Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The traces we leave...

Earlier this week I disposed of an old bedside cabinet at our house in France. It was one of those items you feel guilty for dumping, but deep down know the charity shop won't want either. For the last two years, it's stood by our front door so the postman can leave small parcels. When the mice took up residence, it was time to let go.

But as is the way here, recycling it meant removing the marble top, separating the lining from its outer casing, checking each section for nails ... And in so doing, discovering a photograph that, decades earlier, someone had taped to the underside of a drawer.  An image of two girls looking into a lens saw its first light of day for lord knows how long.

Who'd put it there I wondered?  The faces suggest they are sisters, but whose daughters or granddaughters might they be? And why paste their picture where it wouldn't be seen?  Are they still with us... or gone now, like the cabinet that housed the fragment of their past?  

I guess we could weave all manner of stories from such flimsy threads. But that's what novelists do, and I'm not one of those. 

So instead I pondered the traces we leave...  

My neighbour is a mason who restores historic buildings — every time I see him at work I'm in awe. Like many craftsmen, he brushes off praise. But if you asked, he'd explain the tradition of mason's marks and how to find 'signatures' in the stone of cathedral walls. His imprint will endure for generations too. 

Many years ago my mother wrote a song for her primary school class. One of my earliest memories is her figuring the tune on chime bars at home on a weekday evening. It's since been published in dozens of hymn books and is widely recorded around the world. By the time she dies, how many hundreds of thousands will have sung 'I listen and I listen'?  No doubt, we will play it at her funeral.

And what will I leave?  

Some writing perhaps, at least for as long as it lasts; there are two obscure rock climbs I've given a name to; perhaps someone will keep one of my paintings...  Jane and I like to think that every house we've owned has benefited from our stewardship. With luck, there'll be some inheritance...  

But beyond these tangibilities?

Very little I hope. For legacies are not the purpose of life or indeed the best measure of our contributions. There's value in making a difference now: in helping and healing, in supporting and providing; in simply making ends meet so that those we love can flourish. In an age when we're so driven to 'succeed', some say we should live more in the moment. 

Though by historical standards, we generally do. I read somewhere that very few of us know the forenames of our great grandparents; after three generations we're lost to memory.  That seems to me, no bad thing, for I've always thought the veneration of ancestors to be misplaced. If I could visit any time in history, I'd choose the future, not the past.

As I write the conclusion to this post, I'm struck that my doing so has been delayed. 

Why?  

Because for a week I lost the picture of the girls, absentmindedly putting it down to watch the contrails in the sky across our valley.  Had I not tidied up, it would have curled and faded in the sunlight that streams through the window. Every day here, the planes go back and forth...  a web of slipstreams that momentarily sparkle, then fade to oblivion. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Sound of Being Human

My book of the year so far - brilliantly done.

I’ve long held the view, that when writing from experience — be it for books, blogs or essays — it’s the inner story, rather than any outer narrative, that’s the true test of quality. From great epics to country diaries, readers find meaning not so much in the sequence of events as the struggles, discoveries and growth of any protagonists along the way. This is what separates literary from pulp fiction; biography from CVs; life writing from journalism…. It’s also, somewhat ironically, what makes stories universal.

Jude Rogers’ The Sound of Being Human does all this and more. Mixing deeply personal memoir with career expertise and a sprinkling of academic research, she explores how music (and particularly popular songs and their artists) shapes our sense of self, binding moments to melodies that become the soundtrack of our lives. What’s especially remarkable is that she does so with a playlist that though essential to telling her story, isn’t necessary to ours — indeed, I’d not heard of many of the tracks she chose to hook her chapters — for in truth, her choices are proxies to personal equivalents we cherish just the same.

All that’s required to appreciate the book’s central theme, is that we associate music, of whatever genre, with times and events of significance in our lives. Rogers begins with a childhood memory of her father’s parting words before going into hospital: Let me know what gets to number one. He died, aged 33, two days later... And the song that made the top spot that week — Only You, by the Flying Pickets — becomes an anchor in the storm of emotions that might otherwise have wrecked a five-year-old child, metaphorically lost at sea. More broadly, its lifelong resonance becomes a base note of the book: that music can heal and help us make sense of the rhythms and refrains of our lives.

