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Choose your Christmas – a proposal to save Christmas (and a few lives)

There’s lots of talk at the moment about people afraid of missing Christmas because of Omicron, or having to cancel other social events to save their Christmas. It just seems crazy to me that we can’t be more flexible about this. My solution: Choose your Christmas.

Chris Whitty at the recent Downing Street press conference

This year (and last) would have been a great opportunity to turn Christmas into a moveable feast. You would still get together with your loved ones, just not all in December or when the weather’s crap. Your family might wait til March for your Christmas, or go early in November. Whenever suits.

It’s not just because of Covid – pandemics don’t happen often thankfully, but Christmas has always been mad. It’s great, but there’s so much expense and chaos. I come from a family of retailers who get no time off and collapse exhausted on Christmas Eve, and then spend 10 months not doing much. Why do we stand for this?

If Christmas could be personal and happen anytime, I think everyone would be happier. Retailers would be a bit busier throughout the year, and they’d have no mad rush at the end. Likewise, the NHS wouldn’t be brought to its knees with so many people getting ill at the same time (this has happened for years before Covid with flu, norovirus and other grot), plus you’d have a greater chance of actually being treated, as half the doctors and nurses wouldn’t be off sick themselves.

Don’t misunderstand me – I get that it’s good in dreary northern Europe to have a Festival of Lights at the darkest time of year. But we could have that anyway – and extend it. Imagine having your lights up from November all the way through February, it’d be bloody lovely.

And I also know it’s good to have a Season of Goodwill. But we could have that any day. Or every day, even. Just think: every day someone, somewhere would be having their own Christmas. More chance of running into someone in a good mood. If Christmas happened more often people would find there was less opportunity to drop bombs on someone or yell at them or be horrible to them in other ways.

In other words, instead of everyone being slightly grumpy from January to November (because no Christmas) and then very grumpy, stressed and poor in December (because Christmas), the good vibes that Christmas IS ACTUALLY SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT would be distributed through the year and nobody would be grumpy about it at all. Wild!

At a time when we can all choose what to watch on TV when we want to watch it, and in whatever order we want to watch it in, it doesn’t make sense for everyone to be forced to have the same stress, the same expense, the same brussels sprouts AT THE SAME TIME.

So how about it. Choose your Christmas. Families benefit. Society benefits. The economy benefits. Lethal respiratory viruses won’t go nuts and blow up the NHS. It’s a win-win.

The only problem I foresee is that the Queen would be a bit busier, doing a different little speech on TV every month, say, rather than once a year. But that might be nice. She might enjoy it, too. Has anyone ever asked her? I bet they haven’t.

What kind of f*ckery is this?

I got into a slight Tarantino binge this week. Lots of little Pulp Fiction clips had been coming up on YouTube so even though I’d seen it about 10 times already I gave in and watched the whole thing on Prime Video. The platform said the film was “free with ads”. I thought: ads? This was new to me. Don’t I pay for Prime already? So why ads? I was doubtful, but I watched the movie. It’s as great as it ever was and still one of my top five favourite films of all time. It’s nostalgic, as it came out when I was in my mid-20s, but also hasn’t aged a bit (except, maybe, for the phones. Ah, phones which were just phones).

However. Twice, right in the middle of a scene, practically in the middle of some dialogue for chrissake, I suddenly got an “ad”. The first ad was for, er, Pulp Fiction on Prime Video. A weird little montage of famous clips from the film. (And they are practically all famous, which makes this even more redundant.) Having an ad for a famously postmodern film in the middle of watching the film itself was I suppose suitably meta, but hey, guys, I’m a captive audience, y’know? I can’t remember what the second ad was for, laundry detergent probably.

Next night I watched Kill Bill Vol 1 on Netflix. No ads, but also: no subtitles. It’d been so long since I’d seen the film (I first saw it in the West End at the time it was released) that when it came to all the Japanese sections I just assumed having no subtitles was deliberate, that you were supposed to just work out what was going on from the tone and the action. Bold, but fair. Revolutionary, in fact. But maybe I was giving Tarantino undue credit. It was only right at the end and the famous line “That really was a Hattori Hanzo sword” which I remembered reading on screen, because otherwise I would have had no idea of what was being said, that I remembered the original did show the captions and I realised I could just have turned on normal subtitles. My mistake, but still. Ridiculous. Why should I have had to?

