Sunday, 22 April 2012


Just as if it was yesterday, it’s all ice-clear in my mind. A dark, dank, drizzling winter’s afternoon in the town and there was this great procession coming along the road and my Uncle Bob was at the head of it. Right at the front he was, looking so important in his top hat, his frock coat and his striped trousers and carrying a silver-topped cane. The way he walked you’d think he was the most important person there, more important than the chauffeur of the fine car with the wooden box inside, more important than any of the straggle of people shuffling along behind in their damp clothes, not one of them looking as grand as my Uncle Bob who looked to be the only person there on whom the rain wasn’t falling.

You’ve no idea how proud I felt. He was leading this great crowd of people. It was so wonderful. ‘Uncle Bob! Hello, Uncle Bob,’ I shouted but he never looked over in my direction, just kept up the proud peacock strut, his head high, his shoulders straight.

I thought I might go over to him, to ask what he was doing because I’d never seen him in such a fancy outfit before and I was just about to step off the pavement and into the road when my mother snatched my hand. ‘Behave yourself,’ she whispered, her other hand shaking my shoulder.

‘It’s Uncle Bob,’ I told her. Perhaps she hadn’t realised that he was the one leading the procession. Perhaps she didn’t know he was so important.

‘Come along,’ she said, putting on her angry mother’s face. ‘Fancy shouting in the street like that.’ She dragged me away along the road. ‘Such behaviour,’ she said.

And that’s the first memory I have of seeing a funeral. It’s about 80 years ago now but it’s still sharp in my mind. Of course the mourners in those days didn’t have cars to take them to the cemetery so most walked behind the hearse, often a hundred or more of them, all of them proclaiming their grief with a black band or a diamond of cloth sewn on the sleeves of their coats. Many close relatives of the dead would continue wearing sober clothing with the black bands for perhaps a year.

In the Philippines I’ve been reminded so much of those old funerals that people like my Uncle Bob directed. There is still the sense of occasion in that country that our funerals used to project, still the solemn procession but of course with certain differences.

In my book, A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES, I describe some of the funerals which passed our house.  

‘What a lot of funerals I've seen here. What a send-off the dead get. We've had two today and I have such a fine view from upstairs. I dash up to the terrace every time I hear the music of the brass band.

Today the procession was headed by about thirty slow-moving tricycles. Then came half a dozen men in baseball caps and green T-shirts. Next we had the usual leggy drum majorettes, short skirts, high boots and all looking as if they were on loan from a Fourth of July parade so many thousands of miles away.

Today's brass band - one of the fifteen which the town boasts - wore glossy purple jackets and white trousers. In the last two months I must have seen pretty well every band, each with its own garish outfit, tootling their clarinets, puffing down or up their Sousaphones, blowing at their trombones and beating hell out of their drums.

After this came the hearse, a big white affair topped as ever with white balloons and a photograph of the dear departed and bearing a coffin, this time oak or what looked like oak. As ever, the mourners walked behind, the women with their brightly coloured umbrellas showing up like some extravagant mobile flower bed.’

Some similarities and some differences to what I saw all those long years ago.

And by the way, the family undertaking business started by my grandfather in the late-1800s still exists in South Shields but it has undergone quite enormous changes, just as our lives have done.

The book, A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES, is on Amazon and Smashwords now - 40,000 words by WH Johnson for peanuts (77p)! And it’s worth every peanut for Leonardo Malgapo’s cover and illustrations alone.

Find the book on Amazon at

There’s a FREE copy to anyone willing to forward the details of the book to at least 40 of their email/Facebook friends. Just let me know via the email address on my website. Tell me if you want it to your computer screen or your ereader and I’ll send you a copy.

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