Grace Oliver

My aunt, Grace Oliver, died at age 75 in the early morning of Christmas Day.

Born Stephen Beasley-Murray, her reinvention and transition from Stephen to Grace, and from Beasley-Murray to Oliver, was a journey that lasted most of a lifetime.

Throughout their seventy-five years, Stephen/Grace was curious and prepared to follow their curiosity and desire, sometimes whatever the cost, for them or for others.

Stephen grew up in South London, but went to university (to study sciences) in Liverpool in the early 1970s. He stayed on in the city, working with social services and the Anglican church, under the aegis of former cricketer turned left-wing bishop, David Sheppard.

I think that his time in pre-Thatcherite Liverpool, combining religious vocation with practical work for social justice, was a golden period for him, to which he would often look back with nostalgia, and even try to recreate.

But something went wrong, and he left for the United States, where his parents (my grandparents) were living in Louisville, Kentucky. There he enrolled in graduate work at the Southern Seminary, where he wrote a PhD dissertation on the “metaphysics of the sacred.”

It was also in Kentucky where he met his first wife, Angela (Angie), with whom he had three children (Mark, Philip, and Amanda), and with whom he later travelled, as a Northern Baptist missionary, to live and work in Hong Kong.

Missionary life did not agree with him, however, not least its fundamental premise that “we” in the West had more to teach “them” in the East than they had to teach us. He and Angie withdrew from the mission and settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where Steve became a secondary-school teacher.

By this time, he was increasingly radical. He joined the Communist Party of the USA and began explorations in Wicca beliefs and practices. When he also started experimenting in naturism, I would refer to him as my “nudist, Communist, witch” uncle.

Steve and Angie split up, very acrimoniously, and he moved to Texas with Charlotte Oliver, who became his second wife. He took her name in the marriage. In Texas, he taught philosophy in various colleges and universities.

A decade or so ago, on his retirement, Steve and Charlotte moved to Liverpool where they lived in a small housing-association property, and once more became involved with Liverpool Parish Church, as well as with the Society of Friends (Quakers). They joined the Labour Party, and were fervent supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. They had a caravan in a naturist park in Cheshire.

At some point, Steve began questioning issues of sexuality and gender identity, and started living as Grace. A couple of years ago, they underwent gender-reassignment surgery.

Perhaps Grace finally found the peace and fulfillment that, I fear, Stephen seldom or never did. Indeed, I may be wrong, but my feeling is that Stephen Beasley-Murray was not often happy. I never met him as Grace, but hear that Grace seemed much happier and more relaxed than Stephen had ever been.

Jean Franco

It must have been late 1989 or early 1990 that I first met Jean Franco, the distinguished and pioneering Latin Americanist literary and cultural critic, who has just died at 98 years old.

I was taking a year out from my undergraduate degree, crossing the USA en route to Central America, and at the same time checking out universities to which I thought I might apply to do graduate work.

Finding myself in New York, I headed to Columbia, and made my way to the Department of English where I hoped to meet Edward Said, a founder of postcolonial studies. Professor Said was not available, I was told, but would I like to talk to Professor Franco, who co-taught with him on the MA program?

I remember next to nothing about that conversation, but I must have (presumptuously) left her something of mine to read, or posted it to her later, because the following year, when I was back in the UK, I received a postcard from her. She apologized for taking so long, but she had (amazingly) read whatever it was that I had written and offered some brief, polite comments on it.

It was only much later that I realized just who Jean Franco was: one of the first critics to put the study of Latin American literature on the map, at least in the English-speaking world, with books such as The Modern Culture of Latin America (1967) and An Introduction to Latin American Literature (1969), whose range of reference and erudition, but also enthusiasm and clarity, remain impressive even today.

Once I was in the United States (first at Milwaukee then in North Carolina), I would often pass through New York, where I would regularly (and again, presumptuously) call Jean up and we would go for a walk, a coffee, perhaps lunch. She was always and indefatigably hospitable and polite to me, this strange guy who periodically darkened her door.

Some years later, when I was teaching at the University of Manchester, I proposed Jean’s name for an honorary degree, and delightfully both the university and she agreed. It was a great pleasure for once to host her: I remember wandering with her through the center of Manchester, taking a break at the Royal Exchange café, and again chatting about who knows what.

With Jean (I think at the Yang Sing restaurant) in Manchester, 2002

Jean came from the North of England—if I remember right, from Dukinfield, on Tameside in the East of Manchester, near the edge of the Pennines—and retained a distinctive accent throughout her life. She did a BA and MA at the University of Manchester, and then somehow found herself in Latin America. I remember her recounting that—like Che Guevara—she was in Guatemala during the 1954 coup.

