Philip Gould, photographed a few weeks before his death. Photo: Guardian
When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone
- By Justin Cartwright
How do you review a book by someone who has described in detail his oesophageal cancer and his preparations for death, a man who in the later stages of his illness says he is enjoying his death and allows himself to be photographed on the site of his grave in Highgate cemetery? Is ‘review’ in fact the right word for what I am doing? Am I under an obligation not to offend? I find myself racked with doubt.
This is unquestionably a moving and extraordinary book, bold and almost unbearably frank. It tracks the course of Gould's diagnosis in 2008, the treatment in London, New York and Newcastle, the consultations, the operations, the small victories, the optimism – followed by setbacks, more operations, utter desolation and then a dawning and ultimately sublime acceptance, accompanied at times by ecstasy.
In addition to Gould's most intimate thoughts, there are pieces by his wife, Gail Rebuck, his two children, Grace and Georgia, a tribute from Alastair Campbell, which was read at Gould's memorial, and a short expert description of oesophageal cancer. Most of the material has been published in the Times; as I write this I have beside me a very affecting piece by his daughter Georgia.
This is the second time I have read it and I am again moved to tears. While this book is an account of Gould's preparations for his own death, it is also a festschrift for a remarkable man.
But I feel uneasy. It would be offensive to speculate on what drove Gould to write it, beyond the reasons he gives – trying to make sense of his death and to help others – but it bears the fingerprints of a congenital political strategist, a man obsessed with commanding and channelling the reaction to important issues.
As Gould writes: ‘Everything I thought about the battle with cancer was strategic, as if I was fighting an election campaign.’
But a political strategist is neither a scientist nor a philosopher, and Gould's account of his approaching death has elements of New Labour's romantic values – essentially the sense that individual feeling is the touchstone of politics, that the individual consciousness is the only reliable vessel for a personal truth.
You could argue that understanding this, with the encouragement of Gould, was Tony Blair's most successful contribution to the art winning of elections.
Full review: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/apr/19/when-die-philip-gould-review?newsfeed=true
When I Die on YouTube: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newsvideo/uk-politics-video/9213579/When-I-Die-short-film-released-chronicling-Philip-Goulds-final-moments.html
Philip Gould on politics and dying: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKbMzImJptE
Philip Gould obituary, The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/nov/07/philip-gould
Obituary in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/politics-obituaries/8874053/Lord-Gould-of-Brookwood.html
Philip Gould in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Gould,_Baron_Gould_of_Brookwood
Something about reviewer Justin Cartwright: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/aug/22/justin-cartwright-once-upon-life