Every summer, bookshops lay out stacks of blockbusters designed to be devoured in an afternoon and forgotten in a week. But at UnHerd we prefer books that leave a lasting impression. In this series of Summer Reads, our contributors recommend overlooked books that will engage and enrich you, not just distract you.
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I’ve never been good with death. Which is not to say that I am afraid of dying. In fact, I almost did when I was very young; I was run over by a truck when I was only five. Hours of surgery followed, then weeks of treatment, months of rehabilitation, and a lifetime with scars and aches and body parts that don’t match.
No. It’s not the idea of my own death I don’t like – if He came to sit beside me for a while, I like to think that I wouldn’t plead or bargain or upend my chair to get away. We would talk civilly. There would be no chummy chess match, but a bow of the head and an acceptance that every day since that first dodge all those years ago was an indulgence.
It’s other people’s deaths I’ve always struggled with.
The first one that really hit me wasn’t that of an elderly relative or a much-loved pet. There was no “he had a good innings” or “it was a blessing, really”, to comfort myself with. He was a classmate at school. We were 15 and one day he just fell down dead from a heart condition that no one knew he had.
I went to the funeral. I had promised myself I wouldn’t – I had told myself I wouldn’t be mawkish or voyeuristic. But, at the last minute, I changed into my school uniform – to deflect any challenge that might come my way as to why I was there – and walked the two miles from my village to the church where the ceremony was held. It was my first funeral. I didn’t cry.
Or, at least, not in the church. Or by the graveside as ropes jerked the coffin into the gaping maw of a hole. It didn’t hit me till months later. The grief came mixed up in the challenge most teenagers face at some point, when the old certainties of faith fall away. When the picture-book bible stories of heaven and hell don’t work any more. It’s when you realise a belief isn’t true just because you want it to be.
Death was all over the news that year. The Labour Leader John Smith had passed away, a chinook helicopter crashed in the Mull of Kintyre killing all on board, and police started pulling bodies out of the ground at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, the home of Fred and Rosemary West.
It was also the year my English teacher started talking to us about some of the bigger questions in life. I remember answering a question on military service with total assurance that, yes, I would be prepared to die for my country. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to kill for it, which is a much harder thing to do.
I remembered those words over and over when I joined the territorial army and was taught several dozen ways to kill – from calling in air support, to laying down 81mm mortar fire, to finding out why bayonets need a blood channel (so a sucking wound doesn’t make it impossible to withdraw it from the enemy to use again).
I’d joined up after a journalism job took me to Kosovo to see the UK peacekeeping and nation building efforts at the end of the war there. It was the first time I’d seen brain matter: the residue of a sniper’s bullet. It smelled cloyingly sweet. I was 22.
From such a halting and uneasy beginning, my relationship with death has become much more pedestrian. I grew up in a family so rooted in its Presbyterianism and unwillingness to “make a show” that only the funerals of blood family and deep rooted friendships were acceptable (anything else risked emotional tourism). Yet I now head an organisation where it is expected of me to represent the Party, and sometimes even deliver the eulogy, at the funerals of colleagues, activists or former parliamentarians.
Each person has their own morbid path. My partner, a native of County Wexford in the south-east of Ireland, saw her first dead body when she was nine. It was her uncle. After the undertakers had taken him away to fix and to fill his body, they brought him back to be laid out on the bed he died in, to be visited by near enough the whole town for his wake.
This cultural norm seems to have caused her no ill harm. Nor did – after losing both her parents as a teenager – taking a comb to her dead father’s hair as he lay in an open casket, because the funeral home had given him the wrong parting.
We all question, we all wrestle with the unfairness of a premature visit paid to someone we love, we are all hurt and we all die. But from first encounter to final resting place, the paths themselves are very different depending on our age, our religion, our culture.
Sue Black takes us on her own journey in her new memoir, All that Remains. An anatomy professor and forensic anthropologist who lives with death every day, she walks us through the murders she had worked on as a Home Office expert: from the war crimes she pieced together from unearthed mass graves in the Balkans to holidaymakers she repatriated after helping lead the international response to the Boxing Day Tsunami in Thailand and Indonesia.
She also invites us to sit by her mother’s bedside in her final hours as she and her daughters sing: “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes.” It was an extraordinarily uplifting scene. You would expect it to be bleak; but it is warm and it soars. It reduced me to tears on the red-eye shuttle to London City Airport; the besuited businessman next to me self-consciously offered me his hanky between sniffs.
And it’s a necessary book too. Our responses to death are changing as our relationships with it change.
I’m pleased that young journalists coming up don’t have the same trauma of doing death-knocks that I had – ringing the bell of the recently bereaved to ask if they have anything they can say about the departed or a photo they can gift to the paper. The worst one I ever had to do was for a boy who was walking his dog in a graveyard in a downpour, only for some long-forgotten mineworkings to collapse and the mud to swallow him whole. Nowadays, three clicks and Facebook supplies it all.
Yes, better for work, but on a personal level, it feels like the ‘RIP’ messages on Twitter for every pop star that passes or actor that leaves the stage hollows out the meaning of grief. That flowery prose – designed to be widely read – is no substitute for the awkward handshake and “thanks for coming” at the crematorium line-up. “Well, you know, he was a good man. And a good friend.”
That’s why this book is a good and welcome friend. And Sue Black is a good guide. It’s a hug at the wake followed by that special time, weeks later, when a night time drink brings back all the old memories – and laughing stories, lightly told, start to heal old wounds.
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