Seeing Things

This past summer in Cheyenne my uncle Richard Hughes told me of his hallucinations. That a man going blind might also view visions seems an insult to injury. Yet his condition has a name—Charles Bonnet syndrome—after an eighteenth-century Swiss naturalist and philosopher. As profiled in ACNR (Vol. 8, No. 5, 19) Bonnet first listed his grandfather’s

silent visions of men, women, birds, carriages, and buildings, which he fully realised were ‘fictions’ of his brain. Bonnet himself later underwent visual deterioration and experienced hallucinations typical of the syndrome named after him […].

(Compare with “Blinky” Watts, the sound effects technician character from David Lynch’s short-lived TV series On the Air, who suffers from Bozeman’s Simplex, which causes him to see “25.62 times as much as we do.”)

Six months prior I came across a song by Richard Dawson, which I wanted to write about tonight only to find that he too sees things (due to a genetic defect), but through a glass darkly, as Dawson told The Guardian‘s Michael Hann, who remarked, “There’s an almost hallucinatory clarity to his writing.”

The Felon’s Song

“The Felon’s Song” tends toward the clarity end—not that it isn’t evocative. Dawson composed it and four others for a 2017 multimedia project at Hexham Old Gaol, England’s oldest (built in 1333), now a museum. With a marketer’s remarkable myopia, the museum offers 

a fun and educational experience for all. ¶Try our stocks (if you dare), visit the prison house and learn about Medieval crime and punishment on a day out with a difference. Did you know that suspected criminals were locked up before their trial, or that those in debt often shared the Dungeon with the most dangerous criminals?

In what can be seen as a partial corrective, artist Matt Stokes, who investigates music-as-social-catalyst, enrolled Dawson in telling the stories of five characters who would have had dealings with that Northumberland prison.

The culmination of the collaboration is a film with the provocative title, This Liberty, itself part of a larger venture, Meeting Point2, in which each of ten artists crafted a new and site-specific piece at a museum in the country’s north end. Yet “The Felon’s Song,” the only one of the five sung by Dawson himself, is shot—in one take—in the cell of a still-operative penitentiary, as Dawson told the online music magazine The Quietus.

The Felon’s fix flowed from Dawson’s mind’s eye: how a kid of twelve or thirteen, charged with stealing a neighbor’s eggs, endures while awaiting court for days on end. At about the time of the English Renaissance. But Stokes upends the museum’s family-friendly displays by drawing parallels between then and now. Dawson sings The Felon’s Song in the style of an antiquated border ballad, yet clad in the uniform of an operational prison. The parallel is made. Bloody well.

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