Thursday, 18 December 2014

Things of Value

I have been now to three funerals of people I cared about deeply - and missed one, due to distance from Australia to Europe. During the most recent of these, I thought of all the older people in my family who talk about doing almost nothing these days but going to funerals. I wondered if at a certain point you realise that the tug of affection you feel for those who are gone is stronger than that for those who are still here.

This latest departure was of a man with whom I often argued. I enjoyed arguing with him. I was looking forward to going on arguing with him - he was an architect and Brussels would provide so much fodder for us, he defending buildings I think of as blights on the landscape, me reacting in horror at his dismissal of the things that had been knocked down to make way for them.

Not that he was just an architect. He was, it turned out, an architect who had used a great deal of his spare time to work for tenants in lousy housing whose landlords refused to accept that there were any problems in the dwellings they charged them for. My friend often had to work as a kind of building detective in order to find out what was causing the mould and damp that gave the tenants' children asthma. He helped many people in this way, although he never mentioned it at all.

He also helped lots and lots of young people. He and his wife, one of my very favourite relatives, were generous, with their time, their hospitality and their support more generally, helping out the friends of their own children who needed assistance at various times and for various reasons. There always seemed to be room at their kitchen table and somehow enough food to go round. He also mentored aspirant young architects in the neighbourhood who asked for his help. Essentially, he did a lot of good, without any fanfare.

Talking after the service to a close friend of the family, I said it worried me that this kind of quietly well-led life does not seem to be valued in the way it once was. To be seen to have led a successful life, you need, at the very least, one colour supplement to have noticed you at some point. Ideally, you should also have made quite a lot of money, modelling your behaviour on the kinds of articles that list the ten most important habits of "high achievers" - sadly, being kind, patient or generous never seems to rate anywhere among those.

The person I was talking to asked why I thought that mattered. I said I thought it was a worry that people might be growing up now thinking that they hadn't really achieved anything if they hadn't become well-known or rich, that they hadn't truly succeeded if they hadn't become a celebrity with a flashy fast car or two.

In my eyes, of course, my friend very definitely succeeded - he succeeded in being a good and very decent person - and extremely good company. The church was overflowing with people whose lives he had touched, people who liked him, who admired his work, who regarded him as a friend. His body was brought into the church in a willow coffin -  such a beautiful thing; once you've seen one, the wooden ones seem absolutely and completely wrong - carried by some of his children and their partners, the others taking up the burden at the end of the service, together with people outside the family to whom he meant a great deal.

Each time someone I care about dies, a gap is left, and in that gap it becomes clear to you what you valued most in that person, what you found in them that was unusual compared to most of the people in your life. Perhaps above all, in this case, it was my friend's unusual habit of giving whoever he was talking to his full attention. He was one of those rare people who, if he sat down and began to talk to you, became completely engaged, never giving a hint that he was short of time or wanted to do something else. Yesterday, someone said to me that the single most valuable thing you can give to someone is your attention. My friend did that and all those who had the benefit of it are sadder now that he is gone.


  1. Thank you for a very moving tribute to a man who clearly touched many lives. Your point about the "quietly well-led life" was, as I'm sure you'll remember, perfectly expressed by George Eliot, at the end of 'Middlemarch':

    "For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

    1. I had quite forgotten that. I must read the book again, probably should have an each year ritual of doing so in fact. One thing that baffles me is how she could have written the best novel ever written, (I think), and then also written novels I just cannot get through.