Home Thoughts From Abroad
Experience molds us. For writers it shapes what we create. It's only by drawing on the highly personal, often dark encounters that we can write a piece others connect with. Clifford understood this
We were returning to Manhattan after a weekend on the beach. We were sleepy, our limbs long and languorous, our skin salty and sticky. It had reached that point in the journey when conversations wilt and fade into silence, when texts are sent out of boredom and there’s a sudden shift in atmosphere, an awareness we’ve been sitting for hours, crammed like a game of sardines that’s continued too long, and everyone aches to see the familiarity of the city’s skyline. It was a Sunday and it was the summer, my first in New York, a stretch of time I’d later recall with mixed feelings – hints of sadness and envy -- but at that moment it was simply an incredible summer. I wasn’t pausing to assess whether it would ever be this good again.
A friend turned up the music to ignore the creeping reality of a Monday morning fast approaching and that’s when I first heard the song. My ears strained at the opening chords; the lonely piano solo, the sad lyrics dedicated to someone far away, the references to classic romantic poets I’d studied at school:
“Who is this?” I asked the man who would leave my life within two months. We both knew this and it hung over our relationship, one we’d chosen not to define.
“Home Thoughts From Abroad by Clifford T. Ward,” he responded, surprised I’d never heard it before.
A friend sitting behind us murmured: “It’s such a gorgeous song.”
We met at the beginning of the summer on St. Mark’s Place. It was a Friday night and I arrived late, breathlessly apologizing to the group only half of whom I knew. I didn’t have time to register everyone because we were loading bags, deciding who would take the car and who the Jitney. But I noticed him later that evening. I liked his thick wavy hair, his dark blue eyes, the angular shape of his nose, the lilt of his accent, the dryness of his humor. The next day on the beach we flirted tentatively and that evening, fuelled with alcohol, more convincingly. And from that night onwards we were together, except with the knowledge it would never last.
We were standing outside Epstein’s, that soulless bar on the corner of Allen and Stanton, when he explained his company had sent him to New York for nine months. In early September he’d return to Ireland. He was waiting for my reaction, trying to gauge whether I was about to lose interest -- September was ten weeks away, why bother? -- but I shrugged casually and said all I wanted was a fun summer. This was true, although deep down I registered a glimmer of disappointment. And I didn’t stay over that night.
But my caution didn’t last. Before I knew it we were inseparable. I was experiencing that gravitational pull, a need to be continually tactile. Hot sticky embraces at bars, or on rooftops, or in the backs of cabs were followed by cool air conditioned sex on repeat. It was better with him; no fumbling or disappointment, no hesitation on my part about whether to fake something that clearly wasn’t going to happen. And without acknowledging it, without meaning to, my first summer in New York became our first summer in New York. We listened to buskers in Central Park, we drank on countless rooftops, we bar-hopped between Ludlow and Orchard, we ran down wide avenues hailing cabs, we hit golf balls towards the Hudson, we spent weekends on the beach in the shimmering heat until our faces grew freckled and our limbs sun-kissed, and we spent long, lazy afternoons in Central Park, or Madison Square Park, or the patches of grass in Union Square sporadically open to the public, reading and listening to music and talking, all the while turning a deeper shade of brown and slowly more inseparable. We did things tourists do and things locals do, we did it all and indelibly I associated everything about New York with him.
And we listened to Home Thoughts from Abroad until its lyrics were tattooed in my mind. We listened to it in the aftermath of long indulgent mornings spent lingering in bed, playing it loudly as we dashed around pulling on clothes and tripping out of the door because always, inevitably, we were late. I’d play it at work, letting the words trickle through my headphones. We learned Clifford wrote the song for his wife while he was abroad and we fell in love with the song a little more. We discussed the first verse obsessively, his obscure yet endearing questions centered on the dull minutiae of domestic life:
Do you still use television to send you fast asleep? Can you last another week?
Does the cistern still leak or have you found a man to mend it?
Oh and by the way how’s your broken heart? Is that mended too?
I miss you.
We imitated his questions in our emails, so many emails as we attempted to break up the boredom of the working day, the slow hours until we’d see each other again. It became our song, which was odd because we weren’t one of those couples. We raised our eyebrows at anything schmaltzy, we joked more often than we gazed into each other’s eyes, we said “schnookums” ironically. When friends asked about us he said with a straight face: "We’re at the foundation–building stage of a lifelong partnership that can weather any storm" and we both cracked up, because that statement was ridiculous. We were twenty-six and this was clearly a fun summer fling.
Clifford T. Ward was born in 1944 in England, one of five children. He met his wife when he was fourteen and they married three years later when she became pregnant. In 1962 he toured France and performed at a U.S. army camp for soldiers waiting to be sent to Vietnam. While there he penned the lyrics to Home Thoughts From Abroad. The sentiment behind the song became a key issue for his career. Ward told Sunday Mercury, a regional paper: “I never played any tours or gigs. I would rather be with Pat. I don’t know what I would do without her, she’s my life.”
April 1973 saw the release of the track single Gaye, the B side of which contained: Home Thoughts From Abroad. The cover shows Ward, his long golden locks hanging from his face like curtains, a signature look he favored all his life. Gaye reached number 8 in the UK and the top five in Brazil. NME remarked it was “possibly the finest ballad since Eleanor Rigby”. The following year Ward entered the charts again at number 37 with Scullery. And that was his final hit. He recorded eleven albums in total, but most weren’t signed by record labels or, if they were, the singles failed to make it into the UK charts.
He avoided publicity which stopped him from enjoying fame internationally. Also, punk began dominating the music scene in the late 1970s and his romantic singer-songwriter ballads were out-of-date by comparison. When he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the eighties his health became a major stumbling block. In 2001 he fell ill from pneumonia and entered hospital and died shortly before Christmas. His death brought obituaries. The Guardian praised his style which “synthesized pop melody and an English poetic sensibility.” The Independent wrote about Home Thoughts From Abroad: “this one alone elevates Ward to the upper circle of 20th-century pop songwriters”.
Clifford told his biographer, Dave Cartwright: “It was always my original intention to be a songwriter rather than a performer, because I don’t think I’ve got the… wherewithal to be a great dynamic performer. Writing is really my first love.” He continued: “I want to write songs that people will still be singing in 50 years’ time, and still be shedding a tear for in 50 years’ time. If I can do that, I shall be delighted.”
That summer slid by in an idyllic haze of picnics, parties and fun. It was perfect and carefree and I knew it would end. I chose not to think about it for the most part. Labor Day was a long distance away, until suddenly it wasn’t. This is a ticking time bomb I said one day, piercing our lighthearted mood. Soon after that we were waiting for the 6 train when a saxophonist standing on the platform launched into Moon River without warning. We studied each other. He took my hand, smiled and asked if I wanted to dance. I shook my head and looked away sadly, unable to embrace the moment.
Labor Day marked the end of the summer and of our relationship. Central Park was gloriously hot and everyone was in high spirits. We didn’t know whether to wallow in the depressing reality of our situation or pretend we’d have plenty more days like this. We opted for something in between, lying by the lake, watching couples rowing boats nearby. I studied them critically, enviously, because they weren’t about to break up.
We reminisced about our first date, also in Central Park, when he’d joked about the sweeping romantic gestures he’d planned: "Where the hell’s that singing quintet I ordered?" We’d been lying in Sheep’s Meadow at the time, limbs tangled like pretzels despite the fact we barely knew each other, cracking up as we took turns asking deliberately obscure questions designed to measure our compatibility.
“I wonder if it would always be this perfect,” I said, playing with his hair as he lay against me. And that was my cowardly way of telling him that I thought he was perfect.
The next morning we clung to our final few moments together, drawing out the inevitable. He rode the subway with me to my work before leaving for the airport. Our final embrace was by Fulton Street station, outside an empty wholesale retail store. Construction workers in hard hats stood nearby hammering into cemented sidewalks, throngs of tourists wandered past clutching Century 21 bags. It was hot, dusty and noisy; a terrible place to say goodbye. I don’t recall what we said, just holding hands, blurred vision, walking away, gulping, blinking as warm tears filled my eyes, not glancing back.
Later that day I listened to a CD he gave me as a parting gift. The first song was Moon River. I imagined him sitting on the plane watching movies, or maybe he was sleeping? And then Home Thoughts from Abroad came on and I listened to those lyrics again, thinking only of my own similar situation:
But now I’ve chosen airplanes and boats to come between us
And a line or two on paper wouldn’t go amiss…
In the weeks that followed we discussed the futility of our situation. He made a good point: "Realistically what can we do? I can’t move back to New York and you’re not going to move to Ireland." I’d lived in New York for less than a year, prior to which there had been interviews, a visa application, a trip to the US Embassy in London, emotional goodbyes to my friends and family. Maybe I’d return to England at some point, but Ireland had never been part of the dream, never even a consideration. I knew it couldn’t work but I wanted a struggle, what we experienced deserved a struggle. I wanted him to ask me to move, so I could waver and debate and throw in a few visits and eventually come to the same decision. If I couldn’t have my perfect ending (which was him moving back) then I wanted a messy break-up, something that ends on a wearily low note after too many long distance phone calls and emails, rather than a perfect summer ending.
We emailed. We detailed funny anecdotes. We asked dull questions that no-one else would find interesting: "Do you still have that weird purple bruise near your foot… hang on, does that sound like a Clifford lyric?" Clifford often crept into conversation. Weeks turned into months. I heard those lyrics and equated them to my own situation: Wondering what you're doing and if you need some help. Do I still occupy your mind? Am I being so unkind? I found myself walking different routes to avoid memories. Do you find it very lonely, or have you found someone to laugh with? In truth, I wasn’t even looking. And I was getting my messy break-up.
As December approached I suggested we meet over Christmas. He said the same thought had occurred to him but he seemed less excited than me. He was wavering and suddenly I needed to know why. That phone call -- the final time we would ever speak -- was devastating. I landed with a distinct thud, faced with no choice but to confront a brutal reality. I learned he’d moved forward with his life, or maybe backwards, by reconnecting with an ex. Regardless he was moving somewhere, while I was still motionless, clinging to an ideal that had died months earlier.
I requested we end contact and focused my energies elsewhere, on important things after a break-up-that’s-been-on-hiatus, like drinking too much and getting high and hooking up with questionable people and saying yes to anything that would distract me and soften my pain and make me feel edgy and interesting and animated. Gradually I found myself edging out of the darkness, breathing differently. My answers to those lyrics changed. I looked back on that summer with a sadness that was detached rather than raw.
Experience molds us. For writers it shapes what we create. It’s only by drawing on the highly personal, often dark encounters that we can write a piece others connect with. Clifford understood this; the beauty of his songs is in their refreshing honesty. He wanted to make songs people cried over in fifty years’ time and it’s a goal every artist yearns for: to produce something that has a profound effect on others. Surely to evoke an emotion in those we don’t know is the ultimate validation of our work? And it’s also a chance at redemption, a way to turn our ugliest moments into our most beautiful.