Saturday, May 12, 2012

Dying Is An Art 5/12/12

There are many things I was told throughout my childhood that turned out not to be true.

If you swallow chewing gum, it will wrap around your heart and YOU WILL DIE! for one.

If you don’t go to sleep, the Bogey Man will come and get you (subtext: AND YOU WILL DIE!).

If you don’t look right, look left and right again (I think that was the order), as the road expert Tufty tells you, a bus will come along and YOU WILL DIE!

Small wonder I didn’t die of a heart attack caused by fear, long before I reached adulthood.
I am convinced that the reason I, and so many of my friends, never experimented with drugs was because of a very effective poster campaign during our teens. It was, basically: if you take drugs . . . yes, you guessed it . . . YOU WILL DIE!
I was brought up with a fear of dying from a very early age, not helped by a church background that instilled in me a fear of the afterlife – heaven, if you were good; hell, if you were bad. Good meant have to take eternal afternoon tea with all the old fuddy duddies from church, and hell was just being very hot. I didn’t fancy either much.
Then, at Durham Road Junior School in Newport, on the last Friday of every month there was a roll call at the end of assembly, listing the pupils who had met a bad end for not adhering to Tufty’s road safety instructions.
“Steven XX, stepped out from behind a parked vehicle. Dead. Jane XX, ran into oncoming traffic. Two broken legs.”
The headmaster saved up the broken limbs and fatalities as if they were our reward for good behaviour: look what might have happened to YOU, had you not listened to Tufty! Be grateful, give thanks, you are ALIVE!
My secondary school, Brynteg Comprehensive in Bridgend, did not deal with death much better. Musical instruments were allotted to pupils for just one year at a time, and I was in the clarinet queue.
One morning, the headmaster announced in assembly that the lead clarinet player of the orchestra had been killed on his mo-ped on the way into school. There was barely a beat of breath between that announcement and his next sentence: “Would Jacqueline Stephen please go to the music room at break.”
The music teacher handed over the box containing the clarinet as if it were the Crown Jewels. When I opened it, the reed was still damp, evidence that the poor lad had been practising even before he took his fateful journey. I didn’t want the instrument anymore, and every time I put it to my mouth after that day, it was as if all I could taste was the dead boy’s spit.
I’ve been thinking a lot about death this week, as I have many friends who have lost their parents in recent weeks, and I have had my fair share of friends die recently, too. There is a sense that for every one who goes, I am taking another step closer to that final gate, and it doesn’t feel good.
I’ve also been thinking about it because on Monday, the next part of the brilliant series Seven Up hits our screens. I was just a year younger than the participants when this brilliant documentary series first aired in 1964 and I have followed their fortunes and disparate lives every seven years since.
The original experiment was to bring together working class and middle class children and see how they interacted; it was a social experiment – nature versus nurture – and the results were often surprising, and sometimes less so.
As the group moves towards their sixties in 56 Up, there is something desperately poignant about those early years that saw them so full of hope, excitement and joy, and something equally so desperately sad about knowing that they, too, are next up to the gate: arriving, as Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It says, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.

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