Cohen at The Big Chill

At 73, and with a career spanning four decades, how can Leonard Cohen possibly meet expectations? Q

Big Chill Blog - Sunday 3 August 2008

On Sunday, it's hard to think past the fact that the mythic Leonard Cohen, will be serenading the crowd
tonight. But there are plenty of other worthy acts vying for our attention on this final day of the festival, and we have to do something to bide the time. Saturday's bountiful sunshine has been kidnapped by a dirty swathe of cloud, not that this is going to faze Big Chill stalwart Norman Jay, whose Sunday lunch feel-good groove DJ set is a regular festival fixture.

After only 15 minutes on the Castle stage, it all feels a bit tired, and when Jay spins 'Love the Sunshine', despite the fact there clearly isn't any, the crowd's indifferent response is both surprising and embarrassing.

Hopefully this will force him to remember that you can't fake festival feeling, and that he will need to come up with a more imaginative set list if he's to remain King of the Decks next year. By contrast, it's impossible to feel grey watching Orchestra Baobab over on the Open Air stage. They layer Congolese rumba and bossanova beats, with a West African vocal style and haunting, bluesy guitar. On the dance numbers, finger-picked guitar passages and a time-perfect brass section makes for music to burn away the cloud.

It's easy to stick to the main festival stages but part of the Big Chill's appeal is that it offers more than just musical performance and five kinds of falafel. Over in the Words in Motion tent, "recovering brand addict" Neil Boorman is offering a timely answer to dealing with the credit crunch, and reads from his recent book which details how he ceremoniously burnt and battered all his branded possessions and TV to oblivion, in order to break his consumerist addiction.

He's an engaging reader, but unfortunately this kind of event only attracts the ready converts. (The brand bunnies are out on the plains supping Tiger beer in their Cath Kidston wellingtons). Boorman may appear logo-free, but he still looks as though he's stepped straight out of a Shoreditch Saturday night. And as he answers revellers' questions post-reading, he smokes a Marlboro Light, despite having related the moment he decided to give up consuming any labelled substance, tobacco included.

Back on the Open Air stage, the Imagined World are trying to warm the ever-dampening crowd with their 10-piece best of British folk collective. Led by Martin and Eliza Carthy, and featuring the Copper family sons, this is voice-quavering, fiddle-playing folk at its best.

The highlight is a modern reworking of a traditional song, 'Tam Lyn', which features Benjamin Zephaniah narrating the tale on video, to a drum and bass beat and flagrant violining from Eliza Carthy. It works brilliantly, and Imagined World turn out to be one of the unexpected festival highlights.

Only one more act before Mr Cohen - and it's a test of our love for Leonard that we stick it out to ensure a prime spot infront of the stage. The cloud has lifted, but Camille is the French bansheeing Bjork imitator up next, and as much as I try to appreciate her post-feminist dress over the head,'Why do you call me a slag' shrieking, it's pretty self-masturbatory stuff.

Camille is at her best when she and the rest of her collective leave off the teenage offence and switch to close-harmonied, high-energy beat-boxing. But forcing the audience to conspire with her mock-psychotic cabaret is the height of performative egotism, and she finishes the set with a gimmick which speaks volumes - turning her back to the audience to reveal a dress cut so low it reveals most of her bottom.

And so to the act we have not dared to anticipate. At 73, and with a career spanning four decades, how can Leonard Cohen possibly meet expectations? Quite simply, he doesn't. Instead, he surpasses them and proves himself a septagenarian dark saint, with an impossible sex appeal, and a humble sincerity of performance that makes him sound as though he bleeds and burns every word he sings.

Most of the favourites are there; 'Tower of Song', 'Suzanne', 'Goodbye, Marianne', 'That's no way to say goodbye', 'Dance me to the end of love', 'Bird on the Wire', and a soul-soaring version of 'Hallelujah' which has the unusually tuneful crowd serenading Cohen himself with the chorus.

His delivery of 'I'm your man' is so erotic, he could still have his pick of the female audience (and probably some of the male), irrespective of age. Cohen the man may have an ego, but Cohen the performer certainly doesn't. And it's this generosity, this willingness to share his capacity for rendering human experience in lyrical song that makes for an utterly spell-binding performance and the unquestionable highlight of the Big Chill.

Nichi Hodgson is a 25-year-old Yorkshire emigree working as an Editorial Assistant on an Arts Database. She freelances on arts, culture and gender issues

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

Rex Features
Show Hide image

Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage