Saturday, April 23, 2011


Thrift and, to a lesser degree, inclination keep us at home while others take their holidays. We are fortunate enough to have a house, land and a general environment that is very conducive to staying put. Even working from home takes no edge off the pleasure.

From a safe distance, we watch others sitting in traffic jams, sweltering in airport lounges, regretting the temporary accommodation into which they have stumbled. Holidays can be a pleasure, of course, and a necessary restoration. They can be much more than that: they can furnish some of the most glorious moments and memories of our lives. And equally they can be a disappointment, even a nightmare. East, west, home’s best.

The key word in that sentiment, though, is “safe”. From an even safer distance, we have looked on aghast in recent times as lives, homes, whole communities have been destroyed by flood, wildfire, earthquake, hurricane, drought, tsunami. Thousands of lives have been snuffed out. Thousands more have been deprived of everything. It’s unimaginable: losing in a few moments one’s family, home, friends, livelihood, land, pets, the tools of one’s trade, possessions, mementoes, livestock, neighbourhood – all of the things that define one’s existence.

All of these disasters are beyond our ability to resist or predict. They are natural events, the accidents of a moving, evolving planet. Or at least, they are up to a point. Many fires that destroy large areas are started carelessly, even deliberately. All of the other catastrophes, it can be argued, are made more prevalent by the degree to which we have exploited and polluted the planet. And the way that we behave brings closer another apocalyptic event, one that may become more common in the near future: pandemic.

But there is still another kind of disaster that can have just as devastating an impact on people’s lives, one that is entirely avoidable: warfare. In some respects, warfare (as well as being gratuitous yet willed) is even more damaging than the natural disaster. The intelligence about victims and casualties becomes caught up in propaganda. The impulse to help those affected, whether directly or by donation, is much weaker than in the face of an unwilled event and much more hampered by the ongoing nature of that event. Moreover, as is claimed to occur in Libya and Syria, those who seek to help may themselves become targets. And the toxic nature of modern weapons can continue to destroy long after the ceasefire, as any resident of Vietnam will tell you.

News organisations always want numbers to attach to disaster reports so that they can convey a sense of the scale of the event. But casualties of war are less diligently counted, harder to determine, more likely to be disputed. War propaganda routinely casts doubt on stories of civilian casualties and fiercely denies reports of atrocities. When evidence of civilian deaths and injuries begins to look harder to refute, the authorities issue a shrug: the term for such eventualities is “collateral damage”. The word collateral means parallel or alongside but it also carries the sense of being subordinate, of being of lesser consequence.

Military deaths are reported one by one, identified, praised and personally recalled. Civilian deaths are often unreported, mostly unrecorded, certainly not identified. The military personnel who receive wounds are rushed to the best available medical attention. The civilians who receive wounds must fend for themselves – crawl to someone who might help, stumble through wrecked streets at the mercy of falling masonry, snipers, bombs. Their hospital may anyway have been razed; if not, it will certainly be desperately short of staff, beds, power, equipment, medicaments, even basic dressings.

And the military don’t have to be there. Becoming a warrior is a career choice, save in those countries that impose conscription: China, Russia, Libya, Syria, Israel and most other middle eastern countries, many South American nations and – which may surprise you, as it does me – Greece, Denmark, Finland, Austria and Switzerland. The military are there out of choice – if not necessarily their own choice, certainly their government’s choice. They are equipped to protect themselves as far as is feasible. At worst, though certainly not eliminated, their risk is contained.

Civilians have no such advantages. They are where they live and, unless they are rich – and war casualties generally are not rich – that is their only option. They have no protection, no defence, nothing with which to retaliate, no basis from which to seek redress, no hope but the hope that the attack will end before their lives do.

In Libya, in Afghanistan as I write, as you read, or not long before or after, civilians are dying by the weapons of invaders, interferers, interlopers: the western powers, NATO, the supposedly civilised world. Lives and those things that make those lives are obliterated without a thought. It’s a price you have to pay, say the politicians and brass hats. It’s unavoidable. And there is the unvoiced subtext: it’s okay, it’s just collateral damage, it’s just ordinary people, they are of no significance.

