Towards the Heavenly Void

By Dermot Bucknall, musician.


There seemed to be an amorphous glowing form hovering in the centre of the white room, like a transparent jellyfish in a brightly lit aquarium. Immediately before the levitating shape appeared, I had been staring blankly in the dressing room mirror. I had noticed that one light bulb in the far right corner of the mirror’s edge was brighter than all the others. Probably a hundred watt’er, I’d thought; the warmth was coming off the bulbs on to my cheeks. And then it came. The floating form gradually appeared in the mirror, as if conjured up by my distracted gaze. At first I thought it was a smear or some misting on the surface of the mirror itself, but the form eventually defined itself into a human face. And though the face looked as if it was in the centre of the room, when I turned round it was nowhere to be seen.

If it’s not one thing it’s another, I thought. I knew I was having another turn, another visit from the ‘other place’. I was calm, but I couldn’t stop myself from being a bit worried as well. It’s only natural isn’t it? I’m no expert at all this, but it can take a lot out of you, because of the strain involved, the strain of staying in touch with the presence, of keeping it there. Like coaxing a shy animal to come closer, patiently earning its trust. There had probably been hundreds of faces that had looked into the depths of that glass over the years. Maybe this was one of those faces, I thought, leftover like an after-image which had floated into visibility again, and only certain people can see them, people with special gifts. I looked at the flattened thickset face. It was much clearer now. I was certain, it was… was it? I was sure it was him. The fat face looked like it had absorbed more than a few punches in its time, it was drained of colour and a peaked military cap of some sort was perched above it.

‘Who… who are you?’ I said. It simply raised its eyebrows as if to admonish me for even attempting a conversation. Was its mouth moving? Yes. It began to speak.

So this was a different kind of turn. Usually I had to channel the voices through my own vocal chords. And I don’t often remember the turns, but this one is still as clear as day. I pressed the record button on an audio cassette player I had with me, normally used for recording ideas for melodies and that. As I pressed record, the voice was saying:

‘…of my life, please pay heed Dermot, good man, to what I am about to say. Many years ago, in the dark days of the early 1950s, I was sitting staring out the window of a dingy and cheerless hotel room in the city of Paris, which is like Oldham with onions, looking as gormless as you are now, gazing up over the city lights towards a darkened riverbank, and then down to the alleyway at the side of the building. I’d noticed what looked like flattened, sparkling white flowers splattered all over the cobbles, flowers that glinted in the orange streetlight like constellations of loosely painted stars. It was pigeon shit.’

With this, the podgy face announced itself, and then continued in its serrated Mancunian accent: ‘I’d been in Paris for almost a year. As I’d wandered the streets on one of my first nights in the city, I’d bumped into an American tourist who’d taken me for a meal after I had admitted to him that I was desperately hungry. This encounter became a crucial turning point for me. I recall the bounteous meal, the tender meat, the rich sauces, the exquisite wine, and as the man imbibed some of the ruby coloured liquid, he talked about seeing Lenin’s tomb in Red Square in the city of Moscow, which is like Rochdale with fur. He said that every ten years or so a look-alike fresh corpse replaces the previous body on public display in the mausoleum, because the Kremlin mortician’s attempts to preserve ‘Lenin number one’ had failed years ago. There are certain men in the Soviet Union who are chosen to be in on the secret, the man told me, and these party members, loyal Bolsheviks every one, grow beards and pluck out their hair as they approach the age Lenin was when he died, each hoping that he will be the chosen one. The chosen man is then snuffed out and stuffed, achieving the highest reward for his loyalty: he will literally embody the cause. As I finished my coffee I’d thought of the foggy breath of old women with ragged gloves on a Russian winter morning, of how their breath slowly dissolves as it rises up towards the snow-covered minarets emerging out of the blankness in the sky, and how the women, stooped to face the ground, spit their black streaked phlegm onto the freezing cobbles in front of them.

