Beryl Bainbridge on the art of facing death

Mortality was a constant theme and inspiration in the work of the author Beryl Bainbridge. In one of her final pieces of writing, she reflects on the journey from light to darkness

Monday 12 July 2010 00:00 BST

We die of many things, accidents, tumours, infections, old age. There is only one way to be born, but Death has ten thousand doors for men to take their exits.

Whatever the cause, life ends when the heart stops beating. To give value to existence death must be regarded as an art, which is why the great of this world are remembered with pomp and circumstance in surroundings dedicated to the worship of God. Somewhere, we are told, above the bright blue sky there is another land, one full of joy and free from pain. We are wise to believe it, for we need for sanity’s sake to disguise the alternative...a final, obliterating darkness.

For the starving and oppressed life could be regarded as an unfortunate error, for the rest of us as a baffling mixture of needs and necessities that are seldom satisfied. It is odd that both categories fear a cessation of breath and a return to dust, even those who believe in God; but then, surely it is against nature to think that we have endured so much to arrive at nothing.

For a writer the subject of death is the one most likely to engage and enlarge the imagination. Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, seared history in his description of the French Revolution – “If Bedlam Gates had been flung open wide, there would not have been such maniacs as the frenzy of that night made... On the skull of one drunken lad – not twenty by his looks – who lay upon the ground, a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came screaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot, melting his head like wax.”

When young, I learnt about dying in a children’s story entitled “On Angel’s Wings”. It was written by someone called the Hon Mrs Greene, and it told of a child named Violet who was a hunchback. Her mother kept reassuring her that one day, when Jesus came to claim her, silver wings would sprout from her damaged back. They both wept a lot, in spite of the happiness to come. Then I was exposed to the sad demise of poor Spike in Nicholas Nickleby and little Paul in Dombey and Son. Later still, the school I attended herded us in crocodile to the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall for the showing of British troops marching into what was labelled as a “Death Camp”. We watched as bulldozers scooped up bony puppets and tossed them into pits. Nothing was explained. Nobody cried.

It was the showing of this film that made me want to write books. I even started a novel about a girl being sent to Belsen, but abandoned it on the grounds that it was wrong of me to think I could possibly know what such a sentence could mean.

All the same, the novels that followed centred on death. In the very first one a child died, in the second two children committed a murder, in the third an elderly woman put an end to an American soldier, and in the next a clergyman killed his wife. There were several others that revolved around dying, and when I had used up the stories in my head I turned to events in history, in particular the Crimean War, the sinking of the Titanic and Captain Scott’s fatal journey to the South Pole.

This last subject was my favourite, for in researching the facts I stumbled across a friendship that astonished me.

On 10 February 1913, a search party uncovered the tent containing the bodies of Scott and his two companions. Wilson and Bowers were lying in an attitude of sleep, their sleeping bags over their faces. Scott was sitting half upright, his coat unbuttoned. There were three notebooks and some letters tucked under his armpit; they had to break his arm to retrieve them. Along with a note to his wife there was a letter addressed to J M Barrie, urging him to take care of Peter Scott, his grandson.

In my teens I was employed first as an assistant stage manager and later as an actor at the Liverpool Playhouse Theatre. When the company hadn’t a matinée we went to the Empire Theatre to watch whatever was in production. One afternoon it was J M Barrie’s Peter Pan. Which was why, so many years on, that letter under a frozen arm astonished me.

What could the creator of that strange and magnificent play about Never Never Land possibly have in common with a man whose life had been shaped by the discipline of a naval career? If Scott had died at sea or of old age and been buried in the ground, his end would have been no more than expected; but he had been buried beneath the ice and is still there, 90 years on, perfectly preserved as he drifts towards the sea. He is yet another Lost Boy who has never grown old.

It was at the Playhouse too that I was a lady-in-waiting in the court of Richard II. When I wasn’t on stage I was in the prompt corner, ready to whisper a forgotten line. Of all writers Shakespeare was one who dwelt most on death. “Cry woe, destruction, ruin and decay, The worst is death, and death will have his day.”

I still remember by heart the words in Act III when Richard faced the end to come: “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings;/ How some have been deposed; some slain in war; Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed/ Some poisoned by their wives; some sleeping killed;/ All murdered; for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps death his court.....

I used to recite this in my head when running to Exchange station to catch the last train home. Then, I didn’t think such sentiments applied to me, only to those who were unlucky enough to be royal. But then, Shakespeare, in spite of being a genius, was voicing fears common to us all.

