Koy & Richard Cooper, London

Where do we begin? On the heels of Rimbaud (or Lorca in Leonard’s case), like dancing bullets through the secret streets of a hot Hydra night… the first sight of the port from the flying dolphin. The silence in the pine trees on the monastery walk. The cicadas singing loud as birds in the bushes on Bisti Bay. The endless salads with their great wedges of fetta, not so much drizzled as drenched with olive oil. A brass door-knocker of a lady’s hand. Being fed crystallised oranges by “Leonard’s housekeeper” straight from the jar. Suzanne Holland’s rendition of The Guests on the Friday night. Leonard’s flamenco thrummings at the end of Avalanche in the San Sebastian video. The nerves before singing at the open mic and the elation having done it. The Dali-like crutches holding up the branches of the trees at the Sunset Restaurant. Elizabeth’s banana pyjamas on the terrace of the Elektra. Leonard’s room in tatters at the climax of Film from a Room. The guitarist’s elaborate moustache and the heavenly sardines at the Douskous. The clear blue sea. John and Fiona doing impressions of ancient Greek statues. Eve’s belly dance. Jarkko’s socks. Boiling water in a saucepan to make tea for breakfast. The shopkeeper who told us in all seriousness that if we see Leonard, to ask him to come back to the island quickly because everybody misses him. Koy going darker and darker. Richard going pinker and pinker. Being woken at seven on Sunday morning by the old church bells outside our window. The rich purples and reds of the flowers spilling over the pure white walls. Antonio’s passionate vocal on Chelsea Hotel #2. Suzanne’s eyes. And the look on Leonard’s face when the interviewer on Saturday’s video said, “My friends only have one question for you – will you make love to them?”

But, none of this would have been possible without the help of some great people.

Richard writes on behalf of himself and Koy...

We almost didn’t get to Hydra at all, which would have been a Greek tragedy considering the superb time we had when we got there. First of all the Greek embassy in London said they couldn’t process a visa for Koy (a Thai national) in time for our trip, and it was only due to frantic behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts between the Mayor of Hydra, the Greek Consul-General in London and Saronicnet’s wonderful Kelsey Edwards that Koy ended up with a visa just in time to fly out on Friday 31st May. We had already booked all our tickets and were looking forward to the experience so much that when Koy finally got her piece of paper, the sense of relief was awesome. (So here’s a tip – if you ever need a visa to visit Greece, give your local consul plenty of notice!)

We had a very enjoyable weekend in Athens, staying in the Attalos Hotel (located a short walk from the Acropolis and the markets, and boasting a roof terrace with superb views), visiting the usual sites and savouring some excellent food. Sadly things went wrong again on Monday when a taxi strike forced us to take the subway to Piraeus. As if the physical hassle of this wasn’t enough, we’d barely been on the train one stop when we discovered our pockets had been picked! There then followed a lot of panic as we made phone calls to stop credit cards and count our remaining cash. At the same time we were trying to get to Piraeus in time for our ferry, which we’d pre-booked with Hellas Flying Dolphins. That was a trial in itself, as Piraeus turned out to be full of separate Hellas offices which all have different functions, and the company’s vague description of where the office holding our tickets was located in this bustling port town meant it took another hour of schlepping around with all our luggage in the midday heat asking directions before we finally found the right place. To our horror, we finally arrived at our hydrofoil just as it was leaving. Thankfully Hellas changed our tickets to the next departure at no extra charge. The ferry journey was very smooth and relaxing under the circumstances and the sight of Hydra’s beautiful port and its tiers of white houses rising up into the hills brought the smiles back to our faces after a terrible day. We hired a couple of donkeys to take us and our luggage up to the Electra pension, with Koy being given priority seating on the lead mule. The Electra was extremely pretty and very quiet, and the owner Panayotis was very sympathetic to our problems and let us use his phone to make a couple more calls. The indefatigable Kelsey stepped into the breach on our behalf yet again and, thinking laterally, used our booking records to stop my credit card. We went to the Hydra police station, where we reported the thefts to a very friendly young English-speaking officer dressed in teeshirt and jeans, and realising we had done all we could for the day, proceeded to the Douskous restaurant for a superb meal, lots of retsina and some fine traditional folk music courtesy of two guitarists. The evening was unforgettable, not least for enabling us to forget a rotten day and find happiness again!

