I have been thinking about my friend Murray recently – not the Murray I knew in my early days in Yorkshire but the one I met when I was at secondary school. He was a good-looking guy, just under six foot tall,  with broad shoulders and black, curly hair,  a deep rich voice which made him seem older than he really was – twenty-two or three say instead of eighteen.

He lived down the road from us in Mt Wellington and I met him not through school but through the youth group at the local church. This offered table tennis and darts and desultory conversation to anyone who turned up on a Tuesday night. Its main attraction was the girls that went along,  although I have to admit, in my case at least, the reality of their company never matched the anticipation. I was too tongue-tied in their presence to engage in the kind of conversation that might have got their attention. They were good kiwi kids, out for a fun time but also sensible and pragmatic with their lives laid down on well-worn tracks. Several of them knew me from bible class where I was prone to ask awkward questions that sometimes involved reference to eighteenth century philosophers. I somehow knew that this habit was not endearing but the realisation was never enough to stop me.

Murray turned out to be a kindred spirit. We got into the habit of walking home together deep in conversations that would go on as we stood on the footpath opposite his house. It must have been summer for my memory of the talk comes with an image of the gloaming slipping gently into darkness. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about only the intensity of a shared interest in ideas and philosophical problems.

There was a dark side to Murray and a self-detachment that I found disturbing. He told me that several members of his family had committed suicide and, on another occasion, he described how he had ‘pashed’ a girl in the back seat of a car after a bible class dance, an account that seemed as little appreciative of his own feelings, whatever they were, as of the girl’s. It seemed that he had embarked on the adventure almost as an intellectual exercise or a scientific experiment to see what it was like and he talked about it with a curious combination of excitement and an analytical detachment that was shot through with cynicism. Somehow he succeeded in objectifying himself.

We lost touch after that summer. We both went on to university but we began in different subjects – he in arts and I in science. We hooked up again briefly in our second year and talked philosophy, which he was then studying. He lent me his copy of The Moral Law, H J Paton’s translation of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals. He also confessed, with a touch  of pride, that he had just passed his second year English exams without opening a single text. All he had read was the critics. He did this, I’m sure, to prove it could be done. I liked the irony but I felt it was a futile, nihilistic exercise.

After this we lost touch again. Later someone told me he had killed himself. I was very upset by the news but, when I thought abut it, not entirely surprised.

I still have the book, scrupulously annotated in his small, neat handwriting and I wonder sometimes what he thought of Kant’s argument against suicide.

People are ends in themselves, Kant said. They should never be used as means to an end. To kill your self is to use yourself for some end or purpose even if that purpose is merely to take away the pain of your despair.  I am not sure Murray would have been convinced by that. He is more likely to have done the deed out of intellectual curiosity, to see what it was like.

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