Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Michael Shepherd

There was an obituary last Friday in The Times for poet, Michael Shepherd. This is more personal. Many poets, philosophers and neoplatonists fond of networking on the internet knew him. He was that bubbling, enthusiastic spirit who had something to say about everything, and often seemed to start saying it mid-sentence. He was the amused clown, the bounding puppy, the fund of knowledge, the devoted friend.

I first met him when I joined the group translating the letters of Marsilio Ficino. Michael had been there from the beginning. He was clever and knowledgeable, he was a tutor at the Royal Academy, a writer of obituaries for the Daily Telegraph. And you wouldn't know any of that, because what you had in front of you was a Santa Claus of a man, all pink cheeks and barely-suppressed smiles. Smiles and laughter constantly moved around inside his face eventually to burst out in a radiant shower of light. And then, naturally, there were times when he was depressed. He spent a good many years caring for his elderly mother. His loneliness during those years was alleviated by the invention of the internet and he spent hours on it chatting to so many of us. When his mother died, he grew very depressed indeed, but in that darkness the seeds of some great poetry germinated, and suddenly his internet friends were receiving sonnets, sometimes as many as one a day. It was a terrific outpouring.

David and I published a collection of them called 'When I Awaken to Myself' under the imprint of Godstow Press. These sonnets, we thought, were truly great. Others have thought so, too. Michael became a great hit on, and one of the last things he received in this life was a copy of a recently published anthology of great poets which included one of his poems. Michael, we all suspect, is destined for fame and glory once time gets around to sifting the wheat from the chaff of this petty and superficial age.

Funerals are a great way to judge a man's worth: Michael's was splendid. He had no relatives and was cared for since his stroke by friends. These friends and many others crowded into Mortlake Crematorium this morning. We were already laughing when we arrived, because next door to the Crem is the National Archive and the Recycling Centre - just the sort of thing to tickle Michael.

The funeral began beautifully with music from Discantus Choir and an address by Michael's friend, Rev Stephen Thompson. The roof nearly came off as we ripped into Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. Shirley Burch read Michael's sonnet 'That'. Clement Salaman, head of the Ficino translation group since its inception, gave a moving tribute, and then Arthur Farndell, translator of Ficino's Commentaries on Plato, and the friend who, with his wife, has cared so well for Michael over the past seven months, stood to give his tribute. 'Michael,' he began, and we all anticipated 'was' to be the next word, but no. 'Michael,' he said, 'how are you?' And there in Mortlake Crematorium, forty or fifty people were transfixed by this in-the-moment dialogue between two friends. Naturally we could only hear one half of it, but Arthur let us know what Michael was saying.

For instance, that Michael thinks that of all crematoria, Mortlake is one of the best. The Crem-de-la-Crem. Typical, the old punner lives!And so it went on, this funeral that answered my anxieties, expressed a few days ago on Facebook, about how to bury a Platonist. Answer: remind us that there is no such thing as death.

The Rev Thompson, finding himself in the company of so many philosopher friends, gave us - led us in - a prayer in Sanskrit and a verse from an Upanishad. Suddenly, not only Michael was with us, but Yeats and Eliot popped in to see what was going on. Surely it has to be most fitting that a philosopher-poet is sent on his way by forty or fifty people chanting, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti (Peace, Peace, Peace - see the end of Eliot's The Wasteland)

When I was planning my celebration for All Souls yesterday, I decided not to use the chinese lantern I had bought since a friend warned me that the metal parts choke cattle, but when I went to throw it away, I found I'd unwittingly bought a harmless one (brand - BoyzToyz). We've delayed All Souls by a day and will send it up later tonight, to wave not goodbye but hello to Michael.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Silent Lights

I went to bed early because I can't bear seeing in the New Year watching TV and would rather curl up with a book. Our bedroom window has a magnificent view over watermeadows stretching all the way to the city in the south. It was full moon, with the moon directly overhead sending out halos of radiance that illuminated the clouds and made house roofs look frosty. Through the patchy moon clouds I could see bright planets high in the sky, but over in the south west was a red, winking light. A plane, of course. I got the binoculars, which didn't help much, but after five minutes I decided I was looking at Mars and went and turned on the computer again.