And so the chapters continue, like verses in a song: from adolescence to coming of age; leaving home to finding love… and friendships, career, parenthood, illness...  Music accompanies us on all of these journeys — sometimes centre stage; sometimes playing in the background — and by processes we don’t fully understand, becomes so cemented to our memories that it's capable of triggering the most vivid of recollections. I especially liked the section in which Rogers lists songs as substitutes for former boyfriends; a sort of mix tape of — on the whole — generous memories that she can smile at and sing along to. Her chapter on why so many of us feel grief when famous musicians die also resonated, taking me back to seminal losses (not always musically connected) of my own.

But it was the last chapter, based on an interview with Paddy McAloon (leader singer and writer of the band Prefab Sprout) that intrigued me most. For not only is McAloon my favourite pop artist, his albums the backing track to my twenties, but the interview took place during the Covid lockdown, a period I found so severely disconnecting that only now am I (slowly) coming to terms with its impact. I should mention that Rogers interviewed me at that time, for an article in the Guardian, not about music, but about living on the border between England and Wales during the severest restrictions. She found solace in music, and particularly in McAloon’s composition I Trawl The Megahertz; I searched for it in the landscape, access to which was a chief prohibition of those terrible months.

Reading McAloon's thoughts got me wondering how (in some parallel universe) Rogers — or indeed all of us — would have coped if music had been what was forbidden?  How would we have fared without the sounds that buoy us up and soothe our souls? How many of us would have found the melodic silence unbearable: no tunes; no dance; no hymns or communal singing (indeed that was banned)…  I recalled how little music I listened to in lockdown; how I stopped playing my saxophone too. And how to me, place and music are more connected than I realised.  

I’m not sure what that says, but I suspect it’s linked to the deep anxiety —and anger — I felt at the time – and how sensory denial, especially of that which feeds our being, leads to consequences we can’t consciously control.

Of course, this is all open-ended pondering on my part. But in a sense, that’s the point of the book — and the mark of its quality. For ultimately, it's not about Jude, or her back story, or the hundreds of interviews she’s conducted as a music journalist…. Nor is it about the artists, their genius or otherwise, or the academics and musicologists whose research she summarises so well. Rather, the Sound of Being Human is about all of us and each of us alone. The soundtracks of our lives are as personal and private as they are shared and universal, as much inner as outer story.  Like the Flying Pickets' aptly acapella (literally ‘unaccompanied’) cover of Yazoo’s original, they are…  all I ever knew… only you.

The Sound of Being Human – how music shapes our lives
By Jude Rogers
Published by White Rabbit / Orion Publishing Group Ltd
ISBN: 978-1-4766-2292-9

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Brighton Rock and all that.

The first serious book I ever read was Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. It was the compulsory text for my English Literature O level and I still have the thin Penguin Classic edition with passages underlined in pencil. Reading it transformed my perspective on fiction, setting the tone for the novels I'd prefer thereafter. And ironically, for a boy who loathed the prospect of double English every Thursday, it is one of the few physical legacies of my school days.

Brighton Rock is also the only book that I can say with confidence I've read three times. In my twenties, I went through almost every other title by Greene, but most have sat unopened on my bookshelves ever since. Only recently have I started to revisit them, reminding myself of how excellent a writer he was, and how the recurring themes of his work mirror questions I've wrestled with all my life. Listening to them now, with the benefit of half a century's experience, it's obvious how his character's inner struggles are as autobiographical as their colonial settings. 

I used the words 'revisit' and 'listening' in the last paragraph because I've not been rereading the novels as such. Rather, I've been playing them on Audible, one of my more delightful discoveries this year. The author Stephen King in his book 'On Writing' recommends listening regularly to audiobooks, saying he always has one on the go. And yet, despite my considering his advice to be generally excellent, the only ones I'd ever previously bought were children's CDs to keep our boys amused on long car journeys. 

It's interesting though, how they remember them still.  

Listening to books being read aloud is a different experience from holding a copy in your hands. I'm glad to have 'read' Greene's complex novels first, albeit decades ago. But I'm glad too that I can listen to them again now, in the gym (yes, really!), in my car; walking on the beach... As I do so, I often think of my grandfather and how as he grew progressively more blind he went from those dreadful large print books to fiddly eight-track cassettes and eventually to the limited fare on the radio because there was nothing else available. How thrilled he'd have been with today's technology.