Then last night I went back to Netflix and searched for Kill Bill Vol 2. They didn’t have it. That’s correct. Netflix have Kill Bill Vol 1 but not Kill Bill Vol 2. The literal second part of the film. The other half. The concluding episode. This goes a bit beyond a platform not having an inferior sequel (or, in Netflix’s case more often, having all the crappy sequels but not the original). Momentarily this was enough for me to hate the world. Luckily though it was on Prime Video… albeit, yes! With ads. The ads on this movie were much worse than on Pulp Fiction, cropping up about every 20 minutes practically mid-punch. You’re watching some stylish ultra-violence and it jump-cuts to a jolly commercial. I’m proud to say I can’t remember a single advertiser or product now I sit and write this the next morning, but in the moment this was no consolation. Tarantino himself would probably approve, to be fair, as the film is after all partly a pastiche of cheesy 70s TV kung fu shows. But at least those shows were made with ad breaks in mind – films aren’t, or where films have traditionally been shown with ads on network TV (remember that??) at least someone has actually sat down and bothered to work out appropriate points in the action for a commercial break. This doesn’t even need to make dramatic sense when done properly: I remember back in the late 80s Channel 4 once showed Paris, Texas late at night and they almost used the ad breaks as poetically as Wim Wenders did his camera. There’s a beautiful point in the action where the camera roves around over a cityscape at sunset and settles on the US flag, and Channel 4 chose the ad break right then, leaving you to focus on this moment, the way the flag reminds you of the film’s title, of the film you’re watching and where it’s set and its quietness and the vast landscapes it inhabits. Prime’s take on ads by contrast is about as poetic as a kung fu thump to your face. It’s just an algorithm, and it sucks.

YouTube, which prompted me to revisit the films in the first place, is just as bad – the same ads for the same two or three “food straight to your door in 10 seconds”-type services every time you watch anything, or, when you watch something longer than about 8 minutes, again, bang, an ad for a personal injury litigation firm. To add insult to (personal) injury, platforms treat consumers like children, forcing creators to pixellate female nipples on pain of account suspension, and suppressing our content which they use as a vehicle for their profiteering if we fail to latch on to their boring new features they’ve only created to give themselves more commercial potential.

How did we get to a point where we’ve allowed our audio-visual entertainment to be run by computers programmed by people who care only about money and not about cinema or any sort of user experience? It’s little more than legitimised spam. It’s bad enough having crappy political leadership in our lives, but this takes the biscuit. At least there’s some notion of “democracy” in government. It feels decreasingly true, but you can still just about vote those people out. By comparison you can’t decide how Netflix or Prime Video or YouTube or Instagram are run. You could stop using them, but you know you won’t, because they’re too massive. Nobody will see your great photo anywhere else. Blockbuster doesn’t exist anymore and you want to make a viewing decision from your sofa, so you don’t want to wait for the DVD to be delivered (by, er, Amazon).

This experience happened during a week in which Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram all went offline for hours because a) they’re all owned by the same people and b) someone thought it would be a good idea for them all to be linked by the same technology.

All of these are services that all of us use, not because we want to be sold something but because we have something to offer the world or share with people – social networking, remember? – and we have failed ourselves.

