Why We Need The Elitist Model

I read a thought provoking article in The Times this week. Entitled “We Need A Revolution”, my first instinct was to leap to an immediate disagreement. Having studied a gamut of revolutions and revolts spanning the twentieth century, I was not keen on Britain lurching into a dictatorship. Had we not learnt from Stalin, or Mao? Much less the oleaginous Robespierre? However, I had misunderstood. The article is a segment from a book called The Fourth Revolution, published this year, and follows the journey of the rapidly rising east. “Better government has been one of the West’s great advantages” states the article “now the Chinese want that advantage back.” The part of the article that captured my attention the most was the reference to Singapore’s ‘elitist model’. This involves spotting talented youngsters, luring them in with scholarships and spending a fortune teaching them. This sort of method is ubiquitous in the East. Teachers need to have finished in the top third of their class. These high standards are branded as meritocratic, but shouldn’t everyone be aiming for them?

This ties in with a truly dreadful episode of The Moral Maze that was aired a few months ago. It broached the subject of ‘elitism’, with one woman branding it as ridiculous that intelligent children ought to be segregated. What about the less clever in society? What if it lowers their self esteem? It seems almost necessary to refer to that Orwellian quote “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Not every human is going to be as intelligent as the next. Nor should we be pushing for this as a nation. There’s no sense in complaining about declining healthcare, poorer standard of education, and our university standards being on the precipice if we aren’t willing to separate the wheat from the chaff. We’re able to do it with sport, aren’t we? 541 athletes were sent to the 2012 Olympics, and 23 men will be going to Brazil’s World Cup this summer. Can you imagine if an academic decathlon was televised in such a manner? Would as many watch? Take University Challenge, a programme which requires an expanse of general knowledge and extremely prompt buzzer reactions. Most of the comments to be found on social media about the show were acrimonious, to say the least. The winning team, Cambridge’s Trinity College, were branded as ‘nerds’, and questions were posed such as ‘have they ever been kissed?’ Being clever comes with a connotation of social awkwardness and an inability to behave normally in most circumstances. Shows like The Big Bang Theory have been highly criticised for portraying physicists in this manner, yet this is how the general public seems to think of the highly intelligent, as ostracised from the rest of the human race. When we see footballers on the pitch, do we say to ourselves ‘that’s great footwork, but did they ever get more than five out of ten in a spelling test?’ The answer is no.

Universities have “lost confidence” in the A/A* grades, opting for a test to determine the standard of the student instead. In 2003, 370 pupils got ten or more A* at GCSE; by 2012 the figure had soared to 1,577. Standards are slipping quickly, kickstarted by Tony Blair’s education reforms. Books that I read at twelve or thirteen, such as Lord Of The Flies, are appearing on the GCSE English syllabus. Since Tony Blair encouraged more people to apply for secondary teacher training in 2005, students who have failed GCSE modules and are severely lacking in a basic understanding of literacy and numeracy have found themselves at the front of the classroom. Most exams are composed of forty percent coursework. Why did this happen? It stemmed from the need of Tony Blair for constant high performing children. Not everybody was born to achieve the high grades – and nobody wants to talk about this, or challenge it, but they know it to be true. When everybody is walking away with A stars, the grade loses its meaning. Not all children are expected to make the ‘A’ or ‘First’ team in sport, so why is it the case academically? Returning to my aforementioned point about the Moral Maze, not one person on the panel discussed the elitism in sport. How are youngsters supposed to feel when they are laughed at for coming in last in a race? Or when they’re not considered able to make the cut at all?

“But that’s just sport.” The voices say, “That’s how it is. Competitive.” Academics should be just as, if not more competitive, than sports. We need doctors, lawyers, engineers and chemists more than we require someone to play for a cricket team. The emphasis on equality should never be introduced into the world of academics. What if children think they’re stupid? A question often posed. The one that never seems to be asked, or answered, at any rate, is: how does this equalisation of the academic system in Britain affect the cleverest children? The brains of the future are being raised to believe that academic excellence is not important; they are losing the all too vital competitive streak that will carry them into the future. We’re living in a world where success in academia is not considered important, but mocked. Why would any child want to pursue intelligence when the path is filled with mockery and easily attainable grades?

It’s time for everybody to stop fooling themselves about equality. As tried and tested by many nations, it is a failed ideology that Karl Marx constructed with no intention of carrying it out. We need the intelligent, more now than ever. The Elitist Model is something we should prise from Singapore’s shaking Eastern grip, and mould it into British society. Don’t raise the children of today to worship Wayne Rooney whilst mocking Sheldon Cooper. Think instead, of the future, and not of the power to offend but the power to encourage.

