Death has been calling in a lot of IOUs. Apart from the private sorrows and the never ending slaughter at the cutting edge of politics - in such places as Afghanistan and El Salvador, a lot of reference points on the public landscape have been disappearing. Hitchcock, Lennon, McQueen, Sellers, West, Raft. Not to mention Col. Sanders, the scourge of the Kentucky chicken, who may be gone but whose aroma lingers on.
(Incidentally, show business is, despite its reputation, the only public activity left with any sense of dignity. We buried and mourned our dead with a measure of respect. When Finn Gundelach keeled over from a heart attack there were six applications in for his job before he hit the ground.)
It was only natural that death would loom larger in all our minds in a month which saw Ronald Reagan step up to cross his heart and hope to kill if he didn't preserve The Fabric Of Society, Civilisation As We Know It, The American Way Of Life and things like that.
We could hear quite clearly the click of the safety catch coming off the weapon that is pointed at all our heads. Don't get me wrong - I had no preconceptions (he lied with great nonchalance) when I set out last month to learn something about the man who may fry you to a crisp before you finish this page.
A glance through the Halliwell for a sampling of the man's movies is less than comforting. Law And Order is only to be expected, as is This Is The Army. It's handy to have a Storm Warning. And Dark Victory, Hell's Kitchen and Night Unto Night are suitably evocative of the probable consequences of the rise of the genial geriatric. Accidents Will Happen is more than somewhat unsettling, but the capper is a movie which the senile simpleton made in 1941: Nine Lives Are Not Enough.
Do you think he's trying to tell us something?
For the essence of the man whose bony finger is on the trigger, we go to a pro-Reagan source: "His son Mike says that if you ask Reagan the time of day, he'll respond by telling you how to make a watch". Oh, dear. One of those. I'm forever running into them in pubs. They're usually fans of Joe Locke, think Gay Byrne is a commie and are never short of something quaint to say about the weather. They are continually tossing out gems from their arsenal of banalities - such as, "If we all swept our own doorsteps the whole street would be clean". Before the night is out they will invariably ask if you know what ever happened to Din Joe. (By the way - whatever happened to Din Joe?).
"What time is it, please?" "Do you want to know the time? Well, let me tell you, son, in my day..."
In short, this is not the type of man you will ask to help you solve a crossword puzzle. To cut the grass, maybe, or to squeeze a lemon. Activity of a more intellectual nature will over heat the forehead and lead to dandruff of the eyebrows. Here, the adled antique muses on the problem of Russia. "Maybe it's time for us ", he says in a Time interview, "to stop thinking of the Soviets as being ten feet tall. They're not that invulnerable ".
The point here is not to disparage the man on account of his age or the fact that those standing nearby can hear a rattle whenever he shakes his head. What is important is that a man of such a simplistic and extreme turn of mind should come to power just at this time. For years we figured that since the people with their fingers on the triggers were also the people who own the world they would have enough smarts to just keep the fingers steady, poised but not straining. If, went the theory, they light the blue touch-paper and retire - so do we all, permanently. That little dot disappears for the last time into the Great TV Screen Of Life. The people who own the world even thought up a name for this theory - MAD. Mutually Assured Destruction. Very clever, that.
There is now a large body of opinion which holds that there has been an important shift in nuclear strategy over the past few years. That things have gone from MAD to worse. This opines that the emphasis on "tactical" weapons and a form of civil defence geared to controlling the remnants after the Big Flash means that the people who own the world reckon they have solved the problem of having another war without vaporising more than a few dozen million. Before the kick-off it is necessary to agree to limit the conflagration to a predetermined area. Have a listen to Gene LaRocque. Gene isn't just any old Gene, or even any old Gene LaRocque. This is Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque. Not that I'm too familiar with what a Rear Admiral, or even a Relatively Common Admiral does for a living. Gene, however, used to be a strategic planner for the Pentagon. He now runs the Washington Centre For Defence Information. Step up there, Gene, and say your party piece:
"We fought World War I in Europe. we fought World War 1I in Europe, and if you dummies let us, we'll fight World War 1I1 in Europe. . . ..
Thank you, Gene, you've made my day. Now, could you pass the bottle there - no, the one with the little pink capsules. Ta.
Which brings us to Ronnie Reagan, the pride of Dixon, Illinois. The man, it might be said, who put the Ill in Illinois. It's odds-on that the scatty septuagenarian is going to kill us. For over 30 years the twin imperialisms of the USA and USSR have fought by proxy - and their finest scientific brains have been working out a way of using their megadeath machines without cancelling the whole ball game. All that time Ronnie has been sniffing around the centre of power. And just as the idea of limited nuclear war is being translated into cruise missiles and survival systems under London streets for the political and civil service elite - who steps forward but the raving relic. Nuclear war is being discussed now not as a remote and awesome finality but as a survivable and even winnable option. They have the technology and now the political cogs are falling into place.
Commentators have for the past couple of years been pointing out "the notable shift to the right" in one country after another. This is not merely of academic interest - it's the political gear change which points to an acceleration in the rate of barbarity. What to do? Dust off the old CND signs, as thousands have been doing in Britain? Picket the American and Russian embassies? Turn subversive and throw sand into the engines of destruction whenever and where ever possible? Get drunk while we can? Try another planet?
I demand a recount.
We began with a contemplation not of mass death but of the stumbling of individual "tripped runners ill the human race". Last month saw the demise of Bang Bang, the last of the legendary Dublin street characters. His cavalier attitude to violence - blowing away whole tram loads of people by pointing a key at them and mouthing, "Bang, bang" - was a quaint and tolerable fantasy. However. . .
In the week that Bang Bang died I was reading a lengthy assessment of Ronnie Reagan in Time. Idly flicking through the magazine I stopped at page 21 and the following passage leaped out:
In the past he had come across kingfishers, he said. . . but he had never seen a salt-water bird here. "Bang! Bang!" he yelled several times, and eventually the tern flew back toward the ocean as a satisfied Reagan stared upward at its flight.
Bang Bang is alive and well and living in the White House and this time around his weapon is loaded.