I am not a person for whom music figures importantly in life.    In almost every circumstance, I would prefer silence.    But occasionally, some whim takes over and today I decided to listen to versions of Hallelujah on Youtube.

I am fascinated by the collaborations that take place between writer and singer over a song, as when, for example, Jeff Buckley sings the iconic version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (in my opinion.)   Does the writer mind that someone else can render his song better?    I suppose it depends whether he sees himself principally as song writer or singer.  It is odd that Cohen has the emotions to WRITE the song (which is surely the hardest part) but when he sings it, he just sings  it as if it were any old song: whereas it is a hymn, a prayer, and a meditation.

I noticed a cover by Willie Nelson (John owns every record ever produced by him.)    Now I actually like Willie Nelson – (just as  well!) but his version of this  song was absolutely useless: Willie Nelson manages to make everything sound like On the Road Again (which is a great song in its own right, as I’ve thought many a day as we’ve set off to explore the wonders of Australia or South Africa to its sound.)

I first heard this song – Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen – when Rory played it to me as one of his favourites in New Zealand.    This was years ago, long before Alexandra Burke  had ever heard of it.        (He says he had played it for me before then, but I do not remember this.)    The song was full of pain and loneliness and this is perhaps why the singer  seems to need to have a capacity to convey an intensity of pain, and out of the different versions I listened to, the second best version I thought was kd lang at some prestigious Canadian occasion with a vast audience.   I knew very little about her –  a plain woman, very masculine of persuasion, presented without vanity – but I had never heard her sing.     She has a superb voice and she can deliver.    She can convey the pain and  sorrow too.    She’s one of those singers who can command the stage and almost like a high priestess present the song as an act of worship and lead the audience into a sacrifice or emotional release.    These kind of performers are rare and set apart;  they are not there for the fame and the applause.   (She received, notwithstanding, from this vast audience, a 2 minute standing ovation.)    But the very presence of the audience and the accomplished orchestral accompaniment is a distraction.    (kd lang sings Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at Winter Olympics, youtube.com.)

Jeff Buckley’s version is in a class of its own.    Buckley sings the song as if he were going to die of the singing of it.    He might be a phoenix singing as the flames ascend.    You hear it almost as though it were not intended for you, but just drifting to you on the wind.    As he begins  he seems to be just idly trying out chords on his guitar.   Only very slowly does the song emerge and you’re quite unprepared for it.    You almost feel, so private and understated yet exquisite is the listening, that you ought not to be hearing him.   It is said that he saw the song  as a poem on orgasm, and in its intensity of sweetness and sorrow it is almost too much to bear.   This is not a love song in any traditional sense:  this is a  disquisition on the cost of love.   Every verse is about loss.   It is intensely melancholic, yet I do not think it could quite be described as bitter.    (Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah – youtube.com.)

But, if Buckley stands like a colossus among the singers, Cohen wrote the song.    Clearly one possible interpretation of the song is that it is about a failed love affair, and there are many references which can be interpreted sexually.    But also, underlying the poem are the artist’s senses of loss and failure: as a lover;  as a believer;   and as a song writer.    I do not think he is writing of a physical woman – what mortal woman could raise such sorrow – but about the Muse, the Goddess he has followed and, he feels, has failed to capture.    But he is not completely bereft of faith because though he feels he has been betrayed by the goddess, he knows he can stand before the Lord of Song, and make an offering of his work, and most importantly, his good faith and integrity.     The song is elegiac, but it is not despairing.    In spite of his sorrows, the song writer knows that even though the singer may not win the woman, or having won her she may prove to be less valuable than he thought, yet still, love never fails.    There is a higher altar he can stand before.

From my point of view, the song can stand beside Gray’s Elegy in the sense that it is enough.    If the poet’s whole life had produced this one song, that one poem, that would be enough.    There is no measuring the success of such a work in material terms, nor should it matter  if the creator became famous because of it.    Indeed I almost feel there should be no reward sought at all other than the privilege of having written it.    Cohen wrote the song.  Buckley sang it.   It is enough.


PS    I have burdened you with double dosage this week, but now I am headed North to the land of our mothers, and so silence from me for a time.



What is it that makes you select, out of all the candidates available, a single person, and decide, sometimes in the first moment that your eye lights upon them, that this is the one with whom you would like to spend your whole life?      I agreed to marry John on the night we first went out, (we had been colleagues for some months) and I do not regret it, but I certainly could not recommend this as a general course of action.  Getting married is the greatest gamble of your life, and there is no sense in doing anything which increases the odds against you.   I am an older woman, not in the least likely to fall in love with anyone new, or indeed inspire such emotion in any one else.   Yet I can still remember, cavalier though I was in my attitude to men in my youth, looking at John and thinking, (for the first time in my life with an element of caution,) I will only get one pass at this.   There is a magic in one’s choice, and a mystery that we do not understand.

Many of us appear to have a ‘type’ – so if there is more than one partner, they may all look much the same.   Although I am a small woman, to match my blue print it appears a man has to be fairly tall.    Walking out of a shop in Antwerp once, I saw what I thought was a very attractive man on the pavement.    When he stepped off the bollard he was standing on and proved to be about 6 inches shorter – although still taller than me, and clearly still had as good looking a face as he had done a few minutes before – I suddenly found him perfectly ordinary.   I could see that this was ridiculous and silly, yet still I had that reaction.

Some people fall in love with what appears to be clones of themselves.   They look alike, share the same background, have similar desires, come from the same family or town.   If they marry, their marriage has fewer tensions than other couple’s, but it may lack the breadth of skills and experience that very unalike people can contribute to their union.

Other people seem to choose with no consideration for harmony.   They row frequently – but perhaps they enjoy the excitement and drama – and then there is the pleasure of making up.   This is all perfectly fine, if a little tiring to those around them – unless one day one of the parties wakes up and thinks he  wants to live a quieter life.

Some people marry friends.   These marriages can be completely successful, but the danger is that their fires may never have been lit.     One day a Fire God or Goddess may chance across the path of one of them, and all is in danger of being consumed in the ensuing conflagration.

Nowadays to have a single, enduring marriage is sadly becoming increasingly rare.

What is the secret of a successful marriage?  I don’t really know – every marriage is different;  and every marriage is continually at risk.    Marriage doesn’t come with a guarantee.   Love, obviously – which means you have to care about the partner as an individual in his own right, separate from you.    He or she is not owned by you.   Tolerance.    We all have annoying habits.   Respect for one another.   Your partner puts their skill and talents at your disposal, for your protection and comfort.   We should endeavour not to take this support for granted.  They gift it to us;  we do not own their personal assets nor can we command them.    Think of the horror of discovering that suddenly the wind has changed, and all their skills, plus their intimate knowledge of you, is lined up against you.     So each should remember that the spouse has chosen – indeed promised – to share your destiny, but is not forced to do so.   Shared desires.   It’s no good if one of you really wants a country farmhouse with chickens and goats and wellingtons, and the other wants a riverside city flat and no kitchen.

I think successful marriages contain all of the above.   They should have enough differences to make life interesting, but I think it helps to have a common base line of belief.    Long ago, I had a boyfriend – a perfectly good and fine fellow – yet on every issue of the day, we stood on different sides of the river.   He was a Tory;  I was not.     At first I thought this difference did not matter.   But eventually I thought it did.   If we ever came to civil war – God forfend – I knew he would have been for the King and I for the Commonwealth.   He was not happy when I left him, but it was the right decision for both of us.   Some marriages very successfully bridge widely differing cultures, and this is laudable and praiseworthy – good luck to them all – but I feel it is a great strength to share a common cultural upbringing.

Finally, I think we should be grateful that we have found someone who meets the desires of our heart.   We are blessed;   some people never have this good fortune.   Nor do I think we should expect too much of love or marriage.    It cannot answer ALL our needs, assuage all our longings.    Everyone to some extent, but some more than others, has an intrinsic loneliness.   This is not, I believe, due to lack of companionship – though a life’s companion certainly is a comfort.   I think that isolation is part of being human, for in the end, you walk alone.

I have considered love within marriage but of course there are other forms of love.   With marriage, I think it is best to keep your feet firmly on the ground.     Marriage is a contract – public and private – between two people.    If the terms of the agreement are not fulfilled, the contract is broken.   The party who has broken the contract cannot automatically expect his or her partner to honour the agreement when he himself has effectively ended it.   Personally I do not think there is anything binding in the words of the vows themselves nor that vows are necessary.    Many of these were drawn up in times past and were principally concerned with property rights.     So I do not see that any form of marriage – church say – is any more binding than any other.    And who are the church, or indeed the state, to say that marriage should last until death do us part?    They’re not in the relationship.     How can a marriage be valid, if one party no longer wishes to be married to the other?   In any relationship, should you look at the other person and think with real distaste, what did I ever see in him or her, then that affair, whatever it was called, is effectively over.   Sometimes you observe something dramatic – woman leaves man on a street corner – but probably she has been in the process of leaving for a long time.    I know there are great cruelties and broken promises in many separations, but marriage is a dynamic partnership.   It can never really be a guaranteed place of safety because external circumstances will affect it, and this may be outwith the control of the parties.    However, to be within a happy marriage is a good place to be, and whatever the difficulties – and there is no-one who will not have some –  if there is still love, all things are possible.

Love is not easy to define.   St Paul did it better than I can.

Love suffereth long and is kind;  love envieth not;  love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,  doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;  rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;  beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.   Love never faileth…   …And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three;  but the greatest of these is love.



Recently, falling into  conversation with a stranger at a party, I discovered he was presently engaged  in a ‘leadership identification and training’ exercise for the large  organisation which employed him.   We had  a most interesting discussion on the qualities of leadership, whether you could  be trained for it, and what most institutions of long standing actually meant  by ‘leadership’.

Obviously you can be  trained to have qualities that will be useful to you as a leader, such as  influencing skills, speaking ability, etc but I’m not at all sure that leadership  can be ‘trained for’, or even if it’s desirable to do so.   Firstly, I’m rather  sceptical of the suggestion that long standing institutions – government  departments, sections of the armed forces, ancient banks, etc. actually want  ‘leaders’.   To lead implies a journey:  that you start in one place, that you end up in another, that the going was  difficult, and that people accompany you.    Business, large institutions etc normally wish to continue much as they  are, but bigger and better, with more profit.    I put it to my interesting companion that what organisations such as his  really desired was not ‘leaders’ but ‘more effective operatives’.

What people often  secretly understand about leadership is ‘I’ll be in charge, and Very Important, and  people will Do as I Say, and I’ll get paid lots and everyone will admire or  envy me’.    Now this may well be a part  of being a leader, but it isn’t what it’s actually about.

Leaders come in all shapes  and sizes as do situations.   Cometh the  hour, cometh the man is sometimes the case, and out of some tragedy, formed in suffering and forced by necessity, a leader will emerge, often not willingly  but because something has to be done and there’s no one else to do it.     Sometimes this doesn’t happen, as seems to  be the case in some of the rebellions in the middle Eastern states, and without  a leader to galvanise the action, no progress seems to be possible.

