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Posts Tagged ‘leonard cohen

when the lion dreams about red shoes

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bebside inn

I love the succession of scents that map the way through summer. The heady coconut smell of gorse, the sweet vapour of may, the clover, the roses, the honeysuckle. I love the way they ambush and seduce you as you walk or cycle the country paths.  For some reason this year I missed the honeysuckle, the one which I perhaps love most of all. I missed it without knowing I’d done so, mostly because it’s by its scent that the honeysuckle announces its presence.  It’s easy to pass a tangled hedgerow and hardly notice it.  The scent of the honeysuckle is its voice. It’s the scent that calls you near. I realised I’d missed the honeysuckle as I was cycling west through Northburn Grange estate in Cramlington a week past Sunday. It was warm and the air was humid, and as I was spinning along the cycle path between a hedge and the bank of the burn I was overwhelmed by the scandalous honey-sweet fragrance of purple Buddleia. Most years it’s the honeysuckle that catches me this way. It’s the scent of honeysuckle that usually establishes for me a deep entanglement with the energy of summer.

Owen was in the office again earlier this week. He was chatting in the team room to Lily when I came in.

‘Are you and Jack okay now?’ I said. ‘I heard you had a bit of a spat.’

‘Jack has an ugly side to him,’ Owen replied. ‘He’s a bully. He seems to have set himself on the dark road to damnation. You’ll know he’s gigging again with the band, of course?’

‘Is he?’ I said. ‘With The Clips? Hey, you can’t keep a good man down, eh?’

‘He should act his age. I don’t know who he thinks he is. He told Tallulah the other day that he saw himself as Dante and that he’s descending into an inferno. Dante! For goodness sake.’

I laughed. ‘So is Tallulah his Beatrice?’ I joked.

Owen smiled thinly, sadly. He then began to tell me about a girl called Beatrice who was an old flame he had, his first sweetheart, in fact.

‘Heidi hates her with a vengeance, of course,’ he said. ‘First love, last love, only love, and all that.  I made the mistake of telling Heidi when we first met that I called Beatrice my little Bee, and that she found me in the dark forest and led me to the foot of the mountain. I told her it was with my little honey Bee that I first walked through the vale and talked about the making of the soul. Heidi said that these conversations were tattooed on my heart, like a harlot’s name on a sailor’s arm, and there was no way they could ever be erased. I’ve told her since that she’s wrong, of course. I’ve told her that she is my true soulmate. But the thought of Bee still cuts her to the quick, I think, even now. Or as she would put it, when she thinks of Beatrice consternation pierces her heart.’

‘Hmmm,’ I said. ‘That must hurt.’

‘The thing was, Bee just wouldn’t let me go.  We parted because her mother and father thought I was too old for her.  And looking back now, I would agree with them. She was just sixteen and I was twenty five. I know now that it was wrong. But without Heidi I’d have never seen that.’

‘And so when her parents said it had to stop, you and your little Bee just kept on buzzin’, I suppose?’

‘We did for a while.  But one day her father accosted me as I was on my way to a rehearsal. It was early June. We were working on a Simon and Garfunkel medley that day. As I stepped off the zebra crossing Bee’s dad walked up to me. “You can’t say I didn’t warn you, you pervert!” he said, and set about me.  The next thing I remember was waking up in hospital with a broken nose. That’s where I met Heidi. I was sitting in A & E waiting for the results of my X-ray. She was sitting next to me. She’d been stung on the eyelid by a wasp.  We began to talk, and the rest is history, as they say. It was love at first sight for us both. I opened my heart to her. I told her what had happened to me and there and then she said she knew that I knew it wasn’t right.  She said she could see that I was a good man who’d been led on to a path of ruination and sin.  And she was right, of course.’

I nodded earnestly. ‘Hmmm. So that was the last you saw of your little Bee?’ I said.

‘No,’ Owen replied. ‘Sadly it wasn’t. It turns out that Bee was utterly obsessed with me.  She seemed to turn up wherever I went and, worst of all, she was always sitting in a front row seat at every concert we played.  And she was always wearing a very short skirt and the red shoes I’d bought her for Christmas.’

‘You were being stalked by a little Bee in red shoes, eh?  Why did you buy her red shoes? What was that about?’

