My sister Andrea: A tribute
There's no way that I can pay a comprehensive tribute to my beautiful sister Andrea in the next few minutes. Her 29 years were crammed with more than most people experience and achieve in three times that. But I can give you a flavour of what made her one of the most remarkable and special people I've ever known.
There's no doubt that Andrea's life has been eventful but she never minded this for an instant. In fact, she thrived on it. She told her friend Anna and me that she wanted to write her autobiography one day and I'm sure that some of the things that happened to her, things that most people wouldn't have coped with at all, were to her great opportunities for interesting stories, footnotes or even entire chapters of this planned book. That none of us will ever read her story in her own words is so profoundly wrong that I can hardly bear it but I'm so glad that we do have a number of her writings.
For those of you who didn't know, Andrea was a poet (she might have said "poetess", just like she might well have wanted today's "hymns" to be called "hers" instead!). Her poems, as you have already heard from the works that Anna and Phil read so beautifully, were full of dense imagery, literary allusions and spiritual references. She was determined to publish them all one day, and though she was never able to do this, we hope to do it in her memory. (Advance orders being taken from today!) I love the opening of "Love in the Night", read by Anna, where Andrea talks about seeing the divine in the tempest of existence. But through the storms in her own life, Andrea always retained a deep and profound optimism, summed up in the line that we put on the front of the order of service that "love is the baton which keeps the human flame alight".
I also can't think of a better testament to Andrea than the start of "What is living?", read by Phil, that she would love just to live and not to worry about the world – but the global problems we face meant that Andrea could never just have been a passive spectator in life. She cared about things. She cared about the environment. She cared about animal rights and believed passionately in veganism. She cared about promoting peace and ending wars.
To give just some examples, Andrea was part of the "Smash EDO" campaign against the Brighton company that manufactures bombs and other military products. Some of you might have seen the photo on the IndyMedia website where Andrea is trying to mediate between a line of police and a mass of protestors. When the local newspaper interviewed and quoted her, they accidentally wrote that Andrea was "meditating" rather than "mediating", though knowing Andrea this could have been equally likely! Andrea also handed out leaflets door to door for Viva, the vegan charity, to raise awareness of the environmental and health implications of eating meat.
I remember when Andrea was very young, how we found a dying butterfly one summer. Andrea was distraught and would have done anything to save it but Mum realised that all we could do was to quickly put it out of its pain. Most children would have soon forgotten about this but Andrea spent the next several days designing in intricate detail a butterfly hospital that could help other injured creatures. I wonder if Mum and Dad still have her design somewhere. On another occasion, she spent several weeks trying to teach our rather intellectually-challenged cat, Apricot, to do various things and despite limited success, she determined to open a school for cats and pinned a large advertisement to the front door which I seem to remember the postman responded to!
One criticism sometimes made of people involved in animal rights is that it's at the expense of human rights. But this was absolutely not the case with Andrea. She was so interested in people and she wanted to help anyone who was disadvantaged in life. She had got to know a number of homeless people in Brighton and would often take them food (one Christmas she asked Mum to make one of them a vegan fruit cake). I suspect, however, that they probably enjoyed her conversations even more than the things she took them!
I hope that just some of Andrea's passion for life and commitment to improving the world rubs off on me. I feel rather ashamed that I haven't fought as strongly for the causes I believe in as Andrea did and I feel inspired, as we all should, to leave this church today with a fiery passion for justice in our hearts.
Andrea was always up for an adventure. Between school and university she worked at a hotel in London and then moved to Prague to teach English. The school in Prague where Andrea worked was sadly not particularly friendly, or accommodating for a non-meat eater and she was soon in need of rather more nourishment than they had provided. But always someone to see a solution rather than a problem, Andrea broke into the school one night, found the kitchen and made herself a meal in the dark. Clearly Andrea missed her true vocation in the secret service!
In Prague, Andrea discovered Kafka and I know she loved his novel Metamorphosis. I realised later how appropriate this was in many ways, as Andrea has been through her own metamorphosis, of course (though I'm glad that in her case she didn't emerge as a giant cockroach like the character in the story! Andrea's metamorphosis was more akin to a caterpillar that becomes a dazzling but slightly fragile butterfly, like the one she had found when she was young). There are also parallels between Kafka's life and Andrea's. Both had a keen intelligence, an interest in spirituality and both unfortunately suffered ill health and depression.
Andrea hadn't given up alcohol yet when she was in Prague and got herself a great job reviewing cocktails for an English language magazine. She also acquired a taste for Absinthe (when she returned to England she smuggled me a bottle back!). I went out to visit her for a few days and she took me to some amazing places that I would never have found as a tourist. I remember going to a "name day" party for a friend of hers in an old communist hotel in the suburbs of Prague. As usual, Andrea had found a wonderfully eclectic group of people to make friends with. I also remember paying for many rounds of beers that night and the final bill coming to the equivalent of about two pounds!
Recently, Andrea had been re-reading Proust and it's interesting that he too contended with chronic health problems throughout his life. Andrea felt, like Proust, that art reveals deep truths that day-to-day life cannot. Andrea loved visiting galleries and I'm sure felt profoundly at ease in their quiet, contemplative, intellectual atmosphere. In Prague, she had a favourite gallery she often went to, where she became friends with an artist whose work was exhibited there. I'm sure they would have had many deep conversations about the nature of art and existence.