If a bomber “took out” the family of Obama or Cameron or Sarkozy or Rasmussen or Petraeus, we would never hear the last of it. We would be asked and expected to feel and share that man’s pain. Does any one of them ever look back in the opposite direction at the Afghani man whose wife and children are killed by a misdirected US drone at a wedding, at the Libyan mother whose scared and ill-trained only son, obliged to defend Gaddafi, burns to death in a Libyan tank hit by a British missile more sophisticated than her family can ever hope to be?

The scars of the war in Vietnam will be visible – and present if invisible – for generations as yet unborn. Iraq, home to one of the world’s most ancient and lucid cultures, is a ruined land. So is Afghanistan. So soon will be Libya. Does nobody care about this wanton destruction of people and their civilisation?

Well, the NATO apologists will say, if the “great powers” had not acted, Gaddafi would have destroyed his own people? Would he? No one can ever know what would have happened had Libya been left to its own devices. What we know for certain is that Libya is wracked by civil war, a war that has been changed daily over five weeks by foreign powers. Everything that happens now in Libya is a product, to some degree, of the presence of sorties from the air by invaders. NATO is engaged and therefore is responsible. It is too easy merely to “blame” Gaddafi for everything. The invaders also have to own their actions.

In the modern world, as in the ancient, war is the option of first, not of last resort. Despots and governments, fundamentalists and rebels, generals and fighters stride into military confrontation with the intention of “winning”. It seems that they learn nothing from precedent. They have no plan B, no sense that the enemy may not fall down at the first puff of wind, no strategy for the unexpected, the long-drawn-out, the endgame. The moment that things stop being as a simple as a playground scrap, they start to tell lies, to seek to save face, to pretend that the end will be what is required, even if it turns out to be unrecognisably different from the stated or implied war aims at the outset.

Meanwhile, people die. The lives of ill-trained front-line troops are sacrificed. Bystanders who barely grasp the great causes at stake are mown down. Small children, whose task is not yet to comprehend the gutter into which they have been born, are orphaned, blinded, deprived of limbs, rendered zombies and mutes and psychopaths. Mean streets, the best that they know, are flattened. The earth is despoiled and will no longer sustain dependable crops.

And of course the damage done to the planet is not readily contained in the theatre of war. We may shit in the next field but the elements and the actions of living things bring the turds back into our own field. We unleash the dogs of war without taking the precaution of training them, directing them, studying their nature.

Humans have thousands of years of philosophy, diplomacy and historical study upon which to draw. How can it be beyond the glorious sophistication of mankind to contrive a mechanism whereby avenues other than taking up arms are comprehensively explored before a stone is thrown in anger? Cannot the UN be so constituted that territorial face-offs, tribal rivalries, disputed elections and perceived despotism are examined and the remedies negotiated before bodies and homes and productive land are destroyed?

Almost 2000 years ago, Tacitus wrote: “They have made a wasteland and called it peace”. In some translations, “wasteland” is rendered as “desert”. Perhaps those generals and politicians who talk airily about “drawing a line in the sand” in Libya – evidently unmindful that a line in the sand is about as easily eradicated a gesture as can be made – will consider, when they are done in that benighted land, whether they have enhanced the desert or merely rendered it unfit for habitation.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Three weeks ago, I disdained the social networking website Twitter, as I had done ever since I first heard tell of it. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in sensing that all it amounted to was Stephen Fry announcing that he was cutting his toenails in the bath and Victoria Beckham luxuriating in the ability to put 129 exclamation marks behind the words “Bin shoppin”.

Then a friend told me that she had plugged my blog posting about the Alternative Vote. And where had she plugged it? On Twitter. I didn’t think much about it until I detected a striking spike in my blog visitor numbers. I hastened to investigate Twitter. I soon saw that it was for me.

My less dismissive notion of the site before I looked at it was still one that again I suspect that I was not alone in entertaining. People posted comments of up to 140 characters and their followers read them and were duly grateful. I couldn’t imagine that there would be many, the crumbs from whose tables I would be anxious to hoover up. Who would I follow?

On the other hand, I have plenty of practice at the brief, snappy letter to The Guardian and, though those tired of seeing my moniker on the letters page of that paper (and sometimes others) may find it hard to credit, only a portion of the letters I send actually makes it to print. But everything I tweet will survive. Naturally, none of my regular blog readers would dream of musing that perhaps I have occasionally been given to overwriting, that the editor’s blue pencil might sometimes be wanting on my postings. But 140 words is a good length, generous enough to make a succinct point.

