I was half-heartedly searching Twitter for some columnar inspiration when I was brought to a juddering halt by Richard Branson.
Not, for once, because I was imprisoned in one of those periodically mobile lavatories and wifi dead zones with “Virgin” unappealingly blazoned on the outside of the carriages.
But because I had stumbled upon an interesting question, posed as part of some characteristically egregious self-publicity for a new film about his unsuccessful balloon exploits. (Is there any mode of transport in which Sir Richard has not tried and failed?)
The question was this: “What would you do if you believed you only had a few minutes to live?”
Now that really made me think.
First, about how many minutes exactly? The dictionary definition of “few” is “a small number”. So five, perhaps? Or is that stretching it?
Five minutes is definitely not long enough to apologise to all the people I have ever unfairly insulted or lost my temper with, let alone to insult all the people I have yet to tell exactly what I think of them. Which is good news for Richard Branson in particular.
There would be absolutely no chance of ordering and enjoying a dozen Lindisfarne oysters followed by a medium rare chateaubriand with Béarnaise sauce, frites and a decent bottle of red Burgundy.
Given the choice (which none of us ever is, unless we can scrape together the price of trip to Dignitas) I’d vote to expire quietly in my sleep after a day of massive over-indulgence along those lines, like the fortunate late father of one friend.
But how to fill those last few minutes if I found myself on a crashing aeroplane or balloon? I don’t suppose there’d be much chance of getting a phone signal to tell my wife and children that I love them. I could scribble a note, I suppose, if I could lay my hands on pen and paper, but my handwriting is judged illegible by nearly everyone at the best of times, and seems unlikely to be improved by trembling with terror at the approach of death.
“ ‘I wont voo elm tu kmam fhaf I have jou ell’? What the hell does that mean? And what’s that terrible stain on the paper? Do you think it’s blood?”
“No, I think it’s human, but not blood.”
“Oh, yuck! That’s gross! Throw it on the fire!”
So maybe not a farewell note either, then.
Like Woody Allen, I am not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
I’ve devoted much of my life to thinking through “what can possibly go wrong?” to eliminate unnecessary risk factors, though to judge by the newspaper deaths columns the biggest single danger is being surrounded by your family, as so many people seem to slip away under these conditions.
Anecdotally, however, it seems that most of us would actually prefer to die alone, since I have lost count of the number of tales I have heard of grieving spouses and children taking the shortest of breaks from prolonged deathbed vigils only to find that their loved one’s last breath has been drawn in their absence.
Other announcements of the mode of death are usually entirely predictable: suddenly, peacefully, after a long illness bravely borne. I’ve come across the occasional “reluctantly” but none, so far, saying “while laughing”.
That is surely the end to aim for, and the one to which I would aspire if faced with Richard Branson’s question. Because this life business has all been a bit of a joke, hasn’t it? There’s no point taking it too seriously. Added to which, if my obituary did say “while laughing” it would raise a few more smiles as my friends and acquaintances reflected that there really is a first time for everything.
Yes, that will do nicely. A terminal wry chuckle, a quick blast of the 1662 Prayer Book then a plain stone in Whittingham churchyard with “La Commedia è finita” as a suitably operatic epitaph.
Then I read on and found that Branson had, characteristically, answered his own question, with the words: “Don’t look back. Don’t be afraid. Don’t give up. Don’t Look Down.”
That obviously applies to the crashing balloon scenario or, as it might be, the disintegrating spacecraft. Presumably if standing at the bottom of a mineshaft with death approaching in the form of a large boulder or free-falling lift cage, it will require modifying to Don’t Look Up.