Monday, 24 December 2007

The Melancholy

Happiness is an overrated emotion. Advertisements in magazines and on billboards and television screens tell us that our lives are incomplete unless we pay out for their merchandise, that the ownership of shiny consumer goods and cosmetic products can rescue us from the futile existences that we are told we lead. These goods alone, in other words, can bring us happiness, and this demonstrates why we should at least be sceptical of that particular condition. It is empty. At its worst it is anti-productive and anti-intellectual. What’s the point of doing anything if you’re happy as you are? And contemplation is to be avoided at all costs if one is happy. Thinking for too long about anything is a sure-fire route to doubt and dread and fear and loathing.

Well, that’s a cheery Christmas Eve opening paragraph, isn’t it? I don’t really have a problem with happiness, though. I wish bucketfuls of it to everyone I know and also to everyone I don’t know. It’s nice thing to feel. What I really want to do here is write in praise of sadness.

Many people won’t understand my extolling sadness and may even find the idea quite disgusting. These are the kind of people for whom Coldplay songs articulate their deepest and innermost feelings, who believe that The Shawshank Redemption is cinema’s crowning achievement. These people will never understand why I, for example, love listening to Taillights Fade by Buffalo Tom despite it being the musical equivalent of proposing to your girlfriend only for her to tell you that she’s not really interested in you because you’re a bit of a loser actually. It’s a song that wrenches the heart from your chest and throws it against the wall and this is why I adore it so. I like feeling like this. It feels alive.

The reason I’m feeling like this today is that last night I watched Lost In Translation and fell in love with it. It made me ache with sadness and I wanted to watch it again immediately because of this (instead, I watched the Father Ted Christmas Special and laughed myself stupid). I had a feeling, though, that it might be a film that polarised opinion, that many people might not see its attraction at all and I was right. A quick visit to Amazon shows that the second most popular customer review, behind 5 stars, is 1 star. Lots of people just don’t get it and I pity them. They will never understand that melancholy is beautiful. Their life is emptier for this.

Those of us with melancholy in our hearts feel the world more acutely than others, both sorrow and happiness. We long to fall in love because we know no other way, even though we are aware that when it ends, which is inevitable with us, we will be feeling the pain forever. We like autumn. We smile when we see elderly couples holding hands. We see beauty in everything because we are the true romantics.

I’m happy right now. I’m not seeing my family this Christmas and have been adopted for the day by friends and I’m looking forward to it immensely. I’m going to have a really fun few days with people I love and when I return home I can watch Lost In Translation again on my own and feel a different kind of happiness, that exquisite happiness that only us chosen ones, the melancholy ones, are allowed to feel. Happy Christmas to us all!

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

The Day Phil Spector Saved My Saturday

Praising Phil Spector isn’t a particularly fashionable occupation these days. His contribution to popular music is undisputed but you don’t find too many commentators sticking up for him lest they be found guilty of eulogising a, erm, murderer, should he be found guilty. No-one really knows whether he did it, though. His only real crime might be the wearing of the worst hairpieces in Hollywood. Today, though, I love Phil Spector. I really, really love him and here is why:

I had a really crap day. I set off this morning to old London town in order to buy as many Christmas presents as I could for my loved ones. I know from experience that unless I have a pretty good idea of what I intend to buy I’m quite likely to come home with nothing, I am a man after all, so it might seem foolish that I had little idea of what I was going to get today. But, I reasoned, I’m going to London where everything in the world is sold so this won’t be an issue. Covent Garden! Soho! The entire West End! How could I possibly fail?

I failed miserably. Really miserably. After standing on a crowded Underground train for the entire hour of my journey into town I sustained a bad back that was to last the rest of the day. I walked miles around the busy streets of central London, often retracing my steps to return to shops just so I could decide not to buy whatever it was that I’d already decided not to buy in the first place. I really tried. I entered more shops than I ever have in one day and looked at more crap on shelves than ever before but just couldn’t find anything suitable and ended up buying just one measly present. And the amount of people! I shouldn’t whinge about the streets and shops being horribly crowded since this is only to be expected on the penultimate Saturday before Christmas in the West End and I may as well spend my time complaining that water is sometimes a bit too wet for my liking. But I’m going to whinge anyway. It was fucking horrible. And also very lonely.

As it became apparent that my expedition was to end in failure, I became more and more angry. I hated everyone in my path and, even more, I hated myself for lacking the wit and imagination to be able to buy gifts for those I care about. I ended up taking the weight off my feet in a pub (a pint of lager with a chaser of self-loathing please!), which only made me feel like I was wasting even more of everyone’s time. I felt like crap.

