The Fire of Life

Grandad was an inexhaustibly genial man who knew how to live well. There are those of us who live our lives anxiously, who have lost so many days fretting over tomorrow. We may even be grateful for what we have, but we certainly aren’t content. Grandad would let ‘the morrow take thought for the things of itself’. He filled his time with painting, music, poetry, nature, scribbling, conversation and, perhaps most of all, family.

Just before Christmas his health deteriorated rapidly and a week ago he passed away. Fortunately, he was able to die in his home (which is becoming something of a rarity). The final days were mercifully free of pain and contained many wonderful moments. His smile and gleaming eyes, his cheeky winks and comic frowns — essentially, his good nature — survived exhaustion and delusion.

He was born in Birmingham in 1923. His memories of this time reveal an almost foreign country. People went to see silent black-and-white films in cinemas staffed with commissionaires who wore peaked hats and resplendent brown and gold uniforms. At the end of the film, the audience would stand as ‘God Save the King’ played. Grandad cycled three miles to school every day; one could also traverse the city by tram. Children innocently played with knives. Parents might spank their children. Dads assembled home-made radio sets and would tune into the one station available, the BBC (though the static would have made much of it inaudible). People listened to fragile — though heavy — ’78s’ on crackling monophonic gramophones.

In 1933 Grandad’s family moved to London. For some reason he did not take to his new school. By his own admission he became a less than perfect student. In 1939 his form master signed him up for art college, telling him ‘you are not much use at anything else, Watson!’

The Second World War interrupted his studies. It broke out two days before his sixteenth birthday, and by 1941 he was old enough to serve. He signed up for the aircrew in the RAF but failed the rather strict examination (possibly because of his hearing). He was, however, retained by the RAF and eventually called up in 1942. For a while he was a ‘wireless operator’ in a training base, and later he was shipped off to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he served as photographer until the end of the war.

He never stopped painting and eventually got a job as a ‘technical illustrator’. Come the last several years of his life, poor eyesight and arthritis meant he found it very difficult to draw. But by then he had a vast body of work to look back upon, with most of the family owning a ‘D. T. Watson’ painting. Still, despite his old age he would sketch things from time to time — birds, plants, people. As Nan said to him (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), ‘Monet was blind and painted those beautiful flowers — so what’s your excuse?”

Grandad was equally enthusiastic about music. He could often be found listening to his favourite Sinatra tunes and singing along merrily. (Up until the last weeks he had a splendid voice, even in his 90s.) He had been musical from an early age. In grammar school he was second fiddle in the orchestra. And while at art college he was a drummer in a ‘semi-pro’ dance and jazz band (though not, he would readily admit, a good one).

Remarkably, he had kept the violin for all these decades, but it was damaged so badly in the war that it became unplayable. A couple of years ago we decided to get it restored. He got to play it for the first time in 80 years. With some success he set about learning Offenbach’s ‘Barcarolle’ and the melody from the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

In the last week of his life he asked me to play the violin to him. Despite a weak voice and questionable grip on reality, he gave a perceptive critique of my playing. After the first thing I played — a major scale, I think — he told me I could do better. And so I tried, but with a cheeky smile he said I was about the same as last time. Frankly he was being generous: I haven’t the foggiest idea how to play the violin. When I instead played it pizzicato — like a guitar, my native instrument — he told me off for cheating.

I was not there when he died, so I decided to go see the body. I had never seen a dead body before and was ill-prepared. He was lying on a bed dressed in a clean set of pyjamas. A thin white sheet came up to his chest. He did not look at rest — it was something more eery than that. His body was emaciated, so much so that there was something grotesquely biological about it. He used to sleep with his eyes half-open and his mouth gaping; it was unnerving to see both his eyes and mouth shut. But what really frightened me was that I was convinced he was breathing. It bordered on hallucination: I swear to you I could see his chest rise and fall at regular intervals. Nevertheless, there was no doubt in my mind that I was staring at a corpse. All his apparent breathing did was inspire fear, not false hope. I feared that something had taken possession of him. A lifeless body has a demonic look to it. I knew that someone had become something. And whatever that something is, it continues to haunt me. It was empty and soulless — I saw how evil is the absence of good. Myths of zombies and vampires suddenly made complete sense. I seriously entertained the possibility that the body might get up and strangle me. Nothing could possibly be that still. It must have been deception. I never looked away, not for a second.

I knew that his soul, his being, or whatever you wish to call it, was gone — either extinguished or elsewhere. I may have already known that intellectually, but it wasn’t until seeing the body that I knew it viscerally.

When we were searching through his files and wodges of paper, we came across copious notes, stories, lyrics, poems, drawing, cuttings and so on. One poem had written beside it, ‘to be read at my funeral’. The poem is the ‘Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher’ by Walter Savage Landor. It’s the perfect choice:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:
Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

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