Custard stops

The Custard Stops at Hatfield by Kenny Everett
The Custard Stops at Hatfield by Kenny Everett

I had a random memory yesterday. Quite often as a kid my dad would take me on long walks around central London on Sunday afternoons. Invariably my mum would stay at home and do the housework (partly because she preferred to and partly, she later told me, because she thought it was a good opportunity for father/son bonding). On one of these occasions my dad and I were at Waterloo station on the way home and popped into WH Smith, one of my favourite shops, as you could get both books and stationery there, and Kenny Everett‘s new memoir The Custard Stops at Hatfield was on display. Everyone loved Kenny back then, he was massively popular, and I thought it was a hilarious title, although I never actually read it and could only guess at why the “custard” ended at an unremarkable new town 20 miles north of London. Later we got home. “We saw The Custard Stops at Hatfield!” I chirruped to my mum in the way that children do, a) with no sense of priority (we might have spent the day at the Tower of London or the Science Museum BUT I SAW A FUNNY BOOK) and b) fully expecting the targeted grown-up to be completely familiar with the topic at hand. She knew of Everett of course but hadn’t heard of the book. Puzzled, she repeated the sentence back, thinking I’d said that my dad and I had been through Hatfield and saw “custard stops”. What could these have been? Squidgy yellow train stations? Surreal art installations? Some unique local phenomena of flora or fauna? Why, indeed, were we even in, or passing through, Hatfield? Where even WAS Hatfield? None of us was sure but it seemed rather a long way from East Molesey. Finally my dad laughed and explained “It’s a book.” Yet, the questions remain 35 years later. I suppose I’ll just have to finally go and read the thing to find out (dirty job etc), but in the meantime, for all I know Everett did mean “stops” as in the noun, and at very least the title is a kind of crash blossom. But every so often I think of this incident and my mum’s expression trying to fathom what I was talking about, and the kid in me still hopes there are things called custard stops, whatever they may be, in small towns outside London.

RIP Cheggers

Keith Chegwin brightened the dull Saturday mornings of my youth, of which there were many in the early 80s. I often spent Saturday morning alone in the flat above the shop my parents ran, with the gas fire up full, eating jam tarts and watching Swap-Shop on our rented TV. I sometimes felt alone, but the live format of the show and Cheggers’s’s indefatigable, almost unfeasible chirpiness helped things along. It was sad that he struggled with alcoholism later in life, but many people do, and I understand he recovered. I was jealous when he married Maggie Philbin. He always seemed to retain his sense of humour regardless of his situation. He was way cheesy but nobody cared. Unlike many others, I don’t even resent his nude game show episode, though I can’t say I’ve ever made a point of watching it. Some Tory MP stood up in the Commons and described the show as the most disgusting thing on TV. Why, because it had some naked people and one of them was a middle-aged, slightly overweight bloke? Good for him, if you ask me. A few years ago he was thrown in Twitter prison by the humorless for supposedly plagiarising jokes. He tweeted a gag once and I replied, “I refuse to laugh at that unless it’s original.” He sent me a direct message simply saying “LOL”.

A hairy encounter

In my way home from Christmas shoppping, I stopped to look in the window of a new local barber shop at an advert for a “man mask”, featuring a photo of a bearded 20-something guy having a mud-pack. I’d barely begun attempting to process this latest example of hipster insanity when a bloke of about the same age in some sort of stylised apron get-up darted out of the shop and accosted me with the most practised sales spiel I’ve heard in a long time. “Walk in anytime, no appointment needed” wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, but hey, we need all the reassurance we can get these days. More tantalising was the promise of a loyalty card and hot or cold drinks while you wait, which just makes absolute sense to me. Upon my request, he claimed that not only do they do styles, but “you give us a photo of the haircut, we put your face into it”. I think he probably meant this metaphorically, but I’m so old and out of touch that what do I know? Photoshop does incredible things these days, I’m told, including turning a frown into a smile (no joke actually), so who am I to say they can’t just cut and paste Morrissey’s Smiths-era quiff onto my own real-life fizzog? As he pressed a £5 off voucher for a £24 haircut into my still-querulous palm, I glanced up and even his colleague was stifling a titter at the guy’s brazenness. But, you gotta hand it to him. I normally pay about £12 for a haircut at the place I’ve been going to since (excepting my Midlands hiatus) 1988, but I fear I may have to try these guys if only for the sheer enthusiasm, sadly lacking at my current establishment: it’s as much as you can do to get them to grunt a “sorry” as they relieve you of your eyebrows, or even a “thank you” when, regardless, you tip them, in true British fashion. So, will it be a scissorial sensation or a follicular folly? I shall investigate and report back.

