Tag Archives: Russell Hoban

Riddley Walker DVD – last few copies left!

There are now only 9 copies remaining of the film of the 2007 Riddley Walker stage production.

The 2-DVD sets are a collector’s item, and no more will be made by film-makers Stickman Productions after 30th August 2009.

If you or someone you know is a fan of Russell Hoban’s classic 1980 novel and still has not seen the play – which was innovatively staged inside a big top in Waterford by the Red Kettle theatre company – this is absolutely your last chance to grab a copy. There will be no more promotion or reminders after today!

The last five copies of the DVD are being given away FREE. This is on a strictly first-come, first-served basis. The normal price is 15 euros, inclusive of p&p to anywhere in the world.

Please place your order before 30th August from http://thoughtcat.wordpress.com/buy-stuff/riddleydvd

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April fools

This week’s April Fools’ Day is already starting to look like old hat (my excuse for not posting on the day itself being that I was in London – working, not protesting, although sympathising with most of the protesters, while thinking it was a shame that Barack Obama’s first visit to the UK couldn’t have been more of a celebration).

Even so, my favourite was the Guardian’s story that it would no longer be available in print but only on Twitter, with every story compressed to 140 characters. This included its 188-year news archive: “JFK assassin8d @ Dallas, def. heard second gunshot from grassy knoll WTF?” The claim that “Currently, 17.8% of all Twitter traffic in the United Kingdom consists of status updates from Stephen Fry” may well not have been a spoof, and the paper gets extra marks for its combination of the Guardian and Twitter into “Gutter” and then with WordPress into “GutterPress”.

Later in the day the Guardian also published a useful round-up of April foolishness (I didn’t spot the upside-down YouTube pages, probably because every time I tried getting on to YT on Wednesday my T-Mobile broadband blocked it with its new content lock feature which I had to unlock by entering my credit card details – quite why YT content is classed as dodgy I don’t know).

My second favourite fool was the BBC’s item on the rising cost of tea, which, being the BBC, was so well done (or just so conservatively done) it was frighteningly plausible. The only other “may actually be true” candidate I spotted was a report on a comparatively obscure website that the Leonard Cohen songs Suzanne and Bird on a Wire were coming soon for the Guitar Hero video game (maybe next year I’ll remember to do a spoof combining the game with my version of Hallelujah and call it Ukulele Hero).

I’m sure there were many more but that’s all I saw. Oh, and apparently over at SA4QE there was something silly about a new dating service for Russell Hoban fans called SA4QrelatE, but I shouldn’t imagine too many people were taken in by it…

Happy birthday, Russell Hoban!

As The Times admirably notes, today is author Russell Hoban’s 84th birthday. (The interview the Times piece quotes from is here.) As Thoughtcat readers will already know, 4th February is SA4QE day, when fans of Russ leave their favourite quotes from his books in public places – usually, but not always, on sheets of A4 paper. SA4QE stands for the Slickman A4 Quotation Event, named after Neo-Futurist Chicago actor Diana Slickman, who started the whole thing off back in 2002.

I should be leaving my own yellow paper quote somewhere today, if I can (a) make up my mind which of the many great quotes to use from Russ’s 50+ books, and (b) dig myself out of the snow.

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New SA4QE website

While everyone else has been stuffing themselves with turkey, my colleague Gombert and I have been hard at work over the festive period creating a brand new website for the Slickman A4 Quotation Event (aka SA4QE). This is the site we’ve run since 2002 recording the annual celebration in which fans of the author Russell Hoban write favourite quotes from his books on pieces of paper and leave them in public places. The site has amassed a substantial amount of content which was formerly arranged and displayed in a pretty limited way, plus the old site had all sorts of features that were just so 1997 (as they say), such as frames and odd little GIFs all over the place. The new one does away with all that by treating contributions as blog posts which are all labelled according to various criteria including date, book title, media, location and contributor – plus you can subscribe to the blog in any number of ways, and add your own photos and videos.

If you’re a fan of Russell Hoban, rediscover his words at www.sa4qe.com and perhaps consider dropping a favourite quote of your own on SA4QE 2009 on 4th February.

If you’ve never heard of Russell Hoban, you’re in for a treat – there are 350 fascinating quotes on the site from over 30 unique books, dropped by 70 people across 14 countries. So whichever way you cut the content, you’re bound to find something there that tickles your 4ancy.

I am by the way posting this to both my blog and my Facebook profile by sending an email to a single Posterous address. Posterous has a new feature called AutoPost to Everywhere which looks intriguing. Let’s see if it works…

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Riddley DVDs walking off the site

My faith in the Christmas spirit has been restored this week after several posts I put round the web (including here, on Facebook, Twitter and the Kraken fan forum) gave a sharp boost to flagging sales of the Riddley Walker DVD. For anyone who’s missed it, this is a film of the whole performance of the 2007 stage version of Russell Hoban’s classic 1980 novel. The 2-disc sets have come down from 25 euros to just 15 euros, inclusive of p&p; to anywhere. Hardy Hoban perennial Dave Awl also updated his Head of Orpheus site to mention the news. Please note that as these are dispatched from Ireland, it is now too late to order these for Christmas delivery (unless you live pretty near to Waterford, that is), but don’t let that put you off – snap one up now for a new year treat!

