I never paid much attention to the phenomenon of the bucket list, to me it was simply another instance of the way we egg each other on to take a hedonistic and self-centred view of our own mortality. The notion that hang-gliding off Mount Fuji, or cuddling with manatees in the Florida Keys, or sucking on the Koh-i-Noor diamond as if it were a Murray mint, could somehow mitigate the horrors of a terminal illness has always struck me as being on the side of absurdity known as "revolting".
As the great metaphysical poet John Donne wrote: "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main"; whereby it follows that should you be granted a preview of the abyss about to swallow you, the important thing is to make your peace with your fellow men, not take them for a valedictory bungee jump.
I've never been bungee jumping at all, but somehow I don't think that'll save me because I have been white-water rafting, and as any serious bucket list-compiler knows, it's one or the other. I did it against my will: my then teenaged children insisted on it. Yet despite kicking and screaming all the way to the launching-off point when we were slaloming down the Tully River in North Queensland with our raft master screeching, "This is how we do it, yeah! Doggie style!" then vigorously miming anal sex (pitching rather than catching), I did manage to forget my abject terror. Why? Because I was so bloody intent on saving my soaked skin.
It does strike me as, um, paradoxical, that anyone who knows they're about to die should want to take part in a potentially fatal activity. I suppose the logic is that you can properly relax and enjoy it because it hardly matters if you pop your clogs. Either this, or possibly for some devout, sanctity-of-life types, putting a dangerous sport on your bucket list is a way of inadvertently procuring assisted suicide.
But I say: why wait until you're dying to off yourself? Surely one of the most adrenalised activities imaginable would be booking an appointment with Dignitas, flying to Zurich, entering the pokey room where you're meant to do the dread deed, and when you're presented with the foaming glass of sodium pentobarbital, taking a big gulp and holding it in your mouth for a few seconds before spitting it back into the concerned Swiss face hovering over you. OK, I've wandered off topic… still, you can understand why: I'm still sitting here staring at my fugu while contemplating the possibility of my imminent extinction, so it's hardly surprising.
Now, where were we? Ah, yes, I was casting my mind back over my life to see whether I really have done everything I ever wanted to do (in which case I've had it), or if there's at least one unfulfilled desire to keep me hanging from the cliff-edge of existence.
It may be bungee jumping or white-water rafting when it comes to bucket lists, but that by no means covers all the available thrills; being in mortal danger does indeed add a piquancy to life, and can I put my hand on my still loudly beating heart and swear I've had my fair share?
Well, let's quickly run through this sub-list: 1. Been held up at gunpoint (check); 2. Overdosed on narcotics (check); 3. Been lost in the desert (check); 4. Been in a car crash (several); 5. Survived a terminal illness (check); 6. Swum with sharks (check); 7. Been lost in the mountains in a whiteout (check); 8. Flown in the cockpit of a commercial airplane (double check). I know, I know, Number 5 looks a bit like my attempted-assisted-suicide-for-kicks fantasy, but in my defence, beating off the Grim Reaper does make you feel wonderfully, uh, alive.
I'd been out on the lash all night with the writer and film-maker Jonathan Meades, a man of prodigious appetites. At 4am, we were chucking back Marc de Bourgogne in his writing hut somewhere in the Kilburn wilds; at 11am, I was driving through the Euston underpass when I became aware of a throbbing in the knuckle of my left index finger. I paid it no mind. I was booked, together with my car, on the "deerstalker express" to Inverness that evening, and given the price of the ticket there was no way I could miss the train.
By the time I got to the station, however, my left hand had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. I entered my designated sleeping compartment to find my bunkmate already there: a bearded and agitated Scotsman with wild eyes. I offered him a dram from my bottle of Famous Grouse. He upended it, necked about half, set the bottle down, wiped his mouth and said: "Have you any idea what it's like to be trapped in a confined space with a potentially violent man?"
"I'm beginning to get an idea," I replied insouciantly. Then he told me his story: he'd been a prison officer during the 1990 Strangeways riot and was held hostage, abused and tortured for days. I suppose I might've felt anxious if it weren't for the fact—I realised later—that I was running a triple-figure fever. During the jolting night, my grapefruit hand transmogrified into a melon one and there were black streaks of sepsis running up my arm.
