An elderly couple visited my flat today. The estate agent told them about the local amenities, the opportunities for development, the parties the local residents’ association holds in the square every month. The old man looked out of the window onto the back garden, and as he did so a blanket of sunlight burst through the grey clouds. He turned back to me and smiled. He looked at the cricket bat with which I was toying.
I’ve lived here for six years. I want them to have the place. It’ll be their last home. But first the negotiations. When there’s a death in the family, agony and sadness are quickly supplanted by a mound of bureaucracy and organisation – jobs that have to be done but which it feels society’s put there as a distracting buttress. The rotting flesh is quickly buried under paperwork. This has been a happy home. Now it’ll be a place in which this sweet old pair can see out their lives together. Rather that than the woman who thinks she can make a bomb on the rental market. No, it’s theirs. But these things still have to be done properly.
Strange, the reaction to death. Today, left and right are fighting out their nasty little squabble over Maggie on my Twitter feed. It’s been going for days now.
Instead, I read this, from the Onion, over and over again:
CHICAGO—Calling the overall human experience “poignant,” “thought-provoking,” and a “complete tour de force,” film critic Roger Ebert praised existence Thursday as “an audacious and thrilling triumph.” “While not without its flaws, life, from birth to death, is a masterwork, and an uplifting journey that both touches the heart and challenges the mind,” said Ebert, adding that while the totality of all humankind is sometimes “a mess in places,” it strives to be a magnum opus and, according to Ebert, largely succeeds at this goal. “At times brutally sad, yet surprisingly funny, and always completely honest, I wholeheartedly recommend existence. If you haven’t experienced it yet, then what are you waiting for? It is not to be missed.” Ebert later said that while human existence’s running time was “a little on the long side,” it could have gone on much, much longer and he would have been perfectly happy.
A very different death. A death you can look on with tenderness. In part, because of how people see his life. In part, because of the way he saw it himself. “We are put on this planet only once, and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds,” he once wrote. How those words force a rueful smile when I look at the Thatcher battlelines.
And before that, more battlelines: strivers and shirkers. It’s always over accuracy of the claims made about either side: but isn’t it somewhat appalling, this axiomatic insistence that merely to be a productive worker/consumer is something for which we should strive? That this must be what our time is for?
Dunbar’s timor mortis came to me when I was young. Fourteen years old, I think, and reading Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. The novel’s central character suddenly disappears, in a sentence, in brackets. From then on, he’s defined by his absence. And suddenly it hit me that I too must one day vanish: the anaesthetic from which none come round. Then I fucked a girl for the first time, and, being a middle class teenage kid, became convinced I must have contracted AIDS. The Sword of Damocles hung over my head for a year. I contracted glandular fever, and lay in bed for a week, shaking and terrified. I nearly wept in the GPs room when he confirmed what it was.
And then one day, the terror subsided. Suddenly consciousness of mortality became empowering. “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy…” The challenge, actually, is not to ignore the implications of mortality, but to remember them.
So it goes.