Friday, 13 September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk to a Funeral in the Big City

It started badly. I have been late for a lot of things lately, as it were. Going to London is a chore - arriving, a treat. But if you don't get the coach before 6.30 there's absolutely no telling when you will in fact arrive. The journey can be done in 65 minutes. It averages 90. Yesterday it took three and a half hours (210 minutes - it always annoys me when newspapers use different statistics for the same thing), and we ended up coming in to London on the M4, wherever that is. I think it involved Chiswick.

One small moment of light relief, as I finished off "Parkinson's Law" and made a start on "Private Eye" (never a Brownie, but always prepared), was one of those clever revolving advertising hoardings. It was attached to a very smart, state-of-the-art, public lavatory in Notting Hill, and it was advertising "The Mighty Bucket". And I thought, "that doesn't sound so state-of-the-art".

I trudged slowly, wearing my suit, and grown-up shoes, for the first time in months, through Mayfair and Soho, passing the American Embassy (I thought it had moved) and the Savile club where I was so briefly, and enjoyably, a member. Three and half hours being longer than anticipated, I headed to the gents in Carnaby Street, but light relief there was fifty pence a go, which I didn't have in exact money, so I went to Marks and Spencer in Great Marlborough Street, passing the doorway of the magistrates' court on the way, where a tipsy friend and I snogged like teenagers after a convivial evening at the Savile, just because we could (it wasn't THAT sort of club, but we were THOSE sort of people). And thence to Phoenix Garden, where I was a trustee, an appallingly hopeless treasurer, and a slightly better than indifferent chairman. It's a beautiful little public space, full of life and peace, in the middle of a city where so many people have lives so empty. There's work being done, and it didn't look its best, but it still looked fine, and I was so happy to be associated with it. In my day, we preserved the Soho Frog, a species as yet unrecognised by science, but known to the locals thereabouts, much, at first, to their surprise.

Quite how Phoenix Garden came to be separated from S. Giles-in-the-Fields churchyard, I do not know, but the two have a peculiar and silly relationship, as the garden is owned by Camden Council and run by volunteers (and the gardener their fundraising employs), and the churchyard is owned by the church, but run by Camden Council. It made sense to me as a curate to be on both boards and try to get economies of scale and things like that that hadn't really been thought of before.

Daubed on the wall of the Grade II* listed Vestry Room was a very pleasing graffito - "Smiles for St Giles", in the style of the font used when we published a chapter (by permission) of Peter Ackroyd's marvellous "London: The Biography" for our 900th anniversary in 2001. It was headed "Crossroads between Time and Eternity". Surely the font business was just co-incidence? I do hope not.

And so to the church, and the gathering of the mourners, some of us fatter, greyer, balder, more stick-wielding and wheelchair-bound, than we were last time, some of us utterly unchanged, but all of us older. I arrived in the parish in 2000 and left in 2003. At the time the rector said he didn't expect it to be his last job. He must retire next year. Turns out it was true what he said later, "I have made too many enemies to be promoted".

Jane was an extraordinary person, loveable in her barminess, full of life and interest, and fascination. The church was fuller than I would have expected for a lady I didn't expect to be as old as 83. Many were family, but friends too, and a good showing from S. Giles folk, including the verger who resigned recently, but came back to give the do his most excellent gravitas, wielding the Rector's Stave with solemn pomp. Of course, when you start to describe the trappings of religion, they can only sound ridiculous, but there is comfort in them. You had to be there. The rector finds it hard to exude warmth for the simple reason that he doesn't have much and has never expected it in return, which is a poor economy to live in all your life. And I sat in the cheap seats knowing that Jane had wanted me to take this service, and that I would have done it just that little bit better, gentler, warmer, more smilingly, and I've also actually thought through what death must mean to Christians, rather than merely thinking aloud, repeating myself about how if we can love someone like that, then surely God must love them even more. It doesn't really work like that, but you have to think it through. He always used to lose his way in a sermon once, now it's twice. And the pause is so long you've forgotten what he said before, to the point at which he need not have bothered saying anything at all.

Jane's brother gave an informative, and moving, because he was moved, eulogy on her life and gifts. Both he and the rector raised gentle laughs to which she wouldn't have objected. And so in the swirl of the prayers and the music, the grief was there, not so much that a lady of senior years who had lived and seen and done much, had finally worn out, but for all of them this year, six now: Charles, our churchwarden at Chelsea, urbane, charming, and better than Christianly kind; Pop, my grandfather, exhausted by it all, at nearly 93; Richard, our choirmaster at Cambridge when I worked there, who produced angelic music for the glory of God; Maureen, "Fenian Moll" the friend I never met, who died too young, and too far away, in Harlem; and Ron, the lovely and loving father of an Oxford days friend, who was wise and gracious. And still the words come back to me from my friend Ian's colleague, another Richard, who said, at Ian's funeral after he had killed himself, "would any of us, to be spared the grief of this hour, have wished we had never known him?" And the answer is no, a thousand times no, if the price of being "a stranger and afraid in this world I never made" is to be bereft of people who have adorned and thrilled it with their grace and generosity and wit, with their love, then it is a price I pay, and pay willingly. Though the account seems empty just now.

After, there were huddlings and gatherings, and kind words at the door, and cheerful drinks and things to eat in the Grade II* star listed "Smiles for St Giles" Vestry Room Café. And delightful Dalma was there, a bookbinder in her working life, now bound to a wheelchair, who bound an 18th century pamphlet for me; military Paul, walking with a stick "I see you have a fashion accessory", "Yes, I kept falling over, it was rather embarrassing"; and chaotic Yvonne who has been through such struggles, reporting her outrage that her neighbours said her last dog wasn't kept on a lead, and "he was always on a lead"; and dry, droll, Mark the newly-former verger adding "it's just that there wasn't usually a person on the other end of it"; and Eileen who has cared for us all in our various ways, and she is black and I am gay, and Jane was racist and homophobic (by the new standards of the day), and we were both there to give thanks for her life - and that must surely say something about all three of us? And maybe about the God who brought us together.

Enough of death, I wanted some life, so I went looking for my young friend Vickie, who has become a mother since I last saw her, to two delightful children. Foolishly, I had forgotten to ask her telephone number, and the timing probably wasn't right either, but I called on her parents and although her mother was out for the day in Southend with Australian relatives looking for other relatives, her father was there, babysitting for little Max, so I did get to see him, and chew the cud about London's decline with Luke. "It's just for the beautiful people now" he said. Well, I have seen beauty in all the people of S. Giles since I first knew it, but I also know what he means: the smart, the slick, the bearers of fat plastic money. And money and more money. Money, though we long for it (well I do), squeezes the lifeblood out of communities, families, friends. Unless we join the rat-race. Well, Parkinson's Law had told me that morning, that at 47, if I haven't made it already, I'm not in the rat-race.

And so, slowly back to the coach stop, but I happened to need some money, but the machines I tried wouldn't give me less than £20, and I didn't have that in my account. I called in at Jill's gallery - a former churchwarden, she had had to rush off after the service - she and her lovely late husband John had had two galleries back then, but times are hard. But she was out at the dentist, poor thing - lovely e-mail from her when I got home - and she always employs such charming staff. John had a maxim about hiring - "will you look forward to seeing them when you come to work in the morning?" There's a lot of wisdom in that.

The coach became packed. The seat next to me was almost the last to be filled. A slim pretty young Spaniard, judging from the text messages he was sending. Not that I am nosy or anything. I meant the messages seemed to be in Spanish. I need no technology to work out if someone is pretty. And then home, through an alleyway I hadn't noticed before. One day I shall write the definitive "Of the Alley Ways, Dark Places, and Lurking Spots, of Oxford"; if it wasn't a short cut, it felt like one.

And so to home, HL, the cats, and pizza. It felt like a whole life in a day.

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