When I was young it was normal practice for supermarkets to fill the spaces around the tills – where people would be queuing – with all the trashiest produce they had on sale. With giant chocolate bars filled with extra sugar, with deep-fried butterballs, with crisps cooked in pig fat and with squishy sweets that were merely the mushed up and reconstituted contents of the brains of a cow. Then BSE happened, then the obesity crisis[i] happened, then I moved to London and started shopping in fancier supermarkets, where they have flyers for pet insurance and foreign property catalogues stacked beside the till, while an Arts graduate in their mid-40s scans every item accompanied by a quotation from Sartre, which still pisses me off.[ii]
So, down here in that London, supermarkets don’t offer meat-filled German confectionaries or meat-filled English pastries or meat-filled Scottish soft drinks, but other types of shop do the equivalent, i.e. book shops. The Waterstones nearest my house has an array of cheap, small, books displayed around its counter, and that is where I’ve picked up slim volumes such as Albert Camus’s[iii] The Sea Close By (review here), and the subject of this episode[iv]: Shaking Hands with Death by Terry Pratchett.
Terry Pratchett was a prolific British fantasist (fantasy novelist) who published about sixty books between the 1970s and his death last year (2015). As any regular readers will know, I neither like nor approve of genre fiction[v], so Pratchett may seem an odd writer for me to engage with. However, Shaking Hands with Death is very much a Triumph of the Now-apt text. It contains the transcript of a lecture Pratchett wrote for broadcast on the BBC in 2010, which pre-dates his horrendously heart-breaking 2011 documentary, Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. (Entire video can be seen here – worth a watch if you’re after a cry.) It is, as that implies, about assisted dying (his preferred term), i.e. euthanasia. It is about Pratchett’s decision, following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease, to end his own life before his pain is constant. This, of course, was illegal in the UK then and still continues to be so now. And when he did die, his death was reported as “natural”. Was this him sticking to the law in the face of his own principals? Was this him being too scared to choose the moment of his own death when the time came? Or was this a deliberate lie, accepted and uninvestigated by judicial services because to do so would have been an absolute dickhead move? I hope it’s the latter, because I hope the man had peace.
When I was a child, I read a lot of Terry Pratchett books. Not all of them, and not for long, but between the ages of 11 and 13, I devoured Discworld novels like they were going out of style (which they were – with the onset of puberty and the need for social acceptance I rapidly ditched things as uncool as that and joined a fuckin’ band, yo[vi]). I remember a few of the characters, a few of the plots. The one that has stuck with me the most is one about an urban police chief being lured into the sticks to be the prey for a hunt organised by aristocratic werewolves. When Pratchett died I considered rereading it, if I could find a copy, but when I walked gently towards the fantasy section of a book store I realised I didn’t have the self-confidence to buy a copy of The Fifth Elephant[vii], let alone to read it. Baseball caps, designer streetware and much online nudity may do so much for my streetcred, but a book with a golden elephant on the front is very difficult to distract from. But this is irrelevant to my appreciation of the book at hand.
Then again, maybe it’s not.
Shaking Hands with Death is quite personal and, as one would expect, quite emotive. But it is also very funny. Pratchett is witty. Pratchett, dying, campaigning for the right to die by someone else’s hand whilst he is able to make that decision but not able to implement it, even here is amusing. His humanism and his positive engagement with the realities of the end of life are emotionally interesting, and the fact that he is able to accept his forthcoming deterioration as a result of Alzheimer’s – which amounts to a verifiable destruction of the mind – WITHOUT the loss of his worldview, his personality and his sense of humour, is incredibly impressive, and a real slap in the face to my adult literary prejudices.
Pratchett writes with feeling and anger about the fate he has arrived at, and at the limited (legal) choices he has: Yes, he could kill himself now, no problem, but he didn’t want to die while he still had living to do.
Between this speech and his death, Pratchett wrote and co-wrote (if the fan Wiki site I found is accurate) around 20 books, as well as filming the [Scottish] BAFTA winning documentary mentioned above. He was dying, but he was not dead. He was dying with dignity, creating and living until the very end. The pain and the decline were inevitable, but the railing against it was not, the fighting for a freedom from an expected pain was bravery, not fear. People are more scared of dying than death, Pratchett writes, but that’s because most people don’t get the diagnosis he got: with Alzheimer’s, with Parkinson’s[viii], there is the diagnosis that leads to years, a decade, longer, of dying. Cancer can be fought and beaten, but can as equally kill within weeks of discovery. There is nothing like the timescale of the kinda disease Pratchett had. There is nothing like time to pollute the mind and make every living moment a psychological agony.
