Ashes to ashes and dust to dust - a waking dream in an Irish hospital

Come with John Walsh to his mother's bedside, where strange things are going on. Then sample his views on Quentin Tarantino
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The Independent Online
I'VE SPENT the past couple of weeks in an Irish hospital, attending to my stricken mother, and amid the deluge of flowers and holy water shakers, the metallic forest of drips and inhalers, the procession of kindly visitors and beaming nuns, I have found myself nodding off in the afternoons; my head achingly flattened against the side of a clothing cabinet like an exhausted horse going to sleep against the wall of its stall. But even in this somnolent posture, I've had a recurring dream, the same one that invades my nights with a weird filmic clarity. The odd thing about this dream is that, for all its surreal quality, it isn't a construct of the imagination; it happened.

Come back with me two weeks, to a Wednesday morning when, as I sat by her bedside, a male nurse appeared by my side, bearing a little bowl full of ashes. He could have been a sales rep from the offices of Mr Boffin, the dust millionaire in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, but he wasn't. From the bowl he flourished a metal plunger, the kind you might once have seen stamping out library books. "Would she," he enquired of the slumbering figure in the bed, "like some of the ash?" I regarded him coldly. My mother, I pointed out, is seriously ill. She has no immediate need of a memento mori, thank you very much. In fact it's pretty tactless ...

Without ado, he dunked the plunger into the ashes and stabbed a back cross on my mother's innocent forehead. An Arizona cowpoke branding a heifer would have been more subtle. My jaw dropped. "Now," said the nurse, with a camp little flourish, "Would you like some yerself?" This was a tricky one. Would I like to have my head anointed with graveyard grit by a hospital orderly? Father Jack would have told him to feck off. "I'll try and get by without it," I weedily replied.

Later I went for a walk down the hospital corridor. A couple of sweet young nurses, barely out of their teens, appeared, their foreheads streaked with ash. From the Male Patients' Toilet an elderly amputee emerged, similarly engrimed. More and more of them appeared. The girls preparing lunch in the kitchen, the visiting relatives having a crafty fag by the window, the tiny children bringing a posy of snowdrops for their poorly Auntie Bridget - all of them bore the same ashy mark of Cain like a nasty prize. Even the divine Ward Sister, pausing for a chat about my mother's progress, had a perfect dusty cross on her brow like the crosshairs on a huge gun. They seemed to be milling together, to be heading towards me. It was like The Night of the Living Dead.

I fled, took the lift, rushed to the ground floor cafe for a dose of normality among the muffins and Lucozade bottles and the non-ill, non- nursing outsiders, the ones who, like me, couldn't get out of a hospital fast enough. And blow me down if they, too, hadn't all been nobbled by the disorderly orderly. Young and old, cool Galway babes and rosary-toting matrons alike, demure local beauties and scraggy itinerants shooting the breeze over their polystyrene cups, were all emblazoned with the remembrance of death - because it was, of course, Ash Wednesday, and that's what you do in Ireland at the beginning of Lent, as surely as you wear a spring of shamrock on March 17.

I stood in the tea queue feeling (paradoxically in the circumstances) like a marked man. In the plague years of the Middle Ages, I mused, weren't they keen on black crosses too? Only in those days, they were daubed on the doors of doomed houses, warning you not to go near them. I seemed to have stumbled into a plague scene in 1998, in which none of the victims is the least bit bothered about their condition. And in this recurring dream of mine, all the victims are turning quizzical expressions towards my pale, un-ashed forehead, and the look on their faces says: You? Why d'you think you're different?

QUENTIN TARANTINO - loathe him or ignore him, you can't like him. Or escape him. The most celebrated wunderkind of American cinema since Orson Welles is currently featured in every magazine in the known world, and the stars of his new movie Jackie Brown have apparently bought squatters' rights on the feature pages of the British press. Le tout Londres artistique piled into the National Film Theatre recently to ask respectfully what His Wonderfulness was up to; Film '98 has cleared the decks for a solo interview; and he appears, parodically holding a gun to his scrunched- up features, on the cover of Sight and Sound, the last redoubt of sense and taste for the intelligent cineaste. He is, basically, God. So why do I get this burning desire to rush off to Los Angeles and give him a good kicking?

1) Because Jackie Brown is dull, prosaic, murky, gauche, meandering, wilfully undramatic, far too long, and apparently shot on yellowing film stock from the Seventies, and I paid $6.50 to see it.

2) Because everyone is excited about Tarantino's "rediscovery" of the actress Pam Grier, variously described as "the blaxploitation diva" and "the Seventies goddess". Until about a month ago, nobody had actually heard of Ms Grier or seen any of her films.

3) Because Samuel L Jackson, interviewed in the Observer, remarks of his character, the homicidal black gangster-pimp Ordell Robbie: "Quentin said all along he was writing Ordell for me, but he said that he lived with Ordell for so long that he wrestled with the idea of doing it himself." But Tarantino didn't write Ordell at all; Ordell was the creation, lock, stock and barrel, of Elmore Leonard in Rum Punch, published five years ago.

4) Because of Tarantino's curious desire to mutate into a black man. "I went to an all-black school," he tells Total Film magazine. "It's the culture I identify with." But he identifies with it mainly, it seems, as a way of sharing the culture of racial insult.

Critics are worried about the number of times his black characters use the word "nigga" in Jackie Brown, but he's always been over-keen on trans- racial demotic. In Pulp Fiction, he plays a (white) friend of the black hitman Jules and gets away with saying things like, "Jules, when you drove in here did you notice a sign out front that said 'Dead Nigger Storage'?" In True Romance, which he wrote but didn't direct, you find a white drug dealer, played by Gary Oldman, who speaks in Rasta-man slang - someone with whom Tarantino can idiotically identify.

5) Because his dialogue isn't as wonderful as he thinks. Here's a sample: "Look, I hate to be the kinda nigga does a nigga a favour then BAM! hits a nigga up for a favour in return. But I'm afraid I gotta be that kinda nigga ..." Mr Tarantino tells his admiring public, "I think that in my dialogue there's a music or poetry, and the repetition of certain words helps give it a beat." In your dreams, Quentin.

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