Howard Jacobson: It probably isn't wise to look to Robin Cook for inspiration when writing your epitaph

Why do I wish the Iraq war had not been intermingled with his mortal remains?
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The Independent Online

So what impression would you like your epitaph to give? That yours was an unfathomable nature, indifferent to the merely temporal? "Beneath this ground lies X: he looked into the impenetrable mystery and what he saw lies buried with him"? Or are you more an of-the-moment person? - "Here lies Y: he loved his mobile phone."

The question of what constitutes a decent epitaph arises because of the words inscribed on Robin Cook's recently erected headstone - "I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war". Why does that distress me to the degree it does? Why - all arguments as to Robin Cook's achievements apart - do I wish the Iraq war had not been intermingled with his mortal remains?

An encounter of no special significance had already, before I read about Cook's grave, set me wondering about the way we in the West have suddenly decided to understand ourselves exclusively vis-à-vis Iraq, as though there is now no other light - ethical or metaphysical - by which to see ourselves. I was looking through the window of a restaurant, discussing with my wife the advantages of its ambience over the disadvantages of its menu (too many truffles), when he accosted us. American, dapper, bohemian in the retired college professor style, but with a hint of money about him too (maybe an inheritance), so that while he wanted us to see him as a boulevardier, it was as a boulevardier who knew the best boulevards. "You'll have trouble tonight," he said. "All the good places are either full or closed." He was one of those men who had always just been there before you.

It was the first evening of the New Year and we were walking the cobblestones of Orvieto, wanting to make a pleasant night of it without going overboard. We'd gone overboard the night before. And there were resolutions to keep. A little less wild boar stuffed with truffles being one of them. A more affable response to strangers (this was my wife's resolution for me) being another. So we let him hold us in conversation. He was travelling Europe with his wife. Taking their time, speaking the languages, stopping where they fancied. They were people for all seasons. His wife, buying dried porcini in a nearby shop, was a novelist, and the parabola of her prose determined the shape of their travels. They were in no hurry to get back. "America," he said, feeling he didn't need to explain, "is not a good place to be right now."

I mentally rehearsed what made America not a good place to be right now. Violence, drugs, rappers, joggers, white supremacists, anti-abortionists. Borat's America - dumb college kids, creationists, flag wavers, boys with trousers half way down their hips, men with trousers half way up their sternums, too much money, too little money, Pamela Anderson. Then I looked again at my new friend, in his matching Ralph Lauren slouching pants and casual jacket, a light woollen scarf tossed around his neck (for it was mild that night in Orvieto), grey bearded, his hair longer than you'd find on Wall Street, his eyes lit by that certainty that comes with believing what many others believe - not complacency exactly, more the regret of a man who has lived to see bad things but knows that you have lived to see them with him, and finds a sort of companionship of the banished in that knowledge - and I realised what he was talking about.

Bush. It was Bush who had made America not a good place to be right now. Bush and what flowed from Bush. Iraq.

"Well, it's just a phase," I said.

He fingered his throat. "It's been six years," he said. "Six years is a long time."

I shrugged. Couldn't help him there, and I was hungry.

But is six years a long time? And is America such a bad place to be right now? Is it discernibly worse, harder to live in, than it was when Clinton was taking his dick out in the Oval Office, or Reagan was stumbling over simple words, or Nixon was breaking and entering? And do presidents, anyway, ever really determine how bad a place becomes?

Or was my boulevardier simply expressing the latest style in deracinated disillusionment? An elegant philosophy of unease as ready-made as the clothes he wore. Is this how we know ourselves today, in England as well as in America - as citizens bonded in emotional opposition? "And what, sir or madame, do you stand for?" "I stand for not standing for Bush or Blair."

But here's a question: never mind whether Bush and Blair are as bad as it has become existentially necessary for us paint them; do we not diminish ourselves - ourselves, not them - by making them our definition, them the motor force of everything we feel and say, them the very anti-measure of who we are?

And doesn't the inscription on Robin Cook's tomb similarly diminish him? "Even from beyond the grave, Cook continues to taunt Blair," the headlines trumpeted. But doesn't Robin Cook, even from beyond the grave, have better things to do?

The epitaph demeans the man - that's where I stand. "Was securing the right of parliament to decide on war all you did?" people pausing before his grave in years to come will wonder. I don't doubt the constitutional importance of such a right, but phrased as it is, in Robin Cook's own morally self-admiring language, and lacking the poetry of what is universally true, it reads like bathos - the mere commemoration of a squabble where squabbles should have no place, of overriding significance only if you are already consumed, as future generations will not be, by a sense not just of this war's calamitousness but its centrality to our humanity.

Before it, anyway, and for all eternity, Robin Cook's other virtues vanish. Yes the "beloved husband" and the "much missed father" are still there, but not the thinker, the arguer, the rhetorician, the wit, the prime minister who might have been. The man was more than his response to this particular passage in this particular accident of history. And if we think that nothing matters more than scoring points off Tony Blair, then we have a low opinion of ourselves.

Principle is a fine thing, but when it assumes one face, brooks no disagreement, and insists upon its exclusive hold on decency, it becomes its own tyranny of righteousness. And history never judges righteousness kindly, because righteous is only a small part of what we are.