Fairytale of New York – a wonderful story in song

I’m not a fan of Christmas music. I started hearing them on the radio at the end of November this year (far too early), and I’m now sick of them. A bit of variety would be good‌—‌but no, it’s the same handful of songs, over twenty years old, and I know every word and musical note of them.

But there’s one that always stands out to me, one Christmas song that I actually like‌—‌Fairytale Of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. It works so well musically, especially how their voices work together (and Shane MacGowan is excellent proof that you don’t have to be a good singer to be a great vocalist), but it’s the lyrics that really make this song. There’s poetry in the words, but there’s also a wonderfully told story. As it came on the radio again a few weeks ago, I found myself analysing this story in detail.

prison-553836_640It begins with a flash-forward‌—‌the main character spending Christmas Eve in the drunk-tank. This instantly sets us up for a sad tale, and when another drunk says he won’t see another Christmas, the mood is well and truly set. This character sings (The Rare Old Mountain Dew), and our protagonist is reminded of a girl.

But although he loves her, the melancholy feel tells us all is not well. The man’s a gambler (‘Got on a lucky one, came in eighteen to one’), drinking his winnings. And when he sees ‘a better time when all our dreams come true’, we’re not sure if that’s just the drink talking. He’s down on his luck, despite his win on the horses, and we wonder how he’s ended up in this situation. It’s a great opening, because it makes us care about him, and it makes us want to find out more.

nyc-1556338_640The music changes, and this signals a change in time for the next scene. Now, we’re in New York, again at Christmas, but the main character and the girl (we assume it’s the one on his thoughts earlier) have just arrived in the city. They seem as much in love with their new home (with it’s ‘rivers of gold’ and ‘cars big as bars’) as they are with each other. There’s wonderful promise in the air (‘When you first took my hand on that cold Christmas Eve, you promised me Broadway was waiting for me’), and the guy is enraptured with his ‘queen of New York City’.

But there are subtle nods to the approaching darkness. The line ‘But the wind goes right through you, it’s no place for the old’ hints that this youthful love might not last. And ‘the drunks they were singing’‌—‌happy in their alcoholic haze at the moment, but we know from the opening scene that the murky side of drink will raise its head before too long.

arguing-1296392_640The next scene jumps forward. The relationship’s fallen into bitterness and anger. He might drink, but she’s ‘an old slut on junk, lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed’, so it appears that they both have their battles with substances. She’s far from enraptured with him now‌—‌he’s a ‘scumbag’ and ‘maggot’, and a ‘cheap lousy faggot’, and she wants rid of him (‘Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last’).

As a brief aside, there have been various censored versions of this song over the years (on one live TV broadcast, the band changed ‘You cheap lousy faggot’ to ‘You’re cheap and you’re haggard’), and the language used in this scene is pretty nasty. But it’s all in character, and the vitriol highlights just how far these two have fallen. These words are the right ones to use, however offensive they may be to some.

I also like the line ‘Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed’. Read straight, it feels poorly constructed‌—‌wouldn’t something like ‘lying there almost dead, in that bed, on that drip’ feel better grammatically? And while some of the structure might be down to the need to rhyme ‘dead’ with ‘bed’, it also gives us more insight into the character‌—‌he’s so consumed by anger and hatred that he’s stumbling over his words.

The next scene happens later in time, when the anger has dissipated (at least, enough for the couple to view things with more detachment). There’s an emotional exchange, and now we see possible reasons (behind the obvious drink and drugs) for the breakdown of the relationship.

girl-2067378_640She came to America seeking a new future, yearning to realise her dreams (of Broadway?), but they never materialised. She believes he’s held her back and kept her from fulfilling her potential (‘You took my dreams from me when I first found you’). We can’t know if this is true, but initially he appears to agree with her‌—‌he did take her dreams, but ‘I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own’. Their bright future in this land of opportunity was, in his eyes, as a couple‌—‌‘Can’t make it all alone, I’ve built my dreams around you.’

Their relationship is doomed. She wants nothing to do with him, but he still dreams of ‘a better time’, desperately trying to believe that ‘this year’s for me and you’. But we know that’s not going to happen. She’s chasing her own dream, and he’s destined to drink his life away like the old man from the drunk-tank scene. Maybe this will be the last Christmas he sees too.

It’s a very sad song, and the setting only highlights this. Christmas is a time for family and friends, and we’re constantly reminded of the bells ‘ringing out for New Year’s Day’ as others look to a bright future. Then we have ‘the boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay’, a song that talks of a yearning for Ireland‌—‌and a reminder that, maybe, this doomed couple might have been better off remaining at home. Sometimes, dreams cannot become reality, and fairytales don’t come true.

