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Monday, July 31, 2006

Other Voices, Other Rooms

There are five rooms that make up my mother’s flat and it seems every single inch of it is packed to bursting point with papers, clippings, pictures, photographs, statements, communications from the local state and utilities, accumulated thank-you letters from grandchildren, mother’s day and birthday cards, news papers, magazines, recipes, doodles and letters.

Doreen lived here alone since she and my father separated circa 1984 but prior to that, this was where Lesley and I grew up. Those days are forever tainted by unhappy memories of a father who beat his wife and terrorised his children with all kinds of psychological cruelty.

This is perhaps why Lesley and I have been able to be in the flat without falling prey to sentiment. Although it was my mother’s place it was, for us, shared with something darker whose stain still pervades the place and made us workmanlike when it came to taking it all apart.

Every day since scattering Doreen’s ashes near Warkworth, Lesley and I have been sorting and sifting through the various items that build up over a lifetime like verdigris creeps across metal. To be fair it’s Lesley who has done the bulk of it, opting to sleep at the flat in order to be able to put long, long hours as a means of drawing a line under this part of the process of someone’s passing as quickly as possible. I’ve been something of a day-tripper in this respect spending mornings or afternoons assisting with the sort on a pro-rata basis.

The week was broken in part by one or two of my mother’s friends who called in to help and take something from the place before it all goes. All the grandchildren came to take their trinkets to remind them of their times spent in these rooms.

For them the space has nothing but positive associations, happy times spent playing games, reading, painting and drawing, camping out under the vast imagination that can transform a few upturned chairs and old sheets into exciting adventures and journeys. Their presence and their memories neutralise our wariness and help redeem the space which has made the task a lot easier than it might have been.

Today Lesley and her family drove off home leaving me to sort out the final pick-ups – furniture and the like - expected this week. Once these are done we can close the flat and draw a line under that part of our lives.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Debbie and I were scheduled to go the local BBC radio station to contribute to a Radio 4 programme about Adrian Henri and The Mersey Sound book of poetry. They'd picked up on me after reading one of my old blogs about this seminal book.

However, given pressures upon Debbie’s time as she finishes term and the fact that either of us is anything but bright and sparkling, I rang the show’s production team in Bristol and cancelled.

Given the short notice I assumed they’d be pretty livid but apparently not. We’re rescheduled for a fortnight’s time.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Doreen's Final Journey

Because I had to deliver the eulogy yesterday I had to focus hard on maintaining my composure in order to get through it all.

Today though I was able to let it all go as we took Doreen’s ashes on their final journey to Berry Bank, just outside of the Northumbrian village of Warkworth.

Warkworth was where all of us spent a lot of time as children – a quintessential picture postcard place.

My Grandfather, George Rountree, had a cottage a couple of miles outside of the village at Bank House.

An unassuming small row of houses on a hill, this was a magical place to be as a child. I think Lesley and I still consider this to be our spiritual home. I know my mother did – which is why we’re all here today.

Along this little dirt track is a row of houses, which at one point would have been used by agricultural workers employed on the Fairbairn farm a mile or so away.

As a family, we came here most weekends and during summer school holidays until my grandfather died. Even now all these years later the memories of this place and the times spent there are incredibly powerful and moving.

Just outside the lane you turn right and look down Berry Bank. This was where my mother as a teenager would freewheel on her bicycle singing “All Things Bright And Beautiful” at the top of her voice.

Today her children and grandchildren along with their partners gathered together, a happy/sad occasion, and yes we too sang a verse from “All Things Bright And Beautiful” at the top of our collective voices.

Doreen’s ashes were mixed with wild flower seeds. Though we’re realistic about their chances of taking root in a hedgerow such as this, we’re all of us romantic enough to like the idea of returning in the future to find lots of flowers gracing the greenery hereabouts.

At one point I felt horribly alone, spores of anxiety settling upon me, connecting, spreading and rapidly overtaking me. I breathe my way through the panic.

As quickly as it comes it passes but I know it will return. And I also know that this is all part of the process and accept it.

After all the ashes had been spread along the hedgerow we walked back up the hill and spent a little more time at Bank House.

I think we were all reluctant to leave, to draw a line under it all. Eventually we said our farewells to Doreen and headed back towards Warkworth.

After a much needed visit to one of the many tea-shops in the village, we all embarked on a riverside walk behind the church.

Whilst the others went off on a long ramble up toward the castle, I opted to sit for a while to watch the Coquet river flow by just as I had done as a child with my mother. Happy to be on my own, I wept.

Later in the afternoon, I was joined by Tom. “I thought I’d keep you company” he said, sitting beside me on the bench.

The sense of comfort and support we drew from each other was tangible. Talking about Doreen, about her life and her passing, we agreed that the memories we have will stay with us both. While we do that she'll always be with us.

