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6 October 2021

Kathryn Mannix Q&A: “A life in death has taught me to make the most of here and now”

The palliative care doctor on seizing the moment, Strictly, and how to keep chickens.

By New Statesman

Kathryn Mannix was born in Cheshire in 1959 and qualified as a doctor in 1982. She is the founder of the UK’s first cognitive behaviour therapy clinic exclusively for palliative care patients.

What’s your earliest memory?

Walking, alone and determined, to the beach. I’m two and a half, I’m clutching my bucket and spade, and I’m utterly unaware that my dad is following (at a distance) with great amusement.

Who are your heroes?

As a child I thought my parents were capable of any feat, no matter how challenging. Their superpower, it turns out, was to make their children believe that of ourselves. And Catwoman, probably because she was a baddie.

What book last changed your thinking?

Stories We Tell Ourselves by Richard Holloway made me rethink forgiveness.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I loved Mo Mowlam both for her resilience during treatment for a brain tumour and for her impish humour. I heard that whenever Northern Ireland negotiations got bogged down, she would remove her wig to scratch her head, reminding all present that she was on borrowed time.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I’m developing an expertise on the dietary preferences of domestic chickens. We keep a small flock who range around the garden. They come running if I announce treats: it’s like being mobbed by tiny dinosaurs.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

A life in death has shown me that here and now is the time to make the most of.

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What TV show could you not live without?

It would have to be Strictly: my fellow “talking about dying” campaigner, Greg Wise, is competing. We are proud patrons of End of Life Doula UK, and Greg is dancing in honour of his late sister Clare.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m spoiled for choice: I have two nephews who are artists, Christian Wright and Dominic Cooper. Neither would produce a conventional portrait, and I’d be intrigued to see what they came up with.

What’s your theme tune?

Anything I can hum. I can only apologise to all the musicians and composers whose genius I have reduced to a distracted and absent-minded burbling.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Seize the moment.” I used to think that meant doing things, but I’ve discovered it means being fully present. This moment I’m appreciating comfy slippers and tea.

What’s currently bugging you?

Shouty opinions; climate change; noisy chickens; sore knee; hot flushes.

What single thing would make your life better?

Richard Osman has already requested NS readers’ spare knees. I’ll hobble on. Most things are improved by excellent tea in a china cup, I’ve found.

When were you happiest?

Hearing our first-born, aged three, explaining to the new baby, “That’s our mum. She loves us and looks after us.” We waited a long time for children, and that scene is seared in my mind as a moment of happiness I never dared to hope for.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A wildlife gardener. I’d create beautiful habitats using native plants: texture, colour, shape, movement in the breeze,  all generating hospitality for wildlife.

Are we all doomed?

Not while there is still kindness.

“Listen: How to Find the Words for Tender Conversations” by Kathryn Mannix is published by William Collins

This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places