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Posts Tagged ‘dr who

the skies in nature aren’t made out of paint

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At teatime last Friday I noticed a pair of glass earrings and a big green bottle of Becherovka on the table in the conservatory.

‘Have you seen Brenda?’ I asked Margaret, who was in the kitchen topping and tailing parsnips.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘She brought me those crystal earrings back from Prague. Aren’t they lovely?’

‘Some of the old Czech herbal paint stripper too, I see. So how are things with her and Tristran?’

‘Oh they’re fine,’ Margaret replied, in an I don’t know what all the fuss was about sort of way. ‘They’re all loved up and happy again. They had an absolutely wonderful time. They bought each other amber amulets and they’ve both vowed to wear them forevermore. Brenda bought some really beautiful lace for herself too and a wooden marionette for her consulting room.’

I nodded. ‘That’s good,’ I said. ‘Tristan’s okay.’

I sat down to drink my cappuccino. De Kooning came in and jumped up beside me. I’m reading a book of poetry called ‘Beasts for the Chase’ by an American poet called Monica Ferrell. A friend in New Jersey sent me the book. Ferrell wasn’t a poet I’d heard of till then. She turns out to be a bit old-fashioned and prophetic in her tone at times, quite earnest, although quite good at her craft. She strikes me as one of those poets who imagine a poet is a seer, someone with special access to a world behind and beyond this one. Such a vision (!) always entails a belief in the supernatural, often under the guise of the primal. Such poets often invoke animals as their metaphorical selves or equivalents, their spiritual alter egos and agents in the other world. Such poetry always pretends to show us what we really are, what our essence is, and to show us the eternal world our souls inhabit, the world behind the veil of perception. It’s all seductive nonsense, of course. Poetry certainly somehow plugs fairly directly into the way we make the world and the ways in which we make it make sense. But it’s an exercise done with words, just as music is an exercise done with sound and painting an exercise done with pigment, canvas and brushes.  I like Tam Lin as much as the next person, but anyone who thinks that at Halloween he was turned into an adder and a bear and a burning gleed really is away with the faeries. That sort of stuff doesn’t even happen in Glasgow. Poetry and truth have a much more oblique and complex relationship than some poets imagine. We need a poetics that is rigorously non-dualist. I’m sure there must be critics out there who’ve tried to formulate something to rescue us from the mire of misty-brained mythologies. I must go on to Amazon some time and see what I can find.

‘So, De Kooning’ I said. ‘What do we make of this stuff?’

He put his front paws on to my leg and looked up at me. His right ear flicked a couple of times.

‘Yes, you’re right, we prefer Ted Hughes, don’t we?’ I said. ‘We Brits like mumbo jumbo with a bit more muscle.’

It’s been much warmer for the past few days. On Sunday it was dry and almost spring-like. I went out for a bike ride to make the most of it. I rode across to Bebside and up the Heathery Lonnen to the Three Horse Shoes. I freewheeled down the hill from High Horton Farm and over the Horton Bridge and then went up through the new housing estates towards the Nelson Industrial Estate. There was a noticeable north westerly breeze. I took the road past the Snowy Owl towards Blagdon. I glanced over at the new opencast site. It’s on the estate of those famous stewards of the landscape, the illustrious Ridleys. Matthew Ridley was a prominent figure in the development of Northern Rock and not a man to let concern or consideration for the needs or feelings of other human beings get in the way of personal profit. In fact Matt can’t get his head around the idea that anyone can actually do such a thing, because surely it’s not human nature to think of anyone but yourself. The planning application was rejected by the County Council but overturned by the government on appeal. It’s another shameful mess. I turned left at Blagdon went south past the Holiday Inn to the Seaton Burn Roundabout. The wind was finally behind me. It’s about ten miles home from there. I went via Arcot Lane, High Pit and Shankhouse.

When I got home I did a bit of gardening. I took the secateurs to last year’s withered stragglers from the catmint, lopped some branches of some of the shrubs and cut back the fuschia almost to the ground. New growth is already beginning to appear from the earth and the snowdrops are already flowering. Winter’s on its way out.

