Bohemian tragedy: Leonard Cohen and the curse of Hydra

The musician was inspired by married writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift when he visited the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. But their golden age came at a price

An inspiration: Leonard Cohen with Charmian Clift, Hydra, 1960.
An inspiration: Leonard Cohen with Charmian Clift, Hydra, 1960. Photograph: James Burke/LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images


I’ve been noticing of late how often the woman you see in the photograph, with her head on Leonard Cohen’s shoulder is captioned as “Marianne”. In fact, this beauty is of a different and wilder nature. Her name is Charmian Clift, and she was one half of the tragic couple, cited by Cohen as his inspiration and often dubbed “the Ted and Sylvia of Australia”. It was Clift’s memoir Peel Me a Lotus, that first set me on the path to the Greek island of Hydra and to writing a novel set among the artists’ colony of which she and her husband, George Johnston, were the undisputed king and queen.

It is 60 years this month since a 25-year-old Cohen – pre-songwriting and with one collection of poetry under his beltset foot there, hoping to finish blackening the pages of his first novel. He had left Montreal on his first trip outside North America with a Canadian Arts Council Grant of $2,000, and had been attempting to complete three pages a day at a boarding house in Hampstead.

April 1960 was unusually cold and rainy, and on meeting Barbara Rothschild at a party, he learned that she was to be married to the Greek artist Nikos Ghika, the owner of a 40-room mansion on the sunny Aegean island of Hydra where artists and writers sometimes stayed, among them Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, Cyril Connolly and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Cohen set off right away. Unfortunately, the advice to drop Rothchild’s name fell on the hostile ears of a housekeeper who, with a Mrs Danvers’s style attachment to the first Mrs Ghika, turned him away, with the words: “We don’t need any more Jews here.” Cohen claimed he put a curse on the place and the house burned to the ground in spectacular Manderley style the following year.

The house where Cohen lived on Hydra, in November 2016.
The house where Cohen lived on Hydra, in November 2016. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP /Getty Images


Cohen was scooped up by Clift and Johnston who invited him to stay and to work on their terrace. The Johnstons were doing exactly what Cohen hoped to do, living by their writing. In their decade in Greece, between them, they published 14 books. As Cohen later said: “They drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more, they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration.” When he first played Sydney in 1980, by which time the couple had been dead for over a decade, he dedicated the show “To George Johnston and Charmian Clift who taught me how to write,” and opened with the Hydra-inspired song “Bird on a Wire”.

For Autocrats, and Others, Coronavirus Is a Chance to Grab Even More Power ~ NYT

Leaders around the world have passed emergency decrees and legislation expanding their reach during the pandemic. Will they ever relinquish them?

Credit…Martin Bernetti/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LONDON — In Hungary, the prime minister can now rule by decree. In Britain, ministers have what a critic called “eye-watering” power to detain people and close borders. Israel’s prime minister has shut down courts and begun an intrusive surveillance of citizens. Chile has sent the military to public squares once occupied by protesters. Bolivia has postponed elections.

As the coronavirus pandemic brings the world to a juddering haltand anxious citizens demand action, leaders across the globe are invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority with scant resistance.

Governments and rights groups agree that these extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. States need new powers to shut their borders, enforce quarantines and track infected people. Many of these actions are protected under international rules, constitutional lawyers say.

But critics say some governments are using the public health crisis as cover to seize new powers that have little to do with the outbreak, with few safeguards to ensure that their new authority will not be abused.
ImageSingapore’s health ministry has posted information online about each coronavirus patient, often in great detail.
Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

The laws are taking swift hold across a broad range of political systems — in authoritarian states like Jordan, faltering democracies like Hungary, and traditional democracies like Britain. And there are few sunset provisions to ensure that the powers will be rescinded once the threat passes.

“We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic,” said Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights.

As the new laws broaden state surveillance, allow governments to detain people indefinitely and infringe on freedoms of assembly and expression, they could also shape civic life, politics and economies for decades to come.

The pandemic is already redefining norms. Invasive surveillance systems in South Korea and Singapore, which would have invited censure under normal circumstances, have been praised for slowing infections. Governments that initially criticized China for putting millions of its citizens under lockdown have since followed suit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closing of Israel’s courts delayed his own appearance on corruption charges.
Credit…Pool photo by Yonatan Sindel

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has authorized his country’s internal security agency to track citizens using a secret trove of cellphone data developed for counterterrorism. By tracing people’s movements, the government can punish those who defy isolation orders with up to six months in prison.

