Wednesday, 23 September 2020

I'm on My Way: Thoughts Inspired by Ed Sheeran's "Castle on the Hill"

Framlingham Castle Sunset

I’m on my way
Driving at 90 down those country lanes.
Singing to “Tiny Dancer”
And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real
We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill

(Benjamin Levin and Ed Sheeran. “Castle on the Hill.”)

I’m no music aficionado but if I really like a song I’ll play it over and over, to the point where I have the lyrics committed to memory. If I ever find myself at a karaoke with a few pints inside me and a friend at my side there are a few numbers I’d have a go at. “Let it Go” (from Frozen), “Take Me Home” (Jess Glynne), “Fairytale of New York” (The Pogues), “Stay Stay Stay” (Taylor Swift) — and Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill.”

I found Sheeran via a video of Canadian singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes performing “Treat You Better” at Capital FM’s Summertime Ball. The song meant a lot to me but in this recording Mendes opened with lines I didn’t recognise. A quick search revealed they were from “Castle on the Hill” by Ed Sheeran. I found the official video and was soon hooked. It evoked memories and feelings that were not always comfortable: a good indicator something is worth paying attention to. The song describes Sheeran’s childhood and teenage years in Suffolk, England. The castle of the title is Framlingham Castle.

[I’m unable to post the full lyrics for copyright reasons but you can find them here.]

The song opens with Sheeran recalling breaking his leg at age six. The incident is presented as a badge of honour. I have no equivalent badges, never having broken my leg or anything else for that matter. My earliest childhood memory is visiting my father’s office on one of his rare Saturdays at work. I was maybe ten years old. The memory plays like a short clip from a black and white movie in which I’m sitting on a tall stool in front of an enormous typewriter while my father busies himself in his smaller office next door. There’s no sweet perfume like the mountain grass Sheeran recalls; perhaps there is a musty aroma of printers’ ink.

Sheeran recalls finding his heart and breaking it. I recall a crush on my classmate Lynette, another girl whose name escapes me, and Anne and Glenda who were rumoured to sell kisses if you were in the right place at the right time. I had good friendships through childhood and my teens but none survived my leaving home for university. I occasionally think of searching for them on social media but in truth I have little interest in picking up old threads.

The chorus, which I quoted at the start of this post, evokes memories of driving at speed with the radio on full blast, but I’ve only once driven at anything like ninety miles per hour. On that occasion, I briefly touched 100 in my mother’s Ford Fiesta to collect a friend who’d broken down late at night. There was no music on that occasion, but when I had my own car my driving playlist included “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins, and Sniff ‘n’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat.” The latter is the archetypal driving track. (I agree with the person on YouTube who commented “Should be built into every new car. There should actually be a button for it on the steering wheel.”) Listening to it now I’m transported thirty or more years into the past, driving around London or to and from Bradford to visit friends.

I’ve never been a big fan of Elton John and didn’t recognise the “Tiny Dancer” reference until I looked it up. I’m glad I did, because certain of Bernie Taupin’s lines resonate strongly for me. “Blue-jean baby” recalls my first year at university, my first real love, and these lines from my poem “Passionale.”

After so long in blue-jeans
I still need a girl with a feminine flair
who can put on a dress that is not
an invitation

Other resonances are more recent but no less potent. I love how Taupin’s line “But oh, how it feels so real” is echoed in Sheeran’s “And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real.” I sing along tunelessly, but with great feeling. I’ve never watched the sun setting over a castle on a hill but I’ve sat with friends at Alderley Edge as night fell across the Cheshire Plain.

Beneath the trees
Beneath the stars
Cautiously we found each other
And a place for silence.

In the second verse Sheeran describes smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and getting drunk with his friends on cheap booze. I was a late starter in these rites of passage too. I’ve never smoked tobacco (or anything else). I’ve never run from the police and had scarcely touched alcohol before I left home at eighteen. I’ve had my share of drunkenness since then but only once threw up afterwards, and that was due as much to food poisoning as the amount of alcohol I’d consumed.

I don’t recall what day of the week I had my first real kiss but I do remember who I kissed. Did I do it right? Probably not — who does, the first time? — but there were many more after that so perhaps I didn’t do too badly.

For me the most poignant part of the song is the bridge section, which describes what happened to the singer’s closest friends since they were in their teens. I have little idea how my friends’ lives unfolded. Aside from my immediate family only one person I’m close to now has been in my life more than ten years; most only two or three. I’m not sad about that. Many people seem able to reconnect with people after months or even years as though nothing has changed but I’ve never been that way. For me, meaningful connection implies continuity and a certain frequency of contact. We don’t have to check in every day but if it’s less than once a month the friendship is unlikely to last long in any meaningful sense.

Despite his friends’ various life challenges, Sheeran declares that “these people raised me and I can’t wait to go home.” Apart from my parents I was never emotionally close to my family — my sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The one exception was my Auntie Beb who took me hiking in my teens. I was raised, like Sheeran, by my friends — in my case those I met at university. I thought of them as family at the time and for years after, although I never felt a full member of the tribe despite strong ties of love and commitment. Over the years the ties that bound us thinned and faded. Some were severed, others I relinquished when they no longer served me. I have no yearning to “go back home” the way Sheeran does. Indeed, there is no one or nothing to go back to. It no longer exists.

Maybe like Ed Sheeran I’m on my way — but toward what future or destination am I travelling? I’ve wrestled with this for months now, mostly concerning my career but other areas of my life too. I think that’s why “Castle on the Hill” evokes so much for me. It challenges me to look inside myself and see myself for who I really am.

Postscript

This blog post has stirred a lot of memories and emotions. This is a deep dive, not just into my past but into the person I am now. It reminds me of what one of my friends told me the other day about therapy. How it’s not about fixing you, it’s about making connections between the gaps inside you. (That is a weak echo of how she expressed it.) She spoke with passion and clarity about how gut-wrenchingly hard the work of therapy is. How if you’re not prepared to do the work you’re unlikely to benefit.

What I‘m doing here doesn’t come close to that intensity or depth, but I sense there is more beneath the surface. An image arises in my mind of the Tolkien’s Dwarves who dug too deeply and awakened the Balrog. We each have our monsters, our creatures lurking in the dark, our hidden memories and secrets. My friends. Me. Ed Sheeran. All of us.

 

Photo by Happy Bean Photography / CC BY-SA

 

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