Thoughtcat price crash! Riddley Walker DVDs and Stephen Miles novel reduced!

As the credit crunch bites and Christmas approaches (rather inconveniently at the same time), prices are falling all over the place – and that includes Thoughtcat. Sam Jacob’s excellent film of last year’s Riddley Walker show has come down from 25 euros to just 15 euros – the perfect gift for the Russell Hoban fan in your life – and Stephen Miles’s unreliable memoir of writing and Thai romance All My Own Work is practically being given away at £7.50 apiece or ‘pay what you can’. Order now while banks last!

Riddley Walker DVDs out now!

Thoughtcat blog devotees (I know there are a few out there!) will recall my trip to Waterford, Ireland, nearly a year ago now, to see a rare theatrical production of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. As anyone who has read the article I posted at the time will remember, the performance (in a big top) was cancelled due to heavy rain, so although the cast improvised brilliantly to put on an amazing performance in a nearby pub, I never got to see the whole show… until very recently. Sam Jacob of Stickman Productions filmed two complete performances on two cameras, and the resulting film of the whole play is now fully available on a 2-DVD set. The actual show more than lived up to my expectations, and fans of Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban, and innovative theatrical productions will not be disappointed. The DVD sets are 25 euros apiece, and that includes p&p; to anywhere in the world. Full details for how to order are on the main Thoughtcat site.

Swossages, Guinness and rain: Riddley Walker in Waterford

Click here for three pages of photos on the original Thoughtcat site


Things were looking blipful since I first landed in Waterford. The twin-prop plane from Birmingham had been barely a quarter full and was 45 minutes early, surely a first in the history of commercial aviation. This was welcome in theory but in practice it meant there were no taxis at the airport yet. It was that kind of airport, that kind of town – small and laid-back. When a cab did come along, it was by accident and I couldn’t get in it because he was heading home and home wasn’t in the part of town I was going. The only other taxi driver I knew was standing next to me and he didn’t have his cab with him because he’d just got off the plane himself. But it didn’t bother me to wait; I was dressed for arctic conditions in an evening actually several degrees milder than the English one I’d left a little while before, and my taxi-less taxi-driver friend (a Brummie in a corduroy jacket who’d relocated to Waterford for the ‘gaelic tiger’ economy) recommended me places to eat and things to see.

When I did finally catch a cab, my driver – a stocky, bearded guy whose ID card photo had been taken some decades previously – asked me what I was doing in town. I felt a bit guilty, or at least eccentric, saying I was there to see a play – it seemed a long way to come just for that, and I hadn’t been to the theatre for about the past five years in London. But he was impressed when I told him I was in Waterford to see Red Kettle’s Riddley Walker. ‘Oh, the Hoban!’ he said. I was impressed back. ‘That’s had some good reviews.’ I asked him if he’d seen it. ‘No, it sounds a bit dark and heavy,’ he said, ‘set in ancient times, or something?’ ‘Kind of, yeah.’ ‘I only know about the author because I’m married to a Hoban.’ ‘What, one of the Hobans?’ I said, pondering the synchronicity. ‘No,’ he laughed, ‘it’s a fairly common name around here. I heard about the play on the radio,’ he went on, ‘one of John Hurt’s sons is in it.’ Crikey, I thought, this Riddley must be more serious than I thought. I was just getting over this when he said, ‘In fact I think I heard that two of John Hurt’s sons are in it.’

I checked in to the very pleasant Rice Guesthouse on Barrack Street, went out for a curry, had a Guinness in a lovely pub where I found myself sponsoring a complete stranger five euros to do a parachute jump, read a bit of Riddley Walker, had a very cosy night and slept in late. The next morning, I had hours to kill before my roommate, Eli Bishop, or any other Krakenites were due to show up in town, so I had a good wander around. It was neither rainy nor cold to begin with but the sky was a solid grey all day. I hadn’t known what to expect of Waterford in terms of size; a leaflet I picked up from the guesthouse said it was a city, although it felt more like a large town. The leaflet also said that Waterford was the only city beseiged by Cromwell which he failed to capture, and was the place where the first frog in Ireland was released. I counted four or five churches within a mile of each other, and the town also boasted some Viking and medieval ruins, including a near-complete tower. A plaque on the wall of a bank said it had once been the site of another Viking building. Many shops were closed for refurbishment. Small market stalls selling cheese, bread and children’s toys had sprung up in part of the shopping centre. What looked an ancient butcher’s shop, with sawdust on the floor and a chaos of invoices stacked on a teetering table, had a special offer on pigs’ feet. There was a newsagent called Morrissey’s which I couldn’t help photographing for Dave, a Smiths fan. I checked my email in a rickety-looking internet café with a Calor gas fire hissing in the background and had a superb cup of coffee in a different café around the corner; I’d go back tomorrow for that coffee alone. It was good to sit in the warm and read more Riddley and look out onto the street. As with many such moments I probably did more looking into the street than reading.

Finding the Garter Lane Arts Centre to collect my tickets for the evening’s performance took a while. I found O’Connell street quick enough but walked the full length of it twice before finding them in a smart courtyard tucked behind some tattered offices. I picked up a couple of Riddley flyers with my tickets and stopped into a quiet room with an exhibition of local art on display, an absorbing mix of naturalistic city scenes and landscapes ranging from impressionistic to abstract.

It was now getting to the time when Eli was due to be arriving, and we’d arranged to meet at the guesthouse as it was the only place in the town we’d both know. On the way back I stopped at a shop called Susan’s Sweets for a couple of filled rolls which I was assured were unique to Waterford and smuggled them into the hotel past the signs saying PLEASE DO NOT CONSUME FOOD AND DRINK IN THE ROOMS. I whiled away the next couple of hours watching Diamonds are Forever until in the late afternoon there was a knock at the door. I didn’t recognise Eli at first; he seemed taller (if that was possible) than when I’d last (and first) met him at the Some-Poasyum, his hair had grown out and he was wearing glasses, which he explained was because he’d had a heavy night in Dublin and fallen asleep in his hostel bed wearing his contacts. Despite being hungover he was game for a conversation for an hour or so; we talked mostly about his work as a nurse and computer programmer in San Francisco; I tried not to grill him too much on Riddley trivia. We were sharing not for financial reasons; the guesthouse was already excellent value – they’d simply run out of rooms.

The next part of the plan was for our other Hoban fan-friends Ernie and Deena to arrive and then we’d all head out to the Big Top, about three miles out of town, where Riddley was due to do his walking. Ernie rang to say he was at the airport, having driven down from Donegal, and was waiting for Deena’s flight to come in from Luton. A short while later the guesthouse reception called me to pass on a message from Ernie that Deena’s flight had been delayed. I tried calling Ernie back but Deena got there first, saying she’d arrived and they were on their way. My phone rang a fourth time – I’ve never been so popular in a single afternoon – and it sounded like Ernie again. I wittered on about taxis and dining spots before realising it wasn’t Ernie at all but Ben Hennessy from Red Kettle, saying he was heading over to the Big Top right now and did we want a lift?

Eli and I waited in the foyer and a few minutes later Ben’s bear-like presence breezed in: six feet tall and stocky with it, a colourful patchwork jacket over a baggy purple jumper, grey curly hair tumbling randomly from a balding dome; a contented, ruddy face. The epitome of the gentle giant, he ushered us into the Redkettlemobile, a custom-painted Luton van. Ben’s 10-year-old son Ruben was in the front seat ensconced in a video game; he was in the play, I don’t think with a speaking part but as the self-named ‘Fisher’, one of the Eusa folk children. By now it had been raining steadily for two or three hours. Ben negotiated the wet roads at the same time as telling us about Red Kettle and the play and taking several phone calls, punctuating a gentle, low monotone with a husky laugh. Eventually the Big Top rose into view, a stripey 200-seater opposite the substantial Woodlands Hotel. Ben and Ruben went off to see how the cast was getting on while Eli and I had a decent pub meal in the unforgettably-named Brass Cock bar. A short while later Ben reappeared with Joan Dalton, Red Kettle producer, a tall blonde lady in a long black coat. Ben gave us programmes and the four of us talked for a bit. I said, ‘My cab driver yesterday told me two of John Hurt’s sons are in the show – is that right?’ Joan laughed and said, ‘Yes – well, they’re my children too.’ I must have looked confused as she elaborated, ‘I used to be married to John Hurt in a previous life.’ True enough, the programme confirmed that Sasha was playing Belnot Phist and Nick was one of the Eusa folk children. Ben explained that another audience draw was Pascal Scott (Goodparley), who was well-known in Ireland for a TV series called Killinaskully.

Ben and Joan finished their supper and went away, and another lady called Frieda came over to our table. She was from the board of directors but nowhere near as formal as that title might suggest, a schoolteacher by day, utterly charming and possessed of infectious enthusiasm and energy. She was obviously busy and a bit stressed out, which made it all the nicer that she took a few minutes to come and speak to us. ‘I’m brewing a migraine!’ she said at one point, rubbing her temple. I offered her paracetamol (never travel without them), expecting her to politely decline, as people do, but she snapped them up gladly. ‘I should have prescribed those,’ joked Eli, slipping into nurse mode for a second. She went away then and Deena and Ernie arrived with Guinnesses in hand. After a few photos we realised it was getting past the time that Ben had recommended we come outside to start queueing for the show – the seats were unallocated so we wanted to be sure we got good ones.