I looked at my friend’s tweets. She rarely uses the full 140 characters. She frequently “retweets” the remarks of others and evidently never fails to retweet any compliment she receives. And there are nearly 1,700 fellow tweeters following her, which means that everything she tweets gets deposited in the in-box (called a timeline) of each of those followers, including her retweets and her responses to twitters who have tweeted her. Well, she has a certain public profile. I’m not unduly surprised. It seems quite a lot, though.

I know that Barack Obama tweets – the first head of state, I believe, to do it – so I put him in the search box and there was his timeline. He has nearly 7.5million followers and, more amazingly, he follows nearly 700,000 other tweeters. Of course his tweets are anodyne and you’d think that someone does them for him, save that he’s obviously a congenital fiddler with gadgets and they do sound like him. I bet he doesn’t read the incoming tweets, though. Even if all those he follows only tweet once each day, he wouldn’t be able to read them and govern the country as well.

So, with some slight misgivings, I signed on as a tweeter. It seems there were 200million tweeters worldwide so now there are 200million and one. My misgivings almost entirely concerned the little that I needed yet another displacement activity. Putting those aside, I took to it as a duck to orange. You can say anything you like as long as it isn’t offensively disobliging in the way that people generally understand that to mean – impugning individuals, giving gratuitous offence to groupings, that kind of thing. But no one minds if you say “fuck”.

If you are lucky enough, as I was, to have someone welcoming you in and recommending her followers to have a look at you, you soon have a list of followers of your own. Inside the first day, I had an MP whom I have never met following me. What’s more, she had not been connected to me by my friend. I had started putting people who interested me in the search engine, sampling their timelines and electing to follow those who I thought would not be wasting my time. One of those was that MP. I wondered if she automatically reciprocates by following those who follow her, but no, her following numbers are lower than her follower numbers.

I committed myself to following a select band of public figures whom I like and friends who, as I discovered, already tweet. And I started to frame my own tweets. Long story short, it became my latest obsession. Any damn fool thing that popped into my head became a tweet. In a little over two weeks, I have perpetrated more than 150 tweets. Of course I like to think that some few of them might divert somebody. But in truth few of them have been retweeted yet.

One’s list of followers grows slowly. Some of them are people who can only have fallen in one’s way by chance, people in small-town America with whom one has nothing in common. These seem to be the ones most likely to fall off one’s list pretty soon. But a local newspaper in Little Rock, Arkansas is still loyal, to what end I cannot guess. Also I’m touched that a number of Guardian journalists have picked up on me, and the letters page of that paper too.

I have not been promiscuous in my own following. Some tweeters only use their tweets as links to longer information elsewhere so unless you want to follow up these links there’s little point in continuing with them. Some tweet in a style of rambling incoherence. Some only ever appear to be in simultaneous conversation with others and the half of some of the conversations conducted by the person you follow drops onto your timeline but not the other half (you can access the other half if you wish).

I find the best tweeters are those who offer wry, pithy, unexpected and honed observations about the world in general rather than the narrower world in which they sit. Julian Clary was the first tweeter I felt really drawn towards. His one-liners have a delightfully old-fashioned air about them, like a rather camper version of Alan Bennett (who sadly doesn’t tweet; nor does Victoria Wood). I also fell over the humorist David Schneider and soon added him to my list. He tweets perpetually and widely, rather too often to offer links but often enough just for the sake of being witty, which is certainly reason enough for me. One of his was: "Obama announces he will stand for election on the slogan 'Yes We Haven't'".

I did look at the timeline of Stephen Fry’s legendary tweets but he seemed another in perpetual conversation so I didn’t click on his follow button. I confess that I was looking for an excuse not to. But it’s hard to predict which of those you admire will turn out to be ideal tweeters and which hopeless. It’s nifty that each person you elect to follow gets an email to introduce you but, if you decide to stop following, Twitter is discreet about it. I notice that my follower numbers go up and down and I’m convinced that the drop-outs are all strangers but I can’t be sure.

