There’ll be more than the usual amount of looking to the skies today. Rain on St. Swithin’s Day threatens forty more days of rain to follow. It also, let us remember, promises forty more days of sun if, as today, it shines.
For me, the day brings to mind perhaps the most beautiful of the Bard of Barking’s songs. Billy Bragg’s St. Swithin’s Day:
Thinking back now,
I suppose you were just stating your views
What was it all for
For the weather or the Battle of Agincourt
And the times that we all hoped would last
Like a train they have gone by so fast
And though we stood together
At the edge of the platform
We were not moved by them
With my own hands
When I make love to your memory
It’s not the same
I miss the thunder
I miss the rain
And the fact that you don’t understand
Casts a shadow over this land
But the sun still shines from behind it.
Thanks all the same
But I just can’t bring myself to answer your letters
It’s not your fault
But your honesty touches me like a fire
The Polaroids that hold us together
Will surely fade away
Like the love that we spoke of forever
On St Swithin’s Day
Songs are difficult, and often embarrassing, to discuss. How to explain why I find the clunking metaphor of the train charming in its ungainliness? Looking at the lyrics, there’s something to gloss over in each of the three verses. So why do I love it?
First, it’s one of those rare pop songs that does without a chorus. Instead, we have the awkwardly long final line of each verse, jutting out like a painful memory at the end of each act of reminiscence. These lead with a tremulous logic to that exquisite introduction of the light final line: “On St Swithin’s Day”. Incidentally, the penultimate line, “Like the love that we spoke of forever”, is perfect, machined to millimetric precision. Clever lad, that Billy.
Then, naturally, the question of what it’s all got to do with St. Swithin’s Day. Sunshine and rain; very good. More interesting by far is the way the song is canted backwards, always backwards. Everything is angled towards that last line, all the spent passion, regret and pain tightly bound up in that one day, kept back until the end of the song.
Most beautiful of all, this careful unfurling of the song is reflected in the music. Dig it out now and give it a listen. Remind yourself. The song is built on such a simple chord sequence that, as so often with Mr Bragg, you pretty much ignore it at first as you pay more attention to the words. But you’re wrong, as you discover in one of those neck-shivering moments as the song lilts to a close. The song was built from those simple harmonics outwards, not from the words inwards. What’s more, the chord sequence, which gently reveals itself to be church bells pealing in the distance, is completely and devastatingly the emotional heart of the thing.
Dammit, Bragg, this gets me every time, and it carries with it a disarmingly deep truth: it’s not just looking back to intense feelings that carries emotional power, the very act of looking back itself is emotionally loaded. This isn’t a beautiful song about looking back, it’s a song about the beauty of looking back.