Saturday 10 December 2016

That cat with the scythe just keeps on calling

WB Yeats said 'the only two things worth writing about are sex and death', so we thought we'd have a crack at the latter for a change. Here, Declan Lynch writes about people in his address book who are 'no longer available at that number', about our incomprehension at the thought that these people just aren't around any more, and about the quiet diligence of the Reaper, who will get around to us all . . . with the possible exception of Tony Bennett. Portrait by Kip Carroll

Published 07/09/2015 | 02:30

Declan Lynch: The Grim Reaper will get around to us all. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Declan Lynch: The Grim Reaper will get around to us all. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Aodhan Madden
Barney McKenna
Dermot Morgan
P Chevron

I have this old address book containing the names and phone numbers of friends and acquaintances, or just people whose phone number I needed to have at the time, maybe to arrange an interview; or people whose phone number I have for reasons that completely escape me.

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And whenever I need to look up someone in this old address book, I see them - the deceased. The ones who are no longer with us.

They are there on almost every page now, always somehow snagging my attention, sending me a subtle reminder that "as you are now, so once were we".

And, of course, they will be in that book for a long time to come, because clearly I am not about to cross out their names, just because they are no longer available at that number, as it were.

To take a letter at random: under 'B', there is George Byrne, the "controversial rock critic", and there is Frankie "Dear Frankie" Byrne. There is Jonathan Philbin Bowman. As I marvel at this universe of ours which can accommodate such diversity, you can be sure that I will not be Tippex-ing them out. Nor when I get to 'C' will I be making any alteration to the name and number of Philip Chevron, nor indeed Adrian Cronin; while under 'D', Stan Gebler Davies can rest easy. And so can Mick Doyle.

I could go on . . .

Some of these people -Adrian Cronin, Mick Doyle, Frankie Byrne - I hardly knew at all, whereas George Byrne and Philip Chevron were great friends of mine. To the Reaper, they are all the same.

He has been busy, the Reaper, and he shows no sign of stopping for a rest. At the moment, he is making his presence felt on most of the pages of my old address book, getting through his work with a quiet diligence. And, at some point in the future - probably within 40 years at the most - he will have taken out every name on every page of that book.

My little directory will just be a list of dead people, and their old phone numbers. Which is utterly offensive to all our better instincts, and which seems completely absurd in all sorts of ways - but it's going to happen.

Looking at it now, such a thing would not cross your mind unless you paused for a while on 'M', and noted the names of Dermot Morgan, and Aodhan Madden the playwright, and Barney McKenna.

I interviewed Barney McKenna once for the Sunday Independent, so that must be why I have his number. We spent the day drinking in The Cock Tavern in Howth, with Barney on the "splitzers" - his name for white wine and soda - in a pint glass.

To the world, McKenna was a marvellous individual and an extraordinary musician, to the Reaper he was just another number.

His number, incidentally, was 393-497. And because there was always some kind of magic realism going on with Barney, you would half-expect to dial that number and for him to answer it, even still.

As for Dermot Morgan, I have the numbers of landlines with six digits and seven digits for him, I have a mobile number and what looks like a number in London. Dermot was always contactable, but it seems that the Reaper had his number too. And the Reaper made that call.

That was a particularly grim day's work, an abomination. If the death of every man diminishes us, the death of this man diminished us in a most unusual way - there was so much 'life' in Dermot, it seemed completely perverse that it would be switched off in full flow.

It still seems like that, indeed, though I recall at the time there was one rationalisation which struck a chord - I think it was Mike Murphy who suggested that, in the depths of all his struggles, if you had offered Dermot a deal whereby he'd become the star of a classic TV comedy, a much-loved entertainer all across these islands, but he'd be gone at the age of 45, he might well have said, "I'll take it".

Aodhan Madden died last year at the age of 67, and I found myself quoting him recently in a piece on Mulligan's pub, recalling his description of how an Irish Press sub-editor would bring into the office home-made "fry sandwiches" which "he fed upon with the fury of a barracuda".

For Aodhan, the deal might have gone something like this - having given up the drink at a relatively young age, he would get to live for about 20 years longer than he might otherwise have done, to write things he might not otherwise have written, just to have more time to explore this world to which he had contributed good work. But we don't get to do such deals with the Reaper, or "that cat with the scythe", as Sinatra called him. We don't get to do any deals with that cat. The terms are dictated to us, down to the last detail.

WB Yeats maintained that "the only two things worth writing about are sex and death". And while we are adequately supplied with the former, we are less inclined to address the latter, for all sorts of sensible reasons. Perhaps knowing that it is always there for us, we don't feel inclined to bring anything new to the relationship.

I would not be going near it myself, except I can't seem to get away from it these days. Friends of mine, friends of friends, just people in general that are known to me, are checking out with increasing frequency. I am hearing more and more folksy wisdom on the subject - "Every year, you will pass the day on which you were born and the day on which you will die", is a good one. And when you are in your 40s or your 50s, they say, you are entering "Sniper's Alley".

There's also one that goes something like: "You may put your shoes on in the morning, but you don't know who'll be taking them off at night", but since this can also serve as a depiction of the lifestyle of a member of the House of Lords who snorts cocaine with prostitutes, I wouldn't pay it too much attention. What I have noticed though, is that I am becoming familiar with the otherwise excellent facilities in Mount Jerome.

Too familiar, for my liking. It was up there that we sent the "controversial rock critic" George Byrne into the flames - I need hardly add that most of my departed friends have been cremated, and I would probably want that for myself, but I do not have strong feelings on the subject.

Nor do I recall discussing the topic with George at any time during our one thousand nights on the beer; indeed, I suspect that, like me, George would have been more exercised about the selection of match officials for next weekend's fixtures in the Barclays Premier League - but since cremation would be the least Roman Catholic method, most likely that would indeed have been his preferred option.

