The Laying on of Hands

Alan Bennett

Seated obscurely towards the back of the church and on a side aisle, Treacher was conscious nevertheless of being much looked at. Tall, thin and with a disagreeable expression, were this a film written forty years ago he would have been played by the actor Raymond Huntley who, not unvinegary in life, in art made a speciality of ill-tempered businessmen and officious civil servants. Treacher was neither but he, too, was nothing to look at. Yet several times he caught women (and it was women particularly) bending forward in their seats to get a better view of him across the aisle; a murmured remark passed between a couple in front, the woman then turning round, ostensibly to take in the architecture but actually to look at him, whereas others in the congregation dispensed with such polite circumspection and just stared.

Unwelcome enough in any circumstances, this scrutiny was not at all what Treacher had had in mind when he had come into the church fully half an hour before the service was due to start, a precaution against having his hand shaken at the door by the vicar. Such redundant clerical conviviality was always distasteful to Treacher but on this occasion he had a particular reason for avoiding it. Luckily the vicar was not to be seen but, early as he was, Treacher had still had to run the gauntlet of a woman in the porch, a reporter presumably, who was making a record of those attending the memorial service. She held out her book for him to sign.

‘Name and organisation?’

But Treacher had pushed past as if she were a lowlier form of autograph hunter. ‘Not important,’ he said, though whether he meant he was not important or that it was not important his name be recorded was not plain.

‘I’ll put you under “and many other friends”,’ she had called after him, though in fact he had never met the deceased and did not even know his name.

Somewhere out of the way was what he wanted, where he could see and not be seen and well back on the side aisle he thought he had found it, instead of which the fuller the church became the more he seemed the focus of attention. It was very vexing.

In fact no one was looking at Treacher at all, except when they pretended to look at him in order also to take in someone sitting in the row behind. A worldlier man than Treacher, if worldliness consists in watching television, would have known why. Seated behind him was a thick-set shaven-headed young man in dark glasses, black suit and black T-shirt who, minus the shades and occasionally (and far too rarely some viewers felt) minus the T-shirt, appeared nightly on the nation’s screens in a television soap. The previous week he had stunned his audience when, with no excuse whatsoever, he had raped his mother, and though it later transpired she had been begging for it for some time and was actually no relation at all, nevertheless some vestiges of the nation’s fascinated revulsion still clung to him. In life, though, as he was at pains to point out to any chat-show host who would listen, he was a pussy-cat and indeed, within minutes of the maternal rape, he could be found on another channel picking out the three items of antique furniture he would invest in were his budget limited to £500.

None of this Treacher knew, only becoming aware of the young man when an usher spotted him and insisted on shepherding the modest hunk to a more prominent seat off the centre aisle next to a chef who, though famously disgruntled in the workplace, now smilingly shifts along to accommodate the big-thighed newcomer. After his departure Treacher was relieved, though not unpuzzled, to find himself invisible once more and so able to look unobserved at the incoming congregation.

There was quite a throng, with people still crowding through the door and a small queue now stretching over the worn and greasy gravestones that paved this London churchyard. The flanks of the queue were harried by autograph hunters and the occasional photographer, outlying celebrities meekly signing as they shuffled on towards the door. One or two did refuse, on the justifiable grounds that this wasn’t a first night (and more of a closing than an opening), but the autograph hunters were impatient of such scruples, considering themselves wilfully thwarted. ‘Choosy cow,’ one muttered as he turned away from some glacial TV newsreader, brightening only when he spotted an ageing disc jockey he had thought long since dead.

The huddled column pressed on up the steps.

As memorial services go these days it had been billed as ‘a celebration’, the marrying of the valedictory with the festive convenient on several grounds. For a start it made grief less obligatory, which was useful as the person to be celebrated had been dead some time and tears would have been something of an acting job. To call it a celebration also allowed the congregation to dress up not down, so that though the millinery might be more muted, one could have been forgiven, thought Treacher, for thinking this was a wedding not a wake.

Clive Dunlop, the dead man, was quite young – 34 according to the dates given on the front of the Order of Service, though there were some in the congregation who had thought him even younger. Still, it was a shocking age to die, there was no disagreement about that and what little conviviality there might have been was muffled accordingly.

Knowing the deceased, many of those filing into the church in surprisingly large numbers also knew each other, though in the circumstances prevailing at funerals and memorial services this is not always easy to tell as recognition tends to be kept to a minimum – the eye downcast, the smile on hold, any display of pleasure at the encounter or even shared grief postponed until the business of the service is done – however sad the professionally buoyant clergyman will generally assure the congregation that that business is not going to be.

