Monday, July 18, 2016

The Poetry of Discomfort

I've been listening to Irish folk ballads recently. I've found myself thinking of one ballad I particularly like, The Louse House of Kilkenny, a comical song about a night spent in a flea-infested boarding house:

Then she brought me upstairs and she put out the light
And in less than five minutes I had to show fight
And in less than five more when the story was best
The fleas came around me and brought me a curse
Radley fal the diddle ay,,,

'Twas all around me body they formed a march
'Twas all around me body they played the Death march
For the bloody oul major gave me such a pick
That he nearly made away with half of me hip
Radley fal the diddle ay...

Now I'm going to me study, these lines to pen down
And if any poor traveller should e'er come to town
And if any poor traveller should be nighted like me
Beware of Buck St John and his black cavalry
Radley fal the diddle ay....

The Dubliners
I've spent a lot of time wondering why this song, and others like it, appeal to me so much. What is so poetic about discomfort? Why is a night in a flea-infested bed worth immortalizing in song? Why do we find a song like this strangely jolly?

Discomfort is certainly a recurring theme in Irish ballads. One of the most famous Irish ballads is 'The Rocky Road to Dublin', and this is one long catalogue of mishaps, hardships and indignities.
Of course, there are plenty of songs lamenting 'the hard life' in world music; for instance, in the genres of the blues or of negro spirituals. But these are straightforward laments, for the most part. The sort of songs I'm talking about there-- and they're not just Irish ballads, as I'll demonstrate soon-- are not melancholy in tone. They are more upbeat, even rumbustious.

One famous song about Irish construction workers in England, 'MacAlpine Fusiliers', (which was written by Brendan Behan's brother Dominic) seems more obviously caught between celebration and complaint, at least in the preamble:

It was in the year of 39 when the sky was full of lead.
When Hitler was heading for Poland and Paddy for Hollyhead.
Come all you pincher laddies and you long distant men.
Don't ever work for McAlpine for Whimpy or John Lang.
For you'll stand behind a mixer till your skin is turned to tan.
And they'll say good on you Paddy with your boat fare in your hand
The craic was good in Cricklewood and we wouldn't leave the Crown
With bottles flying and Biddies crying, sure Paddy was on the town.
Oh mother dear, I'm over here, and I'm never coming back
What keeps me here is a rake of beer, the women, and the craic...

The tune itself is obviously very jaunty.

Percy French

The 1902 comic song 'Are You Right There, Michael, Are You Right?', written by the prolific Percy French, satirises the West Clare Railway System. The railway was not amused, and tried to sue the songwriter. But the tone of the lyrics are unmistakeably affectionate (despite the fact that the song was written after French missed a concert due to a late train):

At Lahinch the sea shines like a jewel
With joy you are ready to shout
When the stoker cries out: There's no fuel
And the fire's tee-totally out
But hand up that bit of a log there
I'll soon have ye out of the fix
There's a fine clamp of turf in the bog there
And the rest go a-gatherin' sticks...

(I can remember, when I was younger, quite often hearing the title invoked in conversation-- I haven't heard that in a long time.)

I mentioned more modern songs. I don't think it's only Irish folk songs which strike this particular note. Take the theme tune of the British TV show (which I've never seen), Auf Wiedersehen Pet:

Working on the site from morning to night
That's living alright!
Then a drink with the boys in a bar full of noise
That's living alright!
Working all day for a pittance of pay
And blow it all on Saturday night
And you kiss the dames but you don't ask their names,
That's living alright!

I could quote other examples (such as another classic TV theme song, 'Rawhide'), but I think that's enough. It seems clear that human beings seem to find something in discomfort and hardship-- at least, in their imaginative representation-- which is not entirely unpleasing to contemplate-- something romantic, poetic, even strangely glamorous.

Rollin', rollin', rollin'!

Of course, this romance only seems to appear under certain conditions. The discomfort and hardship can't be overwhelming-- it's should be intermittent, at most. There needs to be compensating pleasures of some kind-- either in the present, or the near future. And the discomfort should be experienced as a bond, or even a badge of pride.