I find that the more time I spend in the presence of these great mysteries, the more impenetrable it all seems, and yet the passing of George did bring a certain clarity to those of us who are still here.

That day, just about everyone in Mount Jerome, or at the church, could recall at least one thing George had said or done which had been genuinely, seriously funny. He had not done a lot for Ethiopia, he had not brought his message of hope to Chernobyl, but he had told the truth about a few things, and it was as simple as this - he had made us laugh.

For that achievement, he is remembered as a man who brought something to the party, which is quite a thing. Not that he wanted any of this remembering. And with a new football season just starting, you feel that George really should be still around to follow it, but due to this crazy turn of events whereby he inadvertently found himself not to be alive any more, the season will, in fact, go on without him.

Increasingly, this is how I regard the work of the Reaper - with a sense of awe at the utter absurdity of it. I am there like some cartoon Cockney shaking his head in stupefaction and saying again and again: "What's it all abaht then, eh? What's it all abaht?"

Except when you're contemplating the doings of the Reaper, this no longer seems like some comedy cliche, but like the only truly intelligent response, one with a hint of profundity.

After all, even some of the brightest people can have an apparently simple-minded approach to death. Some of them do actually fear more than anything the idea that they won't be around to see how their team's new signings will fare in next season's Barclays Premier League - consider the cosmic tragedy of John Peel, who somehow managed to die in the early part of the season, which ended with his beloved Liverpool winning the Champions League in Istanbul.

Certainly if you had told Peely that such a thing might happen, he would have no hesitation in declaring that, in retrospect, his life was about 30pc diminished, so much poorer than it would have been if he had made it through till the following May.

And it may seem a bit puerile, but the late author Iain Banks spoke of a feeling which is not uncommon among writers -this sense of terror that they will die before they finish the book they are currently writing.

But as soon as they're done with it, and it's off to the publisher, then, like Blue Oyster Cult, they don't fear the Reaper, until of course they start on the next book . . .

It reduces us all to such madness in the end, to these ludicrous calculations as to how we'd like to go, or what we would like to have done, if we had the choice. As if - and I'm hearing an echo of Dermot Morgan here - as if life was a bit like Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game, and we're there looking at all these maladies rolling past us on the conveyor belt - cancer, heart trouble, Parkinson's, a stroke of the kind that took George Byrne - trying to select which one we would prefer to succumb to, and which would be our least favourite.

My father, who took up golf late in life, dropped dead at the age of 72 on the 15th hole at the Athlone club. Over time, I have come to regard this as a kind of a reward for his goodness in life; I can think of so many worse ways to go. And if you were to throw in roughly another 10 years of half-decent health, many of us would probably take that right now; we would be queuing up for it, no questions asked. And some would take it exactly as it happened, without the extra 10 years, and be happy about it.

But I'm sounding reasonable there, and there's no place for that in this game. I have emails from Philip Chevron, which he was sending almost until the day he died, and which are as bright and as funny as anything he would have written at any stage of his life.

He knew that he was dying of cancer - he was absolutely certain of that - and yet some part of his energy remained exactly as it always had been, some part of his mind stayed resolutely indifferent to the thing that was killing him.

The notion that these thoughts of Philip's would just be switched off, that such a mind should simply cease to function is completely unbelievable - except it is not a notion, it seems to have happened.

Philip was better than most of us. His friends and colleagues in the Pogues and the Radiators, in rock 'n' roll and the theatre, would have known this well - indeed, anyone who had much contact with Philip over the years would probably have viewed him as a superior sort.

He was the sort of fellow who wouldn't just make you up a compilation disc, he would do one that the artist himself might regard as a definitive collection, an advance on anything his own record company had managed, not just in terms of song selection and running order, but for its annotation, its presentation, even its punctuation.

So when I say that the extinction of such a person is unbelievable, perhaps I mean it literally - that I actually don't believe it, because in some way it is not true. Not that I have any idea what that way might be, though I am sure there are learned treatises which suggest that our energy travels into some other dimension when we "die", that this human spirit is too powerful to be annihilated.

No doubt these treatises are written by madmen, for madmen, but then wherever you go with this thing, you are confronting surrealism and unreason.

I like these ideas, of course, about that other dimension where all our buddies may have gone, in some shape or form. I like to hear that Steve Jobs, who had maintained that death is "very likely the single best invention of life", had checked out with the words, "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow".

I like a tale of the wondrous white light that shines at the end of the valley of the shadow of death as much as the next man, but I have no great curiosity about it, no urge to join with the enthusiasts in that particular pursuit.

Better to let that happen, I feel, to hand that one over to the powers-that-be.

Not that we are completely helpless in all this. I think of the words of Christy Moore when I interviewed him a couple of years ago, and he contemplated the amount of time he might have left.

"I'll tell you one thing I'm very conscious of now, which I never was before. I constantly wonder, how many gigs are left now? Is it five, or is it 10, or is it a hundred? . . . I know it's not a thousand . . . it can't be a thousand . . ."

And then he thought about a bit further . . .

"But maybe it could be, if I live to be . . . what do you call the guy? . . . Tony Bennett . . . If I do a Tony Bennett, there could be another thousand", he laughed.

So the Reaper may not be infallible. It would seem that he is still out there trying to find Tony Bennett, who fought on the front line towards the end of World War II, and who then pushed his luck even further by going into show business for the next 70 years, and more.

Not only is Bennett still alive, he was recently seen performing with Lady Gaga, and still there was no sign of "that cat with the scythe" tugging at his sleeve.

We're all rooting for you, Tony . . .

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