A few months back, I was watching a Suede concert on TV with my three-year-old. They’ve been an important band in my life for almost 30 years, so I asked him what he thought of the music. He nodded his head in appreciation, then turned to me and asked: “Are they dead yet?” It was a reasonable question. Brett Anderson, who admits to subsisting mostly on brown rice and drugs during that period, was certainly at his most decadently gaunt. Happily though, I could tell him that the band are all still in rude health, both physically and creatively.
Jean is four now, and he still asks if people are dead, though more often than not he’ll say: “Are they alive?”, which is a more positive way of framing such a heavy question. I could tell it affected him when he recently discovered that the dinosaurs are extinct, an outcome he finds difficult to process, and one he often asks me questions about. As we wheeled our way to nursery the other day, we were discussing the theory that dinosaurs were wiped out by a huge meteor which hit the earth and blocked out the sun. “But it’s only a theory,” I said to him. After I explained what a theory was, he jumped on the idea that the dinosaurs could be hiding somewhere and not extinct at all.
I find it fascinating, and not a little unnerving, that he’s thinking about death already. As a parent, it’s difficult not to feel guilty that you’ve brought a child into the world and saddled them with that eternal question: “What happens to us when we die?”
Jean hasn’t asked me what happens when we die yet, but I’m sure it won’t be long until he does. I will have to tell him something, but it will be cowardice if I just give him some flannel about “heaven” to keep him quiet. His great grandfather, who was very old, died last year. My son is aware that he’s not here anymore, but I’m not sure if he really thinks about it in the terms that we understand it.
I was seven years old when the idea of death smacked me in the face. About a month before, John Lennon had been assassinated. The shock and sadness I could see my parents express, and Frank Bough’s unusually serious demeanour on the BBC’s Nationwide tribute show, startled me enough to inspire an interest in the Beatles that has persisted to this day – though I still hadn’t really wrestled with the idea of death itself. That came in January when I was watching the evening news: an actor had died. The actor in question had not been a significant figure in my life. It was Bernard Lee, known for playing M in the Bond films. After my mum put me to bed that night, I remember being gripped by a terror I’d not known before, tears streaming down my face. I recall being awake half the night (though I suspect I went to sleep much quicker than I now imagine). That sense of not knowing what death was, but suddenly being aware of its absolute inevitability, was very real. And while I feel pity for that child in 1981, it occurred to me recently that my perception of death now is no more sophisticated than it was in that moment. The same void that I imagined then is the same void I think of now. I have more subtle ways to soothe my own fears, but the darkness and the finality look the same to me as they did 40 years ago.
About seven years ago, I had my own brush with death, when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, and then, following the first operation, a couple of little round dots were identified in my liver from a CT scan. Doctors were of the opinion that the cancer had metastasized. I remember getting off the phone to my oncologist, who told me the bad news, and then breaking into a cold sweat as I read with horror the damning prognosis of the internet. Being so close to death made me realise I wanted to live and I wanted children too. It’s not something I’d really thought too much about before, but then, as the void beckoned, I felt a sense of emptiness and sadness that I hadn’t started a family.
I had a liver resection and the doctors who operated on me found no cancer in the liver, though whether that was because there was none there in the first place, or because the chemo had effectively wiped it out, will remain unknown. Nevertheless, there were times leading up to surgery when I became surprisingly accepting of the fact I would probably die soon. It’s hard to put myself back in that place, especially after recently passing the landmark that all cancer survivors hope to reach, hearing their doctor say the words “five years clear”. Now that the doomsday clock has been reset, I have none of that serenity. I do have a child though. Jean-Genie was born in Paris in 2017, partly named after my surgeon Jean-Michel Siksik, and partly because I’d spent so much time thinking about David Bowie after his death. Jean-Genie came to me in a dream, and it felt right.
I remember lying on my rubber mattress at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital under the fog of morphine, and when I became fearful and overwhelmed with the enormity of it all, I’d try to imagine the universe in its entirety. Then I’d think about the expanses of time and my place in it. And, not having a brain the size of space and time, it was something I couldn’t do. But just getting a glimpse into the infinite vastness of it all would remind me of my insignificance, and I’d feel a little bit better about it all.
I feel something similar when I look at, listen to, or watch great art, much of which was here before I was. Art that addresses death is a good prism to look through to share in the wisdom of the ages, and to make you feel less alone. We live in strange times, when it can seem that nothing and nobody really dies. But I like to think that the best art can puncture this fallacy. One of my preferred ways to spend an evening is to get lost in the black and white glamour of a French New Wave film, where everyone is chic and beautiful and young and cool, even if Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Catherine Deneuve are some of the only ones left standing. We’re haunted by pictures and voices because we choose to be, from Little Richard to Biggie Smalls, and sometimes we even forget that they’re not here anymore. When Jean asks, “Are they alive?” the answer is, in a way, yes they are.
Without death’s mystery, perhaps there would be less inspiration, less good art. Ophelia by John Everett Millais, a painting I could look at all day, resurfaces in Roy Lichtenstein’s The Drowning Girl, in Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘La Noyée’, and came originally, of course, from the work of Shakespeare, the “Bard Eternal”. These pictures and films and songs remind us that their creators felt the pain and anxiety and hopelessness that we feel, and the release of death will come to every one of us without exception.
Even Suede will all be dead, one day. In that, we are far from alone.