So, I wasn’t in a good mood as I took the train home but at least I had the knowledge that at the other end of the line was a pub where I could sit and watch the football. A Fulham win and beer would make everything okay. Well, that idea failed too. The match was dire and Fulham lost to the only goal after conceding a last minute penalty. Brilliant.

Outside the temperature hovered around freezing and I walked the mile and a half home into a biting wind whilst wishing that I’d worn more clothes and also not had most of my hair cut off the day before. I bought a takeaway and I’d just about have enough time to eat it when I got home before my friend Darren came round. What I really needed was someone to whom I could have a moan, someone with whom I could set the world to rights over a few more beers. Just as I finished a quite satisfying fish and chips Darren phoned. He was working late and couldn’t make it. I was quite disconsolate and seriously considered going straight to bed, anything to be rid of this wretched day.

It was then that I noticed some mail with my name on. One was a Christmas card and the other looked like a cd. I didn’t remember buying a cd. I opened the package and found to my utter delight that it was the Phil Spector Best Of and Christmas album double set that I’d ordered (for the princely sum of £5!) two weeks previously. I rushed to my room knowing exactly what I wanted to hear. Cd in, track 2, volume up loud, sprawl out on my bed and….boom, boom boom, BANG, boom, boom boom, BANG….The Ronettes’ Be My Baby starts and I’ve already forgotten that I’m supposed to be in a rotten mood. More than that, I have the sound of one of Pop’s all time great moments washing all over me and it felt beautiful. I lay on my back staring at the ceiling with a huge grin plastered all over my stupid face. And there was more to come.

Has there ever been a song more aptly titled than River Deep Mountain High? Tina Turner’s vocal is, for me, the greatest ever recorded and never was Spector’s Wall Of Sound production more effective. It does exactly what it says on the tin with a song that is almost elemental in its power. Here is music that could halt the flow of rivers and move mountains and, more importantly, make me feel triumphant on a Saturday night that would otherwise have been heading nowhere. Phil Spector had saved my Saturday.

Phil, putting aside this Lana Clarkson business, you know you’ve been quite beastly in the past to a number of people. But you’ve also created moments of transcendent beauty that the world can cherish long after you and your silly wig collection have left us and for that I am forever grateful.

Thursday, 6 December 2007


I need a haircut. I don’t think I’ve had a haircut since summer and, while I like the effect of my hair framing my face, I really need to shear some of it off as I look a little too much like Charlie Brown wearing his pumpkin crash helmet. But I’m a bit scared of going to the hairdresser’s. It’s one of those fears that I’ve had since I was a kid and have never really grown out of. And it’s not confined to hairdresser’s shops either. It’s anyplace where I’ll have no option but to talk to someone I don’t know. Pathetic, isn’t it?

A similar fear in both its nature and its feebleness is my fear of phoning people I don’t know. Worse is that I, to a lesser extent, don’t even like phoning people I know. I normally have to psyche myself up to phone anyone apart from my immediate family and one or two others. What if they’re doing something and I interrupt them? No, I can’t be comfortable with that. The sad thing is that this stupid fear has actually cost me a very close friend who probably thought I was ignoring her on purpose but it was really because I was scared to phone her in case I woke her newborn daughter. And I still haven’t learnt, I still find it really hard to phone people. That’s unless it’s something important or necessary and then I seem to find it easy. I have no problem at all at work either. I have to phone unfamiliar people all of the time and it never bothers me. Sometimes I wonder why this is. And then I stop wondering why and get on with reading or surfing the web or doing anything rather than face my fear.

In the interests of balance, here are some things I’m not afraid of: Spiders, heights, my dad, the dark, death, public speaking, sex, open spaces, getting old, clowns and making fun of myself. That’s not a bad list and there are loads of other common fears that I have no problem with. And all I’m really scared of is two things: Rejection and failure. It’s just a shame that those two things are quite pervasive as far as life is concerned. They're probably at the root of my every unsuccessful episode.

Maybe I have Avoidant Personality Disorder. I can certainly identify with some of the symptoms. Or maybe I'm just a very weak man. Or, one more maybe, I could just be a normal human being. Aren't we all scared of something? Would I not be a complete freak if there was nothing in this big bad world that caused me to irrationally feel fear? I like that conclusion! I am only a little bit pathetic which makes me pretty much perfect! This is excellent. Now if I can just summon up the courage to go to the hairdresser's my life would be complete...