The man’s story re-ignited the embers of an idea I had in my head – my own plan to find somebody willing to embody an ideal. As I sat in my hotel room that evening, one year on from that restaurant meal, nervously staring over the rooftops, I was about to set the plan in motion. A few months before, via telegraph from Paris, I had placed an advertisement in the Manchester Evening News and after some correspondence, I’d eventually asked a man to meet me at my hotel. The ad had read:

‘Young man! As you reach the top of the marble stairway of decision, now is the hour for you to walk through the enchanted bronze doorway of aspiration and enter into the gold pillared and crystal chandelier bedecked hallway of achievement! If you are intrigued, send a photograph and return address to Room 17, Hotel Des Astre, Paris.’

There was a knock on the door and I opened it to reveal a thickset, shabbily dressed man. As he entered the room the man seemed unimpressed by my accommodation. Not that the room was incommodious, but the mice were throwing themselves on the traps and you had to spray the place with DDT before the flies would come in. Anyway, I was very pleased by the man’s striking resemblance to myself, which was even more apparent than in the photograph he had sent. He had a face with all the charm of a bag full of ratchet spanners, and he was obviously built when the meat was cheap. His eyes were pits of desperation, with just the right sort of frustration in them, the kind that you see when a hedgehog realises its been mating with a yard brush. Sorry, I will try to keep to the point, indeed I will…’

The voice paused, then said: ‘I asked the man, who was a native of Macclesfield, which is like Bogotá with chimneys, to read out some literary scribblings I’d sent to him. We chatted away and I tried to interest him in the little idea I’d had.’ The voice stopped. I looked over at a small, domesticated jungle in the corner of the dressing room, some potted palms in tarnished brass pots. One of the fronds seemed to have moved. Or was it me, seeing things? I looked at my tape machine on the black marble-topped dressing table. The table reflected the tape recorder in the limitless depths of its surface. You could see the ghostly reflections of my hands as they struggled to re-attach the microphone, which refused to stay in its socket. The marble also reflected some of the lights on the dressing room ceiling, smudging them in the greasy smears on its surface. There was a folded and laminated notice at the far end of the dressing table. It said, ‘No Smoking Please’.

The last time I had seen this room was with my previous band, Rooney. We played here in 1999. After the gig I was sitting in a similar chair, staring at the same mirror. Then something made me wander back on stage. There weren’t many folk around, no more than four people were still in the venue, including me. The full attendance that night was less than fifteen; and we were really bobbins that night. I can’t remember what happened after I got back on stage, but the barman told me afterwards that I had stared straight ahead, slightly above where the audience’s heads would have been, and chanted a list of nonsense words and sounds for at least three minutes. I apparently followed this up with the constantly repeated chant of, ‘Nellie, with an IE’, ‘Nellie, with an IE’. In the glare of the house lights, and with the ringing sound of bar tills being emptied in the background, I then sank to my knees and sang the lyrics to, ‘You’re the One That I Want’, from the musical Grease, in a distorted and tuneless voice. ‘I got chills, they’re multiplyin’, and I’m losin’ control, ‘cause the power you’re supplyin’… it’s electrifyin’.’

A few weeks later Sergio, the Rooney drummer, told me what I had mumbled in the dressing room afterwards. He recalled that I had mentioned the name Hylda Baker – the northern comedian, or comedienne, as they were called in the old days. I had rambled something about her ‘coming through’ after the performance. Hylda had asked me to take her on to the stage. She seemed happy to be back in front of footlights again, I had said.

Any road, apart from these occasional improvisations I was usually a reliable performer. It was just that my ‘turns’, as the band called them, became more common, often happening during the actual gigs themselves. I never remembered any of the gigs that involved these incidents, in my memory there are just black holes, framed by the unloading of our equipment from the van at the start of the night and the re-loading of it at the end. Now here I was back in St Helen’s Art Centre as a solo performer, listening to the low rasping voice of a gurning spectre before the gig had even started. The face in the mirror was now staring at some fixed point straight ahead. Occasionally it would pucker its lips up into its nose, a kind of visual punctuation, at significant points. The mouth formed an inverted u as it did this and the whole face seemed to collapse in on itself, as if it was being squeezed in an invisible vice.

