Dead people

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Background

Towards the end of a party, when there’s nothing decent left to drink and most of the guests have left, a few hardcore revellers might sit down and indulge in a few minutes of quiet reflection. Thoughts on the futility of human existence mingle effortlessly with speculation as to the whereabouts of that final bottle, but it’s all too easy to be drawn into the dark, silent world of the hangover and the looming doom of Monday. Before I got up for my one last dance by having my fiftieth lunch with someone I haven’t yet met, I took myself off to be alone with my memories, to have lunch with all the people I would have loved to include in the fifty – with all the dead people.

I’m sorry if ‘dead people’ jars with you, I could go for ‘passed on’ or ‘gone before’ or any number of variations on the theme of paradise and sleeping, but it isn’t the way I see it. In my mind it’s not relevant that they could be sitting on the right hand of Jesus (how very dodgy that sounds these days). They could be feasting with forty virgins, partying in Valhalla or rotting quietly in a country churchyard. The fact is that they are not here with me. They are dead and so that’s what I shall call them.

This is a tricky one. I’m a relentless optimist and don’t like to focus on the finality of death, the misery of bereavement or the unassailable inevitability of the fate that awaits us all, but the truth is that all of us, without exception, will die.

The Venue

I cycled down to Swansea bay with my favourite picnic lunch of an egg sarnie and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. One good thing about eating with dead people is that there’s no argument about the menu, but other than that, I was struggling to see a positive to this and was pretty much dreading it.

There’s something about beaches that works well with thinking about the infinite. The sky above Swansea Bay is nice and big and the beach when the tide is out is desolate. It’s amazing how something so close to a city can seem so wild but there have been times over the years when I have been running or walking along there that I have felt like the only human for miles around – it’s the perfect location for contemplating the infinite.

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Hard not to see heaven in these skies

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12 September 2015

Swansea Bay beach

The Lunch

Scan_20150924 (3)As expected, as soon as I hit the beach, I thought of my lovely Dad. He was an enormous influence on me and he died far too soon. Only this morning, when looking for something else, I found this photograph. It was taken in 1985, just before I left Wales to go to university. Dad drove me to Cardiff, to Clive Road where the building this foundation stone graced used to stand, and made me take a photo of it. I was off to a new and better life and he was as glad and proud as hell, but he made sure I was never going to forget my roots.

There have been other deaths of course, dozens of them, and I had half expected this lunch to consist of recalling and describing them as I remembered them. A few people came to mind: a dear friend who died last year, my mother and the sister who died when I was three and never got a chance to be any kind of sister to me. However, the main sensation I felt as I sat on that beach surprised me – it was elation that I’m still here. This was a big surprise for me, I thought I was still young enough to take my own existence for granted. Apparently not.

I thought about all the different types of death – the raw, vicious, miserable loss of a much loved friend. The tortuous, irresistible need to wonder about what might have been when someone dies before their time. The nostalgia of an old, familiar death. The miserable guilt of secretly mourning more for a dead pet than a thousand unknown children. Then there are the mundane losses that nevertheless affect us – the end of a favourite TV series, the falling down of a familiar tree, a favourite saucepan wearing out, looking in the mirror and seeing an old woman looking back. It seems to me that my life is all about loss these days, yet even knowing all of this, my chief emotion was delight that it hadn’t caught up with me yet.

I came across the idea of entropy years ago while studying Russian literature. The idea, as described by Yevgenny Zamyatin, is that energy is integral to everything in the universe and that the loss of this energy is inevitable – put simply, we are all dying. I checked with my tame physicist (second year physics student son Tom, lunch #7) to see if there might be a positive side to this, after all, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right? That’s physics isn’t it? Turns out that no, there’s no upside to entropy. One day in the unimaginably distant future, all that remains of our universe will be cold, empty, nothingness.

In the meantime, we have at the very least, this beautiful world and the wonders of what is, hopefully, a long lived and possibly even infinite universe. Bruce Frederick put it far, far better than I ever could and he really did have something to be miserable about – he died at 30 from Multiple Sclerosis. So here’s to him and to all those lovely people who touched my life. Thanks guys.

“To me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe — such a great universe, and so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time. And when I am dead, the matter which composes my body is indestructible—and eternal, so that come what may to my ‘Soul,’ my dust will always be going on, each separate atom of me playing its separate part — I shall still have some sort of a finger in the pie. When I am dead, you can boil me, burn me, drown me, scatter me — but you cannot destroy me: my little atoms would merely deride such heavy vengeance. Death can do no more than kill you.”


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