It was a terraced house in Marcia Street, on the edge of Moss Side in Manchester, just behind Whitworth Park. And it was the late 1960s. The house and the street have long gone. For a short time it was the home to a bunch of Manchester University students – male and female who – rather than paying rent – contributed a modest sum every month towards paying off the mortgage which one of our number had taken out on the house, which also included the cost of coal for the fires which heated every room. I was one of those students.
We recently watched the documentary movie Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love about the relationship between Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen. Hearing so many of Cohen’s early songs conjured up that part of my life. I was a member of the university’s poetry society along with Dave, the mortgage holder and we agreed that we could use our place as a venue for a couple of society events. One was (and remember this was the sixties) a ‘mixed media’ event where those taking part could paint or draw, or recite/declaim their poems. Frankly I don’t remember much about it. As part of these events we brought in a couple of crates of Newcastle Brown and sold some of them at a considerable profit, and drank the rest.
The other event, was a talk by David Pirie, a lecturer in the English department about the poetry and songs of Leonard Cohen. Everyone seemed to own a copy of his album Songs of Leonard Cohen, even though his own version of Suzanne did not reach the charts. Cohen always said that he got no benefit from the many other recordings of the song since he’d signed away his rights to it in a legal document which he did not read.
Whatever the truth of that, we advertised the meeting on various university noticeboards (no Facebook or Twitter then!) and an hour before the meeting was due to start the house – a fairly sizeable terraced property was jammed solid with Cohen fans. The lecturer stayed at the top of the house and I doubt more than a handful of those present heard him properly. Some of the organisers were stuck downstairs, tucking into the supplies of Newcastle Brown, while others were trapped upstairs.
As far as I know no photographs were taken to record this momentous gathering. It remains a rather hazy memory to me. There were a couple of sequels to this. For quite a while my party piece was to perform my own version of Suzanne making up new words as I went along and accompanying it very indifferently on the guitar. My friends seemed to like it but then they were probably easily pleased. The other sequel was that I married one of my fellow organisers of that event. It was poetry brought us together including a poem which mentioned the no 43 bus which is the one she used to visit her grandma who lived on Princess Road.
A couple of years ago the two of us found ourselves in Holborn in the rather austere setting of Swedenborg Hall listening to a poet reading from her new collection. She also happened to be the person who effectively brought us together nearly fifty years before when she was secretary of the Poetry Society. We had come along unannounced, and as we came up to her she eyed us cautiously until suddenly recognition dawned and her face lit up: ‘It’s you two – and you’re still together!’
I didn’t quite feel transformed into the slim, long haired, handsome young hippie poet I once imagined myself to be but it was nice to know I hadn’t changed out of all recognition.