Many writers dislike e-readers, and perhaps understandably, booksellers are non too keen either. But it's worth reflecting on how almost overnight they increased the quality and quantity of titles available to those with visual impairment. The early versions of the Kindle even had a text-to-voice transcription, which though somewhat robotic was a godsend to many. For those of us who struggle with small print, the ability to change the point size at the touch of a button is almost as transformative. 

Audible takes all this step further with top-quality narrators, synchronisation features that allow you to skip from e-book to audio and back again, and a catalogue that's more extensive than most local libraries. And there must be many people for whom simply finding the time to read is a challenge with busy jobs, young families and household chores to juggle —yet their daily commute might provide many hours for books they'd never get round to otherwise — I know my son listens every day on his walk to work.

And so for someone who was very sceptical of 'yet another subscription' I have to say, I'm a convert. I suppose part of the reason is that I believe we should recognise where progress has genuinely been made. I've no affinity to Amazon and am as aware as anyone that as a company they're far from saints (oh how Graham Greene is that). But Audiobooks (of which Audible dominates) are now the fastest-growing sector of the market, introducing millions of listeners to books of all types. Some will no doubt remain wary and curmudgeonly regardless, but I reckon their success is worth celebrating.

All of which is a bit of a ramble from Brighton Rock and my school age curriculum. Although, isn't that how reading and writing go. Like so many of Greene's characters, we stumble from one situation to another, carrying our crosses to an uncertain destiny... Okay, let's not stretch the metaphor too far...  The point, if there is one at all, is that good literature endures, whatever form it takes —from Brighton Rock to blogs; from Penguin to Kindle, from O level to Audible; it's all the same thing.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Full circle

Above Corvus on Raven Crag, Borrowdale.

Somewhere in our album of family photographs is a picture of my father being held aloft as a baby. He must only be a few months old and presumably, the arm holding him skyward is that of my grandfather.  Turn a few pages and you'd find an almost identical picture of my elder brother in the same pose, his christening shawl bright against a Northumbrian sky. I've no memory of it being taken because I wasn't yet born, but I do distinctly recall my dad referring often to the images, and musing, in philosophic tone, how history repeats itself in families.

It's strange the incidents and words we remember. My father must have spoken of a thousand other events, sharing his past life (as we all do with our children) through recollections that would invariably shape mine, or at least my outlook on it. The reason some stick and others are lost is more, I suspect, a matter of chance and circumstance (was I hungry or distracted as he spoke) than any logic or weighing of import. Often, as in this case, it is particular images or phrases that trigger our recall. And with each repetition, what we actually remember is our previous recollections...  such that over time, our memories become as fixed and falsely representative as snapshots in an album.

Quite why I was drawn to compose this introduction is in equal parts obvious and obscure. As will become clear, I've recently been revisiting my past by proxy, returning to rock climbing after a gap of nearly thirty years. I'd planned to open by describing how as a young man I was so determined to achieve and experience as much as I could; how even in my twenties there was a certain rage against the dying of the light— a feeling that our time was limited and that we a had duty to make the most of it; carpe diem, gather ye rosebuds... make hay while the sun shines...  

I feel much of this urgency still, though as I grow older I find that I'm less concerned with pressing on than doubling back. Perhaps at some level I'm afraid the memories I hold most dear will otherwise fade or falsify, and hope that by re-experiencing them I might somehow remaster their clarity. There could be truth in that I guess... But returning to why I wrote the introduction, I sense my recent reliving of past passions is less about history repeating itself than a desire to come full circle. 

Earlier this month I went with my eldest son to Raven Crag in Borrowdale. We climbed a route called Corvus that's about as old school as it gets. Tied together for seven pitches we ascended a line I'd last followed, according to the notes in my guide book, thirty-three years previous. The small blue volume has a grainy photograph depicting an exposed hand traverse that's the crux of the climb and an iconic image of mountaineering from a bygone era. What it doesn't show is the big ledge below and out of shot — the only part of the route I remembered correctly. 

The following day we visited Langdale to climb Middlefell Buttress - ironically on a cliff also called Raven Crag. This time my old guidebook had no notes and although I distinctly recalled the situation and indeed my former ascent, I could not for the life of me— at least with any certainty— remember my partner.  We joked about whether I'd climbed it with his mum or my first wife years before; 'awkward' he laughed. True—but in that shared humour we forged a  moment that will live with us both and likely be more genuine than any memories of the holds or stances or sequence we followed. 

