Thursday, 26 February 2009


The rest is a little flattish and faded.  During Stalin's speeches to the Praesidium, the first delegate to stop clapping was routinely dragged out to be shot through the head, but at my father's wake family expectation kept everyone applauding indefinitely.  There were speeches upon eulogies upon valedictions, each one as overwrought as the last.  I spoke without notes, although with someone holding me up, for 15 minutes.   A Beverley Sister thanked everyone for coming and my cousin referenced Sartre, saying he had no moral imagination, but no-one knew why. My mother sang Zeh Mikvah, and all my aunts and uncles joined in.  None of the women weigh over 8 stone, and they all wear fur.  Most of the men cleaned up in Ladies' Ready-to-Wear in the 70s and look like Bernie Delfont.  They all speak, as I do, in the Hendon rasp.  The maddest aunt swam into my orbit, saying: Where is Herve Alphand?
Not here, Aunt Passie. He died a decade ago.
And where is your father?
This is his funeral, Aunt.
My father's. Herve Alphand isn't here.
Herve Alphand died years ago, Clarissa!
Yes, I know. This is my father's funeral.
Is Herve Alphand here?

And then I overheard an ugly Walloon say "Tu savais que Clarisse etait communiste - moi pas!"

People drink far too much at funerals. Booze stands indicted as a bad thing, and I stand charged with aiding and abetting. Is it a victimless crime?  Well, no. I was completely pissed on Tanqueray and tonic by 4.00 pm, and a wretched sight to behold.  The trouble is I drink as if there is not only no tomorrow, but hardly anything left of today.  Also, I am one of the truly great smokers of my generation.  Sitting weeping on a faux velvet banquette, I was joined by an ennobled culture pundit, ertswhile neighbour of my father and a hard man to like.  You will know him from the television. He often starts sentences with "And yet we must ask ...". This time he started his sentence with "You are a fucking disgrace".

It is very difficult not to hit someone when they roundly abuse you like that.  But he said "you are a fucking disgrace because you traduce your poor father's memory.  And you are hurting yourself".  Physically, he is a big man.  Some years ago, actually many years ago, I worked with him on a production of Oedipus Tyrannus, you know, by Sophocles, that one.  It was a small budget gig, strictly limited season and in the provinces.  He said "do you remember the beds and tables you made for Oedipus?" and I did.  And I was terribly excited to be reminded because I had forgotten how clever I was. 

"Do you remember the beds and tables?" Yes, I do because I still have one. A table. My children used it for dolls' tea parties when they were little. And I made it from a sheet of three-quarter inch birch plywood, four carriage bolts, 12 flat washers, 8 lock washers and hex nuts, 8 butt hinges, four rubber leg tips, some wood filler and polyurethane varnish. I used a sabre saw and a power sander, and I borrowed a drill press from the man next door. I sanded it down, and filled in  all irregularities and covered it with a clear varnish.  And that is the story of my life.


Tuesday, 17 February 2009


And then, of course, I had a wake to organise. Can you imagine anything gloomier? The deceased - a man of medicine - was gigantically popular, highly-regarded, the centre of village life, the deliverer of new babies, the easer of the dying, the finder of lost children, and truly his brother's keeper.  It was decided that the event should be held in a theatre, a nice nod to the long years he put in as duty doctor on the sets of some of the worst British films in living memory, including On the Buses.  Some kind friends will recall that before making a raging success of marriage and motherhood, I worked as a props mistress, labouring alongside some of the greats, such as that darling old Svengali, Dennis Groutage.  My father's wake was held at an establishment that is currently dark, but where I spent many happy months on a long-running Rodgers and Hammerstein.

There is something captivating about an empty theatre, and there is nothing like the thrill of standing on an undressed stage gazing out across the serried rows of empty seats. I am sorry to tell you that my self-indulgence knew no bounds, and I crept away from the convivial mourners in the theatre bar to wrap myself in the proscenium curtains.  You see, I am an expert in tabs; there is very little about theatre curtaining that I don't know. Go on, ask me.  A proscenium curtain can be lifted and lowered up to forty times each performance. No. 88 or 96 Fleur de Lys webbing is best for lighter weights.  Operating lines should be of hemp sashlines or superfine manilla rope.  Galvanised steel cables give long periods of trouble-free service.  Would you like to see my drawings? I have kept them, filed away, all these years. This one is a sectional drawing showing details of the joining clamps to be used with tubular metal stage equipment. And this one shows a method of attaching a barrel fitting, and this one is a pulley fitting for carrying lines to the winch.  My father was very proud of my technical know-how. He liked girls to be practical, and he was a complete pushover when it came to show-business.  I have never met a more stagestruck man. There was very little about it that he didn't like, and he was easily impressed.  At a Bray Studios charity gala long ago, he performed the Heimlich Manoeuvre on one of the Beverley Sisters when a cocktail sausage went down the wrong way.  He oft times described that event as a defining moment.

In the theatre, when the house is full you say it is "Harry Packers". That was one of my father's favourite expressions; he used it all the time.  Sorry I'm late, the surgery was Harry Packers this morning.  Couldn't get near the station: the place was H. Packers.
When a show wasn't selling well, it was common to give tickets away, or to substantially reduce the price,  just to get bums on seats.  Very often, these freebies were given to nurses, or student nurses and doctors, for some reason.  My father benefited from this scheme in his youth and never forgot it.  This was called "papering the house".  Rubbish crowd tonight; the house was full of paper. 

I know this post is rather disjointed; I am not fully back to normal and I know it shows. I am sorry.  My father had a wonderful life. He loved New York, and he was lucky enough to see the famous contour curtains of Radio City Music Hall.  2,000 yards of fireproof lining, a mile of metal cable and a weight of three tons.  Some people have all the luck.

Saturday, 7 February 2009


My father died on Wednesday night. Not a surprise; he was in hospital, gravely ill and we'd been warned.  Hospitals are careful to put the afflicted on a sliding scale these days. They believe it is helpful to the family to be kept au courant, so you have stable, seriously, gravely and dead.  As my father was a retired GP, it was difficult not to regard his final days as some kind of Busman's Holiday.  I know how this must sound, but his professional life had had death at its core - mainly its avoidance or prevention, you'll be relieved to hear - but death nevertheless. He knew death intimately, and was never frightened of it. I know this because I once asked him, and he said no, not death, and certainly not dying, and with all the palliative coshes you can get these days, well, hahaha, no, I'm not scared of dying, and neither should you be. I was about 14 at the time.

I wasn't there when he died; I'd left his side about half-an-hour previously, and now I feel strangely guilty, and a bit cheated in an odd way.  For the last twenty minutes of my final visit, I read a newspaper and wondered what to have for dinner. To think that I should have wasted these precious moments on such trivia astounds me now; I should have concerned myself with his fate. Because no matter how much I would have willed it otherwise, fate was obviously on its way to meet him.  I am left with an unbearable ache, because he was an excellent father in every way, and I really don't think I told him that often enough.  Just after Christmas, I had a charming little speech prepared in my head which would have told him how much I loved him, and how much I had always respected his example. I hope he guessed it, but experience tells us that saying these things aloud works much better than leaving them to be deduced. 

Goodness, it's tough. Death, and paperwork, and funeral directors.  Grown up stuff.