Faure's Requiem


Let me tell you about my brother. I don't speak about Nigel much. Partly it's to do with that thing about someone being dead - there's a moment where it seems relevant to mention it in conversation which leads the other party to say they're sorry when actually it happened so long ago that such a nicety seems redundant. Also, I pretty much wrote him off before his death. He was stealing from and violent to our mother, who was running a launderette in the Erdington area of Birmingham, where the kindest people around were her criminal neighbours.

B23 was an interesting area. Those criminal neighbours? They described another local as looking like a solicitor, because the only time they came across a woman dressed like that was in court. The clothes didn't make her family above the law - her younger brother had been trained as a toddler by his mum to crawl through a narrow opening at a Spanish hotel that gave him access to valuables kept safe for guests. For his mother he brought back jewellery, and she praised him for that, and years later in Birmingham those birds were coming home to roost. His suited sister worked at a car rental place, not as a solicitor.

My parents had divorced, and Nigel lived with mum at a couple of places before getting somewhere of his own. And he came back, as described, which is why there was a court order barring him from being near mum at the point he was killed. It happened when Nigel was over in Lichfield where dad lived, probably to celebrate dad's birthday, since that was the date he and some pals stole a car. Nigel was driving when it smashed, and dad was asked to identify remains, only there wasn't much of him left to recognise, so they had to use dental records.

I got a garbled version of what had happened in a call at the ad agency I was working in Holborn. Mum seemed to think Nigel was alive and in hospital, but a friend and neighbour took the phone and said "He's dead Adrian. He's dead." I went to the top of the stairs to take this in, an area people used to smoke. I think I may have asked someone there for a cigarette. Whether I did that or not, I told him what I'd just heard and he said as he went back in to the office "No use crying over spilt milk." 

The funeral procession set off from my mums's flat above the launderette. She was trying to sell the business at the time - had planned to anyway, and Nigel's death accelerated the process. There was a call that morning from someone who'd viewed the place a couple of times and was making interested noises. They knew the funeral was happening so I passed the phone on to mum, assuming they were going to say something kind and awkward. Instead, the caller - making the most of experience of doorstepping grieving parents acquired as a cop - wanted mum to knock a few grand off the price if she agreed to a quick sale. These are things that happen.

There isn't a place on your map for some experiences. That was one. Another transpired when the funeral procession moved off. Without any planning, the route chosen took us past all the places we'd lived as a family, in the order we'd lived in them. Nigel's life became a journey more or less up and off the A34, passing from Shaw Drive in Acocks Green to Peveril Drive in Hall Green and ending up travelling down School Lane in Hockley Heath, where he was buried about a mile away from where we'd lived for something like 7 years. Tracing that path made it a lot harder to hold Nigel in my mind as someone who treated mum badly.

If you saw that journey in a film you'd think it was contrived. But geography is etched with history in ways it's hard to fathom. And your history and mine and all of ours is there in the streets we walk, the paths we take and choose not to, the woods we enter and ones we wouldn't. It's not that films are contrived, more that it takes something like a death to see the shape of your life, which is what cinema can explore. We're so immersed in the living of it, the idea that in doing so we're creating layers and lines, shading and shapes, passes us by. 

Tonight I did something new. It's Good Friday, and a friend performed in a choir doing Faure's Requiem in an old church in Bottesford. Exactly the sort of thing I don't do, and even better for doing it. The music itself, in that space, was beautiful - I've lately been listening to hiphop, electronica, and heavy metal, and choral music is a whole other thing.

What made it magical was the choir hadn't all met before today. They gathered with some knowledge of the forty minute piece, and a conductor to guide them, someone to play the organ, and a couple of soloists for the showcase bits. And after rehearsing, they sang - and shimmered, and shone, and shadows dissolved. I reckon that's pretty punk - a group of strangers getting together for a single performance, then going their separate ways. No record contracts, no tour bus, no reviews.

That gathering happens every year in the same place at the same time with a different choral piece and a choir that has different people whenever they assemble, including some who are there consistently. Every one of those who come to sing or listen has been affected by death somewhere along the line, and all participated in a ritual to connect those present with the intentional death of a man we're told died for us all.

Christianity is not my belief system of choice, but for tonight at least I felt its power, and understood some of why it connects people over centuries. Something about that experience was magical, and it's in the ability to be lost in something bigger - because, in the nicest possible way, whatever 'it' is, it really isn't about you or me. It's about the pattern that connects, as Gregory Bateson put it, whether in the form of a choir that coalesces once a year, or a funeral procession that charts a family's years together.