A case of incurable optimism

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The Independent Culture
YEARS BEFORE her death, my mother told me there must be no black ties at her funeral. "Everyone must wear bright clothes," she said. "There must be lots of flowers and happy hymns." And a few days ago, in the beautiful little church at Barming, just outside Maidstone, she had the funeral she asked for. There were mountains of flowers, not a black tie in sight - even the bearers wore casual suits - and the congregation sang "All things bright and beautiful". But my mother's death was not as she would have wished. And it was certainly not a death she deserved.

My father, Bill, was much older than Peggy, already 47 when he married her in 1946. He was borough treasurer of Maidstone and a son of the former first mate on the Cutty Sark, the sailing clipper that is now in permanent dry-dock at Greenwich. Peggy was 26, the daughter of well-to-do Kentish cafe-proprietors. Both had served their country. Bill was in the trenches of northern France in the First World War (Battle of Arras, 1918) and, as head of the local Home Guard in 1940, was asked by MI6 to lead a Maidstone resistance organisation to harass the Nazis after the expected German invasion; I still possess my father's ambitious plans for blowing up Maidstone East railway station and the adjoining high level bridge over the river Medway. My mother joined the RAF during the Battle of Britain, mending Spitfire radio sets at RAF Western Zoyland; her sister trained air gunners in radio navigation.

Peggy became a flame of optimism over my young life. "Everything will always work out alright in the end," she used to say to me. And when I once asked what was the point of struggling with my homework when we were all going to die one day, she replied: "By the time you grow up, they may have found a cure for that." In a way, my mother did believe in immortality and I took her incurable optimism with me, thousands of miles from Kent to Afghanistan, through the terrible battles of the Iran-Iraq war and to the conflict in Lebanon.

But there was another side to Peggy. As father fretted in retirement, she became a magistrate. I recall how one day, gently arguing with my father - whose views on criminal justice might have commended themselves to Judge Jeffreys - Peggy said, quite sharply: "The accused often tell the truth - and I don't always trust policemen." As a small boy, the first book she urged me to read on my own was the Diary of Anne Frank - because she wanted me to understand the nature of goodness. During the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, she discovered a rare telephone line into the Lebanese capital from Maidstone and used it to tell me how she deplored the cruelty visited upon the Palestinians. She asked me repeatedly why governments spent so much money on guns.

She took up painting, water-colours and oils, still life and portraits. My father was a loyal man. He could be proud and generous but also censorious and authoritarian and he sometimes bullied Peggy, although his closest friends would not have known this. As she looked after him in his last years - he was to die in 1992, aged 93 - she talked quietly of the life of independence she would lead afterwards. She wanted to travel, to visit Lebanon and go to Ireland. She saw a lifetime of painting in front of her.

But just before my father died, she was told she had Parkinson's Disease and steadily lost the physical ability to live a dignified life - as surely as she maintained the will to survive. Within four years, she could scarcely speak or walk. So she communicated by pointing with a stick to letters on a piece of cardboard. Then she could no longer point. She insisted on moving around the garden of her home in a wheelchair. Then Peggy became too ill to move. Her last attempt to paint ended when she threw her brush onto the floor in frustration. Almost to the end, she believed they would find a cure for Parkinson's - the same "they" who might also one day find a cure for mortality.

In her last days, Peggy lost the power to swallow or eat and caught pneumonia. When I arrived home, she was desperately trying to cough, apparently drowning in her own lungs, weeping with pain. And as I watched her dying, I remembered the cost of Bill Clinton's latest adventure in the Middle East; in all, the US government spent pounds 70m in five minutes firing Cruise missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan. How much had it spent on investigating Parkinson's disease? How much, for that matter, had the British government spent?

The day after she died - there was no glimmer of recognition or emotion, Peggy just stopped breathing - I called the Parkinson's Disease Society in London. Each year, they put up between a pounds 1m and pounds 1.5m on research. So did the British government. But last year, an official for the society told me, the Medical Research Council stopped funding neurological research: "no reason given." I called New York to talk to one of the top Parkinson's groups in the United States. Around pounds 30m was spent by the US government on neurological research (not all on Parkinson's), another pounds 7m by private organisations, around pounds 2.5m by the US Defence Department (for veterans) and pharmaceutical companies around pounds 27m. So we - the West - were spending less on Parkinson's research in a year than we spent in five minutes on weapons.

It was the kind of human folly Peggy would have understood. And at her flowered funeral, I decided to point this out. I suggested to her friends who came to Barming church that we spent far too much time accepting cruel deaths, uncomplaining when money which might have cured cancer or Alzheimer's or Parkinson's was spent on weapons or military adventures. "Why do we not rage against those who accept the shameful idea that sickness must be `incurable', that our betters know what they are doing when they prefer missiles to medicine?" I asked. "If resources had been better spent," I said, "Peggy would not have been in that coffin in front of the altar."

All this had an odd effect. You could have heard a flower petal drop when I was speaking. But the Rector, a kindly, intelligent man, though evidently not from Church Militant, responded with a prayer, saying he would "commit this anger to God" - which, of course, entirely missed the point. Unless there is a Heavenly Post Office which redirects packages of anger to our presidents and prime ministers, there wasn't much point in bothering the Almighty. It was Peggy's friends I was addressing. Some of them had told me of their own relatives who were dying of supposedly incurable diseases; yet I felt afterwards that I had failed to make them understand as surely as I had the Rector.

They talked about Peggy being "at rest" now that she was no longer suffering. Letters arrived that spoke of Peggy's "release" - as if my mother wanted to die. I heard from one lady about "God's will" - which would suggest, if taken to its logical conclusion, that God was a sadist. If the message of Peggy's life was optimism and joy for others, the manner of her death - courtesy of our society's inverted values - was totally unnecessary. My father, an old-fashioned man, would have condemned my remarks in the church. My mother might have objected to their vehemence. But she would have wanted me to tell the truth.