oh, well, whatever . . .

and now the wheels of heaven stop

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It’s been a relatively uneventful week at work, other than the two day strike, which wasn’t that well supported. People live in relative affluence these days and are neck deep in lifestyle instalments. Globalisation is the only game in town. There’s no longer a vital sustaining vision of an alternative society. The working class doesn’t seem to know it exists. The masses have been unmassed. Work is fragmented. Nowadays most people work for firms rather than in industries; they have a different identity. The cultural context of unionism has radically changed, the political dimension is attenuated. Even the low paid explain that they don’t believe in strikes and turn up for work. What they really mean is that striking is an expensive luxury that they don’t see the point in buying.

There have continued to be regular sightings of the Arab in the white Mercedes, along with a smattering of Batmen, Rastafarians and Michael Jacksons. There was a further isolated sighting of Robin Hood, by Cheryl Armstrong again. But intriguingly a new, previously unseen visitor was spotted independently on a couple of occasions by two fairly reliable witnesses: The Man With No Name, complete with poncho, spurs and a stetson. On both occasions he was driving a yellow Fiat with steel wheels, and on both occasions he parked near Mandy’s and got out to roll and smoke a spindly cigarette. As always, caution must be exercised when jumping to conclusions about these things, but it may be of significance here that Flinty’s favourite film is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

By the end of the week Lily and Debs had drawn up a book of the most likely new characters to be spotted during the next seven days. They’ve put it on flip chart paper and pinned it on the notice board in the team room.  Odds are currently being offered on the following:

          Shrek                                           5-1
          Spiderman                               11-4
          Biggles                                       10-1
          Godzilla                                   Evens
          Nelson Mandela                     6-1
          Dr Who                                      25-1
          A Dalek                                      9-2
          Elvis Presley                            2-1
          Moses                                         4-1
          Lord Lucan                              33-1
          Winnie the Pooh                    10-1
          The Angel Gabriel                  5-4

Betting has been brisk. If Dr Who appears one of the admin workers, Jesse Upton, stands to win over £100. For that sum she might dress up like him herself. Lily says Debs has already ordered a gorilla suit, just in case. Shrewdly, Jesse has made an each way bet.

On Wednesday I went to Edinburgh for the Leonard Cohen concert at the castle. Edinburgh and I go back a long way and it holds many memories for me. I drove up during the day, stopping off at North Berwick for a coffee at the Westgate Gallery and a walk down to the seabird centre. It was very windy and the light over the choppy waters of the Forth and Bass Rock was dramatic and – dare I say it? – sublime.

In Edinburgh I left my things at the hotel and walked down through Princes Street Park and across to the National Gallery, where I mused over Raeburn’s portraits for a while before making my way up into the crowds on the street. There was the usual rich mix of nationalities there, among them a lot of young Italians. As I was walking east near BHS a young guy in skinny black jeans, white training shoes and a black jerkin bounced up beside me and asked me a question I didn’t catch. I looked at him over my sunglasses and asked him if he was street entertainer.

‘No,’ he replied. ‘I’m a monk.’ He had an English accent from somewhere south of Lincoln.

‘Ah,’ I said.

‘We have a monastery here in Scotland,’ he said, with an enthusiasm that suggested the news had just come to him in a vision.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘So what’s your pitch?’

He told me he was with the Hare Krishna movement. I wondered when they decided to give up the saffron robes, but I didn’t ask. He asked me where I was from and I told him. He told me his group had a place in Newcastle and I said I knew and that I’d often bantered with his lot around there. He asked me if I was interested in meditation. I told him I’d tried it, yes. He acted a little surprised, but I felt he wasn’t really that interested. He then appeared to veer off dramatically.

‘We’ve got a band,’ he said, again as if he was channelling someone and this statement was as much news to him as it was to me. ‘We play monk rock!’

‘Monk rock?’ I said, nodding and pulling a daft face. ‘That’s very clever.’

‘No, no, we do,’ the enthusiastic monk boy said, and putting his hand into his bag pulled out a CD. He gave it to me to inspect.  It had a rather amateurish looking deep blue and yellow cover. It was by The Gouranga Powered Band and appeared to have the title Mosher 6.

‘Do you know what a mantra is?’ he said. I told him I did.

‘And do you know Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath?’

Again I answered in the affirmative.

‘Well, our band does mantras sort of in the style of those groups. Lots of people think meditation is about relaxation – and it is – but it’s also about something else!’

‘So this is a hard rock meditation record?’ I said. ‘Isn’t that a paradoxical sort of thing?’

‘It is, yes!’ he replied. I wondered why he was so excited. I was beginning to feel I must be selling him something and he liked my product. I looked down the track listing. The opening track is Gouranga Hey! The other five appear to have a common element:

            Dance & Mosh

            Sing & Mosh

            Hear & Mosh

            Krishna Mosh

            See Ya Mosh

‘They don’t do Bangers & Mosh, do they?’ I asked. He didn’t hear me and I didn’t repeat myself. I know Hare Krishnas are vegetarians in any case.

‘So what language do they sing in?’ I asked. ‘English?’

‘Sanskrit,’ he replied. ‘They’re traditional mantras.’

‘Sanskrit, eh? These are hard rock Sanskrit mantras?’ I nodded and read the song titles again. ‘Okay, so how much do you want for it?’ I asked.

‘We are asking for nothing,’ he said. ‘You can give whatever you wish to from the goodness of your heart.’

I put my hand in my pocket and found some change. I pulled it out and told him he could have it all. There was about £1.83. I poured in into his bag.

‘We usually get a little more than that,’ he said. I wondered whether he’d lost his script for a moment or if his earpiece had fallen out.

‘Oh,’ I said. I found two pound coins in another pocket and gave him them too. He must then have remembered his anti-materialist principles and offered to throw in a free book. I declined the offer. I said I’d read some of their stuff before.

I wove my way east through the tourists, passed the pipers and the Big Issue sellers and the occasional homeless person in a doorway with his sleeping bag, woolly hat and black and white mongrel dog on a piece of string. I crossed the street at some traffic lights and sat on a park bench under the trees near the Scott monument for a while. I was thinking it was going to rain. I made my way up Cockburn Street, stopping off at the Stills Gallery on the way to look at some photographs by Nicky Bird. I decided to eat and went into Bella Italia on the corner of the Royal Mile and North Bridge. I had garlic bread, a Caprese pizza and a cappuccino.

When she brought me the bill the waitress asked me where I was from and how long I was staying in Edinburgh. I said I was only here for one night, to see Leonard Cohen.

‘He was in here earlier in the week,’ she said. ‘He was with his wife and daughter.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Leonard Cohen? Did you speak to him?’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I said “Hey, you’re Leonard Cohen!”‘ She told me he was wearing a suit and hat and he looked kind of frail. She said he gave some free tickets to the guys who worked there.

‘What did he eat?’ I asked.

‘I can’t remember,’ she replied. ‘But he kept asking for more cheese, I remember that!’

It was a nice enough evening as I strolled up the Royal Mile with the crowd, past the cafes and the bars and the shops of tartan and fluttering Saltires and shortbread packed along the sandstone ravine of blackened old buildings. I made my way to the castle and to my seat way up in the North Stand, high above the stage. I could see out beyond the castle and across city and out to the Lammermuirs. It was cool and breezy, but dry. Cohen came on stage to a great cheer. He was small and frail looking, wearing a well cut suit, a shirt and tie and a black trilby. From the moment he started singing the audience was in his thrall.

Cohen is a serious artist; he’s no mere pop singer. It’s claimed he’s touring because he lost five million dollars to a dodgy business partner and needs to recoup some of this. I’m not convinced. How interested can a man be in money when he’s spent much of the last ten years of his life in a Zen monastery?  Cohen is in his seventies now. He is gracious with his audience, genuinely solicitous in a sardonic sort of way. At some point he thanks us not only for turning up tonight but for showing “an interest” in his songs over the years. An artist’s work is his bid to transcend mortality, and the coming silence for him (as for us all) is one of the dominant motifs tonight. Late on in the show he speaks the first verse of If It Be Thy Will, explaining before he does so that the Webb Twins (two of his backing singers) will then unfold the song for us. In other words the song will go on when the singer has gone. And the song itself is about ceasing to speak, and the context tonight makes the cause of that looming muteness all too clear: death itself. The set list was laced through with newly contextualised valedictions. Hey, this is one way to say goodbye. If this is a swan song, Cohen is singing for posterity. He wants his work to be remembered when he is gone.

Cohen’s work – like his life, perhaps – is marked by the tension between retreat to the inner world of the self and activism, concern about and engagement with the outer world. Tonight’s performance is heavily weighted with the late political songs from albums like “I’m Your Man” and “The Future”. To my mind these songs have a maturity, depth and scope that history may value more highly than the narrower “love songs” he is perhaps still best known for – Suzanne, Bird on the Wire, Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, So Long Marianne, etc –  all of which he also sang in the show. The most powerful moments for me were tied up with those mature songs.

Cohen reminds his audience that in the “chaos and darkness” of most of the world it is a “privilege” to share these moments of “luxury”.  Cohen is a social pessimist. I have seen the future/and it is murder, he says. Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich . . . And everybody knows that the plague is coming/Everybody knows that its moving fast. However, he sees a space for joy and hope. Joy arises in a broken world where not that many bells now ring. Indeed joy can arise almost because things are broken, Anthem seems to suggest: There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in. He sings of “the holy or the broken hallelujah”. The space for hope is an inner space, a solution which is private and individual, but there is a sense that for him this may not be really enough. One particular realm he compulsively explores is love. Love – like its sister, beauty – holds a crucial but difficult place in Cohen’s cosmology. Every heart to love will come, he says, but like a refugee.  And, in another song, love’s the only engine of survival. Chaos and darkness are the necessary conditions of Cohen’s poetry; love is a necessary but somehow not quite adequate refuge. The heart for Cohen is prone to being a cold and lonely place. Cohen’s universe is somewhat Manichean. The sacred arises amid the profane. Love is among the sacred things, but such things are less resilient than things profane, less solid. Sacred things are always fragile and fleeting.

Perhaps inevitably given that Cohen is a Jew born in the 1930’s, the model for the catastrophe humanity faces is the holocaust. The failure is humankind is a failure of the heart, a failure to see humanity wherever it is and to always be fully human. Cohen sees the heart as a source of hope and survival, as a refuge from the world’s darkness. He seems less confident about the heart’s capacity to overcome or dispel that darkness. He sees real hope in social and political change – in Democracy. He sings that democracy is coming to the USA (implying that it isn’t there yet) and says that the reason why it is most likely to succeed there (however it may truly look) is because America has the spiritual thirst. But change will require something enormous – the heart, he says, has got to open in a fundamental way. The failure of the human heart can perhaps only be guarded against by social and political change, but this will itself in turn require an inner change in individuals. Perhaps this will arise from culture rather than nature, although the dynamic here is obscure and seems to slide close to a hopeless circularity. But for Cohen hope is fragile. The very culture he sees as having the potential to achieve change is the same one whose moral bankruptcy he lays bare in songs like The Future and First We Take Manhattan.

His performance was spellbinding and absolutely focussed. Cohen is a modernist. He deals in hope and despair, in desire and the collapse of desire. He is looking to find order and value among the chaos and darkness of the world. And he is disciplined: there is not one thing about his performance that is ramshackle or casual. He is the model of composure and poise. He only very occasionally picks up the guitar. Most of the time he is clutching the microphone and delivering his songs with a word perfect intensity. His medium is language and he is exact: he places every word exactly where he wants it, exactly how he wants it. He is precise. The microphone sucks the poetry from his lungs as if it is an eternal ribbon of incontrovertible truth and wraps it around his audience, binds them to him and to one another and, by invoking the absent millions, to the whole of humanity. He conjures solidarity out of the darkness. Perhaps this is his paradigm for the heart opening in a fundamental way. His songs humanise us, at least for the time we spend in his company. We may care for one another a little more from here on in.  But solidarity is fickle and all too likely to melt into the air.

