This morning’s breakfast has been full of examples of artists demonstrating the notion of synchronicity. That combination of practice of their art – Gladwell’s 10,000 hours – and the effortless confluence of the artists’ spirit: a demonic work ethic driven by a need to complete a project they completely believe in, and then the sitting back and not recognising what they have achieved: because it is simply beyond what they had imagined they could do.
We had music on shuffle, so the Beach Boys and the Beatles came through – ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’. These were 10,000-hours-songs, artists demonstrating their craft. And then ‘Good Vibrations’ played, and ‘Back in the USSR’. The playlist went through Dylan, Hendrix, Presley, the Kinks, Clapton, and landed on Frank Sinatra, singing ‘Strangers in the Night’. This is where I was struck deepest. I read recently about how Sinatra made the recording of this song. He sang, with a full orchestra in a studio, doing take after take until perfection was reached. Yet, that two minute and thirty six second song sounds so effortless. It sounds like we imagine it – he stood up in a crowded, dark bar, walked to the microphone cigarette in hand, and just sang it.
Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’, sung acoustically in front of an audience is a different example. It is strangely dull, yet also meditative to the point of hypnotic. It is a demonstration of what I am trying to understand in my own work. That confluence – the moment when you practice and practice your art – writing, drawing, playing, singing – and then there is an interchange, and you become the work, and the work becomes you. That is what I understand when I hear these people, and what I want to achieve. It is what I am worried about – that I am not achieving it at the moment.
Because there has to be a drive forward, when you work. There has to be a reason for doing it. We all want to be rich, apparently. We all want to be famous. This is what the zeitgeist seems to be telling us. The Presidential election driving us insane with worry and desire for something beyond our control, the Brexit armies on either side of this chasm driven into our daily lives, the refugee crisis catapulted onto us by wars our governments created: they are all magnified in the way we receive our news, hour by hour, day by day, week by week. The voters vote for the most raggedly popular liar, and half of us give up and hold our faces in our palms, trying not to catch a glimpse of the ugly light through our clenched fingers.
But we used to sit in sunny rooms and read. We used to put music on the record player and darn our torn jeans. We used to listen and think. We used to do our best for the people who needed us – marching with placards, shaking buckets to raise money. We used to do things collectively because we are people who cannot exist without each other.
My art is writing. My art has upset me more than anything in the past ten years because my art has followed the free market enterprise by demanding success, and demanding a structure that is reliant on a single hero’s journey. If you don’t know what the hero’s journey is, look up Joseph Campbell. This is the nutshell of it: apart from maybe three cultures in our enormous world, every myth, every story – novel, film, play – fits into the simple structure of the Hero’s Journey. A Hobbit, say, or Dorothy Judy Garland, set off on a journey – reluctantly. They are forced into this by events larger than themselves – an authoritarian figure summons them for this purpose – and off they go, into the magical world of Oz or some other kingdom thereof. They face adversities – yada yada yada, I won’t tell you it all – but all the time, all the time, they realise that – ‘there’s no place like home’. They spend a long time realising this, so that they can come back to their lives again, changed, better for purpose, hungry for life. It probably takes them 10,000 hours to get there. You see where I’m going with this? Along the way, they have many friends who help them, but you see, the reason why I’m pissed off with this structure is: they don’t work collectively. No. The friends encountered, work toward the hero’s success.
This is where we’re at, politically and artistically. Trump and Clinton are products of a system – the free market – which says: singular journey good, collective journey – Marxism. (And that’s bad, ok?) But if that is bad, what happens to our world? Already a handful of billionaires control the money. Already natives are driven off their homelands for the sport of the rich people.
Art. Frank Sinatra recorded and recorded that song and we just think of Frank, standing there in the spotlight, singing to us, the singular person in the audience. But that song is violins soaring. It is the producer who spliced together the various takes of Frank’s already strained voice. It is a collective moment of genius. Trump’s path is strewn with people he has defeated by grabbing them in areas he shouldn’t have, people he has thrust a sword into willy nilly, and he hasn’t ever completed the journey – just gone back to the beginning, over and over, because he hasn’t learned. He hasn’t understood the traditional way of growing: he has not grown up, or gained wisdom. He has stayed 13 while growing older. Clinton has wisdom, but is part of a hero’s journey that is far more complex – she must wilfully make this journey about herself, a singular hero, in order to achieve the goal of being President.
And isn’t that the problem and the point and ultimately the tragedy of the human being, and the democratic system? We must work those 10,000 hours to learn our craft. We must give ourselves to our art. But then, we must thrust forward onto the pathway of the world, selling of ourselves. Our art and ourselves conflate and change each other, and then people buy into our system. Because that is what pays us, that is how we eat and how we live. I don’t know what I am selling. I don’t know how to be in a world where I sell of myself – I’ve tried to do it, and I’ve failed, because I don’t really believe in a system where I walk to a mic and pretend I did it all by myself.
I guess I will turn my record player on, turn it up, and play that other Frank Sinatra song, which came on just as I was writing this: ‘That’s Life’. When she was six, my 24 year old daughter was asked to a popular girl’s party. Isobel had always been the kid in the corner in class, the one who played imaginary games and read books. It was a karaoke party, so she wanted to go, because she’s always liked to sing. I left her in a large, oak lined house in Beckenham, with trepidation. Three hours later, I was greeted at the door by the mother:
‘Your Isobel has had us up, dancing in the aisles…’
‘What did she sing? SClub7?’
‘She did a perfect – ‘That’s Life’. Perfect…’ the mother said, laughing.
It sort of sums her up, really. The quiet girl, the shy one, part of a large family, who seemed to be the arms who caught things when they fell from cots, who smiled when I felt defeated, who came in every day from school, every day, and made me a cup of tea. When you’re despairing, put Frank on the record player, and take your face out of the palms of your hands, and when you think you’re going to cry this Wednesday, sing along instead. Because guaranteed, although you despair of your place in the world full of singular heroes, you will understand yourself within it all.
You have to pick yourself up. And get back in the race.