During the past couple of weeks, for no particular reason, I’ve found myself relating to a number of different people – independently – the experience that Longsufferinggirlfriendoftheblogeth and I had at Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief’s death cafe not long after we moved to Edinburgh.
After that, quite independently, death was spattered all over Radio 4. Beth will tell you that I’ve become a bit of a Radio 4 junkie since we moved to Scotland, so it’s not surprising that I stumbled across Helen Keen discussing death and transhumanism in her new sort-of comedy show, Big Problems. Then, after what seemed like a particularly death-y week for well known Brits, Friday’s Last Word had to cram in Christopher Lee, Marguerite Patten, Major ‘Roy’ Homard, German-born James Last, and Ron Moody.
Perhaps the best bit of having uncurtailed access to Radio 4 in the right time zone has been getting to hear Eddie Mair host the early evening news and current affairs show, PM. When I lived in Scotland as a kid, Eddie at different times hosted Radio Scotland’s flagship Good Morning Scotland, and its drive-time show, and co-anchored the TV evening news programme Reporting Scotland. Eddie’s always had, primarily, an affinity for radio. In PM seems to have found the perfect showcase for his quick intelligence and mastery of his brief, leavened by an irreverent, zoo humour.
This is demonstrated not least in his interactions with BBC economics editor Robert Peston, for example in the feature Peston’s Questions. Now they have a new show, the brilliantly titled Robert Peston Interview Show (with Eddie Mair).
Don’t worry, death is coming [for us all].
Each week on The RPIS(wEM), the hosts take it in turns to select an interviewee. The non-selecting host doesn’t know who is coming on, and the idea, I think, is to get the benefits of a well-briefed, enthusiastic interviewer, together with one who will have to be a little bit more off the cuff.
Peston’s first choice was Julian Barnes, who he picked because Peston’s wife (the writer Siân Busby) died after a five year battle with lung cancer at 51, in 2012. A year later, Barnes’s release his collection Levels of Life, which included an essay about his grief over the death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, in 2008. Peston discussed in his introduction to the show “how bad the British [and particularly British men] … are about talking to people [about death], the big loves of whose life’s have passed.”
It struck me, listening to the first episode of The RPIS(wEM) that, even after a good experience with Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief, how very easyit is to fall back into a life in which death is shunted into the background. Barnes, an atheist, has a theory as to why that might be.
We’ve lost religion, so we’ve lost the basic social forms around death and grief. We’ve passed it in to the professionals. The process of dealing with death has changed, and therefore, so has our approach.
So it’s particularly interesting to listen to this show outwith an absolutely immediate spectre of death, and listen to these three erudite and intelligent men discuss discuss it having passed through a “rare, unusual, and unenviable state of madness.” With that, I’ll pass on a few snippets, and bid you adieu until next week.
- The young are better [with the bereaved] than the old, because they pick up signals better…. If you’re a man, men of your own age are probably the least useful – Barnes
- What do you want? You don’t know, but it’s a clear and loving remembrance of your partner. New, yet typical stories. People to talk about your partner with. Photographs you don’t have, little films. Cooking food and bringing it round. What is not useful is saying, “I’ll do anything you want, just pick up the phone.” – Peston
- It doesn’t go away, and why would you want it to? It’s a mirror image of love – Barnes
- Between years 5 and 6, it gets better – Barnes
- Every morning, even now, I wake up and talk with his wife, who tells me everything is going to be fine…. The memories of earlier times does come back. Your memory stops being binocular, and becomes monocular…. I thought I’d lose her voice in my head, but that came back – Barnes
- EM: Did you think about a method [of suicide]? What stopped you?
JB: Realising I was the principal retainer of her memory. If I wanted her to live on in some form, I would have to live on in myself.
- I had two principles of survival – I should live as she wpuld have wanted me to, and I must try to make myself self-sufficient – Barnes
- Thoughts crowd in, and you lose the ability to control them. I relived the last 24 hours endlessly – Peston
- I’m very glad, in all seriousness, that Robert chose you. What a great way to start the show – Mair