Posts Tagged ‘Mike’

Nineteen Years

Posted: 9 January 2017 in family
Tags:

A couple of months ago, as part of the countdown to 2017, I wrote about what it had been like to have Michael as a big brother. I realised that although I write something every ear on the anniversary of his death, I’d not written about his life. So I did, there. 

But, I knew when I wrote it that I was only a couple of months away from today, from the anniversary of the day he died. As I wrote in that piece above, 

I’d be lying if I said that I still think of Mike every day. I don’t. But every couple of days, something will happen and I’ll think of him. Someone will say something and I’ll remember my brother.

For obvious reasons, the memories hit hardest on January 9th, on the day he died. It’s nineteen years today since he died. That’s still something that throws me. How can it be almost two decades since he died? And yet it is. 

Turns out this week is the tenth anniversary of the iPhone. He’d have loved the iPhone, my brother would have. He was like a kid with a new toy every time he got a new ‘personal organiser’, although he broke his Psion twice to my certain knowledge, fluently swearing with consummate skill on each occasion. It’s strange to think of what’s happened in the world, and tech-wise, in the past nineteen years that he missed through the unfortunate circumstance of being dead. I could picture him enjoying blogging though looking at Twitter with a mixture of horror and fascination. Oh hell – he’d have enjoyed YouTube, but he’d have thought Netflix was invented just for him. In politics… well, funnily enough, I don’t know what he’d have thought; I don’t ever remember discussing politics with him. I mean, I’m sure it came up at one time or another, but I don’t remember the conversations at all…

It’s 9th January 2017, but just for a moment, let’s go back to 9th January 1998. I’d gotten into work early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road at my then favoured café. Thirty minutes or so after sitting down, around five-past eight, someone else who’d been in early came to get me; a call from Laura. I know, this was long enough ago that I didn’t possess a mobile phone. I went back to the office with a growing sense of dread; a call from my wife, mentioning my brother didn’t sound like good news. It wasn’t; a call to the hospital led to a growing suspicion from the immediately understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.

Not a good morning.

Mike was 38 years old, almost fifteen years’ younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to – that you’re now older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that; knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.

And that’s leaving to one side the fact that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost the chance to see Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

I’ve got friends who I’ve met over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked to have met, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can easily see Mitch and Clara sharing a laugh with Mike; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow friends and close ones. 

I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?

Where the hell have those nineteen years gone? Of course, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now twenty-one, an adult, and he’s studying at Aberystwyth with his fiancée, far more interested in spending time there with her than with his old man. And I don’t – and won’t – blame him for that.

Still and all, where have the years gone?

Nineteen Years.

I’ve said before – and I maintain – that it’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I’ve discovered – and I rediscover with every passing year – is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.

So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time.

Every so often, of course, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; his wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”

Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for playing the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.

Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, and I hope he knew how much I respected him as a person, not just as a brother. I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve still many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

He died nineteen years ago today and I miss him dreadfully, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger.

Rest easy, brother.


A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; I’ve linked to it before, but figured it was about time I put it on this blog as well. So, here it is:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

 

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

Advertisements

2017 minus 42: Mike

Posted: 20 November 2016 in 2017 minus, family, personal
Tags: , ,

Anyone who’s followed my blog for some time – either this one or the one that preceded it – knows that January 9th is a bad day for me. It’s not as bad as it used to be, back when everyone would stay the hell away from me on the day, and I’d answer queries and comments with monosyllabic grunts, but not good, no.

Almost 19 years ago, I lost my big brother at the horribly young age of 38. And every year, on the anniversary of his death, I put something up about him. This, for example, is what I wrote about him this year. 

Occurs to me though that I’ve rarely written about his life, and what it was like to have him as a big brother.

And, since he was born on 20th November 1959, today seems as good a time as any to do so. Warning: this post will probably skip around a bit in terms of tone and times, and for fairly obvious reasons, it’s about Mike and me. Just a heads-up.

Michael Russell Barnett. My big brother. 

He’d have been 57 today. He’d likely have been completely grey/white – his hair was already greying a bit in his mid-30s. Like me, when I started going grey, he pretended it didn’t bother him. Like me, it did. He had red lowlights for a short while, but quickly stopped bothering about it. If it bugged him after that, I never knew about it. 

The greying made us look more alike. We never looked that much like each other; we bore just enough of a resemblance though that folks quickly guessed we were brothers. But he was far better looking than me. I don’t say that out of any false modesty; we used to joke among us three brothers that Mike had the looks, I had the brains, and our younger brother had the practical abilities.

(That wasn’t and isn’t true, of course; my brain was better at numbers and figuring out things, but my younger brother had – and has – a brain for how things worked practically that left mine and Mike’s in the stone age.) 

I can’t remember at time when Mike didn’t have girlfriends, or when he wasn’t surrounded by a mob of friends. He was a great big brother to grow up with: silly when he could be, serious when he had to be, a peacemaker between his younger brothers on more occasions than I can think of.

He enjoyed school, both the social aspect and the academic side of it… in theory anyway. He’d have beeen the first to admit that he wasn’t the most diligent of students; he always did enough to get by. He got good grades, but never spectacular ones. He was fit – up ’till his early 20s anyway; more about that in a moment. He played squash at school and sixth form college, and was pretty good from all accounts, until he started getting suspiciously short of breath. Again, more about that down the page.

He played the guitar, with more enthusiasm than talent, but I clearly remember the genuine pleasure Mike took in grabbing the Complete Beatles Songbook and playing the classic songs in his bedroom, while we two younger brothers sang along. He loved music; I can’t remember a time when his bedroom wasn’t filled with music, either last week’s charts, which he’d taped from Radio 1, or albums he’d bought.

I’ve said before I couldn’t have asked for a better big brother, and it’s true. I stuck him on a pedestal, a dangerous place for any sibling to stand, but he never let me down. I called him Mike. To most everyone else, he was Michael. He was my big brother and I loved him unquestionably. 

I remember when I was about 13, maybe 14? Either way, was around my bar mitzvah, 1977/78-ish. I had – understandably – began to notice things about my body, and that of the girls that surrounded me. This was in the days when sex education in British schools mainly consisted of the single word “Don’t”.

I was terribly shy, terribly confused, terribly nervous. But I was fortunate. I was lucky. I had Mike.  (Yes, I was a late developer; Mike was anything but. As I say, he’d had girlfriends from when he was an early teenager.)

He took me to one side, one Sunday afternoon, prompted by my parents. He gave me a booklet to read and told me that when I’d read it, I’d be even more confused, but to come find him. He was right. After I’d read this booklet – I remember it had a purple cover, with pictorial representations of a naked man and naked woman – my reaction was mainly one of “I do what with what?” So, I found him in his room, he grabbed dad’s car keys, and we went for a drive, to a pub, about ten miles from home. Once there, he got me a soft drink and we repaired to a bench in the beer garden far from anyone else.

“OK, then,” he said. “Ask away.”

Just that. No “I know you’re nervous.” Just a matter-of-fact “ask away”. He knew I trusted him. 

Looking back, he could have had fun with me, told me any urban myth, and stuff and nonsense, and I’d probably have believed him. He was my big brother, after all, and I trusted him.

Instead, he told me the truth, to anything I asked. Some stuff he blushed when telling me, but he told me what it was like the first time he had sex. He told me how shit scared he’d been, how convinced he’d be that he’d ‘get it wrong’. He said he’d had a number of girlfriends – which I knew – but that afternoon I was to assume that he’d had one, “Miss Ermintrude Abernathy” he called her, and that anything he told me about anything… it was Ermie. 

He kept adding biographical details to Ermintrude’s life as we spoke, and after the serious stuff was over, that continued; by the end of it, we were crying with laughter about how he’d abandoned her to a life of misery in the grinding poverty and chalk-mines of Luton, Bedfordshire.

Skip forward a couple of years to the first of the ‘being mistaken for each other’. Mike was looking after me and my younger brother; we were playing Monopoly. His girlfriend Lynne (later his fiancée, still later his wife) calls on the house phone (no mobiles back then). Mike talks to her for a few minutes, then – without warning – hands the phone to me with a grin. I ‘get’ it immediately and for a minute or so just go “uh-huh” and “really?” to Lynne, then hand the phone back to Mike once he’s played his move. 

He carries on the conversation for a couple of minutes then hands the phone back to me while he shakes the dice and moves his piece. This continues for about ten minutes before we’re obviously – and audibly – failing to hide the by now no longer stifled laughter. He makes an excuse then finishes the call…

(Lynne never discovered this until just before they were married. She… wasn’t pleased, though mainly because she panicked that she’d said something entirely inappropriate to me…) 

OK, now I’m 16 or 17 and I’m watching television with the family, an episode of Quincy*. Long before then, I’d become used to picking up a doctor’s prescription for Mike for something called “digoxinDidn’t have a clue what it was, of course, and since the one time I asked Mike what it was for, I got a genial “mind your own business” and I didn’t have the internet back then… I left it… figuring it wasn’t that important. He was my big brother. I trusted him. When he wanted me to know, I’d know.

*I’d pay so much money to read a Quincy comic book written by Warren Ellis.

So, we’re watching Quincy and after autopsying a body, Quincy just comes out with the following line:

OK, we found digoxin, so we know he had heart problems…

Wait.

What?

My head whips ’round to look at my big brother, my eyes growing wider with every nanosecond. He shot me a look that repeated his message from a few months previous… And I left it alone. He was my big brother. I trusted him. When he wanted me to know, I’d know.

Another year goes past. Mike had been ill, very ill, off work for a while, no energy, in bed all day. Our parents had, reluctantly, gone on the holiday they’d booked months earlier. Our local doctor came – yeah, they did house calls back then – and the next thing, an ambulance is called, Mike’s in the local hospital and they’re talking about transferring him to Harefield. And that’s when I found out my brother needed a heart valve transplant at 23 years of age. 