(Having mentioned 'Rawhide', it occurs to me-- surely this particular sort of poetry is a great part of the romance of the cowboy, and the cowgirl?)

I've argued that this is not something uniquely Irish, I do think it's something distinctively Irish. I think about this a lot.

It's interesting that, for a long time-- or so it seems to me-- the Irish imagination valorized poverty, manual labour, and deprivation over affluence, the professions, and comfort. Construction workers, exiles and small farmers seemed to have been privileged figures in song, story and folklore (and I mean contemporary folklore, not historical folklore). I really did grow up thinking that membership of the middle class was something to be ashamed of. And the middle class were mythical figures, anyway-- everybody (I assumed) was working class, including teachers and priests and shopkeepers and anyone I was likely to come into contact with. Everybody was poor, or came from poverty. Everybody was lucky just to have a job and a home and food. The Irish were poor, eternal underdogs-- and proud of it!

I've wondered in retrospect if this was something I just imagined. After all, social snobbery is a persistent theme in Irish literature. Was it just my innocence that conjured this sense of social solidarity?

Possibly, but I don't think so. The sense is just too vivid for that. It's composed of a hundred small examples which would be too tedious and obscure to recount, but which I distinctly remember.

Even the centenary celebrations of 1916 Rebellion brought this home to me. I read biographies of some of the leaders, and many of them, for all their talents, struggled to find a job-- any job. This seemed the norm to me as I was growing up, that just getting a job and having a job was an achievement. Then, when I was in my early twenties, I was amazed to see many of my contemporaries give up good jobs to travel. They were confident they would find other jobs, better jobs. The world had changed, and they were moving with it.

But I have a certain nostalgia for the poverty-stricken eighties, and indeed the many poverty-stricken decades before it (although my father insists that the sixties were an era of prosperity in Ireland). As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: "He who possesseth little is so much the less possessed. Blessed be moderate poverty!' (This only really works, though, if the poverty is general, and is not crushing.)

But it wasn't just the absence of money that seems to mark this period, in my memory. It was the presence of limits-- limits in terms of career options, lifestyle choices, foods, television and radio channels, and so forth. (Of course, I know this is only relative to the present.) It's a delicate balance-- too many limits can be a tragic brake on human potential. But too few limits can, paradoxically, limit the opportunity for solidarity, shared experience, shared memory, folklore, and so forth. I truly dread the advent of globalism, where there is such a profusion of choice that (I fear) the whole experience of being 'in the same boat' as one's compatriots and contemporaries may be lost, or drastically diminished.

The poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote a line which is both an example of this (since the poem from which it comes was on the Irish school curriculum for many years), and a wonderful expression of it: "Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder." I might have that put on my gravestone....

Patrick Kavanagh
G.K. Chesterton said something similar: "All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

Now I have made my inevitable mention of G.K. Chesterton, I must quote this passage from his book on Charles Dickens, in which he ponders the aspect of 'cosiness' in Dickens's books, especially his Christmas books:

The second element to be found in all such festivity and all such romance is the element which is represented as well as it could be represented by the mere fact that Christmas occurs in the winter. It is the element not merely of contrast, but actually of antagonism. It preserves everything that was best in the merely primitive or pagan view of such ceremonies or such banquets. If we are carousing, at least we are warriors carousing. We hang above us, as it were, the shields and battle-axes with which we must do battle with the giants of the snow and hail. All comfort must be based on discomfort. Man chooses when he wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material universe is most sad. It is this contradiction and mystical defiance which gives a quality of manliness and reality to the old winter feasts which is not characteristic of the sunny felicities of the Earthly Paradise.

"All comfort must be based on discomfort". This seems true. The problem with comfort is that it keeps on disappearing. We are comfortable, and we forget we are comfortable. Not only the comfort disappears; the whole physical world disappears. Discomfort reminds us of both. It brings us back to the body-- perhaps it is not too much to say that it points us towards the Incarnation, a concept we can never really take in and of which we are always losing sight.

One final thought, since I can hardly top that one; have you ever noticed the extent to which organized religion, on the physical side, is almost a pursuit of physical discomfort? We always emphasise the humility involved in kneeling before God-- but it seems relevant that it is not only humbling, but also uncomfortable!

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