The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘The Flowers and the Wine’

I’ve form for this particular Pete Atkin/Clive James song.
My rediscovery of the pair thanks to missing the Monyash Folk Festival by a week quickly led me to the Smash Flops web-site and the Midnight Voices mailing list, initially receiving a week’s messages as a digest and then later, when I first had the internet at home, as individual messages. Once the mailing list converted to a message board, the fun of it went out and I dropped away.
One of the most popular topics on the mailing list was analysis of Clive James’ lyrics, picking up the myriad references and subtleties. We were lucky to have one particularly erudite lady whose expositions fascinated everyone, me included. I wanted to do something like that, but I lacked the breadth of references. If I were going to try, it would have to be a simple song, and Clive James didn’t write simple songs. Oh, but maybe once he did.
‘The Flowers and the Wine’ is a simple, straightforward two minute long song, played out to an acoustic guitar that supports a melody held mainly in Atkin’s single-track vocal. It’s famous in the Atkin/James catalogue for being their most commercially successful song: Val Doonican recorded a cover in which he had his writers re-write the lyrics for the second half of the middle eight, and Atkin and James received more royalties from that single recording than for their entire six album Seventies output.
I’ve called the song simple, and it is, but not plain. It’s fifteen lines, arranged in five verses of three, the third and fourth of which comprise the middle eight, and with no choruses. James sketches the set-up with concision. Another night I’ve been to visit you and him (beat) comes to an end/switch on the hallway light, farewell a friend.
The words seem clear and open, a meal with friends, but already even in this brevity we’ve learned so many things. The singer’s visiting good friends, a couple, and he’s alone: this is not a dinner party, rather something intimate, but the singer doesn’t see this as a visit to a couple. He’s already said so: the visit is not to you (two) but to you (infinitesimal pause) and him. She’s the one he’s there for. But we arrive at the end, and, just as he arrived, the singer is departing, as a friend.
Another verse, in the same pattern. Another night I bring the flowers and the wine (beat) has slipped away/there were only three to dine, and two to stay.
He’s making the situation more explicit. One guest, one couple, one comes and goes, two are there before and after. It is a couple he’s visiting, as the gifts he brings with him make plain. Flowers for her, wine for all. Of course it’s all very conventional, the mores of fifty years ago, but these are not just the flowers of convention but the only gift he can give to her, openly. They stand for more than just flowers, they’re the only way he has of saying he loves her, in front of him. In front of her, for that matter.
Musically, Atkin introduces the middle eight. James asks a rhetorical question: when you set the dates for tete-a-tetes like these/what tells you that I count the days between/except my nothing caring air of ease?
Oh yes, these meals matter so much, these snatched moments of her company, the only intimate contact there ever will be, and the only way he can convey to her just how much this means to him is to pretend an absolute indifference. That line about the nothing caring air of ease has been burnt into my heart for a very long time, it is, for its simplicity, one of the five most compact lines of Clive James I have ever read.
Back then, I struggled with the other half of the middle eight, but really it is easy to understand. When clouds black out the moon that moves the tides/what tells you there’s a river in the dark/except the streets lights on the other side. It’s a recasting of the previous triplet into symbolic terms, an abstract restatement, But the terms are more than that: the firmament, the river, the moon that creates tides, and in the midst of light a darkness, an absence that can’t be seen but which nevertheless is every bit real.
And finally, another night (another damnable night, unable to be avoided without exposing the secret he’s kept hidden) I book a taxi door-to-door (beat) has been and gone/I have never loved you more, see you anon. There, it had to be said, and there is that wonderful double-meaning, the anon that means this arrangement cannot end, that there is and always will be another night, and the anon that the singer must forever be, anonymous These simple lines, as they appear to me, are nevertheless a level of Hell.
Does she know? We spent days arguing this backwards and forwards. Of course she knows was the attitude of some, which led into a secondary debate about the morality of knowing and letting the poor bastard dangle against the decision to allow him his delusion. Everyone agreed that this guy will never break the code that demands he does not become a pest to her.
Fifteen lines, supported in a very low-key manner. In the hands of a master, songs are not songs but universes.

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