On this, the longest day, a radio smow playlist devoted to that which Europe for the next 24 hours will have more of than at any other time this year. And which somehow still won’t seem enough.
We could do with a lot more light, a lot more illumination, in our contemporary society…………………
As the Bible reliably informs us*, the first thing God did was create the heaven and the earth. And then illuminated the earth. If God also illuminated heaven is sadly not recorded. What is recorded is that having illuminated earth God began to form it, light being, as God learned on that first day, good, and helpful, when giving form to objects.
And necessary, fundamental and elementary for all that which God created on the following days: in most biological systems light is essential not only for survival – no light, no (or at least no where near enough) oxygen – but for regulation and order, be that of the daily patterns or annual cycles of animalia, plantae and fungi.
While for us humans light, and for all mastering of light, has been key in the development of our species. And our society.
Arguably the first man-made light arrived as a by-product of the discovery of fire, at first a, relatively, uncontrollable, ungainly commodity, but one we quickly learnt to master through the torch; a tool that helped transform early society, for all as we learned that greases, oils and fats not only burned, but did so slower and in a more manageable fashion than wood, grasses, et al, thus enabling longer periods of light and freeing us from the restrictions of the rising and setting of the sun. We could determine when it got light, when it got dark.
And the torch, in its various guises, remained the principle source of light until the development of gas lighting in the 19th century not only improved our control over light, but allowed lighting to become more widely available, and become increasingly so as the gas lamp ceded to the electric: the improbable arc lamp, quickly, and thankfully, giving way to the incandescent lightbulb, and subsequently to our myriad contemporary light sources. Each development of lighting technology contributing to social and cultural developments; and will inevitably continue to do so as lighting technology continues to develop.
Including developing and expanding lights symbolic, figurative, importance; not purely as the start of everything, but a signifier of hope, honesty, compassion, tolerance and for all a faith in the possibility of a world better than that which one has before you, a positive force towards which one should naturally migrate and which must be vigorously defended from all attempts to extinguish or dominate it.
In that sense, let there be light…..
Arguably most famous for its casual mentioning of Glasgow, Scotland’s second city rarely turning up so unexpectedly in a pop lyric, Super Trouper is also a reminder for our egocentric age of celebrity that the spotlight is a very, very lonely place.
And a reminder that despite all the disco affiliations, a lot of ABBA’s output was deeply melancholic and contemplative. Benny’s piano possessed an awful lot of blue keys.
“All I do is eat and sleep and sing. Wishing every show was the last show” laments the narrator, before posing the question, “Facing twenty thousand of your friends. How can anyone be so lonely?”
Because they’re not real friends, just individuals who like the things you share on social media, we reply. Forgetting the question was posed in 1979.
“Part of a success that never ends”, replies the narrator, intelligently ignoring our input, yet, “Still, I’m thinking about you only”
Where is the joy, sense, in the spotlight, celebrity, fame, how meaningful, rational, is professional success if it means missing out on a genuine, unconditional, sincere personal happiness?
Indeed can one call it success if it leaves you “feeling blue”? Or does the urge to be in the spotlight, the urge for a professional success leave one oblivious to the wider truth?
“Super Trouper beams are gonna blind me” Physically and figuratively?
Lighthouses are a very popular metaphor in literature, music, theatre, et al: that which guides ships safely through the night guiding the human soul through the darkness, or, and as in the case of Belinda Carlisle’s protagonist, signaling a safe, familiar, harbour from which one is currently distant but to which one plans to return.
Even if we’ve never really understood why the narrator has to leave the object of their obviously very strong desire. Is it work taking them away? Is it personal circumstance? An inability to commit to that which one knows is correct? Have they perhaps been banished?
But go she must, even if she is unclear as to “Just how far I have to go” and that “I don’t know when I’ll see you again”
That can’t be work? Normally you have a rough idea of how long a business trip is going to last. Or are we into Kim Wilde “Cambodia” territory?
Yet while she’s away she asks her lover to wait, aware as she is that, “what I’m asking is crazy You could go, just get tired of waiting”, especially given the unclear nature and duration of the absence, “But if I lose your love Torn out by my desire That would be the one regret of my life” Which makes it sound like an inability to commit, to give up something else. Or banishment.
