When I was young people didn’t die and they didn’t pass away. They certainly didn’t expire, or perish, though there was a woman in our street called Hazel who dabbled in spiritualism while her philandering husband went out to fix people’s Hotpoint twin-tubs, and she quite often spoke of people who had ‘crossed to the other side’. I thought that was sick. Hazel had a lot of anger in her, as people now say, and I felt that must explain her hazardous use of words. She’d met Sandy, her husband, when he drove one of the Alexander buses about the town of Elgin. She happened to be the clippy on the same bus, and she would often tell me about the beauty of those single-decker vehicles (‘the Bluebird’) and the handsomeness of Sandy behind the wheel. Now she was furious all the time, and took it out on her accordion, playing Strathspey reels until the red varnish flaked off her fingernails.
In our town it was all in the words. Nobody was ever ‘dearly’ anything, certainly not ‘departed’. ‘Deceased’ seemed a bit high and mighty, even allowing for the fact that in Scotland everyone’s station is slightly raised by their having enjoyed, if you will, the process of personal death. People in my childhood found the word ‘death’ unsayable, and got round it by saying, of someone whose corpse lay in the next room, that ‘something had happened.’
‘If anything ever happens to me,’ my mother would say, ‘you’ll find the Liverpool Assurance policy book in the cupboard up above the stock cubes.’
‘If something happens to me,’ my grandmother said, ‘don’t put me up in that Dalbeth Cemetery. It’s a cold place.’
And my father too. ‘If anything ever happens to me you’ll know what life’s all about.’
‘What do you mean “if”?’ I would say. ‘Why can’t you just say “when I die”?’
‘You think you’re that smart,’ my granny would say. ‘But that’s just a morbid thing, to use that word.’
‘Don’t say it! It’s a horrible word.’
‘Stop it,’ my mother would say. ‘I hate talking like this, but if something happens to me . . .’
‘What do you mean “if”? And what do you mean “something”? The thing that will happen to you is called death and there’s no ifs or buts about it.’
‘He’s so pessimistic him, isn’t he?’ my granny would say. ‘Always had a dark side. Probably got it from his uncle Peter. He was like that as well. Morbid.’
‘You’re just trying to draw attention to yourself,’ my father would say. ‘If something ever happens to you, I suppose you’ll want one of them statues to yourself up in the Glasgow Necropolis.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘The sign could say: “Up here, something did happen to Andrew O’Hagan. Like each of us, he wondered if it would happen. And it did.”’
Something happened to my second ever schoolteacher, Mrs Wallace. We saw her totally somethinged in her coffin under a huge crucifix of Jesus Christ, to whom, by the look of the nails and the blood running down his arms and toes, there might also have been a question of something happening. Mrs Wallace was a champion smoker and worrier of rosary beads. She took a liking to me, giving me the not entirely popular task of writing pupils’ names on the blackboard if they spoke while she was out having a fag. I was so unremitting and cruel with the chalk that Mrs Wallace figured me to be a potential candidate for the priesthood; she got me my first gig ringing the bell on the altar at St Winnin’s, though a combination of sleepiness and professional jealousy on my part was to harm my chances of advancement in the eyes of Father McLaughlin.
Mrs Wallace’s funeral was my first one, and in some senses no funeral could ever have the same intensity, not even my own in the event that anything should ever happen to me. I sat through the funeral mass, aged seven, in a state of shock, with all the pasty-faced solemnity of a Pre-Raphaelite mourner confronting the eternal, my intense concentration broken only for a second by the gentle passing of the family, who I knew instantly must be counted the stars of the occasion, each of them top to toe in respectful, chalk-free, something-comprehending black. My seniority in the diocese was not marked by an invitation to the graveside, but I did go there two years later, taking the bus to a populous cemetery in the small town of Stevenson. Mrs Wallace’s spot was up against the right-hand wall, deep in the shadow of the Ardeer Explosives Factory. Of course, something has since happened to the factory and its cooling towers too, but I remember their real presence in that Stevenson graveyard. In a tangle of crosses and angels it said on the gravestone ‘Mary Wallace’, the chiselled words seeming to embody in some powerful and menacing way the mysteries of faith.
In the via Monserrato, a few weeks before the pope’s death, the light seemed yellow against the rain, and Rome seemed a place not of eternities but of passing trade. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor entered the restaurant in his civilian uniform of open-necked shirt and windcheater, smiling to the waiters and taking his usual table. I didn’t approach him, but took time to notice the high-spiritedness of his friends, happy to be in the company of the head of the English Catholics, a man not given to any obvious show of relaxation but, rather, seeming constantly anxious about being behind with business.
