Procol Harum

the Pale

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AWSoP in a German novel

Esther Harriott  and Rob Galpin

Esther Harriott writes to 'Beyond the Pale' from New York in America

A Whiter Shade of Pale was quoted in The Emigrants by WD Sebald, published in German in 1992 and translated into English in 1996.

The scene takes place in a bar in Deauville, where a combo is playing songs from the Sixties and the French vocalist sings this song in English.

The scene ends with this line, which is very effective in adding to the sense of nostalgia and loss that haunts this section of the book.

Rob Galpin, from Vastness Blurs, sends us this account of  Sebald and Reid

Your multilingual business friend
Has packed her bags and fled,
Leaving only ash-filled ashtrays
And the lipsticked unmade bed.
The mirror on reflection
Has climbed back upon the wall,
For the floor she found descended
And the ceiling was too tall.

Your trouser cuffs are dirty,
And your shoes are laced up wrong,
You'd better take off your Homburg,
'cos your overcoat is too long.

The town clock in the market square
Stands waiting for the hour
When it's hands they both turn backwards,
And on meeting will devour
Both themselves and also any fool
Who dares to tell the time.
And the sun and moon will shatter,
And the signposts cease to sign.

Procol Harum, Homburg (lyrics by Keith Reid, 1967)

In Ambros Adelwarth, the third in the series of delicately drawn fictitious lives that make up WG Sebald’s The Emigrants, the narrator’s Aunt remembers the last time she saw her Uncle Ambros:

'When it was time for me to leave, he insisted on seeing me to my car. And for that purpose he specially put on his paletot with the black velvet collar, and his Homburg. I still see him standing there in the driveway, said Aunt Fini, in that heavy overcoat, looking very pale and unsteady.'

I read this a couple of times and wondered if the Homburg hat and the heavy overcoat amounted to a conscious reference to the chorus of Homburg, Procol Harum’s classic 1967 single. Sure enough, fifteen pages later, the narrator is following traces of his Great Uncle’s life, and describes a visit to the casino at Deauville, where a young blonde girl sings 60s songs in English, A Whiter Shade of Pale among them. This was, of course, Procol Harum’s first massive single, to which Homburg is often considered a rather too similar-sounding follow-up. I first heard the song growing up in Rheindahlen JHQ on a 1980 double LP called 40 Solid Gold Hits. Back in England it became a song laden with nostalgia for Germany (perhaps partly because of its title), the “town clock in the market square” emblematic of childhood memories of towns and villages my family and I had visited in the Rheinland and beyond. The surreal whimsy of the signposts that will no longer sign and the clock with its hands turning backwards suggested little more to me than the half-frustrating, half-pleasurable woolliness of memory.

This is appropriate enough given the emphasis on memory in The Emigrants, and the unspoken desire of the narrator to rescue half-forgotten lives from ghost-like traces and inscrutable photographs, but Sebald also has a way of imbuing the tiniest details of his fictive world with a slowly gathering sense of loss and melancholia. Even Homburg with its one coy little reference becomes part of a narrative in which the holocaust throws its shadow wide into both the future and the past, altering them irrevocably. Within this changed landscape, the conceits of the mirror climbing back up the wall, the blank clock and sign, and the shattered sun and moon become metaphorical of a world gone horribly, queasily wrong. A song that had been, for me, symbolic of an idealised snow-blanketed Germany, is here being re-read as a holocaust text, and the irony is not lost on me.

Like The Emigrants, in which loss and death loom ever larger as the narratives progress, Keith Reid’s lyrics through the late 60s evolve from the dream-like surrealism of A Whiter Shade of Pale and Homburg to a kind of edgy, unsettled poeticism, suffused with morbid melancholia. If the characters in Sebald’s fiction are oppressed continually by “apprehensions of uneasiness, dread and menace”, the same could be said of Procol Harum’s fourth album Home (1970), where death stalks every song, from the horror-monologue of The Dead Man’s Dream, in which the protagonist awakes from a hideous dream of rotting corpses into a dark “deathroom”, to the “cancered spectre” and “streets awash with blood and pus” of Piggy Pig Pig. The imagery feeds into the anxious speculation of Barnyard Story that “maybe death will be my cure”, and the despairing final lines of the ostensibly chirpy Your Own Choice: “Went to the river but I could not swim / Knew I’d drown if I went in / Lost my faith in a terrible race / Rest in peace hereafter”.

I was surprised to learn that Reid also wrote the Australian mega-hit You’re the Voice for John Farnham, another favourite song from my youth; but I find little of significance in its U2ish lyrics today, so instead here’s three wonderful verses from Pilgrim’s Progress (1969), which echo Sebald’s writing not only in their mannered precision and sense of restless, unresolved anxiety, but also in their self-conscious foregrounding of the act of creation (the song, according to Reid, is "about" writing the song itself):

At first I took my weight to be an anchor,
And gathered up my fears to guide me round,
But then I clearly saw my own delusion,
And found my struggles further bogged me down.

In starting out I thought to go exploring,
And set my foot upon the nearest road.
In vain I looked to find the promised turning,
But only saw how far I was from home.

In searching I forsook the paths of learning,
and sought instead to find some pirate's gold.
In fighting I did hurt those dearest to me,
and still no hidden truths could I unfold.

(Keith Reid, 1969)

Thanks, Rob

Information about the Danish Procoholics

More about AWSoP

More novels with a Procoloid thread More from Rob Galpin's blog

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