Grief and Swifts

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The week has passed, garnering mixed reviews.

On Friday I went to Salisbury, to meet old friends, reminisce about past idiocies, and celebrate the life of one of our number, cruelly taken in December at just 51. It was a gloriously moving occasion, the cathedral filled with friends, family and colleagues, all wishing, in the nicest possible way, that we didn’t have to be there.

We were close, Robert and I, playing in bands of various persuasions (the last incarnation, Ménage à Trois, underwent a brief identity crisis when its membership rose from three to five) from our teenage years, until, in our twenties, real life intervened and Robert, at least, entered the grown-up world of ‘proper work’. I picture him, hunched over the grand piano in my childhood home, embellishing the chords of a jazz standard (Ornithology, say) with easy brilliance. When playing the slower tunes (a Ménage à Trois calling card was his wryly-named ‘Well ‘Ard Ballade’) he would weave, to borrow from one of our favourite films, ‘simple lines…intertwining.’ (You may not get that, but Robert would, and this is basically for him, so tough.)

He was a sickeningly talented musician, able to play any instrument you cared to throw at him. I, as drummer, felt most often like a particularly lucky onlooker. But while his love of music was deep and knowledgeable, it was the law that got the benefit of his profound and understated intellect. He graced that profession as he graced the planet.

Why, then, did I barely see him for the last twenty years of his life? These are the questions that torment us when it’s too late to do anything about them except give yourself a healthy kicking up the backside. There are reasons. Life got in the way, he moved out of London, our paths diverged, we lost touch. But really it was just pure fecklessness, on my part at least.

Do me a favour. Just kick my ass, ok? Kick this ass for a man, that’s all. (Again, Robert would get that.)

Heathen as I am, the worship parts of memorial services and funerals often leave me unmoved. They also make me burst with frustration at the vocal acrobatics required of any low baritone to sing the hymns at anything like the right pitch.


Two minutes into the anthem O Magnum Mysterium, the fine performance already given added serenity by the gentle lapping of water spilling from the font behind me (it’s a stunning font, by the way, like the whole cathedral – godless individual I may be, but even I get goosebumps in a nice church), there was a moment.

As if cued by a greater force, a force familiar with the easy malleability of human emotions, the sun came out, shining through the stained-glass windows and onto the pillar beside me, illuminating both building and music. It tested even my cynicism to the limit.

‘Nice try,’ I thought, ‘but I’m not your target demographic.’

Or maybe I am.

Afterwards, my old friend Seb and I discussed the injustice of a world in which good, kind, intelligent Robert is taken from us long before his work here is done, while feckless thug Nigel Farage (to take an entirely random example) continues to roam the earth apparently unfettered. Standing in an emptying cathedral, we were tempted to take a leaf out of Jed Bartlet’s book, and use the opportunity to launch into a healthy tirade against God.

If you’re not a West Wing fan (and I’m looking at one specific person right now – you know who you are), firstly: BE A WEST WING FAN. Go, right now, get the DVDs and don’t come back until you’ve watched all seven seasons.

Secondly (and here I could go on at great length) all you need to know is that Jed Bartlet is the President of the United States, and he’s, well, put it this way: the whole world could do with a Jed Bartlet in the White House right now.

Here’s the clip in question. SPOILER ALERT. The reason for the tirade is the sudden death, at the hands of a drunk driver, of his secretary and surrogate big sister Dolores Landingham. There’s a load of political stuff going on as well, but that’s all you need to know.

Tempting though the reenactment of this grand gesture was (and I’d bet even money we could both have recited the scene by heart), we managed to rein ourselves in, and opted merely for a glum ‘life’s a bugger, isn’t it?’ before going our separate ways with the usual avowals to keep in touch. Maybe, this time, I will.

Any large building worth its salt has peregrines these days. I didn’t see Salisbury’s, but as I walked from the station I did meet my first swifts of the year, about a dozen of them, storming around the meadows next to the Avon as if auditioning for a part in Top Gun. Glorious birds, their arrival as keenly anticipated, by two-thirds of our household at least, as Christmas. And the Salisbury birds were no exception. I could, and will, watch them for hours, standing gormlessly on the terrace and wondering at the miracle of their aeronautical agility and sheer stamina.

Superb as these birds were, summer hasn’t begun until our own birds, the ones that nest in the eaves of our neighbouring houses, have arrived. I hoped they might be waiting for me when I got back from Salisbury, but I had to wait until yesterday morning for their sickle shapes to enliven the leaden skies.

It’s great to see them, but I’m amazed they haven’t taken one look and said ‘You know what, old horse? It’s bloody freezing. We’re off back to Africa. Call us when you get some actual weather.’

I don’t know if Robert noticed the swifts’ return every year, but now they’re inextricably linked with him.

Go well, my friend.

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  1. I feel your emotion. I appreciate your ability to encapsulate it in words that are personal to you and your lost friend and remain amazed at your ability to make it accessible to the rest of us. Respect my friend.

  2. Lev-
    Finally getting a chance to read the “newsletter” you sent out in June, which I received in my email. I particularly enjoyed Grief and Swifts, in part because of the references to West Wing. I mourned when Jed’s term was over, as with Obama’s. Also, the atmosphere you create while you are in and outside Salisbury, thinking about how we lose track of old friends, the music, the lights…. Beautiful. Thank you.

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