True, there were a number of extravagant one-word embraces, ‘Bless!’ for instance, and even ‘Why?’, a despairing invocation that seemed more appropriate for the actual interment which (though nobody seemed quite to know where) appeared to have taken place some six months previously. Extravagant expressions of sorrow seemed out of place here, if only because a memorial service, as the clergyman will generally insist, is a positive occasion, the negative side of the business (though they seldom come out baldly with this) over and done with at the disposal of the body. Because, however upbeat a priest manages to be (and indeed his creed requires him to be), it’s hard not to feel that cheerful though the memorial service can be, the actual interment does tend to be a bit of a downer.

Still, discreet funerals and extravagant memorial services are not unusual these days, the finality of death mitigated by staggering it over two stages. ‘Of course there’ll be a memorial service,’ people say, excusing their non-attendance at the emotionally more demanding (and socially less enjoyable) obsequies. And it is generally the case now-adays that anybody who is anybody is accorded a memorial service – and sometimes an anybody who isn’t.

Hard to say what Clive was, for instance, though taking note of the numerous celebrities who were still filing in, ‘well-connected’ would undoubtedly describe him.

Dubbing such a service a celebration was, thought Treacher, a mistake as it could be thought to license a degree of whoopee. The Order of Service included a saxophone solo, which was ominous, and Treacher’s misgivings were confirmed when a young man sat down heavily in the pew in front, laid his Order of Service on the ledge then put his cigarettes and lighter beside it.

She was in the next pew, but spotting the cigarettes the spirits of a recently ennobled novelist rose. ‘You can smoke,’ she whispered.

Her companion shook her head. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘I see no signs saying not. Is that one?’

Fumbling for her spectacles she peered at a plaque affixed to a pillar.

‘I think,’ said her friend, ‘that’s one of the Stations of the Cross.’

‘Really? Well I’m sure I saw an ashtray as I was coming in.’

‘That was holy water.’

In the light of these accessories, more often to be met with in Roman Catholic establishments, it was hardly surprising if some of the congregation were in doubt as to the church’s denomination, which was actually Anglican, though a bit on the high side.

‘I can smell incense,’ said a feared TV interviewer to his actress friend. ‘Are we in a Catholic church?’

She had once stabbed a priest to death in a film involving John Mills so knew about churches. ‘Yes,’ she said firmly.

At which point a plumpish man in a cassock crossed the chancel in order to collect a book from a pew, bowing to the altar en route.

‘See that,’ said the interviewer. ‘The bowing? That’s part of the drill. Though it looks a bit pick ‘n’ mix to me. Mind you, that’s the trend these days. Ecumenicalism. I talked to the Pope about it once. Sweet man.’

‘I missed the funeral,’ whispered one woman to her vaguely known neighbour. ‘I didn’t even know it had happened.’

‘Same with me,’ the neighbour whispered back. ‘I think it was private. What did he die of?’

The sight of a prominent actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company gliding humbly to an empty place in the front row curtailed further discussion, though it was the prototype of several similar conversations going on in various parts of the church. Other people were trying to recall why it was they had failed to attend a funeral which ought to have been high on their lists. Was it in the provinces they wondered, which would account for it, or one of the obscurer parts of South London … Sydenham, say, or Catford, venues that would be a real test of anybody’s friendship?

It had actually been in Peru, a fact known to very few people in the congregation though in the subdued hum of conversation that preceded the start of the service this news and the unease it generated began to spread. Perhaps out of tact the question, ‘What did he die of?’ was not much asked and when it was sometimes prompted a quizzical look suggesting it was a question best left unput; that, or a sad smile implying Clive had succumbed not to any particular ailment but to the general tragedy that is life itself.

Spoken or unspoken, the uncertain circumstances of the death, its remote location and the shocking prematureness of it contributed to an atmosphere of gloom and, indeed, apprehension in the church. There was conversation but it was desultory and subdued; many people’s thoughts seemed to be on themselves. Few of them attended a place of worship with any regularity, their only contact with churches occasions like this, which, as was ruefully remarked in several places in the congregation, ‘seemed to be happening all too often these days’.

To Treacher, glancing at the details on the front of the Order of Service it was all fairly plain. He was a single man who had died young. Thirty-four. These days there was not much mystery about that.

‘He told me 30, the scamp,’ said one of the many smart women who was craning round to see who was still coming in. ‘But then he would.’

‘I thought he was younger,’ said someone else. ‘But he looked after himself.’

‘Not well enough,’ said her husband, whose wife’s grief had surprised him. ‘I never understood where the money came from.’

Anyone looking at the congregation and its celebrity assortment could be forgiven for thinking that Clive had been a social creature. This wasn’t altogether true and this numinous gathering studded with household names was less a manifestation of his friendships than an advertisement for his discretion.

It was true that many of those present knew each other and virtually all of them knew Clive. But that the others knew Clive not all of them knew and only woke up to the fact when they had settled in their seats and started looking round. So while most memorial services take place in an atmosphere of suppressed recognition and reunion to this one was added an element of surprise, many of those present having come along on the assumption they would be among a select few.

Finding this was far from the case the surprise was not untinged with irritation. Or as a go-for-the-throat Australian wordsmith put it to her companion, ‘Why, the two-faced pisshole.’

Diffidence was much to the fore. A leading international architect, one of whose airports had recently sprung a leak, came down the centre aisle, waiting at the end of a pew until someone made room, his self-effacing behaviour and downcast eyes proclaiming him a person of some consequence humbled by the circumstances in which he currently found himself and which might have been allegorically represented on a ceiling, say (although not one of his), as Fame deferring to Mortality. ‘Do not recognise me,’ his look said. ‘I am here only to grieve.’

Actually, compared with the soap-stars he hardly counted as famous at all. The world of celebrity in England, at any rate, is small. Whereas fame in America vaults over the barriers of class and profession, lawyers rubbing shoulders with musicians, politicians and stars of the stage and screen, in England, television apart, celebrity comes in compartments, Who’s Who not always the best guide to who’s who. Thus here Fame did not always recognise Reputation or Beauty Merit.

A high official in the Treasury, for instance, had got himself seated next to a woman who kept consulting her powder compact, her renown as bubbling game-show host as wasted on him as his skill in succinct summation was lost on her. Worlds collided but with no impact at all, so while what few lawyers there were knew the politicians and some of the civil servants none of them knew the genial wag who pounced on reluctant volunteers and teased out their less than shamefaced confessions on late-night TV. The small-screen gardeners knew the big-screen heart-throbs but none of them recognised ‘someone high up in the Bank of England’ (‘and I don’t mean the window-cleaner,’ whispered a man who did).

Much noticed, though, was a pop singer who had been known to wear a frock but was today dressed in a suit of stunning sobriety, relieved only by a diamond clasp that had once belonged to Catherine the Great and which was accompanied by an obligatory security guard insisted on by the insurance company. This bovine young man lounged in the pew picking his fingers, happy already to have pinpointed Suspect No. 1, the Waynflete Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Oxford who, timid though he was, clearly had villain written all over him.

In front of the Professor was a member of the Government, who was startled to find himself opposite his Permanent Secretary, seated on the other side of the aisle.

‘I didn’t know you knew Dunlop,’ the minister said the next day as they plodded through some meeting on carbon monoxide emissions.

‘Oh, I knew him from way back,’ said the civil servant airily.

‘Me too,’ said the minister. ‘Way back.’

Actually the minister had only met Clive quite recently, just after he became a minister in fact, but this ‘way back’ in which both of them took refuge was a time so remote and unspecific that anything that might have happened then was implicitly excused by their youth and the temper of the times. ‘I knew him in the Sixties’ would have been the same, except that Clive was too young for that.

‘At some point,’ murmured the minister, ‘I want you to take me on one side and explain to me the difference between carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Fairly star-studded, wasn’t it?’

It was, indeed, a remarkable assembly with philanthropy, scholarship and genuine distinction represented alongside much that was tawdry and merely fashionable, so that with only a little licence this stellar, but tarnished throng might, for all its shortcomings, be taken as a version of England.

And ‘a very English occasion’ was how it was described by the reporter in the Telegraph the next day. Not that she was in a position to know as she hadn’t bothered to stay for the service. Currently taking down the names of the last few stragglers she compiled her list, procured a programme of the proceedings, then went off to the Design Museum to lunch with a colleague.

‘After all,’ she said over oeufs en gêlée, ‘they’re all the same these occasions. Like sad cocktail parties without the drinks.’

This one as it turned out wasn’t, so she got the sack. But it was a nice lunch.

