Readings for a funeral

January 9, 2015

What do you read at a funeral? Something secular, something religious?

The family tradition was ritual-free industrial incineration. Organ recording, coffin slips behind velvet curtain in the council crematorium.

My religious belief perished during singing psalms to empty pews. But buried in the bible are fragments of practical advice that have sustained human beings for a very long time.

So today, this is what I will read at my sister’s funeral, adapted from the King James Bible:

16 …[L]et teares fall downe ouer the dead, and begin to lament, as if thou hadst suffered great harme thy selfe: and then couer her body according to the custome, & neglect not her buriall.

17 Weepe bitterly, and make great moane, and vse lamentation, as shee is worthy, and that a day or two, lest thou be euill spoken of: and then comfort thy selfe for thy heauinesse.

18 For of heauinesse commeth death, and the heauinesse of the heart, breaketh strength.

19 In affliction also sorrow remaineth: and the life of the poore, is the curse of the heart.

20 Take no heauines to heart: driue it away, and remember the last end.

21 Forget it not, for there is no turning againe: thou shalt not doe her good, but hurt thy selfe.

22 Remember my iudgement: for thine also shall be so; yesterday for me, and to day for thee.

23 When the dead is at rest, let her remembrance rest, & be comforted for her, when her spirit is departed from her.

Grieve. Move on. Live again.

Easier in the acknowledgement than the adoption, but good, stoical advice.


My sister’s keeper

December 9, 2014

My sister died last night. She was 46 years old.

For the last of those years she lived in a care home near the sea front in Great Yarmouth, patiently looked after. In good times she took her medication, and spent her weekly state allowance on daily litres of coca-cola and packets of cigarettes.

She had lost a finger to domestic abuse. Lived with heroin addicts who had beaten her for her benefit cheque. They told her they were diabetics. She, who had struggled to be kept in school, believed them.

After one beating, at her lowest ebb, she had ended up in a hospital ward where, out of kindness, someone assessed her and diagnosed the schizophrenia that had afflicted her for years. Finally she got help with housing.

All this I know from my mother, second-hand. The last time I saw her was at my grandfather’s funeral, over twenty years ago.

I stopped letting her know where I lived to avoid the long rambling letters with accusations of murder and worse. But also because of my own guilt at having been a lousy brother, at my inability to help her, and her inability to be helped – to be a good victim.

She was difficult to deal with: violent, obstreperous, a fantasist. My mother says only: “a troubled soul”.

My father’s poor health made it impossible for her to live with my parents when her husband threw her out. My work took me all over the world. My mother made long drives to the coast to pay her visits and try to fix up somewhere for her to live.

In the end ‘the system’ ended up helping her where we could not. The state, that big soulless, joyless collective noun, so despised and ridiculed, came to her aid. It gave her comfort and shelter, and employed long-suffering people to help her. The path did not run smooth, but the state was my sister’s keeper.

When my mother became ill this year, I realized that the day might soon come when I would have to make the visits, remember her birthday and Christmas. It never came.

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Game of Thrones

“Some people are fortunate enough to be born into the right family. Others have to find their own way.”

I can’t help but be fascinated by Jill Abramson’s tattoo. The ‘T’ of the New York Times inked into her skin. It’s like Carson, the butler in Downton Abbey, revealing that he has the Earl of Grantham’s armorial bearings embroidered on his boxers.

England still has its Downton Abbeys. These days people pay to look round at weekends. Cabinets do not retire to them at weekends for shooting parties. There are no staff, no family to serve. All to the good. But will New York still have its Times?

For the Carsons (and perhaps the Abramsons), the idea of these wonderful political edifices no longer being central to a way of life, no longer having culture (below stairs, above stairs; business and editorial) is anathema. Whilst the rest of us migrate to Quartz or BuzzFeed or Vice, the staff at the New York Times still care about journalism’s equivalent of the right way to lay out the silver and the correct glass for port.

Abramson’s tattoo tells you so much too about the way journalists – and people – construct their identity. The way we endow organisations with values, subordinate ourselves to their cultures. For all the talk of individual journalists as brands, here is a journalist branding herself and remaining resolutely interested in the task she is paid to do (finding things out, holding the powerful to account, sounding off to readers), whilst steadfastly resisting the idea that she simply works for a grand but fading family business.

Forced into the bloody business of making journalism pay, Abramson reacted like a neglected circus lion eyeing a new tamer. The spectacle contrasts pity at the humbling of a great beast with fear for anyone forced to make money by sticking their heads in such a hungry mouth.

But Ms Abramson’s editorship has certainly roared. A China edition launch. This. A new Chief Executive. This. To raise the bar from popular to classical drama, she has delivered the full Antigone – a superfluity of right – and if it is Claudius rather than Creon that she faces, well – never underestimate a Claudius.

Abramson, who I met under the blandest of circumstances a couple of times, appears to have been a connoisseur of good journalism. Whatever her merits, she certainly wasn’t political enough to survive.

Journalists are fond of believing that knowledge is power. Game of Thrones viewers might recall Cersei Lannister’s scene with Littlefinger. In a gender reversal for the New York Timesmise-en-scène‘, she is from the ruling family, and he is the self-made man. When he over-reaches to remind her of the frailty of prominent families, she has her guards seize him. A dagger is pressed to his jugular. It’s not knowledge that is power, she reminds him, “Power is power.”



St Luke’s Terrace, Cobholm on Google Streetview

I was born in the front bedroom of the two bedroom house my grandparents rented from the council. It was February 1965, The Kinks at number one for homes with record players and without teenage mothers. A year later, my brother was born in the same room.

The front bedroom was for being born in, the back bedroom was for dying in. At any rate, the back bedroom was the room in which, three decades later, my grandfather’s cancer killed him.

St Luke’s Terrace in Cobholm was a poor place all my grandparents’ lives. It was a poverty that pools coupons crossed off, a poverty unanswered in the weekly knock of insurance collectors, clean and hard and smelling of coal tar soap.

It wintered as grey fog without and grey smoke within, cigarettes and chimneys back to back, lines of black mould on steel window frames and the syrupy vapour of the maltings. It was a poverty of spirit without companionship, except the radio. Too poor for pubs or clubs, too proud for church or chapel congregations.

My grandparents, like my father, are dead now. What has half a century of progress done for this place and the people that are like them – now living? No more coal fires, no more maltings, PVC window frames. Half a century of progress…

Here are the words of the ACORN survey:

This category contains the most deprived areas of large and small towns and cities across the UK. Household incomes are low, nearly always below the national average. The level of people having difficulties with debt or having been refused credit approaches double the national average. The numbers claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and other benefits is well above the national average. Levels of qualifications are low and those in work are likely to be employed in semi-skilled or unskilled occupations.

The housing is a mix of low rise estates, with terraced and semi-detached houses, and purpose built flats, including high rise blocks. Properties tend to be small and there may be overcrowding. Over half of the housing is rented from the local council or a housing association. There is some private renting. The relatively small proportion of the housing is owner occupied is generally of low value. Where values are influenced by higher urban property prices these are still lower value relative to the location.

There are a large number of single adult households, including many single pensioners, lone parents, separated and divorced people. There are higher levels of health problems in some areas.

These are the people who are finding life the hardest and experiencing the most difficult social and financial conditions.

These are the people…