Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Terry Pratchett's Richard Dimbleby Lecture

Last night on the BBC, Sir Terry Pratchett was the first novelist to deliver the august Richard Dimbleby Lecture. I say deliver, but due to his condition of early onset Alzheimer's disease, after a short introduction, he passed his written speech over to be delivered by actor and friend Tony Robinson (of Black Adder fame). This had the curious affect not dissimilar to when the IRA could not be shown saying their own words on British TV, but had to have them spoken in voiceover by an actor. Straight away it distances you from the affect of the words, (as was intended with the IRA), you are taken away from the inflection and the expression of the speaker himself, because he is not actually saying them. While the camera lingered on Pratchett at length for his reactions and clearly his face revealed all sorts of emotional responsiveness, it still confers the unfortunate feel of someone laughing at their own jokes and welling up at their own sadness, all the while seeming strangely removed from their own words. I fully appreciate the reason for this decision, that the disease itself makes protracted speaking a titanic feat to pull off. Some people will feel this method underlines such a fact. Others may feel it to have been more powerful if he had tried to deliver the words himself, slurred or tripping up and with the actor coming in as prompt or periodic reliever.

I was also reminded of that other great TV interview on the eve of a fully anticipated death, that of the TV playwright Dennis Potter. He sat there, fingers curled over clawlike by psoriasis, quaffing from liquid morphine such was the pain he was in for the duration of the interview. To me, this remains the most trenchant argument in and of itself. Two fine minds, still evidencing their clarity of thought, all the while their body is failing around them. There could be no clearer representation of mortality, the fate that is due to come to us all. They can speak of the onrush of death with supreme eloquence, but to me the clearest statement is the physical manifestation before our very eyes.

Why might this be important? I believe it is so because we are a society that still won't talk about death in the open. En masse we are no longer able to underpin it reassuring religious credos promising an afterlife. (Some still do possess such facility, but they are in the minority within our society). But instead of turning this void round into a consideration of both what death means and therefore stemming from it an inquiry into the purpose and meaning of life, we just keep both remote from our everyday functioning selves. If for example we truly apprehended the physical pain of unravelling as demonstrated by Potter and Pratchett, then we might not so casually inflict it on others through wars abroad or even drunken fights outside bars. But no, we will continue to shuffle such dark dreads under the carper and slay one another in desultory fashion.

I confess I am terrified of death. Not as Sir Terry mentioned yesterday the moment of dying which according to polls cited by him is the greater fear of the overwhelming majority of us, for me it is the eternal extinction thereafter. Of course the moment of dying can be drawn out, lingering with terrible pain. But for me that can only be increased exponentially by the certain knowledge of what lies beyond, ie nothing. (Sorry, but I just cannot console/delude myself that there is anything other). I was present when my Grandmother died, surrounded by all her family. And she struggled and clung on and could not get comfortable and moved around as he body betrayed her for the last time. And when she finally did settle in the final rest, all the pinched lines of struggle and tension vanished from her face as the muscles relaxed and let go. She had pretty much the 'best' death imaginable given that it was in the bosom of those she loved and supported by reasonably sensitive medical management. And superficially witnesses would remark how serene she looked and offer the nostrum 'she's at peace now' after a long, debilitating illness. I simply don't buy that, for her or for me.

Mortality and its corollary the purpose of life (what some refer to as the human condition) informs every piece of work I write. All the themes beloved of literature, such as redemption (in life), enlightenment, revenge, betrayal et al, are mere fripperies in relation the the puppet master that cuts all their strings at the finale, that being Death. Death is a far greater taboo than incest or pedophilia to my mind, because it affects each and every one of us (not to say of course you can't explore the others, just a polite inquiry why death seems so under-investigated by comparison).

As to the meat of Pratchett's interview and where the media vultures will inevitably gather, his plea for euthanasia to be legalised. Intellectually and morally I agree with him, (though my cynicism runs such that some will exploit any law to 'off' unwanted elderly burdens or gain access to inheritances and be able to get around the checks and balances the law may provide). Personally, with my terror of non-being I could never fly myself headlong towards my death any sooner than was ordained for me. But Pratchett was at pains to try and change the terminology from "Assisted Suicide" to "Assisted Death." Having cleared the blood up after a family member's serious unassisted suicide attempt, I'd just like to suggest that the consent of a terminally ill person to their own foreshortening by human agency, IS a suicide, even if delivered at the hand of another. Now there is nothing wrong with the notion of suicide to my mind. In fact, in a rational society it should form a central part of the debate about life itself. For if we strive to develop a consciousness from the moment of birth, if we labour to establish ourselves within a material existence whereby we can feed and clothe ourselves and form relationships and sire children, only to have it taken away randomly and permanently- the only question might then be why wouldn't we commit suicide? How can you make informed decisions about the right to die, if we don't even know what we mean by the value of human life in the first place?