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It’s all down to interpretation – Onan the hero

Stories are almost always open to interpretation. Often, when we read or hear a story, we’re not presented with all the information. Sometimes, the actions of the characters can be seen from different angles.

I was thinking of the biblical story of Onan recently (no idea why‌—‌my mind sometimes takes interesting diversions). His story can be found in Genesis, and goes like this:

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfil your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

(Genesis 38: 6-10, NIV)

From this, we get the ‘sin of Onan’, or Onanism. This word is often used to refer to masturbation, but this is clearly not what Onan was up to. The original/true meaning of Onanism is coitus interruptus, which was once (and possibly is by some people) seen as a sin‌—‌the underlying belief being that sexual activity is primarily for procreation.

Before we continue, a word of explanation. It’s easy to view historical writings through modern eyes, so it’s important to point out that, when this story was said to take place, Judah’s request to Onan was in keeping with tradition‌—‌when a man died, it was his brother’s duty to ensure his widow bore children. Those who refused to carry this out were publicly humiliated.

But in this story, Onan is not publicly humiliated, but is put to death, because ‘what he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight’.

The classic interpretation is that, by ‘spilling his seed on the ground’ (wonderfully poetic phrase, that), he angered God. But this leaves his actual ‘sin’ open to interpretation‌—‌was it coitus interruptus, or was God more annoyed that Onan refused to fulfil his duty? Should the ‘sin of Onan’ really be concerned with breaking tradition?

cranium-2858764_1280There’s also a totally different way of looking at this story. Tradition is what is expected, passed down through generations‌—‌but that doesn’t necessarily make it right. Think of ‘traditional’ roles of men and women in western society, and how they have now changed. Think of the ‘traditional’ treatment of ‘foreigners’, especially those with different skin colours. In some parts of the world, female genital manipulation is still seen as a rite of passage, something traditional that should be upheld.

Tradition is not always ‘right’.

So let’s return to Onan’s story, but this time I want to think about Tamar. She’s pretty central to the story, but only gets a walk-on (or lay-down) part. There’s nothing about what she thinks of Onan. Is she happy to sleep with him‌—‌and if not, could we see this as rape, even though it’s socially acceptable in the story’s culture?

Maybe Onan is a deep thinker. He want to be a good member of society, but he has many questions inside about what goes on around him. Maybe Onan likes Tamar, and feels empathy with her, knows how much she’s hurting after the death of her husband. Maybe he’s been a friend to her, almost a brother, so when Onan’s father tells him that he must provide Tamar with a child, he has grave concerns. He sees the fear on Tamar’s face when he approaches her, and he knows that this is the last thing she wants. He has no wish to cause her more suffering.

But what is a dutiful son and brother to do? If he doesn’t go through with the deed, he’ll be punished. And even then, what will happen to Tamar? She has no children, has not provided a continuation of Judah’s family‌—‌her prospects don’t look good.

Poor Onan’s torn. He does his duty, but his heart isn’t in it. He tells himself he’s doing the right thing, but he doesn’t believe that. He sees Tamar’s face, her eyes shut tight as she wills herself to be somewhere else‌—‌anywhere else. He feels her pain, and he knows this is wrong.

Finally, just before the point of no return, Onan makes his decision. With a surge of willpower, he withdraws, refusing to force his sister-in-law to bring to term a child she doesn’t want.

And maybe there’s a tear in the corner of her eye, slowly running down her cheek. She’s sobbing, and her body trembles with relief.

Onan’s done the right thing.

But that comes at a price. For doing what he believed was right, Onan is martyred, killed by a cruel social system that treats women as second-rate citizens. He’s reviled, even though he’s a true hero.

It’s all about interpretation.

If that examples too serious, I’ll give another interpretation of a well-known story. It goes like this:

A young girl travels to a distant land and kills the first person she meets. She then teams up with three strangers and sets off to kill again.

Recognise it? I’d be surprised if you’re not aware of it. You might not have read the book, but you’ve probably seen the film. No doubt it’ll be on over Christmas, what with it being a much-loved family entertainment.

Those two sentences are just one interpretation of L Frank Baum’s classic, The Wizard Of Oz.

The World is Built on Stories

We have told stories probably since we first developed language. Maybe language came about because we wanted to tell stories. There’s something in-built about the need to relate events that have happened, to us or to others. There is a need for companionship, and for camaraderie, and stories are instrumental in initiating and strengthening bonds with others.

