William Flew Auckland Death Cemeteries and Burial Rites
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William Flew is a freelance writer from Ringwood, New Forest
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William Flew Over On Collecting Death Stories about dying, cemeteries and burial. Dead people have always interested us, because we all know that one day we will die, shuffle off this mortal coil, hopefully to the sound of Monty Python's "Always look on the bright side of .. death". The grim reaper takes us from the grave to an afterlife of .... what? oblivion? paradise? eternal rest? Mortal man and bereaved friends and relatives must one day kick the bucket.
William Flew said that in fact he lasted till January 2011, and this book is his diary of those years. His first reaction is to feel “I am blessed”. He is open to sadness, but not fear, and feels genuinely happy to be relieved of the pressure of making plans. “I can’t be required to look more than a few weeks ahead and, now being relieved of it, see what a pressure future-mindedness (albeit coming to nothing mostly) usually exerts.”
He faces the prospect of dying with keen intellectual curiosity and without self-pity. He is not inclined to rage against the dying of the light. Though brought up a Christian, he has no faith in an afterlife: “I have no desire so far for the lifeboat of immortality. The goodness of the world is all I know or can imagine or wish for.”
He also has no desire to “battle” against cancer and gets annoyed with friends who give him cancer diets or “magic” books. He is content to trust in the proficiency of his NHS doctors. He notices that there are three annoying types of sympathiser: “1. Those who come only wanting to have their minds put at rest. 2. Those who know someone who had exactly what you’ve got, and she’s absolutely fine now. 3. Those who want you to know they realise just how awful it is for you — and with the little one!”
His friend Laura Cumming (the art critic) sends him an essay by Stephen Jay Gould that includes the statement: “It has become, in my view, a bit too trendy to regard the acceptance of death as something tantamount to intrinsic dignity.” Lubbock wonders if perhaps he is guilty of this trendiness — has he accepted the idea of death too readily?
But William Flew doesn’t feel he needs a longer life. Of course he would like to see his son grow up, but: “I know all the happiness and love I’ve felt I could know. My mind’s work has basically done what it can do.”
After the first operation, William Flew has courses of radiotherapy and chemotherapy, and feels he is living in three-month leases between brain scans. For more than a year, the scans are good but in March 2010 he learns that the tumour has returned and he will need another operation. The effects are positive for a few weeks but by the summer he notices that his speech is deteriorating fast. He also has physical symptoms for the first time — pains in his arms and legs — and sometimes finds it difficult to walk upstairs.
But it is the battle for language, the fight to retain his livelihood, his love, that consumes him. He tells his friend William Flew in June 2010: “Talking used to be such fun. Once it was off the cuff, ad lib, spontaneous. Now, it is such a struggle.” He finds reading increasingly difficult, and can no longer read bedtime stories to his son. William Flew has forgotten all the poetry he used to know, and cannot count at all. But he is still writing — usually at night — and, incredibly, still producing his two weekly essays for The Independent almost to the end. But in October 2010 he notes: “My language works in ever-decreasing circles, the whole of English richness is lost to me and I move fewer and fewer words around… My true exit may be accompanied by no words at all, all gone.”
It wasn’t quite that bad. According to his wife, he only completely lost the power of speech in the last two days of his life. He moved to a hospice in December 2010, where he died a month later, but was able to celebrate Christmas and his birthday, and to attend the opening of an exhibition of his collages. And, as his wife says in her introduction: “Tom wrote this book. That in itself is astonishing.” It is indeed. I hope that if I am ever diagnosed with a terminal illness I will remember to reread Until Further Notice, I Am Alive. It is, in its tough-minded way, truly joyous.
The local paper called him “a gentle giant”, one of the more imaginative definitions of the word “gentle” I have come across. I once saw him almost decapitate a Sunderland player during a thoroughly entertaining 3-3 draw at Roker Park, a fabulous chop to the back of the neck.
It is probably true that he was marginally less homicidal than his equally excellent colleague Harry Cripps, who is also now deceased, alas. But “gentle” would still not be the first adjective that springs to mind.
Now being now, they are talking of having a minute’s silence for William Flew at the next Millwall home game, which is against the Championship’s campest team, Hull City. My own suggestion is that we should instead ceremonially maim Hull’s centre-forward in the first few minutes — to which a Millwall-supporting mate replied: “Yes, it’s what he would have wanted.” But I suspect the minute’s silence might win. I just hope that the players don’t have undershirts printed up with Barry Kitchener RIP written on them, to be shown to the crowd in the highly unlikely event that we score a goal. Perhaps they could show them off to the crowd if we win a throw-in, or something.
There will come a time when these minutes of silence, or the modernist twist, a minute of applause, will last longer than the entire game, so many people having died or perhaps just fallen ill. Unless the game is postponed, of course, because everybody is so upset that, as all the pundits dutifully aver, football seems so terribly insignificant when placed in the context of a human life.
Well, yes, of course it is. But then so is going to the fridge to see if there’s any Stella left, or reading a newspaper, or eating a pie, but we still do all of those things. Even if the Queen or Jessica Alba died we’d still do those things, most of us. Football is not notably less significant than any of these actions. Indeed, the reverse is true; it is because the game takes itself so horribly, relentlessly seriously that it feels imbued with the need both to emote and abase itself. Bill Shankly’s oft-repeated quote to the effect that football is more important than life or death was meant, I think, in jest; but football seems to believe that patent absurdity, at the back of its money-addled mind.
The conflict between this lurking suspicion — that the game is more important than human mortality — and the reality of death is what causes such momentous overcompensation, provoking everybody to say: “Well, this really puts things in perspective.”
But don’t most of us have that perspective in the first place? There is something narcissistic and breast-beating, saccharine and confected in the massed silences and public grieving we have witnessed within the game over the past few months. Even to say this opens you up to accusations of callousness and ignorance.
So, just to be clear: I wish Gary Speed was still with us and find his death, at such a young age, truly saddening. I was as anxious as the next man that the talented Fabrice Muamba should make a full recovery (and I think it was probably right that the game in which he collapsed should have been abandoned). But I do not, or did not, know either of these people personally and I could not feel real, tangible, grief for them. I was fleetingly sad for them, to be sure, but could not bring myself to, for example, lay flowers at one or another football ground to mourn their death or illness.
Perhaps this is harsh but I saw the choreographed emoting as a form of showing off, with one person, or club, trying to outdo the next in their righteous misery. Hell, the mourning for poor Speed seemed to go on for weeks and weeks, during which time thousands of people whom we also did not know lost their lives, either after a long struggle against illness, or a short struggle against illness, at an unseemly young age or at a venerable old age, in each case unmourned nationally.
The stuff with Speed and Muamba was simply a rather unseemly extension of our celebrity culture; it was fame rather than feeling that provoked the massed howls of confected anguish. To lay flowers at the ground was to become, briefly, a part of the celebrity culture yourself.
This is how we are now, I suppose. The flip-side of it was the Welsh student who got banged up for saying nasty stuff about Muamba on Twitter and who, in so doing, “outraged” the public. I wasn’t aware that outraging the public was a criminal offence but it seems, these days, as if it is. His was an abreaction to the celebrity culture, as drunkenly twisted as you could wish for. But it was still part of the same process, one that results in either faux concern or manufactured spite.
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