For the past two and a half years my brother John has been living next door to me in the Northamptonshire countryside. We have both been most of the time alone in our separate houses, 25 yards apart, and, whenever I’ve been there, I have shared at least one meal a day with him. It was a very cosy and mutually supportive set-up. Then, on New Year’s Eve, he suddenly died.
His death wasn’t exactly premature — he was 87 and increasingly debilitated by Parkinson’s disease — but it came as a shock nevertheless. On the two last evenings of his life he had come over to my house to have supper and watch his daughter Anna star with Miranda Richardson in the three-part television adaptation of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia. He had been on good form, commenting favourably on Anna’s performance as the pretentious and competitive Lucia, and willfully refusing to identify Miranda Richardson however often (which was very) she appeared on the screen.
But he never saw the final episode of Mapp and Lucia. After some mince pies and brandy butter he shuffled back home on my arm across the gravel, said goodnight and locked himself inside. Next morning, at about 10 a.m., his carer, Zoe, arrived and I let her in. She found him dead on his bed. He had presumably had a heart attack. An ambulance arrived with astonishing speed, but the paramedics could not revive him. An air ambulance, which landed in the garden shortly afterwards in case he should require airlifting to hospital, took off again, unneeded. On this occasion, at least, it was impossible to fault the NHS.
In fact, during this festive season, I had found it impossible to fault anyone for anything. The world seemed suffused with unusual benevolence. On 23 December, as I walked to work at the Oldie from the Tube station at Tottenham Court Road, a woman came rushing up to me from behind with a £10 note that she’d found on the pavement and that she thought I might possibly have dropped. I didn’t know whether I had or hadn’t, but I gratefully accepted it. Then later that day, I left my iPhone in a taxi that had taken me to Waterloo Station. Someone rang me on it afterwards, and the taxi driver not merely answered it but drove, at much inconvenience to himself, back to the Oldie office where the iPhone awaited me on my return to work this week. That’s not the kind of behaviour normally associated with London cabbies.
So here I am on Twelfth Night, preparing to take down the decorations and dismantle the Christmas tree, with nothing but benevolence to look back on. And that is also the case with regard to my brother John, who became almost spookily benevolent in his last years. He had not always been so. He was eccentric, original, clever and charismatic, inspiring great devotion in others, but he could also at times be selfish, intolerant and very irritable. I don’t know if this could have been an effect of Parkinson’s disease, but he had never been sweeter or kinder than in his final years. He seemed to think well of everybody, however undeserving of his approval they might have been.
Not that he became goofy. Quite the contrary. He had become physically very disabled, but his mind and his memory had stayed completely intact, and he continued to read avidly. He also remained insatiably curious about everyone and everything, which made him a good listener and a stimulating companion. He acquired, however, an aversion to making decisions of any kind, even over what to eat or drink. He was happy for others to take every decision for him and usually expressed himself delighted with whatever it was. In fact, despite his incurable, debilitating ailment, and occasional gloomy reflections on mortality, he appears to have been quite happy, which is saying something for somebody of his age and in his condition.
John spent the major part of his working life as an antiquarian book dealer, not (he claimed in an article for The Spectator in 1982) because he had previously been greatly drawn to old books or because he had seen them as a potential money spinner, but because ‘I was out of a job, having been fired as managing director of the publishers Sidgwick and Jackson by their owner, Charles Forte, for incompetence or mismanagement or both’. But he soon became an expert and an enthusiast, especially on and for botanical books, and he railed in his Spectator article against ‘those slimy little opportunistic print dealers’ who broke up colour-plate books to sell the illustrations as laminated table mats. He never made much money out of old books, but they were to become his abiding passion.
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