The wonderful film Dunkirk shows young men knowing real fear. They may be shot and wounded or killed. They may be shot in the worst possible way. In the back –retreating. So that if they get back home, it will be as part of defeated army. (We know about that here in Australia. This movie is at its most moving when it shows some men getting back home and fearing their rejection as losers.) We see young men dying – it’s all down to chance. Randomness is all about them. Their fate is out of their hands. There is a sense of helplessness. Is this the ultimate insult to our human dignity – that we become powerless in the hands of others?
Last Saturday morning, I was working here at this desk in the way I am now – typing and looking out over meadows and gumtrees. I had experienced some shortness of breath that morning and the previous morning, but nothing much. (This is about my condition of emphysema, not lung cancer.) At about 11.20, I started, to feel a chill. Then I felt aches in the legs. Then I got short of breath changing rooms. I felt even chillier and suspected an onset of flue. When I went to put a large log on the fire, I fell to one knee, and seemed to lose my breathing completely. This all happened so fast.
At about 11.45, I rang the clinic at Kyneton and said I was very distressed and on my way. I cannot recall thinking about ringing 000 then. I do recall thinking the trip to Kyneton – about ten k’s on the freeway – might be tricky for me, but that if I had collapsed, I could have rung 000 from there. It’s hard reconstructing these things after the event. The trouble is that you feel like you are running out of time – but you don’t know how much time is left. It’s like being on time-on in the last quarter.
I made it to the clinic. I just presented my bedraggled self and was soon on oxygen. I can recall the fever was so bad that when they pulled a sleeve up, I pulled it down again because the chill to the exposed skin was physically painful. (Is this what Don Giovanni felt at the end? )I was looked after by a young doctor who is an extremely competent professional person. The nursing staff acted on my instructions to get some good neighbours to look after Wolf. I was taken by ambulance to Bendigo. The paramedics were also very professional and kind.
After about four hours in casualty – monitored to the hilt – I was cleared of influenza, X-rayed, and told I wasn’t go to die – at least from this infection of the lung. After a long delay caused by a bus crash outside Ballarat, I was taken to St John of God. I had a long discussion with Lilly, a 48 year old Malaysian lady, about cooking and climate. (‘It’s bloody hot there all the time, Mate.’) I had similarly diverting discussion with many members of a dedicated staff, and after only minimal untruths, I secured my release after two nights. The kind neighbour who looks after my garden had looked after Wolf. She collected me and drove me back with him. I’m determinedly resilient one day later.
But for about thirty minutes on Saturday, I knew real fear. It was that sense of randomness of helplessness, that fear of the unknown, and loss of dignity. The image that came to mind was of a fly on its back heading in diminishing oval slurries to the bath plug hole. There does after all obviously have to be an end sometime. Timing is all.
I think I can say that death itself doesn’t worry me. What’s the point? It has to happen. Wittgenstein taught me years ago that you don’t live to see your own death. That is axiomatic. (Someone at Oxford told me a Greek had said just this 2,500 years ago.) Descartes started modern philosophy by saying ‘I think, therefore I am.’ At about 4.30 this morning I thought for the first time of a kind of obverse. ‘I’m dead, therefore I don’t think.’ (If you think that’s silly, it may suggest a problem in the first proposition.)
When the lights go out, that’s it. There are no replays or appeals to the third umpire. But we may wish to have some say in how the lights get turned off.
I hadn’t thought I had ever been so scared. But when I thought about it, I recalled one time in the ‘60s. During each vacation I worked with a small outfit called C & I Cleaning. (That stood for ‘Commercial and Industrial’ – you can imagine the men’s version.) The work was dirty and often dangerous. Employers got away with things that would now draw jail time – big jail time. There was no union involved. It was never even discussed. I used to think about it, but instinctively felt I would not have a job if I did anything about it. More importantly, the permanents had families to support, and they were not interested.
We used to do jobs that these people were not qualified to do. We did a job cleaning the outside of what was the Graham Hotel in Swanston Street between Flinders Street and Collins Street. We did our own rigging of what were called needles, that is, girders, over the top of the building from which to suspend the slings, called painters’ slings. These needles went over the parapet under a steel fence and then had concrete davits holding them down. The whole arrangement looked to me to be amateurish. I was involved in setting it up. You may as well have asked me to do surgery. There was no Department of Labour and Industry inspection. In truth, the needles were wrongly set.
