The things we say

Organising a funeral puts the whole brouhaha that [some] people make of organising a wedding into cutting perspective. Both rites of passage usually involve an official service of some sort, speeches and some form of refreshment, yet it takes but a week or so to organise a funeral and, well, let’s just say, in general, longer to organise a wedding…

I guess it must be some sort of inverse law as people tend to be deceased for a lot longer than they are married.

In the short, but intense, period spent organising my father’s funeral, there were [too] many jaw-dropping moments; dealing with doctors, hospital bereavement officers, registrars and funeral directors proved to be revelatory in unexpected ways. I might post some of the choicer moments up here at some point but, for now, let’s just say I was bloody glad to have a black sense of humour.

Anyway.  My father’s funeral was a few months ago now. It had all the required elements and it seemed to go off rather well with my father’s school and university friends, colleagues and relatives all making the journey and having good old chinwags over a drink and a sausage roll. Actually, there weren’t any sausage rolls; the pub down the road from the church seems to have developed slight pretensions, so the buffet was somewhat chi-chi. Mini hoisin duck wraps aside, as my cousin Alison said, ‘He would have loved it!’.

It was at the church were my brother is buried and we kicked off with Cattle Call and the Dambusters March on my portable CD player and then went down a more traditional route, with laughs. There were several hymns and the vicar spoke and my father’s university friend Mike spoke and then I had a go at speaking too. I’m not sure why I want to post this on the internet, but I do, so here’s what I said:

I didn’t really know how to begin this, so for starters, here are some assorted memories. One of the first things I remember Daddy teaching me was the importance of tipping your wellington boots upside down before you put them on, to make sure you’ve emptied the scorpions out.  Then when I was about six, one of my favourite books was ‘Adventures of The Wishing Chair’ by Enid Blyton and I really wanted to have a Wishing Chair. And Daddy made me one. He also made up stories about Bouncing Betty Baxter and told me all about one of his favourite childhood comic strips – Jimmy Wilson and his Magic Patch. We wrote coded messages to each other using the pig pen cipher for almost three decades.  And then of course there was the famous time we went camping on Hayling Island, and Daddy forgot to bring the tent.

We spent a lot of school holidays up at Bush Farm, where he would take us, me and Clive and our cousins, on all sorts of trips – to Anderby Creek on the Lincolnshire coast where we flew kites and got covered in clayey mud, to the Air Museum at Newark and to Hobbins aeromodelling and toy shop in Lincoln where I think he had as nice a time as we did.

Daddy had some tapes that he liked to play in the car. There was a Beach Boys tape, an Abba tape, one called ‘The Entertainers’ featuring Ralph McTell and co and ‘The Entertainer’ on piano which I must have requested hundreds and hundreds of times and he very patiently played. And there was a tape of cowboy songs including ‘Cattle Call’ which we heard earlier which he especially liked because of the poignant yodelling. He also liked the Goons and he had a Goon Show record which featured the classic song ‘Ying-tong-iddle-i-po’ which we thought was quite possibly the funniest thing in the whole world.

When I was 18, we went to Canada to see his Uncle Alan, Cousin Pat and families and we had all manner of adventures including going up the CN tower on a stormy day and seeing lightning and a rainbow at the same time. We also took a canoe out on a lake, paddled over to an island, pulled the canoe up out of the water and went off and explored. I had no idea where we’d left the canoe, but Daddy, in true pioneer fashion, had counted his footsteps, so we did manage to get off the island.

At work, he designed electronic filters for all manner of applications and equipment, and components designed by him are in use all over the world including on the Jubilee Line and in every phone. And when was when he was in hospital recently, he was pleased to note that he’d worked on the development of practically every piece of apparatus in the room. Over the past few weeks, I’ve received many emails from his former colleagues and customers saying how brilliant he was at work and how good he was at explaining ideas in an understandable and humorous fashion. One customer said: ‘John was one of those of those rare  “black magic” guys which are few and far between. I’ll always remember our dealings as I’ve never known such a down-to-earth person who could switch from being the straight and professional “engineer” to someone who was so interesting and funny’.

One story I remember him telling about his work is how he’d been once making a component for a company that was Swiss, and so he decided to design the component in the shape of a Toblerone.