The voice resumed its tale: ‘I told the man I’d come to Paris to be a writer, to enter a tempestuous love affair with the ravishingly beautiful maiden, Mrs Muse, and to fly a literary glider into the blue infinitude of art. But I came to realise that I may never make it as a writer in the conventional sense, and when I was at the bottom of a sombre trough of woe during this wretchedly bleak period I was even driven to disparage some of my favourite novelists. An American I’d met asked me if I liked Emile Zola. I said I didn’t eat that foreign muck, and even as I said it, I cursed myself. After months of staring into the murky depths of my brimming tankard of failure, however, a judicious plan to give my art a new life started to form itself in the gloom. The shape of the idea was this: that the material I had written, wrought out of the unspeakable suicidal despair and dreadful poverty of my early life in north Manchester, which was like Stalingrad with clogs, would be adapted to be performed in comedy routines. Routines with jokes about desperate poverty and emotional misery, along with longer lavishly verbose monologues that would set an idyllic scene, only to undermine it with a comically prosaic ending that would ground the audience in brutal reality once more. Monologues that sum up our mortal experience: that we are born, and hardly have we time to glimpse the powder blue sky and smell the sweet pollen before our face hits the mud at the bottom of the grave. Monologues like life.

Partly because of my deprived early experiences, cowering in the shadows of gaunt factories severing the skyline with their dissipated profiles, I’d decided to concentrate on the revolutionary struggle for the liberation of the oppressed peoples of the world, a commitment that would place my life at risk. So a career in show business was out of the question, and besides, I was not a performer, I had all the stage presence of a catatonic gnat. I felt that someone else, the right gurning mouth for my gurning words, would perform the work better and I proffered to the Macclesfield man that he should be that person.

This all may have seemed quite reasonable, as many writers wrote material for actors or comedians, but there was another level to my idea, an absolute, supreme, indubitable commitment. I proposed that he would literally become me, occupying my identity, taking my passport and birth certificate, and resuming my life where I had left it in sunny Manchester some months before. I would give him enough writing for innumerable years of comedy routines and he would try to establish a career as a comic on the Northern working men’s club circuit – those dismal depositories of human flotsam – braving the clash between my darkly flowery texts and the audience’s expectations. After a few years of this he would reveal his identity and our elaborate and mischievous japery. I asked him to think seriously about my humble plan and come back the next day with a decision.

Macclesfield man came back to tell me: yes, he would be honoured to be part of such a noble project. We both went out that night, on his money, and painted the town iridescent rouge. Macclesfield man agreed to try out his new persona and I coached him in personifying a much-exaggerated version of myself. We ended up at a club, where, after being spotted fooling about on the piano, the man was promptly offered his first gig. The club was a front for a brothel and my man later claimed that he invented his trademark style of out-of-tune piano playing during his residency at the club: he was always being plied with drink by the Madame, which affected his playing. He gradually worked my texts into the gaps between musical numbers and then his comedy career was truly on its way. He never looked back. From then on he was Les Dawson, and I left him to it.’

As the voice was speaking I had been looking out of the dressing room window at the night sky. As the seconds passed my eyes drifted up to the ceiling. I looked at the plastic water sprinkler above my head. It was white but slightly darker than the whiteness of the painted plaster. Some of the lights were recessed into the ceiling; others were covered with large round frosted-glass lampshades. I found it relaxing to look at the different shades of whiteness. It was as if all of life’s meaninglessness was associated with colour and detail and could be left behind by staring at blankness. If only for that fleeting white moment.

The Mancunian voice continued its monologue: ‘Our physical similitude had to be convincing though, and as I had a broken jaw from a boxing injury, making me look like a gastric bulldog in a gurning competition, we agreed that I had to punch him to unconsciousness until I dislocated his jaw. After he had recovered he left for Manchester as me.

So we swapped lives. I moved to Macclesfield and was careful to avoid his friends and family as I had advised him to do with mine – they might recognise us for the impostors that we were. Eventually, as the relatives and friends of Macclesfield man – by all accounts an infinitely noxious gaggle of wastrels – gave up trying to see me and drifted away, I was able to totally disappear and immerse myself in the intellectual stimulation of historical and political texts. I did venture out to go to Spanish language classes, however, and it was there that I met a large-girthed woman who was as loose as knicker elastic…’

For the first time the eyes of the mirror face met mine, peering at me through the creases of a concertina of flesh. He addressed me directly: ‘The stork blessed us with a baby-shaped bundle of human joy in 1966. But not long after the birth the baby’s mother had had enough of my all-consuming political commitment, my accompanying deteriorating and unsteady grasp on immediate reality and my lack of worldly goods. She said she’d married me because she thought I had collateral: I said no, it’s just the way my legs are crossed. She eventually insisted on a divorce and we decided to leave the baby somewhere, to be found by a stranger. She put him in a holdall and before abandoning the kiddie to the precarious vicissitudes of fate, I persuaded her to let me place an old black and white photograph in the bag beside him. The image was of Macclesfield man and myself taken in the Paris hotel room. We faced each other in the photo like corpulent mirror images, the light shining on our shirts dappled by the shade of the trees directly outside the window.

A few months later, in the summer of 1967, I left Macclesfield for the wild and restless jungles of South America, which is like Lancashire with mules. I had become fascinated by Che Guevara years before and was determined to track him down and join his hearty band of heroic revolutionaries, inspired as much by the physical beauty of the man as by his politics. I’d hoped to be bathed in the glow, to have my unlovely gormless mug tanned by the golden rays of his image. As a man of the left, his credentials were extraordinary. That was why he walked bandy. I had also read his speeches in Spanish and was particularly taken by a term that became synonymous with Che: ‘New Man’, a term which struck me partly because it was the name of a fine gentlemen’s outfitters in Bridlington. But to Che, it meant that each person must be the veritable architect of his or her own new human type, working for the benefit of the collective, driven by a supreme revolutionary moral consciousness. A medical doctor himself, he spoke of his concept almost in the same terms as the unfortunate Doctor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s monstrous story: as the attempt to conquer nature and history with reason. I think my wife was one of Doctor Frank’s; his name was embossed on the bolt in her neck… But enough of this pathetic drollery. In a speech to a group of medical students and health workers on the theme of ‘revolutionary medicine’…’ The gruff voice then assumed a slightly higher key: ‘…Guevara had said, “And we will then conclude that almost everything we thought and felt in that past epoch should be filed away and that a new type of human being shall be created.”’

After a short pause, the voice continued, ‘In the mid 1960s Guevara had taken his commitment to the extent of leaving Cuba, which is a bit like the Isle of Man with cigars, to return to the guerrilla struggle. This involved his complete disappearance from the face of the earth, the notorious and renowned rebel travelling the world under false identities. If you can find any dust-blanketed historical tomes featuring Mr Guevara, look for a photograph of a sober-looking grey haired bald pated man in a v-neck pullover, sitting with a cigar in his mouth, holding a camera between his legs and taking a picture of himself in his hotel room mirror in La Paz, Bolivia. La Paz is a town very much like Wigan, but with sombreros. There are some floral curtains to his right. He looks like my old bank manager on a cheap holiday. The man is, or was, Che. The transformation pictured in the photograph required a prosthesis in his mouth to give him a puffier look, and his hair had to be painfully plucked out, in order for him to look convincingly bald. The poor pitiable wretch. His eyes watered during the ordeal, just like they did that time when he was in bed with his wife and she’d dreamt that he was a piece of loose machinery and had tried to tighten his nuts.’

I looked away, down at the beer-stained dressing room floor. I did not want the mirror face to see any involuntary cringe of embarrassment that might have drifted across my face; my squeamishness at the smell of ancient jokes, half decomposed. The voice continued:

‘The last example of my base clownery, I assure you. So back in 1967 I had read some news reports of a guerrilla commander called Ramon who was establishing a presence in Bolivia. It had to be Che, I thought. And with no more than this vague hunch I set out for South America and spent three months in the untamed Bolivian jungles searching for Che, or La Paz Ramon as I will now call him. But to no avail. Luckily I was helped by a bandy-legged peasant farmer called Gordo, who looked like a wishbone in a poncho. Gordo took pity on me. I told him I was from Manchester and Gordo started calling me, affectionately, ‘Manchester Ramon’, after I forlornly and endlessly chanted ‘Ramon?! Ramon?!’ to him in the hope that he may have heard rumours of the whereabouts of La Paz Ramon and his gallant band of men.

