Thursday, 27 September 2012

Things to do with Denver while you're dying

John Walsh is what we call in the trade a good writer. Quite apart from anything else, he knows how to pitch comedy, making it part of the bigger picture, concealing the craft which some other hands make all too obvious. I've read too many personal columns (mostly in the Times Educational Supplement) and heard too many similar pieces spoken on the radio (mostly by professional writers on the late John Peel's Home Truths) possessed of a leaden facetiousness which makes you feel that the writer has his knee on your chest, forcing you to put out with at least the semblance of a grin if you want this ordeal to come to an end.

Not so Mr Walsh. I am fond of saying, and have probably said it here before, that when AA Milne became deputy editor of Punch, his writing style was an innovation: freer and fresher than his forebears. When someone complimented him that his latest piece seemed to be "funny without trying" Milne admitted "That's what it tried to be." Nevertheless, that's the best way to describe what I feel about Walsh's book The Falling Angels.

Having read and enjoyed Are You Talking to Me?, his memoir arranged around twelve key films in his life, I sought out this earlier account of his childhood and the pull between Ireland and England, the place where his parents settled.
His father, a GP in Battersea, dreamt of returning to his homeland in his retirement; his mother, less keen and more firmly rooted in London, went along with this. In in the end, however, she outlived her husband by many years and made a home for herself in Ireland again, deciding, after a couple of years of social calls, that friends would have to come to her in future - and they did.

This post is not going to be a review of either book. You can find such things elsewhere. But as this blog is mostly about music I can't resist mentioning a touching and funny moment in The Falling Anglels involving a song which my friend who disliked Honey would probably dismiss but which I have always loved.

In his many sorties to Ireland as a youth Walsh became accustomed to singing and playing the guitar at social gatherings, and he writes about one evening visiting his terminally mother in hospital when, for some reason, "a carnival atmosphere supervened." His mother finally seems to be in a state of divine grace ("the Catholic karma"), all sorrow and disappointment about her cancer gone - and she asks him to sing John Denver's song Leaving on a Jet Plane. He is understandably reluctant - "Not in a ward of sick people" - until
she turned upon me the sweetest smile I had ever seen, a look of the tenderest love at the moment of departure from what it loves most. The visitors melted into the background, I looked at her face and saw it shining, as if all the love of decades had suddenly been rolled together and let glow in a single burst. I couldn't look away. A whole lifetime of knowing someone is not preparation enough for leaving them, however you may have rationalised it, however little more there is to be said.

'Go on,' she said. I brought my face close and, amazingly without embarrassment, sang:

It was a favourite song of hers - John Denver's Leaving on a Jet Plane. Whenever I used to sing it to her in the seventies, she would look into my eyes, disconcertingly, as if it was sung by a lover. It didn't take a genius to see it as her sign-off. The others joined in the chorus, but Mother didn't mind. From beyond her screens you could hear the three men sitting at Mary the Snow-Haired one's bed joining in as well:

Oi'm leavin' on a jet plane,
Don't know when Oi'll be back agin
O Babe I hate to go ...

Their intention may have been sarcastic but it didn't matter. Everyone laughed and clapped at the end [...] Mother got the company to sing, 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary', waving her hand like a baton. If she'd been in a pub, she'd have been thrown out for rowdy behaviour. 
This extract doesn't really do justice to the book, nor even to this particular section: I have left out, for example, the description of his childish concept of grace as "a magic treacle" with its sudden shift into a more adult register: "entering your system like virtuous heroin."

But, as I say, this is not a review, more a brief sample of what the book contains. And I mention this episode also because it really did illuminate Leaving on a Jet Plane for me: it never occured to me before that the pain of separation in that song could as easily stand for a final farewell, the talk of being together again making sense if you believe in an afterlife. And I have only just realised there is a nod to Hank Williams: "Already I'm so lonesome I could cry."

As, incidentally, Walsh's father did. Believe in an afterlife, I mean, not cry, though he does that as well, during a touching moment earlier in the book when Walsh renounces his Catholicism. His father explains the reason for his pain at the decision: the idea that in the next life he might never see his son again.

