Merry Christmas to You and Your Lovely Dead. (And b*ll*cks to moving on)
At a recent media awards dinner, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown mentioned to fellow journalists that she’d be moderating a discussion about public grief and memorialisation later that week. She named me too, as one of the panellists or perhaps as co-curator of the wider event, a new Death Festival. The panel also featured Feruza Afewerki, who responded to losing her sister and niece in Grenfell Tower by creating Gold & Ashes, a photography project documenting the terrible, avoidable losses of that conflagration: 72 lives cut short; homes and hopes destroyed. I would appear for Covid Bereaved Families for Justice, a grassroots organisation founded by two strangers who met online after their fathers died in the pandemic. Their Facebook page grew into a forum celebrating the dead and a campaign group pushing for goals including a meaningful Covid inquiry.
Here’s how one of the journalists responded to Yasmin: “Catherine really should stop going on about this,” he said.
This meaning not just the fact of loss, but the why of loss.
This meaning my beloved Andy. And my stepfather. And my other lovely dead.
Anybody who has experienced a bereavement will be familiar with the injunction to move on, chin up, within months, sometimes days of a death. Family, friends and the barest of acquaintances urge us to romp through the stages of grief. You’ll get over it (translation: do hurry up.) Time is a great healer (ditto). Stop going on.
When I asked on social media for personal experiences of this phenomenon, a member of Covid Bereaved Families recalled that her doctor accused her of “neglecting [her] family and children by living in the land of grief”. Another said: “I was told, four months after losing both my husband and my brother within one week of each other, that I had to have a 'project'. Then I would have 'something to talk about’.”
Reverend Richard Coles, widowed two months before me, replied on Facebook. “A couple of days after David died someone told me to pull myself together and do my job,” he wrote. “And there are people whose embarrassment means more to them than your grief and they really want you to be fine.” That’s true. The advice often comes from a benign, if misguided, place, but some phrasings are too brutal to excuse. Over on Twitter, the legendary singer-songwriter Mary Hopkin answered my question: “Someone said to me ‘Ob-la-di, ob-la-da’ just after my sister died”.
Life goes on, brah / La, la, how the life goes on. That’s how the song continues. Life hadn’t, though. Whereas I’m apparently going on well beyond the bounds of taste and decency. Yasmin quoted the journalist as she opened the Death Festival panel. His words should neither have surprised nor, at this stage, bothered me. Yet pinioned in the stage lights, I felt sick. Might he have alighted on a truth by accident? Going on implies self indulgence. Had I lost sight of my lovely dead? Was I making this less about them and, shamefully, more about me?
I don’t think so. I hope not. On the other hand, criticism only hurts if it hits home. So…maybe.
All I do know is what Andy would say.
Friends often presume to speak for him. “Andy would want you to be happy,” they tell me. Hmmm. You think? Wonderful though he was, he’d surely appreciate some ongoing gnashing and wailing.
Right now, I can hear his voice as clear as day: Keep going on if you’re going on about me, he deadpans (a comic delivery he perfected while alive), then chuckles.
Andy wasn’t vain, but he took pride in his work as a musician and artist and wanted it to reach as wide an audience as possible—so I intend to keep going on about it, and him, for as long as I go on. In that spirit and as a Christmas present better than any I gave him during our three decades together, I’ve just launched a website that for the first time catalogues all of his music projects, more than 100 in total, with Gang of Four and many other artists and groups, albums and EPs and scores for film and television. Listings include listening links, anecdotes and memories. For anyone interested in the history of Gang of Four, there’s also this backgrounder on the conflict with former band members that preoccupied Andy to his last moment of consciousness and played out after his death.
I had to keep all this a secret as the dispute rumbled on. The situation weighed heavy on me, just as it had for Andy—precisely because it had weighed on Andy. Then, after well over a year, came a legal resolution. That meant less stress, less expenditure, a way forward, but what mattered more was the chance to give Andy’s perspective on these events. Finally, I could tell his story and move on.
The experience helped me to understand something about living with loss. Yes, we should ignore all the bad advice about ditching the dead. More critical still to regaining if not happiness then serenity is to shed the toxicities that cloud our grief.
It’s not always possible to do so. For the traumatised families of Grenfell, or those bereaved in the pandemic, deprived of the chance to sit with their loved ones, comfort them, take farewells, and others who lost those close to them in awful ways, there may be images too painful to yield to time or standard forms of grief counselling.
Nor can we move on just because it would be convenient to people in positions of power that we do so. Those bereaved by preventable tragedies cannot move on until justice is served, lessons are learned, or, at a minimum, questions answered.
That’s why Grenfell campaigners kept pushing until they secured a public inquiry. That’s why the Covid Bereaved Families go on about their dead, demanding answers and accountability.
I don’t blame the UK government for Andy’s death, too early in the pandemic for a certain diagnosis or any public health response to have saved him. I do have anger, and many questions, about what happened next, the delays, the corrupt procurement procedures, the disregard for the lives of clinically vulnerable populations and those in frontline jobs. And those parties, the Downing Street parties, as we grieved and kept to the rules the rule-makers trashed. How should any of us move on while those in charge cash in rather than accounting for what they did and didn’t do? While they cavort on reality TV and trouser huge speaking fees?
We can’t and we won’t.
So, merry Christmas, my dearest, darling Andy. I miss you and celebrate you every day. Hope you love your website as much as I do, and that it brings new audiences to your music. And apologies for continuing to invoke your sweet name in less cheerful contexts. I can’t wait to stop going on either.
Words and pictures ©Catherine Mayer 2022