There is madness in America.
I don’t really know how to write about this. Watching from far away, I found the noise and the lunacy and the fire and the fury not quite real. My brain could not compute or calibrate. Who were these people, and what were they doing, and what did they want? (Reporters did ask them; they could not come up with coherent answers. They spoke, or yelled, in fragments. ‘The big steal!’ they said. ‘This is our house,’ they insisted. And then they fell back on the old, old chestnut: ‘We want our country back.’)
At first, there was a faintly, horribly comic air about it. One of the marchers (or stormers or protestors or whatever they were) was caught on video, complaining about having been sprayed with mace on her way to break in to the Capitol. She spoke with such an amazed air of entitlement, as if she expected the police to throw open the door and escort her into the building. ‘This is the revolution,’ she said, in a plaintive, baffled voice, as if she had been expecting party balloons and dancing in the street.
I felt myself entering into a theatre of the absurd, as the furious Right played out all the things of which they accuse the intemperate Left. (Mostly that strange entitlement, an unrepentant anarchy, and a ridiculous dose of snowflakery.)
Then Robert Moore did some proper, brave, old-school reporting from the heart of the mob, and it wasn’t funny any more. It wasn’t funny at all. People died and people got hurt and American democracy seemed to be shivering and shuddering, gazing into the abyss of its own contradictions.
I thought of Yeats:
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’
Friends sent messages from across the Atlantic Ocean, their words full of incomprehension and despair. I wrote entirely inadequate words back. I imagined how I would feel if this were happening in Westminster. We have had our political turmoils here over the last four years, as Brexit seemed to split the nation, but nothing like this. Not that pure, untrammelled rage; not that wholesale departure from truth; not the same sense of smashing up the social contract. Not quite.
I always loved America. I loved that it was a country founded on an idea, the self-evident truths of all humans being created equal, endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It may not always have lived up to those lofty ambitions, but I like that it had them. You’ve got to have something to aim at.
I loved that it gave us jazz, and Scott Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker, and New York, New York, and the movies. I loved that when I went there, it was like being in the movies.
And now there is chaos and I don’t know what to say about that. There is a sense of mourning, and a feeling of shock, and an enduring hope that the centre will, after all, hold.
Back in Scotland, the sun shines on the frosty land and the silence of lockdown continues. I do my work and speak to a new client and continue my absurd hunt for beautiful things. I find today’s beautiful thing quite by chance. I look something up, and that leads me to another something, and then I find a little story about Leonard Cohen, and it returns me to happiness and hope.
It’s from a rather brilliant article in the Rolling Stone written by Paul Nelson, and it’s six lines of sheer loveliness.
‘When I first met Leonard Cohen, he was telling a good friend of mine that his mother was seriously ill. My friend, whose father had recently died, was so moved by Cohen’s mesmerizing familial compassion that she quietly began to cry. Seeing this, Cohen jumped up, left the room and quickly returned with his famous blue raincoat. “Please cry on this,” he said. “It soaks up the tears.” And you wonder why I like Leonard Cohen.’
I’ve loved Leonard Cohen since I was a little girl and my brother brought one of his albums home from school and made the whole family listen to it. I was six, and that love affair never died. Cohen got me through all my own heartbreaks by being so brutally, tenderly honest about his own. He wrote lyrics that were sheer poetry. He sang as if he were the last man left on earth. When I was a confused teenager, I sometimes felt he was the only person in the world who truly understood me.
That famous blue raincoat came with me through all my trials and tribulations; it’s one of the very few songs that I know completely by heart. I can sing it from beginning to end without a lapse in memory. (The red mare knows it almost as well as I do, because I regale her with it when we ride into the hills.)
And I’m so glad I know that story now. I feel vastly reassured by the fact that Cohen was as wonderful a man in life as he was in his songs. That’s beauty, right there, and I’m hanging on to it for all I am worth.