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Review – ‘Every Third Thought – on Life, Death and the Endgame’ by Robert McCrum

An exceptional book, even though it’s written by someone at the other end of the belief spectrum! I had my own medium stroke in March 2016, and this book was published in 2017.

It brings home the absolute finality of life, and of death. You cannot get around this, death will come anyway – regardless of how you feel. Death is on its way to all of us, ouch!

‘Witty, lucid and provocative, Every Third Thought is an enthralling exploration of what it means to approach the ‘endgame’, and begin to recognise, perhaps reluctantly, that we are not immortal’.

The TitleEvery third thought shall be my grave’, comes from The Tempest by William Shakespeare.

‘In 1995, at the age of 42, Robert McCrum suffered a dramatic and near fatal stroke. Ever since that life changing event, McCrum has lived in the shadow of death, unavoidably aware of his own mortality. And now 21 years on, he is noticing a change: his friends are joining him there. Death has become his contemporaries ‘every third thought’.

In the Introduction, Robert McCrum quotes William Goldman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – ‘Every day, you get older. Now that’s a law’.

McCrum states, ‘I felt it then, and still feel some 21 years later, a powerful need to explore the consequences, and perhaps the meaning of this very close call …. The event that I was learning to call ‘my stroke’ was an emergency that would not only transform my life, but also change my thoughts about dying and death for ever’.

In this chapter, Matter of Life and Death, McCrum quotes John Donne, Meditations 17 regarding ‘No Man is an Island’, and then describes his stroke: ‘In my head I could never go back to my old self. In darker moments I would mourn a former life. Now, each day is a reminder of human frailty’.

McCrum states later, ‘a self-assured generation, which has lived so well for so long, is having to come to terms with a complex but universal truth: make peace with death and dying, or find the inhibitions of everyday life in your final years becoming a special kind of torment’.

I know these feelings all too well. Going back to a former life is virtually impossible.

‘The endgame is a journey down a one-way street towards an inevitable destination that’s remains as mysterious and terrifying as it is well known … Empathy might be one key to unnecessary rapprochement with the terrors of imminent oblivion, just as personal candour will help to make peace with threats of extinction …. Sixty, they say is the new forty. Actually, sixty is still the old sixty’.

In chapter 2, Injury Time, McCrum describes ‘an emergent occasion’ on 27 June 2014 when he ‘tripped and fell’ in the street in London. He describes the fall, and of being taken into hospital by ambulance (again!). He talks about his life, of how he had ‘eaten paper and drunk ink’, both at the publishers, Faber and Faber and also at The Observer.

McCrum started to think about writing this book during that time: ‘Since 2014, and during 2015/16, the year in which I have completed the book, there have been sudden deaths, irruptions of pain and loss, unanticipated afflictions, and the nagging intrusion of what I now think as ‘the third thought’. My fall had dumped me, metaphorically, outside an almost tangible, and imminently dreadful, threshold …. From which there can be no turning away’.

In Forever Young, McCrum looks at the final years of his life and works them out to be ‘around 3650 days, 87,000 hours and 5.25 million minutes‘ of his life left! It’s quite scary to look at life in this way. But I have to say that when you have had a stroke that is precisely how life works. You actually need to know just how long you have got left. Will I have a stroke tomorrow, next year or a few years hence? No one knows. Quite scary.

McCrum goes on to say: ‘In truth, I am always a spectator. Now, reluctantly, I am also a couch potato’.

McCrum writes in The Skull of Man about the Brain – and how extraordinary the brain actually is: ‘it’s both banal and magical’. I never thought about my brain until I had had my stroke. Now, on most days, I often think about my thoughts and feelings, and how the brain is working to basically improve my life, even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it! It truly is an astonishing part of the body.

McCrum then goes on to look at the Alzheimer’s disease, ‘going mad’ (in his terms) and then dementia. He picks this up in the next chapter, Silly of Me, and talks about how ‘the assault of old age on the brain can radically change the terms of the endgame: it can transform the physical encounter with ageing, death and dying into a crisis of consciousness and an attack on the Self …. The self is a fragile vessel at the best of times, and (whatever else it might be) old age is no longer seen as part of the ‘best of times’, if it ever was’.  Here McCrum speaks about Terry Pratchett and Prunella Scales, both of whom succumbed to their own dementia. All very sad.

In Losing the Plot, McCrum speaks about Dr Andrew Lees and his work on Alzheimer’s and dementia. Next, in ‘Do No Harm, McCrum talks to Henry Marsh, the ‘eminent brain surgeon’. Marsh writes, ’much of what happens in hospitals is a matter of luck, both good and bad; success and failure are often out of the doctor’s control’. Marsh goes on later to say: ‘the truth is that even now we don’t begin to understand how ‘matter’ (the brain) becomes ‘mind’ (consciousness). Quite a thought.

