This blog has always been a mix of material relating to my books, to writing generally, and to more personal things. The truth is that writing, however popular its aims, is always personal at some level, and so I guess this mishmash is inevitable, and maybe not such a bad thing. This is something personal I have heard now by chance. The death of someone I once knew, a long time ago, Hattie Warner, who died in 2009 when she was only 58.
I knew Hattie almost 50 years ago, and it’s not much less than that since I last saw her. For a time, when we were 16, in that catch-all teenage phrase we ‘went out together’, for maybe six months. I'm not quite sure now. It was, I suppose, ‘serious’ in the way those things go at that age, while it lasted, and, also in the way those things go, it stopped. I don’t believe we had a great impact on each other’s lives, and in the intervening years I am sure both of us barely thought about each other at all. But her death touched me, and I was surprised, given nearly half a century in which I haven’t remembered, how vivid a memory I still had of first meeting her, at a friend’s house in the wilds of suburban Surrey. I remember, very distinctly, something we talked about. It was a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Blessed Damozel’. Rossetti is still very well known of course as one of the leading painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, but his poetry was as unfashionable in the mid-sixties as it is today.
It is a memory all the more poignant because the words that begin the poem, which is about heartfelt loss (the death of Rossetti's wife), that I doubtless quoted on that distant night in North Cheam, are words I had engraved on the headstone of my first wife, Joy, when she died, here in Ireland, in 1995, at the even younger age of 35.
The blessed damozel lean'd out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters still'd at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
I knew nothing about Hattie’s life at all, except that years later she married Ross, who had been a friend of mine once at school, though I had lost touch with him long before that. I now know she had been an English teacher, which was unsurprising, and had run, with Ross, a remarkable Toy Museum in Lincoln, more surprising; she had also been a very successful advocate and practitioner of alternative therapies; she had been a wife and a mother. I know, from my own past, that other people can offer no comfort in the face of death, especially when the person lost is young, or relatively young. As Stefan Gillespie tells Hannah Rosen, in ‘The City of Shadows’, people who insist on trying to offer non-existent comfort are more than irritating, they’re distressing. But as he also says, it still 'matters that it matters' to other people, even people you barely know. It matters that your loss touches other people, that it is in some way shared in our common humanity. In Ireland we are very good at being touched in that way, in recognising that death matters, and in marking it. It is one of the few really great differences between the English and the Irish.
I don’t know where Ross is, but my thoughts are with him, however belatedly, and with his family, Hattie's children. And if, at such times, we hold our own loved ones closer, for me my wonderful wife and my children, all of them, and we remember how lucky we are, for now, there’s nothing wrong with that. The only truly precious things we have are the people we love. As another English poet, Philip Larkin said, remarkably given his curmudgeonly view of humanity, in a poem Hattie would certainly have known well: 'All that remains of us is love'.
The picture is of Hattie, not as I remember her, but as Ross and her family will...