Yes, Mars is bright in the south west at the moment, in retrograde and heading towards Cancer. Well, that explains much of what is going on in my life and I went back to bed resolving to contemplate Venus to temper her lover's malignance. It's a good book by Humphrey Carpenter on the Inklings, but I was soon asleep.

There was a gasp, as if everyone in the village said 'Oooh!' or 'Ahhh!' at once. Immediately the fireworks began. With a view like ours, the best place to be on New Year's Eve is snuggled up in bed and watching everbody else's fireworks. There were green ones and red ones, shooting ones and crackly ones, and of course exploding globes of light. But what was that? On the southern horizon, over the city, there was that planet Mars again, now travelling at a lick. I'd have decided it was a plane of course, except that it was followed by one, two, three, four, five, six others in close formation. Oh, now, time to call the husband, because there isn't much doubt any more. Alien spacecraft have come to see what all the fuss is about.

'David! Come up here! There are seven UFOs flying in formation.'

So he came and shared my vantage point and soon decided War of the Worlds was being played out over Oxford. Then, in the south west, one of them came very close. And what we were looking at, as bright as the star of Bethlehem, was a candle flame.

'A candle flame in a balloon,' said David. 'They've invented illuminated balloons.'

Well, clever them, because these are so much nicer than fireworks. I checked this morning and it's true. They are called various things - Lumi-loons, LED balloon floaters etc. You can see them on You Tube. I expect everyone has known about them for years, that they are the hot thing at every tacky occasion, and we're just out of the loop. But dear me, for ten minutes last night things were really very interesting.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Hill of the Red Kites

When on the news they say, 'Motorway closed due to accident' - what do they mean by 'closed'? There's nothing stopping you getting on to it and the only warning of possible trouble ahead is a flashing 50 sign. What there should be is a gantry on the slip road reading ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE - YOUR DAY/JOURNEY/LIFE IS F****D.

So we sailed on to the M40 at 11am, a wee bit late for our family reunion in Mill Hill, but nothing a few hugs and apologies wouldn't smooth over, and I'd phoned to say it might happen. Here's all the things I didn't do: charge the mobile phone; have the telephone number of our hosts; check the travel news; put a bottle of water and bag of emergency nibbles in the car; replace the empty boiled sweet box; install satnav (although that was apparently useless in the event); take up knitting and have my kit with me; put a really good book in my handbag.

In subsection 2 of Sod's Law it states that traffic jams always begin around the bend from the last possible exit. And so it was. We spent two hours inching towards the Lewknor Junction. Now, take away the anxiety, the disappointment, the worrying about what had happened to some poor person (he died, apparently, EIGHT HOURS previously, but then forensics move in), the horrified speculation of how much that person in the taxi is going to have to pay, and is he on his way to Heathrow? Take all that away, and the mounting desire for something to eat or drink as hubby munches his way through various no-no's, and it's a beautiful day. I have never seen Wheatley to Lewknor in such exquisite detail. Sheep as big as ponies in lush fields, opal clouds on duck egg skies, filigree trees and distant horizons. Villages we have sped past so often - we now begin to wonder what they might be called (Tetsbury and Postcombe). And then there are the red kites. Re-introduced about twenty years ago and originally a rare site, now they are common. You no longer say, 'There's a red kite' - you just start counting. I've managed seven as a top total so far. They soar, they glide, they take your mind off earthly matters. But this traffic jam is something else. . .

