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
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.
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