We came outside to find a crowd of people huddling out of the rain under the hotel awning. Although it was a miserable evening, you couldn’t help thinking how Riddleyesque it was. Joan told us they were just checking some things in the Big Top before they could open up, and went off again. Ernie had disappeared into the crowd, and Eli, Deena and I were chatting together when Ben, Joan and Frieda came over looking distraught. Frieda, a small lady, addressed the crowd in a voice that no schoolchild and fewer adults would mess with, even though what she was saying was just as much apology as it was instruction. She explained, to a collective groan, that the Big Top had let in rain and that the health and safety people had advised the cancellation of the show because they couldn’t guarantee that the lighting rig and other electrics were safe. It was an unbelievable blow for everyone concerned; Deena and I were mortified more for Eli than ourselves, and then after digesting the news we were all more upset for the cast and crew. Frieda made it very clear to us all how disappointed they all were and told us how we could apply for refunds. Making the announcement was a thankless task and an old boy nearby, looking like he could have walked out of a James Joyce story in formal coat and hat, said, ‘Give the lady a round of applause!’

Everybody was milling about then, not quite sure what to do with themselves, but by and large the mood was more philosophical than sombre. Smokers lit more cigarettes and people drifted inside for another round of drinks. Then something great happened: in dribs and drabs the cast started to emerge from the Big Top, in full costume and make-up, to mingle with the audience. They looked perfect, iron-age people from the future who’d been grubbing around in the muck. You’d turn round and there was Goodparley, you’d look over someone’s shoulder and there was Riddley himself. A friendly blonde ‘Eusa folk’ girl proudly pointed out to me Lissener and Belnot Phist by their character names; it hadn’t quite occurred to me until now how deeply they were all involved in the story. They were also very approachable, happy to pose for photos and talk about the production, not a whiff of luvviedom about any of them. Cormac McDonagh, who played Riddley, was especially friendly and it was great to get a photo of him with Eli.

Even better, Frieda made another announcement to the crowd that they were negotiating a performance space with the Woodlands Hotel so we could all see some of the show. In the meantime she, Ben and Joan snuck a few of us into the Big Top for a few moments. The entrance was a heavy canvas flap whose very material rhymed with the hunter-gatherers’ costumes and the wet, elemental atmosphere of the book itself. Walking in was breathtaking: right inside was a single, huge floodlight trained on a forest set like a full moon on a cloudless night. The floor was covered in dead leaves and twigs; this was deliberate, although you suspected the equally realistic moisture of the ‘forest floor’ probably wasn’t. If you didn’t know anything about Riddley Walker you might be forgiven for thinking you were walking into a production of The Blair Witch Project. The Big Top was split roughly in two with the seating in semi-circles to the right and the set to the left, but there didn’t feel like a divide between the two – it all felt like ‘jus one girt big thing’, as if the audience was in the forest rather than just watching a play. We were told not to touch anything and you could see that the circus tent ceiling and rigging were glistening wet. I think the producers were just being extra cautious though because there were nine or ten of us milling about and you inevitably touched things and nobody was electrocuted. The atmosphere was certainly electric, though: the Big Top was warm and even smelt like a forest, and there was a low hum and hiss of machinery which was probably just air conditioning or heating and thus was technologically incongruous, but was somehow not out of place, and added a mysterious element.

After a few minutes we were ushered back out into the rain and then into the sizeable lower ground floor of the Brass Cock bar. The cast began to assemble around a stripey fit-up and the audience pulled up chairs and sat on the floor. Once the actors got going, you could easily forget you were in a pub. The all-Irish cast performed in their own accents, which took a few moments to adjust to, but it worked better, I think, than if they’d tried to replicate the English ‘estuary’ accent of the book; the language was perfect, so the accent didn’t matter. Over about 45 minutes they performed four or five extracts from the play, including the opening scene, in which Riddley addresses the audience direct (to the consternation of Goodparley and others) and kills his boar; a scene featuring Lorna telling us about Aunty (the two characters were played by the same actress, a rather lovely Jenni Ledwell) – the line about Aunty having ‘iron tits and teef betwean her legs and an iron willy for the ladies’ got a big laugh (mostly fro
m the ladies); the scene where Riddley first meets Lissener (played with unexpected energy by a hauntingly-costumed Will Irvine) and makes the emotional discovery of the ‘shynin’ machinery; the scene in which Riddley meets Granser (Joseph Kelly), who then acts out the ‘Hart of the Wood’ story originally contained in the book’s first chapter, playing the ‘clevver little bloak’ to a repulsed Riddley like a play within a play; and finally the puppet show, performed superbly by Cormac McDonagh with ‘patter’ from Erny Orfing (Joseph Meagher). A couple of scenes featured percussive accompaniment from a quartet called Torann, the traditional Irish drums complementing perfectly Riddley’s raw, wild, anxious world. The whole thing was absolutely excellent, especially given how quickly the cast had adapted to the smaller space and how much material was contained in just these few scenes, and I don’t think there could have been many people in the audience now giving serious thought to the idea of claiming a refund.

