Thursday, 28 May 2009


Susan Boyle. Unlike the Beatles' tragic Eleanor Rigby, this "beetle-browed virgin from Blackburn" will not be "buried, along with her name".

IT’S the ordinariness of Blackburn, West Lothian, that strikes you. Its rows upon rows of non-descript houses, all set back the standard thirty feet from miles upon miles of non-descript streets. It’s not an ugly town exactly, but neither is it a pretty one. It’s just ordinary. The sort of ordinary that can bury lives and smother souls.

Susan Boyle grew up in this little town. Her stock, two-storied house, grey roughcast like her neighbours’, stands in a block of dreary repetitions. Windows, doors, roofs: straight and level as a town planner’s ruler. And endless asphalt: grey and heavy as West Lothian’s leaden skies.

The people of Blackburn, too, have a sameness. They’re squat and solid like their houses, with square florid faces chafed raw by the North Wind’s relentless friction. Like their little town, they’re not exactly ugly, but neither are they pretty. You’d pass them in the street without noticing. Default-setting human shapes: ordinary and unremarkable.

You’d be wrong about Susan Boyle though, as she clumped past you on her way to the Fauldhouse Miners Welfare Club. But then, how could you possibly know that this dumpy woman, strutting fiercely up the street, with her head down, her arms swinging and her fists clenched, had a voice to match Elaine Paige’s? Or that five times before she’d entered the Club’s annual singing contest, made it to the finals, but failed to clinch first prize? Or that this, her sixth and last attempt, will end exactly the same way?

Unless, of course, you came from Blackburn, or Bathgate, or Armadale. In which case you would know that Susan Boyle was just one of many outstanding singers living in the grey sub-divisions of West Lothian.

"Britain’s Got Talent" is the name of the show, and it’s well-named. The neglected streets of Britain’s towns and cities are awash with talent: singers, musicians, songwriters, dancers, painters, novelists, poets, preachers, teachers, political leaders. More talent than any production company could ever cram into a commercial hour of television – or would want to.

Because, when the producers of "Britain’s Got Talent" received Susan Boyle’s application, and looked at her photograph, and heard her sing, "talent" would have been the last thing on their minds. And when they learned of her mother’s dying wish that Susan "do something with her life", it wasn’t the remorseful words of a mother whose lingering illness had utterly consumed her daughter’s youth that they heard, it was the promise of "fantastic television".

The very idea that a "beetle-browed virgin from Blackburn" might actually be able to sing was so preposterous, so absurd, that the producers were supremely confident that no "Britain’s Got Talent" audience would believe it. They knew that people’s eyes would roll; that they would exchange knowing glances with their neighbours; that the auditorium would be filled with guffaws and titters; and that, in millions of sitting rooms across Britain, the show’s viewers would be doing the same – right up until the moment Susan opened her mouth.

And then, of course, the audience, and the viewers, and (thanks to You-Tube) the whole world, gasped in wonder.

Because, into Fantine’s aria from Les Miserables, Susan Boyle poured out all of her 47 years of loneliness, lovelessness, and longing. With an inspiring, and at the same time truly thrilling singleness of purpose, this thwarted flower had struggled out of the darkness and into the light. And as her voice rose to meet the song’s crescendo, her audience, too, was carried upward. No longer sniggering, no longer colluding in the vicious lie that only the beautiful, the wealthy, and the powerful have a right to feel the sunlight of fulfilment and success upon their faces.

And all around the world people wept. Not just in response to the poignancy and precision of Susan’s performance. Not simply with relief that she had escaped the cruel theatricality of her contrived circumstances. But because, for a few transcendent seconds, this woman from West Lothian had become a symbol of the equality so many of us have stopped believing in. By her triumph, our faith in the worth of the common people of this earth was emphatically reaffirmed.

There are no dreams that cannot be, no storms we cannot weather, so long as we, like Susan, understand that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 24 April 2009.

1 comment:

SeaJay said...

Woah, glorious writing Chris