We need a revolution. Elitism must once again be brought to life in Britain. There are lugubrious times ahead of us if we do not comply to the Eastern model.

 

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Why It Matters How Footballers Act On And Off The Pitch

You’re a parent in the kitchen, scrubbing grass-stained, muddy shinpads. You take your little boy (or perhaps girl) to the match. Saturday mornings are no longer your own, they’re training days, they’re devoted to washing kit, packing lunches, the stench of sweat filling the car as you drive away. And as you fill your lungs with air, screaming for your child, comforting them when they don’t get a goal, or save a goal, and rewarding them when they do. You wish they’d have the same enthusiasm for their arithmetic as they do their football. And you wonder to yourself: is there more to it than I think?

 

Such is often the case. Idolatry is alive and well, perhaps more than it has ever been, with boyband sensations and accessible internet fame. Often, children are extremely impressionable, and with being in the public eye comes a certain responsibility. ‘Celebrities’, although I am loathe to use that expression, often protest, saying that it is not their job to raise children. This has a stigma of truth attached to it, but when you are liked, and respected by a young person, it becomes your job to set an example for those who admire you.

 

So, should footballers aspire to be positive role models? Almost certainly. They are under the watchful gaze of boys and girls at the most impressionable of ages, and such behaviours as John Terry’s affair with Wayne Bridge’s wife will leave a message with children, and not one parents would want. As ridiculous as it sounds, it is stating to them that infidelity is acceptable, because it is done by their idols. Such is the case with Arsenal midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, when he was seen smoking. If you are to be in the public eye, you have Public Relations management for a reason; to preserve your image, so that those who look up to you can aspire to the right things.

 

Is this the way it should be? Should footballers have to put their lives on hold just to please an audience? Perhaps not. This is how society has become, though, and footballers do have a certain responsibility to show the way to those who admire them most. If children want to disobey hierarchy by not listening to their parents, they will certainly listen to their idols. Should they be judged on talent alone, like a doctor is only judged on their medical capabilities? I am inclined to think that yes, perhaps they should, as that is why they are playing in the first place. But pop sensations rarely become pop sensations through vocal talents. As usually is the case, it is the whole person that matters. Children and parents alike will take note of what happens both on and off the pitch.

It is perhaps not the way it should be, but it’s certainly the way that it is. Footballers should disguise the misgivings in their private life, because children will take it on board. They will always find a way to defend those they look up to. So, gentlemen, be wary of how you act on and off the pitch: sometimes there is more to a football obsession than meets the eye. You have a public responsibility, fulfill it wisely.

An Affair To Remember

This is a piece I wrote when Hollande was all that was talked about in the news, but I wanted to re-upload it nevertheless. 

If there was ever a week to avoid the news, it’d be this one. It’s mostly been divided between England and France – between Lord Rennard and Francois Hollande. Far too much has already been said about the multi chinned Rennard, and I have no wish to add to the copious amount. What I do wish to focus on, however, is Francois Hollande.

 

Why the sudden influx of hatred for Hollande? Has everybody suddenly realised how poorly he has dealt with French economics, how incompetent his military involvement has been? No. The President of France’s sole crime was that he had an affair. Affairs are unpleasant, they’re the lowest thing you can do to a partner, really, but they also are a very personal thing and aren’t meant to be for the world to see. It shouldn’t be assumed that the world wants to see, either. But on Monday when it was revealed that someone had snapped a photograph of Hollande visiting his mistress, Julie Gayet, insanity came upon us all. Shortly afterward, we were informed that Hollande’s partner, First Lady Valérie Trierweiler was staying in hospital due to her suffering under the circumstances. Before we view Valerie as a victim, though, we must consider how her relationship with the French President came about –  through an affair whilst he was still with Ségolène Royal. Ségolène is the only one of the three women currently in the Hollande spotlight that seems unfazed; she at least has learnt the lesson, once an adulterer, always an adulterer, or whatever it may be. Julie Gayet has lashed out and sued a popular magazine for privacy infringement, for reasons that bemuse me, because when sleeping with the President a quiet relationship isn’t to be expected. You’d also think that publicity was exactly what she wanted, unless we’re all wrong with our assumptions and actually, Julie rather likes the beady eyed, receding hairline, bespectacled, clammy look on her men, and Hollande running the country has absolutely nothing to do with her attraction to him.