‘It was our thing.  Bee looked like Judy Garland, you see. That’s how it all started.  And when she used to ask where she would tell her parents she was going when she went out, I used to say “Tell them you’re off to see the wizard”. She used to call me The Wiz sometimes and sing silly little rhymes to me, such as “Gee whizz, it’s me, Wiz, your little queen bee, Wiz,” and “You’re the biz, Mr Wiz,” and “Mr Wiz, Mr Wiz, you’ve got me in a tizz!”.’

I smiled politely. ‘And so how long did she turn up at your gigs for?’ I asked. ‘Weeks? Months?’

‘Almost two years. Never missed one show. But it was beginning to take its toll on Heidi.  Heidi can be very possessive and she always worried in case Bee won back my affections, in case I succumbed again to her charms. Heidi became very insecure, and it got so she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. ‘”First love, last love, only love” she would say to me. “Suppose you feel the same way too?” “But I don’t,” I’d say. But for some reason poor Heidi just could not convince herself that I loved her and not my little Bee with her long, long legs and shiny red shoes.’

I laughed. ‘What is it with you and your women, Owen?’ I said. ‘You’ve got more limpets than the Titanic!’

Owen chuckled and blushed. ‘Believe it or not I was a good looking fellow in those days,’ he said. ‘I turned many a fair lady’s head, I can tell you.’

‘Oh, I can imagine you did,’ I said. ‘But how did you ever shake off little Bee?’

‘Heidi took matters into her own hands.  She can be quite resourceful, you know. She rang Bee’s dad and told him where her daughter was going on all her nights away from home. The next concert we gave was in Stockport and Bee was sitting in the middle of the front row, as usual, in her short skirt and red shoes.  For our second number we always played a song I’d written called “Why Is The Sky As Blue As An Angel’s Eye?” In the middle of the first chorus Bee’s dad emerged out of the darkness and marched along the front row. Bee jumped up in fright.  The band stopped playing and the whole place stood up in silence to see what was happening. “Ah ha!” her dad said, grabbing her by the ear. “So you’re off to see the Wizard again, are you, my girl?  Well, I’ve got one or two tricks left up my sleeve too, I can tell you. And the first is to get rid of those red shoes.” He made Bee take off her shoes and place them on her seat.  Then he led her by the ear, barefoot up through the audience and out of the concert hall via the stalls exit.  It must have been absolutely humiliating for her.  But of course for Heidi it was as if a huge stone had been lifted off her shoulder.  We did the rest of the gig with the pair of red high heels sitting on the seat where Bee had been. That night for the first and only time in her life Heidi got drunk. And we never saw Bee again.’

‘Where did the red shoes go?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know. I’ve often asked myself that.  I like to think that perhaps they were claimed by a poor fan from Stockport and that she wore them every Friday night when she went out on the razzle. I like to think that fan is wearing them still. But the truth is I really don’t know where they went.’

‘You don’t think Bee came back for them?’

Owen looked shocked. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have never thought that.  My God, Heidi would never cope with the idea that Bee might still be wearing those red shoes for me.  No, if they are anywhere they are safe in the hands of devoted fan from Stockport.’

Owen was thoughtful for a moment or two. I wondered if he wasn’t trying to process the notion that Bee might still be wearing those shoes.

‘Of course, you’ll know I later wrote a song called “Stockport Girl”, don’t you?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘I didn’t.’

‘Oh yes. It’s a little bit in the style of Bruce Springsteen. A cracking song, even if I do say so myself. Ask Eric about it – he’ll know it well, I’m sure.’

Owen stood for a while, his head slightly bowed, his body language penitent, a bit like that of someone who expected to be whacked across the back of the head at any moment.

‘Ah, those were the days, Owen, eh?’ I said, just to break the silence

‘You know, it was a very peculiar concert,’ Owen said, wagging his spindly index finger. ‘As I remember it now I was playing only to that pair of red shoes on the seat. There was no-one else there.  I still have a dream sometimes where that’s what’s happening. I see myself standing at the microphone in a concert hall with my guitar singing and the only audience I have out there in the darkness is that pair of red shoes.  I dreamt it again just a few nights ago. What do you think it means?’

‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘Were you naked?’

‘No, I had my pyjamas on. Heidi likes us to wear them. We have matching pairs.’