She then returned to the UK, where she did a PhD at the University of London and subsequently became the country’s first Professor of Latin American Literature at the then new (and radical) University of Essex, before moving across the Atlantic to Stanford and then Columbia.

Jean’s work continued to be pathbreaking across the decades, from her innovative study of gender and representation in Mexico, Plotting Women (1989), to her magisterial study of Latin America in the Cold War, The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City (2002) and her study of the violence of modernity on the periphery with Cruel Modernity (2013).

What I will remember above all, however, is someone with almost infinite time and generosity, even for a whippersnapper like me, with a great sense of humor and a cackle of a laugh, who was always prepared to take risks (literally, in that I’m told she was a fan of the tables at Las Vegas), but above all knew how to live.

I thought she was immortal. In many ways, she surely is.

Laughing Len

Leonard Cohen

The first time I heard of Leonard Cohen was when I was fifteen, back in 1985. Though strictly speaking, the first song I heard was neither written nor performed by him.

I had been sent to South London to stay with my uncle for a week or two, the summer after finishing my A-Levels. My uncle, however, had his own plans the night I arrived, and they clearly didn’t include me. So he gave me the addresses of a couple of his friends, whom he encouraged me to visit. Gamely, I set off to knock on the doors of these people I had never met, and who hadn’t a clue as to who I was. But I was quickly and enthusiastically welcomed in, nobody even batting an eye at the apparition of this slightly lost young boy from up north who announced he was Andrew the hairdresser’s nephew.

I soon found myself installed in a cluttered living room, lined with couches. People came and went. I was no doubt offered a beer or two. The air was hazy with smoke. There had been some kind of party the night before, and the floor was haphazardly piled high with LPs–some in their sleeves, some not. Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, Van Morrison, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. But rather than listening to the stereo, my host, Steve, was strumming his guitar. Older–my uncle’s age–bearded, somewhat grizzled, but with lively blue eyes, he seemed to emanate obscure knowledge like some sort of shaman. I asked him if he knew any songs about the Spanish Civil War. He played “The Partisan,” Cohen’s version of a song (in fact) originally about the French Resistance. It was more than close enough for me.

And Steve carried on playing Cohen songs: “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Perhaps “Bird on a Wire.” It turned out that, in this company at least, some of these tunes were made for singing along: “So Long, Marianne,” for instance. Cohen would prove to be the soundtrack, the shared memory and experience, for a whole new world I was stepping into. For this was just the first of many such informal, impromptu gatherings over the next decade or so, as I returned to South London and eventually came to live nearby. Parties, gatherings before or after going to the pub, Sunday afternoons, weekday evenings. Almost always a guitar, almost always Leonard Cohen.

So for me, however much Cohen’s image and even many of his lyrics suggest solitude and isolation, missed encounters and regret (“I said to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get?”), my experience of his music has almost always been as part of a crowd. Even when I think of what is surely his most devastating song, “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” what comes to mind is an extraordinary performance by my uncle himself at one of these late night get-togethers. More recently, I’ve joined such communal, cathartic sing-a-alongs here in British Columbia with people such as my friend Max and his family. Still, listening to Cohen takes me back to cluttered, crowded, smoky living rooms in South London, when it didn’t matter how badly you sang–it hardly seemed to matter to Leonard–but that you sang with (shared) feeling.

Cohen’s mantra was always that of the “beautiful loser.” His claim: that the damaged, the disfigured, the disappointed, the defeated also have a right to hope again, without ever denying their pain and hurt. That, even at the lowest points of life (Joan of Arc at the stake; Isaac on his sacrificial pyre), there is some solace to be found, some chance for redemption if not salvation. There might even perhaps be an opening on to an ecstasy that’s decidedly immanent, part of this world. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Moreover, Cohen’s view was that that it is only in these depths that true solidarity and empathy are to be found. Our tragedy is that we are all in fact losers, lost whether we know it yet or not. But this is also our triumph, so long as we remember to sing along when the time comes:

It may not be tonight, it may not be tomorrow, but one day you’ll be on your knees and I want you to know the words when the time comes. Because you’re going to have to sing it to yourself, or to another, or to your brother. You’re going to have to learn to sing this song, it goes:

“Please don’t pass me by,
Please don’t pass me by,
For I am blind, but you can see,
Yes, I’ve been blinded totally,
Oh please don’t pass me by.”

Cohen is gone now. He’d say that at best he was only ever passing through. But so are we all: “sometimes happy, sometimes blue.” The point in the meantime is to keep alive the spirit of hospitality that I associate with my first encounter with his songs. And to maintain the sense of commonality, the recognition that our fates are necessarily intertwined, too easily forgotten by those who happen not (right now) to find themselves in the gutter. No better way than to invite someone to sing with you. This is music for sharing.

“Then we’ll come from the shadows.”