Letter from Simon Kelner: Gould found the meaning of life in ‘the death zone’


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Many people who knew Philip Gould much better than I did have already paid eloquent tribute to the man who played such a major role in reshaping modern British politics.

From both sides of the political divide came appreciation of one of the finest strategic minds of his generation, a man who understood how to connect with the electorate better than any other. (His favourite album was Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits: he knew what people liked best.) And if David Cameron is the heir to Blair, then he also owes Gould a debt of gratitude.

Towards the end of his life, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Philip's company, and reap the benefit of his extraordinary perception, and not just about politics.

He could, and would, talk for hours about the state of the Labour Party, but there was no subject on which he couldn't bring his mature wisdom to bear. He was extremely generous with his time, even though he knew it was becoming a more precious commodity by the day, and his illness – he had cancer of the oesophagus – allowed him an insight into life and death that he shared with family, friends and colleagues.

In his magnificent recent work The Unfinished Life, he talks of the struggle with his disease with such an absence of sentimentality that the net effect is to leave the reader moved almost beyond endurance. He tells how, having gone to New York for treatment, he concluded latterly that he would have been better off remaining within the NHS.

But it was, in his final weeks, his outlook on the world outside his cancer that was truly affecting for all those in his orbit. He talked much about the intensity of his emotion, the strength and depth of his feelings for his family, for his life and career.

He gave a remarkable television interview to Andrew Marr recently, when he talked in matter-of-fact terms about being in "the death zone", and of how this "different place" had given him the will to change aspects of his life. "I would not have wished to have died the person I was," he said. Philip knew that, despite not choosing to have cancer, he was lucky to be able to make plans for his death, to get his life in order, to say farewell to his family and friends.

We have seen in a tragic way over the weekend that others are not so blessed: death also comes cruelly, quickly and unexpectedly. Nevertheless, it takes a courageous, sensitive and deeply intelligent person to use a devastating illness as a way of seeking meaning and integrity, both for himself and for others.

At the conclusion of the Marr interview, he was asked for a simple message that, I suppose, was meant to stand as his epitaph. "Have faith," said Philip, "and try to change the world."