‘I meant in the dream, Owen. Were you naked in the dream?’

‘Oh. No, I was wearing blue jeans, a cowboy shirt and light brown boots with Cuban heels.  Why?’

‘I don’t know. It’s just one of those questions dream analysts always ask, isn’t it?’

Owen nodded slowly and looked up at me, a little like a crumpled cheese cloth Columbo.

‘Were there spurs on your boots?’ I asked.

‘I don’t think so,’ Owen replied, his eyes narrowing. ‘Why? Does that matter?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘It’s just another one of those questions analysts always ask.’

As I was leaving the office later that afternoon I bumped into Eric.

‘Aye, aye, whaat cheor, bonny lad?’ he said. ‘Hoo’s yah marra?’

‘Owen, do you mean? Or Jack?’  I replied. ‘I think Jack’s back with the band and they’ll be doing some gigs again soon.’

‘Whaat?!’ Eric said, his round face lighting up like a camping lantern. ‘Are the Proodloot gannin’ back on the road?  Just wait till aa tell wor young un’ that. Ee’ll be ower the moon! How, do yuh think the’ might dee a gig at the Fell ‘Em Doon?’

‘No, Eric,’ I said. ‘Jack’s back with the band. You know, the skinny guy in sunglasses with the dyed black hair in a pony tail – the one you met a few weeks ago?’

‘Ur. Ur, aye, the Spider blowk. Ozzy Osbourne. Whaat’s his band caalled again? The Gliffs?’

‘The Clips. Short for Pluto’s Apocalypse.’

‘Ur, aye, the five Plutos. Ur aye, noo aa remember. Ur, hing on, ur, whaat waas aa ganna say again?’

Eric put his finger into the air like a grubby crude antenna and waited for a signal. Eventually he got one.

‘Ur, aye, so are the Proodloot not ganna dee any more gigs, then?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Owen’s more a slippers and pyjamas sort of man these days. Give him a nice mug of Ovaltine and his Wizard of Oz DVD and he’s a happy bunny.’

‘Ur, aye. That’s a pity.  If  ‘ee wanted tee, wor young un’ knaas the gadgie at the Fell ‘Em Doon and could probably get them a spot there. Will yuh ask yah marra next time yuh taalk tiv him if ‘ee wants wor young un’ t’ dee that?’

I said I would and began making my way out of the office. And then I remembered that I had to ask him something.

‘Hey, Eric,’ I said, ‘do you know a Proudlute song called Stockport Girl?’

‘Whey, aye,’ he said. ‘Of course. It’s a crackin’ song. It’s on tha thord album, isn’t it? Heroes in Clurgs. Hoo does it gan again?  Ur aye. Hing on.’

Eric shut down, searching for a signal again, like a mobile phone in a deep valley. Then in a sing-song sort of way he recited these lines, which I took to be the chorus:

‘Soothport gorl, Soothport gorl
Bright as a ruby, pure as a porl
Aa’m nivva ganna leave aa
Me Soothport gorl.’ 


I nodded, appreciatively.

‘Cheers, Eric,’ I said.

‘Aa’ll dee yuh a CD of it, if yuh want iz tee.’

‘No, that’s fine. But thanks anyway.’

Just as I was opening the door Eric shouted to me again.

‘Ur, aye,’ he said. ‘And can yuh ask yah marra as weell if the Proodloot ivva played on the same bill as the Jefferson Airplane. Wor young un’ says the’ did.’

I agreed to make this enquiry on Eric’s behalf and finally made it back out into the sunshine.

The loneliness of a woman is a sad misfortune, but the loneliness of a man is his destiny. I had this thought yesterday as I ate my tea. I was listening to Leonard Cohen’s first album. I don’t usually listen to music at teatime, but yesterday Margaret was watching The Weakest Link on TV when I got in from work and so I went into my bedroom and put my CD player on. As Cohen sang Suzanne I realised that it is age, not youth that defines a man. It isn’t until a man is getting old that he realises how loneliness defines him. Loneliness, he sees, is his absolute purpose.

I dipped pieces of stone ground wholemeal bread into my bowl of lentil soup. It’s summertime again and I’m struggling to get fit and shed the pounds that winter brought me. And all I could hear was this loneliness, this fact so obvious I began to wonder how I’d ever missed it. I looked at the painting of a lion I painted a year or so ago. He is virtually emaciated. A naked young woman rides him. I see now the terrible loneliness I have put into his orange eyes. She will never be as alone as he is already.