McCrum in Astride of a Grave writes about being ‘a patient’. He describes himself as ‘a bad patient’, and mentions that ‘a sick person is more restless, angry and difficult – ‘im-patient’ – than you would expect’. At the end of the chapter, McCrum writes, ’and here’s the rub. The real world is both achingly precious, and at the same time, indifferent to our plight’.

In chapters 10 and 11, The Will to Live and Person who was Ill, McCrum looks at two women who are dealing with this issue of dying. Fascinating stories. Then in Where are We Going (chapter 12), he looks with Max at Parkinson’s disease.

In The Good Death and Necessity of Dying, McCrum looks at ‘how to die well’ and then talks to Adam Phillips, a British physiotherapist and essayist, and a biographer of Sigmund Freud.

McCrum in Last Words talks about how many people that he has known have died during the writing of this book, and of how many are dealing with issues regarding their own deaths. It’s quite a long list!

In One Foot in the Grave, he writes about the late Clive James, and the details about James’s life. Clive was from Australia, and was a broadcaster and writer here in the UK. He was often on the television and I remember him quite well. James had an eight-year affair with someone in Australia, and was evicted from his home as a result. There were several reports of him being close to death, but he lived until November 2019. A probing chapter.

Staring at the Sun is a chapter about the Hospice movement, including Arthur Rank, culminating in the question, ‘What about assisted dying’? The final answer to this is, ‘they will have to go to Switzerland’. Quite a curious chapter!

In the Dying of the Light, McCrum talks to the novelist Salley Vickers, culminating in ‘Paschal’s Wager’; this starts from the ‘assumption that the stakes are infinite if there is even a small possibility that God does, in fact, exist’. McCrum does not believe this fact, and points to Richard Dawkins and ends with Montaigne’s advice, ‘We know not where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom’.

McCrum in the penultimate chapter, Nowness of Everything is reading the King James Bible for ‘the music of its language and the thrilling arrests of its narrative. Here is a cathedral of words whose expression of faith has no meaning for me, but whose sonorous periods make you want to weep’.

McCrum later states, ‘When I started to write Every Third Thought, I imagined that, through the putting of words on paper, I would arrive at the conclusion, as if at well-mapped destination. Vain hope: in the end, questions of life, death, and consciousness baffle and defeat the search for clarification. With no possible report from beyond the grave, and no other resolution available, we are left with this one basic option: to live in the moment while the moment lasts, and to become reconciled to the acceptance of our fate. Once upon a time, writing My Year Off provided a kind of resolution. This time, my investigation has yielded just one intransigent outcome: that there are only more questions, and an ever-deepening mystery’.

Later in the same chapter, McCrum turns to a new reading of A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. It’s fascinating to read this, by someone who clearly does not believe in God; ‘a confused non-believer’. I found these thoughts helpful as the author explains them in this book – Lewis’s book is capable of different interpretations. McCrum finds it very helpful, but it does not lead him to faith. Interesting. McCrum finishes by saying, ‘as a non-believer, I am glad to entertain the possibility of being pleasantly surprised. I have lived with the mystery of the brain, and I think I am happy to fade into a mystery beyond the magic of the cortex’.

In the final chapter, A Month in the Country, McCrum details his short list of ‘dos and don’ts’: 1. Try to keep fit, 2. Accept your fate and insignificance and 3. Live in the moment. It’s a short list, but somehow I feel that he is quite right.

McCrum celebrates the idea of ‘now-ness’, and ‘living in the moment’. To him, ‘the mystery of death and dying is only equalled by the mystery of life and living’. He ends up by saying, ‘in truth, there is no other sensible narrative available. Unless you believe in an afterlife – which I don’t – then this must be the only way forward’.

McCrum does speak about the sad end of his marriage to Sarah Lyall; ‘our love died, for no obvious reason, a painful admission’. This, I found, terribly heart-breaking.

In conclusion – last Sunday, we were eating lunch in a pub in Somerset and this quote was up on one of the walls: ‘What the caterpillar calls ‘the end of the world’, the master calls a butterfly’.

‘Every Third Thought’ is a lovely book, if somewhat bleak. I truly appreciated reading it. It helped me work through everything I have experienced, since March 2016, when I had my own stroke. Always hard to get over.


‘Every Third Thought – on Life, Death and the Endgame’

Robert McCrum

245pp, 2017, Picador

Hardback, ISBN: 978-1-5098-1528-9

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