One night when I was chewing on a cheroot, waiting for Gordo to return with supplies, a nightingale acclaimed the crescent moon and with pincer fingers I pulled away the damp clothes from my sweat-stained torso. I tried to suppress my hunger by admiring the beautiful surrounding vista, a quiet gully that Gordo called Quebrada del Churo, and I looked up at the starry sky. As I stubbed out my cheroot and crouched down to defecate into a brook, I remember wondering how many fraudulent fortunes had been deciphered from the planets spinning in that black canopy and I suddenly felt myself levitating towards the same dark emptiness above me. I then looked down from a great height to see myself slumped in a heap with my arse still half immersed in the cackling stream. I had died instantly, shot in the back by Bolivian government troops, who had been waiting patiently on the ridges above me.

They buried me two hours later in an unmarked communal grave under a vast star-filled sky and because of a stroke by the ruthless sword of a warrior called ‘Cruel Irony’, I was buried with La Paz Ramon and six of his comrades. I was barely yards away from where the last of them were captured and shot that same week. As I speak to you, I can’t help recalling to mind my first attempt at journalism, back when I was still Les in Manchester, a report of the funeral of a local councillor that the editor had rejected for being too long winded: ‘Gone now, that common clay that once so noble trod with purpose…’ The paper had the circulation of a flea’s foot.

You may or may not have heard of the week-long period of celebration in the Cuban town of Santa Clara, in 1997, to welcome back the remains of La Paz Ramon and his comrades after 20 years. It was a bit like the Stockport Fish Festival but with palm trees. The cherished remains of the revolutionary saint, the man who used to be Che, were brought back to bring a moral polish to Fidel’s cause – it had needed a right buffing by then. But because La Paz Ramon’s body was burnt after he was shot and left smouldering and bubbling in the Bolivian sunshine for two days, there was little left of him in the grave to bring back to Cuba other than some blackened stumps of bone. So the Cuban archaeologists, working in the sorry pit near the town of Vallegrande, which was like Accrington with moustaches, decided to box up the thick-set bones of my good self to stand in for the bones of La Paz Ramon, in order to have a skeleton substantial enough to weight the coffin, and to cradle a rifle next to its ribcage. My bones were certainly stocky enough – you could’ve made a monkey’s canoe out of my thighbone. So it was none other than yours truly who was at the head of the procession of coffins in Santa Clara and I was given final rest in a mausoleum covered with bronze reliefs of jungle fighters, casting the pointed shadows of rifles and raised fists in the Caribbean sun. As I talk to you now I can hear the noise in the streets of Santa Clara, the sound of birds singing above the grumbling of 40-year-old Cadillac’s exhaust pipes. It sounds like…er, Warrington with… rhythm. And it really is bloody hot. There used to be air conditioning in here, but the bat died.

But enough of this tatty comedic dross. Back in Blighty, after returning from Paris and spending years on the northern club circuit, Macclesfield man was eventually an unexpected success as Les Dawson. He became a legend of British comedy during the 1970s and 80s, famous throughout the land, but contrary to the agreement we made, he never did get round to revealing our conceit. In order not to run out of my texts, he’d worked more and more of his own wife and mother-in-law jokes into the routines, but some of this material was of dubious distinction and compromised the purity of my initial concept. My art was given some kind of life, but a limited one I now realise, because Les Dawson is fading from the collective memory. Who will know who he was in 20 years time? Will he eventually be forgotten, and my material along with him? He was a cracking comic though, the lad, yes indeed. Marvellous.’

There were a short pause and then the voice said: ‘Dermot, if you ever visit Santa Clara, the Clitheroe of the Caribbean, and want to say a few words to me through the six-feet of stone and bronze, please do. And just call me Manchester Ramon. Son.’

The voice stopped. The face froze. It then faded out of sight. I was left with my own reflection. And a lingering dank-smelling coldness.