Sometimes I go trance like and cannot think where we are, or on which side of the chalk cutting. Then I spot the Stokenchurch radio mast on the top of the ridge before us and get my bearings. David has tried the mobile phone and found the battery is low. He calls 118 118 but it cuts out. We're jiggered. An elderly man in the next lane gets out of his car and opens the boot. It is stuffed with Christmas presents. He unwraps one and takes out a mobile phone. I feel tempted to go and mug him, but the only getaway is the hard shoulder and that's blocked by the cars of people taking a pee on the embankment. Still, I can see Stokenchurch ahead. All will be well. As the hours pass, Stokenchurch takes on the ethereal air of the ever-unobtainable goal. But we inch forwards, the land begins to rise, we are approaching the Chilterns escarpment.

Suddenly everything changes at once. David tries the phone again and gets through, gets the number off 118 118 and phones Stephen. Simultaneously, the traffic begins to move - it's all over. David decides with Stephen that we will press on, even though it's now 2 o'clock. Simultaneously I decide to come off at the Lewknor junction, because I'm no longer thirsty but parched to the point of running a temperature. We swing off the motorway and up a hill, looking for a garage. What we found was another traffic jam. At this point, I go on a wobbly. David calls it hysteria, I call it a momentary lapse into tearful self-pity. I have never been this thirsty. We turn back and decide to swap places. 'There was a turning just down here - a little factory or something.' There it is and we turn in. I put the car in neutral and got out, leaving the engine running. We were only swapping places. But David said, 'Do you want to stretch and walk about?' and believe me I did. 'Turn the engine off,' I said. And like a very good hubby he did exactly what he'd been told. I reckon what happened next was due to mutual negligence but apparently the fault's all mine. He turned the engine off and the car, in neutral, began to slide forwards. David tried to jump into the driving seat and missed. Half hanging out of the car, he began to whizz towards the factory wall, right into the corner. I stood with face in hands watching this disaster unfold in a state of suspended belief. This could not be happening. I'd wake up in a minute and find that the day hasn't begun yet. This is not my life. I watched what could be the maiming or crippling or death of David, and the end of Smudger, the car. But David managed to turn the wheel, even though he was hanging on to it. Smudge missed the factory by a whisker and turned into a neatly stacked row of pallets. The whole thing ended with a mild thud, a dented bonnet, and my rush to hug husband being repelled by his rage.

'Listen,' I said, after the lecture on where hysteria gets you, 'all I want is water, and I will knock at the next door to get it.'

The next door was a woodworking showroom a little further down the hill. We turned in. I got out. A plaintive call was coming from the tall beeches on the hill behind this little estate. This is where the red kites live, this is where they live and nest. I looked in the showroom, which seemed empty, and went towards the bungalow. A man came out. By now, barely able to speak for lack of saliva, I asked for water. 'Toilet?' he said. 'It's in there.' Everywhere on the veranda, in flower pots or on the walls, were messages saying 'Welcome'. It turns out that this family is very used to people off the motorway coming for help. 'Water?' said the sprightly lady inside. 'Have a cup of tea. And you must be hungry. Ryvita and cheese?' The son, who is the woodworker, helped David find something called a 'text' (OK I know what it is, just don't use it) on the mobile so that we could call Stephen for a longer talk/explanation from a landline, and to say that we were turning for home.

This is a very long story. I'll cut the middle. Michael and Ady made us so welcome. Within an hour or two we had more or less swapped life stories. We talked cats and heard the story of the rescued kitten who came to be called Florence. 'Our cat is called Florence,' we said. We learned of their misfortunes, which had led to the loss of house and pension and put them here, in a mobile home which now, clad with wood, has curiously taken root into the landscape. We told them what we did, and they seemed genuinely interested and asked questions. Now I wouldn't expect a woodworker of the Chilterns (who is, after all, an incarnation of the Wycombe bodger) to be interested in the Italian Renaissance. Well, that's assumptions for you. David went and got our box of books from the car. I presented Michael with A Tabernacle for the Sun in thanks for all that they'd done for us. He glanced at the book, his eyes went wide, he clasped the book to his breast. 'What is it?' we all asked. Ady crossed to him and prised the book away. She gasped. 'I'm a Proud,' she said, 'and I've never met anyone else with that name.'

She held the book and seemed to want to ask it a question. Out of that I learned that she was a spiritual healer. 'I've been looking for one of those,' I said. And so it went on, this extraordinary, out-of-time meeting with like minds and same souls.

When David was doing his death-defying stunt act, I was thinking, 'This cannot get worse - this is horror - this is not real.' When I was sitting on Michael and Ady's sofa drinking tea, I thought, 'This is real life. This is the life I know.' Somewhere between 11am and 2pm we went through a rent into a horrible world many people consider to be normal. Not for us it isn't. Normal life is magical, serendipitous and utterly unpredictable. Before we left, we visited the mysterious showroom. It was dark, strangely uninviting, just a shed really with a poker-worked sign saying 'showroom.' What we walked into was a vision of polished wood, mostly oak, yew and elm, great slabs of tree whose shape has dictated what they become - mostly tables - and your heart near burst from the beauty. When we finally drew ourselves away, we stood looking up at a circling, wheeling multitude of red kites, young males, apparently. They were just having a glide around in the air before bed time. It was their passagiata - the evening 'stroll' - a time to be seen, a time to stretch the wings and perfect the glide.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Down in the ole bayou

It's not ash at all, it's fine bonemeal that's pouring through my fingers, strangely light, strangely heavy all at once. This is my mother. . . 'Decay is where life begins,' says Rob cheerfully, sending the spade down into the muddy hole to churn in the bonemeal. The water rushes up to greet it. Nearby stands the tree in its pot, a taxodium or swamp cypress.

'Are you sure?' Rob had asked after he had briefed us on arrival, saying that this was a deciduous conifer being planted in a flooded river bank. 'Conifer? How seventies,' I thought. 'Only I'm very excited about this tree. There aren't many trees you can plant in water-logged land.' 'Is it nice and frondy or is it the Bald Cypress?' I asked. 'Oh, it's nice and frondy, but deciduous you understand. The thing is, in order to breathe, it sends up roots called knees which have air vents at the top. It pushes the environmental boundaries does this tree. I'm very excited about it. It will be a centre-piece of the new developement of the gardens. People will come specifically to visit it; it will be included on study tours. It will really stand out, your mother's tree.' I sought desperately in all this to find anything related to Sybil. Yes, she loved Waterperry Gardens, but she also loved primulas and apple trees in blossom, that kind of thing. A swamp cypress? I don't think so. As we walked to the site, I imagined her with us in livelier days (though she wouldn't have got far over that terrain with her wheeler), and her face has that look when she's determined to appear interested even when she hasn't a clue what you're talking about. All she wants is a cup of tea. . .

We arrive on site. 'Here we are,' says Rob breezily, 'the swamp cypress, and all around it will be snowdrops in spring for your mum.' This clinches it. Location, location, location. It is a foggy December day. The trees are dripping, the ground squelching, the river flowing. The site is near the pond I have long loved but never seen from this side. We plant the tree in mud. Afterwards Rob and Julian took us on a tour of the riverbank they are opening up. In his work there, Rob has entered the mind of the 18th century gentleman who designed it, putting a bridge here and a bridge there, each giving a different view, whether into the formal gardens or the natural, willow-lined landscape, and we started to get glimpses of how it had been and how it would be, a great Romantic vision of man in harmony with landscape. The ground is being cleared and the riverside walk restored. Soon there will be a Palladian bridge made of wood crossing the stream. So the taxodium will be bordered by little bridges and a pond, inhabiting its own patch with all its knobbly knees protruding. Well, Mum, it's a bit strange as trees go, but what a great place for a picnic!

Friday, 30 October 2009


Prato is about twelve miles north of Florence and it's a bit like going to the moon in preference to visiting the earth. But there is so much to recommend it, not least having the place to yourself, especially in October. We did mean to visit Florence - I had it down twice on my itinerary - but the charms of Prato and the peaceful life got to us.

