2014 minus 42: Two “birthdays”…

Posted: 20 November 2013 in birthday, life, don't talk to me about life, personal, writing
Tags: , , ,

I’m sticking birthdays in quotes in the title of this blog entry because usually when you – or at least I – mention someone’s birthday, it’s to wish them a happy birthday.

And – not to put too fine a point on it – you can only do that when they’re… you know… alive.

Alfred Cooke was born 105 years ago today. You probably don’t recognise the name, because when he was 22 he changed his first name to what he became known as, literally worldwide: Alistair Cooke. Cooke died in 2004, weeks after he recorded his final Letter From America, and I still miss tuning in every week to hear his voice. Yes, I have the CDs, yes, I have the books (his collections, his histories, his America, and his biography by Nick Clarke, also sadly gone) but it’s not the same. It really isn’t.

I was introduced to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America by a college tutor named John Ramm. He taught me a subject entitled “Government and Comparative Political Studies”, and as part of that we spent a year on British Government and politics, and another year spent 2/3 on America and 1/3 on China. Of course, the final exam was designed to get the student to compare and contrast the different ways different countries did things, whether it was how to get legislation passed, or the history of politics in that country.

Tuesday morning, we had ‘double politics’, and John would always start of the lesson by playing us a recording of that week’s Letter from America. This was in 1982, so the show had already been broadcast for the BBC for almost forty years. From then until 2004, I doubt there were more than half a dozen editions I didn’t hear, either on broadcast or within a few days afterwards.

One of the pleasures of listening to them now is undoubtedly the strange way that his own recollections of fifty or sixty years past triggers similar memories of mine. It’s not going too far to say that I’ve had memories sparked by a listen to the show that I’d genuinely forgotten happened. I still miss the show.

As far as I know, Cooke had no great love of comic books, but he was a fan of the comic strip, as anyone who heard his tribute to Charles Schulz could not have missed.

The other man? He was born 51 years after Cooke, on 20th November 1959; he also died before Cooke did, on 9th January 1998. He’d have been 54 today. As far as I know, he was never a huge fan of Cooke’s; I have no idea whether or not he knew of the coincidence of their birthdays – I never asked him. He’d probably have just shrugged and said something like “well, there you are – just shows to go, doesn’t it?”

Moreover, to be honest, he never had much interest in comics, commenting more than once that he just didn’t ‘get’ them. Not once though, in the thirty-three years I knew him did he even once denigrate comic books or those who read them. He just regarded reading and understanding them as skills he lacked.

248His name, as you’ll probably have guessed by now, was Michael Barnett and he was my brother.

As people who have been readers of this (and the previous) blog will know, I don’t tend to have a good 9th January; people steer clear of me, and I’m grateful for it. In my day job, when I had one, people communicated with me by email that day, and my staff went above and beyond by keeping everyone else away.

But unlike my parents, I have no problem at all with his birthday. It’s a day I relish, revelling in good memories (there aren’t that many bad ones) of the years I was privileged to have him as my “big bruvver”.

I often regret that he never got to know Phil, who was a shade over two years old when Mike died; he’d have enjoyed Philip’s bar mitzvah, and would have further enjoyed watching Phil grow up into the young man he’s become.

But since I’ve already mentioned comics, it seems fitting to mention that there’s a comic book that I cannot read without thinking of my brother.

Small digression: the very first published story I wrote was in the first issue of a short lived anthology entitled Trailer Park of Terror. The story, entitled, It’s Murder Out There had in the final panel, in the gutter, the single lettered line “For Mike, LB”.

Michael may not have ‘gotten’ comics, but he was never anything other than wholly supportive of my writing efforts, and took great satisfaction and pleasure in any success I had.)

Digression over. It’s Sandman #43, the third book in the Brief Lives arc.

An explanation is required, methinks.

Shortly after Mike died, at the tragically young age of 38, I really wasn’t much in the mood for comics. The family were still trying to make sense of what had just happened, and were still saying, in response to those who those who said “we don’t know what to say”, “no, we don’t know what to say to each other either”. Sure I read some comics, some old favourites, but I was just getting through the day.

At around this time, my closest friend, who’d emigrated to America three years earlier, invited me to visit, just to get out of the UK for a few days. It was with genuine gratitude that I accepted the invitation, and went over to stay with Ian and his family in Forest Hills.

Well, that gave me a problem of a different sort. Although I usually have no problem sleeping on airplanes, I knew that this flight would likely be different. I wanted to take something that I could enjoy reading, but was something I’d read before, but something that would take my mind away from the dreadful events of the previous couple of weeks. Sandman seemed perfect. I picked up the first collection and put it in my bag. Then I took it out… remembering the final story in the collection: The Sound of Her Wings, a nicely crafted tale, but one in which the character of Death shows her necessity in the cosmos. During the story, you see the deaths of several characters, characters that you only met for a couple of pages, but with Gaiman’s and Dringenberg’s skills, you actually cared about.


Even in the state I was in, I knew that was too close to home. Which wiped out The Doll’s House as well, since the story was included there as well, for some reason.

So I grabbed my copy of Brief Lives (the meaning of the words completely slipped past me, I’m afraid) from the bookshelf and packed that, as well as some others.

A few hours later, I’m on the aircraft, we’re pulling away from the terminal, then we’re in the air… and after reading the newspaper, I pull out the first of the books to read.

No, it wasn’t Brief Lives. As I recall (and for reasons you’ll understand in a paragraph or two, I remember this flight very well), it was my collection of Howard Chaykin’s Twilight. I finished it, and then picked up Brief Lives.

I’d forgotten how #43 starts, and I’d forgotten the character of Bernie Capax, a man of some 15,000 years of age. And how he dies in what he thinks is an accident, buried under a collapsed wall. His spirit, however, doesn’t realise he’s dead and he stands by the remains of the wall, in delighted surprise: “Not even a scratch.” When Death arrives, he’s, you’ll forgive the word, crushed. Then, in an attempt to convince himself that he didn’t do too badly, the following happens:

And you know…?

It helped. I have no idea why. No idea at all… but it helped.

I thought of what my brother had achieved in his thirty-eight years, and for a moment, just for a moment at that time, but later for longer, I was comforted by the line.

Mike lived what everyone gets: a lifetime.

Neil Gaiman was a friend back then, but not as close a friend as he became. It’s been one of the pleasures of our friendship that I’ve been able to tell him about this over the years, and how it mattered, when it mattered that something mattered.

So, on Mike’s birthday, raise a glass with me to his memory, eh? And if you have good memories of your family, or of friends who’ve passed on, then take a minute, and revel in them.


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