I tried to write about perfume, honest, but other things got in the way.
On Saturday, we went out to have a meal with a couple of friends, chew the cud, the usual stuff. I’d been perky all day but found myself getting quieter and quieter as evening progressed. I seemed sad. There wasn’t any clear reason for this – nothing dramatic had happened earlier; I felt well; I like my friends very much. Everyone had noticed however, and I was an absence in the conversation, in spite of physically being there. Matt worked it out before I did.
Earlier, we’d briefly seen the news. I don’t know why the TV was on – we only go down to the tv room for an hour or so a day, and always after 8. Maybe we wanted to check the weather forecast (floods galore in the UK right now), and decided to do it the old-fashioned way; I can’t recall. But anyway, there we were. The news was the usual litany of despair and, though it always affects me, I’ve grown that 21st century carapace that we all wear nowadays to cope with the eerie dissonance between our own lives and what we’re so readily shown from the lives of others. The big story was the arrest of fourteen men in Barcelona for apparent terrorist plots.
It was an incidental that Matt so astutely spotted as the source of my melancholy. As the news anchor intoned over footage about the arrests, the images cut to CCTV of the 2004 Madrid bombings. We watched, without mediation, hordes of people rushing towards a stairwell leading off a train platform and what looked like two detonations occurring behind them. The figures disappeared into the flash and the smoke; it wasn’t clear whether these were amongst the 179 dead, or survivors. It looked fatal enough – whatever I mean by that – to me. The grainy footage, its absence of colour, the half-made forms running in panic, the unswerving unblinking frame except for its judder with the first explosion, vision obliterated by the blast, and then the sudden cut back to the studio…
The shock was on two levels. First, that such footage can be shown, so soon after an event now, only marginally contextualised, as though already historical document and magically impersonal: objective reportage. The second, that real deaths were here shown to the nation as a throwaway set of images on national tv. That’s all it freaking mattered. Not at all. The death of many = something to eat your supper to…
The first shock diminished relatively quickly – I’ve seen dead bodies dragged from buildings on national news broadcasts elsewhere (Spanish TV seems particularly gratuitous to my softer Anglo sensibilities), without forewarning (there’s an endearing tradition in the UK of the broadcaster normally announcing ‘Some viewers may find the following images disturbing’ before harrowing items), I’m not mawkish or squeamish, and I’m fairly savvy to the structure of news bulletins and the tabloid nature of such bulletins on commercial tv here in the UK. But I do tend to get my news on the radio a lot. Sometimes, I remember why.
The second shock lingered, and is still living with me. And it’s this that caused the silent sadness of Saturday night. Once Matt named it, I knew exactly how right he was. Aside from the the sense of wonder that comes from having a partner who knows me better than I know myself, this didn’t lift the gloom, though I could temporarily contain it. I felt freakish – a few million people will have watched that ‘incidental’ footage – how many will have felt it invade their thoughts and feelings, as it damn well should? I’m not claiming some exceptional throne for myself – Prince Embarrassment of Empathy; I’m just sayin’. Terrible, isn’t it? It made me think of this:
by Carol Ann Duffy
In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.
He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.
Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.
A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.
On the journey home, we listened to Johnny Cash, “American IV: The Man Comes Around”. It seemed fitting, especially the wonder of a song that is his delivery of ‘I Hung My Head’. Sometimes, an old man with a deep voice and so few words can capture the fragility, the pressing beauty of life, more than anything else can. Alongside the terrible pain of its loss. I’ll let Johnny do the talking, laconically at least, for me, from now on.
Why am I posting this here? I’m sorry for the downer folks, but I’m taking advantage of the fact that the warmth I get from this website means so much to me. We’re a community drawn together by the ostensibly frivolous, but what strikes me most about everyone I’ve talked to here is the sense of joy and pleasure you all find in life, and the extent to which you all feel and live and love. And my, there’s something wonderful and profound and lovely in that. That pain I’ve felt since Saturday is a tiny glimpse at a dark world; y’all make me feel like I’m living somewhere bright.
Perfume next week. It’s a promise.