I’m off to Scotland for a week tomorrow. I’m going to walk the hills around Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch. I’ve also arranged to go over to Fort William one night to have dinner with Alice McTavish and catch up on things in her world. I’m really looking forward to it. What would any life be without a good pair of boots and a yellow brick road?


the owl, the albatross, and the dodo

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It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard
in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent
there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was
brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home
by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not
from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.  
Daniel Defoe
Journal of the Plague Year (1722) 

‘How, aa wuz blaan away by meetin’ ya marra,’ Eric said. ‘Aa towld wor young ‘un and he waadn’t believe it. Ee thowt aa waas just mekkin’ it up! But aa towld him whaat he looked like an’ aall that an’ ‘ee believes iz noo. It waas him, waasn’t it?  Ya marra iz the real McCoy, isn’t ‘ee?’

‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘He is certainly the one and only Owen Vardy, late of the much feted minstrel troop who went by the good name of Proudlute.’

‘Aye, that’s whaat aa telt wor young ‘un,’ Eric said. ‘That ya marra waas definitely the blowk oot of the Proodloot.  The lads at the Prymeeaa cannit believe aa’ve met him. Nor can aa. It’s like a miracle for someone who’s been on Top of the Pops to be in Eshinden, yuh knaa whaat aa mean? There’s ownly one thing that waald ‘ave been more amazin’ than meetin’ ya marra. D’yuh knaa whaat that waald o’ been?’

I looked at him and shrugged. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been an audience with George Herbert himself, author of The Country Parson and important early metaphysical poet.  I said I didn’t know.

‘To meet that Peter Andre,’ Eric replied, with an implied ‘obviously’. ‘Yuh knaa the one that’s married to hor wi’ the massa bazookas. Ur, yuh knaa, whaat’s aa name – Jordan. D’yuh knaa we aa mean?’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, I know them,’ I said. ‘I mean Peter and Katie – I know Peter and Katie.’

‘Whaat? Yuh knaa them as weell?!’ Eric exclaimed, his celebrityphilia obviously allowing him to get the wrong end of a fairly short verbal ambiguity. ‘Is it through ya marra? Does he knaa them from when ee wuz in the Proodloot?!

‘No, Eric,’ I said. ‘I don’t know them in that sense. I know who they are, that’s all.’

‘Ur, aa see whaat yuh mean,’ Eric said, palpably crestfallen. For a moment a dream egg beyond his wildest imaginings had been hatching before his very eyes, the possibility of meeting the legendary Peter Andre. For now Eric would have to do with Owen.

‘Here,’ Eric said, abruptly, putting his hooked finger in the air. ‘Ur, aye, whaat was it again? Eh, ur, aye, eh, hing on.’

At that point Eric stopped dead, his pirate pose frozen, like someone playing Statues. His face became expressionless, his eyes stared blankly into an invisible void. It was as if yet again someone had thrown the switch on his neurological systems. He stood as still a gravestone. And then suddenly life re-entered him.

‘Ur, aye,’ he said, as if no time at all had passed, ‘ya marra nivva met that Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, did ‘ee? Yuh knaa, them whaat did the Woolly Bully an’ that.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t ever recall Owen mentioning them at all, oddly enough.’

‘That’s a pity,’ Eric said. ‘They were mint.’

For a minute or so Eric again seemed absent, as if ruminating in an unseen life world perhaps. You’ll have realised by now that is something that often happens with Eric. I was about to wander off when he spoke again.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘Hing on, er, whaat waas it again? Ur, aye, the swine flu and aall that. Whaat d’yuh think of that?’

I shrugged. Before I could give an opinion however, Eric decided to give me his.

‘Aa think the telly’s got it aall wrang, divvent ‘ee? Wor young ‘un knaas someone who’s been to Mexico and tha’s nowt the matter wi’ hor.  Aa mean, ‘ee says she’s got a caald an’ aall that, but nowt weird. D’yuh knaa whaat aa think? Aa think tha’ mekkin’ it up?’

‘You don’t think swine flu exists?’

