Notes from the departure lounge
Robert McCrum’s Every Third Thought asks: how, when, and where are we going after death?
Robert McCrum: Compassionate guide (©PICADOR)
Death is a taboo. For those born in the Second World War, if you lived longer than 70 you were considered to be old, to be in death’s waiting room. Now many live on into their nineties. Jeremy Hutchinson, the great barrister, hero of the Lady Chatterley trial, was 102 when he died recently.
Medical science is beginning to defeat many cancers. As a consequence we choose not to talk about death. Robert McCrum’s new book dares to do so. (The title is from Prospero’s speech in The Tempest). He is a distinguished literary editor of the Observer, and former editor-in-chief of Faber & Faber. His last book, My Year Off, chronicled his recovery from a major stroke and considered the Ars Vivendi (the art of living well). This book turns to the Ars Moriendi (the art of dying).
Our quotidian fears are now dementia and Alzheimer’s. With Lear we cry “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!” Death is, in Auden’s words, “the rumble of distant thunder at a picnic”. McCrum is a wise and compassionate guide through this territory. He asks, “How, When and Where am I going?”
Alice B. Toklas asked Gertrude Stein, as Stein was dying, “What is the answer?” Stein’s gnomic reply was, “What is the question?” McCrum looks death in the face, with a level stare, quoting Montaigne: “Let us disarm Death of his novelty and strangeness.” Indeed he finds optimism.
With Dr Henry Marsh, he believes that “as I get older, I derive a certain spiritual consolation from this ‘profound mystery’”, as he calls consciousness. He agrees with his friend Carol that “being unwell teaches you to value things . . . I’ve had moments of great joy. I feel fortunate.” Like Robert Bellarmine, an Italian Jesuit contemporary of Shakespeare, he believes that “he who lives well, dies well.”
He is not alone in hoping for a death free of pain, surrounded by his family, but like David Hume, an atheist, he doesn’t believe in an afterlife. When Hume was asked on his deathbed to renounce the Devil, he declined to do so, declaring: “Now is not the time to be making new enemies.”
McCrum considers the many contemporaries and friends who died while he was writing this book — Lisa Jardine, Alan Rickman, Zaha Hadid, Anita Brookner and Geoffrey Hill, as well as Clive James, who has predicted his death year after year. James, like Charles II, has been “an unconscionable time to die”. While doing so he has written a book, Sentenced To Life, and some of his very best poetry, such as “Japanese Maple”. In the process he has fallen in love again with his wife, after a period of unfaithfulness.
McCrum writes movingly about the death of his parents. Like him I was fortunate to be holding the hand of both my parents when they died, for which I will always be grateful.
He considers whether we should have the right to choose. Like his friend, the writer Salley Vickers, he explores assisted dying. It’s an odd right, she argues, because “we don’t have the right to be born. So maybe we don’t have the right to die.”
This is a remarkable and moving book that everyone who is thinking about dying should read.