Grief tempered by guilty joy

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The Independent Online
'No, not a hat. It may be held in a church, but it isn't a church service.' I am gradually learning the protocol of memorial services, with which one becomes increasingly familiar in middle age. The one I attended last week was a memorial celebration.

The life we were celebrating was that of the man born John Wilson in Manchester on 25 February 1917; who, by the time he died in London on 24 November 1993, was better known as Anthony Burgess. He was the author of 37 novels, numerous film and television scripts and several dozen musical works; critic, translator, librettist, biographer, pianist, cook. For once the word 'polymath' is no exaggeration.

The celebration took place in St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, popularly known as the actors' church. A tablet to Dame Flora Robson was set into the wall just beside my seat. The congregation looked like a hundred back jacket flaps come to life. The literary establishment had come to celebrate (perhaps more generously in death than during his lifetime) a man of prodigious energy whose devotion to language was unequalled, I believe, by anyone since Joyce.

The service reflected Burgess's vitality, humour and accomplishment. The humour was sometimes unintentional. A performance of his choral setting to the plangent poem In Time of Pestilence by Thomas Nashe was marred by a band in Covent Garden, just outside the church and all too audible, giving a rollicking rendering of the national anthem. It could have been embarrassing, but after a while the smirks relaxed into smiles. It just was hilariously funny: and Burgess - whose childhood was spent living above a pub - would certainly have thought so, too.

Recordings of his voice filled the church, disconcertingly, brimming with youthful vigour, as he read from Little Wilson and Big God, and his marvellous fictional biography of Shakespeare called Nothing Like the Sun, and Blooms of Dublin. Other excerpts were read by friends. It did exactly what memorial occasions are supposed to do . . . evoking the man we were there to celebrate with affection and clarity, bringing him among us for the last time.

Afterwards we shuffled into the sunshine of Covent Garden, past a gaggle of puzzled onlookers who had come to sit on benches in the churchyard and eat their lunch in the open air. A few cameras clicked, and then a coterie headed by Anthony's wife, Liana, his publisher, and those who had given addresses, made their way to lunch. I imagined them maudlin, bibulous, elegaic, and no doubt thinking: not my turn just yet.

It is the commonest, most secret response at funerals and memorial serices. No matter how sincerely one loved the dear departed, one's grief is tempered by a guilty joy at having survived. Milton reveals it in Lycidas; Matthew Arnold in Thyrsis, his lament on the death of Clough; in fact, the only poet I know whose elegy does not have that undercurrent of unquenchable life force is the 15th century William Dunbar, in his harrowing Timor Mortis Conturbat Me: Lament for the Makaris. Makkers, or 'makers', were poets in medieval usage, and Dunbar records with a heavy heart the death by plague of his contemporaries and peers. The poem is in the magisterial Oxford Book of English Verse, but you need the edition edited by 'Q' since Helen Gardner, who edited the revised edition in 1972, for some reason took out all those long-dead names. Their procession, tolling through verse after verse, was precisely what made it so poignant. The chorus is timor mortis conturbat me . . .

Death is the great taboo subject of the 20th century, as sex was of the 19th; though Aids has modified that in the last decade. We expect medical science to overcome death; to banish it; we expect all illnesses to be curable - if not now, soon, in due course, and with luck, in time to benefit us - and every life to be preserved. In America the area of research to which the greatest amount of money is directed (after Aids) is the prolonging of life. Many Americans confidently expect to live to be 150.

It seems to me that what matters is not how long the life is, but how vigorous, enjoyable, productive and interesting. Given the choice of two or three years brimming with activity and good company, or 10 lying pale and prone in bed, I would opt for the former any day. I know the quality of life ebbs slowly, so that constraints that might have seemed unendurable six months ago, with practice become quite normal. It is easy to pronounce in the fullness of energy; harder to be sure that one would choose death, undaunted.

I am ending gloomily, which was not my intention, and certainly not what Burgess would have liked. For an eccentric and glorious celebration of life, turn to his delectable little book The Eve of Saint Venus. On the day before a delayed but joyous marriage, the vicar makes a wonderful speech (it can be found on page 111 of the Arena edition, 1987), ending thus: 'Probably even the tortoise moves with a kind of leisurely impetuosity. And the air is full of the headiest distillation, chiming madly like bells. Venus has risen]'