Category: Heroes

Nostalgia – a longing for a past that is not our own

“I heard the news today, oh boy…” of the death of George Martin. The cacophony at the end of The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ is magnificent, and I was hoping to hear that; the track that BBC 6 Music chose to play first, though, was ‘In My Life’, a nostalgic song.

I have been thinking about nostalgia recently, with the loss of so many of my cultural heroes this year. Also, because I was involved in the production of a poetry collection about the experiences and memorials of soldiers in World War I – Memorandum: Poems for the Fallen by Vanessa Gebbie. It’s an immensely moving collection, which brought me to tears more than once as I was editing it. It has also brought a rush of responses from readers, the poems resounding with their own family histories. It’s interesting to me, as it is a kind of removed history. My parents arrived in England from Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s, and although my father arrived in 1944, and later did National Service in England, Ireland was neutral during the war. My family’s war experiences were different from those of an English, or in Vanessa Gebbie’s case, Welsh, family.

There is a photograph that sits on the cover of my cousin’s pamphlet, The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918, by Guss O’Halloran. It is of Pte Patrick O’Halloran, 1st Battalion Connacht Rangers, saying goodbye to his sister Bridget and mother Mary at Ennistymon Railway Station early in 1914. He died at the 2nd battle of Ypres the following year. It is an intensely moving picture. Bridget is avoiding Patrick’s gaze as they hold hands; he is leaning out of the train window, she is on the platform. Patrick looks a lot like my cousin Guss. Mary’s face is obscured by Bridget, though her sorrow must have been as great. Guss has written ‘The Last Goodbye’ across the photograph. It can be viewed, along with the pamphlet, as a PDF on the Clare Library website: The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918

I didn’t know these people, nor know of them till recent years. Nor did I know of the part that Irish soldiers played in the conflict until I read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And being raised in an Irish family in England, I was steeped in  nostalgia that was not from my own past, my own experiences. When Irish friends and family came round, there would be singing and the playing of records of sentimental songs about Ireland; the homesickness in the room would be palpable. An immense sadness, a longing for their homeland. It is not surprising that the origin of the word nostalgia is expressed in terms of pain. From the Concise OED:

Nostalgia – n. a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past … acute homesickness, from the Greek nostos “return home” and algos “pain”.

We are suckers for nostalgia, from the ubiquitous Keep Calm and Carry On posters to Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. I must confess to watching the latter – largely undemanding, at times moving, and depicting the time when I was born and was an infant. It does feel like my past – the clothes the children wear being those I see in old photos of me and my family.

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

I am currently working on a poem based on a photo of a boy to whom I have no connection. A friend pointed it out to me on Facebook, knowing that I have been writing about the decline of the orchards in Kent. I have had some contact with the person that posted it – it’s of her uncle as a child, leaning on a cherry ladder in the now-felled orchard down the road from where I live. It was taken sometime between 1914 and 1920, she thinks, and I became a little obsessed with finding out about him. His history is not mine, nor the history of the orchards. I only moved to this part of Kent in 2008. It is not as if I grew up with the sight of sheep grazing beneath fruit trees, nor did my family occupy cherry orchards for a few weeks each summer to pick the fruit. Yet I am sad that these things are disappearing.

I wonder what it would be like to live in the present, to be concerned only with what is going on now, not to pine for a past that is not mine, not ours.

I do think that being an outsider helps us to see things more clearly, to record them. Being neither fully Irish nor English has given me an outsider’s view, standing aside and watching, not fully engaged with a nostalgia that is not mine to own.

Heroes – Common People like Jarvis Cocker

If asked to create a Top 10 favourite songs of all time, I would decline. It would never remain the same. But if pushed, Pulp’s ‘Common People’ would be up there every time. Jarvis Cocker’s story of a posh girl wanting to slum it, to “live like common people”. He tells her to “rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job” to “pretend you’ve got no money”. Jarvis came from common people and so did I – thrown into the world of ‘college’ as we called it then (Thames Poly in my case) from a working class family that lived in a council house, the first in any generation to go on to further and higher education. I didn’t cut my hair, but I did get a job – several jobs – to see me through teenage years and college holidays.

‘Common People’ is on the album Different Class. It’s in my Top 10 albums, too (if forced to list those). It got me through a year of immense change in my life. It has a choice of album covers that you can slip into a frame. The main one was a wedding group photo, and this reflected my early marriage, a week before my 21st birthday. Some of the songs I could directly identify with, like ‘Misshapes’ – about those of us who didn’t quite fit in with the kids on our estate, about the boys at risk of being beaten up for being different. Like ‘Live Bed Show’ – “she doesn’t want to go to work, she doesn’t want to stay in bed.” As for other songs, I could only imagine what it would be like to be one of “twenty thousand people standing in a field”, having left my festival days behind, having never been to a rave, in fact being a thirty-six-year-old mother of two in a failing marriage. Let’s brush over the fact that Jarvis may have been ‘a bit of a perv,’ as a friend of mine put it at the time – hiding in wardrobes, watching girls. Let’s not examine that I got my young daughters singing along to ‘Sorted for Es and Whizz’ in the car. I relate that song to rushing to school in the car, crossing Rochester Bridge, knowing whether we were late or on time by how far the barber who worked in Strood had progressed across the bridge on foot, in the opposite direction to where we were travelling.

I once wrote Jarvis a fan letter. I sent it by email to his BBC 6Music Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service programme. It was probably never read by him, dismissed by some intern as the ramblings of a crazy middle-aged woman. But it was the writing of it that was important. I needed to tell Jarvis that he had got me through a marriage break-up, the most difficult year of my life. That I could still ‘dance and drink’ (‘and screw’) like common people in spite of all the pain.

I was asked by someone what I blog about. ‘Oh, all sorts of things, ‘ I said, struggling for a theme. I didn’t start blogging with the intention of it being ‘about’ anything – just things that interest me, that fire me, that get my goat, that make me feel. My first blog of 2016 was about a musical hero – David Bowie – and I think I shall carry in that vein, making Heroes an occasional theme. Stay tuned for the next hero. Or for the next thing that fires me, makes me feel.

Oh no love, you’re not alone. Remembering David Bowie

I started writing this post some months ago. It sat half-finished in a notebook, the flow interrupted by the train journey, on which I was writing, coming to an end. I kept meaning to finish it, get it up on this blog, but it seemed like there would always be time.

IMG_0053The news of the death of David Bowie came two days ago, on waking, announced on Radio 4. Sleepless during the night, I had put the radio on, then fallen back to sleep, waking again just before 7.00 a.m. Then the news. Mishearing it as David Byrne at first, then the true name was unmistakable. There is – was – only one David Bowie. Switching to 6 Music, in floods of tears, Shaun Keaveny and Matt Everitt sounded so shocked, knocked sideways, and then came a day of Bowie songs, the airwaves taken over by his music, stories of in-the-flesh encounters and, for most of us, the personal relationship we had with Bowie and his music, him talking to us in our bedrooms, alone or with friends. For a man who was so protective of his private self, who presented several public persona, we all knew him. He made us feel part of it: “Oh no love, you’re not alone,” he sang, shouted out, in ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’, and we felt that someone understood.

I could not bear to write this  post on the day I learned of his death. The day was lost in tears and and disbelief. But here is what I wrote in my notebook, dated 8/6/15. I present it here unedited:

Our all girls grammar school was decidedly liberal about some things. The compulsory wearing of hats was abolished in our second year (bottle green, round felt in winter; straw boaters in summer). We could wear any style of skirt we liked, as long as it was bottle green. And the decorating of form rooms was allowed by some teachers.

In Class 2H, 1972-73, we had Mr Stokes as our form teacher. Tall, lugubrious, bearded, in a dark pin-striped three piece suit with a watch chain stretching between his waistcoat pockets, we thought we were in for a no-fun year. Mr Stokes turned out to be a sweetie. He won us over with chocolate treats at Christmas and Easter, and by allowing posters on the back wall of Room H. One of these was a double page of Bowie from a teen magazine. Some years away from being named the Thin White Duke, he was super-skinny, hair razor-cut and orange, pale-skinned, made-up, and wearing a kind of short knitted jumpsuit with leggings of the same orange and red stripes. ‘Snow-white tan,’ like Ziggy Stardust. He wasn’t looking out at us, as David Cassidy was, on the same wall, wholesome and pretty, or Michael Jackson, in the days before plastic surgery and skin bleach. He was facing right, half-crouched in performance.

David Bowie was exotic, alien, strange, yet an ordinary boy from Bromley. We thought, in those days, that he wore a coloured contact lens to make one eye look different. I learned only this week that his unusually large pupil, diminished iris, was the result of a playground accident. But then there were, and remain, so many secrets, so much misinformation about this enigmatic singer, performer, composer, actor.

What I can say is, in 1973, he was the most exciting thing on my horizon. If I could get away with watching Top of the Pops (my mum said it was ‘pure rubbish’), he might appear singing ‘Life on Mars’, strangely contorted and with bad dentistry, and absolutely mesmerising to my 13-year-old self.

There was a cabinet at the top of one the staircases at school, which was given over to different classes to make displays, and our theme was Life on Mars. We hadn’t quite got the meaning of the song, so took the title literally, and created a planet surface populated by little rubber aliens that you could buy from sweet shops, with holes in the bottom to balance them on fingers or use as pencil tops.

David Bowie’s songs and albums bring back such memories, such feelings. I remember the track listings of The Fall and Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane, which I still own on vinyl. with stickers of my name and address on, for when I took them to parties. One person was not so careful, and I accidentally came home from a party with two copies of Ziggy Stardust, unable to reunite it with its owner.

Diamond Dogs, borrowed from a friend, reminds me of the death of another friend. I had been listening to it constantly during her short illness and following her death, and can now no longer bear to hear it. I can’t see the cover, or hear the opening track, without being thrown back 40 years to that time, that grief.

David Bowie, and other music of that era, is associated with seminal moments, suicidal thoughts, feelings of sorrow and embarrassment, first kisses, love, betrayal, and the Sunday boredom of ’70s teenagehood.

There the notebook entry ended. Thank you, David Bowie, for making me feel like I was not alone. May you rest in peace.

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