Talking about Sam by Joe

This was read by Sam’s brother Joe at his funeral in Steep Church. 

Talking about Sam

For all of us who loved Sam, his sudden death has burnt a void in the world that can never be filled, never be undone. And though we, the living, go on in our search for consolation and meaning and pleasure and peace, and go on in our forgetting, our denseness, our mechanical ways, this absence, this void that was once a whole living world of love and joy, is an ache that’s ours now and forever and in every place. We’ve lost someone who was so good and true; the loveliest companion you could ever have on the rough road of life. That he should have his life’s journey so suddenly cut short, he who was so keenly alive, is an unspeakable tragedy. A tragedy for him and for us, in this vast and mysterious tragic human drama through which we are all passing.

And yet when I think of Sam now, I can’t help but see a pair of twinkling, mischievous eyes and a radiant grin: that magical face which has been with me through the twenty years since that never-to-be-forgotten morning when I was woken by a strange new sound, and padded through to my parents’ bedroom, and found my newly-born brother loudly announcing himself to the world under the loving gaze of our Mum and Dad. I see a twinkling, grinning face because Sam had that native joy which bubbles like a stream in some people from birth. It had been placed in him by the unseen hands: a natural inheritance of laughter and delight. And in recent years, after the trials of adolescence, it had reasserted itself with a deeper and richer force. Everyone who met Sam in recent times met a young man who seemed to have come through something and got things extraordinarily clear in himself, who was facing the world with an open heart and without fear, who was resolute in his convictions and who felt deeply – he told me so himself – that it was a great thing to be alive.

When you consider the rich variety of Sam’s nature, it strikes you that there cannot be, or ever have been, anyone remotely like him walking this Earth. What other person would read the critical theorist Zizek and order box-sets of the TV series Lovejoy and commit themselves to veganism and captain the school cricket team (while wearing trousers, it should be added, he himself customised in the punk style with a sewing-machine) and adore Morrissey and drink Gin and Tonics in the bath and savour the Real Ale and the conversation of country pubs and call themselves an anarchist and fly through Dostoevsky novels and find work dressing up as a nineteenth-century policeman and protest against the exploitation of Third World labour and delight in PG Wodehouse and emerge exhilarated from a Francis Bacon exhibition and simply make everybody laugh all the time? What kind of a person could all this belong to? Only Sam, surely. Only Sam. And all this held together somehow in a unified personality, a defined presence. He had a line through the world, an ease with being alive, an eminence, that nearly all my friends spoke to me about when they met him, surprised to find it in anyone I suppose, but particularly one so young.

But Sam’s life, like any life, was not a scenic railway ride, and one of its defining moments was a personal crisis in his last year at school that resulted in him taking an overdose of pills. School for Sam, as my Mum says, was primarily a place to make people laugh. For all his other achievements – the music, the drama, the sport – work of the scholarly kind was never a high priority. But together with the japery and the jokes and the bolshiness, there was a deeply intelligent, reflective and sensitive person and, though he appeared to shrug it off, as the sixth-form wore on I believe the certain prospect of academic failure weighed heavily on him. Combined with the universal anguish of those years of life, and the individual pains that were his alone to know and to bear, Sam slid into a deep state of unhappiness, resulting in the self-destructive act which landed him in a bed in Winchester Hospital. Whether he really wanted to die at that moment or not we’ll never know, and he probably didn’t really know himself. But he told me later that when he woke up in that bed he felt a great, overwhelming joy to be alive. He told me that he felt as if he had been born for a second time. He felt like he’d been an idiot. He said he knew that everything was going to be different now. And he was right – from that moment on, the mind that had turned in on itself, looked out into the world, broke out from its isolation, and bounded into life with insatiable curiosity and appetite – it reclaimed its natural inheritance of laughter and delight. I mention all this because these are the life-changing moments of personal transformation that make us who we are. From that moment, something broke free in Sam.

