We’re stepping back a while now but I’ve had this title for a chapter sitting on my laptop and in my mind for ages and I want to complete it.
I’ve researched the phrase which many of you will recognise but I can’t find a definitive source. Not that it matters. But if anyone does know where it comes from it would be good to know. It refers of course to the cry of the Everyman Entertainer as to where he or she is prepared to perform. I suspect very few actually have the opportunity to play at funerals although perhaps if you are a singer, a musician, then one could see situations where your services could be required. But a juggling, unicycling magician? Perhaps in New Orleans, but rural Shropshire?
A couple of months ago I had a call from a woman who had a close friend who had recently passed. (I quite like that expression, better, I think, than most of the others. ‘Passed away’ seems a bit distant and none of the others really work for me. Of course ‘died’ is accurate but too cold and final for me, even though death is of course cold and final). Anyway Mr C. (everyone just knew him as Mr C.) though his name was Michael Cartwright, had been a big jovial man who even in his later years loved going to the circus. If there was a circus locally, he had to go. There was some circus blood in him, having grown up in and around Chipperfields where his father had worked. The lovely woman who phoned me had worked for Gandy’s Circus, with her horses, so there were circus connections.
Would I be able to perform at Mr C.’s funeral? Or perhaps more accurately at the celebration of his life at the village pub afterwards? Of course a gig is a gig so I said I would be honoured to do so, which was true. When I put the phone down I started to worry. I’m a born worrier. I was worried about what to do, I was worried whether those present would find the intrusion of an entertainer on moments of personal grief, minutes after they had seen Mr C. laid in the earth, too much or even an unwanted intrusion. I gave what I should do a great deal of thought.
Firstly, I thought that working outside the pub would be better than inside. At least then if people didn’t like what I was doing they didn’t need to take part. Then, I went through my music to find the most appropriate tracks. ‘March of the Gladiators’ seemed OK. It seemed appropriate. He had been a gladiator of a man, tall and broad in mind and body. As luck or fate would have it the day was sunny and dry. One of those autumn days in mid-October when the sun still had some warmth. The front of the pub in the little Shropshire village faced South so the day’s sunshine bathed the entrance and me in light. I set up the few props I had brought alongside my sign board and wrote ‘A celebration of the life of Mr C. (who loved circus)’ (see the photo on Instagram –mralexander1234) and played ‘The March of the Gladiators’ and juggled as the guests walked back to the pub from the cemetery just down the road. There were many in tears, but, being someone who can gauge reactions pretty quickly, I really only noticed one or two who found my presence there upsetting or out of place.
I worked outside the pub all afternoon. People drifted in and out. There were a handful of children. The small Welsh border town was one of those places where children were sheltered from life’s difficult moments like funerals, but some came later after school and some older and younger children were there throughout, so I had a few children to play to along with the adults. Children are great ice-breakers in any social situation, including the odd one of an entertainer and an audience. Even more so on occasions like this when the span of life is so tangible.
I heard various stories about Mr C. during the afternoon. How when he was told he had a terminal illness by the Doctor, he stood up, shook him by the hand, thanked him and said he’d had ‘a wonderful life’.
How on his birthday a month or so later, when he was too ill to get out of bed, he had organised a party for his friends and family complete with a live strolling Mexican band who had played around the house all evening.
I felt I had got to know him by the end of the afternoon and as people had mellowed with a few drinks, various key people in his life, his daughter, his wife and others drifted out to catch some of the show. They all thanked me and said how good and appropriate what I had done had been.
So now I feel OK with using the well-known phrase ‘Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Funerals’. I have performed at many weddings, a few Bar Mitzvahs and one memorable funeral.
Rest in Peace (or perhaps with the echoes of ‘The March of the Gladiators’), Mr C.
All the best from a road near you,