Death, Where is Thy Sting?

My death waits like an old roue’

So confident, I’ll go his way

Whistle to him and the passing time

My death waits like a Bible truth

At the funeral of my youth

Are we proud for that and the passing time?

My death waits like a witch at night

As surely as our love is right

Let’s not think about the passing time

But whatever lies behind the door

There is nothing much to do

Angel or devil, I don’t care

For in front of that door there is you


My death waits there among the leaves

In magician’s mysterious sleeves

Rabbits and dogs and the passing time

My death waits there among the flowers

Where the blackest shadows, blackest shadows cowers

Let’s pick lilacs for the passing time

My death waits there in a double bed

Sails of oblivion and my head

So pull up your sheets against the passing time

But whatever lies behind the door

There is nothing much to do

Angel or devil, I don’t care

For in front of that door there is You

(Jacques Brel)


THE death of my father hit me hard.

I held his hand and gazed into his eyes as he drew his last breath.

It is a moment in time that I will never forget.

It is now more than seven years since that moment.

My dad was part of me and I part of him in every way. He is never far from my thoughts and often inhabits my dreams.

He was not the perfect man, but he was my father and the best there ever was. He taught me so much about optimism, overcoming setbacks and being myself… and much more about living.

He left his mark on this Earth and, yes, he lived.

And then there was Andrea.

At 21, she was the sweetest and most funny girl I had ever met and we quickly became inseparable soul mates, while we both battled cancer together during the winter of 1987.

Racked in pain, with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer – diagnosed while she was on a walking holiday in France – she knew her chances of survival were slim.

“But I’m going to fight it,” she urged, willing me to do the same. “I haven’t yet got my degree, I haven’t learned to drive… and I’m still a virgin.

“I want to live a bit before I die.”

She did.

But that did not dull the agony when three years later, in May 1990, our mutual friend David and I stood together and shared heart wrenching tears at her funeral.

For me, my memories of Andrea always remain, and has often been my driving force to live.

Her smile and her laughter as she beat me in a physiotherapy game of football in the hospital gym, where she was only allowed to use her right leg and I only my arm. At the end of the game we collapsed side by side on the floor guffawing at how silly all this was.

Then there was the Wednesday night visit to the local rugby club for a game of bingo and a half pint of beer. We walked slowly back to the hospital hostel at 10pm. She rested her head on my shoulder as we walked and suddenly whispered: “I love you Nic… we are going to win, aren’t we?”

I kissed her forehead and answered: “Of course we will.”

A year before her death I visited Andrea again in a hospital in Birmingham, where she had undergone a hip replacement operation in a last attempt by surgeons to remove the seat of her cancer.

I sat and clenched her right hand and looked into her sparkling eyes.

I giggled: “Hey, you’ve got freckles and hair!”

“Yes,” she answered, “I have been off chemotherapy for three months now to build up my strength for the op’.”

I had only known Andrea as a tall, underweight, pale-faced girl stooped under a horrendous NHS wig, which at times made her look like an extra in the Addams Family.

But now, holding her hand, this was how I was going to remember her.

I have faced the death of family and close friends quite a few times over the years.

The grief is always immeasurable, and in recent years some of those deaths were untimely and shocking.

And as I look at my ageing mum – still an inspiration at 85 years old – and in the mirror at myself, I realise that time never stands still.

I could have died a few times – twice from cancer, once in a high speed car crash and more recently from a vicious assault which left me minutes from the end.

But I am still here and age defines me.

As it does for all of us.

So we live our lives as constructively as we can, seeking happiness and pleasure, loving and caring, and at times grieving.

But always knowing that our own time is limited.

I recall two sets of lines from that wonderful movie Dead Poets Society.

The late Robin Williams, playing the role of school teacher John Keating, teaches his charges of the essence of life: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.

“And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for… that you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.

“That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

And later, turning to fading sepia school photos of students taken decades earlier, he reminds them of the passing time and the brevity of life: “They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel.

“The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable?

“Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? Carpe – hear it? Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

We should all make our own lives extraordinary.

But death is shocking.

And somehow when someone famous dies we immerse ourselves in a communal grief which is sometimes shared across the globe.

Yesterday, another celebrity and amazing musician,  Prince suddenly died. His body was found in a lift at his home in the Paisley Park Estate in the USA.

He was only 57 years-old, and the world began to mourn.

Some 20 years ago, I remember feeling a deep sadness when two of my musical heroes died.

Mick Ronson was a guitar virtuoso who succumbed to liver cancer in 1993, aged just 47. And former Small Faces bass player and singer songwriter Ronnie Lane died from MS in 1997, aged 51.

But these were the days before the internet, so my grief for them was private and personal.

But that was to change.

The death of pioneering rock musician Lou Reed in October 2013, hit me harder than I might have expected.

But this time I was able to share my grief through Facebook, Twitter and email.

And that grief was world-wide and genuine.

At 16 years-old I came to Lou Reed via David Bowie, or to be more exact, his 1971 album, Hunky Dory and the track Queen Bitch with its overt references to his former band The Velvet Underground.

So when his album Transformer was released in November that year I rushed out to buy it, without ever hearing a track.

