From Channel 46 News today:
From Channel 46 News today:
I got a shock phone call this morning to tell me of the death of the always lively and bubbly Jeanette Cousland – aka ‘Machete Hettie’ or sometimes ‘Machete Hetty’ – who appeared in this blog over the years.
She died 15 days after being told she had cancer.
On 21st September, on Facebook, her son Barry Martin posted:
2 weeks ago my mother Jeanette was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given weeks rather than months to live. She had been in good health until then apart from a bad back the last few weeks. She was just 54 the day before.
We are at home now and keeping her at peace. She has a great support team with me, my brother and Kirsty.
She is still with it and I can pass on any messages that would cheer her up. The family is still in shock and we are pretty devastated. Please do not call my mother just now: she is sleeping a lot of the time. Also not too many questions for me or Ricky as it can get a bit much. Please, she would not want people to be sad and always tries to make people laugh.
She is still with us now and we are trying to keep her at peace as much as possible.
Barry, Ricky and Kirsty, my mum’s best friend
The next day, her son Ricky Fyffe posted:
It is with a heavy heart myself and my brother Barry Martin have to announce the passing of our one-of-a-kind mum, granny and sister, Jeanette Cousland.
After an all too short battle with lung cancer, she passed away peacefully this afternoon at home with her family by her side.
After a period of mourning, we will update everyone on the funeral arrangements in due course.
Our mum will forever be in our hearts.
Jeanette’s last post on Facebook was on 12th September.
She lived in Leith, Edinburgh…
I suppose that I’m among the relatively few here who can remember singing the words ‘God Save The King’. There’s a famous newsreel clip of King George VI seeing off the young Princess Elizabeth (born the same year as Marilyn Monroe) and her husband as they flew off to Kenya. It was the last time that the King would be seen by the country or his daughter. That last goodbye took place on my 5th birthday.
I suppose that we knew that this Elizabethan reign couldn’t last forever, but now that it has ended and that we’ll once again sing ‘God Save The King’, it all seems surreal.
There are other royal families, other Queens, but if anyone for the last 50 years or more said ‘The Queen’, we all knew of whom that person was talking. Elizabeth Windsor, in all her 70 years on the throne hardly put a foot wrong.
25 years ago, we had the tragic accident that ended the short life of a princess who was known as the ‘Queen of hearts’, but, in the end, it is probably Elizabeth Windsor who has earned that title from most members of the country and her beloved Commonwealth.
That said, Elizabeth Windsor was not The Queen. The Queen was a role that she played to perfection, but we learned much more about the real Elizabeth Windsor earlier this year in that famous last video with Paddington Bear.
Back around the time of the Silver Jubilee in 1978, I was invited to perform at a VERY posh party in Windsor. It was in the massive grounds of someone called Mrs. Heinz. The quests included Rex Harrison, Richard Rodgers, David Frost, Gore Vidal…the list goes on….but the guests of honour were the Windsor sisters, Elizabeth and Margaret. With no media present, they could be themselves. To the music of Monty Sunshine and his band, the Windsor sisters danced with everyone… all evening.
The main thing I remember was how much prettier The Queen was in real life – real film star looks.
15 years ago, I lost the Queen of MY heart. My mother was just a year younger, just before her 95th birthday, and she died without warning. I was a zombie for some weeks, so I know what poor now King Charles III will be going through and he has new royal duties to attend to… I don’t envy him.
Back in 1901, the country must have felt the same way. Victoria had been Queen since 1837. There was a new king…Edward VII. He turned out to be a very good one. I’m sure that Charles III will be too. So…once again let’s sing ‘God Save The King’.
Earlier today, I heard some radio station playing the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper and its opening lines “It was twenty years ago today…”
I used to half-heartedly keep a diary on my computer. On a whim, I looked up what happened twenty years ago today… I have changed the names of other people and their locations…
Saturday 22nd June 2002 – Edinburgh
Shirley is trying to give up heroin. Her father is trying to give up chocolate.
In the evening, Shirley and I stayed up until 03.00am talking. She told me God gave her help immediately on three occasions she asked for help. She has a water container from which she swigs regularly during the day. I had presumed it contained water; in fact it contains Blue Star cider.
When she lived in Manchester, addicted to heroin, she was mugged by a tall black man and and a small white girl she knew. Without warning, the man kicked her in the chest. She went down on the ground and both started kicking her. She had been mugged five times before so she used her hands and arms to protect a pocket with only £2 in it. They stole that £2 but left her handbag and the other pockets in her jacket untouched – that was where she really kept her money.
Then I went back another year in my diary…
Friday 22nd June 2001 – Cambridge/Borehamwood/Clacton-on-Sea
I had lunch with a friend in Cambridge. It was her 16th wedding anniversary and I think she was feeling a little down.
She told me her son (aged 13) is still being bullied at school. The other week, someone pushed him into a bush. Her daughter (aged 11) says she has decided she is going to marry a rich man, take over her mother’s house, have children early, then her mother can look after them while she goes out and has fun.
“Good luck finding a rich man,” my friend told her daughter.
“You managed,” she told my friend.
“I didn’t know he was going to be rich,” my friend replied. “I thought we were soul mates.”
After lunch, I drove back home to Borehamwood.
As soon as I got through the front door, my mobile rang – It was the matron at my father’s nursing home. My mother and aunt (my father’s sister) had walked in to see him and found him lying back with his mouth open, apparently not breathing (and, as I later found out, his false teeth dropped down from his upper gum) with a spoon in his hand and a bowl of jelly in front of him. My aunt, a former nurse, found he had no pulse.
