Cradled in its amphitheatre of hills under a cloudless sky, Bath’s signature oolitic limestone gleamed like gold in the low winter sun as Helen’s family and many friends gathered at Haycombe Crematorium for her funeral last week.
It was the best of days; it was the worst of days. Immense love merged with overwhelming sadness. I contributed to the humanist funeral service with a sonnet. It’s not very good, but in mitigation I will just say that the writing of any type of sonnet* in the year 2022 is in actual fact a work of genius if it contains coherent thought and authentic feeling. To anyone who disagrees, I can only suggest they try it themselves.
ODE TO HELEN
Death is not a journey or a passing,
Not a rest, a sleep or a stepping-stone;
An afterlife is just wishful thinking.
God’s a wicked lie. We are all alone.
Empty platitudes cannot be a fix,
Facile bromides are no consolation;
She has gone, to the elemental mix –
What remains is utter devastation.
Lost in grief, I ask “What would Helen do?
How can I live without her heart and grace?”
She would be sane, and practical, and true,
Put my self-pity in its proper place,
And urge me to stay radical and strong,
Never give up, and pass her baton on.
During the funeral, Helen’s all-encompassing love of music regardless of genre or period was well represented by the aria Un bel di, vedremo (One fine day, we shall see) from Madam Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), sung by Maria Callas (1923-1977), Couldn’t love you more by folk/blues fusion maestro John Martyn (1948-2009), and the trippy bigbeat electronica of Praise you by Fatboy Slim.
As my parting gift to her memory, I will contribute this fab example of late 1960s psychedelic pop from the Scottish band Marmalade. Having become the first ever Scottish group to top the UK charts in 1969 (with Beatles cover Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da) Marmalade had earned the right to start releasing their own songs, and they came up with the extraordinarily beautiful and powerful Reflections of my Life, composed by lead guitarist Junior Campbell and singer Dean Ford (1945-2018), which became a surprising world-wide hit in 1970. Featuring the original ideas and lyrics of real musicians playing actual instruments and singing with their actual voices, rather than today’s bland, recycled pop of autotuned posturing made on a MacBook, it graphically exposes the cultural cesspit into which dumbed-down masses have been plunged over the last 50 years. I’m not sure Helen would remember the song but that’s not the point; it is a classic example of what music offered to those who were lucky enough to be teenagers in the 1960s/70s before rampant turbo-capitalism commodified and monetised everything, destroying idealism, creativity and society itself, clearing the way for the rise of neo-fascism and bringing the planet to the brink of catastrophe. Deep green, socialist, hippies like Helen and I were right all along, and for me this song somehow sums up what’s been lost – via Dean Ford’s heartfelt vocals, Junior Campbell’s now-famous bravura ‘reverse’ guitar solo and the profound yet simple, poignant poetry of the words. Turn the volume up to max.
She was an extraordinary woman, so talented, so capable, so intelligent, so full of love and life. I am so proud to have been her friend for 40 years. She will always be with me. For now, I can only cry myself to sleep each night and reflect on the many memories of our life together.
*NOTE: This sonnet abides by the Shakespearean template: 14 lines of iambic pentameter, 10 syllables a line, split into three quatrains and a climactic couplet with the rhyming pattern ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG