Beautiful losers: Leonard Cohen and the Mariners

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

19 November 2014

Leonard Cohen's 'Suzanne' may not have been inspired by the Mariners. But it still has a lot to say to a Grimsby fan.

When "Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river", she is taking me to Blundell Park. The next line I always get wrong. You "can watch the boats go
by", and in my head, Leonard Cohen's slow, stately voice is like a tanker's silent procession down the Humber, seen through the gap between the Pontoon and the Main Stand.

I am not going to copy countless old fanzine articles and claim that 'Leonard Cohen, is, of course, a Grimsby fan', although the idea is not as absurd as it may seem. The young Cohen, with his dour demeanour and dry wit, might have felt himself at home in the Lower Findus. In another song, he writes: "Forget Leonard Cohen in Venice Something about this picture says that Leonard Cohen is wishing he was in Grimsby. Photo: Gorupdebesanez (own work) (CC-BY-SA-3.0) via Wikimedia Commonsyour perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in", so offering both succour to generations of Town players who have done their best but fallen well short of perfection, and a necessary philosophy for those of us watching them.

I will, however, risk a trip to Pseud's Corner and suggest that the way a song resonates depends in part on the experience of its audience. If part of my experience is of watching the Mariners, so be it.

For instance, when Cohen writes of Suzanne that "You know that she's half crazy/But that's why you want to be there", the meaning is at first opaque. Except that it so nearly echoes the internal refrain of many a person on their way to a match on a cold Tuesday night. Seemingly irrational passions have a way of discovering you, whether for a person, an artist, or a football club.

'Suzanne' is not a song of grand passion. In the second verse, Cohen calls up a messiah, but one whose sweeping declaration – "All men shall be sailors, then/Until the sea shall free them" – falls flat: "He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone".

Once again I am a long way from Quebec. I imagine a raucous voice in the Barrett Stand: "Oy, Partridge, get back to your bloody pear tree", amid a thousand other putdowns for players who fancied themselves a bit too good for Blundell Park. I hear Brian Laws, mistaking good fortune for ability, claiming to have cured the "Grimsby mentality". His luck soon ran out. The only charismatic figures we ever take to are those, like Lawrie McMenemy with his dockside visits, who make sure the light they reflect is our own as much as theirs.

Cast-offs made beautiful

And what of Alan Buckley? The final verse has Suzanne "dressed in rags and feathers/From Salvation Army counters". She shows us "where to look amid the garbage and the flowers". The Town fan who remembers the early 1990s inevitably thinks of Tony Rees, Gary Childs, Paul Futcher and many, many more: the cast-offs from other clubs made into part of something beautiful and enduring.

The secret for the supporter of a smalltown club is knowing where to look, to find pleasure in moments that others might dismiss as scant consolations. Amid the cup wins and the visits to Wembley, some moments seem ephemeral. Getting drenched on the open terrace at Roots Hall as Town made all but sure of promotion. The transformation of a flat night at Stockport when the stewards allowed us to cram together under cover, vapour rising from our wet coats as we stamped and clapped our team towards victory. Or, amid the garbage of a 5-0 defeat at Selhurst Park, the flowering of a collective urge to dance and sing.

Following Grimsby, even in the last decade, is not a joyless burden from which only drowning can free us

Town's players may rarely snatch victory from defeat but sometimes we do it for ourselves. Those moments last, and with none of the bitterness that comes from remembering faded glory. Following Grimsby, even in the last decade, is not a joyless burden from which only drowning can free us. And even in the good times we had some horrible days. In Suzanne we touch perfection, but only in the mind.

There's a phrase of Cohen's I return to time and again. "Heroes in the seaweed" evokes for me, but most certainly not for Leonard Cohen, a certain kind of Town player: short, determined, skilful – Bobby Cumming, Dave Gilbert, John McDermott, Joe Waters.

A ship seen from the Pontoon standIf the football's no good, you can watch the boats go by (Photo: Pete Green)

There is a part of our mind where these players remain, forever battling the odds. But the phrase that ends the verse, "while Suzanne holds the mirror", suggests we are looking at ourselves, heroes in the seaweed like the players we watch in their ragged glory.

'Suzanne' is a song about spiritual union. Remember the scene, at Bury perhaps when we ended a long winless run, or at Morecambe when we were competing for a Wembley final. The final whistle is close but the minutes that remain stretch like a ladder over an abyss. The players aren't especially good, nor are they playing particularly well, but they are mining some hidden resource to withstand an onslaught. Behind them, unceasing chants of "Maa-ri-ners" and the beats of a drum bounce from the roof of the stand. The echoes, the occasion, make us sound more than we are.

And when the whistle blows, and the players punch the air in exhaustion, in triumph and in relief, and when the chants take on a new note, of relief, and triumph and even exhaustion, at that moment our love for the club is mirrored by those who next year may be putting on some other shirt. When the players applaud the fans, and the fans applaud the players, that is a moment of spiritual union.

And that is why we want to be there. We know it is not always like that. There are days when the drum is an annoyance and the exchange of applause an empty gesture. We know we are half-crazy to want to be at Blundell Park, but still we are there. We may all, players and fans, be derided as losers, but we are beautiful losers. And if the football is no good, we can watch the boats go by.

What do you make of that? Send us your feedback.

Particular thanks to Richard Dawson who read a late draft of this article and suggested some significant improvements. The title is his.