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.