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I Heard it through the Grapevine - Marvin Gaye

Normally I try not to post the most famous song by any particular artist. but rather one of their best which isn't quite so well-known. But rules are created so that we can make exceptions to them. And this is as good an exception as you're going to get and a great track to start the year with.

One thing that the parents of my generation didn't do was encourage their children to draw their family tree: there usually would have been too much difficult explaining to do. In my case, it was only when I was much older, well into my twenties, that I realised that my Auntie Val (see last post) was not only a great character, but was also responsible for one of the two skeletons hidden in the family closet.

She became pregnant in the thirties when she was sixteen, had the baby, a boy, who was brought up by her older sister, my Auntie Dorothy (or the woman that I thought was her older sister) who was unable to have children herself. But even that wasn't as straightforward as I first thought. She (Auntie Dorothy) was in turn the result of an illicit liaison between my grandfather, a North London jeweller of Scottish ancestry, and his secretary. My grandmother, extraordinarily, agreed to bring up the baby as part of her own family, and the secretary was paid off and laid off. Later, various details of Val's life slowly seeped through to me at one family get-together or another: how she was (literally) stood up at the altar by her next beau, how when she finally did get married the husband cleared off within a year never to be seen again, how she worked for the ambulance corps in the war, and (she told me this herself) how while she was with the advancing allies she helped evacuate villages on the slopes beneath Vesuvius when it last erupted in 1944. Her view of people generally, if not already pretty low, plunged as she found old people that had been abandoned helpless in beds and chairs as streams of slow running larva flowed past their homes and down the streets.

Waking up in Val's flat in WC1 while between home and school was a pleasure and the uncanny resemblance of her voice to my mother's as she bustled about making breakfast always brought me a little sad happiness. When I was fourteen I had spent my Easter holidays with my father in Europe but hadn't seen my mother since Christmas, and when I woke up at Auntie Val's and switched on the bedside radio to hear the deejay say : "and now, still at number one, it's Marvin Gaye" I was amazed. I'd recently discovered Motown, but only through the charts, and had the previous autumn bought the wonderful "You're All I Need to Get By" by said Marvin and Tammi Terrell. Never having previously heard of either of them, the exoticness of their names, the completely different style of their duet completely entranced me. So to arrive back in the country to hear that one of them was now number one was extraordinary, as was the song. It's still extraordinary. The excellent journalist Dave Marsh lists it as the best single of all time in his wonderful book "The Heart of Rock and Soul" describing it as a distillation of:

".....four hundred years of paranoia and talking drum gossip into three minutes and fifteen seconds of anguished soul-searching"

and "a lost continent of music and emotion." (see

He's right. To me it was indeed another continent, and even now it reminds me of feelings of loss and loneliness, but also the goodness of people like my Auntie Val, who had the courage to stand up for themselves and others in the world, and, against all the odds fight for what I could only call a sense of decency that often all around her seemed to be on the wain.

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