My list of things to do before I die

It is one of the great mysteries of life that it was the Egyptians who invented a sun god, rather than the English. The only divine thing the Egyptian sun has going for it is omnipresence. It’s always just there, like air. When they came up with Ra, it must have been at the end of a long brainstorm – everyone was bushed after invented jackal-headed men and lion-headed women and talking crocodiles, but there was still one more slot to be filled before they could all go home and relax in front of the sports hieroglyphs. Someone must have looked out the window and said, “Look, just put down the sun, and we can go back and change it when someone has a better idea.”

The English sun is far more like a god – elusive, unreliable, eternally occluded, known only in signs and fleeting intimations, the great mystery of the heavens. Gods are properly capricious and unknowable, and the English are properly reverent: forever discussing the last time anyone saw it, giving thanks for a glimpse but staying humble about the prospects of another, eternally scanning the skies for a second coming.

I’m in England at the moment on assignment for Getaway magazine. I’m like a reverse David Livingstone, walking the length of the mighty Bovey River to find its source in the fabled, forbidden swamplands of Dartmoor. But on the way to Devon I detoured down to the Jurassic Coast of Dorset and the seaside town of Lyme Regis. If you’ve read my latest book, One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo (and if you haven’t, consider this a hint), you will recall that for the past twenty years I’ve been keeping a List of Things to Do Before I Die. It started off as a List of Things to Do Before I Turn 40, because when I was 20 I thought the two things meant the same.

As I chug through life, whenever I encounter something that seems to me thrilling or romantic or in some way life enhancing, I jot it down with the solemn intention of one day ticking it off. Not all the tickings-off are imminent – it may be a while before I win my second Booker Prize or attend the Golden Globes as a nominee, and the likelihood of sailing single-handed around the world fades a little every year that I don’t learn to sail, but one of the earlier entries was “No. 4: Walk on the Cobb at Lyme Regis in a winter storm like Meryl Streep.”

The Cobb is the ancient seawall at Lyme Regis that snakes in graceful S-curves around the tiny harbor. I’m not exactly sure why the younger me watched The French Lieutenant’s Woman and saw in pale, hooded, lovely-with-sorrow Meryl the walking avatar of himself, but as I charted my route from Heathrow to Stonehenge to the moors of Devon last week, I noticed that with a brief diversion to the sea, I could finally cross something off my list. Admittedly, it’s not winter in England now, so the chances of a winter storm were slight, but there isn’t the world of difference between English spring and Cape Town winter. As long as it was cold and grey and blowy, that would be close enough.

It was chilly and overcast when I arrived in Lyme Regis, not far from Chesil beach, so all the locals were walking around bare-chested, their necks as tattooed as Queequeg. I lingered at the Cobb Arms over a pint of Otter Ale and waited for it to get a little stormier, but each time I stepped outside the sun would find some tiny shred of open sky and my shadow would show pale on the stone and I’d have to go back in for another Otter.

I sometimes hear visitors from northern climes commenting on the attractiveness of South Africans, but to fully appreciate how gorgeous we are, you need to spend an afternoon at a dusty window seat of a seaside pub, drinking slowly in the pale summer light, watching half-dressed Brits taking their bellies for a walk. Hell’s bells, we are beautiful. If we all arrived at the same time in ships across the sea, they would worship us like gods.

Finally I could delay no longer. I weaved out onto the uneven surface of the Cobb. There was no storm; the water slopped mildly against the seaward stone. The sun came out a moment and glowed on the cliffs. I took a photo of my feet to memorialize the occasion. Back in the car, I crossed off number 4, and felt encouraged that there were still 193 more to go. Achieving a long-cherished wish feels surprisingly similar to not achieving a long-cherished wish; the secret is to always have plenty more.

Times, 20 May 2015