Wednesday 29 January 2003
O Brother, where art thou?
'A young Japanese girl told me that the BrontÃ« sisters were big in Japan, so there is one way in which the BrontÃ«s are like a pop group'
There were three brothers in the Bee Gees pop group, Robin, Maurice and Barry, and now there are only two, because Maurice died the other day. The news left me comparatively unmoved, because I have never bought a Bee Gees record in my life and maybe never listened to one properly, beyond registering that they sang clever harmonies in quite high voices. Like the Everly Brothers played at the wrong speed. But one of the surviving brothers, Robin, chose a different model: in a tribute to his brother, he said that the only historical parallel to the way the three Gibb brothers collaborated was the way the Brontë sisters worked together.
That is, on the face of it, a strange parallel, because although I am no expert on the Brontë sisters, I cannot remember them ever having had a major singing hit. Or even doing much singing at all. (I wonder if perhaps Robin Gibb was confusing them with the Boswell Sisters?) The picture you get of the Brontës is not of close-harmony sisters but of three girls scribbling away in their different rooms, writing poetry or novels, hoping to get away from the bleak countryside surrounding Haworth Parsonage. I know it is bleak up there, because although I have never read any of the Brontës' novels from beginning to end, I have made the pilgrimage to their house.
I didn't have to go very far. Some years ago I was based in the nearby town of Keighley for a while, doing some research on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway for a book on steam. The K&WVR has its own literary connections, being the line on which The Railway Children was filmed, but one of the stations it serves is Haworth, and there I went out of curiosity one day to have a look round Brontëland. I travelled up in the same compartment as a young Japanese girl reading Wuthering Heights in English, and she told me that the Brontë sisters were very big in Japan, so there is at least one way in which the Brontës are like a pop group.
The interesting shadow that lies across the picture of the Brontë family is not that of any of the sisters but that of their much-loved only brother, Branwell, who was an unsuccessful painter and died young because of drink and drugs. I cannot remember much about the parsonage itself now, but I do have a clearer image of the pub across the road, where Branwell is supposed to have sneaked off to of an evening, and from where he would come home the worse for wear. And also a clear image of the pharmacy just down the road, which tried to give the clear impression that it was the place where Branwell got his opium, though of course they couldn't sell any souvenir Brontë opium in these namby-pamby days and were having to make do with lavender shampoo.
Michael Wharton, in the great days of The Daily Telegraph's "Way of the World" column, invented a fourth Brontë sister, called something like Hermione or Harriet, who never wrote anything, and couldn't be doing with poetry and novels, but was mad about science and technology and couldn't wait for the moors above Haworth to be full of pylons and TV masts and wind farms and mobile-phone masts. I had always wanted to think of an extension to the Brontë family like that, but never had an idea until I read what Robin Gibb said the other day, and suddenly had a vision of the Gibb brothers on a sheep station in Australia, with the wind howling round them and the weather closing in, and the three little brothers secretly penning their first singles under the name of The Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell Collective. The only problem was, who could I invent as the equivalent of Branwell, the demented, fourth, unsuccessful Gibb brother, brought down by drugs?
Looking for inspiration, I turned to the entry for the Bee Gees in the Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music and there, after reading about the well-known Gibbs, suddenly came across this.
"A fourth brother, Andy Gibb, also rode the disco boom and had five US million-selling singles... He had two more hit singles in the 1980s before drugs problems interrupted his career and he faded from view. He died in 1988."
Gee. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Or, to put it another way, Robin Gibb maybe did know what he was doing when he compared his family to the Brontë sisters.
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