Being at your own Pre-Funeral

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My mother is 95, and in good health, both mentally and physically, facing the last years of her life with equanimity, good grace, and a total absence of self-pity. Her powers are failing, but, as I remind her, so are mine. So are everyone’s. She might well have another ten years to go, or even more, and if she can maintain her mental acuity, and her sense of humour, and of the ridiculous and the absurd, they will be good years for her and for those around her. She has no expectation of immortality and is determined to make the most of the time that’s left.

I spoke to her yesterday on the way home from the airport. She’s been cajoling me into playing the oboe at her ‘final’ concert party in Salisbury in September, and I’ve been teasing her by pretending to demur. There have, after all, as I point out, been several ‘final’ concerts – almost as many as the great Spanish soprano, Montserrat Caballe, has given.

Our family concerts involve my brother and me, his children, their spouses and partners playing classical music on the oboe, flute, violin, bassoon and piano, often awkward arrangements of well-known pieces such as the Rite of Spring. These concerts serve as reminders, in some cases, of how much better we used to play when we were children or young adults.

So, I have pretended to be unsure of whether I can take part, citing business travel, lack of practice, broken reeds and hugely more important things to do. My mother has countered with various powerful arguments, most of which boil down to the unreliable suggestion that ‘this really is the last.’ But I am not convinced.

Yesterday, however, on the spur of the moment, she launched a new line of argument.

‘You played at that old lady’s funeral last year,’ she said, referring to my two-minute oboe solo at the funeral of my dear friend Jane last May (my mother has total recall, it seems, and I should never have told her about it).

‘So, I really think you should play at my pre-funeral.’

Pre-funeral!

What a marvellous idea! All the ceremony, glad-handing and fun of the funeral itself, with the added advantage that you can actually BE THERE to enjoy it.

We had a good laugh about it. She can still be funny, inventive and absurd. And it is true that we shall probably play the same music at the real one, assuming we do not pre-decease her, and as long as we are still young enough to play.

But the question is, how many pre-funerals can you have? I am afraid this may be the first of many.

Nevertheless, I suppose I shall play at it.

Churchill

Yesterday’s blog (Mild Electric Shocks) seems somewhat flippant in retrospect. I’d forgotten that Friday was the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s funeral. Turning on the television just after clicking Publish, I saw the BBC was re-broadcasting the whole black-and-white event.

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I remember that day, 50 years ago, quite well. I was a 7-year-old boy at an uncomfortable boarding school in the English Midlands. We were given the morning off so that we could cluster around the school’s only (rather small) television to watch the funeral procession and the service at St Paul’s. The Headmaster’s wife, who wore a pronounced moustache, and whom we called Peeps, kept a frightening eye on us to make sure we appreciated the event’s significance.

In my seven-year-old mind Churchill was the ‘pugnacious British bulldog’, teeth clenched on a wet and revolting cigar, growling our enemies into submission. He stood for Victory and for British Supremacy rather than anything more complex. By the time of his death in 1965, of course, British influence was in decline and the country felt anything but supreme. On that wintry day, I suppose, Britain was burying its Imperial past forever. Not that I noticed that at the time. The (deliberately?) out-of-date map of the world that was used for our geography lessons was still preposterously red with British possessions.

The fact that I was aware of Churchill at seven was because my parents were both involved in the War Effort, and reminiscences of the War were a daily diet from infancy. Odd though it may sound, I suspect that the War years were my parents’ happiest. My father served in North Africa, and Italy, fighting a shooting war on the front line, and my mother on the gun parks of Southern England, calibrating guns.

The grainy, grey film that was broadcast again on Friday shows a gritty, grey London, dark from a hundred years of pollution (now so much cleaner). But otherwise, in its essentials, little has changed.

How different the world might have been if Lord Halifax had not stepped back from the Prime Ministership in May 1940 (which he need not have done, whatever he said at the time). It is probable that Halifax would have reached an agreement with Hitler, and Britain would have existed in the shadow of a Nazi Europe until such time as the Soviets swept across the continent (as some historians have suggested the endgame might have been).

But Churchill chose the impossible path, and won.

Things don’t change in their essentials. Coverage of Churchill’s funeral still looks good, even if it needed a little re-mastering. And although technology (business IT to be precise) occupies many of my waking moments, it hasn’t really made any difference to what is most important.