Normally, on a Friday morning, I set off from London at the crack of dawn in order to be in West Dorset by breakfast time so that I can get in a full day of meetings and surgeries. But, this last Friday, I didn’t set off from London until nearly midday – because I was attending the funeral of Jeremy Heywood in Westminster Abbey.
Largely unknown to those outside government circles, Jeremy was one of those mandarins who really hold the British State together. I saw him almost every day, sometimes several times a day, for the 6 years when I was working in the Cabinet Office for David Cameron and he was the Cabinet Secretary. Unflappable, tireless, infinitely cunning and a person of absolute integrity, he dealt with crisis after crisis without ever losing either his ethereal calm or his enthusiasm for finding solutions when many other people were intent on finding problems; and he did it all with a dash of humour that made it a delight to work with him.
But the service, in the Lady Chapel at the far eastern end of Westminster Abbey, was exquisitely beautiful. The Lady Chapel itself is one of the high points of Tudor ecclesiastical architecture, with its soaring vaults, its splendid pendentives and its intricate decoration.
It is also a perfect setting for a service that combines the intensely personal with the grandeur of the State. Queen Elizabeth I is buried there and, inevitably, the funeral of the principal servant of four Prime Ministers brought together many of those who have been responsible for guiding our country’s affairs over the last several decades.
But the really striking thing, apart from the beauty of the music and of the setting, was the touching, indeed almost heart-rending tributes paid by his wife and children.
It was these, wholly unaffected and unadorned remembrances that made one understand how brilliantly this remarkable man combined family and public life. He died absurdly young, but as the Prime Minister read in the first lesson “old age is not honoured for length of time, or measured by the number of years, but understanding is grey hair for anyone, and a blameless life is a ripe old age”.
But, as well as the mixture of the public and private, there was of course the mixture of the present and the past. The Lady Chapel is the Chapel of the Order of the Bath. It is, accordingly, not only situated at the apex of an abbey which connects us with William the Conqueror, but also a place where Nelson will have participated in his last service on English soil before the battle of Trafalgar and where countless assemblies of those involved in the defence and governance of the realm will have taken place at moments of national exigency.
Somehow, it seems strangely appropriate for such a gathering to be again in such a place and at such a time, bringing together people of differing persuasions and different roles in the functioning of the State – somehow brought into harmony both by the place and by the nature of what we were collectively witnessing.