When you are an actor, a singer or an entertainer you tend to live a very itinerant lifestyle following work all over the world. John Waters knows this life well; not entirely due to his own 40 year long career (both as an actor and singer) but because he also grew up with a father who was an actor.
‘It’s not an ideal way of life for small children and I am keenly aware of that with my own children so we try to keep home as stable as possible even though I’m here one day and gone the next.’
The last couple of months have seen John touring around Australia performing the songs of the 1950s Belgian-born French singer Jacques Brel. His music is dramatic and passionate and much of it explores his ideas about home, house, place and country. It is these themes that resonate deeply for John and have done since he first heard Brel’s songs as a 17-year-old travelling around France.
‘I still feel very strongly about the building I grew up in, a two-bedroom flat in suburban Teddington, south-west London. It was an unspectacular flat in an unspectacular area: an old Georgian building that had each floor converted to flats in the late 1940s. My parents rented it and brought up five children there.’
The flat stayed within the Waters’ family for more than 50 years and when it was sold 15 years ago John found it quite a loss.
‘As a small child I used to feel very insecure about being away from this building and from the people within it, but as a teenager I did everything I could to be away from it. I now look back and think that my desire to get away from that home was actually a desire to overcome my strange fear of being away from it.’
After leaving home at the age of 17 to travel around Europe, John eventually made his way to Australia and never returned to live in that flat. Yet, whenever he goes back to London he will always return to that building.
‘I always go back to walk those streets and stand out the front of that building and stare at it. Teddington, the river and the park surrounding it will always be very dear to me. I love that I can stand in the streets I kicked a football around, see the two skinny trees in the clearing there by the church that framed the goalposts of the makeshift pitch when I was eight years old.’
Brel once said that it’s important to progress in life but that it’s also important to return to where you come from. People unable to do so, he thought, were dislocated and would always feel a sense of loss and dislocation. John feels a strong affinity with this idea and was fascinated with Brel’s love/hate relationship he had with his home country, Belgium.
‘Brel writes very emotionally about the place, even though he feels he escaped. The intellectual side of him told him Belgium was a backwater; considered the sticks for French people yet he also has a strange affection about it and the land itself and finds beauty in it.’
‘In one of his songs, Le Plat Pays, he describes Belgium as a flat land, harsh, bitter, featureless with no mountains except the steeples of the churches (and he was haunted by the spectre of organised religion). For three verses he continues to describe how hard it is to love such a country and then in the final verse it explodes musically into different chords and becomes more lush. “When the south wind blows, the beauty is returned and the whole land begins to sing.” It’s very moving.’
Expected to take over his father’s cardboard carton company, Brel was born into a middle-class family who didn’t understand his artistic ability. As John explains, ‘In another song, Mon Enfance, he describes his life as a little kid who was a dreamer and was ignored by these fat, Flemish men who smelt of cheese and tobacco. He sings that in summer time he would play cowboys and Indians even though he knew “ my fat, old uncles would steal the far west from me; they would take my dreams away”.’
John continues that Brel also wrote songs with a degree of affection for this mismatched family. ‘He writes about his family as a tribe who only seem to come to life when there is a death. Later in his life, he talked about the “great house which had thrown its anchor just to the north among the jonquils.” His imagery is really beautiful; this idea that the house looked like it had drifted away from the rest of the town.’
Such a strong sense of a childhood home perhaps comes from people who travel, John thinks. ‘You need to leave home – leave your country – to get that sense. My brothers and sisters who still live in London certainly feel strongly about our flat but I don’t think they feel it as keenly as I do.’
Perhaps Brel’s most affecting and poignant song is J’arrive about a young, dying man. ‘It’s a very autobiographical song although I’m not sure that when Brel wrote it he knew he was going to die at the age of 48 but he was always haunted by the idea of premature death’, says John.
‘In the song this young man is saying ‘I’m coming, I’m coming but why now? Why me? Before I go I want to see once more if the river is still a river; to see if the place I come from is still there; to see myself in that place once more. The place where I first entered the world; where I was born.’
For John, he will always belong to two countries, ‘My Englishness stays because I keep travelling back. Sometimes I will return to London just to read the paper, have conversations about politics and football and once I’m immersed in that world I feel ready to return to Australia.’
But also for John, thoughts of returning to Teddington ‘just one more time; to see if the place I come from is still there’, are not strong. ‘Now I have young children again, I see the future through them. What I love about having children at this age is that it has given me something about the future to look forward to. The future now, for me, keeps going through them.’