The performance over, Ben gathered the cast together and called up a shocked Eli to the front to be presented with the Punch puppet that had been made especially for the show. The audience groaned in sympathy when Ben explained Eli had come all the way from San Francisco for tonight’s show, and one of the actors later even asked for Eli’s autograph.

Afterward the audience remained pretty much as they were for most of the evening, chatting and drinking. The cast went away and returned one by one in their civvies and signed posters for us. Around 1am we were invited to join them for an after-show party. Taxis picked us up and took us to a nightclub in the town centre, where we were treated to an ear-splitting mixture of live bands and a DJ set. It was hot inside and Ben and the others were impressed when I opened my shirt to reveal p.a. morbid’s ‘Arga Warga’ t-shirt design from the Some-Poasyum. Then at three o’clock in the morning, just as Russell Hoban himself was probably getting ready for bed, we found ourselves climbing the streets of Waterford to carry on the party in a small terraced house. It was cosy inside, a gas fire hissing in the lounge, and Nora Boland, one of the scenic artists, handed round bottles of Heineken. The place was packed and many people were smoking fiercely as if to make up for the fact that they hadn’t been able to for hours earlier in the bar and club. Someone put on a recent Tom Waits album which only made it more Hobanesque. A couple of loaves of sliced white bread were dotted around which seemed surreal until the smell of frying began to drift in from the kitchen, and plates of steaming hot sausages and bacon were circulated. Somehow it seemed immensely civilised and privileged to find yourself in this company at four in the morning eating a bacon sandwich and chatting to someone like Louise Bradley, who played one of the Eusa Folk and was a drama teacher in her other life; funnily enough she’d also visited Riddley’s Kent once in her only excursion to England, some years before becoming involved in this production.

By now it was nearing dawn; as the father of two small children and thus generally used to being asleep on the sofa by ten o’clock, I was getting pretty disorientated, and of course it was even weirder to look up and see Lorna Elswint leaning against the fireplace and Abel Goodparley asking for a light and Riddley Walker now wearing a black tee-shirt and laughing with Belnot Phist. Erny Orfing passed by in a striped poncho-like top looking for two missing Cuban cigars. ‘Don’t get them mixed up with the sausages,’ I told him. ‘They’re not sausages, they’re swossages!’ he boomed, and went off cackling.

Finally I could take no more and Deena and I reluctantly made our excuses, leaving Eli behind on the sofa with Straiter Empy, or it might have been Fister Crunchman. We wended our way back to the guesthouse through the damp, deserted Waterford streets, generally marvelling over the whole evening, to all intents and purposes forgetting that we’d not actually seen the whole show as it was intended. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye to Eli as the next I saw of him he crept into the room, crashed out for a couple of hours and then crept out again to catch an early train back to Dublin. I got up as late as I could in order not to miss breakfast, which was still far too early, chatted slurrily with Deena over a slice of toast, and crawled back into bed. I didn’t know the check-out time so I thought I’d just sleep until they chucked me out. Unfortunately this happened only about an hour later, but you couldn’t blame them. I settled the bill and staggered into town, now almost completely deserted, and had a toasted sandwich and big pot of tea in what may have been the most exhaustion-friendly café-bar I’ve ever sat in, all dark woods and quiet music and the low hum of conversation. It took me days to recover from the fatigue, but I hope I never get over the experience of this, the most fantastic wet weekend I’ve ever had.

POSTSCRIPT: A complete performance of the play on one of the previous nights was filmed, and DVDs are now available from the Thoughtcat site for only 15 euros inclusive of p&p; worldwide. For more information go to www.thoughtcat.com/riddleydvd.htm

On nearly meeting Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, Cuckoo Club, 26/3/07. Photo (c) Ron Blur 2007.I realised the best part of a 20-year dream the other day: I saw Leonard Cohen up close and personal. And I arrived at one distinct conclusion: he’s very small. Almost as small as me, in fact.

This is how it happened. A few weeks ago I got an email from Marie Mazur, who runs several Cohen-related websites, including one of the original and best, Speaking Cohen. Thanks to the internet, Marie is one of those people who I can say is a true friend despite never having met her: she keeps me (and thousands of other die-hard fans) up to date with LC’s movements and projects and in turn I’ve contributed a piece or two to her site. She also did a fantastic thing for me last year in obtaining a signed copy of LC’s recent Book of Longing fresh from the man himself at a Toronto promotional event. One day I hope to return the favour.

The email Marie sent was a heads-up to a small gig LC’s partner-in-music-and-life Anjani was performing in London on 26th March to promote her excellent Blue Alert album, which was co-written and produced by LC. The showcase, at a place called the Cuckoo Club in the West End, wasn’t open to the general public, but a couple of pairs of tickets were kindly being put up for grabs by Anjani’s people. Needless to say, I put my name in the hat, wondering only secondarily how I would manage to juggle attending the gig with both a new job I was due to start that very day and the care of two small children. Thankfully, at least, the job was located only a few minutes’ walk from the venue, and my wife said that if I won she was happy to stay home with the kids while I went along by myself – as long as I didn’t make a habit of it! In any case, a fortnight or so later it was clear I needn’t have worried, as the draw took place, and I didn’t win. Disappointment gave way to relief when I weighed up everything else that was happening on the job and home fronts, and I forgot all about it.

