My View: What we can learn from those who are on the brink of death

A lesson on life from a man about to die
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The Independent Online

It isn't all that often that we hear from someone who will soon be dead. This week, we did. This week, on The Andrew Marr Show, we saw an interview with a man who used to be quite solid, but who's now very, very thin. His face, which used to be quite big and round, now looked like the face of a man who had been kept for a long time, without any food, in a cold, dark place.

His skin, which used to be quite pink and shiny, looked pale and dull. You could see that underneath the skin was a skeleton, and that a skeleton was all that would soon be left.

The man was Philip Gould. He was one of the people who helped get Labour elected in 1997, and then helped get it elected again. He has, though he's too modest to say it, had more impact on the policies that shaped this country over the past 14 years than most elected politicians. He's still full of ideas about what Labour should do to get re-elected, and how it needs to address the problems of the economy, and how it needs to end the cycle of hostility that started with the grudge of a Chancellor and continued when a younger brother wrecked an older brother's dream. But he won't be able to do all that much about it, because he is, according to his doctors, down to his last few weeks.

He was, he told Andrew Marr, "in a death zone", a place where "there was such an intensity" and "such a power". This, he said, was "apparently normal". And so, he said, even though he'd rather "not be in that position", it was "the most extraordinary" time of his life. And certainly, he said, "the most important".

You could see from the fire in his eyes that these weren't empty words. You could also see that whatever he was feeling now was something that was bringing a certain amount of sadness, but also an electric joy. We don't often see that electric joy, and we certainly don't often see it on TV, because we don't often get to hear from people who are down to their last few weeks.

It's strange we don't, because an awful lot of people have got cancer, and an awful lot of us are going to get it, and an awful lot of us are going to die from it. In the western world, we seem to be getting better and better at getting cancer and we're still much better at getting it than people in the developing world. Denmark, which usually tops the global league tables in things like happiness and equality, also tops the table for rates of cancer among women. Britain, which doesn't do too well on happiness and equality, comes in at number 12.

We're getting better at treating it, perhaps because we're getting so much practice, but we're also getting better at causing it. We don't know if it's the food, or the water, or the weather, or the wi-fi, but more and more of us are getting cancer every day. The figure, in fact, is one in three. One in three, at some point in our life. One in three is a lot. One in three is a common life event, like a wedding, or a birth, or a cold. But although people talk a lot about getting married, or having a baby, and men talk a lot about having a cold, they don't talk all that much about getting cancer. And they don't talk all that much about death.

One in three means we all know people who have it, and if we don't now, we soon will. Some of those people will be old, but quite a few of them won't. Old is bad enough. Old can break your heart. But if they're not old, you feel cheated. You feel as if someone has torn up the contract that guaranteed your three score and ten.

In the West, we all think we're entitled to our three score and ten. What we forget is that the mortality rate, in East and West, and even in Denmark, is always 100 per cent.

"I thought," said Philip Gould in another interview this week, "this is what they mean by the reckoning." The "purpose", he said now, was "just to live this life of imminent or emerging death in a way that gives most love to the people that matter to me". When the interviewer asked if he would swap the intensity of the "death zone" for another 10 years of life, he said he wouldn't. "This," he said, "is where I should be."

What he was saying wasn't just Philip Larkin's message, in his poem "An Arundel Tomb", that "What will survive of us is love". It wasn't just Larkin's message, from his poem "Aubade", that "Being brave/lets no one off the grave" and that "Death is no different whined at than withstood". It was that death in itself is a kind of blessing. Not because of the annihilation, which none of us wants, but because of the brilliant, piercing joy it brings to life.

We need to talk more about death. We need to be reminded of this miracle we wake up to every day, a miracle that's only a miracle because it ends. When you get cancer – as I have done, twice – you can look at a traffic jam and think that you've never seen anything more beautiful. You can think that you'd do anything in the world to make sure you don't leave it behind.

We need to be reminded, by the people around us all the time, of the real meaning of life.

But I can tell you now: the meaning of life is life itself.



Losing £1.5bn? Now that is a truly bad day at the office

You know how it is. You're in the office, and you're looking pretty busy, and because you're looking busy, no one's asking how it's going, which is just as well because it's not going awfully well.

And then, one day, you realise that you're going to have to tell them anyway, so you ask to have a quick word with your boss. And tell him that you've just lost one and a half billion quid.

Well, OK, so maybe you haven't, and maybe I haven't, but I still can't help feeling sorry for poor, sad, idiotic Kweku Adoboli.

He was, said his father, who used to work for the UN, "brought up to be God-fearing, and to appreciate decency". He is, says his lawyer, "sorry beyond words". When he smiled politely for the cameras, in a powder-blue jumper, after weeping in court, I felt like his mum. Sad for him, and glad to work in a field where the most I can lose – unless the lawyers mess up – is my pride.

i@independent.co.uk

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