The nursing home matron was up in the room within about a minute and found he had a strong pulse but, by this time, both my mother and aunt were in tears.
I drove out to Essex from Borehamwood in the early Friday evening rush hour – it took about 2 hours 45 mins instead of the normal 90 minutes – to find my father looking dramatically thinner, I thought: bonier than he had been when I saw him yesterday afternoon. I got there around 1830 by which time my mother and aunt were dry-eyed but still twitchily upset. I drove them back to their homes around 1900 – my mother broke down in my arms – and then I went back to the nursing home where my father was asleep. When I had left, I had told my father:
“I’ll be about half an hour.”
“You’ll be back – and the boatman?” he asked me.
When I got back and he was awake, I asked him if he felt hot.
“I really don’t know,” he replied.
My father’s wedding ring was found on the floor below his bed this morning. Because he had lost so much weight, it had slipped off his finger.
I tested positive for Covid-19 on the morning of Christmas Day.
It is 1st January now, a new year and I’m still testing positive…ho hum.
I had a dream last night. I was in the front room of my house with an unknown woman, watching a feature film from the 1950s.
Through the window, I saw this man who looked like a 1940s/1950s ‘spiv’ coming to the front door.
I said to the woman I was with in the front room: “There’s a spiv coming to the door”.
She looked out the window but could not see him, so I went out of the living room into the hall, then into the front porch and he just pushed through the letter box some ordinary leaflets about something I was not interested in.
I went back to watching the feature film with the woman.
For some reason the TV set was now on the floor and the woman had become six inches high and had pink hair, as young children’s dolls do. She told me she wanted me to hold her hair as she coiffured it. That was the word she used. Coiffure.
“I want to coiffure it,” she said.
She moved a small, padded stool over to near the wall, but this entailed turning the television round. We could still see the screen, but the TV set itself had been turned round.
The woman sat so close to the wall, though, that I couldn’t both hold her hair while she coiffured it AND continue to watch the television. Also, she was six inches tall, which complicated things. So I got another small, padded stool and moved it to the middle of the room and told her: “I won’t be able to do your hair so close to the other wall.”
So I turned the TV set round again.
I had to lift it up then put it down in its new position.
It was sitting in a low, one-inch-high wooden frame.
At least, that was what I intended to do but, when I was about to start, some more people arrived at the front door.
They were trying to tell me my back garden was in a mess and that I should buy a top layer of grass from them.
“Turf. That’s the word,” one of them said to me.
“Life is turf,” I told him. That is what I told him.
There were about three of them. I knew they were con artists and told them: “I like my back garden to be in a mess.”
The first man started lifting up the turf with his foot. One of the other men was holding some 6ft high poles. There were about six of them. The poles. Six round poles, each one the girth of a small man’s waist.
I thought I would try to confuse the men at the door.
“I don’t need any more poles,” I said. “I already have some. I was thinking of painting them. One can be red, white and blue for Britain. One can be red, white and blue for France. And I can probably get the German flag in there somewhere. I think if I paint one black, it would be very effective.”
I said this because I thought it would confuse the hell out of the man holding the six tall poles. And the others.
Then the woman I had been in the front room with came out to see what was going on. She was her proper height again.
It was now dusk or just after dusk. It was quite dark, so the gardening people went away, duly confused.
But now there was a man at the bottom of the front garden who was allowing people to come in and offer their services to all the people who owned local houses.
I thought: This is very strange.
He was supposed to supervise them, but he was just letting anyone in who wanted to take a photograph.
Well, nothing wrong with that, I thought.
And then I woke up.
That was last night.
That is true.
Well, OK, that is not true.
That was a dream I had on the 30th August last year. But I thought I would share it now. I muttered it into my iPhone, half awake, just after it happened.
And the heading of this blog is not true. When I was a teenager I did not dream I would die this year.
I worked it out logically when I was awake.
Back then, in the mists of the time when I was younger, I looked at the average life expectancy for an ordinary person. And I worked out that this would be the year I would die. I figured, all things being equal, I would die sometime in the 2020s and, if I were dead-on average, then 2022 would be the year I died.
We shall see.
Well, obviously, maybe I won’t. See.
But – hey! – life is but a dream…
This is rather long but, if you can’t be selfish in your own blog, where can you be?
We are in coronavirus lockdown at the moment and yesterday was VE Day, so death is in the air.
Yesterday I posted a photo on Facebook – of my parents on their wedding day in 1946.
A couple of people said I was the living image of my father. I always think I look nothing like my father but loads of people say I do.
They were very good parents. They did everything they could to be kind to me and to bring me up well with Calvinist morality. We were Church of Scotland in Aberdeen but, when we moved to Ilford in London, the nearest Church of Scotland was about 3 miles away, so we went to the local Presbyterian – very low – church. All my character flaws and faults are mine, not theirs!
My Scottish father was bizarrely born in Liverpool. His father was a Scots merchant navy captain and was based in Liverpool. He died when my father was 3 years old, at which point the family moved back to Wigtownshire in SW Scotland,
When my father was 15, he ran away to join the Royal Navy. I am a bit vague about his exact age but, whatever it was, it was one year before the age he could legally enlist so they rejected him. A year later, he re-applied and was accepted, just in time for the Spanish Civil War in which – allegedly – the UK was not involved. Although my father remembered his ship dropping men in civilian clothes off the Spanish coast who were then taken in small dinghies to land.
