Desiderata – Les Crane
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story…
Whilst I am unable to find the release date for this single, it was huge in our house. Our house being a three bedroom council estate new build on the outside edge of East Sussex market town Hailsham. Facing north towards Herstmonceux Observatory. A field where we played football. A back garden which felt permanently in the shade. We had coal delivered directly into a hole in the back wall which was the coal shed. We’d take it in turns to fill the coal scuttle which was shaped like a cone, then carry it through to the living room where all the paraphernalia of the fireplace were present : shovel, poker, brush and tongs. Proper fire. Proper chimney that got swept probably once. If ever. TV in the corner. Two settees ? Or was it one settee and two armchairs ? Milk delivered in bottles every day onto the doorstep. Sometimes the silver foil tops would be pecked before we took the bottles in – by blue tits famously who wanted the cream which had risen to the top of the bottle.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater
and lesser persons than yourself.
“the front of the house, and you can just see a bit of the side”
Next door was Monique and her two kids : Tim, who was my brother Paul’s age (12 going on 13 in 1972) and Joanna who was younger, perhaps 10. Carl, the kid’s dad was “inside”. On the other side was an old lady whose name has been forgotten and her fully grown son. Can’t remember his name either. But one day we heard that he been “fiddling about” with Joanna, so we weren’t to make friends with him. He was “a bit funny”. And that was that. It was, as people never seem to tire of saying “a different time”. Sure was. I am forever grateful that I was never “fiddled about” with, by anyone, and never put into care by the Social Workers -despite the regular family upheavals and hospital stays that mum was experiencing during this whole period. It was a long walk into the town centre, to the bus stop, to Polegate Station to take the train, to Lewes. I was at school in Lewes. It was an hour’s journey at least.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble,
it’s a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
By the time I was in the 4th year, moving into the 5th year and O-levels I was buying singles regularly, and LPs on special occasions. 1972 was a major year for me as a music fan. A brief look at the charts confirms the incredible variety of music that people were buying in vast numbers – a record needed to sell many hundreds of thousands of copies even to reach the top 20. Desiderata by Les Crane peaked at number 8 in late March 1972 – Harry Nilsson was at #1 with a cover of Badfinger’s “Without You“, also present in the top 20 were Gilbert O’ Sullivan “Alone Again, Naturally”, Argent “Hold Your Head Up”, Paul Simon “Mother & Child Reunion”, and Michael Jackson “Got To Be There”. There was virtually no ‘crap pop’ – The New Seekers, Middle Of The Road and Englebert Humperdinck being the blots on an otherwise pristine and glorious pop landscape: American Pie, Bernadette, Heart Of Gold, Say You Don’t Mind, Have You Seen Her. Yes I romanticise, I see through rose-tinted ear-plugs, and none more so than Desiderata.
Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
What a strange and glorious thing it is. A man reads a poem, Desiderata (Latin : things to be desired) a series of aphorisms, epigrams and generally perspicacious observations on LIFE, THE UNIVERSE and EVERYTHING while a female choir joins him for the loosely-defined “chorus” :
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars
You have a right to be here…
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should…
And then the narrator would be off again with his pearls of wisdom, his insights into getting through it all. Les Crane, though I didn’t know it at the time, was a radio broadcaster and one time talk-show host who was himself an interesting mover and shaker within the counter-culture during the late 1960s. His short lived Talk Show lasted just 14 episodes in 1964 without denting The Carson Show, but the list of guests speaks for itself : Bob Dylan, who rarely appeared on TV; Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Richard Burton, George Wallace, Robert Kennedy, Muhammed Ali. The Rolling Stones first appearance on US TV was on his show in 1964. Crane, who tried acting at one point and who won a Grammy for ‘Best Spoken Word’ for Desiderata, reads the prose poem with a kindly gravitas which Paul and I found hilarious. Fred Werner provided the musical accompaniment, which was of its time, think for example of The Congregation Softly Whispering I Love You or Aquarius by the Fifth Dimension, two beautiful records.
Although we didn’t fully admit it at the time, we were mesmerised by this song. Paul and I in particular took the royal piss out of it, probably because it got under our skin so effectively.
Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.
When younger brother Andrew (who was 8 years old at the time) wanted to come into our bedroom, or made a mistake with a word, or anything stupid like that, we were merciless. “You are a Child Of The Universe” we would pronounce, (without the solace of “you have a right to be here“), in fact I seem to recall we would deliver our own version of this judgement, as follows “You are a Child Of The Universe : You Have No Right to be Here”. Meaning our bedroom. Or even anywhere. We were cruel. It was a cycle of cruelty. Andrew would find his way into our bedroom when we weren’t there. He would find a plastic Airfix kit, carefully built from component parts and glued together according to the printed instructions, usually an aeroplane from the second World War, wheels that actually turned, a cockpit you could see into, decals shiny on the wings and fuselage, painted with a tiny paint brush from tiny paint pots the size of a thimble, all mounted on a stand on the chest of drawers.
Andrew used to like to play with the Airfix kits and break them. Maybe he pretended they could fly and threw them across the room. But I’d come home from school and find pieces of plastic littering the floor, smashed aeroplane bits. So he wasn’t allowed in our bedroom. He was in fact a child of the universe and he had no right to be there. I don’t think I beat him up ever. The scars would be deeper and for life, rather than bruises for a few days. The cycle of cruelty manifested in other areas too. Football. Andrew was in goal, Paul and I would fire shots at him. Penalties mainly. In the back field. Forever.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit
to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
We thought Desiderata was funny because it was, but the words stuck, buried deep in the teenage brain.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
For years everyone thought it was an anonymous poem from the Middle Ages, found in a church in Baltimore by the Reverend Frederick Kates and dating from 1628. In fact the date referred to the church’s founding. The poem Desiderata was written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, a lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana who stopped working aged 40 to write. It has been intoned by a variety of characters, notably Leonard Nimoy’s Mr Spock on a 1968 LP calling it “Spock Thoughts“.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.
It is one of those pieces that people can recite. The eternal truth contained in the lines makes it feel Medieval or a translation from Buddha or Confucius. No. A lawyer from Indiana. Everyone is at the centre of the universe. Clearly, the truth is all around us. And for me, as a non-religious man who rejects the pious the righteous and the pontificating peace of religion, this is as near as I get to spirituality. It’s like a survival manifesto, with kindness at its core.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.