Also thinking how English these occasions tended to be was the young priest in charge, Father Geoffrey Jolliffe. Father Jolliffe was Anglican but with Romish inclinations that were not so much doctrinal as ceremonial and certainly sartorial. Amiable, gregarious and plump, he looked well in the cloak he generally went about in, a priest with a bit of a swish to him. His first curacy had been in a slum parish where, as he put it, ‘They like a bit of that,’ and since he did too, his ministry got off to a good start and that he chose to call the Eucharist ‘Mass’ and himself ‘Father’ troubled no one. His present parish, St Andrew Upchance on the borders of Shoreditch and the City, was also poor, but he had done a good deal to ‘turn it round’, an achievement that had not gone unnoticed in the diocese, where he was spoken of as a coming man.

There were, it is true, some of his fellow clergy who found him altogether too much, but as he said himself, ‘There’s not enough of “too much” these days,’ and since he was a lively preacher and old-fashioned when it came to the prayer book, a large and loyal congregation seemed to bear this out.

Used at his normal services to women predominating, today Father Jolliffe was not altogether surprised to find so many men turning up. Some of them had been close to Clive, obviously, but that apart, in his experience men needed less cajoling to attend funerals and memorial services than they did normal church (or even the theatre, say) and since men seldom do what they don’t want, it had made him wonder why. He decided that where the dead were involved there was always an element of condescension: the deceased had been put in his or her place, namely the grave, and however lavish the tributes with which this was accompanied there was no altering the fact that the situation of the living was altogether superior and to men, in particular, that seemed to appeal.

Usually cheerful and expansive, today Father Jolliffe was preoccupied. He had known Clive himself, which accounted for his church being the somewhat out of the way venue for the memorial service. His death had come as an unpleasant surprise, as, like so many in the congregation, he had not known Clive was even ill. It was sad, too, of course, ‘a shared sadness’ as he planned to say, but for him, as for others in the congregation, it was somewhat worrying also (though he had no plans to say that).

Still, if he was anxious he did not intend to let it affect his performance. ‘And,’ as he had recently insisted to a Diocesan Selection Board, ‘a service is a performance. Devout, sincere and given wholeheartedly for God, but a performance nevertheless.’

The Board, on the whole, had been impressed.

By coincidence the subject of memorial services had come up at the Board when Father Jolliffe, suppressing a fastidious shudder, had heard himself describe such occasions as ‘a challenge’. Urged to expand he had shared his vision of the church packed with unaccustomed worshippers come together, as they thought, simply to commemorate a loved one but also (though they might not know it) hungering for that hope and reassurance which it was the clergy’s job to satisfy. This, too, had gone down well with the Board though most them, Father Jolliffe included, knew it was tosh.

The truth was memorial services were a bugger. For all its shortcomings in the way of numbers a regular congregation was in church because it wanted to be or at least felt it ought to be. It’s true that looking down from the pulpit on his flock Sunday by Sunday Father Jolliffe sometimes felt that God was not much more than a pastime; that these were churchgoers as some people were pigeon-fanciers or collectors of stamps, gentle, mildly eccentric and hanging onto the end of something. Still, on a scale ranging from fervent piety to mere respectability these regular worshippers were at least like-minded: they had come together to worship God and even with their varying degrees of certainty that there was a God to worship the awkward question of belief seldom arose.

With a memorial service, and a smart one at that, God was an embarrassment and Father Jolliffe was reminded of this when he had his first sight of the congregation. He had left his service book in his stall and nipping across to get it before putting on his robes he was taken aback at the packed and murmuring pews. Few of those attending, he suspected, had on taking their seats bowed their heads in prayer or knew that that was (once anyway) the form. Few would know the hymns, and still fewer the prayers. Yet he was shortly going to have to stand up and ask them to collaborate in the fiction that they all believed in God (or something anyway) and even that there was an after-life. So what he had said to the Board had been right. It was a challenge, the challenge being that most of them would think this an insult to their intelligence.

How Father Jolliffe was going to cope with this dilemma was interesting Treacher. Indeed it was partly what had brought him to St Andrew’s on this particular morning. There were various ways round it, the best of which, in Treacher’s view, was not to get round it at all; ignore it in fact, a priest retaining more respect if he led the congregation in prayer with neither explanation nor apology, the assumption being that they were all believers and if not, since they were in the house of God, it behoved them to pretend to be so. Taking the uncompromising line, though, meant that it was hard then for the clergyman to get on those friendly, informal terms with the congregation that such an occasion seemed to require. Treacher did not see this as a drawback. A priest himself, although in mufti, getting on friendly terms with the congregation had never been high on his list.

