Keeping a close eye on the departure board


I led a very sheltered childhood, blissfully unaware of the fact that I was living directly downwind of Windscale at the time of the disastrous 1957 reactor fire, or that the world had come to the brink of much more widespread nuclear destruction in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.


In fact, death was a stranger to me until January 8, 1970, when I was 15½ years old, and my beloved Auntie Maisie handed in her dinner pail while making a phone call in the hallway of her Benwell home. We never did find out who she was calling; quite possibly the ambulance service to say “Help, I think I’m having a heart …”

She wasn’t actually my aunt, just one of those honorary aunts and uncles awarded the title by parents to their own close friends, at a time when it was considered wildly inappropriate for children to address grown-ups simply by a Christian name.

But she was one of the most generous people I have ever met: a regular supplier of sweets, magazines, birthday and Christmas presents throughout my childhood. Apart from that, her other and much less important distinguishing feature was that she was colossally fat, at a time when obesity was much less common than it is today.

“She’ll got out like a light one day,” my mother remarked several times before the very sad day when she did indeed go pop. And, as is always the case, no matter how often a death has been predicted, it came as a massive shock.

All of which is a lengthy preamble to noting the fact that death has finally caught up with me and my contemporaries in a big way. The passing at the weekend of A.A. Gill, born like me in 1954, is but one instance of a whole series of recent deaths of people of around my age – some known to me, many not.

The obituary columns are beginning to read like a station departure board, on which I may not have to wait too long for my own platform to be announced.

It seems like only the other day that I was able to kid myself that there was still masses of time left in which to fulfil my potential. After all, virtually no one I knew well had died.

I was sheltered by the fact that three quarters of my grandparents died long before I was born; and the remaining 25%, a real old Geordie battleaxe who bore more than a passing resemblance to the black-clad Grandma of the classic Giles cartoons, could scarcely be said to have had her innings cut short when she expired, aged 92, in 1973.

Murdered by the gas board, some muttered, when she suffered a stroke after repeatedly traipsing down and upstairs from her first floor Tyneside flat to admit one of their operatives. Though some blame might also be attached to her refusal to have “the electric light” installed by her landlord in the late 1940s, on the grounds that it was not worth the bother when her own life expectancy was so short. With the result that she saw in the 1970s inhabiting surely the last gas-lit domestic property in Newcastle.

Outside my family there was one kid I barely knew at school who went over the handlebars of his bike and was never seen again; and another vague acquaintance at college who perfected the art of swallow diving from the window of his room into the river below, after a night on the ale, and unfortunately tried to repeat the trick when he had been moved to new accommodation overlooking a paved courtyard.

But by some miracle none of my close friends or colleagues ever fell seriously ill or suffered fatal accidents until I was well into my thirties. And even then, it seemed hard to draw lessons from the death of someone who had been warned after an earlier heart attack that they must never touch a cigarette or alcohol again, or subject themselves to any kind of stress, yet continued to chain-smoke, drink at least a bottle of brandy a day, and live life permanently on the edge.

Well, now I can be under no illusions that the Grim Reaper is closing in. Going through the annual mailing list of my contemporaries as I wrote my Christmas cards at the end of last week, I found myself picturing us all sitting in a circle in the day room of a care home, wondering “Who’s next?” and concluding that it was most probably me – albeit slightly consoled by the knowledge that Death likes nothing more than a surprise.

The long-lived diarist James Lees-Milne, contemplating the death of yet another close friend, compared it to living in a condemned cell and witnessing the daily procession of others to the gallows. He wondered why the experience did not drive more people mad.

Perhaps it will.

For my part, I am reminded not to leave until tomorrow what I can do today, and of the importance of fulfilling my very few remaining ambitions while I still can.

Though mainly, if I’m honest, I am reminded of the importance of leaving clear instructions for my funeral to ensure that I don’t have to spend the next few decades coming back to haunt someone else for screwing it up.

As for my epitaph, that was kindly written long ago by my first proper employer: “He had great gifts, but was too lazy to unwrap them.”


  1. Keith, you will probably outlive us all, but just in case, why don’t you throw a huge and marvellously expensive party for those of your friends who are still alive? Much nicer than having a wake and not being able to attend it, surely? I await my invitation. xxx

  2. Keith you will definitely outlive us all – those boys of yours will make sure of that. It is those that go to the gym every day and eat celery that tend to pop off first. Thank you for writing and thank you for entertaining me while I have my lunch at my desk – not a celery stick but an unhealthy toasted cheese sandwich so I will probably go first!

  3. About that station departure board … casual observation of ASLEF and the RMT suggests that your departure will, at worst, be long-delayed and, at best, may never arrive. Doesn’t that call for a large cigar and a bottle of brandy?


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