Dependency in Song

There is a particular sub-category of love song to which I am particularly drawn, even though I disapprove of and despise the sentiments expressed within them. They are the ones I like to call the “I know it’s hopeless!” songs.

Not ones in which the singer says “I know it’s hopeless” while obviously hoping that it’s not – not that sly old moth-to-the-star pleading. Straightforward unrequited love is the stock-in-trade of song; I’m fond of the idea that it’s the original function of music, an evolutionary instinct as idiosyncratic and lovely as the bower-bird’s constructions. No, I’m talking about the ones in which, if the singer was your friend, you would persistently tell them to give the affair up. And, as hopeless love affairs tend to be the gift that keeps on giving to the listening ear, your friend would as persistently refuse to do so.

Sheryl Crow, having launched herself to fame by singing about drinking beer by the car-wash  – now, if most of us were to do that, someone’d call either the police or the Sally Army – turned altogether less light-hearted when she referred to a faithless lover as “my favorite mistake.” Not only was he her favourite, but his deceit was also “the perfect ending to the bad day I’ve gotten used to spending.” Alongside the despair was a certain Patient Griselda-ish pride in her endurance of it.

This is by no means peculiar to women;  Percy Sledge transformed passivity into virility, via endurance. “When a man loves a woman”, he sang, he will .”give up all his comforts, and sleep out in the rain.” Look, he says, my great love has turned me into Bear Grylls, without the cheating.

The Bee Gees added another dimension to self-aggrandisement through self-abasement when they wrote “You don’t know what it’s love somebody the way I love you.” The singer is, simultaneously, expressing his dependence on his lover and his superior sensibilities in comparison with hers. That immense and heartening arrogance is the soul of the song. I’m proud of being bruisable, it says. You wouldn’t know. (How on earth, I wonder, could such a relationship work out?)

The psychologist Dorothy Rowe has written that the sin of depression is pride – a refusal to let go of the things that trouble us. There are always many people, she says, “who would rather be right than happy.” That, then, is the great problem with the “I know it’s hopeless” genre of songs. Reeling us in with their eloquence and their sympathy with our own hopeless love affairs, past or present, they convince us that there’s something noble in feeling awful. “You don’t have to say you love me!” sang Dusty Springfield, several times. But nobody would say that who didn’t really want someone to say he loved her (rearrange pronouns as appropriate). The statement, therefore, is very nearly a request to be hurt.


The Beach at Dusk

Yesterday something got me down. Without going into too much of the details – rightly has it been said that looking for a job is like dating. Both are exercises in trying to impress another person – in putting on an act of being the best possible version of yourself, in the hope that the person facing you across the table may come to like the version that doesn’t need quite so much upkeep. Just as Helen Macdonald in “H is for Hawk” eloquently states, “There is a red dress that I will never wear again,” so, when I got in, did I take off my smart skirt and jacket and hang it out of sight, not wanting it to taunt me with the failure of what it represented.

So I got in the car and drove out to the coast. Navigating without any defined aim, I let the road take me along the strip where the conurbation fronts the sea , from Tynemouth in the south to Whitley Bay in the north. My intent was to get out and walk along Cullercoats longsands, but I carried on driving – past the lifeboat station and the amusement arcades and the tall terraces of seafront houses that seem to face the North Sea in defensive formation.

When the road turned left, back towards the town, at the top of the coastal strip, I knew that I had to stop or rack up the failure even to go for a walk against all the others. So I parked up and stumbled down the rocks, in the darkening afternoon, to the beach.

The moon ahead of me was an almost perfect semicircle, as if it had been snapped in half and the other given away as a memento. As a feathery cloud passed in front of it it first lit it up from behind; then gradually slipped out of view, so that only the relative pallor of the cloud bore witness to it. On the far side of the bay, that terrace of seafront villas was lit up gaily, like a picture of a toy train on a Christmas advertisement, its row of bright windows evoking progress to something familiar and cosy and good. All bound for Morningtown, many miles away.

“In years to come I will remember this walk,” I said aloud to myself. “I will remember how the pattern of grey onshore clouds against the washed-out sky mirrors the darkening sea and the darker shore below it. I will remember how the little runnels across the sand, where a stream spreads out over the beach in the final stage of its journey to the sea, are intricate and lovely as Gothic tracery; and how, at the end of the promontory, the winking lighthouse seems to guide my steps towards it.”

I had not registered that I was not alone. Dark bands and patches of seaweed stretched across the beach, and in the dimming light I only gradually came to realise that some of the patches were vertical and moving; they were dog-walkers, out for their evening stroll. Their voices, origins uncertain, came drifting towards me: “Chester! Neil!.. Here, boy! C’mere!” One of the smaller patches, with a semicircular line of small blue lights upon it, detached itself from a group and came scampering towards me; it was a terrier with a lit-up collar on. It leapt up at me, daintily patting its front paws upon my legs; allowed me to pet its head; then veered off again, the very epitome of weightless freedom and limitless enthusiasm for life.

