Remembering Charles Kennedy’s character, wit, ascent and triumphs: a report from today’s London service

This was no wake, this was a celebratory thanksgiving to the Charles Kennedy we knew and loved.  Held, not in Westminster, but in Charles’ own London parish church – the Catholic Cathedral of St George, Southwark.  As one Liberal Democrat peer wisely observed after the service – Charles would have liked that the residents of the Village of Westminster had had to come down to his manor here in Southwark.

So often with memorial services of people whom we have lost untimely there is a sense of what might have been.  Instead this celebration marvelled at just how much Charles had achieved so young, and with apparent effortlessness.  This was a welcome and deserved recollection of the character, the wit, the ascent and triumphs of Charles.

There were elements that were not highlights of the service – but rather illuminations of the brilliance, the reach and nature of Charles himself: Jim Naughtie (BBC World at One and Today) reflected just how special and unique a politician Charles was; Ian Hislop, at the request of the family, read the serious and challenging Death shall have no dominion by Dylan Thomas; and former Intern in Charles’ office, Eleanor Sanderson-Nash held the cathedral spell-bound with her performance of Vissi D’Arte, from Puccini’s Tosca (and evoked a spontaneous round of applause).

Leading politicians from all parties – but largely drawn from the Liberal Democrat family – gathered as a clan to remember, smile and laugh.  But for me the real stand out feature that credits Charles the man, was the sheer number of Liberal Democrat former Westminster parliamentary staff in attendance.  This was not just their affection for him, but the truth that Charles had noticed them in their time at Westminster.  And so today they came in huge numbers to pay their respects.  Prayers from Revd Canon Mark Soady for example – clergyman yes – colleague and friend yes – but longstanding front-line staffer of 4 Cowley Street, well known to Charles, who acknowledged all staff in HQ whenever he was there.

James Gurling (mate, buddy, confidant and Brother-in-law) drew out Charles’ love of music – music on in different rooms at the same time throughout his house.  The musical inspiration that were his parents Ian and Mary.  His obsessive loyalty to the brilliance of David Bowie and his humble excitement when he met his hero.  But this was no unknown backstory – rather James spelt out Charles’s understanding of music, of expression and creativity, of the industry and the under-rated importance of the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS).  Charles’ understanding of something that mattered to people, people outside the Westminster village.

As the clergy, friends, family, politicians and colleagues spilled out onto the pavement led by the wonderfully lovely and charming look-alike Donald Kennedy (just 10 years of age), the chatter was affectionate and laugh laden – as Charles would have wanted.

As I left I clutched my Order of Service – appreciating the high quality of the design.  But crucially Liberal Democrats campaigners up and down the country will be excited by the layout by Sabrina Russo – she tells me that the heading typeface was ITC Blair.  Charles, noted for his decency would have chuckled at the font name: Blair Medium.  A pretty accurate verdict I reckon on one the most disappointing Prime Ministers, from one of the most generous Party Leaders.

So if you do anything tonight and want to thank Charlie Kennedy, pay tribute to him, remember the good times perhaps pour a drink and think of the lyric “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?”.  Yes, tonight is a night to play David Bowie loud and clear: Young Americans – “the best drum introduction you could ever wish for” (Charles Kennedy, Desert Island Discs, 31st October 2003) – a pretty good last line for any memorial service.

Charles Kennedy’s London Memorial Service to celebrate the life of Charles Kennedy was held at St George’s Catherdral. Southwark, Tuesday 3rd November 2015.

* Ed Fordham is a party member and activist in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.

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4 Comments

  • Gordon Seekings 3rd Nov '15 - 9:32pm

    I’m sorry that I wasn’t there.

    I’ve two very strong memories of Charles – at the start and end of his leadership of the party. The first was the day after he was elected leader at a staff meeting at 4 Cowley Street. He asked what feedback there had been from members/public. I was able to tell him that with 10 minutes or so of him becoming leader I had dealt with one resignation and two new members. He chuckled and said that he hoped the ratio continued like that.

    The second was when he announced his resignation as leader. I was one of a couple of people in 4 Cowley Street that Saturday and was asked to help set up the conference room for the press and TV as Charles going to make an “important announcement”. The end result was that I was standing almost next to the lectern as he gave his resignation speech. Though his resignation was not totally unexpected there was a real sense of shock in the room and all of us there, staff, a couple of MPs/Lords, journalists, TV crews, etc. realised that it was the passing of an era.

  • Richard Fagence 4th Nov '15 - 3:19pm

    I’m sorry Gordon wasn’t able to attend yesterday, but I was there. I’ve no idea how many were there with me but the cast list was pretty impressive! As people walked up the aisle on the way in and down the aisle on the way out you could hear all around you “Wait a minute, isn’t that …?” And it usually was. The press was out in force before the service – not that you’d know it from the only two papers I’ve seen today. The caption to the picture on the front of the Telegraph states that the Prime Minister led the tributes. No, he didn’t. Lord Wallace and Jim Naughtie did, and very good they were. There was laughter and great music and, outside on the pavement afterwards, endless stories and memories of Charles.

    My favourite memory? Glasgow 2013 and the debate on Europe. I had a seat on the end of a row next to the aisle. It was dark in the hall. Duncan Brack said “will Charles Kennedy please stand by” and you felt a murmur run round the hall. When he stood up I discovered he was on the opposite side of the aisle, two rows ahead of me. He began under a green light. Warming to his task he reached the yellow warning and then the red – and ignored it! From my seat I could clearly see Duncan Brack on the platform. The look on his face said “Do I tell him to stop?” He decided against it and Charles pressed on. I made it a total of seven and a half minutes and I hope it is still on U-Tube. But you can’t see Duncan on U-Tube. I think he would have been in trouble with those present if he had pulled the plug. A standing ovation followed, people leaving their seats to congratulate him, it was wonderful. The years fell away and he was back with us all. I shall never forget it. Watch it if you can and remember his words.

    And, finally, young Donald produced audible gasps from people near me as he walked back with his mother. I haven’t seen a picture of Charles aged ten. I don’t need to, I’ve seen Donald.

  • Katerina Porter 4th Nov '15 - 6:46pm

    The remarkable memorial service yesterday brought home once again Charles Kennedy’s quality – how his judgement and ideas were right, how he had marvellous empathy and humour and how wonderful it would have been to have had him with us now when we are trying to find our way.

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