Last weekend we gathered in a clearing in a wood. Under a makeshift canvas awning, those who like to be active unwrapped the cakes, buttered the scones and boiled up huge urns of water for tea. Photographs, letters and notes were haphazardly pinned to the trees. A haze of smoke from the just-kindled campfire drifted through the falling leaves, joined by the sound of tent pegs being hammered by those who intended to stay overnight.
This particular festival story had started nearly 15 years before when my then teenage son, bullied out of school by teachers unwilling to accommodate eccentricity, went with his mother and a friend to work in an orphanage in Romania, and returned with a battered accordion and a fascination for Roma music.
It took Jim a year to teach himself the rudiments of coordinating bellows, stops and keys, sufficient to scrape a basic living from busking. Armed with an atrocious fake Irish accent he entertained Celtic-naïve locals in a Norwegian pub, spending the money he earned on eight months in India. Returning once again to what seemed to his parents a directionless and largely homeless existence, he surprised us all by enrolling evenings at London University’s Goldsmith’s College and infiltrating himself into the School of Oriental and African Studies.
At the latter he came under the influence of elderly East European émigrés and became expert in Klezmer, Jewish music from the Pale of Settlement, with its infectious mixture of sadness and joy conjured up by wailing clarinets, crying violins and the solid bedrock of the accordion.
Ultimately the band he and others started, Sh’Koyokh, loomed large on the celebrity wedding circuit, travelled around international festivals and entertained in schools, prisons and community centres. In the snow and on his own he played at the gates of Auschwitz.
Last weekend was a different sort of festival. True, piles of instruments in their cases leaned in unruly heaps against the trees like the stacked rifles of some medieval army on the eve of battle. But in the centre of the clearing, on trestles was a startlingly white cardboard coffin, surrounded by adults and a few children decorating it with poster paints, felt tip pens, glue and glitter, bells and flowers while all around musicians played their hearts out.
For an hour, his family and friends spoke of him, read poems or sang until it was time for me to be one of six hoisting my son’s coffin and processing slowly along the winding path that had brought us into the wood, through a field gate, along a wide grassy path and onto a narrow rutted track, our Wellington boots slipping in the mud and the coffin bouncing perilously on our shoulders. The clear tones of an Irish lament rang out sung a cappella by one of Jim’s devoted ex-schoolmates. In a smaller clearing, surrounded by beech, oak and birch and carpeted with bracken, band members had risked callosities on their fingers from having dug the grave. He was interred amongst friends – no clergymen, undertaker or municipal gravedigger in sight.
The violin and clarinet continued their half-sobbing, half exultant Klezmer, another old school friend softly sang Dylan’s He was my friend; an accordionist played who had told us at Jim’s wedding to Jenny six weeks previously how inspirational he had been. The wedding had been a two day explosion of music, joy and love, the guests knowing that within a few weeks or months they would be gathering again for a less welcome celebration.
Jim approached his death with the same single-minded drive that he had lived his life. His last months, once he learned his bone marrow transplant had failed, were a fever of creativity, with CD launches, concerts and even the production of the illustration for the cover of a friend’s book. At our last lunch together at his favourite Turkish restaurant I was amazed at how much a man with severe obstructive jaundice could put away. After our meal we posted the master tape for the first CD of his new venture, a trio playing gruesomely comic songs. Just outside the post office I caught him as he slumped to the ground with his first epileptic fit. In A&E he exhorted that his brain might be spared so he could complete his radio play and a new song on which he was working. Thankfully a little light radiotherapy allowed just that.
Scarcely a week before he died, now paraplegic, he was extracted from another sojourn in A&E to be carried gently by his brother to the launch of the CD at the Vortex in Dalston. He found he could not play while confined by the arms of a wheelchair but instead instructed us all to make sure we cherished every moment of our lives and filled them with everything we wanted to do.
His new wife and devoted brother nursed him, at home, through the final ravages of his lymphoma. He died, as he lived, with magic and grace. I have never properly understood the compulsion many people have to visit graves but we will go back to his clearing in the spring to see the new life that has sprung up around him from the hundreds of bulbs we planted last weekend.
Harvey Marcovitch is Associate Editor, BMJ.