Once Monday was over, we’re glad to say the rest of the holiday went extremely well. We walked aimlessly around the town, getting happily lost in the labyrinthine streets and startling at the pure white walls and the sheer silence and peacefulness of this beautiful place. Throughout the week we had delicious lunches of Greek salad, bread, cheese pies and iced tea and coffee in the shade of pine and olive trees, sometimes to the accompaniment of music but more often with only the backing of the breeze, cicadas and the miaows of the ever-present cats.

At Tuesday’s first “unofficial” dinner of the event, hosted by the delightful Christina Manoulis rooftop restaurant, we finally met the Leonard Cohen Files webmaster Jarkko in the flesh after years of email correspondence, as well as his wife Eija and many of the other participants. It was especially strange to meet for the first time a couple who turned out to live only five minutes walk from us back in Richmond, Surrey!

After the registration on Wednesday afternoon we sat down in the port and spent an enjoyable hour leafing through the event booklet. The stories from the participants on why they were attending this special event were very interesting and entertaining, the poems and articles on Leonard Cohen’s Hydra were fascinating and it was a special pleasure to see Leonard’s own message, poem and artwork in the booklet dedicated to the participants of the Experience.

The first official activity we took part in was the monastery walk, which was great fun even if it was much harder work than we’d expected! We’d never sweated so much in our lives, but the views from the hills over the houses and farms alone were worth the climb. At several points up the hill we would stop in the shade of the pine trees and just listen to the silence. Such deep silence as we experienced in those hills that day gave us perhaps some idea of the profound pleasure and peace that Leonard might have experienced during his years as “the Silent One” on Mount Baldy.

When we eventually reached the Monastery of the Prophet Elijah, we were welcomed by a monk into a tiny, blissfully cool room and offered sweets and water. It was very interesting to hear the monk talk of his beliefs and the nature of the monks’ work. At one point he said, “The heart has to open to let God in; God cannot force His way into a closed heart.” Although he claimed not to know anything about Leonard Cohen, his words were reminiscent of the line from Democracy, “The heart has got to open in a fundamental way”. Hearing him speak of how he had been a civil servant all his life until four years ago when he felt “the calling” to become a monk, and how the monastery has a PC and a website, also brought to mind what Cohen once said about Bird on the Wire and how he had originally come to Hydra to lead an “11th century life” only for modern technology (in those days, the telegraph wires) to intervene almost immediately. This impression was enhanced on our descent, when our paths crossed with another monk perched side-saddle on a horse and talking into a mobile phone. We spent the afternoon sunbathing, and while Koy took a dip in the Aegean I dipped into Beautiful Losers, Cohen’s 1966 novel written in the blazing Hydra sunshine and easily as dazzling as the Greek light. I’d also brought with me Ira Nadel’s excellent Cohen biography Various Positions, and Dark Oliver, a short story by my other favourite writer Russell Hoban, set on another Greek island and featuring the same olive trees, stones and donkeys that were now within my reach. That evening we had another superb meal at the Douskous, where we selected the fish we wanted for dinner from a selection laid out in an ice cabinet. We chose sardines, which were among the best we’d ever eaten – and that’s saying something for Koy, who was brought up in a fishing village in the south of Thailand. By now some more friends had arrived at the Electra and it was a pleasure to sit and eat and drink with them under the tree-ceiling of the restaurant and participate in a funny Greek rendition of Old MacDonald’s Farm, in which I was invited by the guitarist to do a donkey impression (rather unconvincingly, it has to be said). Our friends also very kindly helped us out by lending us some cash so we could enjoy the rest of the weekend.

