Ophelia by Natalie Merchant


Some of my friends are still working and one in particular has been working from home since March instead of embarking on his one hour commute to the office. He says that he really appreciates saving two hours driving a day but he misses the social aspects of work. Lockdown coincided with my retirement and so I have some appreciation of these sentiments. When the “new normal” starts up, hopefully some time in the New Year, it will be interesting to see how many people work from home for some or all of the time.

What do I miss about mixing with colleagues at work? Of course, as a teacher, I was used to being locked in a room with a large number of rebellious adolescents but there were also times in the day when I was allowed out to mix with colleagues. I think I miss the kindness that other people can show towards each other. This kindness can manifest itself in many ways. I never really felt I belonged at BHASVIC Sixth Form College until Dave took the piss out of me and then I knew I could relax and the banter could begin. I realise that banter is not always construed as kindness but I found it welcoming, in a strange way. I suppose it’s about being accepted into a new community and that, in itself, is an act of kindness. Kindness doesn’t have to be an extravagant act involving lots of sacrifice. It can simply involve talking to each other, being polite, making a small compliment, making a cup of tea or, in the case of teachers, sharing a resource. Even the act of saying “thank you” can make me feel better, that I belong, and that the world is a decent place.

Not everyone is lucky enough to work somewhere with a culture of kindness. Starting a new job can be exciting but, sadly, that excitement can turn to frustration and annoyance if the people around you are seen to be acting selfishly. There’s a danger that these attitudes can permeate down from the management style of the head of the organisation although when I worked in Hertfordshire and the school was badly managed, the staff pulled together even more to fight the oppressors. A slight exaggeration there but poor management doesn’t automatically lead to staff not looking out for each other. There can be hope if a positive, embracing attitude is adopted. Not always, but it’s possible. It was quite normal for twenty teachers to pop to the local pub in Brookmans Park for some lunch and a pint (or two), discuss how much we hated senior management before returning to perform wonderfully well on a Friday afternoon. Different times.

When “Ophelia” was released in 1998, Natalie Merchant was 35 years old. She was born in New York and grew up listening to her mother’s Petula Clark records. When she was 12 years old she was taken to a Styx concert. “Someone threw up next to me and people were smoking pot. It was terrifying. I remember Styx had a white piano which rose out of the stage. It was awe-inspiring and inspirational.” (I wonder if she’s ever heard “Styx Gig (Seen By My Mates Coming Out Of A” by Half Man Half Biscuit?) She has also said that she never watched any TV after the age of twelve. “I grew up in a house where no one watched the news on television and no one read the paper. I’ve been discovering these things as I get older, and the news has affected me more than it ever has before.” I think it’s possible that this has affected her charmingly naïve approach to wishing for a better world on “Break My Heart” (see below). When she was 18 years old in 1981, she started singing in a group called Still Life that later transformed into 10000 Maniacs, a band that I first became aware of when watching “The Tube” in 1985.

After leaving 10000 Maniacs in 1993, Natalie Merchant embarked on a solo career and has released eight albums; the latest, “Butterfly”, was released in 2017. “Ophelia” contained two successful singles. “Kind And Generous” reached Number 18 in the Billboard Charts and is a simple thank you song to someone who has been, er, kind and generous. Natalie Merchant said that she “always wanted to write a song that had an extremely universal sentiment. This song is about gratitude and it’s simple – to the point. Everybody knows what I am talking about when they hear the song and they can sing along.” To make the video to accompany the song, she appeared in different characters in a travelling circus. The performers in the video were from a real circus. It’s not really clear how a circus is relevant to the lyrics but it’s a great catchy song.

My favourite song on this album is “Break Your Heart” which Natalie Merchant sings with an acid jazz singer called N’Dea Davenport. The trumpet playing on this song is wonderfully haunting. She said that she wrote the song with young people in mind. She wanted to acknowledge that at some point we all reach a point in our lives when disillusionment kicks in because other people can be selfish. However, even when faced with cruelty, we should maintain hope for a better future.

Kindness and hope are essential ingredients for a happy life and I have been reminded of that by listening to these two songs.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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