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Wednesday, 10 January 2018


Nick, my youngest brother, died yesterday, released from the cruelties of Alzheimers.

In the photo he's telling me to Blank Off, but jokily. I prefer to imagine he's addressing the malady that ruined him these last few years, telling it to go to Hell.

Two memories from many stand out. I was staying with him at his house in Harrogate thirty years ago and he played me the Schwarzkopf version of Strauss's Four Last Songs. "I find that beautiful," he said in a hushed voice. Oddly, I'd been given that LP some years before. I'd played it a few times but it had left little impression. Thereafter it has remained for ever in my frontal lobes: "a swansong of sublime beauty" as one critic said. Even more relevant as I near Strauss's age when he composed the music.

Scroll forward past the millennium. Nick, Sir Hugh and I are sailing in Nick's yacht Takista in the Bay of Biscay; for the first time in my life I am tremulously at one with the sea, realising nevertheless that this revelation has come too late for me to pursue. Reluctantly I'm persuaded to take the helm and I stare up at the mast-top, keeping the burgee as close to the wind as I can. Nick, who has sailed for decades, says something like, "You understand." Age adds poignancy to this observation and this lost opportunity.

Nick was rich and good luck to him. But he also suffered. The break-up of our parents' marriage when he was about four left him adrift. He commented wryly, "I had no home." Last September he stared for seconds trying to fix me in his memory. I shudder to think where he was as he did so.

One may only wish for untroubled sleep.


  1. It's a cruel disease. I wish I knew what to write to show my heartfelt support. I also wish science would hurry up and find a cure.

  2. To lose much of a self before death is terribly sad and a grief to those around. I am sorry for that, and for his childhood sense of homelessness. And I am glad you have that shared music and and shared sense of the sea and shared memories. Pax tecum.

    * * *

    Takista, from Finnish "takki"? "From a Germanic language, compare Icelandic stakkur (“coat”) and Proto-Germanic *stakkaz ('short jacket')." I wonder what the connection was.

  3. I read Sir Hugh's blog before I reached yours, Robbie, and left a comment there. I echo Sabine's remark regarding showing heartfelt support.

  4. Robbie, I'm very sorry for the loss of your brother - both his death, and the gradual cruel loss of the person he was. Thank you for writing down these memories. That particular Schwartzkopf recording stunned me when I first heard it. I played the vinyl disc until it was worn, and none of the other recordings of Four Last Songs even comes close for me. A good thing to listen to and think about in times of grief.

  5. Uncle Rod, I send you and dad my love and thoughts today. Your choice of title captures a difficult truth to face. I am glad he is free from such an unimaginable situation that his disease brought but so sad that he has gone. It reminds me of mum and how grateful I was that her torment was over. I will choose to think of him sailing, feeling free and alive as he rushes over the waves captain of his boat!

  6. Dear all: I wrote the above post quickly, the two main scenes sharply illuminated in my mind. Now as I re-read them I realise they say more about me than they do about Nick.

    Self-centred as usual. But perhaps not.

    If we are honest about someone close who has died it's best not to try to imagine or guess at their qualities, certainly not someone as complex as Nick. All we really know is the effect they had on us. And these were two occasions when I benefited from Nick as a brother; two events that are still crystal-clear and which changed my life for the better. Proof that what happened later in Nick's life was, for me, a continuing sense of loss and helplessness that started long before he died. I had to be blunt and pessimistic at the end. Earlier Nick's brotherhood had enhanced me, now his prolonged death cast me down.

    I'm to speak about Nick at the funeral. It's both an honour and a burden. There'll be people there I don't know for Nick had a wide business and social life. My view of Nick was privileged and personal, their views will differ. But if I don't manage to convey the deep affection I hold for Nick, together with a strand or two that accurately identifies him, I'll have failed. Well this is my line of business and I must do my best. But somehow it has to be better than usual.

    A special note for Miss R, a relation. Yes, a skilled captain, often a stern one, but one who was in his element. Let us be thankful there were many years of that.

  7. "His prolonged death" sums up the cruelty of Alzheimer's. A happy release for those around him that loved him. Who knows if those that are deep into the disease have any self awareness remaining, but the consensus is not, so that is something, I suppose.

    You and your family have my sympathy and can now go forward with those positive memories of him.

  8. I am deeply sorry for your loss. I don't agree that this lovely tribute was about you instead of him. The sentence ""I find that beautiful," he said in a hushed voice" touched me and gave me a sense of who this man might have been. Such a horrible disease, Alzheimer's.