The official Leonard Cohen Experience began for us on Friday lunchtime with the tour of Hydra town, including Leonard’s house which he legendarily bought for $1,500 in 1960 and has kept ever since. The house itself seemed much smaller than we had imagined, and in a more crowded spot than was apparent from Songs from a Life, the superb 1988 BBC documentary in which Leonard is filmed returning to Hydra after several years’ absence. Although on the face of it the house wasn’t much different from any of the other houses on the island, everyone was very pleased to be there and enthusiastically lined up to have photos taken standing in front of the door. A large group of people buzzing around this point of tranquility was a kind of visual oxymoron, but we can’t deny we both lined up along with all the others! One thing we noticed was that Leonard Cohen has a very fine brass door-knocker – an elegant lady’s hand with a ring on one finger, and two Stars of David beneath.

Our photos taken, we were about to go when a familiar figure appeared from around the corner to see what the commotion was about. She was immediately recognisable as the local lady who greeted Leonard with open arms and many kisses in the BBC documentary. It turned out she lived next door. I don’t think anyone learned her name, but she was referred to by everone as “Leonard’s housekeeper”. She came round to the house and shyly posed for a few photos before disappearing. That was a pleasure in itself – but then she reappeared, this time clutching in the crook of a mighty elbow a huge jar of what turned out to be oranges steeped in a thick, sweet juice, which she proceeded to literally feed us, stabbing an orange with a fork and popping it in our mouth – as someone said, it was a bit like taking communion. The oranges were exquisite, especially if you have a sweet tooth (as we both do)! When I asked for a photograph with her, she beckoned over her little granddaughter and put her arm round both of us. In the UK we have a TV show called Neighbours from Hell, but if they ever make a show called Neighbours from Heaven, she should get a star feature!

On Friday evening the “Experience” got into full swing with a delicious buffet meal and Greek folk dancing at the Sunset Restaurant, followed by the first of three nights of Lenmania at the Ecclesiastical Museum of Hydra in the port. The venue was perfect, a classic old high-walled mediterranean building with some very pleasing arches and mosaic icons on the walls. On the stage in the hall a huge golden icon of the Virgin Mary and the infant Christ loomed over a sound system with a mixing desk, monitors, projectors and laptops, all festooned with a spaghetti bolognese of wires and cables. The high point of this first evening – after Suzanne Holland’s electrifying rendition of The Guests – was the slide show of Leonard’s Hydra, with old black and white photos of Len back in the “days of kindness” accompanied by Marianne and their friends. The images were accompanied by some beautiful, sad guitar music which sounded exactly like the music Leonard himself might have written if he’d been a 19th century classical composer rather than a 20th century singer-songwriter. The effect was heartbreaking, the music tasted of loss, you could smell the heady nights of the sixties when Leonard was young and life was free and easy – and of course, when living was cheaper. Those were the days when Hydra had just been discovered by the artists and poets from around the world and it was still possible to live on the island for next to nothing.

The open mic session on the first night was good. Our favourite performances were Richard Faber’s fine low-key rendition of The Night Comes On and Henning Franz’s dramatic and passionate setting of two poems from The Energy of Slaves to his own, very Cohenesque chords. There was also a moving performance of The Partisan sung appropriately by a French participant. We all felt a bit sorry for Stephane when he attempted to perform Suzanne and the karaoke machine broke down, but he soldiered on and won a huge round of applause for his efforts.

On Saturday we were slightly disappointed not to be able to join the barbecue cruise owing to an unfortunate mix-up with the boats, but we had a great day anyway, swimming at a little beach on the eastern side of the island and having yet another fine Greek salad at a tiny café with a wonderful view of the rich blue sea. The colour of the ocean was an endless source of wonder to us, living as we do in a country where the sea is usually somewhere between brown and grey.

