M. L.

For some today the worry and the work
go on, the weariness, and then for some the wine.
For some the wonder of it all perhaps.
But not for you. For some today
there will be no tomorrow. For you
there’s no today. In the tatty sun-split
Spanish streets behind the Institute
the anger and the laughter and the tears
build up once more. Soon they’ll fade with evening.
Lalla Yacout in the twilight:
Arabs throng and fight for space, a place
on the old French buses, hanging from doors and windows,
then are gone. Night falls. For most
the sun will rise again, but not for you.

[Written on the death of a friend when I lived in Casablanca, many years ago …]

Memento Mori

Then, of course, they had no real medical care,
no vaccines, nothing like that, and when locked down
no contact with anyone, no way of knowing
what in God’s name was going on. But then
they were familiar with death, they lived with it.
Death – and God – were all around them all the time.
People died, people of all ages,
every day. Death came as no surprise.

Now, of course, at home, the whole wide world
is at our finger tips, our friends and family
there at the flick of a finger, the touch of a button.
But we know a fear those others never knew:
the fear of the unfamiliar. No one then
expected to live for long. No one now
expects to die. Death is taboo. We live in
denial. Today what we denied is peering
through the window, is knocking at our doors
just as it peered in through their windows,
knocked at their doors, every day.

FEDERICO GARCÍA LORCA: The Ballad of the Sleepwalker

(from the Spanish of Federico García Lorca)

Green, how I love you green.
Green wind. Green boughs.
The ship on the sea,
the horse on the mountain.

The shade at her waist,
she dreams on the balcony,
green flesh, green hair,
cold silver eyes.

Green, how I love you green.
Beneath the gypsy moon
things look at her
but she cannot look at them.

Green, how I love you green.
Huge stars of hoarfrost
come with the fish of darkness
which opens the path of dawn.

The fig-tree rubs the wind
with the dogfish skin of its boughs,
and the mountain, a wild cat,
bristles with harsh maguey.

But who will come, and from where …?
She stays on her balcony,
green flesh, green hair,
dreaming in the bitter sea.

Friend, I want to swap
my horse for your house,
my saddle for your mirror,
my knife for your blanket.
Friend, I come bleeding
from the passes of Cabra.

If I could, lad,
I would do a deal.
But I am no longer myself,
my house no longer my house.

Friend, I want to die
decently in bed.
An iron one, if that may be,
made up with linen sheets.
Do you not see this wound
from my breast to my throat?

Three hundred dark roses
soak your white shirt.
Your blood oozes and smells
around your sash.
But I am no longer myself,
nor is my house now my house.

At least let me up to
the high balconies.
Let me go up! Let me
up to the green balconies.
Balconies of the moon
where the water echoes.

So up the two friends go
to the high balconies.
Leaving a trail of blood.
Leaving a trail of tears.

Little tin lanterns
flicker on the roofs.
A thousand glass tambourines
fragment the sunrise.

Green, how I love you green,
green wind, green branches.

Up the two friends climbed.
The sharp wind left a strange
taste in the mouth, of bile
and of mint and of basil.

Friend! Where is she, tell me,
where is your embittered daughter?

How many times she expected you!
How many times she awaited you,
fresh face, black hair,
on this green balcony!

On the surface of the tank
the gypsy girl floated.
Green flesh, green hair,
cold silver eyes.
An icicle of moonlight
kept her above the water.

The night grew as close
as a small town square.
Drunken civil guards
hammered at the door.

Green, how I love you green.
Green wind, green boughs.
The ship on the sea.
The horse on the mountain.


(translated from the Greek of Andreas Kalvos for Stella, one of my favourite students)

Let those who feel
the heavy brazen hand of fear
bear slavery:
freedom needs virtue,
needs daring.

This (for myth may veil
the spirit of truth) lent wings
to Icarus – and though he fell,
the wingèd one and drowned
beneath the waves,

he fell from on high
and died free. Should you
die like a sheep, dishonoured,
at the hands of a tyrant,
your grave will be an abomination.

Why is this poem of particular significance to me? Because for so many years I lived like a sheep, dishonoured, at the hands of tyrants; when when my time comes may I too die free, back where I belong, beneath the waves.

XIII Death

For those who know, and knowing –
not deducing, not surmising,
but knowing – like I know where I grew up,
know the name and face and feel of my first love –
and knowing, know that any attempt to show
this was not so is laughable, preposterous, absurd –
for us, Death is merely the end of this,
the beginning of that,
and a funeral a rite of passage.

Beyond the Styx, beyond the Land of the Dead,
between the two white watch towers,
the sun is rising.


The Seventh Seal is, without any Hollywood hyperbole, one of the most memorable and shocking films ever made. It was shot in black and white on a real shoestring budget (Bergman predictably could not find backers for his marvellous script), yet it managed to win the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1957 and has been acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece ever since.

A knight, played to perfection by Max von Sydow, returns from the Crusades to find Death stalking the land. The opening scene of the film, dawn on a bare northern beach, reveals the knight and his squire sleeping on the pebbles while their horses wait patiently at the water’s edge. They do not appear to have been shipwrecked. Presumably they were put ashore there during the night. The knight wakes, washes his face in the sea, kneels and prays.

Then turns to see Death standing behind him. “Who are you?” “I am Death … I have walked long at your side.” “That I know.” The knight proposes a game of chess. Death accepts and the game proceeds, giving the knight a respite during which he can save at least some of the small group of helpless people who collect around him.

Bergman tells us he was inspired by the Carmina Burana, the songs of the wanderers, the homeless, the seekers, during the 13th and 14th centuries, the time of wars and famines and plague, of the Great Mortality and the Dance of Death. He was also certainly inspired by the passage in the Book of Revelations from which he took his title, Revelations chapter 8. Read it. The knight’s wife does so, aloud and at length, during supper when he arrives home towards the end of the film. She has been awaiting him all these years and now they are finally reunited in death.

It is a cross between a Morality Play, with allegorical figures and events, and a novel, with tragedy and humour intermingled, scenes memorable for their realism, their happiness and love (the dreamy and lovable wandering player, of and his beautiful wife and perfect baby, symbol of a future which looks in grave doubt), their horror (the procession of self-flagellating penitents stumbling through the villages, the girl burnt as a witch before our eyes), and their sheer timelessness (Death with his string of captives in silhouette dancing off on the horizon at the end of the film).

Bergman said of it that it was one of the films closest to his heart. It is now one of the films closest to mine.



Stimuli pertaining to death can be regarded as a subset of the larger set of stimuli that elicit avoidance or distress responses.”
(R. Kastenbaum & R. Aisenberg, The Psychology of Death, p42)

The sight of me with my knife,
the touch of the knife,
can be regarded as members
of a subset of the set that includes
the sight of me with my whip
which elicits avoidance
or the touch of the whip
which elicits distress responses.

my effective use of the knife
must still be regarded as a member
of a unique set that includes all killers
painless or painful
and elicits no response at all.

Research with a view to establishing
a means of resolving this anomaly,
analogous to testing a prisoner’s reactions
to being in an empty cage,
is urgently needed.

Your Thoughts at the Moment You Die

If your thoughts are centered on Brahman you will not be reborn, but will know everlasting bliss.

If your thoughts at the moment you die are centered on what might have been, on vain regrets, you will live it all again – but perhaps not do it all the same again.

If your thoughts are centered on a woman you will be reborn as a woman.

If your thoughts are ones of fear and trepidation, you will be reborn as a fearful, timorous beast – a deer or a mouse, or a little bird.

If you are full of anger, you will be reborn as a tiger – or a snarling dog.