Songs of Love and Hat

Then, on the evening of Sunday 25th, I came home from an afternoon out to find another email from Marie saying that one of the original winners of the tickets had pulled out due to unforseen circumstances, so they were up for grabs again. Completely forgetting my “relief” at not being able to go, I put my name in this second hat… and lost again. I have to say at this point that it was to Marie’s eternal credit that she didn’t pull any strings on my behalf, and kept the draw fair and square. However, determined not to be too disappointed, I decided I would go along to the venue anyway after work on the offchance of spotting the Cohens on their way in. It was a long shot, but as the venue was just a short walk away, I had nothing to lose.

My first day in my new job went very well and it was a pleasure afterwards to stroll through the West End in the unseasonably warm afternoon. I’d never heard of the Cuckoo Club, nor recalled ever walking down Swallow Street (some bird confusion here surely?), but now here it was, a quiet little alleyway off the bustle of Regent Street just past the wonderfully-named Man in the Moon Passage. Apart from two dapper doormen hovering outside an anonymous building beneath some impressive stone architecture, there was nobody around and no indication that anything Cohenesque was going on. Their nifty royal purple-colour rope barriers looked optimistic: maybe I’m naive but I had expected at least a small crowd of faithful fans – or maybe the true faithful had already been and gone?

Undeterred, I hung about and after a few minutes people started to show up. Some identified themselves to the doormen and following a check on the guest list were directed straight in, while others formed a loose queue. Among the non-queuers were a couple of rock journo characters in black leather jackets and a tall blonde ex-groupie-type in a near-psychedelic pink outfit who embarked on a flurry of air-kissing, disappeared inside and re-emerged a few moments later armed with a glass of white wine, a cigarette and her mobile phone. There was no sign, however, of either Anjani or LC, and as it was now getting on for 6pm and the show was due to start at 6.30 it seemed unlikely they weren’t already inside.

Bird on the wine

By now the queue was snaking along Swallow Street’s narrow pavement and the doormen started to let us in. I was about halfway down the queue and feeling distinctly uneasy, as not only have I never blagged my way in to a club of any sort, still less an event like this, I had no intention of doing so. Nonetheless, I was here, and so were Leonard and Anjani, and although it wasn’t part of my plan it seemed fairly pathetic just to go home without at least giving it a go. In addition to the doormen there were now a couple of PR-type women checking names, so I did my best to convince myself it was worth trying on a bit of the old Thoughtcat charm. I wasn’t particularly confident however, so it was with some relief that I turned round and spotted someone in the queue I recognised from… a Russell Hoban event. As you do. I mean, how likely is that? There have only ever been about three Russell Hoban ‘events’ in the past 20 years, and I organised the one we were both at myself, so it was a lovely coincidence, but a coincidence all the same.

It was great to chat again with Deena, who is possibly the only other person I know in the world who’s quite as nuts about both Len and Russ as I am. Even more oddly, she told me she was the person who’d originally won the tickets in Marie’s draw, but then had to bow out, causing the second draw – and although she was now re-available to attend, the tickets had of course been won by someone else, so she was practically no more confident than I was of getting in. That the situation seemed only to be getting more and more unlikely was confirmed when we got to the door and, albeit after a few moments of uncertainty, she was actually allowed in, yet despite her efforts to persuade the staff to let me in with her, I was asked to ‘try coming back at 6.30’. Fairly sure this was a brush-off (albeit a polite one), I bade Deena and her partner a great evening and they went inside.

Waiting for the miracle

One by one the guests went in, then, and I was left lurking ever more uneasily in Swallow Street. I decided not to risk going for a stroll in case (a) it was a ruse (they closed the doors as soon as I’d gone, (b) it was a test (how long would I actually wait?) or (c) I got sidetracked or held up, and rushed back to find everything had started and I’d blown my already slim chance of entry. While I stood there I thought about my wife at home feeding, bathing and putting to bed both our 2-year-old and 2-month-old by herself, which was difficult enough for the two of us. Shouldn’t I perhaps be realistic and do the honorable thing, and go home where I belonged? Then again, given that home was still the best part of an hour away a
nd I would thus already be nearly too late to be of much help with the kids, would it not actually be more honest, now I’d got this far, to stick it out to the bitter end? I mean, surely if a guy’s going to bunk off his domestic duties to any extent, it should be for a good cause…

