If I was a poet I’d pen some verse. If I was a boxer I’d punch a wall. But I’m me, so I’ll rage at society and its ills. Because today they buried my friend.
He was one of my closest friends, someone I’ve grown up with one way or another since high school and an ever-present in my life since my early 20s. There have been surprisingly few parts of my personal life that don’t involve him. I’ve struggled with the whole thing. Even a week and a half after the news I find it really hard to understand I won’t see him again.
And I can’t be at the funeral because I’m in Brussels for something I can’t get out of, typing this in the loneliest hotel room. The only thing that keeps me from feeling my grief fully is my anger. I’ve been struggling. My friend should not be dead.
He was badly overweight from his mid-20s. He didn’t have a good run of it, not least a near miss with Leukaemia in his early 20s. He became convinced that he was ‘jinxed’, and it added a self-destructive streak to him. He struggled with appetite control, and it stretched to everything. When he eat he eat too much, when he drank he drank too much, when we went dancing he took too much.
But he still shouldn’t be dead. The final straw was work. I remain very proud of the work ethic and sense of duty of my generation coming from where we come from. Work is important to us, not because promotion is a status symbol (five of my closest friends work on building sites – well, four now), but because hard work was valued in and of itself. You didn’t skive, because that fell on those around you.
And duty was important to us. My friend would never say no if asked to help (he was a joiner and few of us live in a house that doesn’t contain his unpaid labour). He was very active in a whole host of community organisations, because community and duty were inextricable.
But sometimes it is too much. Sometimes we go beyond duty and we make ourselves ill. I worked two hours on the day of my dad’s funeral because I had to write a brief for an important meeting the next day. The day after I had a skin cancer removed under general anaesthetic I ignored advice, went to another important meeting, tore my internal stitches, ended up in accident and emergency and was stuck at home getting my wound dressed for three months. Looking back, I’m not sure those meetings were all that important.
And my friend, barely well enough to return to work after a series of very serious hospitalisations, drove for 12 hours. To measure a door. Not because he was pressurised to do it, but because someone had to and it was his job. It is almost certainly this which killed him in the end.
If you work in a lab for Nestle or Unilever ‘refining’ your production processes you might want to avoid me for a while
Frankly, if you are a millennial with the time to pen yet another article about your dedication to ‘self care’, I’m not very convinced that you’re the person most in need of it. People are literally working themselves to death in this country, often because they have no choice, sometimes because they think they must.
When it became clear he was in serious trouble the next day, the poor, overstretched NHS did everything it could to direct him to options other than what he needed – immediate hospitalisation. It is only because someone in our group is a medical professional and was able to alert the NHS to how serious it was was this escalated. It still took three hours for an ambulance to get there.
It’s not clear that faster action would have saved him (it may have been a blot clot that killed him and he was already on blood thinners so there might not have been much that could be done). But it might have. And if nothing else, his fear would have been better managed. He phoned one of us near the end and his last words were ‘I’m scared’ (I translate for the delicate among you).
I can’t get that out of my head. It makes me cry. His last moments were fear and I am really struggling with that. He should have been cared for earlier and faster. Just for humanity if nothing else.
I went to see his widow. They have two children (how do I phrase it now, ‘she has’?), and the youngest has substantial learning difficulties. And of course now they have to sell their family home and hope they can get council housing because her salary alone won’t cover the mortgage. Housing in Britain is for rich investors, not for people to live in. I hate it so much.
But in the end what killed my friend was the food industry. He didn’t stand a chance. He has a genetic difficulty with the feedback system which says ‘I’m full’. He was always hungry. And he lived though an era where an industrial food industry changed what we eat beyond recognition.
Everything is ultra-processed to be as maximally addictive as it is possible to make it, while constantly reducing the nutritional value. If you don’t understand how dangerous this food system is I encourage you to go and do some serious reading. Ultra processed food is next only to smoking in the ‘it’ll kill you’ stakes, and it is probably more responsible than anything for both our declining life expectancy and the unbearable burden on the NHS.
So that a couple of corporate conglomerates can replace a diverse food system with an increasing monopoly model based on low-quality, high-addiction replacements to the food that use to keep us nourished. And we let them.
In Scotland we passed a ‘Good Food Nation’ Bill and I’m damned if I can see what real difference it will make to any of this. We cower in the face of these evil bastards, these evil, food-adulterating corporations which are knowingly and strategically getting our children addicted to substances (not really real foods) that will affect them their whole lives. My anger was very substantial before.
Now? If you work in a lab for Nestle or Unilever ‘refining’ your production processes you might want to avoid me for a while.
All I can do to help is to tell myself over and over ‘you’ve got perhaps 20 active years left and you’ll use every one of them to fight to change this sick, sick society in which corporations are killing us’
What I really, really don’t need right now is another patronising, anthropological lecture from some middle-class commentator who thinks the problem is me and my friends. I was the only one that left school and went to university. We are not the ’emotionally literate’ Modern Men (trademark pending) who are supposed to be ‘in touch with our feelings’ by constantly talking about ourselves.
No, it’s much better than that. We have been on the phone to each other in tears. We have sent messages of love. Because we can’t all make the funeral we’re going to hunt out all our pictures of our friend and get together and get horribly drunk and seriously, fuck you if you are thinking ‘oh, typical’.
Because ask yourself this; when you die will more than 30 people spontaneously create a WhatsApp group to create a task list and a rota to get to your house and get every DIY job fixed, get the garden looking nice – anything we can to make sure his family get every penny they can from the sale?
Enjoy your therapy babble; we show our love through action and togetherness and if you think you’re better because you ‘centre your focus on closure and self care’ then good luck to you.
My grief is constantly hitting me in ways I didn’t expect. It has piled on top of the almost endless grief coming out of Gaza (“Mom, is it painful to die? What is less painful, to die from a rocket or a tank shell? When I am killed, will you bury me next to my cousin Julia. I don’t want to be left alone in the graveyard after people go home. I want to play with Julia.” Asks a four year old and fuck me fuck me I’m in tears again. How are we all meant to cope with this?)
We knew our friend wasn’t going to live another decade. He’d been horrendously unwell for a long time. But he was doing a lot better. He was optimistic. We were optimistic. Another few years. I wanted to go and see him but he was out and about and so I thought ‘cool, I’ll see him soon’ and I didn’t go. And I hate myself for it.
Go and see your loved ones. You won’t regret it. Get off your social media and be with people. It’s a horrible time. It’s not a brilliant time for me to lose someone so important to me. Make time. God knows what’s coming.
I’m just glad that I’ve lived a life which, for all its flaws, stupid mistakes and blunders, means I will never be alone. What keeps me together is knowing that my friend was never alone. Never for a minute he didn’t want to be. His son dresses up with us on our Gala Day float. I told him he will for as long as he wants. His family will never be alone. They will never not have help. I wish that for you all.
I return to my lonely hotel room and try not to think too much, about my friend, about everyone in Scotland who is trapped in his position or worse, about everyone in Gaza who have it so much worse even than that. I can carry only so much. All I can do to help is to tell myself over and over ‘you’ve got perhaps 20 active years left and you’ll use every one of them to fight to change this sick, sick society in which corporations are killing us’.
You were such a big man in my life. You leave such an enormous gap. I wouldn’t be who I am without you. Thank you my friend and sleep well.