To absent friends: Few of us have been untouched by loss in the past two years. But as he mourns his closest showbiz colleagues, SIMON CALLOW lifts our spirits with a glorious evocation of how we can keep alive the memory of those we loved
Death is always with us, of course.
The pandemic has made everything much, much, worse, as have the horrors of Putin’s terror, but when you get to my age – 72, since you ask – it can feel, even in ordinary times, as though a secret sniper is following close behind, picking off one’s dearest and closest, rat-a-tat.
And, of course, I am under no delusion that I am exempt: that sniper is only biding his time till he lines up his sights on me.
As the toll mounts, I find myself more and more urgently digging into my recollections of the departed, as if allowing them to disappear from mind would diminish my life, all of our lives. Which, of course, it would, and does.
Just think of the past couple of years! So many, many of my cherished friends lost.
From childhood, I have always had a sense that life was transitory. For those of us born halfway through the 20th Century, the dead were as present as the living, casualties of the Boer War, the First World War, Spanish flu, the Second World War, writes Simon Callow (above)
The sniper has never let up: that Titan of classical theatre, Sir Antony Sher; Stephen Sondheim, the genius of musical theatre of the second half of the 20th Century; the fearless and feisty pioneering transgender April Ashley; the gloriously rebarbative writer Joan Schenkar.
All dear to me, each departure a bitter blow. How do I stop my memories from fading? From falsifying the true image of people I knew so intimately?
From childhood, I have always had a sense that life was transitory. For those of us born halfway through the 20th Century, the dead were as present as the living, casualties of the Boer War, the First World War, Spanish flu, the Second World War.
Our family had lost fathers, brothers, cousins, best friends from all of these calamities and, especially at Christmas time, we would summon them up, not piously – uproariously, in fact – all toasted, commemorated in anecdote, pored over in dog-eared photos extracted from suitcases lugged out of the attic.
I came to know these people – young, middle-aged and old – snapped, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes brazenly, by cheap box Brownie cameras. I studied the black-and-white images over and over again, till I began to believe I had actually met them.
I learned all their histories – their love affairs, their tragedies, their triumphs – from my mother’s mother, Vera, universally known as Mater.
In December, my friend and exact contemporary, the great actor Antony Sher, died aged 72 – shockingly young – a man for whom there seemed to be no summit too high to scale. (Pictured, Sher and Callow in 2008)
I fell completely under her spell as she painted a picture of a world that had disappeared – her comfortable childhood with servants, her mother-in-law the bareback horse rider and her father-in-law, first a clown, then a ringmaster.
She talked, this elderly Scheherazade, about cousin Peggy who ran away with the manager of the local cinema and then had a stroke, and about the sister-in-law who inhaled a small spider when she was smelling a rose and it grew to massive size in her skull. I never tired of hearing, just as she never tired of reciting, her epic tale of family history.
She and I were soul mates from the beginning. She had once been a singer, a contralto profundo; she would croon to me in her still magnificent voice, bathing me in its richness and warmth, or would suddenly, in a nimble display of old-fashioned waltzing, propel her considerable bulk around the room in double time.
Even then, as a teenager, I felt a strong urge not to let all this fade or dwindle. These people and their stories, it seemed to me, were precious, their lives had meant something.
We could only really feel our full humanity if they were part of the picture, and the only way they would endure would be by a careful and diligent act of recollection.
So, from the age of 13, I started making notes. I kept every letter ever sent to me and, later, emails and even texts. I hoarded photographs in suitcases of my own.
At some point in the 1970s, I took to writing down the names of people I knew who had died.
For years it remained in single numbers but the list grew, swelling obscenely during the AIDS years. The idea was never to create a catalogue of loss and waste, it was the opposite: to bring them back to life.
One day I mean to write a book evoking and preserving them, all the disappeared, a collection of verbal sketches, portrait miniatures like those of the great Elizabethan masters Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver.
It would be an attempt to do what speakers at funeral services try to do: bring the deceased into the room again so we can properly take leave, not of an idea of the person in question, but of the real man or woman, while memory is fresh.
I even have a title for it: Friends Hid, a phrase in Shakespeare’s 30th sonnet which has haunted me from the moment I first read it. As he put it, those ‘precious friends hid in death’s dateless night’.
When someone in your life dies, not only do you lose them, you lose yourself. The part of you that only they knew retreats, hidden from sight, but it never goes away completely.
When I heard that my friend Joan Schenkar had died in Paris last year, I thought, with a shock: we’ll never meet again. Our friendship passed before my eyes, as if I were drowning.
At our very first meeting, she had laid all her cards on the table. She was, she made it clear, Jewish, lesbian and very, very clever.
One feisty broad who didn’t see it through to 2022 was April Ashley (above), who died in December last year, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery
She had been vigorously heterosexual, she informed me, but at a certain point men had lost their appeal for her and – her phrase – she had switched horses without drawing breath.
She was the biographer of Patricia Highsmith, the writer of The Talented Mr Ripley, and every bit as fierce and uncompromising as her subject, utterly unsentimental about every aspect of life, viewing everything and everyone with an appalled, analytical fascination.
