*A Plea for Understanding

In case anyone reading this cares, I turn forty-two in a matter of days. Looking backwards rather than forwards for a minute, though, I recall that I was a morbid child, who was consequently mad for any book that had a title along the lines of They Died Young, and that trotted out the customary stories of such short-lived luminaries as Sal Mineo and ‘Mama Cass’. Because I spent so much time reading such works, I grew up convinced I would not live beyond the age of thirty-nine, meaning that I am constantly amazed that I should be as old as I am today. For the first time in my life, though, I can’t think of even one object that I want for my birthday, which is due not at all to anti-materialism but entirely to failure of imagination. So, what I’d like in lieu of things as birthday presents is an understanding of the matters I raise below.

Something that I’ve grappled with for, seemingly, as long as I’ve been alive is why anyone claps along at a live performance. Many people I know have a violent hatred of musicals, which, surprisingly, I do not share. However, any pleasant night of singing and dancing can be ruined by a medley of songs at the end during which the audience, often not even prompted to do so, starts clapping. When I get to the end of The Boy from Oz, I want to relax and enjoy the swirling maraca-fuelled entertainment, not be sitting there in a state of anxiety about having to clap along. If I give in and do clap along, I feel as self-conscious as though the eyes of the theatre are on me and me alone, but if I don’t, I feel churlish, and as though everyone in the audience is looking at my companions and feeling sorry for them that they know a merriment slayer such as myself. But I feel so embarrassed that I want to die even when I merely turn on the television and happen to catch a filmed exhortation to an audience to clap along. Despite my passion for The Beatles in the days when they were handsome, being confronted with the young Paul McCartney’s mania to rev up what I would describe, judging by all the screaming, crying and hysterical collapsing, as already pretty interested crowds by instructing them to clap along makes me want immediately to hide myself in a hole to get away from him and his urging.

Since 1986, I’ve been troubled by The Psychedelic Furs’ ‘Pretty in Pink’ being the theme song to the John Hughes movie Pretty in Pink. Yes, of course I realise that if Hughes had not been having some raging attack of Anglophilia that caused him to want to give ‘The Furs’ a nod, the movie wouldn’t have been called Pretty in Pink anyway but, as it stands, the song is crazily inappropriate. Everyone who’s seen the film knows that Andie Walsh, its heroine, is a blue-stockingish bore, who hits the books all the time, and only reveals herself to be in any way compelling when she’s screaming at lily-livered rich boy Blane McDonnagh as they stand in front of the lockers. Yet, the song’s narrator asks of its subject ‘Wasn’t she easy?’ and notes that ‘The one who insists he was first in the line/Is the last to remember her name’, which seems at odds with our understanding of the virtuous Andie. And, for the record, I’ve always swum vigorously against the popular tide in not wishing Andie had finished up with her tediously zany and verbose best friend Duckie, rather than, as she of course did, ending up with Blane. I applaud the test audiences for giving us this outcome: yes, Blane was a weak young man but he also had parents who were loaded, and the air of someone who would have drunk himself to death by early middle age, so leaving Andie, I imagine, to a glamorous widowhood.

Since I moved to Melbourne, I have a whole new problem of non-understanding: namely, why its citizens are so keen on employing means of transportation that are not just from olden times but are, I imagine, extremely perilous. The two variations of such transport that seem most favoured are travelling by horse and carriage and riding in hot-air balloons. I have found that it is very common when going along St Kilda Road to see an old-fashioned horse and carriage trotting along in front. While I have no urge to ride anywhere at all in a horse and carriage, I can recognise that in Central Park, say, it might be vaguely possible to ignore the roar of the traffic and pretend that one is really living in 1880. However, I do not see how this is possible on St Kilda Road, with the trams dinging away and motor vehicles screaming past, and the knowledge that only a seemingly endless number of advertising agencies awaits you up ahead. Still, even going the horse-and-carriage path seems preferable to me to riding in a hot-air balloon. I am constantly astounded as I venture to work in the freezing mornings by the number of such balloons I see above me. The sight of so many people acting like Around the World in Eighty Days is a viable design for living unfailingly makes me want to ask two questions: first, aren’t the people in the balloons querying having paid money to be, surely, frightened almost out of their minds; and, second, even if they’re not worried about falling to their deaths, aren’t they worried that they’re going to require ‘amenities’ at some point, especially as, I believe, travelling in a hot-air balloon often involves guzzling champagne?

Of course there are things I would like the answer to in addition to the ones above. To name but two, why does anyone want to dine al fresco at any time but especially in the depths of winter, and why must Elvis Costello keep endlessly appearing in things ‘as himself’ (3rd Rock from the Sun, Two and a Half Men, Talladega Nights and 30 Rock, and that’s only a tiny fraction of his cameos!)? But you can’t have everything in this life, I know, and I’ll be content if I can merely understand the Big Three outlined above by the time I turn fifty. Or sixty, even.

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