Such thoughts circling in my head I almost missed the re-emergence of the lady with the frizzy hair who had earlier let Deena in. ‘Can you come in now, please?’ she said. I looked around: was she talking to me? It seemed she was. There was almost a sense of urgency about it, as if I were, actually, quite an important guest. Of course, any urgency was really due to the fact that it was now 6.30 and they had to get the show on the road. ‘Sorry you had to wait around,’ she said as we went inside, ‘but it’s such a small venue that we had to make sure there was enough room to spare.’ I couldn’t believe it: firstly I was being ushered in, secondly they were apologising for keeping me waiting, and thirdly I was in anyway…

Finally I broke into the prison

The club was small, darkish, a bit smoky and packed. There was a small stage set up for three or four musicians, but no drum kit. In the ceiling hung a mesh of lilac-coloured lightbulbs. A bar which my memory is telling me was hung with silver and gold drapes took up one wall. The lady with the frizzy hair disappeared and I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing; now I was on my own and everyone around me seemed achingly trendy, or at very least Of Some Import in the World of Rock. Among those I recognised was Mark Ellen, ex- of The Old Grey Whistle Test and founding editor of Q, Mojo and now The Word rock magazines. (Oddly enough, I’d also ‘bumped into’ him at the 2002 Concert for George, which I now realised with some embarrassment was the last gig I’d been to before this one.) Even Deena, who I couldn’t spot anyway, looked infinitely more the part than I did. By contrast, who was I? I was nobody, in most guests’ terms; wouldn’t they all give me funny looks? Who’s this guy, I imagined them thinking. He doesn’t look famous, or trendy, or Of Import in the World of Rock, or even particularly tall.

Almost disappointingly, my paranoia turned out to be unfounded as I squeezed past some of the approximately 100 guests. I tried calling my wife to confirm I’d got in and would be late after all, but couldn’t get a signal; I just hoped she’d get the message by my non-appearance. I made for the bar. Glasses of still water, lager and wine were lined up three deep; such was my innocence of these matters that I had to ask one of several barmen whether the drinks were free; of course they were, as were the assorted delicious bites circulating around the room on trays held aloft by small but perfectly-formed and permanently smiling young women. This was the life, I thought as I reached for some cheesy chicken-on-a-stick and surveyed the stage just a few feet away, where it still seemed impossible that Anjani and, possibly, Leonard too were about to perform.

Crumpled in love

But perform they did. The lights went down, three smartly-dressed musicians came on and took up their keyboard, double bass and guitar respectively, a door opened beside the stage and from it emerged the small but distinguished frame of the Grocer of Despair. The reception was warm, as only it should be: apart from being a living legend, this was the first time LC had taken any sort of UK stage since 1993. ‘Welcome, friends,’ he said. Now 72, comfortable in 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 and anyway, it was Leonard Cohen, for fuck’s sake! My hands were trembling; I was sure someone was about to come over and ask me to leave, having sussed out that I shouldn’t be there after all; I barely wanted to blink in case I missed anything; I remembered my phone had a camera feature, I reached for it, I didn’t know whether to grab a photo of the moment or enjoy the moment, I took it out and got a blurry lo-res shot which in no way resembled what I was actually seeing…

‘I’m new to this “showcase” business,’ LC began. ‘I asked backstage, “What’s the audience like?” And they told me: “Industry people”.’ [cue audience laughter.] ‘This brought to mind a crowd of extras from Night of the Living Dead…’ [cue more laughter.] It went on in this vein for a few moments; I was so busy trying to concentrate on not missing a word he was saying that half of it went in one ear and out the other. In any case, ever the gentleman, he cut himself short and introduced ‘Anjani.’ (Well, that cleared one thing up, at least – up til then I’d been calling her ‘Anjani’.)

She’s in her early forties and wearing something tight

Now this was a pleasure. It’s not as if I hadn’t been really looking forward to seeing this lady perform – what I’d heard of Blue Alert, criminally still unreleased properly in the UK, testified to a fantastic singer and fine musician – but it has to be said that LC’s presence was hardly an insignificant attraction. Nonetheless, both her voice and the woman herself were even more beautiful in real life than on the CD in question, and a quick look and listen by anybody with an ounce of taste would know that’s saying something. When someone sings (and, moreover, plays – her jazz-influenced keyboard licks were a sheer delight) songs as good as these as well as this, and yet is still having to drum up interest and curry favour by doing free shows, you have to wonder what on earth people have to do to get on in music these days. Still, after the first number alone – Blue Alert‘s delicious, smoky title track – I doubt there could have been anyone in the room who didn’t think she should at very least be selling out Ronnie Scott’s for a few nights in the coming months.

