Villiers, my friend and colleague, was about to be seventy years old. He sent me an invitation to his forthcoming birthday party; albeit reluctantly, he would celebrate seventy years of a life; and, at the same time, he would celebrate the beginning of his eighth decade.
Villiers had spent most of the last fifty years trying to make a difference. He took seriously both the idea of the state and how best to design the best possible state. He thought it was worth striving to create (or at least maintain) a safe, just and tolerant society. Villiers – as a certain kind of Englishman – had a deep sense of irony and a version of political realism that usually found itself in sympathy with the conservative outlook. His often acerbic humour saved him, though, from ever being an ideologue. He knew what he liked – and it was a mix of literature, politics, art and idiosyncrasy. All along he was cautious about taking the big questions of life too seriously.
Villiers was mostly a writer. Writing made him happy. It gave him pleasure. He could write plays and novels – or essays and books on serious subjects – like human rights. Although he did other things to earn his living he always made sure that he had something to write about …
Those of us invited to his birthday party were informed that we were to expect tea and scones at the family home in Oxford. Evensong, at the local church, was also on the agenda.
It’s now Sunday – the day of the party.
The family home was (and is) peculiarly idyllic. The large house is comfortable, stable, reassuring. The lawn stretches down to the river Cherwell. By the river it’s as if we find ourselves in one of those wonderful paintings by Alfred Sisley. It makes for a mood: reflective – in-and-out of time – civilised.
As the guests assembled Villiers was full of bonhomie. And things went well. Villiers enjoyed the company of his sister, his brother, and a few friends. He enjoyed, too, the company of his mother who is 102 years old. He enjoyed the company of his partner’s grand-daughter who is 2 years old. So there it was: a century of humanity for tea and scones and the singing of ‘happy birthday.’
BUT Villiers was disquieted. Who had he been? What was he to become? And, most specifically, what future was there for his writing? He reminded himself that the novelist Martin Amis had begun to write about times past; a looking back; as Martin Amis had put it he, Amis, did so as ‘not to make a fool of oneself.’ Villers could see this; there was no point in trying to ape the style of the new generations. That would be entirely false. Yes, so what did Villers have to say? What was he to communicate?
When the time came the birthday party moved on to celebrate Evensong in the lovely local church. What is it about Evensong that is so consoling and yet so tinged with sorrow? The church was lit by the soft-light of a hundred candles and, from time time, Villiers experienced a kind of reverie – a moment of enchantment …
On arriving back in the family home, Villiers detached himself from his guests. He went to choose a record: something he might even take away with him if he were to find himself on a desert island. (Sometimes he even thought that it would, after all, be best to live on a desert island. He’d make friends with the migrant birds; he’d welcome a refugee or two; in fact, he’d organise a camp for god-knows how many refugees (and stateless persons) and help them with their metaphysics …)
What record should he choose? Rachmaninov’s piano concerto came to mind. But then he paused. It was his birthday. And, where was he? I mean, where was he in the space and place of his psyche? Where? He was back with that ‘Famous blue raincoat’; he was back with Suzanne and Marianne; he was back with ‘Songs from a room’ – and the beautiful girl on the cover,; he was back with all to play for; he was back on ‘Boogie street’.
It wasn’t any old CD that he chose. It was a sleek black shining LP; it was Leonard Cohen’s ‘Twelve new songs’ – and as he caressed the record from its sleeve he started humming – just to himself. He watched the river glinting in the dying moments of the late late summer.
Leonard Cohen’s ‘Boogie street’ began. Yes, Villiers was back on ‘Boogie street.’ And as he listened to the words he thought of his next piece of writing: it began: ‘Now, as a man grows older …’
Footnote: Here are the first verses of the song ‘Boogie Street’ by the late Leonard Cohen:
O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we’d meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it’s done:
I’m back on Boogie Street.
A sip of wine, a cigarette,
And then it’s time to go.
I tidied up the kitchenette;
I tuned the old banjo.
I’m wanted at the traffic-jam.
They’re saving me a seat.
I’m what I am, and what I am,
Is back on Boogie Street.
And O my love, I still recall
The pleasures that we knew;
The rivers and the waterfall,
Wherein I bathed with you.
Bewildered by your beauty there,
I’d kneel to dry your feet.
By such instructions you prepare
A man for Boogie Street.