Her two trips to Thailand to learn Thai massage last year provided many more adventures. Mum was just telling me a few days ago about how at the end of one of her six week trips, she decided to spend a few days working in a paddy field and living in a mud hut with a friend she'd made. She suddenly realised, however, that her flight was the next day and she hadn't packed any of her things back in her hotel in Chiang Mai. So she phoned a gay friend of hers back in the city and being Andrea, of course she managed to sweet talk him into doing all her packing. She just made her flight!
Andrea loved Thailand and the weather, food and people really suited her. We used to talk at length about two of her ambitions (and the reasons she was trying to save money), which were to go back to Thailand for as long as possible and also to spend time in Spain. She had been learning Spanish for several years and was really drawn to the country and culture.
Andrea must have been one of the best-read 29 year olds around, though I know she was frustrated that over the last year she hadn't had the time to read as much as she wanted to. With her passion for philosophy, she devoured writers such as Plato and Nietzsche. Nietzsche's famous statement that "God is dead" would, I'm sure, have been a subject that Andrea would have loved to discuss and debate. While her sense of spirituality meant that she wouldn't, of course, have agreed with its literal sense I'm sure she would have agreed that it's important for all of us to find God in whatever way works best for us. She didn't support religion with a capital 'R', just like she wouldn't have described god in the orthodox Christian manner with a big 'G'. I'm convinced that Andrea will already be engaged in spirited intellectual and philosophical debate with all her literary heroes in heaven, and I can imagine the arguments if St Peter kept Andrea waiting on the way in!
Andrea challenges us all to live life for the moment. To enjoy the world, not just in the gentle routine of day to day life but to see it more clearly, to drink of it more deeply through the possibilities that art, literature and philosophy open up to us. Andrea didn't care what anyone thought of her and as long as she knew that she was living by her own moral code, she didn't feel the need to justify herself. Having spent, like many people, a large part of my life worrying what other people thought of me, I find that a profoundly liberating philosophy. I once took Mum, Dad and Andrea to a classy Thai restaurant in Nottingham. We had a lovely meal but even after the dessert, Andrea was still hungry (she'd always had a prodigious appetite) so calmly ordered another starter. I was completely mortified but to Andrea, of course, this made complete sense and wasn't anything I should have been embarrassed about.
I remember a few years ago Andrea telling me that she'd either been asked or volunteered to do a standup comedy routine at a local venue. She wasn't the remotest bit worried about how her act might go down, despite having no material whatsoever. Actually, that's not quite right. She had made up one joke, I think to do with the differences between gay men and lesbians, which she told me over the phone and which wasn't exactly laugh-out-loud funny. Her routine never actually went ahead, which I was slightly disappointed by, as I would have loved to see everyone's confused looks when faced with Andrea's esoteric philosophical stream of consciousness rather than the actual jokes they might have expected…
Andrea's dry sense of humour was really apparent to her family and close friends, though, and often came out at unexpected times. On a family camping holiday when she was very little, Dad asked Andrea one morning about a suspiciously damp patch of her sleeping bag. Quick as a flash she replied, "That's just condensation, Daddy"!
I used to worry that Andrea was lonely in Brighton. She would tell me that she didn't have as many friends as she would like. But I actually think now that Andrea had many more friends than she ever realised. Her fibromyalgia and regular bouts of depression meant that she sometimes spent long periods of time by herself in her flat but it's been wonderful to hear from so many people over the last few weeks who obviously loved her and valued her so much.
I actually don't feel that Andrea had quite found her place in the world yet. But she was so close. I think that her next decade would have been her time and that's why I'm all the more heart broken that her life has been so cruelly cut short. I'm just so glad we had a last wonderful family holiday together in Brittany this summer. Andrea looked the most beautiful and relaxed I've ever seen her. Phil and I have so many happy memories of her playing with the kittens, feeding the geese, swimming in the icy sea and, on one night, playing an epic game of draughts with Dad, which I think lasted about 6 hours and was still going in the middle of the night when I got up to go to the bathroom!
And although our relationship, like most siblings, has had its ups and downs over the years, recently we've been closer than ever. I'm so glad that in our last conversation, just three days before she died, my last words to her were that I love her.
Even if Andrea sometimes had the knack of exasperating one of us, I've now realised that she did it with a twinkle in her eye. Phil has told me how she would sometimes give him a secret little smile to show that she knew when she was winding one of her family up. Her friend Zach says she had the most enigmatic smile he'd ever seen. I think it was the most beautiful.
One last story: at the end of last year, Andrea entered a competition in Philosophy Now magazine to answer the question "Who is the Best Philosopher?". Knowing that everyone else would write standard responses, Andrea knew there was only one possible answer. She wrote back that she was the best philosopher, and she won, of course. In fact, of the winning entries published from all over the world, Andrea's was the last one, which rather fittingly gave her the final word. She would have liked that, just as in different circumstances she would have loved being splashed all across the press.
Though her stubbornness and argumentativeness sometimes drove me mad, I can't wait for the discussions and debates when I see her again one day. We are all so, so proud of her. Mum describes her life as being "triumphant". I hope you will all join me in agreeing absolutely with this.
Andrea, my little sister and my friend, I'll love you and miss you forever.