Will Self on bucket lists

To paraphrase Eighties art-rockers Talking Heads’ immortal lyrics: “And you may find yourself, staying in a 15-star hotel… And you may find yourself, horning cocaine from the jewelled navel of a nubile… And you may find yourself, in the most dramatic landscape in the world… And you may find yourself, behind the wheel of a high-performance automobile that’s just slain a deer… And you may find yourself, about to tuck into a dish of the potentially poisonous piscine delicacy, fugu… And you may well ask yourself… well, how did I get here?”

And more to the point, will I survive? Survive not simply eating the fugu, a dish made using parts of the puffer fish, and much beloved of the morbid Japanese, who savour the risk of a lethal dose of tetrodotoxin (more than 1,200 times stronger than cyanide) quite as much as they do its unique taste, but survive much longer at all. Because looking down into my dish of raw fishy bits it occurs to me my goose may well be cooked, and by eating the fugu I will have inadvertently completed a bucket list I never realised I was drawing up. But ignorance of the law is no defence, and given the rigours of contemporary life, with its insistence that we wring every last tepid drop of pleasure from the damp flannel of existence, having done all the things I ever wanted to do in my life, clearly my days, hours, minutes even, must be numbered.

I never paid much attention to the phenomenon of the bucket list, to me it was simply another instance of the way we egg each other on to take a hedonistic and self-centred view of our own mortality. The notion that hang-gliding off Mount Fuji, or cuddling with manatees in the Florida Keys, or sucking on the Koh-i-Noor diamond as if it were a Murray mint, could somehow mitigate the horrors of a terminal illness has always struck me as being on the side of absurdity known as “revolting”.

As the great metaphysical poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”; whereby it follows that should you be granted a preview of the abyss about to swallow you, the important thing is to make your peace with your fellow men, not take them for a valedictory bungee jump.

I’ve never been bungee jumping at all, but somehow I don’t think that’ll save me because I have been white-water rafting, and as any serious bucket list-compiler knows, it’s one or the other. I did it against my will: my then teenaged children insisted on it. Yet despite kicking and screaming all the way to the launching-off point when we were slaloming down the Tully River in North Queensland with our raft master screeching, “This is how we do it, yeah! Doggie style!” then vigorously miming anal sex (pitching rather than catching), I did manage to forget my abject terror. Why? Because I was so bloody intent on saving my soaked skin.

It does strike me as, um, paradoxical, that anyone who knows they’re about to die should want to take part in a potentially fatal activity. I suppose the logic is that you can properly relax and enjoy it because it hardly matters if you pop your clogs. Either this, or possibly for some devout, sanctity-of-life types, putting a dangerous sport on your bucket list is a way of inadvertently procuring assisted suicide.

But I say: why wait until you’re dying to off yourself? Surely one of the most adrenalised activities imaginable would be booking an appointment with Dignitas, flying to Zurich, entering the pokey room where you’re meant to do the dread deed, and when you’re presented with the foaming glass of sodium pentobarbital, taking a big gulp and holding it in your mouth for a few seconds before spitting it back into the concerned Swiss face hovering over you. OK, I’ve wandered off topic… still, you can understand why: I’m still sitting here staring at my fugu while contemplating the possibility of my imminent extinction, so it’s hardly surprising.

Now, where were we? Ah, yes, I was casting my mind back over my life to see whether I really have done everything I ever wanted to do (in which case I’ve had it), or if there’s at least one unfulfilled desire to keep me hanging from the cliff-edge of existence.

Read the rest of Will’s article on bucket lists at Esquire magazine.