 

There is a similar school of thought for Valerie. It’s usually a pretty big giveaway if your partner’s speeding off on his motorbike in the middle of the night, and there’s probably been many clues that Valerie, a woman who can by no means be classified as stupid, since she managed to romance the President, must have picked up on. It seems more likely to me that she didn’t want everybody to know about the affair, and that was what prompted her to take one pill too many.

 

What confuses me about this whole thing is the interest that everybody who is not the President or the three women previously mentioned, appears to have. It’s been discussed in ways you didn’t think possible, when in actual fact it was just a man who was low enough to commit an act of infidelity. It’s not the first affair to take place in the corridors of power, unless everyone’s forgotten about John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton and John Profumo. The only reason that anybody should be concerned is that, as was discussed on Moral Maze months ago, someone who is distrustful in their domestic life may be so in their political life. It’s all a little too late to be discussing Hollande’s potential political disabilities, with a corporate tax rate of 34.4% and a budget of 96 million euros. Yes, he’s ruined the economy, he’s caused the deficit to grow, but by all means, let’s focus on his affairs.

 

When we’re not discussing the President’s affair here in England, we’ve been focusing heavily on Lord Rennard, that mountain of jelly in a suit who is prominent in the Liberal Democrat party. Ever since we found out about Jimmy Saville – this whole advances of vulnerable women and children has been a constant, and we’ve discovered many more, including Rolf Harris and Gore Vidal. Rennard wasn’t as disgusting to stoop to the levels of paedophilia, though, apparently he harassed a few women against their will. Perhaps he was trying to find someone who wasn’t as shallow as to vomit at the sight of the sweat running in rivulets from the crevices in his many chins. There have been many complaints, as is usually the case, but they’re all allegations and nothing has been proven. I’m sure as soon as it is we will not be able to go without hearing it. Rennard’s suspension is supposedly a wonderful thing, but really it’s derived from pure selfishness of Clegg and the rest of the Lib Dems, who daren’t leave the case alone in case their own political careers are ruined. If there’s a political problem, it would be nice if it could be unselfishly solved for once.

Same with Hollande, Valerie and Julie. The announcement that he doesn’t want a First Lady comes as no surprise, because now Hollande can have as many affairs as he wishes whilst ruining the country. Valerie and Julie have both lost out on the power they so craved. And what we’re left with is a King Lear-esque set up which must be reported on every night of every week, just in case we forget that the most selfish people are the ones that go into politics, and nobody does things for the good of the country any more.

The Comedy Of Tragedy: John Updike’s Rabbit At Rest

There’s only so much trawling through libraries and scanning blurbs in search of a good book that a person is willing to do. Sometimes, inspiration or suggestion from others is wildly helpful, and my latest source came from Martin Amis’ 1986 compilation of reviews, A Moronic Inferno (And Other Visits To America). Amis focuses not only on the books written, but the writer, in miniature biographies and interviews. Following his recommendation of John Updike’s Rabbit series, I decided to read Rabbit At Rest.

This is the fourth and final novel in the series, and I began with this namely because it was the only one to be found on the shelf. They say that with age comes wisdom, and there’s something extremely satisfying about reading a novel from the perspective of a person that has lived life, and extracted something from it, because there lies an understanding achievable only by age. The series itself centres around Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who is now fifty five and severely overweight, and is in retirement with his wife, Janice. They split their time between Pennsylvania and Florida.

Updike tackles the mythology of retirement head on, and contrasts the usual “expected” joy to be found in the final years with Rabbit’s deep dissatisfaction. He worries about his son, Nelson, with whom he has a fractured relationship, and considers the unconventional method with which he interacts with his daughter in law, Pru. Rabbit’s deteriorating health, in the form of heart disease, runs like a threatening red thread throughout the novel, haunting him with hospital visits and familiar nurses. Harry himself finds little solace in what are supposed to be his golden years, battling with the conventional problems that come with age, such as the death of former flames, the nostalgia for his glory days playing basketball in high school, and the less conventional things he faces, like his son’s drug problem and his rapidly failing Toyota dealership. Rabbit: At Rest is far from a happy story, in fact, if told in a different manner, it would appear to be over 400 pages of tragedy, but it is the telling that is key.

