A South London Funeral
At five minutes to opening time on the day of Malcolm Bennett’s funeral, I peered through the door of the London Beer Dispensary, frustratingly close to a nerve-settling pint. I stepped into the bookies to nick a pen. Something drew me to the far corner of this temple of slender hope and broad despair, to the newspaper plastered on the wall. And there he was, running in the 2.10 at Kempton. Brother Bennett, at the tempting odds of 7/2. It was a sign. A sign that I knew fuck all about gambling.
Buoyed by my tiny wager respecting an irreplaceable friend, I returned to the LBD, where I was joined by three mates, all holding back the terror and the tears, dealing with grief in their own ways.
‘You wanna see a picture of my new bird?’ asked Spider.
The dress code for the funeral was ‘Colourful, with hats.’ Spider wore an electric blue turban.
Meticulous planning is not my forte, but I had timed the walk from pub to Honor Oak Crematorium the previous day, in order to ensure I could get one in before kick-off. We gathered by a chapel, smoking rollies in a futile and frantic effort to stay calm. We were surrounded by stern faces in black suits. Must be family, I surmised.
‘Or, we’re at the wrong funeral,’ laughed Spider.
We were at the wrong funeral.
The other chapel (you can see how I was confused) was surrounded by dresses that could wake the dead, spectacular hats and suits and the smell of strong weed. If this is the modern church then douse me with thy holy fucking water, baby Jeebus.
Mally’s unexpected passing was entirely predictable, given his consumption. Between swigs from hip flasks, the congregation speculated on why the cause of death was still unknown:
‘They think they’ve discovered a new species.’
‘The toxicology report will take a month to print.’
‘NASA have commandeered his liver.’
Mally was, appropriately, hopelessly late for his own funeral. The speeches and the music were warm and funny and everyone had just about recovered their composure when they were asked to belt out, You’ll Never Walk Alone. Everyone lost it again. People spilled out of the chapel in tears, lighting up anything that came to hand and wailing into the bosom of girls with bosoms.
The ‘after show party’ at The Sheaf was a sight, with the huge pub packed on a Monday afternoon with a sharp sisterhood and herberts in hats. Mally chose his friends carefully, so I knew that I would be in good company whoever I spoke to. He chose them so well, it was still full at closing time. Funerals do strange things to people. There’s a need to remember, a need to laugh and, surprisingly, a need to flirt, raging against the dying of the light with priapic defiance.
People from all chapters of his life in Liverpool, Bristol and London merged, telling barely believable true stories of guns, TV, drugs, prison, girls, theft, violence and inappropriate use of the word, ‘Cunt’. Guys from the other places he frequented, The Banana Store, The Glad, The Ruse and The Roxy recognised how their bars were lessened without him, even if they would no longer have to ask him to apologise to staff on a monthly basis.
There was a blurred reprise at the Blue Eyed Maid in the small hours where a few minor injuries were picked up, not least by the traumatised ears of other punters as we sang a quite terrible, but shameless, You’ll Never Walk Alone, without a Scouser between us.
The mourning after, a Chernobyl of a hangover was ably treated at Maggie’s Cafe where Maggie amused herself by giving me a heart attack with her ‘Irish sauce’ gambit – a mustard jar that propelled a giant penis jack-in-the-box to whack me in the face. It was a surreal post-funeral moment, but oddly appropriate.
An almost automatic, drone-like instinct led us back to The Sheaf for a hair of the dog. It felt like Borough days of old, where a heavy night was followed at opening time in the same pub with the same characters. You went for one; you stayed until you could stay no more.
It was an inevitable continuation of a goodbye to our mate, an extraordinary man and funny fucker, who reached the extremities of charm and rudeness, but never of dullness. He had patrolled his territory in SE1, sometimes dressed as a vicar, a cowboy or officer of the Third Reich, but always dressed to kill, with a ready wit and an eager thirst.
At Kempton, Brother Bennett came in fourth. Late again, the cunt.
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Photos courtesy of Lisa Martinez
T-shirt pic by Beezer
Malcolm Bennett: A life! image by Aidan Hughes