Archive for September, 2011
The “on s’promet une vie sans blues” line (roughly, “we promise ourselves a happy life”) gets me every time.
At the age of 21, I was stacking shelves in a Liverpool branch of Kwik Save, and beginning to figure out a way of basing a 20,000-word dissertation on the global football transfer system.
Three and a half decades earlier, at the age of 21 a near-permanently jet-lagged Raymond Douglas Davies found inspiration in the songs of Indian fishermen to write See My Friends, a woozy, dreamy loop of a song.
For a long time I half-dismissed this song, or at least didn’t think about it properly. I was also lazy (and young) enough to automatically classify it as one of those Indian-influenced songs they were all doing in the 1960s. And then, over time, the same things that made me look past it began to make me look into it – the hypnotic quality of the repeated melody, the apparently typical Indian influence (achieved by Dave Davies without even using a sitar), the indistinct meaning of the lyrics – the one constant in the interpretation of these seems to be the death of one of Davies’ sisters, soon after she gave him his first guitar for his 13th birthday.
Then I realised (or, more likely, read somewhere) that it pre-dated Norwegian Wood by a few months, in effect sparking the Beatles’ obsession with sitars, and the penny dropped. This helpfully fitted my already-resolute belief that Ray Davies is a superior songwriter to Lennon and/or McCartney.
It’s fair to say that, beyond the age of 21, I’ve not got any closer to the trajectory of Raymond Douglas Davies. But my dissertation was surprisingly well received.
La Peste by Albert Camus (1947)
Set in the Algerian town of Oran in “194.”, Camus’ novel tells a story of a plague-infested town cut off from the outside world, and of individuals separated from loved ones. Aside from the specific circumstances of the individual characters (a doctor trying to treat, if not cure, the ill; a journalist separated from his wife in Paris; a ne’er-do-well profiting from circumstances by channelling in contraband), the story is simple and constrained: the plague arrives, thousands die, it ends; we never leave Oran, and never experience the feelings of those outside the town.
The story of the fight against the plague stands up in its own right, yet it serves easily, and skilfully, as a metaphor – for morality, for the human condition, and for occupied France in the Second World War.
The war metaphor can be clearly seen: the sense of imprisonment, both physical and mental, hangs heavily over the book, with the gates of Oran firmly closed and an ever-present sense of isolation and exile. In this town ‘occupied’ by the plague, the main protagonists respond by forming small, organised medical teams to resist the plague’s spread by helping the sick and improving sanitary conditions elsewhere. As for morality, we’re told that Oran is an ugly town, full of money-focused and fundamentally dull people, built with its back to the sea, ignoring its open expanses – as if, through its rejection of life, it were somehow inviting the plague to attack. Furthermore, as the plague takes hold, attendance at mass soars; later it becomes more an act of superstition and fear than belief, if it is attended at all.
I prefer the reading of the novel as a consideration of the human condition – let’s not stray towards the term existentialism, not because I don’t really know what I’m talking about (though I don’t), but because Camus reportedly distanced himself from the movement: “No, I am not an existentialist” (though with ambiguous statements like that, who knows what he was really up to?).
In effect, the plague comes and goes for no apparent reason; the local administration is ineffective (their optimism and pessimism are equally inconsequential); neither individuals nor organisations have any meaningful sense of control over the plague’s spread, while the successful recovery or painful death of its sufferers are a product of chance alone. Despite the futility of inconclusive serums and the realisation that the plague takes its victims indiscriminately, a curious kind of emancipation arises, the sense of efforts to take action being worthy in their own right, regardless of their outcome. Deep, yet emotionally restrained, friendships are forged on the back of these efforts, and our protagonists set aside their personal suffering to work for the collective good – the doctor whose wife was sent away to the Swiss mountains to recover from illness just before the plague struck, the exiled Parisian journalist who renounces his intentions to have himself smuggled out of the town in order to stay and help, the frustrated writer who divides his many sleepless hours between torturing himself over the opening sentence of a never-to-be-finished novel and recording the statistics of the plague.
In a strange way, optimism abounds in this novel – optimism in the shape of man’s willingness to continue to fight, to resist in the face of attack from a faceless, inhuman enemy. In an apparently capricious world, exerting this will elevates the characters above their daily horrors, into some sort of meaning. Appropriately enough, there is no firm conclusion to the book after the plague disappears, no trite, easy end. Instead we are left with a rather chilling (not to say lengthy) warning:
“Car il savait ce que cette foule en joie ignorait, et qu’on peut lire dans les livres, que le bacille de la peste ne meurt ni ne disparaît jamais, qu’il peut rester pendant des dizaines d’années endormi dans le meubles et le linge, qu’il attend patiemment dans les chambres, les caves, les malles, les mouchoirs et les paperasses, et que, peut-être, le jour viendrait où, pour le malheur et l’enseignement des hommes, la peste réveillerait ses rats les enverrait mourir dans une cité heureuse”
“For he knew what this joyous crowd did not, and what can be read in books, that the germ of the plague never dies nor disappears, that it can remain asleep for tens of years in furniture and sheets, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and paperwork, and that, perhaps, the day would come when, for man’s misfortune and learning, the plague would wake its rats and send them to die in a happy neighbourhood”
I must have bought hundreds of these little A5-ish sized comics over the years. I was always, and remain, fond of the artwork’s impression of movement, if not the writing – even at a tender age I knew no footballer would hear, acknowledge, and mentally respond to an individual cry from the crowd while in the process of launching an effort on goal. But still, they had to make the narrative work somehow.
I love the premise of this storyline: up-and-coming Divison 1 (in the days before Sky Sports invented football, this was) footballer goes off the rails a bit and is sent to an aspiring non-league team in a harsh mining community to be taught a lesson. While there he causes ructions with his Big Time Charlie attitude and is, somewhat unfairly, held morally accountable for a terrible mine collapse (shades of Germinal there. Or is that just me?) which results in the death of some of the team, before rallying his more illustrious contacts to the cause and single-handedly seeing the team to promotion to the football league, and completely restoring his reputation.
A couple of years on, and I must have moved on the permanent toy advert that was Transformers. 30p for the comic and a terrific Panini Transformers sticker album? Bargain! Of course, the real killer was in the ongoing purchase of stickers. How could I have been so blind? How??
I’d never have believed you if you’d told me the word “freakin'” was used in 1986, much less that I’d been aware of it.
Recently rediscovered at my Grandma’s house, and in residence there since 20th October 1984 (approximately)
I like the swaps section, where Gareth Williams of Weston-Super-Mare is offering Darth Vader in return for, um, himself
The caption competition, meanwhile, is crying out for an entry where they both say “I think you may have got yourself typecast here”