Zest for life in the shadow of death

When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Agnes Nieuwenhuizen Agnes Nieuwenhuizen

By Philip Gould Lit­tle, Brown, 228pp, $29.99 (HB)

BRITISH Labour peer Philip Gould died a very pub­lic death on Novem­ber 6 last year, aged 61. From the day he was di­ag­nosed with oe­sophageal can­cer he was de­ter­mined to broad­cast ev­ery de­tail of his treat­ment and progress; to make his death count; and to show a good death was pos­si­ble.

He spent the day of his di­ag­no­sis ‘‘ call­ing and be­ing called’’. He wrote: ‘‘ I knew that one part of me en­joyed be­ing the cen­tre of at­ten­tion, and while wary of this, I was pre­pared to use it to get me through.’’

Gould be­lieved ‘‘ can­cer was an iconic ill­ness that seemed to live and breathe in the dark­est re­cesses of our fear’’, and throughout his ‘‘ can­cer jour­ney’’ he searches for pur­pose and mean­ing.

This ex­cep­tion­al­ist view of can­cer and Gould’s ap­proach to his four-year strug­gle, in­clud­ing three lots of surgery, make for chal­leng­ing read­ing. His re­search led him to a large pri­vate hospi­tal in New York for ini­tial surgery. He sub­se­quently re­gret­ted this as he did not get the rad­i­cal surgery his British doc­tors rec­om­mended that he later be­lieved might have saved his life.

Fol­low­ing some time in ad­ver­tis­ing, in 1985 Gould founded his own polling and strat­egy com­pany, Philip Gould As­so­ci­ates. Af­ter be­ing ap­pointed as strat­egy and polling ad­viser to the Labour Party, he was one of the ar­chi­tects of Tony Blair’s three elec­toral vic­to­ries and a vig­or­ous pro­po­nent and leader of fo­cus groups. Blair’s pub­lic re­la­tions chief Alas­tair Camp­bell de­scribed Gould as ‘‘ manic in the ex­treme’’. Later, Gould recog­nised that his fre­netic and in­tense work habits and the ‘‘ nas­ti­ness’’ of pol­i­tics might have con­trib­uted to his type of can­cer.

De­spite this, dur­ing his ill­ness, and against his wife’s and doc­tors’ ad­vice, Gould man­aged to up­date his 1999 book, The Un­fin­ished Rev­o­lu­tion: How the Mod­ernisers Saved the Labour Party.

Gould tack­led his ill­ness as he did his work. He wrote: ‘‘ Ev­ery­thing I thought about the bat­tle with can­cer was strate­gic, as if I were fight­ing an elec­tion cam­paign.’’ When the can­cer re­turned Blair, now a close friend, be­lieved it hadn’t yet fin­ished with him and ad­vised Gould it was time to let pol­i­tics go as that ev­i­dently had not been his chief pur­pose. Gould agreed: ‘‘ The pur­pose now is just to live this life of im­mi­nent or emerg­ing death in a way that gives most love to the peo­ple that mat­ter to me, and I sup­pose pre­pares me for death.’’

Gould be­lieved his al­most bru­tal frank­ness about his ill­ness and treat­ment would pro­vide his wife of 40 years, Gail Re­buck, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ran­dom House and once de­scribed as the ‘‘ most pow­er­ful woman in UK pub­lish­ing’’, and his two beloved adult daugh­ters strength and the will to continue. They were a close fam­ily. He hoped his ex­pe­ri­ences, thoughts and ‘‘ lessons from the death zone’’ might also help oth­ers.

The ge­n­e­sis of this post­hu­mous book, When I Die, was a 20,000-word essay Gould wrote from the time of his di­ag­no­sis: ‘‘ It starts at 10 o’clock on Tues­day 29 Jan­uary 2008 in a pri­vate clinic in Lon­don.’’ The essay was run in The Times on four con­sec­u­tive days and such was the re­sponse that be­fore Gould died it had been agreed the pieces would be pub­lished as a book with pro­ceeds go­ing to the Na­tional Oe­sophago-Gas­tric Can­cer Fund.

Keith Black­more, deputy ed­i­tor of The Times, took time off from the pa­per to edit the book, which con­tains other voices. There are pieces by Gould’s daugh­ters and a post­script from his wife. In­cluded is a long email read at the funeral and orig­i­nally sent to Gould by Camp­bell, who be­came a close fam­ily friend. The Times obit­u­ary ap­pears as does a short med­i­cal In­tro­duc­tion to Oe­sophageal/Gas­trooe­sophageal Can­cers and a cast list of the many British and US med­i­cal spe­cial­ists who var­i­ously at­tended to Gould. All this still makes a slim vol­ume. Gould wrote clearly and con­cisely.

Still to be found on­line are ex­ten­sive in­ter­views, given by Gould to British pa­pers dur­ing his ill­ness. There is also a nine-minute in­ter­view on YouTube, the work of Aus­tralian Adrian Steirn, a fine art, wildlife and por­trait pho­tog­ra­pher and film­maker now based in South Africa. At Steirn’s sug­ges­tion, a gaunt but de­fi­ant-look­ing Gould is pho­tographed stand­ing on the plot where his ashes were to be scat­tered in High­gate Ceme­tery. This por­trait graces the book’s back cover and has been ac­cepted into the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of Bri­tain’s Na­tional Por­trait Gallery. The film was made at the re­quest of Matthew Freud and his wife, Elisabeth Mur­doch, who were also its ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers.

Fol­low­ing Blair’s de­par­ture, Gould be­came vice-chair­man of the in­flu­en­tial Freud Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. De­spite his in­creas­ingly frag­ile state Gould or­ches­trated all these ap­pear­ances and pub­li­ca­tions and was also en­gaged in ‘‘ group tours to High­gate Ceme­tery, por­ing over funeral plans and strate­gis­ing for post­hu­mous pub­li­ca­tion’’.

What does all this add up to? The words most fre­quently used in re­sponses to the book, in­ter­views and film are: coura­geous, mov­ing, in­spi­ra­tional, hon­est, up­lift­ing, com­pelling. How­ever, some were un­able to sep­a­rate the can­cer suf­ferer from Gould’s role in New Labour’s poli­cies. Oth­ers re­sented his priv­i­leg­ing of can­cer or his priv­i­leged sta­tus pro­vid­ing him easy ac­cess to the me­dia and his choice of sur­geons and clin­ics. Nov­el­ist Justin Cartwright, in a re­view for The Guardian, found the book ‘‘ al­most un­bear­ably frank’’ and ad­mit­ted feel­ing un­easy about it as ‘‘ it bears the fin­ger­prints of a con­gen­i­tal po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, a man ob­sessed with com­mand­ing and chan­nelling the re­ac­tion to im­por­tant is­sues’’.

Near­ing death Gould re­ported ex­pe­ri­enc­ing mo­ments of in­ten­sity and tran­scen­dence. He ob­served: ‘‘ I have no doubt that this pre­death pe­riod is the most im­por­tant and po­ten­tially the most ful­fill­ing and most in­spi­ra­tional time of my life.’’ Gould’s book fo­cuses en­tirely on his ex­pe­ri­ences of can­cer and pre­par­ing for death. Writer Christo­pher Hitchens died a month af­ter Gould of the same type of can­cer. Hitchens’s post­hu­mous book of re­flec­tions, Mor­tal­ity, writ­ten dur­ing his time in ‘‘ tu­mourville’’, presents a brac­ing and very dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude to ill­ness and dy­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.