The marvellous thing about being that ill is denial. I tell you, it's a life-saver: I looked at my melon hand and thought, "Humph, better pop into the doctor and get some antibiotics, that looks a little nasty." I was booked on the ferry from Scrabster to the Orkney Islands; the train was late and I had only a couple of hours to do 110 miles over icy, switchback Highland roads in a rust-bucket with wheels.
I drove like the clappers; fortunately the car was a Citroen with a dashboard-mounted shift, so I could change gear with my left melon… sort of. After 120 minutes of slippin' anna slidin', I pulled to the end of the jetty just as the ferry was setting sail. This being a remote part of the world where people help each other rather than merely observing health and safety, the captain stopped, backed up, and as the car-deck door was lowered, his crew roundly abused me.
Still, I made the ferry, and it was just as well, because a week later, when I finally regained my right mind, in the Balfour Hospital outside the main Orcadian town of Kirkwall, the doctor told me when I'd lurched in I'd had about six hours to live. It was septicaemia, naturally: an opportunistic bacteriological infection attacking a man who laboured under the delusion that he had an eye for the main chance. It took me a month to recover. Still, the whole experience was paradoxically life enhancing, for a while.
Nut job and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was subjected to a horrifying mock-execution when he was a young man. The Tsarist authorities had arrested him together with other members of a radical discussion group. They were all tried, sentenced, then led out onto the parade ground of the Peter and Paul Fortress, where, just as the first three condemned were being tied to the posts and the firing squad was loading its rifles, the messenger came with their reprieve.
Writing later, Dostoevsky said that when he realised he was spared he swore that he would savour every single second of life left to him, never forgetting the awfulness of his ordeal. But things being the way they are (you wake up one morning with a hideously painful hangnail, the next tormented by an Ed Sheeran song), Dostoevsky soon forgot his oath; and although I made a similar one when I hobbled out of Balfour Hospital, I too soon let it drop, like a crumpled tissue of lies, beside life's high road.
The Buddha was once asked what the strangest truth about humanity was; he thought for a moment then answered: "That we may all die at any moment, yet we all behave as if we're going to live forever."
Well, I'm guilty as charged: I've had my fair share of life-threatening experiences, but they've never taught me to savour the moment. Instead, like all the rest of us naked apes, I've spent the balance of my life chasing status, money, sex, power and extreme experiences of one sort or another, without ever questioning what was driving me on so remorselessly.
My greatest ambitions in life—to witness the births of my children, to have a book published, to have a threesome (vastly overrated IMHO) and to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges—passed me by in something of a blur, especially the latter since I'd shared a chillum full of bhang with a naked holy man, before lowering myself into the bacillus-swarming waters. I was in search of enlightenment and union with the great cosmic cycle of being, but about halfway across I collided with a dead water buffalo, went under and came up spluttering. Dysentery was a foregone conclusion, but then it almost always is.
A couple of months later I was lying, legs akimbo, on an examination couch in London's Hospital for Tropical Diseases while a medic peered up my arse through a wide-bore aluminium tube. It was an innocent era—they'd only recently introduced the tube—and I asked him: "What can you see up there?" To which he replied, slightly petulantly, "Just some rather rabbity-looking faeces…"
In retrospect, I'm not quite sure I ever had any sort of life-plan beyond debagging to bag these sorts of experiences.
I've held a life-size gold effigy of Kate Moss and played catch with Damien Hirst's £50 million diamond skull; I've seen my name up in lights outside the National Theatre (albeit spelt incorrectly), and I've danced the night away in the samba-and-cocaine crazed favelas of Rio; I've bantered with Jack Nicholson (I asked him if he "got out much", a startlingly good conversational entrée, I'm sure you'll agree); I've created life and I've taken life away (I believe I mentioned the deer-slaying earlier), yet it's only now, as in my fugue I stare at my fishy fugu-nemesis, that I realise what it's all been about: the bucket list.
And now I do, at long last, take time to properly consider it, I think back over the last few weeks and realise I've been saying my goodbyes: meeting up with friends I haven't seen in years; visiting my childhood home and other places that have emotional resonance; and I've also been delivering little valedictory homilies to my children of this form: "Remember, the most important thing in life—more important than love, or health, let alone success—is to maintain well-wiped kitchen surfaces. It doesn't matter how dirty the cupboards are, what matters is what's on show."
