England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It’s the home of police who kill blacks boys on mopeds
And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving
I don’t want him to be aware that there’s
Any such thing as grieving.
I didn’t know this Sinead O’Connor song until my friend Steve posted (or rather bumped) it on FriendFeed yesterday. Like most people who aren’t terribly musically aware, I knew “Nothing Compares 2U” because the video was everywhere when I was sixteen and “Last Day of Our Acquaintance” because it was on a mix I inherited from a former roommate of a friend. Surely I heard the rest of the album at some point, but not so that it stuck in my head. Not until yesterday.
Yesterday people were listening to the song because of Margaret Thatcher.
Yesterday I was listening to it on repeat in part because of Margaret Thatcher and in part because I have a baby and in part because I talked to a kid recently who didn’t have enough to eat and in part because I worry a lot about race relations in the town where I work and the town where I live. But I was listening to it on repeat most of all because I realized it was the song I was looking for — the one that explained an idea I’ve always had about England, about the world, even. But I’ll start with England.
I grew up on English children’s books (like Salman Rushdie, I believed that going to boarding school in England might be like moving into one, though unlike him, I was not disabused of this notion by actually attending an English boarding school). Before Harry Potter, that meant Narnia, of course, but also The Wind in the Willows and The Five Children and It and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Secret Garden and The Sword in the Stone. Many would be quick to point out that there are poor children in some of these books and bad things in almost all of them. But they all too have a strong heaping of England’s green and pleasant land. They look back to a past (where, as TH White writes, “the weather behaved itself”). Those that despair often look for a coming again.
My awareness of the news as a child was, like most children’s, spotty, and informed by what I was exposed to (CBS and NPR and Time magazine and the local newspaper) and my mother’s reactions to it. I knew that Mikhail Gorbachev was preferable to Ronald Reagan and that the reforms of Lech Walesa were better than those of Margaret Thatcher, but I couldn’t have told you why. These beliefs were there, in the background, not primary to my understanding of the world nor of great interest, but present, like buildings you pass every day but have never been in.
Instead I walked along hoping that the mists would part, hoping that there was a garden behind that wall, and that someday I might see it.
There wasn’t, though. The mythical land was there, but it was the land of imagination. The land around me was what it was: full of broken concrete, ugly houses, fences. I was doing okay, but other people were not. I’m not sure if I knew that first or if music helped me see it, but Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” I realized, was a song about a world that existed, that I held some responsibility for, and “This Land is Your Land” was a song about a world we could aspire to, not a mythical one.
But what of England? Did England exist? It seemed to me it must be odd to live in a place where everything was old, where everything that people came to see was something that was dead, something that didn’t exist anymore, something you could never hope to live up to. I was grateful to be an American: we’d wiped out our history, it was true, and we’d built ugly things in its place, but at least no one expected anything but vulgarity from us. We might still surprise people.
When I got to college, friends played me the Smiths. Most people think of their music as being about mopey adolescent angst and unrequited love. I thought it was that but more than that, I got a glimmer that these people were singing about the very problem I’d identified. “The Queen is Dead” was about the way the world felt; “How Soon is Now?” was a question about life, not just love; getting a job as a backscrubber was what one might aspire to.
Later I heard the Clash and the Sex Pistols, later still I read about the effect of Thatcherism on Northern England. Later still I heard and repeated jokes about New Labour being like New Coke. A couple of weeks ago I started reading Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, where I read about his hopes for boarding school in England and the realities he found there.
I got older, in short, and I read more, and more things connected. And yesterday I listened to “Black Boys on Mopeds” again and again and again, because it was a song about this world I inhabit. And then I thought about my son, and the books he has yet to read, and the things he has yet to discover, and I wondered if I should stop.