A year on…almost

A couple of weekends ago, before my eldest and my sister’s older two dispersed for university, our families gathered, and together with Colin and our mother Zerin, went to visit Bastien’s grave at the South Downs Natural Burial Site. Part of our mission was to put up the beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired bird box that Colin had made in Bastien’s workshop.

Last time

This visit was in stark contrast to our previous one. Last time was a cold, wet November day when around sixty of us travelled down the A3 to see the wicker basket that carried my father gently lowered into the chalk. Friends and family spoke warmly, Bastien’s youngest grandson played the fiddle, his oldest sang. Peter Lloyd Jones has kindly made his heart felt eulogy available and you can read it here.

Tears flowed and mixed in with the rain. We cheered up afterwards in a pub. The journey back was bad for most and appalling for others. There was a pile up on the A3; some of our party did not get back to London until well after midnight. IMG_0955DSC_1699_2IMG_5584_2

This time

This time was a gloriously warm and sunny day in September. Our visit started with a fabulous lunch in the South Downs Sustainability Centre’s cafe. The young chef did us proud and whipped up a selection of lovely dishes – caramelised onion tarts, stilton and chutney sandwiches and delicious vegetable quiche – washed down with local ale and followed by coffee and home made cakes. Of course there were were feelings of sadness and loss, but the overwhelming, clawing, anxiety that had gripped me before did not surface. DSCF5446 IMG_9886

Finding the spot

The Sustainability Centre offered us the use of their mind-of-its-own electric wheel chair providing Zerin with the means to get down the valley and the rest of us with no end of laughs. The battery, needless to say, did not last the course. The machine had to cross the best part of a couple of kilometres over quite rough terrain. On arrival at the end of the path, our youngest was dispatched up a tree to survey the land and identify the position of Bastien’s plot. DSCF5504We found him and set about clearing the weeds and decorating his grave. Bastien acquired a new spine, a good, strong one fashioned out of flints. No more crumbling bones for this man!DSCF5494As the day turned to evening, we pushed Zerin back up the hill, clambered into the cars and  headed home.

Final resting place

I feel a great sense of ownership of the forest where Bastien lies. Zerin will join him in time, right on top of him as it happens. Dementia prevents her from understanding quite what this means, but I think she would be happy with the knowledge if only it would stick. Perhaps I will book a place for myself. It does not matter that it is so far from home. What matters is that the family will have a lovely place to gather and to play. Hey kids, come dance on my grave!


For Bastien by Peter Lloyd Jones

8th November 2013, South Downs.

When you are middle aged (say 40) your mentors are usually about 60. And they tell you, ‘the worst thing about growing old is you begin to lose your friends.’ ‘Yeh, yeh, yeh’, you say and get on with your life. And then you wake up as it seems the next day, and you yourself are 60. You see your first friends begin to die and you realise that what you’d been told all those years before was true. And then in another flash you yourself are eighty… and only one or two are left. Bastien was one of those.

A friend since the Sixties Bastien was for me one of the very last surviving compagnons de la route’ Not quite ‘one of the men who were boys when I was a boy’ but jolly near it. And this is my slender qualification for speaking these words. Because of course for Zerin and the children, Bastien was not ‘one of the last’ but something far more profound: ‘the only’ – the only lover, husband, father. So I speak for them with humility.

I shall remember first his unflinching courage in adversity. Not just in the way he bore personal tragedy but also in the way he faced an illness that had dragged him down for years. How lovingly he cared for Zerin when he himself was weakening by the day!

He faced his adversity with unflagging curiosity too, especially curiosity about his medical condition. ‘I’d love to have been there in the operating theatre looking down. Fantastic!’ This about his (to me terrifying) spinal surgery.

We will all remember his generosity. He was lucky to have more than most but he was unstinting to those with less. However there are gifts more precious than anything that can be weighed in money. Even when he must have known his own time was short, he spent many days in painstaking work on the proofs of another man’s books, a task he did better than any paid professional.

But on top of it all, I remember his sparkling, probing intelligence. Loose thinking didn’t last long in his company! But he was also a rigorous empiricist, an experimenter ‘putting nature to the question’; satisfied only with what he could demonstrate as fact.


As it happens I had another friend in many ways similar to Bastien.

Both were Jewish yet both were strictly secular. Each was a scientist. In fact they worked in adjacent fields of biology and knew of each other’s work. Both were unswerving materialists yet each was passionate about the arts, especially music. Both were tremendous talkers.

Now that other scientist happened to be married to a poet. And poetry like no other art captures the depth and complexity of our emotions – especially our bewilderment at loss.

When that other scientist died his widow found the courage to create poetry that stared her situation in the face. Though addressed to the shade of a different husband and father, her verses speak to all who mourn. So I’d like to read one of her poems here as we, in our turn, face life without friend or loved one.

‘Immortality’ by Elaine Feinstein †

If I believed in an old-fashioned Paradise,

then you my love would still be talking in it.

There would be blue sky and a few clouds

seen through stone arches, as in

Raphael’s School of Athens, with Diogenes

sprawled on the steps, and Plato in the likeness of da Vinci.

You could pursue them with your eager questions –

as once you challenged speakers at LSE

It’s not that I hope to find you there

myself, more that I cannot bear

it should be true, as once you said

We think. And understand a bit.

And then we’re dead.

But bear it we must. As Bastien did.


Bastien thought hard and understood much, above all in the scientific work that made his name, though of course he too knew how small it was when faced with what we’ve yet to understand.

In fact his favourite teaching was his First Year course on ‘The origins of life’, that deeply obscure primal chemistry that billions of years later was to bring us to his graveside. And now for him a different chemistry will carry on that endless process of becoming and in doing so provide the vital substrate for new life.

When he requested this style of funeral I’m sure he derived some wry satisfaction from the notion although I’m also sure he’d want to correct my words. I can almost hear his voice.

“What do mean ‘different’ chemistry? What’s so different about it? We’re only oxidation and reduction after all”!

Religions have had several thousand years to perfect the rhetoric with which they hope to salve our grief – those promises of immortality they know they’ll never have to keep. As one unbeliever speaking to another it would be quite improper for me to imitate those biblical cadences, haunting though they are. Instead on behalf of us all I shall express our sentiments in the plainest English possible:

“Goodbye dear friend. Goodbye!”


But let me end with a happy memory, one that will be familiar to you all. I’m sure you’ve noticed that when you ring the bell at number 31 Bastien opens the door and greets you, not with the conventional ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’ but with an enthusiastic, embracing “Yes!” And then he turns and calls over his shoulder to Zerin,

“It’s Jenny and Peter”, (or whoever it might be).

I like to think of this greeting as expressive of his attitude to life, right to its uncomfortable, even distressing end – a joyful affirmative, a great big “Yes!”

And so, even though his animating presence is no longer here to help us, we can honour his memory by keeping our network of love and friendship – love and friendship that began with him – in good repair. This will be our affirmation, our way of saying, ‘Yes!’

† ‘Immortality’ is included here by permission of the author and the publisher.

See www. Carcarnet.co.uk

Peter LLoyd Jones 04/11/13