And we both agreed that my mother would have loved the day.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Eulogy For Doreen

We’re all of us much of a muchness; a muddle of the same contradictory stuff; good and bad, happy and sad, saint and sinner, loser and winner.

Doreen, like everyone here today was probably all of these things at some point in her life, and all of us are here to remember those times when our lives came into contact with hers.

Though it came as a shock for everyone concerned, the speed of Doreen’s dying in some ways mirrored the speed with which she lived her life.

She was someone who was always on the go, someone whose engine was forever ticking over; she was always on her way somewhere, always off to see someone.

Being active kept her young at heart and young in mind. For many years, she was a regular at a variety of courses and classes such as cake decorating, yoga, painting and drawing, local history, and in more recent times, computer classes.

Though she could sometimes be wrong-footed by the unexpected things in her life, she was never frightened to embrace change.

Another important aspect to Doreen was her ability to get on well with people outside her own age group. If you look around today you’ll see people of all ages, young and old.

In addition to her own children and her grand-children, Doreen played a significant role in the lives of several young people, not just as a grown-up but as a friend.

Whatever their age might be though, Doreen always had time for people. For her, caring about people wasn’t just a matter of nodding her head in the right places.

It meant rolling up her sleeves and getting on with it. It meant breaking open the baking trays or being out and about with the raffle tickets.

In this respect, as in others, Doreen was nothing if not practical.

For Doreen, the notion of caring about people was equalled by a deep sense of commitment and loyalty. This could manifest itself in a number of ways.

It might be visiting the home of someone who was sick or even just a bit under the weather.

It could be as ordinary but no less important as when she worked as a shop assistant in the local newsagents, taking a new-starter under her wing, showing them friendship as well as the ropes.

It could be giving someone moral and emotional support during the break-down of a relationship.

It could be helping a person through the loss of a loved one.

In her time Doreen did all of these things and many more besides. Everyone here today will have their own memories and be able to recall those occasions of how Doreen made a positive difference to their own lives.

If all of this is in danger of making her sound like a saint then let’s not forget that she was never afraid to speak her mind when she disagreed with something and sometimes her attitudes could be challenging.

Nor was she a po-faced do-gooder with a holier-than-thou attitude. She was someone with a strong and lively sense of humour, a fact which her many friends will readily agree with.

And that was another important characteristic of Doreen’s – the ability and willingness to celebrate, to find the joy even in an adverse situation and to look for it in the everyday.

Laughter was something that was never far from her lips and she enlivened all the engagement parties, birthdays, weddings and social gatherings she attended over the years.

Though she encountered many personal set-backs in her own life Doreen wasn’t someone to weep and wail and feel all sorry for her self.

She maintained this positive outlook all through her final illness.

Despite the circumstances that overwhelmed her, she was determined that her passing was not something to be sad and sorry about.

“No long faces” she told us many times. So let’s have no long faces today. Please join the family in giving a round of applause and a rousing cheer to celebrate Doreen’s life and times.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Friends & Family

I’ve been finishing writing the notes to my mother’s eulogy for the funeral tomorrow. It’s been difficult trying to find the right balance between speaking to the people I know will be at the funeral, saying something that is meaningful to them as her friends and us as her family. Avoiding cliché and sentimentality also feels like an uphill task right now.

The minister has agreed to read out the piece once it’s finished in the event that I’m unable to deliver it on the day.

The other thing that we’re hoping to do is not end the funeral with the usual words of committal but with a big round of applause. The minister prefers that we stick with the traditional route. However, there’s no legal requirement for us to do so and although my mother was an active churchgoer I know in the last few days she had said she wanted no long faces at her funeral.

For Lesley and I the rousing cheer and applause punctures the gloomy aspect of these moments and makes the thing far more the kind of celebratory affair Doreen would want it to be. Given all of this, we’re sticking with the applause idea and hope the minister won’t be too offended.

Monday, July 17, 2006

3663 Food Service

On Saturday Debbie and I were getting a lift from Sam over to Doreen’s house. Only a few minutes into the journey we were confronted with this.

Yep a delivery truck parked on the wrong side of the road obstructing all oncoming traffic. The driver, who when asked gave his name as Gary, said there was nowhere else to park. So he took his one box of goods and delivered it to the shop.

Within eyeshot of the van there were three places he could have parked.

Of course he would have had to walk an extra few yards and so presumably Gary is myopic (in which case he should be considering a different career) or simply couldn’t be arsed.

The twenty or thirty vehicles could wait until he got back, which of course having no choice in the matter, we did.

Today I spoke with a depot manager Steve about the matter. The clever thing to have done would have been to apologise for the inconvenience caused, and say something about his company’s commitment to customer care, road safety and being a responsible business.

Sadly depot manager Steve opted to tough it out, seeing me as the problem and telling me that drivers were under a lot of pressure with lots of deliveries to get through in a day. Sometimes they had to park where they could in order to get the job done. Well fancy that.