There was no danger of my ever forgetting her. She was designed to be memorable: short of stature, slight of form, dressed to the nines in a shrewdly chosen array of contrasting fabrics, her hair a helmet of brunette curls. She radiated intensely focused energy, poised for guerrilla action.
Her eyes, greyish-greenish, looked straight into the back of one’s skull, making a quick and thorough inspection of its contents.
I thought immediately ‘One would not want this woman for an enemy’, but luckily, the brain survey successfully completed, she radiated approval.
From then on we were not just friends, though we were certainly that, but collaborators – co-conspirators, as she saw it, against a lying, cheating, shabby, pernicious, talentless world.
I alone, she implied, was exempted from her strictures. It was us and them – them being the entire world, and us being, well, just her and me.
Today I turn to her emails to remind me of the wonderful luck I had to have known her. May she rest in – not peace, that wouldn’t suit her at all – but in joyous and eternal turmoil.
Another feisty broad who didn’t see it through to 2022 was April Ashley, who died in December last year, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
In addition to being a heroically brave pioneer and an inspiration to subsequent generations, Ashley was a grande dame of a kind that scarcely exists any longer outside the Royal Family, and rarely even there.
Beautiful, elegant and majestic in her bearing, she was sparklingly witty, infinitely gracious and not to be trifled with. Behind the exquisite manner there lurked, as she would proudly admit, a fighting Scouser.
Stephen Sondheim (above) was a dauntingly brilliant figure, author of some of the most ingenious, innovative and indelible work in the history of music theatre
She had fought many battles in her life, first to be able to undertake the surgery that she knew would liberate her into being the woman she knew herself to be, then against the prejudice that greeted her new self, legal struggles with her husband and difficulties with her various establishments – clubs and restaurants.
The last couple of decades were taken up largely with battles with her own body. But through all of it she never lost her wit and her magnificent sense of self-celebration.
She was very conscious of the epic that her life had been, but always funny about it. She did, however, require that other people give her due respect, which was normally assessed in perks.
We were due to appear together on a chat show, but at the last minute she refused to appear unless she had a limousine to take her there and back, and as long as there was a bottle of champagne, on ice and in a bucket, waiting for her on arrival.
They had no budget for either Daimler or Bolly, and so she simply didn’t do the show.
Not being shown respect was worse than a solecism: it was an insult, a challenge, a betrayal. Her response didn’t do her any good, but it was understandable, coming from someone who had fought all the way for everything she ever achieved in life – for her very identity.
Her emails were remarkable for being written in capital letters, as if they were telegrams: DARLING SIMON YOU CAN RING ANY TIME YOU LIKE ITS ALWAYS SUCH A JOY TO HEAR THOSE RICH TONES MUCH LOVE.
I forwarded this to a friend who said: ‘I love the way she always writes in capital letters.’
‘She’s lived her life in capital letters,’ I said.
How different, how very different the wry, dry, occasionally lethal conversation of Stephen Sondheim, a dauntingly brilliant figure, author of some of the most ingenious, innovative and indelible work in the history of music theatre.
We were introduced by English playwright Peter Shaffer in 1979.
I was a Johnny-come-lately young actor who’d had the astonishing good luck to land the title role in the world premiere of Amadeus, and we started a conversation that went on for years, in the flesh and by letter, fax and email, until he suddenly died in November, witty and sharp and provocative to the last.
I had sent Sondheim a book, which I warned him was wrapped in black plastic, all I could find at the time.
‘The black parcel hasn’t arrived yet, although apparently (I’m in Connecticut) a hearse has been waiting across the street from my house for a couple of weeks now. Thank you in advance. Stephen Sondheim (age 90) Be sure to notify me when you’re about to return. We’ll keep the food warm.’
Then, in December, my friend and exact contemporary, the great actor Antony Sher, died aged 72 – shockingly young – a man for whom there seemed to be no summit too high to scale.
His RSC performance as the hunchbacked Richard III won him an Olivier Award in 1985 and established him, at 36, as one of the greatest of classical actors.
I, and the rest of my profession, were numbed by the sudden stilling of that superhuman energy, that powerhouse of creative imagination, and a month later we assembled, masked, chastened, for his funeral in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The theatrical director Adrian Noble stood in the pulpit and cut right through the sombre atmosphere by speaking joyously, exuberantly, about Tony’s unique talent, celebrating the powerhouse of invention and imagination that he was, evoking technicolor images of his performances.
And then Tony’s husband, Greg Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, spoke tenderly and humorously of their life together, of how Tony had faced his death sentence with courage and humour.
He would, he said, write a book about it.
He even had, he said, the opening couple of lines: ‘When the pandemic started, I was playing an elderly Shakespearean actor dying of cancer. Now I am an elderly Shakespearean actor dying of cancer. Who says actors don’t take their work home?’
Adrian and Greg brought Tony back for us, there and then.
We walked out of that church reflective, yes, but imbued, unforgettably, with the life, the energy, the wit that ceaselessly coursed through Tony. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Tony lives.
We must, somehow, remember. We must celebrate, capture, fix these lives for all time, and hope that someone, some day, will do the same for us.
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