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Rich People’s Problems: What I learnt from my brother’s death

We have a lot to worry about. High inflation. Rising interest rates. Financial market instability. War. AI. Social unrest. The news doesn’t get much more turbulent than this.

I also worry about what’s for dinner tonight. Did I remember to put the bins out and have I cleared the dog poos outside before the gardener arrives? Life drives us to work harder, delivering happiness or financial security by earning more or buying more things.

But it cannot buy you time.

Sometimes, however, events change everything. It’s Tuesday January 3 2023. My alarm goes off as usual at 3.10am. By 3.30am I’m in a car heading to the studios. I arrive by 4am so I can prepare to go live on air for my radio show at 5am.

Before focusing on whatever was leading the news that day, I caught up with messages I’d missed overnight. This one from my mum, aka The Wendy: “I didn’t want to ring and wake you. Edward passed away a short while ago. Xxx W”. Edward was just 57 years old and my second eldest brother. I had three brothers, now I have two.

Ed had been ill for several years and this awful news wasn’t totally unexpected. But it was still a huge shock. He was a larger-than-life character who had powered through adversity, seemingly to recover from a recent bout of health challenges.

Anyone who knew him will know of his effervescent personality, his ability to tell engaging stories, to make people laugh, to come up with the craziest ideas and argue. When I say argue, I don’t mean in a malicious or cantankerous way.

Ed was hugely intelligent, highly articulate and politically astute. We disagreed on pretty much everything, but I loved our conversations. I often wondered why it was me on the radio or me writing these columns, and not him. It was Edward who went to Oxford to study English. I only trained as an estate agent, as he liked to remind me.

But he often listened and always read my output, providing encouragement and comment. I’ll certainly miss his excoriating reviews.

The journey to work that day was a blur of memories back to my childhood: family holidays, mischief and music, perhaps prompted by Chic’s “Good Times” playing on the radio. “One of the best basslines written for a pop song,” Ed had once opined. As the car pulled into London Bridge, I was 52 again, tears streaming down my face. And I was off to work.

I really enjoy what I do. Early nights are a sacrifice I’m prepared to make, but my working day isn’t finished when I leave at 6.30am. I chair a company, provide consultancy advice, and write. I have unpaid roles too that consume acres of time. I chair the local tennis club and I’m a trustee and vice-president of the Royal Albert Hall. Increasingly, I wonder whether I should be writing “Poor People’s Problems” as I look at the range of issues I must attend to and the paucity of funds in my bank account. Cue those tiny violins!

Everything they tell you about bereavement is true. Of course, it hits us in different ways. Events take a while to process. To steal a line from one of my brothers, now he’s gone, we have a significant Ed-shaped hole in our lives. The messages I received from family, friends and colleagues were hugely supportive. “The world just became a bit duller without Edward” rather summed it up for me. He was never dull.

It’s not the dull things that his passing will inspire me to address. Yes, I need to sort out my will and get around to clearing the mess on my desk. And continue my dietary regime to shift that final stone of excess baggage.

No. The impact is more fundamental. With 24 hours in a day, can I use them more wisely?

My impatience to shorten the list of things I never get to do because I don’t have time has increased. There are trips I want to make but can’t. The people and shows I want to see but don’t, because of the hours taken up by my job(s).

Have my priorities been wrong for all these years, thinking that earning more money is the goal for safety and security, when the greatest asset and luxury we have is time itself?

I’ve met enough unhappy people with shed loads of cash to recognise that it cannot buy you happiness, even though it may help. But it’s not happiness I’m seeking. I’m generally of a sunny disposition. When the life of someone you love ends prematurely, purpose becomes the focus. While you can delay plans for another day you may never get to enact them. Focusing less on what you have and more on what you do.

You’ll not be surprised to read that profundity is not one of my core skills. However, if I’ve learnt anything from this seismic shock, it’s that life is precious; perspective being the goal. A healthy bank account is only useful if you apply its resources effectively.

What you achieve in life isn’t the legacy you create per se, but the memories and impact you create with others. If you don’t take care of your body and mind, life could be cut short. And it’s the things you didn’t manage to achieve or do that become the regret not only for yourself but those around you.

I treasure the times we spent as a family or with friends and our holidays too, not the significant injections of cash into my bank account because I’d had a good year.

I’m not about to become reckless either, spending for the sake of it or throwing banknotes out of a window on a windy day because I may not be here tomorrow.

No. It’s a simple mantra that I must thank my dear brother Ed for amplifying: “do it now”, otherwise those aspirations and plans simply end up as words in a list on my messy desk or a newspaper column. And where’s the fun in that?

James Max is a broadcaster on TV and radio and a property expert. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax

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