Staring mortality in the face

"You're wearing a tie today!"  a colleague excitedly exclaimed on Monday afternoon, as I arrived to collect her in my taxi, something she had never seen me wear before. I explained that I'd taken some time off during the day, to attend the funeral of a gentleman I had known since the early 1970s.  

At primary school in Saint Ebbes in Oxford city centre, I had been good friends with his son and knew the entire family to be people of integrity. Growing up in the area, the gentrification of the parish was something to behold: the demolition of the town gas works and the wholesale clear out of working class people from Oxford city centre to the outlying district of Blackbird Leys, over a bridge and beyond the Oxford ring road.  

Almost the entire parish which our primary school served was obliterated by the building of the original Westgate centre and other local developments in the early 1970s.  And these municipal shopping centre buildings in themselves have now been superceded by the New Westgate, which incorporates some parts of the 1970s brave new world structures. Astonishingly, for the amount of money spent by the developers, it manages to look even more ugly than the outdated architecture which it replaced. 

Attired in our bright red uniform jumpers, we had been marched up the road from our old school, to attend the 1972 opening of the Westgate by The Queen, at the steps in Pennyfarthing Place, close by where Sainsbury's was located and marched up once more when the Queen Mother opened the Central Library, at the Bonn Square end of the centre. 

In those days in Oxford, you typically went to three schools during the course of your education: primary, middle and upper. My school friend and I lost touch in the mid 1970s, when I went off to a Church of England middle school in north Oxford. Our paths never crossed again, in the following forty-one years.  

Until Monday lunchtime, when in the minister's introductory remarks at his father’s funeral service, I learned that my contemporary and friend had predeceased him.   I was sat there in the back row of the chapel, with hoary haired old gentlemen in Oxford club ties, crying for the loss of my friend and for his father, cheek by jowl and standing room only.  

It is an unnatural thing, for children to die before their parents. It has occurred twice in my own family, to my Grandmother, the most remarkable and beautiful woman I have ever known, both of whose children died young, before she did at a great old age. 

The tributes at this week’s funeral and subsequent wake at the village pub were lucid and heartfelt, delivered with love and containing vignettes of local history, references to the infamous Cutteslowe Wall and frozen River Thames, in the nineteen sixties. 

There is nothing like a well-crafted funeral and the news of the passing of your contemporary, for making you stare your own mortality in the face.