Losing my youngest brother Andrew

There are few losses worse than a parent losing a child or, when an adult, losing a child of one’s own or a younger sibling. Sad to relate that alongside my brothers Jonny and Jezz (and our children) I have to mourn the passing of Andrew, the youngest of four (just 59) from what was an as-yet undisclosed illness. He died on 26th October at his home at Mill Hill, London, having failed to phone his friend Jason on his birthday, very uncharacteristic, which was why Jason took the trip to check on him … and found him as if asleep. He was devastated as are we and others who were close to him.

To say that Andrew was a one-off is an understatement. He made his various dislikes forcefully known so I shan’t attempt to camouflage him here – he could be irascible, wildly funny, passionate, cantankerous, loving, aggressive, gentle, caring, dismissive, all these things and more, often in the space of a single day. But most people took an instant shine to him. As a kid, though naughty, he was adorable. When Georgie and I were first married he would stay with us, full of fun though irritated by our two kittens who would regularly tickle his feet when he was in bed. Animals were his thing. There was a stretch of rough land near our Finchley family home where he collected, fed and nurtured all manner of creatures, mice, rats, snakes, voles – everything you can think of (and that he could lay his hands on), sometimes bringing them home. And there were the family dogs, ostensibly my father’s property though it was Andrew who took care of them and walked them. Andrew and Dad could be very similar. In fact had the Old Man been famous Andrew could have lived off his frighteningly realistic spoofs. Dog-wise, though, his last and most beloved companion was Wilbur, a handsome and devoted lurcher/greyhound ‘cross’ that was at his side for many years and that Andrew had to have euthanized at the onset of lockdown because, being old, he was in so much pain. Having Wilbur put to sleep wasn’t a problem – he couldn’t bear to see him suffer – but what was unbearable was not being with him when the lethal injection was administered. Because of COVID restrictions no one was allowed inside the vet’s surgery. Of course with Andrew, anger was invariably caused by issues way beneath the surface.

He was devoted to music, Hendrix and especially Zappa. He’d taken up bass guitar practicing daily after a previous bout of illness that he’d recovered from – and was just a stone’s throw away from sounding fully professional. He loved playing but could also respond to contemporary concert music (as did Zappa). I once put on Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite (Chicago Symphony/Doráti recording) and he was so keen on what he heard that I immediately had to burn him off a copy. He was interested in any number of my oddball pursuits, bound back issues of London Illustrated News, for example, which fascinated him.

Andrew was larger than life and …. loud? You bet! But he was so real. I think of Blake’s words ‘no bird soars too high that soars with its own wings’. And that’s how I’ll always think of him, his wings won through his playing, circling high above us while occasionally swooping down to lovingly perch on our shoulder or peck an admonishing rebuttal. As for religion, he loathed it – not his racial heritage (he was certainly no self-hating Jew) – but the rituals and external trappings. He was once over at ours for his favourite chicken lunch when I showed him Robert Alter’s recent translation of the Old Testament. ‘Go on, read some of it to me, demonstrate just how wonderful it is,’ he said mockingly. So I told him the story of Abraham and Isaac which believe it or not even as a North London Jewish lad he didn’t know. He was horrified by the story, oblivious to its ‘test of faith’: all he could imagine was the knife at Isaac’s throat. In that respect his reaction chimed with various modern anti-religious thinkers, Christopher Hitchens, and the like.

So in remembering my nature-loving, widely travelled kid brother Andrew, what can I say? Certainly not ‘Rest in Peace’. Rest was beyond his apprehension – he couldn’t rest, ever – and I’m not sure that peace was even in his vocabulary. It certainly wasn’t in ours when he was with us. I’ll pass on The Bible and recall instead another big, larger-than-life, creative force, the American poet Walt Whitman, a hospital wound-dresser during the American Civil War who embraced the world with a huge bear hug, ‘One of the Roughs, a Kosmos’ – very Andrew. This is from his most famous poem, Leaves of Grass – and I think it’s how Andrew would want to be remembered. It’s certainly how I’ll remember him.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

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15 thoughts on “Losing my youngest brother Andrew

  1. Richard Wiley

    Rob, so sorry to hear of your loss. I can’t imagine the feelings. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. Richard Wiley

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  2. Lawrence Letts

    Dear Rob,

    Please accept my heartfelt condolences for your loss. Your tribute to Andrew is all the more touching due to your amusing and honest description of him, “warts and all”. My thoughts will be with you and your family at this difficult time.

    Kind regards,
    Lawrence

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  3. David Edwards

    A wonderful tribute Rob, evocative and moving – we can all feel the gap he is going to leave in your lives, and imagine the pain of this sudden rupture..

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  4. Joe Nichols

    Rob, that was beautiful. Bishop Brzana, who was a Roman Catholic Bishop in Ogdensburg, NY, (way up near Canada) always instructed his priests that during a funeral he did not want the priest’s homily to be a canonization ceremony for the deceased. Where we end up is between God and the deceased. Your tribute reminds me of why I dislike the fatuous accolades some people feel compelled to throw out in tribute of the deceased. Your piece about your brother, Andrew, was very moving and shows us all just how much you love him and how you will tremendously miss him. Your honest portrayal speaks of an honest love. God Bless him and you and your family.

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    1. Thank you so much Joe. Writing that piece made me feel physically ill, in the best sense (if you get my drift) precisely because of the point you make, ie not wanting the priest’s homily to be a canonization ceremony for the deceased. If that does happen then the deceased is patronized and the priest loses her/his integrity. Thanks so much for your perceptive reaction. Very best. Rob.

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  5. Cynthia Gamble

    Dear Rob,
    That is such a very fine and moving tribute to your brother. You portray a fascinating person, passionate about so many things, and indeed larger than life. I feel privileged to share a glimpse of Andrew. The Whitman poem is an excellent choice. I am so sorry for your loss and send my deep sympathy to you and all your family.
    Heartfelt wishes,
    Cynthia

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  6. Rob, what a beautiful tribute to your late brother. I am sure he would appreciate all you had to say – and probably agree – maybe disagree! It is really tough to lose family members and your words spell love, devotion, and caring. Thank you!

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  7. Andrew Kemp

    Dear Rob
    I was very saddened to read this post, but also moved by your heartfelt and honest tribute to a beloved brother. Ah, what difficult and troubling times we live in! Hoping you can stay well and positive through it all. I certainly miss our basement chats.
    Best wishes
    Andrew

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  8. So lovely to hear from you Andrew. Thanks so much for writing. I so fondly remember how, every day after work, you’d pop your head round the basement door of my workplace (at Boosey & Hawkes) for a chat, all manner of things, music and lps invariably the main theme. I’d love to know how you’r doing. My personal email is robc.cowan@tiscali.co.uk. Do drop me a line.
    With warmest wishes, Rob

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