Friday, 11 November 2016

Love's the only engine of survival

I'm going to have to ban early morning phone calls from my younger son; they never bring good tidings. In January it was the death of David Bowie, his voice tender because he knew how upset I'd be. Our shared desolation at the outcome of the EU referendum in June was mirrored this Wednesday last by horror at Donald Trump's ascent to power.  This morning he was too upset himself to get the words out, but I guessed straightaway.  There was no one else left.

I was 14 when I first encountered Leonard Cohen in 1976. I was on an exchange visit to Bordeaux; he was singing in French and called Graeme Allwright.  I soon tracked down the originals of these cover versions and Leonard took over the soundtrack of my life, a conglomerate father/older brother/lover/husband/ mentor figure who addressed my needs in a way the actual men in my life couldn't or wouldn't. (Though to be fair, my older brother never existed.)  And unlike real-life Leonard - or, indeed, my later, eventual ex-husband - my personal Leonard was constant, always there. If anyone in that particular relationship ever drifted off for too long, it was me.

I've never found him depressing (though I do avoid listening to some of his songs when things aren't good - notably, Dress Rehearsal Rag). In fact, I'd say it was the other way around - when I've been at my lowest and turned to him, his songs and poems have lifted me. I think it's because although his great theme is endings - the loss, mess, despair and emotional exhaustion of them - he shows us their beauty too. 

But now - with the exception of Alan Garner - my heroes are gone, all within the space of three years - first, Seamus Heaney, then Terry Pratchett and David Bowie, and now Leonard Cohen. White, English-speaking men - I know - and flawed too, at least in the case of the singers. But as Leonard himself put it 'Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in'. And between them, they've taught me the importance of recognising beauty in the moment and celebrating it, that being good and being nice are not the same thing, that being yourself and pushing beyond your comfort zone is vital to creativity, and how to pick yourself up again and again and carry on with grace to the end.  

Finally, that I'm not alone. 

Recently, some of Leonard's darker, prophetic songs from the 80s have taken on a new insistency as our island turns in on itself, quoting the John of Gaunt death-bed speech out of context as usual, and a quasi-fascistic mindset takes hold in the country formerly known as the land of the free.  And, as a friend observed earlier, without the certainty that somewhere far to the west Leonard is writing and sleeping and eating and fiddling about on that Casio keyboard of his makes this lurch to the far right even harder to bear. But from the same song that contains such catastrophic images of war - 'The Future' - one line stands out today. It is 'love's the only engine of survival', and this is the route map he left us. 


  1. He certainly left us the tools to use to comfort ourselves.

    1. Yes. Can't quite listen to him yet, though. Eyes puffy enough as it is.