The second Cohen evening in the hall was excellent once again, beginning with an extremely enjoyable interview with Leonard during which he talked about his life since retiring from Mount Baldy, his new songs and poems and, more surreally, the death of the family dog when he was a child. He looked wonderful and said many fascinating things, but none made more of an impression on me than the line, “The dissolution of the search for the self is the content of peace.” It was reassuring, especially as younger people, to hear such a wise, intelligent and established older figure as Cohen admit that he still had no idea who his “true” self was, and furthermore, no longer considered finding the answer a priority in life.

There then followed a talk from Hydra’s mayor, Kostandinos Anastopoulos, whom we also had a chance to thank personally for his assistance with Koy’s visa. The evening continued with a very enjoyable concert by Jan-Erik Ljundqvist, who had the perfect deep voice and dark suit for a set of Leonard Cohen covers. We were glad he didn’t sing all the songs in Swedish, but even when he did (such as on Take This Waltz) it was interesting to listen to the words for themselves, rather than worry about their meaning. The second open mic session was special for us as I was given the opportunity to perform one of both our favourite Cohen songs, Memories. I was very nervous as it was the first time I’d sung in public, and although I stumbled over a couple of lines and my guitar solo fell apart, it was extremely enjoyable to perform and I was quite staggered at the reception. (I must also thank Henning for the loan of his guitar and Michelle for the donation of her plectrum – or should that be ‘pick’?)

Sunday was the last day of the event as well as our last full day on Hydra, and it was a superb way to round off a wonderful holiday and a unique experience. We took a speedboat out to Bisti Bay and relaxed for a few hours in the searing heat, lazily watching the divers and the boats come and go to the mesmerising soundtrack of cicadas singing as loudly as birds. There were only about a dozen people on the whole beach, and once again the peace and quiet were intoxicating. We returned to the hall for the screening of a video of a fantastic Spanish concert from Leonard Cohen’s 1988 world tour, which was for a few participants – Koy included – probably now as close as they’ll get to seeing Leonard Cohen live. It was a very moving concert and the band were marvellous. We in the hall treated it as if it were a real concert, unable to resist the temptation to applaud each song along with the Spanish audience.

The evening saw the second Sunset dinner, which was just as enjoyable as the first. Suzanne Holland’s concert at the hall was another high point of the weekend. Seems So Long Ago, Nancy was particularly memorable – and at times downright spooky: having introduced the song as the story of a “ghost”, Suzanne made two false starts as first her guitar refused to stay in tune and then her microphone packed up, as if some mischievous presence was indeed at work. But everybody was very patient and in the end her rendition of the song was one of best of the weekend. Suzanne’s own mischievousness also came to the fore as she performed an impromptu version of Old MacLeonard’s Farm, complete with some perfect animal impressions. It was a surreal moment that Federico Garcia Lorca would surely have enjoyed.

The third open mic session was for us the most enjoyable of all three, with some excellent singing from Martha Wainwright, Antonio Savi and others. It was a pleasure for me to be asked to accompany Tony on Sisters of Mercy, Janet on her touching Cohen anecdotes and of course Eve’s belly dance to Lover Lover Lover. Antonio called on me at the last minute to accompany him on Chelsea Hotel #2 and it was a great privilege to play for someone of such fine voice and passionate delivery. It was the perfect way to end a magnificent weekend and, when all was said and done, a wonderful week. We hope to be back someday! We’ll be more careful about travelling on the Athens metro next time, though.

Dinner at Vigla: Richard, Koy,
John Pennifold, Fiona Harrington (all from UK)

We would like to take this opportunity of personally thanking Jarkko, Kelsey, Bobbie, Henning, Demetris and the various open mic hosts for all their hard work to make the event a very special experience for us, as well as to our friends John and Fiona for their financial assistance. It was also a great treat to see Elizabeth in her banana pyjamas – an old promise, delivered at last!!


Photos © Eija and Jarkko Arjatsalo.

Koy and Richard got married just
a month before the Event

This story has also been posted
on Richard and Koy's own website
with more photos!