A week in the death of Terry Pratchett

The best-selling author and Alzheimer's sufferer reflects on the days following his controversial right-to-die documentary
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The Independent Online


D-Day; that's Documentary Day on the calendar here in our office. We spend the morning piling into the ever-present workload until it's time to head off to watch the documentary with the director, Charlie Russell, and his family and friends.

There is just enough time for a drink and a nibble before we're on air. Absolute silence in the room except for the occasional muffled sob as the story of Peter and Andrew unfolds and, at the end, the release and the discussion. I am glad there was a discussion, because there was a lot to be discussed.

A short break and then a BBC Newsnight special with Jeremy Paxman, David Aaronovitch, Liz Carr, Dinah Rose QC, Debbie Purdy, the Rt Rev Michael Langrish, the Bishop of Exeter, who was at least open to arguments, unlike some bishops, and also, I was glad to see, Erika Preisig whom I met and admired in Switzerland.

I was also surprised to hear from Erika that a Roman Catholic priest had come to Dignitas had spoken to her, had agreed that it wasn't his time, had told her she was doing a good thing, and came back later and did indeed go through with his assisted death. I have a lot of time for Dr Preisig. She is a Christian, but understands those who beg for an assisted death; like me she has been appalled at some of the terrible outcomes of "traditional" suicides.


The documentary was not made to encourage, dismay or condone, it was made to see. I was also hoping that it would lead to discussion and it certainly has done so.

And under Jeremy Paxman's tactful arbitration, views were aired and discussed in a reasonably civilised way. With a sigh of relief, my assistant Rob and I hurtled into the city to grab what rest we could before getting, in my case, no more than two hours' sleep before heading to the sofa in the BBC Breakfast studio. Rob, sitting next to me in the cab, was trying to keep up with the tweets and reported that they were coming in at a rate of more than one a second with an approval/disapproval rating of 99.9 per cent. One of the objections being against Rob's Russian naval officer's hat, which he thinks is rather spiffy, but there is no accounting for taste. Other online discussions seemed positive too, with objections being more about the running of Dignitas than whether assisted dying should be available here in the UK.

As I feel I have to keep saying, I don't want to be a publicist for Dignitas, but the unfortunate fact is that for a Briton who wants an assisted death, Dignitas represents the only choice and five more of our citizens have quietly made their way there since the documentary was filmed.

Then we stagger into another couple of interviews before again meeting the director to learn that there had been 1,219 complaints to the BBC and 301 calls in favour, making it one of the top 10 programmes this year for appreciation. We were also told the complaints showed some evidence of lobbying; I just bet they did. The good people at the Care not Killing alliance certainly know how to use a telephone.

Then it's back home to catch up on sleep and to find that Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, wishes to tell me that real life is not like science fiction. Actually, sir, it is. I live in a science-fiction world and so does he; the stents in my heart are science fiction and so are the little pills that go some way to make my Alzheimer's bearable.

A very large number of things which we take for granted were science fiction once and some others were never science fiction, because not even science-fiction writers had imagined them. The bishop ought to respect science fiction; he's living in it.

And once again he triumphantly delivers the ever-present question: how, if assisted dying is allowed in the UK, do you safeguard the vulnerable? This is without fail trotted out by all those against the idea and is delivered as if it is the killer argument.

As the documentary says, there are four countries in Europe that practice some form of assisted dying and recently the Swiss voted in a referendum to maintain the practice. They even voted in favour to continue to allow the so-called death tourism for those unfortunates, like the British, who make their way to Dignitas.

This does not sound like people who are living in a world where innocent citizens are being killed against their will?


We start trawling through the interminable number of emails that had arrived while we were asleep and we find that many viewers had been touched and impressed by the testimony of Veerla Claus-De Wit, whose husband Hugo was given his request for an assisted death by sympathetic and caring doctors. He had the same disease as I have and I certainly took that one to heart.

There are those that would never accept the concept of assisted dying, it seems, and it does look, sitting here looking at the emails still coming in, that this country, if not our Government, is thinking constructively. Sniping is, of course, going on from various newspapers that we are picking up. However, there are thoughtful columns as well, but I must say that Alex Hardy's inconsiderate sneer in The Times at Christine Smedley, a woman endeavouring to put a brave face on the death of her husband, was execrable.

I wouldn't have expected that even from the Daily Mail.


Right now we are sitting in the Chapel, which is covered with stacks of books that must be signed and sent to New Orleans post haste, and still the emails and letters are coming in and we are getting requests from countries around the world to talk about the documentary.

Not quite sure about that.

I would like to see carefully controlled assisted dying available in the UK, which is why I helped fund a commission of the great and the good who have an open mind on the subject and a working knowledge of the mechanics and expectations of this country, to see whether sensible arrangements should be put in place that would be acceptable to the population at large, so that in the fullness of time stricken people who do not wish to be prisoners of their disease can at least die with dignity in their own countries.

But when the British Government is unresponsive, then individual citizens must try to move things along and, for now, we are going to write a book, and it's not about death.


Last night the BBC's Question Time was held in Scotland and, of course, the issue came up. Not so long ago I recall another BBC Question Time in Scotland, where the issue was raised and got some very short shrift.

This time the panel, while not all on side, spoke carefully and thoughtfully to a very respectful audience which seemed, for the most part, to be open minded on the subject. The world changes, but slowly.