Cornerstone: A Grey Afternoon

Nicholas Howe

Joshua Whitney

Joshua Whitney, Challenge Editor in Chief

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Here we are on a cold, grey, November day fifty years after JFK’s assassination, and the song that seeps into my mind is Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town,” probably because it’s the only song I recall specifically mentioning JFK.

Listen here:

This song from my childhood (which either makes me an old fogey or a young pup, depending on where you happen to be standing) embodies melancholia like none other, so it suits this afternoon so perfectly.

And melancholia isn’t necessarily depression as much it is a sense of depth and distance one feels upon reflection.

On first listen, the lyrics seem to exist for the sake of that catchy chorus that has few intelligible words, yet because the chorus’s only real words are “Life in a northern town,” the focus lands on the verses.

And those lyrics begin with a Salvation Army band playing and children drinking lemonade – sweet, wistful, and nostalgic images followed by “And the morning lasted all day, all day.”

So in addition to this nostalgic feeling, we get a sense of never being fully awake, of beginnings and promises unfulfilled.

And who, looking back at his or her past, hasn’t wondered about the promises of youth that have been left unfulfilled and dreams unpursued for any variety of excuses.

The song’s grey images continue with “winter 1963,” evening rain, water rolling “down the drain,” and an unnamed person who at the end waves goodbye only in his eyes.

The final lines of the last verse, “Bye-bye,” seems to go unheard by the person they’re directed at, making important closure incomplete.

The song feels like an attempt to deal with an important loss, or perhaps it is trying to come to terms with an inability to get closure.  Regardless, whoever it was that was lost can’t come back.

Perhaps that loss is someone else; perhaps it’s a former self.

And on grey days like this, for some reason, the distance between that past that the loss suggests and the present day seems closer, as if the veil between eras becomes transparent.

Hearing a song like “Life in a Northern Town,” which I first heard in the mid ‘80s on the cusp of my teen years, makes such a veil disappear entirely, and I am reminded of what was and how much has changed, both in myself and the world around me.

That ability to reconnect with that former self reminds us of the beautiful innocence we once possessed.  The sorrow comes from our current knowledge of how that innocence was vanquished, as it is for everyone in different ways.

So we mourn our lost innocence and lost dreams, but remain thankful for the art that takes us there and helps us through.

Like cold November afternoons, “Life in a Northern Town” may not be an entirely happy place, but it is a valuable one.

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