And by ordering the closing of the nation’s courts, Mr. Netanyahu delayed his scheduled appearance to face corruption charges.

In some parts of the world, new emergency laws have revived old fears of martial law. The Philippine Congress passed legislation last week that gave President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers and $5.4 billion to deal with the pandemic. Lawmakers watered down an earlier draft law that would have allowed the president to take over private businesses.

“This limitless grant of emergency powers is tantamount to autocracy,” a Philippine rights group, the Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties, said in a statement. The lawyers noted that Mr. Duterte had once compared the country’s Constitution to a “scrap of toilet paper.”

Some states are using the pandemic to crack down on dissent. In Jordan, after an emergency “defense law” gave wide latitude to his office, Prime Minister Omar Razzaz said his government would “deal firmly” with anyone who spreads “rumors, fabrications and false news that sows panic.”

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Our Daily Breather: Angelica Garcia Finds Sanctuary In Ranchera Music

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Angelica Garcia is looking to the ancestral guidance of ranchera music. Caitlyn Krone/Courtesy of the artist


Our Daily Breather is a series where we ask writers and artists to recommend one thing that’s helping them get through the days of isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

The past few days I’ve experienced a flux of emotions. On one hand, I’m grateful to have time in the morning to sit and drink coffee; on the other hand I feel the chaos outside and I’m flinching every time I hear someone cough in the alley. I feel like the way that I confront chaos is by facing it, though. I can’t push aside everything I feel unless I truly want to feel the entire weight of everything at a later, unexpected date.

Since a lot of things are floating in the air — income, tours, bills — I’ve decided to use this time to absorb the most emotive music I can personally think of: ranchera music. In the past, I’ve found myself in a bathtub at the end of the night with Chavela Vargas playing in the background. The experience of sitting in the water and hearing her voice reverberate off the tiles felt similar to letting out a healthy cry.


So much of the classic ranchera music comes from a generation of writers who dealt with crisis regularly. They lived through episodes of famine or the anxiety of waiting for a loved one to return home from war. On top of it all, the world was so much less connected than it is now — sometimes the news of a change of fate arriving in a small letter. This is why I feel ranchera music is so on the nose. It says absolutely everything it needs to say because people weren’t always sure of their future. This could be seen as a grim outlook, but personally I am in awe knowing that ancestors took uncertainty and hardship and turned it into something so genuine that beautifully articulates the landscape of the human experience. I’m especially thinking of them now. Whether I pick up my guitar or my paintbrush, I think of them when I don’t know how to feel.



These old songs are guidance and sanctuary to me. I’m challenging myself now to have that same directness with anything I create during this time. Life is precious and chaotic. I am most at peace when I look it in the eyes for what it is.


A World Turned Upside-Down

In 1966, the writer Paul Theroux was in Uganda at a time of curfew and violence. It shaped his thinking about travel writing’s imperative to bear witness.

Credit…Priya Ramrakha/Getty



In this season of infection, the stock market little more than a twitching corpse, in an atmosphere of alarm and despondency, I am reminded of the enlightenments of the strict curfew Uganda endured in 1966. It was, for all its miseries, an episode of life lessons, as well as monotonous moralizing (because most crises enliven bores and provoke sententiousness). I would not have missed it for anything.

That curfew evoked — like today — the world turned upside-down. This peculiarity that we are now experiencing, the nearest thing to a world war, is the key theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays and Jacobean dramas, of old ballads, apocalyptic paintings and morality tales. It is the essence of tragedy and an occasion for license or retribution. As Hamlet says to his father’s ghost, “Time is out of joint.”

In Uganda, the palace of the king of Buganda, the Kabaka, Mutesa II — also known as King Freddie — had been attacked by government troops on the orders of the prime minister, Milton Obote. From my office window at Makerere University, where I was a lecturer in English in the Extra Mural department, I heard the volleys of heavy artillery, and smoke rising from the royal enclosure on Mengo Hill. The assault, led by Gen. Idi Amin, resulted in many deaths. But the king eluded capture; he escaped the country in disguise and fled to Britain. The period that followed was one of oppression and confusion, marked by the enforced isolation of a dusk-to-dawn curfew. But, given the disorder and uncertainty, most people seldom dared to leave home at all.

