| 19.8°C Dublin

Exorcising the curse of the muse

Polly Samson's best-selling new novel is set among the bohemian writers and artists who flocked to Hydra in the 1960s. She tells Julia Molony how she drew on her own experiences as a muse to tell the tale

Close

Polly Samson. Photo: Harry Borden

Polly Samson. Photo: Harry Borden

Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Polly Samson, who wrote some of the band’s lyrics early in their relationship

Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Polly Samson, who wrote some of the band’s lyrics early in their relationship

Getty Images

A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson

A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

Charmian Clift

Charmian Clift

/

Polly Samson. Photo: Harry Borden

Wrecked marriages and abandoned children. Emotional lives laid waste by alcoholism and infidelity, poisoned by rancour and rage. Such is the cost of the artistic life as portrayed by Polly Samson in her new novel A Theatre for Dreamers.

Set on the Greek island of Hydra - which has become known as Leonard Cohen's island - in 1960, the novel is populated by the real-life bohemian set who flocked to it in search of beauty, sensuality, freedom and inspiration. The group includes Cohen himself and the iconic Australian literary couple Charmian Clift and George Johnston, part of a motley crew of writers, artists, musicians and poets. There among the bougainvillea, crystal waters and whitewashed stone, they worked and lived lives rich in both pleasure and pain, laying the seeds for the fame and catastrophe that would follow.

Samson's real life makes, at first glance, a direct counterpoint to this narrative. She's currently locked down, she explains over Zoom from her home in Sussex, "with four generations of my family, from baby up to 88-year-old," which is, she says "quite full-on".

They're certainly keeping busy and entertained. Once a week members of the family have been gathering to live-stream a kind of musical and literary salon, performing and interviewing each other.

Close

Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Polly Samson, who wrote some of the band’s lyrics early in their relationship

Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Polly Samson, who wrote some of the band’s lyrics early in their relationship

Getty Images

Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Polly Samson, who wrote some of the band’s lyrics early in their relationship

They're quite the collection of talent. There's Samson's herself, of course, fast becoming a literary star with a book riding high on the bestseller list and her husband David Gilmour, of Pink Floyd fame.

Also featured is her eldest child Charlie, whose first book is out this summer, and her youngest, Romany, an actress who plays the harp and sings.

In between performances, they amuse each other with gentle humour; Gilmour and Samson speak glowingly about their marriage and creative collaborations, while Illinca, their 16-month-old grand-daughter, is passed from lap to lap for cuddles.

Even the wryly humorous name they've chosen for the series, Von Trapped, paints a portrait of family harmony and co-operation.

But for Samson, it hasn't always been this way. She has lived-experience in common with Cohen's tragic muse Marianne Ilhen. One of the key characters in Theatre For Dreamers, Marianne was a woman whose romantic devotion was, more than once, laid as a sacrifice at the altar of great art.

When Ilhen met Cohen on Hydra, she had recently been abandoned by her then-husband, the philandering Norwegian writer Axel Jensen, who ran out on her and their baby son, Axel Jnr.

Samson understands intimately Marianne's position. When she was herself in her 20s, she was abandoned by the radical poet Heathcote Williams after giving birth to their son Charlie.

Williams, the archetype of the emotionally volatile genius, had a breakdown ("he had so many breakdowns") soon after the birth and walked out. The rupture was never repaired, and Williams and his son remained estranged. The poet passed away in 2017.

Like the characters in her novel, Williams was, Samson says now, "from another age". Recently, at an exhibition at the V&A, she stumbled on the discovery that Williams and Jensen had known each other, having appeared "on the same bills in London".

The relationship, she says, "was a very useful experience, actually, for understanding the Marianne-Axel relationship. And Marianne and Leonard to some extent." The comparison to Jensen is not a flattering one. In the novel, he's an unreconstructed cad whose callous treatment of Marianne is deplored by all who witness it. Or as Samson says herself, "Axel was a rotter".

But from the safety of the supportive partnership she's been in with Gilmour for 25 years, she's able now to be philosophical about what is just water under the bridge.

"The thing with Heathcote and that relationship was that I really enjoyed his obsession with his work," she says. "So I wasn't that unhappy that there was someone who was utterly brilliant who really, really wanted to write great things.

"I agreed with a lot of the things that he was putting into this work. But definitely his obsession came first. And because when I am writing I am incredibly focused and obsessed with my subject, it just couldn't have worked - two people who were doing that at the same time, and I don't think he would have been the sort of person to say, 'now it's your turn'. But neither did I ask him to, so you can't blame the man."

Still, there have been consequences. When Charlie was 11, he and his biological father were briefly reunited, only for Williams to reject him again. This eventually precipitated a breakdown which culminated in Charlie's arrest for violent disorder during the 2011 student fees protest in London, where he was pictured dangling off the Cenotaph in Trafalgar Square - drunk and high on LSD.

Charlie was sentenced to 16 months in prison, and Samson has described this period as the worst of her life.

Charlie and Polly blamed Williams at the time. But ultimately Charlie, who inherited the writing gene from both parents, has taken masterful control of the narrative, reconstructing it from dark to redemptive.

