It’s been a bad week for deaths. Arthur Lee died last Thursday. If you drew a line from Brian Wilson’s ice-cream symphonies to Dylan’s lyrical manifestoes, you’d meet the Arthur Lee of Forever Changes right in the middle. Arthur Lee was a great artist, responsible for some of the strangest and most beautiful moments in recorded music. His best years were well behind him when he died – but then, I would have said something similar in December 1980, and that was still a dreadful loss. So is this.
On the same day that I heard about Arthur Lee, I read that Pierre Vidal-Naquet had died (thanks, Paul). Vidal-Naquet was a great scholar, a lifelong political activist, a consistent left-libertarian and an equally consistent challenger of historical revisionism – no small matter on the French ultra-left, sadly. He leaves a gap which it’s hard to see any one person filling. (Writing that line reminds me of yet another recent departure, for whom it’s just as valid: Murray Bookchin, who died the day before Vidal-Naquet. Hard times for left-libertarians.)
But I have to say that none of these losses affected me as much as a fourth. Bob Smithies, who died the same day as Arthur Lee, was a gifted photographer, a Manchester Guardian man and a local TV personality. But more, much more than this, he was Bunthorne, compiler of some of the best crosswords I’ve ever attempted to solve. Bunthorne didn’t go in for the kind of themed crossword which John Graham (“Araucaria”) made his own, or for Araucaria’s meticulous distribution of easy and hard clues. The puzzle as a whole, for Bunthorne, took second place to the clue. Here Bunthorne had two specialities. One was the vast, sprawling anagram of thirty or forty letters, spread over six or seven separate lights and immediately identifiable by the liberal use of punctuation marks and contractions. The other is harder to describe, but can be summed up as “clues that don’t look like clues”: sequences of words which make a kind of sense, but seem to supply either far too little information for solving purposes or far too much (the page linked above features a celebrated example of the latter: “Amundsen’s forwarding address” (4)).
Solving a crossword clue (for me at least) is primarily a matter of letting my mind work on it while I’m doing something else; the answer generally comes to me fully-formed, leaving me to work out how the subsidiary indications fit in afterwards. Still, there are clues that you can solve by mental brute force, decoding the subsidiary indications one after another and trying to make a word from what comes out (“between the points, that’ll be compass points, maybe it begins with N and ends with S?”). It’s a perfectly valid way to set a puzzle; most of Araucaria’s puzzles could in theory be solved entirely by this approach, without any relegation to the mental back-burner. Not Bunthorne’s. I’ve never known a setter whose clues were so unamenable to the methodical approach or so insistent on being solved in a flash of (delayed) realisation. There was a teasing, gnomic quality to the best of Bunthorne’s clues: you knew you were being told something; you knew you didn’t – yet – know what it was; and you knew that thinking wouldn’t help. You couldn’t say, afterwards, how you’d worked it out, because you hadn’t. Every Bunthorne clue solved was a small but mysterious victory.
And now it’s over: there will never be another Bunthorne crossword. Bob Smithies has left a gap – and, unlike the other three people I’ve mentioned, he’s left a gap in my life personally. I hate that feeling, particularly at the moment. It’s been four months now but I still miss my mother, in much the same sense that somebody in a liferaft misses being on board ship. I’ve lost people before now and felt there was a gap in my mental skyline, but this time it’s more as if the ground’s gone.
Death just doesn’t seem like something we’re equipped to deal with. Tolkien wrote somewhere that he’d realised, after seeing friends killed around him in the First World War, that death was the great paradox: on one hand, for a loved one to die is the worst and most unbearable thing that can happen; on the other, death is absolutely universal and absolutely unavoidable, the one thing which we can say with certainty will happen to everyone who’s been spared it so far. Crushingly unbearable yet universal and inevitable: how can that be? Apparently the story of Aragorn and Arwen began as an attempt to deal with this paradox, as it were by taking a God’s eye view. If love, among mortal beings, leads to the worst pain imaginable, how could an immortal love a mortal? But if love is divine and mortals are worthy of it, how could an immortal not? To put it more simply and without the elves: how can love be worth the pain?
The answer is, I suppose, that it is because we need it to be – or else that it isn’t but we still need it to be, because the only alternative which would be even halfway comfortably numb would be a life without love, and that would be unbearable in itself. Shortly after a friend died, a couple of years ago, I saw a prize example of stoner-philosophy graffiti, which nearly sums all this up:
LOVE + PAIN = LIFE WHICH LEEDS TO DEAF
Nearly, but not quite – life also leeds to birf (and a whole new round of LOVE + PAIN), as eny fule kno.