In the Second World War, he was based in Malta on the cruiser Aurora, whom the Italian press nicknamed ‘The Silver Phantom’ because it would attack then disappear.
My father was a very calm and quiet man but, after he died, my mother told me he had once, in Clacton, where they retired, had a panic attack in the small toilet in their bungalow. They had a small self-contained toilet room next to a bigger bathroom.
He had been a radio operator during the War and, on one occasion, the Aurora was under attack. He was down in his radio room in the bowels of the ship, totally isolated, with no way out if the ship started sinking and all he could hear was the sound of explosions magnified in the metal ship and all hell breaking out unseen around him. He re-lived that terror, isolated in his tiny toilet room in Clacton.
After the War, he serviced marine radar on fishing vessels around the Scottish coast. In the mid-1950s, he had been isolated in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Aberdeen then got employed by a company called Kelvin Hughes.
We moved down to Ilford when he got employed at their main factory in Hainult.
In the early 1960s, because of the places he had to visit, he had to be ‘positively vetted’ – after the defection of Kim Philby. I remember him telling my mother they had interviewed his masters at secondary (and possible primary) school.
He died of cancer, alone, in the gloomy-lit back bedroom of a nursing home in Clacton-on-Sea. I was there and watched him die in 2001. I spoke to him, but I don’t think he knew I was there.
I posted the blog below in June 2014.
In recent weeks, I have been posting extracts from my 2001 diary about the period when my father was dying from cancer.
I previously posted a shorter version of what follows in November 2011, when Apple boss Steve Jobs died. I think this one has a better ending.
Saturday 23rd June
My father’s mind was on another planet. He did not recognise the nurse when she came in. He could not recognise words said to him. It was not that his ears could not hear them; it was that his brain did not recognise their meaning.
Sunday 24th June
When we visited my father this afternoon, he was unable to communicate, staring blankly into the middle distance.
Monday 25th June
My father told the nurses he felt pain this morning. So he will now be given an extra daytime tablet with a morphine-element in addition to the one he is given in the evening. His eyes stared, as if at something faraway and long ago. As I left and put the trolley tray by his bed, he looked at me and said: “There’s something not at all right with me.”
Tuesday 26th June
I had a 2-hour medical check-up in a BUPA building near King’s Cross.
London was sweltering in extraordinarily hot weather, but inside the building it was cool and relaxing. Later, I sent an e-mail to my friend Lynn, saying:
They say I’m getting into the start of being dangerously overweight and VERY slightly too cholesterolly. I do wonder if it was really necessary for the short Chinese gent to put his finger up my bottom to test for Prostate Cancer. Surely there must be another way to do this or was he just ‘avin’ a larf?
I phoned my mother around 6.00pm and she told me that, when she had visited my father in the afternoon, there had been no response to anything she or my aunt (his sister) said. His eyes were open but staring ahead. “I think he was drugged up to the eyeballs,” she told me. “I don’t think he’s in any pain.” (Later, the matron told me the medication he was on was not that strong and that they had not given him a daytime tablet to avoid making him zombie-like.)
At around 8.30pm, I was mowing the grass on my front garden. The matron phoned me on my mobile phone to tell me my father had deteriorated very badly and I arranged to leave at 10.00pm, to get to the nursing home around 11.30pm, telling my mother I was getting to her home in Clacton at 1.00am and not to wait up for me. I was going to see how he was at 11.30pm and decide what to do.
The matron rang back at 9.30pm to tell me the doctor had just been and said my father only had four to five hours left before he died, so I went immediately, told my mother I had been phoned by the matron and asked if she wanted to go to the home to see my father.
She said (quite rightly) No, with a sad, tired, tone to her voice, and I phoned her just after 11.05pm when I had gone in and seen my father briefly. I suggested my mother take her two nightly sleeping tablets and go to bed and I would stay with my father all night and phone her at 7.00pm when she got up. She knew it was terminal because she had told me where the undertaker was. There was some surprise in her voice when I phoned her:
“Is he still here?” she asked.
When I arrived, the nursing home’s night sister warned me he had deteriorated a lot since my mother had seen him this afternoon and warned me “his eyes are open”.
The first thing that shocked me when the door was opened, though, was the sound. I had never realised the phrase “death rattle” was anything more than a colourful phrase. It is an exact description. I had also thought it was a brief final sound rather than an ongoing sound.
It was a rhythmic, rasping sound.
His face was side-lit in the darkened room by a yellow-cream glow from a bedside table lamp sitting not on a table but on the floor of the room with old-fashioned floral wallpaper. It was bit like a Hammer horror movie of the late 1950s in slightly faded Technicolor.
His bed was behind the door and when I saw him lying there on his back in bed I was shocked again because his face was like Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream.
His false teeth were out, so his mouth was abnormally small considering it was open to its fullest extent, the skin between his upper lip and nose seemed wider than normal; and there was an indented line on his nose between his nostrils which, in profile, made him look like he had two noses.
He was lying on his back staring straight up at the ceiling with wide open, unblinking eyes as if he was shocked by something he saw on the ceiling. His head was tilted back slightly from his torso as if his head had been dropped into the soft pillow from a great height.
This tilted-back head, the shocked eyes, the open mouth all combined to make it look like he was frozen in a silent scream yet the sound coming out was a death rattle from his throat, as the air mattress beneath him made discreet little isolated cracking sounds presumably caused by the slight movements as his body made the rattling rasping breathing and his distended stomach rose and fell under the bedclothes.
