A few nights ago, John and I were sitting and talking over a glass wine at the end of the day, when I burst into song: “The road is looooooooong..... With maaaaany a wiiiiiiiinding turn.....”
I spun round to face him: “What does that song remind you of?” I asked, grinning in anticipation of an instant identification of the connection I was making. But he didn't know. This was odd. Usually our cultural references are in perfect harmony. He remembers Prize Italiano yoghurts, the lyrics to Shonen Knife songs, Beebop and Rocksteady from the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, and all sorts of other totally irrelevant stuff that no one else seems to know but which has inexplicably woven itself into the fabric of who I am, and who he is, and how we see ourselves and each other. A sort of faded 90s poncho from Afflecks Palace, patchworked from washed out band t-shirts and 19 inch wide Joe Bloggs jeans, under which we smugly snuggle together, marvelling at our infinitely compatible cultural unconsciouses. I'm sure it's one of the main reasons we continue to be so amused by each other, even after all these years. So I was genuinely shocked when he didn't immediately call out “The Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster!”
“The Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster!” I exclaimed in a way that made the whole sentence sound like the word “duh!” He laughed at me for being a weirdo, and, like the good citizens of the 21st century that we are, we both turned to our phones and started Googling in earnest.
We soon found out that He Ain't Heavy wasn't anything to do with 'Ferry Aid'. The song selected to represent the Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster was actually a cover, by an erratically talented cast, of The Beatles' Let It Be. Who knew?! Google has a cheeky way of taking your treasured childhood memories and tearing them into a 125 million reasons why you're totally full of shit. I can't figure out whether it makes me think of The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind... Either way, I'm beginning to suspect that Jim Carrey might be installed as some sort of undercover big cheese at Google HQ.
Ferry Aid, Let it Be, 1987
So anyway, yes, I was wrong. I had misremembered the memorial. The remembrance of things wrong. As you might imagine, I felt terrible for the victims of Zeebrugge that I'd got 'their song' wrong (maybe we need Simon Bates to sort out a political history version of That Show?), so we spent the next 10 minutes soothing my damaged ego by giggling over (thankfully shared) recollections of 'blue ears' for the Telethon, and trying to remember whether it was You'll Never Walk Alone or Ferry Cross the Mersey for the Hillsborough disaster (to save you Googling, it was in fact Ferry Cross The Mersey, although, coincidentally, according to Wikipedia, in recent years some pop stars did a charity single of a version of He Ain't Heavy to raise money for the victims of Hillsborough. Circularity, eh?).
Anyway, eventually, after a few more impromptu renditions, John asked: “so why are you thinking about [/sapping my will to live by constantly singing] 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother'?” And it dawned on me that the awful, excruciating, embarrassing truth was that the song had been in my head since the weekend, when I had met my half siblings – a brother and a sister - for the first time.
Reader, I was mortified. How could my subconscious be so desperately uncreative? Here is this huge, profound, emotional experience (and it really did feel genuinely special and incredible and important) which, in a greater mind, could inspire novels or symphonies or challenging modern dance ensembles, and yet the most poetic thing my brain could come up with was a Hollies song learned by osmosis from a Miller Light commercial that includes the phrase “He's My Brother”. I may as well have started absent-mindedly whistling “We Are Family”.
I don't know why I was surprised by the shameless literal-ness of my unconscious; it's certainly not a new thing. I am physically incapable of walking over Waterloo Bridge without humming Waterloo Sunset; Alice Cooper booms into my brain every time I see the words 'last day of term' scrawled on the calendar in the kitchen; during a stay on a friend's narrowboat last summer I had the theme from Rosie and Jim in my head for 3 fucking days. My internal jukebox is about as lateral as Phoebe from Friends (and yes, I'm pretty sure I have sung 'Smelly Cat' to a smelly cat).
I can't be alone in feeling that my experiences, my relationships and even my identity are filtered through a screen of often lame, sometimes mis-remembered cultural references. Ersatz emotions purloined from popular culture and remembered as my own. Nowadays we live our lives in, if not constant, then almost oppressively close contact with screens. When we first see our children, it's as blue and black blobs floating on a screen. We Tweet, blog, Instagram, and update our statuses compulsively (well I do); if it isn't on Facebook it didn't happen.
Nearly a year ago I almost died from internal bleeding caused by a ruptured ectopic pregnancy (they 'knew' this because all they could see on the screen during the emergency scan was the black nothingness of blood). The surgeon came in and informed me that, although a huge road traffic accident meant that I might have to wait a while for the life-saving operation, they 'weren't going to let me die'. Once the theme from Casualty had finally started to fade from my mind, and the blood clotting drugs had kicked in, I passed the time waiting for the op laying on the gurney and texting a friend about the breakdown of her marriage. Screens screen us. For better or worse they stand between us and an authentic experience.
When I get wobbly I read psychoanalysis; it allows me the indulgence of a fantasy of an explanation. Psychoanalysis is good for talking about screens. Freud spoke of 'screen memories' – part actual, lived experience and part fantasy. An image injected with the memory of a feeling; memories of the past that did not “emerge” but which were “formed” later on. I can't be the only one whose clearest childhood memories can be accounted for in a selection of re-heard songs and a handful of photos from the family album. We take an image, a song, a piece of clothing and we turn it into a screen that, for us, stands for what childhood felt like.
For psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan the whole ego - the Self itself - begins with a screen: the mirror. As Lacan tells it, at some point between about 6-18 months, the baby looks in the mirror and (mis)recognises the kid on the mirror/screen as her 'Self'. But the Self she sees on the mirror/screen doesn't add up to the self she experiences. The Self she sees looks so coherent and whole and all the different parts join up... yet she can't even stand up to wave hello without her mum holding her up. I think I know how that baby feels. Looking like unity but feeling like chaos. A vague sense that somebody else is holding me up. I feel that wonderful narcissistic boost and the accompanying shattering alienation every time I post up a perfectly posed Selfie - shot from above, remembering the lippy - on Instagram. But what if they could see me in real life!
It's got a little long. I don't know if I've made a point. I fear the chaos has leaked onto the screen. And I need to leave the screen. John's in the living room and he's got a whole stack of Look-In annuals from the charity shop that we need to go through...