Wednesday, 29 June 2016

What Is Life.

Grandpa Mac.

It was as the first few bars of Kathleen Ferrier's What Is Life started up at my paternal grandfather’s funeral that I finally lost it. That, and my grandmother breaking into sobs. So it is at my father-in-law’s funeral on Friday. It’s the music, specifically the aria O Isis Und Osiris from The Magic Flute, together with hearing his partner crying. 

Maybe we shouldn’t have music at funerals, I think, as I clench and unclench my fists in a bid not to cry myself, which doesn’t work. Music makes it so much harder to hold it together. But I guess that’s the point. I remember at my grandfather’s funeral What Is Life was followed by the duet Au Fond Du Temple Saint from the The Pearl Fishers. I gritted my teeth and focussed on the EXIT sign over the door, reading those four neon letters again and again, and still I fell to pieces.

We're in Sunderland, which feels strangely apposite, because today is also the day we learn of Britain’s death in the European Union. The people of Sunderland in particular have made their feelings on the matter crystal clear. It's a day of endings then, in more ways than one. A day of mourning, of letting go, a day for Mozart’s Requiem to be played through loud speakers on railway station concourses, perhaps.

Our family is mourning ‘Grandpa Mac,’ as he was known to the boys, publicly at the funeral, privately within hearts. We're also here to be reminded of his life: that he was a bright grammar school boy, the only one in his class who could spell chrysanthemum at the age of eight (I had to use the spell check), and who knew all the kings of Scotland in the correct order so he was able to point out to the astonished guide at Holyrood Palace on a primary school trip that one of the portraits was missing (turned out he was right, it was being cleaned). That he went on to Trinity College Cambridge in 1957 to read French and German and then worked as head of the German, Dutch and Afrikaans Acquisitions section of the British Library. That he twice appeared on the television programme 15 to 1, and once won it. That he loved classical music, Brahms and Mozart especially, and the two sons he didn’t get to see enough of because he was divorced from their mother in 1973. That in retirement and after the death of his second wife he went back to his home town - Sunderland - to visit his friend Lynn, and never really went home again. They knew each other as teenagers. She had been married to his friend, and was now a widow. She meant the world to him. And I think it was Lynn he had loved all along.

Standing at the entrance of the crematorium waiting for the coffin to be lifted from the hearse, I saw something moving in the bushes: a hedgehog. It walked directly past us toward the crematorium door, exposing its surprisingly long legs, one with a limp, for all the world as if it was going in to pay its respects. At the last moment it curled into a ball right there. It could have been a boot scraper, except that as we filed past, it suddenly flared its prickles.

Second Hand News.

Rewind to a crazy couple of days in the run-up to the funeral, trying to source suitable clothing for three boys who mostly wear jeans and t-shirts day after day. Because who has funeral clothes hanging ready in the wardrobe? Turns out, not us. 

A charity shop visit at the eleventh hour saves my bacon. Two dark jackets, one of them from Paul Smith, trousers in various sizes, four tops, a dress, shoes for me, (okay, so the shoes are from Clarks), I haul it all back home.

“That will never fit,” says Eldest, trying on one of the jackets in the kitchen, and very much proving his point as his skinny frame disappears inside. 

"I only saw one size," I say, "try this." And I hand him the second jacket, as Middle One tries the rejected one. Both miraculously fit.

We go to York by train; three hundred pounds for five of us because it's booked last minute - scandalous - but we don't have a choice. We stay with my parents before and after the ceremony. We catch an early train home on Saturday morning so Middle One can play at a local school fair (sorry, rock festival). We collapse at home, tired, so tired, in part because of the funeral but also because some of our party foolishly stayed up late arguing about Brexit the night before. The roundheads and the cavaliers had nothing on this for dividing a family.

“Don’t think I can play at the fair, after all," says Middle One, "feel knackered, feel like lying down.” And he drops his bag and acoustic guitar in the hall (he won't leave home without it).

“Oh, you can,” I say, “and you will, you’re committed now, you promised, and a musician needs to keep his promise or he will look unprofessional.”

I feed him lunch when all I want is a cup of tea, because being hungry probably has something to do with it, probably a lot to do with it, and he comes round, fortunately, (there’s nothing like feeding a man to get him to do what you want). 

His performance is a pleasure to watch. In particular I like to see the way his hands move so expertly across the frets. He ends up being introduced on stage by our lovely new MP, Dr. Rosena Allin-Khan.

Afterwards he bumps into friends from his old school in the playground. “Could you possibly take my stuff home for me?” he asks, "in your car?" Meaning the heavy electric guitar, the even heavier amp, the leads. Not for the first time I’m turning into a roadie. "Then can I go out with them for a bit?”

“Okay,” I say. “And yes, of course you Khan.”

Love E x


P.S. Not my pun, second hand, Sadiq had it first, but let's do it one more time for our new MP.

Middle One on stage with new MP Rosena Allin-Khan.

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