An elderly acquaintance of mine went to the trouble of arranging to see his local MP the other day, something he'd never done before. He's not ill – he's in fine fettle, in fact – but still he fears the legalisation of assisted suicide.
Somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind, he thinks it's only a matter of time before the young bring in laws to euthanise the infirm, the old, the sickly – and that he'll be pushed over the edge before his time.
He won't be encouraged by the news of MS sufferer Debbie Purdy's victory in the House of Lords this week. The ruling – ordering the DPP to draw up a policy spelling out when prosecutions against relatives assisting suicides will or won't be pursued – is likely to mean an increase in suicide tourism. So, as my elderly acquaintance fades to grey and his power wanes, as invisibility descends and the possibility of a second childhood beckons, he thinks he might be remaindered like a novel that's gone out of fashion.
It's understandable, I suppose. I don't yet know what it's like to be at that end of the age spectrum; perhaps one starts to mistrust the young. But I, for one, have the opposite fear. I fear not being pushed when I'm ready to go. I don't want to live at any cost. I'd much prefer be dead than suffering. Now and then I ask my husband to reassure me that he'd be quick, rather than slow, to turn off the life-support machine. So, you will see that I am a DNR by nature. "She's a DNR," they used to say in ER. Do not resusitate. That's my motto.
The pro-life lobby talks of "cold-hearted relatives" eager to be rid of expensive palliative care. Now, my husband and I, we have our moments – and I'm not saying there aren't times when he'd like to see the back of me. Essentially, however, my fear is he's not cold-hearted enough. In fact, I suspect that for every cold-hearted relative in the country, there are 10 warm-hearted ones giving their lives over to long drawn-out cases of dementia.
I have elaborate plans in case of being diagnosed with something terrible. I don't want to linger painfully, giving my friends and relatives grief, smelling the house up with bedpans. I don't want the winter of my life so long, bleak and dreary that spring and summer are distant memories. I don't want to be like my friend who came back from a trip the other day and complained that the journey home was so awful that it spoiled the whole holiday.
No. If the worst came to the worst, I'd ring my mate Marcus. He used to be a drug dealer. He knows how to manage these things. I don't much fancy Dignitas, you see. I've seen pictures – the curtains are depressing. It's the barbiturates you're after – they get you off to sleep nicely – and are available over the counter in Mexico apparently. Marcus waxes lyrical about the days you could get barbiturates on the black market. They were the ones called "mother's little helpers". Overdose was easy, which is why they are barely prescribed these days.
So my plans involve flying immediately to Mexico. That's fine. Mexico is lovely. Perhaps I'll do the deed on a sun lounger overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The blue pills are the best, Marcus says, a note of affectionate longing in his voice: sodium amytal. You also need an anti-emetic – in case you throw the whole lot up again.
But, of course, I won't really want to fly to Mexico. So why shouldn't I do at home? With professional help? It's a shame that the right-to-life lobby still seems to have the moral high ground. And that's despite the recent poll in which 74 per cent of those questioned said doctors should be allowed to help the terminally ill to end their lives. And despite the fact that there's so often more humanity in a timely ending.
It's always struck me as curious, as well, that the Christian lobby is the most ardently pro-life. They're the ones that believe something wonderful happens when you die – you go to heaven. The truth is, people are squeamish about death. When Michael Jackson died, an entire Jeremy Vine Radio 2 phone-in was devoted to the subject of whether or not it was in "bad taste" to ask for a refund if you had one of his concert tickets. I couldn't believe the BBC was even entertaining this as a subject. It seemed the world was full of people who whisper "passed on" in hushed tones instead of simply saying "he died".
These same hushed tones are the kind that say we can't meddle with death – it's some kind of sacrosanct mystical process. But why not meddle with it to alleviate suffering? We meddle with everything else.
Modern medicine is such a miraculous and wonderful thing. It's so gloriously capable of relieving suffering but now so ingloriously capable of prolonging suffering too. It frightens me – the power of modern medicine to keep me alive.
The pursuit of perfection has a long history
This week's Grazia front cover made me laugh out loud: "Victoria: Her perfect life is over?" Naturally, I took this to mean that her life to date has been perfect (dictionary definition: entirely without any flaws, defects or shortcomings) but that, sadly, this perfection is now – equally definitively – over. I laughed at the idea of a perfect life. I laughed at the idea of Grazia declaring Victoria Beckham's life "perfect" when they've done nothing but describe its imperfections.
As it turns out, what they really meant was that she's not having such a great time in America and might be moving back home. Still – great headline.
In his new book Fame: From the Bronze Age to Britney, Tom Payne fascinatingly reveals the long, long history behind our modern obsession with the demise of those who are famous.
In the Greek tragedy Agamemnon, the chorus warns us of the "bloom on bloom of pain" that prosperity will breed and has bred since the world began.
In 560BC, Croesus, the rich, pampered, Eastern king, asked Solon, the wise Athenian law-maker: who is the happiest man? When Solon didn't give Croesus the answer he wanted to hear, Croesus said, "But look around. Look at my palaces, my wealth, my renown... Isn't it me? Aren't I the happiest man?" Solon replied: "Count no man happy until he is dead."
Like Grazia, his general philosophy was: give it time – something's bound to go wrong.
The silver lining to all these clouds
Stop press: it's a disappointing British summer. It's cold, wet and rainy. The recession-beating staycation – a holiday in Britain – has yet again resulted in a lot of people shivering behind wind breaks on stony beaches. Plus ça change.
A headline like "Weather forecast wrong" is about as startling as "Bear does business in woods". The forecasts are always wrong, and yet we fall for it every year. There's always a moment – late spring – when a rumour goes round that it's going to be a really hot summer. We just want to believe, I suppose.
Not that I'm complaining. I mean, of course I'm complaining about the weather. What I don't mean to complain about is the hoo-ha about the weather. I've realised recently that I love talking about the weather.
If I've just met someone and there's an awkward silence and I start talking about the weather, it's never because I can't think of anything else to talk about, but always because it's a great way to bond. My feelings about the weather are heartfelt but easily shared on shallow acquaintance without seeming odd. I was at the funeral of the mother of a friend of mine the other day and it was mentioned in her eulogy that she really loved a grey day. The idea of loving a grey day stayed with me. I mulled it over. What a recipe for happiness (unless you live in California, that is).
Since then, my attitude has changed somewhat and I've joined the Cloud Appreciation Society. Well, I've joined it in spirit anyway. The society is a book, a website, a TV programme, and the genius of its founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, is simply to point out how beautiful clouds are.
I'm not big on poetry, but Carol Ann Duffy's new poem is really, really good. Inspired by the death of one of our last First World War veterans, Henry Allingham, the poem imagines releasing the "thousands dead", "lines and lines of British boys", rewinding the tape of history to make "lives still possible and crammed with love, work, children, English beer, good food". Reading it yesterday morning moved me, especially since visiting Somerset this week – not far from the Royal Navy's Yeovilton air base – I was having tea with a woman whose 25-year-old son is flying Apache helicopters in Afghanistan. Sitting in her kitchen, she broke off our cheerful gossip for a moment to go into the hall. She'd thought she'd heard the bell.
She came back full of smiling apologies for the interruption. "It's just, you know how it is," she said. "You're always listening out for the door. You know the knock, knock... when they come."Reuse content