The Hastingses have idyllic lives but, like most seventysomethings, we find ourselves in ever-closer proximity to mortality. We hold season tickets for hospital and care-home visits, funerals and memorial services. Prostates are a staple of dinner-party conversation. We have not got quite as far as the 94-year-old contemporary of the painter Raoul Millais, who quavered in the churchyard after the two had bidden farewell to a friend: ‘Hardly worth you and I going home from here, is it, Raoul?’ But we are mindful of La Rochefoucauld’s observation that compassion represents the intelligent anticipation of one’s own troubles to come. When my old friend Christopher Bland was diagnosed with the cancer which eventually killed him, my wife Penny, who has had her own experiences of that hateful malady, remarked sensibly that none of us is going to get out of this alive. Christopher agreed with me that if either of us, aged 21, had been handed pen and paper and told of all the good things we would have in our lives, in return merely for agreeing to say sayonara at 79, we would have signed without blinking. Death short of three score years and ten is a tragedy, but every birthday thereafter represents bonus points.
Weddings and memorial services have in common that almost all now last too long. My children and their friends are welcome to bop the nights away celebrating each other’s marriages, but the parents’ friends should be excused boots after the ceremony and a couple of toasts. It also remains hard to come to terms with the newish custom of couples throwing extravaganzas to celebrate second and even third nuptials, brides clad in parodies of virgin white and step-relations of all ages attending with variably convincing shows of enthusiasm.
Memorial services properly start at noon and last exactly 50 minutes, allowing time for the survivors to get to lunch. There is one address. The procession of speeches that is instead becoming insidiously frequent adds up to a half-truth. Through repetition, tributes begin to resemble the testimony of character witnesses for the defence in a fraud trial. Moreover, it is persiflage to claim that the dead are unforgettable. Bereavement inflicts dreadful pain upon husbands, wives, partners, parents; sometimes also on children and intimate friends. For the rest, however, Kipling wrote: ‘Ay, lay him ’neath the Simla pine/a fortnight fully to be missed/Behold we lose our fourth at whist/a chair is vacant where we dine’. Humanity keeps going only by filling the chair, finding another fourth.
The finest memorial service we have attended for years took place in Winchester Cathedral. We have been visiting a succession of its architectural brethren. At Wells, Lincoln, Ely, awe and delight were mingled with regret that we have come to them so late. During the Winchester occasion on a glorious sunny afternoon, my wife whispered: ‘Do not kid yourself that when you turn up your toes, you will get a congregation of 800.’ As ever, she represents the voice of truth.
Penny is assured of a terrific afterlife when I fall under a London cyclist and she is relieved of her current 24/7 duties as minder, nanny, special adviser. I lie awake nights, however, worrying about how she will fare when her pony heads for the great dog-food factory in the sky. Splash, an Appaloosa, is an equine prodigy, still regularly ridden at the age of 40. Penny has had him more than 20 years and is besotted. The pair have twice won the Veterans’ class at Lambourn Horse Show, and she thinks the only reason he failed to triumph a third time was that the judge disbelieved his age. I have no idea what hormones she is pumping into that amazing animal. But I want some.
The possibility that our next prime minister will be named Johnson, Mogg or Corbyn has prompted me to enquire about one-way tickets to Switzerland, and to make a new will. The hard part is to identify resting places for brown furniture, which the next generation will have nothing to do with. The under-50 middle classes fill their homes from Oka and Ikea: mahogany is oh-so 18th century. Fortunately, we are not Churchills or Cavendishes, seeking to secure the continuity of Blenheim or Chatsworth. Having bought our own houses and contents, it is unimportant if chattels go to the knackers. We sob, however, about the unpromising outlook for beloved books. None of the above is intended to spread gloom, but I can scarcely conclude soothingly that it will never happen to you.