The Next Big One

I think we were all kind of expecting someone else to go. I’ve found myself internally semi-squinting, waiting for ‘the next big one’ – the next person to go who would prompt national outpourings of distress. As my eyes trawl across some digi-obit or other I’ve muttered little mortality mantras – “Not Tom Hanks, Not David Attenborough, Not Judi Dench, Not Dolly Parton.” – ticking off names of people I love like prayer beads. This year feels steeped in the energy of portent, we might as well see the rest of it out without expecting some sort of cosmic kindness to kick in now.

I’ve had numerous conversations with friends about who we’d hate to hear had died. We compiled depressing little lists of awesome people whom it would be a great shame to lose. But of course the worst losses are those people who die ‘too young’. The people who don’t make it past an age of general acceptability, which gets a little older every year such is our insistence for living longer.

We were wrapping up our Christmas night, drowsy from our day of food and booze, when I saw that George Michael had died. 53. No age at all. I was staying at my mum’s so I ran up to her bedroom and shared the horrible news with her and my step-dad. That’s a nice way to thank them for a lovely day isn’t it; being the bedtime bearer of bad news. We chatted for a couple of minutes and then I went back downstairs and sat for a bit. It felt sort of apt hearing the news while I was with mum. We listened to George’s beautiful album Listen Without Prejudice over and over again together when it came out.

As I got ready for bed I tried to block out the horrible inevitable thought that one of the great Christmas songs, Last Christmas, was forever going to be tinged with a horribly apt sadness. George had just had his last Christmas. I’m sure we all were thinking similar. I’m sure a lot of people made the bad jokes too soon as well. Some people can’t resist thinking they’re some sort of great wit when actually they’re just a great twit and should stay quiet and resist the dreary puns gushing around their brains like sloppy shit.

It’s sad to lose people at Christmas.

But of course it’s just an ordinary day for the human body. A weak heart or a tumour or a blood clot won’t wait for the new year out of obligation to festive family feasts and our urge for sloth-like contentedness. Death waits for no one. It doesn’t just stand in the corner looking for the nod. There is no respectful time for our bodies to sever themselves from us, and that is what it is, a sort of parting of ways – our mind and our body. One day the body says “No, this is not how it’s going to work anymore, and for all your wonderful strength, dear Mind, you are powerless. I’m in charge now.”

Perhaps some of us feel these Christmas losses deeper because there is usually a strange sense of all normal business coming to a standstill for a day. When someone dies on or around Christmas, we feel betrayed, like security has been breeched, like fair play has been abandoned. The child inside us still believes in a great overarching fairness, despite everything we learn to the contrary in adult life. We unconsciously demand immunity from being mortal for the day, fool ourselves we are in closer contact with some sort of great magic, whatever our religious beliefs, there’s still surely some sort of magic, please. It is a day we trick ourselves we are somehow untouchable, swaddled in a sort of sanctity we are desperate for, like babies. “Just give us this one day in our impenetrable bubble.” We all want that, as the year draws to a close and the new year stretches out before us like the not-so-distant present with a bow on top.

But our bodies are still just our bodies, wonderful beautiful miraculous, intricate frail and finite, a gift we never quite make the most of before they bow out.


Legacy Theatreland

One of the many things I love about writing is that it invokes all your cerebral bustle while indulging your lazy side. You can for example have the most productive day while propped up by five pillows in old pants, long socks, and a Dolly Parton T-shirt covered in biscuit crumbs. In fact, some of my best work has been done while looking like I’ve just had a breakdown over the last Hobnob.

One of the other things I love is hearing the words I’ve spent weeks of my life writing, transcribed voices that sprung to life from a seemingly throwaway idea on the back of a napkin, spoken aloud by people I love and admire, to a theatre full of laughing people. That is my drug, my joy, my adrenaline shot to the heart.

Last week, my play The Bastard Children of Remington Steele had a run at London’s Leicester Square Theatre. It was a week that will keep me floating into next year. As with anything where you put yourself ‘out there’, you hate yourself for feeling validated by sales and response, but you sort of have to put that out of your head. It is part of it. The gumption to do it in the first place, closely shadowed by self-loathing. They keep each other in check.

In amongst hating the self-promotion and the fear, I allowed myself a rare slither of pride. Turning up with your cast and a trunk in London’s Theatreland is ruddy exciting. It feels official. It makes the weeks of muttering to yourself seem less like madness and more like an investment.

What allowed the pride to rise like a warm bun in my heart as we drove down Charing Cross on our first night was a little thing, really. I glanced out of the window and saw the red bricks of the Palace Theatre and for a few fleeting moments it was my fourteenth birthday again. I’d been spoilt, taken to the recently opened Planet Hollywood by my lovely mum, who afterwards guided me through the west-end with a mysterious air. There, on the corner outside the theatre, stood my dad. I hadn’t been expecting to see him. But there he was, holding a pint and a present. A butterfly locket. He and my mum smiled at me with the stoic partnership that separated parents must work at. They did well; I was blithely unaware of how hard it was for Mum to do that at times. Dad gestured towards the theatre and I realised we were going inside to watch Les Miserables. I almost exploded with glee.

Thinking about it now, my pride last week wasn’t an ugly indulgence. It was only rightful. It was a tribute to the hard work of my parents. It was a thank you. They worked hard to fill me with confidence and the resources to do things, make things. They gave me the sense of entitlement to the world that we should all feel. It is ours to take.

Passing the Palace, and seeing the ghost of my Dad for a moment, made me feel like I was returning to claim a tiny piece of Theatreland that he’d reserved for me.

It still seems so strange to me that a man who eventually chose to end his life could have succeeded so fruitfully in teaching me how to live mine.

I went on stage, felt the lights on my face like a hug from above. I did my play about fathers; their presence, absence, legacies. And I even remembered my lines. How could I not. They were because of, in spite of, and for him.