Each new departure is a matter that naturally interests us

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Indy Lifestyle Online
CAN journalists write about death - their own deaths - in the unworthy medium of newspapers? The late Ruth Picardie did in The Observer and struck a major chord. The seriously ill John Diamond does in The Times and provides a comprehension others would do well to emulate. It's all there: rage, rejection, sobbing, laughing, self-pity, sentimentality, courage and chemotherapy. What any sentient being would expect. This old news that is somehow forever new. All that's fit to print.

The older you grow, the more you ... appreciate death. I wouldn't say understand, because ... It's obvious, isn't it. Ruth Picardie and John Diamond handled/handle the quicksilver of their lives, and it's both a valid and senseless exercise. Simply pout, what they - what we - try to sort out is if death is the Big Question or the Big Answer. Who's sure? Who could be?

Decca Aitkenhead. In this month's Modern Review she accuses Ruth and John of, I guess, putting on an act, exploiting their own suffering. Decca looks askance at those who commission such cheap crowd-pleasing - including Ruth's sister, Justine. A crowd pleasing industry is being created, apparently. A cheat of a "cancer" school: newsprint, it transpires, just can't deal with death. Decca says.

You can see why certain pundits say Decca is out to create a reputation and screw the hurt inflicted. And the pundits may have a point. Decca's an ex-colleague - as was Ruth - and I like her enormously. She's incorrigibly smart. But I'd be a liar if I pretended that one of the things I liked most wasn't a determination to be noticed.

Still, let's grant Decca what she denies others, while oh so rationally ascribing the basest of motives. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt. I'd much prefer to view "Before They Say Goodbye", with its evasions, omissions and muddle, as denial. For though Decca declares that writing about death in a newspaper is tawdry, voyeuristic entertainment, the interesting thing is that she painstakingly duplicates the crime. Why? Perhaps because death threatens that sense of invulnerability those in their twenties enjoy. (Oh, to have it back.) Or perhaps "Before They Say Goodbye" is Decca's wholly unconscious address to her mother, whom she lost young. Or perhaps it is a scam: if these souls are brave for detailing their demises, how much braver am I for having a go? Whatever, intoning Decca's "can't do this" is genuflecting to her sloppiest notion; that there exists a "correct" way to write about death, and Ruth and John failed/failed morally, ethically and, get this, aesthetically. And as human history proves, this is ... Crap. There is no right way. No wrong way. Only your way.

So, denial. Nothing else fully explains - or excuses - Decca's inability to grasp what might appear clear to the rest of us. For instance, when Ruth joked about being "privileged to live through the era of John Frieda Restructing Serum" it's `sugared tragedy' ... any line that edged towards the unbearable was softened by a sweetener." A sweetener, or may be just ... gallows humour? A coping mechanism that the world is not merely familiar with, but often sees beyond, to shadows behind. Yes, gallows humour protects. Duh. It also affords a fleeting glimpse. It has to be fleeting. We nag at death, yet no philosopher, no religion, no work of art has cracked it. So why does Decca imagine that Ruth and John should deliver an essential, if wisely undefined, "truth"? I quote: "If a dying young mother put into print her uncut soul, strangers flicking through through the Sunday colour supps would be horrified." Horrified? Astonished. In 800 words or less, explain death. No conferring. Please. There is neither time nor space nor consciousness enough. Still, we flail away.

Decca doesn't get this either. Decca announces that to write of death in a broadsheet is to provide "a sentimental illusion of the truth" (that word again), but why not a newspaper. Even if the pages furnish "emotional pornography ... a pleasurable little weep" for some, what of it? Others derive comfort and peace. Disaster, famine, rape, murder, war and the dimensions of the Clinton penis also provide emotional porn for a few. Does anyone seriously believe newspapers should ban reporting on them? And surely Decca knows that once a piece is written how individuals respond to it is beyond the author's control for grabs? Witness reaction to "Before They Say Goodbye".

This column frequently dashes itself against death, as regular readers are aware. Death from Aids, suicide, in the family, among friends. Decca once said she was a regular reader too, yet I find myself co-opted into unkind equations, condemned for writing about Ruth and rushing to "claim bereavement status".

I honestly have no idea how to rebut that. All I can say is that I wrote about Ruth to hold on to her a while longer. Foolish, granted. I'll own up to this, also. Part of me is enraged by Decca's sophistry, by the fact that she's been brought on too fast and the cracks are showing. Consider: an entire "school" of cancer is reviled, as it two columns - one column, now - constituted a movement of bathos and "bad taste". Well, death is in very bad taste indeed, and, besides, schools grow. This one shrinks. And there are worse forms of cancer journalism to fret over. While Decca is busy conjuring a corrupt marketplace she forgets The Modern Review and its brand of arrested adolescence, where apostles jostle to out-do the faux "plain speaking" of Julie Burchill, carping at dullards exploring their mortality, but otherwise happy to force "unwarranted intimacy" by dishing the dirt on her abortions. Go figure.

Go figure, too, why deceased Guardian columnist Oscar Moore is exempted for telling us about HIV, and how this has nought to do with Decca working at The Guardian, but because Oscar was writing about "a new disease ... and cancer has no mystery." (Huh?) Actually, by the time Oscar wrote about Aids it was hardly "new". And I'd wager that a quick vox pop would raise doubts as to which sickness passers-by are more informed about. But Decca could be sorting out something deeper here. From start to finish, she conflates and confuses cancer and death while pretending division. Perhaps because cancer killed her mother. May be she must establish a distinction, even at the bewildering cost of Aids good/cancer bad.

Come. The cause of death is (mainly) immaterial. What draws and repels us is the process; this common yet unique journey we all must take. Decca supposedly stares death down, but she's the one, not Ruth, not John, averting eyes - and heart and intellect.

A proposition. Death has many rituals but very few rules. Arbitrarily imposing some you've prepared earlier is cruel, not least to one's self. Or ... hell? Who knows? I don't. What can be said for certain is life's too short. Which is sort of Decca's point, too, so let's expect her to get it any day soon. And if I over-estimate, then I can at least look forward to when Decca finally reveals the "proper" method, and I can at last learn, turn and confront my own legion of demons.

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