A couple of weeks ago I learned that a friend from my teenage years had died. Pancreatic cancer. I don't think I had seen her for over 35 years (I may have seen her at the occasional wedding or celebration since, though I can't remember doing so), but she was a very good friend of one of my oldest friends, and I know several people who knew her.
I took it upon myself to call my friend in case he hadn't heard. Not that I thought he hadn't, but just in case. He needed to know, much more than me. I left a message on his voicemail. If he knew if her death, that wouldn't be a problem, and if he didn't, he'd rather know than not, however the message was delivered.
As it happens, he did know. But that's not point.
Leaving a message was hard. It reinforced how hard it is to talk about death. The words we use. Or don't: outside of the event, it's not something we really talk about. Unless we're watching detective shows on tv. (Then, it's not usually pancreatic cancer which is the cause of death.)
* * *
I was struck like many at the effect that the death of David Bowie had. I was never a huge fan of his music, but I found myself profoundly affected. Switching on radio, I heard the news, and then every tune for the next six hours had some correction to Bowie - either one of his songs, or something he worked on, or someone he influenced.
The thing is, every single one of his own tunes that was played held memories. (Well, not every single one; not from the new album, nor the one before that... But aside from those...!)
I remember Space Oddity from around the time of the moon landing in 1969. Starman makes me think of a family holiday in the south of France (as does Cat Stevens' Moon Shadow: I was reading Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea). I bought Aladdin Sane when it came out (though I didn't really understand it and swapped it a couple of years later with an LP a school friend had and didn't want. I remember I swapped Aladdin Sane - but I have no idea what I swapped it for).
I picked up Low, Station to Station and Heroes in the sales, not as they came out but a couple of years later, as much for Robert Fripp as David Bowie. A little later I bought Scary Monsters and, a few years after after that, Let's Dance.
Each of those records is very different; each intersects with my life at different stages. And each is intimately connected with their times: the memories associated with them are very strong.
And that is one reason I think I, and many others, found Bowie's death so affecting. Even those who weren't particularly into his music knew it, and it was woven into our memories of the times, whether we wanted it or not.
Bowie isn't the first rock star to die. I can remember when John Lennon was murdered, and, as with Bowie, for hours the radio was filled with his music. I can remember Elvis Presley dying too, though at that point I was into iconoclastic punk and the death of a middle of the road Lass Vegas sequined entertainer didn't feel out of place. (Love his 1950s stuff; hate his 1970s stuff.)No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977
But whilst they may have been around as I was growing up, neither Lennon nor Elvis had the impact on me that Bowie did, partly because of his longevity and partly because of his variety. He was there the whole time.
And partly, I'm sure, because of social media. Twitter and Facebook were alive with Bowie-phernalia. People sharing memories, videos, articles. Articles about people sharing memories and videos. All the tweets and posts reinforced each other. It built up into a tsunami of grief. People my age grieving the loss of our youth.
Bowie had always been there. He seemed immortal. And then he was dead.
And it reminded us that we will all die, and, if you're a middle aged man, you've got maybe twenty or thirty years left to do all the things you want to in your life.
* * *
My friend wasn't the first of my contemporaries to die. One friend - we'd been in a band together - died in his twenties. (I can't remember the circumstances.) Another, a journalist, was blown up when the IRA blew up Harrod's just before Christmas 1983. A third, a contemporary rather than a friend, was killed by a lorry as he was cycling to his research lab; this was hard because I had turned down the project that was then offered to him - it very easily could have been me.
But this death is, I think, the first of my friends to die of natural causes after reaching middle age. She had a husband and kids. She was younger than my father at his death (who, at nearly 57, had died painfully young. At some point in the next twelve months, I will be older than my father was at his death. If I'm lucky).
And it is a savage reminder, again, of our impending mortality. This is of course not news. But somehow knowledge of my death didn't seem so pressing thirty years ago, or even ten years ago. Nonsense, of course - like my friends and acquaintance who died young (all in their twenties) a fatal accident could have happened at any time (and of course still could. Would that be preferable?).
* * *
For many years, I have bought wine en primeur
- buying young vintage wine, free of duty, to be delivered at a future date when the wine is matured and ready to drink. A bit like wine futures, I guess. I currently have about twenty cases of claret, Rhone and port in store.
Last year, I had a health scare which, had the worst case scenario been borne out could have dramatically reduced my foreseeable life span.
Buying wine to drink in ten years time suddenly didn't seem such a good idea.