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My brother's death

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Grasping universal truths
Diana Athill Writer
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[Q] Have you ever seen any dead bodies?

I've only… isn't it extraordinary? I've seen my mother's and I've seen… the first dead body was André Deutsch's mother. Poor old lady. He was abroad, and she had a fall, obviously, in the morning, and banged her head. And her home-help came in and found her dead and got onto the police, and the police got onto his secretary and onto me, and we had to go and identify the body. And this, I think, had quite a strong effect on what I feel about death, because I was quite nervous at this thought. I imagined that we would go into a room, and there would be this poor corpse under a sheet, and they would pull it back and we would have to stand there and look at her and think, yes, it's her. And in fact, they do it very tactfully. You go into a little small room, and there is a big picture window behind a green curtain. In this case, it was a green, sort of, sage green, horrible-looking curtain. And they pull the curtain back, and on the other side of the glass, there is lying the body, in a box, covered up to the neck. And there was poor little Maria Deutsch.

And, you know, people talk about the beauty of dead bodies and how they look noble and splendid. She looked pathetic. I mean, she just looked.... no one had tidied her up and combed her hair, and she looked sort of grubby and miserable, and as though something horrid had been done to her. She wasn't distorted or anything, but… and actually, when I saw her, without meaning to, I said, 'Poor Maria'. Because, I mean, she did look, poor little thing. But she was dead, so she couldn't possibly feel as poor as that, which is a relief to know. And I had noticed, coming and going, you see, that at the coroner's place, there were white vans coming and going all the time, and there was a sort of… unloading bay. And there was… it looked as though they might be unloading groceries, but you knew what they were unloading was a body. And when you came in, you went down the passage and there were all the chaps who drove the vans, or some of them, sitting having tea. And they gave you sort of looks out of the corner of their eye as you went by. And I thought that their looks were just slightly ribald. I don't know quite what the… you know, they knew much more than one did about this, and they were long past being squeamish about death and probably rather despised squeamishness about death. And I went away, and I thought, now, they know that however nasty death is, there's not really much to it. They see it every day. There's nothing really to it. There's no answer to it. They know. And I found that, in a curious way, encouraging. I thought, well, really, I suppose there isn't much to it. It goes on all the time. All the time. Every single person, every single thing, is going to die. You know, what's all the fuss about? And that did, sort of, stay with me rather. If you're not religious, there's not much reason to think much more about death, really. I'm not and never… really never have been.

[Q] Did you never have any relationship with God?

But I remember being pretty disappointed when I was confirmed, how nothing happened. I suppose I had expected that I was going to be… I mean, when I was little, Granny used to read us Bible stories, which one believed. I mean, I still, when I read the Bible, think, you know, there they all are, those lovely stories. I'm sure they were all true, in a way. So as a child, I believed in God. But I did think that… I did know, really that perhaps I didn't believe… I do know that I didn't believe enough to move mountains, because I thought I would try, once, to cause a storm to stop. After all, Jesus had said, 'Peace, be still', and it had been still. And so I had a good try, and it made no difference at all. So I thought, 'Well, I don't think much of my faith'. It isn't up to much. And I think that after I was confirmed, really, that I began to think, 'Well, I don't really believe in this'. And it was vague. I didn't, sort of, argue it out, really, until I got to Oxford, I suppose, when I… I mean, the more I thought about it, and the more you think about the size of the universe and the complexity of the universe, and the absolute triviality of our little tiny planet in this enormous thing, and the smallness and triviality of each of us in the planet…Things we imagine, things we make up, can't really be great universal truths. I mean, we're groping towards universal truths, we're flattering ourselves if we think we've managed to get to them. We can't have. And I don't see any reason why we should be able to understand what it is, the universe. I mean, when people are groping towards its working, but what started it all, I suppose one day someone may get to it, but I don't think we will. I don't see why we should. Why should we? We're little beetles, really, in the…

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Oxford University, Bible, André Deutsch

Duration: 6 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008