Father Jolliffe would not have agreed. ‘Whatever else it is,’ he had told the Board, ‘a congregation is first and foremost an audience. And I am the stand-up. I must win them over.’ It was another bold-seeming sentiment that had hit the spot, occasioning some laughter, it’s true, but also much sage nodding, though not, Father Jolliffe had noticed, from Canon Treacher, who was an archdeacon and not enthusiastic about congregations in the first place. Treacher (and his fiercely sharpened pencil) was the only one of the Board who had made him nervous (the Bishop was a sweetie), so it was a blessing that on this particular morning, thanks to Canon Treacher’s precautions, the priest remained unaware of his presence.

The worst tack a priest could adopt at a service such as this, and a trap Treacher was pretty confident Father Jolliffe was going to fall into, was to acknowledge at the start that the congregation (or ‘friends’ as Treacher had even heard them called) might not subscribe to the beliefs implicit in the hymns and prayers but that they should on no account feel badly about this but instead substitute appropriate sentiments of their own. (‘I believe this stuff but you don’t have to.’) Since in Treacher’s experience there would be few in the church with appropriate sentiments still less beliefs to hand, this meant that if the congregation thought of anything at all during the prayers (which he doubted) it was just to try and summon up a picture of the departed sufficient to squeeze out the occasional tear.

Treacher, it has to be said, had some reason for his pessimism. Casting an eye over the Order of Service Treacher noted that in addition to a saxophone solo a fashionable baritone from Covent Garden was down to sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. With such delights in prospect Father Treacher feared that liturgical rigour would not be high on the list.

What approach he was going to take to the service (‘what angle the priest should come at it’) Father Jolliffe had not yet decided, though since he was even now being robed in the vestry it might be thought there was not much time. But he had never been methodical, his sermon often no more than a few headings or injunctions to himself on the back of the parish notes: though on this occasion he had not even bothered with that, preferring, as he would have said, to ‘wing it’. This was less slipshod than it sounded, as he genuinely believed that in this ‘winging’ there was an element of the divine. He had never thought it out but felt that the wings were God-sent, an angel’s possibly, or another version of ‘Thy wings’ under the shadow of which he bade the faithful hide Sunday by Sunday.

He slipped out of the vestry and made his way round the outside of the church to join the choir now assembled at the West door. When he had been appointed vicar at St Andrew’s processions generally began obscurely at the vestry winding their awkward way round past the pulpit and up the chancel steps. Father Jolliffe felt that this was untheatrical and missing a trick so one of his first innovations was to make the entrance of the choir and clergy bolder and more dramatic, routeing the procession down the centre of the church.

The procession should have been headed and the choir preceded by a crucifer bearing the processional cross (another innovation), but since this was a weekday Leo, the crucifer, had not been able to get time off work. A beefy young man, Leo was a bus driver and Father Jolliffe had always taken quiet pride in that fact and would occasionally cite him at diocesan conferences as a modern update of the calling of the disciples (‘Matthew may have been a tax-collector. What’s so special about that? Our crucifer happens to be a bus driver’). Though Leo would much have preferred marching down the centre aisle to where he currently was, stuck behind the wheel of a No. 74 inching up Putney High Street, since privatisation religious obligation was no longer accepted as a reason for absence. ‘Or believe me, my son,’ said the supervisor, ‘come Ramadan and our Sikh and Hindu brethren who compose a substantial proportion of the workforce would be up at the mosque when we need them down at the depot. I’m not without religious feeling myself and my sister-in-law was nearly a nun but sorry, no can do.’

Still, what the procession lacked in splendour at the front it made up in dignity at the back, as in addition to Father Jolliffe also attending the service were several other clergymen, one of them indeed a suffragan bishop. None of them was personally known to Father Jolliffe or seemingly to each other, but all were presumably known to Clive. Though got up in all their gear they were not attending in any official capacity (and in the Telegraph report of the occasion they would be described as ‘robed and in the sanctuary’), but they definitely brought a kick to the rear of the column which was now assembled and waiting to begin its journey towards the chancel.

The organist was meanwhile playing an arrangement of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings which many in the congregation were enjoying, having been made familiar with the tune from its frequent airings on Classic FM. Seeing no conclusion in the offing Father Jolliffe pressed a button behind a pillar to alert the organist that they were ready to begin. The Barber now came to a sharp and unceremonious close but since random terminations were not unusual on Classic FM, nobody noticed.

Now from somewhere at the back of the church Father Jolliffe’s voice rang out, ‘Would you stand?’ and the church shuffled to its feet. ‘We shall sing the first hymn on your Order of Service, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling”.’

The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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