A lot of politics gets aired on Twitter though not of course if you don’t look for it. I’m sure a lot of sport does too but I assiduously avoid it. Many political tweeters exist only to point you towards articles and if you’re not reading them you may as well cull the supplier. I had hopes of Tony Benn but he, like many tweeters, did a couple a while ago and then got sidetracked and forgot about it. Ming Campbell’s tweet list is the same. Busy politicos are apt not to have time to tweet much or their tweets are done for them, like a sort of on-line diary. The most engaging tweeting politician I have so far found is Chris Bryant. He always has plenty to say, obviously gets a kick out of issuing bulletins and smart remarks and, being in opposition and not in the Shadow cabinet, has a bit more leisure for it than, say, Ed Balls.

Of course, at a holiday time like the present, people’s opportunity and appetite for tweeting will be variously compromised. Nobody wants to seem like they’re not out enjoying themselves. My partner and I are fortunate enough to live somewhere where we can have lots of fun and I hope that I have communicated some of that in my more domestic tweets.

But, as may be apparent, I am in the early stages of an infatuation. It will settle, I am sure, especially as I have a slew of work to get stuck into starting this weekend (we freelancers know nothing of bank holidays).

Incidentally, it turned out that the swell of visitors to this blog was not entirely or even especially caused by my friend’s tweet about it. Very curiously, a lot of the visits concerned a posting a fortnight earlier, the one about the nuclear plant damage at Fukushima. By the time that fortnight had passed, a great many internet searchers, especially ones in the far east, were finding their way to my blog and evidently reading or at any rate scanning the piece. This was unexpected, gratifying and rather alarming in the sense that it gave me a grave sense of responsibility for the accuracy and wisdom of what I had written. I hope I survived the scrutiny. Certainly no one is reading my tweets for my views on the advisability or otherwise of nuclear energy.

To access my tweets, click on the Twitter icon above on the right hand side of the page. Oh, and if you scroll down to the very bottom of this page, you'll find my most recent tweets there.


A note about another site. If you paste this url into your address box:

you will find a new and satisfying site called The Story Cellar. You can run around it and explore for free, sampling the very varied short stories that it features. Then, for the modest fee of £15 per year (via PayPal), you can download whichever story catches your eye and follow up with another brand new short story each month. As an introductory bonus, a story from the out-of-copyright past may be chosen too.

Now there are many reasons why this is a beguiling place to go and not only because one of the stories is by moi (did you see that coming?). I shall be submitting others to the site soon and, as you will see, you can too.

Hope it engages you.

Friday, April 08, 2011


Thirty years ago, I was reviewing television for the weekly trade magazine Broadcast. My benign editor, Pattie Williams, gave me carte blanche to cover whatever I wanted and to arrange the material how it suited me. I soon fell into a pattern of pulling together all the recent dramas in one column, the last few weeks’ documentaries in another, then various current affairs programmes and so on.

The one area I rarely wrote about was outside broadcasts. It is in the nature of OBs that the subject matter is rarely initiated by the television companies. Almost always, OB cameras are present at an event that would be taking place whether the cameras were there or not, most commonly sporting fixtures. Sport anyway makes my teeth hurt – though we’ll sit through quite a bit of BBC2’s coverage of the Masters from Augusta tomorrow and Sunday nights. But in all but the rarest case, OBs are not very interesting televisually, that is to say qua television.

What was supposed to be the beginning of a "fairy tale"

I always tried to write about television in a way that focussed on the medium itself. Hence, when covering those programmes that originated in television – drama, dockos, sitcom and so on – I attended greatly to the distinctions between various directors and producers. I wrote quite as much of how one sees as about what one sees. In sum, what I was really writing about was the medium and its programme-making rather than (as so many critics, supremely Clive James, did) the world seen through the television window. I felt that I was treating my subject rather as a good book critic writes about literature and the writing of books rather than the details of plot in a novel or the niceties of argument deployed in non-fiction.

As the wedding of HRH the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer loomed, Pattie asked me gently if I planned to write about the coverage. I didn’t need to ponder before I said no and she accepted that with good grace. (I may misremember but I have a feeling that she commissioned someone else to write a one-off piece, to accompany rather than to supplant my own column).

Lady Diana rides into unreality television

A large public event like a royal wedding or a state funeral allows little scope for creative thought on the part of broadcasters unless the Palace itself decides to tinker with the format. So, for the editor in charge of coverage, the line producer and the director(s), it is far more of a logistical than an artistic exercise. Hungry newspapers try to build stories out of which celebs have been dragged in to give their precious views (anyone remotely famous who sounds English but hasn’t already been signed up by an American network for this month’s royal wedding has clearly missed a trick). But in truth there is very little mileage in the story of what television companies plan for their respective broadcasts, save for stuff about the cost.

