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Number 1,015, April 7, 2019

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Four Dreams of a Better World than New Labour Has in Mind for Us
by Sean Gabb

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

I did think of writing an issue of Free Life Commentary about the coming electoral collapse of the Conservative Party, and about how this is all the fault of William Hague. But the latest opinion polls are so grim—a predicted Labour majority of more than 200—that I cannot bring myself to comment on the matter. So I will ignore politics for the moment and turn to the more cheerful subject of my favourite nightmares.

I tend to dream every night, and though most of my dreams are dull—plainly related to the less interesting details of my waking life—some are fully imagined stories. Of these, I regret, nearly all vanish on waking. I have no idea why this should be. I can wake up with a dream fresh in my understanding. Every detail is fully recollected, and if it involves a poem or a piece of music I have written, all is there and ready to go onto paper. But within seconds, the decay begins. First, the more elaborate creations blur and fade, and then the finer details go. After about a minute, all I can remember at best is the main plot of the dream and the general tone. Often, nothing remains but a set of emotional responses that are either beyond description or meaningless to others without my being able to describe the events that accompanied them. The whole process is like watching the frost of a winter’s morning melt from a heated car windscreen.

The only dreams that pass virtually entire across this barrier are those that cause me to wake before they are finished. Fortunately, once a dream has passed this barrier between sleep and wake, it becomes fixed permanently in my memory. Because they are from a different state of consciousness, they are less easily dated then the events of my waking life—they float in an atemporal, alternative universe—but I can often date dreams from when I know I described them to others, or from some other attendant waking circumstance.

So far as I can tell, nightmares are a very small proportion of my dreams. But as they are the ones from which I most often wake, they are the majority of what I can clearly remember. And as they are also the dreams that others are likely to find interesting, I will concentrate on them. Rather than describe every nightmare I can remember—and those remembered would fill a novel of average length—I will give four samples.

The first is from when I was two. I know how old I was because I remember trying—not very successfully—to describe the dream in a conversation that included a discussion of who was invited to my third birthday party the day after next. It opened with my lying in bed trying to get to sleep. I was alone in my bedroom with the door closed. There was a light from a wall socket too gentle for me to sit up looking at my picture books, but strong enough to let me clearly see everything in the room. Every so often, a car would pass in the street outside, and the glare from the headlights would move across the ceiling.

Suddenly, I heard a woman’s voice calling my name. It was a soft, hypnotic calling that came from a distance, but seemed to come from nowhere in particular. I sat up in bed and looked around. The room was empty. Then I could hear breathing behind me—a long, soft rising and falling of breath. Then a woman’s arms—bare and very white—came out from behind the bed. This was positioned with its head against the closed door of a built-in cupboard that contained nothing in particular. The arms came directly through the headboard and I must suppose through the cupboard door. At first, they moved around over my head as if feeling for something. At last, they found me, and fingers that were ice-cold and unyielding fluttered over my face, and began closing themselves round my throat and pulling me back towards the headboard.

I must have screamed—my mother tells me now that I would frequently wake screaming as a young child—but the next I remember is that the main light was on and my parents were in the room trying to calm me. I was so terrified, I was unable to speak and could barely move. I remember looking at the headboard and cupboard and noting that the arms had vanished. When I eventually managed to describe what I had dreamed, my bed was moved against another wall, and the cupboard was left open.

I have no doubt that some readers will find a sexual meaning in all this. It would not shock or ashame me if one could be shown. If I had such a dream now, it might well have some sexual origin. But I was only two at the time, and was entirely ignorant of sexual matters. If a meaning is to be found, I suspect it lies elsewhere.

All I can definitely say is that I have no reason in itself to suppose that this was a dream. I clearly remember all the circumstances before those arms appeared, and nothing but those blind flailing arms was in the least out of the ordinary. I can even remember how the glare from a passing car had shown more definitely how white and naked the arms were. Nor afterwards did I believe I had been dreaming. For months, I would lie in bed or sit during the day watching for something more to come out of the cupboard.

Of course, nothing more ever did come out; and I eventually accepted that nothing ever had come out. As said, I have no reason in itself for believing that I was asleep, but what I describe above goes against all my subsequent experience and what I understand to be the laws of nature. Dead or alive, arms cannot pass through two layers of solid wood and then be withdrawn leaving the wood undamaged. I must have been dreaming. If it seemed real, that may be because very young children are not fully conscious, and so are less able than they later become to distinguish between waking and sleeping states. This possibility might explain many other equally strange and frightening experiences that I recall from that time—experiences which, but for their unlikelihood, have every quality about them required to assure me that they did happen.

I move forward to when I was 16. I went to school with Mario Huet, who is, among other things, now the Listmaster for the Libertarian Alliance. For about three years, we had been devouring all the horror literature we could find—everything from M.R. James to H.P. Lovecraft to the often very nasty things anthologised by Herbert van Thal. Always in search of something new to talk about, we were delighted when a nearby funeral director closed and left its premises in a state that could not resist even our incompetent techniques of breaking and entering.

