The shadow of death

Apr 17th, 2011 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Death had a strange fascination.

In the days before natural gas reached our corner of the West of England, there was town gas.  No-one ever explained why it was more dangerous than the gas from the North Sea, and no-one ever explained from which town it came.  But in the village near which I lived my early years, people had gas produced by a gasworks.

The danger of such gas became clear when two people living in a house at the corner of the village green died following a gas leak in their house.  Such matters were not discussed with a boy of six, and the curtains of the house seemed always drawn, making it impossible to imagine what it might be like on the inside; but the sight of the house became something frightening – death is an alien concept when you are six years old, and that someone should die from something that might be obtained by putting sixpence in a meter seemed incomprehensible.

Forty-odd years later, it is still not possible to pass through that village without a chill feeling when seeing the house on the green.  Perhaps it had been an introduction to death, perhaps it had been a threat to the assumed security and stability of life in 1960s rural England.  Perhaps there was something even less tangible.

A friend in Sixth Form College days, someone very attached to the physical sciences, insisted that there were no such thing as ghosts.  Instead he believed, it was a matter of the conservation of energy, that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  His argument was that huge amounts of emotional energy were released at moments of tragedy or violence, and that such energy remained in certain places, creating the impression of there being ghosts or leaving a feeling about certain places.  Maybe the house was one such place, or maybe it was just about deep rooted childhood fear.

A killing in the parish last night; the body of a woman in her 30s found at a flat above a shop in the main street of our small town, brought back those childhood memories, that sense of a deep horror that such a thing might happen.  Watching the television news, death seems to have become as much a spectator event as a sporting occasion; the reporter standing outside the venue, people being asked their thoughts.  It would have been unthinkable forty odd years ago that a television reporter would have stood on the village green and that people would have been asked for their thoughts.

Were we just frightened or did the talking about death in hushed tones and oblique references signify a profound respect for life?  Or is it a matter of age; will there be six year olds who in forty or fifty years will recall a Saturday evening when a house in their home town became something sinister and threatening?  Or has death become so much the stuff of news mingled with television drama that it is no more profound in its impact than the departure of someone from the storyline of a soap opera?



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