I've long felt that the best and most satisfying journeys start and finish, if not always from home, at least from the place we began. In my father's case, his memories were invariably sentimental though in fairness, often funny too. What struck me at the time, and to some extent troubles me still, is how at odds they were with the depression and self-loathing that so coloured his adulthood. It was as if by seeking to forge a supposedly better future he'd severed all connections with the few happy years of his life.

Memories of course are not located in a physical place or moment in time, rather we carry them with us as bounty or burdens depending on our state of mind. I know that I will never again climb with the skill and strength I once possessed. I know too that my son must find his own routes and not live in the shadow of mine. Perhaps that's why I took no photographs of us roped together; because I don't want him to be tied to my past just as I don't believe that history must repeat itself in families. And yet, conversely, might sharing and showing him where I came from, be just enough for our circles to overlap?  

Monday, May 2, 2022

Prophecy, witness or waste of time?

Beach pondering with Oscar

Earlier this week I attended an online poetry evening, themed on the environmental threats (many would say crisis) we are facing. Three excellent writers gave readings and discussed their concerns in what was a convivial and supportive forum. Looking in from the outside it might easily have been mistaken for a Friends of the Earth campaign, rather than a literary event. 

But it wasn't so much the message, or indeed the enviable quality of the work, that I've been pondering since. Rather, it was a comment from one of the writers, responding to a question about the difference that poetry might make.  His reply was as candid as it was unequivocal: very little, if any

Poetry, he asserted, is read by very few people. Those who'd attended the evening and listened so intently were self-selected believers; and if not, they'd be unlikely to change their view because of his verse. He'd long accepted that his acclaimed collections had little capacity to influence others. Someone (or was it him, I can't remember) suggested that poetry might be seen as a sort of prophecy; in any event, he didn't think much of that either.  At best, he said, it was about bearing witness. 

And what struck me, is how relevant this was to me, and to many other bloggers too.  

The concept of 'writing for change' has a long history. Much of ancient philosophy is political in its intent, as were the dramatic tragedies, comedies and epics of that time. For thousands of years, playwrights, diarists and pamphleteers (as well as novelists, journalists and scholars) have chronicled events with the intent of shaping opinion. Today, in addition to those forms we have TV, radio, film and social media...  There will be hundreds of academic theses on how public perceptions can be moulded by words. 

And yet, if I think of the essayists and political writers I admire —Orwell, Greene, Koestler... I wonder how many of them actually had that much of an influence. Most social commentators write 'after the fact' and those that don't (Dickens perhaps) are usually read by a sympathetic audience. And as for journalism: we've long known that newspapers reinforce rather than reorder opinions, just as Twitter is more of an echo chamber than a forum for debate.

But what of bloggers, and particularly those like me?  

For many, it will be an irrelevant concern. They write to share rather than shape; to clarify their thoughts not change those of others. The vast majority of what we read on forums like Views From The Bike Shed is not political but personal. Its merit, if it has any at all, comes from transcending the 'me', to become something more universal; achieving an ill-defined sense that the words are as relevant to the reader as they are to the author. 

This is not so much writing for change—and far less for prophecy —than it is the idea of giving testimony to our lives. It is, in effect, the same as bearing witness. And I suppose I believe that to do so truthfully and meaningfully has inherent worth, even if it alters very little in a tangible way. I sense this is why I most often write about experiences that moved me or in some way adjusted my view—narrating how I've changed rather than telling others that they ought to too. 

Which brings to me the end of this pondering.  And I hope the start of a refreshed enthusiasm for what is my writing homeland. For weeks I've been stuck in a mire, planning the 'perfect post' that would somehow encapsulate my despair —and in truth, my anger too—at the perma-crisis we seem to be living through. From Brexit to Covid to the War in Ukraine, (and a hundred topics in between) there is so much I could say.. could give an opinion on... could rant or cry or bellow...

And yet, I think on balance it's better left unsaid. For it would not alter anything, let alone me —and nor would I be confident of its truth. Better I think to stick to what I know; to the chronicling of the seemingly little things in life; those moments that change us forever. 

As for the rest. this too shall pass...

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Poppies

Photo by Benry Be, Unsplash

A little under three weeks ago I sat with my youngest son on the crest of the Col du Ranfolly, the Pointe de Nyon to our left; the ridge of the Roc D'enfer sparkling in a cobalt sky. We'd ordered burgers and fries from a buvette that supplies the skiers who come here for their annual fix of alpine adrenaline. In truth, it's as pre-packaged an experience as the fast-food we were about to tuck into. 

