Sunday, December 04, 2005

I May Be Some Time

As I sit here by the attic window watching the snow falling from the black sky, drifting up against the house, threatening to entomb me alive, I am reminded of childhood winters and my weekly excursions in all weathers to fetch the newspaper for Mother at tea-time on Saturdays in order that she might check her coupon to confirm once again that she'd not won a fortune on the football pools, the same as the previous week and, it would transpire with monotonous predictability, the following one. Small-time gambling was perhaps the least of Mother's vices, of which her constitution seemed to be a muddled conglomeration. "Here you are, child," she'd say, handing me a solitary tanner, and off I'd trudge the half-mile to the paper shop wrapped in coat and scarf, hat and gloves against the bitter cold of a proper winter.

Perhaps it's this unusual weather and the nostalgia it evokes, but recently I find my imagination beset almost constantly by morbid premonitions and I have developed as a result a modest determination to go some way towards making amends for a squandered and lowly existence by endeavouring to terminate it in as creditable a fashion as possible when the time comes; that is, with at least a measure of quiet dignity, perhaps even a dash of aplomb, while avoiding any hint of pathos or comedy; for the manner in which one departs this life is a much neglected element of the overall experience and exerts an often underestimated influence upon a person's commemorated character; for who can say with any honesty that he wishes to be remembered as the fool who slipped on a banana skin and was trampled beneath a carthorse? Or fell from his roof while trying to adjust the television aerial? No, a joke death is the last thing you want.

There exists a piece of film, I have no details, but I saw it once, of an airship coming in to land, and about a dozen or so sailors on the ground grab its ropes and attempt to bring it to heel and, presumably, tether it securely to something or other. I don't know an awful lot about airships, but I'm guessing that this operation was more or less standard procedure at that time, whenever it was. Anyway, what happens is that the ship starts to rise again, whether due to an incompetent pilot or a gust of wind, I couldn't say, but it gradually gains height and the sailors are faced with making a quick decision. The smart ones simply let go of the ropes and just stand around watching, but the more foolish among them continue to hold on and are soon too high to let go without serious injury. And as this airship rises higher and higher into the sky, we see the poor chaps plummeting one by one to their deaths, unable to hang on any longer. It's a grim thing to watch, their lives taken so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and, let's be frank, so stupidly from them. A very silly way indeed to go.

It goes without saying that a romantic expiration followed by a huge and lively funeral at around the age of twenty-five is the absolute ideal and should be everyone's natural ambition, for that is roughly the point at which one begins the slow but inexorable decline towards the demented decrepitude that precedes death, and although this degeneration may not be immediately visible or otherwise detectable without the employment of specialised scientific instruments, it is generally accepted to be taking place beneath one's very nose. Examine the career of any great mathematician, athlete or health service manager and you'll find very little that is worthwhile being produced beyond this age.

Heaven knows it's not easy to get it just right, and precious few have managed to be remembered fondly not necessarily for anything they may have achieved in life but rather for only the perfect nobility of their deaths. The example that springs most readily to mind is that of Captain Lawrence "Titus" Oates, who achieved near-sainthood through the selfless sacrifice of his own life in order to give his companions a sporting chance of survival. As it turned out, it was a futile gesture and they all perished anyway but Oates's achievement of combining an heroic death with the coining of one of the all-time great catchphrases should be a salutary lesson to all who aspire to old-fashioned standards of conduct and etiquette.

Clearly, it can be argued that a far more sensible course of action would have been to stay indoors by the fire rather than traipse across the Antarctic on such a pointless and foolhardy mission with an egocentric madman like Scott; but then who would ever have heard his name, let alone still remember it almost a hundred years later? And who among us could reasonably expect our names to be spoken even by our own descendants after such a time?

Dear me, yes, it's really coming down with a vengeance out there now; flakes like tea plates, a swirling, vicious wind and the thermometer showing minus five and falling. Perhaps, unlike Captain Oates, I ought to be sensible and opt to stay in beside the hearth on a night like this. The thing is, I really do need to pop out for some tobacco.