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Category: Reflections Date: 06 Nov 05


While riffling through the magazine section of the thick, English Sunday papers I am struck by the intensely personal nature of its columns.

In a Guardian piece, the author Decca Aitkenhead remembers being an eight-year-old and watching her mother die of cancer. She writes about the lists her 38-year-old mother (who was told she had a year to live) made for her three children so they would know what to do when she died.


“The lists were limitless. She would sit propped up by pillows in bed compiling guidelines for every eventuality: She had left nothing to chance: how to make mashed potato and grated cheese, what to buy for the weekly shop, when to see the dentists, who to send Christmas cards to, where to buy Christmas presents.


“She worried about the novels that might not be read and drew up a list of recommendations for each child, with a suggested age at which each might best be introduced. Page by page, the anatomy of her entire life was broken down into a series of meticulous, precise instructions.”


Aitkenhead reveals her hurt over the fact that her mother’s decision to commit suicide, to take control of her death, was kept secret for 20 years by the grownups.


“Our mother told us everything about her mastectomy, except that it devastated her, and everything about dying, except that it would break our hearts. But how could she have guessed what a child would make of the equanimity with which she appeared to face death? I took it to mean only one thing: that she didn’t really mind. She was leaving her children forever and as far as I could see, she really didn’t mind.”


Love, death, private grief were the newspaper fare on offer with brunch, making you ask the big questions. What were those contingency lists in detail if they weren’t love? What was that suicide pill but a heroic gesture to spare her children the pain of her death?


In the Sunday Times, more intense feeling emerges from a Scotsman, writer A A Gill, whose loathing for England runs for almost 2,000 words in an article fittingly titled, I hate England.


This is because he believes: “The English are angry about something. The pursed lip and the muttered expletives, the furious glance and the beetled brow are England’s national costume. The English aren’t people who strive for greatness, they’re driven to it by flaming irritation.


It was anger that built the Industrial Age, which forged expeditions of discovery. It was the blind fury with imprecise and stubborn inanimate objects that created generations of engineers and investors.” And on and on he rages, not pretending objectivity.


Love, death, anger, grief. It made me think of how we handle it. In some ways, despite all our flamboyance, our island ribbing and posturing, we are more repressed than the Brits.


All our human stuff goes on beyond closed doors, making us perhaps among the loneliest nations in the world.


The mas, the politics, the sport and the crime are readily available for domestic consumption. Everything else is under wraps. We are either too ashamed or too repressed to talk about our loneliness, our fears, our illnesses, our prejudices towards gays, lesbians, other races, our inferiority and superiority complexes.


We can only look at death as a social occasion where we wear black, not as a means to examine the scary human condition of our own mortality.


We have had our moments of truth: the reporter who wrote her story of domestic violence; the mother who wrote courageously of the ordeal of her child’s kidnapping. But these are rare.


There is a reason for this. The truth is we are a brutally judgmental society. We are quick to damn, mock, pick like vultures near the dead at any display of weakness. By being secretive, insisting on putting on a public face, by being ashamed of our very human foibles we are making ourselves one-dimensional, denying ourselves comfort, erasing depths and nuances, mystery and the endless wonder of the human soul.


It’s time we allow ourselves to cry, to trust in the kindness of strangers.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur