Rather than wake this post-referendum morning to a nightmare, I chose to imagine we British had embarked on a marvellous adventure. Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, a girl with kaleidoscope eyes. Cellophane flowers of yellow and green, towering over your head. Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she’s gone … gone … gone … gone … and then I woke up!
Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou.
This familiar moment of waking confusion illustrates the phenomenon of human empathy, our extraordinary ability to imagine what it is like to be others. Written well over 2000 years ago in China, it also shows an awareness of animal consciousness that predates modern science. And after months of bruising debate, we Brits have to stop treating the other side as less than human and rediscover our fellow-feeling. This could take a bit of humour to achieve.
Humour is another word for perspective and we might take a lesson from the French philosopher and writer Michel de Montaigne, writing a mere 500 years ago on his love of viewing things from different perspectives:
When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her?
Who awakes and who dreams here? Is the cat or the writer the prime mover? Or are they cooperating in a shared reality that neither can grasp without the other?
Where do I end and you begin? It’s a question no easier to answer than the famous Zen teaser – what is the sound of one hand clapping? For all our airs and graces, I’ve heard it said that complicated creatures like ourselves exist only as taxi services for billions of bacteria. Bill Hicks called homo sapiens ‘a virus in shoes’, though he probably wasn’t thinking about our function as high-rise housing for germs. Can we make a larger claim for ourselves, I wonder?
Some people don’t like being called animals. Some people think the earth was created in seven days four thousand years ago, along with all the pretty sky lanterns. Me, I’m just happy to host four billion years of evolution and love my slow-cooked triple brain with its reptile instinct for survival, mammal feeling for emotion, human capacity for … er, well, for … hmm, jury is still out on that one!
Some people even argue we’ve devolved. They could be right, given we all descend from the limited gene-pool of a few thousand individuals interbreeding to keep warm between ice ages. Brrr … thank goodness we invented global warming!
Whoops, back to the drawing board! Proving our worth turns out to be an act of creativity, if not downright invention. At least Wordsworth got it right: the child is father to the man. Paradox is the only truth, it seems, unless it isn’t. When we were kids, two little words could thrill like no others: let’s pretend. This was an invitation to suspend disbelief and conspire to create an alternative reality. No worries about who we were back then – it was all about who we could become. And love was all you’d need.
Egged on by masters of children’s literature like Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame, AA Milne and Spike Milligan (click his name for my fan letter!) there was nothing I loved more than to create serialised stories and puppet plays and strip cartoons for the entertainment of my friends and siblings. I was never into solo gratification – my biggest kick was always experiencing other people’s pleasure. Above all, I tried to make them laugh. My humour would later take a satirical turn with Monty Python and Pete & Dud and Joe Orton, but let’s stick with 1963 when I discovered the magical surrealism of Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury.
Suddenly Let’s Pretend became What If? The coldest winter for years found me on the back doorstep with a new library book. I’d returned from school and my parents were late home. I didn’t have a key so I sat down in the ice and snow and started reading. The book was Bradbury’s Silver Locusts, later renamed The Martian Chronicles. When they arrived a couple of hours later, I’d finished it without even noticing the cold. I’d been somewhere else.
13 is an impressionable age. A few months later I first saw the Beatles on children’s television – my post A Life in Music describes this and other unforgettable cultural encounters. The girls made lots of noise but we boys were just as astonished. Nobody could have predicted the Moptops – the patronising nickname the British press gave them – nor guessed the effect they were soon to have on a USA still stunned from the death of their inspirational young president.
The world needed a miracle and the Beatles were it. Their story resembles a new myth: four heroes go on a quest to Hamburg and return with the holy grail, the keys to a kingdom, only they turned out to be musical ones. Suddenly, Tin-Pan Alley’s manufactured stars with feet of clay had to make way for a scruffy bunch of ordinary blokes with their feet on the ground and the attitude of a playground gang out to conquer the world. They watched each other’s backs.
John was leader of his own band but he let Paul in because he recognised his own limitations. That selfless act set the pattern for collaboration. In the early days they wrote ‘playing into each other’s noses’. Paul came up with She was just seventeen, never been a beauty queen, a naff line which John changed to You know what I mean – at once vague and packed with sexual innuendo. This photo, taken by Paul’s brother Mike, actually shows them composing the song in Paul’s living room!
When John sang ‘You Gotta Hide Your Love Away’ to Paul, two foot tall became two foot small by mistake but Paul liked it and it stayed. Paul suggested I can give you golden rings, I can give you anything, Baby I love you. John laughed and they came up with the much tougher, raunchier Drive my car.
The examples multiply. Paul suggested John develop a story in ‘Norwegian Wood’. John provided Paul’s ‘Michelle’ with the bluesy edge of a repeated I love you. ‘Eleanor Rigby’, whose grave was later discovered yards from where John and Paul first met, contains lines from all four Beatles and one ex-member.
They held their ears to the tracks. ‘Here, There & Everywhere’ took its shimmering quality from ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys. The Lovin Spoonful’s ‘Daydream’ inspired ‘Good Day Sunshine’ – fitting, perhaps, after founders Sebastian and Yanovsky met at Mama Cass’s house to see the Beatles TV debut which gave them the idea of forming a band that wrote songs. The same show kickstarted the Byrds.
And like the Byrds, influenced by Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney moved away from their early ‘Moon in June’ lyrics to autobiography and social comment. ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’ were the results of a pact between John and Paul to write about their childhoods. ‘A Day In The Life’ combined contrasting but complementary songs from John and Paul, a trick they’d first pulled in ‘We Can Work It Out’. John suggested the Question and Answer pattern of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, intended as a singalong for Ringo. And in 1995 the surviving Beatles worked on a demo from John to produce ‘Free As A Bird’. Paul said, ‘We came up with this holiday scenario. I rang up Ringo and said let’s pretend John’s gone on holiday and he’s sent us a cassette and said finish it up for me.’
Yeah, let’s pretend …
… no good, my imaginative powers are not what they were! I wish these words were still worth something this morning but the light is harsh and the voice of the young has gone unheard …
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