Not with a bang, but a bank holiday

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The Independent Culture
I knew a man who became Death's Accountant. If you'd known him as an undergraduate, like I did, you'd not have thought it. He was a small, dark valley-dweller, Pictish through and through. A bit like a gnome. Used to make gadgets. He made one out of a fountain pen and some components. That's what he told us. "What's in it?" we said. "Components," he said. He pointed it at the windows and everything went dark, if I remember rightly. "It's along the lines of a black hole," he said, smiling. We didn't believe him. We said it was a trick. Men from MI5 turned up at the college gates the next day and we never saw the fountain-pen black-hole gadget again.

When we left university, most of the people I knew either became doctors or, like me, went off and arsed and loafed about until the chickens came home to roost. But the gnome told us he had got a job: Death's Accountant.

That wasn't what he called it. He said he was a lethalogist. Same thing. It worked like this. Suppose you were some filthy murderous scumsucker, the blood-drenched lardbelly whoreson of a promiscuous she-dog, who had enriched himself by creaming off foreign "aid" from damp-eyed liberal sentimentalists, stashed the proceeds in some morally poisonous Swiss bank run by tight-lipped greedy premature ejaculators, bought your entry visa and your villa on the Cote d'Azur, and reduced your country to a smoking insanitary ruin ... Suppose, in short, you were a fairly typical Third World dictator, trembling in your Savile Row bags at the thought of your countrymen rising up and tearing your throat out; why, then you consulted the gnome's employers.

You told them how much money you could spare, and how many people you wanted to burn, smash, maim, gas or pulverise; and they, in their turn, added up the figures and came up with the answer: 300 of these, a kiloton of that, two febrile Petri-dishes of the other. All utterly ethical, of course, because, as we all know it's not the arms dealers who cause the trouble; it's the people who buy the arms. Everyone knows that. Even the British Government, unable to tell its arse from its elbow in almost every other respect, knows that there's no harm in selling land-mines, guns, bombs, jets and torture instruments. Immoral? No; immoral is a skinny, obscure, 46-year-old MP seizing what may be his last chance of good, vigorous, meaningless sex with a tarty little teenager. Sex is bad; arms-dealing is business, and call me a silly fond old fool, but I know which I'd prefer, given the choice between Piers Merchant and death merchants.

Yet there was the gnome, the lethalogist, the fatalogy expert, Death's Accountant; and a less likely candidate for the job you couldn't imagine. It was, I believe, a matter of arithmetic to him. He no more connected his numerological manipulations to spilt blood and maimed children than a chartered accountant sees, behind the figures pointing inexorably to bankruptcy, the ashen faces, the night sweats, the weeping and the diarrhoea. This book- keeping is the curse of our age, and how ironic that balanced books should lead to such unbalanced times.

Around the time that the gnome got his job, some insane Americans were floating the notion of the "clean" bomb, which would destroy all life in a tornado of neutrons but leave buildings and machinery undamaged. It was an insane idea, rightly pilloried as the filthiest of capitalist weapons in its exalting of property above life, and at the time I assumed it must have been the product of minds like Death's Accountant: decent, unimaginative, intelligent men who could make figures dance and bend equations to their cool, detached will.

But that was before the Easter bank holiday. On Bank Holiday Monday I had to go down to Broadcasting House early in the morning to tell you chaps at home about the new Channel 5. Normally I would have been brooding about what to say, but since I hadn't been able to receive Channel 5 on my TV set, I had nothing whatever to say and therefore no reason to brood. Instead, I gawped aimlessly out of the taxi window at a London so clean and silent and empty in the spring sunshine that it might have been a model of itself, newly dusted to be shown off by the architect.

Nobody moved. The shopfronts were blank. People made invisible sleepy love behind drawn curtains. Cars stood immobile at the kerbside as if they would never move again. This (I thought) is what London would be like after the neutron bomb; cool, poised, effulgent, untroubled by sweating, striving, fecund, noisy humanity. I loved the idea; I wanted it to come true, this near-solitude to be indefinitely prolonged. I wanted to be the last man on earth, a fantasy which I maintained once I arrived at Broadcasting House and got behind the microphone. Here I was, the sole survivor of catastrophe, broadcasting to a desolated planet.

Except the planet wasn't remotely desola-ted, and listeners began ringing up to disrupt my fantasy. The presenter was very nice but couldn't save me from their opprobrium; one said I had got out of bed the wrong side and should have stayed at home; another said I was a waste of space. I was advised both to cut my throat and move to Wimbledon, and it was no good explaining that the world had been devastated and there was only me left because they wouldn't have understood.

Which is, I suppose, the trouble with all such fantasies of joyful solipsism. The neutron bomb men, the arms dealers, the lethalogists: all of them must assume that, no matter how great the destruction they enable, they themselves will still be there to enjoy the quiet aftermath of a world grown young again. They're wrong. Bank Holiday Monday is a sort of memento mori for all of us; a reminder that we inhabit the planet under sufferance. On Tuesday, everyone flooded back again, noise, leisurewear, hamburgers and all. And you know what? I was glad to see them. !

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