But to return to the borrowing from Hank Williams, it's Williams brought up to date, you might say: jet planes, not freight trains, now widening the miles between lovers, ushering in an era of distances less easily bridgeable:
You can't jump a jet plane
Like you can a freight train
as a near contemporary of John Denver's said.

This seems a good place to put a related moment which I may have mentioned earlier in the blog. It comes at the end of the film Millions Like Us and it involves another song: the music hall number Waiting at the Church, preceded by the song Just Like the Ivy, horribly sentimental yet (to me) moving in the way that doo wop is, speaking of an idealised relationship unlikely to be upset by arguments about soft furnishings or disputes about that evening's choice of telly.
 Just like the ivy on that old garden wall
Clinging so tightly what e'er may befall;
As you grow older I'll be constant and true,
And just like the ivy I'll cling to you.
(To go back to AA Milne, it reminds me of one of his pieces in Punch where he is poking affectionate fun at fairytales. At the end of one tale a king or a prince decides to become a swineherd, dismissing any argument or word of caution from his advisors. I don't have it to hand  but Milne says something to the effect that the king was interested in the broad sweep of the idea and didn't want to be disturbed by practicalities: thus I with these songs.)

Waiting at the Church is not an obvious tearjerker like Leaving on a Jet Plane, but it was played by a guitarist at the heroine's wedding to a young RAF pilot who has recently been killed in action. She is working at a munitions factory where Bertha Willmott is singing, and a plane roars overheard, a second sharp reminder of a loss which is still raw.

She is unable to sing along until some prompting by an understanding workmate brings about a renewed realisation that she is not just a widow, is still part of a wider community, so the ending of this film (made in wartime) is essentially positive. And it illustrates the power of music to speak for us, to say what cannot be said otherwise. Her joining in the massed singing Waiting at the Church becomes defiant - in the face of an enemy, and maybe also fate - but it's also about her becoming reabsorbed into a wider world, now that the one-little-room-an-everywhere, the couple bubble, has burst. Beyond her family, from whom she is temporarily separated, there is support, understanding all around her.

 One critic described Millions Like Us as "intelligent entertainment at its best", which I think sums it up precisely. And if that ending seems too sentimental it needs to be seen in context. There is another budding romance, between an upper class girl and a bluff Northern manager at the munitions factory. The subject of marriage is briefly broached, but he states that while they can cross the class divide in wartime while everyone has a practical need to cooperate, it may be a different story afterwards. When he asks if she understands she replies, sadly mocking his voice, "Oh aye ..." So I think the suggestion is that the ending in the clip above is real, but it's a moment of unity which may or may not be sustained.

I had a music-related experience recently at a funeral. There were quite a few recordings played, including one which I hate, and another whose lyrics never quite made sense to me. At one point, being me, I had the uncharitable thought that the occasion provided a perfect excuse for a certain person foisting his musical taste on others in a context which made it particularly difficult to say "No more!" without seeming heartless.

But against that, music was absolutely central to the life of the one whose death we were commemorating, and as I heard the song with the not-quite-making-sense-to-me lyrics sung unselfconsciously by the person beside me I was moved to tears, even though I couldn't join in. It was a perfect illustration that it's what we bring to popular music, that meeting between us and the recording, which makes for something special. It can unlock something in us, define something, or give us hope. And (like dancing) it's a kind of exposing of the self, allowing oneself to be vulnerable and also a declaration of faith in the idea of community, of shared feelings. Even if it's only real for the moment, it gives us hope that it might be like this for longer.I remember passing a instrument shop in Notting Hill where a group of people were playing Frere Jacques. I can't remember the intsrument or instruments involved but I do recall the look of sheepish pleasure on their faces as they saw me watching them.

Anyway, enough. Oh, but one other detail from the Walsh book which I can't resist mentioning. When the family are drafting the funeral notice, making sure to mention all the grieving relatives by name, John Walsh's cousin mentions that "It's customary to end with some line about resting in peace, or being in God's hands, that sort of thing. But only if you fancy it."
'What d'you think, John?' said Madelyn. [his sister] 'Some little sign-off?'
'How about: "Left on a jet plane"?' I suggested.
Madelyn wrote: 'Take my hand, O blessed mother' which was, at the same time, sentimental, horribly religious and absolutely perfect.