Sunday, 5 March 2017

Of The Funerals Of Strangers

Talking about memorials I have recently been to another funeral. There's not much that is surprising in that, specially at my age. The man whose funeral it was died in January and was only about four months older than me. His own father died just two days before him.

I suppose, like many who were at the funeral in King's Lynn Minster, I didn't know the man and I never had a conversation with him. This wasn't really for the want of trying. He never seemed the chatty type. He was, though, a feature of the town centre landscape in King's Lynn for many years and on the day of the funeral I discovered a little more about him. Before that day I didn't know that he was born the same year as me in a village three miles from where I lived for fifteen years. I didn't know that he had a history of participation in local amdram performances before mental ill-health and changes in personal circumstances led to his very individual route through life. I do know though that I formed opinions and responses to him based on the public person as he went through his routines in his tatty old macintosh fastened with string, his Father Christmas bobble hat and his ever growing collection of broken props and instruments that he used in his rituals and routines. I had no idea until recently that his routine was actually a very carefully choreographed and complicated show. From the moment he set up outside Clark's Shoe Shop in the morning till the time he packed up in the late afternoon the routine was timed to last the day. His reality was quite different from the place I think I inhabit. The vicar who delivered the eulogy suggested that the broken props were a metaphor for the life he experienced.

His focus was so unswerving that he never acknowledged a greeting as he nearly juggled, nearly danced, nearly sang idiosyncratic melodies with lyrics only he could understand, played little snatches of tootling on a descant recorder and strummed a broken and otherwise unplayable guitar. Most people like their guitars to have a set of strings, a headstock or a back. The lack of all these never seemed to bother Juggling Jim. Each segment of his daily routine, at some point became  punctuated with Kung fu moves, where he sparred with an invisible asssailant. I can't remember when, but I am sure I have seen him roar at people. I have certainly seen him on the end of ridicule and occasional mild abuse. However, over many years and reliability he became a fixture in the town and everyone knew him. The thing is though that few knew him at all. For a man that everyone, yet no one, knew the funeral was well attended. I cannot fully explain why I felt the desire to attend. All the pews in the Minster were occupied. I sat at the side in the back row watching as the seats filled from the back towards the front of the church. Just before the wicker coffin was brought in on the shoulders of four pall bearers from a local funeral parlour, to a recording of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer", a crocodile of people entered the church. Many were wearing Santa hats and this was a cortege that had formed at the far end of the High Street to make solemn procession past Juggling Jim's performance spot of preference. It was a King's Lynn Event for sure with the people of the town paying respect. When I read of the plans to process along the High Street to the Minster wearing Santa hats, I suspected the involvement of the cohort of students who had recently made a film about Juggling Jim's life. I was wrong. I don't know who these pilgims were, but few if any were students from the local FE college.

Many years ago I started work on a dance tune, which I called "The Man Who Couldn't Juggle", a reference to someone about whom I had made uninformed assumptions. I may go back to the tune and do a bit more work on it ... and have another think about the title.

In a world that seems to be becoming increasingly selfish, cold, detached and dangerous, I thought that Anthony Bowen's funeral was an extraordinary occasion. It was a day when the people of King's Lynn showed their kindest side. I would like to acknowledge the students from the College of West Anglia who had the inspiration to make a short video that changed my perceptions and prejudices. If I believe that no one can be wholly an angel, it must follow that no one can be wholly a devil either.

The coffin left the Minster to a recording of Leo Sayer's "One Man Band".

The video documentary interview with Juggling Jim is here if you want to watch it.


  1. I think there are shades of Pansy Potter in this character. In a way, you've done him justice, just in another gender.