I’d finished the painting I was doing of Seaton Sluice. During the week a pack of five Loxley 16″x16″ canvases had been delivered. I decided I’d do another painting of Seaton Sluice on one of those, using the first one as my source. I underpainted the canvas in cadmium yellow and read The Observer while that dried. Then with a big flat brush I scribbled, scrawled and slapped on a sky in titanium white, burnt sienna and burnt umber. It was dramatic and swirly and turbulent and as I let myself get into it I was aware that it was very Turneresque and that it was Turner I was stealing this sky from. It was probably the influence of the burnt sienna, a colour I have only recently added to my palette, used with white on a yellow ground. I think I was somehow remembering The Fighting Temeraire – there was a print of this painting on the wall at my old school, I now recall – and The Slave Ship, I think. Turner is hard to emulate in acrylic paint though because the paint dries too quickly and doesn’t allow you to use glazes very well or to achieve those beautiful subtle gradations and colour shifts.  When I’m a better painter I’m sure I’ll want to use oils a lot more. The sky I produced was of course nothing like a sky you’ll ever see in nature. I don’t think that ever bothered Turner much, and it certainly doesn’t much bother me either. After all, the skies in nature aren’t made out of paint.

On Tuesday morning I had a meeting at the Blyth office. It was another nice morning and after the meeting I decided to have a walk over to the quayside to look at the river for a few minutes before I went back to Ashington. I spotted Tristan’s white PermaPlumba van parked on the quayside close to Eddie Ferguson House. Tristan was sitting alone on one of the benches at the other side of the fence.

‘Hi, Tristan,’ I said. ‘What brings you to these parts?’

‘Just killing time, mate,’ he said. ‘Nothing better to do, I guess.’

‘Still no work, eh?’

‘Dead as a door nail, my fweind. Dead as a door nail. I’m telling you, this wecession will close Bwitain down if Bwown doesn’t sort it out soon.’

‘Do you think he can do that?’

‘No, I know he bloody well can’t. But let’s not pwetend he had nothing to do with getting us into this mess. He should pay the pwice.’

‘So how was Prague?’ I said. ‘Margaret tells me it was the business.’

‘Did she?’ Tristan said, and turned to look me in the eye, as if to see if I was joking. ‘Well, Pwague’s a fine city, sure enough, a place worth seeing.’

‘But you wouldn’t go back?’

He shrugged and gazed out over the river towards the bauxite silos on the far bank. A couple of kids were fishing on the jetty just downstream from there. The first wind turbine loomed above them. ‘Can I ask you something off the wecord?’ he said. ‘Just between me and you?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Anything you like.’

‘Have you heard of a bloke called Elvis Devlin? Wuns a bus company called Mephisto Twavel?’

‘Listen, I know about it, Tristan,’ I said. ‘Margaret told me.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah, I thought you might know.’

‘It’s no big thing,’ I said. ‘It’ll go no further than me.’

‘Oh no, no,’ he said. ‘That’s fine. That’s fine.’

‘I thought you and Brenda had sorted that out. I thought things were cool between you again.’

‘Bwenda’s vewy needy, you know. She’s vewy insecure. She’s got twust issues, weally big twust issues.’

‘But this isn’t about anything you’ve done, is it?’

‘The thing about Bwenda is you’ve always got to do something to pwove you love her. That’s what the Pwague twip was about. All the fuss she made about her Chwistmas pwesents. Bwenda doesn’t know what the weal thing is. If I was the wichest man in the world and gave her evewything money could buy, it wouldn’t be enough. Tomowwow she’d want something else. Bwenda thinks that if you don’t give her pwesents you don’t love her. The thing is, she’s almost got me bwoke – but I daren’t tell her. I’m wunning our welationship on my cwedit card now. The cwunch is bound to come!’ He laughed a little.

‘Now you know how Gordon feels,’ I said, laughing too, trying to keep the thing in the air. ‘So what you’re saying is that the only way to make sure Brenda doesn’t believe you’re not about to go off with some other woman is to keep on giving her things, and that if you don’t she won’t trust you anymore?’

‘Yes, exactly. You know how matewialistic she is. But it’s weally about twust, not gweed.’

‘But surely there’s no way you can give her things indefinitely? You’re not Richard Branson!’