At about midnight, we started winching up the slings. There were three of us on each of two slings. I was winching one, at the end nearest the Town Hall. The site beside me was vacant and there was a north wind giving a bit of a sway to the sling as we went up. About every ten feet or so my ratchet would give a slight click and just drop. It was very, very unnerving. It was also damned hard work.
We got to the top of the sixth floor and the little click became a run and the thing went down so that we were sort of hanging there with the sling at a 60 degree angle. Someone or others of us were shaking so much that the whole sling was shaking. It was seven minutes to four in the morning according to the Town Hall clock. I can remember saying to Dickie Roberts that we were up a bit. Dickie was an Englishman (who lived with a hooker who did interesting things with Cadbury’s chocolates). I liked Dickie. He said ‘You don’t fucking bounce’ in an accent that was thick for more than one reason.
A young night porter came to the window and turned white. He said he could not handle the window. We told him to kick the fucking thing in – and the air conditioner as well. We made our escape at about 4am. About seven minutes of swaying terror. When I first read Measure for Measure, years later I thought I knew just what Shakespeare meant by the phrase ‘desperately mortal’.
Someone gave me a brandy. It was a huge balloon glass. I drained it and did not feel a thing. I was blind with anger. I wanted to get my hands on those management bastards who had been standing down there looking up hopefully with their feet on the ground. When we got to them they asked if we would go up on the other sling. Looking back on it, I think it may have been as well if one or another of us had hit one of them. Dickie could have been just the boy for the job – he was brawny and he had pictures and I was sure he had been inside. It is not so much that those men were greedy – it was that they did not care: they were worse than careless. They were in truth bloody dangerous.
None of this came to me last Saturday. The two cases are very different – not least because of my age. But there was the same sense of randomness and helplessness – and fear of the unknown.
At least three things are clear to me after two trips to casualty by ambulance.
First, while we have mostly lost the old independent civil service we used to know, we are very well provided for by our doctors, nurses and paramedics. I spent a lot time in the last few days talking to many of them, including many trainees and Latrobe students. All of them – all of them – impressed me by their professionalism. If you spend time in casualty, and see what life’s like at the bottom, you know that these people are not there for the money. This is vocation, and God bless them.
And God bless their variety. The last nurse I spoke to was a student from Zimbabwe called Lana. She had the natural dignity of tall African women, and speaking to her, I realised the advantage that black women have over whites – their eyes flash naturally.
Secondly, there is another group who should spend time in casualty in a public hospital. Those vicious idiots who want to loosen our gun laws should listen to people screaming obscene hate in public – whether through drugs, including alcohol, or dementia – in hospitals that now employ permanent security staff, and where PA’s announce impending mayhem by ‘Code Grey’, and their end by ‘Stand down.’ It is straight out of Nineteen Eighty-four. It is worse than madness to suggest that we should loosen gun laws in pursuit of a vane mantra about ‘freedom.’ We will have to learn better how to deal with these nasty, cruel, cranks – I’m talking about the ratbag politicians, not the poor bastards in casualty.
Thirdly, I don’t want to go into labels about dying, but I may have to look again at some of the issues. The trick, as it seems to me, is to be allowed to go out with as much dignity as possible and as little pain to those close to you. Can we not manage to set up such a regime? The issue looks to me a bit like that of marriage equality. People should be left free to do as they decently want to as long as they don’t hurt others. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be about?
Let me then go back to Dunkirk. I hardly saw any TV at St John of God. But I turned on SBS to watch their Sunday news. I got the end of the Battle of Jutland. This was the great naval battle of the Great War. It was at best a draw. Neither side risked its whole fleet. It is still very controversial. But many ships went down and thousands died. The horror came as some British ships limped home – to be met by people heaving coal at them from bridges. The fearfully uninformed were abusing their servicemen for cowardice. This is sickening to see. Have ever men been worse treated? As I said, we know all about that here. In the name of God, we are such awkward boxes of good and bad.