Learning By Heart

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I was born in 1948 and so I stepped over into vague adulthood during the 1960s. My parents were what you might call bohemian, which meant they used Freud as the springboard for seeing sex in every aspect of life and they believed in doing whatever they felt like doing and to hell with the consequences. They were also good people in their way: my mother full of laughter and sociability, my father full of booze and poetry and fascinated by the transforming power of metaphor ‒ just so long as you could find the right one to fit the occasion.

I always had an easy aptitude for learning by heart. I’d hear a song just once and if I liked the way it went, I’d remember it forever. My father would recite poems, perhaps as a substitute for conversation, and as long as the rhythms and the rhymes were strong, I’d have learnt them after a couple of repetitions. From the age of 9 I could recite from memory the first hundred or so lines of Vachel Lindsey’s ‘The Congo’, in which death is an elephant torch-eyed and horrible, foam-flanked and terrible; along with huge chunks of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. When  I was chosen to play the part of Wall in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was  embarrassed to realize at the end of rehearsals that I now knew the entire play within the play,  starting with ‘Gentles perchance you wonder at this show’. But although I enjoyed all these tumbling incantations, none of them really spoke to me, none of them brought me closer to my own self.

It must have been 1962 when a record player entered our house and I acquired my first EP. I can still see its cover: a photograph of Joan Baez with black hair, a long pale face and the sculpted cheekbones of a Plains Indian. I was startled by her high silvery notes, but it was the clarity of the words and the stories they told that entranced me. She put her finger to a bush, hoping to pluck the fairest flower, but the thorn it pricked her

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About the contributor

Julia Blackburn has written twelve books. Her subjects are diverse – from Napoleon to Billie Holiday – but she thinks the underlying connection is her interest in people caught in a predicament of one sort or another. Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske, was published in 2015.

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