Magazine article The Spectator

A Funeral Teaches Me That Gray Was Wrong in His Elegy about the Loneliness of Virtue

Magazine article The Spectator

A Funeral Teaches Me That Gray Was Wrong in His Elegy about the Loneliness of Virtue

Article excerpt

It was in the spring that I went to the funeral of Andrew Cavendish, the late and 11th Duke of Devonshire, at Edensor on Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire. It was almost five years to the day after his death that last Friday I went to the funeral of Ken Buxton in Flash, in Staffordshire.

Though they are not far from each other, the bleak Staffordshire M oorlands are a different world to the sweet, grassy banks of the Derbyshire Wye where it flows through Chatsworth Park. And Andrew Cavendish and Ken Buxton lived anyway in different worlds, one a duke in his eighties, the other a supplier of plastic tanks in his fifties; and though both would have been friendly had they met, they could have had little to discuss.

But something links them, and through each of their funerals it shone.

The morning of Andrew's funeral was one of those perfect English spring mornings that, though we do not enjoy them often, define for us the English spring. I hardly knew him well and was only a chance mourner; it being a lovely day and he having been kind to me when I was his Member of Parliament, I could think of no better way to spend a sunny hour.

He had been a popular man - everyone knew that - and I did not expect pew space in the church, but thought I'd stand outside with the stragglers.

Stragglers? There were more people outside the church than within: hundreds, perhaps a thousand. The event afterwards became quite famous and was widely described, and lyrically in The Spectator by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Robert Salisbury, too, has written about Andrew in this magazine, with greater acquaintance. There is no need to rehearse his qualities now, or to describe again the occasion.

Except to say this. Andrew's great courtesy was well known in our part of the county, and so was his gentle and diffident manner.

Nobody - on leaving the umpteenth dreadful little dog-hanging in a good local cause, having unveiled a plaque or drawn a raffle - could say 'I can't remember when I've enjoyed myself so much' with more apparent enthusiasm, or be heard with quite the same grateful disbelief. But at his funeral I was taken by surprise by the impromptu gathering of people whom his life had touched. Few of those who stood in silence beneath the flowering cherries could have claimed to be a friend.

Few had advantage to gain - not even social cachet, for what cachet is there in having to stand outside? Most - to use a brutal phrase that would never have passed Andrew's lips - were of no account.

So why did they come? A handful to gawp, maybe; a handful to tell the story; but there have been grander funerals attended by fewer.

Most were drawn as gently, haphazardly and mysteriously as seedlings around a watersource, by the respect felt for a good man.

I knew Ken Buxton no better than I knew Andrew Cavendish. I went to his funeral because I could. Once, years ago, when through a mutual friend Ken had heard I was driving to Catalonia with a load of furniture, he had lent me his cow-box. It was new and he was proud of it. He had refused to accept any rent, but wanted only to hear about the ancient house we were restoring. In the unloaded trailer on return I brought him some young Catalan oak trees, because I knew he had a passion for planting trees, even buying patches of land just to plant out.

Ken lived alone, mostly in his big yard in the hills near Flash. …

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