Thursday 20 April 2023

When Words Are Not Enough

Life is so cruel,” it was all I could think of to say to my nephew Stuart, who was on the other end of the phone.

I was sat on the Brompton Road, the traffic rushing passed me with far too much haste, slight drizzle beginning to fall. I had missed Stuart’s message on Facebook, the day before, I’m not great with social media, so I was returning his call. Stuart wanted me to hear it from someone who knew me, a friendly voice.

Dave, my only brother, had died, suddenly, two days ago.

But he was healthy, strong, looking forward to the future, looking to finally retire, making plans. It wasn’t fair.

I was stunned, as if someone had kicked me in the side of the head. This wasn’t real. But my eyes glazed over with tears.

Still sitting there, I called Martin, my husband. I told him what had happened, and as I did it slowly began to feel real, slowly my mind was processing the shock.

My tube journey home felt unreal, like I was stuck in a vivid dream. People were behaving as they normally do. Laughing, talking, reading their phones, ignoring the others around them, and pushing onto the tube so they could get the last seat. I wanted to shout at them, “It’s not fair! None of this is right!” But I didn’t. I just sat there, staring at a stupid poster advertising Tinder.

When I arrived home to an empty house, I locked the front door behind me and screamed in frustration, my voice bouncing around the empty room.

Dave is thirteen years older than me. That might not sound much to an adult, many people have partners thirteen years older or younger than them, but to a child it is an impossibly large gap. Dave left home, to go to university, at eighteen, when I was only five. He didn’t return to living at home, even after he finished his degree, instead embarking off on his own life. He was more like a young uncle to me, than a brother. We simply didn’t have the chance to be close.

What also didn’t help us was that my parents saw Dave as the perfect son and, all through my childhood and adolescence, they compared me unfavourably to him. In my parents’ eyes, I could never be as good a son as Dave. It wasn’t his fault, he didn’t even know they were doing it, but it didn’t stop me being resentful. It was only as an adult I discovered that my parents compared all three of their children to each other and always unfavourably.

Also, as adults, we lived so far apart. He had settled in Lancashire, I live in London, and I don’t drive. I simply thought we were never meant to be close.

Our mother’s death and then our father’s brought us together but only temporarily, our lives soon parted us again. It was another tragedy that finally brought us together.

Linda, Dave’s wife of over forty years, died at the height of the Covid lockdown. She didn’t die from Covid, but that wasn’t important, when she died Dave was isolated by the lockdown. He rang me, in a terrible state, to tell me what was happening. I kept ringing him over the following days, reaching out to him. Then, that afternoon, he texted me, Linda had died. I was in the middle of our busy District Nurse office. I went to the next office, which was empty, its staff redeployed, and rang him back. He was in a terrible state, on his own at the hospital. I wanted to just reach out down the phone and comfort him but I couldn’t, I only had words. So I told him how sorry I was.

I wasn’t able to attend Linda’s funeral, only a handful of people were allowed to be there. I knew why I couldn’t be there but I still felt I was letting him down. We talked a lot over the phone a lot over the following days, and weeks, and then months.

Dave travelled down to London as soon as the lockdown lifted. He was being inducted into the Fellowship of Engineers. We were able to have dinner with him the evening before. He travelled down on his own and spent the afternoon walking around Covent Garden. He revisited the places where he and Linda had visited so often before, together, but that day he was presented with what he’d lost. He was almost swamped with grief. As a nurse, I’ve looked after many people at the end of their lives. I have seen so many relatives drowning in grief. Every time, I wanted to press a syringe to their skin and draw out all of their grief and pain and sadness, freeing them from it. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do the same for my own brother, but I so wanted to. I told him if was normal what he was feeling and I told him I was sorry.

That evening the three of us talked, talked easily and openly. Dave and Martin talked as equals, both as professionals, but from different specialities. Before Martin joined us, Dave and I talked as brothers. We had so many different things in common.

When Dave rang me and told me he had met a new partner, all I felt was relief. He wasn’t on his own anymore. Not for a moment did I think he was trying to replace Linda, he had loved her for such a long time, but now he had found companionship.

Martin and I met Margaret, Dave’s new partner, on a bright spring Sunday, on London’s South Bank. Both Martin and I were struck by how happy they were together, and it was such a pleasure to see. I could file away that memory of that winter night, the memory of Dave so lost, and not worry about it again.

Dave travelled down a lot to see Margaret and was able to see me too, and I looked forward to those visits. Suddenly I found we had so much in common. He knew my parents as well as I did and saw the things that I saw, that I didn’t know if I could have told anyone else. I didn’t have to explain my parents to him, I didn’t have to make excuses or justify what happened, because he already knew them. We could talk about all those things without explanation. When I published my first book, he championed it and that meant so much to me. He’d read it and enjoyed it, he even recognised the inspiration behind some of its stories.

As a child I longed to have an older brother. Someone who knew me, was on the same wavelength as me, someone who knew the same things as me. As a middle-aged man, I suddenly found I had the brother I had always wanted. Dave and I were finally getting to know each other. I looked forward to talking with him and seeing him, especially seeing him. His visits to London helped me get through last year, which was a difficult year for me. He was happy again and he was making plans for the future. Martin and I were planning on coming and seeing him this summer, but suddenly it was all taken away.

