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

That’s how the light gets in

Mirrors – I always think of one particular mirror which used to hang on the wall above the fireplace in my parents’ house. Long gone now. I suppose it may still exist, in a junk shop somewhere, or maybe it has been repurposed to suit some chic 1950s retro apartment. It was a lovely thing, the corners cut in a fluty, art-deco style; the pattern repeated in cream around the edges of the glass. Suspended by a chain from a hook on the wall, it made everyone who looked in it beautiful. That was the glass. It was tinted a delicate pinkish-gold. It was not a very good mirror, by modern standards. One’s reflection was spotted and broken where the silvering on the back had worn away. Mum used to turn it round for me sometimes, to show me. And what do I see reflected in that mirror, apart from my mother and myself? I see cushion-covers and antimacassars embroidered with crinoline ladies. Bonnets and lazy-daisies.

40 mirror

One much quoted verse from the Bible has always stuck in my mind:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now stays faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

(1 Corinthians 13: 12-13)

When I hear this, I always think of my mother’s mirror over the fireplace. But why ‘darkly’? Surely when we look in a mirror we see ourselves with perfect clarity, if magically reversed? The reason is, that when those Bible verses were being written, mirrors were dim. The concept of mirror is translated ‘glass’, presumably because in the early 17th Century when the Authorised Version was in preparation, a mirror would have been made of glass. But in Biblical times mirrors were made of polished copper or brass. These would have been ‘dimmer’ than glass, and would have become dimmer still, over time, as the metal tarnished, and then they would need to be polished up again.

bronze mirrors

At the start of James Joyce’s Ulysses (and who among us has got beyond the start?) Stephen points to Buck’s mirror and says, “It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of the servant.” There is always argument as to what exactly he meant by that. I just see a servant alone in some attic room with cheap, shoddy furniture. Quite likely that the servant would be assigned the dressing-table with the cracked mirror. In the early morning he peers at his fractured reflection and sees, not so much a distorted version of himself as a mysterious vision – something prophetic, shadowy, fluid and still-in-the-process: something that could become almost anything, in time; like the downtrodden Irish people.

It is said that a Japanese Emperor sent away a favourite pot to be mended. It came back stapled – the standard method in those days – but he thought it was ugly so he sent it to another craftsman, who transformed it into something new by piecing it together with gold, and it was so much more beautiful than it had ever been. This is how the art of kintsugi was born. Originally, repairs would have been in gold, silver or pewter; but nowadays a lacquer is made out of powdered gold, silver, platinum, copper or bronze. Damage is not disguised but celebrated.

The philosophy behind kintsugi – golden joinery, beautiful mend – has gone on to influence many other forms of art:

kintsugi man

My Canadian sister used to tell me that it was ‘zen’ to include at least one mistake in any piece of knitting. I think the idea is that you can’t appreciate perfection except in contrast to some tiny imperfection – and also that perfection means cessation of movement, an end to flow. (I don’t need to introduce mistakes into my knitting; by the time I have finished there are always several to choose from.)

The same principle applies to the idea of the crack, that is in everything. Leonard Cohen immortalised it in Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.

So next time you’re looking in a mirror and find yourself agonising over imperfections, either the mirror’s or your own, remember about the light that wants to come in. Remember that once something is perfect it can make no further progress. The cracks are to let the daylight in: they mean you’re still growing. In the end, you may be broken and worn  but you will have gone past the dead end of the beautiful; you will have arrived somewhere unimaginably different from the place where you began.

Image result for kintsugi






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”.

Great Great Aunt Twice-Removed Celia

If one of your late ancestors were to come back from the dead and join you for dinner, what things about your family would this person find most shocking

I’m going to plump for Great Great Aunt Twice-Removed Celia – a lady I discovered way, way back in my family tree – 18-something. Maybe even 17-something. My Exeter aunt sent me a letter, I recall, in which she claimed that GGAT-R Celia had run off to Scotland with an Under-Gardener and been Ruined By Strong Drink. I used to picture my paternal Ancestor thus: dishevelled hair, a long frock with patches, a sacking apron and the remains of a frilly bonnet. Always she would be slumped in some Highland hovel with her Mellors-esque Under-Gardener, sharing a bottle of whisky. And then another bottle of whisky. And then another. At the end of the evening they would toss the jam-jars (they wouldn’t be able to afford whisky glasses) into the embers of the peat fire and stagger off up the stairs to collapse on their creaky iron bedstead, singing uproariously. Excellent!