But the conviction to return is there, and when she does she requires just one thing to help find her way home, a symbolic lighthouse to guide her back to that safe harbour which she knows will provide shelter from life’s stormy waters, all she needs is, “a spark that lights up the dark”. And, “Baby, that’s your heart Baby, that’s your heart Baby, that’s your heart” [cue plaintive wailing guitar solo]
Set in the Welsh mining communities against the backdrop of the 1980s miners’ strike the lamp in the title is the traditional miner’s lamp, and a figurative object: much as the miner’s lamp lit the way through the darkness and uncertainty of the mine, allowing for both orientation and security, so the narrator’s lamps stand representative for how the realities of the year long strike affected attitudes and relationships in the communities, for all how gender understandings evolved, and in doing so provided many women with the orientation and security to move forward through a coming period of darkness and uncertainty. And for all to light the path away from a world in which, as one narrator tells us, women “weren’t taught to wire a plug, they were taught to make sponge; they weren’t taught how to change a wheel on a car, they were taught the proper way to iron a white shirt.”, gender attitudes and norms learned in childhood “You can’t climb up this tree, you’re a girl! You can’t come with us ’cause you’re a girl!”
The miners strike changed that. “If you could get the women into one meeting, or could get them involved in one thing”, we are told, then “they could see there was this other life. And then through that they started questioning other aspects of their lives.” And that through the experiences of the strike months, “a lot of women found their feet”
Something that was not just important in dragging the 1980s Welsh mining communities out of the 15th century, but for all in helping them adapt to the coming realities; the miners strike couldn’t save the Welsh mining industry, that was doomed before the strike began by falling demand for coal as British industry increasingly softened, but the communities remained. Swapping a real lamp for a metaphoric version, and moving slowly forwards.
Documenting the life of a lady of good birth, a member of the 1960s “smart set” who had once not only “holidayed with kings, dined out with starlets”, and that “From London to New York, Cap Ferrat to Capri”, but had also regularly “sipped Camparis with David and Peter. At Noel’s parties by Lake Geneva”; and who now lives a quiet, and singularly unhappy, life in a “little flat”, somewhere in the south of France, or possibly, Switzerland, bit unclear; much clearer is that she spends her days in a cafe, “Hoping someone will fill your glass and let you chat about how You chased the sun around the Cote d’Azur”
Or at least did “Until the light of youth became obscured.”
The light of youth must fade, that is incontestable, unavoidable, yet growing old needn’t necessarily “leave you on your own and in the shade”
Whether it does or not, as Neil Hannon so eloquently admonishes us, depending on the priorities we place during our lives.
Whereas the protagonists youthful extravagancies were made possible by “a cheque book and a family tree”, a twist of fate over which she had no influence, in her attempt to continue to “be kept in the style to which You had all of your life been accustomed to” she “married someone very very rich.”
And that’s where her problems begin.
That is where she loses control over her life, maintaining a lifestyle, moving in certain circles, possessing certain things, focussing on the superficial, consumable and ephemeral, becoming her raison d’etre rather than concentrating on the emotional, the personal, the abiding, that which as Kate Tempest so deliciously phrases it “compels without force” Our subject forced compliance. But to what……..?
Thus, and arguably very aware of the mistakes she had made yet unwilling or unable to face them openly, she denies the years between the youthful light and elderly shade, pretends she is still that happy teenager. The full tragedy of her situation being reflected in the evolution of the intonation in “No, you couldn’t be!” as her age drops by another decade.
As noted above, in many regards the candle represents the origins of manageable light, of light that is mobile, can be extinguished and relit and which provides light without noticeable heat, and thereby of a universal light. And a light which over centuries of darkness allowed philosophers, scientists, astronomers, authors, artists, composers and engineers to work the long hours required to allow them to lay the foundations of our contemporary society: while the philosophers, authors, artists and composers were establishing the cultural basis of coming society the astronomers, scientists and engineers were working on the physical. Including the replacement for the candle at their side.
And despite being an essentially skeuomorphic relic of times past, an object we’ve moved on from and no longer need, the candle remains not only one of the most endearing and popular forms of lighting, but an archetype that designers of electric light continually seek to approach. But rarely do. And arguably never will, electric light lacking both the primality of the association with fire that the candle inherently possess and the romantic associations of a pre-industrial candle light world. In addition to the simple functionality and inherent democracy contained within that most reduced and self-recycling of objects.
Despite the best attempts of religion to dominate the candle, it remains a tool for all. And a reminder that while progress is important, it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t necessarily eschew that which was…….
* In the interests of brevity we only mention the Christian tradition of the origin of life. And in doing so in no sense intend to bequeath it an importance above any other tradition. It’s a purely a literary tool.