The dead remind me to enjoy life

By Maureen Lipman, April 2, 2009
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I tottered out of another memorial service recently, face streaked with mascara, shoulders braced against the inevitable biting wind, uplifted by laughter and strung out by memories.

My chief concern was whether anyone would give me and my flimsy coat a lift to the nearest place where the stiff drinks were housed.

I don’t know exactly how many such services I’ve attended this year, but I can tell you that it’s five times the number of simchahs. Clearly, my age makes me susceptible to losing friends, and of course our children don’t get married that often, nor do our friends have barmitzvah-aged kids. Still the ratio is chillingly unbalanced.

This occasion was in memory of Sir Bill Cotton, a lovely man, former managing director of the BBC and one of its staunchest supporters. It was packed to the spire with hundreds of his devotees, and when a soprano sang Just my Bill from Showboat you could hear the teardrops hitting the pews.

“The Ukulele band of the UK” stole the show with their rendition of Leaning on the Lamp Post, as realised in Stalinist Russia, and Michael Grade was his usual, witty and warm self. “Bill and I went for a Chinese meal whenever he was facing any kind of trouble,” he said. “He preferred crispy duck to therapy.” Until he suddenly fell silent as the rising emotion in his chest forced his voice into a helium version of its former self.

I recognized it well, from eulogising at such occasions myself and nothing, but nothing — though you force yourself to think of dead puppies and massacred elephants — will stop the flow.

It was moving and tender, as though he was weeping for all of us.

I liked the story of Bill interrupting the Eurovision song contest dress rehearsal by storming into the producer’s office with three angry, robed and turbaned figures, claiming that the Albanian entry demanded their song be heard. Now, Albania was not a part of Europe then and the producer was in a pool of diplomatic sweat until he recognized all four of the contestants as personnel from Bill’s own office.

I never did a memorial for Jack, my late husband, because there were so many small tributes to him as the kids and I and groups of groupie Jack-lovers went around performing excerpts from his last autobiographical book, By Jack Rosenthal.

Still, one appreciates the stories corroborating his benign, wry nature, and I relish talking about him and my late mother Zelma in public.

Not every bereaved person enjoys such a privilege. Mostly, if a widow talks about the man with whom she shared most of her life, the most she can hope for, after a requisite period of mourning, is a parade of rolling eyes.

I’ve finally cut up all my memorial cards into a collage and framed it on my wall. My kids think I’m morbid, but they’d be surprised how often, gazing around the study for inspiration, the faces of my creative friends gaze back at me with a twinkle which, far from supplying the word or phrase for which I’m groping says: “For heaven’s sake, woman, get your tochas off the seat and go out and smell the flowers.”

    Last updated: 1:59pm, April 2 2009