Questioning what makes a good life

Drabble, M. (2016) “The Dark Flood Rises“, Edinburgh:  Canongate Books

It’s not often I’m compelled to buy a book directly from what the blurb has to to say for itself on the sleeve, but with this book by Margaret Drabble, I was sold when I originally bought the book back in 2017.  It spoke to me, and despite it being fiction, it seemed to speak to the stage of life I find myself in, and the mood I found myself in while I was looking to spend money in the bookshop at the time last year.

The offending paragraphs inside the cover of The Dark Flood Rises read as follows:

“Fran may be old but she’s not going without a fight. So she dyes her hair, enjoys every glass of red wine, drives around the country for her job with a housing charity and lives in an insalubrious tower block that her loved ones disapprove of. And as each of them – her pampered ex Claude, old friend Jo, flamboyant son Christopher and earnest daughter Poppet – seeks happiness in their own way, what will the last reckoning be? Will they be waving or drowning when the end comes?

“By turns joyous and profound, darkly sardonic and moving, The Dark Flood Rises questions what makes a good life, and a good death. This triumphant, bravura novel takes in love, death, sun-drenched islands, poetry, Maria Callas, tidal waves, surprise endings – and new beginnings.”

Morbid I know, but it seemed to have many resonating themes for me with my, what can often feel stalling, middle age life.  As I approach the age of 48 years old, I recently had to retire early due to a neurological condition which can play many wonderful tricks on my body and mind.  Not only that, two years ago, I downsized from my fast-paced life in London, to return to the house I grew up in in a much slower part of Hampshire, and seem to hang out with many more people aged over 70 than I do with people of my own age, so many of the issues the book says it was going to address are live for me, and the people I see regularly.

That’s what I thought it was – the highs, lows and frustrations of growing old, and the challenges of modern life.  There was some of that, but in fact, it was much darker than that.  Bigger themes lying beneath the surface of what adds up to a ‘good life’ and how to see it out at the end – something facing us all as we apparently live longer, but better lives?  And not just us, but our families and friends too.  A lot of dying.

Because of my own situation, it did give much pause for reflection at times, and made me think a lot about people I know, places I pass on the bus, or charities I have considered partnering with on projects in the past.  In the work I have been doing on community podcasting at Sound Vault, for example, we have been thinking about doing projects on the role music can play in making memories, and have seen the difference simple conversations about music can have in people’s lives.

At times, I found the book a little too incredible – too many coincidental character links for example – only for a coincidental link to ‘pop-out’ at the very same moment I was reading about it, to match with a detail in my own life, so perhaps I was too quick to judge.  Too many of the characters in the book seemed to know each other by some twist of fate, but maybe that happens in particular professional sectors, even if they are separated by hundreds of miles at a particular stage in their life.

The book is powerful in that it creates a dark ‘oil’ which feels like it envelopes the reader.  It doesn’t judge, or prescribe.  It is not depressive (I finally got round to reading it during January 2018, when I am at my most optimistic, most proactive, most organised), but can help us all reflect a little more clearly, yet thoughtfully about the door marked ‘Exit’.  I don’t like to alarm anyone, but it’s approaching.  For many of my nearest and dearest, and others in my networks, it has already come.  And the public policy issues associated with it are growing.




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