Book review / Go gentle into that good night
Jonathan Sale enjoys a final date with 29.4.20
Saturday 23 August 1997
The good news for all readers who enjoyed A Kackhanded War, Uncommon Entrance and other autobiographical volumes by Edward Blishen: here is another volume. The bad news could be deduced from Blishen's obituaries earlier this year: it's his last. It ends with the words "You might die," and indeed he did. Yet he remained a real pro to the last. His manuscript was completed just before the arrival of the undertakers. And the prose, though written against the clock (or scythe), is just as polished and witty as before.
As presenter of countless literary programmes on radio, he knows how words sound in your ear and mind. Any celebrities threatening to write My Life as Host of Pets Win Supermarket Lotteries should be beaten about the cranium with Mind How You Go until they have mastered at least some of the Blishen skills.
Admittedly, earlier books had more action. He was for 12 years at the mercy of schoolchildren and for five thrown around by the fortunes of war - or, in his case, of pacifism. In this terminal volume, he is tossed about by the whims of hospitals and, among other parts of the body, by his bladder. So many doctors ask for his date of birth to pop into their forms that he becomes a perpetual birthday boy: "I was rapidly slipping into being 29.4.20."
This contrasts with the medical facilities on offer during his childhood. His mother used to take him to sniff the local gasometer, a process which she fondly believed to have therapeutic qualities. Since Edward's baby brother died following a misdiagnosis, her medical knowledge was no less convincing than what the hospitals of the pre-Welfare State days had to offer.
As that suggests, Blishen juggles memories of childhood and old age, recollections of seven with 70. His friends turn up as boys and as senior citizens. He is here tying up loose ends and balancing his books. Without in any way being maudlin or self-pitying, it is his way of going gentle into the good night.
This is not to say that the guilty go free. In an unexpectedly hilarious episode - his wife breaks a leg on a Tenerife holiday - he describes the private clinic from hell, so anxious to hang on to patients' fees that the elderly couple practically have to dig their way out. Last Of The Summer Wine meets The Wooden Horse. Who would have thought that anyone could make his own cataract operation, and bladder and bowel probes, quite so entertaining?
As a broadcaster, Blishen belonged to the pre-Dalek, pre-digital era. Now he has gone to the Great Studio in the Sky, where the knobs are not twiddled by irrational accountants and where any executive using the words "producer choice" is shoved into the burning fiery pit below. He leaves us this 250-page last will and testament, as if to say, "... and to my readers, I bequeath a few final memories." RIP.
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