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When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone - review

Sense of an ending.

When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone by Philip Gould, Little, Brown, 240pp, £14.99

It is odd to call a book written by someone who knows they are dying uplifting and exhilarating. But such a book is Philip Gould’s When I Die – Lessons from the Death Zone. It is the story of Philip’s journey towards death from cancer. It describes his first diagnosis in early 2008; his choice to go to the globally renowned Sloan-Kettering cancer centre in New York for the operation; his realisation (when his cancer came back) that the surgery there had not been invasive enough; his second try at treating it, this time with the help of the Royal Victoria in Newcastle and the Royal Marsden in London; and his final acceptance that he was beyond further hope of long life and his coming face to face with death.

He wrote the main part of the book – his two daughters, Georgia and Grace, and his wife, Gail, adding their own postscripts of his final days. The postscripts are themselves little gems: moving, delicate and perfectly drawn portraits of losing a loved one.

The bare facts of Philip’s illness, stated like that, are not all that remarkable. There are many such tragedies played out every day. What makes the book exciting, challenging and rewarding is his deeply personal account of how courage overcame fear; how he found in the oncoming of mortality a fresh and invigorating purpose in life. In this sense, the book is transcendent, consigning death to its proper place, seizing each precious moment and making it last – and through the intensity of his last months, achieving a legacy that survives the mortal coil.

No one who spent time with him in that last period was left unchanged. Philip’s spirit was so powerful that it manifests itself still. Indeed, I find him a constant presence, something I have become used to and which is of huge comfort.

I don’t have to remember to think about him; he comes to mind of his own accord.

The book also benefits from being superbly written. You can read it in one go. The language and emotions flow. You get glimpses of the pain and suffering his body went through; but quickly you are drawn into the mental battle in which Philip was engaged as he sought to remove death’s sting, to confront it and break it.

Philip was always a great writer. His notes to me during the 13 years I led the Labour Party were always so beautifully expressed that I used to say that they beguiled me, persuading me of the validity of the view just by the manner of telling it. Part of his genius as a strategist and pollster was his ability to step back from the data and the surface noise, and to distil into clear lines of finding and argument the blurred particles of seemingly disparate information. He often wrote of tactics; but he saved his best for strategy. In strategy he was the master: regularly challenging the conventional wisdom and always coming out with a solution to the problem, not just an analysis of it.

The fascinating thing about this book is that he applies precisely the same methodology to his illness. He treats it as a problem to be analysed and solved. At first he attempts to solve it by returning to health. When that fails, instead of despairing, he appreciates that the problem is simply bigger and different – how to come to terms with his dying. Once he identifies this as the challenge, he sets about meeting it with the same single-minded determination with which he appreciated life.

In doing so, he takes the demons that would torment any of us in such a situation and destroys them, calmly and rationally. The care he got from the NHS was awe-inspiring, as it is for so many. His debt to the Royal Victoria and the Royal Marsden, as well as to UCH in London, are lovingly repaid in gratitude to their staff. But he sympathises with, rather than criticises, the surgeon in New York who later accepted he had been wrong not to do a bigger operation. There is no bitterness, no recrimination and no obsession with what might or should have been.

Throughout the years of the illness, parti¬cularly in the last months, his concern all the time is for others: his family, his friends, the person getting the treatment next to him – in fact, virtually anyone who isn’t him. Naturally, he is fighting and trying hard not to die, but at no point is there a smidgeon of self-pity here.

And then, above all else, there is the fear of the final moment itself. As death approaches, he makes a conscious choice: he will accept it and in acceptance find the strength to overpower it. So instead of heart-wrenching sadness at his leaving the world, he determines to make the most of what is left and measures life not by its length but by its intensity. He makes a discovery: that the intensity can be enormous. It leads, in that final stretch, to an experience of life that he has never had before, and never would have had but for the knowledge of his imminent demise.

Such is the power Philip put out in that period that all who came into contact with him felt it and were awakened by it. He judged it magnificently, too, dying when he felt that in words and thought he had accomplished what dying had inspired him to achieve. He wanted more time, of course; but in the time he had, all was fulfilled that needed to be.

When I Die will help you give meaning to family, friendship and even to faith. Philip concludes his part of the book with the words, “I am approaching the door marked death. What lies beyond it may be the worst of things. But I believe it will be the best of things.”

I knew Philip. But I felt as I read this that I was being introduced to someone new, someone different. This is a book that will give you pleasure and peace.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation