Birthday Boy

Birthday Boy can’t explain/Christmas Eve he’s born again

In his book One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem, Neil Tennant writes a single footnote about a song that has long intrigued me:

I imagined Jesus coming back to earth on the eve of his birthday and, like the young British student Stephen Lawrence, is murdered in a racist attack, dying for our sins all over again.

Neil Tennant, One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem

It is not, then, a cheery song. Christmas song this is not.

Each verse of the 2002 track is dirge-like, with the melody only really lifting and unfolding in the chorus where we’re asked to contemplate ‘do you remember/he’s been through all this before?’ It’s a song of repetition, not just of musical motif, but also of metaphor and theme. The very essence of the song is the relationship between existence, death, and rebirth. The connection of narrative to time is complex. Although the reference to Jesus playing ‘the machines in the arcade’ dates the song, we are also asked to read this through the lens of much older Christian thinking. This traditional understanding is, though, questioned and challenged. Jesus is ‘born again’ and although he may well indeed ‘have been through all this before’ the Christian certainty that he will die for our sins is brought into question with the verse:

‘This time around/It’s all a mistake/Is he deluded/Or just a fake?’

This is Tennant at his lyrical best: opaque, uncertain, metaphorically dense. It is a song so rich in Biblical allusion that it’s difficult to grasp quite where to begin with it. Indeed, any way into the song is also complicated by the fact that it is both present and past, both Jesus and Stephen Lawrence, both religiously significant and also theologically distant.

It is perhaps towards the end of the song where this is most evident:

‘A quick betrayal/A speedy trial/As before/Complete denial’

It is a comment on the repetitive nature of such horrific murders and the modern societal response to them; and it is also a reference to the betrayal of Jesus by his disciple Judas Iscariot, the trial in front of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilot, and the denial by Simon Peter that he even knew Jesus. 

The song ends with a sample of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ by English composer Harold Edwin Drake. It’s a fitting ending to a song that is so textured with references to other names, other stories, and other times. The central question of the song remains long after the choir of Clair College stops singing:

‘If you knew his name/would you feel this same?’

Suzy the Bedlington Terrier

There is always the chance that the words will fall short.

I’m writing a book. I wasn’t going to tell anyone, but somehow in a brief Twitter exchange I ended up stating what I’d vowed to keep to myself. Anyway, publication is August 2022.

Writing is often challenging; sometimes it’s impossible, but mostly it’s enjoyable. I get to sit down each day and tap away. Words flow fairly painlessly for me. Some people wake humming a tune that they’ve conjured up over night. For others the world is made sense of through images. My daughter’s friend sent us a Christmas card. It is a drawing of her dog – a beautiful Bedlington Terrier called Suzy. When it arrived I found myself staring at it, wondering how a girl of fifteen could pick up a pencil and draw something so lifelike, so detailed, and yet so recognisable as art. There is something about Suzy’s eyes that draw you in. They plead and they are kind. It’s a great picture that I could never dream of drawing for myself.

I simply don’t understand how a pencil in the hand of an artist can do that. I simply don’t possess whatever one needs to be able to draw or paint. But words…words flow, and for that I have always been grateful. Of course, I’m not sure if they are any good. It’s one thing to write and quite another to write anything that anyone will actually want to read. I have to step away from doubts and uncertainty each time I open my laptop. Writing is not just an exercise in trust, it’s also an attempt to meaningfully connect. There is always the chance that the words will fall short. No such problem for the Suzy card. Each time I walk past it her eyes reach out and I smile. Each time I look I wonder how a pencil in the hand of an artist can do that.

London

I realised that most of the paths that lay before me would, in my lifetime, remain untrodden.

I’ve started to read Peter Ackroyd’s enormous biography of London. The scope of the book is fitting for a city which amazes and beguiles each time I visit. I don’t go to London enough. Each time I do I promise to return sooner, for longer, and for the purpose of simply wandering aimlessly through its highways and byways, through its parks and its squares.

We went in summer. One memorable evening, while everyone was busy showering away the dust from a hot afternoon, I ran down from the hotel towards the Thames through Richmond. The pavements were full of people walking to wherever they needed to be. More interesting still were those tiny moments of sadness that I felt as I realised that most of the paths that lay before me would, in my lifetime, remain untrodden. I would never be able to walk or run them all, however interesting they might seem. Even then, with no real rush to get back, I could only cover a tiny fraction of the ground I found to each side of me. There should be a word for it: the sadness that accompanies the knowledge that we can only glimpse a fraction of what we pass through.

That sounds too glum. It isn’t meant to be. As I ran on, cautious to retrace my steps carefully, I was also happy about the fact that I too was going back to where I needed to be. I too had somewhere to go. My family would be there: laid out, post-shower, feeling that glow of exhaustion that follows a day well-spent walking, drinking coffee, watching the world go by with no particular aim. To them my thoughts returned as behind me the Thames silently wound its way through London.