Two weeks later I was the proud owner of a compilation LP called The Best of the Velvet Underground.

I became a lifetime fan of Lou Reed and rate his 1973 album Berlin and his 1989 album New York as two of the greatest rock albums ever produced by anyone. His later album Magic and Loss is, in my opinion, one of the most moving single pieces of music and poetry ever produced.

I mourned his death with real tears.

Tears shared by millions across the globe.

Just five months later, in March 2014, the death of my political hero Tony Benn, hit me even harder.

At the time he was the last truly great parliamentary socialist, and a man of courtesy, decency, principle, integrity and vision.

And he was a true hero of mine.

During my years as a newspaper journalist I was fortunate enough to interview Tony three times, and each interview was a joy.

And I have another reason for loving Tony Benn.

In 1994, 43 MPs signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons praising my year-long investigation into the link between the test firing of depleted uranium tank shells and local clusters of cancer.

The same tank shells provided a link to Gulf War Syndrome in the first Gulf War.

Some of my political heroes signed that EDM including Alan Simpson, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner. But the sixth signature on that motion was Tony Benn. His name next to mine was like a personal shield of honour.

A treasure I will keep till my own grave.

Tony was true fighter for ordinary working people from the moment he was elected an MP in 1950.

Later in life he became a folk hero as well as a campaigner for a number of causes, particularly opposition to UK military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and for the liberation of Palestine.

My grief for his passing was deep and I still often dig out YouTube videos of some of his amazing parliamentary speeches.

But I guess nothing prepared me for the morning of Monday 11 January this year.

I woke as usual at 6am and like millions of others across the world I was presented with news I never expected to happen: my musical hero David Bowie was dead.

I was stunned, heartbroken and gutted. I honestly thought David Bowie was immortal… he had been part of my life for 44 years.

He wasn’t just the Man Who Sold the World, he was an Earthling who pulled every one of us into the Quicksand of his thoughts and music.

Actor Simon Pegg tried to put his death into perspective, saying: “If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

Three months have now passed and a passing thought is just how many of Bowie’s sidemen and close musicians have also died: the aforementioned Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, Lou Reed, Luther Vandross, Ralph MacDonald, Sean Mayes and Steve Strange… what a heavenly band.

It now seems rare for a week to pass without a significant celebrity death being reported – from David Bowie in the second week of January, to actor Alan Rickman a week later, to comedian Victoria Wood and now Prince.

So is this wave of celebrity deaths the new normal?

The BBC’s obituary editor Nick Serpell today said that the number of significant deaths this year has been “phenomenal”.

Nick prepares obituaries for BBC television, radio and online, that run once a notable person’s death is confirmed.

The number of his obituaries used across BBC outlets in recent years has leaped considerably.

It’s a jump from only five between January and late March 2012 to a staggering 24 in the same period this year – an almost five-fold increase.

And that’s before counting some of the notable deaths in April, including American singer Merle Haggard, the former drug smuggler Howard Marks and this week’s two notable departures.

Here in the UK, the Daily Telegraph maintains a gallery of famous people who have died, and updates it throughout the year.

Up to this time in 2014, the number of those in the gallery was 38. By this time last year, the number of people in the gallery was 30. This year, the number is already 75.

At the beginning of every year, the website lists 50 celebrities it believes may pass away that year. In six of the last 10 years, two or fewer of its predictions had come true by this time – this year, five names have died so far.

So why has death’s sting become so much sharper?

There are a few reasons, explains Nick Serpell.

“People who started becoming famous in the 1960s are now entering their 70s and are starting to die,” he says.

“There are also more famous people than there used to be,” he says. “In my father or grandfather’s generation, the only famous people really were from cinema – there was no television.

“Then, if anybody wasn’t on TV, they weren’t famous.”

Many of those now dying belonged to the so-called baby-boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, that saw a huge growth in population. In the US for example, the census bureau said that 76 million people in 2014 belonged to the baby boomer generation – some 23% of the population.

Here in the UK, people aged 65 or older make up almost 18% of the population – a 47% increase on forty years ago.

With more babies born into the baby-boom generation, it meant more went on to eventually become famous.

Now, those famous former babies, aged between 70 and 82, are dying.

The age-bracket 65 to 69 is the one, in England and Wales for example, where death rates really start to increase – some 14.2 per 1,000 men in that age bracket died in 2014, compared with 9.4 per 1,000 in the 60 to 64 age bracket.

Among the major deaths this year, many – including Prince (57), Alan Rickman (69), David Bowie (69) and Victoria Wood (62) – were baby-boomers.

Another factor that may play into the impression that more celebrities are dying is that we have heard of more celebrities than before.

“Over the past 10 years, social media has played a big part,” says Nick Serpell.

These days, it is far easier to hear news of whether anyone has died than at any time in the past.

“Over the next 10 years, these people will get into their 80s and it is going to continue at this level,” adds Nick Serpell.

“And that doesn’t count the surprise deaths, when people die that shouldn’t.”

My death waits like a Bible truth…

So pull up your sheets against the passing time

For whatever lies behind the door

There is nothing much to do

Angel or devil, I don’t care

For in front of that door there is You