Personally Speaking: ‘Are we such stuff as dreams are made on?’ – Fred Hughes


I read on social media that someone thinks they are living in an alternative timeline, and the life they should be living is happening somewhere else.

Another contributor added that life today is a bit like being inside the film Groundhog Day. From this point the thread got very dark: “If only we could wake up and discover it is just a bad dream,” someone else said dolefully.

Of course none of us today are living the lives we’re used to. Awful to say, it’s like we’re standing still while watching a funeral procession pass by.

But life goes on. Dogs are walked there and back. Gardens tidied and landscaped, and hedges pruned. Spare rooms repapered, books read, jigsaw puzzles finished. And families stare at each other from laptop screens like strangers, engaged in trivial conversations with long awkward pauses.

As for me, well I’ve always lived in another world, in the kind of weird places and in odd situations like those invented by the American humorist James Thurber.

You’ll recall it was Thurber who created the eponymous Walter Mitty, the mild man who lives a vivid fantasy life. In one character he imagines himself as a wartime pilot. In another he is an emergency-room surgeon, and later still a devil-may-care killer, a reminder that some fantasy worlds don’t suit everybody.

Mitty’s story is amusing, but it has a dark side with an underlying message – that in some daydreams the hero does not always triumph. Nonetheless, the obvious implication is that the real world is a terrible place while the better place is the one to escape to in imagination.

Thurber was also good at writing quotable anecdotes. ‘Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around us in awareness,’ is a paradox for the dreamer. While a line more appropriate narrative for our time is, ‘Man has gone on long enough, or even too long, without being man enough to face the simple truth that the trouble with man is man.’

To illustrate the ambiguity, I recall the most disturbing song that aptly brought the Swinging Sixties to an end. With a striking melody but god-awful melancholic lyrics, The Marmalade mournfully moaned the words of ‘Reflections of My Life’, a song that makes you want to retire into a dark room with a bottle of whisky and a fistful of sleeping pills.

One line opens up, ‘Oh, my crying, I feel I’m dying, take me back to my own home’, lamenting that ‘The world is a bad place, a bad place, a terrible place to live’.

How premonition-filled was this penned at the end of that glorious decade of social revolution and free love? What awful thing could happen next: Vietnam, punk rock, a woman prime minister? Never!

So how much should we isolate ourselves from the real world? For me it’s easy – live in both worlds.

At the moment I’m walking in the footsteps of Gary Sparrow, the accidental time traveller leading a double life via a backstreet time portal between London in the 1990s and the London of the 1940s during the Blitz.

Then of course there are his two wives, Yvonne and Phoebe, but you’ll understand if I leave that arrangement aside for the time being!

After breakfast I leave my dishwasher and washing machine to manage the work. And closing the door behind me I retire to my London of the 1950s, to a West End I miss so much.

The thing is not to be afraid to enter the world of your dreams, into your secret ‘other’ place. Remember, this is the place that all poets, painters, writers and composers inhabit.

And who knows, while you’re there, you might even meet bump into some of them.

Now, did I tell you about the time I stood in for George Harrison on the Abbey Road recording sessions?





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