None of us know what fate might have in store, or how long we have to stamp our identity on events. How will we be remembered by those who follow us?
Please don't remember me by this Andy Williams song
Posterity seems to be much in the news just now. For some high-profile individuals, their innermost characteristics, the core values by which they will be remembered, are already the subject of forensic scrutiny. Witness the obsession with everything Barack Obama, or the UK's own Tony Blair, who years after resigning as prime minister is having his every thought picked over by the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war.
But as everyone from Michael Jackson down to the benighted citizens of Haiti has proven, none of us know what fate might have in store, or how long we have to stamp our identity on events. How will we be remembered by those who follow us? My friend Irene, a typical north London Jewish mother, is fond of quoting the old maxim, "If you want to make God smile, just tell him your plans". Perhaps because of this, Irene also advises her loved ones to always ensure they're wearing clean underwear - "You never know when you might be knocked down and end up in hospital or worse" is her delightfully gloomy reasoning.
I used to think Irene's preoccupation with leaving behind a good impression was carrying things a little too far, but I've changed my mind. In matters of posterity it seems you can't be too careful. My change of heart occurred after I attended the funeral of an old actor acquaintance. His wife revealed at the start of the ceremony that the music for the service had been selected exclusively from her late husband's "most played" list on his personal stereo.
It was a neat idea, and thankfully my friend's tally of private musical passions proved entirely fitting. The playlist revealed his most cherished tracks to be Puccini, Van Morrison and some quaint Irish folk ballads even his wife had never heard him mention. They proved the perfect legacy for the man, a mixture of the lyrical, the pulsating and the tender. But it set me wondering. What if, God forbid, some ghastly fate should befall me and my own nearest and dearest seek out my own "most played" list for the basis of any subsequent tribute? With Irene's dictum about clean underwear ringing in my ears, I hurried back to check my iPod.
The results proved both dismal and astonishing. Where on earth was the sophisticated, mature man I was hoping to find? Among the thousands of musical items I'd downloaded and incessantly played in recent years, was my favourite really that of pianist Russ Conway playing the toe-tapping but utterly anodyne melody Side Saddle? Surely I can't have listened to it more than 80 times? But of course I had, although in a period lasting barely a fortnight back in 2008, when I was trying to decide whether it was suitable background music for a play I was then directing set in the swinging 1960s.
In second place was something nearly as awful - the popular crooner Andy Williams singing the Christmas anthem It's the most wonderful time of the year. How on earth had technology correlated this cheesy ballad as my second most revered selection? Then I recalled the circumstance: I'd replayed the song through my sitting room loudspeakers for over an hour to add seasonal atmosphere during the opening of presents a month or so ago. Mystery solved.
Things got slightly better in item three - the jazz legend Coleman Hawkins playing Body and Soul, one of my favourite tracks - but by item number four I was back to a stranger I couldn't recognise - a forgettable ditty from the musical Legally Blonde I'd endlessly listened to while trying to prepare for a forthcoming audition. If I'd saved the worst till fifth, at least I could identify the individual who'd chosen it. I'd always secretly loved the novelty song Right Said Fred by comedian Bernard Cribbins, about a group of hapless removal men trying to shift a piano down a flight of stairs - not only for its childhood resonances (singing along with my Dad in the car) but also because it still makes me smile.
But the notion of my funeral casket being solemnly borne down the aisle amid grieving relatives to the lyrics 'Tried to shift it/couldn't even lift it/we were getting nowhere" doesn't bear thinking about. Needless to say I've been busy rearranging my legacy before it's too late. Anybody searching my personal stereo now for a clue to the inner man who once owned it will find Beethoven, Elgar and Sinatra's I did it my way in the top three. If the unthinkable should indeed occur, both the funeral service and my posterity is now assured, even if I've nearly worn out my iPod accomplishing it.
Now all I've got to do is to buy some new underwear - Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London