One must be thankful that there are things to read other than the blood-filled and vitriol-laced pages of the daily newspapers. Often what one reads from further afield is not comforting but at least this wider reading releases one for a while from the emotional claustrophobia caused by the daily diet of political hatred and brutal neighbourhood violence reported with such matching ferocity by our media.
● An article in the Economist should be read closely by every Caricom Minister of Health. It reports that more than 2,000 children die every day from diarrhoea. The means of preventing such deaths include easier access to water for washing and oral dehydration therapy. But it has recently emerged that the best solution may be the very simple and very inexpensive one of persuading people to wash their hands with soap where water is available. A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine finds that appropriate hand-washing can cut diarrhoeal diseases by 43%. It may also have a similar impact in preventing respiratory tract infections, the biggest child-killer of all. A major study carried out for the American army has found that such infections fall by 45% when troops washed their hands five times a day. It is clear that promoting life-saving hand-washing should be given a high priority in all health education programmes. And, obviously, private enterprise has a big role to play since the promotion of such programmes, in which they can assist, will significantly increase sales of soap.
● Too many old friends, much admired acquaintances, figures in the immediate background of my life have been dying recently. I do not mean too many in a statistical sense since at my age of over 80 years the large number of such deaths is probably about the norm. I simply mean too many because even one death of someone quite close is a death too many and hurts badly and, in any, case, signals that the wolves of time are circling closer.
The American Kenneth Koch is a poet whose work I have read and loved over many years. From time to time in my columns I have quoted his poetry and now I give a poem of his which laments an inevitable phenomenon.
Les morts vont vite, the dead go fast, the next day absent!
Et les vivants sont dingues, the living are haywire.
Except for a few who grieve, life rapidly readjusts itself
The milliner trims the hat not thinking of the departed
The horse sweats and throws his stubborn rider to the earth
Uncaring if he has killed him or not
The thrown man rises. But now he knows that he is not going,
Not going fast, though he was close to having been gone.
The day after Caesar’s death, there was a new, bustling Rome
The moment after the racehorse’s death, a new one is sought for the stable
The second after a moth’s death there are one or two hundred other moths
The month after Einstein’s death the earth is inundated with new theories.
Biographies are written to cover up the speed with which we go:
No more presence in the bedroom or waiting in the hall
Greeting to say hello with missed emotions. The dead go quickly
Not knowing why they go or where they go. To die is human,
To come back divine. Roosevelt gives way to Truman
Suddenly in the empty White House a brave new voice resounds
And the wheelchaired captain has crossed the great divide.
Faster than memories, faster than old mythologies, faster than the speediest train.
Alexander of Macedon, on time!
Prudhomme on time, Gorbachev on time, the beloved and the lover on time!
Les morts vont vite. We living stand at the gate
And life goes on.
● In plays notice how the scenes get shorter and the action speeds up towards the end. In childhood, afternoons extend for seeming years but for the old years flicker past like brief afternoons. After eighty, the playwright Christopher Fry pointed out, you seem to be having breakfast every five minutes. And what is particularly mortifying is how much time is wasted: as Lord Byron entered in his journal, “When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning – how much remains to downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.”
● Browsing in Samuel Pepys’s great diary I find an entry for 10th March 1666, which sums up what should remind every overly ambitious man or woman of what they are missing: “Thence to the office, where late writing letters; and leaving a great deal to do on Monday – I home to supper and to bed. The truth is, I should indulge myself a little with pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it, and out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it with any pleasure.”
Back to the local scene where the newspapers report a steady diet of violent crime, domestic abuse and killing, internecine political warfare, dysfunctional public and private agencies, accusations of serial waste and corruption and fierce denials, simmering suspicions in every corner and a complete lack of civility and magnanimity in the body politic and abuse of compassion in the civic sphere. Can it really be as bad as this or has it all become a strange competition in identifying the worst since it is thought that this is what we crave?