Alice Sanders honours Leonard Cohen and his unifying effects on a fractured family.
There is a painting of Leonard Cohen on the wall of my sitting room. Well actually, that’s not true, it is a print of a painting. It is Leonard Cohen’s face in sepia, the original original of which was a photograph on Leonard’s very first album cover, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
It is a painting I love dearly, and this is the story of how it came to be hanging on my sitting room wall.
When I was a child, I lived in Eltham, in the suburbs of south-east London. My uncle and auntie lived in a big four-storey house nearby on Footscray Road. I spent a lot of time at their house, especially after my parents divorced when I was six. I loved going there. In the sitting room of that house there hung the very same painting, only the original version.
My mother and my uncle both loved Leonard Cohen. Back in the days before I was even a twinkle in my mother’s eye, when she wore corduroy trousers with desert boots and drank wine and even smoked cigarettes – a thing she can no longer stand – she liked going to folk clubs. I think she and my uncle used to go together.
And the legend is, if I remember it correctly, that they saw somebody else performing So Long, Marianne. They loved it so much that they sought out the original piece. Since then, my uncle has bought every single Leonard Cohen record ever.
Cohen, then, was the soundtrack to my childhood. I have so many fond memories of that house where the painting lived. In a time that was pretty traumatic, particularly after my parents’ divorce, I felt safe there. My uncle would throw me into the air and onto the sofa and I would laugh so hard I wanted to pee.
Later, I got cousins, and my brother Barney and my cousin Eve would play for hours while I read Malory Towers until my auntie would tell me to go outside and play like the other children.
It was with love and concern; I was a pretty weird kid. For my eighth birthday my uncle bought me a pair of red suede roller skates with blue and white stripes on them. My family didn’t have very much money at that point and it was the best, most luxurious present my little brain could imagine; my uncle was always very generous.
Later, they moved to Margate, and then Ireland. I think it broke our hearts a bit. We went to visit them, in their big cold house. But gradually, over time, we lost contact.
“When I look at the painting I think of my family; of my mother and my brother, of my cousins and my auntie and uncle and no matter how disparate we are, how far away in distance or in emotion, we all share something.”
I thought of them every time I listened to Leonard Cohen, especially my uncle. There was something about Cohen and his music that got into the bones of my family. I think it resonated with their sadness; they’d had a difficult childhood with a mentally ill father who I have never met. There is a slight brokenness to us all. But also there is something heartfelt, and lots and lots of dark humour. My family are working-class people who are all artists and poets.
I think listening to Cohen all those years also made me want to be a writer. His lyrics are haunting; even as a child who couldn’t possibly have understood Famous Blue Raincoat and its drug references or even really got the humour of I’m Your Man they stuck with me.
I understood two things about them; that it’s OK to feel sad sometimes, to be a little broken, and that you can make a picture with words. For example, the lyric “your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm” gives me the same picture in my head now as it did when I was six, seven, and eight. Building those vignettes from words that convey something so much more than just an image – something much deeper and more resonant. That’s real poetry.
My mother and my uncle fell out. My mother and I haven’t spoken for several months, either. Families are complicated, aren’t they? But earlier this year I received a message from my cousin in Ireland. She was coming to visit her dad, my uncle, who now lives in Margate again. He was having an art exhibition. Would I like to come, she asked. Of course I would, I replied.
I caught the train down to Margate from London. I walked into the building where I thought my uncle’s art exhibition was and wondered if I’d got the right place. And then there it was. The painting. It was my childhood, and everything that was good about it. It felt like home, and nascent tears welled in my tear ducts. Don’t cry now, Alice, don’t be weird.
I met my uncle and my cousin and we looked around the art exhibition of many wonderful paintings. We drank tea and had lunch in a greasy spoon. We laughed. It was so good to see them. They asked me what my favourite painting of the exhibition was. I mentioned several that I really liked, but I said that my favourite painting was the Cohen, of course.
About a week later, I got a package. It was a print of the painting in a frame. So the painting hangs in my sitting room now, as well as my uncle’s, which has hung in his sitting room since he painted it at 21.
And when I look at it I think of my family; of my mother and my brother, of my cousins and my auntie and uncle and no matter how disparate we are, how far away in distance or in emotion, we all share something. A dark sense of humour, yes, but also a sadness, a little brokenness. Cracks. But there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. Today, more than ever, I see the light in them all.
Rest in peace, old friend, you’ll always be on my sitting room wall.
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Alice Sanders is a freelance writer. She writes articles, audio description for the visually impaired, and fiction. She also performs with comedy improv troupe The Pioneers. @wernerspenguin