Fare Thee Well, part 1

It is dreary days here in Port Macquarie. Probably for all or most of Australia as well, but I couldn’t say for sure. The Mid-North Coast of Oz certainly sat up and begged for praise when my parents were here a few months ago, giving them its best and brightest, making it now seem that it was saving this stretch of misery for when they were gone and had no one to impress. The locals of nearly any paradise on earth always look a little weary and nonplussed for a reason, namely because they live there year-round and have grown accustomed to times such as these.

Even last week I noted that there were a few moments that looked and felt decidedly English, and I mean that as no insult to either the UK or Australia. As we were pulling away from the Newcastle airport there was a striking resemblance to a neglected RAF base amongst the fog, drizzle, and rusting architecture of the industrial age. You could say that Newcastle always seems like that, but even Port Macquarie has managed to reveal its own patches of soft decay. With the cloudy skies and days that end in their infancy I don’t think it’s a stretch, but maybe it’s just me.

It was on another morning of this same bleak weather when I noticed a missed call on my mobile phone yesterday. Immediately my heart sank. It was not just any missed call mind you, for there are plenty of those during the long stretches of teaching, but because I recognized the number and what that might mean. The call came from the president of our local pipe band, the Hastings District Pipes & Drums, and indeed the news was bad.

Ian McMaster, our esteemed & respected pipe major, local pipe tutor, and all-around pillar of the community, had passed away during the night. All I could think was, Bugger.

The news, while deeply sad, was not unexpected. He had been fighting brain cancer for well over a year, and, like many whom cancer strikes, had seen a promising remission reverse with a swift and unflinching vengeance. The entire pipe band had been braced these past few weeks, knowing that he had been sent home from the hospital. What no one ever finishes is the last part of that sentence–to finish out his days at home. Although is was distressing news to both his friends, family, & students, the last time I spoke to him (at the annual pipe band Christmas dinner) even then he had begun to say his goodbyes while still in his full capacity. He spoke then, as always, with his usual combination of frank honesty and gentle humour. A rare enough feat for anyone, but that was his genuine nature.

I have always had a slant for all things Celtic, be they Scottish or Irish, even English, when it comes right down to it. It is through a long and curious series of events that my path should have ever crossed that of Ian, but I am, and have always been, glad that it did.

There is so much to say about this man, but it is hard to write without turning the reflection inwards, which rather misses the point. Since I began writing this (NOTE: I began this post on Wednesday and finshed & posted it on Friday), I have searched for the most simple way of expressing my admiration and deep respect for him without resorting to sentimentality, fabrication, or some other corruption of praise. The simplest way I can say it is that Ian McMaster was a Man Of God.

There is a certain rare nobility in that phrase, and I use it sparingly, this being the first time in fact. Even as an agnostic using this phrase (or am I borrowing it?), it rings with a certain right-ness, like finding the right word for a song or poem and feeling the calm restored. It has nothing to do with God, per se, but everything to do with the Man.

He was a kind soul to the core, and the term “gentle nature” only begins to paint the picture. In essence, there was a very real depth to the man, one that made people happier to be around him without bringing out their envy. In short, he simply was. He had a calm that seemed to hum in the air that surrounded him, and he inspired those around him to achieve the greatness within themselves, while feeling no threat when their achievements might outstrip his own. That is the mark of a true teacher, of music or any other discipline, but most importantly of life itself.

We attended his funeral today (Friday), and the attendance was staggering. We should all be so lucky to be loved and remembered by such a large and diverse flock. (I’ll stick with the biblical phrasing, now that I have opened it). He planned his own service, being the sort of person who would do such a sensible thing. There were many tears, moving moments, laughter, and much reflection. One of his daughters took the podium for a bible reading, and I paid close attention. He chose Philippians 4:6-8.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

As a rare bible reader (translation: never), it struck me as the choice of a very wise person. Absent of judgement and soft in tone, with the last sentence the advice that someone who has lived fully and enjoyed the beauty of life is passing on to those whom he wished might find the same. All that is good in humanity can be found in that sentence, and it struck me as no surprise at all that he would choose such a muted and philosophical message to be remembered by. That he chose the word of God to say it, rather than come up with his own version of the same advice, is again no surprise. Above all things, he was humble.

I was very proud today to be a member of the Hastings District Pipes & Drums, and proud of all the young drummers who have come through the ranks in recent years who hardly knew Ian but knew how important he was to our small band and showed up to pay their respects. We formed an honour guard for the casket as he was brought both in & out of the church, and lastly as he was driven away. It is with no stretch of the imagination that I say that the honour today was that which he bestowed upon me.

Rest In Peace, Ian McMaster. Fare Thee Well….

I shall close today’s sermon (for that is what this has become, has it not?), with a final, overly-famous poem. It has been read at countless funerals since it was written, and no doubt will be read at countless more. In fact, there is a very real chance I will choose this for my own funeral, quite possibly because I will be too lazy to think of or find anything else. Also, it’s hard to top this, it being so bloody good. In honour of Pipe Major Ian McMaster, I thought that Auden’s Funeral Blues/Stop All The Clocks a fitting sendoff to the Isles.

I
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public
doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

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5 Responses to “Fare Thee Well, part 1”

  1. nicole simmich Says:

    how do you express yourself so beautifully? you said all the things i want to say but cant find the words.ian meant the world to me as you probably know and i would give anything to have him back with us.those last few weeks i saw ian struggling with his illness and i feel better knowing he is now in peace.he was and still is my best friend and my life is so much emptier without him.what a man…i will miss him every day for the rest of my life….i never knew that losing someone so close to me could hurt so much. reading your words brought back all the good memories i had of ian and all the good times we shared.thankyou

  2. slantrhyme Says:

    Thank you for that Nicole. Ian was too great of a man for me not to try and say something, anything, about what a giant he was to all of us. Thank you for reading and listening. See you on the pipes soon….

  3. Ian Dalziel Says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Ian was all those things to many, he will be missed by all who knew him, he was an inspiration to all and a true”gentle man”, who lived his life to the full but always guided by his God.

  4. Bagpipe Music « slantrhyme Says:

    […] a recent post regarding the passing of my friend & pipe major Ian McMaster and the enormity of his person, I […]

  5. Imogen McNamara Says:

    Thank you for writing such beautiful words about my Grandfather.

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