‘When I didn’t know what sadness was, I could afford to be sad.’
Eighty five pages into my current novel, ‘The Seven Sisters’ by Margaret Drabble, that sentence turned up, made me put the book down and go off into a memory of a time I too decided ‘I could afford to be sad.’
As the memory begins I’m twelve years old, walking into the library of my school in Bootle. There might have been lots of boys in there, it was a boys school after all, but I only remember one of them. He’s a tall boy called Pete, from the year above me, and he seems to have become even taller in the just completed summer holidays. His hair has grown long during the six week break, but not in a way that will break the school’s obsession with hair not growing over your collar. Instead Pete’s bushy hair has grown out, sideways and upwards. And I can’t see his collar in any case as Pete’s wearing a scarf, a long wooly one. Despite the fact that it’s September and he’s inside.
He’s standing there, staring morosely at an opened book he’s holding. Looking what I’ll later learn is called ‘cool.’
I’ll also come to associate this cool look with holding books by French philosophers or American Beat Poets. Though I’m sure there were none of them in our school library.
So there’s Pete, looking nothing like I’d ever seen anyone look before. Magnificent in a ‘look at me’ kind of way, but also immensely sad in a way that made me want to be that sad too. Pete looked like he knew some things, too weighty to be talked about. But too interesting to ignore.
So I decide, there and then, to try and be sad like that too. Without much luck at the time though. My life being too full of things to be happy about. England have recently won the World Cup, The Beatles are pretty much walking on water, and anyway, I’ll be a naturally happy sort of soul for a couple of years yet. Until my adolescence properly kicks in and Pete’s moody example is of any real use to me, which it was.
By then of course, I’ve realised what Pete was up to. Back there in the school library in September 1966. He was ‘being’ Bob Dylan off the cover of ‘Blonde on Blonde.’
The book he was staring at could have been ‘Swallows and Amazons’ or ‘What Katy Did Next?’ for all it mattered. Because in Pete’s head he will have been ‘Stuck inside of Mobile’ staring at some imaginary ‘Sad eyed lady of the lowlands’ whispering ‘Sooner or later one of us must know.’ Being sad and mysterious. Because he could. And because it was cool.
Because it is cool when you’re young, to be sad, somehow. To write sad poetry and think sad thoughts. Like a rehearsal for real sadness when it comes? Maybe. But more likely because it looks like it’s cool. To look like Bob Dylan in the school library in 1966, knowing all of the wild and wise things he already did.
So well done Pete. Even though I can’t remember a single thing about you after that day. The memory of you stood there as Bob Dylan, high and lonesome, cool and melancholic, has stayed with me since.
As Margaret Drabble says:
‘I was full of fashionable melancholy in those days. When I didn’t know what sadness was, I could afford to be sad.’
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