Throughout this period, that English folk-hero Morrissey and his band The Smiths were very important to Sam. Morrissey is a man who has dedicated his life to defiantly creating something beautiful and witty out of the dross and the sadness and the cruelty of the world. He affirms life while refusing to look away from its pain and ugliness, he speaks his own truth, and Sam felt an intense kinship. It wasn’t until I went with my brother to see him perform at Hyde Park in the summer of 2008, that I truly understood that it’s Morrissey’s fighting spirit that defines him. It’s not about walking around glumly in the drizzle. It’s that jutting jaw and the chest puffed out in defiance, in spite of everything – that’s the key. He became a talismanic figure to Sam, who, with characteristic unconcern for received notions of good taste and moderation, got the singer’s image tattooed on his right arm, along with the words “There is a light”, a line from one of his favourite Smiths songs. It was a statement of his re-birth and an act of typical bravura, open-heartedness and commitment. A debt of gratitude being paid for one who had helped him through a time of darkness.

Sam was passionate in whatever he did, and he felt things intensely. There was a strong feeling for the deep loveliness of the English landscape. There were times when he felt the sombre mystery of setting suns and the Earth turning darkly under the stars at night; and I know there were times when he felt the deep, inward ecstasy of simply being alive, knowing that it was something passing through you. Sam knew and loved to feel the exhilaration of life, he loved abandon, he loved to feel his spirit set free. But above all, it seems to me, what mattered most to Sam was the warm human bond of family and friendship, the connection he felt with other people. He had a quick and cutting wit, irony in bucket-loads and a profound sense of the absurd (so profound that his own huge body was a ready source of humour and he would never miss an opportunity to juxtapose those long pale legs of his with the smallest and most ridiculous shorts he could find). But every Christmas Eve, in a ritual that he would never deviate from, Sam insisted that the family sit down and watch the TV adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’. It was a joke and it wasn’t a joke. He loved Christmas, and it was never complete without communing with Dickens’ story. It brought a smile and a sense of well-being to him and he would delightedly, triumphantly echo these last words as the film ended: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” There was nothing sentimental about Sam’s view of life, and it was he that was always turning the attention of us around him to the realities of human cruelty and greed. What I think he felt, counter to the callow cynicism of our age, was that so long as warmth and loving kindness and good cheer could prevail over all that’s mean and sour and stingy, so long as we stuck together, it was, at bottom, a good old world, and there was always a good old time to be had in it. “He knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge”, runs Dickens’ tale. How true that was of Sam, and how much it says about him.

And there were good old times. Summers running free in Norfolk with his close group of friends, travels in Europe, golden afternoons on the cricket field. And we had so many of them when we shared a flat together in London. Leaving the enclosed world of school and starting the proper business of life had been a great release. He got a job at the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street, a place where he could tap into the rich seam of English eccentricity that he loved so much and where he quickly endeared himself to everyone who worked there. He had started making films and it seemed to be answering a deep need in him. He was discovering so much.  New appetites and interests were burgeoning – Russian novels, the history of cinema, direct political action. When we lived together I often felt as if he was the older brother. Somehow the young tearaway had become a steadying influence. His sanity, his poised easy spirit, that familiar old bubbling stream of joy and laughter, gladdened my days during that winter.

I feel a desperate sadness to know that I’ll never look at Sam’s lovely face again, or talk to him, or sit laughing with him, or play cricket with him in the garden, to know that we won’t grow old together, that I won’t see the great films he surely would have made, or hear what he had discovered about the world. But I treasure the time we’ve had together. I feel blessed for having had such a wonderful brother, for having known and loved such a rare and beautiful human being. Everything that lives is so very fragile, more fragile than we usually dare contemplate, everything held by an invisible thread and our time here fleeting. With these bare facts freshly pressed upon us, let us, the living, ask ourselves – as Sam would want us to – how are we going through this world? How are we contributing to the forces of violence and destruction, the suffering of people and animals, and what can we do about it? If we can keep waking up out of the sleep that living puts in us, if we can keep questioning the reality of our lives, keep asking ourselves how our actions are adding to or subtracting from the well-being not just of our self, or our family, or our friends, or our neighbours, but the whole living mystery of the Earth to which we briefly belong; if we can take this with us, and always be open to delight, and always remember to look our best, of course, and sing and laugh and keep each other close, part of Sam will live on in us, for the rest of our days.

Joe Banks

Steep, July 2010

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