My interest in newspapers started with just the sports pages but my love of them was driven by two factors – Leeds United and the smell of my Dad.
He’d pick up the paper on his way to work so I’d have to wait till he got home to ask if I could read it. “It’s in my coat,” he’d say and I’d run and get it, pausing briefly to savour the smell of his coat – a smell that took in all aspects of him simultaneously. There were his work smell and traces of beer and tobacco mingled with the whiff of him throwing me in the air and catching me, all embedded in the weave, warp and weft of the threads; all scents that made me feel safe and happy. The incense of my father’s house.
Once I’d gone through this little sensual ritual I’d go back in the living room and read about last night’s matches, or reviews of upcoming games and any transfer gossip until finally reviewing the latest football tables, the columns of numbers which, once deciphered, told a story of a season as clearly as could be, the perfect measuring device. As the years unfolded, change marked itself in less obvious ways than simply physical growth and changing fashions but also in things like my father stopping smoking and me gradually discovering that other sections of the newspaper were also interesting although I always remained loyal to my first love – football tables.
Looking back I can’t remember the exact order in which I accumulated my other interests within the paper but I suppose the rest of the Sports section came next followed by the TV pages, then News but just stuff that was either very exciting or slightly titillating, until I was reading nearly all of the paper. Except for the business pages, which I still don’t read. But I can definitely remember the last section I added to my reading palette – in a very apposite manner it was the Obituaries – the Dispatch in the Holy Trinity of Hatch, Match and Dispatch.
I can’t claim it was feeling my own mortality that brought me finally to these life stories of the recently deceased but perhaps a broadening of my interests into worlds and lives beyond my experience was taking place.
In short order this all became infinitely more fun when my suspicions that there was some sort of arcane cryptography at play was revealed to be true. Journalists were writing in a special code that, on the surface, preserved the memory of the dearly departed while allowing them to reveal the true nature of the passed-on to those who were in the know.
None of this should surprise us; just as a number of the living we meet are foul human beings, so eventually these people die and, unless they were murderers or in some other manner beyond the pale, writers will overtly not to speak ill of the dead but will not miss the opportunity to secretly twist the knife. And so I learned that “vivacious” means “drunk”, as does “life and soul of the party”, “eccentric” means “mad”, “didn’t suffer fools gladly” means “was intensely unpleasant” and so on. And back in the days when people cared about such things, the number of ways of suggesting that someone had been gay were so numerous that a whole column could be expended on them.
Some obituaries have stayed in my mind – Charles Bukowski’s because of the way he described his father (you look it up) and a personal favourite, that of the Marquis of Bristol who made being unpleasant into an artform – apparently reading begging letters as after-dinner amusement or letting people paddle to the middle of his private lake in plastic dinghies before shooting and sinking them.
Naturally to get into a national newspaper obitaury column you have probably done a variety of things of note but if the only lives that were interesting were those lived on the world stage or those consumed with international affairs then all our greatest stories would inhabit only those worlds yet our finest stories, films and plays are made from the substance of unmarked lives.
All of which brings me full circle to football tables. How do we measure a life? How is the weight of an existence lived reflected in a way that makes it easy to understand for someone on the outside looking in? How do we calibrate a lifetime of experiences? How do we tabulate it into columns of wins versus losses?
This weekend I read a story, not in the obituary pages, but a story of two long lives finally completed, an elederly man and his wife, who had taken an overdose together so as “not to be a bother” to anyone.
After 64 years of marriage, last summer Colin (born Claus) and Alice Anson decided to draw a close to their story. Both had fled from the Nazis to England prior to the war and both knew the reality of loss. Both fought with distinction for their adopted country against their countries of birth – for him Germany and for her Austria. After the war they met, married, had five children, and lived lives seemingly vacuous in their ordinariness – a little charity work, some canvassing together for the Labour party, uneventful caravanning holidays and then the creeping infirmities of age. But what was written through their story was devotion. Showing the diminished fastidiousness of age, they had not calculated their overdoses precisely and I could barely read how after Alice had died Colin had lingered for another 11 days unable to speak. But as his son Teddy showed Colin pictures from his past every time he saw a photograph of Alice he kissed it.
Unlike Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness this is A Tale Of Extraordinary Ordinariness and made me think that perhaps great talents of mind or physical gifts are the handicap to be overcome. The lives of the Ansons were a work of art in their simple artlessness. They had won no prizes nor conquered worlds, written no novels nor wrought great art but they had created “the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life” to quote their co-religionist Golda Meir. They had nurtured the most beautiful fruit in what appeared the most infertile soils, a strawberry blooming in the desert. And that is a story for the ages – to which they now belong.