When I pointed out that this meant company policy as interpreted by management was therefore to break the highway code and potential be a risk to other users of the highway, I could tell Steve was getting a might chewed off.

“Do you drive for living?” he demanded to know as if this might have some kind of bearing on the matter.

I blethered on about him missing the point during which he verbally nodded in the right places.

It was only when I told him I would be putting up the photographs online and that whenever folks googled the name of his company said pics and this account would come up that Steve became vaguely managerial, promising to get back to me tomorrow once he’s spoken to the driver.

Steve misses the point again. I don’t want the driver’s balls on a plate. What would be good would be his managers taking issues of road safety seriously.


Small world department:

I ordered my flowers for Doreen’s funeral on Wednesday. The shop, Harpers, is newly opened. When I paid my deposit and gave my name a man behind the counter asked if I was the writer. I nodded wondering how he knew who I was.

It turns out he’s a mate of Chris Wilson the mad-as-a-bag-of-badgers designer who did the cover and internals for the Crimson biography, and that Chris had done the design for the shop logo and publicity material.

Then when I got back home the man himself rang up to say he’d just been speaking to Fergus Hall, the artist who painted the cover for The Young Persons Guide To King Crimson. Fergus isn’t painting at the moment but lives in the same Tibetan monastery which Jamie Muir attended after leaving KC.

Phew, synchronicity!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Back At The Desk

Today feels very odd, a brittle quiet after all the telephone calls dealing with officials, family friends and well-wishers. The last two weeks have been dominated by caring for Doreen and then suddenly, there’s nothing to do anymore.

Well not quite.

Yesterday I’d gone to Newcastle to track down the correct version of All Things Bright And Beautiful that Doreen had requested to be played at her funeral. Not knowing the artists recording in question by name, I had to stand in JG Windows as the opening bars of every version they had of the song was played over the in-store system.

Suffering from a severe case of hymn-overload, I met Debra and we went to HMV. She spotted a version I had missed which proved to be on the button and thus the send-off music was secured.

Today I talked to the minister, David Walton, who took me through the usual service. There’s talk of me presenting the eulogy which my sister and I had worked on, although I suspect that on the day itself I’ll be far too weepy etc., to be reading much of anything.

Elsewhere, as World War Three inches ever closer in the Middle East, Cliff Richards' Christmas single is being prepared, and the creep of political sleaze crawls closer to the door of No. 10, I see the world is pretty much as when I left it three weeks ago.

This afternoon I get back behind the desk to begin to deal with a bulging in-tray which includes an astonishing number of messages of condolence, good wishes, sympathy, empathy and more that I'll be replying to in the next few days.

Listening to
Robert Fripp, St. Paul’s Cathedral & Salisbury Cathedral 2006

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Doreen Susan Smith 22nd November 1927 - 12th July 2006

Doreen died at 4. 41 a.m. today, three weeks to the day from her diagnosis of her illness to her last breath. She was peaceful and not at all distressed as she went.

When she was diagnosed on June 21st her greatest fear was that she wouldn’t be able to die at home because of external bleeding, a feature of her particular leukaemia. Her own mother had died slowly in hospital over four months and it had left a powerful mark upon Doreen.

Thanks to the support and care of the nursing staff who helped us along, Doreen didn’t haemorrhage and stayed at home during her illness.

As difficult as these three weeks have been, both Lesley and I feel blessed to have been with Doreen from start to finish, supporting her as best we could on a journey which we know she found to be terrifying and terrible, but one which she faced with such courage.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Precious Gems

Yesterday was difficult for Doreen. Her face was vexed and she was in a lot of discomfort. Her bones ache, sore because there’s now so much rubbish in her bone marrow, a consequence of the lack of platelets.

At one point I was feeding her some water on the sponge. I’d been talking to her the whole time. After a while I judged she was asleep. As I pulled away from the side of the bed I told her I loved her. “I love you too” she whispered, flickering on the very edges of consciousness.

It’s difficult to convey the Herculean effort of will that is required for my mother to speak a single word never mind complete sentences.

Later in the day she became agitated. We try to distract her by talking or by massaging her calves, stroking her hair, and other techniques – many we’ve practiced on our respective children when they were younger.

“I want to get up” she said after several minutes, eking out the individual words like precious gems buried deep inside a rock face.

“Why do you want to get up?” I asked as I always do. She sighed heavily, the sad weight of it crushing my heart and breaking my words into pieces.

“I’m sick of lying down” she said at last, a pained anger clearly audible in her tired voice.