‘Nur. Whey, hoo waald a human porson catch a pig disease? Hev yuh ivva hord of a pig sneezin’ or hevvin’ a snotty nose? Aa mean, hoo can a pig hev the flu? The flu’s a human disease. Aa mean, the pig would hev to tek paracetemol and aall that!’ Eric laughed, his face lit up like the man in the moon.

‘So what about bird flu?’ I said. ‘Do you believe in that?’

Eric’s systems briefly shut down again, as if he might be downloading something from an external site.

‘Aye, aa dee,’ he eventually replied. ‘Aye, an’ aa’ll tell yuh whaat, aa think the bord flu is warse than this pig one, d’ye not?’

‘Worse? What do you mean by worse? That it’ll kill more people?’

‘Aye. Aa’ divvent think this pig flu’s ganna kill anybody ower here, d’ye? Aa mean, we’re not like Mexicans, are wuh? Hoo can English folks catch a disease off pigs?’

I nodded. ‘Who knows?’ I said. ‘But sooner or later they’ll be right. Sooner or later nature will bite back. But I think you’re right, swine fever might not the one.’

We live in apocalyptic times.  We wait for the hurricane. We wait for the fire. We wait for the plague. But for some of us we’ve already been waiting too long. We’ve got apocalypse fatigue. While most of the world intermittently runs around in blind panic, the prospect of the end of the world bores some of us now. We don’t feel inclined to believe it. Or maybe we just don’t feel inclined to care. And this is more or less exactly how the end will come – and more or less exactly why.

Tristan called along on Thursday night to pick up a box of sunglasses. Margaret was out when he arrived. I invited him in while I looked for the box. De Kooning arrived to give him the once over.

‘What’s your cat called?’ Tristan said.

‘De Kooning.’

‘Hello, De Kooning,’ Tristan said, stroking him beneath the chin. ‘Aren’t you beautiful? My name’s Twistan and I’m vewy pleased to meet you.’

‘So how’s tricks with you and Brenda, Tristan?’ I asked.

‘Oh pwetty good, I think,’ he said. ‘I think we’re getting there.’

‘It’s her birthday next week, isn’t it? Have you got her anything special or have you agreed you’ll just have to tighten your belts his year?’

‘I’ve got her something special,’ Tristan said. ‘But it wasn’t expensive. I think maybe I misjudged her in the past. I think she weally does know it’s the thought that counts.’

‘So what have you got her, then?’

‘An enamel keywing. An owl. It’s weally nice.’

I nodded. ‘An enamel owl keyring, eh? Are you sure Brenda will think this is what she wants? I mean, in what way is it special?’

‘One of Bwenda’s hewoes is the Gweek goddess Athena. Athena’s the goddess of wisdom and I think a kind of wole model for Bwenda. When her business gets bigger and there’s more than one thewapist she’s going to call it Athena Associates. The owl is Athena’s sacwed bird and it’s going to be the symbol of Bwenda’s company. That why this keywing is so special.’

‘Oh, I see. So Brenda sees herself as a sort of wise owl and your gift recognises that wisdom, eh? Clever stuff. You obviously have put a lot of thought into choosing it. ’

‘Yes, I have. I wanted to get her something that said something to her, that has a deep message fwom my heart to hers. You know Bwenda does have a good heart. I know sometimes she seems theatwical and shallow and self-obsessed and pweoccupied with her own needs, but behind that façade there weally is a genuine person. A weal person.  I know sometimes she imagines she’s the bloody owacle or something, but maybe she weally does have something to give others that can help them. Do you think?

I shrugged. ‘Maybe. I just like the idea that Brenda can see in the dark and that she somehow resembles an owl. I’d never noticed that before!’

‘I think maybe that’s the idea of Athena’s owl,’ Tristan said. ‘That it’s a voice that can help us to choose the wight diwection in life. Fweedom is a dark dark fowest, my fwiend. We all need a voice like that sometimes to wemind us where we’re going, to guide us along the wight path.’

‘And so you reckon the enamel owl keyring will keep her happy, do you?’

Tristan nodded. ‘Bwenda’s moved on, my fwiend. She weally has. She’ll be thwilled with her pwesent.’

‘I hope you’re right,’ I said. Of course a little bird in my head was telling me he probably wasn’t.

