The Commonplace Book – Inspiration and Perspiration
Simple Pleasures part 4 was inspired partly by an Ian Dury song (via my first blog Simple Pleasures) and partly by an article from the pen of the poet Andrew Motion. In that line of heritage, I was reading Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From and was much taken with his thoughts on the ‘commonplace book’, the practice of keeping a scrapbook of quotes and thoughts which he traces from John Locke in the late 17th century through to Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), ultimately linking it to Tim Berners-Lee’s inspiration for the World Wide Web. I’ve kept these kinds of notebooks and notes for any years but being reminded of their value in creative thinking, the repository for the ‘slow hunch’ and the petri dish in which disparate but related thoughts grow together, makes me feel encouraged to write here more often and in smaller bursts. Here’s one I wrote a couple of days ago after reading about the Commonplace Book and then chatting to an old friend of mine from the Universite de Savoie, year of 83…
4/8/13 Mangskog, Sweden: Sitting on the deck outside Bjorksuset (whispering of the birches), my friend Hanna’s house, this afternoon overlooking Mangen lake I was thinking a bit about Swedish neutrality in the War before Hanna told me a story from a documentary she made recently for NRK, the Norwegian state broadcaster. It was about so-called ‘war children’ in Norway (the off-spring of Norwegian women and German soldiers) and the on-going impact of the Second World War on Norwegians. Hanna filmed a woman who recently discovered her father was in fact a German bureaucrat of the Occupation, not the Norwegian man whom she had called daddy all her life, father of what had been her two brothers up to the point of this discovery in her advancing years. When she told her mother she had acted on some bothersome doubts from her childhood and uncovered her true parentage through a specialist agency her mother went nuts with her, majorly upset by having her secret unburied. And the brothers went crazy too, especially the older one who runs a big well-known Oslo-based shopping mall (he threatened to sue). In revealing her discovery the family imploded and she lost mother, (half-)siblings and extended family at a stroke. Although she acquired some half-brothers in Germany in the process. So seventy years after the occupation of Norway the dark forces still swirl, much as in France, like molten lava beneath the crust busting out when cracks appear.
6/3/13 I’m sitting on that same deck behind Bjorksuset, listening to the wind in the canopies of the silver birches. My grandparents had silver birches which fascinated me as a child in their inappropriately named street Cyprus Avenue. Their shiny trunks punctuated the way to the red postbox twenty yards down from their house, which at the age I am recalling seemed a major journey to be let loose on alone. The sound of the rustling leaves is a constant in this beautiful place in the West of Sweden. I think ‘suset’ in Swedish must be related to ‘susurration’ in English. The whispering sea-like sound made me think of the soundtrack of Antonioni’s Blow-Up – the mysterious breeze in the trees of the South London park where the ‘corpse’ lies worked its magic on me big time. And my train of thought then headed off down the line of the sound of wind in films and pulled in to these three stops:
Blow-Up (1966): the wind in the trees makes the park where the photographer (David Hemmings) accidentally photographs a dead body weird&wonderful – I always meant to visit that location, I’ll have to rewatch the movie then make the trip this autumn
Ryan’s Daughter (1970): The eponymous Irish colleen and the English captain make illicit love among the bluebells in the West of Ireland and what David Lean shows us is the strong breeze shaking the treetops above them
Black Narcissus (1947): Michael Powell set nerves on edge in this English Romantic Technicolor tale by having the Himalayan wind blow constantly through the mountain-top convent in which a nun gradually succumbs to an irreligious magic
In all three (the last one in too sparse a landscape for leaves to accompany moving air) the whispering of the wind brings the magical and mystical to the scene.
At the nadir of my teenage years, when I retired to a room with David Bowie and Jane Austen to see me through, just like Renton prepares the room for going cold turkey in Trainspotting, Wild is the Wind struck me as a uniquely Romantic song a bit apart from his others, with a touch of epic, majestic magic.
The song was actually written for a film of the same name made in 1957 and recorded by Johnny Mathis. Bowie was inspired to cover it by Nina Simone’s version. It is to be found on his 1976 LP Station to Station which neatly brings this thought-train to its terminus.
Like the leaf clings to the tree
Oh, my darling, cling to me
For we’re like creatures of the wind
Wild is the wind, wild is the wind