A Word in Passing

There are two places in my world where I would wish to be.

The first is a seashore, a mile of firm wet sand beneath my feet, a spray-loaded westerly gale in my face, and white-caps marching in military file upon the rocks. To stand before the might of nature and feel her snatching at my toes: to be for an instant at one with the primal power that speaks to us all, had we the ears to listen, these are the sights and sounds and sense of glory for me.

The second place within my heart is a quiet wood, among placid deciduous trees where tiny sunshine sprays of summer heat slip in between the leaves and birds provide quiet music to a percussion of breeze-stirred leaf and twig. A different perfection this, to sit upon some ancient bench beside a tripping forest stream, watching time drift past me into nothingness.

In either place, alone – for at the last Nature is our one true friend – I would gladly meet my fate. If I could my quietus make from earth to oblivion with such an image imprinted in my soul I would pass through the gate without fear.

When I watch the brief lives of our smaller cohabitants on this planet pass before me, expired in little more than a season, or a year, or ten, I reflect that the one true advantage we have gained over them all is comfort. Churchmen may sanctify life, politicians may play with it, but we normal mortals gain only by having food on our table, a place away from the snow, and the ability to express and resolve pain: and yes, it is right that we should bestow those gifts upon our brother species, and it is charitable to do so, where we have the means, so even when we feel the need to satisfy our carnivorous appetites we afford some dignity to the hordes we kill. If we count ourselves as ‘civilized’ we try to make death quick and painless, for every species but our own.

Somehow we have allowed ourselves to be persuaded by an argument that human life is different to that of the other animals that are forced to co-exist with us; that we are made ‘in the image of God’ and therefore a special case. We have taken the simple truth of death as an ending and made a science of an improbable land beyond it; and from that science derived a plethora of reasons why we should delay and protract our own death in a way that, if we observed it practiced upon an animal, we would denounce as gross cruelty.

I have my views about religion. It has been responsible for the genocide of millions yet we still espouse it in one or other of its forms, whilst I regard it as the greatest perversion of thought to be visited on mankind. Our greatest gift, on the other hand, is not a theoretical, but a real victory over death. We can end life, terminate it without pain. We should feel free to reject the sorrowful protestations of the former and joyfully sanction the latter.

If I wish it, and of course only if I freely wish it, I should be allowed my final hour without pain, dreaming of that seashore, or resting in that wood. Rejecting all peripheral arguments about family pressures and financial complications I should retain that essential right. By simply gaining agreement that medicine is primarily about mercy, at a stroke I would save treatments and bed-space needed for those with hope, rather than wasting them upon my losing battle. The timing would be mine. I would give my relatives peace, and leave my life as I have lived it.

I believe that, given a vote, an overwhelming majority would agree with me, and at last even the great and the good seem to be coming round to acceptance. After all, we take willingly all the other benefits medicine can give us – why not bestow the freedom upon us to use this last one?

From a Mother on Behalf of Her Children

I have few complaints.

My home is warm and comfortable, I want for very little.  My children are well fed, intelligent, and making their own way in life.  I like to think I raised them well.   I have taught them to contribute.

We are shy and retiring as a family, and not very sociable I’m afraid.  Because I’m not very good at those things that pass as wit, the barbed conversations, the veiled innuendo, and I’m liable to bite back when attacked in such fashion, I tend to stay away.  You probably don’t even know I exist, though we live less than a stone’s throw from one another.  I am your neighbour.

I don’t want you to think I am lonely – far from it.  Life has to be challenged, and I am always busy.  In fact, I am far more concerned about you.

You seem to have prepared a particularly untenable hell for yourself:  your constant bickering over your selfish wants and needs makes it well-nigh impossible for you to live with each other.  You seem to be on an unceasing quest for more of everything, and blame everyone but yourselves when you fail to obtain it.

Your fire and brimstone pollutes the air, your rape of the land for food scarifies the soil, your children are allowed to run riot without any meaningful discipline.  Of recent years I’ve watched you turn more and more to alcohol and drugs for solace, and I’ve seen the lines of despair etched deep into your flesh.  You move with downcast eyes now, scarcely daring to look at one another for fear the deep anger you feel should erupt.

Each year your car gets a little better, your road a little worse.  You spoil for richer and richer cuisine while the meaner creatures of the world suffer for your excess.  Bound by rings of useless blubber, you waddle through your existence, persuading yourself you are happy.   Perhaps you should consider that.   Perhaps you should wonder if a world without you might be a better place.

I have.

The world has.

But there, the world need not be concerned.  As soon as she has shrugged you off, my family are ready – we are clever and we are righteous, no matter how low we stand in your regard.  And we are next.  We  shall inherit!

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From a Bedside Table Long Ago

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I want to share this picture with you.

I know it doesn’t inspire.  A dog-eared, thumbed-to-bits volume with its spine all but destroyed, its covers stained with use.  In resale terms it would be lucky to get a bid at an auction, or even a second glance.

Kipling’s ‘Animal Stories’ sits among the other volumes on my bookshelf.  In a day I might pass it by many times, reluctant, almost, to disturb it in its age; because once it was never given time to rest – never closed, never far from my pillow.  It taught me to read when, at maybe three or four years old I learned the first magic: it sang me to sleep when my mother read from it, it showed me pictures of other lands, other worlds for my imagination to ride upon. 

Through his pen, the writer taught me love and respect for the wild creatures around me.  He gave nobility to the elephant, cunning to the tiger, valour to the mongoose, loyalty to the wolf.  Those  creatures are as real to me now as the first evening when ‘The White Seal’ swam into my mind, or when Rikki-Tikki-Tavi first faced a cobra on the veranda of my dreams.  The simple morality they taught has lasted with me.

Upon the flyleaf of this tattered book there is a pencilled note.  It says, simply:  ‘To Joan, from Uncle,  Xmas 1935’.  Joan was my mother.

So there it sits amidst the company of its fellow volumes – some as old, some much younger than itself, evoking memories of someone passed who must, in her time, have valued it as much as I.  And it has travelled with me through my life as once it guided her through hers; and when my life closes?  Who knows what then?

The tablet of my current ‘reads’ glimmers back at me:  ‘Dombey and Son’, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.  The pages are easily wiped across the screen, the words are any size I want, my vast library of titles has no need of shelves.  This is progress.   But they will last, these current thousand, for how long?  Their flyleaves bear no treasured mark, there is no familiar paper smell and when my tablet has run its course a year or so hence they will leave as swiftly as they came.

When we lament the passing of the printed word, you see, I believe we make a basic error – a mistake.  We revile the computer for stabbing our paper fantasies in the back when really the paper fantasies themselves sealed their doom.  The blame truly lies with the throw-away, the paperback.

In pushing up the hardback price beyond the common reader’s means publishers let paperbacks in, but more than that, they changed the role of the book in the home, in a reader’s life.  Few unbound books will survive as ‘Animal Stories’ has, or support such enticing insights into family history.   Few will live on bookshelves or decorate our homes because they simply do not look nice; they will circulate a few times, in charity shops or care homes maybe, then be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The writer’s art has become as impermanent as the actor’s.  So if you are riffling through the titles of today seeking the classics of tomorrow seek no more.  The onward march of software will leave each one behind.  There will be no survivors.