Nearby is the English College, or the Venerable English College, as its fanbase likes to call it. Father Clive was waiting on the steps for me. He was in his late twenties, very neat, soft-toned and red-cheeked, and he welcomed me into the building in the manner of someone obeying time and tradition, naming the exact moment on his watch before telling me I was the latest visitor in a tradition of literary visitors stretching back to John Milton. He said it very kindly, but I wanted to laugh. However, something high in his red cheeks warned me neither to laugh nor to make any reference to Paradise Lost. I simply smiled and composed my wits and followed him over the black and claret tiles to the Martyr’s Chapel.
‘This is a 14th-century floor,’ Father Clive said. ‘The college is the oldest of all English institutions abroad.’ He showed me a little pond in the garden where students swam in the hot months. They called it the ‘tank’ and it conveyed to me an image of passengers bathing in the swimming pool of a sinking ship. But the mood of the college did not suggest sinking: there is a form of religious devotion which can, at a certain time in the evening in a place such as Rome, seem to shape the very air itself, though I presume only Catholics could suppose so. In any event the English College had the kind of peacefulness that ancientness alone can bestow – the young men walked the hall knowing the world they walked in possessed the texture of meditation and martyrdom, of prayers uttered and strong beliefs confirmed. Yet round the corner in the Campo de’ Fiori, the statue of Giordano Bruno stands high above a modern centre of bar snacks, designer scarves and trendy beers, a statue reminding those who care to be reminded that modernity has its martyrs too.
My paternal grandmother ran a fishshop in Glasgow that had nothing on the walls but a framed print of the dying Christ. She used to tell children that they should mind to behave themselves, because – and she’d point at the picture – ‘that’s what he got for being good.’ My grandmother took the modern world to be a simple affront to her sense of right and wrong; Protestants were barbarians to her mind, and she refused to attend my cousin’s wedding when he married one. I remember the conversation. My father said to her: ‘Do you hate Pakis as well?’
‘No, Gerald,’ she replied. ‘I don’t hate anybody. I’ve never stepped inside a Protestant church in my life and I’m not going to start doing it now.’
I once wrote some words on a piece of paper and pushed them to her across the sofa. They said: ‘You like authority more than freedom.’ She just looked at me. I like to think that inside the moment that contained the look, she told me, without saying anything, that I was trouble. My father had once thrown a lemonade bottle through her window and that was a kind of trouble she could dislike but understand. Her look told me that my kind of trouble was worse. She looked away and crumpled up the paper and put it on the fire.
I was ten years old when John Paul II came to power. My granny instantly adored him, loving his feudal side without reservation and simply ignoring the freedom-upholding aspect. The only thing she was truly agnostic about was politics: she never mentioned that, and her only concern when it came to sports was whether Celtic were likely to beat Rangers. She had no worries about Communism, though; she worried about poor people and she came from poor people, but that was it, except she might say that poor Protestants had brought it on themselves with a well-known aversion to a day’s work. She didn’t live long enough to see John Paul II’s visit to Glasgow and his giant mass in Bellahouston Park. (She missed it by a year.) ‘There is one Lord,’ he said on that occasion, ‘one faith, one baptism, and one God who is father of us all, all over, through all and within all.’ She would have levitated with pleasure at that line, and the whole business of him saying it in Glasgow would have represented to her a victory far greater than anything achieved at Bannockburn.
The night before the pope died, Rome became a great character in its own fiction, seizing and displaying all parts of itself to the world’s television cameras. But two rather complicated images of Rome came back to me. The first was of Dorothea Brooke stuck in the via Sistina while her husband worked all day in the Vatican Library. George Eliot gave us to believe that Dorothea felt bleached and drained of blood by the ruins, basilicas and colossi of Rome, those ‘long vistas of white forms whose marble eyes seemed to hold the monstrous light of an alien world’. For the new Mrs Casaubon, Rome’s spiritual splendour, its role as historic centre, could only suck the colour from the present day, and I wondered, looking at those two high, lighted windows in the pope’s apartments, whether there wasn’t something overblown and cinematic about the event of his death, like the drama of the great operas which can sometimes seem the wrong sort for the small human business at hand. An old man was dying in those rooms; the pomp of history had the will to rob the matter of its most present sadness.