The rattle was like a machine breathing through a very slightly echoey plastic tube partially blocked by air bubbles in water. I wondered if he was dead already, inside. It was as if his brain or heart must be telling his throat and chest to desperately gasp for air even though they knew it was pointless.
Towards the end, the rattle became less pronounced as the sound of the breaths within the rattle became slightly more human.
Towards the very end, the rattle slowly died out and human light breathing returned, getting gentler and gentler as his life ebbed away. When the breathing ended, I pressed the buzzer for the night sister.
When she arrived, there was some slight breathing again, but only for 40 or 60 seconds. For perhaps the last 15 seconds of his life, his mouth – until now rigidly open – partially closed then reopened three times, then his eyes slowly closed, his mouth partially closed and reopened twice more and he was dead, his eyes closed and mouth open. It was 00.35am and 22 seconds on Wednesday morning. I had arrived at about 11.03pm.
After he died, I went downstairs to the nursing home office with the night sister, whose father-in-law had died in the same room – Room 11 – of the same disease. I then went back up to the room where my father lay for 15 or 20 seconds during which time there were a couple of tiny surreal flashes through the window from the outside world.
When I went outside to my car, the black sky was flashing white with lightning. Every few seconds, the whole night-time sky was silently flashing white with increasing – but still silent – violence. On the drive back to my parents’ bungalow in Great Clacton, the flashes became whiter and more frequent and the thunder sound arrived. On the drive beside their front garden, small surreal white specks were being blown across the tarmac. When I got out of the car at my parents’ – now my mother’s – house, there was a neon-like flash of vertical lightning and a sound of rustling which continued for 60 or 90 seconds.
I took my bags inside the bungalow and then the rain started. Torrential rain thundering on the streets and windows and roof. Violent and angry rain.
It all struck me as unfathomably dramatic. My father’s death… then immediately the heavens in turmoil… then strong winds… then thunder crashes and angry, violent rain… As if the heavens, in turmoil, were protesting.
It reminded me of the death of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play.
I looked up the quote later:
There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
My father was a very ordinary man. Yet it was like the heavens were protesting.
Wednesday 27th June
In the morning, my father’s dead body lay on an occasionally cracking air bed in Room 11 of the nursing home.
People were talking about the dramatic overnight storm. The telephone lines had been cut at Weeley Crematorium but the fax line was working, so the funeral director could only talk to the crematorium by fax.
Thursday 28th June
The curate who will lead the service at my father’s funeral came round to chat to my mother.
“What was Harry like as a person?” he asked my mother.
“He was very placid,” she told him. “But if he was riled he would go through a brick wall. It would take an awful lot to get him riled, though.”
My mother partially broke down later in the day saying of the funeral: “It’s only his family that’s going to be there – only his family not my family.”
Almost immediately – within 15 seconds – the phone rang. It was her cousin Sybil ringing from Edinburgh to say she and husband Osmond (who is dying of cancer) would be coming down to the funeral.
Friday 29th June – Clacton
My mother partially broke down again in the evening.
“I’ve been worrying about this all day,” she cried to me. “When I said yesterday I had no family……. I’ve got you……. That was a terrible thing to say!”
Of course, when she had said there would be no members of her family at my father’s funeral, I had taken it the way she had meant it.
Her parents were dead. She was an only child. Almost.
She had had a brother. He died when (I think) he was aged 16 and she was 11.
Her parents had adored her brother. He was the perfect son.
My mother was born with no left hand – only a rounded stump. When she was a small girl, her mother told her: “Keep your left hand in your pocket. Don’t let anyone see.” She always hid her left hand from strangers.
Once, in the 1930s, she saw a man in a Glasgow street – she still remembers him clearly – leaning on the wall by an office doorway and she saw he “had exactly the same as me”. But he didn’t care if people saw it; he just behaved as if it was natural. “I wanted to talk to him but I didn’t,” she told me. “I wish I had.”
Before my mother married my father in 1946, my aunt (my father’s sister) told her: “I wish Henry could marry a whole woman.”
I was at a crematorium in Hampshire today. For a celebration of the life of my cousin’s husband, Michael. He was that seemingly rare thing: a kind, decent and gentle man. My cousin chose well marrying him.
When I left, within less than a minute of me switching on my phone again, there was a BBC newsflash that Nicholas Parsons had died, aged. 96.
And it started to rain.
I grew up watching Nicholas Parsons on TV. He played the upper-class and slightly up-himself ‘posh’ foil/neighbour to Arthur Haynes’ working class character/tramp in a ratings-topping ITV comedy show The Arthur Haynes Show, written by Johnny Speight (before he created Till Death Us Do Part).
So, as a child, I suppose I thought of Nicholas Parsons as the character he played – a bit of a posh bloke thinking a bit too much of himself. Sort of a cliché actor type, if you see what I mean.
Later, when I was living in a bedsit in Hampstead, I guess in the early 1970s, there was a story in the local Hampstead & Highgate Express about some girl who had been sexually attacked on Hampstead Heath and afterwards she went to the nearest house she found which, as it happened, was Nicholas Parsons’ home.
My memory is that she was effusive about how wonderful and helpful, how kind and considerate, caring and efficient he was, helping her with the police and so on.
I always thought much more of him after that – he was not just some posh sitcom actor/foil on a television show but a good person – a human being.