Every lunchtime for several weeks—until the demolition men moved in—we used to go and explore the gloomy and increasingly derelict interior of the shop. It smelt of dampness and rotting plaster and wood, but we insisted it was of rotting bodies that had been abandoned for some reason we could never quite settle. Our favourite spot was the little courtyard at the back of the shop. This had dumped in it an old metal receiving coffin and a long flight of concrete steps leading down into a very dark cellar. Neither of us, nor any of the other boys who occasionally joined our lunchtime walks, would ever go down those steps. My excuse was that I might trip over down there and get very dirty. It was not a convincing excuse, but no one put much effort into challenging it, as that might lead to counter challenges.

I had my dream shortly before the demolition men moved in. It opened in the courtyard late at night. Mr Huet and I and two other boys whose names I will not give in full had decided to spend the night there. All was dark and all very quiet. The derelict building was much larger and in better shape than in waking reality. The courtyard also was larger, and there were doors leading from it—some closed, some open—that were not normally there. I had an oil lamp with me that showed everything only dimly outside its little pool of light. We stood together round the top of the concrete steps, which now seemed to stretch down into a bottomless dark.

“Go on, Philip”, I urged one of the two other boys, “go down there and have a look. We’ll be up here and you can assuredly trust us to come down if you get lost”. Philip looked at me with doubt showing plain on his face. “Go on”, Mr Huet joined me in urging—“there might be something valuable down there, and we’ll let you share it with us”.

At last, after a brief shove from Mr Huet, he went down into the shadows. We could hear his footsteps crunching lightly on the broken glass and mortar crumbs that lay on the steps. “It’s very dark down here”, he cried plaintively. “You’ve started now”, I replied firmly. “You’ve got to see it out”. Down and down he went, until we could hear nothing more of him. There followed an interminable wait in which the three of us who remained speculated on what might have happened below.

“Are you all right, Philip?” I called. “Have you found anything down there?” No answer. The darkness within the huge shadow of the building grew more intense, and I noticed that my lamp was running out of oil, its flame beginning to die.

Suddenly, at what sounded an incredible distance, we heard footsteps ascending. These were not the light, hesitant steps we had heard going down, but a slow, regular tread crunching heavily on the steps.

“Is that you, Philip?” I called down nervously. No answer, only the same tread coming steadily closer up the steps. “It is him”, Mr Huet said with trembling voice. “He’s trying to frighten us.”

At this point, the lamp went out, and we stood in utter darkness. The footsteps were now just a few yards below, and I could hear something brushing on the steps as if dragged behind.

We ran back through the building. The front door through which we had entered had now closed and was bolted. We dragged it open and ran out into the street. This was filled with a dense, white mist. We ran out into it and split up. I could now hear nothing except my own breathing. I ran towards what I believed was a block of council flats. Gasping for breath, I staggered into what should have been the common entrance. Instead, I found myself back in the courtyard. Though all was dark, I could somehow see around me. I recall seeing the oil lamp, its glass hood broken on the floor where I had dropped it. Though all was quiet, I knew I was not alone. I dared not turn round.

I cannot describe the terror that I felt. It had been growing from the moment Philip had vanished into the darkness, and now it had overwhelmed me, depriving me of the ability or the will to do other than stand looking at the metal receiving coffin. There is a stanza in The Ancient Mariner that I still cannot read without a shudder:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

I was too old to wake screaming from that one, but it took more than a few minutes after I did wake to assure myself completely it had not really happened. Soon, however, I was feeling vastly pleased with myself; and I could hardly wait to get to school the next morning so I could describe the dream and bask in the general admiration. As might be expected, Philip was not entirely pleased with his part in it. But no once else shared his misgivings. Mr Huet’s own nightmares are not uninventive, but he still recalls my narrative of that dream with strong approval. Now for the first time, it is written down.

The third dream I will describe came to me late in 1989. I had gone to work with a slight chill and by the end of the day had a mildly annoying sore throat. I had no cough mixture with me, but I had been to a pharmacist during my lunch break to complain about the gastric symptoms of my chill, and had been sold a bottle of Collis Brown mixture. I opened this and took a swig. It tasted delicious, so I drank the lot. Michael Barry with whom I was then working, and who is also on the Free Life Commentary distribution list, suggested I should be less immoderate in dosing myself. I looked at the label, and found that a bottle of Collis Brown mixture contains about three quarters of a grain of morphine. I laughed and left for home.

I walked down Fleet Street feeling like a god. I seemed to be bouncing on the pavement as if I only weighed twelve stone. But, arriving home, I felt shattered and fell into bed.

