DEATH COMES KNOCKING all too often on these wintry mornings. Scarcely a day goes by, it seems, without another distant family member, close friend, former colleague or neighbour succumbing. I have experienced all four – and more – in this past week: a beloved aunt, shortly after her husband; three of my neighbours in a village that is little more than a few houses straggling along a country lane; the brother of one of my closest friends; a fellow Fleet Street editor with whom I worked closely and whose company I relished.
Simple grief is not the worst of it. Annoyingly, this wretched coronavirus plague condemns sick and healthy alike to self-confine to quarters, remote in any real sense from the outside world, getting word of a death second-hand and sometimes days late and leaving no way to mourn or show respect and support for the immediate family. Restricted funeral numbers and limited access to church or chapel gatherings allow no real sense of closure.
The closest I came to mourning two of my neighbours was to stand, in the first case, with bowed head at the church gate as the funeral cortege passed inside. And secondly, I watched as the service was live-streamed over the internet from a crematorium.
Both men were my close friends: David Moore, a former village hall chairman who gave much of his later years to work for the community, and Alan Holmes, a retired doctor and talented musician whose passing, coming so shortly after the death of a fellow organist with whom he shared Sunday duties, leaves the parish church congregation lacking musical accompaniment.
My neighbour The Undertaker, a good friend, carries on his twin crafts of carpenter and funeral director – a traditional coupling in rural districts – despite the fears of his children that he exposes himself daily to what, at his age, is a deadly virus.
“It’s hard arranging funerals for people you’ve known all their lives,” says my 72-year-old next-door-neighbour as we solemnly discuss the passing of Bob Moore, just 64 and a well-liked local farmer. “It must be easier in towns and cities where the families you are helping are largely unknown to you,” says John Abercrombie, who was born and bred not three miles from his present home.
What is hardest for me, I tell him, is hearing of a good friend’s bereavement by chance, sometime after the event, which leaves me feeling I have somehow let that friend down.
I knew and worked for years with Bridget Rowe, editor of both The People and the Sunday Mirror as well as boss at a host of Britain’s leading magazines. I shared with this outspoken, chain-smoking ‘Devil-Runs-Pravda’ character both her office and the responsibility for editing the Sunday Mirror for twelve glorious months and it was a sensational roller-coaster ride.
But I only learned of her death – of a seizure which necessitated a hospital stay during which she contracted coronavirus – when I saw her obituary in The Times. She was a glamorous, laugh-a-minute 70 years old and I feel cheated that she is gone.
Our great mutual friend and colleague Ross Anderson described her thus:
“Mad as a box of frogs, heart of gold. I worked with her twice. One time we were catching the Tube together at Oxford Circus. I was halfway down the escalator when I realised she was no longer with me.
“I looked back and she was still standing at the top, screaming ‘For fuck’s sake, doll, I’ve got my going-up shoes on, I need my going-down shoes!’ I still don’t understand. . .
“Bridget also banned me from having lunch with David Banks because, if I remember correctly, ‘he’s already had one heart attack and he’s not having another one on my watch!”
“ This may come as news to Banksy, since she also banned me from telling him she had banned me from having lunch with him.”
It DID come as a surprise. A heart attack is one of the few medical mishaps that hasn’t insinuated itself on my shambling frame. I suspect she told that porky-pie to keep two good-time guys out of the pubs!
But, sadly, I won’t have the opportunity to correct her now.