A few years later, I was working in the on-screen promotion department at Anglia TV in Norwich, where he fronted their big ITV ratings-getter Sale of the Century. (It was getting over 21 million viewers weekly.)
One way to rate TV ‘stars’ I always found was that, if they ate in the canteen with the plebs and the canteen ladies liked them, then they were OK as human beings. The canteen ladies at Anglia TV always liked Nicholas Parsons. (A parallel was Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, early in their careers, in the Granada TV canteen in Manchester.)
One day, Nicholas Parsons came into the promotion office at Anglia TV and, for the life of me, I can’t remember why – I think maybe he was asking advice or plugging some travel project he had – but he – the big Anglia and ITV Network star – was, as ever, amiable, modest and charming – not in a schmaltzy showbiz promotional way but in a genuinely normal person-to-person way.
His image was, I suppose, of a constantly-smiling, slightly cheesy, always ‘on’ old style showbiz star.
But, on the two occasions I briefly met him in the flesh, he was anything but that. He was, if I have to choose a naff but exactly true term, a ‘real’ person. It was impossible not to like him.
The second time I briefly met him was when he was a guest on Janey Godley’s Chat Show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007. I met him on the steep stone steps behind what had been the old Gilded Balloon, was at that time The Green Room venue and has since gone through various names.
He was, again, a charming, keen-to-please and keen-to-be-helpful, slightly frail gentle man. (He was 83 at the time and I thought to myself: He is going to pop his clogs soon… That was 13 years ago and he was still going strong last year!)
As a result of being a guest on that show, he – the seemingly definitive comfortable ‘Home Counties’ man – and Janey – the definitive tough wee East End Glaswegian – seemed to bond because, as I understand it, his parents had sent him to do manual work in the Glasgow shipyards in his youth to ‘toughen him up’. As a result, despite his image as ‘Home Counties Man’, I think he felt an affinity with working class Glaswegians.
Janey turned up multiple times later both on his own Edinburgh Fringe chat shows and on his long-running BBC Radio 4 show Just a Minute. The BBC tried the format on TV in 1999, but it didn’t catch on there. It has been running on radio since 1967.
On her Facebook page this afternoon, Janey posted this tribute to him:
#NicholasParsons was one of the very few old school iconic comedians/presenters who was very much invested in new and young comics at Edinburgh – he came to see our shows and spent time getting to know us – he was one of “us” he loved stand up.
The sheer delight knowing that Nicholas was in your audience was something that “lifted” our spirits at the Fringe – despite his age and workload he came to see HEAPS of comedy shows and sat and chatted with us afterwards – nobody else that famous did that for us.
He took time with new and emerging comics and always was generous with his time. We were used to famous faces at the Fringe but Nicholas was that guy who sat in a tiny hot room and laughed and cheered you on. And for that I will always love him
That is Janey’s opinion.
TV chat show host Graham Norton Tweeted this afternoon: “Nicholas Parsons was truly the kindest and most generous person I’ve ever worked with. His continued delight at being a part of show business should be an inspiration to us all!”
I can’t say, personally, that I have ever warmed to men as a species. I’m more of a cat person. Cats have a nobility and (if you feed them) an amiability that is usually sorely lacking in men.
So it is a very great loss when genuinely decent gentle men die.
Nicholas Parsons had three wildly successful, long-running, overlapping showbiz peaks – The Arthur Haynes Show, Sale of the Century and Just a Minute – and, quite rightly, memories of him are splattered all over TV and radio news, in print and on the internet.
My cousin’s husband Michael – whose memorial celebration was packed to standing room only in a small Hampshire town today – tried to follow the philosophy of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius:
“It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.”
Michael lived his life to the full and added to it the other key ingredient: kindness. I think he and Nicholas Parsons shared that.
At the end of the celebration of Michael’s life today, the poem One At Rest by that prolific writer Anon was read out. It ends:
“And in my fleeting lifespan,
as time went rushing by
I found some time to hesitate,
to laugh, to love, to cry.
Matters it now if time began
if time will ever cease?
I was here, I used it all
and I am now at peace.”
RIP Michael and Nicholas.
Or, as the Tralfamadorians would say:
So it goes.
I buggered my back two Mondays ago. Well, it’s an old, unrepaired spine injury, I blogged about it.
After osteopathic attention, it was sort-of mending this week.
Lying on the floor and walking a lot both help – not simultaneously.
But I also have a bad cough. And, yesterday afternoon, a coughing fit must have dislodged something and I was in agony again.
The bad cough thing involves mucus in the nose and throat which may explain what happened in my mind at around 5.00am this morning, in that strange semi-consciousness time between sleeping and waking and dreaming.
I couldn’t move much because it resulted in multiple phantom scimitars being sharply shoved into the base of my spine and I was lying there listening to myself breathe through light mucus muck in my throat. A hoarse, throaty, liquidy, breathy, inhaling-through-water sound like listening to my own death rattle.
In 2001, I sat in a dimly-lit room for 45 minutes – or it might have been 90 minutes, I can’t remember – listening to my father’s breathing as he died. Just the two of us. His death rattle went on for the whole time.
So listening to my watery/throaty breathing this morning, pretty much unable to move, was like lying there listening to my own death rattle.
Which is something I would like to do twice…
Well, the first time would be interesting… just a flash forward to what it would be like to die…
The second time, I would not really care whether I heard it or not.
It seems such a pity to miss experiencing your own death with all your senses which, I guess, many or most people do. I think the doctors pump you full of morphine to kill you off if they are certain you are going to die fairly soon… Better, they think, to have ‘a quiet death’ than all that throaty rattling sound.
