Whistling jauntily in the graveyard


Death is the ultimate stalker. If you are lucky you can cheerfully ignore his presence in the crowd for perhaps 40 years, as he occasionally makes off with someone probably no more closely related than a grandparent.

Then he starts closing in on your real loved ones – your parents and your contemporaries. Learning of another unexpected departure last week reminded me that, while all my closest friends are happily still alive, virtually everyone I knew at my college 40 years ago who seemed destined for real distinction is now dead: their books written, recordings made and Wikipedia entries closed.

Keith Jeffery
Professor Keith Jeffery, 1952-2016

This makes me sad, and also selfishly increases that tendency of those over 50 to keep looking over their shoulder to try and calculate how fast the stalker is approaching.

Without realising it, I have slipped into that habit of mind I found so frustrating in the previous generation when I proposed making longer term investments, such as planting trees.

“What’s the point?” they would shrug. “These ones will see me out.”

All too soon that way of thinking expands from slow-growing assets like trees to shorter-life ones such as motor cars and pairs of trousers.

Twenty years ago I was invited to a select gathering in the royal box at Covent Garden, where the then director of the Royal Opera unveiled a scale model of a planned (and since completed) redevelopment.

royal opera house

The most memorable response was from a very old lady, who said, “Well, this all looks very nice, Mr Payne, but it is of limited interest to me because by the time it is finished I shall be dead.”

Which was probably realistic, if arguably a little self-centred.

Having been blessed with children very late in life, I hope that I will always keep up an interest in projects I am unlikely to live to see, such as HS2, and to make any longer term decisions with their best interests in mind.

It’s a bit late now, with my certifiably dodgy ticker, to think of taking out the massive life insurance policy that would be most use to them in the inevitable event of my demise.

In my defence, at the time that I should have done that I had no dependents in reality or in prospect, and no one I particularly wanted to make whoop with delight when news of my death came through.

But I can at least try to put their interests in the forefront of my mind when casting my vote. I don’t think that my next date with democracy, helping to choose a Police & Crime Commissioner, is likely to make a powerful lot of difference to them either way.

But June’s referendum? Ah, that is quite another matter.


An angry columnist in a national newspaper at the weekend bemoaned the fact that we are all having to waste our time on this wretched vote when the only people who actually care about the EU are “old white men” and they will all soon be dead.

I have already heard some older people seriously questioning whether they should vote at all, since the outcome matters so much less to them than it will to their children and grandchildren.

(Encouraging such a line of thought may be one of the better avenues open to the Remain campaign, now that the possibility of enfranchising gullible children has been closed to them.)

I intend no such self-effacement, but I will be mindful of the fact that any change in the status of the UK, and the future of the EU whether we are in or out, is of massive importance to the future of my sons.

And, in particular, to their chances of enjoying the same sort of peaceful and reasonably prosperous life that I have been fortunate enough to enjoy up to now.

Much more so than my parents’ generation, who sacrificed years fighting a bitter war and were materially so much worse off than we are. Not only thinner and poorer, but also so much more likely to encounter their stalker not merely on the battlefield but in their own homes, as he carried off their young siblings.

My father: Durham Light Infantry 1943-1946

(If that sounds over-dramatic, my mother lost three brothers within weeks or months of their birth, in a prosperous middle class household in Alnwick.)

Remembering what my parent’s generation went through, I strongly believe on the one hand that they did not do so with a view to having every important decision about their country made by unelected bureaucrats and judges on the Continent.

Equally, if they felt it likely that withdrawing from the EU was likely to result in their grandchildren cowering in trenches while bullets and shells whistled overhead, I suspect that they would swallow their pride and prejudice and counsel me to vote for the status quo.

Only the status quo isn’t an option, whatever “Dave” would like us to believe. It’s a rather lousy choice between a highly uncertain future as an independent country (or as close to an independent country as any can be in this era of globalisation) or a highly uncertain future being reluctantly dragged along, dinghy-like, in the wake of the mighty dreadnought of an increasingly unified European state.

Berlin Wall
Just think of the RISKS, said no one at all

Like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia before it, I don’t think this supra-national project is at all likely to turn out well, and the consequences of its collapse will not be pleasant. But we didn’t think too much of those as we rejoiced when the Berlin Wall came down.

Nor shall I when I thoughtfully cast my eagerly awaited vote on June 23rd. Unless, that is, my stalker’s cold hand descends upon me before then.


  1. If I think little of those who govern us in this country, I think less of those (bureaucrats) who rule us from the Continent.


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