Last Monday I attended the funeral of an old friend, George Miller. I hadn't seen George for a long, long time so it was a bit of a shock when I got a message - via Facebook - followed by a phone call to say that he had died. He was 55.
In the Eighties I saw an awful lot of George. We worked together, we socialised together, and when he got married he asked me to be his best man.
(Worryingly, I had to be reminded about this by another guest at the funeral. How could I have forgotten? After all, the wedding took place in Frankfurt and I spent a large part of the three-hour service holding aloft a large golden crown. We stayed with friends of the groom and even the flight was an experience. A friend was so nervous of flying that we had to get her drunk on a bottle of Malibu before she would board the plane at Gatwick. Today she would be barred from flying in that condition but back then it was a simple solution to a chronic problem.)
English-speaking friends knew him as George and he spoke English without a hint of a foreign accent. In fact George was Russian and to his family he was known as Yura. Russian was his first language and to visit his home was to enter a deeply conservative but always hospitable Russian environment. I enjoyed countless meals with his family and they could not have been more welcoming.
The Millers attended a Russian Orthodox church in Kensington. Occasionally I would join them. I also attended services at a smaller Orthodox chapel in a private house in Baron's Court, west London. I couldn't understand a word but everyone was very friendly and I met some interesting characters.
As I understand it, George's grandfather emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1925 and took his family to Chile. Years later his son Boris (George's father) brought his own family, including George, back to Europe and they settled eventually in Baring Road, SE12.
Boris was a leading member of NTS, a group of Russian emigres that was actively opposed to the Soviet regime. As a result the Millers home in south London became a magnet for Russian dissidents in Europe and beyond.
George inherited his father's passion for politics and it was in that capacity that our paths crossed. (Coincidentally I wrote about it HERE a couple of months ago, although I didn't mention the role that George played. He longed to embark on a similar mission but his background, and his nationality, made it far too dangerous. Instead his role was to recruit people like me to act as couriers on behalf of NTS.)
A couple of years later he asked me to help him write a regular English-language newsletter called Soviet Labour Review. To me it was stupendously dull. A typical headline would read "Tractor production in Turkmenistan halted by striking workers" but George was very proud of it and assured me that it made "a difference".
(The point was, the Soviet government didn't want anyone to know that Russian workers went on strike or that production targets had been hit because it demonstrated a weakness in the Soviet system. Our job was to bring such news to the attention of the wider world.)
George himself was anything but dull. With his distinctive black beard and cheery grin, he could be utterly charming and was always great company. He was like a giant teddy bear and we had many, many laughs together, some of them involving alcohol.
Brian Monteith, a mutual friend, has just told me of a dinner when he and George got seriously drunk on vodka. It sounds remarkably similar to the time George and I celebrated a Russian New Year by drinking 12 or 15 glasses of neat vodka, one after the other, until I slid under the table, waking up in a dishevelled heap several hours later.
But we also shared some despondent moments that brought us even closer together. Hence the invitation, I think, to be his best man.
Eventually our circumstances changed. After George got married he had two children with his Russian wife Lilia. A few years later I too got married and moved to Edinburgh. Around the same time, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, George finally achieved his dream and moved his young family to Moscow where he got a job at the ministry of economics.
There, as far as I can tell, the dream died. Having worked and waited for the Soviet system to implode, reality intervened. George and other reformers were gradually squeezed out by the return of the old guard and their former KGB comrades.
Disillusioned by the lack of reform and the wild west politics of post-Soviet Russia, George eventually returned to London and, I am told, abandoned politics completely. His death followed a series of heart problems and he died in hospital during an operation.
The funeral took place at Brookwood Cemetary in Surrey. Apparently it's the largest cemetery in Britain. It was opened in 1854 as the London Necropolis and was designed to house the deceased from London's rapidly increasing population. According to Wikipedia:
Brookwood originally was accessible by rail from a special station – the London Necropolis railway station – next to Waterloo station in London. Trains ran right into the cemetery on a branch from the South Western Main Line – the junction was situated just to the west of Brookwood station.
The original London Necropolis station (near Waterloo) was relocated in 1902, but its successor was demolished after suffering bomb damage during World War II. There were two stations in the cemetery itself: North for non-conformists and South for Anglicans. Their platforms still exist. It is still possible to enter the cemetery directly from Brookwood station.
George's service was conducted in Russian by an Orthodox priest. The chapel was quite small and it was standing room only with a number of people having to stand outside.
Towards the end of the service we made our way to the open coffin to pay our individual respects. It was the first time I have seen a dead body at close hand. Some people offered a silent prayer. Others kissed his hand.
I took my cue from a friend and rested my hand on his chest. His beard had been trimmed and he looked slimmer than I remembered him. I was struck by how peaceful he looked. A rather obvious thing to say, perhaps, but true, and I was glad to have had the opportunity to see him for one last time.
After that we walked to the burial site half a mile away and watched as the coffin was laid to rest beside his mother's grave.
It was all very sobering but afterwards, over a glass of wine and a light buffet, we had a few laughs as friends recalled some of George's madder moments which included all sorts of weird and wonderful schemes that were going to make him a millionaire. (They never did.)
Many of his old political friends attended the funeral and there is talk of a memorial event organised by his brother Vladimir (a musician) and a dinner hosted by one of his oldest friends, the MP for New Forest East, Dr Julian Lewis.
Let's hope George is looking down on us when we raise a glass to south London's most gregarious Russian dissident.