The Riddle (Nik Kershaw)

riddleI got two strong arms
Blessings of Babylon
Time to carry on and try
For sins and false alarms
So to America the brave
Wise men save…

Hmmmmm.  Interesting.  So begins one of the lesser known Batman spinoffs, featuring the Riddler in the video (it’s at the bottom of this article if you need to jump straight to it).  But what does it all mean?  Straight away we get a hint of some kind of religious subtext, with the ancient city of Babylon invoked.  The origins of the name are clouded in history, but one of the best guesses is “the gate of god”.  But what is this verse a gateway to for the listener?

Near a tree by a river
There’s a hole in the ground
Where an old man of Aran
Goes around and around…

More religious iconography?  A Whirling Dervish, perhaps?  And who might the old man of Aran be?  In 1934 there was an Irish documentary called Man of Aran by Robert J. Flaharty, showing life on the Aran Islands (off the coast of Ireland).  Much of the documentary was faked, with “families” assembled from the most photogenic of the islanders, and asked to act out traditions that no longer existed.  Does this hint at something fake about the establishment?  With the reference of “America the brave” and “wise men”, is this an anti-establishment piece of work?  Or is it the light in a lighthouse that “goes around and around”?  The next verse would seem to support that idea:

And his mind is a beacon
In the veil of the night
For a strange kind of fashion
There’s a wrong and a right
But he’ll never, never fight over you…

So let’s make our own minds a beacon in the veil of the night, and do the obvious thing.  Let’s see what Nik Kershaw had to say about this enigmatic song he created, from his website:

Knowing time was short before we started recording I jotted down some jibberish with the intention of writing the real lyric as we were recording it…

As the album progressed, I tried various different lyric ideas but nothing seemed to fit as well as the guide lyric. So we decided to stick with what we had. “Let’s call it the Riddle”, I thought. Then people would think it was actually about something..

In short, “The Riddle” is nonsense, rubbish, bollocks, the confused ramblings of an 80’s popstar.

Ah.  OK.  So much for theorising about the meanings.  But hold on a minute.  Does authorial intent really matter that much?  On this blog we do little but analyse, look for meanings, perhaps finding them where there aren’t any.  Is there any point to that?  For an understanding, we need to look to the field of “New Criticism”.  In 1941 John Crowe Ransom sparked off a new movement in literary theory, arguing that the intentions of the author can be removed from the reading of a text, and it can function as a self-contained aesthetic object.  Others latched onto this, and before long there was a strong movement claiming that the text should be the primary source of meaning and the author’s intentions are secondary to our understanding.  Whether or not you agree with this (and personally I find both sides of the coin interesting), it throws up some interesting issues.

I got plans for us
Nights in the scullery
And days instead of me
I only know what to discuss
Oh, for anything but light
Wise men fighting over you…

The one question writers are probably asked most often is this: “where do you get your ideas from?”  The prosaic answer can often be simply “they just come to me”.  But where do they come from?  Our lives are a multitude of influences.  Who knows what random sources of inspiration stick in the mind, perhaps from years ago.  The human brain is an astonishing tool.  Can we really read much into authorial intent?  Does the writer write the text or does it write itself, using the writer as a conduit?  Too wishy-washy an idea?  At least we must acknowledge that there is validity in examining a piece of work, free from the constraints of what the writer intended.  The Riddle should not be dismissed as a meaningless work because it arrived as a stream of consciousness, thrown down on paper seemingly at random.  In fact, couldn’t this be even more of a reason to examine what those random thoughts might mean, popping up in a creative human mind all by themselves and assembling into something semi-coherent?

It’s not me you see
Pieces of valentine
And just a song of mine
To keep from burning history
Seasons of gasoline and gold
Wise men fold…

I mentioned above that The Riddle is one of the lesser-known Batman spinoffs, and that is because the video is haunted by the presence of the Riddler.  He is an antagonist, posing the question that is the riddle, with Nik as his victim, trapped in a maze.  The video is an incredible piece of work, drawing principally on themes from Alice in Wonderland.  It’s a surrealist masterpiece.

Near a tree by a river
There’s a hole in the ground
Where an old man of Aran
Goes around and around
And his mind is a beacon
In the veil of the night
For a strange kind of fashion
There’s a wrong and a right
But he’ll never, never fight over you…

Nik begins the video as a criminal picking a lock.  What follows is his punishment, his purgatory.  His rabbit hole into Wonderland is more prosaic: a slide.  But that fits perfectly with Wonderland, a place of childhood wonderment.  In Nik’s Wonderland we have Tweedledum and Tweedledee, from Through the Looking Glass.  They are able to exist in the video in two places at once, appearing outside and then inside the maze in an instant.  And we have a looking glass here as well, made of some kind of liquid.  A mirror as a portal is a regular theme in all kinds of works of fiction, and is one of several examples of powerful symbolism in the video that has its origins in ancient traditions.

I got time to kill
Sly looks in corridors
Without a plan of yours
A blackbird sings on bluebird hill
Thanks to the calling of the wild
Wise men’s child…

Alice in Wonderland is of course part of a wider tradition of childhood literature that takes us to a magical world through some kind of a portal.  I have often argued how well Doctor Who fits into that tradition, with the TARDIS as the portal, but more obvious examples are The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeThe Box of Delights and the The Faraway Tree, all of which I have written about on this site.  The magical worlds always offer danger as well as wonderment, and here we have the burning books (as mentioned in the lyrics: “burning history”), rats crawling over cakes, and perhaps more sinisterly the phrenology head.

Near a tree by a river
There’s a hole in the ground
Where an old man of Aran
Goes around and around
And his mind is a beacon
In the veil of the night
For a strange kind of fashion
There’s a wrong and a right
But he’ll never, never fight over you…

We see a cat’s cradle and then Nik is caught in a human-sized one.  The Riddler manipulates reality constantly, and there are dimensions crashing together here, not just through the mirror, but also through the binoculars, which seem to show a different world.  But what is the nature of the world in which Nik is trapped?  The camera pans back at the end to reveal…

?

You see what they did there?  I’m not going to offer any concrete theories about this all, but the important thing is that it makes us think.  There are references to all kinds of interesting themes, most notably the engagement with childhood fantasy fiction.  That’s a rich seam to mine, in all kinds of creative works.  If it stirs the imagination, that must surely be considered a job well done.

“Please forgive me. I knew not what I did.” (Nik Kershaw)

I’ll leave you with the video itself.  If you haven’t heard the song before, it might just stay with you forever.

No he’ll never, never fight over you.

RP

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Music, Random Chatter and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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