So begins the first episode of that classic sitcom, Red Dwarf – and it also sums up how I’m feeling at the moment. Everybody’s dead, Dave – aren’t they? They’re dropping like flies at the moment; first Bowie and Lemmy and then Alan Rickman and that composer guy, Peter Maxwell Davies and now Patsy Byrne (Nursie in Blackadder) and – hang on, there was someone else – Cliff Michelmore, was it? (It was, and bloody hell! he was 96!) Basically everyone I grew up with is either dead or dying. And it strikes me that it’s a bit like what happens in your family. In the normal course of things you first experience death when one of your grandparents goes, usually in your teens. That’s what happened to me: my grandma died when I was about fourteen and although my granddad survived her by nearly thirty years he went before either of my parents.
And so it is with famous people: the news comes on and your parents go, ‘Oh! Alvar Liddell’s dead!’ You are vaguely aware of Alvar Liddell, who used to be a newsreader (I always thought his name was Al Varleydell) but it doesn’t really affect you because old Al wasn’t someone you grew up with. He belonged to a different generation. But when the immortal David Bowie dies; when actors and singers and film stars and TV presenters who were fixtures; immovable parts of your own childhood or adolescence – start to pop off; well, that’s a different story. It’s like your parents dying. And it strikes you when your parents die that basically, pal, you’re next. It’s you in the firing-line now; no-one standing between you and death. When the Grim Reaper comes around it’s your turn.
Sorry to be maudlin. I don’t mean to be: but the reality is, we all have to die. So the sooner we accept this as a fact, the better. We’re kind of weird about death nowadays; it’s almost replaced sex as the great taboo, and I’m quite uneasy about it. It’s one thing to have a long and fulfilled life; it’s quite another to have a long, boring and incontinent old age. I’d sooner go when I was in the midst of things.
And because we don’t quite know what to do about death, our funerals are often quite odd. I’ve noticed recently that funeral corteges go much faster than they used to, and that what used to be a sombre affair can now be a colourful celebration of someone’s life. That’s not wholly a bad thing, and yet – I have an uneasy feeling that something is left out. I once went to the funeral of a young man who had committed suicide, where everyone wore bright colours and celebrated his life. It seemed quite startlingly inappropriate to me.
So I’ve brought all these ideas together in a poem, called ‘Funeral.’ It begins:
When no-one can slow down for death
the hearse speeds up a shade
the carriage touching twenty-six
so no-one gets delayed.
Just grave enough for dignity
a gesture to eternity.
The more learned among you may recognise a reference to Emily Dickinson there.