Friday, November 23, 2012


Woody Allen said that he didn't want to achieve immortality through his work, he wanted to achieve it through not dying. Given that the second option is beyond current scientific possibility, we're left with our work, and perhaps our descendants, to carry on after we're gone.

Virginia Woolf, who had no children, used to make notes about her own sayings, especially if they were a little out of the ordinary. It was, said Harold Laski, like watching someone organise her own immortality. Shakespeare's Cleopatra, who lies dying, murmurs "I have immortal longings in me". Don't we all? All that hand-wringing, all those regrets about not fulfilling one's destiny, all those opportunities missed. Then there was Kilroy.

In England during the second world war Kilroy was everywhere. In cartoon form, the drawings appeared on walls with the scrawl: "Kilroy was here". No one knew for sure how he came into being although there were plenty of theories. No one really knew what it meant – anything or nothing – but millions of people even today remember Kilroy. Not exactly immortality but fairly long-lived for a cartoon character who said and did nothing except declare that he was here.

That's not the case for most of us. The 18th century essayist Joseph Addison used to wander through Westminster Abbey and think about the tombstones and inscriptions, many of which recorded only that the departed persons had been born and then died. He reflected that, as was "finely described in holy writ", many lives were like the path of an arrow – gone in a flash and its path immediately closed up and lost. That's us.

Those who have done great or spectacular things can safely leave it to others to record the milestones, the successes and failures, the trials and dramas of their lives. But the need to be remembered is present in ordinary people too. I think that is why some of us, not just writers, have the urge to record our lives so that others might know that there has been more to us than birth then death. Whether we do it for ourselves, the family or the world, we want to leave a record, to explain ourselves, and show that we have left some mark as we have blundered onwards, not like an arrow but more like a machete. Or a bulldozer. To say, like Kilroy, I was here.

1 comment:

  1. Kilroy was here too, Joan. Must have emigrated from England after the war I remember him in my primary school days. He was here on the walls of public loos in places like the Botanic Gardens and by Brighton beach, he was there on fences and carved into trees. The mildly rogue enigma of him was attractive in a monochrome era that also had a sort of innocence. Kilroy always wrote on a slant but generally formed his letters quite carefully, as you did.