The very thought of having the guts to run off and be ruined by anything – drink, drugs, promiscuity, a life of crime – seems so far beyond my family nowadays. We are dull. We are old. We are depressed and harassed beyond belief; each of us caught in that spider’s web of tiny, dismal details, tiny dismal duties and tiny dismal fears. Life has got us by the throat, all four of us. (There’s a handful of husbands, offspring and suchlike but for the purposes of this post I count family as what’s left of the original unit – my mother, my two sisters and I.)

My sisters and I communicate by email or telephone. I see my Canadian sister once a year and my English sister two or three times a year. I drive over and visit my mother on a Sunday, plus ad hoc in the middle of the week if she’s in the middle of some new dementia-inspired disaster which needs sorting out. She has forgotten my name but still notices that there’s mud on my boots and my fringe is in need of a trim. She is always surprised to see me when I materialise in her hallway, having let myself in, having no idea what day it is. Time seems to be skittering past her at an ever-increasing rate.

So ours isn’t a family in the television kind of way – people of diverse ages and genders living in the same house, eating big meals with Yorkshire pudding, sage-and-onion stuffing and lashings of gravy around a cheery kitchen table, then cramming themselves hugger-mugger onto a giant sofa to watch Coronation Street or East Enders and make witty remarks. This is why I like watching Gogglebox – which is basically watching other people watching television – because I can’t imagine what it must be like, to have that kind of family. My family consists of four old(ish) ladies, basically, living in four different houses on two different continents, and maybe the time has passed for throwing caution to the wind and eloping to Scotland.

There was a time when – shockingly unemployed and in the midst of a mental crisis – never again to be employable in the sense that I had been – on the verge of losing my house and discovering I could claim sufficient per week in benefits to buy food for myself and the cats but not enough to pay the mortgage or the utility bills – I imagined I might reinvent myself as a lady burglar. I wasn’t sure how to set about burgling but I thought, how hard can it be? You just have to sit down and work out a method; a modus operandii as they used to say on Dixon of Dock Green. You’re good at working things out, making plans – on paper at any rate – and after all, there must have been a First Time for every aspiring burlar/ette.

I imagined myself stealing from the Quite Rich – nothing despicable like taking presents from under the Christmas trees of disabled youngsters – or maybe just removing food from supermarkets – stuffing it up my jumper or sneakily eating it as I went around. Maybe I could just steal cat food – sachets would weigh less than tins – and I could maybe go to lots and lots of supermarkets and slip one or two Kit-e-Kat pouches into my handbag per location. And for me, Cream Crackers and Craft Cheese Triangles, which would fit into my handbag whereas a loaf of bread wouldn’t. Then I could channel the paltry benefit money into paying the water-bill or keeping a roof over our heads.

No one, I reasoned, would expect a woman as forgettable-looking as me to be up to mischief, especially as I had lived so many, many years without stealing. Had I not been a model citizen? When my friends were out pocketing packets of hair-grips and bottles of scarlet nail-varnish from Woolworths, was I with them? No – I was at home reading Odhams Encyclopaedia. Or occasionally etymological dictionaries. So if there were suddenly to be a spate of burglaries, since I didn’t look like a burglar/ette and had no ‘previous’ with the Police, I’d be likely to get away with it.

Of course, I didn’t become a burglar. Eventually I managed to get a terrible job in a call-centre, badgering total strangers into completing market-research surveys, and somehow continued to feed my feline tribe for another five years. However, that spell of desperation – and my subsequent loss of status, employment-wise, knocked me off the moral high ground for good. I now see shabby people on TV, people on benefits, people who steal, women who turn tricks, mothers who sneak in to food banks and hope no one is looking, and cannot separate myself from them. I can’t condemn them for doing whatever they need to do to get by. Back on Boogie Street, as Leonard Cohen put it. It changed my politics.

So, long-since deceased Great Great Aunt Twice-Removed Celia, I’d love to see you. Yes, really I would. Pop in any time.

And don’t forget the whisky.

I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed
I’m back on boogie street
You lose your grip and then you slip
Into the masterpiece
And maybe I had miles to drive
And promises to keep
You ditch it all to stay alive
A thousand kisses deep

Leonard Cohen