Wise guff, I'm sure you'll agree, and in line with this newfound sagacity I've found my own priorities have also been shifting. I no longer think about the peak experience lying in wait for me a year or five ahead – hell, I scarcely consider what'll be occurring in five months' time – what matters is the here and now, what matters is just being and, most importantly, being with the ones I love.
I've taken to compiling miniature bucket lists (feel free to visualise at this point, one of those dinky little zinc buckets high-end burger joints have taken to serving fries in) that set out the experiences I'd like to have should my life be spared for the next five minutes.
A sample list reads: 1. Scratch my arse; 2. Breathe; 3. See the colour orange; 4. Think about the most pendulous scrotum I ever saw (a Russian bathing in the Black Sea in 1998, an astonishing sight, albeit trumped by my friend, Sarah, who saw a woman with no nipples in a Turkish bath in Istanbul in 1989); 5. Make a cup of tea. Each time I've done all the things on a list, I take a further deep breath, listen to the muffled beating of my heart, then begin compiling another.
This is my quandary: is it my compiling and fulfilling of the mini-bucket lists that's actually keeping me alive? And if so, will I have to write and execute lists faster and faster in order to avoid the axe I can feel whirring about my head?
At least when I was inadvertently compiling The Big List which was, it transpires, my life, the lag between deciding on an experience and having it was long enough for me to get on with the important in-between stuff, such as vigorously wiping kitchen surfaces. Hence the fugu-eating: if it doesn't kill me, it may reconfigure my listing life, freeing me from what's beginning to seem like a terrifyingly permanent Now.
I say "now" but I mean "then". That's the trouble with constructing these hypothetical situations: you know I survived the fugu, or else I wouldn't've been able to write this stuff. And have I been released from the hideous go-round of minute-by-minute bucket lists? Yes, after a fashion, the only problem is that now I've definitively completed The Big List it hardly matters if I'm dead or alive. Family and friends have been, um, supportive, however, there's no disguising the fact that they regard me as surplus to requirements. It's hardly surprising, given most human interaction consists in the articulation of this want or that need, and I no longer have any of my own.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer—who was frankly something of a grouch—believed that the only force which mattered or even existed in the cosmos was desire. This universal desire is, he thought, expressed in our lust for life (and our life of lust), and in the shivering-into-being of all the other entities we see around us. When I realised the rather tatty spider plant squatting seemingly inert on my desk was in truth seething with desire it gave me quite a… turn.
I felt still queasier when I walked out into the garden and sensed the desire burgeoning all around: in the moist, labial petals of the flowers and the plants' turgid thrusting stalks; in the neighbourhood dogs' hungry barks, and the marauding foxes' coital yelps; in the avaricious cheeping of over-flying birds, and the earthy-munching of undermining worms; in the famished howl of jet engines plummeting towards Heathrow, and the whip-poor-will song of passing police cars' sirens! So much desire for life and its increase! Yet a flower can be easily lopped, a plant chopped off in its prime; a dog may be put to sleep and a fox painlessly culled with a high-velocity rifle.
Contemplating this—the streaming superfluity of life and its confluence with the teeming waters of the Styx—my way forward became clear. I had completed my own bucket list and thereby been granted a vision of things as they actually are, in themselves; henceforth my mission must be to ensure that every greenfly, traffic warden and bedraggled daisy I come across has compiled and completed their own.
It's tedious work, this, kneeling on the verges of arterial roads and communing with somnolent dormice—their bucket lists are short and to the point: 1. Eat; 2. Fuck; 3. Sleep – however, there's at least this consolation: if I find myself paraphrasing Eighties art-rockers Talking Heads' immortal lyrics from "Once in a Lifetime"—"And you may find yourself, kneeling on the verges of arterial roads and communing with somnolent dormice… And you may find yourself, talking to goldfish slowly revolving in a pet shop window… And you may find yourself, sharing a sleeping bag with a rough sleeper on The Embankment…"
Well, I don't need to ask myself: how did I get here? Because I know—and so, by now, should you.
First published in Esquire US.