Novels mark periods of time for me, and last summer was marked by Tom Sharpe’s Wilt series. I enjoyed each book as much as the last, and had read all four within a two week period. Parallels can be drawn with Sharpe’s Wilt series and Updike’s Rabbit, as both books are centred around misfortune, yet are told in such a comedic manner that one tends to forget exactly what the character is going through. Rabbit contains dialogue that I thought I’d only find in Salinger novels, and descriptions that leave you wondering whether to laugh or to simply cringe. As Rabbit battles poor health, family discord, infidelity and financial difficulty, the reader realises that Updike is Rabbit, that he has slipped into the skin of a jaded fifty five year old.

The story takes several twists, none of which can be named here without a spoiler alert, but throughout is the heartwarming relationship that Rabbit has with his granddaughter Judy, who he takes great pleasure in, and watches carefully throughout all the misfortune, as he sees her as someone very similar to who he used to be during his own golden years. She is the character Rabbit identifies with the most, and it is a particularly delightful element of the story.

I began, unconventionally, with the last novel. And in most ways, I am glad I joined Rabbit at the end of his story, when he had come to realisations and knew the most. I shall read the rest, and discover more about Harry Angstrom in the past, and who he used to be. Throughout the story, Updike cleverly engineers it so the reader believes it is a tale of Nelson’s downfall, when in fact it is Rabbit clinging to the destructive curve all along.

Stephen King once said that he would take comedy over tragedy any day, because it takes a fool to build a house of cards and blow them down, but a genius to make people laugh. Updike delivers both, and Rabbit’s house of cards fall down but we laugh with him while it does so, and we enjoy the journey.

Understanding The Journey: The Waves

It is the beginning of a book that gets all the glory. But usually, it is the ending that stays with us, and the last line casts a shadow over the rest of the novel. In The Waves, it is the last line that ties it all together, it is the final thread, and without it, the novel is a little harder to understand. 

Virginia Woolf is always a challenge, but always a delightful one. Published in 1931, The Waves was written during the tumultuous affair that Virginia is said to have had with Vita Sackville West, and is without a doubt her most experimental novel. It has a James Joyce-esque feel to it, reading like Ulysses, although he was much criticised by Woolf. The book itself is composed of soliloquies spoken by the six main characters: Bernard, Susan, Louis, Rhoda, Neville and Jinny. There is a seventh character, Percival, who is much talked about but who never speaks for himself. The monologues run from childhood to old age, composed of ideals and finally, realisation. First time readers may flounder at the many questions asked during the prose that are never answered, but soon get caught in the net of beautiful language that wraps around the reader. The characters themselves are said to be based on other members of the well known Bloomsbury Group, with Bernard being E.M Forster, Louis – T.S Eliot, Neville – Lytton Strachey, and Percival – Virginia’s brother. Each have their own role to play. Bernard, the primary voice, and arguably the most vital, as he begins and ends the novel; is a story teller. Louis is an outsider, but longs for attention and success. Susan flees everything she once knew, whereas Jinny is a socialite. Rhoda doubts everything, and Neville seeks love and partnership. 


The monologues themselves are broken up by intervals of description. In page-long italics, the reader is shown a scene of the waves during nine different parts of the day. Personally, this was my favourite part of the book, as it is this metaphor that blurs the line between prose and poetry. The reader may, if they perceive things easily, recognise the metaphor, but they may not know what it is for. What is it for? We might never know exactly what was intended, but it is harmless to guess that it is used to represent life. The different points during the day are the stages one goes through, and the closing sunset is used to show the ending of life, or death. The question of mortality is one that everyone faces, but it is Bernard that tells it best. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that the narrators were not meant to be separate people at all, but parts of consciousness to show a sense of continuity. Each narrator is meant to show a hidden side of the human psyche. 


A question every novelist, journalist, and aspiring writer is asked: if you could have written any book, what would it be? Mine would almost certainly be this one. It attempts to understand the human mind, with all its complications and inadequacies. Nothing has ever been written like it, and nothing ever shall. It is also the most beautiful writing I have ever come across. Virginia Woolf does not try to appear as a superior human in this novel, in fact, she does the exact opposite: reminds us that she did not have the best functioning brain, and was not without the mental struggles that eventually, were her downfall.


The Waves is a book that is by no means easy to understand, but it is wonderful. Wonderful in a way that you will almost certainly never have experienced before. It takes you on a journey that you don’t understand until you reach the destination, and it shall leave you wondering long after you’ve closed the novel. And the last line? As I said, it ties everything together. And the waves break on the shore. The beginning of this book deserves all the glory it gets, but it is the ending that will lead you to the realisation. And it is entirely worth the struggle. 

