By chance this morning at 9am I was leisurely drinking a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper, with Radio 4 on in the background. Suddenly I woke up to the programme being broadcast. It was No Triumph, No Tragedy in which the interviewer, Peter White, was talking to Sir Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, a man who often hit the headlines twenty years ago with his scathing comments on teachers and educational standards.
That was a long time ago and the state of British schools was not foremost in Woodhead’s mind as he spoke on the radio this morning. Diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in 2006, he is now effectively a quadriplegic, still able to breath and swallow unaided but otherwise completely reliant on others – most notably his devoted wife, Christine.
In the BBC’s introduction to the programme it says Woodhead “has been blunt in his assertion of the right to die – when, where and how he chooses. As a new bill to legalise assisted dying makes its way through Parliament, he’s well aware of the strong emotions it arouses.” He talks to Peter White about his attempts to approach death “practically, intelligently and without self-pity…”
I’ll say. And this is the rub: although I inwardly groaned at the thought of yet another unsubtle attempt by the BBC to soften us all up for the “inevitability” of euthanasia, Sir Chris gave the lie to the ostensible reason for his interview. How so? Because the overwhelming impression I received from his words was what an extraordinary mystery human beings are, and how triumphantly they can face up to life’s adversity.
I hasten to add here that Sir Chris is not a church-goer or conventionally “religious” and he does believe in the “right to die” – all quite different positions from most of those who read and write for the Herald. But I have to salute him – for the very humanity he displayed in the interview, and for a spirit lacking in self-pity, blame or bitterness.
I put the newspaper and my coffee aside when I heard him say that his illness has forced this self-confessedly highly impatient, assertive and opinionated man to learn patience, humility and a measure of resignation. “Fortitude” was the word he used – for Catholics one of the cardinal virtues and for Sir Chris the way he chooses to face his long and cruel illness that has slowly robbed him of all his physical capacities. As a man who loved outdoor, physical pursuits such as climbing, his diagnosis must have been especially harsh. But I am not going to sanctify him because he refuses to do so himself; “I’m no saint”, he curtly tells White.
What earned my respect for him is his unflinching acceptance of the human condition. He has no time for what he calls “the therapeutic society” in which everything can be solved, talked through or healed: “To be alive, to be a human being, is to suffer” he says. An odd mixture of pagan stoicism, religious feeling of the kind one might experience when listening to Bach or watching a Shakespeare play, and normal human irrationality, the whole interview was far removed from a polemic.
At one point he said, “I don’t see much point in railing against the gods” – despite recently having to battle cancer and kidney stones as well as the ravages of MND. He does not believe, quoting from King Lear, that “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods…” Although he did not go on to give my own favourite quote from Lear, “Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all”, I sensed that sentiment was at the back of his mind. It is clear that poetry, music and the view of the hills outside his Cumbrian cottage give him immense solace. I suspect that’s what he means when he said to White, “I am religious myself.”
At one point Sir Chris used the word “punishment”, saying that although it was irrational he was also tempted to see his disease as somehow deserved. He explained this quite honestly: as an only child he had had the responsibility of caring for his parents in their old age. Clearly he feels remorse at his insensitivity towards them, though “I tried”. “Maybe what I’m going through now is a kind of punishment,” he reflected – even as he rejected the notion.
White was a sensitive interviewer. He did not hammer home the politics behind the interview – but inevitably the question of euthanasia came up. Sir Chris has always believed “a human being has the right to take their own life” and says he would want to “draw the line” if he could no longer breathe, talk or swallow. He is angry by those who “pontificate” about the wrongness of euthanasia and thinks the medical profession has been too “traumatised” by the exploits of the rogue doctor, Harold Shipman, to make sensible judgments when they know their patients are dying.
White put it to him: wouldn’t a law about assisted dying make disabled people feel more vulnerable? Here Sir Chris showed his own dogmatic yet highly naive attitude: “It seems to me society can build in the necessary safeguards.” He hasn’t wholly understood the element of evil in King Lear then; human nature is not always benign. Yet there are paradoxical aspects to his approach: he acknowledges that it is the love of his wife that has kept him going so far and he rejects the Dignitas-type scenario, “to sing Beatle songs with bearded social workers” at the end of life. He would rather listen to a late Beethoven Quartet. He also sees that choosing to die is not an isolated event – “One has a responsibility to other people, human beings who love one.”
My final thoughts on listening to this cultured and courageous man who is facing his own mortality: we who believe that life is sacred must never “pontificate” to those who don’t share our convictions; otherwise we will come across as self-righteous bigots. But the law must always protect the disabled and vulnerable in the face of well-meaning lobby groups from the “therapeutic society”.
As he spoke I thought of Sir Chris as like Brutus in Julius Caesar – a noble Roman, yet with all the magnificent limitations of his outlook and personality. For all his nobility Brutus deludes himself when he conspires to assassinate Caesar. “Let’s be sacrificers not butchers” he tells his fellow plotters; “Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods…” Who is he kidding? Not Caesar himself or Caesar’s wife. He has swallowed his own rhetoric. Murder is murder, whatever the fine words we dress it up with, and euthanasia is killing by other means.
The last word goes to stoical Sir Chris: “Life isn’t fair.” No indeed.
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