If I’d written the film it would have been called Four Funerals and a Wedding, because personally I find funerals much more fun. Not all funerals, obviously. But the funeral of someone who’s not a close relative and who’s had a good innings can be a very splendid occasion — as I was reminded the other week when I went to Tisbury, Wiltshire, to bid farewell to my old friend John Clanwilliam.
John, you may remember, was the earl I killed last summer during a game of human Cluedo. At Christmas, he died for real and though I shall miss him dearly I don’t think anyone could be too unhappy at the manner of his leaving: a few months after two glorious 90th birthday parties (one in London, one in the country), cheery, well-loved and with all his faculties intact.
I became his friend because my friend Tania — one of his daughters — invariably used to sit me next to him at lunch or dinner when I came to stay. ‘You’re only good at talking to very young people or very old people,’ explained Tania — perfectly truly. ‘And you’re the only person I know who’s as right-wing as Daddy is.’
John and I got on like a house on fire, spending many joyous hours bemoaning the state of modern Britain and winding up Tania who — like so many poshos — has unfortunate Whiggish tendencies. Besides being an ardent Speccie reader, John had the added advantage of having been in the war. It delighted me beyond measure when he declared himself a fan of my Dick Coward books because, I suppose, that’s the audience I most care about: the people who are in a position to know whether or not you’ve got it right.
John’s own war was pretty bloody, though not in the way you might expect. He came from a distinguished naval family — his grandfather the fourth Earl had been Admiral of the Fleet, his father was an admiral — and was educated at Dartmouth Naval College. None of his family is quite sure what happened, though there are suspicions that his ship may have run aground. Anyway, poor John Meade (as he then was) left the navy under a cloud, and didn’t speak much to his family for the rest of the war, which he spent working in a Birmingham munitions factory followed by a short and unglorious stint in the army.
What I love about this particular story is what it says about the resilience of the human spirit. John could have let the episode completely destroy him. Instead, he rebuilt his life — first as an abalone diver in South Africa — raised four children, and gave every impression of being thoroughly happy and fulfilled.
Whenever John turned up you felt that little bit more cheerful, which I’m sure is why so many people turned up to give him a proper send-off. Everything about the funeral service was perfect, from the chosen hymns (‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’) to the sweet tenor rendition of ‘Danny Boy’, to the booming, old-school, fear-of-God dismissal by a former Bishop of Bath and Wells. You felt at once teary and uplifted, in a way I know you’re supposed to at weddings too, but in my experience almost never are.
God I hate weddings. The only one I’ve really enjoyed was my own, because I got to decide on the food and the music and all the speeches were about me. But the idea of forking out perhaps £100 for a present and probably double that on transport and accommodation in order to hang about and get half cut and eat cold bloody salmon (not even wild, probably, but farmed in its own filth and pumped full of antibiotics) on a table next to someone you don’t know while listening to not just an oafish best man, but also the father, and probably some tedious godfather or other giving boring speeches that go on for ever and ever about a couple who are probably going to be divorced in five years fills me with horror.
It’s the trappedness I loathe and fear most. (I have the same problem with dinner parties.) At a wedding you can’t just flit in, enjoy cursory conversations with the old mates you came to see, grab some nosh and then bugger off. You’ve got the church service: an hour, bare min. You’ve got the queuing to say hi to the bride and groom (why?) before you’re allowed your first drink. Then a whole afternoon in a marquee on a table with the sort of people you’d never normally spend even ten minutes with unless you were being paid very large sums of money.
At least with funerals, you don’t go with any high expectations of fun and frivolity — whereas at weddings you do, setting yourself up for almost inevitable disappointment. And there’s an unspoken assumption at weddings that, as a guest, you’re privileged to be there and should be grateful to have made it on to the invitation list, which puts pressure on you to be on your best behaviour. At a funeral, on the other hand, you’re thought to be putting yourself out slightly. The family are touched and appreciative that you’ve made the effort. Also there’s no best man, no sit-down food ordeal, you don’t have to bring a present, and if you do behave badly no one minds or even notices because everyone’s on one of those weird, faintly hysterical, ‘it’s what he would have wanted’ post-funeral highs.
Then there’s death. I don’t think nearly enough of us think nearly often enough about this and what it means. If we did, half the liberal pieties infecting our society would vanish in a trice. For example, there’d be no more squeamishness about ‘passenger profiling’ at airports because absolutely everyone would appreciate — duh — that the needs of millions of free citizens who prefer to take the kind of holiday flight where you don’t end up spread over the Atlantic in a million tiny pieces trump those of, say, a beardie in a dishdasha travelling on a one-way ticket from the Yemen with hand-baggage only who would prefer not to be singled out for a full cavity search.
Not just that, but I think we might all be inclined to live better, more fruitful lives. I thought of this as Tania read out a homily attributed to R.L. Stevenson (though more likely to be a variant on something written in 1904 for a poetry competition by an American woman named Bessie Stanley). It goes: ‘That man is a success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who leaves the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it. Who looked for the best in others and gave the best he had…’ When spoken right next to the coffin containing the body of one whose course is run, those words have quite an impact.