I was sad to hear that the folk singer Kate McGarrigle died yesterday.
But I have to pause there. The huge loss of life in the Haitian earthquake is much sadder. It has horrified and haunted me. How can I write about the death of one person, honoured by the world and surrounded by her family, when hundreds of thousands may have died and are still dying in rubble?
But writing about Haiti doesn't feel possible; it would be an exercise in vanity. Perhaps writing about Kate McGarrigle is too. It's not really her I'm writing about though. It's the other things that come back to me when I hear her name, or the mellifluous, twangy music of her and her sister Anna.
Oddly enough, for a pair of Canadian singer-songwriters, those things are: breadfruit trees, mangoes, hibiscus flowers, coral reefs, hideous axe murders, tropical diseases and boar tusks through human noses.
There's a simple reason for that: I first heard Kate and Anna McGarrigle in Papua New Guinea. My parents were living there; in my late teens I went out to spend Christmases and summers with them. Among their records, rapidly accumulating layers of mould in the humid heat, were two McGarrigle albums: 'Dancer With Bruised Knees' and 'French Record'. We all loved them, and, in the absence of TV, listened to them of an evening, blasting them out into the Melanesian night until they became a family tradition.
After the fungus finally warped and consumed the vinyl, I didn't hear 'French Record' (my favourite) again until I came across a CD about three years ago. It was great to hear it all again: those poised, wry ballads about lonely folk walking along Canadian streets when it's thirty below, or a servant called Perrine who locks her lover in a big bin to hide him, but forgets him there so that he's only discovered six weeks later when he's been nibbled to death by rats.
I guess it's not really Kate McGarrigle I feel this sad-yet-pleasurable mood about; it's my own past - the pleasure of suffusing oneself with nostalgia for a few moments.
"Let the years drag me along if they will, but backward. As long as my eyes can discern that lovely season now expired, I turn them in that direction at intervals." - Montaigne, "On some verses of Virgil"
And Montaigne adds a neat quotation from Martial:
"Our lives are two
If we can relish our past life anew."
I've been busy with Montaigne lately. Haven't yet gathered up the resulting links, but here's one to a radio discussion I took part in last week, on the BBC World Service's 'Forum' programme. The other guests were the charming historian of science, Hasok Chang, and the novelist E. L. Doctorow: his new novel 'Homer and Langley' is gripping, funny, profound and thought-provoking.
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