Is it creepy to have death as a very present subject in our lives now-a-days?
Richard Godwin writes about it:
Peering into economic abyss is provoking new creativity in our attitude to death
Last week, at the Evening Standard's party for influential Londoners, I spied a tall, dark man standing apart from the throng, casting a severe eye over the crowd. I asked if he was enjoying the party.
"I don't like people very much," he said with a sigh. Oh, I said, apologising - I am a person. However, when he introduced himself as an extremely important figure in the City of London, I directed the conversation towards the global financial crisis.
"Well, we're f**ked, aren't we?" he said with certain macabre pleasure. "The end is nigh."
The end of the eurozone?
"No!" he laughed. "The end of the world."
As a vast asteroid called 2005 YU 55 passed silently within the orbit of the Moon, he provided a vivid picture of the future here on Earth. He described the imminent abandonment of Detroit and Pittsburgh; the coming social catastrophe in Glasgow (where even the pound shops have closed); the breakdown of law and order in rural England ("the countryside always goes first"). After a while, I realised I was laughing. What he described was not funny - far from it. But it was bracing to peer into the abyss. I came away with an undeniable feeling of uplift. Apocalypse? Wow!
It seems the rest of London is having a similar conversation. In the multiplexes and in bus shelters, in the playgrounds and on the trading floors, on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral and around the Oka-sourced dinner tables of Notting Hill, we are talking of doom, death and dread. As Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King announced our catastrophically rubbish growth figures earlier this week, could you hear a certain relish in his voice?
Politicians are at it, too. The Treasury is planning for "economic Armageddon". The usually cheery Hazel Blears was cackling on Radio 5 the other night that there was no good news left. Politicians like to offer voters optimism - but David Cameron can't stop talking about what an "alarming time" it is. The markets are "incredibly volatile" and we have "clear and present dangers" to face, he reckons. So even the Prime Minister is feeling miserable now. Once a Smiths fan, always a Smiths fan, I suppose.
Or perhaps once a PR man always a PR man? It is a rule of crisis management that you should overestimate the damage caused by an oil spill or a terrorist atrocity at first - that way it looks better when you downgrade it later. If he emphasises the biblical inevitability of the crisis, we'll forget to blame his government for the fact that 2.6 million people are unemployed.
Come November 2017, we might consider it a relief that a mere 634 children have starved to death in the West Midlands. We might willingly fight against the resurgent army of Berlusconi loyalists who have annexed the Suffolk coast.
Then again, the dark mood is not limited to the economy. Thoughts always turn inwards fast upon the macabre triple bill of Halloween, Bonfire Night and Remembrance Day. Perhaps the asteroid passing so close to Earth has had its effect too.
Usually in uncertain times we seek safe, cosy entertainment - that seemed to be the case when the credit crunch hit in 2008 (at least, it's the only reason I can think of for the global celebrity of Susan Boyle). Now older and wiser, audiences are switching off The X Factor and turning over to The Killing. The highest-grossing film of the year is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, as morbid a blockbuster as you'll ever see. The year's most acclaimed films have centred on mortality (Tree of Life), apocalypse (Melancholia) and apocalypse again (the hotly anticipated Take Shelter).
|Florence + The Machine|
You can hear it in music too. The winner of the Mercury Prize this year was PJ Harvey's war-haunted Let England Shake ("Death was everywhere", I often find myself singing as I fill up the kettle … "Death to all and everyone" as the water boils.) Listen to the lyrics of Florence + the Machine, Emeli Sandé and Kyla La Grange and you see why they're calling their music "darkside pop".
Death is the central focus of a whole festival at the Southbank Centre early next year - events include Desert Island Death Discs, an exhibition of Ghanaian coffins and a new play about assisted dying. A new production of Hamlet seems to turn up every other month - Michael Sheen is the latest to ask if it's worth carrying on or not.
And there's a new Death Café in Hackney, where, once a month, strangers drink tea, eat cake and talk about mortality. The response has been profound, says its founder, Jon Underwood.
"One guy came in and talked about the death of his father," he tells me. "He said that amid all the sadness, he felt a certain amount of relief when he died. He had never been able to say that before. He had always felt extremely guilty. The fact that he was able to say that in front of strangers for the first time was really important for him."
Underwood says he was moved by the final interviews with Philip Gould, the Labour Party strategist who died earlier this month, and observes that Steve Jobs's death has resonated. The famous Stamford Commencement Speech has been circulated widely on the internet: "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important," said the late entrepreneur.
Another who has been unflinching in documenting his own death is Christopher Hitchens, the essayist and journalist who is currently dying of cancer. Last week, he was due to discuss his life's work with Stephen Fry at the Festival Hall. He was too ill to take part, so the evening was hastily transformed into a sort of memorial service, involving Hitchens's friends Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Richard Dawkins. It is a rare memorial service that the deceased can stream over the internet and send wry text messages to the host. In a way, it felt fitting for one who so determinedly refuses to admit the possibility of an afterlife.
By coincidence, the following night, I travelled to Oxford to have dinner with a friend of mine who has terminal cancer. On the way, I worried that the meeting would be awkward - I hadn't seen him since the diagnosis and like most English males, I often find words failing me in these circumstances. In fact, I found my friend to be in excellent spirits. We headed directly for the important subjects - love, books, happiness - and tarried with trivialities only as long as they amused us. It was life-affirming.
And perhaps this is what the financial uncertainty is permitting on a wider scale. As Underwood says, "all the troubles we are facing now are pushing us to fundamentally re-examine the way we live. I personally think that talking about death is one of the best things people can do at this time." We are facing the worst - let's concentrate on what matters. Let's inscribe "you'll die anyway" over the entrance way of every plastic surgeon. Let's stop wasting time.
With this in mind, I recommend a Twitter feed: @mementomorrow, a 21st-century take on the memento mori painting or sculpture. Every few hours, it reminds us that life is short. Here is a sample of its recent messages: "Remember, you must die." "Death is not a story. It is not a thing for other people." And, just occasionally: "Seize the day."
The next Death Café is on December 4 (deathcafe.com). The Death festival is at the Southbank Centre from January 19-30, 2012 (southbankcentre.co.uk). The apocalypse is scheduled for spring 2013.
|BY CRAPAUD M., PHOTOGRAPHER FROM REIMS|
His dark materials - apocalypse chic
London's love affair with skulls has been hijacked for Christmas, and this year you can buy a mini dead head for your tree. But there is a wider trend at work in these straitened times - a fondness for black and dark rooms. Popular patterns for fabrics, wallpaper and china feature ravens, black roses, cloudy nights and, yes, even skulls. And cans of black emulsion are selling very well at B&Q.
Gothic imagery is now becoming almost mainstream. It no longer shocks but is still edgy and different.
Biba diva designer Barbara Hulanicki has designed sumptuous flocked black wallpapers for British brand Graham & Brown, inspired by the evil Maleficent, and her cunning feathered sidekick, the raven Diablo, from the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty. These are sleek, sophisticated designs for adults, not revamped cartoons.