Martin. Hands up if you first met him in the last eighteen months? How
about in the 2000s? The 1990s? 1980s? Anyone here not met him at all,
just stumbled into the wrong funeral? Met him in the 70s? 60s? The 1950s?
Only me, then.
Martin was my little brother and I reckon I knew him for 20,267 days. It
should have been longer, but he could be quite annoyingly precocious
when he wanted to: this early departure was quite in character, as
you’ll see. My job is to offer a few early memories of the boy who
achieved everything so quickly that, in a sense, it’s no surprise if he
got to the end before the rest of us.
We were born in Bristol, and family life was secure and comfortable, if
insular. Our parents’ only ambition – for themselves and their two sons
– was to be happy: they entertained each other and rarely sought any
other company. Our father Peter was a journalist, and he met Marie, a
non-conformist Scot, when she was a captain in the regular army. At the
age of almost three, I had no idea they were expecting a second child
until they came home from a night at the hospital with this yellow
knitted sleeping-bag and said they had ‘a present’ for me.
The first action of his that I vividly recall involves a colossal arc of
sunlit urine that shot into the air when he was having his nappy
changed, while the Test Match droned away on the wireless. Even at that
tender age he was probably taking it all in, as he somehow became a
lifelong fan of cricket.
He was the most receptive person I can ever remember. Our parents both
used language with great pleasure and precision and Martin was speaking
in quite long sentences way before he’d mastered any consonants. Perhaps
he was secretly Danish. ‘How did this jam jar get broken?’ they asked
him. ‘Mannin di' wo it on the ow-ow war an it di' maf,’ he replied
(‘Martin did throw it on the outhouse floor and it did smash’).
He conned our Scottish granny into believing he’d learnt to read at a
prodigiously early age: he’d turn over toy cars and say ‘Made in England
by Meccano Limited’ – parrot fashion. But he did secretly learn. On his
first day at school our mother peeped in and saw this four-year-old
reading to the class while the teacher sat in the corner computing the
Staples of his early diet were Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. He could
spout whole chapters of Molesworth without book, but he also had useful
stuff like The Collins Guide to British Birds off by heart.
Later, travelling abroad with Oxford University Press, nothing pleased
him more than finding Sherlock Holmes in some new – and preferably inept
– foreign translation.
I remember one extremely tiresome ’phone call from Lisbon when he
recited the whole of The Hunting of the Snark to me … in
Portuguese. His conversation – and later his e-mails – was (or were?)
riddled with puns and punchlines. I don’t know why he didn’t send his
jokes to Private Eye, of which he later became an avid reader.
Maybe that’s where he got them from? One I particularly liked I thought
would look good on a tee-shirt: [shows] ‘I spayed my cat’.
Both parents could play the piano, and they sang a lot and played their
records (his Brahms and Verdi, hers Glenn Miller and Elvis) good and loud.
While we lived in Bristol we were taught the piano by a wonderful aunt
and later, when we moved to Taunton, Martin took up guitar and flute as
well … all three instruments he latterly taught. But in all those 20,267
days I never heard him practise anything: he would silently incubate a
piece – the same way he later took to doing The Guardian crossword
entirely in his head – and suddenly be able to play it with insolent
He also had x-ray ears, and could analyse the harmonies from complex
Beatles and Procol Harum tunes in the maternal record collection. He
bought a bass guitar – the first of an unruly miscellany of instruments
that eventually required a second house – and we started playing in
various ad hoc bands together, a happy habit that lasted the rest
of his days. He mixed easily with older boys, and in fact he and I were
often taken for twins (he had shot up very rapidly: one summer the
family worked out that he’d grown a quarter of an inch a week).
Even when our physical similarity disappeared – he remained an Hairy
Man, and I became a Smooth Man – a mental affinity persisted and we
would often say the same thing at the same time. I can’t imagine how
many hours he and I spent, trebled up with breathless laughter over some
inexpressible nonsense. Sibling revelry.
Our parents were also happy to laugh at themselves; they were
tremendously supportive of us, but it was all done with a judicious
mixture of gentle mockery and pretty scathing mockery. Nobody was put on
a pedestal in our household except the two cats. But if anybody deserved
a pedestal in those days it was Martin. There’s a Samuel Beckett joke,
‘It’s a rare thing not to have been bonny, once,’ but Martin really had
the bluest eyes, the blondest hair, and that wide, frank face you see in
the pictures. Visitors would often say ‘He’ll break a few hearts’.
