Cohen, Cohen, gone again

Well, as some of you know I just got back from three weeks on the road in New Zealand, plus a detour to Sydney, Australia. So many stories… so little time.

I’m sitting here with a half-packed suitcase – same clothes, different electrical appliance adaptor – waiting for my driver Eric Drew Feldman to take me to the airport (yes the bassist/keyboard player for Beefheart, PJ Harvey etc; nothing but the best for this diva!) (oh and he’s cheap for a musical legend; all he’s charging for his services is a multipack of  Marks & Spencer’s socks) for my flight to London for an even longer tour – a big bunch of UK events and, this time, a detour to Berlin.

This is the moment when you should abandon this blog en masse and rush to the tour page, scroll down past the picture of me with New Zealand singer-guitarist and giant Adam McGrath, and make plans to come and see me somewhere. The best bit about being on the road is the people you meet. And the stories.

Ah the stories. They began in the airport lounge at Auckland airport, 5.55 in the morning – not a time of day I’m much familiar with, outside of airports – waiting for the connection to the first leg of the tour: Christchurch. A tall, lean, bespectacled man with the look of a vicar or an Oxford don came ambling over and said, in a very English accent: “You’re Sylvie Simmons.” At 5.55am I am rarely sure who I am, so this was useful information. He added, with a tone of delight, “I just googled you on my device.” Wiping the sleep of a 13-hour flight from my eyes, I recognised who it was: Sir Max Hastings! The great British historian, editor, writer,  and war correspondent. The first time, I think I can say with conviction, I’ve ever been googled by a knight.

Since he was billed on some of the same festivals as I was and billeted in the same hotels, I often found myself  larging it with Sir Max over  breakfast. He would usually be reading some book or other on his kindle, before stopping to share some great stories of his own. One day, I think the last day I saw him, in Auckland, he came into the club room clutching a tome under his arm. It was Proust’s A La Recherche. When he was young, he said, he had been given some excellent advice: to on no account read Proust until he was in his fifties. In his sixties now, he had read it a number of times, and shared some of his favourite passages.

Christchurch was a great little city that looked so much like England I kept having to do a double-take. Even the streets had the names of English towns (confusingly, especially for someone with a sense of direction like mine, in the wrong geographical order at times.) The view from the hotel was of old brick buildings, weeping willows and ducks on a pond which all looked like they’d all snuck out of Hampstead in the dead of night and got on the same plane. The place still bears major scars of the 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people and destroyed not just buildings but neighbourhood including almost all of downtown. But the people couldn’t have been nicer. Since the galleries were gone,  there were some great pop-up displays around the city – a weird sculpture on a roof, a giant reproduction of an old master from the museum on the wall of a half-swallowed building – and even a temporary downtown of shops and cafes had been constructed out of shipping containers.

The day before my first Christchurch Writers event, I went to meet my volunteer guitar player du jour, Adam McGrath – a very big man who lived in a very small wooden house that sat like a grounded ship on top of a hill above the stunning Governor’s Bay, where we sat and played some songs. Adam’s songs have a kind of Steve Earle quality to them  – good stuff – but we thought we’d better stick to Leonard Cohen’s for the show! Here we are backstage.

If you want to see more pictures from Christchurch, check out the event’s facebook site.

Meanwhile onto Auckland, another place full of wonderful friendly people and to a dream of a Writers & Readers festival. More welcome parties than you could have asked for, ranging from the cocktail variety to a Maori ceremony, and some unforgettable events: sharing the stage for an evening of story-telling with great writers like  Jackie Kay and  Gideon Haigh (who has just won two more awards for his latest book in the time it’s taken me to write this blog!) and, another night, with Noelle McCarthy at a packed show called ‘Mr Cohen Revealed.’.

But if I had to pick a highlight, it had to be the show that ended the festival: a double-bill with the great singer-songwriter Don McGlashan, ex the Mutton Birds, where, without a rehearsal, just a quick drink in the bar before stepping out before a sold-out crowd, we sang four of his songs (including the gorgeous ‘This Is London’ – if you don’t know this song, check it out) and four of mine (yeah, yeah, I know, but I’ll find time to record them one day, honest!) and four of Leonard Cohen’s, taking it in turns to sing lead. What a night. If someone reading this was in the audience with an iPhone and videoed, or even shot, any of it, please put it up on YouTube or send it my way. Meanwhile, here we are at the closing time party.

Talking of which, it’s time to go. I’ll get to Masterton, Carterton and Wellington, NZ, and Sydney when I can.

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