Get busy living or get busy dying... Katherine Roberts

This quote from the classic prison drama The Shawshank Redemption has been running through my head during lockdown. Even if you haven't watched the film or read the Stephen King novella it's based on, you'll probably understand why. Here's a short reminder:

Of course, the majority of us have not been locked up in a high-security prison for another man's crime, merely locked down in our own homes, some of us rather more severely than others. I count myself lucky I don't appear on any of the vulnerable lists, however from that first day back in March, when I stood knee deep in the freezing sea and imagined wading out to the horizon to escape the sudden and unexpected restrictions on my freedom, I've felt a little of what I imagine an innocent prisoner like Andy Dufresne must feel.

"Get busy living or get busy dying" Andy says, the night before he disappears. His best friend in prison is worried about him, thinking this means he's come to the end of his tether. Andy's just spent a month in the 'hole' (solitary) for daring to stand up to the corrupt warden - and solitary confinement will get to anyone, as someone who has been alone during lockdown can vouch. But that's not what Andy means. What I think he's saying here is that, at some point, you need to make a choice: stay safe and survive, or go out and live. Because there is a big difference between surviving and living.

I suppose there's no easy answer to this. The UK Government decided we should all - healthy, sick and vulnerable alike - be locked down to prevent further deaths. Yet being locked up (or down) can be a form of living death. It certainly isn't living in the way I understand life. Mostly during this lockdown period, we've been busy preventing ourselves and other people from dying, and it's hard work! More than a few people have given up and got busy dying instead, with a spike in suicide attempts over the past two months. Now we are being asked, with the spasmodic easing of lockdown, to get busy living again... but not as we did before. That's surprisingly hard work, too, as it turns out. At the risk of sounding completely morbid, it doesn't hurt to remember that all these measures to control the virus are only putting off the inevitable. As far as I'm aware, nobody has yet found a cure for death, whether it comes in the form of a virus or something else - and in some cases don't forget death is actually a mercy, or there would be no need for organisations such as Dignitas.

"Valar morghulis... all men must die", as every Game of Thrones fan knows... women too, despite Dany's optimistic addition: "But we are not men!" Here, Queen Daenerys and her newly acquired translator Missendei are discussing the nature of death:

Game of Thrones has more than its fair share of deaths, and many of the best plots in genre fiction hang on the 'will he/she live or die?' question. Or, perhaps more accurately, "will our hero/ine live or die before the end of this page/chapter/book?" As a fantasy author, I've used it myself on several occasions, although the real trick is to get the reader to care enough about your hero/ine to want to find out, and perhaps also think about the bigger questions along the way.

If romance is more your thing, one of my favourite weepy life and death stories is Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, where our hero is confined to a wheelchair after an accident, and only starts to fall in love with life again after Louisa - Lou - is employed as one of his carers. There's a film, too (coincidentally starring Emilia Clarke, who plays Dany in Game of Thrones... might there be a theme developing here?):

If you are looking for something shorter to read while Amazon deliver all of the above to your door, here's an extract from a story I wrote in the 1990s, Death Singer, where the heroine is learning to sing a song that can kill and must decide where her loyalty lies when she is asked to take part in the execution of a prisoner she cares for. It's one of the stories that inspired my debut novel Song Quest, which (with the addition of four more Songs of Power that don't kill people) went on to win the inaugural Branford Boase Award in the UK.

"If I'm to have my soul stolen, then I could do worse than give it into your keeping," Tian said.
Kyra started. That again! Twice in the same day, yet she had never heard the term before. But then, she had never really spoken to the prisoners before. As a rule they did not speak sense once they had been brought into the cells, and afterwards they made hardly any sound at all.
"What's this about soul stealing?" she demanded.
Tian laughed. "Aren't you aware of your reputation in the city, Kyra? Do you think your patients struggle and scream for the fun of it?"
"We give you song therapy so that you can resume normal lives in society," she said, echoing the Elders.
"And do you know what happens to those who have undergone your song therapy?"
"No." Kyra stepped forward curiously. "What?"
Tian gave her a long measuring look. "Ah - I see now. You really believe you help us, don't you?"
"We do!"
"Then you understand very little, Kyra."

You can read the full Death Singer (along with six other stories) in my fantasy collection Mythic and Magical, currently free for five days on Kindle. My science fiction collection Weird and Wonderful is also free for five days over the solstice period.

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers... don't worry, not everyone in her books dies! Find out more at


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