Knowing that I probably won’t die for a few decades is one of the things I get most upset about: an awareness that I’m not yet ill is something that depresses me, much like the continuation of my existence. For me, it is mortality that is the relief. Just before a panic attack earlier today[ix] I screamed in response to thoughts of being young and optimistic about my future many years ago, “I’ve lived through the future and the future was shit. The old future was shit and the next future’s going to be shit too.” Ha ha ha. What a silly thing to say.
On a practical level, I’m somewhat glad that euthanasia is still illegal, as if there were drop-in death clinics in Soho I’d’ve definitely had myself done on some overcast afternoon, probably towards the end of that bit when I thought I might get a novel published.
But Pratchett, brave, committed, carried on with his life long after most other people would’ve given up. He continued writing, and he continued campaigning for his right to choose the moment of his death.
This short book is persuasive and affecting, but of course it is. It is a skilled writer writing an argument his life centred on for several years. And it is also fucking obviously the right way to think about euthanasia.
It’s illegal for a dying individual to ask their doctor for an excess of medicine in order to end their pain!? What a joke.
We have a right to life, perhaps, but not at the expense of a right to death. Some people want to die but lack the means: current euthanasia legislation makes that impossible, which isn’t really fair. I don’t know if this small book is worth the £3.99 I paid for it, as it’s about the length of a not-that-long essay in a fancy magazine, but the argument Pratchett makes is compelling and still relevant. And the wit and the emotion within his writing is important for the personal awareness of my self-sabotating cultural snobbishness. Yes, maybe fantasists have cultural value. Then again, the cover art of his entire oeuvre is just so lame that I don’t feel comfortable checking out his fiction as an adult.
[i] As in the national one, not a personal one. I am yet to have an obesity crisis, though given that I’ve lost my hair before thirty I may as well get fat because I already find myself repulsive and a bit more shame and self-disgust couldn’t do much harm.
[iii] Yet I do like Camus. Which doesn’t really make sense, does it?
[iv] From this moment on they are blog “episodes”, not “posts”.
[v] I only love books that give me an overwhelming and irrevocable sense of the futility of existence, the emptiness of everything and the painful and horrific decline we all suffer with ageing (or earlier, following the effects of drinking and exercising to the levels I do: high and low respectively). I like books that hollow me out, that make me face the mirror, that drag me into awareness of pain, melancholy, physical and psychological horrors. I like fiction that is tragic, I like memoir that is drenched in death and regret. Death, depression, decline and desperation. The four Ds. I’ve never really grown out of teenage ennui, because life is boring and there is nothing (bar literature) I’ve ever managed to find to create the sensation of life being worth living that doesn’t flood the body with shame and guilt and physical pain when the effects start wearing off. I’ve never regretted reading a book. I’ve regretted everything else that’s made me feel fleeting happiness since circa 2010. Oh, yeah, and genre fiction – in my experience – doesn’t emphasise the ache of existence, it is escapism rather than inward-focused psychological postmortem.
[vi] And look how well that project ended up. I am now a depressed, unpublished, bald, alcoholic who has – in recent months – pretty much replaced an evidencible personality with wacky streetwear and baseball caps. And now a puppy, that I’m a bit worried I’m allergic to. And it’s gone the whole circle and I’m reading Terry Pratchett again, though this time I have rejected a social life rather than a social life rejecting me. So maybe I did win out. Only took the entirety of my youth and all of my hair.
[vii] Just realised that was a pun on The Fifth Element, which I definitely didn’t get at the time. Additionally, I cannot remember how an elephant bears any relation to the plot I just described. I also just remembered that internet shopping exists, so may buy myself some fantasy trash for my next holiday. (Lol – just bought a puppy: I won’t be having any holidays for a while.) Then again, going to Amazon and seeing the cover art kinda put me off. It is very much what it is, isn’t it?
[viii] I think Shaking Hands with Death woulda been a better (though poor taste) title for a book on mortality centred on Parkinson’s, a disease my family has history with so that’s a joke I’m allowed to make, because it may kill me if the aforementioned drinking and lethargy don’t get me first.
[ix] That was as a direct result of spending the day thinking of that famous Camus quotation about suicide and picking the coffee every time. I over caffeinated and thus got anxious. It happens.