BOOKS / Second Thoughts: Never drawing breath: Rosemary Dinnage on the talk that filled The Ruffian on the Stair (Penguin pounds 6.99)

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The Independent Culture
YOU DON'T expect to find a gypsy encampment only a short walk from a Central Line station. But, after 15 minutes of waste grounds, old railway sheds and derelict factories, I found horses, geese, trailers and sheds, all on a seven-acre site that had been Romany land for generations. I found out about Romany funerals, about dressing the body in a new suit with clean handkerchief and pen, about caravans burned afterwards with nothing kept except four hubcaps.

Interviewing people of all sorts about death for The Ruffian on the Stair was never boring and never depressing. Parties can fill me with terror; but talking to the Archdeacon and the medium, the fireman and the anthropologist banished all self-consciousness and was entirely absorbing. The unkind might say I have produced books of interviews because I can't spin 70,000 words out of my head (they would have a point). But also I find - most of the time, anyway - that what others spin out of theirs is so interesting. You ask. They tell you, and tell you. It's all there. And I like the eccentric rhythm of people's speech. Some confusions have to be untangled, some repetitions cut down, but as few as possible.

Of course you don't choose a subject like death without having an emotional vested interest. I learned what it's like to be an orphaned four-year-old in an African village; I learned how it feels to go into the dissection room for the first time, and how an obscure Indian tribal people chats to its ancestors. I half expected that all the conversations would solve, exorcise or sanitise the subject, make me nicely adjusted to it. They didn't. The ruffian's step on the stairs is still awesome.

Something else I learned - and how can one even put this down without sounding patronising? - is that people without sophisticated or long education have every bit as much feeling, imagination, humour and pith as what used to be called their betters. On the whole, their interviews were the best. It came up time after time that the dead have an amazingly long and varied afterlife in the imaginations of the living. We are responsible for them, singlehandedly keeping them alive by memory; we placate them, blame them for their defection, explain things to them and obscurely hope they feel responsible for us too.

What I also realised, looking back afterwards, was that in spite of the disappearance of religion - only a handful of the people I saw had a specific faith - people have a surprising ability to make out of what Edward Blishen, in his interview, called a totally terrifying world: to settle it and keep it in repair and make up their own vague but indispensable structures of belief and ritual. We get by on a kind of personal religion that we are only dimly aware of. Which I suppose is quite a good conclusion to emerge from a book about death.