How the dead live

Going Gently

David Nobbs <em>Heinemann, 412pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0434007846

How must it feel to know that your mind is working nicely, but that your limbs won't respond to the messages your brain is sending them; that you have woken to find yourself paralysed and unable to speak, a living husk? Kate Copson - 99 years old, possessed of great spirit and intellect, and once a great beauty - finds herself in just such a position at the start of Going Gently. And yet, this is a very funny novel. Which should surprise nobody, given that David Nobbs is the creator of that masterpiece of the 1970s, The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, in which a frustrated, middle-class, middle-aged middle manager drifted into a madness that could end only in death. Or, more accurately, in Reggie faking his own death so that he might live again. Ronnie Barker said, after reading Perrin: "I laughed 287 times and cried twice." It was that kind of book.

In Going Gently, Kate fakes not exactly her own death, but the extent of, well, the stroke's stroke, as it were. At her age, she knows that there is not much to be gained from starting anew, so instead amuses herself by replaying the "video of her life" in her mind, and listening to what the hospital staff and her own children have to say about her as she lies "comatosed" in bed.

In between episodes of her private "video", we are treated to scenes from life in Ward 3C, where Kate must spend her days. Nobbs doesn't seem to have much respect for the medical profession. Doc Morrissey, in the Reginald Perrin series, was portrayed as incompetent and sex obsessed; this time, the doctors are no more than props for senile dementia, muttering meaningless medical terms before deciding to keep Kate's treatment (nothing) exactly as it is. The two nurses are witless and suffer from eating disorders. Worse is their habit of speaking to Kate as if to a simple child.

Kate's life was once filled with sex, laughter and tragedy in about equal measures. Now, however, almost everyone she has ever loved is dead. As her unmarried and lonely sister Enid says: "I shall never know sadness like you're feeling, so I suppose that in our very different ways we've both been very lucky people."

As always in Nobbs's fiction, there are some deft comic touches and a rich variety of characters, each with a peculiar idiosyn-crasy. Kate's brother Bernard, for instance, is fond of making contentious statements, at the end of which he adds: "I beg your pardon." Glenda, the genteel, dying fellow patient of 3C, farts unknowingly and with such regularity in her sleep that Kate can tell the time from their volume and force. "Loud, staccato fart - it must be nearly midnight."

Going Gently is, in the end, a novel about nonconformity and its various manifestations, from Kate not fighting the effects of her stroke, as is expected of her by the medical profession and her family, to her marrying and having sex in wonderful ways, in reaction to her puritanical Welsh childhood. But perhaps the most nonconformist act of all is Nobbs making us laugh at senility, tragedy and inevitable humiliating death.

"I didn't get where I am today by laughing at senility, tragedy and inevitable humiliating death," as Reggie's boss, CJ, might have said. "Earwigs," as Reggie might have replied. As for myself, I laughed 288 times and cried once. Then again, it was always easier to make me laugh than Ronnie Barker, but harder to make me cry.

This article first appeared in the 04 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Cheated of their vodka and cake