An end of the pier farewell to an old friend

Yesterday we said farewell to an old friend and celebrated in a muted kind of way, some of the places and things he had loved. Tennyson wanted “no moaning of the bar when I put out to sea”- and Colston (yes really – it was once a popular Bristolian first name) did all he could to avoid any posthumous moaning, but Nick, his son and Nick’s wife Kate – our good friends too – organised a kind of stealth celebration where everything we did, and everywhere we went, were things and places his dad would have loved.

Accountants, I know, have a reputation for being somewhat grey and boring but Colston was neither. A lover of choral music and choirs, singer, collector of stamps, harmonicas and Rohan clothes, an argumentative, lethally sceptical and well prepared member of church study groups, fluent reader and translator of ancient Greek; lecturer; enormous fan of old buses (the name Lodekka – see photo above – was apparently his suggestion – he lived a couple of hundred yards from the chassis works). Accomplished watercolourist and passionate lover of the Brecon Beacons (Bannau Brycheiniog) and a good friend to generations of young – now middle aged and more elderly – students both formal and informal and an exemplar of the virtuous life full of quirks and enough of the dodgy to make him infinitely loveable.

So we went, twenty five of us, in the open topped bus in a loop south of Bristol, taking the winding and narrow country roads down the Gordano valley – a nature reserve with a motorway through the middle – to Clevedon whose pier has always had a melancholy kind of feel to it; not helped by the hundreds of memorial plaques accompanying – or rather no longer accompanying – the cremated remains of their namesakes whose ashes have greatly enriched the swirling silted waters of the Bristol Channel. A nice little earner for the volunteers who keep it open. We sat in sunshine on the pier eating a picnic of his favourite sandwiches and I thought of Tennyson whose poem I was obliged to learn as a punishment for some minor offense at school. I owe my knowledge (and love) of poetry to my bad behaviour.

I think most of us are conflicted at wakes. As a culture we’re not good at death and feel secretly mortified at the sense of our own mortality and the moments of illicit schadenfreude that at least it’s not us this time. Meeting old acquaintances who have aged just as much as we have over the decades, and yet seem suddenly old when we would rather believe that we are not; seeing once again men and women who once played with our children in the garden, and whose children now also play in the freedom of the Goose field on the Bannau.

On the drive home we went through the centre of Bristol – the great age of the bus allowed exemption from the clean air zone – and passed St Mary Redcliffe church where Colston once sang; the school which Nick went to; the Paintworks where his grand-daughter once worked and the demolished bus depot, now a pub, where the bus was built. We finished the journey in Brislington where generations of his family had lived. Oncoming drivers tooted their horns and pedestrians rushed out their phones and tried to wave and take a photo at the same time. We sang silly songs and waved back and kept our thoughts to ourselves. I bought myself a new mug with a drawing of the pier at the gift shop. I’ll treasure it but I’ll also drink a lot of tea from it!

Once we were home we flopped in our armchairs, too exhausted even to drink a glass of wine. This remembering business always turns out to be a lot tougher than you’d think.

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