There’s a line in the Bob Dylan song, Red River Shore, that keeps haunting me. It’s not a major part of the song, just a piece of idiom you used to hear a lot and don’t much any more. ‘I went back to see about her once / Went back to straighten it out’, Dylan sings and immediately I hear my father’s voice, talking about some family matter that needed attention or a friend who’d fallen on hard times or suffered some injustice. Or, indeed, some injury that had been done to him. ‘I went back to see about it once’, he’d say, which didn’t mean he’d found out what he wanted to know or righted what he deemed to have been wrong. Rather the opposite. It calls to mind other lost phrases from his era. Sometimes at school a kid would come into the classroom with a bit of paper for the teacher and then the teacher would give it to whoever it was for. All it would say upon it would be: ‘See me.’ And then you’d have to go to see the Headmaster. That wasn’t necessarily a doom. It could mean your parents had been in touch and wanted you to go home for some reason or other. It could be you’d won a prize or been picked in the reps. But it could also mean you were in trouble. Other two word sentences I remember include ‘Go on’, which was a response, part sceptical, part admiring, to some tall tale someone was telling. Also ‘Too right’, which meant unqualified agreement with whatever the other person was saying. One of the most mysterious was ‘By Jove’, a kind of exclamation that preceded some vehement statement someone was about to make. When I was a kid I had no idea who Jove was so always heard the phrase as abstract, an unspecific oath of some kind. And in a sense I wasn’t wrong. Dylan goes on to sing: ‘Everybody that I talked to had seen us there / Said they didn’t know who I was talking about’ which is kind of apposite to my own attempts to re-visit the past, which tend to dissolve into phantoms and whispers, to two word sentences that no longer mean exactly what they say, that rely upon the intonations of beloved voices, now no longer with us, in order to be understood at all.
image : Paul Klee (eaten by snails)