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Two funerals and no wedding.
Hello Dear Reader
It’s odd to write to people I don’t know. While some of you are friends or relatives and are fully conversant with my more annoying personality traits, there are thousands of you who read these mutterings from me, and while I’ve been around baby, I can’t have met you all. Yet we’re not strangers really, are we? Because I’ve basically been writing to you for over twenty years in some form or the other and I’ve a feeling there are a few of you who are too shy, or it means too much for you, to hang back after a show to say hello.
That’s okay. I understand. I do exactly the same. It’s a kind of private contract, this. It simply means you’re someone I haven’t met yet, not a stranger.
It’s striking that in this world where people share absolutely everything online, we still don’t know much about other people. Sharing is one thing: connecting is something altogether different. It feels weird to interject our connection with references to albums and release dates and stuff. It’s like when your really good friend gets involved with MLM and the next thing you know you’ve bought plastic food containers you don’t need and a drawer full of ginseng supplements that will outlive both you and nuclear winter.
Mostly for the last few weeks I have been in mourning. For the dead, and more surprisingly perhaps, the living. Now I don’t want y’all feeling all sorry for me - no U OK Hun? energy here - I’m just being straight with you.
This is how I think about it:
When I was a teenager, my Godmother gave me a life changing book called Drawing on the Artist Within by Betty Edwards. My other great love as a kid was painting, and like all good fairy Godmothers, mine always supports my creativity. My favourite exercise in this book was one which encouraged you to draw an object by actually drawing the spaces in and around it - something that the artist Rachel Whiteread did with House, her 1993 sculptural masterpiece. Later, at art college, I had my tiny mind blown when a lecturer explained how colour works - that something red, for example, is every colour except red. It is merely the colour of the light we see reflected - it’s not inherent in the object we see as red. Or like sound in a vacuum. Or if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it even exist? (This is all very abstract for a Thursday evening, I do apologise.)
What I’m trying to say is maybe we are the sum of our absences. Maybe we are everything we are not and everybody we are missing.
Last week I went to the funeral of a good friend. I wanted to be more stoical about it all, but could not. It was wrong - all wrong - that this human ended his journey in a box in a church car park in South London with the traffic din in the background and couples with their box-fresh babies walking past oblivious in the hot late spring.
A legend is in this fucking box! I wanted to scream at them all, a fucking legend!
It was unexpectedly warm, and I had worn a suit - a pale blue one, can you believe, because I refused to wear black for someone who had brought such colour to our lives - and now I was too hot but could not take the jacket off because I already felt inappropriately dressed and was wearing a shirt with horses and hounds on it which had seemed entirely correct when I got dressed that morning but offensive now in the sea of black surrounding me. I could feel the sweat trickling down my back at the precise moment the chill of existential dread flooded my veins. I counted the overhead lights. The rows of pews. The kneelers. Hymn books held together with sellotape. Meditated on the way the hair of the woman in front of me trailed around the nape of her neck. Kept wondering if the priest actually believed a word he was saying.
There you are, in a strange place, stiff and still, weeping openly amongst other people and every few minutes a newly remembered memory of the deceased. Nightclub scenes. Lunch à deux in a deserted Covid London. The time we got drenched in a sudden summer deluge in Soho. Drunken tears (mine) in Regent’s Park. A kinetoscope of memory in no particular order.
What are funerals but a reminder of our utter insignificance and monumental importance in the world?
I keep thinking about the last time I hugged my friend goodbye, and how soft the nut brown leather of his jacket felt under my palm and how warm and woody he always smelled. How that same evening, I had seen another friend and we talked about the recent loss of his father and how matter of fact that death had been. We talked about dead bodies, mortuaries, the soul, and acceptance, and I was very grown up about that too, and quick to tell my friend about a Buddhist teaching that one should try to sit with a corpse should the opportunity arise and meditate on the nature of mortality.
I am so full of shit. Because that’s all very nice in theory.
Death is not theory though.
Death is death.
And when the people we love leave us we feel their absence as much as we ever felt their presence.
(I have no happy words to add here to make us all feel better.)
A few days before that funeral - there have been so many in my circle of late - I watched my Aunt’s send off at a typically nondescript Middle England crematorium via a video link that stuttered every five seconds. The curtains though were hideous, absolutely hideous, so hideous that they made my sister and I collapse into horrible laughter because our Aunt was famous for her upholstery talents. We were certain if ever someone was to rise from the dead, Lazarus like, it would be now and our Aunty Shirley was going to find whoever made those awful purple curtains and attack them with her overlocker.
It’s a particular kind of laughter you get at funerals, I always think.
And then this week I waved my family back off to Australia after it felt like they had only arrived a few minutes ago. Honestly, I ruined this trip of theirs. From the moment they arrived, all I could think about was the impending agony of saying goodbye again. It made me prickly and tense, and then guilty for being prickly and tense, and then resentful that I felt guilty for being prickly and tense. A whole Möbius loop of ridiculous emotion.
For those of us who have spent most of our lives away from close family, there’s a certain dislocation I think - a feeling that in those absences, we have reconstructed ourselves and the more we reconstruct, the less familiar we become. To each other. To ourselves. Part of us wants to crawl back into our mother’s arms but we know we cannot - we are not babies anymore. Yet we are still children, for childhood lasts a lifetime.
I found it hard to look at my father too closely; because at eighty five and living ten thousand miles apart the tacit understanding was that this might be the last time we saw each other. But his pale grey eyes seemed more vivid this visit somehow, his hair a more intense white, his resemblance to his older sister more pronounced than ever -and I was taking him in methodically, just in case. At Gatwick departures I concentrated on how he was dressed - periwinkle blue sweater (my favourite), straw coloured trousers, matching shirt, never afraid of colour, my Pa - and stayed at the barrier until he dissolved into the crowd.
A fucking legend is walking through security! I wanted to scream at them all, a fucking legend!
It’s no way to live, this. Thinking about endings all the time. Some of us are cursed with an abiding sense of mortality and I’m not sure it does make us appreciate things more, actually. It just makes us anxious and unable to enjoy the moment. You can’t live if you’re thinking about death at the same time.
Or maybe I’m doing it wrong. That’s probably what’s going on.
See even now I’m thinking about an ending. For this newsletter. Like, how do I sign off now, how do I send you off into the remainder of your day with a smile and a skip in your step and all that live, love, laugh stuff? That’s what’s supposed to happen here isn’t it? Some kind of resolution, especially after my wanging on about my dead mate and bad drapery in crematoriums. But if I give you resolution, I don’t give you an empty space, and if I don’t give you an empty space then I’m lying to you because every single one of you reading will have known loss of some kind. How it hovers over you for days, months, years - a hole somewhere - until one day it doesn’t.
And then one day you realise that you are more because of what you have lost.
And that you’re still here.
I’m so glad you’re still here.
Have a wonderful Thursday.