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Diary: on the death of old friends

Two days after Protag’s funeral, Ben says: ‘Did you hear Callum Millard’s died?’ I’m knocked sideways. Another one? But different this time. I struggle to dredge up ancient memories – was he there when we occupied the Lloyds bank in Leeds? Did he come on the Garforth anti-opencast occupation? I haven’t seen him properly in years, memories are elusive – I don’t know him any more.

But then the funeral – many old friends, many memories shared. Yes, he was the lock-picker and lock-changer in the ‘take’ for so many A-Spire squat social centres; yes, he was in the Leeds Reclaim the Streets parties crew; yes, he was on the Heseltine action.

Memories are flooding back – standing in Michael Heseltine’s Oxfordshire ‘back garden’ as the sun rises, while Callum and others spell out ‘No Opencast’ using the turf we’re all digging up directly in front of his mansion. Exhilaration, fear that we’ve gone too far, laughing and laughing at how cheeky this is, admiration for and inspiration from those in the gang going further, almost physical connection with each other, underlying anger at one person having so much privilege and power, absolute joy in the pub afterwards and the van on the way home, absolute exhaustion after the pre-dawn start.

During the ceremony, Callum is described as ‘fearless’. There are stories of facing down shooting settlers to allow a Palestinian olive harvest to continue, of holding a dying person in the street in Leeds, of clambering about on rocks and of blowing up watermelons.

Two weeks earlier, we stand in the woods and birdsong accompanies people describing Protag as supremely capable, reliable, gently principled, wry and immensely generous with his time and knowledge.

I hope, hope, hope that people said these things to them while they were alive. I’m sure they did. I feel the urge to praise my house-mates, my comrades, my neighbours, my choir, the people on the bus – get to know them, tell them why they’re brilliant, inspire everyone to be as brilliant as they can be, as often as possible.

And relax… there’s only so much you can do, you can’t live your life as if every conversation might be the last. You can’t maintain every friendship you’ve ever had.

Then there’s the grief, hard to separate from nostalgia, for past times – for younger selves, when life was more urgent, relationships more intense, when it was easy to separate right from wrong, us from them and the revolution was just around the corner, when everything is a first, you are the first people ever to think these thoughts or do these things and you happily trust each other with your lives and your liberty. Those days before the first great disillusionment (how did we not stop the Criminal Justice Bill?), and the first great burnout. Before we went our separate ways, suffered various misfortunes, discovered different interests, met and liked people with other priorities and realised our place in the great big, complicated world.

And what of our activisms now? It turns out that some of us had little in common beyond the activism that brought us together and which has led us down widely differing paths. Some of us find it easier and some find it harder to maintain friendships as attitudes and situations change – some judge and some don’t, some feel judged and some don’t, one or two feel betrayed. I feel a little of all those things at different times. Right now, I want to feel that there is a whole bunch of people out there who share those memories, to keep alive all the young, fearless heroes of our past and to re-inspire us to courageous living in the present.

At Protag’s funeral, tears come as we raise our fists in solidarity and salute our passing comrade. At Callum’s funeral, tears come as I see the butterfly fluttering about above us in the vaulted stonework of the old church.

Cornerstone Cath is a Leeds-based co-operator and community activist.