My cousin David has died. First of all, I want to tell you what a lovely man he was: brimming with interest in people and things, always kindly and gently good-humoured. And now, of course, I need to read something. What will help?
At my father’s funeral (sorry, going to funerals seems to have become my specialist subject over the last few years), I read John Donne’s magnificent, defiant sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’. Talk about marching out all colours flying: it’s a poem that exactly hits the spot when you are damned if you going to let a little thing like death vanquish someone’s spirit. At my mother’s, I chose Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’. The occasion felt like the reunion of my parents and that spare, quite ambivalent but ultimately affirmative poem could have been written for them. Larkin is one of the great examples of the person you wouldn’t like who writes work that you do. He seems to have been an unkind, verbally brutal misanthrope. This is no doubt very unfair of me because I never met him and he may have been a poppet to his inner circle – but I don’t get the impression he went in for circles. Or any shape other than the solitary unit. And yet he wrote ‘What will remain of us is love’: one of only two contenders for the accolade, line-of-poetry-I-would-consider-having-tatooed-on-me (admittedly, would only consider for two seconds before moving on). The other, should you be interested, is Auden’s ‘We must love one another or die’. You must admit, I’m going to make a classy corpse.
There are readings to avoid. Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ seems – well, a bit late, really, by the time you reach the funeral. Better, surely, to address death itself, or those of us left behind, than the now-indifferent body. And I have a horror of the maudlin, which rules out quite a lot (though I do appreciate that, if maudlin were to be your thing, a funeral is not a bad place to unleash it). There is a case to be made for Edward Thomas’s ‘Lights Out’: ‘I have come to the borders of sleep,/ The unfathomable deep/ Forest where all must lose/Their way’. But then, there is always a case to be made for reading Edward Thomas (yes, we’d better talk about him quite soon).
I can see that all my choices seem to be poetry. Well, it’s the right stuff for the moment, don’t you think? Stripped down to an essence, saying what needs to be said with a quiet precision. It gives you permission to use metaphor and allusion to say things that would be too bald if plonked down as prose. And I can see, too, that I am only talking about the sad and regretted death of generations above one’s own. I bow to no man in my conviction that reading conquers all, but even I am not sure that anything can offer even a shred of comfort on the death of a child. If I have to, I would go to Ben Jonson and ‘On My First Son’. But even that wouldn’t help.
But what to read later, on my own? Any death in the family involves a gathering of the tribe, and any gathering of my particular tribe cannot fail to send me back to the models for all families – Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals – and for all family gatherings – the sublime Cold Comfort Farm. Dearest cousins-who-are-readers (and I know some of you are), this is praise indeed and a tribute to how gorgeous you all are. Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate offer acute observations of a range of relatives. There’s death and tragedy there too, wrapped into the comedy – a bit like life really and perhaps this is quite a good time to reflect on that.
So now, some solace please. Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Frightened Of is a good start: wise and brave as you would expect of him. Antoine St Exupery’s Le Petit Prince/ The Little Prince will not do because it makes me cry and I’m not going to. If ‘much-loved book from childhood’ is the category I’m searching for comfort, I might be better off with ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (chapter 7) from The Wind in the Willows. Children’s books are a perhaps surprisingly rich source of facing up to death. We liked Posy Simmond’s Fred, about the funeral wake for a family cat (trust me, a lot warmer and funnier than I’ve made it sound). And come to think of it, cats seem to be the go-to animal for lessons on dying: the incomparable Judith Kerr tackled the subject with gentle authority in Goodbye Mog. I still remember Jenni Murray’s tear-stained tones on Woman’s Hour when she said to Mrs Kerr, ‘but Mog dies’, and the sweetly firm response, ‘Well, Jenni, everybody does.’
Otherwise, there might be something to be said for trivialising the subject of death. Let’s not empathise: instead, let’s have bodies, heaps of them, festoons of them. The comfort-criminals then: Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham (but not The Tiger in the Smoke, which belongs to quite a different category, that of ‘too scary ever to be read again’). Or we could be cheered up by Terry Pratchett’s Death – no, let me rephrase that, by the character of Death who is a glory of the Discworld novels written by Terry Pratchett. Death speaks, if that is the word we are looking for here, in small capitals and without inverted commas. And he tells us not to think of it as dying, but as LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH. Which is a tiny bit comforting. See you later, David.