Anyway, I did not die, of course, and my eternally un-named friend came up to Borehamwood this afternoon to see me, bringing stewed apples.
As dusk set in, she asked: “Are the bats still here?”
“Bats?” I asked.
“There used to be bats in that big hedge/tree thing…”
“Were there?” I asked. “I don’t remember.”
“You seldom do,” she told me.
This is true. I have always had a shit memory.
A few days ago, my friend Lynn (not to be confused with Lynn Ruth Miller) told me that she and I had gone to some sort of premiere screening of Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil.
According to Wikipedia – always correct on factual detail – this must have been in 1985.
I have absolutely zero memory of this.
But, then, once I mentioned to Lynn that, although I had worked on the children’s TV programme Tiswas when Sylvester McCoy had been semi-regularly appearing on it, I had never seen him perform live on stage.
“Yes you have,” she said. “You’ve seen him perform in West End plays at least twice. You went with me.”
…or she might have said “three times”… I can’t remember…
Anyway, when she said it, I then did vaguely remember having seen him on stage in Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. This seems to have been in 1981.
That was a long time ago.
Anyway, back to bats…
As my eternally-un-named friend and I stood in my kitchen tonight, with dusk setting in, she said to me: “Unlock the back door.”
The aforementioned bush/tree is close to my back door.
“Give me two 5p pieces,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “They have ribbed edges.”
“The bats?” I asked.
“The coins,” she said. “If you rub the edges of the coins against each other, the bats can hear it… It summons them.”
“Rubbing two 5p coins together?”
“Any coins with ribbed edges.”
She rubbed the two coins together.
A bat shot out of the bush/tree and swooped round in a circle.
“Does this mean bat shit on the grass tomorrow?” I asked.
“They usually go a lot faster…” said my eternally-un-named friend.
“That was pretty fast,” I said.
“…and they do a figure-of-eight,” she continued.
“Why do they do a figure-of-eight?” I asked.
“Well,” she conceded, “maybe they don’t do a figure-of-eight, but it looks like a figure of eight. They go really fast. That wasn’t. That was just a circle.”
“Surely,” I suggested, “if it looks like a figure-of-eight, then it IS a figure-of-eight.”
“You are just being difficult,” she said. “It’s going so fast that, if you try to take a photo, then it looks like a figure-of-eight in the photo. But I’m not really sure. Alright, I am now guessing… You are so annoying.”
When we shut the back door, we found there was a daddy-long-legs in the kitchen.
That is another story.
I won’t tell it.
But the daddy-long-legs survived.
Journalist, comedy critic and charity-founder Kate Copstick is currently in Kenya.
She is, once again, working there with her charity Mama Biashara.
Here are the latest extracts from her journal.
Fuller versions are posted on the Mama Biashara Facebook page.
Friday 26th April
We head for Mutalia, near Ruai, to visit the family of Moses who died of meningitis last Monday, aged 12. Mama Biashara buys him a coffin. And coffins are important in Kenya.
We were with Moses in 2010, when he arrived at Felista’s suffering from extreme malnutrition. His baby brother had a serious chest infection, his sisters had infections in liver and spleen and his big brother had a growth on his back.
Their ‘father’ had abandoned them after their mother died. That was 2010. Their great uncle took them in when they left Felista and Mama Biashara paid school fees and bills. Now the children are with their great aunt. ‘Great’ both in the sense of being their great uncle’s wife and ‘great’ in looking after them when she herself has very little and four children of her own. They call her mum.
All the children flourished. But Moses was the little academic star. He was always No 1 or No 2 in his class. He wanted to be an engineer. He was so much fun. Lively and lovely. And now he is dead. Science tells us we are all stardust, but Moses, more than most. I hope that wherever he is, whatever he is, he is shining brightly.
The market is full of people worrying about the Chinese invasion, new taxes and getting angrier by the second at a government that borrows vast fortunes to build roads while people starve. Everyone – even the Kikkuyu – is finding some happiness in the fact that the president has just come from a trip to China without the extra extra extra loan he went asking for.
“The Chinas say No. I am very happy,” says one of my pals and we all nod vigorously.
The personal debt of each individual Kenyan is calculated to be just over £1,000. Much more than a huge percentage of them see in a year.
Now, do not get me wrong. I am a HUGE fan of their cuisine, the noodle is my staple food. I am in awe of their State Circus and their religion seems lovely. I personally do not have a phone made there, but many of my best friends do. However, the Chinese have all but destroyed the Kenyan fishing people in Lake Victoria.
Our ladies (and men) who were doing SO well for many years have now returned to prostitution, Doris says.
What happened was this.
The Chinese came, at the invitation of the Kenyan Government, they saw, they liked the tilapia and the tilapia business. They bought entire boatloads of fish, removed the eggs, shipped them back to China and now China farms Lake Victoria tilapia and sells it back to Kenya where it is bought, frozen, sold in supermarkets, because it is much cheaper than the fresh stuff which comes from Lake Victoria. And the Kenyan Government allows this to happen. The Kenyan fishing people of Lake Victoria are collateral damage.
Tuesday 30th April
Today is Moses’ burial.
Langata Cemetary is huge and we are over at the back amongst what Felista tells me are temporary graves for those who cannot afford permanent resting places.
There is a huge crowd. People from the school, people from churches and I have no idea who else. Also a couple renting out chairs, a bloke selling peanuts and someone setting up a little stall selling soft drinks and snacks just behind the seating area.
We take our places and, as a tiny, shiny little man in a shiny suit welcomes us, there is much clanking as scaffolding for a gazebo tent is erected and the coffin placed underneath.
I am invited to sit with the family which is very touching and a great honour. Dinah has pretty much arranged everything and I think it is due to her that so many have come.
The proceedings start with the tiny, shiny man explaining that we should all be rejoicing because this was God’s plan for Moses. I am thinking that, if it was, it was a rubbish plan.
We then sing for around ten minutes about how great the Lord is and how wonderful/excellent/glorious/powerful/great/amazing/fabulous is his name, clapping and doing that step-dig step so beloved of the Four Tops.
Then there is a lovely, lovely bit where people come up and talk a little about Moses (including, in an unexpected turn of events, me).
Dinah spoke wonderfully and some kids from the school sang. But, apart from that, it was like an extended episode of Nairobi’s Got Pastors.
There were about six or seven of them, welcomed to the microphone by the tiny, shiny man who has missed his vocation as a comedy club MC because he really whipped up the applause for each pastor. And the pastors’ wives. And every church elder who was with us. And anyone who ran a youth group, church choir or had at any time had anything to do with any church.
I understood about 60% of what each of the suited and booted septet was saying but no one really mentioned Moses.
They name-checked their churches and I wish I had counted the number of times the words Bwana Sifiwe (Praise be to God) were uttered because I think a record must have been broken.
I am invited to view the body. I say goodbye and wipe dust off the window covering him. Then there is a scramble for others to see him.
I have no idea who these people are.
There is more extended praising of Jesus’ name in song.
The family (and I) are surrounded by the suited and booted ones and prayed over with still no mention of Moses. And then we go to the graveside, marching, as we do, over dozens of unmarked graves.
Now things rachet up a notch with much howling.
As Moses goes into the grave, a brightly-dressed woman flings herself to the ground and threshes around shrieking. Most ignore her, but she upsets the small children.
It turns out that she is an aunt. The mother’s sister. It turns out there is actually a family who have ignored these kids for the nine years they have been with Mama Biashara. The shrieking one is a little late in her feelings for her nephew.
We stand as the grave is filled-in, which is horrible.
It is made even more horrible by a weeny woman with a bad weave who bursts into enthusiastic song about rejoicing.
She really goes for it.
For a long long time.
Praising the Lord, as dirt is shovelled over a dead twelve year old boy.
Mama Biashara works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. It gives grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. It offers training and employment in everything from phone repairs to manicures. It has built a children’s home, which it still supports. It has created water-harvesting solutions for drought-devastated areas. And it helps those fleeing female genital mutilation, forced marriage, sex slavery and child rape. It receives no grants and survives totally on personal donations (and sales at its shop in Shepherds Bush, London), 100% of which go to its work, none of which goes to Kate Copstick. She herself covers all her own personal expenses, including her accommodation costs and her travel costs.
So I had a blog chat with poet/comedian/writer John Dowie.
I was going to the dentist. We arranged to meet when I was finished.
“You might as well come to the dentist in case he’s over-running,” I suggested.
“Charming as your dentist’s waiting room undoubtedly is,” John Dowie replied, “I will be in this pub down the road.”
And he was.
He drank sparkling water. He wore a hat,
This is part of our chat.
JOHN FLEMING: Are you going to see Avengers: Endgame, the latest Marvel movie?
JOHN DOWIE: No, because I won’t go to a cinema. People talk, use their phones and eat popcorn. I can’t believe they sell popcorn in cinemas: the noisiest and smelliest food known to mankind. I resent the attitude of the people who own the cinemas: they shouldn’t sell popcorn. I mean, people are bringing in hamburgers and chips now.
FLEMING: Are they? Where?
DOWIE: I dunno. But they are.
FLEMING: You’re getting to be a grumpy old man.
DOWIE: Getting? I was always a grumpy man. Age doesn’t come into it.
I can’t function unless I’m in complete privacy, in an enclosed space with no distractions.
FLEMING: You must have had to in your erstwhile youth.
DOWIE: I had a bedsit and wrote in that. Or I’d sit in my bedroom in my mother’s house and write there.
I am now thinking of trying to rent an office.
FLEMING: It is difficult to write at home.
DOWIE: Yes. If you have a partner of any kind, just as you reach the moment where you think: Yes! YES! there will be a knocking on the door – “Would you like a cuppa tea?” – and it’s all gone.
I had a friend, Gary, who was a painting artist and he said it was always happening with his missus.
FLEMING: The painter’s wife from Porlock.
DOWIE: …or the unwitting girlfriend from Porlock.
DOWIE: To think it’s alright to knock on the writer’s door and ask if you want a cup of tea.
FLEMING: You should be publishing more. Your story in the excellently-edited Sit-Down Comedy anthology was wonderful.
DOWIE: Well, I’ve got an idea for another book. But it’s under wraps. It’s bad luck to talk about it before you’ve done it.
DOWIE: No, no. I can’t be fucked with fiction… But I did have an idea for a story… It’s about this woman dentist who has a new patient and he walks into the room with the most perfect teeth. She falls madly in love with this guy, but how does she keep on seeing him? There’s only one way: tell him his teeth are shit. So, over the course of a year or so, she gets him back for more appointments, taking out his teeth one-at-a-time until he has no teeth left… and then she goes off him.
