In his pomp

I went to a memorial service in London on Saturday. The person whose life was celebrated was the erstwhile vicar of the church I attended in the 1980s, and that’s where the service was held (and this is the post I set out to write).

We met to honour the memory of T, but the occasion provided a pretext for the gathering of the class of ’85, aka the congregation of that era, which consisted of both local Londoners and young professionals who lived in the area for varying lengths of time. We all knew T when he was around the age we have now reached. You might say he was then in his pomp (a sporting expression I have only just learned from my husband). So for a few hours on Saturday, I and my cohort of other 50-somethings experienced a time warp. Many of us had not been back to the church much in the intervening thirty years, and even if we had, the gradual scattering of the class of ’85 would have meant that we would not have found many of our contemporaries there. Only a few stayed in this this part of south east London. They (and we of the diaspora) gathered in a place we all knew, where we all used to meet as young adults, and looked at each other as we are now, but also looked for the people we used to know.

Most of us, I think, appeared remarkably unchanged: on the whole a little broader, a little greyer, but instantly recognisable. But this belied the varied and various life journeys we have all been on in the interim: the career highs and lows, the children born and raised, the relationships forged, sustained and broken, the losses faced, the worlds explored, the risks taken, the homes and communities created. An image of an uneven arc came to my mind: at one end, there was that point (around 1985) when all our lives coincided.  Then our trajectories fanned out and followed different courses (with occasional re-crossing of paths for some of us). Until Saturday, when for a very brief moment, our paths all crossed at a single point again.

There was something very poignant about it. I was thrilled to see people again – even those whom I had hardly thought about for years. Equally there was something very frustrating about it: there were so many people to greet (though how delightful it was to do so), that I could hear and repeat only the headlines with each person. We never got to the leading article, or the analysis.

Whilst I don’t want to go back to that time, I felt wistful.  I learned again the meaning of “nostalgia”: a strange sad/happy feeling and sense of confusion as the past and the present met. The setting and the people seemed so familiar, and yet now so other. I recalled the intensity of that time from the relative calmness of middle age. I can’t believe that chapter of my life lasted only nine years.

Back in 2015 (where, in the space of a week, both our girls are heading off to different universities, and so we start another chapter), I showed my family the order of service (see my previous post). My daughter (the one who hasn’t quite gone yet) observed that a certain sort of picture appears on the front of such publications: a smiling portrait of T in his (or her) pomp (though to be honest, I think I knew the priest and pastor we remembered on Saturday just after his most energetic and creative years. But the expression in his pomp has a pleasing Cockney resonance which is somehow very fitting).

Pause for thought then: if we, the class of ’85, knew him after his pomp, where are we on our own life trajectories now? Have we done our best work?  What can we make of the next thirty years?

And have the cover portraits for our memorial or funeral services already been taken?

Not the post I set out to write

This is a honed version of the post I put up yesterday, and then took down.

I went to a memorial service in London on Saturday. The person whose life was celebrated was the erstwhile vicar of the church I attended in the 1980s, and that’s where the service was held. The order of service was prefaced by a short poem by Joyce Grenfell, which I have always loved. Good, I thought. The programme also suggested the possibility of spontaneous contributions and silent reflection. Good again, I thought, having attended a few Quaker memorial meetings, where time for reflection and spontaneous contribution is all there is. Barry and I have both agreed that when the time comes, we want funerals of this kind for ourselves and each other. They are extraordinarily moving and healing, in our experience.

I very much enjoyed belting out some classic hymns, listening to some more well-chosen poetry and some beautiful music, and to anecdotes about the dear departed.  I am very glad I went. It was a joyful and thankful occasion, a fit tribute to a life fully lived, and to a priest and pastor who was a significant influence on my early adulthood. But I found it so busy. As it turned out, on Saturday, there was so much planned in the order of play that there was barely time for impromptu offerings; and if there was time for silent reflection, it was so brief that I missed it. To be fair, the dear departed was a larger-than-life and multi-faceted character: there was a lot to be said. And it was, several times over, for more than an hour and a half.

At the Quaker memorial meetings I have attended, despite quite lengthy silences, there has still been time for honest, heartfelt, poignant and sometimes funny contributions in an unhurried atmosphere. And all within an hour. Is this what has been called, “the amazing fact of Quaker worship”? The difference is that the words arise out of the silence. The silence is where we start from, and is not an optional extra which gets cut if we are running out of time. Even if (as happens at memorial meetings) not all those who speak are familiar with Quaker ways, the meeting is somehow held by the collective presence and practised discipline of those who regularly sit for an hour on a Sunday: an hour in which words (if they come) are both wrapped in silence and tempered by it. It is only rarely that I feel someone has spoken for too long in Meeting, even when I don’t feel the “ministry” speaks to me.

This is not the post I thought I was going to write. I have surprised myself. I may even have surprised myself into going to Meeting more regularly —


Today I got the feedback on my MA dissertation, which I submitted three weeks ago, and spent a good part of the early summer writing (it was torture). My tutor kindly headed her email as “Excellent dissertation”, so I knew it was OK from the off, and I made myself read the feedback comments from both markers before I turned to the mark (because we value feedback we can learn from more than we value marks, don’t we?).

Well, the feedback was very positive, encouraging and made suggestions as to how I might develop my dissertation into published academic papers if I choose to. So I felt great about that. And then I turned to the mark. Which was 82.

82?? That’s, like, a starred first, isn’t it? Stunning (I am stunned –). And thrilled. And the truth is that the mark does matter to me. The external validation does count for something. I would be less satisfied if I had only received the written comments, even though they were so positive and constructive.

When I (or a member of the family) does well, I experience a curious tension, that I’m sure will be familiar to many reading this. I both want to tell people, and I am concerned about appearing to boast. I am proud and embarrassed. And (for myself – less so for other family members) explanations which minimise the achievement flit across my mind. Fooled them yet again, didn’t I? ‘Course I did well – I wasn’t simultaneously holding down a teaching post, unllike other MA in Education students, was I? ‘Course I did well – my tutor was one of the markers, so it was in her interests to mark my work favourably. And even – ‘course I did well, because I am married to a Prof at the uni and so the markers couldn’t really mark me down —

Time not to be so British. Let me say it to myself, loud and clear:

“Yes, you had plenty of time to give to your dissertation. And yes, you worked bloody hard, and put a huge amount of effort into it. And although you find it torture, you are a bloody good writer. And that’s because, one way or another, you have always written – sometimes easily, but sometimes with great struggle (oh, and you’ve read quite a lot of good writing, too). You did well. Very well. It’s OK to be proud!”

Although my research topic had nothing to do with it, I think also there was some passion in my dissertation which may have communicated itself to my readers, and this relates to my breast screening/diagnosis experience. The passion was about power relationships in education. Because I felt, and still feel, that the medical establishment abused its power in getting me (ill-informed) to go for screening, I tried my utmost to make sure that I was as transparent as I could be with the school I worked in, the tutors I discussed my work with, and (most of all) the vulnerable little boys who were at the centre of my project. I wanted them to understand what was going on, I wanted them to have real choices about their involvement, and I wanted their views to come across. Ethics, you see – trying to ensure that those on the weaker side of the power relationship are, at the very least, not harmed, and might even benefit.

I still think it’s a bit boastful to put this post up. But what’s the worst that can happen? Here goes.