It’s February 28th,2012. The alarm goes early. I rise, eat quickly, dress in dark suit, whiteshirt and tie – my funeral clothes. Kathryn drives me over the Devon border toAxminster, where I catch the 7.22 train to Clapham Junction. I’ve used myover-60s travel card to book a bargain First Class ticket. I love the service.The train’s rarely crowded. The bright, clean South West Trains livery lightensthe journey.
Asthe train progresses, boarders change from people like me, long-distance,half-retired, intermittent commuters of Devon, Dorset and Somerset, through thechattering, posh girls of Sherborne School on an outing and the strangelyrelaxed defence industry officials of Salisbury discussing military budgets andarmaments, to the harassed commuters of Andover, Basingstoke and Woking. Someof my best writing is stimulated by the train’s passengers. I have a store ofthem in my note book.
I’mgoing to the funeral of Professor Derek Holder, Founder and Director of theInstitute of Direct Marketing. He created the Institute at Kingston Universityin 1986, later amicably breaking free from its bureaucracy. I was a Professorthere. I supported “letting the Institute go” rather than trying to keep it asa profitable university venture. Before I became a Professor, I was a directmarketing consultant, hence my connection with the Institute.
Inthe early 1970s, Derek was student of mine at the University of ManchesterInstitute of Science and Technology. I still half-remember the confident,joking, red-haired young man, with much more experience than his colleagues. Atutor teaches hundreds of students, a student sees a few lecturers. Nearlyforty years erodes memories and looks, but I remember my nervousness in myfirst classes, and the tall white finger of a building near Piccadilly Stationthat housed the Department of Management Sciences.
In1995, I was in a meeting with Derek and my friend and colleague Neil Woodcock.I have been in and out of business with Neil for nearly thirty years. Today weare “in”. We are both Honorary Life Fellows of the Institute.
Duringthat meeting, I got the call saying my father had died. A melanoma, perhapsstarted during the Desert War and reinforced by constant sunbathing, had spreadto his lungs. The shadow was detected by a routine X-ray when he went for anoperation on his war-damaged leg. A minor hero, he won the Military Cross forcapturing several Germans. His fighting ended when his tank was hit by a shellin the Western Desert, just before the Battle of El Alamein. It “brewed up”, destroyingone leg, filling the other with shrapnel. Captured, his life was saved byItalian and German doctors, whose praises he sang in his first book, Prisonerfrom Alamein.
Wesaw it when we visited the Sandhurst library. His handsome face smiled at usfrom the book, with an appropriate French sixteenth century sonnet‘s first lineon the title page, “Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage”. He wasrepatriated, working as a journalist in Palestine, where he met and married mymother.
Neil’sfather has just died. He too was a hero, a test pilot. Neil told me his asheswere spread at sea, oddly for an airman. He became senile. It was a release.
Whenhis father was dying, I wrote a letter to Neil. I never sent it. It describedthe feeling of losing a father. It started,
“TodayI heard your father was dying. It reminds me of when we were together, nearlytwenty years ago, when my father died. I decided to write to you to tell youabout the thoughts and feelings prompted by my own father’s death.”
Therest of that letter is scattered throughout this piece.
Brianwas brave. We used his first name, as he wanted. He never let his leg’s losslimit his activities, in life, sports or bed. He was broad-shouldered, smiling,handsome, blue eyed, blond, a teacher and amateur actor. In the 1950s, hetaught English at Varndean Grammar School, Brighton. Every year, he organised acamping trip to Stratford for his pupils, taking us too, to see the “greats”,plays and actors, Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud, Redgrave and the other knightsof the stage. We enjoyed the boy-scout like camping. Later, playing Lear at histeacher training college (where he was adored by his – mostly female –students), holding the dead Cordelia in his arms, he caused me surprised tearswith his “Howl, howl, howl,howl! O, you are men of stone.” Today, my tears surprise me less.
Wehad disputes, but I thought Brian gave my three brothers, my sister and me agreat life as youngsters. My brothers remember ready punishment, a double lifewith a stream of lovers. I did not see this. I fell very ill at fifteen,spending my remaining years at home coping. I married early, at nineteen,perhaps to escape.
Mylater experience of my father was very different from Neil’s of his. Neilvisited his often, especially near the end. I was estranged from mine – he wasjealous of me and admitted it. I had become a Professor, he not. I had writtenmany books, though my many business books will live shorter than his few, forexample, The Poetry of Keats, and the translation of Sir Gawain and the GreenKnight, a legend that named me.
Despitepleas from my family, I did not go to see Brian when he died, just after hetold me he had disinherited me for confronting him with his jealousy, accusingme of paranoia. I remember the conversation with my uncle, Ralph, Brian’sbrother. I asked whether he would recognise me. He said “He is inputting only”.No point in going.
Ioften write about Brian, in my journey back to him. We could have beenreconciled, but I had an unforgiving wife, under whose influence I severed tieswith all my family, only restoring them when I remarried.
I’menjoying the trip. Free coffee in First Class! I’m at Clapham Junction justafter 10. A Mortlake train arrives soon after, and I’m there in minutes.
“Justarrived at Mortlake – shall we grab a coffee?” There was time.
Hesays he’ll try to find a short cut to the station from the Crematorium.
I’mcold and hungry. While I wait, I have a coffee and pastry at the Café BarMortlake, by the level crossing. The Portuguese owner says he often entertainsfuneral guests. Somehow our conversation turns to war graves, particularly theWestern Front graves of the First World War. He’s just been there. Herecommends me to do the same. I suggest he visits the New Forest memorial toPortuguese soldiers who helped us in that war, and the Normandy graves, thesubject of one of my poems.
Neilcalls. He can’t find a quick way to the café. I set off for the crematorium.
Iremember Mortlake as the possible place of Brian’s cremation. As I walk, I calltwo of my brothers to ask if it was there. They cannot remember. I call UncleRalph, now my surrogate father, though he lives in the distant ScottishBorders. He pleaded most for me to visit Brian’s deathbed. Our two familieswere always close. My parents introduced Ralph to his wife Gillian, thedaughter of the man who ran the Palestine Forestry Service, where my motherworked.
Ralphcan’t remember whether it’s Mortlake, although he was there. But Aunt Gillianremembered. They too were going to a funeral. They are of that age. This wasonly my fourth. It should have been my fifth.
Theirelder daughter Rowena lives in Somerset. She grieves for her eldest brotherPhilip, who repeated our family pattern of dying before his mother, Gillian,like his namesake Uncle Philip, a bomber pilot shot down over Holland. CousinPhilip’s was one of my funerals. Rowena often stays with us. We talk about theearly days of our families, their joys and regrets. It’s hard to recreate theoptimism and good fellowship of those days. I see family photographs throughrose-tinted spectacles.
Atthe funeral, marketers and academics wait in the wind that cools a feeble sun.I know most of them. People smile at me, perhaps because I’m dressed moresmartly than usual. One woman says, “Merlin, you’re looking very debonair”.I’ve never heard this said of me –what a suit, a white shirt and a dark tie cando!
Thehearse arrives. Derek lost control of his weight after his divorce, and smokedheavily. His survival was a miracle, his death unsurprising. The coffin shocksus. It seems twice normal size. It’s trolleyed down the aisle.
Afterthe service, I find the Crematorium office. I ask if they can confirm whether myfather was cremated here. It takes them seconds on their computer to confirmit.
Ilook at the screen, a professional habit. It shows what was done with hisashes. They give me a map showing where his ashes were scattered.
“Overthere, between trees one and three.”
Igo there. An earthy patch, with recent scatterings. I think about Brian. Iwonder why my family found no better place, but I’ve no right to complain.
Thecomputer record says, “Strewn by Staff.