''If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practise, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid.'
This quote from Memento Mori by Muriel Spark reminded me of something quite bizarre and in the true and very subjective tradition of dovegreyreading I have to share it.
As a young and clearly very impressionable child I attended an Anglican Sunday School, as many of us did in the 1950s. We all wore smart coats and white gloves (yes really) and I'd love meeting my friend Joan; we'd whisper about the latest free gift in Princess,our favoured comic of the moment, in between sticking felt bible pictures up on a cloth board, hearing about missionaries, singing Jesus Bids Us Shine and collecting the crosses for our Bibles on special days and attendance stickers for our albums.
We were very diligent about it all and we had two particularly devout teachers, Mrs Heart and Mrs Youell who impressed upon us weekly that the very last and final words we should all think and say before we went to sleep every night absolutely had to be 'Into thy hands I commend my spirit' just in case we didn't wake up the next morning, because who knows where you'd end up if you didn't.
This used to cast something of a cloud over Sundays and take some of the glitz out of our dazzling new free-gift rosebud rings it has to be said.
Can you imagine anyone saying that to a child now and not incurring the wrath of the Bishop at least?
Well if you've ever tried it at the age of seven you'll understand the anguish I used to go through when all I could think of after I'd uttered the words was the Famous Five book I'd just put down, so I'd say them again...and again until convinced it was impossible to do. Eternal Blyton damnation was my sure and certain destiny because I'd dropped off to sleep thinking about Julian, Dick and Ann, George and Timmy the dog instead.
I think I actually used to be quite surprised to wake up the next morning and as a direct result I may perhaps still retain something of an aversion to thinking thoughts of death last thing at night.
Things took a turn for the better when we moved up to the Seniors and Joan's brother took over as our teacher. I've mentioned it here before but for anyone who missed it, he was eventually to become the drummer in the legendary glam-rock band Mud and I'm sure he quickly sorted out our rather confused theories on eternal damnation.
But I digress, Memento Mori is not about youth, it's about old age and it has to be the most hilarious of Muriel Spark's books that I've read to date in this ongoing Spark Season. Yet as usual that hilarity interspersed with Muriel's customary moments of acerbic caution and perhaps that epigram chosen for the book reveals something of the depth of Muriel Spark's concern as she traces the fortunes of her cast of characters mostly all well past retirement age.
What shall I do with absurdity -
O heart, O troubled heart - this caricature,
Decrepit old age that has been tied to me
As to a dog's tail?
The setting is London and vacillates between the geriatric ward in a local hospital and the nearby home of Godfrey and his wife Charmian. Charmian, a once famous author now undergoing something of a literary revival much to Godfrey's chagrin but now suffering from an apparent increasing confusion and memory loss. The short-term memory might be failing but Charmian has little difficulty bringing her long term memory to bear on events when she needs to and Godfrey's penchant for a sight of stocking tops and suspenders soon gets him into all sorts of trouble.
Intrigue and mystery descend when the anonymous phone calls begin...a remote but rather creepy voice says "Remember you will die" and that's it.
Inspector Mortimer (note the 'Mort'...always reminds me of the significance of Mortmain, the father with writer's block in I Capture the Castle) retired Chief Inspector is rather strangely handed the case to investigate and it is he who utters those words I have quoted and slowly but surely fingers the supernatural collar of Death as the prime suspect for making the calls.
Muriel Sparks quotes her own experience of visiting elderly relatives in geriatric wards, as they were then known...it's probably Elderly Care now, in her autobiography Curriculum Vitae, suggesting this honed her eye for the detail both tragic and comic in this novel. The book's dedication to a staff nurse on such a ward seems to confirm her gratitude for the inspiration and I doubt I'll ever forget the inmates. Muriel Spark calls them the 'grannies' and they are a force of hilarious eccentricities to be reckoned with especially Granny Valvona with her penchant for reading out daily horoscopes had me in hysterics...
'Granny Taylor - Gemini. Evening festivities may give you all the excitement you want. A brisk day for business enterprises,' Granny Valvona read out for the second time that day.
'There,' said Miss Taylor.
The Maud Long Ward had been put to bed and was now awaiting supper.
'It comes near the mark,' said Miss Valvona. 'You can always know by your horoscope when your visitors are coming to see you...'
Between them they could bring a country to its knees I'm sure, so when a ward sister of an inclement disposition takes charge you just know her days are numbered...clever grannies.
I have discovered through this Spark Season that some of Muriel's novels throw me into an enviable state of readerly confusion; years ago that confusion may have had me casting her book aside, now I relish the challenge. This one is not of that confusing ilk which is just as well given the apparent mental confusion of many of the characters, but how lovely all the same it is to come to all these for the first time now.