The Final Curtain
A lot of old friends died in recent years. What can one expect? I can no longer snap my fingers at the advance of years. The sell-by date has gone already. I have done my best.
Some of my mates had big send-offs. With some their families had the last word and kept their passing confined to the family circle. Sometimes, in Europe or in Northern Ireland, Catholic and/or Protestant relatives and atheist friends had to battle out their differences. Joe Thomas dying in his eighties of throat cancer, after sixty years of smoking forty cigarettes a day, told me on his deathbed that while that may not have helped, he blamed his employers of thirty years before, as he felt it was due to an old fall down a rickety flight of stairs. He expected an argument to the last. Being related to Britain’s No.1. evangelist, Dick Saunders and knowing that at any family ceremony where he couldn’t have the last word himself, his brother-in-law would take over, Joe instructed a private cremation with nobody present at all. But we gave him a send-off at a public meeting with anarchists, Marxists, trade unionists, atheist organisations and his old colleagues all present and not an evangelist in sight.
When Miguel Garcia died at the end of 1981, having come back from Barcelona one weekend to die in North London, the Irish sister in charge of the ward assured me she had “done everything for the poor man, and he received the Last Sacraments”. When I told her he would have been furious if conscious, she said with surprise he had chased off the Protestant chaplain so she naturally assumed he was a good Catholic, adding with a charming smile, “But if he didn’t believe in anything there wasn’t any harm done, was there?” I agreed, thinking that a Catholic end would at least have pleased his old mother who kept her religious faith in a separate compartment from her family beliefs. She had held secret Masses in her apartment in the Plaza Real, Barcelona, during the Civil War with a priest in lay clothes sneaking round each Sunday with the Sacraments in a briefcase to give communion to the old ladies of the barrio. It was an open secret, but, had the priest known, nobody was going to interfere with the assembled mothers and grandmothers of the whole neighbourhood, least of all when they had armed themselves against fascists and Moorish mercenaries.
Kitty Lamb went in her nineties, after a year of vegetation with Alzheimer’s disease. The remains of that ever burning rebellious spark received a religious service by her hospice before leaving, the social worker thinking she was just a lonely old lady. He was anxious when he saw the number of mourners at the crematorium included several Jewish friends, and was concerned lest he had given her the wrong passport to heaven. I told him not to worry as any vengeful ghost hovering around would be laughing her head off.
J. M. Alexander, who lived with her for many years, was murdered in his ‘sheltered’ flat two years afterwards. Always a campaigner for atheism, he was ironically one of the voluntary organisers for the campaign against capital punishment run by former barmaid Mrs Daisy van der Elst, English widow of a Dutch soap millionaire.
Leah Feldman died in her nineties, with a rally of anarchist activists at her funeral, and I went to Chicago to attend another gathering to scatter her ashes among the anarchists of the past such as the Chicago Martyrs, Lucy Parsons, Voltairine de Cleyre and Harry Kelly.
I deeply mourned when the young and beautiful like Evie and Audrey or the young and talented like Billy and Leo, went too soon. It is defeat for us all when people die in action in defence of their class or even as the result of industrialism. It is sad when people go before time, or to see a great brain like Frank Ridley deteriorate at the last of his 95 years.
Personally, I want to die in dignity but my passing celebrated with jollity. I’ve told my executors that I want a stand-up comedian in the pulpit telling amusing anecdotes, and the coffin to slide into the incinerator to the sound of Marlene Dietrich. If the booze-up can begin right away, so much the better, and with a bit of luck the crematorium will never be gloomy again. Anyone mourning should be denounced as the representative of a credit card company and thrown out on their ear. Snowballs if in season (tomatoes if not) can be thrown at anyone uttering even worthy cliches like “the struggle goes on” and should anyone of a religious mind offer pieces of abstract consolation they should be prepared to dodge pieces of concrete confrontation.
If I have miscalculated, as a worthy clerical friend assures me I have, and there really is a God, I’d like to feel if he’s got any sense of humour or feeling for humanity there’s nobody he would sooner have in heaven than people like me, and if he hasn’t, who wants in?