Hemlock's Diary
20-26 Apr, 2008
Sun, 20 April
I can record that Terminal 5 is an acceptable gateway to the UK for the traveller from Hong Kong.  It is a medium-size, averagely pristine example of 21st Century air transport infrastructure, of the sort found in many parts of East Asia, incongruously set in the midst of the decaying and heaving pile that is Heathrow. 

Several hours to the west is a full and constant reminder of the joys of this country in Springtime.  The temperature is anything you want provided it is within a couple of degrees of freezing point.  Occasional periods of blue sky are ushered through the overcast grey and chilly drizzle by a never-ending icy wind.  In the little big city, the people plod along the streets in woolen hats that have the peculiar property of making their wearers appear more zombie-like than they otherwise would.  The fad for ugly chunky rings on thumbs has not abated, at least among the fairly large proportion of the population who stuff their faces full of greasy crisps and other snacks as they stroll about their glum business.  Everyone else keeps their hands in their pockets. 

The London-based press warns the public about the Great Dreaded Euro-Whiff of 2008 drifting across the sea towards this green and pleasant land – a foul farmyard odour being generated by swarthy foreign peasants in clogs, or at least their livestock.  The
more erudite media speculate that the mighty Teutonic metals and chemicals industries may also be contributing to this assault on Albion's nostrils.  It doesn't seem to reach as far as the village, where anyway the pungent local aromas of silage, cider production and manure would overpower the continental interloper. 

The big excitement in this little community today is a children's party in the church hall.  At one stage in the proceedings a parent displays his deeply held and already well-known convictions and his determination to shape his offspring accordingly.  “No, Tarquin!” the man suddenly shrieks across the room as if his three-year-old son is about to stick a finger into a power socket.  The father leaps over and snatches a small hot dog from the petrified child's hand.  The kid bursts into tears.  The father turns to the dozen or so stunned adult onlookers.  “Tarquin doesn't eat meat!” he exclaims.  Tarquin goes into a tantrum, wailing and thumping the floor and pointing at other toddlers chewing their pork-laced little morsels.  His dad, posessed by the total righteousness of his behaviour, holds up the offending item.  “He obviously confused it with the vegetarian sausages we have at home.”

At Stonegallows Hall, plans for my father's funeral have been finalized.  On hearing that it would be a humanist affair, I assumed it would be brief, informal and without such baubles as a grandiose coffin and extravagant wreaths.  I pictured a simple consignment to the earth in a pleasant and unmarked spot, the body perhaps tied in a plain cotton shroud, with some acorns thrown in as the grave is filled with the last few inches of soil.  Provided no druids turned up, that would have satisfied the old man's atheism and dislike of fuss and ritual, and mildly offended all the right people currently organizing masses to be said for him on both sides of the Atlantic for the repose of his soul.   As it happens, survivors have ordered shiny casket, flowers, pall bearers – the full works.  The standard Christian ceremony with God carefully teased out.  It is for people who say they don't want, need or believe in something, but deep down they really do.  In this respect – and I am absolutely positive there is no other – it can perhaps be likened to a vegetarian sausage.
Thurs, 24 April
“This is a Humanist funeral,” intones the black-haired, pale-skinned woman from behind the lectern in the funeral hall.  She gazes over the congregation with wide eyes and a smile that isn't as reassuring as it is obviously intended to be.  “Humanists do not believe in an afterlife,” she adds gently, if a touch condescendingly.  During the next 45 minutes she reads out a brief life history, a medley of reminiscences (partly humorous) and a favourite poem (AE Houseman), interspersed with some passages of recorded music (Elgar, Bernstein and Strauss – all of which would have been indistinguishable to my father's decidedly unmusical ears). 

To signify the approaching end of the ceremony, she shifts into unambiguously maudlin mode.  A few minutes later, she falls into silence and an electronically controlled  lace curtain slowly draws itself around the coffin at the front of the chapel.  I could swear I hear a muffled voice inside the casket exclaiming, “Good grief, can't you get a real person to pull it?” but maybe it's just me.  Before moist eyes have been fully dabbed, the mood lurches into full-blown joyousness as the officiant introduces a rousing and festive march and enthusiastically invites everyone to clap along with it as they file out – into warmth and sunshine, no less.

Outside, where the family greet mourners, the reason why a small, informal gathering wasn't possible becomes clear.  The number of people turning up to bid my father farewell is in three figures.  Perhaps for the first time, his offspring come face to face with the fact that, although he didn't invent penicillin or take the first steps on the Moon, he was preeminent in his particular field.  “Ah – you're the one in Hong Kong,” I keep hearing.  Will be again soon.
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