LIFE’S TOO SHORT FOR BAD WHISKY…
This week I attended the funeral of my uncle, Andrew Keeble.
As well as a great raconteur, kind uncle, and conservation gardener, he was an incredibly talented musician. He played with many bands on many stages in his life, delivering note-perfect violin solos or playing his homemade bucket bass. In 2016, The Trailer Trash Orchestra, his longest-standing band, released their record Grave Tales, which I received on vinyl as a Christmas gift. So that’s our record for this week.
I learned a lot from my uncle – much of it during one night at my parents’ house when we shared a bottle of 12-year Glenfiddich. We started out talking about Dylan Thomas and ended up singing along to the Pogues. As well as some advice on formative relationships and how the colour of a German policeman’s uniform determines how likely you are to get hit with a baton, he told me a few things that really stuck.
The first was this: if you care about your craft, you can make remarkable things. I can’t imagine another person in the world who could keep me interested when talking about pouring level concrete, but that’s exactly what he did. Specifically, about a colleague he had met while working on the garden for Stanley Kubrick’s estate. This guy was so specialised in his work that all he did was pour concrete. Now, to you and me, this sounds like dull, unrewarding manual labour, but to hear my uncle talk about it, it was more like a work of art. Painting a one-dimensional picture using a trowel as a brush, quietly and methodically combing over every inch with a spirit level. And when so much passion and expertise is poured into the craft, it becomes plain to see, even to the layman. I’ve never before or since heard a flat concrete surface described as beautiful. But I bet this one was.
Gardening was his profession, and he was hugely knowledgeable about plants and nature. Young and ignorant, I had always thought of gardening as something old people did to pass the years post retirement. The Chelsea Flower Show watered down across every patch of private green space in the country. But he taught me that gardening is actually pretty punk.
My understanding of punk at the time was all leather jackets and mohawks, possibly (but not necessarily) paired with an impractically low-slung electric guitar. But I was soon disavowed of this particularly superficial notion. Punk, my uncle told me, is more about attitude: rejecting the mainstream in order to find something that gets your pulse racing faster. Sure, image might play a part in that, but it doesn’t have to.
Punk, he told me, is a kind of curated chaos. A skillful recreation of a spontaneous slice of anarchy. And that’s why gardening can be punk: it’s an act of taming chaos – curating something wild and organic and finding something aesthetically exciting within it.
He had shown up on the doorstep of my parents’ house unannounced that night, looking for somewhere to sleep before an early gardening job down near the south coast the next morning. I was the only one in, having recently moved back in with my parents after the conclusion of a pretty disastrous internship in darkest Runcorn, struggling to write my Masters’ dissertation about Franz Kafka, and hot on the heels of a relatively run-of-the mill break-up. And in a family as big as ours (my mum is one of seven), it’s very rare to spend any extended length of time alone with anyone. We were an odd couple, basically.
I thought it might be a bit awkward, but he stood on the doorstep with a big grin and Glenfiddich in hand. “Life’s too short for bad whisky” he said. So we got to drinking and talking.
Now, I don’t drink anymore (save for a dram to his memory at the wake), but this still rings true. Life is short, and you shouldn’t spend it doing things that make you miserable. Particularly in a week where we’ve lost Toni Morrisson and David Berman of the Silver Jews, death can come suddenly. My Uncle Andrew’s passing was a huge shock; one which I’m still processing.
I wish, now, that we had had a few more evenings like that one in the kitchen. I wish I had seen him play more. But, as I’m sure he’d tell me, life’s too short.
Do stuff you enjoy, and do it well. Curate the chaos.
Some songs my uncle played on, some that I know he loved, and some I think he might’ve liked.