The Art Of Understanding Humans: Josephine Hart

Josephine Hart once said that we as humans learn from tragedy, slowly. This is perhaps the underpinning of all her works: tragedy. To understand people in the way Josephine did, you have to allow time or great sadness. For her, it was both. She lived a life and died a death marked by tragedy, and each of her wonderful books had an unbroken thread of discontent running through them. It is my understanding of Josephine, and her understanding of people, that I wish to explore.

 

Damage was her first novel, and for this reason, with many others, it was considered her most iconic. Josephine Hart entered the literary scene like a tempestuous storm, having watched from the sidelines with a breadth of experience for many years. It was her husband, Maurice Saatchi, who convinced her to finally write the book she had inside of herself. He had been right, because Damage itself was completed within seven weeks. From the outset, Damage looks like another one of those tales of political scandal and families splitting at the seams, which it is. However, the key difference between Damage and other novels of the same ilk is that Josephine writes it from the man’s point of view; politician Stephen Fleming, happily married man with a soon to be happily married son, until he falls for his son’s fiancee, Anna. Anna is shrouded in a veil of darkness and the reader can imagine her as a sultry, brooding woman with a short haircut and red lips. There’s a desperate longing to despise her, and to despise Stephen, but the reader never quite can. Josephine understands the dark side of human nature to an extent that is wholly unusual for any writer, and she wriggles herself into the body of a grey haired politician, writing as him, and for him. This is perhaps the book that has the least attachment to Josephine herself, but we shall never know, as she never gave away too much with her writing. The novel itself was published in 1991.

 

Following Damage came Sin, which received high acclaim but did not match the success of Damage. Sin was the first novel I read by Josephine Hart, and the main character, Ruth, continues to live with me, almost three years later. Sin is very different to Damage, as none of Josephine’s books are the same, but there’s discontent and darkness present: this time in the form of jealousy. Ruth has an adopted sister, Elizabeth, who she sees as having taken away her birthright as the first child. A childlike Ruth begins her narration from a dark room, moving hauntingly down the staircase after a bad dream, to see the light spilling from underneath the living room door and Elizabeth’s blonde hair fanned out like a halo. The contrast between light and darkness runs like another thread throughout the novel, black and gold synapses travelling parallel with each other. Perhaps Damage’s mantra also fits well with Sin: damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive. Ruth is complex but she is also wonderful, in the way that all good characters are, and Josephine has a way of making the evil narrators of the story seem like the better people, excusing them for their actions by a haunting narrative. Sin was published in 1992, by which time Hart was fifty. She had spent most of her life working in publishing and compiling poetry, as can be seen with Catching Life By The Throat and Words That Burn.

 

A three year time lapse occurred until my favourite of Josephine’s novels was written. Opinionated novices will tell you that The Truth About Love, a title I shall expand on later, was Josephine’s most personal novel yet. I firmly disagree, as that was her family’s tragedy. Oblivion is her own. It is not something that can just be read, and understood. Upon reading it for the fourth or fifth time over, and you shall want to, you shall want to take from it everything you can, as no book has faced death and grief head on like this one, you will begin to chisel into Josephine’s psyche. Her lack of fear for death and her greatest fear of being forgotten both lie side by side in what has to be the most compelling novel I have read thus far. Laura is dead, but she will not go away. She cannot go away. She is invisible to her family, to her widower husband and to all who knew her, but she watches them. Her family are fraught with grief, and her sleep deprived Mother returns to Laura’s old childhood room, unable to escape. Her husband struggles to move on, feeling plagued with guilt as he tries to be with his new girlfriend. It is him who starts and ends the book, but it is Laura who represents Josephine. The merciless cynical voice floats from the pages – of course they’ll forget you, why would they remember? One reads Oblivion, and remembers that Josephine is dead. Dead, but not forgotten, as she so feared. And the reader feels a duty, to keep her candle burning, so that Josephine may never feel what Laura did. Oblivion is, in some ways, more than a novel. It is a theory about life after death, one that seems ridiculous on the surface but wildly believable by the time your journey through the book has been made. Oblivion is a pilgrimage, and it is certainly one worth making.