By the time I turned to go the indigo of night had seeped into the sky, and the beach and the sea were alike darkening below it. And it struck me that sometimes it is when rejection, or fear, or despair have been playing on my mind, that I feel most keenly the beauty of a beach at dusk, or the poignancy of a piece of music; those moments when the buffers are off, and there is no more pretence to be kept up.

Sunday Bloggerel

Just as a snatch of tune may bring to mind
The love of youth, or worse, its sad decay,
So histories of bleak regret are spelt
In spacious streets and sunlit hills. Inclined
As mankind is to spare ourselves, we turn away,
Lest, as Lot's wife in reminiscence felt
Herself become a concentrate of tears,
The past might salt us down.  - But every song
Each time it's heard's remade of rippling air.
The clouds on our dark hills in former years
Have sidled out; and even when we long
To be provoked, to read that "this was where 
It all began!" engrave event on space  - 
Inscriptions fade, and time lets go of place.

Compliments and creating what you seek to destroy

Of late, I’ve seen a couple of posts on social media, put up by men, to the effect that women should value their bodies more. One stated that while some women find modesty empowering, others find nudity empowering, and that the choice is theirs; the other asked, rhetorically, what would happen if women truly loved their bodies?

Both comments were superimposed upon images of flawless, young, naked women.

Now, the sentiments expressed are so well-meaning that it seems churlish to criticise; besides, I’m prepared to bet that both statements are a good-natured man’s response to the bad habit women have of openly and woefully decrying their own faces, skin tone or weight. Since we do not like to hear harsh criticism of the people we love, I imagine that it is difficult for a heterosexual man who loves his wife or partner to hear her continually bringing herself down. When such a man states to the world at large that he wishes women would love their own bodies, this is a much more constructive response than ignoring his partner’s distress, or, worse, saying “Oh, for God’s sake, shut up,” and therefore banning the subject from discussion.

The obvious problem is the picture. For those of us who, like me, are neither young nor flawless (nor, at this point in time, naked), pictures like the ones in the posts do not say, as I imagine the posters hoped, “This is what women look like; aren’t you beautiful?” but rather, “This is what a woman ought to look like.” Similar images are, of course, routinely used to say to women “.. and you would look like this, if you bought our body lotion/slimming pills/body waxing treatment.” By extension, they say ,”and if you don’t look like this, you should be ashamed of yourself, because you haven’t made the effort to do so.”

A slightly more subtle point, however, is that linking self-respect with love of one’s own physical appearance is to perpetuate a situation in which women, and increasingly men, are judged primarily on appearance – by others, and, most harshly, by themselves. It is as though we are all stuck in a game or race which none of us are allowed to leave and the rules of which we are not allowed to challenge; those who are on our side are allowed to assist us, boosting us with compliments and jewellery at Christmas, but are not allowed to tell us that the race doesn’t matter. If they did, so ingrained is our belief that it does, many of us would bite their heads off. Hell, I’ve done it myself. “You’ve got a perfectly ordinary face,” meant kindly, caused me to sulk for the rest of the evening.

Part of the reason why women are so disproportionately valued on their appearance is that for many years women weren’t expected to learn a profession or attain a social status that wasn’t based upon that of their menfolk; the greatest chance they had was to enchant the right man; their greatest asset was their appearance. “My face is my fortune, Sir”, says the pretty maid in the song. Therefore, a positive response to the excessive focus on women’s physical appearance is to argue that women ought to value themselves for their other qualities  – their professional abilities, academic qualifications, and practical skills, for example.  The emancipation of women has meant that women are valued, and value themselves, for what they can do and what they know.

The only problem I have with this is that it continues the philosophy of self-assessment and self-criticism which, although it is responsible for much that is good in the field of human achievement, is also responsible for a great deal of introspection, self-doubt and anxiety. It is never alright just to be alright. We must strive to excel. It is not enough to be collective; we must compete. To continue with the analogy above, it is as if we were told, or told ourselves, that it is permissible not to race any more, as long as we play tennis or football instead. It is not good enough for everyone to get their boots on and walk up a hill together.

The most empowering experience I have ever had, with reference to my own body, was taking part in the North East Skinny Dip last September. Several hundred people turn up at Druridge Bay at dawn on the equinox, strip off and run into the sea, raising money for Mind and the National Trust. As the waves slapped against my hairy white legs I noted that everyone else was distinctly imperfect, too. Skinny, plump, spotty, or sporting ill-advised tattoos, we permitted one another simply to exist in our own skins and nothing else.

Let us, therefore, learn not necessarily to love ourselves, but to accept ourselves. Let us, by all means, stand naked in front of mirrors in soft lighting, but our focus does not necessarily need to be on convincing ourselves that we are beautiful. Some people are, but that’s not the point. Beautiful or not, high-achieving or not, we are permitted to exist.