Spirit of a New Age: Ride a White Swan like the druids of the old days
One day, in a world far away from the realm of his carefree, long-haired adolescence, a great plague would course through all the world, and an older version of himself would contemplate himself as he was. Once upon a time.
I think I might ride a white swan now. I’ll wear a tall hat, like a druid in the old days, or maybe a blue hat. Or a tall blue hat. A tattooed gown of silver and turquoise and flashes of gold will fly behind my shoulders as I ride a new wind. I’ll ride it all out into the air-still wastelands and write an inventory of what things were like, then, and what things are like, now. A record of the before and the after, of what mattered then and what matters now, and decide, on my winged white charger, that things will be different now. That lessons have been learnt. And soar above, looking down on everyone else who has been through the unexpected hibernation from an old reality, and wonder who of them are feeling the same about life. And how many of us it will take for a dream on a white swan to become the new zeitgeist. I shall name my charger Spirit of the New Age, and tend her the way a knight does his finest steed.
The hat on my new walk isn’t tall in the way Marc Bolan’s druid’s hair is long. Nor yet blue. The hair beneath it flows now much more like a druid’s, thanks to three weeks of lockdown (remember that, just 21 days, we thought) that turned into four months and now more, so that we no longer count the days or even weeks; we just walk on with no idea of what is around the next bend, we fly on with no idea of what lies beyond the next cloud, only glad of the hope to get there. And we contemplate. In my mind’s eye, the future me will have four or five braids woven into the silver locks, with tiny teal beads, when it is safe to be near the sort of people who braid hair. Because lockdown has reminded me of a long-ago me, in a place where age and years have no influence, of who all of us really are, when we’re alone and there are no cameras or cellphones or people deciding what we will be like. In that place you left behind when you shed the childhood coil and one day you find that who you are, after the metamorphosis, is too much like all the other adults, and not enough like you. That you, back there on the couch in the rehearsal room, guitar slung.
On your winged white charger, floating above the world you remember with cynical brow, you push time away until you spot yourself, guitar in hand, hair flowing like Peter Frampton, practising the chords of a song you wrote last night. You try to catch his eye but he does not see you up above, the you he would become. He wasn’t yet a journalist, that would come two years later. Life would take him and it would be a fine life, not wealthy in money, but fabulously rich in life itself. Should you tell him what lies ahead for him, where he will travel, the things he will write, warn him that the musical journey he seems so intent on would soon end? Show him his future life’s partner, his children, his friends, the places where he will work, the Christmases, thrills, joys, fears and losses he will have? Tell him that those he would meet through his job would include people who would run shelters, own airlines, ghastly politicians, chefs from many nations, spangled people from Hollywood, Trappist monks, a British prince? And that one day, in a world far away from his world of the Sixties and Seventies, a great plague would course through all the world, and an older, please God wiser, version of himself would contemplate himself as he was. Once upon a time. Right there with his guitar and with his scrap of paper with new lyrics penned on it last night.
They weren’t Marc Bolan’s lyrics. Maybe if they had been the boy might have stayed the musical course in his life then about to unfold. Wear a tall hat, like a druid in the old days/ Wear a tall hat and a tattooed gown/ Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane/ Wear your hair long, babe you can’t go wrong…
The older you, out on his walk to the far mountain, ushers the fanciful flight back to Earth and looks around him to find a starker reality. Wearing his hair long once more, not because he decided to but through diktat occasioned by a crisis. A virus crisis. A strange world in which the writer about food and restaurants that the long-haired youth with the guitar and scrappy lyrics would become finds himself caught short. What does it all mean any more, what really matters, if everything as it seemed to be can be yanked out from under you, with no warning, like a gargantuan explosion in Beirut on a golden summer’s afternoon that reshapes a city, or two passenger planes flying into New York City highrises on a blue-sky morn that reshapes the world. Things that the boy, just 19, could never know was in his and everyone’s future.
And in his contemplations, on his walk towards the mysterious Karoo mountain, he pictures the blue hat he wanted to buy at a milliner’s shop in Bathurst, but didn’t, and wonders what to do with the flyaway hair because it’s just so damned annoying when the wind whips it around your cheek. And he sees braids in the silvered locks. And he thinks, why not. Convention says otherwise, convention precludes, it’s not done, n0 one else does it, what will people say, these conservative men in this town. And does it matter. Damn it, the boy now an old man is a child of the Sixties. He rebelled against the father’s proclamation. Hair shall be cut short back and sides every Wednesday at two o’clock. Sharp. No arguments. And pick up your feet! Take your hands out of your pockets! Don’t slouch! And you grin, now, not at your dad, but at yourself, because to this day you’re irritated when you see young people slouching with their hands in their pockets, and dragging their feet instead of picking them up and putting them down one at a time, like he taught you. So one part of your reverie holds fondness for the old man, another part of it a wry yet waning resentment.
