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How shall I tell the Dog

Clearing Out My Papers Before My Death


Dear Gill,

The best time to joke about death is when you think you are never going to die. When he was young and gay, Woody Allen wrote a wonderful, very funny play about death called Death. In his earlier pieces he sometimes introduced Death as a character, either young and inexperienced or elderly and Jewish and hopeless. Now that Woody Allen is older and balder, I don’t notice him doing so many gags about Death. (In fact, I don’t notice him doing many gags at all about anything.) And I would be prepared to bet that when Ingmar Bergman did his famous scenes with Death in The Seventh Seal, he was not an old man. (I’ve just looked it up. In his late thirties. Young enough.)

When I was writing my intended best seller, Someone Like Me, I invented a mother who often retired in the afternoon to go to bed to die, or to have a death-bed scene, which I am not sure I would have enjoyed writing so much now that my death is closer than it used to be.

Similarly, there was a time when I used to start letters, usually in very belated reply to someone, as follows: ‘Dear so-and-so, While sorting out my papers prior to my death, I came across a letter from you which…’

And if I felt there was an explanation necessary for this attention-seeking opening, I would go on to add this:

‘What I mean by this is that my papers are in some disarray. Some considerable disarray. It has taken me twenty years at least to create this potential devolution into potential chaos. Assuming the mess gets cleared up at the same rate at which it is created, I reckon it will therefore take me another twenty years to get everything straight, which gives me a good twenty years before I die. So, when I say “prior to my death”, this is not as ominous as it sounds…’

Considering that I have been uttering this formula for what seems like a dozen years at least, you might say that I am well on the way to achieving that twenty years before I die, which is quite good.

What is not so good is that my papers really do need clearing up prior to my death. I may have been making that joke for a long time, but I have not been clearing up my papers in real life to keep pace with the joke.

Well, you know what it’s like.

It all starts one day when you set off to find out what your National Insurance number is, because your accountant say you will go to prison if you don’t find it.

You know where it is. It is in a file marked ‘Personal Details’. Or ‘Finance’. Or ‘Household Expenses’ or even ‘That National Insurance Number You’ve Been Looking For Everywhere’.

And as you are looking for that file, you come across another one called ‘Barcelona 1999’, which is full of receipts from the first visit to Barcelona you ever made, organised by your wife as a birthday present. It was a great weekend, but do you really need a folder containing the details of a trip to Catalonia nearly ten years ago? Shouldn’t you just chuck the whole thing out, instead of allowing it to accumulate with so many other folders?

Yes, of course, is the answer.

But you don’t chuck it out.

It was a lovely weekend and even the receipts have a poetic aftertaste.

So you put it back in the pile of folders.

And you are glad you didn’t chuck it out, because hardly five years later, you find you are booked in again to go to Barcelona prior to a long train trip to Murcia, which actually happened to me in 2007, and your wife says: ‘I’d love to go back to that restaurant we went to in Barcelona last time we were there – do you remember what it was called?’ Which also happened to me.

And you say, with a surge of excitement, ‘No but I know where I can lay my hands on it!’ and you go off to dig out the Barcelona folder and it has completely vanished. It has gone to ground. It has hibernated. It has been recycled. On the other hand, you do find – no, not your National Insurance number, life is never that neat – you do find a folder you had never noticed before labelled ‘Ideas for Articles’, and as you are currently short of ideas for articles, and indeed chronically short, you look eagerly inside. There is nothing in there. This suggests strongly either a) that you never had any ideas, or b) you had some and used them all up. Still, at least you can relax safe in the knowledge that if you ever come to have any unused ideas for articles in the future, you now have somewhere to put them. If you can find that folder next time round.

I think there is a TV programme here.

It has become quite fashionable to make TV programmes about clearing up, clearing out, sorting your possessions, sorting other people’s stuff out, getting rid of clothes that don’t suit you. Changing, rethinking, reinventing, decluttering…

But nobody has done a programme, I think, about putting your life in order with a view to giving you an easier death.

Oh yes, they have done close-up, in-your-face documentaries on fatal diseases and how they affect families, marriages and loved ones. There have been intimate portraits of people facing up to their last moments on earth, and facing up to the great void beyond.

Forget the great void.

What about the great mess?

What about facing twenty years of accumulation, the piles of papers, the overflowing documents on the desk, and indeed on the carpet round the desk?

There’s a programme there, surely?

‘Miles Kington Clears His Desk and Dies’.

‘Prior To His Death – Miles Kington’s Last Clear-Up.’

‘Sorting Out My Papers Prior To My Death- Miles Kington Looks For His National Insurance Number.’

Or, if the worst comes to the worst: ‘Lunch in Barcelona for One.’

I don’t think the title is quite right yet, but that’s a detail. If you can sell the programme idea, I am sure the title will follow. As luck would have it, I do actually have a folder labelled ‘Great Ideas for Titles for Good TV Programmes’. Next time I see it, I’ll have a look inside and report back to you.

Love, Miles

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