Saturday 30 January 2010

Four and twenty gentlemen

15st 8lb, 4.5 units. I always used to say that I much preferred funerals to weddings and christenings, not least because I stood a sporting chance of eventually playing a leading role in one myself. (I am under no delusions that this is an entirely original thought, by the way, so there is no need to leave a comment to that effect unless you are helpfully going to provide chapter and verse on where it originated.)

The altogether surprising events of the last year have included my participation in both a marriage and a publick baptism, both conducted strictly in accordance with the Prayer Book of 1662, and I have left firm instructions that my funeral, when it comes, should also follow that form of service. I felt sure that Len, whose funeral I attended this afternoon, would have made a similar specification, since I had discovered in the course of our more recent conversations that he was a pretty dedicated reader of my newspaper columns and particularly enjoyed those in which I savaged ecclesiastical innovations. More importantly, he did so from the standpoint of a long-standing churchwarden and dedicated member of the congregation of Rothbury parish church, rather than a dilettante “atheist for Christ” like myself.

I knew that the funeral would attract a good turnout. Accordingly I arrived in Rothbury with the best part of half an hour to spare, allowing ample time to park in the car park across the river and pay a precautionary visit to the public lavatories as I walked back to the church, listening to the muffled bells ringing out across the village. I marched purposefully through the British Legion guard of honour and attempted to enter the church by the wrong door. Politely redirected, I found that virtually every seat was already occupied, but followed my instructions and took a place “at the front on the left” which left me only marginally worried that I might have usurped a seat intended for Great Aunt Mabel or some loyal family retainer.

On the stroke of 1.30 two priests entered, with a mitred bishop between them. One of the priests was distinctly female, and the white-haired and amply proportioned male one, while kicking off promisingly with “I am the resurrection and the life”, seemed then to diverge into some modern variant rather than the well-remembered words of 1662. I looked closely at the coffin for signs of protest.

Still, Len could have found no fault with the rest of the proceedings. We sang no fewer than five traditional hymns, all chosen by him (the priest in charge apologized for the resulting “bit of a singathon”) though only the last two (“Abide with me” and “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven”) featured in my repertoire from my schooldays, enabling me to belt them out with unabashed gusto from the start. With the others I had to mumble at least the first verse until I had got the hang of the tune, which is always a shame. There were a couple of fine, traditional readings from the King James Bible, and a lady sang an aria from the Messiah. Then there was a pair of entertaining and illuminating addresses remembering the man, one delivered by a retired local GP who had known Len since their schooldays, and the other by an Air-Vice-Marshal.

At many points in the proceedings I felt myself moved to tears. At some appropriate points in the GP’s reminiscences I laughed. And at one point I had to restrain myself, with the greatest of difficulty, because the doctor referred to Len’s membership of an ancient and no doubt honourable society known as “The Four and Twenty Gentlemen of Rothbury” and I am incapable of hearing the words “Four and Twenty” without assuming that the next one in the sequence is going to be “Virgins”, and giggling like a 14-year-old. At least Mrs H suffers from the same problem, as the music group to which she takes The Baby begins its little get-togethers with a “welcome song” to a tune which she knows only as “Four and Twenty Virgins”, giving her serious problems in (a) keeping a straight face and (b) not launching into its cheerfully obscene chorus at the end of every verse.

It came as news to me that Len was probably the largest private landlord in Rothbury. I had known him only as my builder for the last 20 years – and a builder whose men always turned up when they said he would, and did the job properly. A bit over a year ago, when I had a persistent leak in my bathroom roof, Len did not let the fact that he had lost a leg to diabetes prevent him from turning out in person to offer his assistance. He got someone to drive him over in a van and delivered a dehumidifier to keep the damp at bay until the problem was finally resolved. His only regret was that he was unable to climb up onto my roof in person to get to the bottom of it.

I was thinking of this as his eulogists made the essential points about the man: he would do anything for anyone, and he would do so because he was a devout Christian. I am sorry that I did not appreciate that more keenly while he was still alive, and that I did not get to know him better when I had the chance. Regrets are useless, but let us hope that the lessons they teach us may yet do a little good.

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