Or how a cryptic song from the eighties can take us places
I have always been intrigued by Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle. I first heard it when I was ten or eleven years old. My ears were still completely deaf to English back then but the words (as far as I could tell), the groove and the music were interlocking perfectly.
I would get to know more about it years later, and the more I knew, the less it made sense. Its lyrics were, and still are cryptic beyond redemption. Nik called it The Riddle for a good reason. Here, listen :
I got two strong arms
Blessings of Babylon time
To carry on and try
For sins and false alarms
So to America the brave
Wise men says
Near a tree by a river
There’s a hole in the ground
Where an old man of Aran
Goes around and around
And his mind is a beacon
In the veil of the night
For a strange kind of fashion
There’s a wrong and a right
Kershaw would explain later that the lyrics were randomly put together to match the music but had no hidden meaning, or any meaning at all for that matters.
But what if they did?
First trial at solving the riddle
I bet the key to this riddle would be lost somewhere in the Old Man of Aran’s mind. Let us focus on the lyrics again… An old man or Aran… Ah! The Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland! Nick would deny it of course, but again, what if? Why not?
So now we have a place. We still need an old man, and I think I have a decent candidate: Saint Enda of Aran, a warrior king turned to monastic life an founder of the first Irish monastery, on the island of Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran islands. He is even linked to an old well near Galway, St Edna’s well, which seems a good enough candidate for the hole in the ground where the old man of Aran goes around and around. The trail however seems to end there. No trace of a river. And the beacon seems quite dim from the distance. As for the fashion, I see none, that is unless the monastic life counts as fashion.
Wrong path? Unless…
Let us call a friend
Seamus Heaney. Irish Poet who was awarded the 1995 Nobel prize for literature, for Death of a Naturalist, a collection of thirty four short poems, one of which happens to be called Lovers on Aran.
The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas
To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
to throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?
Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.
I can see a link with the two strong arms and America the brave in Kershaw’s The Riddle. The link to the Aran Islands is obvious, and the beacon would be the poet himself, or his mind actually, to match the lyrics. Or would he. You see, there is another poem in Heaney’s collection which qualifies, one called Synge on Aran. Synge, as John Millington Synge, another Irish poet and writer who would spend time in the Arans and write The Aran Islands, among other works. He would stay in the Arans in the first place at the advice of Yeats, yet another Irish poet, writer and Nobel prize laureate, for the few who have not heard of him yet.
As for the key to decipher Nik’s cryptic song, well, would anyone care to take over solving the riddle? I need to rush, I have some Irish literature to attend to.
Let the board sound