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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.

Tony Blair is executive chairman of the Institute for Global Change and was UK prime minister from 1997-2007. 

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