Dying for Beginners by Charlie Courtauld, book review: I wanted to convey to you what a life-giving book this is

Former Independent journalist and editor of 'Question Time', Charlie Courtauld wrote a personal diary of his experience of having multiple sclerosis, which was published as a newspaper column and blog, before his death last year

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The Independent Culture

This has been a hard review to write. I knew Charlie Courtauld a bit. Our paths crossed. We both worked at the BBC and for The Independent on Sunday, at different, overlapping times. Now I wish I'd known him better. Which is probably the best kind of epitaph. 

His blog, Dying for Beginners, which started as an email to friends, and his columns for what he (and I) called the Sindy have now been collected and published as a book. It is very good, and it is easy to read. Courtauld was a fluent and enthusiastic writer, thinker and wit. Even with one finger of his wrong (right) hand on an iPad, as his multiple sclerosis became worse, and when he could hardly see, the energy of his mind comes straight through to the reader. 

I say easy to read, but I felt uncomfortable reading the book on the Underground, with its brazen, flippant, black-on-yellow title. But I wanted to know more, so I just had to bend the cover back and carry on. 

And this is a hard review to write because I wanted to convey to you what a life-giving book this is, and how entertaining and engaging Courtauld was, but feared I couldn’t do him justice. All I can do, then, is quote some of his observations on life, death and everything. He was a smoker who could give up for three months a year because it was too cold outside, but who wouldn’t give up altogether because he was dying anyway. 

He delighted in the quirks of geography and language. On a flight back from Thailand, where he flew with his mobility scooter to learn meditation, he described “moving maps as just about the coolest invention of our age”. He asked: “Who would otherwise know that Belarus had a Pinsk as well as a Minsk, or that Borisov is the only other noteworthy Belorussian town, and is not just the proposed new name for London.” 

Later, at the end of an entry in April 2015, complaining that his prognosis was for another two years at least of progressively losing his remaining faculties, he wrote: “In sentences like ‘the natives are restive’, why is ‘restive’ a synonym for ‘restless’? Shouldn’t they be antonyms?” I looked up “restive” in the Oxford Dictionary: “The original sense, ‘inclined to remain still’, has undergone a reversal; the association with the refractory movements of a horse gave rise to the current sense ‘restless’.” 

His account of being assigned a work coach by the Department for Work and Pensions, whose job it was to teach him the skills he would need in the world of work but who didn’t realise that he couldn’t hold a pen, is a fine vignette of dark humour. Other entries dealing with his worsening health are deeply moving, often the more so because his writing is so blunt, such as when he rewrites “the letter” for his wife, Lucy Alexander, and their children to open after his death. “My pal H, who has herself died since, told me that there are just four things you have to say: thank you, I love you, I forgive you and I forget the fourth but I’m sure it was wise.” 

Anyway, that April 2015 prognosis turned out to be wrong. He died in January 2016. But he left behind this book. I recommend it to you. It is a delight and an education.

‘Dying for Beginners’ by Charlie Courtauld, published by Dying for Beginners, £7.99