Pop music: you’ve got to love the way it can get you in the guts. The other night, with He Who Likes Being Away At Conferences away at a conference, I came home late and, needing a bit of couch time before bed, I poured myself a glass of wine, propped up The Old Lady of the House on one side, settled Cat the Ripper on the other, and then put on a DVD. It was a collection of Pet Shop Boys film clips. I’m not a lifelong fan of the band; I’d only bought the DVD because (a) anyone who has the name Nigel Grey Featherstone and had adored the Brideshead Revisited TV series as a teenager should own some Pet Shop Boys music, and (b) it was really cheap.
Everything was fine (and just a little dandy) until a certain song came on: ‘Home and Dry’. According to the DVD’s running order, it’s one of the band’s most recent numbers. Whilst the tune itself is relatively joyful in that joyfully melancholic way pop music can do so well, the lyrics are as wanting as anything. “So my baby’s on the road/doing business, selling loads/charming everyone there with the sweetest smile/Oh tonight, I miss you/Oh tonight/I wish you/could be here with me/but I won’t see you/’til you’ve made it back again/home and dry/home and dry.”
But the film-clip’s imagery. It’s devastatingly simple: just hand-held video footage of mice scurrying about an urban railway station. Amongst the shiny silver train tracks, the mice dart here and there, searching out rubbish – an ice cream wrapper, a discarded biscuit, a mostly intact meat pie. Sometimes one of the mice suddenly stops and noses another (maybe they kiss, I don’t know), but then off they go again, searching for what has been thrown away. Sometimes they do little leaps for joy, or so it seems. Then, however, over the top of the music, comes the sound of a train roaring down the line. There’s no actual footage of it, just more of the mice going about their lives, oblivious to what might be about to happen.
Before long I became lost in the memory of one of my favourite books, Frederick by Leo Lionni. Rather embarrassingly, I’d read and reread the story as a teenager, not as a child. Frederick is a sad-eyed mouse who in the lead-up to winter spends all his time staring at the sun and the meadow and catches words in his sleep while his chums work so hard around him. But then, snowbound in their stonewall hideout, their food stash long depleted, the mice are forced to call on Frederick. ‘What about your supplies?’ they beg. So Frederick proceeds to describe all that he’d observed, which gets the clan through the cold and the dark, and he emerges a hero, complete with little flushed-red cheeks.
Lionni’s motivations are clear. Being a respected Italian painter and illustrator (and advertising executive, it should be noted), Frederick is an unambiguous plea: when all else fails it is imagination and aesthetic pleasure that keeps us alive.
I reckon the Pet Shop Boys would say three cheers to that.
I know I did, as I replayed the film clip over and over until I fell asleep.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, May 31 2008)