He was operated on in September 1983; in one of those odd moments of synchronicity, the operation took place on Yom Kippur, during which there’s a bit recited about those who’ll die in the next year. I remember thinking “gee, thanks…” Though my parents were allowed to see him almost immediately after the operation, it was a day or two before I was. 

My big brother was there, unconscious, a yellow tinge to his skin, tubes in various parts of his body, with what looked like a fat, angry, pink-red worm stitched to his chest. 

Yeah it wasn’t pleasant.

Lynne and Mike had split up by then, but they got back together during his recovery and in 1985, they married. Mike asked me to be best man; I didn’t realise at the time how much of an honour that was, for him to choose me. He had any number of friends he could have asked, any of whom could have done the job, but he chose me. To this day, the thought of that chokes me up.

At the wedding, one of Lynne’s customers arrives late, sees me dancing with Lynne and makes an assumption. Later, half cut, and only semi-jokingly, she says to Lynne (out of my hearing) “Ooh, is the brother [she points at Mike] available? He’s much better looking… You should have married him!” Lynne retorted “I did marry him!” And then immediately seeks me out and, with superlative joy, gets her own back on me for the phone call by telling me… 

By then, Mike had left a potential career in accountancy (he never enjoyed it) and joined the family hairdressing business. He was good at it. Lynne and he had a couple of boys, and he was happy. He loved his wife, he loved his kids. 

He enjoyed his life. 

He liked Laura immediately when I started going out with her and took immense joy in both my getting married and in us having our own child, Philip in 1995.  

Mike loved being an uncle. He told/warned me more than once that being a parent is a mixture of joy and heartache, that especially: when your child has a temperature, you’re the one who sweats… But he absolutely revelled in being an uncle. And he took immense pride in Laura and me asking him to give Phil his first haircut.

I bitterly regret that my lad never got to know his uncle. Mike died when Phil was two years old.

He called me about 14 years after his first operation, June 1997. We’d been joking for months that if his valve transplant lasted 15 years, he’d throw it a party. The call was to tell me that we wouldn’t be having the party. The valve wasn’t going to last 15 years. It wasn’t going to make it to 14. He was going in for a double valve transplant the following week. He hadn’t wanted to worry me before then, but now I had to know. 

I remember being totally calm during the call, then basically falling apart afterwards.

He had the operation, and was doing well, recovering… He went on holiday with his family in the October; had a great time. We had Christmas at his place and the last picture I have of him is holding his nephew up, smiling with pleasure at the joy Phil’s expressing.

He was doing well, recovering…

And then he wasn’t. 

And then he was dead.

I’d be lying if I said that I still think of Mike every day. I don’t. But every couple of days, something will happen and I’ll think of him. Someone will say something and I’ll remember my brother.

Or it’ll be his birthday.

And I’ll miss him. I’ll miss him so hard it hurts.

Tonight, I’ll pour myself a drink, wander outside for a moment, raise the glass to the heavens, and thank him for being my brother for 33 years.

Rest easy, brother. x 


This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

Seventeen years. Over decade and a half. Or to be more precise, seventeen years and three and and a half or so hours since my brother died.

And yes, I rewrite this every year. I stick up something about Mike annually on this day with not a smidgen of guilt nor concern; Michael deserves a public remembrance from me every year.

9th January 1998. I’d gotten into work early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road at my then favoured café. Thirty minutes or so after sitting down, around five-past eight, someone else who’d been in early came to get me; a call from Laura. I know, this was long enough ago that I didn’t possess a mobile phone. I went back to the office with a growing sense of dread; a call from my wife, mentioning my brother didn’t sound like good news. It wasn’t; a call to the hospital led to a growing suspicion from the immediately understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.

Not a good morning.

Mike was 38 years old, over a decade younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to – that you’re now older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that; knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.

And that’s leaving to one side the fact that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost the chance to see Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

I’ve got friends who I’ve met over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked to have met, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can easily see Mitch and Clara sharing a laugh with Mike; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow friends and close ones to do that. I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?

Where the hell have those seventeen years gone? Seventeen years… Of course, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now nineteen, an adult, and he prefers to spend his time with friends, and college mates, and with his fiancée, far than with his old man. And I can’t – and won’t – blame him for that.

Still and all, where have the years gone?

Seventeen Years.

I’ve said before – and I maintain – that it’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I’ve discovered – and I rediscover with every passing year – is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.

So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time.

Every so often, of course, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; his wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”

Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for playing the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.

Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, and I hope he knew how much I respected him as a person, not just as a brother. I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve still many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

He died seventeen years ago today and I miss him dreadfully, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger.

Rest easy, brother.


A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; I’ve linked to it before, but figured it was about time I put it on this blog as well. So, here it is:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

 

“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

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.

Uh-oh.

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.