Another of the great old gentlemen has gone.
My father had three sisters, all very glorious and splendid in their different ways. One of them was married to this kind, funny, generous man who has just left us.
He was old and he was ill. He was, I suspect, like my father, ready to go. He had run his race. There should be something fitting and right about these splendid old men going gently into the good night. And yet there is a tearing sense of loss and rupture. The world is not quite the world without them in it. The consolation that they are at peace is a thin gruel. He was one of those ones that filled a room, lit up people’s faces, made everything seem lighter and brighter. I had not seen him for some years but his memory burns bright, filled with fondness and warmth.
Now, when one of the old gentlemen goes, it is as if they are all going, all over again. The loss of the father, the godfather, the relation by marriage, the titan of my childhood – all is felt again, as fresh and urgent as if it has just happened. The heart aches and the throat closes up and the mind races furiously around, trying to find a good sense, a hymn of acceptance, a place to rest. No, no, no, says the racing mind, not that grand generation, which we shall never see again.
They were different from us, mightier in many ways, their virtues written in bold type. My lot, my boys, have talents that the old school perhaps did not – they are more attuned to domestic life, more fluent in expressing emotion, less afraid of plunging into what were not once considered the manly arts. They know how to rock a baby to sleep and cook a lunch and do the school run. (Although I still have at least one dear friend who, for all his modernity, looks at me sternly and says: ‘I don’t do feelings.’ And I tease him by talking about deep emotions and watch, laughing, as he desperately tries not to panic.)
But my father’s generation, the ones born in the war, had a dash, an élan, a scatter of magic about them. They were paradoxes: they had a certain reckless swagger, and yet they were masters of stoicism. I do like someone who can stare a serious feeling in the eye and get its measure, but I adore the flinty Blitz spirit of Getting On With It. Those old gentlemen Got On With It.
He was a lovely man. I think of his children, his wife, his many friends, confounded by loss. He will leave a space that cannot be filled. He will be remembered well.
As I rode this morning, in the bright Scottish sunshine, not long after hearing the brave voice of my aunt on the telephone, I thought of the old gentleman and committed him to the hills and the trees and the sky, as I always do. I give them back to the earth, these Dear Departed. I said, out loud, looking up at the wooded slope to the north: ‘I hope you have mountains and rivers, where you are.’
Then, as if sensing that I needed something marvellous, something fine and true, the mare gave me her most flying, floating canter. It was as light as air, as soft as love. It had all her grand thoroughbred spirit in it, all her athleticism and strength and power. But it was done with one hand on the reins, hardly the touch of a finger, so there was that impossible combination of the wildness of her ancestral voices and the control of her calm mind. It was so exhilarating that I whooped into the clear air, overcome with joy.
The joy released the sorrow, and I walked her back blinded by tears. I could not see where I was going, so I let go of the reins and let her guide me home to the gate. She knew where she was going.
I got off and rubbed her sweet forehead in gratitude. ‘Thank you,’ I said, aloud. She nodded, peaceful and unafraid. Sudden human cloudbursts do not alarm her. She, too, has the wonderful ability to Get On With It. The glorious old gentleman would have liked her, I think. They had something in common.