If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.
April 17, 2022 – Orson Welles


Falling asleep while still up becomes more common with age, just as going to sleep and staying asleep while in bed gets ever harder. My worst episode of inappropriate sleeping was in the sixth form after I had been a participant in a 24-hour table tennis marathon. The rest of the day was fine, with coffee, but trouble came later during a concert I went to that same evening which climaxed with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Its last movement is not generally a cure for insomnia. Anyway, in a mental montage of brass and drums which started to merge with thousands of bouncing ping-pong balls and the smell of table-tennis bats, I at last awoke, as I thought in bed, although strangely I was also chewing some kind of pink fabric. It was then that I realised I was not in bed at all but face down in the aisle of the concert hall with my face pressed into the pink carpet while the audience was on its feet applauding the orchestra wildly. I rose and regained my seat, much embarrassed.

This was an exception. Mind wandering rather than unintended sleep then and now is more me. So it was today, listening to the vicar’s sermon for Easter Day at our local church. Lest he ever reads my diary, I make it perfectly clear that the cause of the mind-wandering was interest rather than boredom. Unlike some of our senior prelates, he was not berating the government for its manifest sins of omission and commission but discussing happy and sad endings in literature, before moving to a thoughtful theme as to whether the Easter message was primarily one of joy or the telling of a much more complex story.

He reminded us of Jane Austen’s brilliant beginning to Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ That reminded me of my first ever opportunity to star in a debate at university in front of a very tough audience, where that particular quotation was the motion for debate. I argued that Jane Austen had given a secret meaning to her sentence: a wealthy man should remain in want of a wife – if he wanted to keep his fortune. Deservedly, I had to dodge a number of female undergraduates for several days.

The vicar then moved on to endings and a trend in the late 17th and 18th century to give Shakespeare’s tragedies happy ones. For example, Nathum Tate’s revision of King Lear where Lear regains his throne and Cordelia marries Edgar, who concludes the play by telling us that ‘truth and virtue shall at last succeed’ instead of Lear going mad and Edgar fatally wounding Edmund, who in his dying moments pardons Cordelia, although sadly too late to prevent her execution.

I started to think of other potential happy Shakespearian endings. For instance, Macbeth is told by Macduff that he was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ripped’ (presumably an 11th century caesarean section) which removed the last prophetic protection of the witches, that Macbeth could not be killed by a ‘man of woman born’. Instead of fighting to the death might not Macbeth have downed his sword and said to Macduff: ‘Let’s call it quits! I knew those old hags were up to no good when Dunsinane forest started to move. You weren’t much of a family man really. We could be friends and share the kingdom’ just as the porter rushes up and says ‘Guvnor, Lady Macbeth’s alive! She landed in a haystack when she tried to top herself.’ Enter the entire cast to perform a set of joyful reels. Or, what if Fortinbras, when he strides from the Polish wars into the scene of multiple poisonings in Act V of Hamlet, were to say: ‘Wait! I think the prince is still alive, and fortuitously I am carrying an antidote.’

Then, as I listened to the vicar explaining the complexities of what might first seem a joyous spiritual occasion, my mind turned in a sadder spirit to my own profession. We are engaged in another existential fight to try and see promises honoured and to save criminal practice from extinction. The thought that troubled me was this: if we succeed this time, will that be a happy ending or a far more complex conclusion, which must soon involve a radical analysis of a model that realistically can never be restored properly to what it was and which, in truth, is irreparably broken?