For the first time in this process her medication now includes pain relief. Though it’s made Doreen comfortable it has also taken her further away from us. As she drifts, it’s hard to make any kind of contact with her now. I think Lesley and I feel oddly stranded now, as though we are waving from a distance as Doreen moves on. We just hope she knows we're with her to the end.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

What Will Survive Of Us Is Love

The last few days have been a fast-moving blur of emotion and upset, interspersed with some laughter and reflection. All of it, the good and the bad is both instructive and valuable.

Doreen is comfortable and pain free. Chronically fatigued, she is still able to talk to us remains fully engaged with what’s going on around her. She and I talked briefly yesterday about some of Alan Bennet’s books that I’d bought her some years ago.

It can be slow because she finds talking such an effort but she wants to do it. We’ve been reading her the many messages of support that people have been kind enough to send including the wedding invitation and accompanying letter from Marina and Fischer. She had been scheduled to go to Canada in August to attend their wedding.

I’ve found the many messages arriving by email and blog a great support. I will reply to each one when time allows.

Time, of course, is what Doreen hasn’t got and almost every hour that passes marks the passage from one phase to another as she moves slowly forward to dying.

By Wednesday she couldn’t hold a cup unsupported and we had to introduce a child’s trainer cup.

By Thursday afternoon she was unable to use the commode that had arrived.

By Thursday night she was unable to take her medication orally and had a power syringe installed.

By Friday her home healthcare plan was changed to the Liverpool Care Pathway which outlines the care guidelines for those expected to die in the next few days.

By Saturday her throat reflex made swallowing from the trainer cup very difficult. We’re now giving her water via some sponges on little plastic sticks which she can suck on.

She looks as though she’s enjoying a lollipop, again reinforcing the sense that as we move to death we begin to resemble ourselves at the time of our birth.

Lesley and I are both camped out at my mother’s flat supporting each other as we support Doreen as best we can. I don’t believe in life after death but do believe in what Philip Larkin said in his 1956 poem An Arundel Tomb, “What will survive of us is love.”

Street Life XXXIX

The view from Doreen's flat...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Entering The Endgame

It’s nearly midnight and I’ve just got back from my mother’s house. My sister Lesley is there and we’ve just had the night nurse staff in to make Doreen comfortable for the night. It’s been another long and very difficult day for Doreen.

The chemo has really made the last few days intolerable for her – causing her to run (as best she can) from her bedroom to the toilet every half an hour.

The visit to the hospital this morning revealed that the blood transfusion proposed for tomorrow is unlikely to provide any real benefit when offset against the expenditure of effort and discomfort getting Doreen to the hospital.

Whether we get to the hospital tomorrow will be up to Doreen. If she wants to stay at home and forgo the transfusion then so be it. When the doctor explained to her this morning she looked very frightened; she understood the subtext of what he was really saying.

They gave us a drug to try and get her bowel under some kind of control – two tablets four times a day. It was difficult for all parties concerned getting them into her but we got there in the end such was her willpower. If we could get this sorted then her remaining time would be relatively comfortable and dignified.

Outside her room and out of her earshot, I cried a lot tonight, panic engulfing me whenever I thought about the next few days; simultaneously wanting it to be over whilst dreading the moment. Lesley is holding together better than I am.

I sat on the bed tonight holding her hand. Though her eyes are more or less permanently closed now, she knew I was there, occasionally asking how my work was going or how Tom and Joe are getting on. Sometimes she requested for a sip of water. She drank from a child’s trainer cup as she’s now unable to take it from a bottle or an ordinary cup.

Sometimes her eyes flicker open - it's very hard to tell what she's thinking and she's too exhausted to tell us.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A Difficult Day

Today was spent in the hospital where Doreen was receiving an infusion of platelets. Her count had dropped to virtually nil evidenced by the outbreak of deepening bruises that are now clearly visible on her arms and legs.

The process was relatively quick although we had to wait quite a long time for the platelets to arrive. She was so tired, skimming in and out of sleep but managed to sip a few mouthfuls of soup provided by the staff. We think this is the first hot food she’s wanted to eat in over a week.

Later in the day, Lesley and I finalised the details with the funeral directors, Go As You Please, which as titles for companies in this line of business go, is pretty good. Today was very difficult for everyone concerned.

Back In The Yellow Room...

Robert rang tonight and I caught up on his recent trip to Italy. The old whinger tells me that he's been listening to the St.Paul’s Cathedral Soundscapes and it sounds rather special.

Staying with the Italian theme, a publisher over there has written asking me to update the Crimson biography for a forthcoming Italian translation.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Brighter Moments

Today Debbie came over to see my mother. Her visit was a real tonic for Doreen and helped lift us into a brighter place.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


We never made it to Warkworth as Doreen is struggling with the effects of the chemo. This combined with her chronic fatigue is making things very difficult for her.

Yet for about 20 minutes each day she escapes from the fug of nausea and tiredness and emerges her old self, sharp, witty and always interested in what’s going on outside of her own life.

Amongst the mire we search for tiny gems of comfort.


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