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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Songs in the Key of My Life: 4

Absent Friends, The Divine Comedy (2004)

Over the years I’ve seen singer songwriter Neil Hannon AKA The Divine Comedy in concert several times. On the most recent occasion - at the Usher Hall in April last year - I would have been very happy if all that he had played that evening was Absent Friends, the opening track from his 2004 album of the same name. As it was, he opened with that number and, since the concert was longer than one song, I hung around to hear a few other favourites including The Certainty of Chance and To the Rescue.

Hannon is a master of melody, his lyrics shot through with wit and wistfulness. Absent Friends has a typically punchy tune and yet the subject matter - the coming to terms with the death of those that we love - is as tough as they come. But he pulls it off, rattling through three-line biographies of American actors Jean Seberg and Steve McQueen, army Chaplain and WWI hero Woodbine Willie (check him out), Oscar Wilde and Laika, the first dog to orbit the Earth.

At the time of the Usher Hall concert my only reason for wanting to hear the song was because of my love of it. Now, it has particular resonance.

In June 2004 I was driving from my home in West Linton to visit my friend Roland who was then living on the island of Raasay. This was prior to streaming music, or certainly prior to streaming music in my battered old Landrover. Instead, to while away the 6 hour journey, I’d grabbed a handful of CDs, among them Absent Friends by The Divine Comedy. Not that it matters, but I can even remember when I first listened to it that day: just coming out of Dalwhinnie, motoring through Laggan Forrest heading towards Spean Bridge.

Theoretically it was a work trip but I could just as easily have prepared the accounts of Roland’s company and done his tax return from my desk in West Linton. It was an excuse, an excuse that was repeated annually to catch up, walk to the deserted village of Hallaig (and hear Roland recite the great Sorley MacLean poem), have a couple of pints in the old Borodale House and, on one occasion, join in a ceilidh at Raasay House. Happy days.

After a very short illness Roland died two months ago. My age, no age. A huge loss to his family, greatly missed by everyone who knew him and whose lives were touched by him.

Traditionally Christmas is a time for celebration, a time for coming together. No better reason for raising a glass to absent friends.

Absent friends, here's to them

And happy days

We thought that they would never end

Raise your glasses then to absent friends

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