There are times in my life when I’m terrified of death. And there are other times that it gets bad. This January has been horrible. Of course, we were all knocked sideways by the news that David Bowie had gone and done one. For me he was the guy who had been blessed by my mother's disapproval as 'weird'. Like Alan Partridge I loved a Greatest Hits tape until I got to university and I began my formal education. Last year I read Paul Trinka's biography Starman, which only deepened my admiration for the man. His ability and nerve to simply walk away from his most successful creations and to reinvent himself, his technical accomplishments as not only a song writer but as one of the finest record producers in the business and his generosity in resurrecting the careers of people he admired, added heft to the image I already had of the polymorphous cocaine addled bonk-athlete and space cadet.
Although there was surprise, it was qualified surprise. It was the death of someone who had already survived an avalanche of drugs, super stardom and heart surgery. Like all deaths it had a quality of denial. Always waiting for the twitter hoax story to be released. Whenever anything truly awful happens, you go to bed hoping that you’ll wake up and it won’t be true anymore. Then Alan Rickman died. I’d seen him play Hamlet at Liverpool’s St. George’s Hall – not a great venue and he was a bit too old to play Hamlet at the time, but I’d enjoyed it a lot. I loved him in Die Hard and Bob Roberts. Then a mature student of mine died. He belonged to an evening class we’d done for about seven or eight years. He was instrumental in keeping the group going. Even when the body that organized the course went tits up, he organized everyone and found an alternative venue so that we would continue. In all honesty, there wasn’t much teaching or learning involved. We just chatted in English for a couple of hours a week and we became friends. It was horrible attending the funeral that was held in the local cathedral and was well attended. He had been a very active member of the local community and a headmaster of a local school for many years. Alpine choirs sang him to his rest and I stood outside in the winter sunshine and kept an eye out for people I knew. Any funeral is difficult and I don’t believe I’m going to make many enemies saying I don’t like going to them. When the coffin was loaded back into the hearse and everyone is standing around, unsure whether to go or when. Some people greeting each other, old acquaintances met once more. Someone who has taken the afternoon off work has to phone the office to make sure everything is okay. It feels like when we were kids and we played in the snow. Your hands freeze from packing the tightest hardest snowballs you can form and slinging them at each other. Your hands turn red but in the hurly burly, in the magic of the snow, you don’t feel a thing. It’s when you are inside by the radiator that the feeling begins to return that it really starts to hurt. That’s the part of the funeral I hate. Life is coming back. Death is not as big or as important. A quote I always use, from Northrup Frye I think but I honestly don’t remember, tragedy says we all die, comedy says life goes on. But really life going on is also tragic. The resumption of the ordinary in the face of death, in the face of loss and grief is the hardest thing to do. The day you wake up and find that the thing that happened really happened but you weren’t even thinking about it anymore. In a horrible coda, the next lesson saw another absence as another student had a death in their family. We sat and talked about it for a while, exchanged some memories, but we knew that we should get on with it. When it comes down to it, no matter what happens, we have to be a bit more generous with each other and get on with it.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.