Entry 50: Since You Walked Out of My Life- This song would have been the subject of entry one had this journal been organised chronologically according to date of song composition. But it’s fifty! And if I wind the clock back fifty years, I see a gawky, 16-year old with acne and a cheap guitar trying to impress his girl-friend (now wife) with his prowess on the fretboard. This is made rather difficult by the high action and rusting strings of the instrument and low degree of skill of the guitar’s owner. The high action made it difficult to hold down the chords with any facility or, indeed, accuracy and the teenage show-off made much of his ability to play runs on the top two strings (the thinnest of the bunch) that made a modicum of musical sense.
Being a mid-teen and therefore very cynical and worldly-wise I cracked on that I was beyond the appreciation of country music having thrown my lot in with the Stones, Beatles, Who and any rock or pop act that was current. Acts from my younger and more foolish life, shared with parents and older siblings, such as Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash were thoroughly scorned and discounted. Strange, then, that my first composition was recognisably of just that despised genre. It was a parody, yes, and, as it turns out, incomplete, for I had only the first section, lyrically and musically, when first I flashed my song-writing credentials to my mildly amused partner.
It took another dozen years to add a couple of sections to make it more than a fragment. So what made me return to the abhorred artefact time and time again? Not a rhetorical question, by the way: I really don’t know. Not entirely. In the mid-sixties, confusion reigned in my world and on my horizons. In my English classroom, under the magisterial Mr Leahy, I was struggling to find anything of interest in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between.
More people know the opening line of the novel than anything at all of what transpires in that work of fiction; all together now: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. They certainly did at Garron Tower, the colloquial name for St MacNissi’s College, a Catholic grammar school, situated on a plateau approximately 200 feet above the famous Antrim Coast Road overlooking the North Channel and out towards Scotland and the Mull of Kintyre
Built as a summer residence by Frances Ann Vane, Marchioness of Londonderry, in the style of an English castle, the property was acquired by the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor in 1950 for use as a boarding school for boys as part of a long-term strategy for combating the sectarian stranglehold on higher education by the Protestant ascendancy of the Northern Ireland state-let, which had been established in 1921.
I notice in one of the posts about the place that it was compared to Hogwarts. Mmm. Perhaps…it seems to have been magically co-located in time and space because there are two wildly divergent narratives about my Alma Mater: one upholds a glowing testament to the saying that schooldays are the best days of your life and another that would, if verifiable, be the subject of judicial sanctions of the graver kinds against certain persons of authority.
I know that when I arrived there in 1964 as a boarder, from my expatriate American Junior High School in Aruba I was shocked by the regimentation, bullying and corporal punishment that were par for the course. However, I survived because I became a day-boy in 1965 when my parents returned from overseas and, in any case, I threw my lot in with the smokers, gamblers and drinkers who formed their own protective clique.
Now, like Leo Colston, the protagonist of The Go-Between, I am in my mid-sixties, looking through my old things, awakening strange memories from that foreign country. A faded photograph sparks a sudden recollection: a winter scene from 1964 of a bunch of us meeting at a secluded spot, after dinner and before study. It is dusk: we are surrounded by trees. There is a headstone marking the resting place of Urisk, the faithful dog of the original owner, the Marchioness of Londonderry. It reads, in part,
Deaf to all else his mistress’ voice he knew, Blind though he was, his step to her was true. So strong an instinct by affection fed, Endured till Urisk’s vital spirit fled. Stoop grandeur from thy throne ye sons of pride, To whom no want is known, nor wish denied. A moment pause, and blush, if blush you can, To find in dogs more virtue than in man. And share, ‘midst all your luxury and pelf’, one thought for others out of ten for self’.
We light our cigarettes, cupping them in our covert hands, thinking that we have fooled the patrolling priests who amble below, as if in prayer, around the circular path in front of the imposing façade of the College, past the seven cannon pointing out over the North Channel at the future.