FLEMING: You should call it Take Me Out.
DOWIE: …or Pulling.
FLEMING: Can I quote that idea?
DOWIE: Yes. I won’t use it. But I do have an idea for a new book – though I can’t write it until I’ve found somewhere to live. At the moment, I’m staying with my two sons and their mother. One of my sons is doing a show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.
DOWIE: Oddly Alike. My son is Harry Scott Moncrieff and it’s a two-hander with his mate Robbie Fox. Harry does comedy/magic wrapped around conspiracy theories. If he does it really well, they will kill him.
FLEMING: Or so he thinks… Why is he Scott Moncrieff?
DOWIE: He took his mother’s name which has turned out quite well, because he’s not cursed by association with my name as being drunk and abusive.
FLEMING: But Dowie is a famous name.
DOWIE: In Scotland it is… Dowie’s Tavern in Edinburgh…
FLEMING: I’ve never heard of it. But Dowie is a creative name. There’s you. Your sister Claire Dowie. And Helga Dowie whom I worked with at ATV, who’s a producer now. Your son should have kept the Dowie name. Three prestigious Dowies. How many Scott Moncrieffs are there?
FLEMING: Really? Was your ex-girlfriend related to the Proust Scott Moncrieff?
DOWIE: Yeah. And she can actually claim lineage from Henry VIII. All I can claim is a couple of ex-cons from Australia.
DOWIE: Nah! Dunno. Irish. My dad’s Irish, so… Well, there’s a famous John Dowie in Australia who’s a sculptor.
FLEMING: Oh! Is he related to you?
DOWIE: No… There’s another John Dowie who plays football. He is related.
FLEMING: Does ‘Dowie’ mean anything?
DOWIE: It means dull, dour and mean-spirited. There’s The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, a famous folk song.
FLEMING: So your father was Irish with a Scots name…
DOWIE: Yes. My mother was very scathing about the Irish.
FLEMING: She was Scottish?
DOWIE: No. From Stoke-on-Trent but she married my dad, who was from Belfast and she was always scathing about how terribly not-bright the Irish were. I once did a genealogy thing on her maiden name. It turned out she was from Ireland… I think I may get an Irish passport if Brexit happens.
FLEMING: A comedian has just been elected President of Ukraine. (Volodymyr Zelenskiy)
DOWIE: Yes. Swivel on THAT Mark Thomas! Never mind your NHS show. Look what a real politician comedian’s getting up to!
FLEMING: Can I quote that?
DOWIE: (LAUGHS) Yeah! Jeremy Hardy must be spinning in his grave. That could’ve been me up there on that podium! I’m going to the Jeremy Hardy memorial in May. He was very good, very precise and his death deserved all the press coverage it got.
It used to be that comedians were only jealous of other comedians succeeding. But then you write a book and you’re jealous that other comedians’ books are doing better than yours. Now, when other comedians start dying, you become jealous of their obituaries. Ian Cognito’s obituaries this month! I would kill for that amount of space!
FLEMING: I know. He was getting in mainstream papers…
FLEMING: Malcolm Hardee got very extensive obituaries in the quality newspapers because people in the media knew who he was, even if the public didn’t. But Ian Cognito! – I don’t think people outside the comedy industry itself were really aware of him. He did prove, though, that the best way to die is on-stage like Tommy Cooper – and/or live your life so OTT that there are lots of outrageous anecdotes to quote. Fame may die but anecdotes live forever.
DOWIE: That Hollywood Reporter article you posted on Facebook about John Belushi’s death was quite horrific. No respect. There’s a corpse being wheeled out on a trolly – Oh! I’ll take a photograph of that, then! – No. mate, don’t – And Lenny Bruce, of course. He died on a toilet trying to inject himself. He was lying naked on the bathroom floor with a syringe still in his arm and they were leaping up the stairs two-at-a-time to take photographs of him.
FLEMING: Apparently dying on the toilet is quite a common thing. Doing Number Twos puts a big strain on the heart.
DOWIE: I have ‘died’ IN some toilets.
FLEMING: Wey-hey! You still have it!… I should have taken heroin when I was younger. Look at Keith Richards: 75 years old and a picture of good health; his main risk is falling out of trees he has climbed. Wasn’t it Keith Richards who accidentally smoked his father’s cremated ashes?
DOWIE: He said he did; then he said he didn’t.
FLEMING: Always print the legend, I say, if it’s a good story.
DOWIE: The story I like is Graham Nash. After his mother died, he discovered that she had wanted to be a singer but was saddled with having to bring up children and having to work. So he took her ashes on tour with him and, every time he did a gig, he dropped a little bit of her on the stage.
FLEMING: What’s going to happen to you? Are you going to rot or be burnt?
DOWIE: When I buried my friend David Gordon, I found a natural death company with grounds and you can do what you like there. You can put the body in a hole in the ground or in a coffin or in a sack – You can do what the fuck you like – And then they plant a tree there. That’s what I’m going to have done – What kind of tree would it be? – I think it will have to be a weeping willow.
FLEMING: You’ll be happy to rot? You don’t want to be burnt?
DOWIE: I don’t like that bit where the doors close.
FLEMING: Like curtains closing on a stage…
DOWIE: …and no encore.
FLEMING: I think it’s more romantic to rot.
DOWIE: Also your body serves a purpose if you grow a tree out of it. Actually, I quite like the idea of a Viking funeral with the boat and the flames. But I try not to ponder on my own death too much, John. It’s just tempting Fate.