Every time the word appears, the memory of a friend induces the urge to scream. And it appears without pause, that stock adjective for the terminal, flowing through the reporting of Jade Goody’s rapid decline like a sickly tide of treacle. She is “Brave Jade” now, where once she was “Vile Jade”. The process of sanctification has matched the speed with which the cancer spread through her body.
No one loathed the unthinking, patronising indolence of “brave”, and hated the standard martial imagery of the sufferer battling the disease, like John Diamond. He wrote with masterly aggression about how this sloppy language turns mortal illness into a moral crusade, with the implicit judgment that those who lose must have failed to fight hard enough. He even took the trouble to call his book C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. And when he died, even a broadsheet obituary that richly praised his writings captioned the photo “Brave: John Diamond”.
Now here we are approaching the eighth anniversary of his death, with snotty commentators and message boards invoking the sublime brilliance with which he chronicled his illness as a rebuke to Jade’s less literate version of the same, and “brave” is everywhere. John, having raged, would smile at the irony.
The thing about Jade is, there is no need to confer the automatic epithet on her final days. She has her private moments too, albeit fewer perhaps than anyone in modern history, so for all we know she sobs pitiably throughout each night, offering God the traditional deal whereby she will devote the rest of her days to good works if He will only make this horror go away. And if she does, that wouldn’t diminish by a fraction the courage that has defined her brief but extraordinary life.
It may sound glib to talk of a very young woman with weeks remaining as a great survivor, but paradox seems to cling to her like lycra. Born into the Dickensian squalor of underclass addiction, her childhood was ravaged by the same substance – known as smack on her estate, and as diamorphine in the hospice – that will ease and hurry her death.
How a child forced to mother a wildly dysfunctional mother almost from infancy could grow into a functional adult herself is beyond me. Somehow she did, and the memory worth retaining from her return to the Big Brother house isn’t the grubby, racist disdain with which she tried to cocoon herself from feelings of inadequacy in the presence of an elegant, educated, upper middle class Indian woman. It’s the incredibly touching maternal concern she showed the deranged Jackiy, a fellow housemate, let alone a mother, from whom most of us would waste no time in putting at least two continents; but to whose care and solace she uncomplainingly devoted all but the first four of her 27 years. The selflessness required for that dwarfs the cowardice, born of ignorance rather than stupidity and a sense of inferiority rather than its reverse, with which she abused Shilpa Shetty.
Bully she may have been, but the disproportionate persecution heaped on her by all the “vile Jade” red-top headlines, and the crazed cynicism that inflated a nasty playground spat into a diplomatic incident, would have destroyed most. Again she survived, just as she survived the untold ridicule engendered by “East Angular” and the other malapropisms, with barely a trace of self-pity. You mightn’t want to overdo the comparison, but like Churchill she just kept buggering on – all the way to Mumbai and the Indian version of Celebrity Big Brother on which she heard the diagnosis of cervical cancer.
If this, with its connotations of early pubescent sex, was the ideal illness for one viciously demonised as Chav detritus by those who beatify her now, it was the perfect venue for the beginning of the end of a life that has come to make The Truman Show look less like acid, futuristic satire than understated docudrama. Truman finally escaped the cameras. They will be her chief mourners.
That a likely broadcaster of her final moments is the Living Channel, which has paid £700,000 for the rights to this weekend’s wedding to the jailbird by whom she has so typically stuck, adds a thin extra layer of poignancy to a tale hardly in need of one. Perhaps one day we will have a Dying Channel, and that would be no bad thing. The terror of death that leads so many to misapply “brave” to terminal patients because they cannot bear to think of them raging uncontrollably against the dying of the light – or rather because they cannot bear to think of themselves marooned in that living hell – isn’t worth protecting.
There is nothing innately mysterious, sacred or private about the process of decay and the moment of death. Whether to make them public is a personal choice for Jade, as for John Diamond and for Terry Pratchett. So is whether to look on. If choosing to watch is the ultimate act of prurience, no one has personified this era of prurience like a woman with every right to die as she has lived. If she is also an emblem of vulgarity, then death itself, like birth, is immutably vulgar regardless of the craving to sanitise it on grounds of petit bourgeois good taste.
Jade is the personfication of more than that. She came in with the era of consicuous consumption reached its zenith, and leaves as it ends. She bought the Bentley Convertible, the footballer special, in the days of easy money, and saw it repossessed as money became too tight to mention. Her entire adult existence has been as much a mirror on a curious decade as a giant blog in which no detail is too grotesque or banal to be shared. She is the Patron Saint of Twittering.
The ultimate paradox about Jade Goody, meanwhile, is that she, lacerated by snobs as a paradigm of forgettably talentless celebrity, will be long and fondly remembered … and not just by all those women who will live because her ignorance unwittingly informed them of the need to respond to warnings of abnormal cells.
More than that, her decision to sell her death as she sold her life, at a time when even for her the intrusion must be an added excruciation, should help bequeath to her small sons a less gruesome childhood, for all the trauma of her loss, than her own. It is the ambition of every normal parent that their child’s life is better than their own, and the means to that end are trivial in the extreme.
In her final days, she has gone a long way to exploding the repellent stereotype of the feckless, feral, self-absorbed, instant gratification-obsessed underclass with which she was once made synonymous. She defeated incalculable odds to escape the shackles of her upbringing, by lavishing on her boys the maternal love she survived being denied herself. If that isn’t a glorious expression of the human spirit and a true definition of courage, I can’t begin to imagine what is.Reuse content