 

Another three years (and this seems to be quite a pattern with Josephine) and The Stillest Day was produced. It didn’t make quite as much of a splash as the previous three, and in fact, no novel she was yet to write ever would. It’s a dark horse in the sense that only the fanatics of her work would consider reading it, and yet once you do, it eternally plagues you. Everything starts off well, following the idea that something has to be made in order for it to be broken. A religious young woman teaches at the children’s village primary, while looking after her invalid mother at home. A married man moves to the village with his wife, and the main female character becomes infatuated. It’s not infatuation as most people know it; it does more than linger, it remains. Slowly, the woman’s world dissolves around her as her mental state makes it difficult to distinguish between reality and the world inside her mind. A child dies at the school in a prominent scene, and it occurs to Bethesda, which is the name of the female lead in the novel, that she ought to be grieving, or she ought to feel something more than she does. It is linked to Josephine’s personal life, and she draws heavily on her experiences in the nunnery in Ireland. The Stillest Day has been described as her most raw and intentful novel, but on top of that, it is daring. The mental decline following unrequited love is something rarely explored in any such way as this, and the ending is not only lyrically beautiful but it is also unexpected – or exactly what you thought was going to happen, depending on how exactly you read the book. Either way, I shan’t spoil it. You ought to decide for yourself.

 

Unsurprisingly, another three year gap and the year 2001 leaves us with a new novel, The Reconstructionist. It is her most starting novel, perhaps, especially with the psychological power exercised. It is also easily her most complex; exploring the qualities of exclusive love, of a life built from fragments, and most of all, it is a tale of how those who help to mend the damaged are most damaged themselves. The focus of this book is of one Jack Harrington, a psychiatrist dedicated to helping others. At the beginning of the novel, he receives a phone call telling him that his ex wife, Ellie, has suffered a heart attack. He is summoned back to Ireland for the sale of his family home, and the burdens of his family’s heritage return in full force. The suppression of his past threatens to tear down his present in its wake, and truths emerge about what exactly took place in that house in Ireland many years prior. The wounds may have healed, but the scars still remain – and they are more open than ever. Josephine Hart lived a life coloured by death, and although it is her last book which openly explores the tragedy that befell her family, The Reconstructionist seems to be Josephine delving into her own psyche, and assessing the inevitable damage and indelible marks life has left her with. The first death in Josephine’s life was her brother Charles, when she was just six, and a series of family deaths followed.

 

Eight years later – the biggest gap Josephine Hart readers had to endure – and 2009 produced The Truth About Love – a title pulled from Auden’s O Tell Me The Truth About Love. It is known for being her most shocking novel, and sparing nothing. It was a novel that had taken the ambitious author many years to write, perhaps because it hit closest to home. The boy’s death that occurs right at the beginning of the novel, when he blows himself up by experimenting with chemicals, mirrors her brother Owen’s, who died when Josephine was just seventeen. It is told in a series of voices: the neighbour, the daughter, and finally, the depressed and grieving mother. The father figure in the book is at a loss because he knows that his wife no longer loves him, that is to say, she has no capacity to love. It is a tale of mental destruction at its finest, the warpings that occur at the intersection of life and death. Josephine herself referred to it as a “kind of coming home, a revealing of truths.” The response to it moved her greatly, and she called it a “balm to the soul” as the writing of the book had been so painful, and so long. In the novel, she mocks the Irish for wanting reconciliation without truth, and this is another reason why the title contains that forbidding word. As she said herself “the things I have learnt are in all of the books. And this one contains the knowledge that such things can be survived.”

Josephine Hart was right, of course. Except for the fact that not everything can be survived, and The Truth About Love was to be her last novel, as she succumbed to ovarian cancer in the June of 2011, aged 69. She told only her immediate family about the disease she lived with for almost two years, proving yet again that she was one of the strongest individuals to encounter life, and everything it threw at her. She continued to host poetry readings, assembled from excerpts of her two poetry books, narrated by actor friends such as Jeremy Irons and Ralph Fiennes. Josephine adored the darker side of human nature, but more than that, she understood it in a way most can never hope to. She wasn’t just a willing receptacle for words that burn. Her own words burned, too, and they always shall, like an eternal candle.

The Album That Inspired: Late For The Sky (1974) – Track By Track

It was extremely difficult for me to decide which of Jackson Browne’s albums to focus on, as I have been a fan for a lengthy period of time, and have many favourites. It was tempting to review I’m Alive or The Naked Ride Home, but I decided to take it back to the beginning, back to what we perhaps wouldn’t call his “magnum opus”, but certainly the album that collectively solidified his reputation as a songwriter. It goes by the name of Late For The Sky, a phrase Jackson coined when he was late for a flight. He later explained in an interview that he’d told a friend “I’m late for my flight. I’m late for the sky”, and had liked the phrase so much that he wanted to build a song, and later an album, around it. This is of course, the name of the title track, and towards the end flight imagery resonates in the lyrics:

How long have I been sleeping?

