If you are British and no longer young, the title for a brand new Philip Larkin poem is liable to enter your head at least once a day. This morning it was ‘Order of Service’. It’s not as good as ‘High Windows’ or ‘Dockery and Son’, but it has the same doleful ebb. Searching in an old folder, I found an order of service for Larkin’s memorial at Westminster Abbey on 14 February 1986. (Yes, St Valentine’s Day. The patron saint of bathos.) ‘Deliver me from all mine offences,’ the choir sang, doing Psalm 39, ‘and make me not a rebuke unto the foolish.’ Ted Hughes read the bit from Ecclesiasticus about now praising famous men. Where these orders of service used to be religious brochures offering blasts of Christian devotion, they are now ‘celebrations’ of the life, posthumous animations of the career, and summaries of the person behind the personality. In the old days, they might have been organised by a church verger in consultation with the family, but the tendency now is to have them authored by a committee of the sad and a PR guru.
There was Bach for Larkin and a bit of Bix Beiderbecke. Ten years later, at Stephen Spender’s wingding in St Martin-in-the-Fields, there was Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, an adagio from Haydn, a speech by Richard Wollheim, and no fewer than 13 of Spender’s own poems, read by Harold Pinter, Ted Hughes, James Fenton, Jill Balcon and Barry Humphries. (At Larkin’s, there were three.) Spender’s order of service, despite his obvious absence, seems to acknowledge both his customary admiration for the truly great and his anxiety about not being great himself. And why not? Shouldn’t the person being toasted be allowed to express her ghostly self? At Elizabeth Jane Howard’s, the voice of the dearly departed couldn’t have been more distinctive. (By the way, is the departed a victim, as in a victim of death, or merely a passive recipient? Not to sound like an ad for Center Parcs, but does one suffer death, or is it just life’s ultimate experience?) Howard’s memorial was held at the Savile Club in Mayfair and concluded with the airing of an interview she did on the Today programme. There were appreciations and reflections by Hilary Mantel and Martin Amis (read by other friends) but her order of service concludes with the penultimate sentence from her memoir, Slipstream. ‘I’ve slowly learned some significant things,’ she wrote: ‘the importance of truth, which, it seems to me now, should be … treasured when any piece of it is found.’ Saying what the truth of one’s life was, and curating the manner of its glorification, may well be the last big decisions in a life of indecision.
When my father died, his dream of posterity blossomed, and the things he wanted to be true about himself suddenly found theatrical expression. He was never politically active, but the route to his funeral was lined with Scottish flags. He was never particularly religious, but someone who felt they were following his wishes – isn’t that a mourner’s task? – demanded that he be accorded a full requiem mass. He got the poem he wanted and his coffin was carried out to a song invoking all the colours of the rainbow. When I read it now, I see his order of service was a publication chiefly for people who hardly knew him, and, when all’s said and done, that’s fine, isn’t it, even appropriate, if what mattered to the person in question was cultivating the admiration of strangers? A lie can confirm a truth. Who can blame a dying person for enjoying their own finale, getting their own way one last time while seizing the opportunity for a bit of good publicity?
On 7 April 1983, there was ‘a meeting to honour the memory of Arthur and Cynthia Koestler’. The order of service opens with a suicide note. ‘The purpose of this note,’ which Koestler signed in June 1982, ‘is to make it unmistakeably clear that I intend to commit suicide by taking an overdose of drugs without the knowledge or aid of any other person. The drugs have been legally obtained and hoarded over a considerable period.’ Koestler went on to say that he had Parkinson’s disease and leukaemia. ‘I wish my friends to know that I am leaving their company in a peaceful frame of mind,’ he wrote, ‘with some timid hopes for a depersonalised after-life beyond due confines of space, time and matter and beyond the limits of our comprehension.’ Cynthia, his wife, died the same way, and some of their friends worried that she had been bullied into it. The speakers at their memorial included Hugh Casson and David Astor.
‘Why haven’t you thrown them away?’ I asked my friend Catherine Freeman, the 87-year-old owner of the dusty folder I’ve been drawing from.
‘They will help me as I plan my own service,’ she said. I wondered if the challenge of throwing away these old booklets is a bit like the one of zapping the names of dead people from address books or from the contacts list on your phone. (I just can’t do it.) An order of service is often the last thing you have of a person. They are gone after that, and, as you walk from the church, the document can already feel like a relic. To some greater or smaller extent, we are defined by our friends. When they go, what’s left of you? With that in mind, one might wonder what the keeping of orders of service, or certain ones, tells you about the person who keeps them. People spend their lives needing their friends, asking things of them, wishing to be more like them, or less like them, and when friends die there might be a kind of imperative in being identified with them. In any event, when I set the folder down on her table, Catherine seemed relieved to have them back in the house. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘They’re like photographs of old friends.’
She gave me the folder a year ago, saying I would find it interesting. And, sure enough, I began taking out the orders of service and looking at them, becoming involved with the stories they told. In many cases, the person rose vividly from the programme. The painter Mary Fedden, Catherine’s friend, was ‘celebrated’ at St James’s Church in Piccadilly on 18 October 2012. The event started with ‘The Painter’s Eye’, a talk by Philip Trevelyan, son of Mary’s late husband, and was followed by an account of her life by Bamber Gascoigne, and then David Attenborough’s reading of two poems by Robert Frost. There appears to have been a Feddenesque delicacy and some well-placed dabs of humour to the whole affair. ‘Very Mary,’ Catherine said.