Sam Shepard and Dylan’s Brownsville Girl

Sam Shepard, who died the other day, was best known for being one of America’s great playwrights, and not a half bad film actor. To be fair the only work of his I’m really familiar with (judging from his obituary, I have a hell of a lot of catching up to do) is his screenplay for the great Wim Wenders movie Paris, Texas – a beautifully understated short screen story about identity, separation, fathers and sons, and America. I first saw it back in the 80s late at night on Channel 4, not long after it came out, and as a young guitarist was mostly attracted by Ry Cooder’s evocative, sparse score. Anyway, when I saw he’d died, the only other thing I knew for sure about Sam Shepard was that he collaborated with Bob Dylan (another musical hero of mine) a couple of times. The first was on Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-76, for which he had a credit on the ensuing surreal movie Renaldo and Clara and about which he wrote The Rolling Thunder Logbook, which I used to have but stupidly gave away in one of my house moves. The second collaboration was when they wrote a fantastic song together, the 11-minute 1986 epic Brownsville Girl, and this – to finally get to the point – is what first came into my mind when I heard about Shepard’s passing. The song is up there with any of Dylan’s best – it’s a weird, fragmented short story, it’s funny, heartbreaking and full of imagery. It’s supposedly about a Gregory Peck western (but is a tad more meta than that – “I still remember the day you came to me on a painted desert … I can’t remember why I was in that film or which part I was supposed to play”), and listening to it is like watching a film, or more specifically like sitting up late one night when you’re alone and a movie you’ve never heard of comes on Channel 4 and you’re transported by it to places you hadn’t expected. (I don’t even know if that happens anymore incidentally, what with the general decline in quality of network TV and films, and the culture now of proactively subscribing to channels and shows rather than idly surfing and stumbling across things.) If you’ve never heard it, whatever you think of Dylan or westerns, have a listen below. His delivery and the arrangement – very 80s in style, with lots of reverb, big sax breaks and ethereal backing singers, who break character to make knowing interventions in the main lyric – are an essential part of what makes the song great, but if you really can’t stand Dylan’s voice or feel 11 minutes is too long then you can get a life and read another blog read the lyrics for a feel of the story. (Oddly, Dylan’s own site that I link to there doesn’t credit Shepard.) Or indeed you can read along to the lyrics while you listen to the song. Dylan half-speaks the words, so they are pretty clear, but when I first heard it in the late 80s there was no internet or published version of the lyrics, so I had to stop-start the tape of the song that a friend gave me and transcribe it as best I could; being British, I had no idea what a “swap meet” was so for years I thought it was “swamp meet”. By the way, if it turns out you love the song, I probably wouldn’t recommend buying the whole original album Knocked Out Loaded, as it was (in keeping with Dylan’s legendary inconsistency) not one of his best. But then maybe why not? It’s Dylan. Enjoy, and RIP Sam.

Talking about mental health

Readers of my blog will know I’ve not exactly ever been a fan of Tony Blair’s spin doctor, but when it comes to mental health we’re all in the same boat, dealing with it. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually blogged about mental health, so for some readers I’m coming out here as a lifelong sufferer of anxiety. I deal with it (or don’t) in various ways but one way in the past year or so has been through therapy, first CBT on the NHS and then private psychotherapy. I may post more about some of that sometime but this clip I saw on Twitter this morning moved me very much and I wanted to take a break from my usual rather sarcastic, cynical style to share this widely. This short conversation between Alastair Campbell and his partner Fiona Millar highlights not only (and quite scarily) how it’s possible to be in some cases very high-functioning while still having a serious problem, but also how partners of people with mental health issues can blame themselves and/or react inappropriately because they don’t know how to deal with it. This can cause many problems in relationships – I think I’ve probably messed up at least two because of it. I tend to shut down completely when I have anxiety, and if you factor into that the stigma around MH issues the problem can just internalise endlessly, making talking counterintuitive – yet talking is often exactly what’s needed. So even if you don’t have these problems yourself but are in a relationship with someone who does, or think you may be, give this a watch.

