A few days ago I found out that my friend had fallen from a balcony, and was in hospital with serious brain damage and a great deal of damage to a lung. Yesterday he had an operation to remove the lung and his heart stopped: his brain was deprived of oxygen for too long. This morning they turned off the life support machine. I wrote this last night, slightly drunk. It's structureless, and rambles. But I'd like people to know about him.
Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel prize winning humanitarian, said this: ‘I always think we all live, spiritually, by what others have given us in the significant hours of our life. These significant hours do not announce themselves as coming, but arrive unexpectedly. Nor do they make a great show of themselves; they pass almost unperceived. Often, indeed, their significance comes home to us first as we look back, just as the beauty of a piece of music or a landscape often strikes us first in our recollection of it...if we had before us those who having thus been a blessing to us, and could tell them how it came about, they would be amazed to know what passed over from their life into ours.’
I wish I had Giles before me now, to tell him what passed over from his life into mine. I would tell him all the ways I would like to be more like him. I would tell him that I would like to possess a little more of his fearlessness when confronted with injustice; his wit; his gregarious charm; his generosity; his passion; his total loyalty to his friends. I would tell him that my life was hugely enriched by his presence in it, and that it is immeasurably diminished by his loss.
Things about Giles. He loved playing football, and he was pretty good at it, albeit better in the showman’s arena of yard than in the artisan’s match environment. He had a thing where he would back into you bobbing the ball on his right foot as he hopped backwards on his left, and then he would suddenly flick it hard and turn you and when it worked it was brilliant. He was an excellent winchester college football player, but instead of going for canvas he opted for the Hopper’s team because he found it more fun. He liked being part of a team, he liked being amongst his friends. He had one of the worst singing voices I’ve ever heard. He was extremely clean, and regularly despaired of the rest of our year’s unhygenic living arrangements. He did these amazing casts of his face for his GCSE art. He was quite extraordinarily bad at latin. He liked playing cards. He liked to think he was good at poker, and was quite proud of his grasp of the terminology. He was brilliant at winding me up, and infuriatingly placid himself. He was a source of good advice when it mattered. He had big ears, and was by reputation short, though in fact by the top year he was one of the tallest among us. He had an enormous, adorable smile, and a similar laugh. I hate to admit it, but he was a handsome chap, with a hint of double oh seven about him. He read The New Yorker religiously, and always passed on the issues he had finished to me. He copied pictures of album covers or famous paintings which he liked and stuck them to his bedsit door. He understood the importance of a good suit. He quite liked looking in the mirror, but he wasn’t excessively vain. He had a silly middle name - Onkatil. He liked going out, and was on occasion replaced by a strategically shaped pile of clothes under the covers on a friday or saturday night. He didn’t like school food much, and could regularly be heard wondering why the cook didn’t use the stock from lunch to make a good soup. He knew how to look after himself better than anyone else in our undomesticated peer group, and could quite easily have survived living on his own. He would have thrived at university. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. He loved going to the theatre, and acting, and had innumerable roles in winchester college productions, including the leads in The Good Person Of Sichuan and The Government Inspector. He was a huge fan of stand-up comedy, too, having been to the Edinburgh Festival. He thought Jane Austen’s creation, Emma Woodhouse, was a manipulative bitch, and stoutly and aggressively defended his opinion throughout a year of heated classroom debates and some of the most infuriatingly bloody minded essays I’ve ever read. He liked all kinds of art. He liked Picasso a lot. He claimed not to believe in love. He wasn’t afraid to stand by his point of view if he thought he was right, which was most of the time. He and I had enormous protracted arguments about all kinds of things in the galleries, occasionally (well, often) keeping the rest of the room awake. He was funny. He was impetuous and idealistic. If he knew the answer, he would definitely put his hand up. He had a young nephew, who he doted on, and went on about. He loved living in London, and was good-naturedly contemptuous of out-of-towners. He called me a stuck-up pretentious git; I called him a short-arse jug-eared sloane. But he wasn’t really, at all. Well, apart from the bit about his ears. He flourished at Winchester. He was just starting, I think, to figure out what he wanted to do. He was interested in philosophy. He died on his nineteenth birthday. He was just beginning. In every way that matters, he was a good person. The last time I spoke to him, he sounded happy. He was right in the middle of becoming a man.
