Funeral for a friend
Dropping down into Builth Wells on the Newtown road, the sky is closing in again.
Chris Smither is on the stereo, singing his sad, sweet blues.
I’m behind an ancient Land Rover and the farmer driving has maintained an exact 40mph for 10 miles. Once I shake my city frustration, it’s an addition to the Zen of the journey.
We’ve been burying my good pal in a field by Abermule. All the old crowd were there, hugging each other, smiling. There were tears, a story or two.
The first time I met him was at an unplanned, after-pub party: is there any better kind? He’d turned to me during a lull and taken my measure.
‘So, Ben, are you a revolutionary?’
I said I was because I wished it were so. He smiled and let me get away with it.
At the graveside, his oldest friend provided an affectionate, unsparing eulogy. He was talented, kind, funny: capable of scintillating conversation, great generosity and provocative art.
He was also a little battered by life and had needed a drink or a smoke to bend the days his way. Along with the flowers dropped into his grave, were a couple of spliffs.
‘See you, mate.’
His friend didn’t speculate on why his intake had been so prodigious beyond recalling that he’d been bullied at school.
My late pal had, as an adult, worked with troubled youngsters, as I do. One of the endless acronyms in that game is ACEs: Adverse childhood experiences. There are tools to quantify these and, interestingly, people who work in the field typically score the same as those with whom they work.
If you tally enough of them, you’re many times more likely to go to prison; even a few will knock years off your life expectancy.
Because trauma is a real thing: an active ingredient in the outcomes of people’s lives and it persists like a stubborn stain on those it touches. Doctors pour pills on to it, magistrates threaten it, breweries market to it and newspapers ignore it when simpler explanations for heinous acts sell more copies.
Working with traumatised people is always an uncomfortable negotiation between the personal agency to which they are entitled and the intervention they need. Trauma demands rash decisions of those it governs. It demands self-destruction, selfishness and often violence. It rarely listens to reason, preferring, instead, to dwell in remorse and guilt, self-replicating like a virus.
I’ve got music on because I can’t bear to listen to the news: not a great situation for a political columnist.
I’ve arrived at the point where I can’t empathise at all with the actions of the Israeli government.
Each decision it makes drives the Palestinians further into the abyss and Israel itself towards isolation in the world. It is, of course, a nation born out of unimaginable trauma.
Research has been done that suggests traumatic experiences leave genetic markers, and these have been identified in the grandchildren of holocaust survivors.
As we gathered, too soon, to remember a dear pal, it was a time to experience humanity. One human life is a warming glow in the journey of so many others. When it is extinguished, we feel the chill and huddle together for comfort, offering words, music, flowers, spliffs, laughs and memories to spit in the face of time. It’s what he would have wanted.
In Palestine, there is no space for anything but shock. No human mechanism allows for people to process that volume of bereavement.
The trauma that flows from it will echo through headlines for the rest of our lives and beyond. Here, and everywhere else, we need more revolutionaries.
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