‘Dorothea all her life,’ George Eliot wrote, ‘continued to see the vastness of St Peter’s, the huge bronze canopy, the excited intention in the attitudes and garments of the prophets and evangelists in the mosaics above, and the red drapery . . . spreading itself like a disease of the retina.’ On the day of the funeral the Church showed much of the strength that lies in its hierarchical weave. The coffin had layers too, cypress and zinc inside oak, and was flanked by scarlet cardinals who themselves were flanked by purple bishops and black-clad dignitaries, in the folds of which stood Cherie Blair with her mantilla blowing in the wind, and further in again, the Bushes looking bored and slightly vexed as they always do abroad, him especially, forever scanning the middle distance for un-American mirages. Fold within fold the dignitaries stood, queens, princes, heathen courtiers, and in some dark pocket at the outer edge the future king of England lowered his eyes to shake the hand of Robert Mugabe.
We live in cultish times – not to say, occultist ones – in which it seems not unreasonable for people, en masse, to weep in the streets for public figures they previously cared little about. Pope John Paul II was pretty much like that himself, creating more saints than any other pope, and so it appeared natural that thousands of mourners interrupted the funeral with cries of ‘Santo Subito!’ The papers said the mourners were mostly Poles, but in fact they were mainly Italians, giving him back a little bit of what he gave them: an excited neediness for supra-human entitlement. There was a great deal of clapping as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offered his words of appreciation to the dead pontiff. Clapping is the way it is always done nowadays, clapping in church, clapping by roadsides, as if a surge of assent had no outlet bar through the palms. What is a saint these days but a celebrity whose fame is guaranteed for ever? And so we have it: applause, the currency of fame.
‘Shhh, we are in a church,’ Anita Ekberg says as she climbs to St Peter’s dome in La Dolce Vita. ‘This is where I want to write my name,’ she says, and the photographers chase her up the steps with lightbulbs popping. Ekberg at the top of St Peter’s basilica, as much as her dip in the Trevi fountain, looking almost bleached with attention, is an image of public-personhood becoming a sort of religion. Her hat is blown off and she giggles as it falls down to St Peter’s Square, to the place where the princes of the Church and the princes of the world now attend this funeral, watched in their turn by cameras from every corner of the earth.
The very best ironies live their lives inside other ironies. Henry VIII changed his relationship with the Catholic Church so as to enable himself to marry his chosen bride. (Sadly, something happened to her.) Five hundred years later, Prince Charles changes the date of his wedding to his chosen bride so as to attend the funeral of the head of the Catholic Church. We can be sure of only one dissimilarity between these two English royals: Henry wasn’t forced into his decision by a fear of the Daily Mail. Charles, like Henry, has come to find fame despicable, and also to find himself shadowed by the public image of a dead former wife, but unlike his Tudor forebear, he appears to have no ability to force his will, allowing every potential show of principle to appear like a fluttering of small resentments.
It may be the chief characteristic of the Windsor dynasty, this ability to make grand things small. The Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, wrote a poem for the wedding which rather effectively takes them out of the great tide of history and into the more local business of the heart,
which slips and sidles like a stream
Weighed down by winter-wreckage near its
But given time, and come the clearing rain,
Breaks loose to revel in its proper course.
This was nicely said, more nicely said than the matter was achieved, as Charles and Camilla came down Windsor High Street to the Guildhall in the style of two people going to a Saturday morning jumble sale, their hearts not yet very obviously revelling in their proper course but still detained by the weight of year-round wreckage. As they emerged from their car, a local steel band tried to add lightness, and cover a few boos, with a rendition of ‘Congratulations’, a song once sung by Cliff Richard to remind people that happiness is a feeling constantly under threat from the songs that celebrate it. ‘Beautiful white dress,’ the woman from the BBC said.
‘Hardly white,’ the person beside me said. ‘She’s got two huge children.’
‘It wasn’t quite white,’ said Trinny, one of those women off What Not to Wear. ‘More like oyster.’
There’s a bit of bunting round the pubs and a few grannies waving Union Jacks and eating buns. No tea-trays. No street parties. In almost every respect it was like the suburban wedding of two elderly people who got it wrong first time around. Camilla did look happy: she’s the sort of person who goes to lunch with her daughter and steals her chips and smokes her cigarettes, so she must be fine. She and Charles signed the register on a little table below a stained glass window bearing the legend of George V and the year 1951, when Charles was three years old and his mother was four years married, still a princess in a world before British steel bands and Cliff Richard.
‘Here they come,’ the BBC said.
‘Oh, they look a bit awkward,’ said James Whitaker, Royal Expert. ‘Oh well. Never mind. She’s finally got him in her grip.’
