A few days before Christmas, the doorbell would ring. A tall slightly stooped figure wearing jeans, a beanie hat, some kind of checked shirt, and looking earnest and intense would be on the doorstep. My brother Joss would embrace me in a surprisingly strong bear hug before striding purposefully through to the kitchen.
He never stayed long. He was social, booked elsewhere, but also dutiful to family and even though we were relatively new family – I knew him for just over half his life and just under half of mine – he made time for me and our other brother and especially our children.
We would exchange fast updates as I brewed the strong coffee we both liked on the stovepot, getting to the heart of things by the time we heard the familiar bubble and hiss. What did this or that behaviour in a fellow beloved relative mean? We were great cod psychoanalysts, he and I. We loved dissecting anxiety, motive, the murky depths of psyche.
Shortly after he would be off, planting three carefully chosen presents wrapped and labelled in his trademark spidery handwriting. Birthday and Christmas rituals were conducted absolutely punctually by “Uncle Joss”.
The absence of his presents under the tree, like the absence of his actual presence, remains a slow doubletake of surprise: I took the idea of his permanence entirely for granted. I think I still do. But he died just under a month ago. I thought I had all the time in the world to get to fully know him.
Why did I only meet him twenty years ago? It’s a story familiar to many: We shared the same father but not the same mother. Everyone makes their own arrangements in love and life. It was more minor intrigue than drama when his existence was revealed to me when I was thirty. I don’t know why, maybe because the minute I met him in a pub in Soho in the mid 1980’s he was strikingly familiar: he looked absolutely identical to our father, even more so than my other older brother, Andy.
Despite his wry sense of humour he radiated intensity and angst. He was a worrier. A perfectionist. A planner. He was restless. He had a big moral code. He liked the trivial and the deep, equally. He did not believe injustice, bigotry or social inequality should be tolerated. He wanted to change things. He believed in the power of literature and theatre and creativity to help make change.
He devoted his life to directing theatre, writing about drama teaching, and to a theatre company he founded called Present Moment. He brought to blazing contemporary light ancient and abandoned plays, musicals, breathing new life into classics. He used theatre to bring the present moment alive.
He kept up a relentless pace in his life. He was always off in Birmingham directing, writing to deadline, buying rights to a forgotten play to produce or off to Key West or New York. He read voraciously. He liked Patti Smith, being upgraded at airports, shopping at John Lewis, cycling out and about in Crouch End, and a nice big gulp of good wine at our local Italian. If I was stressed he would provide his trademark reassurance by phone: “Keep breathing deeply”.
He is gone but he was here and made his mark and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful to have known him for what turns out to have been too short a time. I’m grateful to have watched him grow in stature in his field, and to watch his children and grandchildren flourish under his tender loving care.
He was not, in some of his last words to me, “ready to go yet”. But fate had other plans. The last few weeks were hideous and painful and wrong and like a runaway train, but they were also full of love and closeness. The family was there. In the present as it slipped into the past.