The slow work of grieving in a headlong world

Maurice Saatchi feels it would be a "monstrous betrayal" of his late wife to move on

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Love is all around us, at least the entertainment version of love is.

It tends to be sunny and colourful, full of tender smiles, with a catchy soundtrack and perhaps a few heart-tugging one-liners. We are so used to it that the real thing, when it appears in public, can be something of a shock. It is too uncompromising, almost vulgar in its directness.

Almost 18 months ago, the writer Josephine Hart died, aged 69. Her grieving husband, the advertising grandee Maurice Saatchi, has been talking to The Sunday Times’s Bryan Appleyard about her on the publication of her book Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry. The interview, which can be found on Appleyard’s website, is as wrenching a portrait of loss and bereavement as one could ever read, touching on the big, universal question of how best to be true to a loved one who has died.

Saatchi, it is safe to say, has not exactly let go of the past. Every day, he takes his breakfast beside Josephine Hart’s tomb, beyond a lake near his house. At other meals, he lays a place for her and puts newspapers in the order she preferred to have them. Now that she has gone, he says, “I am leading Josephine’s life literally and contentedly… In my capacity as Josephine Hart, I am just doing what she would have done anyway.”

The conventional therapists’ wisdom, that there comes a time when the bereaved person needs to move on and come to terms with what has happened, appeals not one bit to Maurice Saatchi. Moving on would be “a monstrous betrayal”; it would be “an act of selfishness” to come to terms.

Everyone grieves in his or her own way. All the same, this hard-line condemnation of renewal after death, which is what it is, sounds like dangerous advice, coming from a normally wise man. It turns the lost love into a sort of tyrant from beyond the grave.

Death can be seductive. For some, living with loss becomes a drug upon which they are dependant. It is easier for those people to slip into an aching slumber of remembrance than to deal with the rough-and-tumble of everyday emotional life, so scratchy and transient beside the great drama of love and death.

It is probably easy to say if one has not been in Saatchi’s miserable situation, but there is another way: to respond to death with life, to refuse to become imprisoned by the past. Josephine Hart was clearly an extraordinary and inspiring woman, but perhaps her words to her husband after she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer – “Your life is ruined” – might have been better thought than spoken.

Each part of a couple which has been lucky enough to have experienced an intense life together will normally hope that the one who lives longer will, after bereavement – the one process which will not be hurried in a headlong world – be able to live in the present and the future without the slightest sense of betrayal or selfishness.

In a sense, Lord Saatchi is doing just that. Describing himself as his wife’s “understudy”, he has overseen the publication of her book. There was a Josephine Hart Poetry Week at the Arts Theatre last month, during which poetry was read by theatrical royalty, from Derek Jacobi to Harriet Walter, from Tom Stoppard to David Hare.

There is a poetry app, which has been developed by the Josephine Hart Foundation. In his own way, he is moving on.

Lord Saatchi may feel himself to have been created by his late wife, to be essentially the same person as she was, but he is not. The best way to celebrate a great life that has gone is to relish and treasure the one that still breathes, thinks and feels, and live it to the full.

Prurience and the National Trust

The National Trust is in trouble again. Not so long ago, it managed to annoy Adam Nicolson, whose family once owned Sissinghurst, by being in his view excessively tidy-minded and corporate.

Now it is the turn of another writer, Alan Bennett. In the introduction to his new play, People, Bennett records that he experienced “a sense of unease” when visiting stately homes. Staff were too keen on talking to him about what he was seeing, apparently. In his play, he imagines the National Trust in thrall to the idea that anything, however seedy and implausible, was justified to bring in the public.

He was subsequently horrified to hear of a National Trust mobile phone app which offered a historical guide through Soho’s red-light district and to hear that Jeffrey Archer had contributed to one of its audio guides about Benjamin Disraeli. His version was tame by comparison.

It seems a touch stuffy, this attitude. Providing a history of Soho is surely not such a terrible crime, and who would Bennett prefer to have talking about Disraeli? Dame Judi Dench? Julian Fellowes? The Duchess of Devonshire?

terblacker@aol.com

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