He emerged from prison wiser and more compassionate, and quickly became a vocal advocate for prison reform. This summer, he's due to publish a memoir, Featherhood, about his experiences, woven together with an account of adopting a baby magpie and becoming a father in his own right. "It's about birds and fathers. I've read it and it's absolutely beautiful," says Samson.

And if there's a good fairy godfather character in all of this, it's Gilmour. He and Samson met at a dinner party in the mid-90s, when she was working as a journalist. He had four children already from a previous marriage. Soon after they got together he adopted Charlie, and he and Samson went on to have three more children together.

Theirs is a creative partnership as well as an emotional one - Samson's career as a professional writer was launched when she composed some lyrics for him. "Obviously it's much better having a supportive partner than one who takes all the oxygen in the room," she says.

Gilmour is the first reader for all her work and they have a rule of strict reciprocity.

"David and I, because we have so many children… and you know we are really lucky to be able to do this, but we have always, while we had small children, and particularly school-aged children… we always had a rule that one of us had to be not working on their own project if the other one was. So we took it in turns. Because we're both quite obsessive.

"When I'm writing, there are periods when I don't even know I've got children. I don't know what day of the week it is. It's like being in a trance with your imaginary friends half the time, and sometimes it takes quite a lot to get into that moment, so you don't want to be ripped out of it, so it's completely not suited to having children interrupting you."

While she was working on her previous novel Perfect Lives, "I remember David knocking on the door of the attic where I was then working and he said, 'come on then, better come now because we've got to go to the parents' evening. And I said, 'why do I have to go to a parents' evening?'. And he said, well, 'because you're a parent'."

Now that their youngest is 18, "we can both work all the time, but we are still in the habit of one supporting the other, and it's a really lovely thing. Because there are moments in the work where you feel quite overwhelmed and there are moments when David is overwhelmed when he is working, and the other person is there to do what they can to help."

Samson has been writing stories since childhood.

"My mum has got stories that I wrote when I was five," she says. "I wrote before I read. Because apparently I used to make her sit down and then I would try and write the stories but I couldn't yet, so these stories when I was five were sort of half her writing and half mine."

Samson was well into adulthood and had had careers in both publishing and journalism before she found the confidence to seek out an audience for her fiction.

For a long time after her first collaboration with Gilmour, she had a fear of what she calls "wifeism", but what is really, she explains, sexism.

"I wrote some lyrics with David, very early on, when I first knew him. I was barely his girlfriend yet," she says. "And those lyrics were on a Pink Floyd album. Someone asked [former Pink Floyd member] Roger Waters about it at the time, and he replied, 'oh how tragic, getting the wife to write the lyrics'.

"I remember at the time feeling really, really hurt and chastised. It was only years later I thought, what a really, really weird attitude."

The role of wife, it seems, carries the same expectations as that of muse - passive, silent.

"You think that times have changed, and then you look back over your own life and you realise there are some attitudes with some people that haven't changed that much," says Samson. "There are dinosaur attitudes."

A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson is published by Bloomsbury

 

Troubled in paradise: The tragic fates of so many of the Hydra set

A dark-haired young man is strumming a guitar under a tree, while around him an entranced audience of ex-pats soak up the music and the evening heat at simple taverna tables...

Close

Charmian Clift

Charmian Clift

Charmian Clift

 

It's how we like to imagine Leonard Cohen on the Greek island of Hydra in the first year of the 1960s. The then trust-fund Canadian poet had yet to even consider becoming a singer/songwriter but was happy to laze around Europe, seeking inspiration.

The 26-year-old arrived on Hydra in 1960 and bought a house there. It was on the idyllic island that he met Marianne Ilhen, a lithe Norwegian with a blonde pixie cut, recently abandoned by her famous writer husband Axel Jensen. She and Cohen would strike up a turbulent love affair that would last a decade and provide the inspiration for many of his songs.

But the complicated love triangle involving Ilhen, Jensen and Cohen is only part of the story in Theatre For Dreamers, Polly Samson's novel, an imagined history in which real characters mingle with fictional ones.

At the narrative's centre are Australian literary figures George Johnston and Charmian Clift, who welcomed Cohen into their home on the island, where he would sit and write on their terrace. The couple were the volcanic core of the Hydra artistic set.

Close

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

 

Cohen later wrote: "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."

On Hydra, Johnston and Clift both wrote prolifically while their three children roamed free among the cypress trees. Between them, they published 14 books during their time there. It was there that Johnston penned his best-known, prize-winning work, My Brother Jack.

But the marriage was rocky. Johnston, rendered impotent as a result of treatment for tuberculosis, was consumed by jealousy when Clift, a woman of appetite, sought passion elsewhere. That year, 1960, was a golden year, but things ended tragically for so many of the Hydra set; a legacy of tortured lives.

Jensen descended into psychosis. His son with Ilhen, Axel Jnr, whom he abandoned, has spent his adulthood institutionalised in Norway. As for Clift and Johnston, literary success exacted a heavy price. Johnston declined into alcoholism. And Clift, who became a household name in her native Australia after leaving Hydra, committed suicide in 1969, just before her husband's book Clean Straw For Nothing was published, in which he exposed her affairs.

Sunday Indo Living