Readings for a funeral

January 9, 2015

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

My own close family’s his­tory of ritual-less indus­trial incin­er­a­tion — a few words, a recor­ded organ, the coffin slip­ping behind a faded vel­vet cur­tain in the crem­at­orium — offered little in the way of sec­u­lar comfort.

A school­ing paid for by singing psalms to empty cathed­ral stalls withered any reli­gious belief. 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-scèné’, 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…