I'm not being critical here, just telling the truth as I see it. And admitting too, that, despite my misgivings, I'm one of those hundreds of thousands for whom the heady cocktail of sociability, snow and sliding is an addictive draw each winter. For all that my favourite skiing is in the back-country, ideally alone or hanging back from the pack, by far the majority is on the groomed pistes that are the manufactured playgrounds of middle-class folk like me.

Perhaps it was the Arcadian nature of our situation that explains why the news hit me so hard. I suspect the subliminal unease in our privilege plays a part too. Of course, it might simply have been the shock of the unthinkable... But whatever the reason, when my son said 'have you seen that they've full-on invaded Ukraine' it suddenly all felt so wrong. 

In the passing of that one sentence, the contrast between the beauty of our location and the horror of wider circumstance became all too clear.  The thought of finishing our food only to career carefree down the slopes seemed grossly inappropriate. I wanted to get back, to return home and take comfort in those I loved…

But if I'm honest my heart sank for less noble reasons too. 

The prospect of another crisis—on top of Brexit and the pandemic and the rising cost of living—surfaced deep, if selfish, anxieties. Will we ever, I wondered, be free of this grinding uncertainty? Is our yearning for security, like Helen Keller claimed, 'mostly superstition'—out of reach of the children of men? Her assertion may well be right in fact, but the longing is real and heartfelt, for few of us are truly stoic by nature.

These last two weeks I've limited my exposure to popular news and certainly avoided social media. Not because I want to hide away but because I'm wary of their amplification of the noise and its impact on my own, and indeed our collective, wellbeing. I know too well the process of generating stories and constructing narratives that do little to improve our knowledge but a lot to worsen our worries. 

Quiet reflection, coupled with a steely resolve to stand by our conclusions, is not what sells newspapers, generates clicks or raises viewer ratings. And yet—for me at least—this internal reasoning is what's most needed to find peace with, rather than panic in, the actions we must now take. 

The historian Yuval Noah Harari spends weeks each year on meditative retreats to see things as they really are. That's not an appropriate response to an international crisis, but perhaps there’s something in it for our coming to terms with the long-term implications of the course we must follow. Might it also help put into perspective our other worries and fixations? As I write these words, I'm conscious that Brexit, the pandemic, the cost of living… all seem so trivial compared to what’s happening a mere few hundred miles from Berlin.

Perhaps then, a tangential benefit of this upheaval is that we might find the courage to focus more on what really matters—not just in geo-politics but in our daily lives too. Is it just possible that in facing into issues that are existentially vital we might begin to abandon our obsessions with the inconsequential and worry less about what cannot be changed? Some of us might even learn to give more thanks for the overwhelming (and largely unearned) good fortune we enjoy? 

It has taken me a fortnight to be able to write this post, the issues—and the feelings they evoke—shapeshifting in my mind. Only gradually has my heartbeat slowed. But with its calming has come a greater acceptance of the realities of the world and the potential for evil which deep down we always knew was there. There’s an affirmation too of what needs to be done and a resolve to see it through rather than wish it away. In some strange way, it almost feels good to have this clarity forced upon us.

So no denial for sure.

Though curiously, and certainly unexpectedly, in reflecting these last two weeks I’ve found myself more hopeful than I might have imagined. If the situation in Ukraine gets worse by the day there is, I sense, a flicker (if not quite a flame) of optimism in the exposure of our delusions and the galvanising shock of a truth that's been hiding in plain sight. There’s a refreshing honesty too in the equally plain actions we’ve taken, and a rare pride in the unity of democratic governments and their recommitment to principles we’d let slide for too long. Am I alone in feeling that this wake-up call is a chance to reset our values (and our policies) to ones that are ethically sound rather than economically convenient? 

This week I'm in Majorca, on a cycle camp that was first booked pre-pandemic. The very fact I'm here on holiday feels more poignant and privileged than it would have three weeks previous. Yesterday, as we rode in the warmth of a soft spring sun one of our group spoke unprompted of the delight she took in her retirement, listing her blessings—financial and otherwise—for all who cared to listen. 

I didn't reply, but I counted my own, more aware than ever of the myriad protections that insulate me and my family from the cold realities faced by millions elsewhere. And as I did so—and this, I promise, is no word of a lie—I looked up from the wheel I’d been following, only to realise that we were riding through a field of poppies.