The soundtrack of my life

Though my first passport stated I had been born in ‘Wrexham, Wales’ in 1960, my role in ‘the insubstantial pageant’ that has subsequently unfolded actually began in a village six miles further north in what became my childhood home, a stone’s throw away from the English border – & thus merely a couple more ‘throws’ from the ‘industrial North-West.’ In my childhood, that mainly meant proximity to Shankly’s ‘Reds’ & Busby’s ‘Red Devils’ in Liverpool & Manchester, but also to a world rooted in a belief that solidarity, community & ‘togetherness’ – values celebrated in the chants at ‘Anfield’ & ‘Old Trafford3 & synonymous with the virtues of faith, hope & charitymy sisters & I  praised in ‘Sunday-school’ hymns in the chapel at the end of the lane – would prevail on our pathway from cradle to grave.

My parents had moved ‘up North’ from Reading & had bought a newly-built semi-detached just a few months before my appearance in their Anglicized version of the American Dream. As teenagers in ‘pseudo-post-war-consensus-‘50s’ Britain, they had understood the message that ‘opportunites’ were certainly not ‘unlimited’ in a land in which class divisions were of ever-present significance; & that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ meant enacting rituals accessible for the class group in which one belonged. Listening to middle-class children’s stories on 45s in record-shop booths during our family’s weekly Saturday trip to ‘the shops’ in town, for example, was one such subconscious exercise in identity confirmation. However, the joy felt hearing music on vinyl is distinctly conspicuous by its absence in my childhood recollections – the ‘Mersey Beat or Swinging-Sixties Pop almost inaudible. A trip ‘across the Mersey’ by ferry or via the new Mersey road & rail tunnel was a rare foray through alien territory to see musical-movies – (‘Mary Poppins’ / ‘The Sound of Music’ / ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’) – ‘in tune’ with middle-class ‘harmony-addiction-compatible’ pulse rates John, Paul, George & Ringo’s manic rock-n-roll beat & their life-affirming harmony vocals – in retrospective contrast – sound like expressions of the ‘inaccessible differentness’ of the sensibilities underlying the world those four ‘working-class heroes’ were from. My only ‘60s music memories are just hazy ‘black-&-white-TV’ images from watching ‘Top of the Pops’ – from ‘64 onwards an essential weekly family ritual – but the magical lure of Petula Clarke’s ‘Downtown’ (‘64), or Sandie Shaw’s strange desire to be somebody’s ‘Puppet on a String’ (‘67) are both probably memories of repeats rather than due to Petula’s or Sandie’s voices firing a three- or a six-year-old’s imagination. The roar & chants heard sitting on the shoulders of a friendly ‘scouser’ at the ‘top of the Kop’ on my nineth-birthday trip to Anfield, in contrast, still ring loud-&-clear … & my comprehensive-school’ years – (‘11+ selection’ ended in ’72, & my mother’s ‘suggestion’ that ‘The King’s School’ – a boys-only, private grammar school across the border – would be a ‘nice’ alternative’ fell on deaf ears) – are accessible as full-colour experiences, most of them with a ‘soundtrack’ of songs preceeded by the crackle of the needle hitting vinyl … ‘Pop-&-Rock’ became a huge sociological phenomenon in the ‘70s, particularly in the UK, where – almost exclusively ‘home-grown’ – it transmitted messages reflecting divisions in the UK’s tribal culture. It thus also presented my classmates & I with a new, essential rite of passage: turning thirteen in late-’73, it seemed, required laughing at the Rod Stewards & Elton Johns on ‘TOTP’ – (glam-rock, too, ‘though some of us secretly knew that maverics on its periphery – Bolan & Bowie – were cool) -& chosing between blues-rooted ‘Led Zeppelin’ / ‘Deep Purple ’/ ‘Black Sabbath’ or the post-hippy, medative sophistication of ‘Pink Floyd’ / ‘Yes’ / ‘(Peter-Gabriel)-Genesis.’ At the time the choice seemed easy: ‘Dark Side of the Moon’  just blew everything else off the planet; & for me remains the most convincing & moving attempt to address the question whether humans will ever be capable of being humane. By ‘A-level-choice-sixteen’ that question screamed out from behind the façade of the charade around me & – with ‘Career Opportunities’ on the table in ‘1977 – ahead of me, too. John ‘Imagine’ Lennon had become my first hero, but ‘Joe-&-Co’ were wearing ‘I-Hate-Pink-Floyd’ T-Shirts & singing ‘no Elvis, no Beatles & no Rolling Stones’ & so I pretended that I agreed – as yet oblivious to John Winston Lennon’s own self-emancipatory, ‘parting & abdication song’ – ‘I don’t believe in Elvis, I don’t believe in Beatles, I don’t believe in Zimmerman … I just believe in me.’