Gen. Idi Amin eventually took power and governed sadistically. 

The curfew was a period of fear, bad advice, arbitrary searches, intimidation and the nastiness common in most civil unrest, people taking advantage of chaos to settle scores. Uganda had a sizable Indian population, and Indian people were casually mugged, their shops ransacked and other minorities victimized or sidelined. It was also an interlude of hoarding, and of drunkenness, lawlessness and licentiousness, born of boredom and anarchy.

“Kifugo!” I heard again and again of the curfew — a Swahili word, because it was the lingua franca there. “Imprisonment!” Yes, it was enforced confinement, but I also felt privileged to be a witness: I had never seen anything like it. I experienced the stages of the coup, the suspension of the constitution, the panic buying and the effects of the emergency. My clearest memory is of the retailing of rumors — outrageous, frightening, seemingly improbable — but who could dispute them? Our saying then was, “Don’t believe anything you hear until the government officially denies it.”

Speaking for myself, as a traveler, any great crisis — war, famine, natural disaster or outrage — ought to be an occasion to bear witness, even if it means leaving the safety of home. The fact that it was the manipulative monster Chairman Mao who said, “All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience,” does not make the apothegm less true. It is or should be the subtext for all travelers’ chronicles.

The curfew — three years into my time in Africa — was my initiation into the misuse of power, of greed, cowardice and selfishness; as well as, also, their opposites — compassion, bravery, mutual aid and generosity. Even at the time, 24-years-old and fairly callow, I felt I was lucky in some way to be witnessing this convulsion. It was not just that it helped me to understand Africa better; it offered me insights into crowds and power and civil unrest generally, allowing me to observe in extreme conditions the nuances of human nature.

I kept a journal. In times of crisis we should all be diarists and documentarians. We’re bound to wail and complain, but it’s also useful to record the particularities of our plight. We know the progress of England’s Great plague of 1665 because Samuel Pepys anatomized it in his diary. On April 30 he wrote: “Great fears of the sickness here in the City it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all!” Later, on June 25, “The plague increases mightily.” And by July 26: “The Sicknesse is got into our parish this week; and is endeed everywhere.”

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Panguipulli is a Mapuche (Chile indigenous group) word meaning Land of the Lion. 



From a local friend

A very big cat. Everything intact except skull. Paws still have pads and fir. Claws appear retracted. That’s why I think it’s a cat. Spine from pelvis to cervical discs as long as mine.


John Prine Hospitalized With COVID-19 Symptoms: ‘His Situation Is Critical’ ~ RollingStone

“John was hospitalized on Thursday,” family says in statement. “He was intubated Saturday evening, and continues to receive care”

John Prine performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, in Manchester, Tenn2019 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival - Day 3, Manchester, USA - 15 Jun 2019

John Prine has been hospitalized since Thursday after suffering from symptoms synonymous with the novel coronavirus. Amy Harris/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

John Prine has been hospitalized since Thursday after suffering from symptoms synonymous with the novel coronavirus. While Prine’s exact medical condition is unclear, “his situation is critical,” his family said in a statement Sunday.

“After a sudden onset of COVID-19 symptoms, John was hospitalized on Thursday. He was intubated Saturday evening, and continues to receive care, but his situation is critical,” the Prine family wrote.

“This is hard news for us to share. But so many of you have loved and supported John over the years, we wanted to let you know, and give you the chance to send out more of that love and support now. And know that we love you, and John loves you.”

John Prine


An update on John

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On March 20th, Prine’s wife Fiona revealed that she had tested positive for the coronavirus, and while her husband also tested, his status remained “indeterminate” at the time.

“There’s a chance he may not have this virus,” Fiona Prine said on Instagram, “and we are working really, really hard and being really diligent about all of the protocols. We are quarantined and isolated from each other and members of the family. It’s hard, I won’t lie, but it’s absolutely important.”

Prine’s health issues over the past few decades have been well-documented, as has the singer’s comebacks: In the late-Nineties, Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in his neck; after rounds of radiation, surgery and a year of rehabilitation, Prine returned to music, his deepened voice a battle scar from the cancer fight. In 2013, Prine announced he had an operable cancer, “non-small cell carcinoma,” in his left lung, briefly sidelining him.