The Brexit of You and Me – a poem

I was the 48 per cent
to your 52
You voted to leave me
I, to remain with you

I thought the deal we had
was great, the perfect match
But you wanted to renegotiate,
start again, from scratch

I showed you scientific evidence
that my heart would break
You said ‘We’ve had enough of experts
It’ll be just a little ache’

I asked you why you did it
You looked at me quite shifty
You said ‘You were too high-maintenance
You triggered my Article 50’

All I wanted from our love
was the deepest unity
You say that all you want from life
is to know you’re free

I asked the Leader of the Opposition
to validate my pride
I thought he would defend me
but he took your side

Now I parade outside your house
a protest march of one
with my tatty placard calling for
a second referendum

I know I’ve lost, the tide has turned
I’m doing all I can
But I lost the vote, then I lost you
I am yesterday’s man

It was all my fault, my campaign was poor
I took your vote for granted
I never thought you’d really put me
on the single market

I should probably just be grateful
for being part of you this long
Nothing lasts forever
Guess I’ll be moving on.


(c) Thoughtcat 2017

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to any real break-up is entirely coincidental. Happy Valentine’s Day.

The real Prime Minister’s Questions

THE SPEAKER: Order, order. Jeremy Corbyn.


JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister please take this question about the dire state of something that really matters to ordinary people and completely ignore it in favour of making an embarrassing joke that makes her look nastier than Cruella de Vil and causes the members opposite to laugh hysterically and press their tongues firmly against her buttocks in a transparent display of ingratiation?

THERESA MAY: My Right Honorable Friend has a beard! Look at it! It’s like this really silly beard! Just like Fidel Castro, that other well-known communist!

TORY MEMBERS: [collapse in hysterics]

JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister confirm that Brexit does, in fact, mean Fuxit?

THERESA MAY: My friend opposite has a beard! [winks knowingly at the clean-shaven David Davis]

JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister confirm that this country is turning into a right shithole under the Conservative government?

THE SPEAKER: Ordure, ordure.

THERESA MAY: My Right Honorable Friend can run down this magnificent country of ours as much as he likes, but he has – wait for it – a fucking beard!

TORY MEMBERS: [die laughing]

JEREMY CORBYN: Has the Prime Minister seen “I, Daniel Blake”?

THERESA MAY: No, does he have a beard?

TORY MEMBERS: [start bombing the food banks]

JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister stop talking about my beard please and answer my questions?

THERESA MAY: [puts on Jeremy Corbyn Fake Beard bought earlier from Poundland]

TORY MEMBERS: [all put on fake Corbyn beards and laugh themselves sick]

JEREMY CORBYN: What does it take to have any questions actually answered or any legitimate concerns taken seriously around here?

THERESA MAY: [lighting Cuban cigar off £50 note] Oh fucking cheer up you beardy twat.

TORY MEMBERS: [orgasm]



MSM PAPERS: Corbyn is a beardy twat – it’s official!

Leonard Cohen 1934-2016

I woke up in the night to go to the bathroom and when I came back to bed I checked my phone to see the time: sometime after 3am. I took a sip of water and scrolled idly through my notifications. In the middle of them was one from the Guardian. The text started with the words “Leonard Cohen” and I knew even before I read on that it was bad news. The word “bard” and his age 82 stood out and I knew they were saying he’d died before I finished reading the headline. I stopped there, the glass frozen at my lips, and thought just one word, the word that begins with the letter F which you say to yourself when things don’t seem to be able to get any worse.

I put the phone down and got back into bed. I knew this was not going to be an ordinary day for me but there was nothing I could do at three in the morning. I felt ineffectual, useless, resigned and angry, the same as I have done at receiving other bad news in recent days, weeks, months.

I fell asleep and immediately dreamt about him. He was with his family somewhere and I was with some other people, fans maybe or reporters. Something impactful had happened to him, there was some undefined but implicitly negative news, and in my concern I followed him up a path leading to a building, maybe his house. He was right in front of me, close enough that I could touch him. He turned round to me and waved me away, saying something like “You can go now” or “Please leave”. I said, “No problem, I just wanted to check you were okay.” He disappeared round the side of the house and I turned and went away.

