Dealing with the mystery tramp

How does it feel ?

The mystery tramp in Australia

[First posted on one of my former University web pages, probably about 2005]


Welcome to the Mystery Tramp Web Page. This is a brief semi-autobiographical reflective account of my present professional situation. It draws unashamedly on what is now widely regarded as a seminal moment in the cultural history of the twentieth century, embodied in Bob Dylan’s song, Like A Rolling Stone. Going along with that critical verdict, I find that many of the metaphors expressed in that song can serve well to convey my reflections on academic life at the present time. In this context, the character of the mystery tramp serves as a material agent for delivering history’s verdict on the worth of what has been done. ‘Doing a deal with the mystery tramp’ then is confronting that likely verdict, and still trying to shape it. But beware ! There is only so much that we can do to moderate the judgment of others.


Anyway, let’s go through some of the lines …..


Once upon a time you dressed so fine,

You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you ?

[refers to time as Head of Department and University Director of Postgraduate Studies]


You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely,

But you know you only used to get juiced in it

[reference to undergraduate days in Oxford]


Nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street

And now you find you have to get used to it

[starting an academic career in the 1970s, there was then no research training or mentoring]


People’d call, ‘Beware Doll, you’re bound to fall’

[colleagues who did not understand one’s research interests, or insistence on bringing a bike into the office, or robust response to certain University strategies]


Aww, you never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns

When they all came down and did tricks for you

[reference to conducting postgraduate research training sessions]


You said you’d never compromise with the mystery tramp

[mystery tramp : history’s verdict on the value of one’s work]

But now you realise, he’s not selling any alibis

[no excuses once it has been delivered up for evaluation and you have had the benefit of sabbaticals etc]

As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes, and say ‘Do you want to make a deal ?’

[at that stage of a career when posterity’s verdict, not just book reviews, begins to assume importance]


You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat

Who carried on his shoulder a siamese cat.

Ain’t it hard when you discover that he wasn’t really where it’s at,

After he took from you everything he could steal ?

[reference to former colleagues and friends, and projects which came to nothing]


Princess on the steeple

[ = rapidly promoted junior academic]

And all the pretty people, they’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they’ve got it made,

Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts

[ = networking at conferences]

But you better lift your diamond ring

[ = cutting edge piece of research which can be offered for the REF]

You better pawn it babe.


You used to be so amused at Napoleon in rags

[ = the RAE and REF]

Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse

[beware  - it’s easy to be seduced by that process]

When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose

[dark moments in the middle of the night, doubting the value of one’s own work]


You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal

[the key line, sums it all up – we are all more transparent than we may imagine]


How does it feel ?



As many critics have remarked about Dylan’s work, it may sound acerbic, but it is also life-affirming.