Quite apart from the event’s lack of interest in purely televisual terms, I found no personal interest in it. My line at the time of the 1981 hullabaloo was: “I’m a Socialist, a republican, a humanist and a homosexual. What is there for me in a royal wedding?”

Royal couple-to-be: pretext for a marketing frenzy

There have been a few of these things in my time. Six months to the day after my birth, HRH Princess Elizabeth married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten RN. Few of the groom’s relatives attended. All of his sisters were married to Germans so they were not invited so soon after the war. Most of the nation followed the event on the wireless. Those few who owned television sets will have seen a sprinkling of live shots from outside Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. Later in the evening, a compilation of swiftly developed and edited film of the procession was broadcast.

It was not until the coronation of Princess Elizabeth as Queen in 1952 that the BBC had the resources to mount full coverage of the day’s events, including shots inside the Abbey. It was this transmission that established the medium as something everyone wanted to follow. A million sets were sold in the UK that year.

Royal wedding 1947 style

As well as the Prince of Wales, four of Her Majesty’s other relatives have elected to marry on television – and all but one of them (the now widowed Princess Alexandra) to divorce (not on television). The Queen’s youngest child, the Earl of Wessex, had a quiet ceremony at St George’s Chapel, Windsor and also remains wed.

I sat through the televised marriage of Princess Margaret to the trendy photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960. We had the day off school and my mother, a great royalist, decreed that watching was mandatory. The thing about it that has stayed with me most vividly is a remark by that swishy old queen Norman Hartnell about his design for the bride’s gown: “All the work is under the dress”. That seemed to me then and still seems a perfect evocation of the art that conceals art.

Serial wedder Henry VIII

Otherwise, I have avoided these atavistic marathons of non-television in which the merest platitude is uttered and then repeated as if a pearl of boundless price. In The Guardian the other day, various writers who think themselves wits were listing the supposedly subversive events that they plan to attend on the day that HRH Prince William plights his troth with Miss Catherine Middleton. How absurd. It’s like refusing to step into a church to look at the impressive Norman architecture because you’re an atheist. If you’re going to attend an anti-street party, you may as well go to a real one. To the question “what are you doing on April 29th?", my answer would be: “I’ve no idea, it’s three weeks away”.

At the Charles’n’Di do, the most interesting nugget was the lack of an invitation issued to the bride’s step-grandmother, that great, quivering pink blancmange of a romantic novelist, Barbara Cartland. No doubt someone advised of the likelihood that she would upstage most of the royal family, if not the Queen Mum herself. That of course would have made it worth a few moments of dipping into.

At the end of my Broadcast review of other (now forgotten) programming, I explained in a brief paragraph why I would not be covering the royal wedding. I ended by observing that “the wedding without Barbara Cartland will be like Hamlet without the Player Queen”. I thought this was a rather adroit witticism that would be repeated widely but it never was. I put that down to the narrow circulation of the magazine. Probably now it will go viral (whatever that means).

Player Queen

Sunday, April 03, 2011


Our lane expires in a T-junction with a main road. Before the coming of motorways, this road was the main arterial route to London. Despite the parallel motorway section a few miles to the north, which opened forty years ago this year, the old A road remains busy; indeed its use has discernibly increased in the thirteen years that we have lived here. Just by the turn into our lane is a sign signalling the end of the speed restriction that obtains through the village strung further along the main road. But few drivers restrain themselves until they reach that sign; they put their foot down as soon as they have cleared the identifiable shops. The road seems especially like a racetrack around teatime.

Late yesterday afternoon, a man sauntered down the lane, crossed the main road and weaved through the gateway opposite the end of the lane. This gateway is a sort of fixed kissing gate that allows access to pedestrians and their dogs but thwarts cyclists, prams, wheelchairs and anything of comparable or greater un-manoeuvrability. Beyond it, a small housing estate spreads across a greensward and beyond that is a corner shop, which was the man’s objective.