Cohen stalks the stage like a Godfather or a hoodlum. He has always been a poet of the city.  His persona encodes power, knowledge and urbanity. He crouches at times as if there is an invisible weight on his shoulders, like Christ’s invisible cross. Sometimes he looks like an outcast or a plague victim or a figure from a Tarot card, thin and angular. Sometimes he resembles a refugee, sometimes a prisoner of war. Sometimes his body almost makes the shape of a swastika. Sometimes he falls on one knee and beseeches or pleads. He always sings with the hat on, but at the end of each song doffs it to the audience and makes a small bow.  He also occasionally takes it off and bows to a musician in his band after they have played a solo. He introduced his band members several times over during the show. As the waitress said, Leonard likes cheese.

The audience sat reverently. When I found myself singing along I realised I was usually doing so alone. Cohen has an authority and authenticity that seems almost anachronistic nowadays. But let us not be fooled: this is a performance, albeit a consummate one, and a persona is a persona, even if it is a persona he carries with him into his secret and ordinary life.

Towards the end of the show it began to rain. It was almost eleven o’clock and almost dark. The torches around the castle were burning wildly. Cohen ended with another valediction – the danse macabre of Closing Time. I walked back down the Royal Mile in the rain beneath a small umbrella. The lights from the shops of the Old Town glistened on the cobblestones. The crown spire of St Giles Cathedral glowed against the dark sky. I passed the new statue of Adam Smith gazing imperiously down Canongate towards the dark waters of the Forth. This statue was unveiled just a couple of weeks ago.  One newspaper commented that it was a sign of how far society had moved on that this monument to one of Scotland’s greatest sons had been built in such a prominent site. A few years ago, they said, this would have been seen as a political act.  The project was proposed by the Adam Smith Institute. Margaret Thatcher gave it her support. Nothing at all political there, then.

As I returned to the hotel I sang The Future to myself:

            Things are going to slide, slide in all directions                     
            Won’t be nothing
            Nothing you can measure anymore
            The blizzard of the world
            has crossed the threshold
            and it has overturned
            the order of the soul

On Thursday morning I opened the hotel window and leaned on the sill. It was a grey morning over Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat. One or two black-backed gulls sat on the tenement chimneys, which are often pretty much the same colour as their legs. The chimneys stand like rows of soldiers or tins stacked on a supermarket shelf, often ten or twelve in a line, on top of the great tenement stacks. Bare cactus-like shared TV aerials share the skyline with them. Buddleia has found a foothold on many of the high ledges and is blooming now in straggly lilac sprays. I drove south again, taking the old roads where I could and stopping off at Coldingham and St Abb’s to look at some galleries and take in the views over the sea. It was raining most of the way home. When I got back Margaret was at work. The house was full of the smell of onions. The men were working on the Citadel. I walked through the house and opened a window in the conservatory and made myself a cappuccino.

‘So do you want to hear about Leonard Cohen?’ I said to De Kooning. He jumped up beside me and rubbed his head against my shoulder. ‘Or do you want to listen to some monk rock?’ I showed him the CD the Hare Krishna monk boy had sold me.

We sat watching the men on the scaffold and listening to the incessant rumble of their machines. The smell of diesel fumes floated in through the open window and on through the house.

On Friday I returned to work. I spent most of the day in my room, writing reports and replying to emails from those who’d been at work during the strike. At lunchtime I caught Lily and put a fiver on The Angel Gabriel. I was betting with my head. My heart would have gone with the Dalek.


Written by yammering

July 19, 2008 at 1:06 pm

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