A couple of months after my dad died, I was involved in a hideous day-long work brainstorm, where hours of your life are wrenched away from you, while you attempt to answer questions like 'Who is the reader?' (Answer: Someone who drinks white wine, shops at Topshop – but Karen Millen on payday – and is apparently uninterested in buying the failing magazine we were working for.) I was miserable with grief; insane with attempting to subdue it between the hours of 10 and 6 and understand it in all the other hours. On that day, in those hours, being intensively work-farmed with one side of my face wedged against a flipchart and a magic marker in my hand seemed intolerable.
Somewhere on the other side of town, George Best was dying a bizarrely public death, at a very similar age to my dad. Every time we took a break from work (and there are many breaks in this kind of day, so much so that you wish everyone could exercise a little more bladder control and a little less of the compulsion to eat so that you could all go home three hours earlier) we were released into a refreshments room which had a big screen tuned into a news channel. There you could escape neither the Pavlovian consumption of at least four bland biscuits at a time, nor the rolling reports on each tiny increment of George Best's expiration, a tireless countdown of his elapsing quota of heartbeats. 'It really is very near the end now.' 'Only a couple more hours.' 'This really is it.'
I remember very clearly how unfathomable it was to me, after my own recent experience of someone dying. The sense of spectacle and expectation afforded to George Best seemed incomparable to the way John C Jones, 61, had quietly left the family home one afternoon, after exchanging with his wife the routine but never less than totally heartfelt pleasantries of a harmonious 40-year marriage – and never returned. Just one man, quietly leaving the world, opening a door, stepping through it, closing it silently behind him, while everyone else carried on shopping or working or watching Countdown. He was a man who didn't care for a fuss, struggled with the burden of small talk, and in the face of attention and acclaim would rather repair to the garage and repair something. It was a wholly appropriate exit. I couldn't equate what had happened to him with what was happening to George Best.
I wonder now if it was just because I was seeing coldly and starkly, from the outside, the enormity of what it means when someone dies. When you're in the thick of The Bereavement Experience, it's hard to fathom the scale of it. Probably because if you could, it would drive you mad. (It actually did drive me fairly mad, but that's another story). It's like when you go to Paris and you stand under the Eiffel Tower and you can't really see how tall it is, but when you're streets and streets away, you think, 'Look at the size of that.' That was a metaphor, by the way. You're so consumed with getting through the day, and then getting through the next day, and wondering why every part of your body feels so incredibly heavy, and when you might feel normal again, and what did that even feel like anyway, it's hard to conceive of the massive, defining thing that has happened to one of the people you love the most.
Or maybe that's not it at all.
Anyway, now, three and a half years later, working on and around various celebrity magazines who are consumed with the failing health of Jade Goody, and the optimum time printing-schedule-wise for the worst to happen, that sense of strangeness and confusion is creeping back in. Neither Jade Goody nor George Best lived a life that was more giving or worthwhile than my dad's. Why are they different? Because they are famous obviously. Because Jade Goody is young. Because George Best made boys kicking cans in alleys believe they could do anything. But I know from my privileged position of first-degree family member, and also from the letters we were sent, and the stories we were told, that my dad lived most days of his quiet life being determinedly kind and instructive, providing and enthusing and, as it turned out, inspiring in his own small way. When I think about that, I always think of George Eliot, and how he had it right at the end of Middlemarch:
'...the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.'
[Miss W, I hope I didn't spoil the ending.]