Having fulfilled his errand, he retraced his steps. As he approached the weave gate, he saw that a cat was ambling ahead of him towards the gateway. It slowed, stopped, sat on its haunches under the lowest bar of the gate and looked around laconically at the man. The man stopped too. He evidently was calculating that to approach the gate might alarm the cat into running ahead. A narrow pathway skirts the road on the gate side (there is none on the far side) but the cat could hardly be relied upon to turn onto that pathway. Cats are more apt to spring forwards and hope for the best.

Rather than be responsible for the cat being squished by a vehicle, the man set off to his right. Between the main road and the little-used ring road around the small estate runs a hedgerow, grown up around a wire fence and punctuated with horse chestnuts. The man paced a few dozens yards until he came to a gap in the hedge where the wire had long been beaten down to allow access. There was still plenty of low growth in the gap and he stepped gingerly for he knew that the stings of nettles, which easily penetrate ankle socks, are especially potent at this time of year.

He then took an extended step towards the roadside pathway but, as he did so, his trailing foot caught in something unyielding – a branch of ivy perhaps or a trailing length of fence wire – and he sprawled forwards. The momentum of the step that he had been in the process of attempting carried him across the pathway and he landed face down half in the road itself. His sudden fall gave no time for the approaching driver to brake or swerve and the vehicle passed over his head, killing him instantly.

I was that man. Apart (clearly) from the last sentence, my account of the incident is as accurate as I am capable of making it. As I fell forwards towards the road, I distinctly thought: “I am going to die now”. As I hit the road, I turned my head towards the oncoming traffic but, amazingly, there was none. I scrambled up. Vehicles passed on the other side of the road – one car tooted at me but I couldn’t tell how to read the toot. Then the traffic stream resumed on the near side including, almost immediately, two juggernauts. Just a few seconds either way would have sealed my fate.

Becoming aware that my left wrist and left knee were both fairly painful and that the left knee of my jeans was slightly torn, I walked slowly and carefully back up the pathway until I was opposite our lane. The cat was nowhere to be seen and, thankfully, was not a flattened mess on the road. I was already thinking about my Dad who died trying to cross a busy road, a victim of his own impatience and the speed of a driver who was fined £120 for his pains. I waited until it was clearly no sort of gamble to cross over.

My partner persuaded me to apply a pack of frozen peas (which we keep for such eventualities) to my knee and to my wrist. The cold diminishes the swelling. It was not until the next day (today) that I noticed that my watch, which has always kept impeccable time, was running ten minutes slow, evidently a product of the knock it must have received. It, like its owner, is lucky not to have been smashed beyond repair.

In the colour magazine of the Saturday edition of The Guardian, called ‘Weekend’, there is a regular questionnaire feature called ‘Q&A’, an exercise based on the so-called ‘Proust Questionnaire’ in Vanity Fair. One of the standing questions is: “What is the closest you’ve come to death?” I always think it’s an absurd question (although, of course, I find all the questions absurd). We walk constantly in death’s shadow. At the edge of a road (or a garden pond or a high window or a river or a cliff), we can be literally one step from oblivion. We are but a bottle of pills or a kitchen knife away. The heart attack, the brain haemorrhage, the murderer or the accident could strike at any moment. Or, like Phil Silvers and Ian Richardson and Sheridan Morley, we could just drift into sleep and never return: merciful for us, horrible for our close ones.

Linda Grant catches this very well in her novel The Clothes on Their Backs: "You take a misstep, you turn your head the wrong way when you cross the road, you gargle with bleach instead of mouthwash, it's just ridiculous the doors that are slightly ajar between life and death. Life's extreme fragility is all around us, as if we are perpetually walking on floors of cracked glass" [p 48, Virago 2008].

Four weeks ago today, there was an incident outside a local community centre. Two men old enough to know better got into an altercation. The older knocked the younger down. In falling, he cracked his skull on the pavement and, as he lay there stunned, he suffered a fatal heart attack. The attacker was detained by the police and later released on bail. The local paper, as the media are apt to do, used the lurid phrase “murder probe”. Clearly, though, manslaughter will be the charge if any is preferred.

