Unspeakable sorrow is what I’m fighting for

Posted by in February's Magazine

We are all of us seeking to defy gravity, to be the apple not to fall on Newton’s head, to escape the confines of this creaking carcass and free ourselves from the fetters and the baggage and the pain. Space is the place. And eventually our wish is granted. There’s a heartening Roger McGough poem describing a friend about to “outwit air … [who has] slipped the knot”.

Just 48 hours ago you succeeded in reversing that most fundamental law of physics. Ludicrously young, at least seven years shy of a midlife crisis, you were late summer in seasonal terms, with autumn approaching, winter a frosted path on which you will now not be permitted to tread.
You only went and became past-tense.


Being a fully paid up member of the middle-aged-but-let’s-pretend-not club, I was taking a nap on Saturday afternoon, half listening to a Radio 4 play with Toby Jones reading a Gore Vidal biography – including impersonations of the man himself and the rival whose death Vidal described as a good career move: Truman Capote – when an observation about the character of the people of Rome invaded my nearly dreams with marching sandals. It was this. That the locals properly hated order and equally hated anarchy but somehow they managed to achieve a balance between both. And it was this that made Rome, well, Rome.

I thought of you, a Roman geek, both in your love for the history of that empire and the lure of the city today. Suffering last stage lymphoma, the Nosferatu of cancers, you were measuring the days you had left not with a diary but an egg timer. The most heart-breaking thing as you edged toward the exit was that your two youngest children are still primary school age. And one of the events you talked about happening in your absence was the family visiting Rome – for you but not with you. I’m close to diluting my red wine here, but as you texted me two weeks ago when I confessed to speaking of you with a mutual friend and both of us becoming moist of eye: NO TEARS!!!! I’ve checked back and can confirm the four exclamation marks.

I’m numb, as of this third glass of truth serum, or somewhere between numb and mundanely gloomy. Unspeakable sorrow is what I’m striving for but without success. It took me 30 years to begin to make sense of my grampa’s life, and death, and I suppose it may take me a while to compute this. As replied the Chinese politician when asked about the impact of the French revolution: it’s too early to say.

So I recall conversations, moments, quips, asides. Your thing for Vanessa Paradis, for example, and how you told me you and CMP – that’s the “Current Mrs P”, being your finest running joke – were bopping away to Mademoiselle Paradis’s tunes. You had no means to play the vinyl I’d purchased for a pound from the record shop up the hill from the Parliament, or move from your bed (the one specially installed at home) but, thanks to Spotify, bop you did. When we visited in the Western and asked if you were angry, you replied: who have I got to be angry with? I gave you a hug before we left and you claimed I was a good man. How very dare you! – have I not a reputation to consider.

Remember too that time we met a respected, red-haired academic in a merchant city coffee house. Her being an expert in legal ethics but somehow we ended up, you ended up, on the receiving end of her playground teasing. You like her, don’t you? We giggled about this on the train all the way home. And after breaking the news of your cancer to K – in your beautiful workmate-y odd couple kind of way – you dropped that Spike Milligan line: I told you I was ill.

In an interview with George Melly’s widow, she recalled how in the final weeks they put up a sign on his bedroom door: Don’t ask how I am – I’m dying of fucking cancer. Do I regret my final text, one you almost certainly weren’t able to read, with a link to a speech by a Tory MP about hedgehogs? I don’t. It was smart, strutting, generous, old school – as in one of those schools still teaching rhetoric – funny and fantastic. You would have loved it.

A fortnight ago I suggested that you were firmly of the gospel school rather than the blues tradition – looking to a better, brighter day, not dwelling in despondency. A funny thing that a day after your death I was trying to persuade my wife to sip a coke (she was in the delirium of a middle-of-the-night diabetic hypo) and I asked her who the Prime Minister was. Blank look. Okay, the First Minster? Comedy pause. You are! I imagined I could hear you laugh that laugh that filled the room and invited those not party to the party to come and join the party.

Twitter: @RodgerEvans

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