I remember an occasion over thirty years ago, in Newcastle upon Tyne, saying to the man I was drinking with that I figured all the things we do, including great art, are to help us forget that inside fifty, a hundred years we’ll be no more than a handful of dust. He seemed to find this funny (admittedly we’d both been drinking for quite some time) but he didn’t explain what aspect of it he found funny.
I found myself thinking of this over the past week. My wife’s sister Phil had been rushed to hospital and had been diagnosed as having a tumour on her brain and underwent surgery in Dublin. As we waited for news and prayed, all the normal things that interest me – books, music, sport, ideas – all slipped away and became the feeble props I’d identified them as being in that boozing session so long ago. And then, with the surgery completed and the word that my sister-in-law was looking pretty wretched, when we were bracing ourselves for the worst, word came. The tumour was benign and she was going home the next day. Again, everything else became meaningless, peripheral, but instead of a core of fear we were focused on a core of joy. As Woody Allen said once: “The two most beautiful words in the English language: it’s benign”.