The man who died was the local builder, universally known as Micky the Brickie. Round our way, he would have met with few opportunities to work with bricks because almost everything, even the new builds, is fashioned from stone. He might better have been known as Jason the Mason, but Micky was his actual name – he was not of the generation to be called Jason, being only six years younger than me. As the police held onto the body, his family could not bury him for three weeks, plenty of time for everyone to discuss the case. For Micky was indeed known to everybody and, I should have thought, liked by everybody. He was always full of fun and a great talker, with the down side common to that condition that he wasn’t much of a listener. But you forgave him anything because he was instinctively generous. Ours is one of scores of local houses containing some perfectly chosen item or material rescued for recycling and gladly handed over, offers of payment waved away. My partner accounted Micky’s great quality “generosity of spirit” and I think that gets it exactly.

Micky’s death genuinely shocked people because it was sudden and, as his widow remarked, “so unnecessary”. What she was alluding to has subsequently become clearer. It seems that the man who knocked Micky down and who is out on bail was her first husband. This has brought a noisome overtone of soap opera into what had seemed a small but affecting tragedy.

We do walk always in the shadow of death. In the bath this morning, I found myself reminiscing about a trip to Scotland with two pals from university. One of them, John, was an experienced climber. He had scaled several of the major peaks and had lost several friends to the enthusiasm, one of whom (his best friend) fell to his death while roped to John, leaving the survivor the melancholy (and dangerous) task of climbing down into a crevasse to retrieve the body. John was a lovely guy, a big golden bear of a man with a melodious Barnsley accent.

In Scotland, John contemplated the other two of us – Neil, a level-headed geologist, and me, capable sometimes of behaving sensibly – and decided that we could safely drive to Glencoe and go for a clamber. It wasn’t a proper climb but it was strenuous work. We then walked the length of a ridge high above the glen. I no longer recall our route – it’s more than forty years ago – and whether it can have been the legendary Aonach Eagach I somehow doubt, but it was certainly a testing scramble and it took several hours.

At one point the ridge grew very narrow, a row of jagged rocks with a 200-foot drop on either side. Radiating calm, John led the way and we gamely followed, me bringing up the rear. I suddenly managed to trap one leg under the other thigh and was stuck, perched on a sliver of rock and with no space in which to improvise. It occurred me that I was in genuine peril. I saw the others were moving on so I hollered. Neil turned, saw my predicament and started to panic. This, it turned out, was a lifesaver because it forced me to be ice-cool and logical. I lay back, gripped the rock beneath me with both hands, arched my back and lifted my thigh so that I could pull the other leg clear. Then I managed to raise myself to a crouch and inch along until I was on a wider part of the ridge. I saw John’s grinning face up ahead. “All right?” he called. We continued our ridge walk without mishap.

John, I remember, used to fret about my smoking, which was beginning to get heavy. “You know, I’ll be very cross with you if you make yourself ill with cigarettes” he told me one day. After he graduated, he went back to the north and married a woman whom he’d met on the same occasion that Neil and I met her. A few years later, he had surgery for a brain tumour. He and Sue came to London and met up with old pals including me. John showed off the huge scar on his skull that he generally kept covered under a woolly hat. I never saw him again. He died of a recurrence of the tumour. He was 33.

This week, it will be 29 years since I gave up smoking for good. Another friend grew stern with me one day concerning my drinking habits. I was getting through rather too much at the time. He warned me that it might undermine my health. It’s more than 15 years since he died, in his mid-40s from Aids. I don’t make this or any other observation in this posting to, as it were, “score points”. Some of us make our end inevitable by dedicated application: George Best to alcohol, Simon Gray to cigarettes. But for most, the end either comes as the culmination of illness or suddenly with little or no foreshadowing.

As one grows older, inevitably, the proximity of death nudges one more often. It brings no certainties, though, save when it comes wrapped in incurable disease. In his 90s, John Gielgud agreed to a television interview with Jeremy Paxman. In his forthright way, Paxman pressed the great man on his attitude to and preparedness for death. Sir John was visibly distressed to be obliged to contemplate the subject. I wanted him to point out that there was nothing to say that he would not outlive Paxman and that, unless the BBC kept the programme untransmitted until after his death, it was a certainty that some of those watching the interview would pass before Sir John did. And I remember a wonderfully feisty comeback from Katharine Hepburn when asked somewhat imperiously by her interviewer, Barbara Walters: “do you actually own a skirt?” “I’ll wear one to your funeral” Kate shot back. I like to think I too can take that attitude to the grim reaper.