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29 April 2020

Editor’s Note: Bryan Magee and the candle of mortality, and what the BBC News at Ten is getting wrong

The philosopher was a self-described agnostic and remained open to the possibility that death was not the absolute end.

By Jason Cowley

In recent days, as the death toll from Covid-19 has continued to rise remorselessly, I’ve been thinking again about the philosopher Bryan Magee, whom regular readers will recall I profiled in April 2018 after I visited him at a nursing home in Oxford. Magee had been seriously ill and could not walk but he remained extraordinarily lucid. That afternoon I found it fascinating to talk to him about his life and work as an author, broadcaster, politician and populariser of philosophy (we had met once before at his London flat in 1997). 

Magee was a self-described agnostic and remained open to the possibility that death was not the absolute end. “I do genuinely believe the possibility that death might be total extinction,” he told me. “We may be obliterated, annihilated, but it’s only a possibility; something else might be the case, and I generally believe that too.” 

Throughout his life, even as a child, Magee had been tormented by the mystery of mortality, on occasion driven, as he put it to me at our first meeting, “to the edge of despair” by unanswerable existential questions. “He’ll be remembered for many things but, for me, nobody wrote more hauntingly about mortality,” the writer and columnist Matthew Syed said when Magee died in July last year.

The closing paragraph of Magee’s book Ultimate Questions (2017), his final philosophical statement, is perhaps his most haunting – because in it he grapples with how he might approach the end of his life. “I can only hope that,” he writes, “when it is my turn, my curiosity will overcome my fear – though I may then be in the position of a man whose candle goes out and plunges him into pitch darkness at the very instant when he thought he was about to find what he was looking for.” 


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Humans do not like to think about death – and certainly not as all-consumingly as Bryan Magee did – because it can lead to feelings of hopelessness and terror. But death is all around us now. The coronavirus pandemic has forced us not only to socially distance from one another, and into lockdown, but also into a greater consideration of what psychologists call mortality salience.

In his book, Every Third Thought (2017), Robert McCrum, who aged 42 suffered a near-fatal stroke, writes with elegance and candour about the question of mortality salience. He is not a religious believer and, at the time of writing of the book, having turned 60, he was feeling even more physically vulnerable after one day he fell in the street and ended up in hospital. McCrum is also tormented by regrets: the failure of his marriage, career frustrations, missed opportunities. 

“To me, the mystery of death and dying is only equalled by the mystery of life and living,” he writes. “Consoling narratives must be patched together from transient fragments of experience. So why not celebrate ‘nowness’ and live in the present? Discover the joy of wisdom and experience. Cherish your family. Celebrate the human drama in all its magical variety. In truth, there is no other sensible narrative available. Unless you believe in an afterlife – which I don’t – this must be the only way forward.”

McCrum is interested in what in a different context the American writer David Brooks calls “post-traumatic growth”. Suffering can be redemptive – in McCrum’s and Magee’s cases it was – but no one surely willingly seeks to suffer in order to grow spiritually. We should all wish that this pandemic had not happened. But the fundamental question now is this: what is the virus and its effects teaching us about how we were living collectively and individually before coronavirus and how we might live differently after it? What has been lost but also what might be gained? Will societies experience post-traumatic growth, as happened after the Second World War, or revert to the more destructive ways of before? 


One of the challenges of celebrating “nowness”, as McCrum would wish, is that we live with an acute sense of time passing. The former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger put it well when he said, in an interview with L’Equipe in 2016: “The only possible moment of happiness is the present. The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties.”

Every day my calendar pings me reminders of what I might have been doing, of a shadow life I could have been leading, in this world, at this time, in different circumstance. Last week, for instance, I received reminders of the Spurs-Arsenal north London derby for which I had tickets, a New Statesman lunch with Julia Gillard in our boardroom, and a Cambridge Literary Festival event to promote our book, Statesmanship: The Best of the New Statesman. None of them happened. But they were scheduled to have happened – and so these reminders, as I deleted them from my calendar and crossed them out in my pocket diary, felt like signals from a lost future.


How should the BBC report the coronavirus crisis? There has been much recent criticism of what the commentator David Goodhart calls the BBC’s “infantilisation of the public discourse”. Simon Jenkins agreed. “The BBC’s News at Ten has become unwatchable for its vox pops of random anguish, merely boosting the government’s message: obey or die,” he writes. BBC News is in trouble, I think. Its viewing figures are up but its quality is highly variable, at times even risible. 

The foreign coverage is particularly poor. At the end of April there was rioting in the Parisian banlieues (see Andrew Hussey’s report on page 40), but I saw no BBC coverage of it. The News at Ten should stop soft-soaping the public, and concentrate less on sentimental human interest stories and more on serious analysis and tough-minded reporting of the kind long-time medical correspondent Fergus Walsh does so well.

This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave