Like a bird on a wire

When the song first came out I wept, picturing the bird (aka Leonard Cohen) trapped in a snare, a loop of wire pulled tight around its leg. In those days we didn’t know so much American. I learned later that what we would call a telegraph line Americans would call a wire, and so the bird was probably just perched on it, ready to fly away.

The lineman in Wichita Lineman, then, should have been obvious to a Brit but he wasn’t. He was something ultra-romantic, science fictional almost, a wandering, lonely creature performing some unimaginable task for The County (what was The County?) – not one of those blokes that climbs up poles to fix the electrics.

Of course, I wept at the bird in its imaginary snare, flapping and flapping its tiny wings in a desperate, futile to escape because the bird, aka Leonard Cohen, was also aka me.

I was always two people. One of me was lonely, wild and free. One of me had known even as a child making messy daisy-and-buttercup chains on her grandmother’s lawn, that one day she would take off. As time went on I read the colour supplements my father discarded from the weekend papers. I pored over the photos of remote temples and marketplaces and traveller accounts of exotic destinations.  I was that traveller. One day very, very soon that would be me on the road to Marrakech in my long hippie skirt and my cheesecloth blouse, a fraying backpack containing all that I had in the world; feet blistered, sandals dusty and worn.

The other me knew it couldn’t go, knew even as a child that it was tethered to a family in which it had no place, engaged in a lifelong struggle of trying but failing to earn that place. The other me knew it needed the mirror they formed, because without that mirror it would vanish. I was only what they showed me; away from them I had no substance: I was a ghost.

And so I enrolled in a teacher training college only a short ride away from home. I took my Mum to a film show there once; she wasn’t impressed. I plodded away at that course for three years, trying to be interested in tessellations, Cuisenaire rods and lesson-planning whilst my friend Anji – she of the wispy, piled up hairdo and the Indian father; she of the many-page letters in green ink and that great circular artistic script; she of the long white raincoat and cool sunglasses; she of the unmistakeably gay boyfriend she was always hoping wasn’t entirely absolutely gay and one day might be startled into kissing her  – Anji went to France with a girlfriend. They worked as waitresses for a while until her friend stole a tablecloth and they were dismissed. She slept under lorries with lorry drivers. It was all in the letters, until they stopped.

But I have found that at least some of those fantasy Me’s do appear, eventually. But it’s like they get watered down and de-romanticised. So, at one point I imagined myself a mysterious Englishwoman living out her final days in a cliff-top village in Brittany or Normandy or somewhere. And here I am, not exactly in France and not exactly mysterious but certainly alone and in a village with a cliff-top.

I imagined myself a hippie traveller, someone who never put down roots, someone who passed through places and had brief conversation with exotic, world-weary strangers. And there I was yesterday, catching buses after years of car-driving, alighting from one train, searching for the next and being talked to (or mostly at) by a series of eccentrics of my own and other generations.

At a bus stop a group of us tried to understand the murder of so many children by a terrorist scarcely older than they were.

On the bus I learned about sunflower seeds.

In a train a young man with learning difficulties spent a long time explaining to me that the train I was on was indeed the right train, and how to tell, in future, if it wasn’t (‘It won’t be at this platform’).

At a station I discovered the Station Master’s name was Estelle and she was the sole member of staff so she had to sweep the platform in the intervals between trains. Also that the station had no loo and the nearest one was Burger King over the road.

In another train I watched a sober old man trying to calm and distract a very drunk young man so that he wouldn’t bellow the F-word aloud in a railway carriage.

I sipped on warm bottled water and ate granola bars in instalments.

I sat behind a boy with a brutally shaven neck and the top of his head crisply waved and dyed bright orange.

I saw many exotic tattoos exposed in hot sunlight and realised how difficult it was to get twins in a buggy off a bus (you have to climb down backwards).

I sat on what might have been an artwork or merely a dysfunctional bench to wait for my friends outside Marks and Spencer.

Hejira, finally.

Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen has been part of the song-track of my life. He introduced me to my future husband.

Well, not literally. I met my future husband at a party. No, and that’s not true either. I met him in the back of a college friend’s too-small car on the forecourt of Dover Priory station. I was late, having gone past the station and waited for the next train back up the line, and clutching a cheap guitar. (My sister had dropped a clock through that guitar and my grandfather, a carpenter, had glued a bit of wood over the hole.) The man in the back of the car had very long hair – sort of wild and curly – and an equally wild beard and long, slanty grey eyes, like a gypsy. Really, you couldn’t see much of him under the hair, but then I didn’t look at him very much and he didn’t look at me.

I couldn’t play my cheap guitar but I thought it looked cool. Later that weekend I discovered that not only could my future husband play, but could play really, really (embarrassingly really) well, even on a cheap and broken guitar.

So, we got driven around – endlessly and too fast – in the back seat of a too-small car with the mended guitar crammed between us. At several points the friends, none too subtly matchmaking, parked in strange towns and just left us there, for ages. Neither of us had any conversational skills so we sat there in awkward silence, watching the traffic go by.

And then there was the party, in the friends’ tiny cottage, to which I wore a long, stupid, tangerine-coloured floaty frock like nobody else was wearing. I didn’t drink in those days so stood in a corner and consumed an awful lot of orange juice. I remember standing in that corner furtively watching future husband dance and thinking he definitively couldn’t: elbows everywhere. Oddly enough this didn’t put me off. I couldn’t dance either.

That night, matchmaking friends went upstairs to bed in the one bedroom, having dragged two folding camp beds down off the top of the wardrobe for us so that we could ‘sleep’ in the living room. Other people were sleeping in the kitchen, so we were lucky. The kitchen floor was pretty filthy. So, shocking as it sounds, the day I met my future husband I also spent the night with him.

It wasn’t all free-love and gay abandon even then. I got the higher of the two camp beds and he got the lower. We lay side by side, still awkward, fully clothed like those effigies of kings and queens on medieval tombs, playing our hosts’ Leonard Cohen records on low volume all night and – at last – talking.

I don’t remember what we talked about but I do remember those Leonard Cohen songs.  Leonard Cohen CDs have followed me around, from house to house, from a long marriage, to a short divorce to a long, long, long solitude. He’s been one of the few constant things.

Next morning for some reason I decided to wash my hair, and we all set off for a walk to blow away the cobwebs. As we crossed the threshold he touched my hair in that vague, bewildered way he had and muttered “Lindy-lou’s washed her hair”. That was when I fell in love.

Leonard Cohen didn’t have the best voice in the world but he was one of the best songwriters and song performers in the world and one of the greatest poets of our generation. This morning, when I heard that he had died, it felt like the last thread had broken.


Leonard Cohen, 1934 – 2016

The lake a lady’s mirror

It’s astonishingly hard to remember lyrics, I find. Separate from the music, that is. The very best songs are those in which the lyrics need the music and the music needs the lyrics – but either would stand alone.

I suppose it’s the poet in me, but I do tend to go for lyrics that tell a story. Right now, for example there’s I Wasn’t Expecting That by Jamie Lawson:

I like this acoustic version, though it sounds like he’s struggling with a sore throat.

In “olden times” we had The Last Time I Saw Richard by Joni Mitchell. Shadows of hippie café sadnesses. This is the last verse:

  • Richard got married to a figure skater
  • And he bought her a dishwasher and a Coffee percolator
  • And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
  • And all the house lights left up bright
  • I’m gonna blow this damn candle out
  • I don’t want Nobody comin’ over to my table
  • I got nothing to talk to anybody about
  • All good dreamers pass this way some day
  • Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes
  • Dark cafes
  • Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
  • And fly away
  • Only a phase, these dark cafe days…

And later, Dire Straits’ streetwise take on Romeo and Juliet

  • A lovestruck Romeo sings a street suss serenade
  • Laying everybody low with a love song that he made
  • Finds a convenient streetlight steps out of the shade
  • Says something like you and me babe how about it?
  • Juliet says hey it’s Romeo you nearly gimme me a heart attack
  • He’s underneath the window she’s singing hey la my boyfriend’s back
  • You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that
  • Anyway what you gonna do about it?
  • Juliet the dice were loaded from the start
  • And I bet and you exploded in my heart
  • And I forget I forget the movie song
  • When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?

I suppose my favourite lyrics of all in my favourite ‘genre’ would be those to Story of Isaac by Leonard Cohen:

  • The door it opened slowly,
  • My father he came in,
  • I was nine years old.
  • And he stood so tall above me,
  • His blue eyes they were shining
  • And his voice was very cold.
  • He said, “I’ve had a vision
  • And you know I’m strong and holy,
  • I must do what I’ve been told.”
  • So he started up the mountain,
  • I was running, he was walking,
  • And his axe was made of gold.
  • Well, the trees they got much smaller,
  • The lake a lady’s mirror,
  • We stopped to drink some wine.
  • Then he threw the bottle over.
  • Broke a minute later
  • And he put his hand on mine.
  • Thought I saw an eagle
  • But it might have been a vulture,
  • I never could decide.
  • Then my father built an altar,
  • He looked once behind his shoulder,
  • He knew I would not hide.
  • You who build these altars now
  • To sacrifice these children,
  • You must not do it anymore.
  • A scheme is not a vision
  • And you never have been tempted
  • By a demon or a god.
  • You who stand above them now,
  • Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
  • You were not there before,
  • When I lay upon a mountain
  • And my father’s hand was trembling
  • With the beauty of the word.
  • And if you call me brother now,
  • Forgive me if I inquire,
  • “just according to whose plan?”
  • When it all comes down to dust
  • I will kill you if I must,
  • I will help you if I can.
  • When it all comes down to dust
  • I will help you if I must,
  • I will kill you if I can.
  • And mercy on our uniform,
  • Man of peace or man of war,
  • The peacock spreads his fan.

Now, this is one of those rarest of songs – an actual poem. It doesn’t need the music at all, although the music complements it. Cohen takes you to that scene on the mountainside:

  •  Well, the trees they got much smaller,
  • The lake a lady’s mirror…
  •  Thought I saw an eagle
  • But it might have been a vulture,
  • I never could decide…

You climb that mountain with the father, and the child, half knowing, half not-knowing that his father intends to sacrifice him with that golden axe.


PS: Interesting to note how the words differ in this early live version from those that he settled on eventually. It’s a kind of privilege to watch a poet “in the process”.

Eight tracks, one book and a luxury item

I don’t know how many people outside the UK will have heard of Desert Island Discs? It’s a BBC Radio 4 programme which has been running since January 1942. It’s a British institution along with Doctor Who, the children’s programme Blue Peter, the sacred Shipping Forecast and that ghastly, never-ending Northern soap Coronation Street. All are much loved, much mocked and never likely to be forsaken by viewers and listeners. This little cluster of programmes is infinitely reassuring to the British. Whatever else may change – terrorists threatening to blow us up, immigrants battering down our borders, farmers releasing cows in supermarkets to protest at the price of milk, an unlikely person with a beard being elected as Leader of the Opposition, weather forecast data no longer to be supplied by the Meteorological Office – as long as we have this handful TV and radio programmes we are going to be OK. No need to worry. Have another cup of tea. All’s right with the world. Underneath, we are a very nervous nation.

The basic premise is this: each week a guest, called a “castaway” during the program, is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item that they would take if they were to be cast away on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices. (Thank you Wikipedia for the definition).

Why discs? These pieces of music would once have been encoded on gramophone records, children. Gramophone records were black discs originally made of something called shellac. Shellac was easily breakable, as I can attest, having accidentally parked my teenage posterior on my ancient shellac disc of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly’s True Love – oh, I loved both the song and Bing Crosby. I’m sure sitting on and shattering them set an unlucky precedent for the rest of my life .

Latterly shellac was replaced with plastic, and plastic was replaced by downloadable tracks. Unless something has replaced tracks? Forgive me, I’m old and still listening to CDs with occasional recourse to a Tesco generic MP3 for yomping along the sea-front. Actually, I don’t so much yomp as totter nowadays but the fresh air is good for me.

Guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and to choose eight pieces of music to take with them. Excerpts from their choices are played or, in the case of short pieces, the whole work. At the end of the programme they choose the one piece they regard most highly. They are then asked which book they would take with them; they are automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and either the Bible or another appropriate religious or philosophical work. (Wikipedia again. Why bother to rewrite something when it’s perfectly well-written already?)

There’s one final element. Guests are allowed to choose one luxury item to take with them. It must be inanimate and can’t be something you could use either to escape from the island or to communicate with the world beyond. Comedian John Cleese of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame was allowed to take Michael Palin with him on one condition – that Michael Palin would be dead, and stuffed. People tend to ask for pianos, and champagne, for example. If you’re fascinated to see a list of what people actually do ask for (I love lists, don’t you?) here is the link:

The above list answered one of my questions – what about electricity? I suspect the desert island must be attached to the mains by an underwater cable, since people have asked for electric guitars, cappuchino-makers, a Sex and the City DVD boxset (why on Earth…?), though others, when requesting laptops and i-pods, and taking the whole frivolous concept ultra-seriously, have been careful to specify solar-powered.

Working out and Desert Island Disc list is something I have never attempted before but, for your edification and delight, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am going to attempt it now. I suggest ‘Desert Island Discs’ as a good game, perhaps for power-cuts, or at Christmas when full of brussels-sprouts and Yorkshire Pud, or to amuse the children on a rainy Saturday afternoon. As long as you take it seriously – but not necessarily so seriously as to suggest solar-powered laptops – you might discover a few profound somethings about yourself and your fellow players. It might also be an idea to repeat it every ten Christmases or so (concealing the previous list from yourself) to see if your tastes have changed.

So, my current eight Desert Island tracks would be:

  • Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, Tallis Scholars version
  • Fire at Midnight by Jethro Tull (Songs from the Wood)
  • True Love by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly
  • Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen, but Jennifer Warnes’ version)
  • Another Monday – instrumental, by John Renbourn from the album of the same name
  • The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • Eternity by Dougie MacLean
  • Who Will Sing Me Lullabies by Kate Rusby

My ‘most highly regarded’ would have to be Spem in Alium. I have blogged about that before. Also about desert islands, actually, though in a slightly different context.

I won’t go into all the reasons for my choices. Quite often these are down to personal/ sentimental associations with the tracks as much as the tracks themselves. And by now I am sure you are no longer listening and are busy disagreeing, arguing amongst yourselves or compiling your own list.

How I could manage with only one book I don’t know, since at the moment I have about 2,000 and will never get to the end of reading them. However, the best thing seems to go for value for – not money but words. Mercifully I’ll already have the Bible and Shakespeare – there’s an entire desert island’s-worth in the Bible. Shakespeare is just the icing on the cake.

My first thought was to go for Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill – a fearsomely abstruse book on a subject that interests me greatly. I feel that reading it would be greatly to my spiritual benefit, but wonder if I actually would read it in my changed circumstances, given that it is so challenging, both in terms of subject matter and a thorn-thicket of elaborate and antiquated English. After all, if you can’t meditate and attain a state of higher consciousness on a desert island, with blue sky above, the sound of the sea and a warm, sandy beach, where can you? So I decided to follow the example of many other castaways and ask for the biggest possible anthology of poetry. Poems have such potential for entertainment – not just savouring and studying them, but learning them by heart, making up tunes and singing them, discovering hidden messages in them by opening the volume at random (also possible with the Bible and Shakespeare, of course) declaiming them aloud to the seagulls so as not to forget the sound of your own voice…

And for my luxury item, a solar-powered… no, it would have to be a giant, inexhaustible, damp- and weather-proof store cupboard or underground vault stacked from floor to ceiling with green and yellow A4 writing pads, wide feint, cardboard-backed, and an equally inexhaustible supply of top-quality 2B pencils, with pencil sharpeners. Maybe a ring-binder file or two… and a box of paperclips…

Nancy wore green stockings and she slept with everyone

Now there’s a title! Sadly I didn’t write it; it’s from that Leonard Cohen song Seems So Long Ago, Nancy. He has been in the wilderness for so long, and now, towards the end of his life, people are beginning to appreciate his true worth. Just as an aside, a friend of mine went into a record shop in the 90s – they still had record shops then – and asked if they had any Leonard Cohen CDs. The chap in the beard and the Motorhead tee shirt exclaimed, with the sweetest of smiles:

Ah, you must be the other Leonard Cohen fan.

