Listen to this article
This is an experimental feature. Give us your feedback. Thank you for your feedback.
What do you think?
I write this a few days after a near-death experience. Well, near-death might be a slight exaggeration but it was certainly adjacent and, in any case, it was quite near enough for me.
I would like to say that death came in a heroic guise — that I was facing down a gang of armed muggers or storming the box office in a quest for Hamilton tickets — but, actually, it came as a piece of roast chicken.
The incident occurred as I sat with a colleague in the FT’s office in Westminster, trying to write about Philip Hammond’s Budget speech. You see what I mean about the lack of a heroic backdrop. The cultural context to my near demise, then, was a plate of poultry and a politician they call “Spreadsheet Phil”. (I suppose Spreadsheet Phil could have a Goodfellas-ish quality to it, along with other noted cabinet gangsters such as Theresa Two Shoes and Boris the Gob.)
Anyway, writing on deadline, I had snatched a meal from the canteen and was eating at my desk. It was, I have to say, very tasty, a tribute to the skills of the Commons caterers. In fact, had things gone bad, my final words would have been, “This chicken is really good.”
One moment I was eating greedily, the next I was coughing, aware that something was stuck in my throat. I was not unduly worried. My colleague — we’ll call him Jim (not least because that is in fact his name) — offered an unconcerned “You OK?”, and I indicated that I was not too distressed. I retched, but the food would not come up. I stood up and coughed out a mouthful. I started to relax — but the gasp for breath may actually have made things worse by taking the real obstruction further down my throat. Suddenly, I realised that my windpipe was now thoroughly blocked. I could not breathe. Jim, by now, had risen to come to my aid. My face was going red; his was going white.
He asked if I wanted to be thumped on the back. The answer was yes — but for some reason I waved him away. As I struggled with the gobbet of fowl, the realisation went through my head that “I could actually die here”. I’d like to say I thought of my family but my mind was entirely in the emergency, aside from the fleeting sense that I might be about to be killed by roast chicken.
And then, after what seemed like an inordinately long moment of panic, everything was OK. While Jim was wondering whether he had time to google the Heimlich manoeuvre, my throat muscles did their job and disgorged an enormous piece of poultry.
With the panic over we immediately became terribly British about it. I could have got all emotional, hugged Jim and told him that I owed him my life. But since I didn’t, I apologised for the drama and got back to work. Soon we were making jokes, although we both admitted that we might just check out the Heimlich manoeuvre once we got home. This is a good plan. About 200 people in England and Wales die from choking each year and the broadband in the Westminster office is woefully slow.
As my terror subsided, my mind turned to what had just happened. I imagined my family receiving the call from one of my colleagues. I remembered the parent from the spawn’s school who had a heart attack while watching a football match — one of those who left home on a normal afternoon and didn’t come back. But mainly I tried to figure out how I had managed to swallow an entire bird without noticing.
This piece ought to end with a moment of epiphany — a life-changing event that saw me heading home, hugging the family and vowing to live each day as if it were my last. But I am not that guy.
I have, however, resolved to try to eat less quickly. While I may not be living each moment as if it were my last, I have resolved to eat each mouthful as if it were. You know that figurative advice about not biting off more than you can chew? It turns out to be true of eating as well. Who knew?
Illustration by Lucas Varela