Emma Thompson asks, “How will you get everyone up and moving Tom?” We’re backstage at The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. “I’ll use the same trick I used at the funeral” I reply.
“I remember us all dancing but I don’t remember the trick” she says.
Maybe trick is the wrong word. Having studied The Trickster in depth, Dawn Ellis, storyteller extraordinaire, always advises me against using it saying, “People don’t like to be tricked Tombo. It suggests you’re the clever one and they’re the gullible fools”.
Not a lot of people call me Tombo, just family, and we’re married. And she’s right, so let me start again.
Backstage at The Royal Court.
Emma: “How will you get everyone up and moving Tom?”
Tom: “I’ll employ that advanced and respectful facilitator technique where I invite everyone to stand up and put one foot forward. But I’ll say it casually as if I’m asking them to check the time on their mobile phones. Nothing weird. Then I’ll ask them to imagine someone is offering them a drink and they have to lean forward, just a bit, to receive it. Very few people refuse this. Then I invite them to lean back. Forward again. Back. Forward. By now I’m playing a beat on my drum and we’re all dancing together in a coordinated fashion. It’s clever, sophisticated and nuanced.”.
Emma. “Ah, that old trick. OK. Once you’ve got them grooving, Greg, our daughter and myself will join you from stage right and I think Dawn is bringing Susan in from stage left. Sean will vault onstage from the front stalls, you might have to coach him a bit with the ‘forward-back’ routine but the audience will enjoy that. Sean is cool in an uncool sort of way.”
She’s right and that’s exactly what we do. My advanced facilitator technique works like a dream.
Most famous for his adaptation of ‘The Libertine’ for the stage, Stephen Jeffreys also wrote the brilliant play ‘Backbeat’, showing the ups and downs of The Beatles before they hit the big time. This ‘show’ today is his memorial get together and, before the others join me I tell the crowd we’re going to sing ‘The Sloop John B’, assuring them that, as Stephen and I discovered many times when we played gigs together, every crowd in every town somehow knows the harmonies. Sure enough, when the time comes three minutes later, they do! As we raise the roof at The Royal Court, singing, dancing and giving thanks for having had Stephen in our lives, I can feel him with us. He’s smiling. We’re completing something. His brain tumour had him in a wheelchair at the end. “I feel so broke up, I wanna go home”.
It would be wrong to deny I have a ‘feel’ for bringing meaningful ritual to memorial events. You could even call it a passion. Why? When I’m just thirteen I’m not invited to my Mother’s funeral in case it upsets me. Consequently, on the day, when the hearse arrives, I leave awkwardly and go out to be with my friends. After shuffling around a bit on a street corner we decide to ‘go down the beach’ but it means going past our Saltdean bungalow.
I calculate, given the time, the sombre funeral party will have left for Telscombe Village by now but as we arrive the hearse is still there, surrounded by solo souls resembling a South Coast Lowry painting. One of our curtain twitching neighbours, on seeing me, opens her window and says in the nastiest voice she can muster, “You should be there… paying your respects to your mother.” She scowls like a gargoyle and slams the window shut.
I conclude later in life, having visited many Africa countries, that we need some proper funeral rituals in the UK that all family members can join, from the very old to the very young. Especially thirteen year old boys.
Jumping forward to 2007, when Brad Brown, one of our spiritual teachers dies, Dawn flies to his memorial service in California. On the same day in London I make two group bookings on the London Eye and forty of us gather in two separate pods where, in a structured way, we share fond memories of Brad. We also learn the song IMELA, with me teaching my pod the low part of the harmony, and with a singer friend teaching the high part in a sister pod next door. When we get to the top of the ‘flight’ we face each other in mid air, sister and brother, harmonising without hearing a single note. Imela means “thank you” in the Nigerian Igbo language. On disembarking we circle up in the nearby Jubilee Gardens where, sister and brother, we sing and dance Brad home under the stars.
Two more. At Sophie Sabbage’s memorial, which is online due to covid restrictions, I invent something completely different. Playing an emotional ballad chosen by her husband I invite The Cancer Whisperer’s grieving followers worldwide to bring something to the screen that reminds them of her. In shifting grids of spotlit friends on Zoom, people bring hearts, candles, books, photographs and most of all rivers of tears. The presence of Sophie, and our unbearable loss, is palpable. For some there is completion, for others there is continuation. From all and for all there is unconditional love.
One more. After my Dad’s funeral, ages ago, my brothers and I get together bringing a selection of poems we think he might like on his headstone. Having selected one we look up how much it will cost and discover the local stonemason charges per letter. My Dad was no saint. Being a drug addict he used to nick all our birthday money and any other cash he could find in the house. We work out we can now get some of that cash back. His headstone reads, D(E)AD.
At five pounds a letter I’ve informed my brothers that, should I be the first of us to visit Telscombe Village in a box I’ve set seventy five pounds aside for my own headstone.
It will proudly read… TOMBO JSTADRMMER.