Of course, good stories entertain. They might make us laugh, or make us cry. They might scare us, or take us on a wonderful journey. But they are often fun. We don’t have to be forced to endure stories‌—‌we choose to listen, or watch them played out, or read them.

But stories do more than entertain. They instruct. It is easy to imagine our ancestors after a day’s hunt, relaxing around a fire and swapping tales of their day’s adventures. They told stories of what worked, and what didn’t. And through these stories, they learnt.

people-2557508_640The same thing happens today. Parents tell stories to their children as ways of explaining the world, and as guide to behaviour‌—‌Santa, the tooth fairy, all the lessons of good and evil in bedtime-stories. Religions use stories, too‌—‌tale of miracles, morality stories, parables and so on. And even science uses stories. Evolution is explained as a ‘survival of the fittest’ tale, where those who are better suited are the ones who live on. The water cycle is presented as a journey.

That doesn’t mean these stories are fabrications, just that they are ways of explaining concepts.

Over time, these stories change. Once, the sun rose because some god-like being willed it so, or because some larger-than-life being dragged the sun across the sky. Then we discovered more about the universe, and our place in it. And now, we know that our fairly small planet spins around a star. We know about the orbits of the other planets, and we know about other universes. We have gone back in time to discover how (probably) things came into being. And we have searched forward, seeking an answer to what will one day happen.

Yet this is still a story. The journey of the universe, from big bang to whatever happens at the end (heat death?) A journey is always a story, and we can learn from any journey.

But stories do more than entertain and inform. I would argue that stories are one of the major things that separates us from other creatures. Stories make us human.

The word story comes to us from the Latin historia, and was originally used to describe a narrative of an important event. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that it came to mean a fictional tale, but we still use the word in that original meaning. We are presented with stories every time we read or watch or listen to the news. Think about the number of times news-readers say ‘‌…‌and more on that story later’.

news-1074604_1280Maybe some people still refer to news ‘reports’, but there is a world of difference between a report and a story. A report sets out to give the facts and figures, whereas a story strives to explain what happened. A report lays an event before us like an autopsy, whereas a story takes us on a journey through the event. A report engages our intellect, but a story engages our emotions too.

It’s worth repeating that‌—‌a story engages our emotions.

Those who create news stories know this. That is why they look for the human angle. That is why, rather than simply showing collapsed buildings after an earthquake, they linger on devastated faces and frantic searches for survivors. That is why, after a tragic death, we see (and hear from) those left behind, those who are struggling to understand how their worlds have been turned upside-down.

This could be seen as cynical‌—‌using misery to evoke a reaction. But I like to think this drive to display pain serves another purpose.

Most of us will not encounter the kind of tragedy we see on the news. In the UK, hardly any of us will have a friend shot dead. The majority of us won’t be caught up in humanitarian or natural disasters. And so, it is hard for us to understand, on an emotional level, what is happening to those who are involved. It is easier to shut ourselves off, even though we know this is cold, even though we know that we should feel something.

Reports state the facts. Stories engage us on an emotional level.

For a story to ‘work’, we need to empathise with the characters. We need to be able to put ourselves in their shoes and in some small way feel what they are feeling. Facts and figures (a report) of a shooting can leave us cold, because it’s names and dates, nothing more. But a story strives to put us there, with those caught up in the horror. It forces us to join with the victims in their suffering, or (and) feel the elation when the antagonist is brought to justice. If it is a natural disaster like an earthquake, details of the magnitude and the epicentre are numbers, the amount of damage a stream of figures. But the stories of those caught up in it‌—‌those who have lost loved ones, those who have been rescued, those who have put aside their own safety to help their neighbours‌—‌these are the things that make it real. These stories are what make us care.

And when we care, we are more likely to act. When we not only see people suffering, but also sense their pain, we are driven to help.

Then there are those stories where something negative is given a positive spin. There are stories of people defying disease and recovering, but there are also stories of those who succumb, but in a manner that humbles us. There are those who know they don’t have long left, but who strive to make every day count.

A news report could give details of the disease, or how fast the cancer spread. It could give facts and figures about white blood cells. Or the story could tell us of the person themselves, showing us their determination to life the remainder of their life to the full. It could focus on the way they are trying to help others with similar conditions.

Stories are powerful. They put meaning behind the data. They turn facts into action. They might enable us to live vicariously through others, but they also enable us to empathise with people we have never met, from different cultures in far-off places. They spur us on to do more, or to face barriers within ourselves. They enable us to see those around us not as mere human beings, but as people. They turn existence into life.

Without stories, we are nothing.