Walking our dog through Highgate Woods a while ago I pursued him a little way off the path to discover him with his leg cocked over a low conical pile of grey ash. It wasn't, I imagine, how the dearly departed would have wanted to be honoured – or, more to the point, how the relatives who had deposited the remains in this relatively secluded spot would have desired this dust to be watered in – and I'm glad to say I got there in time to prevent desecration. But walking away I found myself thinking about the odd intermediate status of human ashes – and the way in which they both are and aren't a relic of the person they represent.
That little heap in Highgate Woods wasn't mere waste disposal after all. I take it that it was there because someone had "loved this spot" – as the memorial benches have it – but the family couldn't quite stretch to municipal seating. The placement had meaning for this person's relatives, and yet at the same time nobody would ever dream of exposing a body in the same way, to any passing accident of nature. Cremation is a process, it seems, that burns away some vulnerability about the dead.
I take it this is one reason why disposal of ashes has acquired so many inventive forms – not just in terms of locations (beloved football grounds, golf tees, salmon rivers) but also in technique. You can now pay to have some of your dead relative's ashes converted into an artificial diamond and made into jewellery and you can also arrange, for a quite hefty cost, to have a sample added to the payload of tailor-made firework, so that they whoosh off with a blaze of glory and come back down in a dying fall – hopefully well downwind.
It is also, presumably, why the disposal of ashes has been identified as a potential environmental problem, with the Mountaineering Council of Scotland asking relatives to avoid mountain tops (because the phosphates act like a fertiliser) and the Environment Agency reportedly issuing a leaflet on ecologically responsible scattering. Bodies are already hedged around with legal and cultural prohibitions and inhibitions – but with ashes we can be, and are, far more cavalier.
I know this personally. My father died three years ago and his death was marked, conventionally enough, with a memorial service at the local crematorium and a family gathering. Then, a few weeks later, a hefty parcel arrived in the post enclosing a plastic pot of his ashes. It still sits in the sideboard, in his former home, shoulder to shoulder with some bottles of single malt – which are the only kind of spirits with which he (a resolute atheist) would have wanted or expected to keep company.
And while an unburied body would feel like a filial dereliction, unscattered ashes for some reason don't. Indeed, there's something rather helpful about the way in which their continued presence smooths out the departure. They're not him, but they're not not him either... and eventually the next step of relinquishment will take place. Morecambe, I think, on a day when the sun is shining and the Lake District is visible across the bay. And I'll check the tides first.
They don't put the pilot in the nose-cone for nothing
It is abundantly clear that Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger has the Right Stuff – the laconic steadiness in a crisis which Tom Wolfe identified as the quality most prized in the cockpit. His insistence on walking the aisle twice to check that nobody had been left behind, even as his aircraft wallowed in freezing water, suggests an admirably old-school notion of captaincy.
But I found myself wondering a little, as I often do in similar cases, about the implication (in some reports) that he'd chosen to land in the Hudson to avoid large-scale civilian deaths.
You often read this kind of thing in air-crash descriptions – because we cherish the idea that a pilot selflessly struggles with the controls to avoid hitting a primary school or nearby houses ... thinking only of those on the ground. Our appetite for heroes makes us forget that they always have a very powerful motive for not crashing into a building themselves. I would go further and say that I hope – should I ever be in a similar situation – that the pilot will be concentrating with every fibre of his being on his own personal survival.
That's one of the advantages of putting the pilots up at the pointy end, surely? Whatever they decide for the rest of us, they have to go first. I don't want a pilot scanning the landscape ahead and trying to weigh up the competing moral claims of the petting zoo or the maternity hospital. I want the one who's thinking "How the hell do I get out of this alive?", because the better that question is answered the better my chances are going to be.
You can keep selfless pilots. I feel safer with a bit of selfishness in the mix.
Streets that are paved with plastic bags
I was intrigued to read the other day that city officials in Delhi have decided to ban the plastic bag – introducing severe penalties for the "use, storage and sale" of the items. Apparently there will be a softly-softly approach at first, but if that doesn't work the guidelines allow for R100,000 fine (about £1,400) and even jail sentences.
It's not before time. I visited Delhi just before Christmas – and in some areas it's possible to believe that the streets are actually paved with plastic bags. Virtually every ditch and gutter appears to be clogged with them.
It's a wonderful country, India, but a neurotic anxiety about litter is clearly not one of its problems. Indeed the impressive scale of the detritus – particularly in urban areas – rather puts in perspective Indian indignation that Danny Boyle should have shown its seamy side in Slumdog Millionaire. His slums looked a lot tidier than some of the upmarket suburbs I drove through.