The grin reaper: an Irish cartoonist takes on death

Annie West’s last book poked fun at WB Yeats. Her new subject is hilarious deaths

Existential threat: Jean-Paul Sartre steps into the unknown

Existential threat: Jean-Paul Sartre steps into the unknown

 

“DEATH came in and sat down beside me, a large and most distinguished-looking figure in beautifully-tailored soft, white flannels. His expansive face wore a big smile.

“Oh, hello,” I said. “Hello, hello, hello. I was not expecting you. I have not looked at the red board lately and did not know my number was up. If you will just hand me my kady and my coat I will be with you in a jiffy.”

“Tut-tut-tut,” Death said. “Not so fast. I have not come for you. By no means.”

“You haven’t?” I said.

“No,” Death said.

“Then what the hell are you doing here?” I demanded indignantly. “What do you mean by barging in here without even knocking and depositing your fat Francis in my easiest chair without so much as by-your-leave?”

“Excuse me,” Death said, taken aback at my vehemence. “I was in your neighbourhood and all tired out after my day’s work and I thought I would just drop in and sit around with you awhile and cut up old scores. It is merely a social call, but I guess I owe you an apology at that for my entrance.”

“I should say you do,” I said.

“Well, you see I am so accustomed to entering doors without knocking that I never thought,” Death said. “If you like, I will go outside and knock and not come in until you answer.”

“Look,” I said. “You can get out of here and stay out of here. Screw, bum!”

Death burst out crying.

Huge tears rolled down both pudgy cheeks and splashed on his white silk lapels.

“There it is again,” he sobbed. “That same inhospitable note wherever I go. No one wants to chat with me. I am so terribly lonesome. I thought surely you would like to punch the bag with me awhile.”

These are the first few paragraphs from Death Pays a Social Call by one of my most favourite writers, Damon Runyon.

I’ve always been interested in the whole messy business of death. Might be since I came to live in rural Ireland where funerals are a huge social occasion.

I spent a couple of years working as a church warden in Drumcliffe, Co Sligo, where I did the meet and greet at the church door. It was an interesting experience and overhearing mourners discussing the passing of the deceased gave me some interesting insights into the many and varied methods of meeting one’s maker.

Morbid larks would be had when our local TD arrived, always at the last minute for maximum visibility, asking “who is it today?” I’d often considered faking my own death and then going up to shake hands with my local TD at the graveside just to see if he noticed.

Following the publication of the last book (What if?), which I was convinced would be the very last, my dear publisher Dan asked me what I wanted to do for the next book.

“How about cartoons of dead people?” I asked, chomping on an artery-clogging chocolate eclair.

Not expecting an enthusiastic reply in the affirmative I panicked and started to cough violently on a stray bit of pastry. When I recovered I set about putting together this book. I expected to run into the quicksand early because I didn’t think there would be many stories about hilarious deaths through history. But I was pleasantly surprised.

Armed with carcinogenic pots of strong coffee and more cake, I started drawing cartoons about how people could have died, if one were to apply a suitable demise to one’s chosen career. Scientists and poets were a good source of material. Willy Yeats is in there again because I just can’t stop myself.

The result is a series of short accounts of actual deaths, my favourite being The Mayor of Braunau who tripped over his beard and fell down the stairs while trying to put out a fire. There’s also an odd statistic that appeared which shows how many people have died laughing having heard a not very funny joke about figs and donkeys.

I’m glad it’s over – and I’m not at all nervous that when I die (presumably, hopefully, in some kind of noisy yet amusing freak accident) I won’t be met by a frowning St. Peter with this book in his hands. And Willy Yeats standing behind him.
Another Fine Mess by Annie West is published by New Island Books

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