How a friendship inspired the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, to write a poem about a Scottish naval hero.
It’s 2004 and I’m standing in an elegant room of Chile’s London embassy. It’s packed for an awards ceremony celebrating Chile’s great national poet and Nobel prize winner, Pablo Neruda, on the centenary of his birth.
I’ve arrived with my father, Douglas Cochrane, who’s here to receive an award. I’ve lost him but he’ll be in his element, enjoying the general swirl of talking, eating small snacks and drinking Chile’s finest.
The first three recipients stand up, accept their medals and give perfectly adequate, dutiful speeches about Neruda. One of them is the actress, Julie Christie who speaks of her love of reciting Neruda. Finally, it’s the turn of my father, an elderly well-dressed gentlemen with a vague, other-worldly air about him. He’s the only one seated on account of his age. and has half-listened to the speeches, absent-mindedly glancing round the room. He doesn’t quite realise it’s his turn and then has to be helped to his feet. You can hear the crowd fidgeting, wondering how painful this is going to be, and how long the old man will be before they can return to socialising. Anxiously, I try to move through the room to return to his side.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he booms with an emphatic relish that rolls round the room like a thunderclap. The absent-minded air is replaced by a furrowed brow. He rakes the room with fierce eyes.
“Bloody hell!” is the room’s surprised reaction. Everyone instinctively straightens up, like reacting to a hitherto ignored elderly relative that unexpectedly bares their teeth and commands instant attention. They’re listening now.
Now that he has the room, my father reverts to his more usual gentle, eloquent style of speaking. We’re no longer in a London townhouse but taking a train journey with poet and my father, listening to how Neruda could make a salt cellar on the table an object of poetic lyricism, let alone a beautiful Chilean night or the people they meet on their travels. We listen intently as my father describes what Neruda’s friendship meant to him, what the poet should mean to every Chilean, how the poet is a gift to us all. When he finishes the room is silent, moved and spellbound. Then comes the applause.
It must have been an important moment for my father. An acknowledgement of a time when his life was full of adventure. When he gallivanted about Westminster, enjoying his library and hosting social events. Where once a year he summoned Dennis Sever to convey him through the streets in a carriage to Westminster Abbey for Chilean Naval Day, where a wreath is laid at the grave of Admiral Thomas Cochrane. The old days before things fell apart. This was an acknowledgement, a salute to his old world even though the world had moved on and left him adrift.
Every family has its shadows, its legends.
One day, over dinner and cocktails in a London flat, my father asked Neruda why he had not written about Admiral Thomas Cochrane, the brilliant but flawed Scottish ancestor who helped Chile gained its independence from the Spanish in the early 19th century.
Neruda, with his love of the sea and liberal politics, became drawn to Cochrane, calling him ‘el Marinero’ – a simple mariner cast against the world by his much-disputed role in a Stock Exchange scandal, his liberal politics and his campaign against establishment corruption. (Thomas Cochrane was anything but a simple man but his fascinating story is documented better elsewhere, especially in David Cordingly’s book.)
Neruda collaborated with my father for ideas and began working on a poem that was published and translated in time for the 150 year celebration of Admiral Cochrane’s famous victory at Valdivia in 1970. My father participated with Neruda in a public reading of the poem at Valdivia. He also helped with the commission of a statue of the Admiral by the American sculptor, Harry Jackson.
The poem is full of imagery of Chile’s natural world, the sea and a yearning for national liberty. Chile summons the mariner, to the distant southern seas, to his fate to deliver a nationhood, to burst like a “star of violent colour in the night of Chile, above the vastness of the ocean.”
By the end of the poem he is Cochrane of Chile, his name forever entwined with the history of a nation far from his own. Neruda has Cochrane’s eyes closing at night not on the hills and fields of Fife in Scotland, but on the “high mountains of Chile”. The poem inspired an oratorio by the Chilean composer, Gustavo Becerra-Schmidt.
My father always treasured his connections with Chile. A few months after I was born, we sailed to Chile and travelled through the country for some time. We stayed in Neruda’s house where I enjoyed siestas with Neruda in his bed, apparently to the slight annoyance of his lover, whose hope for alone time with Pablo was thwarted by a baby. My father would have been in his element and some of the old family stories from their travels are legendary.
Once, towards the end of my father’s life, we all visited him in Pimlico, where he stayed with his great friend Joan. He was thoroughly enjoying the company of his Scottish daughter-in-law and his two granddaughters running rings round his eldest son with their quick, Scottish wit. A large diplomatic car pulled up outside and in burst a recently appointed South American diplomat with a suspiciously glamorous assistant. He had the air of a man taking a lot of pleasure in bunking off from his duties to share a bottle of wine with the legendary Senor Douglas.
My father loved rogues, diplomats, Chile and feisty Scots. He was thoroughly enjoying himself.
An exhibition, the Lord of the Sea, is open from 14 September to 4 October 2018 in London at the Chilean Embassy. It was organised by my father’s great friend, Pola de Kadt. It explores the life and legacy of Thomas Cochrane and the relationship between Neruda and Cochrane.