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Letter to a friend, and a report of Philip Gould’s funeral

Posted on 16 November 2011 | 9:11am

If anyone has had enough of my tributes to Philip Gould, I will not be offended if you surf immediately to another website. But I feel I should say something about his funeral yesterday, where a packed All Saints church in London W1 said farewell to one of the key architects of New Labour, and a great friend.

Though I don’t do God, as the minister Alan Moses pointed out in his superb sermon, recalling the time Philip dragged ‘poor Alastair’ to his confirmation, Philip did do God, more and more so as his life neared its end.

He would have loved the beauty of the choir’s singing, the hymns and readings being sung and read so well, the prayers, (not least read by his sister, a priest), the incense, the long queues waiting to take communion.

Philip was not without ego, and he would have also loved the packed church, the photographers outside, and the big party afterwards. He would have loved the sense of drama and history attached to the event. Two Prime Ministers in the front row, and both doing readings chosen by him. Two more Labour leaders behind them. Many of the key figures of the past Labour government, and the current coalition government, paying their respects. I know he would have loved the sermon, in which inter alia Rev Moses made a rather compelling case against government education policy, with Michael Gove a few pews away.

He would have been proudest of his two daughters, first Grace and then Georgia, reading poems, their voices strong and clear and full of love. Georgia also made a fantastic speech at the party afterwards, as did Tony Blair, Matthew Freud, Philip’s old university friend Pete Jones, and Professor David Cunningham who cared for Philip at the Marsden, and said that in talking about death and cancer as he had, Philip had given hope and strength to others.

Today is the cremation, attended by Philip’s family, Gail’s parents, my family, and a couple of very close friends. More sadness, but more cause to reflect on a life well lived.

I had had an agreement with Philip, having spoken at the funerals of several friends before, and always finding it hard, that I wouldn’t have to speak at his. But as Georgia told the congregation, I wrote to him on the day before he died, and the girls read the letter to him. As they finished, he smiled and said he wanted it read at the funeral. I did see him again, but by then he had slipped into unconsciousness, so I am glad this is the last thing I ever said to him. It was meant as a private letter, but as I ended up reading it in public at his and Gail’s request, and as The Times has printed it in full today as part of a nice send-off for Philip, I thought I would put it on here too.

‘Dear Philip,

I hope, as do so many others, that somehow you find within you the strength to carry on. The courage you have shown since the day you were told you had cancer has been inspiring. If anyone can keep on defying the medical odds, you can.

But if this does defeat you this time, I don’t want you to go without me saying what a wonderful person you are, and what an extraordinary friend you have been. Of all my friends, you are the one who touches virtually every point of my life – past, present, politics, work, leisure, sport and holidays, education, books, charity, and, more important than anything, family and friendship. I have been blessed to know you. So has Fiona. So have Rory, Calum and Grace. For so many of the happiest moments of our lives, you have been there, indeed often the cause of the happiness.

You’ve always been there in tough times too. You remember the Alex Ferguson quote – ‘the true friend is the one who walks through the door when others are putting on their coats to leave’. You have displayed that brand of friendship so often, so consistently, and with such a force as to keep me going at the lowest of moments.

When I got your moving, lovely message on Tuesday, and was convinced you wouldn’t see out the night, I felt like a limb had been wrenched from me. You know my crazy theory that we only know if we have lived a good life as we approach its end – perhaps we only know the real value of a friend when we lose him. The loss for Gail, Georgia and Grace will be enormous. But so many others were touched by you and will share that loss.

My favourite quote of our time in government came not from me or you, or any of the rest of the New Labour team. It came from the Queen in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks ten years ago. ‘Grief is the price we pay for love.’ You are much loved. There will be much grief. But it is a price worth paying for the joy of having known you, worked with you, laughed with you, cried with you, latterly watched you face death squarely in the eye with the same humility, conviction and concern for others which you have shown in life.

I will always remember you not for the guts in facing cancer, brave though you have been, but for the extraordinary life force you have been in the healthy times. Your enthusiasm, your passion for politics, and belief in its power to do good, your love of Labour, your dedication to the cause and the team – they all have their place in the history that we all wrote together. I loved the defiant tone of your revised Unfinished Revolution, your clear message that whatever the critics say, we changed politics and Britain for the better. So often, so many of our people weaken. You never did. You never have. You never would. That is the product of real values, strength of character, and above all integrity of spirit.

In a world divided between givers and takers, you are the ultimate giver. In a world where prima donnas often prosper, you are the ultimate team player. Perhaps alone among the key New Labour people, you have managed to do an amazing job without making enemies. That too is a product of your extraordinary personality, your love of people and your determination always to try to build and heal. It has been humbling to see you, even in these last days and weeks, trying to heal some of the wounds that came with the pressures of power. We can all take lessons from that, and we all should.