It’s not a very heartwarming image or gesture – I guess we’d like to think we’re special to these special people, that if you actually met Leonard Cohen, even in a dream, he would invite you in and accommodate you and be your friend. In real life he was a very accommodating man, extremely gracious to interviewers, giving great answers, asking if they needed more time, if they had enough for their editors, offering them food and drink and even cooking for them sometimes. But in this dream, if I felt shunned, I like to think it wasn’t because he was acting ungraciously or because he didn’t want me there but because he was going away to a place I shouldn’t be going. He was going to his death, about which he was as serious as everything else in his life, and he had to go there alone, and it was in fact the utmost graciousness for him to turn me away and to tell me in effect to go back to my life.

Only a few weeks ago a friend had posted on Facebook about an interview with Leonard in which he talked about being “ready to die”. The friend was lamenting and worrying about the implications, but my response was lighthearted. I commented that he had lived to a grand old age and had lived an incredible life of constant world travel, concerts and writing, and would leave a unique and amazing legacy of work. I left it at that even when a few days later I received his new album You Want It Darker in the post. The title was grim, portentous; did I really want to listen to it? Despite being a huge fan between the ages of 15 and 35, my interest had waned in the past few years. I hadn’t actually listed to many of his records very recently, and wasn’t that enamoured of his last couple of albums. Of course I bought them all though and of course I wanted to listen to this one. It just looked very dark. And indeed it was about as dark an album as I’d ever heard, even from him. I couldn’t actually listen to the end. I’ve not listened to it since and still not heard all the tracks. In the meantime, a video of Leonard giving a press conference to promote the album surfaced on the web in which he regretted saying he was “ready to die” and had in fact “decided to live forever”. That cheered me up, and I developed this idea that he still had plenty of life left in him.

When I woke up at 7am a few hours after reading the news on my phone, I looked at the Guardian article properly, all the live updates as tributes came in, and also at Twitter where people were waking up and gradually finding out. Quite quickly I felt a terrible sense of loss and sadness and grief, my eyes watering. I hauled myself out of bed and put on a pot of coffee, which isn’t something I do every day, but I felt there was going to be a need for it. I got out my laptop, went on Twitter and the Guardian and scrolled through. After a few minutes I could barely type or even see the screen for tears. It felt almost ridiculous. I’d never felt this way about the death of anyone “famous”. Thankfully I work at home. I had no idea how I would have handled it if I’d had to commute into an office.

I was first introduced to Leonard Cohen at the tender age of 15 by my psychiatrist, who had been a fan all his life. I was suffering from anxiety and missing school, and it was the best treatment he could have given me. I used to look forward to our sessions – by definition his availability was limited, but by introducing me to such a great writer and singer he basically showed me a way to a permanent soothing companion. Leonard Cohen knew how I felt, and he would always be there.

My psychiatrist lent me Cohen’s first Greatest Hits album and his first novel The Favourite Game. The novel doesn’t get talked about much and Cohen came to refer to it as an indulgence, which I would agree with now, but a lot of it is as good (or definitive) as anything he ever wrote, lyrically fictionalising his youth growing up in Montreal. As a lonely teenager I could relate to it completely, and for many years it remained one of my favourite books. The album had Suzanne and Famous Blue Raincoat on it, among other classics – even the cover was wonderful, Cohen reflected in a mirror looking mournful in an immaculate dark suit. A friend at the time said I was mad to listen to it because it would make me feel suicidal, but it had the opposite effect; the friend was one of those people who, at that time, had never actually listened to the records, although when he eventually did, he became a fan too. The music and songs were lyrical, beautiful, deeply spiritual, like hymns or prayers. I wasn’t religious, but the songs were religious without being preachy.

