Friday, 15 May 2009

Common People

Tears are weird. Why does the body have to produce fluid from our eyes when we feel sad? No doubt the scientists could give me a straight answer about it clearing the crap out of our eyes so that whatever killed the person we’re grieving over won’t get us so easily or something. But, like laughing, it's a puzzling physiological manifestation. In fact, bizarrely, it’s its physiological opposite. When we laugh there are lots of little exhalations – as in ‘ha, ha, ha’ – but sobbing involves a succession of intakes of breath. Does that mean they're connected? (Discuss, with illustrations.)

I don't cry easily. Not for any absurd macho reasons. I wouldn't mind if I cried. I do now and then. But it's the things that provoke the tears that make the reaction even more puzzling. The lump comes into my throat when I hear the pipes and drums, but I think that happens to everyone. There's some visceral thing about the pipes that drags the emotions up out of you. You give them labels such as pride, triumph, defiance but really you’re labelling something that's bigger, more profound than all of them. If I knew what folk-memory was, I’d be tempted to say they’re something to do with that. But I don’t.

No, I start feeling the tears when I'm watching athletics, for example. As I see winners and losers alike flinging themselves down the home straight, striving, overcoming odds, these are the things that pluck at me. But why? It's just somebody running, for God's sake. But this is where the pretension kicks in, because I suspect it's just because they’re striving. They’re maintaining the pretence that there’s structure, meaning, purpose - which, momentarily, in the bubble of their activity, there is. There’s a certain sort of glory in the fact that we do all these things in the face of our absurdity. It's our old friend Sisyphus again, knowing he's wasting his time but still determined to push the rock back up the hill. I think the tears have something to do with the human spirit and hopelessness.

Which brings me to the title of this posting. There's a lot of music (as well as the pipes and drums) that makes me feel sad. But I think the only one which brings a lump to my throat every time is Jarvis Cocker's Common People. It’s the thought of the inequalities that blight our comfortable society, the fact that rich people can pretend to live like common people but opt out when things get unbearable by phoning their dad to take them away from it all. Which further stresses the fact that, for the real common people there's no escape. And yet they tolerate it, some are beaten down and corrupted but many are proud survivors, worth far more than the obscene values society puts on them because of the conditions in which they’re forced to live.

And when the shock jocks and their ilk crow that these common people should just get a job and pull themselves out of the mire, all that does is confirm that the tears are legitimate. It's about humanity but also about the absence of humanity in these and other ill-informed bigots.

Which is all very noble and altruistic, but it still doesn't explain why these bloody glands in my eyes overflow.


  1. Just go with it, Bill and be glad that you you have the capacity to be moved. I'm the same, by the way with athletics. When they're on the podium collecting their medals, I'm a mess.

  2. I've cried a lot more this past year than at any other time in my life, but I never thought about the process by which tears are generated by the glands, or whatever triggers them to fall. Thanks for making me think about that instead of my real problems. :)

  3. Bugger - I wrote a response to this and it got lost in cyber-space. I'll try to re-create it from memory. 'Common People' gets me all choked up too, and although I'm a girl I'm not naturally soppy either. I grew up as the child of people who thought that, if the rent was paid, there was enough food and clothing, then they were doing, I believe, you did too, Bill. I always had the sneaking suspicion that my working class family/peers were just as clever as the poshos, but had no legitimate arena for demonstrating it. When I went to a very prestigious uni, aged 37, I was aghast at the thickness of the young undergrads, who'd mainly only got in because of historical 'understandings' between their chi-chi private schools and the uni...and yes, they regarded us (scarce) low-lifes as a separate species, bits of rough...Jarvis's song really sums it up, was current at about the time I was witnessing and seething about this stuff. The gilded yoof at uni, by the way, also loved the song, but without 'getting' it. It was more than a bit disturbing, hearing them singing along with it with a total lack of irony, without suspecting for a second that it was seriously slagging off them and their ilk.
    On a more cheerful note - at around the same time, we were back in Hackney on a visit and our kids saw Jarvis Cocker riding along the road on a bike. They accosted him, in their innocent, yokel way, and he stopped and chatted in a friendly and un-up-himself way which really pleased them, and made them fans for life!

  4. Michael, Does this mean that we're both sensitive, poetic souls? I vote yes.

    Jean, I didn't, of course, mean to belittle or question in any way the normal things which stimulate crying. I guess I'm just fortunate not to have experienced (yet anyway) the traumas and upsets which make my crying at athletics seem insultingly trivial.

    Sheena, It doesn't surprise me to hear that you share my reactions to the song. And it's good to be reminded that Jarvis still means what he writes and sings and to know that (despite his Paris flat) he still hasn't joined the 'Eff you, Jack, I'm all right' brigade.