Entry 15: Looked at my Stars- The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, /But in ourselves, that weare underlings. Speaking, is the lean and envious Cassius as he urges Brutus to join the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar. The remarkable Helena from All’s Well That Ends Well asserts, Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven and the bastard Edmund from King Lear sneers This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars.
So, then, why do most of us sneak a peek at our stars as we sit in a waiting-room idly flipping through the paper or magazine lying there? The yearning for meaning and connection tugs at us from the depths of our being- especially as we await the painful ministrations of the dentist- and no amount of logical argument will persuade us that randomness and meaninglessness are the foundations of our existence: a blindly spinning wheel elevating one while crushing another, dealing pleasure and pain without approbation or blame.
I think of Boethius the author of The Consolation of Philosophy, which has influenced the great and the good, the venal and the humble across millennia. He stands balanced between the East and the West, the Platonists and the Christians, the Free and the Imprisoned, the Blissful and the Tortured. I think, next, of the protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J Reilly, who is both a subversive, medievalist Don Quixote railing against the absurdities of the modern world and a fat, indolent slob, too timid to venture outside the confines of 1960s New Orleans.
And lastly, I think of the author of that wonderful novel: John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide in 1969 at the age of 31, depressed at the rejection of his comic manuscript by those who should have known better. I wonder what he would have made of our world today had he not run a garden hose from the exhaust of his car into the cabin of his car in Biloxi, Mississippi, and I wonder what title he would have given to a 21st Century A Confederacy of Dunces- for he would have only been in his mid-sixties at the turn of the millennium.
So here we are in the tangled thorn-bush of the What Ifs. Like our itch to read what our stars reveal, we revel in the scratching of the What Ifs. “What if I had… what if I hadn’t…” haven’t we all been there? I have been careful, hitherto, about commenting too directly on the songs associated with particular entries, but here, with some trepidation, I’ll make an exception. In the early 1980s I submitted a script to RTE in Dublin-which was accepted. I had returned to Ireland from Australia at the beginning of 1979 and was dismayed to learn that the “Troubles” which had vexed Irish history for hundreds of years was still “alive and well” or should I say “suppurating and spreading”.
The script centred on a teacher who had been in Germany and returned to Northern Ireland to teach in a private school. I wrote a number of songs to accompany the script and one of them was a shorter version of this song. As a British soldier looked under my car and searched me, during one of my trips within Northern Ireland at that time, I recalled an earlier incident, more than a decade previously, when I had been walking up a back lane to the rented house of our first abode as a family, located in a side street off the Whiterock Road, lost in thought and dreaming of a future life, when a harsh, alien accent shattered my reverie: I’ll kill you, you Irish bastard, if you don’t stop now! I stopped. I looked.
There was a young guy, a British squaddie, my age if not younger, holding an SLR pointed at my head, shaking. I knew I was within a whisker of being shot dead. So, what do you do? I raised my hands and waited for further instructions. I survived that encounter with the emissary of Death, knowing that there would be a reckoning somewhere further on down the track, but I was relieved to know that the time was not just yet.
Which brings me to the present: I have, since the time I first wrote the lyrics of the original and shorter song, been swimming in the pond of a post-modern stew where bubbling up is the mephitic revelation of so much that was denied to an earlier, more innocent conception of what the world is really like. When it came the time to re-cast and elaborate on those more innocent words, I found myself inhabiting a darker space where the protagonist of the song has now become a malevolent entity rather than the pitiable person who sings the first part of the song. The coda, I added much later, when the song needed some expansion as it was, originally, less than two minutes long. Here, I cloak a nightmare in a sweet-sounding conclusion.