In between sips of tea, and with LC sitting coolly at a stageside table sipping bottled beer, Anjani and her excellent trio went on to perform faultless versions of half the Blue Alert record, namely Half the Perfect World, Never Got to Love You, No-One After You, and Thanks for the Dance, two of which were duets with LC, and a further duet, an unreleased song which may have been called Whither Thou Goest. It was the definition of smooth and tasteful. Throughout the performance my eye was caught by a strange lighting effect in the adjacent stairwell, like smoke or dry ice swirling around a gently swinging lightshade; I still don’t know exactly what it was, but it complemented the music perfectly. Although Leonard’s voice didn’t sound as robust as in previous years, this surely wasn’t surprising, and it was anyway more than made up for by (a) his register coming nearer the level it was when he started out than the deep baritone he’s latterly become famous for, and (b) the simple fact that he was singing anything at all when he could easily be forgiven for taking it easy – assisting Anjani’s career notwithstanding. That’s not the point, I know, and in the unlikely event that he reads this I hope he doesn’t think even for a second that that’s a reason for him not to embark on the world tour he has been much rumoured to be planning for later this year and early next. But the truth is that at 72 years old, half that time spent playing concerts and making classic albums, I don’t feel he owes anybody anything, least of all returning to the road. I’d like to think he was doing t
his purely for pleasure, and, if the look in his face was anything to go by as he duetted with Anjani, lurve.

Came so far for Leonard

Before I knew it, it was all over. To much applause, Leonard and Anjani disappeared, the house lights went up and everyone went back to doing what they were doing before L&A; turned their heads. Mark Ellen said to someone ‘Wasn’t that fantastic?’ and I re-found Deena and caught up with her for a few moments. We were both quite staggered by the event and were so busy talking about it that we didn’t notice that a queue was slowly forming at the stage for Leonard’s autograph. Deena seemed quite happy to return to her table for another beer and bask in the aftermath of a lovely evening, but for me it was too good a chance to miss. It wasn’t terribly clear where the queue began and ended and after some confusion I staked a claim to a place somewhere in it. The speed at which it moved was the definition of agony, LC just feet and finally only inches away, yet unless you were right in front of him you almost may as well have been a thousand miles away. At last the three people who had monopolised him for a quarter of an hour let him go, and now there was only one person between me and the man himself… but at that precise moment, another of Cohen’s annoyingly pleasant entourage appeared and spirited him away.

If I was momentarily crushed I realised with a 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 at least 20 minutes – if not 20 years, if you count the time I’ve loved his work – to think of something to say, but I’m sure I would have only ended up babbling. Equally, as I hadn’t expected to get in, I didn’t have anything on me for him to sign – I had wondered for a moment about proferring him the novel I was currently reading, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, whose title might have summed up my evening if the music hadn’t in fact been at a perfectly reasonable volume. And although my phone had the aforementioned camera feature, it would’ve felt a bit daft asking a stranger to take a photo of the two of us, plus the result would’ve probably been another blur, and what would I have done with it anyway? Apart from, that is, splash it all over the website and print off several dozen copies of it and hang them up all round the house and have a CafePress t-shirt, mug and possibly a thong printed with it and bore the pants off myriad innocent friends, family, children and grandchildren for the rest of my life with it… my point entirely.

Don’t go home with your hard-on

Thus, with Anjani now circulating amongst sundry muso bigwigs, Len putting his feet up backstage and time getting on, I said my goodbyes to Deena and the lovely lady with the frizzy hair who let me in, and headed home, wondering whether my wife had managed OK. Once in Piccadilly the phone signal returned so I called her up. ‘I got in!’ I said, fairly redundantly, and explained that, er, ‘I nearly met Leonard Cohen.’ I had to admit it didn’t sound particularly impressive. ‘Oh, really?’ she said, sounding tired, ‘what happened?’ ‘I’ll tell you about it when I get home,’ I said.

Such is my lack of spare time these days that it’s taken me this long to put this post together and attempt to do the experience some justice (thank heaven for Easter, eh). So what do I think of it all, having now had some time to reflect? It might sound like sour grapes but in a way there is a benefit to not having met Leonard Cohen. I would surely have embarrassed myself, had nothing much to say or had too much to say in the few seconds I had to say it. I would likely have been disappointed, not by the man himself but because the brevity and impersonality of the situation would have made it so. I would have gone away thinking either I’d achieved one of my great dreams or that I’d blown my only chance to say something useful to him or ask him a Big Question, and I’m not sure which of those would be worse. It’s best to go away from an experience like that wanting more, and although I’d had a great evening of fine music and wonderful company, that was certainly true, both on the relatively mundane level (I wanted to see more of Anjani live) and the deeper one I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s as well I didn’t speak to him because then the dream or the search would’ve been over, the dream would’ve become reality, and what do you do when that happens?

If I’m honest it was fantastic to stand a few inches away from Leonard Cohen but I hardly feel as if my life has changed as a result, and I doubt I’d feel much different if I’d actually spoken to him. That’s impossible to say for sure, of course, as he might have said something utterly profound, but at the end of the day I would still have had to go home, have a late dinner, get up the next morning, change a nappy and go to work… but still. I could go on and on reflecting and wondering but I won’t. It was a fantastic evening, one I’ll always remember, and I’m truly grateful to Marie and the lady with the frizzy hair for letting me in.

I still can’t get over how small he was, though.