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.
Peter LLoyd Jones 04/11/13