In the end, the father rightly wanted to play a role in the forming of the man the boy would become, whether or not he would turn out to be any kind of role model himself, ultimately. But the boy became the man the boy wanted to be, not one pre-ordained by the father, and so he casts an eye back to the old man and wonders what he would make of the boy who, now, is older than the father was when he died.
Long hair, braids and a tall blue hat. If that didn’t get the old boy rolling in his grave, nothing would. Take that, dad. That’s for all the Wednesday shearing. See? I was paying attention. But the old boy never did get the Sixties anyway, even if mom did. Not all men whose adulthood had been forged in the furnace of a world war could quite get their heads around the soppy peace and love milieu of the Flower Power sissies. Nor do I blame him, though he did miss out.
The first time he – the boy – heard Marc Bolan and T Rex’s Ride a White Swan in 1970 has stayed with him all through the years. Along with the Beatles, Bowie and all the rest. The Sixties have never been far from the boy no matter how far he’s walked.
Listen to it while we approach the mystical Karoo mountain:
A stone swan had turned Marc Bolan into a global rock star. A pale swan had been at an entrance to Stoke Newington Common near the Victorian pad where Bolan had been living in London. If you’re a musician, you know what to do. You write a song about it. The song saw Bolan emerge as if from a chrysalis that had been there, somewhere, attached to a tree trunk perhaps on the common, hibernating out of sight and people’s awareness for years. There’d been five albums yet his band Tyrannosaurus Rex (the band’s name was yet to be shortened to T. Rex) were nowhere near famous in the way that Kinks, Beatles and Stones were then, in 1970. They were just there; another band of moderate success. Then producer Tony Visconti heard, from his booth, something rare. Maybe that hibernation, a sense of watching things as if from afar, being a part of it all but only on the periphery, is the thing that had triggered a stroke of genius in Bolan’s mind. And in the studio, in the way his fingers found an unfussy three-chord trick on his orange Gibson Les Paul, and his cracking, reticent vocals caressed the microphone.
And on my walk, contemplating hats and colours and hair and things lost and refound, Bolan, long dead, was suddenly there, and alive, and whispering in the breeze. Ride it all out like a bird in the sky ways/ Ride it all out like you were a bird/ Fly it all out like an eagle in a sunbeam…
This is no ordinary walk for the new old boy. It’s the first full walk on the once well trodden path out of town in four months. On a day when the health minister has said that, finally, it looks like the country is nearing the peak of this confounding pandemic, and that we might even pass the peak by the end of the month. There’s a kink of light in the cloud over the looming mountain. It feels like an early spring awakening. Just a glint of maybe, a hint of perhaps.
And I’m thinking about the difference the lockdown has made to life and even to my cooking, my kitchen repertoire, and everybody else’s. To our lives and our thinking. Having to come up with five recipes a week has forced me out of my comfort zone to try dishes I’d thought about but never got round to; a metaphor for new ways of doing things, perhaps; finding the time for things that were always shoved aside because the this, and the that, were always more important. Even if they weren’t. As of today’s date (Friday 7 August) we have published 75 Lockdown Recipes of the Day on the TGIFood platform, two thirds of them my own. I’ve pushed myself and grown in confidence as a cook (always a cook, please note, never a chef). It’s made me a better cook, certainly a more adventurous one. Mostly the dishes work; where I get something wrong I determine to go back to it and get it right next time. Or somewhere in between, like the Yorkshire Parkin that I made which turned out to be a Lancashire Parkin, because Yorkshire Parkin has treacle, and is darker, while Lancashire Parkin has only golden syrup, so is paler. But a success nonetheless, utterly delicious, even if my Yorkshire cousins would be aghast. Not to mention dad. Lancashire! You made bloody Lancashire Parkin?!
Sorry, dad. And I won’t ever really ride a white swan, and I may or may not find the blue hat I desire. But I wear my hair long now, like a druid in the old days; like the younger me with his guitar and scrappy lyrics. And I will be getting braids, to remind me of who I was, and am. One day. When it’s safe to be near the sort of people who do that sort of thing. The sort of people who, in the old days, used to give little boys short-back-and-sides haircuts. DM/TGIFood
Source of T. Rex facts: The Rise & Fall of a Twentieth Century Superstar by Mark Paytress (Omnibus)/ just backdated blog by Chris Charlesworth, former news editor of Melody Maker.
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