At 11am on the 11th of November 1918, the guns of the Great War fell silent. Almost one hundred years later, I sit on my red mare, looking out over the snowy hills. We are at the top of a small rise, on rough ground, a gnarled old oak on one side and a bright beech, glimmering with its autumn pomp, on another. The ground is covered in hoar frost and there is a slight hint of mist in the air, almost like gunsmoke.
The church bells toll the hour.
The mare and I stand very still. I think of the dead. They were once called the glorious dead, but there was nothing glorious about that carnage. I think of the frightened boys and the weary officers and the doctors desperately trying to put back together shattered bodies. I think of the war horses struggling through the mud and the pointless bayonet charges and the blind generals.
Remembrance comes to me in two waves, each year. On the 11th of November I think of the First World War. On Remembrance Sunday, I think of all the dead, as the veterans of every battle from El Alamein to Musa Qala march up Whitehall, smart and upright, medals blazing on their chests, a haunting mixture of pride and grief and regret on their stoical faces.
After two minutes, I look at my watch and stroke the mare’s strong neck and say: ‘Right. Back to the living.’
As we strike our way down the slope and across the wide meadow, still in the shadow of the hills, I think of my own dead. It is just over a year since my mother died. I’ve been missing her lately, so much that I sometimes can’t breathe. Grief works in hard tandem with time; the two trot along like trained carriage horses. Time is good and true, and gradually, kindly, pulls the lance from the side and gives the wound the air to heal. The scar remains. Sometimes, someone says something or does something that slices the top off, and the pain is so intense that it makes me gasp out loud. The missing never goes away, but it comes at intervals now. The bashed heart begins to understand that there can be true happiness alongside sorrow, that grief does not cancel joy, but can live with it. Everyone in the middle of their life discovers this truth. It’s a hard truth but a consoling truth.
Early this morning, as the bright frost glittered and the mercury hovered at minus three, I read that Leonard Cohen had died. Songs of Love and Hate was one of the first albums I ever heard, at the age of seven. It was a bit of a leap from Puff the Magic Dragon, but I made it. I fell in love and I never fell back out. Cohen went with me to school, through the lonely years when I got things wrong and never quite fitted in with the group. (I did not understand how groups worked, and was always transgressing unspoken rules and being hurled out without a word of warning.) He came with me to my first grand romance. It was a hopeless romance and it made me cry a lot, and crying to Cohen made me feel less alone. The album of those years was simply called Songs of Leonard Cohen, and I listened to ‘Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye’ over and over and felt that he was tracing the contours of my heart.
He came with me through my older years. He was there through all the heartbreaks, all the family dramas, all the funerals, all the knocks and blows and shocks. He was the old friend who did not say pull yourself together, or you should do this, or you are hopeless at that, or butch up, but said instead, I know just how you feel because I have been there too. That is a great gift.
So, this morning, I wept for him as I would weep for a friend. I cried because he was a gentle soul and a great poet. I cried because my mother loved him, rather surprisingly (her other favourites were Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson and The Carpenters), and whenever someone put ‘Diamonds in the Mine’ on the record player her eyes would light up with mischief and she would sing along, because she knew all the words. I cried because another piece of my childhood has gone.
I’ve mourned many of the great old gentleman in the last couple of years – a godfather, a cousin, an uncle, my father’s best friend – all of that age, the ones born in the thirties, who remembered the war and knew what stoicism was, and wildness and romance too. As they go, one by one, gentle into that good night, I feel an acute sense of loss, as if someone is slowly dismantling a wonderful old building, so that its venerable stones litter the ground like fallen giants. I have to pick up those stones and build something new from them. I, like everyone my age, have to build my own building.
All morning, I was with the dead. I carried them with me like a weight, the ones I knew, the ones I did not. And then, when I said to my mare, ‘Back to the living’, she pricked her ears and stretched out her great, powerful, thoroughbred body, and struck out into the green fields, and she was so alive, so present, so authentic, that the weight lifted and light returned. When you are on a creature who lives on a different plane, who is so elemental, whose mysterious mind you can only barely touch, whose every instinct is different than yours, and when that creature gives you her consent, across the species barrier, there is something so visceral about it that it is like a distillation of living. It is very pure, and very beautiful. I feel that I am in partnership with something much greater and finer than I can ever be. And that extraordinary feeling banishes the shadows. The dead retreat, with a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. I think of Matthew Arnold. Ah, love, let us be true to one another.
There is a scattering sound, as the bright scarlet leaves fall suddenly from the trees, surprised by the hard frost. The mare opens her eyes. The leaves are done, for this year. But in the spring, the tiny buds will appear as if by magic, and the stinging emerald leaves will fight their way out and unfurl in their canopies of green, and the world will be new again.