Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Maybe I need to get out more

I've always thought there was something faintly revolting about Clive Dunn's 'Grandad':

I always assumed it was the saccharine sentimentality of it, but listening repeatedly to it on my son's classic toddler songs CD I've realised it's more complicated than that. The sentimentality is there, but there's something more interesting, poignant and monstrous going on too. (I'm not saying it's intentional, but there you go.)

The verses are sung by Clive in the persona of an old man reminiscing, mainly listing memories of things from his youth. The more I listen to this the more it reminds me of nothing so much as W.G. Sebald. Here's a couple of pertinent extracts from 'Grandad':

Penny farthings on the street riding
Motorcars were funny things, frightening
Bow and hoops and spinning tops
Penny Dreadfuls, lollipops
Comic cuts, all different things

Aeroplanes tied up with string flying
Telephones and talking things sighing
A radio and phonograph,
Charlie Chaplin made us laugh
Silently falling about

The memory is partially enacted in a series of objects, a list - a device Sebald uses continually, for instance in Austerlitz:

the cut-glass bowls, ceramic vases and earthenware jugs, the tin advertising sign bearing the words Theresienstadter Wasser, the little box of seashells, the miniature barrel organ, the gloge-shaped paperweights with wonderful marine flowers swaying inside their glassy spheres, the model ship (some kind of corvette under full sail), the oak-leaf-embroidered jacket of light, pale summery linen, the stag-horn buttons, the outsize Russian officer's cap and the olive-green uniform tunic with gily epaulettes that went with it, the fishing rod, the hunter's bag, the Japanese fan, the endless landscape painted round a lampshade in fine brush-strokes, showing a river running quietly through perhaps Bohemia or perhaps Brazil?

It's true that Sebald's version of the device uses more complexity, tact and discernment. (Many of the objects allude more or less obliquely to the Second World War and the Holocaust - Theresienstadt was a concentration camp, there's a Russian military uniform and a Japanese fan, the lampshade dimly recalls the use of Holocaust victims' skin for that purpose - and fishing, hunting and the endless landscape all relate to the activity of trawling the past for memories.) But there's also something straightforward about his method, the slightly surprising and even impolite settling on the subject of history, memory and the individual's feelings (the minimal fictionalising he indulges in is a symptom of this directness), even if the treatment of it is highly oblique. This corresponds, in a way, to 'Grandad's simpler and less artful approach.

It's also true that the context alters the function of the list slightly. In the example quoted above, the narrator is reporting Austerlitz's memory of looking at those items in a shop window and wondering about them. It isn't that the objects unlock memory; they stand as imperfect substitutes for it. But in 'Grandad' too, the objects don't really express memory successfully (here their simplicity and lack of originality is a virtue): like Sebald's narrator's, Grandad can only gesture at the past by naming objects, information, events. He doesn't really make the past come alive for his listeners; as listeners we are much more struck by his isolation within memory. This is borne out by the contrast between the verses and the chorus, sung by the grandkids:

Grandad, grandad, lovely
That's what we all think of you
Grandad, grandad, lovely
That's what we all think of you
Grandad grandad

I'm always tempted to hear the line 'That's what we all think of you' as 'That's all we think of you'. What's most affecting about this song is the contrast between the old man's failed attempts to articulate his vivid memories and the way he is viewed reductively by those around him as 'lovely'; his past (and therefore his identity) doesn't matter to them, just his role as a benevolent and ineffectual old bloke. That's what's revolting about it, the dramatic tension between verse and chorus, and what makes it, perhaps despite itself, an uncomfortable and effective piece of art.


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