His interest in things electrical started early. His sister, my Aunty Joyce, remembers him in his teens buying ex-RAF and army radio gear from the local paper and talking over this radio gear to a friend of his while, unbeknownst to them, their conversations were being broadcast on all the televisions in Horncastle. He was always getting into scrapes and was the buffoon of the class as well as the star of the gym display team. Another story Aunty Joyce told me was they were once having an afterschool dance club in the gym and they’d put a record on rather loudly. The headmaster stormed in saying ‘Whose record is that?’ whereupon my Dad rushed up to the gramophone, took the record off and said, ‘Please Sir, it says it’s Bill Halley’s’. He remembered his school days with great affection, thoroughly enjoying the recent reunions and fondly recalling his time as house captain of Tennyson house which had the motto: ‘Our hoard is little but our hearts are great’.

And then there were the aeroplanes –  building and flying model ones and marvelling at full-size ones. He had a particular affection for the Lancaster and the P47 Thunderbolt, a goliath of an aeroplane, which had its maiden flight, allowing for transatlantic time differences, on the day he was born. His retirement plan had been to build a big scale model of the Thunderbolt, but that sadly didn’t happen.

Daddy always tried to see whatever play I happened to be doing, at university and afterwards, whether it was at the Opera House, in a dusty cellar or in the middle of Peckham. He also helped me move house several times, including one agonising time when I was moving from south London to the edge of Epping Forest. We crossed Tower Bridge an inordinate number of times that day and ended up rechristening it ‘Our Bridge’.

He very much enjoyed giving people things. Particularly things he thought were useful or interesting. I vividly remember Granny at Bush Farm exclaiming ‘Ooh Child’ as Daddy presented her with a large microwave oven or an enormous spoon or some other, often large, special object. Over the years, he gave me many useful and interesting presents –an electric screwdriver, a Ronson desk lighter, an Aladdin paraffin lantern, a microwave bacon crisper, three ornamental telescopes, two working pairs of binoculars and five fullsize shop dummies. Recently he sent me some small but very strong rare earth magnets. He was quite concerned they might not arrive, because when he’d posted them in the letter box, the envelope had gone clang against the side. And earlier this year, after I’d remarked in an email that I had my nose to the grindstone, a few days later the postman delivered an envelope containing a sticking plaster inscribed in French: ‘Pour le nez’.

Alongside this, there were difficult and sad aspects to his personality. For example, he was very bad at throwing things away. He once said to me that there was too much of the magpie and the squirrel in his genes. And this did become very problematic. He also was very reluctant to let anyone help him. But on the odd occasion he did, it could be fun –  a few years ago, he and I cut down all the brambles and ivy in his back garden and were astounded when we uncovered a shed we’d both forgotten was there. And then we made a giant bonfire of all the vegetation, accidentally set fire to an overhanging tree and cooked baked potatoes in the ashes of the fire.

Daddy was fascinated by words and loved playing with language. He really delighted in talking and emailing.  He liked to share what he was interested in – local radio was an outlet for this for a while, and he ended up being a frequent contributor to a Sunday afternoon super-tough general knowledge quiz on which he won a number of prizes. He took to email like a duck to water and he would compose great long poetical tracts. But he also liked the concise form of the text message and sent out the message ‘White rabbits’ on the first of every month, sometimes extremely early in the morning. He had a magical turn of phrase and gave me some pithy pieces of advice, for example:

On giving up smoking: ‘Wait until the desire to not smoke comes over you, and then don’t fight it too hard’.

And when I went to off to study for a degree he said: ‘Don’t let lectures get in the way of a university education.’

He also had a selection of favourite well-known poems and sayings and that he liked to quote, including this:

‘I burn my candle at both ends, it will not last the night, but, ah, my foes and, oh, my friends, it’s such a lovely light’

The Famous Pinter Pause

Many years ago when I was young and lithe and an usher at The Royal Court, the first play I worked on was Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes (which ran in parallel with Shopping and F**king). This was when the Court was in the West End at The Ambassadors and The Duke of York’s while the Sloane Square theatre was being refurbished. The Ambassadors had been turned into two spaces and the whole design had a spit-and-sawdust, temporary feel, which went some of the way to explaining why the stairs in the main space were so irregular, steep and tricky to negotiate if you had any kind of leg or eye difficulty. Those with leg or eye difficulties tend to be elderly, tend to have hearing difficulties and tend to want to sit at the front of a theatre, so there was an awful lot of helping the aged up and down those steps. One of the first of the many audience members whose arm I took was an elderly gent, who was terribly excited about coming to see Ashes to Ashes, very unsteady on his feet and deaf. He was with his sister, who was slightly less elderly, almost as unsteady on her feet and very used to talking to a deaf brother. As I helped her down the stairs she advised, with regard to her brother’s enthused chatter, in a booming stately-home tone, ‘Don’t mind him – he was shot in the head as a boy’. Conversation-stoppers over with, the elderly siblings settled in their seats and the play began with Stephen Rea and Lindsay Duncan on stage in complete silence. The audience sat, rapt with anticipation, also in complete silence, until the atmosphere was shattered by the elderly gent turning to his sister and remarking in the most spectacular stage whisper, ‘Ah-ha! The Famous Pinter Pause!’

A giggle-wave washed over the auditorium and I swear I saw Lindsay Duncan’s mouth ripple.

The reason I mention this is because I appear to be having a Famous Pinter Pause. The kind of pause which, to the casual observer, might look like there’s nothing going on but, behind that public silence, everything’s privately working furiously.

I’m, rather sadly, privately working furiously on giving my father a hand clearing up his house.

Clearing up isn’t quite right. Clearing out is better.

There’s a name for the problem: Diogenes Syndrome.

It’s a great name, but doesn’t quite give the right impression. Diogenes lived in a barrel and shunned material possessions; sufferers of Diogenes Syndrome tend to live in a space considerably larger than a barrel and hang on to material possessions for dear life.

There are years of incident, habit and family circumstances that have lead to the current situation, but cutting to the chase, in early August, I went over to my Dad’s house, bathroom cabinet in tow, with the idea of helping him tidy up a bit and putting the bathroom cabinet up.

However.

The front door was unlocked, but I had to squeeze myself in sideways as it would only open a few inches. Once in, it was like being in a partially built newspaper warren. There was a narrow path leading straight ahead to the kitchen, to the right up the stairs and to the left into the front room. There was a smell of decay. There were a lot of flies. Mostly there were newspaper-and-plastic bag mountains. Daddy called hello from his seat in the front room. I couldn’t see him because he was sitting on the far side of the table, in a tiny valley in the mountains of stuff surrounding him.

That first day was spent removing the surface layer of decomposing matter. Bags and bags of shopping, which had just been dropped on top of the heap. Unidentifiable masses of organic mulch in plastic bags. More recent purchases of a pepperami and a loaf of bread in varying states of decay. I didn’t know bread could rot in so many ways. A fascinating research opportunity for a bread scientist. Completely green within the bag. Completely solid within the bag. Completely liquid within the bag. Rolls like pebbles. Remarkable.

Small bags with rotten tomatoes in. Bags of desiccated potatoes. Eggs, dropped on the newspapers on the floor, creating wonderful breeding grounds for flies. The paintwork in the kitchen looked like it was spattered with black paint, but it was just covered in flies. Pupa cases everywhere. About the size of a grain of wheat. Red. Once home to pupating maggots. Or still home to pupating maggots. Hence the flies. Whilst picking up all this rubbish, I had to kid myself that these cases were actually red-stained grains of poisoned wheat as there was quite a lot of that lying about too – for the rats, you know, though, luckily, the rodents seemed to have given up and moved out.

It was quite interesting to note how rapidly you develop the necessary clinical detachment and calmness needed to perform this kind of task. For example, quite early on I saw a maggot crawl into my shoe. This would, under normal circumstances, (not that I would classify maggots crawling into my shoe as a particularly normal circumstance) make me squeal like a girl, but I didn’t squeal;  I stood on one leg, removed shoe and extracted maggot whilst slowly repeating ‘I am not happy about this’ in an extraordinarily deep monotone.

I filled 30 black rubbish bags and also managed to excavate a second chair in the front room.

I think now that I should have taken pictures, because I honestly don’t think words can convey quite what it was like. But my clinical detachment didn’t reach that far.

The thing is, there is logic and reason behind it all:

Q: What do you do if the clothes you’ve been wearing for a considerable amount of time are smelling dreadful?
A: Buy new ones.

Q: What do you do if you’ve got a bowl of uneaten food that’s attracting flies?
A: Buy a tin of fly spray.

After that first day of being faced with huge piles of crap, I escaped to the theatre to see Enron, which only continued the trend.

This was just the beginning. Days more of the same followed (without Enron – a repeat viewing of that would quite possibly have sent me over the edge) and my mother valiantly, kindly, astonishingly, above-and-beyond-the-call-of-dutily joined in.

Deciding how to go about the operation was a problem in itself. Where do you start in a house that’s full, filthy and almost impossible to move in? We started by clearing the table in the front room. Daddy has his computer at the edge of the table, the keyboard on a piece of wood resting on an open drawer and the rest of the table covered in a mountain of stuff (and matter). The table and some of the nearby floor took me and my mother, both extremely vigorous types, a whole day to clear.

Then we went for the kitchen. The stuff on the floor had started to compost itself, so the very bottom layer was like soil. Bizarre. Oh, and there was no water connected in the kitchen due to rats eating washing machine parts and there being a leak in the sink. So we cleared for a day, using water in buckets from the bathroom when we finally got down to kitchen surfaces that could be cleaned. At the end of the day we admired our handiwork – the surfaces were clear and the floor was visible and, as my mother put it, in a declaration which prompted us to disintegrate into almost hysterical giggles, we’d managed to get it to the level of ‘absolutely disgusting’. Which was a major achievement.

Then came the end of August and, poetic as always, Daddy pretty much stopped working over the bank holiday weekend and checked himself into hospital. And he’s been in intensive care since then.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, we carried on trying to clear and sort the mountains of stuff. We threw out 200 black sacks of rubbish. And stacked and boxed and piled the good stuff. What was in the mountains apart from newspapers and plastic bags? Hundreds and hundreds of model aircraft engines. Model aircraft plans. Model aircraft. Balsa wood for making model aircraft. Kettles. Packets of paper napkins. Wax candles that had been half-eaten by creatures with small teeth at some point in the past couple of years. Anglepoise lamps. Lawnmowers. Cutlery sets. Hessian shopping bags. Pocket anemometers. Forgotten sandwiches. Pepperami wrappers. Binoculars. Batteries. Did I mention the engines? And the bubble wrap and the Jiffy bags. And telescopes. And notice boards. And endless light bulbs. And bottles empty of vodka and full of pee. And bottles empty of cola and half-full of pee. The traditional car engine in the kitchen.

And in amongst all this, heartrending purchases that are too bloody sad to think about. Bumper boxes of 100 Christmas tree baubles. Boxes of quirky dinner party napkin holders. Packets of little tiny charms for little tiny charm bracelets. Yo-yos. Rolls and rolls and rolls of wrapping paper. Packets and packets and packets of Christmas cards. A packet of six tiny champagne-bottle-shaped ‘celebration’ candles.

And in the back room, more of the same, with the addition of a fridge which was full of rotten food. The freezer compartment and the top fridge shelf were filled with a block of ice. The block of ice was filled with frozen flies. I half thought they might come back to life as their cryogenic chamber melted.

This is how my Daddy was living.

It’s easy to be blinded by the astonishing state of squalor but, of course, leaving aside for the moment the terrible, terrible state of his physical health and the blimmin’ alcohol, there remains, once you’ve cleared away all those piles of papers and engines and rotting malt loaves, a giant elephant in the room. Surely he must be unhappy beyond words to be living like that? Or is he really ok with it? Whichever, he’s now in intensive care being largely operated by machine.

So.

That’s the reason for the Famous Pinter Pause.

A little aside

A few weeks ago, courtesy of the BBC iplayer, I watched, in the name of cultural improvement, the entire last series of ‘Doctor Who’. It was mighty fine. Bar the horrendous two-parter about Homo reptilius. And there was one particular exchange, that I thought was just sweetly simply sadly perfect, so I thought I’d hide it in here in between a few other posts

Don’t read this if you haven’t watched the episode called ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ and you think you might like to at some point.

So, the Doctor and Amy went to visit Vincent Van Gogh who was having a rough time. Together they had great adventures, defeated a monster and, with the help of that handy time machine, left him feeling worthwhile, on top of the world and ready to paint amazing pictures. Amy thought their visit would change history and Vincent wouldn’t end up doing himself in. But this wasn’t the case. Amy feels as if their trip has been pointless, but the Doctor thinks differently:

Amy: We didn’t make a difference at all.

The Doctor: I wouldn’t say that. The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. Hey. (He hugs Amy) The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.