What Was It You Wanted?

by Jim Gillan



Ho hum. Just read Freewheelin’ 220 and, as ever, am acutely aware of my many limitations on all things Dylan. Which most might regard as me using a word more than I need to, but so it goes. Re 220 - I’m pretty sure that EVERYONE spotted my cunning ‘best bits’ woven into my tale of nice things in Nice, but to remind myself of what they were, they include, in no special order:

Je ne sais quoi
The Unusual
Et d’accord, lingerie.

Dylan provides a soundtrack (I took a lot of trouble trying to slip in coded references) for much of that, but not to the exclusion of other music from across many genres. It’s the simple fact that ANY ‘best of’ (or its equivalents, however they are expressed), is intrinsically limiting. Reflect, if you will, that the likes of ‘FHM’, ‘Cosmopolitan’, most TV programmes and other examples of popular culture, are consistently built on notions of ‘best of’. Are you who the publishers, programme makers and purveyors of tat have in mind? Am I?

That said, there’s nothing wrong with finding common ground; indeed we would all be better off if we routinely did it, and not just with wider humanity. The notion that ours is the life that matters most is used to routinely exploit other life forms. What about the relentless assault on resources and the environment? What about the exploitation of animals? What about the actions of Governments, who, when they can be bothered (i.e. in the run up to elections) trot out ‘political expediency’ as a sufficient explanation of their actions? And we’re all part of that hypocrisy. Cue a step into another world.

On the morning of Saturday 31st January 1998 I was (almost to the exclusion of other things, it being a really busy time), a chief officer in local government. More specifically Director of Policy for Blackburn with Darwen BC, which at the time was a newly-designated unitary Authority, i.e. one empowered to deliver all local services, such as Education, Social Services, Highways maintenance, Housing, Leisure et al. Back then, had you or anyone said something to the effect that “it’s hardly a proper job, your reverence,” I would have responded with something along the lines of: I understand why you might think that, but here’s another view…

Local Councils are faced with the huge task of trying to provide for the present and the future. It’s horribly difficult (but vital) to make informed and effective decisions in an environment with a wide range of stakeholders, including the Government, the private sector, statutory bodies (NHS, Police etc) voluntary groups, community organisations and future generations. And because it’s public money, there is an overarching duty to spend it wisely and well. My role, together with that of my staff and other colleagues, is to help inform the corporate policy making and strategic management processes, as well as activities and initiatives within and beyond the authority.

Had you pressed me on the may failings of local government I would have agreed with you, though also pointed to the real successes that are often unnoticed. Had you questioned the calibre of Councillors and my peers, I would have acknowledged that for rather too many of them, the size of their offices, like their sense of self-esteem, is inversely proportional to their abilities. I would have concurred that Councils are generally remote, forbidding and hideously bureaucratic. And with the fact that it’s impossible for the ordinary public to get meaningful information, still less easily reach senior staff, or even middle managers. Though I would also have said that if things are to change (and they must), helping move things forward requires more than moaning about the ills and deficiencies. Getting involved is vital, though often thankless and always demanding.

In response to “what about the workers, you fat cat you” I would have said that staff indeed the organisation’s most valuable asset and so must be empowered, developed and encouraged, rather than bullied, restricted by job descriptions and processes that often emphasise status, but are short on effectiveness. “Have some fun and get it done” was one of my mantras, based on my belief that if people enjoy what they are doing, it almost doesn’t matter how demanding the job is. And it’s vital to ensure that EVERYBODY who contributes is equally valuable and equally valued. We get paid at different rates because we do different things. But all of them are in some way important.

I know that I had very different views from most of my peers and behaved very differently, something that unsettled many, and amused some. But others were very supportive, so I wasn’t entirely alone. Not that it would have mattered to me, but it would have hindered progress. Though on the whole, it felt like there was a very, very, long way to go.

I was probably thinking of work stuff as I rode back from Polar Bear records (with a couple of Dylan boots in the tank bag) on the afternoon of 31st January. It was a clear, bright day. The road was dry and the traffic moving pretty steadily along the Otley Road as I headed towards Leeds City Centre. My motorcycle, a 1,000cc Laverda Jota, was a real pleasure to ride. It was later estimated (incorrectly I think) that I was doing between 40 and 50mph when for some unknown reason I skidded and hit the concrete plinth of a traffic island. I sustained severe head and internal injuries and would have died there, but for the happy coincidence of crashing opposite an ambulance, in front of a police car and five minutes from a head injuries unit. Fortunately for me, my helmet was a top of the range model, whilst close fitting leathers minimised damage to the internal organs and limited blood loss.

But it was a near-run thing. I immediately went in to a series of ‘grand mal’ fits, so extreme that the Policewoman who came with me in the ambulance later said she ached for days with the effort of holding me down. When my wife arrived at the hospital it was to be told that unless the surgeons could stem the bleeding from my internal injuries I would die, irrespective of the extent of the head injury. It turned out that I had extensively ruptured the cranial sac (hence the loss of a lot of cranial fluid), fractured both eye-sockets, fractured my skull along the line of my eyebrows and down through my right ear (which is why I am deaf in it – but it saves buying the hybrid CDs), fractured my cheekbone and damaged the cerebellum, which affects balance. But the biggest concern was the swelling to the right hemisphere of my brain, the loss of cranial fluid and the length of time I was unconscious. Eight days, as it happens, although I think a lot of that was because I was kept sedated.

There is no such think as severe head injury not having huge adverse effects, many of them permanent, however much they might be mitigated by a recovery programme. Even a mild injury can produce massive personality and behavioural changes, although as I didn’t have much of a personality to begin with and have always misbehaved, the effect on me is less apparent. After a year off work and eight months on a phased return, I had to retire because I no longer have the ability to operate at the level I did before the crash. Mental stamina is still poor, as is concentration, problem solving, planning, short-term memory and other ‘executive’ functions. Although I could write from quite early on, I couldn’t read for months, and then only hesitantly. I still struggle with anything unfamiliar. But I no longer get tearful (well, not very often), though having mild aphasia and something of a stammer is frustrating. I am also prone to sometimes feeling that my head is full of water sloshing about. I have extremely intrusive tinnitus, which makes sleep a major problem. I think that’s the main reason why I can get very impatient and irritable, but maybe it’s lots of other things too. There is extensive scar tissue on my brain, which makes any further head injury undesirable and I believe I’m at greater risk of meningitis and Alzheimer’s. But so it goes.

Funny old piece for WWIYW ain’t it? In part it’s here because Dylan was (and remains) a very important part of recovery for me, both as a means of relaxing and as a vehicle that helps rebuilt old skills/attributes. Writing, whether about Bob or anything else, is therapeutic and also offers a way of connecting with a previous life. I regret its passing, but have much to celebrate, so on balance it’s OK. Most of the time. If an analogy helps, what I’m trying to do is akin to reconstructing a map that has been shredded by the blast from a 12-bore shotgun. There’s a huge hole in the middle and lots of smaller damage on the periphery. It will never be as it was, but with a lot of effort and luck, it might once again serve a useful purpose. It won’t do for everybody, but (as ever) all I’m offering is one perspective of one reality. All the best for 2004 (or its equivalent in other calendars) and beyond.

Jim (entirely deaf in one ear, endlessly daft in the other).