Andrew has kindly asked me to submit a few Festival blogs. Here goes, and the fire escapes have now been locked.
Nobody, dear gentle Reader, has been caught singing in the rain. Not in the annals of recorded time. Rain saps joy, slaps you in the face like a cold cloth, and it crushes my spirits to the point where I face a kind of mental extinction. Neither am I alone, apparently, in my elemental susceptibilities. In 1826 Franz Schubert, greatest of all song-writers, complained about a foul week:
I am not working at all – the weather here is truly appalling. The Almighty seems to have forsaken us altogether, for the sun refuses to shine. It is May, and we cannot sit in any garden yet. Appalling! Ghastly! And the most cruel thing on earth for me.
Oddbods, you see, these creative types; or at least, too many of them. A few years later you’d see Edgar Allan Poe, rattling down the streets at full pelt and muttering like a mantra under his breath, “I am safe – I am safe – yes, if I be not fool enough to make open confession!” Anthony Hopkins took the words from my mouth when he declared that he had been born on the wrong planet. I cannot help but view the world askance. Half-a-dozen years ago I was on the train between Kensal Rise and Richmond, with the late afternoon sun doing a Morse code in my face. I thought: What if you lived like a train going at a thousand miles an hour? How different the world might seem. But then, what does any of us learn, except a more convoluted variant of our own ignorance? A week or two later I’d rustled up a poem, which I called Persistence of Vision:
The span of his gaze was so great
He could not see the generations come and go before him:
Flickering, quicker than motes on a sunbeam.
Growing, rotting, burning at a supersonic pace;
Flitting between the squares of a chessboard garden
Too fast for the eye to catch.
Their monuments lasted a moment longer
Before melting, like sugar in rain.
Yet these he applauded:
Having watched great cathedrals rise and wither
Like convolvulus or runner beans –
A mite colourless (he would have approved more exotic
Blossomings) but worthwhile enough. He wondered if
Perhaps they grew from seed; or rather, who pollinated
Them, so that their brief lives might be perpetuated,
And to what end. Before him, belligerent continents
Waged war or else, supine in defeat,
They ebbed and flowed, passive, upon the tide.
He would have liked to eavesdrop on their treaties
And entreaties: but they spoke too hurriedly, and in a whisper.
He yearned to confide in intimacies, and
He was reconciled to being alone.
In truth, they had begun to weary him.
They knew no wisdom, and their refusal to learn was
Irksome. Clearly, this was home to the most
Rudimentary thought. Had he been young (had he
Remembered what it was like to be young) he might
Have wept with disillusionment. As it was, ever the stoic,
He watched the terrain crumble further into ashes,
And clasped his arms tight against the onset of
An eternal winter.
There have been advances since Nineteenth Century Vienna, of course. There’s the invention of superglue, which uses the puddles of the pavement themselves to seal the leaky bits of your soles against further seepage. See, I’m not going to set the world alight with my entrepreneurial fervour. My existence is curmudgeonly, impoverished, ossified, reclusive, gloomy and silent. I make Eeyore look like Liberace. Most of my life is spent as it always has been: daydreaming. The bath is best place (make sure you’ve exhumed your washing-up first), yet I am capable of sleeping away whole summers in the stupor I prefer to being awake; and the seasons flit past me behind thick drawn curtains. Last Autumn I turned out another poem, which must pass for the oddest marriage proposal yet conceived:
I cannot rest
Yet all I want’s to dream
Reposing on unconsciousness
Like Ophelia, in her stream.
Her long hair wafting, blooming:
As the sun died, as woods and
Fields bled their last heat into black air
You’d join me there
(If you liked)
A silent kinship (if you’d like
To call it that). I wouldn’t mind.
It wouldn’t matter.
We’d both know nothing.
It has taken an Indian lady in Delhi to grasp what I might have been going on about. She twigged it straightaway, and that revelation lifted my day like a shaft of sunlight deep inside. All of the British Normals to whom it had been read (rashly) would gawp, as if struck on the bonce with a stuffed eel. At last one of them had cleared her throat: “I like poems with a happy ending”. And why should she not, for goodness’ sake?
I remember a clinical psychologist commenting that anybody living in the Gorbals would need to be mentally ill in order to be happy. I cherish too the memory of Artur Rubinstein, a pianist of superlative finesse, reminiscing about a failed suicide attempt. He was young and in Paris: unrecognised, next to starving, and the rope broke. As he picked himself up and wandered into the street, it was the brightness of a woman’s coat that filled him with wonderment; that and – yes – the sparkle of wet mud after a downpour. There is little happiness to be gained from Five-Year Plans. Joy lies indeed in the grain of sand, the impossible minutiae. For me it’s birdsong: or the sublimation of liquefied birdsong, by which I mean the music of Mozart. Come to think, birds in general:
A bird is as spring water is to earth.
A bird is as air is to clouds.
A bird is as angels are to air. (There are no angels.)
A bird is as red is to rust.
A bird does not possess colour. A bird is colour.
A dawn chorus is singing by consent, not by consensus.
A bird is zest.
Without the birds, we clods could not define
Ourselves, our cloddish ways.
Let’s raise our glass to the old elemental muck –
For the birds that fly above it.
For indeed. There is a grown-up joy: a joy of sobriety and courage perhaps, but with enough zest to fill worlds. But as to how (for me) it might best be reached? Well, that will have to wait for another time.
The poems and image are taken from Stephen Jackson’s new book, DEAD PEOPLE ON HOLIDAY (ISBN 978-1-4500-3969-7)