Dreaming on the Rails
Sitting on a train heading away from London, my thoughts move with the rhythm of the rails and images from the past week flash before my eyes. I am never prepared for the experience of being back in this city; somehow it always takes hold of my heart and teaches me something new, even when I think that I have nothing left to learn.
We arrived early on a Friday morning and spent a weekend haunted by jet lag. The city was in the middle of a heat wave which intensified as the week moved through its cadence of hours and days. We walked in our old neighbourhood and spent long evenings at home talking together into the dark summer quiet. I made two visits to the Halcyon Gallery during my stay; they are showing a new exhibition of Bob Dylan’s paintings from the Beaten Path series. The words and pictures I saw there frame my memories of our London days this year.
Usually when I am in London it’s the ghosts of the people we once were who surprise me. Somehow this visit was different; or was it me in reality? I spent time on the streets of my past for sure; I took my children and sister to Oxford on a Monday afternoon. We lunched with my tutor, a dear friend, and explored the college library, now dusty in the heat of summer and hunted for lions with my daughter whose favorite book at bedtime is currently the charming Lion in the Library! I caught up with old friends and revisited favourite places but somehow all the while London was a present tense experience, forcing me to stand still and drill into the essence of my situation and being. Perhaps this is due to the length of time that has now elapsed since we departed for the great unknown of America, perhaps it is simply due to my own age and time of life. Whatever the reason I was suddenly sharply aware of how, in life on the West Coast, a degree of escapism is possible, conscious or otherwise, and how imperative it is to remember that in the end every escape simply ends up in a further tightening of the noose. As Dylan says,
‘I believe that the key to the future is in the remnants of the past. That you have to master the idioms of your own time before you can have any identity in the present tense’
The paintings hanging in the Halcyon are wonderful to spend time with. My daughter and I took refuge there on the hottest day of the week when temperatures in the city hit 101 degrees. Stepping out of the blinding heat into the dark cool of the gallery was benediction enough, then to be transported by Dylan’s images was a joy indeed. The paintings originated in drawings made whilst on tour and then brought to life with paint and colour later. Often several different iterations of the same scene were created, only one of which is presented for sale as the final piece by the gallery. As I gazed at these pictures which convey so many aspects of America with such deep affection that they render words meaningless, I felt the impatient pull from the irrepressible land we now call home. I remembered that I have always felt that tight connection; long before we ever moved our lives across the ocean. It was as if while gazing at the paintings I was seeing backwards in time and also understanding the present more completely.
During the following days my thoughts kept returning to some text from an earlier exhibition, Drawn Blank, that the gallery had printed on one of the exhibition walls. The quotation gives voice to an aspect of Dylan’s creative process and my second visit was spurred by a desire to capture the words precisely. We returned on a morning full of grey and rain with a close friend who is both architect and artist. Exploring the paintings once more, we discussed the elements of Dylan’s technique and I was able to capture his words which even now as we near our destination in the South West of France I hear ringing in my ears.
‘I try to live as simply as is possible and was just drawing whatever I felt like drawing, whenever I felt like doing it. The idea was always to do it without affectation or self-reference, to provide some kind of panoramic view of the world as I was seeing it at the time’