Memento Mori: Sudden death by falling masonry entirely to be expected
It was an utterly normal night-shift for the 49-year-old minicab driver, Julie Sillitoe. She was ferrying three passengers down Kingsway in central London, a drive she had done more times than she could count. Her seatbelt was fastened. She had slept well. There was hardly any other traffic. She was looking forward to decades more of life on this planet.
But high above the road, a slab of concrete had other plans. It was loosening in the high wind. For decades, since the building on which it was fixed had been built in 1976, the masonry had been decaying imperceptibly. The mortar which held it to the roof had been loosening its grip bit by bit, unbeknownst to maintenance personnel who had inspected it as thoroughly as they could every six months. On so many occasions, when a bus load of Brazilian schoolchildren had stopped by last December, or when a procession of athletes had walked past after the 2012 Olympics, the mortar had stayed firm. But as the silver Skoda Octavia pulled up opposite Holborn tube station, the slab had finally had enough. It could no longer resist the forces acting upon it. All that was required was one final gust, from a wind that had built up its fury in an Atlantic depression 24 hours before. Julie died instantly from the massive force.
We pay a lot of attention to safety. We could fairly feel we have earnt some right to assume that we are, at key points, in control. Our plugs are correctly wired. We have insurance. We may have some savings. We like to wonder what we might be doing in ten years.
And yet, of course, right now, the thing that will kill us is eroding, building up sediment, gathering force or dividing quietly somewhere deep within us. Already today, a thousand freak accidents that could have wiped us out decided, after all, not to happen. We are luckier than we bother to think.
It would drive us mad to dwell on the true risks at every point. A degree of denial is a necessary prerequisite to an ambitious life. Yet to ignore the dangers as much as we do robs us of perspective and a correct sense of the value of every day that does not end in catastrophe. We lose out on opportunities for gratitude and modesty when we remain blind to the precipice along which we walk unknowingly at all points. Right now, a few centimetres from the eyes reading these words, lies a network of veins irrigating your frontal cortex; it would take only a tiny malfunction in one of them for your world to dissolve into chaos.
The emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, made a regular focus on death one of his central recommendations in his Meditations, written in the AD 170s: ‘Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you, or even one. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.’ Death could be here by nightfall.
There is more to Julie Sillitoe’s death than a story about the failures of building regulations in British construction. We should never stop denying death its chances, as best we can, so long as we are also able to remember that complete safety will never be ours. We don’t know whether it will be a concrete slab for us. But we can be certain it will be something equally tragic. Let’s at least never call it unexpected.