Leonard has left the building

Some people just know when it is time to leave the party. After 82 years Leonard Cohen passed away leaving a huge legacy of poetry and music that has marked millions of moments of love, of goodbye, of bewilderment and questioning on the human condition.

I first heard Leonard Cohen in 1977 – I was always a late developer on the things that mattered – at a party hosted by Hedd, a workmate I haven’t seen since I left the printshop where we worked together. A confused and lost 17 year old on the brink of marriage, I thought that this was a soundtrack to accompany suicide. But my own feelings of bewilderment and confusion at trying to understand the human condition soon led to meetings with a psychotherapist. We didn’t manage to sort out my childhood traumas but we did spend hours talking about poetry …. Leonard Cohen figured largely in our weekly half hour sessions.

Through his songs, I discovered that my sense of being permanently lost and at a loss were not unique to me – which was a bit of a reassurance really. Passing via Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas, I began to make some sense of the world around me.

Still listening to Leonard Cohen, I moved through the usual round of love, loss, and lamentation that accompanies the move from adolescence into adulthood.

Divorce and university followed and again Cohen was there to hold my hand with his words. Words that allowed a sort of cathartic experience, tears that could finally escape and remind me that “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”

My dearest loves have their Cohen song that throws me into flashback..

For the man with the deep auburn hair who showed me I was intelligent and for whom I read Bourdieu and Sartre and tried to be  de Beauvoir,  it was “That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”.  I recognised that the goodbye was inevitable even if the love remained until it transitioned through the various stages of mourning and fighting until I realised that unless I became the ocean I would be seasick everyday. And so I set sail.

My children bring me “Hallelujah”. It was a song I had tucked away in the back of my mind but their love of the film Shrek brought Leonard’s version running right to the front of my heart and even if I hear it on the car radio, I feel the pull of sadness and joy. They are all grown up and I don’t watch Shrek anymore – the empty nest and the passage from mother to crone.

And now the soundtrack is “Dance me to the End of Love”, a song I listen to often in the late evening when my husband and I just are, just being. The words echo what he means to me, in my lostness and even at 56, bewilderment at the human condition…

“Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,

Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in,

Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove,

Dance me to the end of Love”.

Thank you Leonard. leonard-cohen-hallelujah








IMG_0499My father Jack Newman, was a member of the civil defence and had recently lost his job as a miner when Llanbradach pit closed. He was collected by the civil defence and went there to work with the other miners trained in pit Rescue. One of the first teams to arrive, he helped dig in and pull the bodies out. Bodies of children the same age as me. I was 6 at the time. When he eventually came home, maybe 2 days later, he cried. I never saw him cry before or since. This was a man who fought in WW2, saw the horrors of war at first hand. But Aberfan touched him in a way nothing else seemed to have done. He changed. He was distant, didn’t laugh anymore. He withdrew into himself and never really came back. He gardened, studied for a diploma in horticulture and became eventually a park and garden officer for the local authority. But he, the Dad who went to Aberfan on the 21st of October never came back. Today we’d probably call it post traumatic stress disorder. I’m sure many families also suffered this. The children were the first victims, their familes, the second wave of victims. Then there were the rest. People like my Dad. He died in 1978, aged 59. But I lost him in 1966. This was just my way of marking this 50th anniversary and finally letting him go. And sending love to everyone else who lost someone in or because of Aberfan. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Christmas is coming

Tree up. This year it’s an artificial one. I somehow couldn’t get my head around cutting a tree down and then watching it wither for three weeks and then throwing it out. Despite the promise of Ikea and Jardiland to give me a 10€ gift voucher for the return of the deadish tree after the festivities.

Yes – a real tree smells good. Yes – a plastic one lacks the soul of a real one. But on the plus side, no needles to sweep up. Even cat attacks leave it relatively unscathed. And undoubted progress has been made. I remember my family’s sad little artificial tree – after a couple of years it had more sellotape than silver binding around its skinny little trunk. Even so it never ceased to make me smile – even when its tinsely branches had lost more than half of their plastic, frilly, green-leaf bits.

The new tree is almost realistic except it doesn’t have the half-metre of bare bit at the top which you never know whether to cut or not. It also saved all that sweating and sawing trying to get the trunk to fit into the metal jaw thing that is supposed to hold it upright…..

Straight off I sort of missed the piney smell. All was not lost however – one bottle of pine essential oil and a discretely placed diffuser and Hey Presto! One faux pine smelling like a small forest!

We are getting used to each other – the faux pine and I. Seems like this could be a winning partnership.

Why an aspidistra?

Back home in the valleys of South Wales, most of the houses looked pretty much the same when I was growing up.  Terraces sprawled along the valley bottom and scrambled up the sides when the floor was full. Homes sprung up with a speed never before or since seen, to house the influx of workers for the mining industry. Not much had changed by the early sixties when I was growing up.

There were some interesting and quirky exceptions. To break the monotony, some mine owners and other home-builders in the early 20th century had adopted a slightly different view. Here and there sprouted houses that were more individual, less crowded one against the other. The concept of the garden village was born.

My grandparents lived in one such house, with a big garden and a pretty, cottage-style frontage. But what singled it out for me was the entrance hall. No corridor effect that had the stairs straight in front and the doors off to one side but a wide space where the doors opened in front, to each side and the staircase turned elegantly with a real wooden bannister that allowed you to look down on the hall.

Their hall was cool and smelled of wood polish and had a real tile floor. As you entered through the front door, there was a wall opposite with a door to the left-hand side leading to the sitting room. To the left of this door was a polished wood table, with barley-stick legs which was always dressed with a little lace-edged table cloth and upon the table cloth was the aspidistra. It sat in a big, red bowl with its glossy leaves bowing gently over the sides. It sat there for as long as I can remember, a symbol of calm and steadiness.

It meant something to me, that aspidistra. It meant that everything was fine in the universe. As I crossed the hall to get the bottle of Tango out from the cupboard under the stairs or a packet of Smith’s cheese and onion crisps, it was always there. It didn’t move. It didn’t wilt. Its leaves stayed green and brilliant all the year round whatever happened, whatever the season and whatever sagas and scandals agitated the family.

It left a lasting impression on me and later, when I read “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” by George Orwell,  I laughed out-loud when I understood what the aspidistra represented – a respectable, middle class lifestyle.

The aspidistra represented for me a confusion, a dichotomy – the longing for that comfortable and calm lifestyle and my inability to grasp it when the chance presented itself. Even a conscious rejection of it sometimes. But far more often, a chaotic passage straight through the middle of life’s events, astounded by the absurdity, tragedy and ultimately the comedy of it all.

Now living in France, I still think of that aspidistra in the hall of my grandparents house and what it stood for in its red, gleaming bowl. I don’t know what happened to it. Maybe it got thrown out?

I have never owned an aspidistra but I do find myself frequently looking at them, sideways when I go to the garden centre……..