This is how WordPress, international politics, and race relations took me on a Proustian journey and left me repeatedly watching Ute Lemper sing Surabaya Johnny on YouTube yesterday instead of spending time researching for my novel.
The highlighters are laid across my desk; the green, the blue, the pink at oblique angles to the William Morris cup of half drank black coffee. The yellow in my hand is uncapped and drying, it scratches across the paper leaving a pale luminous streak. I reach for the pink. This line seems important, I want to remember it: ‘Existence is illusory or it is eternal’.
I’ve set a date to redraft my novel. It’s getting closer. When the kids are back at school it will give you more time, I tell myself. But I still have so much to research. I’ve already read The Myth of Sisyphus once. But I’m reading it again. Camus’s prose equally inspires and frustrates. It is sublime in places. But he oftentimes dresses his arguments with so much poetry and metaphor the act of reading becomes an evening walk in a city in which the leaves die beneath the wheels of cars — or some such thing that Camus might have written.
(A discussion about what Camus has to say about life in the face of the absurd will have to wait for another time. But spoiler alert: in those immortal words of Renton, ‘choose life’.)
The WordPress daily prompt comes in. It is the word prickle. I ignore it. Other things occupy my mind. The continuing farce of Brexit, a year on and no closer to clarity constantly frustrates. I think about Trump, and his courting of the next world war with North Korea.
I’m suddenly back at college. It’s a dark winter afternoon in ’92. I’m at the bus stop in the rain with a black, leather portfolio tucked under my arms. I’m here because my best friend is here. He’s dating the girl I love, and stands next to me singing: I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down… I am no longer at the bus stop. I am now watching Michael Stipe on stage in a flood of red lights, his eyes mascaraed and closed, his hands raised in unison but apart. He is singing World Leader Pretend because my best friend at the bus stop was singing it. Because it reminds me of Trump. I think about Charlotteville.
I’m in a darkened theatre. There is a hush. On stage is a piano. A spotlight scans as discordant notes ring out. Nina Simone begins her heartrending rendition of Pirate Jenny. Pain and passion transcends time as she howls of the ‘black freighter!’. Slowly I realise why I’m here — the protest, the civil rights movement, the segregation of then, the troubling feeling of now. Of how we haven’t moved. And I realise I didn’t ignore the word prickle, it connected itself to Nina Simone. Because she always leaves that feeling of beauty and longing standing on the back of my neck. That my mind had worked back from there, onboard the decks of the black freighter. She connects everything.
And like Tiresias in The Waste Land — ‘This music crept by me upon the waters’ — the invocation of sound transports me like a drifting vessel between past and present. I cannot find my way back. Not yet. The highlighters remain where they are. Camus’s sense of the absurd continue to rest like a hand on my shoulder.
I am in a smoke-filled cabaret theatre in the back streets of 1930s Berlin. Lotte Lenya takes the stage — lips deeply rouged, a cigarette nestling at an angle between them. Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne… clouds of smoke drift, waitresses collect empty glasses, the crowds cheer; the man with the pencil moustache and the blonde on his lap looks at me… und Macheath, der hat ein Messer. Nina Simone is back… asking me, kill them now or later! It is Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill that connects everything now. Bobby Darin dances and smiles in a tuxedo. It is the 1970s. The glitzy stage is a world away from the stark contempt of Jenny and her rundown hotel. But the river continues to flow. The big band fades. I’m in another Berlin bar. But now the decadence has gone, given way to resignation. Voices fade as notes from a piano emerge gently from the dark; lights fade in to the sound of a guitar. Tall and elegant, with her blonde hair swept back behind one ear, Ute Lemper takes to the stage. She was born for it. Everything has brought me here. But here everything stops.
I was just past my sixteenth birthday when you dropped in one day from the blue… I’ve always loved to hate Surabaya Johnny. Who doesn’t? The cad. Everyone thinks of Mack and his knife and forgets about Johnny and his pipe. She emerges into the light. That voice, melodic and lilting that draws you in, before the sneers and rasps push you away again… you talked a lot Johnny, a lot of lies Johnny… she’s giving it to him, telling him like it is… just take the damn pipe out of your mouth, you swine!
I am stuck, captivated. It is senseless; I am Tiresias again, having reached the river’s end I can connect ‘nothing with nothing’. It is Camus’s futureless absurdity filled with passion of the moment. I live only for it. Existence is illusory, but I don’t care. The love, the loss, the heartbreak holds me here. As progress on the novel stagnates, time passes as over and over she sings: you have no heart, Johnny, and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny (Ute Lemper)