Toby Neal: Well, we've all got to go one way or another

Last year I had an unexpected sojourn in hospital due to my ticker throwing a wobbly.

The vicar of Stiffkey became a lion tamer and was eaten by the lion
The vicar of Stiffkey became a lion tamer and was eaten by the lion

Naturally it was a period of considerable worry and anxiety for my wife.

“I didn’t know how I was going to pay for the funeral,” she explained.

As you are reading this, you can surmise that medical science worked and, despite tests, the reason for the ticker wobbly has proven a bit of a mystery to the professionals, although they did note that it came not long after I had my second Covid jab, although any connection is speculative.

The episode did make me ponder death, and what sort of death one would prefer to have. It would not have been a remarkable or newsworthy departure. And at some point we’ve all got to go one way or another.

Years ago myself and other members of my family stayed with an old childhood friend of my father, who turned out to live in a castle, or what at least looked like a castle. It was actually a historic old hall at Stiffkey, in Norfolk.

During our stay there was an undercurrent of hilarity due to events about which I previously had no knowledge. My late dad was old enough to remember the story of the vicar of Stiffkey (which locals pronounce Stewkey).

In summary, the vicar of Stiffkey was defrocked, became a lion tamer and was eaten by the lion.

That’s how the story was generally remembered by those who remembered it – we’re going back to the 1930s. For the pernickety who care about the details, he was actually a rector who embarked on a mission to “save” London prostitutes, but in a sensational case a church court decided, on dodgy evidence, that there was more to it than Christian charity, and he was found guilty of immoral conduct.

The now ex-rector, Harold Davidson, had a showman’s background and, protesting his innocence, afterwards gave seaside performances. He met his end while delivering a sermon in Skegness from inside a lions’ cage. One day in July 1937 he accidentally stood on Freddie’s tail – or at least that’s what most accounts say – and an enraged Freddie grabbed him by the neck and shook him, causing injuries which proved fatal.

Supposedly while in the ambulance Davidson asked that the London newspapers be alerted in time for the next day’s first editions.

A sad and tragic death, but one in which the circumstances gave Davidson a form of immortality.

Which brings me to the delivery of our new mattress. Now I know what mattresses look like. They are rectangular and have to be transported lashed to the roofs of cars.

For that reason when a long package arrived I thought it might be a standard lamp or something like that. It did not occur to me that it might be a mattress.

“That’s how they deliver them these days,” my wife informed me.

And so it proved. The mattress had indeed arrived all rolled up. All that remained was to put it on the bed.

So I removed the mattress, which was wrapped up very tightly in strong plastic, from the cardboard packing and dragged it upstairs and put it on the double bed. I know what I’ll do, I thought. I’ll cut away the plastic and then it will unwind and lay itself out on the bed – voila!

I stood at the top end of the bed, got out the scissors, and started cutting away at the plastic. Little by little, the mattress started to give.

Then, all of a sudden, I reached some sort of plastic cutting away tipping point, and the mattress uncoiled dramatically with great speed and some force, catching me and almost knocking me off balance.

In that split second some thoughts went through my mind. One was that I was standing at the window end of the bed and that it was a good job that the window behind me was closed at the time.

All was well. Nothing to see here. Life goes on.

A happy non-event, then. Because while many of us like to think we will make our mark in some way in the time given to us, all things considered I would rather not be remembered by the headline: JOURNALIST THROWN THROUGH WINDOW BY MATTRESS.

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