Neil Hannon turned fifty last week, the day Joe Biden won. That makes him just older than my older brother, which slightly surprised me. That means that my very early twenties, during which Promenade and Casanova were on consecutive years-long loops on my Discman, were Neil’s mid-twenties. I thought we were closer in age; I identified so strongly with those records and they seemed to connect so exactly and essentially to what was going on in my life at the time.
But then he was always a bit ahead of me, signposting.
This was true musically: he led me to Michael Nyman and chamber music and Scott Walker, even to the point of giving Tilt everything I could muster (which was not enough). It was true in terms of other arts: ‘The Booklovers’ actually was my introduction to a good few of the novelists named therein, and ‘When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe’ inspired forays into French auteur appreciation at a time that all I watched was Annie Hall. It was true of real life interpersonal stuff: while he was becoming more like Alfie I was not, but I was thinking – that doesn’t sound all bad. And it was true even of an attitude to life.
I was on a bus from Ballinteer to town some time in late Spring 1994, Promenade in my earphones, when the thought struck me: you know, maybe I could be happy.
I had nothing to complain about but from secondary school through turning twenty I was lonely-ish, in an unoriginal lovelorn late-adolescent way. I was preoccupied with that loneliness and listening to a lot of American Music Club, which might not have helped but which I refuse to blame. Neil listened to a lot of AMC too and he turned out fine. And I just didn’t really expect things to change. I relied on music so much for guidance and all the stuff that made sense to me, that seemed authentic, was troubled, worried, pained, aching. Until – not to over-simplify – I listened to Promenade on the top of a double decker 48A. And a light went on. It’s so vivid. The surge of hope, of possibility, that those songs gave me.
Lately I’ve been thinking about gratitude and trying to think of ways to use gratitude as a grounding. A man I know from work told me last week that he prays twice a day. In the morning to ask for help with the particular challenges that he knows he will face, and at night, having navigated the challenges, to give thanks for the help. He prays to his own God. As I was listening to him last week I was struck by the beautiful simplicity of these acts. The humility of those prayers, and their awesome power.
And I felt my own resistance to the thought itself of the act of praying; how I can hardly even question that resistance; the associations that prayer has, the religious belief I long since abandoned, the sense of betrayal of one’s younger, fiery, certain self if you were even to consider, now, approaching your sixth decade, kneeling down. How predictable. But you know? Teenagers don’t know everything.
It makes it easier to consider asking for help and giving thanks when you have the support of artists, mentors, poets. People like the poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, whose Poetry Unbound podcast is a twice weekly source of spiritual sustenance; or Joan Halifax, the Buddhist monk whose writing on compassionate care I have stuck to my office wall to remind me that every encounter is an opportunity to connect and serve – so take it. And as I figure out whether I need and whether I can evolve a new way to give thanks, to adapt to changing circumstances, I will continue to use an old and well-tested way. I will keep connecting with the songs that are as close to prayers as I can currently allow. Songs for which I give thanks, by musicians to whom I owe much.
Songs like the pell-mell pantheism of ‘Going Downhill Fast’: “One butterfly spies a glint in his eye / The birds sing as he cycles by / Oh, why should he feel sad / This world ain’t so bad, and besides / Woe betide he who would frown / when natural beauty abounds”. Or the first song of warm, tender, hopeful, reciprocated love that I remember connecting with, a song of love that felt true and doable, a song that sustained me, ‘Geronimo’: “She puts on a record / And sings into her coffee / He puts a blanket round her, sits her down / And dries her beautiful hair”. Or ‘Tonight We Fly’, Promenade’s panoramic, elegiac, ecstatic closer, whose concluding lines have never lost their their power as unadorned secular prayer to encourage, comfort and console: “And when we die / Oh, will we be that disappointed or sad / If heaven doesn’t exist / What will we have missed / This life is the best we’ve ever had”.