Helen Dunmore: facing mortality and what we leave behind - source; extracts
The novelist, recently diagnosed with cancer, considers the question of legacy and how a wander through a graveyard inspired her latest novel Birdcage Walk
by Helen Dunmore
What is left behind by a life? Avoiding this question can be as much of an art as answering it. Philip Larkin wrote of ambulances, inexorable as plague carts, extracting those who are about to die from the commerce of the living. In his poem “Aubade” he describes the blank horror of extinction, the mind caught in the glare of it, the poet half-drunk and paralysed by dread of death. In this poem the living leave no legacy, unless it is self-delusion.
I have been thinking about this question of legacy over the past few months, for one reason because my new novel deals with memory, historical record, what remains, what is saved and what is lost. The question has become more acute because a few months ago I was diagnosed with a cancer that has a very poor prognosis. The ground beneath my feet has never been more uncertain, but what is sure is that the ambulance has already called and there is no vagueness about my mortality.
There never was, although I might have fooled myself about it. A couple of generations ago I’d have done very well to live in reasonable health to the age I now am: 64. Go back another generation or so and childbirth, monstrous figure of attrition, cut short the lives of innumerable women, as it would have ended mine. Men’s lives were scrubbed out by the first world war, children were killed by diphtheria, whooping cough and minor infections that bloomed into sepsis in the days before antibiotics. Death and the living walked hand in hand and could not easily pretend that they had nothing to do with each other. Inscriptions on gravestones acknowledge how soon the living will join those who are already under the earth, not lost but gone before. The grief of death is admitted but there’s no incredulity, no sense of thwarted entitlement.
But in western Europe in 2017 there is a narrative of lengthening lifespans, of extraordinary treatments that fend off death for decades and may, in the end, outwit it entirely. It isn’t realistic and in our hearts we know this, but there is a tendency to think and talk as if it is not the mark we leave upon time that we need to think about but the endless years that will be ours if we eat well enough and exercise effectively enough to dodge the grave.
In much of the rest of the world this magical thinking won’t work. Infant mortality is appalling, water kills and so do far too many curable diseases. Dictators herd their opponents into cellars before hanging them in batches. I may be ill but I’m also warm and sheltered, surrounded by family and friends and with medical help a phone call away. I think of a young man or woman in the Middle East who has lived less than a third of the years that I’ve enjoyed and is now alone in a cell, tortured, condemned to death, silenced and very likely denied even a funeral. More than ever it seems a heartrending abomination that human beings, who can’t avoid natural suffering and death, should inflict further pain upon one another.
Most of us die in silence and leave silence behind us. There is no visible mark, no written record and very often no grave to visit. Ancestors have shifted about in search of work, or been unable to write, or have never had the cash to pay a stonemason. They leave behind a story, perhaps, or an anecdote that is handed down from child to grandchildren, and then is heard no more. Existence subsides into a humus that at first sight looks entirely anonymous. But I want to probe more deeply, because I believe that there is more to it than that. Anonymity is also an inheritance and perhaps a precious one, just as the poems grouped under Anonymous in an anthology are often the most moving of all, honed as they are by generations of memory.
In my new novel, Birdcage Walk, I write about a small group of radicals in Bristol at the end of the 18th century. It is the time of the French Revolution, when “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”, when idealism and curiosity blazed through a thousand speeches, pamphlets and poems, when speakers toured mills and factories and women wrote about that impossible but almost imaginable future when human rights might be for human beings rather than for men only, and when those doubly silenced might be allowed a voice.
I write fiction, not history. If I’m lucky, someone will stop to read it and then walk on, imagining other times and other lives, so far away and yet as near as the brush of leaves over that stone, there, where the snuffling jack russell has uncovered an inscription.
[upd Helen Dunmore (12 December 1952 – 5 June 2017) was a British poet, novelist and children's writer.]