The dream opened late at night. I was standing somewhere in South London outside a small public park, which I suppose had once been a churchyard. I must have been there earlier in the day. I had left my bag on one of the benches that surrounded a monument in the centre of the park. The lights were out in the street where I was standing, and the high terraced houses behind me were also dark. There was, however, a full moon, and I could see the monument about a hundred yards beyond the locked entry gate. It stood out very white in the surrounding gloom. My bag, I felt, should still be there. Just on the other side of the gate, I could see that the park was not empty.

I cannot recall how many of the creatures stood looking back at me, but I do recall their appearance. Smooth and covered with scales that glinted in the moonlight, each was about the size and shape of a ten year child. They had about them the strange stillness combined with rapid, darting motions that one sees in certain reptiles. Most striking about their appearance, though, was the eyes. These glowed a bright green—rather like the LED display on the average video recorder, though brighter and more intense. They crowded thickly in the park on the other side of the gate. They looked at me over its top, pointing and whispering to each other in a low, sinister gibberish.

I was frightened, but I wanted my bag, so I climbed over the gate and jumped down among those creatures. They scattered from me as if frightened, but followed me into the park. As I moved deeper into it towards the monument, they seemed to recover their nerve and clustered round me, plucking at my clothes and whispering excitedly.

As ever, I was terrified. My heart was beating wildly and I could feel my hair standing on end. My mouth was dry and I bit my tongue in an effort to control my chattering teeth. I wanted desperately to turn and run, but I also wanted my bag. I forced myself to carry on. I came to the bench where I had left my bag. All I could find there was a white carrier bag filled with scrap paper. I took it up and turned round wanting to run back to the safety of the street. But the street had vanished. I found myself no longer in an enclosed park, but at the top of a low hill. As far as I could see in the bright moonlight, there was only neatly cut grass, and in the distance a copse of trees that cast shadows of indescribable blackness. Though I saw for miles, I could see no lights nor any other sign of human habitation.

The low whispering took on a triumphant note, and the creatures moved closer, now wholly surrounding me. I could feel their sharp little hands brushing cold against my hands as they tried to pull me down to the ground.

I woke sweating. My dog Victoria was sitting beside the bed waiting for me to get up and play with her. I pulled her into the bed and was glad of the warm doggy smell as I came fully to my senses. Turning on the wireless, I caught a news bulletin that announced the resignation of Nigel Lawson as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

For a few weeks after that, I drank bottle after bottle of Collis Brown mixture. Sadly, it did nothing more than make me feel sick. Mr Barry told me I had not consumed nearly enough opium to have influenced the dream, which was merely the effect of a slightly fevered imagination. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps the rawness in my throat—and I did gargle that first bottle—let me absorb enough opium to drug me. I cannot say. However, I was much gratified when a month later I took up De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and read the following:

If a man “whose talk is of oxen” should become an opium-eater, the probability is, that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) he will dream about oxen: whereas, in the case before him, the reader will find that the opium-eater boasteth himself to be a philosopher; and accordingly, that the phantasmagoria of his dreams (waking or sleeping, day dreams or night dreams) is suitable to one who, in that character,

Humani nihil a se alienum putat
[He thinks nothing human to be foreign to himself—Plautus]

The fourth specimen of my dreams I have decided not to relate. It is the conclusion to a series of dreams that float undatable in the atemporal stretches of my mind, but that must extend over 20 years; and it involves my dead maternal grandmother and her long since demolished house in Chatham. I had the dream last August, and waking from it lay a half hour in bed freezing and unfreezing with horror at its conclusion. But explaining its antecedents and progress would make an already long article longer still. And I am not sure if it is a dream for public telling, dealing as it does with matters of great personal sadness from when I was a child.

I will therefore end this article, merely reflecting that I have now published more than three thousand words of which hardly one deals with the evils of New Labour and the European Union and the inability of William Hague’s Conservative Party to do more than feebly protest while giving no promise to act otherwise if by some miracle it could win this election.


© 2001—2019, seangabb.


Sean Gabb is the author of more than forty books and around a thousand essays and newspaper articles. He also appears on radio and television, and is a notable speaker at conferences and literary festivals in Britain, America, Europe and Asia. Under the name Richard Blake, he has written eight historical novels for Hodder & Stoughton. These have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Greek, Slovak, Hungarian, Chinese and Indonesian. They have been praised by both The Daily Telegraph and The Morning Star. He has produced three further historical novels for Endeavour Press, and has written two horror novels for Caffeine Nights. Under his own name, he has written four novels. His other books are mainly about culture and politics. He also teaches, mostly at university level, though sometimes in schools and sixth form colleges. His first degree was in History. His PhD is in English History. From 2006 to 2017 he was Director of the Libertarian Alliance. He is currently an Honorary Vice-President of the Ludwig von Mises Centre UK, and is Director of the School of Ancient Studies. He lives in Kent with his wife and daughter.

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