death

THE PATTERNS WE MAKE AS WE DECORATE TIME

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.

 

 

 

IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, OVERWRITE IT

Often, when I'm meeting someone for the first time, I'll say that I took early retirement at 25. It's a harmless and supposedly amusing way to avoid talking about something bigger that happened half a life ago, when I and about a third of the staff at an ad agency were made redundant.

I suspect I was the only one who left something like happily and willingly. And that's down to something that had happened a few months earlier.

This night wounds time. The expression has haunted me since I encountered it on the cover of Starless And Bible Black, a King Crimson album. It was there thanks to Tom Phillips, an artist most known for his work A Humument, where he took a Victorian book - A Human Document by W.H. Mallock - and created his own text from it by highlighting and connecting some words and phrases, and painting over the remainder.

Now, nobody much talks about Mallock's book. But what Phillips did with it lives on as a significant alteration of something that was already there. I wish the same could be said for the town centres I see across Britain, and sometimes elsewhere when I have been abroad. Centuries of urban development and complex local histories and understandings have been overwritten by the same few shops that can be seen again and again as you travel about, square footage consumed by voracious multinational businesses that populate their space with goods aimed at whatever demographic they've opted to feed on. Their logos are seared into our consciousness, because isn't that what brands do?

As space is corrupted, so is time. Retailers are seeking to co-opt the calendar with events like Black Friday, and National Pastie Week, but corporations haven't yet succeeded in redefining the way we structure time with the success that the Gregorian calendar had when it replaced the Julian one. Besides, raw human experience can still overpower prepackaged options. 

February 28th was my dad's birthday.

But the year I was made redundant it was overwritten by my brother Nigel's death.

He was at the wheel of a car he and some friends had stolen.

Dad had to identify his charred corpse.

 

This night wounds time.

 

And wounds can heal.

 

When we buried my brother, the route taken by the hearse took us past the homes we shared with Nigel as a family, in the order we'd lived in them. That wasn't planned by either of my parents. It happened to be the route that made most sense given where the journey started, and where it ended, chosen by the driver of the hearse. But that particular shape, recapitulating the years we lived and grew and changed together, inevitably felt significant. Well, it was significant - just unplanned. There's a reason Jung called synchronicity meaningful coincidence.

That journey was a condensed version of our lives with Nigel, much of the time spent travelling down roads we'd played, fought, laughed, argued. It's how they'd do it in a film, so is it any wonder I ended up writing scripts when life itself seemed to be overdoing the job on this and so many occasions?

And now it's a New Year, according to the calendar I favour. A blank page. And one which we don't have to write on at all, let alone with resolutions. But have a think, about the extent to which your choices are shaped by organisations that are only interested in you as a source of revenue. If there are people who treat you similarly, then pay them some attention too. Thing being, it doesn't have to be like that. You get to choose a lot more about your life than you might imagine, and it's worth doing if the result is trading a way of living primarily experienced through your economic value to others for one where you get to determine what's significant, and how you allocate your time as a consequence.

This needn't involved giving up a job and becoming a hermit or self-employed. There are plenty of people I know who find their jobs rewarding and worthwhile. And there are more I know who trade hours put into organisations that mean nothing to them for cash allowing them to enjoy their time outside of it. If that's a transaction that works, then good luck. It's best to be in charge of making the big choices in your life, than be forced into a major reassessment of how you live because of the death of someone you love.

After my brother's death, I moved to Nottingham. Yesterday, I took a walk through Beeston, the area I first lived when I came here. And part of what made that experience good is the choices I've made since have overwritten whatever I may have formerly felt about the place, let alone what created those feelings. Wandering through the place ('a seaside town without the sea', a much-missed friend put it once) and beyond, I walked through the university grounds, and spent time at a couple of arts centres there. You could say that a university is a brand, but even if that's the case I'm much happier with brands that decorate their space with opportunities to occupy time in nature, and with paintings, and the company of people out for a show or a walk with their children, than I am in a city where I could be anywhere judging by the familiarity of the names on the shopfronts.

Capitalism has imprinted its offerings on us in part through using what makes art work, and it's easy to mistake its products for our desires. Given that I'm writing this in a house full of books, DVDs, comics, CDs, and other paraphernalia of consumer society, that may be hypocritical to some extent. So be it. And I know that much of what I enjoy and pay money for goes on to shape my own creativity, and the stories I offer the world, and the forms in which I offer those stories. Maybe stories isn't your thing, but we've all got something to offer that you can't get by wandering around town and finding it for the best price. Whatever that something is, do more of it this year.