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When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone, By Philip Gould


Whatever one's political affiliation, Philip Gould, who died aged 61 in 2011, should be seen as an immensely talented man. As strategic advisor to Tony Blair, he worked tirelessly for New Labour. He was a visiting professor at the LSE, and author of a book on Labour's revival. When Gould was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2008, he was to embark on the most tumultuous yet fulfilling journey of his life.

This profoundly moving and inspirational book not only recounts his experiences but also seeks to make sense of terminal disease and dying. It is compiled from his cancer diaries, and much additional work including meditations on death and how it can be a source of optimism and hope. There are poignant accounts from his wife and two daughters, and a letter from Alastair Campbell read out at Gould's funeral.

What strikes this reader immediately is what an exceptionally decent person Gould was. The ordeal he endured was horrific, including a first operation in New York that the surgeon himself admitted was not radical enough, and may have cost Gould his life. He had two recurrences of the cancer; two major operations; endless grim chemotherapy; radiotherapy; intense pain; an inability to eat or drink normally; vomiting and diarrhoea many times a day, and much else.

Most would rail against life's cruelty in these circumstances. But Gould remains not only positive but benevolent. He doesn't criticise any of his carers, nor does he question the ethos in the New York hospital of nurses wearing jeans, rather than daily laundered scrubs, which increases wound infection rates. His tone is never beatific because he is spiritual and humanitarian rather than religious. Unlike most memoirists, he is quick to criticise himself. His wishes are almost humblingly altruistic: to help others cope with imminent death.

Gould's family and friends are immensely supportive and kind, an essential prerequisite for a good death. Profound, wise, sensitive, and intelligent, Gould was even more extraordinary in illness and death than he was in life.