Tom Sutcliffe: A dead honest approach to passing away

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Jonathan Holmes' play Katrina – at the Bargehouse near Oxo Tower Wharf on London's South Bank – ends with a funeral ceremony, a New Orleans send-off for Virgil, whose dead body has been floated across the flooded city by his devoted partner Beatrice. The black preacher who delivers the eulogy doesn't use his own words but borrows some from a distinguished predecessor, a former dean of St Paul's who also knew a bit about vocal delivery.

He rips into an extract from "Meditation 17" in Donne's Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, the one about "no man being an island", a text which has some pertinence to the play, which is about small acts of selflessness after the hurricane struck. "Any man's death diminishes me," the pastor chants, "because I am involved in mankind." And his congregation shouts their approval in classic Bible Belt style.

Not Gyles Brandreth, it seems, who, with a bracing candour, has admitted to taking a "quiet (and curiously guiltless) delight in the deaths of my friends". This confession, it should be said, didn't come out of the blue. He'd been asked, along with other celebrities, to contribute to a fund-raising anthology called Modern Delight. While others restricted themselves to the comparatively uncontroversial pleasures of Killer Sudoku (Wendy Cope), Frogspawn (Jeremy Paxman) or Stevie Wonder on Harmonica (Bill Nighy), Brandreth quoted Oscar Wilde ("There is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits") and said that spotting a near-contemporary in the obituaries column would always start his day with a bounce.

He wasn't completely reckless in his confession. He takes no pleasure in the death of those younger than him, he said, or soldiers in action. Or of the poor, or victims of natural disaster. But people roughly his age or older delivered the pleasing jolt – particularly, he seemed to imply, if they had a distinction he didn't. "If a clod be washed away by the sea," Donne wrote, "Europe is the less." Brandreth would presumably rephrase this famous line: "If a clod be washed away by the sea," he seems to suggest, "Europe is the same size and there's a bit more room for me." It isn't a noble sentiment, exactly, or a dignified one – but I'm willing to bet it's much more widely shared than most people would admit.

I don't mean by this that we're more callous than we pretend or that human empathy is a sham. Only that inside the grief or the sorrow there's quite often a little pulse of relief – or jubilation – that it wasn't us this time. And the deaths of others have a way of putting the failures in your own life into perspective. Even I'm a better dancer than Michael Jackson now, which isn't much of a boast, but underlines the advantage that being alive gives you over the dead.

In his sermon, Donne reassures his listeners that there's nothing unseemly in grieving for a stranger. "Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house," he writes. But the truth is that the human animal is engineered to seek out pleasure, not pain – and it will often find it in the teeth of our higher instincts.

The New Orleans funeral in Katrina begins, in traditional style, with a melancholy slow step and then, after the service, breaks into a euphoric chorale. The logic of this is that the mourners are celebrating the end of the dead person's tribulations and their passage to a better place. But they're really exuberant because they're still around to have tribulations. Similarly, funerals can be wrenchingly sad, but the receptions that follow them can be alive with an almost hysterical conviviality. What is odd about Brandreth is not that he had such thoughts about death, but that he was prepared to own up to them so blithely.

All the more beautiful for her imperfections

An interesting footnote to the current body-image debate is supplied by an exhibition of photographs of Brigitte Bardot, which has just opened at the James Hyman gallery in London. The exhibition claims to trace the rise of the paparazzi aesthetic – which it doesn't really – but it does contain a lot of fine photographs of Bardot, including a set of glamour pictures by Sam Levin which reveal how startlingly un-retouched photographs once were.

These are images that would simply never make it into print these days, showing Bardot with pimply chin and less-than-perfect make-up. There's also one in which she tilts her torso to the side, resulting in some pleats of puppy fat on one side of her midriff – not dissimilar to those which have so galvanised the readers of Glamour USA (and the op-ed columnists of the world). And what's startling about the picture is not that a woman should look like that, but that it's an image of a star looking less than perfect (and considerably sexier for it).

Whatever her other political opinions, Bardot was something of a heroine when it came to her body; defiantly open about the vulnerability of the flesh. I wonder whether any current star would dare expose herself in the same way, by sticking a "no Photoshop" clause into the interview agreement.

I'm seeing Gromit in a whole new light...

Reading John Carey's very entertaining biography of William Golding turns out to have one unexpected hazard. I will never be able to think of Wallace and Gromit, pictured, Aardman Animations' loveable double act, in quite the same way again. Carey points out that Golding's wartime navy experience on the cruiser Galatea greatly enlarged his sexual education, the future writer of the Rites of Passage trilogy recording in his journal his discovery that "having a bit of grommet" was then shipboard slang for buggery.

Golding also added the explanatory information that grommet or grummet was the naval word for a cabin boy and for a tight hoop of rope – a common bit of rigging that may have summoned another kind of orifice to the mind of libidinous sailors. Intriguingly, the OED also notes that grommets was also used in the late Eighties in Australia to refer to young surfers and skateboarders – an Elizabethan borrowing of naval Spanish that somehow found its way to Bondi Beach, presumably with the help of sailors exactly like those depicted in Rites of Passage, whose sexual opportunism eventually results in the death of the Reverend Colley. And I know Gromit is spelt differently and that his name probably has more to do with the charm of old hardware shops (or the surgical treatment for glue ear) than with sexual rapine – but it's never going to sound quite the same again.

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