INSPIRATION A Matter of Life and Death

At the time of year for endings and beginnings, K. M. Lockwood looks at the twin certainties of existence: life and death. (Taxes are for grown-ups.)

The title for this month's inspiration comes from Powell & Pressburger's extraordinary 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death. Produced the same year as the Christmas favourite, It's a Wonderful Life,
it tells the story of an airman from a doomed aircraft who should have died. There's a blunder in the Other World and he survives, only to fall in love with an American radio operator. This results in a bizarre court case in a Modernist afterlife.

The film slips between monochrome and Technicolor, and features several surreal images. The most famous is probably the Staircase to Heaven - a golden escalator (called Ethel) which takes souls upwards. The U.S. release was actually called Staircase to Heaven, as it was thought Americans would not go to watch anything with Death in the title. It's a strange and well-loved fantasy which takes on big ideas with humour, style and charm.

Still from A Matter of Life and Death c/o the BFI

This dual theme was prompted by the funerals of two friends late last year. Both had lives full of joy, kindness and vigour cut short by a car accident. In the same week, I attended both Buddhist and Church of England rites. Despite the grief, it was a blessing to experience the two so close together. The things in common were strongest: celebrations of lives well-lived, flowers, the sharing of food and humour in the face of sadness.

I recall as a child being taken to quite a few funeral teas for older relatives, and rather liking it. People recalled their happier memories, and were kind and we had nice sandwiches and cakes. The tea in the village hall this winter was the same: even down to beautiful embroidered tablecloths and the best china out of respect.

photo by
 Southern Lady's Vintage

The Buddhist ceremony was more free-form with people speaking as they felt fit, and then chanting from the monks, whereas the Anglican service had more structure with hymns and readings in a printed order of service. Both were poignant and beautiful.

In a moment of reflection , some words from a poem in a school anthology came back to me:

And would not be instructed in how deep
Was the forgetful kingdom of death.

From Janet Waking by John Crowe Ransom

Often through the short life of a beloved animal, in this case a hen called Chucky, a child first encounters death. Unsurprisingly then, animals feature in children's books with bereavement at their heart: Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley, Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr and Death, Duck and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, for example.

No Matter What by Debi Glori covers love, death and starlight. Image from Bloomsbury.

Now seems an appropriate time for considering life and loss: the god Janus, after whom January is named, stands on the threshold of the old dying year and the start of a fresh new one. In nature, new life literally comes out of death. Think of a rainforest thriving on the humus below it, or how the remains of salmon caught by bears fertilise enormous trees. Whatever your beliefs about what happens afterwards, that is surely an edifying thought.

Image by kind permission of Chris Riddell

Suggestions for your work

  • Powell & Pressburger tackled important themes with a touch of levity and a certain glamour. How could you use style to lighten topics or images that might other wise be a bit leaden? Is there room for a touch of the surreal, or the contrast between monochrome and Technicolor in your work?
  • If there is loss in your work, could flowers or food play a role? What kind of rites belong in the world you've created? How are children and adults expected to behave? And how do your characters react to that?
  • Heartless though it sounds, to a writer, recollections and eulogies are marvellous for exposition. It can be simple, filtered through an unreliable narrator or provide contrasting views of the same person. I also recommend reading obituaries for developing your knowledge of characters.
  • All the events, films and texts mentioned above include tenderness or love. How might that be shown in yours? 
Header image c/o Yahoo Movies UK

K. M. Lockwood writes and edits in The Garret.
Once downstairs, she runs a tiny writer-friendly B&B or wanders off  looking for sea-glass on the Sussex coast.
 Twitter: @lockwoodwriter


  1. Lovely piece. It made me realise that death in fiction cannot be fully appreciated without a strong set up of what life had been.

    1. That's a thoughtful and kindly response, Candy. Thank you.

  2. Even as a child I could not abide "It's a Wonderful Life," but I delighted in the humor and gentle provocativeness of "A Matter of Life and Death." Addressing death's possibilities in MG/YA stories is a challenge I haven't yet felt able to tackle, but I've made note of the suggestions you offered at the end of your post; they point toward some interesting paths, both Technicolor and b/w, humorous and sober. BTW, obits are indeed a terrific source of character possibilities, and some obit writers create enthralling stories in very few words; Margalit Fox (NYTimes) is one of the most impressive writers around. Thanks for this excellent post.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Charlotte. It's much appreciated. You are so right about obits!


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