The phrase ‘order of service’ isn’t Catholic. I never heard it in the chapels of my youth (we had Mass, not service), and it isn’t a very literary phrase either, appearing nowhere in the published works of Dickens, James, Austen or Joyce (I searched on Gutenberg). It doesn’t appear in George Eliot’s books either (not even in Scenes of Clerical Life, or in the one she translated, Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity) and, for all the expiring heroes in their novels, neither Hardy nor the Brontës had any use for the phrase. It was certainly in existence in the Victorian era, appearing in the Christian World of 19 June 1884, where reference is made to ‘a stiff, starched Order of Service’, and it crops up in depictions of funerals and memorial services in contemporary fiction. Alan Bennett’s ‘The Laying on of Hands’ opens in a High Anglican church, St Andrew Upchance near Shoreditch, for the star-studded funeral of Clive Dunlop, ‘quite young – 34 according to the dates given on the front of the Order of Service’, but ‘these days there was not much mystery about that.’
When I returned the folder Catherine was feeling unwell. On the phone, she’d asked me to bring her some soup from Melrose & Morgan, along with the orders of service, maybe a cake, and a good new novel. Catherine reads with conviction, quotes Shakespeare by the yard, and behaves as if only forgetfulness could explain one’s deepest stupidities. She was a producer on Panorama in the 1950s and later became controller of documentaries and features at Thames Television. ‘There are success stories about women,’ Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch, ‘and it is time … to tell them,’ before going on to mention Catherine in a list that also includes her old boss at the BBC, Grace Wyndham Goldie. I heated up some tomato and lovage soup and asked Catherine to talk to me about Goldie, whose order of service I had in my hand. ‘Obviously these pamphlets aren’t throwaway,’ I said. ‘They tell stories, and hers reveals a brilliantly eccentric woman.’
‘Oh, she was,’ Catherine said. ‘A terrifying, small Tory lady with a tight mouth. She always wore a brooch and a grey suit and had very bright eyes. Horrible to the men – “Shut up Christopher, you’re here to get the tea, not to talk!” – but very generous and nice to me. She ran the Talks department at Lime Grove. Silly of the BBC to continue calling it Talks even though it was telly by that time. She was happily married for many years to the actor Frank Wyndham Goldie.’
‘Her order of service is a scream,’ I said. ‘A reading from The West Highland Railway by John Thomas?’
‘Well, there you are.’
‘Also a reading from The Liverpool Repertory Theatre, 1911-34. Followed by a bit of Macaulay’s “The Passing of the Second Reading of the Reform Bill”, read by Lord Mayhew. Address by Alasdair Milne, Director General.’
‘It’s pretty good, isn’t it? Grace must have designed that herself. Nobody else could’ve thought of it. It is amazing, as orders of service go.’ Catherine said they made her think of some of the pretty amazing people she’d dealt with. ‘A lot of them I met in the 1950s when I produced The Brains Trust for television,’ she said. Then she mentioned how striking it was that very well-known people can become very rapidly quite unknown. The example she gave was Goronwy Rees.
‘The Spectator guy? Friend of Burgess?’
‘Yes, his “green eyes, goose gogs, eating all the world up”. Wasn’t it Auden who wrote that about him?’ Catherine mused on this, then she said: ‘No, I think it was Dylan Thomas.’ We both spent a bit of time looking for the line and couldn’t find it, but she later surmised that Rees may have written it himself. ‘That would be very like him.’ (Rees is the repugnant Eddie in Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart.) ‘Secrecy was Goronwy’s habit and nourishment,’ Diana Trilling once wrote. ‘Like a familiar perfume, it announced and trailed him.’ Perhaps that is what orders of service are for: to distil the floating essence of a person before we go on without them. ‘He did have beautiful green eyes,’ Catherine said, ‘and I was asked to give him a hand-up when he’d been so badly treated by everybody. So I put him on The Brains Trust. Freddie Ayer had said: “Is there anything you can do to help poor Goronwy?” He was living in Southend.’ (Not in itself a guarantee of ignominy.) ‘Rees was very good on the programme and was then taken up. He ended on a sort of high and was given good jobs here and there. They say that on his deathbed somebody came and handed him something – an object or a telegram to do with the spy thing – and they said it was a comfort to him.’ Rees had been sacked from a teaching post at Aberystwyth for ratting on his friends to the People, though the friends had already defected to Moscow. ‘It was the old E.M. Forster thing,’ Catherine said. ‘Better to betray one’s country than one’s friend.’ She said she didn’t have Rees’s order of service and couldn’t remember if he had had a memorial or anything of that sort. ‘I suppose he would’ve done,’ she said, ‘given his books and his daughter’s memoir and all that. He had fans.’
‘But so did poor Yorick, and look what happened to him.’
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘I knew him. A fellow of infinite jest. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs?’
It was Ash Wednesday and Catherine was feeling better. She didn’t make it to Mass, but one of her carers had the mark of ashes on her forehead when she turned up, and Catherine took a smidgeon and marked herself. ‘That bit from Ecclesiasticus,’ she told me, ‘that Ted read for Larkin about praising famous men. You shouldn’t forget the line after which mentions “and some there be, which have no memorial.”’
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I like your ashes.’
‘Very ecological,’ she said.