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2012: Strewn by staff

It’s February 28th, 2012. The alarm goes early. I rise, eat quickly, dress in dark suit, white shirt and tie – my funeral clothes. Kathryn drives me over the Devon border to Axminster, where I catch the 7.22 train to Clapham Junction. I’ve used my over-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 lightens the journey.
As the train progresses, boarders change from people like me, long-distance, half-retired, intermittent commuters of Devon, Dorset and Somerset, through the chattering, posh girls of Sherborne School on an outing and the strangely relaxed defence industry officials of Salisbury discussing military budgets and armaments, to the harassed commuters of Andover, Basingstoke and Woking. Some of my best writing is stimulated by the train’s passengers. I have a store of them in my note book.
I’m going to the funeral of Professor Derek Holder, Founder and Director of the Institute of Direct Marketing. He created the Institute at Kingston University in 1986, later amicably breaking free from its bureaucracy. I was a Professor there. I supported “letting the Institute go” rather than trying to keep it as a profitable university venture. Before I became a Professor, I was a direct marketing consultant, hence my connection with the Institute.

In the early 1970s, Derek was student of mine at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. I still half-remember the confident, joking, red-haired young man, with much more experience than his colleagues. A tutor teaches hundreds of students, a student sees a few lecturers. Nearly forty years erodes memories and looks, but I remember my nervousness in my first classes, and the tall white finger of a building near Piccadilly Station that housed the Department of Management Sciences.
In 1995, 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 we are “in”. We are both Honorary Life Fellows of the Institute.
During that meeting, I got the call saying my father had died. A melanoma, perhaps started during the Desert War and reinforced by constant sunbathing, had spread to his lungs. The shadow was detected by a routine X-ray when he went for an operation on his war-damaged leg. A minor hero, he won the Military Cross for capturing several Germans. His fighting ended when his tank was hit by a shell in the Western Desert, just before the Battle of El Alamein. It “brewed up”, destroying one leg, filling the other with shrapnel. Captured, his life was saved by Italian and German doctors, whose praises he sang in his first book, Prisoner from Alamein.
We saw it when we visited the Sandhurst library. His handsome face smiled at us from the book, with an appropriate French sixteenth century sonnet‘s first line on the title page, “Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage”. He was repatriated, working as a journalist in Palestine, where he met and married my mother.

Neil’s father has just died. He too was a hero, a test pilot. Neil told me his ashes were spread at sea, oddly for an airman. He became senile. It was a release.
When his father was dying, I wrote a letter to Neil. I never sent it. It described the feeling of losing a father. It started,
“Today I heard your father was dying. It reminds me of when we were together, nearly twenty years ago, when my father died. I decided to write to you to tell you about the thoughts and feelings prompted by my own father’s death.”
The rest of that letter is scattered throughout this piece.
Brian was brave. We used his first name, as he wanted. He never let his leg’s loss limit his activities, in life, sports or bed. He was broad-shouldered, smiling, handsome, blue eyed, blond, a teacher and amateur actor. In the 1950s, he taught English at Varndean Grammar School, Brighton. Every year, he organised a camping trip to Stratford for his pupils, taking us too, to see the “greats”, plays and actors, Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud, Redgrave and the other knights of the stage. We enjoyed the boy-scout like camping. Later, playing Lear at his teacher training college (where he was adored by his – mostly female – students), holding the dead Cordelia in his arms, he caused me surprised tears with his “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stone.” Today, my tears surprise me less.
We had disputes, but I thought Brian gave my three brothers, my sister and me a great life as youngsters. My brothers remember ready punishment, a double life with 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.
My later experience of my father was very different from Neil’s of his. Neil visited his often, especially near the end. I was estranged from mine – he was jealous of me and admitted it. I had become a Professor, he not. I had written many books, though my many business books will live shorter than his few, for example, The Poetry of Keats, and the translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a legend that named me.
Despite pleas from my family, I did not go to see Brian when he died, just after he told me he had disinherited me for confronting him with his jealousy, accusing me of paranoia. I remember the conversation with my uncle, Ralph, Brian’s brother. I asked whether he would recognise me. He said “He is inputting only”. No point in going.
I often write about Brian, in my journey back to him. We could have been reconciled, but I had an unforgiving wife, under whose influence I severed ties with all my family, only restoring them when I remarried.

I’m enjoying the trip. Free coffee in First Class! I’m at Clapham Junction just after 10. A Mortlake train arrives soon after, and I’m there in minutes.
Neil calls me.
“Where are you?”
“Just arrived at Mortlake – shall we grab a coffee?” There was time.
He says he’ll try to find a short cut to the station from the Crematorium.
I’m cold and hungry. While I wait, I have a coffee and pastry at the Café Bar Mortlake, by the level crossing. The Portuguese owner says he often entertains funeral guests. Somehow our conversation turns to war graves, particularly the Western Front graves of the First World War. He’s just been there. He recommends me to do the same. I suggest he visits the New Forest memorial to Portuguese soldiers who helped us in that war, and the Normandy graves, the subject of one of my poems.
Neil calls. He can’t find a quick way to the café. I set off for the crematorium.
I remember Mortlake as the possible place of Brian’s cremation. As I walk, I call two of my brothers to ask if it was there. They cannot remember. I call Uncle Ralph, now my surrogate father, though he lives in the distant Scottish Borders. He pleaded most for me to visit Brian’s deathbed. Our two families were always close. My parents introduced Ralph to his wife Gillian, the daughter of the man who ran the Palestine Forestry Service, where my mother worked.
Ralph can’t remember whether it’s Mortlake, although he was there. But Aunt Gillian remembered. They too were going to a funeral. They are of that age. This was only my fourth. It should have been my fifth.
Their elder daughter Rowena lives in Somerset. She grieves for her eldest brother Philip, who repeated our family pattern of dying before his mother, Gillian, like his namesake Uncle Philip, a bomber pilot shot down over Holland. Cousin Philip’s was one of my funerals. Rowena often stays with us. We talk about the early days of our families, their joys and regrets. It’s hard to recreate the optimism and good fellowship of those days. I see family photographs through rose-tinted spectacles.

At the 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 more smartly 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 can do!
The hearse arrives. Derek lost control of his weight after his divorce, and smoked heavily. His survival was a miracle, his death unsurprising. The coffin shocks us. It seems twice normal size. It’s trolleyed down the aisle.
After the service, I find the Crematorium office. I ask if they can confirm whether my father was cremated here. It takes them seconds on their computer to confirm it.
I look at the screen, a professional habit. It shows what was done with his ashes. They give me a map showing where his ashes were scattered.
“Over there, between trees one and three.”
I go there. An earthy patch, with recent scatterings. I think about Brian. I wonder why my family found no better place, but I’ve no right to complain.
The computer record says, “Strewn by Staff.


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