Book review: Every Third Thought, by Robert McCrum

Robert McCrum 's series of essays examines our anxieties around ageing and dying
Robert McCrum 's series of essays examines our anxieties around ageing and dying
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There is a lovely Borders phrase, usually uttered when looking at the hatches, matches and despatches in a newspaper, or the announcements in a funeral director’s window: “There’s folks a-deein that hae never deed afore”.

Robert McCrum’s elegant series of essays captures that sense of surprise and inevitability that comes into any discussion of mortality. We all know that the final act is already written, but cannot imagine how it will feel, or even if it does feel at all: indeed, as Wittgenstein observed, “death is not an event that occurs in life”.

This book comes after a number of works on similar themes, some of which McCrum acknowledges – Raymond Tallis’s The Black Mirror, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and classics by Joan Didion and Jenny Diski – but also Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye, Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act Of Love and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. So what does McCrum bring that is new?

Firstly, he is an impeccable stylist, as one would expect from a former editor and literary editor. Much of what he has to say is not about death so much as senescence and grief; as one would expect from the author of My Year Off, in which he described his experiences after having a stroke. He has had, if you like, a foretaste of the limitations imposed by age, the cliff-edge of thinking, “Am I actually going to…” and a heightened awareness of the difficult business of living.

He has a very apt metaphor for the later years of life: an award-winning movie we have heard of by word of mouth, and even seen trailers for, but put off actually seeing. As he says, “Inexorably, when The Endgame gets screened, we shall be in the audience.” Some of the best writing here involves McCrum describing almost banal little indignities – a stumble becomes a series of dilemmas and diagnoses.

Secondly, the book is graciously about others as much as it is about himself. Some of the people he speaks to are well known – the television critic and poet Clive James, the brain surgeon and author Henry Marsh, the writer and psychologist Adam Phillips; and some are people you probably will not have heard of – Andrew, whom he met while in convalescence, Carol, a policy consultant undergoing chemo, Max, who has Parkinson’s, and even his own sister. This is a kind of testimonial writing and allows the paradoxes of illness and aging to be clear. For every person who finds an inrush of joy, there is one looking at the price of tickets to Zurich.

Thirdly, it is also a work of literary criticism, examining the ways in which our anxieties about aging and dying have been represented in prose and poetry. McCrum is admirably eclectic in his tastes here. Although it might begin with Donne’s famous “Meditation 17”, it also takes in Terry Pratchett and his revelation that he had early onset Alzheimer’s, and for every reference to a classic like Swift, Montaigne or Tolstoy, there is a contemporary and apposite quotation by Billy Collins, Martin Amis or Salley Vickers.

Although there is incisive work here, it can sometimes have a scrapbook feel to it. It would have been interesting to expand some of this into some of the problematic contemporary depictions of death – how it is a kindly companion, as in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief; how death is not an obstruction to being the narrator, as in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones; how it’s not such a big deal anyway thanks to reincarnations, preternatural longevity, being a sexy vampire or climbing out the window at the age of 100. We are in an age where death and aging are, worryingly, sentimentalised. The title of the book comes, of course, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the bard provides a lodestone throughout for the manifold ways in which both aging and death can be understood. Given that he most likely played the Ghost in Hamlet, this seems unsurprising. If anyone was going to bring back knowledge of the hereafter, I would put my money on Shakespeare.

Two things seem to be rather flippantly set aside. There is a throwaway comment that humans are the only creatures that know they were born and will die. True to an extent, but we all know of the cat that took itself away and the dog that refused to budge from the radiator. They too may have a sense, at least, of the impending. The question of religion was bound to come up, and it is respectfully noted and respectfully suspected of being a mere pabulum for the addle-headed. Whenever I think of these things, it is in religious writers I find the most challenge and the most solace. (To be fair, McCrum is very good indeed on CS Lewis). Robert Lowell beautifully ended his poem “Sick” with the lines “Sometimes in sickness / We are weak enough to enter Heaven”.

This eloquent book shows that it is not just philosophy that “teaches us to die well”, but literature – and more than that, a common humanity.

*Every Third Thought: On Life, Death And The Endgame, by Robert McCrum, Picador, £14.99