That summer & during the first of my two years at a sixth-form-college in Wrexham – [a town in decay, with confirmation of either the ‘no-future’ nihilsm enacted by Mssrs. Rotten & Vicious around every corner, or of the logic behind ‘The Clash’s’ calls-to-arms] – my middle-class-teenager’s response to the increasing number of ‘quo-vadis’ questions confronting me was to ‘run for the hills’ … to ‘Pen Y Graig’ – ‘The House on the Rock’- high up on the hillside, looking down the Vale of Llangollen towards the mystical ruins of ‘Dinas Bran’ under which King Arthur & his knights lay sleeping. The cottage was the home of my former art teacher -now simply ‘Gordon’ – who epitomized the‘70s reinterpretation of Timothy Leary’s ‘60s exortation by ‘turning on & tuning in’ to ‘Mother Nature’ as opposed to LSD, & ‘dropping out’ of the unsustainable lifestyle that the self-indulgent seventies had created. Gordon was putting theory into practice, while accepting the inevitable compromises dignity & integrity intact. After hitch-hiking to the foot of the hill & crossing the Pontcysyllte aqueduct – which had enabled the narrow boats to cross the valley & follow the canal to the Mersey – each step up the narrow, winding lane was – in retrospect – a step away from the world my great-grandparents & grandparents had created & in which my parents had brought me up, & thus also a step away from the life ahead which my childhood seemed to have had in store for me … The ‘certainties’ that had been the basis of my programming had already began to crumble two years earlier, when I joined both ‘The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’ & ‘Friends of the Earth’ – unable to comprehend why neither my family members nor friends had even bothered to watch just one of the twenty-six episodes of ‘The World at War’- a six-month documentary series which blew away all the childhood stories of war-time heroism, confronted me with the inhumane brutality of the holocaust &, with the images from Hiroshima & Nagasaki, prompted me to set off on my first demonstration against the madness of the ‘industrial-military nuclear complex’ … Looking back, it feels like I actually left home at the end of that summer of ‘78, a year earlier than my physical departure in the autumn of ’79 … My university applications to study English Literature & Philosophy were the first steps on that path. Top of my list was Sussex University in Brighton, chosen on the recommendation of my ‘lower-sixth’ English teacher, Mr. Richards, who had given me the feeling that I was almost as cool as I was trying to be: unable to really get excited by post-punk, I had ‘got into’ jazz – John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman – &, with the two friends who had gone with me to Pen Y Graig, started going to jazz concerts in an upstairs bar at ‘Chester Arts Centre’. Among an audience of about 30 one night, impressed by our attendance, was ‘Mr. R.’ || The rest of my first story is easy to predict. At ‘Sussex’ I became a vegetarian. I learned how to think. I hated Thatcher. I came to Germany ‘for one year’ in 1982. I learned German. I taught English. In ‘89 I got a job at a vocational college in Regensburg. I have been at the ‘RFS’ for 32 years. I continue to be blessed by the presence of wonderful colleagues & students, it feels like home. Regensburg, too. My partner & I have lived here for 40 years. We have a house on the hill. Our daughter & our son live life consciously. Like Gordon.

Applying to study at ‘The School of English-American Studies’ at ‘Sussex University’ in late ’78 meant I’d at least begun to see what road I was turning away from, & why … Having arrived in Brighton – lucky to have been accepted after failing my maths A-level – I needed more than a year to find my feet & walk down the road I’d chosen, but – thanks to three structuralist lecturers – Alan Sinfield, Frank Gloversmith & Allon White – I began to learn how to think, how to see through the layered complexities of different forms of cultural expression or human endeavor; but also to see that beyond all the layers & discrepancies of the identifiable discourses, beyond the specific peculiarities of social programming & the genetically-determined inevitabilities at play in its production, the art I analyzed nonetheless offered access to a level of human perception, in theological terminology called the ‘soul,’ where  beauty, grace, dignity & mercy dwell, & that – Shakespeare or Schopenhauer, take your pick – ‘the food of love’ / ‘the food of soul – is music

& – my second story – to understand that back in late ’78 music had ceased to be the soundtrack to my life – an external addition, an afterthought offering vicariously experienced emotions – but had taken centre stage in my own experience of everything that was all ‘part of what life’s rich pageant was throwing at me.’ This second story had begun one evening in October, listening to ‘Radio City’ – a local radio station from Liverpool. Suddenly, unannounced, after a few seconds of silence, a harmonica blast like Gabriel’s horn – then, heralding a litanic trip through US military history that rang true to ears conditioned by similar lies, a brief wail seguing into a voice like none ever heard before:

‘Oh my name, it means nothing, my age it means less. The country I come from is called The Mid-West

I was taught & brought up there, the laws to abide, & that the land that I live in has God on its side’

Neurological research has shown that our brains are highly individual in structure & process sensory experience, including exposure to aesthetic stimuli, in divergent ways. Music triggers the same dopamine reward network in the brain as other forms of sensory stimulation & illicits bodily sensations for some – a lump in the throat, chills, ‘pins-&-needles’ or ‘goose bumps’ – while others experience little or no response at all … & I hope I’ve learned that lesson … & that students who got sick of having song after song served up due to a mistaken belief that the music would emotionally anchor facts & figures will forgive me: ‘you can take a horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink’. As a Buddhist poem states: “We eat, excrete, sleep & get up. This is our world. All we have to do after that is to die. but like an alternative translation (‘holy-soul-is-sex-&-drugs-&-rock-n-roll’) ignores the fact that we are also capable of empathetic shared experience … ‘We live, we die, we know not why – we eat, we drink, we feel & we think – we learn to live & then we forgive – frailer than the flowers, these precious hours that keep us so tightly bound – I owe my heart to you, & that’s sayin’ it true, I’ll be with you when the deal goes down’ – / – faith, hope & love: these three, but the greatest of these is love’ .

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