The Grave and the Constant

A friend of mine plays a game with work mates called ‘Death Race’ – a sweepstake on which one places bets on which prominent public figures will die in 2009. Predictions are made at the start of the year, money is put in and the first name to come up wins the jackpot. You can pick anyone under seventy-five.

There have been quite a few celebrity deaths recently with Pinter, John Mortimer and Mick Imlah checking out. (Just those betting on Imlah would get a payout, as at fifty-two only he met the age criterion.) It’s perhaps this that has made me think a lot about my grandfather’s death four years ago.

He was eighty-three years old and he died of a stroke in the summer of ’05. A stroke is essentially a blood clot in the brain. My grandfather had two of these, occurring simultaneously and very close to each other. My mum found him lying unconscious on the floor of the house at the end of the winding country lane where he had lived for decades.

Lots of people recover from strokes but my grandad was more or less finished. He hung on for a couple of weeks in a specialist ward but he couldn’t talk, dress or feed himself and had no feeling on the left side of his body. We went to see him several times and you rarely got a sense that he could understand what you were saying, much less respond. Finally: the 2am wakeup. He was gone.

George Orwell wrote somewhere – fucked if I can remember where, because it’s in his early Tribune stuff and I don’t have the volumes to hand – that it is better to be killed abruptly, in a war, than to die slowly in a hospital surrounded by other rotting strangers. The natural death, Orwell said, is overrated. He wrote this when he was recovering from illness on a ward in France and I thought of his piece when my grandfather passed away. Medicine has advanced significantly since Orwell’s time, yet the process and settings of death remain more or less identical.

This was a man who had commanded a tank in the second world war and had actually been part of the force that liberated Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. He had a career and had held public office. He had travelled the world, first with the army and then with his wife of around fifty years. He was a big, booming, generous man with a powerful mind and a formidable presence and a great deal of war stories – there’s one particularly bizarre anecdote I remember where he’s drinking from a crate of whisky on a raft in Venice – and I have a great deal of time for him, far more than I did when he was alive.

Like all of my family except me, he loved classical music and just after his death I read a letter he’d sent to my grandmother, when he was stationed in Amsterdam in the 1940s (a city myself and my old man would also come to love). He’d gone to see the Halle orchestra that night and raved about the quality of the music. Soon after reading this letter, I found my mother crying over a copy of the Halle house journal. She had sent his letter in and they had published it over a double page.

If my grandfather had a regret it was that he couldn’t go to university, because his own father wouldn’t let him. I know this because he told me so, one Christmas when we’d been drinking – isn’t it amazing how you never let go of these old wounds? Still, he made up for the loss by becoming a voracious reader and autodidact, and by ensuring that his children had the opportunities he was denied.

It strikes me that, however you go – hit by a bus, head blown off in Afghanistan, falling out of a high-rise window – there are so many deaths that are preferable to the natural death of old age experienced by my grandad and so many others. It’s only when someone close to you dies that terms like euthanasia change from liberal buzzwords into something close and vital.

After all, as John Mortimer said: ‘There is no pleasure worth foregoing just for an extra three years in the geriatric ward.’


‘There’s no justice. There’s just me.’


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