Friday, 16 December 2011

I'm planning fun, not a funeral, for a friend

I was sorry to hear of the death of one of my friends yesterday, though glad that at least in death he got some of the local recognition he richly deserved in life (see ).
At 93, Denys really was my oldest friend, and since I moved back here one of the dearest. I first met him at a party to launch Fermi’s Paradox, an extraordinary CD by the quite unique Sulby Phantom Band. Denys, even then over 80, was the narrator of an extended poem by his son(and essentially the Sulby Phantom Band), Roly, around which the CD was based. While most of the island’s self-described cutting edge thinkers were there to look cool and hang out with Roly, I was there at Roly’s suggestion specifically to meet Denys and chat about another matter.
Denys wanted to form a Manx group to mercilessly mock local religious hardliners until the Manx public stopped letting them get away with murder (or at least rape, fraud and propagation of general ignorance). Roly, knowing I had similar ambitions, thought his dad and I should talk and see what might be done.
We had a lively chat; I recognised a similar spirit and that night found a role model for my autumn years. Though nothing happened immediately, and neither of us can take credit for calling the meeting which lit the fire, a few months later Denys, Roly and I were amongst a small group of folk who became the Isle of Man Freethinkers. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What I shared with Denys was a belief that satire is the best – sometimes the only –weapon which can neutralise blind belief. If, like us, you chose to balance the joys of Manx life (the scenery, the laid back pace at which anything -or usually nothing- happens) with the mindbogglingly stupid antics of Manx politicians, civil servants and their religulous mates, you also need to be able to laugh.You will never stop the hardcore few who choose such belief, but in poking fun you might limit the damage done by the hypocrites whose wages they pay, and those who we all pay to produce the obscenities which become Manx government policy.
Denys (so I recently found out) had a longer record for top-flight relentless satire than most. He had served as a Royal Artillery officer in World War Two, so saw the savage stuff which fuelled the English post-war satire boom, from Pinter and Theatre of the Absurd at the high culture end to That Was The Week That Was and Monty Python at the lower end.
But arguably this boom was launched well before that by another ex-RA wit, Spike Milligan, with the Goon Show. And in researching some stuff about the Goons and the English Theatre of the Absurd a few weeks back I discovered something amazing. I’d always known Denys was once a plummy-voiced BBC announcer in the days when they wore evening dress to read the shipping forecast, but he was also the narrator of at least one series of the Goon Show.
I can’t claim to have done anything so grand with Denys, but we did launch the League Against Cruel Schmaltz ( a spoof campaign to get Manx radio to play less MOR muzak and find at least one point in the day when Denys’s frail wife, along with many similar housebound oldies, could enjoy some tunes they knew too).
We also harangued the military misfits who turn ‘national remembrance’ days into Bridge Over The River Kwai torture-fests. Pointless two hour prayer dirges, with six hymns, bible readings by dignitaries and a sermon from the Anglican Area Manager, rather than the beer, sandwiches, Vera Lynn and Glen Miller anybody, like Denys, who actually saw off Rommel really wanted.
Sadly, chinless ex-officers who, in their own careers, were too young to have seen a gun fired in anger at anyone but Belfast 10 year olds never listened, and now it’s too late. But we tried, and we definitely had fun, as we also did in the most unlikely campaigns on the most serious issues, such as the assisted dying campaign run by another founder Freethinker, the late Patrick Kneen.
At one point Denys and I had a bit of a private competition going as to who could get the most outrageous letter in the Manx press. When he moved away that stopped, but I would hate to finally win by default, so maybe I’ll take up that baton again just as a tribute to Denys.

No comments: