I know what you mean, Harry;Opinion

12th February 1999 at 00:00
HARRY CHAPIN has recently re-entered my life. For those not in the know, Harry was an American singer songwriter who tasted fame in the 1970s before achieving premature death and the mandatory lost genius status by way of a car crash. However, he was no James Dean figure, and his songs of everyday life, strong on description and clear in storyline, made excellent material for this student and probationer English teacher.

Two of his songs in particular, "WOLD" and "Cat's in the Cradle", both minor hits, made me sweat my way through crits and probationary assessments. As the themes matched a novel that my third year is currently studying, it seemed a good idea to dust them off and become acquainted again.

Unfortunately, while they have lain untouched over the past 20 years, the same cannot be said of the keen and enthusiastic student teacher, but it was only as I was actually in front of the class with the lyrics that this inescapable fact came to my attention.

"Cat's in the Cradle" first introduced a note of unease. It's the story of a father who is too busy to play with his son. The boy grows up aiming to be "just like his dad". When dad has retired and wants to spend time with his adult son, the son is too busy with work and family to see him - "just like his dad".

As I distributed the lyrics I realised with an overwhelming sense of irony that I had been too busy typing out the lyric to play my usual game of "hall football" with my son the previous night.

Things scarcely improved with the other song. "WOLD" is the story of an American radio DJ who achieves national fame at the cost of his private happiness. By the time of the song he is reduced to small-town radio and providing discos at local high schools, a sad and lonely has-been.

All of this is far enough away to be safe, but when we hit the lines about middle-aged spread and the baldy head, I was reduced to avoiding mirrors for the duration.

The lyrics of sad middle age that seemed interestingly alien when I first taught them in the smugness of my twenties had started to assume a tragic aura of nine out of 10 on the Hamlet scale now that I was within hailing distance of my late forties. Nowadays even our sixth year look blank at the mention of such "recent" phenomena as Live Aid.

I escaped to the relative safety of our guidance base, where even the younger staff are far too sensitive to mention age, but a small boy arrived at the door claiming he had been hit in the toilets by an older pupil. What was he like? "He had brown hair and was about seven feet tall."

As I wrote on the board when discussing Harry's songs: it's all a matter of perspective.

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