We used to wonder what we would all be like in ten, twenty, thirty years time: I never quite knew with Giles. He could have done so many different things. He might have been a journalist, I think, and he would have been a good one, steadfastly moral and angry enough to write things that felt like they mattered. Perhaps he would have done the thing he dreamed of, and acted: his passion and imagination and willingness to listen and willingness to contribute would have stood him in good stead. I was always confident that his cynicism about the possibility of romantic love would be scuppered by someone. Who knows, now?
The summer before coming to Winchester, aged thirteen, I and twelve other about-to-be-hopperites visited Compton Road for orange juice and a biscuit. We were largely happy ignoring each other and staring at the carpet; but, mothers being mothers, this wasn’t allowed. Which is why my mother firmly took my arm and put her other hand at the base of my back and propelled me, the plump red faced child, towards the short big-eared one, who was under similar parental pressure. He eyed me suspiciously; I eyed him suspiciously. An impasse was reached. His mother exchanged a genial greeting with mine, and we found out, to our mutual chagrin, that we had known each other when we were toddlers. Our excuses to ignore each other were running out. So we talked.
Not much of a story, really, is it? All it has going for it is that it's the first time I remember meeting him. I can’t even remember what we said, and I don’t suppose it was terribly interesting anyway.This is the trouble with real life. it’s messy, and things don’t tend to fit into a narrative pattern with logical beginnings and ends. And in a film, you would snort at this. A real deus ex machina, an ending with no relationship with the rest of the story. This is much how it seems in real life. Giles’ death was untimely and unnecessary and senseless. But it happened; and, as hard as it is to believe, he is no longer with us.
Giles hated phrases like that. He hated the way people pussyfoot around death. he insisted on total honesty, all the time.
We went to a house dance, for many of us the first such occasion, aged fourteen. these events are joyless exercises in superficiality. I was joylessly exercising my superficiality in the corner, staring glumly at a girl I liked: Giles came up to me, asked me what I was doing, listened carefully but with a hint of exasperation at how silly I was being, and, rather like my mother, briskly propelled me towards her, offering me very little choice in the matter. That the object of my affection had the good sense to tell me where to go is not the point: without his help I would have stayed there, standing in the corner. I think there are other people that Giles helped not to stand in the corner.
Giles was one of the most opinionated people I’ve ever met. He was famous for an argument about political correctness with a prospective parent at lunch which led to a snort of derisive laughter which silenced grubbing hall. He understood the importance of believing in things, and he believed in them properly.
It may not be possible for anyone who hasn’t spent five years in a boarding house in a group of thirteen to realise how close the bonds that develop are. It is truly more like brotherhood than friendship, in the way that it requires the ability to live and work alongside these people when they are driving you crazy: and because you have known these people through thick and thin, because they have seen you and you them at your best and worst, because they have heard you fart and caught you lying and understand you with a kind of intimacy impossible even to parents, the loss of a member of such a group is a devastating blow. You would never say it their faces, but you love these people. I loved Giles, and he was one of the people that I knew best in the world. his loss is literally incomprehensible. Everyone always says, after such an event, that they can’t quite believe it has happened, and I understand that now. I get that you can’t quite switch off the expectation that at some point you will walk through a door and he will be sitting drinking a cup of Earl Gray, which he loved; that even though you know the words ‘Giles is dead’ to be accurate, you don’t quite know them to be true.
It keeps re-occurring to me. As absurd as it sounds, I forget even as I write this. I remember something about him, and think about it, and then it hits me again.
There is no way of making sense of this, really, hard as one tries. Better to have lived nineteen happy years - and I think, by and large, that Giles was happy, though who can ever really tell? - than a thousand miserable, yes; but better live ninety than nineteen. This was senseless, and pointless, and such a waste. If there is any consolation to be found, it may be in these words of Rilke’s: ‘In the end, those who are carried off no longer need us; they are weaned from the earth’s sorrows and joys, as gently as children outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers. But we, who do need such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often the source of our spirits’ growth; could we exist without them? Is the legend meaningless that tells how in the lament for Linus, the daring first notes of song pierced through the barren numbness; and then in the startled space which a youth as lovely as a god has suddenly left forever, the void felt for the first time that harmony which now enraptures and comforts and helps.’
Even so. None of this helps, really. I miss him, already, more than words can say.