Not dead, but gone to Hereford


TO HEREFORD, in fairly merry mood, for a memorial service. It's been a funny summer for funerals; in defiance of the Pathetic Fallacy the weather has persisted in exhibiting boisterous glee, first at the cremation service and now again, two months later, as we troop over to the family grave in a sunny, well-clipped churchyard. Frank has spent all night in the boot of the car; this reminds me of the fate of my grandma's ashes, which resided for most of my adolescence in our airing cupboard, before accompanying the family to Africa and Canada. "She's travelled more after death than she ever did in life," quipped mum. Now Frank's long life's journey is over: his parents' graveslab has been bashed open and as we blink into the surprisingly shallow hole beneath, we all wonder what on earth to say.

Born near midnight on New Year's Eve, 1912, he died at noon as near as dammit to the summer solstice; a strangely occult detail in the life of so rational a man. A forbidding character, he mellowed over the last 10 years of illness, until latterly he became a sort of graceful Noel Coward figure lying around in a silky dressing-gown, toying with titbits and sipping thimblefuls of wine. Dependent on regular transfusions, he was the Blip Boy of the blood banks: wherever he went stocks gurgled and drained.

A ex-newspaperman himself, he was interested to the point of schadenfreude in whatever was happening at the Independent on Sunday. He put up a gallant struggle against illness; was, as George MacBeth beautifully put it, an uncomplaining "foot-soldier in the long retreat/from the Moscow of getting well". I remember two photographs of him from his late seventies, standing on the beach at Cancale, the wind blowing his hair into a grey aureole. In the first he contemplates the oyster-shell, big as a china saucer, in his hand; in the second he faces the camera, trying to smile with his mouth full, puckering as the lemon juice kicks in. If I have a fraction of his zest for life at that age, I won't complain.

We go back for funeral baked meats, our reveries jolted now by the arrival of the toddlers who shriek, splash and squabble their way round the garden. For them, Frank's passing is less than a shadow on the bright day, and it's amazing to contrast his exhausted equilibrium with their lightning- crashes of mood: hysterical glee followed by piteous wails. One child screams so loudly when he doesn't get his own way that he throws up over himself. These antics are just what everyone needs, setting Frank's death in a kind of cosmic context: no longer a patriarch, but a free spirit; not dead, but gone to Hereford.

FRANK ALWAYS delighted in pointing out what he grandly called solecisms in the press, so he would have been pleased by the response to my recent column about bad grammar. Mrs Bond of Bury St Edmunds and Paula Jones of London plead for the resurrection of the Society for the Preservation of Apostrophes (the latter pointing out an incorrect "it's" just a few pages away from my blast-off and a horrendous "her's" in our sister paper the Independent). Miss G Bon of London wishes we native English speakers - she isn't one - would all use who, whose and whom correctly, and not write peddling when we mean pedalling. June Davies reports from Romsey on the shocking case of the kids' clothes shop called "Teddy Go's To School", and Neil Murray writes that he is "gripped with murderous intent" on seeing misapplied apostrophes. This is a threat we should take seriously, as Mr Murray is apparently the bass player for Black Sabbath; he too wants to revive the SPA as "an undercover unit to break into cafes, greengrocers, journalists' computers etc to exterminate excess apostrophes on sight".

Emboldened by this vigorous response I propose to set up - next to the Apostrophe Spikes - the Hanging Clause noose and, in memory of Frank, the Solecism Stocks. Thank you God, thank you. At last I know I'm not alone (collapses into grateful sobs).

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