‘No, you’re damn wight, I’m not Wichard Bwanson. I’ve told her that. I said “Bwenda this is about twust. For you pwesents are pwoof that someone loves you.” That’s why she’s attwacted to wich men, like this Elvis bloke. It’s because they can give her an endless supply of expensive pwesents. You know, that’s why I think she pwobably went for me now. Because when we met I was doing well. I was wolling in it. She’s so insecure she needs you to give, give, give. I asked her: “Bwenda,” I said, “Would you still think I loved you if I couldn’t buy you things?” “Of course I would,” she said. “What on earth do you take me for?!” But she wouldn’t, I know for sure she wouldn’t.”

‘So what’s the answer?’ I said. ‘Maybe she needs to life coach herself a bit.’

‘Oh, yes, I’ve pointed out the iwonies of this situation, believe you me I have. Maybe there is no answer. But the cwunch is going to come before long, that’s for sure. I’m spent up and there’s no work coming in. You can’t wun a welationship on cwedit. Pretty soon I’ll be bankwupt.’

‘Maybe things’ll take a turn for the better soon,’ I said. ‘Gordon’s green shoots might be springing up all around us any day now.’

‘Fat chance of that!’ Tristan said. ‘And besides that would only pwolong the agony. It wouldn’t solve the pwoblem. Bwenda needs to learn to twust. The thing is of course that it isn’t weally men she doesn’t twust – it’s herself she doesn’t twust. And evewy time she cwaves for another pwesent she knows she can’t be twusted. People who can’t be twusted don’t twust others, isn’t that twue?   Because they think evewybody’s just like them. Bwenda can’t see that anyone could ever love her for what she is. It’s a self-worth thing with her. It’s as if she thinks only expensive things will ever make her good enough. But of course they never will.’

We sat quietly for a minute or two watching the river. A seal popped up and I pointed it out to Tristan. He said it had been there all morning.

‘He’s cute, isn’t he?’ I said.

‘Yeah,’ Tristan said. ‘He’s really beautiful.’

‘Anyhow,’ I said, ‘I need to be making my way back to work. I hope things work out okay for you and Brenda.’

‘Thanks, mate. Me too. Oh, and by the way, do me a favour, don’t tell Margawet you’ve seen me. I don’t want it getting back to Bwenda where I spend my days.’

‘Brenda thinks you’re working?’

Tristan nodded. ‘Yeah, and I need to keep it that way. God knows what she’d do if she knew I wasn’t’

‘Your secret’s safe with me,’ I said.

I drove past Ridley Park and along Wensleydale Terrace, past the site of the demolished Wellesley School which now stands deserted waiting for the economy to turn to make it worth building houses there. I reached the South Shore estate and glanced over at the sea. At the roundabout I went up South Newsham Road. It struck me that Blyth no longer has outskirts. It has a settlement boundary which marks the point where fields will turn into housing estates. The transition is sudden, in no way gradual. You can’t really say you’re coming into Blyth these days. You’re either in or you’re out. You’ve arrived or you haven’t. I turned on the CD player and listened to The Killers’ Sam’s Town album. I played it loudly. I crossed the railway at South Newsham and cruised up the Laverock and on to the Spine Road.

I parked in the public car park at the bottom of the street. As I was walking up to the office I met Owen Vardy coming down the hill. He was wearing a loose wrinkly oatmeal-coloured linen jacket – it was at least a size too big for him – and pale baggy Chinos.  He had a stripey brown and pink scarf wrapped around his neck, Dr Who style. He was leaning into every step, each of which appeared cautious and measured. Owen walks like a man on a treadmill, a treadmill he thinks might at any moment either stop completely or speed up dramatically. He was carrying an Asda ‘Bag for Life’.

‘Hi, Owen,’ I said. ‘Have you been shopping?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Well, not really. I’ve been to a meeting about the Collingwood children. I carry my files in this bag.  It’s the perfect size, you see. Actually, between you and I, I did take a quick toddle over to the high street to pick up a few vitamins.’

‘Oh, so what vitamins do you take?’

‘Oh, you know –  zinc, vitamin C, B complex, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, selenium, folic acid, echinacea, evening primrose oil, flax oil, omega-3 and omega-6, saw palmetto, feverfew, calcium, magnesium, potassium, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, garlic, CoQ10 . . . you know,  just the usual stuff.’

What, no Becherovka? I thought to myself.

‘So are you ever ill, Owen?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes, of course. I’m just the same as everyone else, you know, I catch colds and what have you. But there’s no point in taking unnecessary chances, is there? Oh, by the way, did you hear the latest about Jack?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so. Don’t tell me he’s been dressing up again?’

‘No, no. He’s got rid of his Skoda and bought a motorbike. A big shiny black one. I think it might be a Kawasaki. It’s a very dangerous machine, a very dangerous machine. I think he’s being very foolish, actually.’

‘It’s his life, Owen,’ I said. ‘Or death, as the case might be.’

‘Exactly. Do you know he’s the same age as me?  In fact we were born on exactly the same day. You’d never catch me on a motor bike.’

‘I don’t think I’d bother trying,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t stand a chance.’

For a moment Owen missed the joke. He looked at me quizzically, his head slightly to one side, a half smile frozen on his face. What was he listening for, I wondered. Then he got it.

‘Ho ho,’ he laughed. ‘Very good. Yes, very good.’ And then he slid straight back into parson-like caution and prudence. He put his fingertips on my sleeve. He leaned in close to me.

‘And you’ll not have heard what he said to Tallulah either, have you?’ he said. ‘He offered to buy her a full set of leathers – a red leather bodysuit. He offered to take her out on his pillion.’

I laughed. ‘Oh my God, he’s shameless, isn’t he?’ I said.

‘Exactly,’ Owen said. ‘He is shameless, and lacking in any sort of dignity too, I think.’ Just for a moment I fancied I caught the elusive vinegary whiff of piety and prurience.

‘Any how,’ he said, looking at his watch, ‘I really must be getting along now or  I’ll miss my bus.’

Owen always travels by bus, for road safety and environmental reasons, he says, although given how much he must spend on vitamins I wonder if he could afford a car in any case. As we parted I was thinking I must read George Herbert again.

When I went into the office Mandy Potts was in reception with Apple and Sparky. She looked like she’d been crying.

‘Hi, Mandy,’ I said. ‘Are you all right?’

She shook her head slowly. She wasn’t. When I went through to the team room I asked Angie what Mandy wanted.

‘She wants to go to a refuge.’

‘Again?’ I said. ‘Why? Surely Mr Zee hasn’t turned nasty?’

‘No,’ Angie said. ‘Anything but. No, it’s not that. Elephant Carmichael called to see her last night. He gave her a message.  He told the Arab said not to forget that what’s his is his forever. He told her the Arab said to say hello. When they got up this morning there were four piles of sand on the step. She said they looked like four little graves. ‘


the magical slaughterhouse of the sun

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The Angel Gabriel and Dr Who didn’t show. Nor did the Dalek. The Arab has continued to come and go, as have his accomplices – Batman and Bob Marley.  Cheryl saw Robin Hood again. But not one of the listed runners has yet turned up for the race.

But Captain Hook has. He appeared last Wednesday afternoon and at around seven on Thursday evening. He was wearing a large feathered hat, a red velvet coat, white frills and knee breeches. He had long black curls, a thin black moustache and a cutlass slung from his hip. He also wore a black eye patch, suggesting the imposter wasn’t that familiar with the book and perhaps prone to stereotyping. The pirate was driving a silver Renault, a rusty automatic.

Meg Bomberg manages a team in another part of the building. Meg is a woman of substantial mass. She’s not the kind of woman you’d ever want to tangle with. She has spiky blonde hair and wears lots of denim. She enters every room as if it is a saloon in the Old West. Her feet flick outwards with every step – she sort of waddles – as if she’s kicking stray dogs from her path. She entered our team room on Friday as if she was looking for a shot of redeye and a game of faro.

‘Where’s Michelle?’ she asked.

‘’Whose askin’?’ I replied.

She noticed a bag of chocolate cinder toffee pieces on Lily’s desk. She swaggered over and took one. She looked at it for a moment, as an ape might look at a snot. She then popped it in her mouth and began to munch, like a bulldog chewing a wasp, as they say around here (in a very particular accent).

‘One of her clients has scratched my car,’ Meg said. ‘Scunner Walker.’

‘Really?’ I replied.

‘I think so.’

‘So what do you want Michelle to do about that?’ I asked.

‘I want her to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’

I nodded slowly. ‘Easier said than done,’ I pointed out. ‘Why don’t you report it to the police?’

‘How would I prove it was who I think it is?’

‘What evidence do you have?’

‘I saw him hanging around near my car yesterday, and – surprise, surprise – a lovely wiggly scratch has now appeared!’

