On Friday night, I watched my customary music programme on BBC Four. In this case, diverse artists gathered at the Abbey Road studios to re-record the Beatles’ Please Please Me. Artists like Joss Stone, Mick Hucknall and Graham Coxon of Blur talked about the influence of the Beatles on their own childhoods and subsequent careers.
It was spine-tingling stuff because Please Please Me was the first long-playing record I ever owned. My siblings and I used to congregate with our tennis racquets in front of my dad’s Ekco gramophone and mime to songs like ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and John Lennon’s throat-wrecking version of ‘Twist And Shout’. I learned every line of ‘Anna’ long before I discovered that it was an Arthur Alexander song.
But what really struck a chord (arf, arf) was hearing from a singer whom I’d never heard of, born three years before me, that his first guitar had been a plastic Beatles guitar. I once owned a similar guitar. It was bright scarlet, I remember, with the autographs of all four mop-tops affixed in silver plastic. That guitar allowed me to step up front and mime more convincingly than my siblings could on their tennis racquets.
The thing was, though, despite my already burgeoning love of music, that guitar didn’t inspire me – as it had done the singer in the programme – to learn an instrument and pursue a career in music. Why, I wondered? Was it laziness, or was it that I had already discovered something that (I later realised) I wanted to do in life: namely to write – specifically the Western comics that I devoured whenever some kind adult thought to buy me one?
I never managed to write speech bubbles for Western adventures, although I still love a good Western. Cowboys and Indians are still very much in my blood. But, I did – rather half-heartedly alas and with many sidetracks along a path that should have been clearly visible – in a kind of way ‘follow my bliss’. Whenever I moan about having to write training materials to earn some money, I find consolation by telling myself that at least I am still writing.
I consulted the Oracle at Delphi about the matter. My sensible wife would surely know the answer. After all, she pursued a career in acting in the belief that it was what she really, really wanted to do only to discover that it was something she only really wanted to do. She discovered, while training to be a reflexologist and then an aromatherapist during periods of ‘resting’, that she had known more than she realised the day she answered her mother that she wanted to be either a ballerina or a doctor of tropical medicine when she grew up.
Well, she never was never quite serious enough to sport a tutu or execute a pas de chat without beaming like a Cheshire cat at the inherent daftness of it all. She did in a way, however, follow some kind of Hippocratic calling. It may not have been anything to do with tropical Africa, but France profonde is a fairly uncommon and unlikely venue in which to practise the dark arts. And strangely, part of her work now, particularly as a practitioner of Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, is to help people find their chosen path and their heart’s desire. What if you, too, had been a white-collar worker in a succession of office jobs all your life only to discover that what was holding you back and making you feel constantly restless and dissatisfied with life was the fact that you weren’t spending your days repairing car engines?
Something, I think, that makes the expatriate experience so fulfilling is that you come in contact with so many people who have been sufficiently motivated to pursue a calling. Even when circumstances might force them to earn a crust by doing some kind of building work, say, at least their eyes are often firmly on the prize of ultimately doing what they really want to do. Since moving to France I have met many more writers, artists, potters, felt-makers, jewellers, photographers, film-makers and others following either part- or full-time responding to some kind of creative impulse than ever I did back home – even in creative hot-spots like Brighton.
So many in fact that you almost start to believe it’s the norm and forget about the legions of people who never even know let alone practise, even as a hobby, what it is that makes their spirit soar. Maybe it’s both absurd and even arrogant to expect them to do so, given how much effort it takes just to put food on the table for your family and generally get by from one day to the next. But it’s a shame – especially when you consider how these vague but perturbing feelings of frustration generally manifest themselves within families and relationships. ‘On the whole, I’d rather be a miner than a judge,’ Peter Cook once said in one of his comic monologues. You could add, On the whole, a fulfilled individual is nicer to know and easier to live with.
Anyway, to get back to the Oracle at Delphi, my wife’s take on the matter was quite clear. I didn’t learn to play that guitar and follow a musical path because it wasn’t meant to be. As simple as that. Quite oracular really.
This weekend I’ve been compering the annual Cabaret du Coeur at Curemonte. I’ve done it in full Nosferatu regalia. I watched Klaus Kinski again on Friday evening in an effort to get into character for the role. But I can honestly say that my experience hasn’t convinced me that I’d rather be an actor than a writer. After 15 fairly purgatorial years in Her Majesty’s Civil Surface, however, I can honestly say that I’m glad that I never entirely stifled that insistent little voice in my head that said I should stop dithering and just be a writer.Nevertheless, and in spite of my wife’s verdict, I do keep thinking about that plastic Beatles guitar and wondering… What on earth happened to it? How come I didn’t keep it to auction to the highest bidder on eBay? And what might have been had I felt more of an urge to figure out how to finger a chord?