I’ve got a bit of a reputation you see. People now expect the paranormal to linger around me. Like a bad smell. ‘Unstable’ behaviour is nothing new for me, as I’ve already explained. On stage I’m well-known for displays of what people have called ‘Northern English working men’s club shamanism’. Though I often have to rely on other people’s unconvincing descriptions of these events. Fanzine writers mostly. But all this isn’t an act. I’m, kind of… chosen. I guess. I don’t know. I wish I could understand it all. The ‘father’s voice’ I’ve transcribed above, the voice of Manchester Ramon, could easily have been my own voice or a voice in my head. That’s what folk will think. Talking to himself again. But I know. I know.

As I sat there in front of the mirror my judgmental faculties felt buggered. They couldn’t quite organise themselves to digest what I’d just witnessed. It never gets any easier and this was not the usual kind of visitation. Even now as I write this, I still feel like a benumbed boxer trying to get through the final round. Back in the dressing room on that strange evening, I listened to the distant voices of the stagehands in the corridor. Their conversation had begun to quietly leak into the dressing room. The voices were comforting to me: I needed the safety of normal life as it’s lived.

But the bloated face in the mirror gradually bobbed to the surface of my thoughts again. In a way, I’d always known. Kind of. I knew that my stepmother, Anna, found me as a baby, in 1967, in a holdall. I was left in a room in the Station Hotel, Macclesfield. She’d worked there as a maid and that. The woman who’d abandoned the holdall had given her name as Bucknall, falsely, I guess. She’d written Bucknall in the hotel ledger. My step-mum called me Dermot, she’d always liked the name Dermot. So, Dermot Bucknall. There I was. And in the holdall, apart from a sleeping baby, was a photograph. There were words written on the back: ‘Your dad (on the left) in Paris, 1952. Su padre siempre’. There were two stout men staring at each other in the image. Apart from the cigar in the mouth of the man on the left, it was difficult to tell them apart; looking as they did like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or the clowns Grik and Grok with their mirrored faces.

According to the mirror vision, my dad was the man on the left in the photograph. I’d always known that. To his right was a young Les Dawson, the popular comedian, the famous Les, who we all know and love. But now I knew something else, that my dad was also Les Dawson. He was more Les than Les was. He was the original Les Dawson but gave it up; he gave up his entire being to the flowing currents of a final heroic purpose. My dad! He gave himself. But it was weird, you know. I don’t know. After the vision in the mirror I felt… I felt strangely consoled. Was this a chance to make some contact with my old man? Maybe now there was a way of knowing him? A way of knowing myself? I could make a connection with my dad by listening again to the comedy of Macclesfield man, Macclesfield Les. Maybe then my dad’s voice will seep through. Between the lines of those elaborate monologues, those overblown sentences that seem to be about to explode with poetic imagery and the wonder of language, but that always deflate at the end, expelling their air with a sloppy rasp.

Since I was a kid, I’d collected Les Dawson videos and tapes. Practically the only thing I knew about my dad was that he knew Les Dawson, so I guess I’d been trying to construct some kind of tenuous connection between my dad and the fat-faced drollery of Les. Now I knew there was more. I got my notebook out of my vinyl bag, which was filled with jottings of material taken from TV and radio appearances by Macclesfield Les. I then walked over to the dressing room window. Looking out on to the large car park outside and up to the limitless black sky, I recited these words, by now committed to memory:

‘Last evening, I was sitting at the bottom of my garden, smoking a reflective cheroot, when I glanced to look up at the night sky. As I gazed, I marvelled at the myriad of stars glistening like pieces of quicksilver cast ceaselessly on black velvet. In awe I watched the waxen moon ride like an amber chariot across the zenith of the heavens, towards the heavenly void of infinite space, wherein the tethered bulks of Jupiter and Mars hung forever festooned in their orbital majesty. And as I stared in wonderment, I thought to myself, “I must put a roof on this outside lavatory.”’

Back at the dressing table I stopped my tape recorder. I quickly rewound it to check that it had recorded. I pressed play, but there was nothing, just the sound of the condenser microphone’s automatic compression of silence. The hum of nothingness swelled like an aural tidal movement, filling the gap left by the absent voice.

Dermot Bucknall © 2006