I have lost my brother suddenly and without any warning. I cannot find any meaning or purpose in what has happened. How can something positive come from all this? All I can think is, “Life is so cruel.”

Dave Payne 1953 to 2023


(Thank you to my niece Rachel, who first posted the picture of Dave I used here. It so perfectly captures him)

Tuesday 4 April 2023

Lily Savage is Missing

Last Wednesday morning (29th March), I was woken up by the radio news telling me that Paul O’Grady had suddenly and sadly died (1). It was a shock. Lying there, half asleep, I didn’t believe it, for a moment, but it was true.

The tributes poured in for him, praising his work as a television presenter, chat show host and champion for Battersea Cats & Dogs Home (2). But I will always remember him as his alter ego, Lily Savage.

When I moved to London, in the mid-eighties, Lily Savage was Queen of the gay scene, and her home was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. There were a lot of different drag acts on the gay scene, even then, but Lily Savage stood out from the pack. So many drag acts, then, were no more than a man in a wig and a dress. They didn’t try to create a female persona; they didn’t bother to hide that they were a man. Lily Savage had a fully formed character. She was a working-class mother, with a taste for booze and a good night out. But she also had a life off the stage as well. O’Grady had created a whole life for his character. Lily was a home-help, working for the council, and living in a rundown council flat. There was her feckless husband Jack, her frumpy and alcoholic sister Vera, her delinquent daughter Bunty and her uber-twink son Jason. Lily supplemented her poor standard of living with a lot of alternative-shopping (shoplifting).

Lily was crude and often confrontational but so much of her humour came out of her working-class and low-quality life, and her very dysfunctional family (This was at a time when “family values” were used as a political weapon, and living in a nuclear family was the only acceptable lifestyle. Here was Lily’s humour, painting her family life as survival of the loudest). But her humour never mocked women, belittling women’s bodies (A friend of mine, during my training, was a very strong feminist but she always loved Lily’s humour. I sat next to her, at a Lily Savage show, as she laughed herself silly).

I saw Lily perform, so many times in packed and rather tacky gay clubs, always without the benefit of air conditioning. She would stand on the tiny stage there and dominate the whole club, having the audience in the palm of her hand. I loved Lily’s humour, her sharp social and political commentary, and it was blisteringly funny. She took no prisoners when she saw something wrong, or faced with a drunk heckler. When policed raided the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, all wearing rubber gloves, Lily was on stage, and announced, “Oh good, have you come to do the washing up?” (3) Lily also did a lot of work for HIV, appearing at AIDS benefits and long before it was fashionable.

In 1991, Lily was nominated for the Perrier Award (4). Though she didn’t win, this was Lily’s gateway into mainstream media. Suddenly, she was presenting her stage shows and appearing on all different TV shows, she even appeared on a kids’ TV program. The genius of O’Grady was that he tempered Lily’s language for TV but lost none of her edginess. Many people accused O’Grady of “selling out”, as if as a drag performer Lily should only stay on the gay scene, but to me, it was the bigger platform that Lily deserved. It meant I could also enjoy Lily’s performances on my television, and I did.

In 2004, O’Grady announced that Lily had retired to “a convent in Brittany” (5). O’Grady moved on to presenting television programs, out of drag. He soon became very successful at it, everyone’s slightly badly behaved and outspoken uncle. But as an openly gay man, he became so established that he presented a tea-time chat show and had a celebrity cameo on Doctor Who. He had become so popular and established that his death was the second item on the 6 o'clock BBC news the next day.

I enjoyed his TV presenting but I really missed Lily Savage, her sharp and irreverent humour. She was such a fully formed character, with her own catastrophic life and very jaundice humour. I missed her undeferential attitude to celebrity.

(Only in the last few days did I learn why O’Grady retired Lily. In 2004, Brendan Murphy, O’Grady’s partner and manager of 25 years, died after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. O’Grady said the joy of performing as Lily “sort of died with him” (6))

Paul O’Grady 14 June 1955 – 28 March 2023

Sunday 2 April 2023

Sunday 2nd April 2023

I hated Sunday afternoons as a child. It was always the low point of the week, the afternoon when nothing really happened. It was those long hours between Sunday lunch and Sunday tea. My parents would go and garden, leaving me alone with the television. There were only three channels and none of them saved their best programs for Sunday afternoons. I watched a lot of old and often not very good films, black and white war films that were all about the glory of fighting, or equally black and white family dramas were everyone was so buttoned up and corseted that barely any emotion could escape. As a child I wasn’t a discerning viewer, I would watch anything to chase away the boredom, and those long Sunday afternoons I would watch anything the television had to offer.

This afternoon Martin and I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon at home, watching television. We have the advantage of streaming TV; we can choose whatever program whenever we want to. There’s no searching through three channels and settling for the least annoying thing on offer. As we watched television, I wrote on my laptop.

I find nostalgia fascinating but also a little worrying. The romancing of the past until it almost seems like a paradise. My father and his brothers used to do it. They would look back on the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties, especially the Second World War, as an almost perfect time. Even as a child, in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, this seemed strange to me, society had moved forward so much, why was the past so wonderful?

I don’t want to return to the world of my childhood, technology has made my life so much better, and I don’t see my childhood as some sort of paradise, yet some people are now romancing that time too.