Mood matters

Ask Mr Anyone what the word ‘mood’ means, and he might say: “It’s how you are feeling.” People are thought to be – in a good mood or in a bad mood, if they seem happy or grumpy. So, it’s like they are playing that role, a bit like an actor might do. Or, we may sometimes say: his or her mood is always changing, as if the person is always shifting from one role to another. Do we really need the word ‘mood’ at all? Couldn’t we just say he is very grumpy, or she is very happy? Well, we could, but maybe we like to remember how fluid our moods can be. A mood can also feel like it’s something shoving us or tickling us or soothing us. Our moods do a lot of things. Or, they seem to.

Ask a speaking dictionary what a ‘mood’ is, and it may say: “Mood is a temporary state of mind or feeling.” (Oxford Dictionary)

My dictionary doesn’t actually speak, so it had to tell me this silently. Which is quite magical, when you think about it. But if it had spoken, I imagine it would be in the voice of a sulking teenager: “Oh man, it’s pure obvious! Mood is a temporary state of mind or feeling!” Which reminds me – I’ve started two sentences in this paragraph with ‘which’ and one with ‘but’ and that’s something I was told at school never to do. Sorry, I digress. It’s just the mood I’m in.

Let’s consider the prospect of a full Lockdown as a way of illustrating what ‘mood’ is. What does that prospect do to our mood? In itself, nothing. On it’s own, Lockdown is like the name of a town. It means different things to different people.

Let’s turn ‘Mr Anyone’ into ‘Paul’. He had a great time during the last Lockdown. He works for an online publisher, and he can work from home, he loves his job (he’s a cartoonist), he did not lose any wages, and his job is relatively secure. Paul doesn’t like other people much, so pubs and shops being closed – that doesn’t bother him. In the last Lockdown, he enjoyed the quietness of the streets. The prospect of another full Lockdown doesn’t make him feel sad. His mood has slightly improved, at the prospect of a return to greater quietness.

So, let’s now consider a Mrs Anyone. She’s called Paula. Her experience during the last full Lockdown was terrible. I’ll not go into the details here. We know how bad it got for many people the last time. So, let’s just say: for Paula, the prospect of facing another full Lockdown is shaped hugely by her memory of a very bad time and her fear of facing another bad time.

On the surface of things, Paul and Paula face the same new Lockdown. The same prospect or the same fact. For Paul, the prospect seems to have little or no effect on his mood; for Paula, the prospect brings terror. What matters to them is the idea or memory of what a Lockdown means. It means something so different to each that it’s not just a different idea, it’s also a different experience. It begins with the same name: Lockdown; and on the surface, it’s the same fact, but it’s also not the same fact, under the surface. It’s a different world. No wonder their moods are not the same.   

My gran was terrified of feathers. She could not go near a woman who had a feather in her hat. It stemmed from when my gran was a baby, and a pigeon flew down on to her pram and fluttered around frantically for a few seconds. It became a fear that never left her. Some people couldn’t understand it. “It’s just a feather.”

In my silent, magical dictionary, there are a couple of other meanings suggested for the word ‘mood’. One of these is: ‘the atmosphere or pervading tone of something’. The example given is a ‘concept album’, with no actual album named. I thought of Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, released in 1978. The mood of it is very creepy, evoking the original creepiness of the 1898 novel by H.G.Wells, and helped along by Richard Burton’s narration. I probably thought of that album because I tend to associate ‘mood’ with stories and books. Sometimes, movies. Occasionally, plays. Very occasionally – a concept album.

Walter de la Mare wrote some of the most atmospheric stories I have ever read. Consider, for example, this extract from The Almond Tree, a short story first published in 1909. The narrator is a man reminiscing about his tragic childhood:

‘All the long night before and all day long, snow had been falling continuously. The air was wintry and cold. I could discern nothing beyond the porch but a gloomy accumulation of cloud in the twilight air, now darkened with the labyrinthine motion of the snow. My father glanced back for an instant into the house, and, as I fancy, regarded me with a kind of strange, close, earnestness. But he went out and his footsteps were instantly silenced.’

Here, the words ‘gloomy’ and ‘strange’ are used, but it is something else which creates the strange, gloomy mood. Could it be the rhythm of the words?

The great novelist Virginia Woolf once wrote in a letter, in 1926: ‘Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. This is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.’  

Our mood can be shaped by the rhythm of words or ideas or things happening to us. A fluttering pigeon, days of quietness, days of sadness. We are not our moods, but they matter. For many of us, the touch of a feather is barely felt. For others, it is the touch of pure terror. Perhaps, the mood of an era can be a bit like that.

Harvey Duke

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