Matthew Parris

Another Voice | 31 January 2009

A floral shrine and an aspiring publisher made me ashamed of my unkindness

Text settings

I was walking along Limehouse Causeway, a narrow street running close to the Thames in East London. It was about half past eight in the morning, I was short of sleep and feeling temporarily annoyed with, oh, nothing in particular — just everything. Approaching a junction I saw from some distance that the pedestrian railings hugging this corner were a mass of flowers and paper.

That irritated me. Presumably a memorial to somebody who had died nearby. Sad, no doubt, but we never used to make roadside shrines like this in England and the habit has always struck me as mawkish and somehow pagan. Getting closer, it became clear that the whole corner had been turned into a crematorium-style display, with masses of blossoms, trinkets, letters, soft toys and the like. My grumpiness increased. ‘Sweep it all away,’ I thought. ‘Death is a private thing. Let people mourn privately. Whatever happened to our English reserve?’

I reached the corner, and stopped to look. Two little girls were there, perhaps tending, perhaps observing the temporary memorial, so I hid my feelings and started to read the tributes. It seemed the deceased was a youth called Kane Theodore, known to his friends as The Fizz.

The longest tribute was stuck to a lamp-post, a whole letter, written in an unsophisticated hand, addressed to young Kane — an outpouring of affection and grief, starting with: ‘Kane, we can’t believe your acctually gone everybody thought you was going to pull through...’

I was beginning to feel a bit sheepish about my irascibility. I looked at some of the many photographs of Kane: probably of mixed race, not particularly handsome but a cheeky, open face; and so young. ‘RIP 1993-2009. Kane. Always remembered’ said a card, with a little heart attached. Gosh, only 15 or 16. He had died on Friday 16 January.

At this point a woman, passing the spot and curious about the memorial, stopped and asked the two little girls (to whom I had not spoken) what it was all about. One seemed close to tears. ‘He was knocked off his moped,’ she said. ‘A car hit him. He fell there’ (she indicated the opposite side of the road) ‘and his bike burned and he couldn’t escape and he died.’

‘We’re all missing you,’ said another note: ‘Can’t believe your not here any more.’

I took a closer look at the whole display. There were crash helmets, teddy bears, T-shirts, letters, cards, and a good £100-worth of flowers. You could hardly see the cruel steel railings beneath. Feeling now too moved for comfort, and resolving to return and make some notes, I walked on, mood in no sense lighter but perhaps less aggressive than before.

Then I heard steps behind me, hurrying. I turned round. A small woman, probably thirty-something, with a slightly anxious expression, was trying to catch me up, and almost running. ‘Er, excuse me,’ she said (quite well-spoken), ‘are you Matthew Parris? I can see you’re in a hurry, but could I just have a word with you?’

All the irritation came sweeping back over me. I cannot seem to help this. I’ve had some lovely meetings and conversations with people I’ve never met before but who have recognised me in the street, tube, bus or train, but my immediate response to someone unknown to me tugging my sleeve, as it were, in a public place, is of annoyance at an unsolicited intrusion. I never, ever, snap at anyone and always make myself be polite, but that’s not how I feel, or not for the first few seconds. Probably my irritation showed, and she noticed. Her face fell, and she began to blink nervously, as if losing confidence. I at once felt guilty and asked, hopefully politely, what this was about.

‘We’ve started a small publishing company, I know it’s probably a wrong time to be trying to expand a new business,’ she said, almost apologising to me for her commercial decision, ‘but if you’re a small publisher without a network it’s so very difficult to get the word around when you’ve a good book that you know people would like, if only they saw it.

‘And we’ve got this book — it’s about dogs — I don’t suppose you’re a dog-lover, but really it’s such a good little book, we’re so pleased with it — and I thought... maybe you know a dog-owner, or a journalist who’s a dog-owner... or... well, anyway, I just thought: “I’m sure that’s Mr Parris, and anything’s worth trying, and it can’t hurt to ask...”,’ and she handed me a small ochre card:

Short Stack Publishing

44 (0) 7970 269 322

‘You could find out more about the book on the internet, if you just had a moment.’

All my crossness had now fled and, taking the card, I said, ‘I’ll try. I’ll look. But as far as dog-owning goes, I don’t think I’m your man. Thanks anyway.’ As I walked on I saw her turn back, and realised she had not even been walking my way.

I was not far now from my own front door. As I fumbled for the keys, and thought of Kane Theodore, and the flowers and cards, and the little book for dog-owners, my eyes began to well with tears I simply could not control. I had to turn away quickly from a passing jogger, open the door and dive inside. Those tears were not for Kane, whom I never knew; or for the touching optimism of someone trying to keep a small publishing company going in 2009, who’s no doubt perfectly capable of looking after herself.

They were tears of self-reproach and — admit it — of shame. Shame not for my behaviour, which is usually fair, but for my feelings, which are spasmodically unfair and unkind. We are sometimes offered a reminder of what we could become, or are becoming, or might become. These unexpected glimpses can be quite a shock.

Anyway, I followed a link to the book, How To Handle Living With Your Dog. It’s part of a How To Handle series: ‘No Nonsense Advice on Puppies, Dogs, Pedigrees, Rescue Dogs, Heinz 57s and their Puppy Classes, Dog Training, Canine Health & Nutrition and Diet & Exercise!’ It’s by Winkie Spiers, published last week. And if anyone witnessed an accident at Three Colt Street in Limehouse at 7.30 p.m. on Friday 9 January, would they please call the police? 0208 597 4874.