Last night I attended a flat warming party, given by fellow Samizdatista and newly certified Brit, Michael Jennings, and very enjoyable it was. Just the right mixture of nice people I know well (such as Johnathan Pearce and his Missis, and I rather think I may have met the legend that is Thaddeus Tremayne), nice people I know a bit, and nice people I didn’t know at all. And while there I found myself trying to think of good party questions, to replace the often excruciating “And what do you do?” that can cause such tedium and such embarrassment. And rather to my surprise, I overheard myself asking a rather good party question, namely: Have you ever been near to death? The good thing about this question is that brushes with the Angel of Death are fairly random, and that quiet little bod in the corner is almost as likely as the grand and confident ones stage centre to have a good yarn to tell. Granted, if you have a very grand job which involves clearing up minefields in war zones, you’ll probably trump anyone who is merely talking about being missed by speeding bus by half an inch, but despite that tendency, this question, together with the answers it elicits, does take us all out of our everyday preoccupations and make us see the world, and the people in it (e.g. the strangers you meet at parties), a bit differently, just as nearly being dead itself does. Which is what parties are partly for, aren’t they?
Someone asked, by way of clarification, whether I meant that thing where you feel you are moving towards a very bright light. No, not necessarily. That’s a great story, of course, if you have one like that. But any terrifying or dramatic circumstance that could have killed you, and preferably which you knew at the time could have killed you, is a good answer. Having to tightrope-walk across a burning beam a hundred feet above the ground, being violently attacked or robbed, missing a plane flight when the plane you missed subsequently crashed, getting your toe stuck at the bottom of a swimming pool and thinking that this was about to be your last swim and your last anything, that kind of thing. Bright lights are strictly optional.
The best answer I heard last night was from a guy (one of the ones I’d never met before) who was doing some sketching or painting or whatever in Jordan, and was accused by some knife-wielding locals of being a spy. They held the knife to his throat. Luckily a third party convinced them that he was harmless, but for a few moments there … you get the picture.
My best near death experience was when I was a very small boy and I fell out of a second story window at my grandmother’s house. I landed on a small strip of lawn, right next to some very spikey railings. All I remember was waking up afterwards, so it missed that element of pure terror (“I really thought this was It” etc. etc.) that the best near death stories have, but like I say, that’s my best shot. An A&E doctor recently started choking me, while looking down by throat with a small, flat little wooden poker like you used to get with icecream, and I briefly experienced what death by asphyxiation must feel like. But I howled at her to stop which she did, and I never really thought I would die, so that hardly counts at all. My point being that this is not an excuse to tell my own personal right-out-of-the-stadium story along these lines, because I have no such story.
But maybe you do have such a story. This evening it occurred to me that this question would also be a good way of starting a Samizdata comment thread, and in a way that might take us away from our usual stamping grounds, of politics (appallingness of), space rockets and flashy airplanes and cars (splendidness of), and such like.
So, what near death experiences have you had?