‘I don’t think I am wallowing in exuberant excitement,’ said Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror. ‘I think there will be a sigh of relief among the public that there is now some legitimacy about this couple.’ Mr Morgan managed to be consistently polite about the royal pair, quite forgetting, perhaps, the stuff about Camilla he’d included in his recent book of diaries, The Insider. At one point in the book he describes having lunch with William and his mother. ‘Oh, mummy, it was hilarious,’ he has William say about a television show. ‘They had a photo of Mrs Parker-Bowles and a horse’s head and asked what the difference was. The answer was that there isn’t any.’ Morgan adds: ‘Diana absolutely exploded with laughter.’
Everybody at the royal wedding was watching everybody else to such an extent that the BBC’s female commentator, Sophie Raworth, dressed in a dutiful pea-green suit by Caroline Charles, entirely lost her footing when Piers Morgan pointed out that she was wearing exactly the same outfit as Virginia Parker-Bowles, the second wife of Camilla’s first husband. Sophie was clearly put out that something so suitable for her own foxy self should be thought appropriate for Granny Frump, and went unprofessionally silent for a while. It used to be that the British public looked on these occasions with a subject’s sense of inclusion, seeing very clearly their own role and their own station in the whole affair. Now, they watch as one might watch a freak show or a procession of soap stars, which is more or less the same thing.
‘Eeeeech,’ the person next to me said as the guests arrived. ‘He’s got super-posh hair! Like sparse candyfloss. Look at these people, they’re so well-bred they’re practically wraiths. Look. No hips at all.’
‘They don’t look especially clean,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s super-posh. Like the Queen Mother, who didn’t do anything about her little brown teeth. In that respect they’re like the working-class people who love them.’
‘They can’t help it,’ I said.
‘Yes they can. They’re just out of touch. Everybody’s got fabulous teeth now. Diana had great teeth. These skinny men are all a terrible throwback.’
‘With bad teeth.’
‘Yeah. Toilet teeth. Eeeeeech! There’s Trudi Styler. She’s super-dirty. Look at her loving the camera. O, look at her. She just wants to lift up her skirt and do it.’
During the blessing in St George’s Chapel, Grieg’s ‘Last Spring’ from ‘Two Elegiac Melodies’ bled into Wordworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’, and Camilla stood at the altar wearing a hat which briefly put one in mind of a cross between Julius Caesar and the Statue of Liberty, a combination appropriate, perhaps, to her position in the royal household. Generally speaking, however, the white suburban theme managed very well to survive the austere beauty of the 15th-century chapel. The groom cajoled his bride to remember her words, the young guests waved and blew kisses, the mother-in-law sat through the whole thing with a face like fizz, the buses waited outside to take everyone to the reception – ‘pragmatic, pragmatic, pragmatic,’ the BBC said – and the people outside looked exactly like people who hadn’t waited outside all night for a place at the front (as people did in their tens of thousands when Charles married Diana) but, rather, as if they’d stopped for a peek on their way to Sainsbury’s. The royals walked out of the chapel to the theme-music from the Antiques Roadshow, or was it Handel’s Water Music?
Saul Bellow seemed to me to possess more moral lustre than your average pope, but then I only read him, I didn’t marry him, as five people did. The pope and Saul Bellow were enemies of nihilism in one form or another, and I would have given anything to hear a conversation between the two, the Pole so miniature in his certainties on the one side, and the novelist so grand with his Russian genes and his American talk, so large in his openness to being absolutely sure about nothing. Great writers are fonts of ambivalence, and the coverage of Bellow’s death (a subject he had covered very precisely himself) seemed allied to his greatest efforts as a maker of life on the page. Bellow was better at seeing things – the true good and the true bad in things – than the routines of politics and religions would have allowed him to be. No one said it, but he was always at his least imaginative when he offered his political opinions.
Lying between the West and Connecticut Rivers, the town of Brattleboro, Vermont, was built on modest profits from water and music. It was a resort town before the Civil War, famous for the ‘Water Cure’ at the Brattleboro Hydropathic Establishment, which drew on the pure springs along the Whetstone Brook. The town later produced reed organs – ‘providing music for the whole of America’ – but the once flourishing factories of the Estey Organ Company are closed now, the buildings empty in their acres, representing in that windowless way a complete view on another time.
Saul Bellow’s funeral took place in the Jewish section of the town’s large cemetery. Brattleboro has a complicated relationship with still waters, but the rabbi made reference to them in both Hebrew and English, via Psalm 23. Bellow’s imagination was no stranger to the valley of the shadow of death; that same shadow picks out the true lineaments of Herzog or Citrine or Albert Corde – ‘death,’ Bellow said, was ‘the black backing on the mirror that allows us to see anything at all’. Still, it is not easy to think of Bellow’s grave, the people there putting a soul to rest whose excellence had lain in its modern restlessness.
A friend of mine tells me there were about sixty at the grave. The rabbi explained that Bellow had asked for a traditional Jewish burial – quite spare and simple. He also said that Bellow had wanted them to finish the job, that his funeral should not be merely figurative, that each person at the graveside was to throw a shovel of dirt onto the coffin. The family went first, using the shovel, then came Philip Roth, who threw the soil into the grave with his hands. Almost everyone else went up to pick up the shovel. ‘What was remarkable,’ my friend said, ‘was that one was reminded of the sheer labour it takes to replace all that soil. For half an hour, it must have been, there was silence, as we dug into the mound and threw the earth onto the coffin.’
In Rome, as the wind fluttered the pages of Holy Writ laid on top of the pope’s coffin, it seemed, for all the hosannas, that the coffin contained someone who had spent many years denouncing the reality of the world in favour of an elevated fiction. Yet, of the two men, of the two imaginations, who could argue that Bellow was not the real pro-lifer? It might be counted a shame, considering the size of his constituency, that the pope never saw the funny side of eternity, a side that even Bellow’s minor characters were apt to cosy up to. But still it is hard to think of all that invention and hilarity encoffined.
Prince Rainier of Monaco believed in miracles. ‘Either prayer works or it doesn’t,’ he once said. ‘And I believe it works.’ With these words he made his way to Lourdes in the mid-1950s in the company of his personal priest, an American, Father Francis Tucker, to pray to Mary the Blessed Mother for the safe delivery to him of a good and beautiful Catholic bride. Grace Kelly was the answer to his prayers: ‘I want to thank you for showing the prince what an American Catholic girl can be,’ Father Tucker wrote to the Hollywood star, ‘and for the very deep impression this has left on him.’
When Kelly left New York on the SS Constitution, on 4 April 1956, she was turning her back, as the newspapers liked to say, on Hollywood dreams in order to live a real-life fairytale. But there were more than a hundred reporters on board the ship, a fact which begins to tell you how her tale was also a nightmare. Like Anita Ekberg’s climb to St Peter’s dome, Grace Kelly’s wedding a decade earlier was a dramatic moment – a poetic moment, one might say – in the destruction of private life. In 1981, a year before she died, Kelly attended a gala event in London and stood next to Diana, the new Princess of Wales, who wept on the older princess’s arm when they went to the loo. ‘Don’t worry, dear,’ the former actress said. ‘It will only get worse.’
Flags were tied back with black ribbons, coastal waters were off-limits to all shipping, the casinos were closed, and Monte Carlo’s manhole covers were sealed against the possibility of terrorists the day they buried Prince Rainier. The fort above the bay sent cannon fire into the empty waters and half the principality’s six thousand residents lined the road to the cathedral, the building where Rainier Grimaldi married Grace Kelly fifty years ago and where he was soon to join her remains in the family crypt. Several of the dignitaries were suffering from Eurolag – Rome, London, Windsor, Monaco – but Monaco-Matin declared it ‘an intimate but planetary funeral’.
The Grimaldis have brought more libel and invasion of privacy lawsuits than any other family in Europe. Where the cardinals in Rome had almost strutted for CNN, Monaco’s female royals hid behind black lace headscarves, crying alongside Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, seemingly exhausted by loss and a lifetime’s trial by cameras. Prince Rainier got his sweet Catholic girl and people got their fairytale, but strangely, under the arc lights and the pageant colours signifying seven hundred years of continuous reign, the Grimaldis looked done-in, as if they had come to realise that love was not the story after all. Prince Albert stared through the mass and I wondered if that look on his face did not acknowledge the fact that his life was not his own. The funeral was not a celebration of love but another reckoning with cruel fate. ‘History is the history of cruelty,’ Herzog said. ‘Not love, as soft men think.’
This has been an odd fortnight for the authorities. New lights have appeared in the Vatican apartments. The tombs are sealed and Cardinal Ratzinger has mounted the throne as Pope Benedict XVI. In Brattleboro, Vermont, trains trundle past the cemetery and summer visitors begin to stand in line for the Estey Organ Company Museum. The casinos are open in Monte Carlo and private boats once again take their own chances with romance and death in the clear blue of the Mediterranean. The bunting is down in Windsor High Street, and children continue to rendezvous at the doors of Burger King and up the street and round the corner at the gates of Eton College. It’s all nothing in the children’s eyes.