July 21, 2000

NEWSPAPERS are part of the Shabbat ritual in our home. On Saturdays, as on every other day, we have eight or 10 of them dropped in a bundle outside the kitchen door.

But on Saturdays, instead of stacking them beside the exercise bike to be speed-read as I churn the pedals at 80kph, I spread them loosely over the oaken table, pour myself a coffee and scan the headlines.

Then I start to fillet The Times, separating its numerous sections and placing the business, children’s and travel supplements to the side, like bones.

I neatly tear out two morsels which for three years I have consumed first.

One is John Morgan’s ‘Modern Manners’. The other is John Diamond’s diary.

This harmless habit has been broken. Earlier this month John Morgan fell to his death from the fourth-storey window of his rented apartment off Piccadilly. He was 41 and his weekly column on etiquette had never been more popular.

A Book of Modern Manners was in the shops, selling well, and Morgan was becoming a regular on TV and radio. He was on the point of buying a Knightsbridge flat.

His brand of playfully old-fashioned advice for readers who agonised about how to set the places for a dinner party, seemed to amuse everyone, even people like me who would happily wear shorts and trainers to a royal garden party.

Morgan’s sheaf of dandy’s laws were not snobbish. They were bizarre and fascinating, like the rules of ballroom dancing or synchronised swimming.

John Morgan left no suicide note. Though friends say he was prone to sudden fits of intense depression, which passed quickly, I believe it is probable he was killed by a burst of nostalgia.

I know the building where he lived. My friend, actor Terence Stamp, had an apartment in the same building. Leaning out of his window on a Sunday afternoon, to enjoy the view of some of London’s finest architecture — a view he was planning to leave behind for Knightsbridge — I believe the writer toppled forwards.

He died from skull injuries, suggesting a headlong fall rather than a leap.

I have been surprised by how much his death shocked me. Perhaps I felt unconsciously that he was a colleague, since I have been a columnist not only on The Times but also for GQ, where Morgan was style editor.

But more than that, the shock stems from the unexpected suddenness of the death. This was clearly a man with an enviable career just waiting to be enjoyed. He had many friends in the media and no rivals — the field was his to take.

John Diamond’s column was also missing on Saturday. A footnote said his latest operation on cancerous lumps in his neck had been successful. Sadly, ‘successful’ for Diamond means simply that he did not die on the operating table. His disease, which has already robbed him of most of his tongue, is expected to be terminal.

For three years he has been charting its progress. At first the prognosis was good — a high percentage of sufferers from that type of cancer survived, he was told.

I remember feeling a chill, which every reader must have shared, at Diamond’s own assessment of the odds — 50-50. Either he would live or he wouldn’t.

My biographer Jonathan Margolis and I discussed Diamond’s columns a couple of years ago.

”Why is he treating death so trivially?” I asked. ”Why is he still writing about traffic jams and shopping queues? When I meet terminally ill people in hospitals, my thoughts are overwhelmed by how deep life is and how strong. And those revelations keep the trivia away for days afterwards. Does he live all his life on the surface?”

Jonathan, who knows Diamond professionally, told me: ”John doesn’t see himself as an expert on death or dying. He is still alive, after all. And all the things that filled his life before he was ill, they’re the things that still surround him now.”

”He’s Jewish, isn’t he?” I asked. ”But agnostic. I think he will rediscover his Jewish spirituality.”

Perhaps he has, but he hides it well behind his laconic, mischievous lines.

”Last week,” he wrote in one piece, ”we had an odd dinner party to celebrate Rosh Hashana with the sort of sometime-Jews who are married to lapsed Catholics and say, ‘Remind me again, is Rosh Hashana the one where they blow that funny trumpet thing, or is that Passover?’ ”

Because I see very often the real value of our human spirit in healing, I wish John Diamond could find faith in God. I believe that devout prayer can help any disease, and I know that scientific studies are bearing this out.

In April, for instance, the British Psychological Society heard that positive thinking had a measurable effect on cancer cells.

Prof Leslie Walker at Hull University followed 80 women receiving radiotherapy, chemotherapy, surgery and other treatments for breast cancer.

Half these women were trained in relaxation and visualisation techniques, using meditation to imagine their bodies fighting back against the disease.

After nine months the positive thinkers all had stronger immune systems. Walker suggests the Mindpower practice could have reduced stress levels, making the body more receptive to healing.

John Diamond has spent three years showing, inspirationally, how an ordinary life can be lived in the face of oncoming death. John Morgan spent those years demonstrating how to live life with elan and flair.

By sheer accident, the juggernaut has mowed down Morgan. The last, and most trenchant, lesson of Modern Manners is that we all live with the promise of death.

And for the correct etiquette in this situation, we must search in our souls.


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