I saw Leonard in concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993 and apart from being a great, long gig I remember him at one point turning on its head the notion that the world was too awful to bring children into: laughing about his daughter Lorca’s decision to pierce her tongue, he cried “Let the next generation work it out! We’ve done our best, it’s their turn now.” He also sang “Dance me to the children who are asking to be born” in Dance Me to the End of Love and years later I had that lyric read out at my wedding. The philosophy of these lines helped me feel better about having children. I saw him again at the O2 in 2008, another magnificent show which he introduced by saying, “Last time I was on a stage in London I was 60 years old – just a kid with a crazy dream.” Both concerts went on for three hours or more – he knew how to give value for money, and he’s still the only artist I’ve ever seen who said “I apologise in advance for the financial and logistical inconvenience you’ve had to undergo to get here. It’s an honour to play for you tonight.” Twenty thousand people instantly forgot they’d paid £70 a ticket, travelled for hours and arranged babysitters, and he had us, as they say, in the palm of his hand.

I went to two international fan conventions, on the island of Hydra in Greece where he used to live, and in New York. Hydra was an especially magical occasion and at the open mic I accompanied a fabulous Italian singer on guitar on Chelsea Hotel No. 2, the song telling the story of his doomed affair with Janis Joplin; it was one of the honours of my life to play that in front of an audience with such a great singer.

I nearly met Leonard Cohen once in London in 2007 when, just prior to his return to world touring, he shared a stage with his partner and collaborator Anjani in an industry showcase for her album Blue Alert. I’d heard on the internet that it was going on and somehow blagged my way in at the door. It was a tiny club in the West End and the room was packed with record company types. Leonard was 72 then, had on a grey suit and blue shirt, top button fastened, cropped grey hair on its way to white. He looked thinner than I remembered and smaller than I ever thought he was, and his voice, while still deep and resonant, was unexpectedly soft. He looked slightly crumpled, in fact. But he had presence in spades in his own low-key way. Anjani sang her jazzy set with her snazzy little band and then Leonard joined her and they duetted on some new songs. It was mesmerising. I pinched myself at the same time as checking over my shoulder in case someone worked out I didn’t belong there and chucked me out. The showcase ended and I started chatting with someone and suddenly I was aware there was a queue of people waiting to speak to him. I ran over to the end of the line, trying to think of something to say: “I love you, man” was true but trite; “Your work has touched me more deeply than that of any other singer/songwriter I’ve ever known” was truer but sounded weighty and pretentious – how was a man supposed to reply to a comment like that? The queue crawled on and with just two people ahead of me, his security whisked him away. If I was momentarily crushed I realised with a grim laugh that it really would have been too good to be true if I had actually managed to speak to him – and anyway what would I have said? I’d had 20 years to think of something to say, but I’m sure I would have only ended up babbling and embarrassing myself.

I’m a fan of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles and The Smiths, but Leonard Cohen was without doubt the most important singer/songwriter in my life. His words were profound. Nobody used words like he did. He once said in a documentary “You have to sit in the very bonfire of your distress until you’re burnt away and it’s ashes, and it’s gone.” He sang “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” In his last interview he said “It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate the willingness to serve.” Nobody else ever said things like that. His songs were like prayers for people who didn’t need to be religious. He made you think you could be religious in a way that transcended organised religion and its questionable leaders. He kept me company on dark and lonely days and nights and he articulated the dark as well as the light. His songs, no matter how dark – well, except for the unbearable You Want It Darker – created a sort of protective roof of invulnerable beauty over me: Waiting for the Miracle, Master Song, Avalanche, A Thousand Kisses Deep, Everybody Knows, Dance Me To the End of Love, as well as his own brand of soaring romance in Ain’t No Cure For Love, Memories, So Long, Marianne and Hallelujah. As a man he exemplified dignity and thoughtfulness. As a writer he made this sort-of writer feel writing was a possible thing to do, if you just stuck at it long enough. There was nothing casual or trivial about him. It seems fitting to me that this deeply spiritual and dignified man checked out of this world the same week that the most undignified president of the USA we’ve ever seen was voted into office.

I will miss Leonard Cohen terribly, but at least we will always have the records, the books, and that voice.