Staying Alive

By | 1 May 2018

in memory of James Peden


The first homegoing song I knew, though I didn’t know where it was they wanted to get home to. I was new in the class, transplanted from a Chinese school and learning the strange faces, the new voices, all so foreign, unlearning the Chineseness that I had worn for three years, the old badge and uniform now put away for a foreign tongue. I was an émigré outside of everything, of my life, the class, Mrs Ravi, beautifully sari-clad, twisting my ear for not declining the verbs right – go, went, gone, sing sang sung, not knowing the grammar of time, the alien language that was slowly, mysteriously mastering me, turning me a stranger to myself, an exile in longing for what I could never call my own again. Then I was in the Scouts, learning this song, the melody, the words filling the valves, the instrument of my body, and when no one was around, they rolled off my tongue, trailing after that tremolo-edge, the pitch where for a moment you sense the missing key, the way back, the way home. It was as if they were always there, the voices, their song waiting for me, as I got up at dawn for the school-bus, as I waited for my errant father to show up and take me away from the school of strange faces that seemed so at home, happy as you are meant to be in childhood, from the hours of brooding under the saga trees fringing the school field, their glistening red seeds bejeweling the grass. The lyrics entered me, like the birdsong billowing the spaces of wandering branches, the chant of afternoon sun lighting up the lungs of blue-green air, words I barely understood, that place longed for not on the small, altered map of my life, but somewhere far inside me. The words rose up like an anthem, a credo, as the Scouts sang their medley on the school stage, a concrete platform under the rain trees, their yellow flowers dusting the grounds. I can see the khaki-clad boys, mouths agape as the harmonies grow to a pitch and key of love their small bodies will in time be tuned to, but now they struggle to hold the notes, and I am with them, carried on the one voice that commands us to grow up, and know the pain, the loss that will wrench us out of our boy-bodies, the words a mantra tugging, pulling us out towards that loss larger than our lives put together, and Massachusetts may as well be a distant star, but there we are aimed, ferried on the voices, on Robin Gibb’s tremulous falsetto, searing, soaring, the home-and-love-sick words taking me far beyond the cold, alien spaces, to wherever the song is going.

To Love Somebody

A few days after Maurice Gibb’s death Jim told me he wanted to beat the rare form of cancer that was eating up his body, laddering up from the bottom of his spine. I knew he couldn’t but he wanted to believe, wanted me to believe, even when the grenade-shape lump detonated, and splinters lodged in his liver. It must have been just after Robin Gibb followed his brother Maurice to where the music stops. A cold knowledge set in Jim’s hazel-green eyes, and you could see the end in them, a dead wintry light consuming all the summers larrikining in the bush, its silent chords eating up the spirit, stilling the music in his drummer hands. Jim said he would never stop writing, never let the cancer swallow his words, his memoir, and the coin-bright memories of his Glasgow childhood, and then a Ten-Pound Pom on a ship sailing through the Suez, a blurred scroll of ports, Aden, Colombo and Singapore, before going down to a strange new life growing up in the bush in Wallsend, never at home again, not even after losing his Scots brogue. In his last drafts, his father was coming back to him, in ghostly words, in sheaves of handwritten notes: a father who never spoke a word about Alamein or Normandy, whose mute medals were all Jim had of him. Jim was going to complete his memoir, deaf to time and death working their inscrutable beat on the drumhead, their soft taps gathering pace, but he was never going to work his passage back to South Africa, as he did at twenty-five, joining a combo on a cruise ship, nailing his drum-kit to the stage, the liner pitching on heavy swells; he was never going to find the letter to Livingstone he had interred at a spot in Victoria Falls. Never going back to Glasgow. Never going home. But there, in my office after the last workshop of the year, in the diminuendo blue chords of winter light, it was Robin Gibb he mourned, and Jim said “To Love Somebody” taught him what love was, what it is to throw yourself into the pitch and roll of song, the pain so pure, the key of lost love tuned so high it is electric, and you are wired, a struck bell tolling orgasmic waves of longing, the loving and dying welded in one breath. Once, he showed me a photo of himself in ‘75, slim, in a flowery shirt with dagger-lapels, and beltless flares, drum-sticks in hand, his first gig in a Newcastle club, looking like a Bee Gee on the cusp of the disco age, the life of music and the music of life all his for the taking. He loved Robin Gibb’s supporting harmonies, steadying Barry’s wailing falsetto, the way the song shows by not showing what it’s like to love. I can see Jim’s ashen face, his oatmeal skin, the tears held back, his body shrunk, his belt tightened to the last notch, death’s knell loud in the silence between us. I can hear Jim as the record spins to the song, sitting snug behind the drum-kit that has travelled with him to the last rented place, hitting the drumheads, double-kicking the bass with bolts of longing, the room filled with the last flare of living, plugged into the wail that is like rapture, like searing pain, the fuel, the fire, the force, like nothing I will ever hear.


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