Footnotes

The landscape itself is almost always inconsequential and I often struggle to recall where I’ve been.

I’ve just read Footnotes by Vybarr Cregan-Reid. It’s a wonderful book about running, about why we run, about who we are when we run, and about the landscapes that we run through. It’s an adventurous book too as it ranges over diverse topics and unusual running related texts. Perhaps it is fitting that there is a real sense of exploration which runs like a rich seam through the narrative of a man moving his feet in an attempt to understand both himself and the world around him. Highly recommended.

Not surprisingly Footnotes references Thomas Hardy, specifically Tess of the D’Urbervilles. As Cregan-Reid roams the landscape he thinks back to Hardy wandering the countryside; the poet at large. It prompted me to reread the novel too. It’s not quite as I remembered it, although as Footnotes points out, things never are as we remember them once we move through them and look back.

I don’t really run for the landscapes though. For me, each footstep has the potential to change our lives if we approach each run, or each book, with an open mind. That is the point of running and that is more than enough. The landscape itself is almost always inconsequential and I often struggle to recall where I’ve been. I’ve run on Dorset’s Jurassic coastal paths, and through New York’s Central Park. I’ve been lost in Greece and I once nearly passed out trying to run in the Caribbean. I remember little about those runs. For me, running is symbolic.  Where I run doesn’t matter as much to me as it might to Cregan-Reid. And that’s fine for both of us.  As Hardy notes in Tess, “Beauty lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolized.”

Dark days

Long distance anything hurts. Long distance triathlon is no different.

I’m resurrecting my blog. Last week, while trying to write a post, I somehow managed to corrupt some of the settings. Rather than waste time in a pointless attempt to work out what I’d accidentally done, I pressed ‘archive’ and everything I’d written there magically filed itself away. I’m left with a blank canvas.

It’s exhilarating.

Perhaps we are all drawn to the idea of a fresh start. In two weeks, we’ll be deluged by posts about resolutions. The new year seems a good place to build new and better habits. It’s mostly nonsense. It’s not really habits that we are after. What we really seek is an escape from ourselves; we are tempted by the illusive promise of the new along with the tiny rush of dopamine as we announce our intentions to the world at large. Perhaps we all long for resurrection at some point in our lives. Maybe we all seek to reconcile our old, worn-out selves with the new version that we sometimes imagine as we look, misty-eyed, to the future.

I like this time of year. I like the certainty that it brings to those of us in this part of the world: the shortest days, the longest nights. In my mind’s eye time tilts from this point on; and there, glimpsing back at me, is the summer and the promise of heat, warmth, sunlight. Spring can’t be far off. Life will return.

Of course, life never really leaves.

Maybe we all need reminding that our darkest times are always brought into relief when we simply accept the fact that light will return. We don’t need to force it, dwell on it, invite it. It will simply be. Light is. Life is.

I know what it feels like when life isn’t light. I understand a little of what TS Eliot wrote when he claimed that he could ‘connect nothing with nothing’. All those years ago, when my mind just gave up, the only thing that I could do was simply be. Music, reading, running…nothing made sense. I couldn’t do anything. As my bewilderment slowly faded I came to accept the returning of the light. There was no drama. No Damascene moment. I just survived, somehow. There was no way through the confusion I felt; I could only sit in my own pain. As I sat with myself, I slowly came to realise that life does move on, that time will creep by, and that the very best that we can do is to move forward.

When I turned forty, I entered Ironman. It was a personal celebration of survival, and beyond that, of growth. Long distance anything hurts. Long distance triathlon is no different. Somewhere around mile 130 my mind started to wander back to those days when the world seemed so confusing with its heady brew of stress, grief, and unresolved trauma. My bodily pain seemed to want my mind to drift back to those months when I thought I couldn’t go any further. I wanted out then and I really wanted to stop now. But what to do? How could I finish? Is giving up the only rational option? Surely?

They were just thoughts. That much I had learned in the gap between breaking down and the mile I found myself in. As I ran towards the next aid station I knew that I didn’t need to resurrect myself, I just needed to go on. I didn’t need to make a resolution, I just needed to move forward. I didn’t need to think positive thoughts, I just needed to finish. The dark thoughts of failure, of stopping, and of giving up on myself, would soon be over.

My family waited patiently by the finish line. Some fourteen hours after I’d started and despite being under-prepared, I had reached the end. I handed my medal to my son and my daughter asked me if I was an Ironman.

I managed to nod that I was, all the while noticing that the shafts of sunlight illuminating her face and glinting off her hair made her look even more beautiful.

%d bloggers like this: