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Matthew Parris

Another Voice

A funeral teaches me that Gray was wrong in his Elegy about the loneliness of virtue

6 May 2009

12:00 AM

6 May 2009

12:00 AM

It was in the spring that I went to the funeral of Andrew Cavendish, the late and 11th Duke of Devonshire, at Edensor on Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire. It was almost five years to the day after his death that last Friday I went to the funeral of Ken Buxton in Flash, in Staffordshire.

Though they are not far from each other, the bleak Staffordshire moorlands are a different world to the sweet, grassy banks of the Derbyshire Wye where it flows through Chatsworth Park. And Andrew Cavendish and Ken Buxton lived anyway in different worlds, one a duke in his eighties, the other a supplier of plastic tanks in his fifties; and though both would have been friendly had they met, they could have had little to discuss. But something links them, and through each of their funerals it shone.

The morning of Andrew’s funeral was one of those perfect English spring mornings that, though we do not enjoy them often, define for us the English spring. I hardly knew him well and was only a chance mourner; it being a lovely day and he having been kind to me when I was his Member of Parliament, I could think of no better way to spend a sunny hour. He had been a popular man — everyone knew that — and I did not expect pew space in the church, but thought I’d stand outside with the stragglers.

Stragglers? There were more people outside the church than within: hundreds, perhaps a thousand. The event afterwards became quite famous and was widely described, and lyrically in the Spectator by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Robert Salisbury, too, has written about Andrew in this magazine, with greater acquaintance. There is no need to rehearse his qualities now, or to describe again the occasion.

Except to say this. Andrew’s great courtesy was well known in our part of the county, and so was his gentle and diffident manner. Nobody — on leaving the umpteenth dreadful little dog-hanging in a good local cause, having unveiled a plaque or drawn a raffle — could say ‘I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed myself so much’ with more apparent enthusiasm, or be heard with quite the same grateful disbelief. But at his funeral I was taken by surprise by the impromptu gathering of people whom his life had touched. Few of those who stood in silence beneath the flowering cherries could have claimed to be a friend. Few had advantage to gain — not even social cachet, for what cachet is there in having to stand outside? Most — to use a brutal phrase that would never have passed Andrew’s lips — were of no account.

So why did they come? A handful to gawp, maybe; a handful to tell the story; but there have been grander funerals attended by fewer. Most were drawn as gently, haphazardly and mysteriously as seedlings around a water-source, by the respect felt for a good man.

I knew Ken Buxton no better than I knew Andrew Cavendish. I went to his funeral because I could. Once, years ago, when through a mutual friend Ken had heard I was driving to Catalonia with a load of furniture, he had lent me his cow-box. It was new and he was proud of it. He had refused to accept any rent, but wanted only to hear about the ancient house we were restoring. In the unloaded trailer on return I brought him some young Catalan oak trees, because I knew he had a passion for planting trees, even buying patches of land just to plant out.

Ken lived alone, mostly in his big yard in the hills near Flash. From here he sold Titan plastic tanks — he had an agency — and fencing materials. He was seriously overweight (the pall-bearers struggled beneath his 22-stone frame) and might have seemed a bit fearsome to those who did not know him, with the head of one or more of his three beloved miniature dogs to be seen protruding from folds in his coat. He didn’t drink, but suffered terribly from depression, with long periods of crushing black despair from which he had always finally emerged, but each time had wondered whether he ever would. This time he must have despaired completely; and it was our mutual friend who found him at his yard late in April. I thought: oh, if only I’d known. Maybe he didn’t have many friends? I wondered, as I set out for the funeral, who, if anybody, would come.

Flash is on the way to nowhere, a little way (they told me) down a lane leading from the road from Buxton to Leek. Just a few yards, I thought, as I approached the junction on a cloudless morning that made even those bare, curiously desolate hills, with their small, untidy farms and back-of-beyond feeling, seem warm. There were cars parked on the verge, so I thought the church must be adjacent. I parked and walked down the lane. Soon there were more cars parked, to each side. On I walked. More cars. Odd, for I was 20 minutes early. Finally I rounded a corner. The small stone church was awash in a sea of people.

I reckoned it couldn’t seat more than about 150, but there may have been twice that many outside. Big men, bald men, men in ill-fitting suits and a few more stylishly attired; women and children; teenagers and toddlers; a fair few tattoos… Staffordshire Moorlands is the West Virginia of the North Midlands, and here were many clans. If you had wanted to cause a riot it would have been enough only to shout ‘Peak District National Park Planning Authority’.

Why were they here? Same as with Andrew Cavendish. Everybody, it seemed, loved Ken. In an astonishing break with Anglican tradition, the Vicar read the epistle (St Paul’s ‘We do not live to ourselves alone, and we do not die to ourselves alone’) with meaning, feeling and timing; and delivered an address that showed a real effort to find out about and understand the deceased. Heads nodded among us mourners outside, all moved, close friends and family in floods of tears; and we sang ‘All things bright and beautiful’, knowing how Ken loved trees.

I walked back alone down the lane to the main road, reproaching myself for imagining that if I had seen in Ken a gentle and noble soul, thousands of others wouldn’t have, too.

For this story isn’t really about Andrew Cavendish or Ken Buxton, but the congregations at their funerals — about people generally. People do detect goodness in others. They do respond. Nobility of soul does find its echo from other souls. Was Thomas Gray, in his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, right to say that ‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene/ The dark, unfathom’d caves of ocean bear/ Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air?’ No. We speak carelessly of the ingratitude of others, and the loneliness of virtue; but I think that when in some way a person rings true, many can hear it and they respond. Or so they did in the country churchyards of Edensor and Flash.

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