Though never much given to heroising I did, when I was 16, heroise a Regency dandy who killed himself because he could no longer be bothered doing up his buttons. I would act likewise when the time came, I thought. Wasn’t I half bored to death already? I saw myself writing the suicide note and then being too bored to finish it. “Goodb...,” I’d write. I imagined with satisfaction my friends and family puzzling over what I was trying to tell them.
By what means my existential dandy did himself in, I can no more remember than I can his name, but I like to think he died swallowing buttons. A good suicide should be death by what you no longer want to live to do. Or know about.
So if you’re up to here with loud music you should put on your worst clothes, talk your way into a club for 14-year-olds and go to sleep by one of the speakers. If you can’t any longer live in a world of mad cyclists, just wait at a traffic junction for the lights to say it’s safe to cross, and cross. If you’ve exhausted your interest in the rituals of dining, reading reviews, making reservations and checking bills to see if service is included, book a table in Mayfair and choke publicly on caviar, refusing with your last words to leave a tip. Alternatively, fill the bath with Krug, float your duck and go under. Sex the same – though the precise manner of death by sex must be left to individual predilection. I know how I want to go – that’s all I’m saying.
This hasn’t been a good week for dying by whatever means. We don’t need to have known much about Peaches Geldof while she was alive to feel the infinite sadness of her in death. This is a story of unimaginable grief all round, tragic in a way that makes us reach for analogies beyond the accidents of personality and profession. To speak of the House of Atreus might be going too far, but it does seems as though, here again, the gods have some score to settle.
That Peaches Geldof gave birth to a son on what would have been the anniversary of her mother’s birthday and that she chose to call him – strangely for a boy – Phaedra, only adds to the sense of fatality. “It’s all in the saga,” as D H Lawrence wrote when he heard that Rupert Brooke had died. “O God, O God, it is all too much of a piece: it is like madness.”
If we didn’t already know how damaging to a child is the premature death of a parent, especially if that death smacks of recklessness or despair, we certainly know it now. To say we don’t belong to ourselves is not to say anything original or even necessarily true. But have children and your life is no longer yours to play with. Whether that should make me reconsider my admiration for the dandy who could no longer be bothered dressing must depend on his paternal status. But I assume him to have been without offspring. If he’d had a child he would surely have got him to help with the buttons.
As for the 89-year-old woman who recently killed herself at the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic, and identified herself simply as Anne, the question doesn’t apply. She had no child on whom the fact of a mother’s not wanting to live would lie for ever like a curse. Which leaves us free to consider the virtue of her actions without the distraction of consequence. And you won’t be surprised to hear me say, reader, after what I have said already, that her decision to put an end to a life that no longer interested her strikes me as entirely admirable. Upsetting – for it is no small thing to feel that existence has lost its savour – but impressive in its clear-sightedness, its lack of fuss and its independence of spirit. This was the Roman way, before Christianity rhapsodised the indignity of suffering.
It is not our business to agree with her or not. The world is full of people who will tell you they have never experienced a day’s boredom in their life, from which one can only conclude that they have never experienced a day’s imaginativeness either. Their opinions are irrelevant anyway. Distaste for life is a private matter. It is impertinent to list all the activities you enjoy, all the fun times you have, all the useful contributions to society you make and all the bollocks you enjoy watching on television, as though another person must want to live as you do. It also risks a stinging reproof. “What, you call what you have a life!”
Anne’s point was that she had lived interestingly and indeed “adventurously” already – she had been a Royal Navy engineer and, after that, an art teacher – but at 89 found life alien and dull. One can pick and choose from the menu of instances of contemporary pointlessness she left behind. Yes, right about the robotic nature of the modern world, with screens replacing genuine interaction, but no, a supermarket ready-meal needn’t be so terrible. What’s important, though, is that we have people who swim against the current, no matter that the effort finally wears them out. Where everybody is an enthusiast, we should make heroes of those who, on principle, demur.
I wish I’d known Anne and that she’d lived a little longer so we could have discussed the outpouring of celebrity Twitter grief for Peaches Geldof. The vanity, the banality, the trivialising. Nothing betrays an inert heart like an inert commiseration. “Our thoughts are with X or Y,” the famous for nothing very much in particular proclaimed like automata, proving that their thoughts, if indeed they had any, were somewhere else entirely. And then – speaking of the mundanity of the modern – there was Lord Sugar’s immortal contribution to the vocabulary of feeling: “Peaches Geldof dies aged 25. What happen there??? That’s a shock.”
How to confront the august mystery of death – “What happen there???”
Now tell me that Anne was wrong.