Monday, November 1, 2010

Wake me up, Mr. George!

Yesterday was pumpkin-carving day. To jolly things along, Lydia put on a little background music. It was a YouTube clip someone had sent her, of Wham! playing “Wake me up before you go-go.” Ah, yes, the traditional pumpkin-carving melody from the Old Country.

There they were: George Michael and Andrew what’s-his-name, in their fake tan and big white T-shirts, snapping their fingers and bouncing about. It seemed so far away in time and space from where I was standing, up to my elbows in pumpkin innards, that it took me a few seconds to remember that I had been in the Top of the Pops studio on the day that Wham! first came on the show to perform that number. It was in my former life, as a young, single, oh-so-cool studio assistant at the BBC.

Never one to miss an opportunity to impress my children, I made some sort of off-hand remark to Lydia (pointing my pumpkiny knife at the screen and yelling, “I was there! I was there in the studio!”). I did not add that my main memory of the day was of arguing with George Michael about how long it was taking him to fix his hair, when we needed him on set now. My position of icy authority had been undermined, I realized later, by the fact that I kept calling him “Mr. George.” His fault, for having two first names.

Back at the pumpkin, I had that strange feeling you get when two different phases of your life briefly fold in on each other, as if the rigid structure of chronology has momentarily collapsed. It’s like those double-exposure photographs that would sometimes turn up in a package of prints, in pre-digital days. Semi-transparent images from completely different events would crowd together in one hazy print, like strangers jammed together on a rush hour train.

It’s crazy, how music does that—lays the past right over the present, blurring one memory with another.

All of which made me realize that I have to tell the following little story. It is another one from India, and the connection won’t be obvious at first, but bear with me on this.

This happened during the four-day trip to the hills where Dad was born. Mum was busy lecturing, so it was Dad, my niece Stephanie (see Pondicherry rat story), our driver Jaiharaj and me, in a beat-up, white 4WD van. We drove from Vellore to a hotel in Salem, and the next morning set off, up into the Kolli hills.

The day felt hugely significant to me. This was where, in 1913, my grandparents had begun their work among the hill people, and this was where they were buried. The area used to be called the Mountains of Death, because of the prevalence of malaria, and it was in fact tertiary malaria which killed my grandfather when he was just 44. Granny continued on her own for another fifty years, on this and other mountain ranges. She died at 95, and was carried back to be buried next to her beloved Jesse.

I have only the faintest memory of Granny, from a Christmas visit to her hills when I was small, but I had heard the stories and seen the sepia photos of my grandparents in their early days—and in their Topi hats—and the thing that always astonished me was that we were separated by a single generation. Their lives and mine seemed more profoundly disconnected than that.

I thought about Granny now, as we began the steep ascent. She climbed these hills for the first time on her wedding day. Still in her best dress, she was carried much of the way in a dholi—a canvas hammock strung between two poles—but after torrential rain had turned that into a bathtub, she got out and walked. It was hard to imagine. Our van’s engine groaned up the steep inclines and around seventy hairpin bends. Often the road was a single lane, so the (thankfully rare) appearance of another vehicle required us to reverse downhill to a passing point, and hope that the clutch would hold when we started uphill again.

By the time we reached the top, my stomach muscles were exhausted from the effort of willing the car up that entire distance. At the crest of the final rise Jaiharaj paused. From that spot we could see the hills all around. In front of us, the road ran downhill for a hundred yards or so, then back uphill to a village. In a grassy area in the middle, a crowd of perhaps seventy people were waiting. Above their heads, a white cloth WELCOME banner drooped. It looked like they had been waiting for some time.

I was astonished. I knew we were expected; I did not know we would be celebrities. When they spotted us, the crowd grew animated and the banner snapped into position. By the time we reached them and got out of the car, they were cheering, and crowded around us. Garlands of marigolds were draped around our necks--as many as we could carry. At the sight of Dad, some villagers, still smiling broadly, began to weep. The whole thing was extraordinary, and part of me felt embarrassed. It was as if these decent, misguided people had mistaken me for someone else, and I was playing along. At the same time, I was moved to realize that—even so many years after their deaths—it was for my grandparents’ sake that I was being welcomed. Maybe our lives were not so disconnected after all.

Initial greetings accomplished, the crowd turned to usher us to the village, and they began to sing. Many of them carried what looked like small hymnbooks, and despite the festive atmosphere, they sang with great seriousness. The song was in Tamil, and it was not a tune I knew, but it had the cadence and feel of a hymn. Stephanie and I walked side by side, Dad a little behind us. Surrounded on all sides by this sea of people, we were borne uphill on the gentle wave of their goodwill.

At the top, we came out into a clearing among tall trees. There was an area of grass, and there was the plain white house that my grandfather had built, the one where Dad had lived as a boy. I felt my heart squeeze at the sight of it, the shape familiar from a hundred photographs.

“Do you hear that music?” asked Stephanie suddenly. An odd question, since she practically had to shout to be heard above the singing of our companions.

“Well, yes,” I said. “Lots of people, singing.”

“No, not that music,” she said. “Listen!”

And when I did, I could hear what she meant. Behind the singing, there was another layer of melody. It seemed to be coming from somewhere above us. I looked up and saw several old fashioned speakers—the sturdy, gray, trumpet-shaped sort—strapped to the tree branches twenty feet over our heads.

For a while the hymn and the background music continued as an eerie blend, but soon the last verse of the hymn was sung, and the books were closed. After that, the air of that historic spot, on that remote Indian mountain top, rang with one tune alone. It was “Wake me up, before you Go-Go.”

I had been in India long enough by then to take surreal moments in my stride, but this one really threw me. I even tried to think of an explanation. Perhaps this was for Stephanie’s benefit? The young American woman might like a pop song? It seemed unlikely. Perhaps they knew that I had worked on Top of the Pops, and had been in the studio the day that Wham! first performed that number? OK, now I was just talking crazy.

Then a couple of weeks later, I was sitting in the early evening darkness of a small chapel in Vellore, waiting for an Advent Vesper service to begin. I was half-listening to a selection of recorded pre-service Christmas music, and enjoying the sights and smells of the blossom outside the chapel windows, when a familiar tune began to play. It was “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart.” By Wham!

I guess those guys were just really big in India.

And now here they were again, in my kitchen in Santa Barbara as I carved my pumpkin. Old George Michael—or “Mr. George” as I like to call him—might have looked ridiculous and driven me nuts that day in the studio, but even his music can perform the strange, wonderful, double-exposure, time-folding magic that I sometimes need, to remind me of my whole life.


  1. They just get better and better, Pauline. Absolutely wonderful - thank you so much. Diana

  2. Holy cow Mama, I can't believe I'd forgotten this story! But it is so beautifully written I felt like you were telling to straight to me. Which makes me miss you.
    Some day I'll write something nice in my blog, instead of something sort of horrifying.

  3. P. -

    My favorite treat this Halloween? ...this post.

    Can't wait for the next delicious piece.

  4. Hi this! And have a feeling I'm going to be singing wake me up before you go-go all day. I love the way you phrased this line: as if the rigid structure of chronology has momentarily collapsed. And I got goosebumps when you heard the song in India.

  5. Love it Pauline. It is something how music does this. I've felt it too and you have expressed it perfectly. Thank you!! Love, love it.