‘I love birds,’ I said. ‘So does De Kooning, of course. For me, freedom rather than wisdom or capriciousness or  pestilence is what birds symbolise.  Because they can just come and go as they please. They can always fly away. Their presence is always a sort of beautiful gift. Their absence is always a possibility. If you had to choose a bird to represent yourself, Tristan – like Brenda has chosen the owl – what would it be?’

‘I dunno, mate,’ Tristan said. ‘It wouldn’t be an owl, though, that’s for sure. I’m not that wise. Twotsky was intewested in birds, you know. He famously said “The nightingale of poetwy, like that bird of wisdom, the owl, is heard only after the sun is set.”  He’s making a wefewence to Hegel’s wemark about the owl of Minerva, of course.  But I digwess.  So what bird would I see myself as? Maybe it would be a pawwot. Because I weally do need to learn hold my tongue sometimes. I can’t sing, so I couldn’t be a nightingale. I guess it would have to be a bird on a long journey, an albatwoss perhaps. What about you?’

‘I don’t know either,’ I said. ‘A dodo, maybe, or a cuckoo!’

Tristan laughed. I gave him the box of sunglasses and he gave De Kooning’s black fur a final quick ruffle before he went on his way.

‘Good luck with the keyring,’ I said as he walked down the garden path beneath the gently fluttering spring birch leaves.

‘Don’t wowwy, mate,’ he replied. ‘She’ll be over the moon, I pwomise you.’

I sat in the conservatory with De Kooning for a while, drinking a cappuccino and flicking through The Guardian. Gordon’s in deep doo-doo, and it seems to be doo-doo that gets deeper every day. How he must now long for those days when life was simple and all he had to do was try to get his clock to tick more quickly.  Tristan had remarked that Gordon better beware of assassins and coups. Tristan reckons the long knives will be out for him now.

When Margaret came in I told her Tristan had been and collected the sunglasses.

‘Good,’ she said. ‘It’s nice to see he can do something right.’ Margaret’s tone told me there was a whole conversation going on that neither I nor Tristan knew anything about. Brenda was nowhere near as happy as Tristan believed, it seemed.

‘Has he got her a birthday present yet?’ Margaret asked.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He has. Strangely enough he was just telling me about it.’

‘Good,’ Margaret said, tersely. ‘Let’s just hope it’s something nice. He really does need to make her feel special once in a while. God knows she does enough for him.’

I nodded. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I think Tristan does want her to feel special. I think that’s why he’s got her what he has. He’s obviously put a lot of thought into it.’

‘I don’t want to know what it is,’ Margaret said. ‘So don’t tell me. I just really hope he doesn’t let her down this time.’

I was pleased Margaret didn’t want to know what Tristan had bought Brenda for her birthday. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to let the enamel owl keyring out of the bag yet.

It was getting dark. Margaret was chopping onions. I was going to go for a walk but for whatever reason I couldn’t be bothered. I made myself another cappuccino and began to think about which part of Blyth I wanted to paint next. I’m torn between concentrating on Newsham and doing a series of old pubs in Blyth. The Kings Arms in Cowpen is the oldest building in the town and I thought maybe I should do that next. Or maybe I should do the Willow Tree and the Black Diamond first. I began wondering how many pubs there still were in Blyth and if I should map them all before I decided which one I should paint next.

On Friday morning I arrived at the office late. On one of the chairs in reception there was a copy of Neruda’s Selected Poems. There was a lad in his late teens with a shaven head and a stud in his upper lip sitting on the chair opposite. He was wearing white nylon track top and pants and big white trainers.

‘Is this yours?’ I said, picking the book up.

‘Nah,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It belongs to one of them Zorrs. He’s in there talking to one of the social workers.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. I took the book and went through to the team room.

‘Are Mandy and Mr Zee in?’ I said to Lily.

‘Yeah,’ she replied. ‘They’ve been getting funny phone calls again. Debs is in with them.’

I flicked through the book and came across Neruda’s poem Bird. I probably wouldn’t have read this one in particular – or even noticed it – had my week already not been so punctuated by avian references.

It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air –
and there, night came in.

