Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dying to write

I’ve seen dead people.

Quite literally. Hundreds of them. I've seen babies and toddlers, teenagers and pensioners. I’ve seen them in beds and chairs, lying on kitchen floors, hanging from rafters, floating in rivers and canals, under the wheels of trucks, on mortuary slabs, spread like jam along railway tracks and reduced to their component meaty pieces.

What a jolly way to start a blog post. But there is some relevance. You see, most people only get to see a few bodies in their lifetime and they’re usually dressed and cleaned-up by hospital staff or undertakers. Having spent nearly 30 years as a police officer, I’ve seen every wretched way that exists for a human being to be torn, ripped, split and crushed. I’ve seen every ignominy that can be suffered, every visceral indignity. And that does something to you, I think.

I’ve heard colleagues say that you either learn to cope with it or you go mad. One of the most common coping strategies is simply to leave the job and take early retirement. Another is to develop a deeply black sense of humour (though that has its own attendant problems in our ever-more litigious and politically correct world). I've known officers to find comfort in religion. And, sadly, I've known a few whose only solace came from the prescription pad. My personal coping strategy was my curiosity. I've learned to treat everything you see, no matter how grisly or disturbing, as something of interest. Contrary to popular belief, police officers do not, generally, have to attend post mortems. But I did. Because I was fascinated. I wanted to see, first hand, how our insides connect together and how our hidden squidgy bits works. These days you can watch such things on TV. They are somewhat sanitised and you’re spared the smell and the fluids and the wildlife. But nothing can prepare you for that creepy German and his hat.

And so I coped. I'm okay. And what I've gained from the experience is an insight into death and just how peaceful and unscary it is. Death means no more concerns about your health. No more mortgage or debt worries. No more of anything. It's utter, utter peace. Death is nothing to be scared of. The scary bit is how you get to be dead; the manner of your passing. And there's two parts to that: the first part is hoping that it will be either peaceful and painless or quick and painless. The second is hoping that you'll be remembered.

Writers are often asked why they became writers. Many state that they could have done nothing else; that it's their one ruling passion. Certainly that was the case for me. I have always written. But there is also the immortality thing. I can't explain why but I have always wanted to leave something of myself behind - even if all I do is donate my diaries to the British Library. I guess it's the realisation that you have a short time on this planet and then you're a long time dead ... it makes you want to make a statement. Call it egotism if you will but I've always felt the need to make my own small mark on the world. I don't want to just disappear when I die. I want my time on this Earth to be remembered. I want to have made an impact.

Life is a fragile thing, easily snuffed out. That was hammered home to me in 1991 when my father unexpectedly died at the age of 51. My Dad was a competent and moderately successful writer and he'd jsut started to write a novel when he had his fatal heart attack. Mum suggested that I finish writing Dad’s book but he left so few notes and almost all of them were historical research. None were related to plot or characters. Therefore I could do nothing with it. So, sadly, all that exists of his writing are the magazine and newspaper articles he'd had published and some unfinished work. He never had a book published; one of his greatest ambitions. I was not quite 30 at the time and I realised that, if I were unlucky enough to have the same life span as Dad, I was already half way through. The simultaneously premature death of Freddie Mercury didn't help matters either. Therefore, in a much earlier than scheduled mid-life crisis, I packed in smoking and started to think about what I could do to ensure that I wouldn't be forgotten. There were my kids of course. Kerys was six then and Liam was two. They would be my genetic legacy. But I wanted more. I wanted to leave something of me and my personality behind. Something physical that would endure. So I started to seriously consider writing as a career. It's taken me a few years, but it looks like I'm finally there.

With my recent publishing deal, I will see a book in print next year and that's a kind of comfort. Even if my book ends up in charity shops or jumble sales; even if I enjoy just a brief glimmer of success that then fades quickly away, I'll have achieved my ambition. Somewhere, in the vaults of the British Library and of similar libraries all over the world there will be a Dewey Decimal reference card (or database entry as they invariably are now) for Colgan, S.

I wish there were a Colgan, M. too for Dad.

That would have been a far more appropriate memorial than a headstone.

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