Like Judas Kissing Flowers

by Robert Forryan

Losing Dylan


“I had to keep them in cardboard boxes in my bedroom, together with all the other Dylan memorabilia I had collected over the years. My room was full of boxes, you couldn’t get the door more than half open, you had to edge your way in.”

“Talking about Bob was like talking about myself.”

“For some moments, hearing her say these things about Bob, hearing her compare this greatest of men to a travelling player, I felt a mixture of fury and distress…”

“I told him about my conviction that there existed some intimate link between the great man’s life and mine.”

“I had a bad fright that morning. I wouldn’t have left the house at all on such a special day if the man… hadn’t phoned to say they had a piece I might be interested in… nothing very remarkable about it. But of course I agreed to buy it. It bore his image. It was seldom indeed I could resist that.”

“I will say what I think angels are. They can be dark or bright, but they all have the gift of spontaneity, of creating themselves anew. This is a pure form of energy, and Bob was winged with it.”

The quotations above are all from a novel I have been reading lately. I am sure many of you will recognise and even empathise with the feelings expressed by the central character whose name is Charles Cleasby. Charle s is an obsessive and he is busily writing the ultimate, definitive biography of his hero. You may already be thinking that you would love to read a novel about an obsessive Dylan fan. However, I have cheated you. His hero is not your hero. I have changed the name to demonstrate the similarities. For ‘Bob’ read ‘Horatio’ because the novel is Barry Unsworth’s ‘Losing Nelson’ and Cleasby’s obsession is Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. But it’s a great read and I was struck throughout by the way all obsessives are so alike – it’s just the obsessions that differ.

Cleasby is a man who uses his obsessive interest in Nelson to provide him with an escape from life. Nothing but Horatio matters to him. He avoids all relationships and, especially, eye contact. For a start, he is a collector:

“While I was buying this piece and all the time I was bringing it home, my purpose remained clear: I would put it with the other things in the cabinet. I was sustained by years of happy acquisition, by the prospect of that healing peace that used to descend on me when I was down there, moving about among my exhibits.”

Sound familiar? Is this a situation you recognise – the inability to resist anything with Dylan’s picture or name on it? And like most fans, Cleasby cannot tolerate any criticism of his hero:

“I had no idea what she meant by this, but I could not escape the feeling that she was getting the upper hand in this discussion. And she was daring to criticise him, Horatio. The skin on my face felt tight with the efforts I was making not to let my fury show.”

“I could not explain how important it was for me to preserve his name and reputation, how the remotest suggestion of deceit on his part filled me with a sort of dread, as if it called my own existence into doubt, as if my bein g depended on his truth.”

And just as Dylan fans go to concerts, visit Hibbing or Duluth, so do the Nelson enthusiasts visit HMS Victory at Portsmouth and the historic sites where occurred the great events of his life. Sad anoraks the lot of them! Dylan fans replay the past by listening to recordings of Dylan’s concerts. Cleasby does the same by fighting again Nelson’s battles with scrupulously detailed model ships – and he does it at the precise time on the exact anniversary of each battle.

Although Cleasby avoids relationships, he makes one exception. He is a member of the Nelson Club which is a home for like- minded enthusiasts. JRS will be interested to know that they meet in a bar, in an upstairs room which holds about 70 people, although usually about 35 turn up. The members are all male, although a few wives do attend:

“I have no friends in the club. People are jealous of me, they envy my intimate knowledge of his life. I never boast of this, but there is nothing I can do about the aura it creates about me.”

“Not for the first time it occurred to me that the Club numbered too many cranks among its members… ever since joining the Club I had known that my better understanding of Horatio was resented by the common run of members.”

His suspicions of the dubious qualities of his fellow members are confirmed when he visits the home of one, only to discover that there is a picture of David Bowie on the wall!

And of course, in his conversations it’s always ‘Horatio’, just as to many Dylan fans it’s always ‘Bob’ – appropriating the hero as one’s own, as if one has a special relationship with him; unlike the outsiders to whom it is ‘Dylan’ or ‘Nelson’:

“I wasn’t lonely. I had him.”

But how real are such ‘relationships’? One of the characters says to Cleasby:

“I know you are very bound up with him and it’s a good thing for a man to have a hobby, but I have to say that you’re just about as different from Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson as a person could possibly be.”

Nelson has his biographers and other writers who delve into esoteric aspects of his life and career – the Grays and Heylins of the Nelsonian world. And as with Dylan there are controversies. Writers take sides, have enmities. And obsessives admire the writers whose opinions coincide with their own.

In the end, the novel questions the whole concept of hero-worship or, if you like, fandom. The words of two of the more sceptical characters:

“It’s a good thing to have a hobby, but he was only a man, that’s all I’m saying.”

“There are no heroes out there… there are only fears and dreams and the process of fabrication.”

‘Losing Nelson’ is a book about the nature and dangers of obsession, of how an overconcentration on one person or subject is a denial of self, a narrowing of horizons and a rejection of life. In the end, it is not Nelson that the central character loses, it is himself. Anyone who feels that they might be an obsessive, or who recognises him or herself in this character, should read this book. And be afraid. Be very afraid…


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