Zest for life in the shadow of death
When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone
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.