How long have I been drifting alone through the night?

How long have I been running for that morning flight?

Through the whispered promises and the changing light

Late For The Sky as a track is possibly my favourite on the album, as the lyrics are poignant and the pain really demands to be felt. It marks, in the same way of I’m Alive’s Sky Blue And Black, the ending of a relationship and the dulling of feeling. Realisations are reached in the song, particularly in the opening:

The words had all been spoken

And somehow the feeling still wasn’t right

And still we continued on through the night.

The music is a steady, legato piano, which stalls at appropriate moments to create hollow emotions and loneliness. There are some lovely guitar licks that are placed directly over the piano sound, and the result is calming. The hard hitting line, “such an empty surprise, to feel so alone” comes before a short interlude, and the listener is left to reflect. The imagery in the song, along with the soft melody of the piano, makes it one of Brown’s best.

The second track is Fountain Of Sorrow, written as a stream of consciousness following Jackson Browne going through a drawer and finding a photograph. There are suspicions that this was written following the suicide of his wife, but this has never been confirmed. Browne rarely states who a song is about, with the exception of the I’m Alive album that followed his split with actress Daryl Hannah. All relationships usually end with an accumulation of “bottom drawer” objects, but people rarely write about them as well as Jackson Browne. He discusses the photograph in the first verse:

There were one or two I know you would have liked a little more

But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true.

You were turning round to see who was behind you

And I took your childish laughter by surprise

But at the moment my camera happened to find you

There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes.

Somehow, in the first verse alone, Browne has tapped into all of our souls. The natural yet painful feeling of looking at a photograph of someone who used to be in your life can cause heartache, and this is shown by the careful way he observes the photograph, almost terrified he might miss something vital. There are threads of loneliness, guilt and adultery running through Fountain Of Sorrow:

When you see through love’s illusion, there lies the danger

And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool

So you go running off in search of a perfect stranger

While the loneliness seems to spring up from your life,

Like a fountain from a pool.

This apology that morphs into an almost justification before backing away is one of my favourite parts of the song. Although the guitar and piano provide a far more up tempo sound, the lyrics are melancholy, swathed in sadness, regret, and the loss of a relationship. It was one of the first Jackson Browne songs I heard, and it sticks with me.

The track following this is called Farther On. It is, almost certainly, this album’s anthem for unrequited love. Set out in narrative form, it follows Browne’s romantic ideals as a child shift into a disappointing reality. The electric guitar provides a background to the piano, as Browne laments on his old dreams:

In my early years, I hid my tears

And passed my days alone

Adrift on an ocean of loneliness

My dreams like nets were thrown.

Most ‘fans’ of Jackson Browne now have grown up into fully fledged adults, bar those who discovered his wonder through their parents, or through Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, which the title track, Late For The Sky, was featured in. However, Jackson provides a strong insight into teenage emotion, and many people have said that his songs were the soundtrack to their teenage years, or that his songs simply made them better. I can attest to this with These Days (Saturate Before Using), but Farther On also has an extremely adolescent feel to it. My favourite section of the song is:

And the angels are older

They know not to wait up for the sun

They look over my shoulder

At the maps and the drawings of the journey I’ve begun.

Farther On is a song about growing up, grappling with reality and being disappointed. The eloquence makes it a perfect soundtrack for any struggling adolescent’s life.

The track that follows this is my favourite on the album, and more than that, it is one of my favourite songs Jackson Browne has ever written. The Late Show is again a song about being disappointed, but it deals with it rather better than Farther On, as the narrative contains a matured voice that understands very few things match up to expectation. He begins the song by discussing friendship, and the general futility of it, considering the word appears to have lost its meaning:

Everyone I’ve ever known has wished me well,

Anyway that’s how it seems, it’s hard to tell

Maybe people only ask you how you’re doing

‘Cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care.

In the lines that follow, the listener doesn’t know if he’s talking about Lowell George, Warren Zevon or another friend, but Browne sings

But when you know that you’ve got a real friend somewhere,

All the others seem so much easier to bear.

 

As the song unfolds, it becomes apparent that it isn’t just a lamentation. It’s a love song, to somebody just as lonely as him:

I saw you through the laughter and the noise,

You were talking with the soldiers and the boys

While they scuffled for your weary smiles

I thought of all the empty miles

And the years that I’ve spent looking for your eyes.

