Death be not proud

OUT THERE: Though I wanted to bid him a dignified farewell, I went as much out of curiosity, and because it was a big media event. Does that sound shameful? Some people even went along hoping to pull
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The first time I heard Michael VerMeulen's name was when a colleague described him as "a complete prick". Later I would realise how much professional jealousy informed that statement, but at the time, since this colleague was also a trusted friend, I unthinkingly adopted the party line.

About a year later VerMeulen phoned me from the offices of GQ. "Every time I turn around I read another great piece with your name on it," he brayed. "Come and write for me. I'm gonna pay you a lot of money." I told him I was too busy and put the phone down with a shudder. "Vulgar American person," I said to myself.

He kept calling, so I relented and went for lunch. He ate and drank and smoked too much. He talked too much. He laughed too loudly. But he was direct and honest, so I wrote for him and he did indeed pay me a lot of money, and even made others do the same. I was in his office when the Guardian called to ask if he could possibly write a short article overnight, a real emergency. "I could," replied VerMeulen, "but I've got a date tonight, and anyway, I have Alix Sharkey sitting in front of me and he's a much better writer. So how much you gonna pay him?" He snorted derisively at the answer. "Listen," said VerMeulen, winking at me, "this guy is the only thing standing between you and the fucking abyss." He quoted an extortionate figure. "OK? Good. Here he is."

You can probably see why I liked him. When I called my friend to confess, the party line had changed. "He's really a nice bloke when you get to know him," he said, sheepishly.

A few weeks ago I called GQ to explain a missed deadline, and learned that Michael VerMeulen had died of heart failure following a suspected drugs overdose. It made me wonder about something I'd noticed, a certain look in his eye. It was strangely familiar, but I couldn't quite pin it down. There was some element of hysteria, something manic and uncontrollable.

Last Monday I went to the memorial service. Like many others I had mixed reasons. Of course, VerMeulen's closest friends were there to honour his memory. But I hardly knew him, and though I certainly wanted to bid him a dignified farewell, I went as much out of curiosity, and because it was a big media event. Does that sound shameful? In journalism, the dividing line between work and social life is hard to discern, if it exists at all. Some people even went along hoping to pull. VerMeulen would have noticed and remarked on them, too.

In his sparkling eulogy, Christopher Sylvester noted that Michael would have been thrilled by the turnout, a sentiment that sent a ripple of appreciation through the crowd. Of course, we would all desperately love to attend our own funerals, if only to see how many old lovers showed up. But for those in the media especially, it seems such a wasted opportunity - the chance to art-direct our own memorials, greet and seat the guests, order the flowers and choose the music. Not to mention the video highlights.

Afterwards, we stood on the church steps talking about how moving the service had been, how evocative of the man. Few, it seems, could resist the urge to fantasise about their own big send-off. A female literary agent remarked "Wasn't that moving?" "Well, I certainly hope I get as many," replied her companion. "I've already decided on my music," remarked another self-mourner, "three Beach Boys songs, two ballads and one upbeat."

Others were overawed by the serried ranks of literary celebs, including a self-regarding novelist who turned up with his cronies at the last minute only to be ushered out of a front row pew. "Sorry, old chap," whispered Sylvester, "this one's reserved for family." One female editor looked around at the assembled mafiosi and said: "If a bomb were to fall right now..." What she meant was that London's media would be devastated, its best and brightest buried under rubble. In the circumstances I interpreted the outcome less charitably.

I suppose I was lucky. My mind had been concentrated on the proceedings the moment I entered St George's and glanced at the service sheet. There, on the opening page, were the dates of Michael VerMeulen's birth and death. For the first time I realised we had been born just 24 hours apart. How strange that seemed, when for so long I had regarded him as practically my polar opposite. And then I remembered that look in his eye, and I knew where I had seen it before

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