When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography –
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

When I came down from my office at about lunchtime Owen was in the team room. He was wearing a thin brown cotton jacket, almost like the sort that a store keeper might wear. It hung on his bony frame like a slowly collapsing tent. He had just been in a meeting with Michelle and was passing time until his bus was due. I told him I’d been talking to Eric and that he’d said how blown away he’d been to meet him at last. Owen smiled, suppressing his elation.  Celebrities do that sometimes, I think. It’s paradoxical. It makes them look all the more remarkable for seeming all the more normal by being modest.

‘He said there was only one other famous person he’d have wanted to meet more,’ I said.

Owen frowned, curiously. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Who? No, no. No, let me guess.’ He gazed at me, narrowing his eyes and giving this issue deep thought. ‘Was it Leonard Cohen?’ he finally said.

‘No, Owen,’ I said, raising an eyebrow. ‘This is Eric we’re talking about here.’

‘Oh yes, Eric, eh? Okay’ He paused again. ‘So was it Neil Young?’

I shook my head slowly, emphatically.


‘James Taylor?’

I continued to shake my head. Owen looked perplexed, non-plussed even.

‘I’ve absolutely no idea, then,’ he said. ‘Give me a clue.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’ll tell you exactly what Eric said to me when he was trying to remember this person’s name. He said it was the bloke who was married to “hor wi’ the massa bazookas”.’

Owen flinched a little, as if a Jack in the Box had just popped out beneath his nose. He then frowned a distinctly different frown, a frown of disapprobation. For a minute he looked like he was about to suffocate. He shook his head mechanically. It was going to difficult for him to answer now even if he knew. There are some things about a woman a man like Owen can’t admit he’s even noticed. 

‘Peter Andre,’ I said. ‘The guy that’s married to Jordan?’

Owen looked vaguely appalled. ‘Peter Andre? Eric would rather have met Peter Andre than me? Really?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No, I was only joking. He actually said Chubby Brown.’

‘Did he?’ Owen said. ‘Chubby Brown? Oh my God! I’d have preferred Peter Andre!’

‘Well, there you go. So it’s not that bad after all, is it? It was Peter Andre. Chubby was a joke.’

‘Chubby is a joke,’ Owen quipped. A part of him was obviously beginning to feed off the better bits of being second best to Peter Andre. It’s often a consolation in life if when you lose you focus on those people you’ve beaten rather than those who turned out to do better than you. There’s nothing worse than seeing yourself as a swan and being beaten at the bird show by a turkey. There I go again. I seem to have birds on the brain these days.

Owen then began to tell me another story about Jack. It seems Tallulah has recently taken part in an amateur production of Moulin Rouge, and that she’d brought some pictures of the show into the office. One or two of them apparently revealed her in a red silk basque, pink feather boa, black fishnet tights and black stilettoes.

‘You should have seen Jack’s eyes,’ Owen said, leaning forward and looking around as if to be sure no-one was eaves-dropping. ‘They looked like they were going to pop out of his head!’

‘How could you see them?’  I said. ‘He didn’t take his sunglasses off, did he?’

He did!’ Owen said, his face for a moment assuming the expression of a monkey that had just bitten into a lemon. ‘Between you and me,’ he went on, ‘I think he is descending into depravity. His lechery was undisguised. Utterly undisguised.’

‘So did you see these pictures too, Owen?’ I asked.

‘Yes, of course,’ he said. ‘Oh they were truly shameless. You could see all of Tallulah’s legs and everything. I will grant Jack this, of course: she should never have brought such pictures in. Never. She’s as much to blame as he is, in that sense. But her mistake was only an error of judgement, albeit a fairly grave one. She certainly isn’t depraved.’

‘Was she embarrassed by you and Jack looking at the pictures?’ I said.

‘Embarrassed? Tallulah? No, I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. Well, to be honest I don’t know. She must have been embarrassed when Jack asked her if he could have an enlargement of one of them for his wall. Any woman would. But Tallulah was very good, very controlled and professional, and didn’t let it show.’

‘Just as well,’ I said. ‘It sounds like she let just about everything else show.’

Owen looked as if he was hovering on the brink of panic. ‘Oh, look at the time,’ he said, as if gripped by a sudden urgency. ‘I must fly. I really must. My bus is almost due.’

I wandered back upstairs. There were a pair of collared doves sitting on the sill outside my window. I sat down carefully and watched them for a while. Eric was right, I thought: how could creatures like these ever have a human disease?


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