Of course I will miss the daily chats, the banter, the unsettled argument about whether QPR are a bigger club than Burnley. More, I’ll miss your always being on hand to help me think something through, large or small. But what I will miss more than anything is the life force, the big voice. You have made our lives so much better. You are part of our lives and you will be forever. Because in my life, Philip, you are a bigger force than the death that is about to take you.

Yours ever, AC’

  • Nicola

    Truly moving. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Mike king

    A very moving and dignified post. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Fiona Laird

    That is the most BEAUTIFUL letter. I am awash.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis tells his spiritual journey from atheism to Christianity.
    A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis reflects on the fundamental issues of life after his wife, Jo Gresham, died of cancer.
    There is time for joy, and time for grief.
    Grief only goes away if you grieve.

  • A lovely, beautiful message.
    Thank you.

  • MicheleB

    I found the worst day of a close bereavement was the one of waking up already knowing the world is different to how it used to be; it’s not something to be remembered with a jolt even a split second later. 

    I suppose that once it’s become part of even being unconscious one’s changed to fit in to that new world.

  • Tom

    Incredible letter; wow!

  • Alsky

    very moving and beautiful in its sadness

  • Quinney

    A lovely letter AC.

  • Ehtch

    Our local Vicar always heavily advises close family never to make an eulogy at the pulpit at a close family member’s funeral, due to, I suppose, that he has seen it too many times come to tears. But maybe, being from Wales, it is geographical, since the Welsh have always generally been known as wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and being too passionate and emotional, it is said.

    So my respect to Philip Gould’s family and friends for being able to do such – different people have different strengths. I am one of those that would be wasted in trying to do one, and turn into a mushy mess, even for the pet cat. Death affects Welsh people in strange ways – must be our pagan roots, or something.

  • Charlie L

    That’s a great letter Alastair.

  • David Astbury

    Wonderful piece of writing,,,truly wonderful

  • Gilliebc

    Why do you have to be quite so ‘Welsh’ all the time Ehtch?

    The implication being that no other nation feels, acts or reacts with as much passion bravery or whatever as the Welsh. 

    Which is obviously not true.

  • Anonymous

    I felt very emotional reading this loving tribute. All I can say is that you were very fortunate to have spent a lot of time with this dear friend.  In the years ahead I hope this gives you some comfort.

  • Ehtch

    Sorry, just pointing out that different people are, well, different from each other. If I was too candid about other people I might be called “that” certain term, that has reared it head again in footie this week. Anyway, just giving some “inside” information, to help prevent misunderstanding. Also anyway, at least two-thirds of present day England is of Welsh ancient extraction, even if they do not know it, and quite a lot in South of Scotland, it is said. But I might be getting a bit too deep and low flying if I expanded on that.

  • Gilliebc

    Just to clarify Ehtch, I wasn’t having a personal go at you.

    You being Welsh you naturally comment from your own perspective, as we all do I think.

    But ultimately, wherever we happen to have been born, which obviously we have no say in whatsoever.  We are all just human and all share the most basic of human characteristics.  i.e. no nationality or indeed race has a monopoly on bravery, sadness or anything else.  We are basically all the same 🙂

  • Gilliebc

    I would just add to my previous comment that all nationalities and races have their share of ignorant people of course in terms of being rascist and bigoted and sometimes just plain evil. It was ever thus.

  • Ehtch

    No problems Gilliebc, I knew your heart is in the right place. And with bigotry and ignorance, that is why american towns and main streets were invented in the wild west, especially on the railroads of the coming ironhorses, fortified towns to keep away the native indians. That what it was like for the welsh with the post-Roman germanic tribes coming to bother us.

    Oops – sorry, very sorry. I mention the W word then. I apologise…. : )

    And, as an aside, did you know a Welsh-type celt invented the steam driven ironhorse on rails, Richard Trevithick, from Cornwall? Some could say ironic.

  • Michael Taylor

    Amazing tribute to a true friend. Thank you for sharing it. It has been very comforting at a time of loss for me.

  • Ehtch

    Thin anthacite coal outcrops grounds I known,
    can be tomato gardened to keep us warm.
    Thin too much for industry, but enough for us,
    to keep warm, potatoes carrots and onions.

    But, World new and what they thought knew,
    yes coming, capitalism implosion, started now.
    Arab world is just a start, will affect your backyard,
    eventually any alley that you feel to run in, any school yard.

    Capitialism is coming to an end, as we used to know it,
    as long as we have satellites reflecting to us true shit.

    Happy death, have a nice day.

  • Sue Stuart

    That made me cry.

  • A. Davies

    This is the most  wonderful tribute to a friend that I have ever read. There is nothing more beautiful than  the life of person of shining integrity. How fortunate   you were able to have such a person as a friend and also how fortunate was New Labour in having such a person as one of its founder members. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

  • whodo21

    very moving letter, I feel for your loss Alastair, and for the Philips family. Thinking of you all

  • Roger Cornish.

    Moving, Honest and a tribute to you both.