  9. So sorry, Robbie, for you and yours. Can't really add much to all the others' thoughts, a release not only for him, but a sorrow nonetheless.

    Good wishes for the funeral, I know you will do him, and yourself, justice, and bring courage and cheer to those there.

  10. I expect you will make a lovely, meaningful job of arranging words in his honor and memory.

  11. Dear All: A little light relief on the subject. Nick's funeral service, like Joe's several years ago, will take place in the non-denominational chapel at a municipal crematorium. I spoke at Joe's and I'm to speak at Nick's. These places are busy from dawn to dusk and are run on a tight schedule. The service will last twenty minutes and I was warned at Joe's funeral that my piece must take no longer than eight minutes. I drafted, edited, timed, re-drafted, re-edited, re-timed etc, accordingly.

    For Nick I got the piece down to eight minutes, emailed a copy to Kate, my niece, Nick's oldest daughter. Overnight I dwelt on what I'd written, was dissatisfied, texted Kate to ignore that first draft, and savagely re-shaped it, still keeping it to eight minutes. I was about to send Kate the new draft when she phoned me. A minister has been added to the proceedings and my contribution had now shrunk to five minutes.

    There was no way I could edit my eight-minute draft since its structure depended on the time I thought I had. I needed a completely new structure. Fine, 1096 words were reduced to 662 words.

    But don't imagine I am complaining. It was all rather exhilarating. These changes took me back sixty-five years to the days I worked on a weekly newspaper, when precise wordage was one of the disciplines. In fact I wove that time-warped memory into the piece. Nick used to be mildly impressed (while keeping his admiration well under control) by my journalism and I couldn't help thinking these to-ings and fro-ings would have amused him.

  12. Very sorry Robbie for the gradual and now final loss of your brother and thankful for his release from the prison of Alzheimers. I wonder if something of the Four Last Songs remained in his memory. It seems that songs which have meant a great deal to an individual can indeed be remembered, words and melody intact, by even advanced sufferers of this cruel disease. Will the funeral service include music?

  13. Natalie: the care home Nick was in was in Darlington, a long drive away. I was only able to visit infrequently and after last September it became apparent that my visits weren't benefiting Nick. But the possibility that music might get through occurred to me. I talked to one of the carers about this and later sent him the Schwarzkopf CD. Whether it worked or not I never found out.

    However music can also cause distress to those with dementia. A friend of mine whose mother is suffering and who loved music when healthy told my friend that music's directness is too disturbing and she wants no more of it.

    Two of my musical suggestions have been adopted. Given Nick's lifelong interest in the sea those present will sing the hymn, Eternal Father Strong to Save:

    ... whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
    Who bidst the mighty ocean deep
    Its own appointed limits keep...

    And the trio from Cosi, Soave sia il vento, will also be played:

    Gentle is the wind,
    Calm is the wave,
    And every one of the elements
    Answer warmly
    To our (your) desire

    I had picked that for my own funeral but have subsequently changed my mind. And always remember... seems more appropriate:

    Look at the flowers,
    Already withered.
    Isn't it grand, boys, to be bloody well dead?
    Hey, let's have a sniffle,
    Hey, let's have a bloody good cry.
    And always remember the longer you live,
    The sooner you'll bloody well die.

    But VR reminds me that I may say what I like while I'm alive. At the funeral, however, the living will dispose of things.

  14. So sorry for your loss, Robbie. A release for your brother from that dreadful disease. May good memories sustain you and your family.

    (Yes, I do drop by for an occasional read. Sorry I lost my passion for blogging but hope I will one day get back to it again.)

  15. Pouring a quality ale in your dear brother's honour as I read this. I think differently of Schwarzkopf now and will keep your dear brother Nick's hushed sentence in my heart when next I listen to her sing.

  16. M-L: When old age meant I could no longer ski, I no longer cared to go to the mountains even though I'd loved that type of landscape from a very early age. I wondered if retired bloggers still found any pleasure in visiting blogs that were still active. Apparently so. Very occasionally I visit Joe's blog (as if it were a tombstone in a cemetery) and drop a short and obscure comment.

    Until Nick invited me to sail with him marinas held no interest for me; now I wander and ponder; re-creating that world I lightly touched on.

    RW (zS): I re-played the Schwarzkopf recently and realised there are different styles of singing. Hers is, I think, Viennese - a lighter tone with agility at a premium. Quite different from, say, Brigitte Fassbaender, who is all drama - a natural for Erlk├Ânig.

    Nick was very particular about beer.