We stayed in BB.Magico, which is just off the cathedral square. Being so central meant that no monument or museum was more than a ten minute walk away, which is about all I could manage with a fallen arch. It was a working trip - researching the life of Filippo Lippi - but we needed a holiday as well. I'd seen all the Lippi's by the end of the second day (or was it the first?) so after that I could just concentrate on being there. The Calvana hills are a backdrop to the city and one day we sat outside a bar looking at them in a severe rain storm. Only the English. . .

As the week progressed, we got deeper into the project. We'd asked where Lippi had lived but no one could tell us. Then, on Sunday evening and out on a fruitless walk to find somewhere open where we could buy something to eat, David crossed the street to read a marble plaque. 'Here lived Filippo Lippi'. I'd spent the week thus far making up the location, given the paucity of information - I'd got it wrong by about twenty paces.

Then we told the lovely Cristina, who lives on the first floor of the house we were staying in, what we were looking for, and she thought she knew someone who could help. Enter Simona, on our last day - a whirlwind of facts and information.

I haven't mentioned it before on this blog, but perhaps now is the time to come out. I anguished for a long time, once the trilogy was complete, as to what my next novel would be. A nudge from a friend sent me hurtling into the 1450s. It's a prequel, and the trilogy is set to become a quartet. Amongst other things, it deals with Botticelli's youth. I hope to be finished next year, in time for his 500th anniversary.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Sybil Grace Proud

I went in to say goodnight and she had gone. At least I thought she had. David wasn't sure, either. It's not as easy to tell as you might think. After this morning's rain, it was a very beautiful afternoon, a perfect summer's evening and now, at midnight, it's calm and still. We have a candle burning as we await the doctor. Tomorrow the storm of paperwork and phone calls begin, but tonight it is calm and quiet. Deep peace of the running wave to you, Mum. God bless.
It was this time last week when a visiting out-of-hours doctor decided enough was enough and put Mum on the Liverpool Care Pathway. This recognises that death is imminent and puts comfort as the top priority. Our GP gave Mum 48 hours. A week ago.

It seemed foolish not to spend the time anticipating the funeral. After all, when somebody dies you spend a frantic week making snap decisions, not always the right ones. This time I would be prepared. I do so love to be prepared. So over this week I've been devising a funeral to honour a lady who loved bright colours, laughter and large earrings - funky but not so funky as to be inappropriate. So I've trawled the net and researched coffins, urns, shrouds. I've discovered - to my horror - that I've lost my taste for hymns and find them maudlin and sentimental. I've also discovered that there's no such thing, apparently, as 'non-Christian hymns'. A 'non-Christian hymn', someone replied archly to just that question, 'is called a song'. So I've been through other people's lists of great funeral songs. I've thought of some of my own and discovered the joy of thinking of something and less than a minute later hearing it coming out of the computer. An idea of 'bagpipes playing Amazing Grace' presented quite a choice on YouTube but the Royal Dragoon Guards stood out as if their music actually had an extra dimension to everyone else's - kind of quadrophonic out of two speakers. And so I've had fun, learned things, had my mind blown. Then today, thinking about her smile, I began to conceive a powerpoint presentation of just that, Mum's smile. And then the grief set in.

It's all very well being prepared, but I'm now in full-scale bereavement while Mum's still breathing, and that is horrible. I want to wake her up, out of her drugged dreams and shout, Smile, Mum, for God's sake, just one more time. But no, she insists on playing the withered, breathing corpse, with lips drawn in and puckered over protruding cheeks and sunken gums. Rembrandt would have loved to draw her right now.

I suppose the chief merit of preparing a funeral is that you get the chance to get all cried out before the event. Then you can stand tall and impervious while everyone else sobs into hankies. 'Smile' will bring the chapel down - we'll be carrying 'em out on stretchers. Anyone left standing will be downed by Amazing Grace. I've been to too many funerals where my objective to remain dry-eyed has been too easily achieved. Not this one. I'll get 'em all.

Do you know, the music of Smile was written by Charlie Chaplin?