wind”. What I’ve put down above is the best I can recall of specifics. Things get vague after this, I can’t quite recall what happened, only that the whole time I was variously slipping and struggling in and out of sleep, and that the same dream endured even after a whole half hour’s rest stop at a Welcome Break service station. I do remember at one point something like a dragon struck down at the bus window. This is classic dream fare, I know. The stuff of fables. Castle, dragon, deep dark night, even a quest of sorts. It’s enough to make person feel predictable. All these archetypes! My Mother, at this stage, is almost doomed to appear.

I’m glad that she doesn’t.

What endures upon waking is the feeling of the thing, and also a few suspicions. That which I’m mostly interested in, compelled, fascinated, a little frightened by, is the sense of two journeys being taken simultaneously, with me being aware of both at more or less the same time. Two versions of events, playing out at different levels of consciousness. When I last shook myself awake that morning, near the Scottish border, the sky was loomed in the wet dawn light, blue and yellow-ochre, and it was like a dream, my two journeys running through it like threads in the same weave. And I do not wonder now at which was the real journey, as perhaps one might do in this position. There is at least some basic, pragmatic thing about myself which keeps me anchored in the immediate world, if only just.

But if journeys are just a matter of getting from A to B, then I do wonder at which of the two I had taken was the more significant. Just now I’m typing up this skinny dispatch – in best, mind you – from a notebook beside me, in a borrowed room in Amersham. When I first jotted it down, I had been an hour within Edinburgh’s light and stone. It is a handsome city; a heavy, moody place, venerable as old tweed. The inevitable hand of the Scottish Tourist Board upon the shop fronts, tartan this and rolled oats that, can’t diminish the majesty of the structures rising above. There was no doubting then that this place was real and firm and tangible all about me.

Moving from there – and do please indulge me here; I know, I’m nearly done – to something a friend of mine once said: that Edinburgh is also a transcendental city. He said it jokingly, and I took it that way, but there is something to it nonetheless, in the way the place moves effortlessly between stone and hillside, its mists changing the shape of that which they fall upon. All that stuff is probably only the case if you’re the kind of hapless sod given to such tropes, which I am, I confess. But certain places will brook that kind of experience if you let them.

My point, I think, being:

I came to Scotland for a gig, that was my conscious journey’s purpose. It was a fantastic gig at that, as is my usual experience north of the border. Many thanks to Stuart and Charlie and all at the wonderful people at Falkirk Folk Club. I played the show, loved it, stayed a night and headed back to London. Journey’s end, A-to-B. I wait now for more journeys of that kind.

But that other journey, the one which transcends the conscious plane, is still going, and will probably keep going. Even with my limited knowledge of the unconscious, I suspect this much to be true. In lay terms, dreams are measures your subconscious takes to sort out all the detritus you pick up during your waking hours, every dwindling impression stored away somewhere to be made sense of, somehow, later. It’s a huge project. To my mind it’s more or less the same deal every writer, poet, painter, philosopher, psycho-analyst or lowly singer-songwriter has been trying to get to grips with since the means of their mediums were first engendered. And to get that project finished? Our poor curator has a lot of work to do. This, I think, is why scenes change, places merge, chronologies skit about like ice skaters. Every night the curator goes back to the vaults and puts out something new to populate our huge, internal spaces. Every night, to varying degrees of recollection, we walk past them and wonder, making the journeys set out for us. In my next dream, Maz will bow out to an old school teacher, a former landlord, Mitch Hedburg or Abraham Lincoln. My friend Harry will stand outside with a gun and a crazy eye, his lawn littered with burning giraffes. (For example.) I will close my eyes, and by some feat of subliminal mechanics the events of my conscious days will be re-run, re-made, embellished, bent out of all semblance to what they were and put back again. I will continue a journey of malleable, mysterious significance. I will stay on the bus.

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