DEATH may be a fact of life, but the deaths of those we love should never be in vain, says Euan McColm
LAST Tuesday night, I was in the dissection room of what used to be the Royal School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh, listening to one of my favourite bands, The Dirty Three.
It may be the arts centre Summerhall, these days, but evidence of the building’s past life is all around, from the animal skulls that decorate the bar to the tiled walls – easy to wipe clean of blood – in the space where the band performed. Reminders of death are everywhere in Summerhall and last week I noticed them all.
A few days earlier, my friend Eddie Truman had passed. Since his death, he’d been lolloping though my mind, his lanky frame appearing, unbidden, to make me smile or make my cry or make me do both, simultaneously.
As The Dirty Three played and I closed my eyes, Eddie meandered into view. How he’d have loved this, I thought.
Violinist Warren Ellis, guitarist Mick Turner, and drummer Jim White have, over more than two decades, created an extraordinary body of work. Their instrumental music often takes its inspiration from loss but, while it is frequently mournful, it prickles with optimism. It comforts and cajoles and fills me with euphoria.
My favourite of theirs is a remarkable piece called “Some summers they drop like flies” which begins as a lament before, around three minutes in, the sound from Ellis’s violin spirals up into the sky, towards the blinding sun. This musical ascension is as profound to me as any carefully-considered written epitaph. It’s a piece I’ve reached for more times than I care to remember and it’s kept me company, again, these past few days.
I first met Eddie 13 years ago, when he turned up at Holyrood to work as a press officer for the Scottish Socialist Party which, with six MSPs, was then a rising political force.
With his armfuls of pamphlets and button badges, Eddie looked the part of the old Trot (though he was then just 40 years old to my 33) and my instinct was not to take him seriously. He responded to this by accepting endless piss-taking and being unreasonably charming.
It was easy to love him.
Eddie’s radical politics was not, as is so often the case, infected with machismo. He believed in equality and fairness and decency. And he walked that walk.
I never pretended to Eddie that I believed his politics would create the society he wanted. He was, I often told him, completely misguided in his conviction that it would.
But if Eddie was wrong about politics, he was right about how to be a man. He stood up to bullies, he coped with huge difficulties in his personal life with remarkable stoicism, and he placed the happiness of his family – his partner Cat, his daughter, and his four granddaughters – above all else.
I’m not sure I can recall a time when our politics was more divisive than it is now. We live in tribal times, when opponents dismiss each other as malign. This was not Eddie’s way. When he died, among the first to pay tributes were advisers to David Cameron and Gordon Brown. They recognised his decency, his open heart.
There are too few like Eddie in politics, today. There are too few like him, anywhere.
For the last three weeks of his life, Eddie was in Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary, in a bed by a window, with a view to the hills beyond. For two weeks, he made slow but steady progress, seeming to be stronger each time I saw him. He’d hold my hand a little tighter. He’d laugh a little louder.
We talked about politics – of course – and about music. I told him I’d got tickets for The Dirty Three and chattered on about them for a while. And I told him I’d be back to see him. Eventually, he failed to uphold his side of that arrangement.
We try to find something profound amidst the banality of loss, don’t we? The deaths of those we love should never be in vain. We want the comfort of meaning.
But death is just a fact of life and its manner is rarely exceptional. If there is anything to learn, perhaps it comes in the days after.
Since Eddie’s death, I have learned that, in his youth, he possessed a quite magnificent quiff and that he was once in a band with terrible name of “Technique Is”. I can understand why he kept that from me. I would have been merciless. I’ve spoken to – or read tributes from – dozens of people who knew Eddie and he was something different to all of them, a comrade, a clown, a co-conspirator in life.
It seems to me that this recognition of the obvious – that we are all complex, multi-dimensional, neither perfect nor flawed beyond redemption – is worth reasserting right now.
If Eddie was still with us, he’d be playing his part in preparing for a second referendum on Scottish independence and I’d be telling him he was wasting his time. I’d probably go too far in criticising one of his comrades and he’d censure me with a shake of the head.
We’d talk about my kids and his grandchildren and what their latest tricks were. And we’d talk about music and how the other had to hear this or that, right now, because it was amazing.
Instead, tomorrow we’ll bid farewell to Eddie at an avowedly non-religious service in Edinburgh. I have borrowed a Hibs scarf in order to comply with the dress code. I have polished my Doc Martens.
As I say goodbye to my Eddie, dozens more will say goodbye to theirs. He was 100 men in one body and, although the coffin will contain his physical form, all those Eddie Trumans will spiral up into the sky, towards the blinding sun.