I post the video to fantasy author Terry Pratchett’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture that was given 1 February 2010. Pratchett announced in 2007 that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and could not read or speak for long periods of time, so the lecture was delivered by his friend, Tony Robinson, the comic actor and television presenter best known for his role as Baldrick in the BBC comedy series, Blackadder.
I am not an avid fiction reader at all – less so fantasy fiction – and I confess that I have not read any of Pratchet’s novels. However, the lecture is a very moving and reasoned analysis of a man confronting his own imminent morality with dignity and hope
This may seem rather shocking to you but I am expecting to kill myself.
Really I am, and if you’ll hear me out I hope to at least nudge society in the direction of considering suicide acceptable when – and this is the important point – the alternative is a slow painful death from a terminal illness.
Why? Well, the facts are pretty persuasive when it comes to the business of British dying. We’re living longer and longer, while our deaths are becoming commensurately more protracted.
Such is the brilliance of contemporary medical science, at least in our privileged realm, that we can be kept breathing long past the point where our existence is anything save miserable – miserable for us, miserable for our loved ones, and miserable for those who have been appointed by either by the state or a private health plan to minister unto us.
It’s often said that there’s an epidemic of cancer, or heart disease or Alzheimer’s in our society. But what there really is an epidemic of old age itself, all these pathologies being merely its inevitable sequels.
This in turn reminded me of a brutally honest poem about old age that I learned in my GCSE English course, juxtaposed in stark contrast to D H Lawrence’s rather more optimistic take on one’s twilight years:
“Geriatric Ward” by Phoebe Hesketh
Feeding time in the geriatric ward;
I wondered how they found their mouths,
and seeing that not one looked up, inquired
‘Do they have souls?’
‘If I had a machine-gun,’ answered the doctor
‘I’d show you dignity in death instead of living death.
Death wasn’t meant to be kept alive.
But we’re under orders
to pump blood and air in after the mind’s gone.
I don’t understand souls;
I only learned about cells
law-abiding as leaves
withering under frost.
But we, never handing over
to mother who knows best,
spray cabbages with oxygen, hoping for a smile,
count pulses of breathing bags whose direction is lost,
and think we’ve won.
Here’s a game you can’t win –
One by one they ooze away in the cold.
There’s no society forbidding
this dragged-out detention of the old-’
At 31 years of age, I hope that the decision is still some way off for me (although there is such a thing as “early onset dementia”!), but equally, I hope that if and when the time does come around, society’s attitudes will allow me to decide to leave this World as and when I choose.