When a certain writer was younger and in his salad days, he entertained a fanciful notion that to die at 29 would be a good thing. Not that 29 held any arcane significance or numerological valence. But being brought up on a steady diet of Donne, Hemingway, and D.H. Lawrence tends to have mind-bending effects on psyches predisposed to tough-minded ‘romance’. Heady stuff this.
And there is also the fact that curiously attractive antiheroes had snuffed it at the 30-minus-one mark. This was in the dark ages before anyone had heard of Amy Winehouse and the “27 Club” – whose ranks include musicians Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Brian Jones; to say nothing of poet Rupert Brooke, two popes, and Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth.
But we are talking about the “29-ers”. The picaresque Christopher Marlowe had a dagger introduced none too gently into his cerebral cortex during a pub brawl in Deptford, at the depth of the era of Elizabethan espionage, Kit being a Protestant copper posing as a Catholic plotter or vice versa. Alone and palely loitering, John Keats was unfortunate enough to have tuberculosis compel him to shuffle off his mortal coil at the tender age of 26 (when you’re 23 and gagging for it, death at 29 blurs the boundaries of a picayune three years). Percy Bysshe Shelley completes the trio of creative types who booked a one-way ticket to that country from whose bourne no traveller ever returns.
If you’re wondering why we are so maudlin this bright and beautiful morning when all creatures great and small are enjoying a wise and wonderful God’s blessed creation of the sabbath, it’s because I had a call early in the morning mid-week. It was to say (you guessed it) that someone had died. The gravamen of that rude awakening was threefold. I would have to cancel my plans for life on a Friday afternoon, attend the funeral and condole with folks whom I hardly know, and worst of all solicit the help of a venerable clergyman in sorting out some grave issues (pardon the pun, dears, the paronomasiac in me dies hard).
These realities brought on some much needed realisations. Firstly, that as the Book of Common Prayer says: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” Secondly, that life – or death, as the case may be – is what happens to others when we are making other plans. Striking home the truth that our deaths, too, will one day be what happen to us when others are making plans for life. Ergo, the need for empathy with the living and sympathy for the survivors. Thirdly, and closely related to the point above, is the imperative of living every day as if it is your last (and then the Judgment). Loving the quick, because the dead have no use for our crocodile tears and sycophantic platitudes. Leading a life now as if we have read our own obituary, eulogy, afterword in advance. Alfred Nobel – the inventor of dynamite – did just that… and his repentant legacy is the eponymous prize for which he is better known today.
In the final analysis, it was I – not the dead man in Deptford nor his relicts – who learned the most valuable lesson. My salad days when I was green in judgment and cold in blood had seen me adopt a violent disapprobation of sanctimonious clerics. Now, to help a relative smooth his kinsman’s last great journey to a burial, I had been called upon to be instrumental in the matter by making amends with an erstwhile enemy in order to lean on his succour. For there is a bitter pill to be swallowed before one can ask a longstanding antagonist for assistance – not for oneself, but in another’s cause. To cut a long story short, as Jeffrey Archer would say, all’s well that ends well because a pastor with the heart of a good shepherd stepped into the breach to smooth the dead man’s path to the great hereafter.
However, your favourite Sunday columnist is now a suitably chastened individual. Where once he declaimed with Woody Allen that death is nothing to be afraid of (“it’s just that I don’t want to be there when it happens”), life holds greater awe for me now. No more 29. Or 92. Or any other age. We are not on a voyage from birth to death, with the destination fixed and always far off in our minds from wherever we may be along our lifeline. At any given moment we could cross the threshold from being into eternity. And it would be good to stop along the way and say a prayer for the dying as I did in the cemetery on Friday.