Richard Holloway (2018) Waiting For The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death.

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Psalm 90:10 King James Version (KJV)

 The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

 

Richard Holloway is in his nineties, a bit older than the biblical fourscore years and he’s still waiting for that last bus. It’s a regular service. If he misses it, another is sure to follow. Life may be an unequal race, but in the end, we all end up  in a dead end. Holloway is agnostic, which means he’s just not sure and if it really matters. I guess that matches my own inarticulate beliefs.

Holloway when he was around my age was Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and even then he wasn’t sure he believed in the risen Christ, or the idea of God. He had doubts, as all good men had. It’s all there in his marvellous biography, Leaving Alexandria.

And he’s written a stack of other books about morality and religion and dabbles in poetry and music. His muse is his life and reading and ‘The Last Bus’ is an extension of Leaving Alexandria, the postscript before he becomes a postscript.

He talks about the faith he had in the pills advertised in Church Illustrated around 1958 that cured baldness, which he purchased, but went bald anyway.  The only known cure after than was combing back to front and trusting in a fair wind and the myopia of others. There’s a metaphor and lesson there somewhere and it is this, the human animal is cursed and blessed with self-awareness and self-consciousness. The secret is acceptance.  The consolation is as we get older ‘vanity and self-consciousness fade away’.  That’s the theory.

More difficult is when we can see the last bus and knowing there’s only one stop ahead of us, there’s no future in front of us and our past is behind us. He quotes Philip Larkin:

‘And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true’.

Holloway calls for gratitude, not for death, but for life and the beauty of the world. His polemic extends to the medical profession who keep us alive when all joy is gone.

When in doubt, make a documentary about is as Louis Theroux does in the state of California and the land of the free, in Altered States, Choosing Death.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bshjrp/louis-theroux-altered-states-2-choosing-death

Here we have a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. We have a man who is grateful for the life he has lived and chooses death and takes the lethal overdose a doctor had provided. He dies with his family beside him. A terminally-ill woman does not take the lethal overdose but dies of natural causes, in other words, cancer. Whether that a better end, who knows?

The ugly face of death is here, in a group called Exit. This is something Holloway recognises in his long years of religious life and strive, the fanatic, who is always right. Theroux follows this man and woman as they prep an elderly woman in a wheelchair about the best way to kill herself. She is terminally ill and has early onset dementia, her life partner, her arms and legs, her quality of life, had died with him.

Theroux is too smug to be a devil’s advocate, but here I felt there were more push factors than the pull of death. She didn’t want to lose her house, she couldn’t afford medical care and her arguments were about money.

Nobody really cares said the Exit advocate, apart from the immediate family of the dying. And he was right, I agreed with him. She’d end up living in a twelve-by-eight room with another resident if she was taken into state care. There’s a lack of light here, but no lack of clarity. His co-Exit partner agreed with him. Her argument was that was just the way it is.

We know that over 600 000 people in the United States last year were made bankrupt because of their medical bills, but that’s when the bad becomes the sad and we’re in the slippery slope argument beloved of fanatics of a different sort. I’ve been reading about how euthanasia programmes in Hitler’s Germany were first set up in hospitals by Himmler and rolled out across the conquered nations for ‘mouths unworthy of life’. This is a dilute Exit version in California and here is the evidence, when we start talking about money, we’re taking about empty mouths. Let’s not kid ourselves and call it something else. Certainty is man’s most dangerous weapon.

But certainty, like black holes and religion is plural and not singular. Holloway quotes the French mystic, Blaise Pascal.

FIRE: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars.

Death’s imperative does not go away and it’s always personal. We’re all waiting for that last bus, if we don’t get hit by a train first. Too late, too late, our regrets take us places we don’t want to go. Holloway quotes the words of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond god, or the ultimate reality will meet us wherever we are and however we have made of ourself.

He gives you time in heaven to do as you please,

To climb love’s gradual ladder by slow degrees

Gently to rise from sense to soul, to ascend

To a world of timeless joy, world without end.

 

 

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Laurent Binet (2012) HHhH translated from the French by Sam Taylor

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I had a theory that HHhH stood for Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, but I wasn’t sure who or what the other H stood for. I wasn’t sure why three of the H were capitalised and one wasn’t. I was wrong in the right way. Hitler, Fuhrer, number one in the Reich, Himmler perhaps with the largest powerbase and his number two, but it was Herr Reinhard Heydrich who was ‘killer bureaucrat’ and gloried in being known as ‘the most dangerous man in the Reich’ who fancied ousting his boss and  being number two, or possibly (whisper it) even number one.

We can talk of power behind the throne or  Himmler Hirn heisst Heydrich HHhH (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich).

I don’t know if Heydrich did fancy being number two, or even number one and supplanting Hitler. That’s speculation, or as they say in some terrible telly drama, this was based on true events. Binet admits to knowing some of the facts, but not all of the time. He’s good at pointing out when fact becomes factional, or in plainer terms fiction. And it’s a wonderful guide, a kind of how to write a historical novel.

Fiction writers such as Julian Barnes begin writing a biography of Gustave Flaubert and ask difficult questions like why does the colour of Madame Bovary’s eyes change during the narration of Madame Bovary? Is this intentional or a textual error so unlike master craftsman Flaubert as akin to an adolescent putting his shoes on the wrong feet. This is Barnes’s jumping off point to writing something that is neither fact nor fiction, neither true nor false, Flaubert’s Parrot.

Binet does not parrot the facts of what we know, but covers the whys and why nots of those grey areas in which novelists grow like toadstools and show the before and after of Heydrich’s assassination, on the 4th June 1942 in Prague and the mass murder of the citizens of Lidice, the razing of buildings, the salting of the ground.

I still don’t have the book that Heydrich wife wrote after the war, Leben mit einen Kreigversbrecher (‘Living with a War Criminal’ in English, although the book has never been translated). I imagine it would be a mine of information, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on it.

Here he tells the reader about a night he spent watching a documentary about General Patton.

The documentary consists entirely of showing extracts from the film, then interviewing witnesses who explain, ‘In fact it wasn’t really like that…’ He didn’t take on two Messerschmidts that were machine-gunning the base, armed only with his Colt…He didn’t make such-and-such a speech to the whole army, but in private, and besides, he didn’t actually say that…He didn’t disobey orders and take Palermo…He certainly didn’t tell a Russian General to go fuck himself…So, basically, the film is about a fictional character whose life is strongly inspired by Patton’s, but clearly isn’t him. And yet the film is called Patton. And that doesn’t shock anybody.

It might have if it was called Patton’s Parrot. Binet’s intention is to write the truth about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the reprisals which followed and it’s all there early in the text in Chapter 6 when he enters the church crypt in which the assassins died fighting to the last with 700 SS guards outside.

The props are there for the unfolding story told in the bullet holes in the vaulted ceiling, (here, I, the blog writer, am using fictional means to keep you the reader entertained, you don’t really need to know this)

There were photographs of the parachutists’ faces, with a text written in Czech and English. There was a traitor’s name and a raincoat. There was a poster of a bag and a bicycle. There was a Stern submachine guy (which jammed at the worst possible moment) [standing facing Heydrich and his driver when the car has slowed and stopped] All of this was actually in the room. But there was something else here, conjured by the story I read, that existed only in spirit…

Binet sets out to wrestle with that spirit and tell the story of the assassination and in exploring his own inadequacies somehow he makes the story more human, more believable, and more true. This is why HHhH won the prestigious Prix Goncourt and other awards. Not bad for a debut novel that is not a novel. Bravo.