Sunday, March 12, 2006

Something to Sing About

There’s a world outside the poor room. A world you don’t understand. The thing to do with your sentimentality, your cheap barrelhouse stories, songs and films is to lock them up inside. Before you step through the door.

I cried the first time I saw The Strawberry Blonde. Even when I think of it now. In fact, now that I really think of it, there’s something about Jimmy Cagney that gets me right here. You could pick him up, Cagney, and put him in your pocket. But you couldn’t beat him.

There was a moment, at the bottom of our stairs, when Jimmy Cagney talked about the Irish cop who walked the streets when he was a kid. This cop who would shift his shoulders, thrust out his chin and quickly pull it back in again. It mattered a great deal, of course, that the cop was Irish.

There was also a moment, many moments, when Jimmy Cagney, his red hair somehow ablaze through the grain of black and white, stood on the steps of the Shakespeare Street registry office with my grandmother who was holding on for her life. As she continued to do until the too soon end, running her hands through his fiery hair in front of the fire, in front of the endless mantelpiece of the polished brass and glow.

A dry eye at the end of The Roaring Twenties? Impossible.

And on the table in the back yard, weathered, green and slimy, its age the first thing you notice, three large ashtrays overbrimming with cigarette butts that the now solo smoker cannot bring him or herself to empty away. If you look closely at those that haven’t burnt down to the brown you will see the exotica of long forgotten names: Player’s No.6, Carlton Long Size, Strand, Gold Leaf, Red Setter, Last Call. Plus two chairs by the table still, ever the hopeful.

As they always say, because it’s the right thing to say, the old songs are the best. Caught beneath the ceiling of cigarette smoke, the catch at the back of the throat, the pub passageway is alive with singers who, for absolutely nothing, will treat you to the songs they call their own. That was mam’s song. That was mam’s favourite. Not art, not quite. But at the very least the beginning of art. Easy to understand, to live through, those songs with their pull at the heartstrings, specifically designed to go with a glass of milk stout, a burning cigarette and the slow run of mascara. It was something to remember that has long been forgotten. Even on the bus ride home. With that old gang of mine.

The dark comedy to be had in puncturing these sentimental contrivances is, of course, the sport of kings. Because it is the elaboration of reality, the best way to cleanly represent the vast mundanities of the real – and to present (from the vantage point of lofty) the little man as some kind of noble hero in his own grandiose narrative – that is the preserve of those who, literally, don’t get it. Don’t let them fool you, however well they say it, however well they dress it up. They will never get it because they never had it. Only true peasants can see through false peasant lies.

Still, how do we tread the golden path back, back, back without veering off course or coming a cropper on a loose nugget?

At the very beginning of art there is a doorway through which you know you can or cannot pass. The door is either open to you or it is closed to you. You’ll either be waved through with words of encouragement or you’ll be sent back from where you came. The only way through, if you’re not allowed through, is to slip in, when no-one is looking. Better still is to look for the hole in the fence.

You cannot impose sentimentality. Nor take it from its source and attempt to send it back, cleverly disguised. The run from sentimentality is a run that is made until you tire. It’s when you’re resting that it catches up, surprising you yet again with its potency. You’ve come this far, all these miles, all these years, and that song, that voice, that photograph, that book, that smile, that film, that wink, that memory still, still has the strength to destroy you.

On the table in the back yard the carved initials of two young lovers from years past who, though no longer lovers, were for a time the most passionate, devout lovers you could ever hope to see. A small time, in the earliest days of their youth. There is, of course, the sheer fact of the passage of time to consider, as well as the automatic response to the elderly. But the truth of that love affair now, looking back from these years, is that it was grand and passionate and new and startling and frightening at exactly the same time that it was banal and silly and ordinary and absolutely doomed. These two young lovers, fleeting with their passion, are the very best that has been thought, said, written and otherwise. They are as good as it gets and much, much better than it gets. Especially from here, now that they have been rendered within new forms. Now that they can so easily be recognised. You can hear them, and see them, out there still.

The way the moon sits sometimes, afraid in the sky. The scorch of the clouds as they stretch by. Through the glass, your own reflection as a face upon the moon. Through the floorboards below, the laughter and the songs you realise are old. Old songs even while they are new. The tales they tell of unrequited loves and mourned deaths, the loss of everything, of youth and family, old pals and loves. The sheer torture of just being alive and how the pain, the pain can only be worn inside. For to reveal the pain would be to betray the smile upon one’s lips, the glint in one’s eye, the pleasures of the day. But through song the optimism of two chairs, two ashtrays, the still deep marks of lovers’ initials intertwined. The sigh of the stars.

The sneer towards sentimentality is the sniff from the back garden of culture. Never mind the screams from the house. You carry your sentimentality through the gate at your own risk. It can never go back. You surrender what you were, your first beginnings of art. You soon become something new. A betrayal of sorts. But what choice did you have?

The Strawberry Blonde no longer plays as a film. It is a still, a collection of stills, underwritten with the autographs of its leading players: James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Jack Carson, Alan Hale. Its time is not my time nor even its own time. Those stills are brief snapshots of the way things could, and should, have been. You look at Jimmy Cagney and he breaks your fucking heart.


Anonymous lorena said...

Beautiful writing! Thanks for Sharing.

2:58 AM  
Anonymous Darren said...

I loved that Paul.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Molly Bloom said...

Really great. Full of pain for what is lost from the past. I especially like the last section and the final paragraph. Wonderful.

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