It’s an irony of our secular age that the more we fear death, the more enticing we find it. The past few years have seen a slew of bestsellers on the subject — Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, Julian Barnes’s Nothing to be Frightened Of, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm (a title taken from the Hippocratic Oath —an oath no doctor actually swears). To this crowded field Robert McCrum brings a book both intensely personal — he reflects not only on his mortality but on the death of his marriage — and coolly objective. It’s proof, yet again, that death makes for lively reading.
Twenty-one years ago, as readers of the memoir My Year Out will know, McCrum suffered a near-fatal stroke. At just 42, he entered ‘the antechamber to the grave’; and, although he made a good recovery, he has lived, ever since, with an acute apprehension of mortality. ‘At least half my adult life,’ he says, ‘has been spent in the psychological equivalent of A&E.’ Rather than jolly him along, friends and acquaintances feel compelled to share with him their troubles — their illnesses, depressions and bereavements. ‘I am,’ he says, ‘a lightning rod for the unwell.’
But a new phase has begun. As his contemporaries enter their sixties, they are becoming aware that their Biblical span is running out, and, like Prospero, that their ‘every third thought’ is of the grave. And for baby boomers brought up in the 1960s, this can be exquisitely lonely: they are the ‘I-Me-Mine’ generation. They don’t say ‘I am involved with mankind’, but ‘I am involved with myself’. So for them, and for himself, McCrum has embarked on a year’s journey, braiding together passages of literature and encounters with neurologists, cancer patients and hospice workers to try to provide some comfort as they ‘journey down a one-way street towards an inevitable destination’.
Nobody McCrum chooses to talk to believes in life after death — though the psychologist Adam Phillips, whom he visits in his Notting Hill eerie, refers to his ‘ongoing’ relationship with his dead father — I’d have loved him to say more.