There are many definitions of hell (though none are first-hand). Traditionally, it’s the most extreme instance of schadenfreude – ‘you lot are going there but I’m not.’ Human nature being what it is, this has kept hell alive and well down the ages. It’s depressing that the stronger someone’s religious belief the more likely they are to select hell as the destination of choice for their enemies. Say what you like about atheists but for them ‘go to hell’ is just a form of words.
It seems obvious that once the idea of heaven had caught on hell became a necessity. It would otherwise be like coming up with the idea of left but not of right. Also, we all need (or perhaps needed) hell to keep us in line. Even for the most unbelieving of us it still lurks in a corner of our minds, hazily illustrated with memories of the frightening picture books that, in the ‘60s and ‘70s at least, were routinely used to terrify children.
These days, descriptions drawn from Hieronymus Bosch and Look & Learn have been replaced by others. Today’s emphasis on consumer choice means we can now all select our own hell and send it back if we don’t like it. Each is just as alarming in its own way. I recently read on the web (where else does one read anything these days?) that hell is “when, on your last day on earth, the person you became meets the person you could have become.” It was followed by several comments saying how profound this was.
The best use for this kind of drivel is as a translation or parsing exercise. I know I’ll never achieve all the things I might have done. Who does? If my doppelgänger turned out to have won the Booker Prize and an Oscar, cured MS, written London Calling, been really nice to everyone all the time and scored the winning goal in an FA Cup Final I like to think I’d be happy for him. “See that?” I’d say to everyone. “Look at that list. I had all that in me. Oh, I didn’t choose to do all that, of course. What else is free will for? Anyway, what might you have done? What – your alter ego merely cured the common cold, wrote Yellow Submarine and scored a century at Lords? What a total loser…”
Anyway, would that really be it? Even if achievement fell way short of potential there’s a limit to how long feelings of regret would last. You’d get over it eventually Then what? As hells go, it sounds a tad tame.
One of my old schoolmasters had his own, slightly prurient, definition: he would be in the centre of a vast room surrounded by everyone he had ever known who were witnessing a real-time replay of everything he’d ever said, done or thought. This would obviously be awful for the victim but, I think, even more so for the onlookers. I had to stop going to stand-up comedy because when a performer ‘died’ on stage I’d empathise with their discomfort to the point where I became almost physically sick. What I’d be like watching someone else squirm for 75 years doesn’t bear thinking about. And that’s just the first person: there’d be hundreds more to get through. It’s not a prospect that encourages me to make any new friends.
Then there is the old joke about hell being where the cooking is organised by the English, the postal service by the Italians, the entertainment by the Swiss and so on: not the sort of joke you’re allowed to tell these days anyway which is why I’ve stopped telling it. In any case, everything in Europe is so homogenised now that I doubt these things are true. Which they never were, of course.
In my version of hell I’m trapped, with the wrong woman, in an overheated room full of dogs. There’s nothing on TV except rugby, Big Brother and Top Gear, no films except Some Like it Hot, The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, nothing to eat except pork chops, anchovies and Jerusalem artichokes, nothing to drink except milk, whisky and sherry, nothing to read except Henry James, the Daily Mail and any of the magazines you find in doctors’ waiting rooms, nothing to listen to except opera, U2 and ABBA and nothing I can do about the certain knowledge that at some point I’m going to have to dance. For you this might be pretty close to heaven. If so, let’s swap.
The closest approximation to a hell on earth I’ve heard of has similarities with all of these attempted definitions. It concerns someone whom I’ll call Sue. One of Sue’s friends decided to organise a surprise birthday party for her. Her first step was to get hold of Sue’s address book. Not knowing Sue nearly as well as one needs to in these cases, she simply invited everyone listed there to be at the XYZ nightclub for an event the exact purpose of which – and here was her next mistake – she left vague. Only about a quarter of the hundred or so invited showed up. The hired room was far too large. As people started to arrive they mingled awkwardly, most unsure of who anyone else was or why they were all there.
It got worse. Sue was ushered in, blindfolded. Surprise, surprise, blindfold whipped off. She screamed, then burst into tears, then got horribly drunk. Who can blame her?
I can think of few more ghastly things than being unexpectedly confronted with everyone in my address book. This would include ex-girlfriends, plumbers I’d used once and hated ever after, that bloke who drove into the back of my car, ex-work colleagues, estate agents, people I fell out with and vowed never to speak to again, people I now can’t remember at all, the undertaker who sorted my mother’s funeral, my last dentist but two – it doesn’t bear thinking about. Have a look at a random bit of your own address book (the S section is a good place as there always seem to be so many of them) and imagine them all gathered in your living room, waiting for you. See what I mean? Hell on earth hardly comes close.
You might be wondering (or perhaps you aren’t) what my version of heaven would be. Well, I’m not going to tell you. Some pleasures – and, better still, their contemplation – are best kept secret. In any case, if my old master was right you might be watching me re-live them at some point, depending on where we all end up. See you there.