On Hong Kong, atheism, and remembrance

Last December, I went to Hong Kong for a friend’s wedding. Despite the great distance between us, we’d maintained a decent amount of contact since law school; but, all the same, I was moved that he had invited me to a relatively small affair. That’s probably why I arrived in somewhat contemplative mood, and over the next few days the natural beauty of the outlying islands lent themselves well to further reflection.

A boat trip to one of those islands, Cheung Chau, provided an unexpectedly poignant moment. Standing by one of its cliffs, looking out over the South China Sea, this was the furthest that I had ever been from most of my friends or family, and I felt a curious sensation of freedom, stillness and loneliness all at once. After an hour of walking, I had found myself in the Cheung Chau Cemetery, a succession of vast, semi-circular tiers of stone, with hundreds of gravestones standing there like silently expectant fans in the terraces. Each gravestone bore a photograph of at least one person, and sometimes two in the cases where a couple’s ashes had been placed there together.

Looking at the pictures, I saw the faces of people for whom the withdrawn sands and alleys of Cheung Chau had been almost all of what they had known. This was where so many of them had been born, had loved, had lived long, and lost. It will remain one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been, and I felt oddly privileged as I walked slowly and quietly through its carefully-tended heights.

Several months later, back in England, I had a similarly affecting experience. I was catching a train from Essex to Stratford, and shortly before I drew into East London I passed a graveyard, low to my right. As I looked over that field of marble, I finally realised why that afternoon in Cheung Chau had moved me so. It was that, whether we spend our lives travelling half the world or just a few intense miles from the warmth of home to work, this is all that I believe that we have: this life, this brief slice of light between two vast stretches of darkness. So few of us emerge from the void, and to the void we return. In between our arrival and our departure, if we are fortunate to have the slightest measure of opportunity, we must, I think, live with the fiercest urgency that we can.

Some might see this as a bleak vision of our place in the cosmos. At times, I admit that I find it overwhelming; typically, that’s when I remember those former classmates who passed away suddenly, shockingly, long before the void had any right to reclaim them. Ollie Broome, perhaps the best Number 10 I saw in schools football, whose long-range shooting was a thing of rare anger and elegance; Tom Fenwick, a journalist of the kindest pen and keenest attention to detail; Richard Eagle, the most humble and lethal of attacking midfielders, bearing down on the opponent’s area as stealthily as a fox after dusk.

It’s overwhelming, for a short time, to think of these three; it is a melancholy which, though I do not exactly welcome, I calmly accept. It’s my way of beginning to acknowledge just what was lost when they left us. I’m not a religious man, and so I don’t think I’ll see Ollie, Richard or Tom again, in any shape or form. But what I can do is try to live with that little bit more vitality, in some form of tribute to them.

I am not sure if the position that I have articulated amounts to atheism. If it indeed does, then this is my philosophy, not that it matters to anyone other than myself: to be as proactive as possible in making the best of myself and in helping others as best I can, in the belief that there is no karma, no grand settling of accounts where those who wronged others are finally brought to justice by an unfathomably great higher power. As I see it, there is just us: and, both frightening and exciting as that may be, that must for me be enough.

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