May 31, 1936 to August 23, 2010
To a funeral on a Cornish hillside in late summer sun with the smell of the sea, the rustle of leaf-heavy trees and the distant roar of the A30. It was for Barrie Briscoe, a nature-loving atheist who'd outrun his three score and ten and who'd lived at least four lives - roustabout, academic, architect, painter.
I didn't know him well. He was the head of the architectural practice which worked on a project with me. I don't know if he even liked the end result of the project. But I enjoyed his company the few times we met. And I think he felt the same. I like to think he did anyway.
I knew he’d been ill, very ill, of cancer. The last time I’d seen him he was in a bad way and that was last year. Then, I know, things had got worse. Yet his death still came as a shock. It always does, it seems.
I learned by email. I was away from home so I'd taken my laptop to the pub for its free and fast wi-fi. There, in my googlemail, was a message with his name in the subject field. It was from his wife, Petra - who I knew far better, through the project. 'I am sorry to tell you that Barrie died,' it began. Direct, clear and forthright. A language of friendship.
The funeral was in a vast, private garden just to the west of the Penzance that’s opened to the public now and again. I guess its owner was a friend of Barrie’s. The invitation was a flyer, with a picture of him at the top. Glass in left hand, held by the stem, right hand in a semi-fist, the point-making gesture of a lifelong teacher. He’s smiling. His eyes are twinkling. Usually that’s a lazy cliché but Barrie’s eyes really did twinkle.
‘No religious rite or cleric,’ said the invite. The ceremony was led by a friend, Richard Vanhinsbergh — I didn’t know Richard but his close personal knowledge of Barrie gave the affair a gut-felt pungency.
Bernie — who I do know, he was the builder on our project — was there, too. He dug the grave. I’ve carried, a coffin — my aunt’s, across rainy, muddy, flat, wintry Catholic ground north of Liverpool. That felt, well, primeval. What Bernie did, that felt even older.
The funeral crowd — a big one, a hundred or so — gathered on the top of a hill. There was fizzy wine to drink and fishy snacks to eat. A gathering of Penwith's great and, well not good perhaps, but good-intentioned at least — in the early evening, anyway.
The coffin was then taken down to the burial ground. We followed behind and stood round the grave, a gouge in the grass sentried by a rectangle of small olive trees. There were words said — warm and knowledgable of the man we were interring. Many of them drifted on the air, blurred by the sound of the wind-bothered leaves. Their half-absence, half-presence seemed right, somehow.
There was a harp playing. The coffin was let slip into the grave, by a half-dozen friends. There was a bit of crying, not a lot. People there knew enough about death not to indulge or fall into half-imaginary emotions. When it was over, Bernie hung back — he and his men had a friend's grave to fill in.
Then there was a party, at a gallery in town, by the sea. There were a few of his architectural models — simple, inspired, made of cardboard — and pictures of him on the wall. Over the years, this part of the country has attracted a lot of people whose lives elsewhere, well, didn’t work out. Many of them were artists or at least arty. They were pretty much all there to say goodbye to Barrie. They sat outside, in the late afternoon sun, drank beer and smoked roll-ups. A lot of them seemed to be called Bernie.
There was a lot of food, mostly provided by another friend, Freddy (a woman). So much food, in fact, that, wonderful as it was, there were doggy bags as you left. And that, too, had a sacramental aspect. Somehow, it felt like you were taking a bit of Barrie home with you. I had mine, a pasta dish, for lunch the following day. It tasted really good.