According to the lyrics of Billy Joel, ‘Only the good die young’. His song, of the same name, is actually about Bill’s seedy tactics to seduce a Catholic girl into bed. But for some reason it always makes me think about the Twenty Seven club: the group of talented musicians who, mysteriously, all died at the age of 27, predominantly as a result of drug and alcohol abuse. Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and, most recently, Amy Winehouse all belong to this ‘club’.
Unsurprisingly, the arts world have gone crazy for this, producing novels, films and stage plays about it. It screams rock and roll, for one thing: ‘the lost youth, gone before their time!’. But it also renders a rather attractive context in which to view their talent, helping to eternalise the works of the dead artist (incidentally, Winehouse has sold 1.7 million records post-mortem) and excite our imaginations with ‘what could have been’.
This is not unlike the Romantic poet John Keats, who died from consumption at the even-younger age of 25. His poetry, which largely focussed on themes of transience and mortality, have an added poignance to them in the context of his early death. Much like the way Janis Joplin’s Get It While You Can was given an added undertone of urgency after she dropped dead of an overdose in 1970.
I would say, however, that Western society in general is scared to talk about death. We skip around the subject with euphemisms like ‘passed away’ and ‘late relative’. Whereas in Medieval Britain, they were obsessed with mortality. And with an average life expectancy of 30, who can be surprised? There was even an artistic convention to insert a little skull into the corner of paintings, as a ‘memento mori’ (Latin- remember that you will die). Then there were the ancient Romans. Roman generals, after a triumphant battle, would hire a slave to follow them around, reminding him of this same concept:: ‘memento mori’.*
And how strange this seems to us now, in an age of modern medicine and Olay’s anti-aging fluids. Death is something we battle against. And rightfully so; if it were not for this, we would still be dying from the common cold..and wouldn’t that be a piss-take. But, apart from the remaining members of the Rolling Stones, we are all going to die someday. And perhaps a consciousness of our own mortality isn’t the worst thing. We all know Horace’s famous saying ‘Carpe diem’, but perhaps not as familiar with the full translated line: ‘Seize the Day, putting as little trust as possible in the next day’. And I think this latter half is important, because life is just as precious and unpredictable as it ever was.
At best, an awareness of our own mortality might shock us into living in a more fulfilling, meaningful way. The fantastic ‘Make A Wish’ foundation, for instance, enriches the lives of terminally-ill children by aiming to fulfil their dreams. My personal favourites amongst the wish stories include ‘I wish to go on a dinosaur dig with a palaeontologist’ and ‘I want to be the president of the United States of America’ (if you’re wondering, 11 year old Sterling was suited up in Brooks Brothers and given an office in the White House for a day).
But how many of us, who are lucky enough to be in good health, have sat down to think: what would I do if I was given one day to live? Okay, if you haven’t’ been forced to consider this, then that’s great. But I still think you should. Thinking about mortality is not akin to morbidity; in some sense, it is simply the state of living with more vitality. The practice of not taking for granted that the ‘next day’ will come, and thus seizing this one. It is true that we live in a fast-paced age: the age of broadband internet, the Smartphone and Dominos pizza delivery. But sometimes I feel like the closest thing we have to ‘carpe diem’ is a ‘YOLO’ drinking mentality and One Direction’s Live While We’re Young. How often do we take time out of our busy schedules to actually sit down and talk to a close friend or family member, no iPhone in sight? Where was the last place you travelled that wasn’t for a lash-up and a Facebook album?
As an antidote to this anxiety about mortality, a career in writing has always appealed to me. One of the main reasons for this is that, as a writer, you leave a legacy. It immortalises you. And it has never been so easy to get a platform. Blogging is particularly wonderful in that it gives everyone and anyone a platform- and, thankfully for some, there is no obligation for you to read it, because it will never appear on your school syllabus. I’d encourage anyone to do it. If writing isn’t your thing, then fashion, music, art, advanced juggling…anything. Whatever sets you aside and gives you genuine fulfilment on a personal level; a satisfaction that exceeds that of beating a friend on online Scrabble, and even beats the moment the pizza delivery man arrives. Almost.
*Comparative to a ball boy pursuing Federer after last year’s Wimbledon saying ‘remember, you still might lose to Murray someday’.
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