In my day, females were not encouraged to go to gravesides to watch coffins being lowered; the church service was considered harrowing enough. Dropping someone into the earth was a ritual only men could stomach without emotion getting the better of them. The first death I really remember was that of my Auntie Margo who worked in a factory, chain-smoked and liked men. She had been married but her husband, returning from the trenches of the First World War, had succumbed to the gas in his lungs. Although it was assumed she had died of a broken heart, my Dad argued that it was the cigarettes that had finished her off. She left me her sofa, her chest of drawers and a photograph of my grandfather, who had been employed coiling metal rings round barrels in a brewery.

My father died in 1971, of cardiac arrest. My mother telephoned me twice – the first call when he was being carried out into the street on a stretcher. She wasn’t with him because she couldn’t find her house keys. The second time, he’d died in the ambulance. My mother expired a good 10 years later, alone in bed, her teeth under the pillow. For the first time, visiting the funeral parlour, I saw a dead body. My mother was encased in the sort of frilly paper I associated with Easter eggs on display. The red paint on the nails of her fingers crossed piously on her chest was chipped, the little finger particularly. I stooped to kiss her and her cheek was like ice; my tear bounced back into my face. I still have her teeth, in a cardboard box beneath a picture of Napoleon.

Next to go was my brother, in his fifties. We were not alike – so I thought – for he went to university, studied law, and sang in the church choir. We hadn’t been close, although in childhood we had huddled together on the stairs listening to the violent interchanges between our parents.

His burial was in Montgomery, a village in Shropshire in which, when little, we had spent our summer holidays. There were people standing, heads bowed, outside the doors of their houses as the funeral cars drove slowly down the country roads. I couldn’t understand how my brother had become so revered. It was only when attending to the words of the vicar that I learnt that he had been both the mayor and the county coroner – that man whose job it is to know how and why someone has died. So we were alike after all, in that we both had an interest in death.

I find it odd that the onset of life, that mingling of sperms followed by that shattering expulsion from the womb, should be regarded as less interesting than its termination. In literature birth is dealt with sentimentally. Maybe it’s because babies are sweet, opening their mouths to emit that first howl, and the dead are frightening because they’re unable to cry.

In our youth, as the philosopher Schopenhauer observed, we contemplate our life like children sitting in a theatre before the curtain has risen, eagerly waiting for the play to begin. Full of high hopes, it is a blessing that we don’t know what is going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when we might seem like prisoners, condemned, not to death but to life, as yet all unconscious as to what such a sentence might mean.

There are some endings to life that are classified as peaceful, among them that of Dr Samuel Johnson, a man who when alive was terrified of what was to come. He had his reasons. He wrote in his collection of Prayers and Meditations that when he surveyed his past life he discovered nothing but a barren waste of time, with some disorders of the body and disturbances of the mind which he hoped God had made him suffer to excuse many faults and deficiencies. He confessed his fear to his friend, Dr Adams, Master of Pembroke. “As I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted”, he said, “I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.”

Dr Adams asked him what he meant by damned. “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly,” answered Johnson, passionately and loudly. And yet, when his final moment came – he was in his bed in Bolt Court, watched over by his two lodgers, the servant Frances Barber whom he had rescued from slavery, and the bad tempered Mrs Desmoulins – he expired, so we are told, without panic. One assumes he no longer felt that his sins had obliterated his space in Heaven. But then, how could he be sure?

Does the slowing down of existence lead to a blurring of the brain, a loss of memory, a sensation of emptiness that is classified as a feeling of peace? Was Johnson so close to that final sleep that he was no longer conscious of the world he had once known? Had all the sins he had committed, the destructive accusations, the damning criticisms, faded into the darkness?

We can but ask, if so great a man as Johnson could be lost, which of us can be saved? Perhaps with death all his fear vanished, and the angels said to his soul, as they said to that of Gerontius, “It is because then thou didst fear, that now thou doest not fear./ Thou hast forestalled the agony, and so/ For thee the bitterness of death is past.”

I think of death a lot, indeed always have, although when young I had a belief that it was a long way off. Now, it isn’t, and I continually think of how I would prefer to pass from light to darkness. I don’t want to be run down by traffic, be shot by a madman, or suffer a sudden shock to the heart. I would like, if possible, to be so conscious of what was coming that I had time to write down a few thoughts on paper. I would remember my parents, the love I once felt for them, and for my husband who left so many years ago, and try to put into words the joy my dear children have brought me.

Animals are more content with existence than humans, and fly from death instinctively, without knowing what it is. Accordingly, their lives carry less sorrow, but also less pleasure. We, on the other hand, cherish a belief that there is another life to come. And yet, if we look at life in its small details, how ridiculous it all seems once death approaches. We should remind ourselves to the last breath that what mattered was tolerance, patience, regard and a love of a neighbour. And if we managed that, maybe we’ll find that other land.

Beryl Bainbridge (1934-2010). This essay was originally written for BBC Radio 3, and first broadcast in March 2009. Her funeral is today, at St Silas the Martyr, London NW5

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