But within an  organisation, how do you find them?    They’re probably not the most amenable of people, so are they the ones  who will rise swiftly through the grades, ticking all the right boxes?    That’s more likely to be emollient, smooth,  operatives, people whose keenest attention is on the nuances of power being  exercised, and not necessarily on the task in hand.    Leaders are perceived as being in action,  but to be competent they also need time to think, to plan, to reflect.   They have to know what the purpose of their  group is;  for whom it works and what is  wanted of it.     They have to understand  the ethical and other constraints that surround them.     They have to be sure that the course of  action to which they are about to commit their group meets the criteria.   We can all think of recent examples of  leaders, the darlings of the media for a time, who led their companies on  whirlwind dances which briefly enhanced the profits, but which were destroying  the long term interests of the company.    The leader has to be able to separate his own personal goals – get  famous, get rich, get a knighthood, and those of the group or body of which he  is in temporary command.   He should  accept from the outset that his leadership will be temporary, and in all  probability will end in circumstances which are not exactly what he would have chosen.

Then he has to have at  least some of the gifts of leadership.    Although it is rarely mentioned, physical health and strength are  important.   It helps if he can speak and  inspire others.    He should be able to  take advice and to keep his own counsel, giving way gracefully when appropriate  and standing his ground firmly when it is not.     He should be able to identify and encourage the talents and skills of  those around him, and for me it is one of the defining characteristics of a  good leader, that others mature and flourish in his wake.

He has to be competent  over whatever his business does and inspire confidence in other people.   He has to be able to evaluate risk and have  a balanced attitude to it.   He must not  be so risk averse that he remains quivering in his office, and never sails out  and says to his fellows, today’s the day, come with me;   but equally he must not be reckless and  squander his valuable people.   He has to accept  responsibility.   This means, he takes the  blame;  he carries he can;  if a blood price has to be paid, his is the  blood.    When my husband was commodore  of a small recreational sailing group in Scotland, or when my future son in law  takes a party, including my precious daughter, out sailing, I generally look  whoever I regard as the leader in the eye before they go, and ask:  What is your chief responsibility here?    They are all smart fellows: they know the  answer.    Bring everyone back alive.   Winning the race would be the wrong answer!    One  joked with me once, Can’t I lose just one person?   But I wasn’t for joking, and replied, Only  you – and for god’s sake, don’t do that.   The reason why traditionally the captain is  the last man to leave the ship is not just to do with salvage.  He’s the most competent, experienced: he’s  there to see that the crew gets off and heads for survival in the best possible  order, and in archetypal terms if the sea gods demand a sacrifice, he’s not  necessarily willing, but he’s still standing, ready.   He’s the best, the main man  – who else is it  going to be but him?    In the same way,
honourable heads of bodies resign if their organisation has been found wanting,  for all that unfit leaders increasingly try to wriggle out of this tradition.

In short, to aspire to be  leader is a perilous ambition for more will be required of you by fate than  appears on the job description.   The  leader has to be a hero, which may not be clear to him when he applies for the  post.   If you advertised the post as  Hero Wanted: would you get many applicants?    The life insurance offered to such a person wouldn’t be on attractive  terms.

One of my personal  favourites both as hero and leader is the Duke of Wellington.   Congratulated in gushing terms by a lady  after his victory at Waterloo, Wellington drew himself up to his considerable height and dismissed her compliments.    “Madam,” he is reported to have said, “When I looked out over the scene  of the battle the morning after the victory, I considered it the worst day of  my life, such as I shall answer for on the Day of Judgement.’   Now there, I thought, is a proper attitude  for a war leader.

Anyone can apply for the  post of leader who likes.    I quite  appreciate that a man applying for a post probably should be thinking of his duties  in more practical and down to earth terms than those I have discussed.   A chap setting out on a day’s pleasure sail probably would prefer not to be reminded that from the moment  when he steps into the boat as skipper until the point when his crew set their feet on dry land again, he has to answer for the lives of his companions.        As  for identifying or training them, I think that’s slightly more  problematic.     Leaders aren’t created by someone padding  along to their desk and saying, Hi there, we think you have the makings of a  leader, would you like to come and tick these boxes so you can be one?

Leaders stand up and have to be reckoned with.

(NB I have referred to the  leader in masculine terms, but of course man embraces woman.)