And that wasn’t the only difference between us. He could catch. He liked
a drink. He knew the names of trees (to be fair, I knew the names as
well, but he knew which plant they actually belonged to). He liked meat
and ate dogs (oops). He would always be seen in the school play when I
was merely cowering behind a piano. They’d cast him as a perky little
servant, but as Christmas approached and ’flu’ decimated the cast, he’d
be given more and more understudying – he already knew everyone’s lines
from attending rehearsals – until he was on stage non-stop. I won’t say
he was a great character actor (and he always spoke at a hundred miles
an hour); but he was utterly dependable.
I was the cautious one but Martin was always ‘in the wars’, with huge
black eyes from cricket, falls from piles of rusting cars in scrapyards,
or more serious injuries we knew nothing about. On a family holiday in
the 1990s he broke his back on a ropey rope swing, and the X-rays
revealed a spinal fracture from childhood that he’d never mentioned. As
a very young child he’d survived virus pneumonia. He crashed various
vehicles ... I should have spotted that he was getting through his nine
lives so quickly, but it’s so easy to take things for granted.
Both parents loved driving and we went on adventurous European tours.
Noticing how our father could converse pretty well in France, Austria
and Italy, Martin decided to read Modern Languages at university.
Cambridge entrance required a second language, so at the age of just
seventeen he set out to live in Florence, and learnt Italian in a few
Likewise, when he later got his job at Oxford University Press, they
told him his first task was to chair a book-sellers’ conference in
Madrid. ‘What, in English?’ said Martin. ‘Use your Spanish, of course,’
said OUP. Martin explained he didn’t speak a single word of Spanish: it
hadn’t been mentioned at the interview, and they can’t have read his CV
very carefully. But needless to say, within a few weeks he did chair
that conference, in Madrid, in Spanish.
Trips to India, China and other remote outposts followed, when he wasn’t
pottering nearer home in one of the tribe of ancient Rootes Group cars
he doted on, hybridising mechanical parts between them with surprising
confidence. I remember him buying one car and beating the price up
so that the vendor wasn’t swindling himself.
When I was first at university he came up to Cambridge to visit, but
left a day ahead of the parentally-authorised schedule, announcing he
was ‘off to London’. ‘To visit whom?’ I enquired. ‘Friends whose
identity need not concern you,’ was the fifteen-year old retort. That
was the last time I attempted to be my brother’s keeper!
But despite this adventurous spirit there was always a certain
diffidence too. He felt other people were more significant than himself,
and didn’t like to take centre stage. But a mild man can still make a
strong impression, as this great turn-out shows. Fairford even organised
a fly-past for him this weekend. I’m sure he was a great and loyal
support to many of you here, in ways we don’t need to spell out.
He certainly was to me. He would proof-read everything I wrote. If there
are mistakes in today’s Order of Service you can blame Martin for not
being around to check it. If my English-teaching colleagues ask me
questions of verbal usage and I look uncertain, they just say ‘ring your
brother’. Mind you he was hilariously conservative in his pedantry,
insisting on the two apostrophes in the word ‘sha’n’t’. And if there was
a complex or absurd way of saying something, he’d find it. Not for him a
blood-test, but ‘a phlebotomy’: no medicine, but ‘a nostrum’. He’s
heading today not for the cemetery but for ‘the boneyard’.
As you might expect from a man who named his son after a crypto-Marx
Brother, he had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to authority in general.
At school he managed to toe the line, but it was often that thin line
between charm and cheek. His PE report one term read, ‘Rarely attends,
but is full of fun when he does.’ The school had a Masonic Lodge
attached that fascinated and repelled him. Climbing up into the
Victorian roof-space and creeping through the dusty void to spy on their
flummery, he put one knee clean through an interim ceiling. Was he a
rebel? Far from it: he smuggled in decorating materials and quietly
plastered over the damage.
Martin was a full two years younger than his class at school, but very
popular. His furtive trips to the Winchester Arms, as a go-between to
keep the boarders fuelled with booze, may have had something to do with
this. Nevertheless he got A grades in English, French and History, when
that was a pretty unusual achievement.
He was eventually expelled following the theft of the
headmaster’s caravan, which he had parked on the First XI cricket
square. But he still got his place at Clare College, not a mere place
but an Exhibition, when he was sixteen, to match the school scholarship
he’d won as a seven-year old. He’d taken that exam in the same room as
me, dashing off his script in about ten minutes and spending the rest of
the hour leaning out of the window chatting to other boys – about
gardening. It was the only time in fifty-five years that I ever saw him
doing any work at all. I’m going to miss him terribly.
Still, time to pass on the narrative baton, and first hear a piece he
specifically requested for his own funeral. As you may know Martin was
born at Epiphany, but he ended his days on the feast of Doubting Thomas.
He had no faith in any afterlife, so I’m not expecting his ‘spook to
swoop down from the rafters’ as he would occasionally put it. But listen
to Gummo playing now, and Nicholas later, and judge for yourselves what