‘So what makes you think it was him?’

‘Well, who the hell else would it be?!’

‘David Blaine?’ I was about to say. ‘Paul Daniels?’ The full list would be a long one, I suspected, and inevitably incomplete. I was about to begin proffering candidates of varying degrees of probability when we heard the sound of a scuffle in the street. It was none other than Scunner Walker himself, engaged in a fist fight with some other youth in black t-shirt and training pants. They momentarily fell together to the ground, heavily, like slaughtered animals. Scunner being first back to his feet began raining flailing blows down on his opponent. His opponent made it back to his feet and the two circled each other like prize fighters, flinging the occasional kick or wild hook at one another. There were three other young people there. None of them looked like intervening. A girl in a black Parka, high heels, footless tights and big silver hoop earrings was filming the event on her mobile phone and grinning inanely.

‘Call the police, Lily,’ I said. Just then Scunner took a clubbing blow to the left temple that dumped him back on to the tarmac.

‘Get in there!’ Meg said, gleefully.

Two or three people from the office were now outside and telling the youths that the police were on their way. The fight stopped and for a moment Scunner and his pale opponent stood bloody faced and panting, looking at each other like tigers in an alley. Then as quick as mist they melted away into the back lanes.

‘I’ll tell Michelle you want to see her,’ I said.

‘Forget it,’ Meg said. She took another piece of chocolate cinder toffee and sashayed off in the direction of Dry Gulch. Just as the door was closing a ball of tumbleweed blew into the room and I thought again of Hugo’s clock.

I went outside to see if all was well. Mr Zee was sitting in the waiting area with Apple and Sparky. Mandy was inside talking to Debs. When I came back inside I asked him how things were going.

‘They’re getting no better,’ he said. He went on to tell me that kids around the estate are now dressing themselves in white pillow cases with holes cut out for their arms and faces. They’re running around the estate in spooky little cliques carry plastic Kalashnikovs and pretending to be Flinty. Some of them like to make paper aeroplanes and fly them at people’s windows. Mr Zee says this has happened several times to them. One morning they found what seemed like a flock of them littered and fallen at the front of the house. Someone had put a red toy fire engine among them.

‘It’s scary,’ he said. ‘Apple thinks they’re butterflies. We can’t tell her what it’s really about. Did you hear about Hook?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He carries a sword too, I hear.’

Mr Zee nodded. I noticed that in his cloak pocket he had a book of poems by Charles Bukowski.

‘Do you like Bukowski?’ I asked.

He shrugged. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘I think I’m supposed to, aren’t I?’

‘Why? Do all Zorrs have to like Bukowski?’

‘No. Lorca is the poet laureate of Zorrs. He’s the one we all read.’

‘Good choice,’ I said.

‘I used to think Bukowski was a pretty impoverished poet,’ I said. ‘Thin on ideas, thin on wisdom, thin on beauty. Now I’m not so sure.’

Mandy came out with Debs. Apple went over to her and held her hand. Mandy told me she was okay. What scared her most were the phone calls, she said, but she didn’t want to change her number because if she did Flinty might turn up her door.

‘Did Zee tell you that we’ve been getting phone calls playing the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly?‘ she said. ‘We got it again at four o’clock last night.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I heard about Captain Hook, though, and the kids in pillow cases. But not the new tune. Sounds like Flinty’s becoming a bit of a DJ, eh?’

On Saturday I went walking through the town. I walked through Ridley Park and then out along Wensleydale Terrace. I was wondering about social justice. I lay among the sand dunes near Gloucester Lodge Farm and listened to the sea. It was a beautiful day. The rampant yellow stars of the ragwort, the demure ivory heads of yarrow, the blinking violets . . . . all the dune flowers dazzled by the sun.

‘So, Twistan,’ I said, ‘Glasgow East gave Gunner Gordon a real bloody nose, eh? Do you think his days are numbered now?’

‘Yep, I weckon they are. Ah, but the woad is long and the stwuggle must go, my fwiend, the stwuggle must go on.’

‘You’re a such hoot, Twistan,’ I said. ‘You always say that.’  I whistled him a few bars of Ennio Morricone’s famous theme and we watched the gulls sliding across the blue sky high above us.


Written by yammering

July 28, 2008 at 11:15 pm

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