What a wonderful but also dismal feeling: to look across the room and to recognise somebody with the same loneliness, the same troubled irises as you. My favourite part of the song comes with the beautiful guitar solo at the end, and is a lyric that always finds its way back to me. Incidentally, it also inspired the album’s cover work, which looks like this:

Image

It’s like you’re standing in the window

Of a house nobody lives in

And I’m sitting in a car across the way

(Let’s just say)

It’s an early model Chevrolet

My all time favourite three lines close the song lyrically, followed by a superb guitar solo:

You go and pack your sorrow

The trash man comes tomorrow

Leave it at the curb and we’ll just roll away.

The Road And The Sky is the album’s shortest track, coming in at just over three minutes. It shares similarities with Farther On in terms of giving off the vibe of teenage rebellion. It’s what should be called a “road song”, like Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ Running Down A Dream. It’s the most upbeat song on Late For The Sky, and leaves Browne discussing how he wants his life to be:

Well I spend all my time at the bottom of a wishing well

And I can hear my dreams singing as clear as a bell

My favourite lyric is:

I could be just around the corner from heaven or a mile from hell

This line really summarises life; you don’t know where you’re going, but you take what’s thrown at you because it’s certainly better than the inevitable alternative. I don’t feel like I can review this song as in depth as the others, because it is the one I have listened to the least, but it is a great track and certainly worth a listen.

For A Dancer is one of Jackson Browne’s songs that I have struggled to understand most. It definitely has connotations with death, and the contemplation of mortality. Some believe it was written for his wife, who actually committed suicide after the song’s release, whereas some believe it was written for Adam, who inspired Adam’s Song from Saturate Before Using. The metaphor at the beginning, “keep a fire burning in your eye”, warns the listener to make the most of the time that they have left with the people they know. The dancer is also used as a constant metaphor throughout the song, as demonstrated both in the title and the chorus:

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown

By everyone you’ve ever known

Until the dance becomes your very own

No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown

In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone.

The last line of the chorus burnt a hole through my soul the first time I heard it, and it has remained ingrained in me since. For A Dancer is certainly not a prayer to the grim reaper, but an acceptance, as shown by the line “there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.” However, there is also a fear of loss and a fear of becoming close to anyone in case you lose them.

Somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go

May lie a reason you were alive, and you’ll never know.

This couplet that rounds off the song is probably the one that haunted me most, but it is also my favourite. David Lindley also deserves credit for being the wonderful violinist that makes the sound of this song so unique. His vocals can be heard in Stay, and they are superb.

The penultimate track: Walking Slow. The concept of the song is simple; it’s one of those long walks where you think too much and observe the surrounding area. This is the most folk sounding song from the album, although he would later return to this sound further on into his discography. Browne talks about the wonderful feeling that comes with being unattached:

I’ve got no reason to feel this good

Maybe it’s because I’m alone

And I’ve got no place to go

And everywhere I look I see

Another person I’ll never know

Also, Jackson Browne being Jackson Browne, cannot write a simple song about walking without emotional ties. He spots a little girl on the street and it brings memories of a girl he knows. This cannot be his daughter, as he only has sons, so it leaves the listener wondering:

Pretty little girl…

Running up and down the street with no shoes on

I got a pretty little girl of my own at home

Sometimes we forget we love each other

And we fight for no reason

Here we are: the final track, which is none other than Before The Deluge. This is a song that paves the way to Browne’s environmentalist passions of the future, and fills the latest album, Time The Conqueror. Most people assume that it is about the Noah and the ark, but some believe it is a warning, that lest we do something, it shall happen again. In all honesty, this track is probably my least favourite track on the album, and I’ve never really enjoyed it as much as the others. But I don’t want to end negatively, certainly not whilst reviewing the great Jackson Browne, so I shall insert my favourite lyrical segment:

While the sand slipped through the opening

And their hands reached for the golden ring

With their hearts they turned towards each other’s heart for refuge

In the troubled years that came before the deluge.

Late For The Sky as a whole is beautiful. It is still considered his finest piece of work, all these years on. If I had to pick a recurring theme, it would be disappointment. These songs are filled with disappointment; discovering it, handling it, accepting it – and could not be put more eloquently than by Jackson Browne.

His fans are all extremely grateful he was late for that morning flight, and thus ‘late for the sky’ that day.