I feel a little humbled, and oddly relieved

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The Independent Culture
COMMON HUMANITY? Gertcha. We'll have none of that in my column. What you have here, in the rather wonderful shape of my good self, is a terribly, terribly precious life dedicated to the cultivation of all things lovely, shielding oneself from the baser aspects of life - man- made fibres, cheap jam, Oxford Street, package holidays, tired old Judaeo- Christian ethics - and then one doles out the priceless distillate, drop by drop, to the parched groundlings hungering for beauty and insight in their plodding, workaday lives.

That's you, of course. You may not have recognised yourself; you may not believe that your life is plodding and workaday, and thanks to your coarsened sensibilities you may also believe that (a) I am a twat and (b) the trade of writing consists entirely of cultivating the unerring instinct to track down the wrong tree and start barking up it; and in that you may be right, too.

But it's never too late to change. I vaguely recall a short story by W Somerset Maugham which began with the words "I wonder if I can do this..." and went on to tell the tale of a fisherman who was engaged to a beautiful girl, except that he had an accident with his boat and squashed his leg, so he couldn't be a fisherman and she left him. I think what happened then was that he had a limp but made the best of things and married a plain girl who turned out to be loving and good-natured, and they had some children of whom he was very fond. The end. I may have got the details wrong but, whatever they were, they were dull; yet the story itself was compelling. And at the end Mr Maugham said something to the effect that he'd wondered whether he could tell the story of a man who was simply a decent chap living an ordinary life, and make us read it all the way through. And here we were at the end, which meant that he'd pulled it off.

Maybe there's something in this common humanity business after all, though it's a hard nut to swallow whole. You spend your whole life cultivating your difference, your finer sensibilities, your clearer vision, your sharper wit, your way with the ladies, your manly skills, your philosophical insights, all the hard-won apparatus with which you attempt to extricate yourself from the crowd, and something simple and commonplace happens, a death happens, and the apparatus is useless; it all unravels and you're drawn back in. Look:

"My father, 79-year-old ex-miner, dreadful poet, traveller, thinker, rough handyman, died in my house on 13th January. He mended my cat-flap, organised a pick-up of rubbish from our three garages, came out for a pint with me one night before he'd catch the train home to Edinburgh. Told me of his new projects, his business, the photo-shoot for a Scots dialect dictionary he'd been collating. Had a pint of Headcracker and a brandy, came home and regaled my girl with tales of rats in the pit `as big as a dug', roaring and grimacing in mock horror. Watched Father Ted and laughed so hard he nearly did himself a mischief. (And so he did.) Set his alarm, kissed me goodnight, went to bed and died.

"I found him at 7.40am, sitting up, head back, very very cold. I sat with him till 3.30pm, reading the New Testament, calmly, companionably. (He was a Church Elder, but a doubting Thomas, seeker, rough intellectual.) And they lumped him out in a body bag. No sense of him remaining anywhere. When he phoned, he'd never wind up his call, just bark `Aye. So. Ah'll phone next week,' and you'd be talking into space. He died like that. No warning, no ceremony. Just in his life. Then out.

"That's all. I have the story of my father, his life, his own flaws, his desire to do his best. You have your own story. But for both of us, that particular earthly package of opinions, smells, noise, habit, experience and prejudices has just ceased. Vacated. For me, there's a whole bunch of positive blessings just hovering. But when I close my eyes, sometimes I feel giddy with the sense of abandonment."

Janet Guild's father. We don't know each other; she wrote to me here, and now he is alive again on the page and he didn't need me to do it, because he had his daughter to do it for him: from love, not from my proud confectioner's skill. So many of you wrote, strangers extending comfort in the commonwealth of sadness. For a clever twat, a professional smartarse, it's like being brought home by a family to whom one has long affected a lofty superiority. I feel a little humbled and oddly relieved. And, just for once, I can't think of a single clever remark to make. Just: thank you.