In an interview Cohen said this song was about a woman he had known in Montreal:

I think that the world throws up certain kinds of figures. Sometime in abundance, sometimes very rarely, and that some of these figures act as archetypes or prototypes for another generation which will manifest these characteristics a lot more easily, maybe a lot more gracefully, but not a lot more heroically…Another twenty years later she would have been just like you know, the hippest girl on the block. But twenty years before she was – there was no reference to her, so in a certain way she was doomed.

Poor, promiscuous, beautiful Nancy who ended up alone …looking at the Late Late show through a semi-precious stone… and then even more alone …a forty-five beside her head, an open telephone…

 You may be wondering what started me thinking about Leonard Cohen and Nancy at all, and I’m trying to remember… really I am! Oh yes, semi-precious stones. For some reason, when I asked myself this question: if the world was about to end, what would you do? the answer came to me: find a piece of coloured glass and look through it.

I always liked coloured glass. I have a green glass cat – a real great chunk of pure green glass – looks almost like a dog it’s so chunky. Sometimes I look through that. See my dull surroundings suddenly all wavery and underwatery

Goodness, could this be some sort of hippie flashback/regression thing? Is this the fate of old hippies? Instead of going senile in a straightforward way

 …I put my fluffy slippers on the toaster to warm…

…boy-scouts have stolen the milk again…

…that hole in my garden was dug by greyhounds…

…remind me, what’s my name?

 you start imagining yourself at Woodstock, painting daisies on your forehead and coming out with things like all wavery and underwatery, man…

 Where was I?

End of the world.

I suppose it would depend on a lot of things. Where you were. How long before it ended. How it was going to end.

If, for example, a meteorite was due to strike the earth in ten minutes, and I was at home I might attempt to gather all the cats on the sofa with me and cuddle them. But then, the cats not realising it was about to be the end of the world would be unlikely to co-operate. They would want to remain in their various baskets, upside down in the armchair waving their white-and-ginger paws around or crouched on the upstairs windowsill enraging the dog next door. Or they would want feeding – all of them, regardless. Maybe I would just lie on the sofa and close my eyes, whilst trying not to imagine how it might feel to be killed by a meteorite. Would it be likely to atomise us – one minute you’re looking at the Late Late Show through your semi-precious stone, the next minute, oblivion? Or would it kind of suck all the atmosphere away so you’d be panic-stricken, gasping for breath? Or would it take longer still? Would it destroy ecosystems so that everything kind of withered away over the next few months while everyone starved to death or started stabbing, stealing from and eating one another, as in The Road?

I’m a natural worrier. I just think, would one be in a position to make the most of one’s remaining few seconds/ten minutes/six weeks after a lifetime of high anxiety? Or would one spend the whole few seconds/ten minutes/six weeks chewing ones fingernails and piling sofa cushions up around one? They say the people in the twin towers tried to phone home, tell people they loved them. That’s understandable if you’re in the twin towers and your loved ones are not, but what if everyone is in the twin towers together?

Supposing your loved ones are pursuing their own agendas – looking through semi-precious stones of their own, phoning someone else (in which case their phone would be engaged) piling their own cushions up around them on their own sofas, rushing to the airport to go hang-gliding because that was the last thing on their bucket list? Or maybe they haven’t heard the world is about to end, so wouldn’t it be cruel to tell them? And by the time you’d finished explaining and them not believing you, and then having to explain all over again – booom!

 I suppose the only thing to do, apart from cuddling a cat, if co-operative, would be to list all the things you will never, ever have to do again:

  • Answer the door to double-glazing salesmen…
  • Eat half-cold tinned macaroni cheese…
  • Untangle the mower cord…
  • Shovel up cat poo…
  • Open another sachet of Felix…
  • Set off for the tip with eighteen binsacks full of garden waste…
  • Scrape ice off the car windscreen at 10 o’clock at night in an unlit car-park…
  • Watch East Enders
  • Listen to your tinnitus getting louder…
  • Wish you hadn’t bitten your nails…
  • Hear men discussing football…
  • Wonder if you should have stayed married…
  • Queue up in a 99p store behind someone with body odour…
  • Weigh yourself…
  • Open a Christmas present you know you’re not going to like…
  • Throw another baked-bean can in the recycling…
  • Hoover…