I was about 12 when I began celebrating my birthday by sobbing over sad music

Some thoughts lie too deep for tears. But it’s through tears that we access them


April might be the cruellest month to some; to my mind August is far crueller. But I can’t quite bring myself to say good riddance to it. Put August behind you and you’ve as good as kissed goodbye to the year. For me, also, it means brutally ticking off another birthday – it was last Monday, incidentally, but no presents, please – and that’s what makes it so cruel. I dread it coming and I dread it going – the ageing month.

I did this time what I have done for countless birthdays past, which is begin the day with music that makes me cry. I have a sizeable schmaltz collection, some of it still on plaintive vinyl. Jussi Bjorling singing “Che gelida manina” and then teaming up with Tebaldi for “O soave fanciulla”, Caruso singing “Vesti la giubba”, Mario Lanza singing “E lucevan le stelle”, Richard Tauber singing anything that has the words “heart” or “Vienna” in the title, Gigli singing “Core ’ngrato”, Janet Baker singing “Ich habe genug”, “Torna a Surriento” sung by all of them – and that’s before I start on music that isn’t necessarily heartbreaking in itself but has heartbreaking associations.

You get the picture, anyway – tiny frozen hands, the tears of a clown, dying when you have most to live for, exile from your homeland... Perfect birthday music.

Homeland! Sorrento? “What’s Hecuba to you,” I hear you ask, “or you to Hecuba,/ That you should weep for her?” Why people should be so quick to assume I am not a Neapolitan, I don’t know, but just between ourselves I will confide to you that they are right. And don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind to wonder why exile from Sorrento should be painful to me given that I was born in Manchester and have been to Sorrento only once, and even that was a pilgrimage of the heart inspired by my love of the song. My wife took me, as a birthday present, booked us into a room that Caruso had slept in – Caruso being the tenor whose “Torna a Surriento” moves me the most – threw open our windows overlooking the Bay of Naples, and tactfully withdrew so I could sob without notice or inhibition.

At an adjoining window, another Caruso manqué was doing the same. Maybe he too was from Manchester. Maybe it was his birthday. Or maybe he was envious of me for having the great man’s room. But whatever occasioned his tears I have no doubt what occasioned mine. I had come home. After all those years of rootless wandering I had finally returned to Sorrento. And it didn’t matter a jot that I had never previously been there in my life. The reason for our weeping is not to be found in its ostensible cause.

And the city I come from in reality? Have I never shed a tear for Manchester? Reader, conceal your mirth. Manchester might not immediately lend itself to expressions of musical heartbreak, but as a matter of principle I disapprove of withholding sentiment from the Industrial North just because its place names lack euphony. In fact, I frequently longed for the bright lights of Grey Mare Lane Market when I was studying in mellifluous Cambridge, and yearned just as often for the kind conviviality of Crumpsall and Weaste when I went to teach in Sydney and supposed Australians meant offence when they called me a bastard and a poofter. But there’s homesickness and homesickness, actual exile and mythic exile. And for some of us, the mythic sort is more potent. What we who miss Sorrento will forever miss about it is the ideal condition of belonging that never was and never will be. To put it another way: what we love is the idea of exile itself. Call it Sorrento Syndrome – the ecstasy of feeling loss for what was never ours to lose.

And by “never ours” I am not only referring to places we don’t come from, but also to emotions we haven’t – or at least haven’t yet – experienced. I was about 12 when I began celebrating my birthdays by locking myself in my bedroom and sobbing over sad music. By any account that was too young to know at first hand what, say, falling head over heels for a courtesan dying of consumption was like. But La Traviata taught me. Isn’t this what art is supposed to do? You wake up not knowing what the word courtesan means, you put on a gramophone record, listen to Di Stefano and Callas singing “Un di felice, eterea” – he telling her that love is the pulse of the universe, she telling him that he must find someone else to adore (as if!) – and before the night is out you have not just encountered a courtesan but you have loved and lost her. Call this the very education of the emotions. We weep at first because we like to weep, but the longing to go on weeping encourages us to find more occasions for it in art, which in turn directs our tears towards those faculties of sympathy and engagement we call the imagination. Wordsworth was no doubt right: some thoughts lie too deep for tears. But it’s through tears that we access them.

And if this is all too soppy for you, reader, consider what else is on offer – young men juiced up by martial songs and the hate-filled beat of hip-hop, deluded into self-pitying narratives of stolen lands, and lopping off the heads of those they’ve been taught to regard as thieves and interlopers. Whatever else the words “Vide’o mare quant’è bello,/ Spira tantu sentimento” inspire, they don’t inspire us to travel to Sorrento and take it back by force of arms. They are dreamer’s words, knowingly fictive, and even half-amused, acknowledging the harmless self-indulgence that is the mark of Sorrento Syndrome. For sadness is not the opposite of mirth; it is the opposite of earnest endeavour, furious conviction and brute ideology.

And this is its sociobiological function: in a noisy, vicious world it offers the alternative of quiet acceptance that existence won’t ever give us everything we erroneously think we are entitled to.

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